It’s a dance and other loose ends

1. New York Times columnist Charles Blow writes, “We may have reached an inflection point at which even partisans grow weary of the barrage of lies and the indefensible behavior, and Republican representatives finally realize that they are constitutional officers who must defend the country even if it damages their party.”

This strikes me as a fair read of the present moment. It does seem like the political fortunes of Trump are in steep decline, and, unless reversed, could eventually force him from office. Not everyone shares this point of view. Times columnist Tom Friedman, for example, echoes the sentiments of many when he exclaims in an op-ed column this week that there is no way in hell (my words) that the Republicans would move against Trump. His advice is to give up such fantasies and turn our collective attention to next year’s elections.

No one in their right mind would disagree that preparations for next year’s elections should be at the top of everyone’s To-Do list. But why should that preclude efforts at the same time to remove Trump from office? Trump is too much of a clear and present danger to humanity and democracy to concede the White House to him for the next four years.

Each day he does something that reaffirms his unfitness for the office. A recent poll has a majority of Americans supporting his impeachment. And this comes on top of polls that show record disapproval levels for a president at this stage of his presidency.

Earlier this week, Laurence Tribe, constitutional scholar and a member of the political-academic elite, made a compelling case to impeach Trump in the Washington Post. And this was before the latest bombshells rocked the country. One was the public disclosure that Trump “suggested” to FBI Director James Comey that the FBI terminate its investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and the Putin government. The other was the abrupt firing of Comey a day later. Together they became, albeit with some prodding from the public and Congress, the final straws that forced the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to look into this cancerous situation that endangers the democratic fabric of the country.

Admittedly, Republicans aren’t in complete flight mode from Trump, but their support for the Justice Department’s decision reveals that they are no longer ready to defend him no matter how bizarre and illegal his behavior. Needless to say, their motivation and agenda are very different from the millions of ordinary people who are worried about the future of the country.

If they had their way, Congressional Republicans would probably prefer for now anyway a chastened and malleable Trump to a Pence presidency. But that could change for they are tired of the “drama” on Pennsylvania Avenue, to use Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s word. it interferes with their right-wing legislative agenda.

Ousting Trump isn’t a diversion from more pressing problems, as some claim. Nor will it inexorably lead to war with Russia, as others assert. In fact, the longer Trump stays in office, the greater the risk of war, if not with Russia, then perhaps in the Middle East or on the Korean Peninsula.

Setting aside the peculiar optics of people of progressive and radical views appearing indifferent to foreign interference in our election process, it is a big roll of the dice by some of these same people to stand aloof from the struggle to force Trump from office. Such a posture rests on a gross underestimation of the danger that Trump presents to the country and world. It also fails to realize that timely popular intervention could turn an “inflection point” into a “done deal,” forcing Trump to step down in disgrace and take his place as an ignoble figure in our history.

The present turmoil in Washington isn’t simply a feast that keeps on giving to political junkies and late night talk show hosts. It’s a dance that should engage all of us.

2. I hear said, “If we get rid of Trump, Pence will become president and that will likely be as bad, or even worse.” My short answer is: Trump is a singularly dangerous political figure. And his removal by itself would be a major victory for the democratic movement opposing him.

In addition, the GOP would be surely weakened. Its political and moral authority would take a hit as well as its political agenda of austerity, inequality, militarism, and hate. And its grip on the Congress could change dramatically in the fall of next year when voters go to the polls.

Finally, the unity, understanding, and confidence of the millions of people who oust Trump and defend democracy, equality, decency, and the best traditions of our country can only ratchet upward. And that can only bode well for the future.

3. Someone said that the recent election of Emmanuel Macron to lead France wasn’t a victory for either its working class or its left. One can only make such an assertion if one looks at politics in the most narrow and static way. As I see it, in the outcome of the French elections we all dodged a bullet. The rise of the right, after all, is a global phenomenon. And what happens in France doesn’t stay in France; it reverberates elsewhere.

