One more time

Below is a my reply to an analysis written by Max Elbaum that I’m reposting in the wake of the elections in Alabama. I think it holds up pretty well. I also include Max’s critical response to my take on his analysis. I disagree with it, but any reply from me can await another day. Sam

Hi Max,

I’ve been a bit tardy in replying to your last email. But here it is.

If there is any unspoken assumption in what I wrote to you, it is that when an authoritarian president sits in the White House, there is some ground to consider broader and more flexible concepts and methods of struggle.

I thought Trump’s election would impose some strategic and tactical rethinking and coherence on the left. And it has, but only partially and inconsistently, and mainly at the strategic level. At the tactical level, the changes have been minimal in many ways.

Your powerful analysis, I’m sure, was very helpful to many activists, but largely, I suspect, in a strategic sense. While persuasively making a case for a strategic shift matching the present dangers and balance of class and social forces, it doesn’t make a similar case for what, I believe, should logically follow — tactical guidelines that are more expansive, flexible, and reach out to diverse people and constituencies. In other words, guidelines that conform to the strategic shift that you adumbrate.

You mention in passing the old left slogan of “struggle and unity,” but the weight, I’m sure you agree, of one or the other of this dialectical coupling changes in the face of changing circumstances. And in today’s circumstances, the weight, I would argue, falls on uniting a heterogeneous and motley coalition, especially with the midterm elections around the corner. But you don’t say this, at least with the kind of emphasis that, I believe, it deserves.

Instead, you reinforce an unmistakable tendency on the left to attach much greater weight to struggle — “fight” to use your word — rather than to unity. This has been the mantra of the left going back a long time, irrespective of concrete circumstances on the ground.

In fact, it was this tactical posture, reinforced by an inability to make a necessary strategic shift to new circumstances on the ground in the 1980s, that turned too many on the left, except for Jesse Jackson’s primary runs, into passive observers, while the right, using the election process, rose to power and consolidated its presence in U.S. politics at the national and state level.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not against struggle within the Democratic Party and the broader anti-Trump coalition; actually I’m for it, and on some issues — especially the attack against so called “identity politics” — it is absolutely necessary. But it should be conditioned and modified by the main strategic challenge and with the overarching imperative of building broad unity against Trump firmly in mind.

That, however, doesn’t come through in your analysis. Rather than challenging the “reality based” left that is disposed to working in the Democratic Party to consider a basic tactical rethink in general and specifically in relation to the coming congressional elections, you recoil from your impressive strategic insights and end up endorsing, with some amendments, the main current tactical wisdom on the left — upping the ante regardless of circumstances and turning a candidate’s position on this or that issue into the near singular consideration in the elaboration of the left’s approach to next year’s elections.

All of which reminds me of what the courageous Bulgarian Communist leader and anti-fascist Georgi Dimitrov told a world gathering of communists in 1935:

“Formerly many communists used to be afraid it would be opportunism on their part if they did not counter every partial demand of the Social Democrats by demands of their own which were twice as radical.”

We may disagree here, but I find Dimitrov’s observation (which was, as you know, a piece of a much larger and long overdue strategic and tactical about face by the world communist movement) captures a persistent dynamic on the contemporary left. Nobody wants to be outbid; too many worry about saying something that will sully their revolutionary credentials and expose them to attacks from their left flank.

To be fair, you do mention that some slack might have to be cut for Democrats running in congressional districts where the politics and demographics are less than propitious. But it doesn’t stand out. Nor do you say it isn’t a seat or two here or there; it’s actually the lion’s share if Democrats have any hope of winning back control of the House. And much the same in the Senate, where Democrats are defending a larger number of seats compared to Republicans. Thus the outcome of the coming elections won’t be decided in cities like Berkeley or Cambridge or San Francisco or Los Angeles or New York. But in states like Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Colorado, and upstate New York.

Finally, I am skeptical of Our Revolution and other organizations with similar politics. And my skepticism goes beyond their tactical disposition. From what I can see, they are juggling two strategic balls without an appreciation of which ball should be seized at this moment.

Which isn’t surprising. After all, the strategic thrust of Bernie and his supporters in the presidential primary last year was “class against class” to the neglect of the wider and overarching danger of right wing authoritarianism seizing control of the entire federal government — not to mention issues of race and gender. In their strategic universe, the enemy was Hillary, the unreconstructed neoliberal and war monger, and no less the Establishment, elites in Washington and Wall Street, and the two parties of capitalism.

