“How the Labor-led People’s Movement Can Change America” first appeared on PoliticalAffairs.net on November 18, 2007. Read it on PoliticalAffairs.net.
Are we entering a new stage of struggle in our country in which the convergence and interaction of political events, movements, and processes of an immediate and medium term nature contain the possibility of throwing the class struggle on a new political trajectory?
Or to put it in more familiar language, are we in a transition from one stage of struggle to another? Are we moving from the struggle against the extreme right, which has dominated politics for more than a quarter century, to a new stage where the challenge is to radically curb corporate power as a whole?
How we answer this question – and we should do it collectively and soberly – will have a major bearing on what we do, over the next year and well beyond.
Here is what I think – yes, we are at the cusp of a new stage of struggle that has the potential to shift the balance of forces not incrementally and momentarily, but decisively and enduringly in favor of the working class and people.
Now, this is still as much a potential as a reality, but it would be a mistake not to see the possibilities of the present moment. While we do not want to overestimate this process (and in doing so get ahead of ourselves in a strategic and tactical sense), we don’t want to underestimate it either.
And the latter is easy to do. After so many years of defensive struggles, a mood of lowered expectations had become widespread, and it was difficult to imagine a situation in which a labor-led movement set the terms, timing, and agenda of the struggle. In the wake of the 2006 elections, this mood began to dissipate, although not entirely. In fact, in some ways, this mood has found new grist for the mill in the turn of events since then.
Despite the 2006 election mandate, Bush didn’t pull in his horns, by any means, increasing troops in Iraq and threatening military strikes against Iran, and vigorously resisting any restraints on his presidential power.
Meanwhile, he sits on his hands as millions stand to lose their houses and jobs and does absolutely nothing as African Americans are the objects of raw racism and immigrants are rounded up as if they are draft animals. He also vetoed children’s health insurance plans, and defended his indefensible attorney general.
If this were not bad enough, the Democratic majority in Congress has been unable to completely deliver on its promises, thus making the skeptics, cynics, and leftists in our movement more dubious about the prospects of progressive change.
These stubborn realities can’t be dismissed out of hand. But neither can they by themselves be allowed to define the nature of what is a complex political moment.
Communists, not to mention the larger movement, must be able to discern in the chaotic thicket of day-to-day events the larger patterns, and nurture the new shoots of struggle that contain the possibility of reconstituting politics along progressive lines.
Losing Momentum and Potency
What is the nature of this new, transition period?
The right-wing bloc that has dominated political life for a quarter century is finally losing its potency and momentum.
This bloc was the main agent of a ruling-class counteroffensive that grew out of a series of crises and defeats of U.S. imperialism in the mid-1970s.
While the leadership of both parties signed on to this, it was the right wing extremist grouping that came to dominate the Republican Party and federal government that stepped to the plate and gave this counteroffensive a particularly reactionary and authoritarian character.
If the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 signaled the ramping up of this counteroffensive, the steady political ascendancy of the right over the next two decades continued the ferocious onslaught.
Employing state power with a scope and ruthlessness seldom seen, the extreme right left a deep imprint on politics, economics, and culture. The balance of global power was tilted back in favor of capitalism. The profits, wealth, and power of the ruling classes were restored alongside the weakening of the political and institutional capacities of labor and other democratic movements. The old Keynesian model of capital accumulation and control of labor power, which had its origins in the New Deal and rested on a measure of class compromise and societal obligations, gave way to a new model of flexible production networks on a global scale, union busting, de-regulation, low-wage labor, low inflation, the hollowing out and privatization of the public sector, and the rise to dominance of finance. Finally, the world capitalist economy regained some momentum, and U.S. imperialism re-established its dominance worldwide.
There were unintended consequences of this right wing driven counteroffensive too.
New economic contradictions, instabilities, and over inflated stock and financial markets sent shock waves across the global economy. Income, racial, and gender inequalities within and between countries and regions were aggravated to the extreme. And the expected robust and sustained growth was a no-show.
What is more, geopolitical rivalry among the core capitalist countries over resources (especially oil) and spheres of influence (especially the Middle East and Central Asia) intensified. New economic competitors and configurations of regional power arose on nearly every continent. China mushroomed into a potential counterweight to U.S. imperialism’s hegemony.
And, widespread resistance in nearly all quarters of the globe surfaced during this period – nowhere more so than in Latin America.
Into this disordered situation stepped the latest and most dangerous agent of right-wing extremist and militarist rule – the Bush administration. With the use of raw power, it set out to bring order and remove any obstacles to U.S. imperialism’s unrivaled hegemony domestically and internationally. But after nearly eight years, its political bloc is fraying and popular approval levels have tanked. Its control of Congress is eroding. And the plan to permanently re-align politics at home and worldwide is dead in the water.