4. Yogi Berra said,”It ain’t over til it’s over.” And the health care struggle ain’t over. Still has to go to Senate. Time to join some public action today and/or this weekend – not to mention talk to our neighbors and call our Senate representatives. We should urge Democratic Senators to make a public fight of it as well as make Republican Senators think twice and three times before supporting it. The politics of the Senate are not the same as the House. This bill is not yet the law of the land.

5. Several studies have pointed out the role of racism in motivating the voting decsions of white people in the last year’s election. And yet I still see people deny this dynamic, resting their position on some rigid, abstract, and subjective concept of class and working class that doesn’t allow for behavioral patterns outside of politically prescribed (class) boundaries. This, by the way, isn’t marxism, even if someone claims it is. It’s a caricature of it.

6. The role of the left has many dimensions. It shouldn’t be reduced to politically outbidding the center in every situation. The left, after all, has done that for years. But, as we well know, its militant and radical rhetoric hasn’t catapulted it into the center of U.S. politics? So why will it now? If you examine the work of the Communist Party in the 1930s, it grew in influence and size -= into a major player in U.S. politics — only when it rejected narrow and sectarian approaches. Indeed, it executed a political about-face in the mid-thirties. It didn’t change its name, but everything else was retrofitted to the crisis conditions and popular upsurge at that time. It didn’t allow “traditions’ chains” bind it to outmoded, leftist thinking and practices.

7. In his path-breaking work, Capital, Marx turns individual capitalists into an abstract economic/class category that act in prescribed ways in order to elucidate the underlying motion and dynamic of capitalist production. But while such a methodology served Marx well in arriving at an understanding of the general logic of capitalism, the same can’t be said about the use of such an approach by Stalin in particular and Soviet communists in general in the actual process of socialist construction.

In turning people into nothing more than the embodiment of abstract class and political categories — some supporters of the state, others its enemies, some good, others evil, some on the right side of history, others on the wrong side — it became a rationale, dressed in the language of Marxism-Leninism, for unspeakable and massive crimes – not mistakes – that occurred in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Moreover, this sort of thinking found its way into the mentality and practices of other parties in the world communist movement to one degree or another.

8. Closer to home, abstract categories of analysis and struggle – capitalism, establishment, economic elites, class struggle, etc. – can cause of lot of political mischief if the user of them resists moving from the general to the concrete level of experience where the contradictions and complexity of daily life modifies them, sometimes in unexpected ways. Only in employing such a methodology is the basis created for the  elaboration of strategies, tactics, and political demands that have any chance of capturing the political realities and possibilities of that moment. Too many on the left failed to do exactly this in last year’s elections.

9. Hillary Clinton said recently that she is ready to join the “resistance.” Not everyone, I noticed, was happy with her announcement. But such a reaction doesn’t make sense to me. After all, the resistance. isn’t a coalition of the left. Nor is it the exclusive franchise of the center.

The resistance is a coalition of the center and left — and, to go a step further — other democratic minded people and organizations. This expansive coalition is the ground floor of a successful strategy to defeat Trump and the Republican gang in Congress. Its unity doesn’t rest on either side fully accepting the political demands and program of the other side. Competing views co-mingle with cooperation and compromise. This however isn’t always understood .

Nor is it well understood that the main task of the left in this coalition is to persuade and move the center (or major sections of it) to the left in order build a majoritarian movement that can reverse the damage done by Trump and the Republican gang in Congress as well as enact deep political and legislative reforms. The center isn’t simply a handful of people at the top who salivate at the thought of market-based reforms, globalization, smart government, and a robust U.S military presence worldwide. It’s a mass current as well. Not everybody, including millennials, is a socialist, or ready to embrace radical solutions at their mere mention, or itching to hit the streets. Much work in broad, politically heterogeneous coalitions is still to be done before we reach that denouement.

A gathering crisis of democracy

Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey is such an undisguised abuse of power and reckless action that one can only surmise that the investigation of the Trump campaign’s links to Russian authorities is close to revealing what many of us suspect: collusion between Trump’s people and the Putin government for the purpose of influencing the outcome of last year’s election.

