Slightly over a year ago, the American people elected a young African American to the presidency and increased the Democratic majority in the Congress. President Obama’s victory represented a repudiation of right-wing ideology, politics and economics and a setback for neoliberalism in both its conservative and liberal skins.
This victory was a long time in coming. When it finally happened it did so not only because of the brilliance of the candidate, but also due to the broad shoulders of a people’s coalition.
The swing in the political pendulum ushered in the possibility of a new era. After 30 years of right-wing dominance, the balance of political power tilted once again in a progressive direction.
Though that tilt wasn’t far enough for a people’s agenda to be easily enacted, political advantage did shift, and that’s no small accomplishment.
Perhaps it is obvious, but if McCain and Palin had been elected, a public option would not be in the center of the conversation — in fact, health care reform wouldn’t even be on the agenda. The Employee Free Choice Act would be off labor’s wish list. The stimulus package would be far smaller and unemployment much higher. There would not be a Puerto Rican woman on the Supreme Court. Our government would be actively supporting the coup regime in Honduras, and relations with Cuba would be frozen or worse. Legislation extending hate crimes to include anti-gay violence would still be on the “to do” list. And not a word would have been said about the abolition of nuclear weapons.
In short, President Obama’s election has made a difference, and the progressive movement has space to dream again. There are limits and obstacles to be sure, but our outlook should be framed by hope and possibility. The great reformer of the 20th century, Rev. Martin Luther King, taught us this lesson.
The purpose of this discussion paper is to assess where the country and world are a year after the election, refine our strategic and tactical policies, outline some practical actions, and discuss our role in a very complex situation.
The world, it is generally acknowledged, has been torn loose from the old moorings that for decades structured life for billions of people.
This unhinging began with the Volcker “shock” in 1979 (when Federal Reserve Bank chairman Paul Volcker lifted interest rates to nearly 20 per cent), the election of Reagan a year later, and the meltdown of the Soviet Union at decade’s end. It reached a new stage with the rise of China, India, and Brazil, the resurgence of Russia, the social transformations in Venezuela and other Latin American countries, the Iraq war, and the recent world financial and economic crisis.
At the time of the Soviet collapse, the defenders of U.S. imperialism declared that U.S. imperial power was preeminent and would remain so far into the 21st century. But obviously they badly misread the tea leaves. Though still dominant, the scope of U.S. power is narrowing and a multi-polar world is taking shape.
It is easy to imagine China rivaling the U.S. on the world scene. A civilizational “re-centering” from Europe and America to Asia, with all its implications, isn’t out of the question either.
This transitional period, some theorists of international relations say, will bring instability, even chaos, and we should not dismiss this out of hand. In earlier periods, conflict, crisis, and war scarred the landscape as once dominant states declined and new ambitious rivals sought to take their place. Such rivalry turned the first half of the 20th century into a bloody and barbaric era.
At the same time, the past doesn’t have to be prelude to the future. People and nations do learn. Historical memory can be a force for progress. The vast majority of humankind strongly desires an easing of tensions, an end to violence, and the normalization of international relations.
They want dialogue, negotiation, and a cooperative effort to address climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, finite natural resources, swelling poverty and disease, and broad-based and sustainable economic growth.
All of these challenges require collective action. The global clock is ticking.
While rivalry between states — especially in a multi-polar world — is built into the world system, the appetite and ambition of U.S. imperialism constitutes the main obstacle to cooperation, peace, and equality.
A less malleable world
U.S. imperialism so far has been reluctant to yield ground to subordinate classes, nations, and regions entwined in the global world order. But reluctance is one thing; capacity to enforce your will is another.
It doesn’t have the same reserves and legitimacy as it had in the second half of the 20th century, its global power is far more circumscribed and collective resistance to the re-imposition of old imperial relationships, dressed in new forms, comes from many different quarters, including from the American people. Hundreds of millions are insisting that the new century not be a rerun of the second half of the old, in which a single country and its allies largely determined the path of global political and economic development. Such a path was unjust, unsustainable, and unacceptable then and is more so now. The world is far less malleable to the architects of imperial rule.
The current worldwide economic crisis has reinforced these sentiments. The turn to neoliberalism, financialization, and hyper globalization three decades ago brought on financial and economic ruin on a world scale and originated, it is commonly understood, on Wall Street and in Washington.
This has amplified the insistence of people worldwide that a new economic order be constructed — shorn of U.S. dominance. Not everybody is having it, especially in the seats of imperial power. Some want to reconstruct the old order, while some others are for minor changes that would not undercut in any significant way the dominant position of the U.S.
The outcome of this struggle is still to be decided. And like everything else, it will be determined as much by human actions as by the evolution of broader objective processes.
And given the immediacy of global challenges, history has to be speeded up. This is where humankind again comes in.
President Obama is resetting U.S. foreign policy. In a series of speeches, he has accented human solidarity, diplomacy, cooperation, and peaceful settlement of contentious issues. In nearly every region of the world, he is engaging with states that during the Bush years were considered mortal enemies — Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, and others.
In Latin America, he expressed a readiness to put relations on a different footing. In a historic speech in Prague, he voiced his wish to reduce and ultimately abolish nuclear weapons. And in an unprecedented address in Cairo he indicated his eagerness to reset relations with the Muslim world, sit down with the Iranian government, and press for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
No small achievements! What the president has said (and done) so far constitutes a turn from the policies of the previous administration and an acknowledgement that the U.S. has to adapt to new world realities and challenges. And he does so with support of some (more sober and realistic minded) sections of the ruling class. At the same time, neither is ready at this point to give up U.S. global primacy — top dog status.
Adjustments in policy are not the same as a change of policy. And yet, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss or “damn with faint praise” the new approaches of the president.
For the president’s new approaches can make a difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. They also create a better political environment for the progressive and anti-imperialist movements to press for a new foreign policy.
