My first meeting with young Barack Obama raised strong feelings and left me with a positive first impression. At the time, I felt I’d persuaded a young man anticipating a Marxist-Leninist revolution to appreciate the more practical alternative of conventional politics as a channel for his socialist views.
I met Obama in December of 1980, a couple of days after Christmas, in Portola Valley — a small town near Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA. I was a 23 year old second-year graduate student in Cornell’s Government Department, and had flown to California to visit a 21 year old girlfriend, Caroline Boss. Boss was a senior at Occidental College, where she had taken a class in the fall of 1980 with political theorist Roger Boesche. She met and befriended Obama in that class.
I had been an angry Marxist revolutionary during my undergraduate career at Occidental College. During my hyperactive sophomore year, in the fall of 1976, I founded the Marxist-Socialist group on campus and named it the Political Awareness Fellowship. As I recall, I developed this innocuous sounding name because there were so few students on campus as radical as I, and I was fearful of turning off moderate students who might be willing to learn more about Marxist theory.
On my watch, our group grew to a dozen student activists and managed to attract crowds of 80 or more to our events. The most successful of these was a campaign to raise awareness of the plight of homosexuals who were beaten by Los Angeles City police officers along the Hollywood strip. I promoted this event with a large banner in the Occidental College quad reading: Anita Byrant: Hitler in Drag? During my junior year, I left Occidental College with the mission to study Marxist economics at England’s University of Sussex in the fall of 1977.
By the time I returned to Occidental in the fall of 1978 for my senior year, the Political Awareness Fellowship had morphed into something much bigger, an organization with strong leadership, its own office space and a new name. The group’s president was Gary Chapman, an older student who had served as a Green Beret in Viet Nam. Chapman was a colorful figure who shared stories from his military career including how he was required to take apart and reassemble his rifle in the dark. Under Chapman’s leadership, the group had changed its name to the Democratic Socialist Alliance (DSA). As I recall, he told me “the old name wasn’t letting people know what we stood for.” I agreed. The DSA met weekly and brought in speakers about once a month. Events were advertised by big signs in the campus quad. During my time at Occidental, the group searched for ways to embarrass the administration, help students to see the evil of the U.S. capitalist system, and mobilize people in preparation for the coming revolution.
In the spring of 1979, Chapman and I joined forces with other students on campus to found an anti-apartheid coalition, called The Student Committee Against Apartheid, which included the leadership of the DSA as well as several other groups. Although the coalition included liberals as well as radicals, I think it is fair to say the most significant intellectual and organizational leadership came from students in the DSA. One of the ironies of our effort is that the white students took the lead in organizing these protests while African-American students seemed strangely passive and uninvolved in fighting the South African regime.
My romance with Boss began in the spring of 1979. Boss had joined the DSA and participated in the anti-apartheid events I helped organize that year. Like me, she was a committed Marxist, preparing for the approaching revolution. That year, I completed my senior honors thesis on Marxist economics. Boss and I danced together after I accepted my Occidental degree in June of 1979 wearing the red armband that signified my solidarity with my Marxist brethren around the world and my commitment to the anti-apartheid movement.
My relationship with Boss continued through the summer of 1979 and the academic year 1979-1980. She spent the summer of 1980 with me at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. When Boss returned to Occidental in the fall of 1980 for her senior year, she enrolled in Professor Roger Boesche’s European Political Thought class. It was there that she met Barack Obama who was starting his sophomore year.
When I first saw Obama, I remember I was standing on the porch of Boss’s parents’ impressive home as a sleek, expensive luxury car pulled up the driveway. Two young men emerged from the vehicle. They were well-dressed and looked like they were born to wealth and privilege. I was a little surprised to learn they were Boss’s friends from Occidental College until she articulated the underlying political connection. “They’re on our side,” she said.
The taller of the two was Obama, then only 19, who towered over his five-foot-five companion, Mohammed Hasan Chandoo – a wealthy, 21 year old Pakistani student. Chandoo had a full dark black, neatly trimmed moustache, and was dressed in expensive clothes. Nevertheless, Obama was the more handsome of the two. At six foot two, Obama carried himself with the dignity and poise of a model. The diminutive Chandoo, in contrast, came across as more of a practical, businessman type. Obama displayed a visible deference to Chandoo when they were standing together at the vehicle.