In this extraordinary moment when much hangs in balance, one has to hope that the media will lay bare Trump’s power grab and the Congress (and especially the Republicans who up to now have acted, with few exceptions, as spineless enablers of Trump) will challenge him. And, if necessary, the courts will restrain him and repudiate his gross abuse of executive power too.

But no less importantly, millions of Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike – have to leave their distinct imprint on this gathering crisis of our very democracy and constitution. In no uncertain terms, the American people have to not only demand a full and independent investigation of election wrongdoing and a reversal of the firing, but also that Trump step down immediately. And if he refuses, he be impeached. If he has demonstrated anything in his first 100 days, it is that he is a clear and growing danger to the country’s democratic institutions, rights, and way of life. He has to go.

Phone calls, emails, letters to the editors, conversations with friends and neighbors, and, above all, public and voluble demonstrations are in order. We should never forget that the abuse of power, if left unchallenged, begets greater abuses later.

Trump and other loose ends

1. The only positive thing I can think Trump has done in his first 100 days is to impose some strategic coherence on a far flung and diverse coalition that has arisen during this same period. Nearly everyone, including most of the broadly defined left, holds the view that the overarching task is to slow down and rein in the Trump administration.

Even the Democratic Party – not without some grumbling – is seen as a necessary and vital part of any winning strategy to stay Trump’s hand and eventually shift the balance of forces in a progressive direction.

Meanwhile, the advocates of turning the Democratic Party and the political center into “enemies” are strident for sure, but few in number. An inside-outside strategy is far more likely to dominate the conversation in progressive and left circles. And talk of an independent 3rd party on a national level commands little attention among social activists for the time being.

What is more, electoral-legislative action and the mid-term elections have become crucial terrains of struggle for most people and people’s organizations. It is hard to find anyone who suggests that the mid-term elections aren’t of decisive importance. The notion of setting one form of struggle against another resonates less and less these days too.

A year ago this wasn’t the situation. The strategic differences were palpable and no doubt were one of the factors that negatively affected the election’s outcome. But that changed overnight, when to the shock of most of us, Trump became the 45th president. And in doing so, the new president not only became the yeast of a rising and largely spontaneous oppositional movement, but also acted as a solvent of strategic (and to no small degree tactical) differences that were evident last year.

2. Trump’s tax plan is an attempt to breathe new life into a long discredited doctrine — supply side economics. Didn’t work in Reagan years; won’t work now. Its proponents in the White House, Congress, and elsewhere probably know that better than anyone, but that doesn’t prevent them from advocating it now. After all, they need some sort of ruse to legitimize their thievery of our pocketbooks and the further destruction of our public services.

Corporations today are not lacking funds for investment; they have plenty of cash on hand now. What is lacking are profitable opportunities in a stagnant economy — a condition that can only be remedied by dislodging the right wing juggernaut that dominates the federal government, while at the same time enlarging worker and people (public) power.

3. Want to deescalate the situation on the Korean Peninsula — do the counter intuitive: make the North Korean government an offer full of so many positive inducements, including respect and a seat at the table of the world community of nations, that they can’t refuse. In others words, shower them with love and cooperation, not hate and sanctions.

4. A recent article in the Nation essentially dismisses the importance of the runoff election in Georgia. The author’s main gripe is that the candidate – Jon Ossoff – wasn’t progressive enough, not sufficiently of a Bernie state of mind, too Clinton like. And thus the outcome, in which the candidate received nearly 50 per cent of the vote, isn’t of great significance. I could say many things about such a take, but I will confine myself to three comments.

One: it is anything but a winning strategy now or in the fall elections of next year. Two: the importance of the final runoff between Ossoff and his Republican opponent is huge for both parties as well as the movement opposing Trump. Three: for the foreseeable future, the unity – contested as it is and will be – of centrist, progressive, and left people and organizations under the capacious tent of the Democratic Party is essential if we are to get out from underneath this current Trumpist mess.

And, by the way, today’s center isn’t of the same mind as the center of two decades ago. Things do change, and only shortsighted people dismiss such changes. Which is their prerogative, but they shouldn’t expect the rest of us to agree with their nonsense.