In the unraveling of the Bush administration, we can hear the funeral dirge of the whole right-wing project and observe the further weakening of U.S. imperialism. Of course, this doesn’t mean the Bush administration is a “paper tiger,” or that imperialism is a spent force, or that the right-wing extremism will quietly exit the political stage. The administration’s recurring threats against Iran and its authoritarian form of governing have to be taken very seriously. The Republican presidential front-runners are Bush/Reagan clones, none more so or more dangerous than Giuliani. And U.S. imperialism’s military might and financial resources are still formidable.
People’s fight back
Though initially caught off guard, even in the early years of the Reagan presidency, a broadly based, labor-led movement began to resist the fierce right-wing offensive.
Its mobilizations were varied. Most were defensive and reactive. Victories were few. The level of unity was inadequate. And popular understanding of the nature of the struggle was limited.
But in the course of a quarter century, this loose coalition has gained experience. New forms and structures of unity emerged. Political consciousness deepened and reached into broad sections of the American people. Labor emerged as a steadying, unifying, and clear-sighted force in a way not seen since the CIO days. And nearly every organization and movement began rebuilding its political and organizational capacities.
While the core forces of this developing movement are the working class, the racially oppressed, women, and youth, new social actors, constituencies, and movements came onto the stage of struggle, sometimes in dramatic fashion. Witness, for example, the early peace actions against the Iraq invasion, or, more recently, the mammoth marches of the immigrant community and its allies.
Over time, this diverse coalition congealed politically, if not organizationally, around a common desire to decisively defeat the right. But it wasn’t until last year’s elections that this desire turned into a reality.
The election victory not only shifted control of Congress to the Democrats; gave more bounce to people’s step; and created a more favorable terrain for the labor-led people’s movement. It also signified the beginnings of a new stage of struggle.
Struggle between Old and New
All around us we see competing images and realities that reflect the clash between two stages of struggle, one expending its energies to remain dominant and the other to become dominant.
In the old stage, domination by force was the favored instrument of foreign policy. In the new stage, cooperation, multi-lateralism, diplomacy and peaceful resolution of conflict are gaining ground.
In the old stage, government was best that governs least; in the new, government is a necessary steward of public education, retirement security, health care, housing, and equality.
In the old stage, the market was said to be self-correcting, efficient, and a fair distributor of wealth, in the new stage, the market is said to operate to the advantage of big business, aggravate inequalities, degrade the environment, and possess a pronounced tendency to frequent failures.
In the old stage, income inequality was a good and natural thing; in the new stage, the rich and wealthy pay a larger share of the tax burden, CEO compensation is outrageous, and a living wage is a right.
In the old stage, the Washington consensus dominated trade policy and the mantra was ‘globalize, globalize’; in the new stage, the consensus is fracturing and capitalist globalization is meeting stiff resistance from all quarters of the world.
In the old stage, neo-liberalism, the doctrine and practice at the state and corporate level whose aim was to restore class power and profitability, deregulate markets, destroy the public sector, facilitate the internationalization of capital, drive down living standards, erode class and social solidarities, and restructure the role and functions of the state was the political and economic model. In the new stage challenges to that model are mounting, however vaguely defined they still are.
In the old stage, the right wing mobilized popular sentiment along racist, male supremacist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic lines; in the new stage, such appeals have less currency and are meeting renewed resistance, perhaps best illustrated by the mass outcry against the racist injustice in Jena, Louisiana.
In the old stage, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity dominated cable news; in the new stage, they have worthy opponents in Keith Olbermann, John Stewart, Tavis Smiley, Steven Colbert and Rosie O’Donnell.
In the old stage, warnings of climate change were met with skepticism, thanks largely to right-wing-organized opposition; in the new stage, Al Gore wins the Nobel Prize for his work on global warming.
In the old stage, there was no Internet, no Moveon, no other left and progressive on-line organizations or news sources; in the new stage, all of these are major players on the political scene.
In the old stage the idea of a “people’s agenda” was an exercise in wishful thinking; in the new stage it is considered something that can be fought for and even won.
In the old stage it was argued that Democratic candidates had to tack to the right in order to gain electoral advantage and broaden their voter base. In the new stage, Democratic candidates hurt themselves and the potential of their voting constituencies with such tactics.
