“Election 2006: The Stakes Are Very High” first appeared on PoliticalAffairs.net on April 16, 2006. Read it on PoliticalAffairs.net.
Excerpted from a March 4 speech to the national committee of the Communist Party USA.
Last fall, I noted that the cumulative weight of an increasingly unpopular war, Katrina, indictments, incompetence, corruption, scandals, cronyism, and deeply felt anxiety with energy costs and the economy had taken its toll on the standing of the Bush administration. For the first time since 9/11, I said, it governed from a position of weakness and its support had narrowed to its most diehard backers. It spoke with far less political and moral authority. I went on to say that this downward slide in Bush’s political fortunes was more than a momentary blip.
I further speculated that Bush could enter a free fall zone where his loss of political legitimacy and trust is both massive and irretrievable is severely weakened. That hasn’t happened yet. But neither has Bush been able to change the nation’s political conversation, improve his polling numbers, or regain political initiative—all of which are so vital to his aim of fundamentally reordering class and social relations at the domestic and global levels.
And it’s not for lack of trying.
Bush, Cheney, and other spokespeople went to the airwaves at the end of last year and beginning of this year to renew their case for an opened ended occupation of Iraq. Bush has visited New Orleans and the Gulf States repeatedly and struck a note of contrition. To the glee of his most rabid right wing supporters, the President succeeded in putting Alito on the U.S. Supreme Court. And he basked in the limelight of the State of the Union Address in hopes of getting some bounce in public opinion polls.
To his dismay, the polls didn’t budge and mass sentiments didn’t change.
And to make matters worse, the recent outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq, the flap over the awarding of a contract to a Dubai based firm, and the newly released Katrina tapes documenting the administration’s ineptness and indifference have further eroded Bush’s political standing.
Where this will bottom out is still not clear, but what is clear is that the political agenda of the Bush administration is in trouble.
The Republicans are going into an election season at a decided disadvantage and a drubbing at the ballot box would be an enormous setback to them. It would constitute a repudiation of Bush’s policies as well as a shift in the terrain of struggle in favor of the labor and people’s movements.
In fact, the space for pro-people legislative demands and initiatives would expand. The politically impossible would become possible; the political pendulum would swing away from defensive to offensive struggles. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that would cripple Bush and his gang more than such an election defeat.
On the other hand, a Republican victory would be interpreted by the Bush administration as a green light for its assault on democracy and an open-ended occupation of Iraq. It would take the wind out of the sails of the people’s coalition. It would damage the prospects of defeating the ultra right in 2008.
So the stakes are very high!
The extreme right will throw all of their considerable resources into this election struggle. It will rely heavily on terror threats, anti-immigrant bashing, and racism. Abortion and same-sex marriage referenda will again be used as wedge issues. And it will steal and suppress the vote to the degree that it can.
Can we afford to make these elections any less a priority? Don’t we have to give our all to this struggle? Don’t we have to join with millions in this decisive battle?
Limits and Constraints
After 9/11, Bush and his team acted as if there was very little that they couldn’t do and next to nothing for which they had to account to anybody. They ruled the roost and to them the roost was the planet. With unmatchable military power and formidable economic assets, they assumed that they could lay waste to so called rogues states, intimidate rivals that had the moxie to challenge their plan of global domination, and run roughshod over opponents at home.
But in the inimitable words of Dinah Washington, ‘what a difference a days makes.’ Well, maybe not a day, but in the space of a few years, the political prospects of the Bush White House have changed strikingly. The political environment is no longer Bush-friendly. And there are new limits and constraints on the administration’s ability to realize its objectives.
Let me mention a few.