This strategic framing was flawed. And while I don’t have any empirical evidence at hand, I suspect that had a different approach been pursued by Bernie and a good chunk of the left in the primaries, the outcome of the elections might have been different. Moreover, albeit from a distance (I’m active locally, but have no connections to the larger national scene), I have to wonder to what degree the same mistake is being made again.

It probably sounds as if I’m completely unaware and unappreciative of the fact that Bernie is energizing lots of new faces and stretching the political conversation. But. actually, that isn’t the case — on my better days anyway. But to be candid, I believe that Bernie would be well served if he acquired some of the political dexterity, depth, and, not least, grace of a Barack Obama, or, especially, a Martin Luther King.

Much the same could be said about a section of the left that is awash in sectarian politics, rigid thinking, and self righteous indignation. But here’s the problem. The success of Bernie’s campaign hasn’t eased, but reinforced, this embedded politics and culture that stretches back to the sixties; some, in fact, think, albeit with a little push and agitation, socialism is around the corner.

I will end this long reply with this: It is hard to think of another moment in recent years when a sound strategy and correspondingly adjusted tactics on the part of the reality based left could matter so much. Sam

Max’s reply:

Regarding Sam Webb’s criticism of my article, I think we have one crucial disagreement, but that his comments also mis-characterize what my article actually says. On the latter, Sam claims that “you recoil from your impressive strategic insights and end up endorsing, with some amendments, the main current tactical wisdom on the left — upping the ante regardless of circumstances.” I am not convinced that a blanket line of “upping the ante regarding of circumstances” is the position of most of the left as Sam asserts. But to the extent that position is out there, rather than reinforce it “After Charlottesville” critiques it: “the fight over message and which voters to prioritize will come down to specifics district-by-district and state-by-state. One-size-fits-all ideological formulas will not cut it.”

More important, though, is our difference of opinion. The thrust of Sam’s comment is that the main if not sole threat to the left working effectively to defeat Trump and the GOP in 2018 and 2020 is that it will be too aggressive in fighting more moderate/centrist/”establishment” Democrats. I agree that is one serious danger, but don’t think it is the only one. There are powerful forces within the Democratic Party who think Russian election meddling is the only reason Hilary lost in 2016 and that campaigns that echo her 2016 effort in terms of message, which voters to target, and methods of reaching voters (funding television ads vs. door-to-door/community contact) will provide the road to victory. I disagree and think that without a message that both inspires and prioritizes turning out the core sectors of the “Obama coalition” the GOP is unlikely to be defeated. Those kinds of campaigns are not going to happen automatically in 2018 or 2020, they will only happen if left and progressive forces fight for them. It is a caricature to paint a strategic and tactical policy based on recognition of this reality as “upping the ante everywhere.” Rather, it is an important consideration in formulating effective contest-by-contest tactics to defeat Trump and the GOP. In other words, yes, our accent has to be on unity, but if we return to unity around the approach of Campaign 2016, we are likely to lose once again.

Election Takeaways

1. The election of Doug Jones in Alabama last night was, with no hyperbole, historic.

2. African American voters were once again front rankers in the struggle for decency, democracy, and freedom.

3. A multi-racial, socially and politically diverse, democratic minded coalition brought Jones across finish line.

4. The enthusiasm factor can’t be underestimated. One side was energized; the other limped along.

5. No joy in White House today, Trump rebuked, and Republicans across the country got to be re-calibrating the way forward.

6. If we are going to upbraid the Democrats in defeat then we should — to be fair and consistent — extend praise to them in victory. I don’t know the full story, but it strikes me that they did a bunch of things right in the victorious campaign of Jones.

7. Jones’ acceptance speech notably ended with a quote from MLK.

8. His election will continue the continuing erosion of Trump’s coalition.

9. Trump’s coalition is an aging one, while the anti-Trump coalition is much younger, as demonstrated again last night. College voters, including at the Auburn and Alabama campuses, voted for Jones by a large margin.

10. It will be interesting to see how the political dynamics within the GOP and between the GOP and Trump will change in the wake of last night’s election loss.