While it is easy to point out similarities between the coming elections and the elections in 1992, which brought Bill Clinton into the White House, what should be accented are the differences. At that time, right wing doctrine and the neo-liberal consensus were far from dislodged. More than 50 per cent of the voters cast their ballot for either George Bush or Ross Perot. Labor was still shedding its Cold War culture. The progressive and independent political streams were far less developed, including within the Democratic Party. The Latino and immigrant rights movements were not yet a major national force. And the lived experience and political understanding of tens of millions of people were nowhere near where they are now.
Maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but I will anyway: we are not going from a non-revolutionary stage to a revolutionary one, the latter being, to borrow Lenin’s description, “when the old superstructure has cracked from top to bottom, when open political action on the part of classes and masses who are creating a new superstructure for themselves, has become an accomplished fact.” (Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, p. 57)
But, by the same token, a river is being crossed; a movement of potentially enormous scope and depth, surpassing anything that we saw in the 20th century is in its early stages of formation.
That the process is filled with frustration and doubt is not surprising. Transitions by their nature interweave elements of the past and the future. They are neither smooth nor pre-programmed. Logic and history are two different things.
More than one promising societal transition has not materialized as hoped, either because of its own deficiencies or because it ran up against the shoals of powerful reactionary forces, or (more likely) both.
Nor are such transitions the inevitable result of sharpening contradictions between the forces and relations of production. They are politically driven and contain a spontaneous element.
At the same time, objective contradictions and processes heavily condition the stage, set, script, actors, and outcome of people’s real life dramas.
While movements of a genuinely mass character don’t happen without spontaneous bursts and surges, it is also true that they can’t realize their full potential without progressive and left leadership.
In 1930s and 1960s, for example, mass upsurges moved political, economic, and ideological relations in a progressive direction because they combined leadership and spontaneous mass action. The movements in these periods of upsurge also took full advantage of divisions within the ruling elite, and Democratic landslide election victories.
Not every struggle carries the same political significance. Some leave little trace on the political landscape; others rearrange it extensively.
The decisive defeat of the Republican Party next year falls into the latter category. Much like the elections of 1936 and 1964, a landslide in 2008 will alter the political landscape and balance of forces in a positive direction, will give new energy, confidence, and hope to the labor-led people’s movement, and set the stage for progressive and radical reforms.
What is more, the defeat of the right will weaken not only the most reactionary section of the capitalist class — it will weaken the capitalist class as a whole.
So these elections cannot and should not be reduced to simply a contest between Republicans and Democrats, or between the two wings of the ruling class, one reactionary, the other more moderate and realistic.
Democratic Party Sweep
Will a Democratic Party sweep solve every social problem? By no means — why would anyone think so? But it will allow the labor-led people’s movement to fight on more favorable ground for immediate gains and to deepen the new stage of struggle.
Just as there is no road to socialism that bypasses the anti-corporate stage, there is no road to the anti-corporate stage that bypasses the 2008 elections.
Perhaps this is too stiff a political construction for some, but I believe that if we have learned anything from the 20th century it is that the class struggle goes through different phases and stages, and that the movement ignores this at its own peril.
Let me close this section with a quote from Lenin:
“A Social-Democrat must never, even for an instant, forget that the proletarian class struggle for socialism against the … bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie is inevitable. This is beyond doubt. From this logically follows the absolute necessity for a separate, independent and strictly class party of Social-Democracy. From this logically follows the provisional character of our tactics to “strike together” with the bourgeoisie and the duty to carefully watch ‘our ally, as if he were an enemy,’ etc. All this is also beyond doubt. But it would be ridiculous and reactionary to deduce from this that we must forget, ignore or neglect those tasks, which although transient and temporary, are vital at the present time. The struggle against autocracy is a temporary and transient task of the Socialists, but to ignore or neglect this task would be tantamount to betraying socialism and rendering a service to reaction.” (Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, p. 72)
We should not recoil at the thought that the coalition to defeat the right will include heterogeneous forces. There are no pure struggles at any stage of struggle. The sooner the left and progressive movement learns that, the better.
Any mass movement contains varied tendencies and trends. A common political platform doesn’t mean a singularity of political outlook. Indeed, in a broad, multi-class political coalition, relations will be contested as well as cooperative. Each component will promote its views and attempt to leave its imprint on the overall struggle, while not rupturing the unity of the larger coalition. And this is more so as the movement gains in scope and influence. Haven’t we seen this in the peace movement?
Thus, maintaining and deepening unity is as much an art as it is a science. Whatever the case, it is something that all of us in the movement have to master. And the coming elections will provide a practical laboratory to perfect this, for a heterogeneous mixture of political forces is gathering to defeat the right and each of them bring their own distinct views and resources.
