Social Justice as a Code Word for Socialism: Remembering the Young Barack Obama


I’m excited I stumbled over Richard Wolffe’s article, “When Barry Became Barack,” Newsweek, March 31, 2008.  This piece covers the period around when I first met the young Barack Obama, during his sophomore year at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

My review of this article is particularly relevant right now because of Glenn Beck’s assertion – earlier this month – that “social justice” is basically a code word for Marxist socialist ideology, even when it is used in a church setting.  Understanding the role of “social justice” as a code word for something a lot more sinister certainly helps us make better sense of the new information released in Wolffe’s article.

Wolffe points out, for example, that young Obama immediately dove in to the social circles of the “progressive” students.  He writes:

“Barry Obama met Eric Moore fresh on arrival from Hawaii at Occidental College in Los Angeles. The two roamed in the same circles, gravitating toward friends who considered themselves “progressive,” including many with international backgrounds.”

As a 1979 graduate of Occidental College, I was part of that same progressive/international network of friends and activists.

Wolffe writes that Obama honed his sense of right and wrong during these years at Occidental. In particular, Wolffe cites one of my old colleauges, Occidental College political theory professor Roger Boesche.  Boesche says Obama “…hung out with the young men and women who were most serious about issues of social justice.” Prof. Roger Boesche report he taught Obama two political-science courses and knew him as Barry at the time.  (I knew him as Barry too.)

What’s missing from this story is that the “social justice” young men and women were, in fact, simply left-wing socialists.  They found a hero in Professor Boesche because he made complex texts easier to understand and because he encouraged them to fight even though they would be inevitably ground up in the gears of history.  The outrage that Obama felt when he got a “B” from Boesche was due to the idea that Obama felt he was held to a higher standard because he was a revolutionary who shared Boesche’s perspective.  Obama felt he was held to a higher standard because he was one of the student in greatest ideological agreement with what Professor Boesche was teaching at that time.

In one instance, Obama politely confronted his professor over lunch at a local sandwich shop called The Cooler. “He’d gotten a grade he was disappointed in,” Boesche recalls. “I told him he was really smart, but he wasn’t working hard enough.” Other students might have backed off at that point. But not Obama. He politely told Boesche he should have gotten a better grade. Even today, Obama recalls the demeaning mark. He told journalist David Mendell, author of a recent book called “Obama, From Promise to Power,” that he “was pissed” about it because he thought he was being graded “on a different curve.” Boesche still insists he gave him the grade he deserved.

Later, I taught with Boesche while he was a visiting professor in the political science department at Williams College.  Boesche was still a socialist by 1989 and was still an ardent advocate of John Rawls, A Theory of Justice.  Boesche was proud, in a paper he wrote, that he had gotten a message from Rawls basically confirming Rawls’ socialist perspective.  All of this, of course, should just do more to confirm the reliability of my impression that the young Barack Obama was already an ardent socialist Marxist revolutionary when I met him in the fall of 1980.

Intellectually, we should gain a fresh and realistic perspective on the true nature (and depth) of Barack Obama’s ideology when we combine Beck’s understanding of social justice, with Boesche’s comments on Obama’s social justice friendships, and my comments that Obama was undoubtedly a Marxist revolutionary between 1980-1981.

Editor’s Note: See Dr. John Drew’s previous post about social justice here and his reminisces about encountering Obama the college Marxist here.