Tactics matter

What we do and how we do it should largely pivot on how it contributes to the building of a much larger movement that can decisively defeat Trump and right wing extremism (the alt right in its various iterations is a subset of this larger political bloc) and throw the country on a different political trajectory that lifts up full and substantive equality, economic security, environmental sustainability, robust democracy, and peace and cooperation.

The choice of tactics, therefore, isn’t a matter of what I might think is cool or not cool or what strikes or doesn’t strike my fancy. MLK, who spent his too short adult life resisting concentrated white supremacist judicial and extra judicial power and terror, embraced tactics that would at once activate people who were sitting on the sidelines, neutralize and divide his opponents, exert pressure on government leaders to do the right thing, retain the high moral ground, and extend and unify a larger coalition of diverse people and organizations.

He didn’t approach tactics narrowly or abstractly. His political lens and tactical acumen were wide angled, flexible, concrete, and strategic. We should learn from his example.

A political crisis demands collective, non-violent, and massive actions

This could well be a defining political moment for the country. But only if the movement and its leaders — writ large and embracing big tent politics — respond immediately to what is a political crisis. At the core of any response to Trump’s embrace of the “fine people,” who espouse white supremacy, anti-semitism, and nazism and itch for violent confrontations, is, I would argue, collective, non-violent, and massive actions in their many forms — including and especially in the streets of Washington. The demand should be unequivocal: Trump is unfit for his office and should resign immediately.

Moreover, a counter narrative and vision should be offered that is rooted in the best traditions of our country.

The history of Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s records moments when a small circle mentality, the politics of purity, narrow tactics (eg. street fighting between Nazis and Communists that were followed by Hitler’s law and order appeals), and inaction at crucial turning points unintentionally facilitated the rise and consolidation of Hitler and the Nazis. I am confident that leaders of the larger peoples movement here won’t make those mistakes, but instead will appeal to us to join them in the public square where public opinion and the politics and fate of the country will be shaped in no small measure.

In the wake of Charlottesvillle

In the wake of the ugly and tragic events that occurred in Charlottesville this weekend, it strikes me that the main role of the left at this moment, apart from honoring the dead and injured, is to be a force to bring together, with a special urgency and in the spirit of non-violent resistance, a broad, diverse, and multi-racial coalition of peoples and organizations in support of democracy, equality, peace, human decency, and our planet. In other words, to assist in assembling “the near and the far,” to use the words of the socialist critic Irving Howe, in the public square, as it resists its own small circle thinking.

Socialism might be the only alternative to barbarism, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote nearly a century ago, but it is a mistake — a colossal one in fact — to think that it is the immediate action task on the people’s or left’s political agenda. What is is a robust defense of democracy and social progress at the core of which is the immediate removal of Trump from office and a sustained struggle against the Republican right and the alt right. And in this regard, it’s none too early to prepare for next year’s elections, which give us an opportunity to hand a good shellacking to this nasty, backward faction. In doing so, we can breathe not only a little sigh of relief, but also more realistically think about an agenda of democratic reforms, including radical ones, not to mention position the country to make a more fundamental shift in political power and direction in 2020.


Wrong angle of entry

Below are two excerpts from the always interesting summer issue of Monthly Review (personal note: its founding editors introduced me to a non-dogmatic marxism).

The first is from John Bellamy Foster’s article, “Revolution and Counterrevolution:”

“All of this reaffirms the historical truth that there can be no socialist revolution—however it should arise—that is not also forced to confront the reality of counterrevolution. Indeed, in judging revolution and counterrevolution over the last century, particular stress must be put on the strength and virulence of the counterrevolution. The struggles and errors of the revolutionists are only to be seen in the context of this wider historical dialectic.”

And the other is from the Editors:

“Indeed, if there is a single underlying theme to the articles included here, it is that they all indicate that in interpreting revolution and counterrevolution over the last century emphasis must be placed on the strength and virulence of the counterrevolution, and that the errors of the revolutionists can only be assessed in that context.”

My initial reaction anyway is that their emphasis, i.e. on the forces of counterrevolution, is wrong if we hope to arrive at an understanding of what happened in the 20th century and the requirements for a turn to socialism and democracy in this century.

Here is what I wrote on my blog (Angle of Entry, SamWebb.org) more than a year ago, which places “stress” elsewhere:

“Much of I write is exploratory. It is a work in progress; an ongoing conversation with myself as well as with readers.