That there are inconsistencies and contradictions in words and deeds of the president and others in his administration — on policy towards Cuba, Honduras, Afghanistan, Iran, the fight against terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc. — comes as no surprise. Setting aside the inclinations of the administration, the opposition to any substantive change in foreign policy is enormously powerful and includes core sections of transnational corporate capital, the military-industrial and energy complexes, the Pentagon, right-wing extremists, the foreign policy lobbies, other institutions of the national security state, and not least, players within the Obama administration itself.
Motivated by geoeconomic and geopolitical objectives and a determination to maintain U.S. global primacy in some form, they couch their actions in the language of democracy, humanitarianism, national security, and anti-terrorism.
Terrorism is an undeniable danger and deserves a collective, proportionate, and many layered response, but it shouldn’t be turned into a rationalization for the protection and expansion of U.S. imperialist interests.
U.S. foreign policy is not solely decided in elite circles, however. The American people and people worldwide are in the larger vector of struggle that determines our place and actions in the world.
An immediate task is to resolve the highly combustible trouble spots mentioned above in a peaceful, democratic, and just way, thereby easing tensions and weakening the hand of imperialism and political reaction worldwide.
The new normal
Of the factors shaping class and democratic struggles in our land, none looms larger than the economy. So what are some of its main features and dynamics?
Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase are back to the “old normal.” Profits are soaring — $3.2 billion and $3.6 billion respectively in the third quarter. Bonuses of $23 billion are in the pipeline for their managers and traders. Their field of competitors has thinned. And these leeches have morphed from “too big to fail” to “much too big to fail.”
In other words, the main engineer of the economic meltdown — finance capital, a.k.a. Wall Street — has reconstituted itself in slightly different form and is back to its old parasitic and destabilizing tricks.
In the meantime, the rest of us are living in the “new normal.” Let me explain.
A year ago the old model of capitalist accumulation (profit making) and right-wing political governance, resting on the rise of finance, mountains of debt, record levels of inequality, unsustainable global economic imbalances, successive bubbles in real and fictitious assets, and the unrestrained use of military power came crashing down.
The U.S. economy and its financial system imploded, throwing people out of their jobs and homes, closing family farms, evaporating pension funds and savings, freezing credit lines, shuttering plants and factories, devastating cities and towns, and much more.
Much the same occurred elsewhere in the world, as the global economy, integrated in a thousand ways, wobbled and then went into a nosedive.
A complete collapse was dodged, thanks to swift government action, but the crisis was the worst since the Great Depression and isn’t over yet.
Reliable sources forecast unemployment climbing to nearly 11 percent officially and nearly 20 percent unofficially, while foreclosures, poverty, and other indicators of the crisis of everyday living continue upward.
The prospects for a quick and robust recovery seem dim. Some economists, including mainstream thinkers, argue that economic stagnation is just as likely, with the economy operating at sub-normal levels in terms of growth, capacity/plant utilization, employment, and income for an extended period of time. Even a new dip downward — “a double dip” — can’t be ruled out, they say.
In the “new normal” universe, the economy is not self-correcting. There is no automatic and seamless return to a path of vibrant and balanced long-term growth. Many of the imbalances and contractions that metastasized in the crisis phase of the cycle continue in the depression and recovery phase at a national and global level.
On the one hand, because of the economic crisis (clearing out of uncompetitive businesses, plentiful unemployed wage labor, the cheapening of the price of labor power, rising productivity, low interest rates, and the further concentration and centralization of corporate power), conditions for a fresh round of profit making and economic growth on the supply side of the accumulation process (the process by which capital is constantly expanded in successive rounds of the production process) are favorable.
On the other hand, conditions on the demand side of the process are far less promising:
- An export-led recovery is very problematic, even with the fall in the dollar and rising economic activity in other regions of the world. China, for instance, is growing again, but doesn’t have the capacity or inclination to act as the buyer of last resort (like the U.S. did in the 1990s and up until the recent crisis).
- Political and budgetary constraints rule out greatly increased military spending — the favorite counter-cyclical tool of Reagan, Bush, and the extreme right — as an option.
- Bubbles and asset inflation — stocks, housing, (private sector Keynesianism, to use a term of Robert Brenner) are a tough sell.
- The evaporation of wealth during the downturn coupled with the pile of consumer debt in the previous cycle makes a consumer-led recovery virtually impossible.
- Layoffs continue to climb, while wages implode and employers are very reluctant to add to their workforces, preferring instead to send work overseas, install labor-saving technologies, and reorganize and speed up the labor process.
- Private investment in plant and equipment is sluggish and appears likely to remain so; and there is no new investment frontier on the horizon, at least as long as capital is in the driver’s seat.
- Housing construction, which traditionally leads economic recoveries, is stalled. Rather than absorbing capital in the form of new housing units, the housing market is destroying capital as prices continue to fall and homeowners go into foreclosure.
- The financial system is loaded with debt, thus making banking and credit crises a possibility in the future.
Yes, it is a dire situation. What can be done?
The answer is simple: government direct and indirect democratic intervention to re-inflate and reconfigure the economy.
Of course, objections will be raised, especially by the right wing and entrenched corporate interests. An obvious one is that the federal deficit is already out of control now. Another is that a new stimulus bill would result in a dangerous round of inflation. Still another objection is that our tradition is to favor “free” markets, with the public sector operating only on the margins of the economy. A fourth would be that public capital would crowd out private capital, thereby slowing growth and causing inefficiency. Finally, it will be said that such an expansion of the government’s role will create a vast new bureaucracy.
These charges have to be taken seriously and persuasively answered because the bottom line is this: only a radical democratic government intervention to stimulate and radically restructure the economy can lift the working class and nation out of the present and persistent economic morass.