11. Trump’s favorables to unfavorables in Alabama, as reported by MSNBC, were dead even — 48 to 48. That surprised me when I heard it on early on election gay, but it also made me much more hopeful, if not confident, that Jones could emerge the winner later in the evening.

12. Yesterday’s victory is reminder of the importance of a broad and flexible approach to next year’s elections. Only a coalition of the many, the varied, the decent, and the multi-racial has the wherewithal to elect a Democratic Congressional majority next fall.

13. Jones’ victory is also a reminder that creeping authoritarian rule isn’t unstoppable. I say that in reaction to a number of recent articles that pessimistically wonder if anything can halt Trump’s march to full blown authoritarian rule.

14. It is hard to argue that white working class men who voted for Roy Moore and still support Trump are motivated by economic discontent. Moore’s political identity in the public mind isn’t wrapped around economic fairness to say the least, while Trump economic agenda has been overwhelmingly to the advantage of corporations and the wealthy.

15. It is an egregious mistake not to acknowledge that racism, along with sexism and nativism, are the main mobilizing instruments of Trump and the right — Moore’s campaign no exception — in their appeal to white voters. Lift up economic issues heading into next year’s elections for sure, but it can’t be at the expense of the struggle against these reactionary, oppressive, and divisive ideologies and practices.


In the midst of a social shift

The Democratic Party leaders are taking it on the chin for insisting that Minnesota Senator Al Franken step down. And it comes from the left as well as the right. Their motives, it is said, are anything but noble and pure. Political expediency guided them, not opposition to boorish behavior on Franken’s part. Some compare what they did to the political repression of the McCarthy period; others to the Salem Witch Hunt. New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand, some say, had nothing more than the 2020 primaries on her mind.

I don’t agree. I think they did the right thing, and not on flimsy evidence. Leaders on our side of the political ledger — elected and otherwise — should be held to a higher standard of personal and political conduct; nothing puritanical or holier than thou about that. It’s not a witch hunt to expect that leaders representing us measure up to certain norms of behavior.

And those norms are not the same today as they were only a year ago. Bill wouldn’t have survived in this new environment and rightfully so. We are in the midst of a social shift. The bar is being raised. Not only is male violence against women and the exaction of sexual favors by men in positions of power no longer acceptable, but also male groping, squeezing, sex talk, and the like are behaviors that have no place in the relations between women and men in this new shifting social climate.

The wind behind this change comes from scores of women who courageously came forward recently to tell their stories of sexual predation and violence at the hands of powerful men as well as millions of women who are saying enough is enough.

In contrast to our opponents on the other side of the political divide that are comfortable with the sexual predation of Trump and Roy Moore, we should embrace this new moment and its new standards fully and without any equivocation. How else can a movement that hopes to expand the frontiers of freedom and equality do anything less.

Narrowly framed political expediency can’t be our main guide; the creation of a society in which women not simply feel safe, but fully live and thrive in conditions of full equality is.

I come out of the communist movement where on the grounds of political expediency and unity a lot of awful shit happened. Humane values and norms were back benched in the interests of some pressing immediate goal. I can tell you it came back to bite us.

An exploding social crisis and other observations

1. The metaphors that might capture the recent revelations of sexual predation, violence, and misbehavior by men are many. But one is “tip of the iceberg.” For this crisis goes far beyond men who occupy “high stations” and “command authority” in the workplace and society. It is much broader and deeper.

The fact is that unequal power inheres in and gives definition to gender relations between women and men in every sphere of life. No exceptions.

I would add one other thought: we should know by now that unequal social power no matter what form it takes is inherently oppressive and punctuated — sometimes permeated — by gross and systematic abuse and violence. Moreover, with the exception of class power, it should command but one solution — robust, substantive, and consistent equality.

2. Al Franken should step down today. He hasn’t, as some say, had his day in court or due process, but I have to think that his women colleagues in the Senate know much more than we do with respect to the allegations of several women against their male colleague.  Moreover, we are in the midst of a social crisis and cultural shift and thus the Democrats and the larger movement in their approach to this crisis and shift should set aside a narrow political calculus and be guided by larger moral and political considerations. And Al Franken should do the same today.