First the perception of this administration as warlike, arrogant, callous, incompetent, secretive, lawless, anxious to please its cronies, and tone deaf to the needs of ordinary people increasingly resonates with American people. It is more likely that Bush’s popularity will go down rather than up which makes for tough sledding ahead for his administration and changes the political dynamics on Capital Hill with a number of Republicans peeling away on some issues as a growing section of Democrats in the Senate and House more aggressively challenging Bush’s priorities. And these dynamics can only become more pronounced, as we get closer to the elections. Few in their right mind will want to be identified with a President whose polling numbers are down and whose legislative agenda is unpopular.
Another constraint on the administration is the international opposition to its policy of unilateralism, preventive war, and world domination. Probably never before has the political and moral legitimacy of U.S. imperialism been at such a low ebb. It is no stretch to say that our government is a pariah in the world.
While there is many factors that account for this precipitous slide in its status, none looms larger than the military occupation of Iraq, which brings together in concentrated form all the resentments and grievances felt by governments and peoples worldwide toward U.S. imperialism.
The pariah status of the Bush administration cuts the ground from underneath U.S. imperialism’s ambitions to dominate the world in the 21st century. A hegemony that is preoccupied with its own narrow self-interest and that rests solely on force and military might is, history suggests, unstable and unlikely to succeed. During the Cold War, the willingness of U.S. imperialism to guarantee the collective security of a broad range of allied states and to structure the global economy in a way that resulted in prosperity to it rivals in the capitalist core as well as to itself was instrumental in securing its hegemonic status for nearly half a century.
But those relationships are badly frayed today, thanks in no small part to the Bush doctrine and policies.
Another constraint on the administration is economic and budgetary. There is a limit to how much you can cut taxes, grow the federal deficit, cut interest rates, expand housing and inflate housing prices, increase consumer and corporate debt, pile up trade imbalances and indebtedness to foreign investors, and how many commodities can be piled on world markets.
Each of these limiting factors reaches a point where they are unsustainable, that is, they can’t be continued without doing serious harm to the overall functioning of the economy and people’s livelihoods. We are reaching that point.
A final constraint on the administration is the democratic sentiments of the people. Although they are slow to react to abridgements to their rights, they usually do at some point. Bush has been betting that the ‘war on terror’ will trump their concerns. But mass moods are changing. Bush received less than overwhelming approval of his spying and as the public gets more information and details of what was actually done, public opinion will shift even further against him. While there isn’t yet a loud chorus heard from sea to sea, calls for impeachment are entering the national dialogue and few people dismiss the idea out of hand.
Despite these constraints on the Bush administration, we don’t want to conclude that its hands are completely tied. It remains a threat to the well being of the people of our country and the world. Its readiness to exercise power without popular consent is a clear and present danger.
Why do I say this? Because this administration is very reckless, in fact more reckless than any in our lifetime. It thinks that it can ignore domestic and international realities. A White House aide quoted in the New York Times Magazine shortly before the presidential elections in 2004 said, ‘This administration doesn’t worry about reality because it makes its own reality.’
Although I am sure that there is some hyperbole, some idle boasting in this remark, it, nevertheless, contains a grain of truth in that the Bush administration firmly believes that a combination of political will and control over the state apparatus is enough to overcome the most intractable problems and unfavorable balance of forces.
This of course, doesn’t rule out the possibility of tactical adjustments on its part to the shifting balance of power in the country and world. For instance, it is noteworthy that in Bush’s most recent State of the Union address, threats against countries deemed enemies didn’t reach the same shrillness as in previous years.
What are we to make of this? Does it suggest some reconsideration of the administration’s strategic policies? Or is it another instance of the administration toning down its rhetoric, while continuing to govern from the hard right?
We have to maintain a high degree of vigilance as we move forward in a very fluid situation. After all, the Bush administration continues its bloody occupation in Iraq; has cut off funds to the new Palestinian government and people; demonizes and hints at military action against Iran; and has targeted China as its main strategic competitor. It conspires with counter revolutionary forces in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America and is further tightening the embargo on socialist Cuba and the heroic Cuban people. It selectively applies the articles of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, while building an empire of military bases stretching across the globe so that the U.S. military can strike any country on short notice.