The elements of such an intervention could include:
- Assist democratically elected municipal and regional authorities to plan and organize major projects;
- Channel investment dollars to small and medium sized businesses, worker/community cooperatives, and broke state and local governments;
- Adopt an industrial policy that renews the manufacturing sector;
- De-militarize and convert to peacetime production;
- Facilitate the formation of cooperatively owned enterprise, such as the steelworkers are currently exploring;
- Initiate massive public works jobs for infrastructure development, environmental cleanup, and green industries, ranging from power turbines to windmills to non-polluting public transportation systems;
- Democratize the Federal Reserve System;
- Insist on the passage of EFCA and other legislation to enhance the rights and conditions of workers and communities;
- Review trade pacts, such as NAFTA, CAFTA, and others;
- Restructure global economic institutions and/or construct new ones that take into account new economic and political circumstances on a global level;
- Reduce the work day with no cut in pay; raise the minimum wage; and apply robust affirmative action hiring guidelines;
- Tax capital movements, especially short term movements that are so destabilizing to the economies of many countries;
- Shift taxes to the wealthiest individuals and corporations;
- Reform the financial sector and turn the “too big to fail” banks into public utilities under democratic control. While many of the regulatory proposals already under consideration are positive, some of the sticky issues — democratic control over the Federal Reserve Bank, the hyper concentration of the banking system, the future of hedge funds and equity firms, the loopholes in derivative trading, etc. — are not part of the conversation.
The likelihood of passage of the above measures has little to do with their practicality, but instead hinges on the ability of working people and their allies to frame the national conversation and win active popular majorities for them.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression convinced millions of people that the old model of unrestrained capitalism was bankrupt. But it was only in the course of fierce battles that significant democratic reforms were passed.
As a result, a new set of institutions, rules, and legislation — a new model of governance, the New Deal — took deep root in our nation’s political economy and psychology.
What was missing, however, was an adequate stimulus to revive the economy. The Roosevelt administration was going in that direction, but under pressure changed course in the name of budget balancing and the economic recovery stalled. And it wasn’t until the war mobilization that included government borrowing, industrial conversion, and national planning that the economy fully recovered and a sustained expansion, lasting for roughly three decades, began.
Much the same combination of restructuring and re-inflating the economy, albeit in very different circumstances, is necessary again. So far the administration has junked some of the economic assumptions and practices of neoliberalism, but, as mentioned earlier, a full recovery and sustained growth could be an elusive goal.
In any event, the struggle for radical reforms and a new model of governance is imperative. While neither will resolve capitalism’s contradictions and crisis tendencies, it is possible to improve — even greatly improve — the conditions of life and work of working people.
Furthermore, in struggles for radical democratic restructuring, the working class and its allies not only come up against the insufficiencies of capitalism, but also gain the experience, desire, and unity to transform themselves and society.
Jobs and immediate relief
A starting point is the struggle for immediate relief for victims of the economic crisis. The accent should be on action — to provide unemployment benefits to every job seeker, to open livable homeless shelters and more food pantries, to prevent evictions, to support collective bargaining and strikes, to create jobs, to build health care clinics, schools, and public and cooperative housing, to halt utility cutoffs, and to aid decimated cities. Some of this is happening, but much more needs to be done. Such actions, led by the victims of the crisis as well as mass leaders and activists in unions, churches, neighborhood and ethnic organizations, block clubs, and social groups, are the roar from below that will give an urgency to the legislative process above. No one should be overwhelmed by the scope of the problems, or held back by the idea that mass action has to mean thousands of people. Mass is a relative term. The labor movement can play a special role. Ditto for the churches. Special attention should be given to the struggle for multi-racial, multi-national unity and equality — the struggle for the latter is a condition for the former. Recently, the AFL-CIO, NAACP, National Council of La Raza, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Center for Community Change rolled out a proposal for a jobs and infrastructure program. It includes five critical points:
- Extend the lifeline for jobless workers.
- Rebuild America’s schools, roads and energy systems.
- Increase aid to state and local governments to maintain vital services.
- Fund jobs in our communities.
- Put TARP funds to work for Main Street.
The campaign for such a program can become a channel for millions of people — unemployed and employed — to become participants in the jobs struggle. It can turn frustration, isolation, and despair into action, community, and hope. And it can be a yardstick by which to measure candidates in the 2010 election.
And it can also help to strip from the extreme right their claim to be “fighting for ordinary Americans.”
This campaign should be the bread and butter of every people’s organization. No one should sit it out. While the intended effect is economic — to create jobs — it will also have a political effect, deepening, broadening, and energizing the people’s movement and in so doing, shaking up Washington.
A year ago, we said that the country was entering an era of democratic reform and that the same coalition that defeated the right in the 2008 elections would drive the process going forward.
By and large, we were on the mark. But after a year of real events, real struggles, and real clashes of real people some changes in our thinking are necessary.
To begin, the first year of the Obama administration was a sprint. The conditions of struggle were far more favorable than in the preceding eight years, to say the least. The mood was hopeful. And the political conversation and agenda on a range of issues was reframed, thanks in no small measure to the president.
The forms of struggle were many — marches, picket lines, town hall meetings, civil disobedience, strikes, demonstrations, lobbying, phone banking, online petitions, solidarity actions, informal conversations and organizing, and so on. Some actions were local, others statewide, and still others national.
And the fight was bitter. The opposition gave no ground.
Early on the struggle over the collapsing economy was atop the agenda and that has continued. But other issues entered the public domain as well, placed there by the Obama administration and by the popular movement — health care, nuclear weapons, Iraq, financial regulation, Guantanamo, and climate change, to name a few. As a result, the space to take initiative, build broad unity, and organize for progressive change was considerably enlarged.
Many dramatic struggles took place in 2009. To name a few, the plant takeover by workers at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors, the Ford workers’ rejection of a concessionary contract, G-20 actions, the campaign to win Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination, campus protests in the University of California system, and the Chicago anti-bank protests.
However, the legislative process became the main site of class and democratic struggles. On both sides of every legislative issue, contending political blocs flexed their muscles and locked horns.