Chandoo was vaguely familiar to me as a participant in the earlier anti-apartheid rallies on the Occidental College campus. In David Remnick’s book, The Bridge, Chandoo’s bona fides as a committed Marxist were well-known to those close to him. Chandoo’s girlfriend at the time, Margot Mifflin, told Remnick that “[I]n college, Hasan was a socialist, a Marxist, which is funny since he is from a wealthy family.” (See, Remnick, David, The Bridge, Alfred A, Knopf, 2010, page 104.) Young Obama, on the other hand, was completely new to me.
“This is Barack Obama,” Boss said.
Since I was not much taller than Chandoo, I remember I looked up at Obama as we shook hands. I was completely mystified by the pronunciation of his name. He did not put up a fight over it, however.
“You can call me Barry,” Obama said.
During the introduction, Boss and Chandoo were eager to let me know that Obama was a graduate of the prestigious Punahou Academy, an elite prep school in Honolulu. I vividly remember that Chandoo was intensely proud of Obama’s ties to Punahou. This prestige, however, was wasted on me. I had never heard of the school and did not have a clue about what it meant to be one of its graduates. Obama seemed embarrassed by the fuss. Boss, I remember, wanted to make sure I understood that young Obama was not merely an attractive socialite dabbling in Marxist theory. “You’ve worked with us,” she observed. “You’ve been at our DSA meetings. You’ve been active in the anti-apartheid movement.”
After a while, all six of us — the four students and Boss’ adoptive parents — drove in two cars to a local restaurant. The owner knew Boss’s father. The food was delicious, the setting spectacularly “California casual,” with tall redwood trees all around. At the restaurant, we six continued our talk. Chandoo was quiet, less forceful, and deferential to Obama. Obama was polite to Boss’s parents, calm, and distinguished in his manner. Mr. Boss disapproved of his daughter’s radical perspective and could barely disguise his contempt for me.
Despite the recent election of Ronald Reagan, the focus of our discussion was on El Salvador and Latin America. I remember I was especially angry about what was happening in El Salvador, particularly the recent rape and murder of four American nuns and a laywoman. We also discussed the recent assassination of John Lennon in New York City. After lunch, the entourage returned to the Boss’s home in Portola Valley. Mr. Boss, a gruff Swiss-born businessman, was an aficionado of luxury cars who took pride in his successes in the greeting card and display case businesses.
“That’s an impressive car. Which one of you is the owner?” he asked.
“It’s mine,” said Chandoo, graciously adding: “Would you like to see it?”
While Chandoo and Mr. Boss gave Chandoo’s luxury car a once over, the rest of us engaged in small talk until Chandoo returned. Chandoo beamed smugly, having impressed Boss’s father with his expensive car. Inside the house, Mrs. Boss prepared snacks for everyone. All four of the students lit up after-dinner cigarettes in the dining room of the Boss’s home. Caroline Boss sat at the head of the table to my left. Obama sat directly across from me. Chandoo sat on the other side of the table on Obama’s left. Naturally, our conversation gravitated towards the coming revolution. I expected that my undergraduate friends would be interested in hearing my latest take on contemporary Marxist thought. I was in for quite a bit of a shock.
My graduate studies that fall had tempered my earlier Marxism with a more realistic perspective. I thought a revolution was not in the cards anymore. There was no inevitability, in my mind, to the old idea that the proletariat would rise up and overthrow the ruling classes. Now, the idea that we could entirely eliminate the profit motive from an advanced industrialized economy seemed like a childhood fantasy. The future, I now thought, would belong to nations with mixed economic systems — like those in Europe — where there was government planning of the economy combined with a greater effort to produce a more equitable distribution of wealth. It made more sense to me to focus on elections rather than on preparing for a coming revolution.