Likewise on the domestic level, the Bush White House has given few signs that it is ready to throw in the towel.
With no popular mandate whatsoever, the Bush administration in collaboration with the Republican congressional majority is cutting billions from the budget for people’s needs while throwing billions to the Pentagon.
It is pressing for making permanent the tax cuts for the wealthiest corporations and families, thus ballooning the federal deficit to record levels.
It is washing its hands—and they didn’t get too dirty in the first place—of any responsibility for rebuilding the shattered lives of hundreds of thousands of people in New Orleans and the Gulf states.
It continues to undermine every regulatory rule that impedes corporate profit taking, while giving a green light to every attack on labor, civil, women, gay, and democratic rights generally.
Finally, it brazenly defends its secret spying, the use of torture in countless countries, the illegal roundup of thousands of Arab and Muslim people and the denial of their due process rights, its claim to be the ultimate interpreter of laws and legislation, and its decision to take the country to war on the basis of lies and misrepresentations.
What are we to make of this? We can say with no exaggeration that we are looking at a constitutional crisis in the form of a quantitative and qualitative enlargement of power by the executive branch.
I would only add that in addition to breaking the law and claiming to be above the law, Bush and his team are putting in place the legal statutes, institutional structures, and personnel in critical agencies that will continue to facilitate this power grab.
So far the Republican Congressional majority with hardly an exception has given the veneer of legality to this very illegal process with the rationale that the war on terror legitimizes such extraordinary measures.
U.S. Imperialist Counteroffensive
What explains these very dangerous developments in our country’s political life?
I don’t have a complete answer, but I would argue that it is bound up with a counteroffensive of imperialism, especially U.S. imperialism, a quarter century ago to three formidable barriers to its hegemony. The first was the new configuration of power that took shape on a global level in the late 1960s and 1970s. The defeat in Vietnam, the successful national liberation struggles in Africa and Latin America, and the growth of the socialist camp had tilted the balance of forces on a world scale against U.S. and world imperialism.
The second was the remarkable and rapid crystallization during this same period of new oppositional movements (civil, women, anti-war, labor rank and file, student, etc.) that secured new democratic rights and reforms in the course of fierce struggles. In our country, the ‘sixties’ is still remembered by the reactionary right as a political moment when powerful challenges to ‘our way of life’ were coming from all directions and threatened the stability of our society. Even today, right-wing ideologues bemoan the persistence of the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ and the ‘Rights Revolution’, while backgrounding many of their current struggles (anti-abortion, same sex marriage, affirmative action, union busting, projecting military power, etc.) with references to the upheavals of that earlier era.
And lastly, the eruption of new contradictions, instabilities, and imbalances of the U.S. and world capitalist economy at roughly the same time constituted a powerful barrier to the hegemonic rule of U.S. imperialism and world capitalism. Economic stagnation and falling profit rates combined with exceedingly high rates of inflation, the breakdown of the international monetary system (fixed exchange rates of currencies and convertibility of the dollar into gold), and the rise of new competitive rivals (Germany and Japan, for instance) to throw capitalism into its deepest crisis since the 1930s.
The aim of this offensive—rationalized ultimately in the language of militant anti-communism, national chauvinism, and racism—was clear: to decisively tilt back the balance of power in the direction of capitalism and imperialism, to reestablish the unchallengeable hegemony of U.S. imperialism domestically and internationally, to restore the power, profits and wealth of the ruling classes in the main centers of the capitalist world, and to give new momentum to the world capitalist economy.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began this process in the mid-seventies. Her draconian cuts in public services, privatization of the public sector, and employment of the full force of the state to crush the miners’ strike was a harbinger of what was to come elsewhere in the capitalist world. But Thatcher’s Britain did not have the political, economic, and military might to move this offensive to the international plane.
That would await the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. His ultra right administration was quick to initiate a many sided offensive against its foes at home and abroad. As you would expect, it was closely intertwined with a brutal assault on the corporate level on the wages, conditions and rights of workers that continues to this day.