In the House, the majority of Democrats pressed for an agenda that addressed people’s needs. The caucuses — African American, Hispanic, Women’s, and Progressive — and individuals like Raul Grijalva, Barbara Lee, Bernie Sanders, and others — distinguished themselves. In nearly every instance they found themselves a step ahead of other Democrats and the Obama administration. The Blue Dogs, on the other hand, were busy trying to rein in reform measures.
Senate Democrats, despite holding 58 seats, plus the support of Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, were a different kettle of fish. While clashing with Republicans, they were less progressive than their counterparts in the House. And when combined with the rule that requires 60 votes to send legislation to the floor for deliberation and action, the Senate has been (and probably will continue to be) a drag on progressive change.
To make matters more difficult, corporate interests and their lobbyists poisoned the Congressional well in a thousand ways. Their ability to block or contain the legislative process goes way beyond simply owning a stable of Congress people. So much so that columnist Paul Krugman wondered in early September if the country was becoming ungovernable.
Outside of Washington, the loose people’s coalition that elected the president regrouped and redirected its energies to the legislative process.
At the core of this loose coalition are the main organizations of the working class, African American, Mexican American, and other racially and nationally oppressed peoples, women and youth.
In addition, seniors, immigrants, and many other social movements and organizations are in the mix.
The labor movement is a particularly active, clear, and unifying voice, and continues to emerge through dint of effort, organization, and resources as a leader of this broader coalition.
To no one’s surprise, the right wing hasn’t retired from politics. To the contrary, these “un-American” extremists also regrouped and came out fighting the president’s agenda, hoping to pave the way for the Republicans’ return to power.
With an African American in the White House, a Latina on the Supreme Court, the presence and acceptance of gay and secular sensibilities in the culture, continued challenges to patriarchal gender roles, and an economy that is laying waste to the position of the male as breadwinner, right-wing extremists in Congress and elsewhere are churning out racist, misogynist, homophobic, and anti-government appeals to white working people and especially white men. Limbaugh, Hannity, and other talk show hosts are howling to whoever will listen, “Take back America.”
Pat Buchanan, echoing the same theme, wrote, “America was once their [white people’s] country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right.”
This drivel is racist and anti-working class. It goes against our democratic traditions, is an insult to every fair-minded white person, a falsification of history, and an appeal to division along the color line. It carries the foul odor of fascism.
Our country was built on the backs of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic working class and a system of slave labor that remained unchallenged for nearly three centuries. What is more, economic crises have a sharper impact on minority (and immigrant) communities. They are the first to “lose” their jobs, homes, living standards, rights, voice, and dignity.
This propaganda barrage is not new. But it is getting louder and uglier, evoking irrational and dangerous reactions from too many people. And its aim, though never stated, is to conceal the commonality of interests that organically glue together the multi-racial, multi-national, male-female, young-old, skilled-unskilled, white collar-blue collar, service-industrial, and immigrant-native born working class and its strategic allies.
I’m not suggesting that fascism is around the corner or that the majority of the American people embrace these backward sentiments. Other trends and public expressions go in the opposite direction, the most obvious example being the changes in consciousness that made possible the election of our first African American president.
What I am saying is that a progressive turn in our nation’s politics requires an intensified and broader struggle against racism, male supremacy, and other forms of division.
If unchallenged, racism and male supremacy (along with other divisive ideologies and practices) will disfigure and paralyze the people’s coalition. If embraced, they push the country in a disastrous direction.
Health care reform
The struggle for health care reform has given us a concrete glimpse of the contours, dynamics, and complexities of political life.
It has been a pitched battle. At one point there appeared to be a crack in the Republican edifice when Olympia Snowe voted to move the bill out of the Senate Finance Committee, but she quickly backpedaled when Majority Leader Harry Reid raised the issue of a public option.
On the other side of the aisle, nearly all the Democrats favor reform, though they quarrel over its nature.
Across the country a movement is charging forward. Early on the mobilization was inadequate, but that changed, thanks to the so-called tea parties that were a wakeup call for many who were enjoying the afterglow of the 2008 elections and underestimated what it would take to consolidate and extend that victory.
All sides in this struggle have gone to great lengths to frame the debate and shape public opinion. In the early going the right had some success with its fear-mongering — talk of death panels, socialism, Nazism, etc. — but that changed as health care supporters answered the challenge.
While many sections of labor favor a single payer system, they have avoided painting themselves into a corner. Instead they have stated their support for single payer while battling for the inclusion of the public option, and greeted the House bill with enthusiasm.
While labor differed with the Obama administration on some matters, it has done so in a thoughtful, respectful and unifying manner. It has not sought to score points, demonstrate superior wisdom, or expose Obama as a “do-nothing centrist.”
Other organizations of the popular movement — NOW, the NAACP, National Council of La Raza — as well as many of the health care organizations and coalitions take much the same approach.
The passage of legislation by the House and Senate, notwithstanding all the bill’s shortcomings, constitutes an important victory for comprehensive health care reform and progressive change generally. If the bill had been defeated, we would not be simply back to square one, as some suggest.
Rather, health care reform would be off the agenda, indefinitely. Political momentum would shift to the right wing, and prospects would be bleak for a second stimulus, Employee Free Choice, climate change legislation, immigration reform, and other key battles.
Some left and progressive people dismiss this danger, but politics is not only about passing laws, as important as that is — it is also about gaining and maintaining the initiative, building on victories no matter how small, and expanding the breadth and depth of the coalition at every opportunity. It’s higher math, not elementary addition and subtraction.
The health care reform fight is not over, of course. The president has yet to sign a bill and there is still is room to improve the final bill that eventually will go to him.
Observations a year in
It seems like every political pundit is critiquing President Obama’s first year in office — not surprising. But I will take a different tack, comparing how we saw Obama and the larger class and social forces a year ago with how things look now.