5. Trump is relentlessly anti-democratic, capitalist and militarist minded, and on the right of the political spectrum, but after 3 months in office one has to wonder if he has any coherent ideology and politics that figure larger than self-aggrandizement, monetizing the Trump brand, bullying (especially immigrants), and more than a willingness to play fast and loose with the truth. This doesn’t make him less dangerous, but it should, it seems to me, make us think a bit more about how we politically categorize him and his administration.

In any case, even if we can’t manage a meeting of the minds on this matter, we can surely agree that the sustained actions of a diverse, multi-racial, and many leveled coalition and opposition, coming together around a whole range of constitutional, democratic and class issues is of overriding importance at this moment.

6. Unpredictability in poker is an advantage, but in a president it can lead to catastrophic results in the international theater, especially when it combines with cluelessness, narcissism, quickness to take offense, and easy access to weapons of mass destruction – all of which Trump has in buckets. While Trump’s foreign policy has had little coherence so far, one has to worry that Trump’s answer to his sagging popularity and presidency will amount to “Bomb the Hell” out of the rest of the world.

7. How many thought that Trump and the Republican Party would be such a fractious bunch. Probably not many of us. But, in thinking about it, it’s not such a surprise. Their oppositional status over the past eight years kept their competing ideological and political interests on the back burner. But with Trump in the White House and the GOP in control of Congress all that changed. And out came the knives, as we have seen. These schisms are no substitute for mass resistance, but by the same token, they should not be ignored either.

8. The late E.P. Thompson, the brilliant British historian who worked in the marxist tradition and had little patience for dogma and cant, once wrote, “We need now to learn what religions have always taught: how to achieve the wisdom, the largeness of heart, the strength of character to build the human alternative in the midst of ongoing catastrophe.”

Which brings to mind the life and legacy of MLK. He possessed each of these qualities, thereby making him the most compelling public figure in his time and an enduring example for all time. It is hard for me to see how the contemporary left can evolve into an outsized player in U.S. politics and an inspiration to millions of ordinary people without such broadly recognized attributes. Which makes me believe that each of us would be well served if we studied the writings of King as much as we study yesterday’s and today’s radical theorists.

9. Recently I posted some observations on power and the communist movement. A friend wrote me, saying all well and good, but “the devil is in the detail” of the revolutionary process. In my reply to him, I wrote that the “devil” is, actually, to be found in the decoupling of socialist values, vision, and humanism from the details of socialist construction and the exigencies of power. When that happens, one can win the battle in the near term, but lose the war in the longer run.

Which got me to thinking about Lincoln’s presidency. He restricted the exercise of some democratic rights, including the right of habeas corpus (unlawful detention without trial) during the Civil War, but he did it in ways that were measured, limited, and temporary.

Moreover, given the circumstances — the Confederate troops were near the gates of Washington, the opposition to Lincoln in the North was considerable, and the country would become war weary — one can easily imagine someone without Lincoln’s commitment to democratic governance acting with far less restraint.

Too many leaders in the socialist countries in the 20th century, on the other hand, didn’t demonstrate the same level of restraint. In fact, they cast restraint to the wind. Their overriding imperative became the consolidation and expansion of power untethered from socialism’s democratic and humanist character and emancipatory aims. And the results speak for themselves.
10. And not least, poets very seldom rule the world, but they often stand witness to misrule. And in doing so, give us inspiration and courage. Yevgeny Yevtushenko stood witness.

Only a river going to make things right

Here’s Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, singing “Only a river going to make things right.” It’s beautiful and, for me, evocative of another time and river. I grew up on the beautiful Kennebec, in a small town in Maine. The river was a vital part of my sense of place, as a child and teenager. But by some good fortune, I now live next to another beautiful river — the Hudson, which like the Kennebec of my youth helps to “make things right.”

Power, socialism, and the communist movement

I stopped by a neighborhood organization recently to inquire about upcoming actions against our local Republican congressman, and in the course of the conversation with a young staff person, she mentioned to me that their aim is to “build power,” as they engage in their day to day activities.