The Soviet Union became the ‘Evil Empire;’ wars using surrogate forces were fought against progressive and left regimes worldwide; a second arms race ensued; strikebreaking and union busting came into favor; civil and women’s right movements came under savage attack; and neoliberal economic policies were applied with a vengeance. Early on in his presidency, Reagan allowed interest rates to climb to nearly 20 per cent in order to drive unemployment up to double digit levels, weaken the most powerful unions, wring inflation out of the economy, restructure and deregulate industries, give free rein to financial institutions and markets, reassert the international role of Wall Street and the dollar, and roll back the ‘welfare state.’
In the 1990s, this offensive continued, but the methods and mix of imperial rule—geo-economic versus geopolitical, consent versus coercion, some concessions to democratic movements versus retrenchment all down the line – varied, depending on the administration occupying the White House. It is no accident that the point man for the Clinton administration was the Secretary of the Treasury and Wall Street financier Robert Rubin, who, not surprisingly, favored geoeconomic, multilateralist, and less punitive methods of imperial rule, though there were exceptions—welfare ‘reform’ and the bombing of Yugoslavia, for instance.
By decade’s end, the consequences of this counteroffensive were manifest and contradictory. The balance of forces worldwide was shifted to the advantage of capitalism. Class power in the U.S. and in the other main capitalist countries was reinforced. The hegemonic status of U.S. imperialism was fortified. The widening and deepening of capitalist relations—an objective process that inheres in capitalist development—was accelerated, reaching nearly every nook and cranny of the globe. At the same time, there were unintended consequences too.
New economic contradictions and instabilities on a domestic and global level (a near global financial meltdown in the late 1990s) were triggered. Income inequality within and between countries and regions was aggravated to the extreme. Class, racial, and gender tensions were heightened. The environment was despoiled. And robust and durable growth was a no show.
What is more, geo-political rivalries among the core capitalist countries over resources (especially oil) and spheres of influence (especially the Middle East) were intensified. New economic competitors and configurations of regional power on nearly every continent arose. China arrived as a potential counter hegemonic power to U.S. imperialism.
And finally and most significantly, widespread and fierce popular resistance in nearly all quarters surfaced during this period.
Thus, as Marxism would anticipate, the very advances of capitalist development and the very successes of capitalism’s fierce offensive in the last two decades of the past century generated the conditions and forces for its own future undoing.
Faced with this problematic situation, a section of the U.S. ruling class and its ultra right political representatives decided that a change of policy, qualitative in nature, was necessary—from hegemony that combines consent and coercion to uncontested world domination that relies exclusively on force—a decision made much easier because of the removal of the Soviet Union from the geopolitical mix earlier in the decade.
Thanks to a right-wing-dominated U.S. Supreme Court, the 2000 elections brought into the White House a team of neoconservatives that was chomping at the bit to pursue a far more muscular, coercive and unilateralist policy than previous administrations. And then thanks to 9/11 the following year, this bellicose gang was handed the pretext to employ their new policies full throttle and pursue their global ambitions.
Yet, six years later, this project of world domination is in near shambles. Even among some sections of the U.S. ruling class, Bush’s policies, and especially the military intervention and occupation of Iraq, are considered unmitigated disasters that no matter how they resolve themselves have weakened U.S. imperialism economically, politically, and ideologically.
This, however, is not reason to lower our activity or vigilance. To the contrary, a more vigorous and mass fight to end the occupation and to preserve democracy is necessary and possible.
Order, Secrecy, and Force
After all, this administration doesn’t fit easily on the spectrum of bourgeois democratic rule. It prefers to be on the offensive; retreat is not a word it is comfortable with. It is untroubled by its violations of democratic rights and procedures
Its accent is on order, secrecy, and force. Democracies, in its worldview, are messy, disorderly, and unable to address perceived internal and external threats to U.S. imperial interests in a timely way. Indeed, when threats appear to emanate from many directions to U.S. hegemony, it gravitates toward employing naked power, shorn of any democratic pretensions.