First, the broad coalition that elected the president a year ago still hasn’t yet fully regrouped, notwithstanding some very promising initiatives and struggles. We believe it will, but our earlier assessment didn’t take into account that the transition from an election mode to a post-election mode would be uneven and bumpy.
By Election Day 2008, people were exhausted and felt that they had done their part. They were ready to hand the ball off to the president and the new Congress. We didn’t appreciate this dynamic enough. Our view was not grounded in realism. To transform the coalition that elected Obama into a powerful political force will take a strenuous and sustained effort. And we are in the early stages. Success in doing this will have to be decisive to winning a progressive agenda.
Second, our estimate of the balance of forces and trends in Congress was too general. Democratic majorities there don’t necessarily translate into support for the president’s agenda — let alone a people’s agenda. There are diverse views, and progressive Democrats, while undeniably more influential, are not yet dominant. A more fine-grained analysis on our part was necessary.
Third, we resisted placing the administration and its individual members into neat political categories before they had begun to govern. At the time, that was correct, because such categorizations easily lead to narrow tactical approaches, which is especially bad in a moment of political fluidity and crisis. A year later, it’s appropriate to look more closely at the various trends, although it shouldn’t turn into a daily preoccupation.
Fourth, we exaggerated the magnitude of the defeat of right-wing extremism. Although the right no longer had political initiative nor set the agenda, it was still a major player in the nation’s political life. While Blue Dog and centrist Democrats are a drag on progressive politics, it is the extreme right in Congress and elsewhere that mobilizes a mass constituency, shapes public opinion, and employs racism and other forms of division and demagogy with the aim of obstructing and derailing the Obama presidency.
Though the election was a major defeat for the right, it retains a significant mass base, has connections to some of the most reactionary and powerful corporations, and possesses a dense network of think tanks and political action committees — not to mention the Republican Party. It also has a loud and insistent voice in the mass media and in the military and other coercive institutions. A comeback — a return to power — isn’t out of the question.
Fifth, our assessment didn’t give enough weight to the fact that the state is anything but a neutral institution standing above society and negotiating between competing interests. Rather it is a class based, historically determined set of institutions, procedures, policies, and personnel that, taken together, are resistant to any kind of radical (anti-corporate, anti-capitalist) restructuring, no matter how necessary. In recent decades, the interpenetration of big capital — especially finance, military and energy capital — and state/government structures has reached unprecedented levels.
This reality isn’t reason to stand aside from struggles within these structures, to yield this ground to capital. On the contrary, the terrain of the state is a crucial site of class and social struggles. Any serious movement for social change has to attach high priority to this. The securing of positions — elective and otherwise in the state apparatus — at every stage of the class and democratic struggle, and especially at this and subsequent stages — is imperative.
As we saw in last year’s election, millions of people were drawn into action and changed the terrain on which contesting political coalitions fight. No struggle over the past decade mobilized so many in such a sustained way as did the campaign to elect Barack Obama.
Thus, struggles within state structures are absolutely imperative, but with this caveat: their success in the longer term depends in large measure on the degree to which they symbiotically combine and coordinate with popular actions at the grassroots.
Sixth, our reading of changes in public opinion suffered from one-sidedness. On the one hand, we correctly noted that right-wing and neoliberal ideology resonates less and less with tens of millions of people, who are increasingly skeptical about “free markets” and unregulated capitalism.
But the problem with public opinion polls is that they don’t necessarily capture what Antonio Gramsci called “contradictory consciousness.” The same people can like a public health care option and even approve of socialism, but also be suspicious of big government; or support withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and at the same time want the Obama administration to eliminate al Qaeda in Afghanistan by any means necessary; or favor a second stimulus bill while opposing a larger deficit.
Most people (and social classes for that matter) don’t have a consistent worldview; rather, they have a worldview that is eclectic, contradictory and sensitive to changing circumstances and experience, not simply reducible to their place in a system of social production. For those who desire progressive change it is essential to better appreciate the complexity and fluidity of popular consciousness.
Finally, the struggle brings home the importance of the 2010 elections. The stakes are enormous.
Will the struggle for democratic reforms be deepened or reversed? Will the costs of the current crisis be placed on the shoulders of Wall Street and the wealthy, or working people and especially people of color?
Will we begin a sustained attack on global warming or remain stuck in a fossil fuel/carbon-based economy? Will racial and gender equality take new strides in the direction of freedom, or will a 21st century Jim Crow assert itself? Will the next decade be a decade of peace, or of violence and plunder? Will the stockpiles of nuclear weapons be reduced, or will the nuclear threat grow?
We could go on, but the point is obvious: the outcome of the midterm elections will have a major bearing on how each of these questions is answered. That so, the aim of the people’s coalition is clear: to increase the Democratic advantage in the Congress, including the number of progressives in the House and Senate, while at the same time defeating the Republican right.
The objective of the Republicans will be the opposite. They will throw everything into the 2010 elections, including lots of money and endless demagogy.
Three outcomes are possible. One is that the Republicans will make big gains; another is that neither party will pick up or lose any significant number of seats; and the last is that the Democrats will increase their majorities in the Congress. The latter is possible, but only if a health care bill passes, the unemployed find work, an to U.S. occupation is in sight, and, above all, an enormous bottom up mobilization of old and new voters is organized this year.
The genius of candidate Obama was his ability to find a narrative and vision that captured the political imagination of tens of millions. In last fall’s off-year elections, Democrats came up woefully short in this regard and too many voters stayed home. If this happens in 2010, the fight for progressive reform will be slow going. New faces, new voices, new voters, and new leaders are necessary to transform the political landscape in a more fundamental and enduring way.
For nearly three decades, the Communist Party’s strategic policy envisioned the assembling of a broad coalition to defeat the right, whose political ascendancy began with Reagan’s election in 1980. Over the past decade we have further developed and refined this policy, while maintaining its essential character. The delegates to our national convention in 2005 formalized this in our new party program.