And there’s an explanation for this: I came to radicalism and the Communist Party in the early 1970s, but I grew up politically in the last two decades of the 20th century and the first decade of this one. During that relatively short stretch of time, two signal events took place that disrupted my safe political space. One was the rise of right wing extremism, neoliberalism, and capitalist globalization at the beginning of the 1980s; the other was the implosion of Soviet socialism a decade later.

The resulting sea change in the direction of world politics caught me – and many others – off guard. After all, I was radicalized at at time when the world seemed nearly infinitely malleable. “Socialism in our time” didn’t seem like wishful thinking. So when the forward march of labor and its allies was abruptly halted and Soviet socialism went belly up with barely a whimper, I felt compelled to reexamine many of the assumptions and core ideas that had framed my thinking and activity.

It was too much of a stretch to think that my old understandings of marxism, marxist methodology, and the world could explain this unexpected and sudden recasting of the world.

Or to put it differently, in the face of a profound and historic defeats, I concluded that the losing side – of which I was a small part – would make a big mistake if it attributes those defeats exclusively to the strength of its opposition or to “class traitors” from within its ranks.

Instead it seemed obvious to me that it was imperative to interrogate my own assumptions, understandings, and practices. To do otherwise seemed profoundly unrealistic, undialectical, and non-marxist. And that continues to be my strongly held opinion.

I learned from playing basketball that if your opponent beats the hell out of you (and that happened to me more than once – the only championship team I ever played on was in 8th grade), then you better make some big adjustments before your next game. To do nothing is to invite another rout.

So I re-read – this time from a different vantage point – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci, Dimitrov, Luxemburg, Togliatti, and others of their generations. I also read the work of many contemporary authors who write mainly, but not exclusively, in the Marxist tradition.

In the course of this rethink (and especially over the 14 years that I was the National Chair of the CPUSA before stepping down in 2014 and resigning in 2016), I like to believe that I gained new insights on matters of theory, politics, culture, and marxism as well as jettisoned old notions that had left me so flatfooted in a changing world.

On this blog I will continue, albeit with my obvious limitations, that endeavor. And in doing so I hope that it assists in some small way in the building of a people’s movement and a left that has the vision, reach, unity, power, and common sense to save our fragile planet and make life livable, free, and joyous for all.”

This emphasis, I believe, would serve us better.

Political adventurism, Keynes’ premature death, and other loose ends

1. Trump’s slumping popularity and the opposition coming from many quarters is to be welcomed, but it is also cause for some worry. And the worry is that Trump and his gang of thugs in the White House in a desperate effort to regain political initiative will be tempted to “invent a crisis” and do something that is politically adventurist — outside the boundaries of conventional politics and constitutional legality.

Deconstructing the democratic state is an idea that they like. And please don’t lecture me about the class nature of the state.

2. You can be skeptical about the evidence of Russian hacking and its impact on the presidential election, but to entertain the belief that Trump and Putin will usher in a new era of detente between our two countries and make the world a safer place strikes me as a stretch. What is more likely is that this twosome will attempt to anchor a coalition of hypernationalist, authoritarian, militarist regimes and movements hostile to equality, democracy, planetary sustainability, and progressive, even centrist, governments.

3. I will go into this in greater depth in another blog post, but class understanding is more than some ill defined anger at “elites” in high places or militancy on the picket line.

He’s out of favor these days, but Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, insisted that class understanding isn’t narrowly constituted at the economic level. He wrote in his famous essay, What Is To Be Done:

“Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected … Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social-Democrats; for the self-knowledge of the working class is indissolubly bound up, not solely with a fully clear theoretical understanding — or rather, not so much with the theoretical, as with the practical, understanding — of the relationships between all the various classes of modern society, acquired through the experience of political life … the worker must have a clear picture in his mind of the economic nature and the social and political features of the landlord and the priest, the high state official and the peasant, the student and the vagabond … ”

Here is a more complicated picture of what constitutes a politically consciousness working class. While it doesn’t ignore the economic, it isn’t economistic. It is broadly framed. Class conscious workers, according to Lenin, don’t live in hermetically sealed caves. They are aware of their class position relative to a class of exploiters for sure, but they are also keen to the fact that the grid of exploitation in which they are enmeshed is neither flat, nor undifferentiated, nor disconnected from other grids of oppression.

Moreover, they are mindful of the necessity of allies as well as the main class and democratic tasks at any given moment.