Boss and Obama, however, had a starkly different view. They believed that the economic stresses of the Carter years meant revolution was still imminent. The election of Reagan was simply a minor set-back in terms of the coming revolution. As I recall, Obama repeatedly used the phrase “When the revolution comes….” In my mind, I remember thinking that Obama was blindly sticking to the simple Marxist theory that had characterized my own views while I was an undergraduate at Occidental College. “There’s going to be a revolution,” Obama said, “we need to be organized and grow the movement.” In Obama’s view, our role must be to educate others so that we might usher in more quickly this inevitable revolution.
I know this may be implausible to some readers, but I distinctly remember Obama surprising me by bringing up Frantz Fanon and colonialism. He impressed me with his knowledge of these two topics, topics which were not among my strong points — or of overwhelming concern to me. Boss and Obama seemed to think their ideological purity was a persuasive argument in predicting that a coming revolution would end capitalism. While I felt I was doing them a favor by providing them with the latest research, I saw I was in danger of being cast as a reactionary who did not grasp the nuances of international Marxist theory.
Chandoo let Boss and Obama take the crux of the argument to me. Chandoo, in fact, seemed chagrined by the level of disagreement in the group. I cannot remember him making any significant comments during this discussion.
Drawing on the history of Western Europe, I responded it was unrealistic to think the working class would ever overthrow the capitalist system. As I recall, Obama reacted negatively to my critique, saying: “That’s crazy!”
Since Boss and Obama had injected theory into our debate, I reacted by going historical. As best I can recreate the argument, I responded by critiquing their perspective with the fresh insight I had gained from my recent reading of Barrington Moore’s book, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966). Moore had argued that a Russian or Chinese style revolution — leading to communism — was only possible in an agrarian society with a weak or non-existent middle-class or bourgeoisie.
Since I was a Marxist myself at the time, and had studied variations in Marxist theory, I can state that everything I heard Obama argue that evening was consistent with Marxist philosophy, including the ideas that class struggle was leading to an inevitable revolution and that an elite group of revolutionaries was needed to lead the effort. If he had not been a true Marxist-Leninist, I would have noticed and remembered. I can still, with some degree of ideological precision, identify which students at Occidental College were radicals and which ones were not. I can do the same thing for the Occidental College professors at that time.
By the time the debate came to an end, Obama — although not Boss — was making peace, agreeing with the facts I had laid out, and demonstrating an apparent agreement with my more realistic perspective. I have a vivid memory of Obama surrendering to my argument including signaling to the somewhat bewildered Chandoo — through his voice and body language — that the argument had concluded and had been decided in my favor. Around 9 p.m., Chandoo and Obama left for another appointment, either in Palo Alto or San Francisco. In retrospect, Obama had proved to me that he was indeed, as Boss had promised, “on our side.”
Long before I realized Obama had grown into a spectacular political career, I have treasured this particular memory as an early example of my own intellectual growth and an early sign of my modest promise as a teacher. At the time, I had the impression that I might have been one of the first to directly challenge Obama’s Marxist-Leninist mind-set and to introduce him to a more practical view that saw politics, rather than revolution, as the preferred route to socialism. Had I really persuaded him, or was he just making nice to smooth things over with a new friend? I’d like to think it was the former.
Whatever progress I made with Obama that evening, the price of our debate was a greater ideological wedge between me and Boss and a further decline in our rocky relationship. Our relationship would officially end in February and then flicker out completely by June 1981 — much to the satisfaction of Boss’s father.
I remember that Obama was friendly to me on at least three other occasions over the next several months. For example, Boss and I visited the apartment he shared with Chandoo. I spoke with him again on campus in the student union. I saw him on campus in The Cooler — the school’s coffee and sandwich shop. I also spoke with him at large party in June 1981. I certainly considered him a friend, a confidant and a political ally in the larger struggle against poverty and oppressive social systems.
Whatever impact our encounter might have had on him, I know something about what Barack Obama believed in 1980. At that time, the future president was a doctrinaire Marxist revolutionary, although perhaps — for the first time — considering conventional politics as a more practical road to socialism. Knowing this, I think I have a responsibility to place on the public record my account of this incident from our president’s past.