From the standpoint of the progressive and left movement, the most vexing element in this mixture is the Democratic Party, which, as we know, is a class-based party. It is incapable of being consistently democratic. It inclinations lie with gradual and partial reforms. It does not have the desire to encourage the independent initiative of the people nor any inclination to trample on capital’s profit imperatives. It isn’t against concessions to the people, but it wants them to be of a limited nature.
In 2008, the Democratic Party will try to limit the scope of the political discourse and agenda as well as the influence of grassroots and people’s organizations on the election process. At the same time, it is the only election instrument that is capable of defeating the extreme right at this moment.
While we wish there existed an independent and powerful political party with leadership and support from the core forces of the people’s movement, there is not, and we have no choice but to live with the reality for now.
So what should be our concrete attitude to the Democratic Party in the upcoming election?
On the one hand, we should not fall into the trap of hurling equal doses of abuse on both parties, or of damning the Democratic candidates with the faintest of praise, or of acting as if it doesn’t matter who wins.
On the other hand, we should not hesitate to criticize the Democratic Party and its candidates. But it should be done within the framework of our strategic task of defeating the right. And it should be done in such a way that it gives those candidates space to move in a progressive direction.
Frankly speaking, I never subscribed to the notion, embraced by too many on the left, that people have illusions in the Democratic Party, and that a new party would emerge if only we were able to dissipate these illusions. Such thinking over simplifies a very complicated problem.
Who Will Leave an Imprint?
Just as Lenin argued against the idea that the “bourgeois revolution is a revolution which is only of interest to the bourgeoisie,” we can argue that the defeat of the right at the polls next year is not only to the advantage of the Democratic Party and to the capitalist class, but also to the advantage of the labor-led people’s movement. To affirm one doesn’t deny the validity of the other.
In fact, I would go a step further, and say that a decisive victory will be of more advantage to the working class and people’s movement than to the capitalist class.
Which begs the question: what constitutes a decisive victory? A decisive victory would mean a shift in the balance of forces in Congress and the country is such a way that the labor-led people’s movement is positioned to go on the offensive in 2009 and beyond.
For that to happen, three conditions have to be met.
First, there will have to be a Democratic Party landslide at the Presidential and Congressional levels. Second, it will be particularly important to increase the number of progressives in Congress.
Lastly and most importantly, the labor led people’s movement – not the Democratic Party, not Wall Street – must leave, or, more accurately, impose its imprint on the election process. Admittedly, because the working class and its allies don’t have their own political party, this won’t be easy. But it would be wrong, egregiously wrong in fact, to infer from this that the labor led people’s movement has virtually no political space and leverage to leave their clear and unmistakable imprint on the election, its outcome, and its aftermath.
We should not forget (and it is easy) that the boundaries of politics and democracy in a capitalist social formation, and even in one in which the working class doesn’t have its own political party, are malleable, elastic, and can be stretched to include radical reforms and new configurations of political power. What those boundaries are, however, can’t be answered abstractly, but depend on the balance of forces, on which forces leave their mark on the political process, and on unforeseen events and contingencies of all kinds.
Participate Directly and Vigorously
Thus, the labor-led people’s coalition – and Communists as a current within that coalition – must energetically participate in every phase of the election process. It must give substance to the national dialogue. It must be a major factor in the primaries, with an eye to electing the most progressive candidates. It must shape the political platform of the Democratic Party and its candidates. It must reach, register, and educate new and stay-at-home voters. It must unrelentingly expose the reactionary positions of the Republican candidates. It must guarantee a maximum voter turnout. And it must define the political mandate and agenda in the election’s aftermath.
In doing this, the movement will position itself to qualitatively reshape the political terrain to its advantage and to take another, critical step on the transition to a new stage of struggle. At this moment, this is the essence of political independence.
Of course, some will ask: Is this subordinating the Party and the movement to the Democratic Party? Is this just ‘lesser evilism’?
Obviously, I don’t think so — just the opposite. Both notions have currency only to the degree that political abstractions and morality tales substitute for a concrete understanding of what is required to move from one stage of struggle to another, from a period in which the people are on the defensive, to one where we have the wind at our back.
A sweeping defeat of the right will give labor and its allies more political leverage and independence than they have had for a long, long time. And there is only one way to achieve that: along the strategic and tactical path that we have outlined.
Calibrate to New Stage of Struggle
I think that it goes without saying that we have to recalibrate our tasks, tactics, demands, and initiatives accordingly. While we should continue to assist and lead the labor-led movement, we have to give greater accent to leading, and to expanding the new shoots of struggle.