3. In publicly supporting Roy Moore, Trump reveals once again how that his moral center and politics are stepped in the toxic brew of racism and misogyny. It is easy to think that he is “cut from a separate cloth” and, actually, he is in some ways. But we can’t leave it there. He’s also the creature of right wing extremism that began its rise roughly forty years ago and climbed to an ascendant position in national politics in large measure because it heavily trafficed in racist and patriarchal ideas and practices. Yesterday, to no one’s surprise, Republicans in a reversal of their earlier position jumped on the Moore campaign bandwagon.

4. The Trump ship of state is taking on water as new information reveals collusion (and a coverup of collusion) between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the elections and immediately after. Whether this piling up of damning information sinks the Trump presidency isn’t foreordained, but it could well happen.

This turn of events isn’t, as some progressive and left people suggest, a distraction from the real business of working class and people’s politics. It is anything, but that.

Nor is it a spectacle to be simply watched in small circles with either disgust or amusement. Indeed, the sustained intervention of tens of millions who oppose Trump’s authoritarian rule, likely collusion with the Putin government, and coverup of wrongdoing is a democatic imperative..

How that exactly happens will take a larger conversation by people in the center of the far flung, multi-leveled coalition opposing Trump. But it should happen. And, in my opinion, should include contingency plans to activate a broad swath of the American people — a new Gallop poll has Trump at 33 per cent public approval — in the event that Trump does attempt a reckless power grab as more information leaks out of impeachable wrongdoing to the public or as Mueller and his team move closer to the center of the rot.

At some point Congress has to enter the fray, but that won’t happen anytime soon. For now Congressional Republicans are enabling Trump to facilitate their own reactionary agenda. And it would be a mistake for the Democratic leadership in Congress to make Trump’s removal — and correctly so — the centerpiece of their opposition strategy for now.

The ball is in our hands, and we should run with it, albeit smartly and tactfully.

And don’t let anyone discourage you with the smug assertion that even if we remove Trump, we will be left with Pence who’s no better. Pence is reactionary to the core, but he doesn’t represent the same order of danger as Trump does. But more importantly, Trump’s removal will shift the larger political landscape and dynamics of struggle in our favor.

5. As my swimming partner insisted last week, Trump’s racially infused  ceremony honoring Navajo WW II veterans had to be by design. Things like this don’t just happen. I guess Trump and his team figure that such outrageous and unapologetic displays of racism are red meat to his base, whose support he will need in the face of growing challenges to his presidency.

6. Voter suppression, which takes many different forms, is a necessary staple of right wing extremist rule. Absent such efforts, it is hard to imagine how the Republican Party could retain its dominant presence in U.S. politics. It is, after all, on the losing end of trends that are reshaping the political and demographic profile of the country.

And yet it seems to me that the defense of the right to vote and its necessary corollaries — voter expansion and turnout — don’t receive half the attention that they deserve from our side of the political ledger. That isn’t to say that nothing is being done, but one has to ask if it is enough, especially given the opportunity that the midterm elections offer to register a body blow to right wing authoritarian rule.

The fielding of candidates with a forward looking program is necessary part of a winning formula in next year’s elections. But it will take more than a compelling program to shift control of Congress into Democratic hands — and nothing is more important than that.

7. Someone recently told me that I’m no longer a Leninist. To which I replied, “Fair enough.” But then added that I hope someone rescues him from the self-described Leninists who reduce him to a few slogans and a marker of their “revolutionary” political identity. When I was in the Communist Party I said on more than one occasion, “We should study Lenin more and invoke his name less.”


GOP makes government dysfunctional

If government failed to deliver for the vast majority over the past three decades, it is a mistake to simply attribute it to the rise of neoliberaliam and globalism. It is also the result of a conscious and systematic policy of the Republican right to make the federal government dysfunctional for the many, while bending over backwards to lend a helping hand to the corporate few. It was. in effect, a political as well as an economic strategy to secure their dominance.

I can hear someone replying with more than a hint of criticism that both parties fastened on to neoliberalism. OK. But not in exactly the same way by a long shot. The GOP prosecuted (and still does) a particularly nasty, virulent, racist, misogynist, anti-poor, anti-government brand. But it is precisely this fact that is obscured by such broad generalities that make invisible the policy differences between the two parties.
Perhaps at the level of theory this doesn’t matter much, but if you are on the receiving end of the policies of the extreme right, or lack thereof, it matters big time.


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