Her response didn’t surprise me. Power, after all, is a reality in social conflicts. It counts a lot in deciding the outcome of clashes between contending sides in disputes over one thing or another. The sheep seldom comes out the winner when matched against the wolf.

But the conversation reminded me of an article on power, socialism, and the communist movement that has been gathering dust, so to speak, on my Google cloud. I began it months ago with the expectation that it would see the light of day long before now, but what with the election last year, and Trump’s first 100 days, I got preoccupied and, as a result, its stay on the cloud was extended. And had it not been for this recent conversation, it would have probably remained there.

In the communist movement of the 20th century where I spent most of my adult life, the main frame for understanding and changing the world was the balance of power among contending class and political forces. If the balance tilted toward the capitalist class and its allies, the prospects of progressive and radical change narrowed; or, still worse, if the tilt turned into a decisive swing, they disappeared and democratic movements found themselves on the defensive, as they do now. If, on the other hand, the balance shifted towards the working class and its allies, opportunities arose to expand economic, social, and political rights and freedoms. The New Deal period comes to mind.

Going a step further, a seismic shift in power to the advantage of the working class opened the door to a socialist future. This shift, however, was only the first moment of an extended process in which the working class and its “vanguard” party secured, consolidated, and expanded their power to radically construct a new state, economy, and society. Whatever facilitated this process was welcomed and needed little or no justification. Meanwhile, anything that hindered it was to be resisted by any means necessary.

In this framing, socialist values, norms, and aims — most importantly the creation of a field of action on which working people and their allies become the actual creators, architects, and producers of a new society that is democratic, egalitarian, sustainable, and humane — took a back seat to the exigencies of power against socialism’s “enemies.” If there were any tensions, ambiguities, contradictions, or dangers in such an approach and practice, they were rarely acknowledged and thus more rarely the subject of any serious examination.

Now, it was one thing to hold this view in the early part of the last century, when socialism was in its infancy and it felt like a turning point in human history had arrived, compelling everyone, in the words of “The Internationale” (the song of the international communist movement) “to stand in their place.”

But to subscribe to it long into the second half of that century, as I (and most communists) did, is quite another thing.

A critical look at the experience of socialism should have told us that a transfer in power, while necessary, is nothing close to a sufficient condition for socialism. Nor is it the defining feature of a socialism that measures up to its ideals, aspirations, and potentials.

Frederick Engels once wrote that revolutions are authoritarian affairs that turn on the question of power. He failed to add that once power passes from the hands of the old ruling elite, a process, both structured and spontaneous, of devolving and decentralizing power to democratic institutions and a popular majority should ensue on a broad scale.

This didn’t happen in the Soviet Union, except for a short burst of freedom in the early days. Instead, power became further centralized and it begat still more centralization in fewer and fewer hands in order to combat socialism’s opponents and build a new society in circumstances that were less than ideal.

Moreover, what was temporary and contingent became permanent and institutionalized as it acquired a social constituency, consisting of upper and middle level leaders and managers of the party, state, and economy that had a stake in maintaining the existing political, economic, and ideological setup. This made it a stubborn thing to uproot, even when conditions changed and popular desires for a more democratic and humane socialism grew.

Power, in short, became detached from socialism’s overarching essence, values, and aims. Stalin, it goes without saying, played an outsized role in this process. His desire for unchecked power, reinforced by his distortions of marxism and skewed notions of building socialism in encircled and backward Russia made for a hyper explosive brew. And the fallout was staggering — to the Soviet people, first of all, but also to the image and future of socialism.

Indeed, a near singular emphasis on the accumulation and centralization of power led to the eventual meltdown of the USSR as well as other socialist countries in Eastern Europe with barely a whimper from the class that the ruling parties claimed to represent.

But well before that happened, what seemed unimaginable became the ideologically sanctioned practice of Soviet authorities under Stalin: torture, executions, and show trials, labor camps and mass incarcerations, relocations of entire peoples, gross violations of democratic rights, the hollowing out of democratic institutions, massive surveillance and an accompanying climate of fear and suspicion, and the deaths of millions of innocents.

