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
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
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.