By this measure, it is hard to characterize, as some did, the decisions of white workers to vote for Trump as a “class revolt.” Their vote reveals, after all, no appreciation of the organic interlocking of class struggles and struggles against racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, and more — not to mention the imperative of securing alliances with people of color, women, and immigrants or any understanding of the main democratic and class task in the election — the defeat of Trump. Class implosion, not revolt, better captures what happened last year.

4. I find the column below, written by Thomas Edsall, not so different than others he has authored. While he mentions racism, sexism, and nativism in his explanation of the voting decisions of white workers in the Midwest in last year’s election, he does so in passing. He gives much greater analytical weight to structural changes in the economy to account for their decision to support Trump.

Now I don’t doubt the many sided impact of these changes. The live of working peole, broadly understood, were recast in profound ways. I saw this early on and up close when I was living in Detroit in the 1980s. But what Edsall — and others who echo this line of thinking — miss (or downplay) is that the voting choices of white workers can’t be understood by economic shifts alone. In fact, the turn to and embrace of Trump by white workers are inexplicable apart from the activating agents of racism, misogyny, and nativism, plus the spectacular rise of right wing extremism four decades ago.

In my view — and many recent studies confirm this — these activating agents were decisive in the formation of the voting choices of a considerable number of white workers in the Midwest and elsewhere. Not everyone, obviously, shares this view. Like Edsall, they continue to proffer their economistic-deterministic model to explain what happened in the Upper Midwest a year ago, while evading an obvious question that challenges their conclusions: Why did major sections of the working class who experienced similar and even worse economic hardship and dislocation than their white brothers and sisters who voted for Trump decide not to throw in their lot with him?

5. It’s one thing to say the Keynesian mode of economic accumulation and political governance no longer fits present realities; actually that has been the case for decades now largely because the particular conditions arising out of WW II — pent-up demand, job creating technologies, industrial dominance, a booming export market, the supremacy of the dollar in the global economy, broadly-shared prosperity, a moderation of class conflict, etc. — disappeared and gave way to new economic and political conditions by the mid-1970s.

But it is quite another thing to dismiss any role for Keynesian methods of regulating and stimulating the present day or future economy. Most progressive and left economists aren’t ready to go that far. In making a distinction between a mode of accumulation and methods of economic management, they see a place for Keynesian tools and insights in regulating a complex economy.

In fact, a government with progressive-radical-socialist ambitions would selectively and skillfully employ and adapt the insights, mechanisms, and institutional forms of economic management — Keynesian and otherwise — that were developed and employed in the last half of the 20th century. To simply dismiss them in present and future economic circumstances on the grounds that they are so deeply encrypted by the imperatives of capitalism or peculiar to a particular phase of capitalist development is an example of ideology trumping sound analysis. In fact, it makes about as much sense as the wholesale dismissal of the experience of economic planning in the former Soviet Union because the country went belly up.

On the other hand, I suppose there is an argument for both if you believe in some utopian leap from the present day economy in which the market plays a major role in the coordination of the economy at the macro and micro levels to an economy in which the market’s role is minimal. All I can say to that is: Good luck. Neither experience nor classical Marxist theory gives you much to lean on in making such an argument.

6. A deeply troubling story in the New York Times reports on the massive breakaway of an iceberg from the Larsen shelf in Antarctica. It reminded me of the urgency of addressing the causes of a warming planet. In a sane world, the issue of climate change should be at the top of the country’s political agenda. But it’s barely in the political conversation at this moment. And with a demagogic and dangerous moron in the White House, acting as the mouthpiece of a powerful bloc of fossil fuel interests, not only resisting any steps to mitigate a warning planet, but actively reversing any ameliorative measures, treaties, etc, that have been enacted in recent years, the likelihood that things change for the better in the near term is remote. Thus, the overarching question in these circumstances is: What to do?.

 7. Couple thoughts on fascism: first, It isn’t simply a more restrictive, authoritarian regime. It is a regime of a different type. It doesn’t simply dial down on democracy; it deletes it, expunges it. A fascist regime, in other words, effects a qualitative break from the historically formed democratic structures, forms, norms, and traditions that are peculiar to our country. Second, even if the Trump and Bannon have some master plan to impose fascism on the country, the conversion of that plan from paper to reality is no simple proposition. A lot of ducks in the state, dominant classes and governing bloc, and society have to be in alignment or come into alignment. And, in the event of failure, the consequences are devastating for its architects.




Share This