In the wake of the 2008 elections, however, it became apparent that some adjustments were necessary. But before going into this, some general remarks about our understanding of strategy are warranted.
A strategic policy springs from an analysis of the stage of development and the overall balance of political and class forces at a given moment. Attempting to derive strategic concepts from either abstractions (capitalism is historically obsolete — true) or mass moods (the people are angry as hell) is a recipe for political mistakes. Militancy and moral outrage must enter into our calculations and our practical activity, but neither one can determine the strategic approach of our party or the larger movement for that matter.
A solid strategic policy is derived from an assessment of the main social force(s) hindering progressive development at any given moment as well as which forces have an objective interest in moving society in an opposite, progressive, direction.
Strategy isn’t a fine-grained roadmap, but a guide to action. It is a first approximation of what is happening on the ground among the main class and social forces, which of them has the upper hand, and what it will take to move the political process forward.
If there were a direct path to social progress and socialism, strategic considerations wouldn’t matter. But there is no such path. The history of the 20th century is proof of that.
Instead the revolutionary process passes through phases and stages, despite the messy and chaotic nature of the historical process. Assessing when one phase or stage gives way to another is both an art and a science.
In contrast to strategy, tactics involve choices about issues, demands, forms of struggle, slogans, etc. to mobilize and unify masses of people. They are conditioned by strategic considerations, while, at the same time, bringing strategy to life.
The aim of tactics is not to up the ante at every turn, as too many on the left think. In fact, the challenge is to combine partial demands that elicit broad support and are winnable in the short term with more advanced demands that are not yet supported by a broad enough constituency but could be won in the course of ongoing struggles.
Adjustments in strategic policy
With the foregoing in mind, what adjustments, if any, in our strategic policy are warranted given the new landscape?
On the one hand, the strategic thrust of 2008 — to defeat the ultra right at the polls — doesn’t exactly fit the new conditions, but as mentioned earlier the right danger can’t be underestimated; it remains a considerable political, ideological and mass mobilizing force.
On the other hand, we are not yet at a consistently anti-monopoly, anti-transnational stage either, given the challenges facing the country and the world, the continued presence of the extreme right and its reactionary corporate backers, the level of consciousness of the American people, and the maturity of the people’s movement.
Thus, our strategic policy is a mixture of both. This isn’t surprising given the fluid and transitional nature of this period.
And yet as the process of democratic reform deepens, the class, anti-corporate, anti-transnational nature of the struggle will come to the fore more and more at the economic, political and ideological levels.
All of which goes to show that the struggle for democracy doesn’t dilute, postpone or bypass the class struggle, but brings it into bolder relief, extends the ground on which it is fought out, and introduces fresh voices and leaders. Just as the campaign to elect President Obama was the leading edge of the class struggle as well as the struggle for democracy in 2008, so too the fight to deepen democracy, broadly understood, in today’s conditions.
With this in mind, our strategic policy seeks to extend and deepen a coalition of political actors that stretches from President Obama to the core forces of the people’s movement, and also includes small and medium sized business, working-class people who are influenced by the right, sections of the Democratic Party and even sections of corporate capital.
The notion of pure forms of class struggle may sound radical, but it isn’t Marxist and doesn’t exist in the real world.
Lenin once remarked:
“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. — to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, ‘We are for socialism,’ and another, somewhere else, says, ‘We are for imperialism,’ and that will be a social revolution!”
“Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.”
It would be a profound mistake to distance the working class and other core forces from temporary and even unreliable allies. In fact, a diverse alliance is the strategic cornerstone for progressive and radical reforms. Separately, neither the president nor the people’s organizations nor the working class can win against the political and class forces arrayed against them. But united, they pack a wallop! Many get this, especially labor and the other core forces of the people’s movement. And the African American people have always practiced it, as have other racially and nationally oppressed peoples.
Needless to say, the right wing — along with the corporate class — also gets it and is doing everything possible to bust it up.
So again, the challenge is to fully activate and maximize the unity of this very diverse, multi-class and fluid coalition in the course of concrete struggles. There will be tensions, contradictions and competing views, and the opposition is ferocious and clever.
All of us who want to live in a more just, peaceful and equal society must master the art of fighting for unity while, at the same time, stretching the boundaries of the possible and deepening the role of the core forces.
At this moment, the people’s movement has a fragile advantage. Neither side is yet able to gain hegemony in a political and ideological sense — that is to say, neither side’s views can claim to be the accepted common sense of millions. The political balance of forces doesn’t yet overwhelmingly favor the forces of progress.
The main elements of the New Deal were not passed in Roosevelt’s first year in office, but in 1935-1937. Nor did the popular insurgency arise in full bloom at the Depression’s outset. The New Deal victories were the fruit of a many-layered struggle of a motley group of social actors, taking place over time. The next decade(s) will be much the same.
A new emphasis
For some time we have accented the importance of breadth of the movement, but for this discussion a renewed emphasis on an old principle is warranted, namely focus on the multi-racial, multi-national, male-female working class. Because of the diversity of the developing coalition, it is all the more imperative to enhance the leadership role of the main core forces, and especially the working class and its organized sector.
Without this, the reform process will lose its focus and its political weight. Allies are critical in any struggle, but the core forces are indispensable.
Luckily, the core forces — which overlap with one another, thereby giving them a deep community of interests and enormous power — are in motion, but not yet to the degree that is necessary to enact a progressive agenda. How to increase the role of precisely these forces is the key task for every activist.
The new opportunities to be part of mass movements make it urgent that communists act, that we take initiative, that we bring and join a crowd. The doors are wide open!
If we aren’t a part of the immediate struggles — for health care, jobs, and relief, against foreclosures and utility shutoffs — then we are nowhere.
Some, however, say that it is not enough to be a part of a crowd, a broad coalition, and a bigger mix.