After Stalin’s death, the worst practices of those years ended and attempts were made to liberalize Soviet and the Eastern European socialist societies, but each attempt quickly ran up against concentrated bureaucratic and political power — sometimes police authorities and military might — that placed narrow limits on the reforming impulse. As a result, democracy and human freedom remained formal and cramped, civil society languished, and an independent press and culture worthy of the name never saw the light of day. Dissent fled into the kitchen and other crevices of private life.

It is ironic that U.S. communists — and again, I was one of them — expressed great outrage at the mention of the McCarthy period’s violations of democracy and attacks on communists, but, with some notable exceptions, had little to say about the social disaster and horror of the Stalin period and the long arc of unfreedom and eventually stagnation that followed. And when we did, it was either to say that no other alternatives were available, or an admission (at times reluctant) that “mistakes” were made, or an insistence on a “balanced” assessment of Soviet socialism.

Our mistake, however, wasn’t so much an inability to recognize irony. But more to the point, it was an indefensible failure of political, moral, and intellectual imagination, caught, as we were, in an embedded internal culture and world movement that resisted by and large critical thinking and reflection on such matters.

Responsibility for the downgrading of socialist values and humanism and the reduction of democracy from core features of socialism to simply instruments of policy — not to mention the transformation of a marxism that is dialectical, open to new experience, and subject to critique into Marxism-Leninism, a rigid ideology that legitimized practices that were inhumane, undemocratic, and anti-socialist — lies, in the first place, with its communist protagonists in the 20th century. However, a measure of responsibility also falls on Marx, Engels and especially Lenin. In their efforts to counter utopian notions, place socialism on a materialist theoretical foundation, and elaborate a path to socialism in the heat of contentious battles, they sometimes made sweeping assertions without delineating the limits of their application or the operation of competing tendencies. or shades and subtleties of meaning. Nor did they give in many instances sufficient emphasis in their analysis to socialism’s democratic, ethical, and emancipatory vision as an essential frame for the elaboration of revolutionary and socialist practice.

Even if we assume that the 21st century leaders of the left have learned the necessary lessons from the experience of the 20th century, we still have to ask what measures are necessary to guarantee that power and its practitioners are subordinated to (and, when necessary, reined in by) socialist values, norms, vision, and democratically constituted bodies.

This is a discussion for the many who are laboring in today’s vineyards, but I will make a few general observations.

1) Power should never again be the property of any one party (or movement). There is little evidence for the notion that under socialism social contradictions disappear and thus obviating the need for a multi-party system. Certainly, the idea of a constitutionally enshrined vanguard party should be left in the past, where it made its unfortunate entrance.

Much the same can be said about state-controlled media. Experience abounds that an independent and broadly based media is crucial in socialist as well as capitalist societies. Among other things, it is a key, and sometimes the only, reliable voice that will expose misdeeds and corruption at the top levels of official society.

2) There must be legal prohibitions on unchecked use of power that eviscerates democratic freedoms and rights. E. P. Thompson, the great British historian who wrote in the Marxist tradition, made this observation in his famous afterword to Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act (1975):

“I am told that, just beyond the horizon, new forms of working class power are about to arise which, being founded upon egalitarian productive relations, will require no inhibition and can dispense with the negative restrictions of bourgeois legalism. A historian is unqualified to pronounce on such utopian projections. All that he knows is that he can bring in support of them no evidence whatsoever. His advice might be: watch this new power for a century or two before you cut down your hedges.”

Good advice, even if we believe with great conviction that we will never be so wrongheaded or shortsighted as were many communist leaders in the last century.

3) Power has to be devolved and decentralized to the people and popular institutions. In other words, the socialist state, economy, culture, and society have to be creatively transformed and thoroughly democratized and socialized in accordance with the emancipatory values and vision of socialism. And the only hope of such an outcome is a multi-racial, working class-based, majoritarian movement of great depth, understanding, and unity, that acts as socialism’s midwife and stays engaged long into its old age.

In case you think I have been hard on Engels, let me end with a quote from Marx’s closest collaborator that is germane and incisive:

“If the conditions have changed in the case of war between nations, this is no less true in the case of the class struggle. The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for with body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that.”

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