We see these new shoots in the fact that the Chrysler workers only approved the concessionary contract by an extremely narrow margin, despite enormous pressure from Chrysler and the UAW leadership.
We see the new shoots in the broad response to the Jena 6, and, especially in the self-mobilization of Black students, who saw themselves continuing the tradition of the earlier civil rights movement.
We see these new shoots in the militant struggles for national health care. We see them in the majority anti-war sentiments of the American people, and the new forms and forces involved in the struggle for peace.
We see the new shoots in the way that working people enthusiastically react to Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s message. Although Kucinich isn’t going to win the nomination, this response by ordinary people signifies they are ready to defeat the right and embrace radical reforms that challenge corporate prerogatives and priorities.
And we see these new shoots in the enthusiasm that is building around the coming elections.
While we recalibrating eagerly and boldly the content (more so than the methods) of our work, we should not for a moment abandon our involvement in mass struggles, or give up our emphasis on participating in the main organizations of the working class and its allies. We should not for a moment give any ground on the correctness of broad and flexible tactics, nor lose sight of the political imperative of broad left center unity. We should not closet ourselves in narrow left forms or confine ourselves to agitation and propaganda.
Most important, we should continue to find every possible way to underscore that the main and essential task is to decisively defeat the extreme right in November 2008.
Part of the “recalibration” must also include continuing the fight for new ways to grow our Party and to build the biggest, broadest readership possible for our press.
In short, we don’t have to turn everything upside down, but we do have to fine tune. It will be a process, with an experimental dimension. We should compare notes as we go — not everything has a solution in advance of practical experience
The struggle in the electoral arena has to be combined with struggles on immediate issues that are roiling millions – with the struggle to defend and expand the rights of immigrants, with the struggle to completely withdraw troops from Iraq and prevent a military strike against Iran, with the growing actions around global warming, with initiatives around health care, such as children’s health insurance, prescription drug funding, and HR 676, and with the fight for equality and against racism, male supremacy, and other ideologies and practices of division and oppression.
Of particular importance is responding to the deteriorating economic conditions of working people.
When housing prices began to collapse and then spill into financial markets, the Federal Reserve Bank eased credit, thinking that this would bring financial stability and counter downward pressures on the economy, even if it didn’t assist millions of homeowners who stood to lose their houses.
But it is becoming abundantly clear that they guessed wrong. The worsening economic and financial conditions appear to be spreading across the domestic and global economy.
In the recent decade, stock and housing bubbles (which put enormous wealth in the hands of consumers, especially the wealthiest), record levels of consumer and government indebtedness, astronomical military expenditures, and a readiness of other governments and investors to hold massive amounts of U.S. government and corporate securities has sustained the economy. But each of these factors is self-limiting and unsustainable.
To make matters worse, the slowdown is occurring in a world economy characterized by overproduction in commodity markets and unable to fully overcome a crisis of profitability and accumulation that dates back to the mid-seventies.
It was this insufficiency of profits, accumulation, and growth that neoliberalism in its right wing extremist garb was supposed to remedy. But it failed to match its practical deed with its ideological claim, namely a return to robust and sustained economic growth and rising living standards that were a feature of the U.S. economy in the immediate decades after WW II.
What it did do, however, was to effect the most massive shift of wealth from the working class to the top layers of the capitalist class, raise deficit levels of all kinds (government, trade, consumer, etc), and grease the skids for capital to move from a stagnant (and highly competitive) goods sector into the financial sector.
In turn, the financial sector has grown explosively, turned into the main site of high wire speculation and capital accumulation for financial and increasingly non-financial corporations, reconstituted relations within the capitalist class to the advantage of finance capital, and introduced a new element of instability into the national and global economy.
As for the working class: the historically unprecedented and savage assault on its living and working conditions makes for grim economic prospects.
Jobs (especially in manufacturing), have been destroyed by the tens of thousands, the low wage economy has spread to new and old sectors, health care and pension benefits have been cut and eliminated, and cities turned into wastelands. Tens of millions of working people feel a degree of insecurity that they never thought they would experience in their lifetimes. And for far too many African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, or immigrants, keeping hope alive as far as your economic future is concerned is almost a matter of self-deception. Racism amplifies many times over the economic crisis in these communities, while impeding more than any other weapon of division a united people’s struggle.
What is the upshot of all this? Suffice it to say that the economic struggles are sure to grow in scope and intensity and will be with us for a long while. Moreover, and I’ll say it one last time, the defeat of the extreme right and the consolidation of a new stage of struggle is imperative in order to begin to solve these deep economic and social problems.