They ask, “Shouldn’t we make a contribution that distinguishes us from Democrats and other activists? Don’t others advocate for health care and workers’ rights, for ending the wars? So what’s our role, what makes us different? Shouldn’t we get something organizationally out of our activity — public acknowledgement, new members, speaking engagements, clubs?”
Fair questions and we should all try to answer them.
Communists are an organic part of the working class and broader movements. We share in the hopes, dreams, and joys of these movements (remember when the First Family walked onto the stage in Grant Park on election night?), as well as the hurt that comes with setbacks. We desire the same things — jobs, peace, equality, democracy, good schools for our children, security in old age, and so on.
We make mistakes and have warts. We are neither perfect nor all knowing. Sometimes we stumble; sometimes we grow weary, but we get back up and fight.
We feel anger at the injustice and immorality of capitalism. Our opposition to racial, gender, and other forms of oppression and our insistence on equality and unity is a matter of principle. Our sense of solidarity is worldwide in its reach. Action is at our core and Marxism is our guide to action. And our enduring commitment is to peace, democracy, and socialism.
To a degree this distinguishes us from others, but not in every instance because we don’t have a patent on radical thinking and politics. What makes us unique at this moment are our strategic insights and our struggle to apply them. Those who say we are no different from Democrats, other activists, and others on the left reveal a simplistic understanding — or no understanding — of our strategic policies, not to mention other features of our Party.
To be more concrete, our strategic orientation gives us:
- An understanding of the primacy of broad unity;
- An appreciation of the profound importance of the struggle for democracy (understood in the broadest sense: the right to job, housing, health care, equality, etc.);
- A determination to build the widest possible “impure” movement while at the same time struggling to enhance the leadership role of the working class, the racially oppressed, women and youth;
- A path along which a movement of millions can traverse from one stage of struggle to another stage and eventually to socialism;
- An understanding of how divisions among the capitalist class and its allies can be utilized in the struggle for social progress;
- And an appreciation of a perhaps-overlooked fact: there is no substitute for practical activity.
Our strategic policy is a concrete guide to understand and change the neighborhood, workplace, city, state, country and world that we live in. It is the tool in our political toolbox that allows us to lead struggles and movements. If we leave it home, our ability to lead will limp.
In sum, our strategic insights are what differentiates us from other currents, including many on the left. Some may share one or more of our insights, but few embrace and employ them all.
Some political and ideological questions
The president doesn’t simply register and reflect the balance of power; he influences it as well; no other person has as much power. To identify him as a centrist Democrat akin to Clinton or Carter conceals more than it reveals; it’s too neat. It doesn’t help us understand him as a political actor and his place in the broader struggle for progressive change. And it can quickly lead to narrow tactics and a wrong-headed strategic policy.
Some say, for example, that the strategic role of the left is to criticize the president, to push him from the left. But is that a good point of departure strategically? Doesn’t it elevate a tactical question to a strategic one?
Criticizing the president (especially in the internet age) takes little imagination or effort, far less than does activating the various forces that elected him — the latter takes a strategic sense, flexible tactics, creative thinking, and hard work. In fact, the president’s report card, it could easily be argued, is better than the coalition that elected him. He doesn’t get an ‘A’, but neither do we.
The point is that criticisms of President Obama should be done in a unifying and constructive way. The success or failure of the administration will resonate for years. A deep imprint will be left on class and racial relations. It is hard to imagine how a successful struggle for reforms can happen without Obama or how anyone other than the extreme right and sections of the ruling class would benefit if his presidency fails.
Attitude towards reform
A very different political and ideological issue that has a bearing on practical politics is the assertion that capitalism has no solutions to the present crisis and can’t be reformed.
If this means that the endemic crises of capitalism (for example, cyclical and structural unemployment, regular crises, overproduction, over-accumulation, etc.) will persist as long as the profit motive is the singular determinant of economic activity, we would agree.
But if it means that anything less than a system-wide change is unimportant, or that the underlying dynamics and laws of motion can’t be modified, we would disagree.
We should avoid counterposing the bankruptcy of capitalism against the struggle for reforms under capitalism. Such juxtaposition is unnecessary and counterproductive. If we don’t struggle for the latter (reforms), what we say about the former (systemic nature of problems) will carry little weight nor will we get to where we want to go — socialism.
Capitalism is more elastic than some believe. It changes on its own and is modified by the class struggle. Look at its historical development if you don’t believe so.
Role of the working class
Still another ideological question is the role of the working class in general and the labor movement in particular. The right wing and mass media (not just Fox) either heap abuse on the labor movement or make it invisible. They are well aware of the new developments in organized labor, and recoil at the prospect of a revitalizing labor movement. None of this is a surprise.
What is surprising is that many progressive and left people either have a blind spot when it comes to the labor movement, or see it as just another participant, or refuse to see — even dismiss out of hand — the new developments within it.
Leading up to the AFL-CIO convention, we heard more than once that labor should be “a social movement,” that it should “take on capital,” etc. But, unless you are the hostage of “pure” forms of class struggle, isn’t that what labor is doing, with its election mobilization last year and on issues like health care, war, racism, immigration, climate change, international solidarity, and so forth?
Granted it’s not across the board, the old style of leadership hasn’t completely disappeared, and rank-and-file participation is not where it should be.
But is going over in righteous indignation the litany of sins of the labor movement the most productive thing that we can do? Doesn’t it make far more sense to note the new development and directions, the new thinking, and the new composition of labor’s leadership? Do we think that the transition from the legacy of the Cold War and the so-called Golden Age of capitalism can happen in a day, in a month, in a decade? Change is hard, but when sprouts of change come to the light of day we should nurture them.
Our understanding of Marxism reveals that in the process of exploitation, not only surplus value, but also oppositional tendencies arise — albeit uneven and full of contradictions and inconsistencies — but arise nonetheless to challenge corporate prerogatives and class rule.