In the ‘Project for a New American Century,’ the neoconservative authors write,
‘We cannot safely avoid the responsibilities of global leadership or the costs associated with its exercise. America has a vital role in maintaining peace and security in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. If we shirk our responsibilities, we invite challenges to our fundamental interests. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before they emerge, and meet threats before they become dire.’
When I first read this passage I assumed that the authors were referring only to external threats. But given the assault of the Bush administration on our democracy, I have to ask if it doesn’t guide its actions within our borders as well.
This, of course, goes against the grain of our traditional notion that a ruling elite moves in an anti-democratic direction only when the internal threat to its interests is immediate, palpable, and formidable. But, as we well know, there is something ‘untraditional’ about the crop of conservatives and neoconservatives now occupying leading positions in the executive, legislature, military, security apparatus, and judiciary.
Notwithstanding the disfavor in which their policies are now held, employing preemptive measures to quell internal threats and to preserve their political rule is well within their capabilities regardless of the price that has to be paid in terms of democratic governance.
And herein lies the danger in the present moment.
Our rallying cry is for broad unity of action. Anything that impedes that should be rejected. Every inch of democratic space must be defended.
All democratic and peace minded people must: resist the attack on labor’s right to represent working men and women on the job and in the political arena.
join the struggle to turn back the new and far ranging racist assault of the Bush administration.
oppose the sustained and many-sided assault on women’s equality and rights.
join the immediate battles to protect the rights and livelihood of immigrant workers and resist the scapegoating of immigrant communities
combat the demonization and the severe curtailment of rights of Arab and Muslim peoples.
must insist that the Congress conduct an independent and thorough investigation into the violations of constitutional and international law by the Bush administration.
demand an end to the occupation of Iraq and that the troops be brought home now.
throw themselves into these elections. And while we should not dismiss the possibility of an ‘October surprise,’ the main thing for us is to fight for the broadest mobilization of the American people in order to break the right wing grip on the Congress. Nothing would secure democratic rights and peace more than a humiliating defeat of the Republicans in November.
I wish that I could say that the outcome of this struggle as well as the struggle for peace and democracy is preordained, but it isn’t. They are contingent on many things. Much depends on which side has initiative, on unforeseen events, and on how desperate the Bush administration and the reactionary section of the ruling class that it represents is.
Some Tactical Questions
Our position to end the occupation and bring the troops home immediately should not lead us to dismiss out of hand other proposals that include a timetable and phased approach. House member Murtha’s exit strategy, for example, envisions a six-month timetable.
Communists advocacy of more advanced demands should never distance us from demands that are less advanced, but have the potential of drawing millions into struggle.
In the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, we opposed any military intervention under any circumstances. At the same time, we joined with millions worldwide in demanding that the administration allow the inspections of potential nuclear sites to go forward.
This latter demand was less advanced, but we understood at the time that it had the support of tens of millions worldwide and if adhered to by the Bush administration would delay the invasion, thereby giving the anti-war movement more time to organize mass opposition.
Though ultimately the Bush administration thumbed its nose at chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix and his team, it was absolutely correct for us to support this demand at that time and not to counterpose it to our more advanced demand.
A similar tactic is necessary today with regard to Iraq. Like it or not, we are going to see more exit strategies surface in coming months. Some of them we will dismiss out of hand, but we would make a mistake to dismiss all of them because they do not call for an immediate withdrawal.
What if one of them captures public attention and carries the potential of consolidating a substantial anti-war bloc in Congress? Are we going to keep at arms length from it because it speaks of a timetable and process? I would hope not.
Again the notion that communists hang their hat exclusively on maximum/agitational/propaganda demands is foolhardy. I sometimes wonder what positions such communists would have taken when Lenin gave up a big chunk of real estate to German imperialism or what would have been their attitude to his introduction of the New Economic Policy—a policy that restored the market and gave concessions to small and big proprietors?
