Mises Wire

Obama Hid His Father’s Socialism From Readers

[cross posted at PrestoPundit]


The “Rosebud” of Barack Obama’s DREAMS FROM MY FATHER.

There’s a big mystery at the heart of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father:  A Story of Race and Inheritance.  What was Barack Obama doing seeking out Marxist professors in college?  Why did Obama choose a Communist Party USA member as his socio- political counselor in high school?  Why was he spending his time studying neocolonialism and the writings of Frantz Fanon, the pro-violence author of “the Communist Manifesto of neocolonialsm”, in college?  Why did he take time out from his studies at Columbia to attend socialist conferences at Cooper Union?

And there is more mystery in the book.  Why does Obama consider working in a consulting house for international business like being “a spy behind enemy lines?”  Why does he repeatedly find it so hard to explain his political views to others?  Why was he driven to become a left-aligned political organizer?  It’s a question Obama again and again can’t seem to answer to the satisfaction of the interlocutors in his own memoir.

If there is a mystery at the heart of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, one thing is not left a mystery, the fact that Barack Obama organized his life on the ideals given to him by his Kenyan father.  Obama tells us, “All of my life, I carried a single image of my father, one that I .. tried to take as my own.” (p. 220)   And what was that image?  It was “the father of my dreams, the man in my mother’s stories, full of high-blown ideals ..” (p. 278)  What is more, Obama tells us that, “It was into my father’s image .. that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself.”  And also that, “I did feel that there was something to prove .. to my father” in his efforts at political organizing. (p. 230)

So we know that his father’s ideals were a driving force in his life, but the one thing that Obama does not give us are the contents of those ideals.  The closest he comes is when he tells us that his father lost his position in the government when he came into conflict with Jomo Kenyatta, the President of Kenya sometime in the mid 1960s; when he tells us that his father was imprisoned for his political views by the government just prior to the end of colonial rule; and when he tells us that the attributes of W. E. B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela were the ones he associated with his father and also the ones that he sought to instill in himself.  (p. 220)  This last group is a hodge podge, perhaps concealing as much as it reveals, in that it contains a socialist black nationalist, a Muslim black nationalist, a civil rights leader, and (at the time indicated in the memoir) an imprisoned armed revolutionary.

A bit of research at the library reveals the answers about Barack Obama’s father and his father’s convictions which Obama withholds from his readers.  A first hint comes from authors E. S. Atieno Odhiambo and David William Cohen in their book The Risks of Knowledge (Ohio U. Press, 2004).  On page 182 of their book they describe how Barack Obama’s father, a Harvard trained economist, attacked the economic proposals of pro-Western ‘third way” leader Tom Mboya from the socialist left, siding with communist-allied leader Oginga Odinga, in a paper Barack Obama’s father worte for the East Africa Journal.  As Odhiambo and Cohen write, “The debates [over economic policy] pitted .. Mboya against .. Oginga Odinga and radical economists Dharam Ghai and Barrack Obama, who critiqued the document for being neither African nor socialist enough.”

I have a copy of Barack Obama’s paper here in my hand, obtained from the stacks at UCLA.  The paper is as describe by Odhiambo and Cohen, a cutting attack from the left on Tom Mboya’s historically important policy paper “African Socialism and Its Applicability to Planning in Kenya.”  The author is given as “Barak H. Obama” and his paper is titled “Problems Facing Our Socialism”, published July, 1965 in the East African Journal, pp. 26-33.

Obama stakes out the following positions in his attacks on the white paper produced by Mboya’s Ministry of Economic Planning and Development:

1.   Obama advocated the communal ownership of land and the forced confiscation of privately controlled land, as part of a forced “development plan”, an important element of his attack on the government’s advocacy of private ownership, land titles, and property registration. (p. 29)

2.  Obama advocated the nationalization of “European” and “Asian” owned enterprises, including hotels, with the control of these operations handed over to the “indigenous” black population. (pp. 32 -33)

3.  Obama advocated dramatically increasing taxation on “the rich” even up to the 100% level, arguing that, “there is no limit to taxation if the benefits derived from public services by society measure up to the cost in taxation which they have to pay” (p. 30) and that, “Theoretically, there is nothing that can stop the government from taxing 100% of income so long as the people get benefits from the government commensurate with their income which is taxed.” (p. 31)

4.  Obama contrasts the ill-defined and weak-tea notion of “African Socialism” negatively with the well-defined ideology of “scientific socialism”, i.e. communism.  Obama views “African Socialism” pioneers like Nkrumah, Nyerere, and Toure as having diverted only “a little” from the capitalist system. (p. 26)

5.  Obama advocates an “active” rather than a “passive” program to achieve a classless society through the removal of economic disparities between black Africans and Asian and Europeans. (p. 28)  “While we welcome the idea of a prevention [of class problems], we should try to cure what has slipped in .. we .. need to eliminate power structures that have been built through excessive accumulation so that not only a few individuals shall control a vast magnitude of resources as is the case now .. so long as we maintain free enterprise one cannot deny that some will accumulate more than others .. “  (pp. 29-30)