An under appreciation of the new developments in labor can only weaken the broader movement for change.
Finally, Marxism is an open-ended, integrated, and comprehensive set of ideas to conceptualize and change the world — a worldview. It analyzes the existing and developing tendencies, laws, and contradictions of societies, and especially capitalist society.
Thus, continually deepening our understanding of Marxism’s basic theoretical constructions is of crucial importance to us — not to mention the movement as a whole.
Marxism is not only a science and worldview, but also a methodology.
Marxist methodology absorbs and metabolizes new experience; it gives special weight to new phenomena.
It isn’t about timeless abstractions, pure forms, ideal types, categorical imperatives unsullied by inconvenient facts; it doesn’t turn partial demands, reformist forces, inconsistent Democrats, liberals, social democratic labor leaders, even Blue Dog Democrats, into a contagious flu to be avoided at all costs.
Marxist methodology insists on a concrete presentation of every question and an exact estimate of the balance of forces at any given moment.
As a method of analysis, Marxism emphasizes fluidity, reexamination and rethinking, process, dialectics, and movement; it’s about allowing space for individuals and organizations to change.
We should deepen our understanding of Marxism as a science and methodology. And we should not give too much attention to those who criticize us from the far left. When we do, it cuts down on our ability to think creatively and respond practically to new opportunities and developments.
In the era of the Internet, everyone’s voice is amplified. If some try to turn Marxism into a sacred canon much like the strict constitutional jurists and biblical literalists do with the Constitution and Bible, so be it; if they want to spend all their time looking for examples of right deviations, to the point where they themselves are simply self-satisfied observers of struggle and too busy to build the people’s movement or, in the case of those who are in our party, build our organization and press, so be it.
We will go our own way, focusing our energy and talents on building the working-class movement and our party and press, and be much the wiser for it.
Opening new doors to the party
We have acknowledged the difficulty of building the party and press, but after some discussion in the National Board we are persuaded that we should begin from a different vantage point. So here it is:
This is the most favorable time to build the party and press (and the Young Communist League) in 40 years, especially among our multi-racial, multi-national, male/female, young/old working class. The bitter experience of our working class over the past three decades has eroded their confidence in American capitalism.
They haven’t completely given up on it, but because of what has happened many people are questioning its ability to provide a satisfying life and thus are open to thinking about new ways of structuring society.
Of course, we share their view and when combined with our strategic insights, our understanding of Marxism, our working class and multi-racial, multi-national roots, and our tactical flexibility, we become an attractive package.
So although lots of organizations are out there, and anti-communism does still resonate, the possibilities for growth in influence and size are very promising.
Growth won’t happen automatically — few things do. And in the near term our growth will still be incremental at every level, including on the Internet.
To respond to the new possibilities for growth, we will have to restructure our work at every level and move full throttle into the online world. In particular, we have to provide more entry points into the party and YCL.
What do I mean? First, joining the party should not be considered as a point of entry, but rather as a point of destination. Not everyone will come closer or into the party in the same way. The clubs should not be the exclusive form through which new members join the party. Even though we hope every member does participate in a club, we can’t insist on it at the outset. And for those people who join online, there is no club for them to be in, so we will have to provide them with virtual/online forms of participation.
We have to accept and adapt to the reality that times have changed; the pace of life is so much faster; the requirements of living are so much more, and leisure time has become a private affair.
Moreover, our political culture and people’s connection to political parties is different. Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian, said a while ago in an article that the days of a cadre party are over.
I’m not sure if it ever existed, but I agree with him that it doesn’t now. The typical member in a growing party will never be a 24-hour, dawn-to-dusk communist. Like any party, movement, or organization, we need a growing pool of dedicated leaders at every level, but our membership in the main will not fall into that category.
The party will be an important but not all-consuming item on their agenda. We shouldn’t try to fit square pegs into round holes. We need to be looser, more open, more visible, friendlier, more social and hold more action specific club meetings. We can do this without losing our ideological punch or our understanding of the necessity of grassroots clubs.
If we agree that growth is a political priority, we have to take steps to organize that growth; we have to develop a very practical plan, including these elements:
Club meetings have to be vibrant and connected to doing something about real life problems; boring and do-nothing discussions will not make for an attractive place for new people to hang their hats;
Building our online press is crucial. This is a task of every member, every club and every collective. No one should sit it out. What better way to reach a huge audience? Our online team does incredible work, but they would be the first to say, “All hands on deck.”
More entry points are necessary where friends and activists can acquaint themselves with us. Too few exist now. And again, one size doesn’t fit all.
Finally, lists of friends and contacts have to be constructed collectively; follow-up is necessary; and experience should be shared.
Young people and the YCL
Most of what I’ve said about growing the party applies in one way or another to the YCL, and given the strategic importance of the young generation, the YCL deserves close attention and assistance by the party.
It is our partner in struggle. In recent months we’ve made some proposals to deepen our working relationships. Some of the most important are:
- Reviewing and assisting in the leadership transition;
- Integrating YCL leadership into the discussions of the party’s leadership;
- Hosting a seminar on youth;
- Hosting a meeting of former members of the YCL who haven’t joined the party;
- Deepening consultation and joint action at the city/state level.
These steps go in the right direction, but they only represent a beginning.
We have a lot of challenges and opportunities before us. But I’m sure that we are going to seize the time just as communists have done over the past nine decades, Happy 90th anniversary Communist Party USA and many, many more!
This is one of four official discussion documents issued by the National Committee of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) to engage party members, allies, friends and the public in a discussion of the issues of the day leading up to its 29th National Convention, May 21-23, 2010.
CPUSA members, bodies and collectives are encouraged to submit responses, essays, papers and other contributions to the discussion in order to help determine party policy going forward from the Convention. Submissions may be emailed to email@example.com or mailed to
Communist Party USA
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For the full Convention Discussion rules and guidelines, please visit www.cpusa.org/convention-discussion-2010.