‘Forward ever, backward never’ is a militant slogan but as a practical political policy it’s the pits and would have given Lenin and the old Bolsheviks a good belly laugh.
Another tactical question that merits some collective examination is our attitude toward the Democratic Party. First of all, neither do we believe that the Democratic Party is an anti-corporate people’s party nor do we think that it will evolve into one in the near or longer term. It accepts the ideological assumptions and operates within the framework of capitalism.
While it may attempt to mitigate some of capitalism’s antagonisms, contractions, and awful abuses, none of us in the Party, I would dare say, expects that the leaders of the Democratic Party will organize a direct challenge to corporate power at the political, economic, or ideological level. In fact, significant sections of the Democrats have been moving to the right.
Such a challenge will only come from a political formation that is deeply embedded in the main social forces of our society, allied with diverse social and left movements, and, independent of the two parties of capitalism.
This has been and remains our position. Regrettably, such a formation at the national level does not exist now. Nor does it appear likely in the near term, although we should continue to join with others in the struggle for political independence, especially in the labor movement and at the local level.
In the meantime, we have to develop our strategy and tactics on a political landscape in which the Democratic and Republican parties are dominant. Furthermore, we have to appreciate that while both parties are corporate controlled and structure their policies to the imperatives of capital accumulation, it is also true that they are not identical in terms of their social composition or policies. To think so is not just mistaken, it’s harmful.
It is easy to flail away at the limitations of the Democrats. Anyone can do it and do it with a sense of righteous indignation. But its very ease should not conceal the uncomfortable fact that the weaknesses of the Democratic Party reflect in some measure the insufficient organizational and political coherence, strength, and unity of the left and progressive movement. Nor should it hide the other uncomfortable fact that the only way to defeat the Republican right and change the political terrain of struggle is to elect a Democratic majority this fall.
Of course, if the Democrats win back the Congress this fall, we—not to mention millions of other people—know enough about their class limits and loyalties (the notion that working and oppressed people have illusions about the Democratic Party is ridiculous and patronizing) to appreciate that such an outcome, while shifting the political terrain and opening up new political space, will have to be backed up by the continuing action of millions of people and a people’s agenda.
I anticipate that we will hear some misgivings with regard to this policy. But I don’t think that we can yield an inch.
Strategy and tactics have to be embedded in concrete realities, in the actual dynamics and relationships of the political moment. They can’t be driven, as Lenin said over and over again, by our ideological temper or mood. Rather they must be derivatives of a strictly sober and strictly objective estimate of the relationship of forces at a given moment.
Militancy is a necessary element in any struggle, but it shouldn’t substitute for carefully assessing the actual balance of forces and determining the main political obstacle to advancing the movement and the main social forces that have to be assembled to accomplish that goal. Nor should it get in the way of finding the specific forms and demands that will draw people into struggle. It is not enough that people agree with one or another demand; the more important question is: what are they ready to fight for?
Our strategic policy does that and we must continue to creatively and dialectically employ our Marxist-Leninist methodology as we go forward, while rejecting approaches that attempt to leap over necessary stages and tasks.
Without a sound strategic line and flexible tactics, a Communist Party effectively concedes its leading role in the working class and people’s movements. It can sound revolutionary and militant, it can even attract support as some of the ultra left organizations do, but it will never lead the majority of people into struggle or to a new stage of struggle.
Finally, the fluidity and volatility of the present moment argues for greater tactical flexibility on our part. A year ago, for example, many assumed that breaking the stranglehold of the Republican right over the Congress would be virtually impossible this fall. Far fewer would make that claim now; even Newt Gingrich worries about such an eventuality. Thus, our tactics must adapt rapidly to this new reality. Safe Republican seats and the House itself are up for grabs while contested Democratic seats might be more secure now.