6.  Obama advocates price controls on hotels and the tourist industry, so that the middle class and not only the rich can afford to come to Kenya as tourists.  (p. 33)

7.  Obama advocates government owned and operated “model farms” as a means of teaching modern farming techniques to farmers.  (p. 33)

8.  Obama strongly supports the governments assertion of a “non-aligned” status in the contest between Western nations and communist nations aligned with the Soviet Union and China.  (p. 26)

So what does all this tell us about Barack Obama, the father, and how does it help us fill in the gaps and decipher Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father?  We know from Obama’s memoir that his father is an “uncompromising” man whose ideals and principles gets him in trouble with the “big man” who ran Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, leading to a dramatic scene in which Kenyatta personally confronts Obama the father and in one fell swoop destroys not only his government career but ultimately his life.  Working with Obama’s book alone it is hard to know what is going on.  We get only an inkling when Obama quotes his “Granny” (one of Obama the elder’s wives) as saying the following,”I would tell him he was too stubborn in his dealings with the government.  He would talk to me of his principle .. “  (p. 424)

Now if we fill in the missing information we have now learned about Barack Obama the elder -- that he held uncompromising socialist and anti-Western views in line with Kenyatta’s principle political rival Oginga Odinga -- we can understand why he had conflicts of “principle” with Kenyatta and government.  And the timeline begins to make sense.  TIME magazine reports the open conflict between the anti-communist, pro-Western Kenyatta and the communist-allied, anti-Western Odinga in a story from June, 1965, a story in which Odinga declares “communism is like food to me.”  By 1966 Odinga was out of the government.  In Obama’s Dream From My Father these political events and their consequences for Barack Obama the elder are described in the voice of his sister Auma:

“The Old Man [Obama], he left the American company to work in the government, for the Ministry of Tourism.  He may have had political ambitions, and at first he was doing well in the government.  But by 1966 or 1967, the divisions in Kenya had become more serious.  President Kenyatta was from the largest tribe, the Kikuyus .. The vice-president, Odinga, was a Luo [as was Obama], and he said the government was becoming corrupt.  That, instead of serving those who had fought for independence, Kenyan politicians had take the place of white colonials, buying businesses and land that should be redistributed to the people.  Odinga tried to start his own party, but was placed under house arrest as a Communist.  Another popular Luo minister, Tom M’boya, was killed by a Kikuyu gunman.  Luos began to protest in the streets, and the government police cracked down ..

Most of the Old Man’s friends just kept quiet and learned to live with the situation.  But the Old Man began to speak up.  He would tell people that tribalism was going to ruin the country and that unqualified men were taking the best jobs.  His friends tried to warn him about saying such things in public, but he didn’t care.  He always thought he know what was best, you see.  When he was passed up for a promotion, he complained loudly.  ‘How can you be my senior,’ he would say to one of the ministers, ‘and yet I am teaching you how to do your job properly?’  Word got back to Kenyatta that the Old Man was a troublemaker, and he was called in to see the president .. Kenyatta said to the Old Man that, because he could not keep his mouth shut, he would not work again until he had no shoes on his feet.

I don’t know how much of these details are true.  But I know that with the president as an enemy things became very bad for the Old Man.  He was banished from the government -- blacklisted.  None of the ministries would give him work.  When he went to foreign companies to look for a post, the companies were warned not to hire him .. Finally, he had to accept a small job with the Water Department.”

There are a couple of false notes in this account.  To begin with, Barack Obama the father didn’t “begin” to speak up. Obama was challenging the policies of Kenyatta’s government from the left in the most prestigious forum possible, the East Africa Journal, at exactly the same moment when Vice President Odinga was challenging the Kenyatta government from the left.  What is more, Obama did so in openly arrogant and condescending fashion, almost as if saying to Kenyatta and his government, ‘How can you [be in charge of the economy], when I am teaching you how to do your job properly?”  The last lines of Obama’s EAJ paper capture the tone of the whole,

Despite my remarks, it is laudable that the government came out with the paper.  But this is not to deny that fact that it could have been a better paper if the government were to look into priorities and see them clearly within their context so that their implementation could have had a basis on which to rely.  Maybe it is better to have something perfunctorily done than none at all!


Postscript.  The historical significance of the clash between Kenyan leaders Mboya and Odinga continues to be an important subject of discussion in the Kenya even today, and more so given the rise of Oginga Odinga’s son Raila Odinga.  Odinga recently claimed to be Barack Obama’s cousin, and the two appeared together in 2006 at pubic events.


“Marxist professors” -- see page 100 of Dreams From My Father

“a Communist Party USA member as his socio- political counselor” -- the character “Frank” in Dreams For My Father is the communist poet Frank Marshall Davis.

“Frantz Fanon” -- see page 100 of Dreams From My Father.

“attend socialist conferences” -- see page 122 of Dreams From My Father

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