Another wild week

1. The NY primaries are yet another example that show that the center of gravity in the Democratic Party nationally is moving in a progressive direction, and bringing nearly everybody in and around the Democratic Party with it. The results of the races for the State Senate in NYC where progressive and left candidates defeated incumbents, whose track record was less than dismal, was a smackdown!

2, The power of labor, communities of color, and women was on display earlier this week in the NY primaries. Vision matters, but it becomes a truly potent force when it is meaningfully and strategically tethered to these specific social constituencies. Did anybody do this tethering better than Martin Luther King a half century ago? Let’s hope we get it right now and in 2020.

3. This week I read a few retrospectives on the financial crisis a decade ago and it struck me that each of them makes the crisis the singular explanation of everything that followed — political polarization, the formation of the Tea Party, the intransigence of Congressional Republicans, the surfacing of the alt right, the explosion of unapologetic, unconcealed, and crude racism, nativism, and misogyny, and, above all, the election of Trump.

No doubt the near collapse of the economy was a powerful stimulant of anger and retrogressive politics. It did shake things up, but it shouldn’t hide the fact that the present moment with all its dangers (and possibilities) was a product of the confluence of many factors. The ascendancy of the right, the Iraq war, the war against labor, women and people of color, immigrant bashing, and wage stagnation not only predated the implosion of the economy in 2008, but were also left their unmistakable imprint on the political, economic, and cultural evolution of the country in the decade that followed.

Much the same could be said about the election of the first African American president in our country’s history that coincided with collapsing financial markets.

All of which tells me that to give exclusive weight to any one factor seldom yields an accurate analysis of what we’re trying to understand (and change.) Truth is, in most instances, more complex. And that is the case here.

4. I wondered in the dreary days after the 2016 elections if Trump’s presidency would impose some strategic coherence on the left by which I meant three things. First, a shared understanding that Trump and his Republican congressional enablers are the overarching and singular threat to the country’s future. Second, a belief that the unity of a politically and socially diverse coalition of millions was imperative. And, third, an appreciation that the electoral form of struggle — the midterm elections and the election of a Democratic majority to take control of Congress out of Republican hands to begin with — is of crucial importance to reshaping the larger political landscape in the near and longer term.

From my limited perch, it seems like this has happened.

5. Remembering the heroic Salvatore Allende and Popular Unity on September 11, 1973. On that day 45 years ago a U.S. back military coup drowned the Allende government in a sea of blood and torture. I would sometimes say when I was a leader of the Communist Party that we have as much to learn from Allende’s Chile (and I wasn’t thinking about the necessity of revolutionary violence) as Lenin’s Russia. It usually raised a few eyebrows.

6. The new Bob Woodward book won’t cause an implosion of Trump’s base. But what it will likely erode Trump’s support on the margins as well as further consolidate the anti-trump majority. And the two taken together spell big trouble for GOP in November.

7. 9/11 — a tragic day that was hijacked and turned into a platform for unchallenged U.S. dominance of the global order. And more than a decade later we’re still feeling the negative consequences of that political decision.

8. Talk of socialism isn’t yet a dinner time staple in most homes, but it is moving from the margins of political discourse, and for a significant number of people it doesn’t have the same negative ring that it had during the Cold War.

Below is my presentation to a panel at the Left Forum in April 2005. The panel, entitled ‘Imaginings of Socialism,’ was moderated by the late Manning Marable and included Robin Kelley, Amiri Baraka, and Michael Albert. I have edited it slightly for clarity.

Thank you Manning. I appreciate the opportunity to participate on this panel with you, Robin, Amiri, and Michael. I have admired scholarship, poetry, and activism of each of you from afar.

For a movement to gain power and create a new society – and that’s what we are all about in the end – political imagination as well as historical memory are vital at every turn. For many progressives and left minded people, however, given our nation’s present political conjuncture, this may not seem like a propitious moment for dreaming and imagining.

After all, for the past twenty-five years, we have been on our heels with barely a moment to clear our heads before the next body blow by our powerful class foes.

In such circumstances, the natural reaction is to duck, to assume a defensive posture, to shutdown our imaginations. But this is a mistake and I will tell you why.

In the course of consolidating its economic and political positions, a hyper aggressive U.S. imperialism brings in its train new and powerful oppositional forces, many of which – and not only the young anti-globalists – are beginning to think on a system level of analysis.

Admittedly, they don’t yet embrace socialism, but they do imagine a society without the hardships, oppressions, worries, instabilities, and unseemly profiteering that are structured into present day capitalism. They envision a future that would bring material security and a sense of community. They yearn for a new birth of freedom. They hunger for a joyous life. They want a little heaven on this earth.

This structure of feeling doesn’t, all at once, translate into a mass constituency for socialism. But our response can’t be to declaim ‘the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.’ Nor to endlessly bemoan the weaknesses of the left. We can’t squirrel ourselves away in left forms either that are detached from the main organizations of the working class and people and tone deaf to the actual dynamics of class and democratic struggles.

Instead, our task is to join with millions to defend and expand democracy, while at the same time sharing a vision of a different world that qualitatively enlarges the boundaries and transforms the meaning of freedom.

Socialism and Values

Our vision has to be informed by a set of normative values — some of the most important are social solidarity, equality, democracy, respect for difference, individual liberty, sustainability, and internationalism.

These values should be more than declarative and ornamental. Indeed, they should practically shape the essence and trajectory of socialist society. They should condition the means as much as the ends of socialist development.

There was a tendency in the communist movement, however, to see these values instrumentally. That is, in the name of fighting the class enemy and building socialism, socialist norms, morality, and legality became too easily expendable. And in doing so, socialism conceded its humanism and moral authority, which once lost, is difficult to regain.

I like to think we have learned some lessons in this regard.

Who are the Actors in the Transition to Socialism?

Essential to our political imagination is a vision of the class and social forces that have to be assembled to win political power and begin the process of socialist construction.

At the center of this assemblage is the multi-racial, multi-national, male-female, multi-generational working class. And to this I couple the communities of the nationally and racially oppressed, women, and youth. Together these social forces are – what I call – the ‘core constituencies’ of a broader people’s coalition insofar as their participation in this coalition is a strategic (power) requirement at every stage of struggle, including the socialist stage. Remove any one of them from the mix and the prospects for winning are not simply dimmed, but doomed.

Around this core are gathered other diverse social movements whose interests and issues of struggle ally them with these core constituencies.

While I resist the idea that the working class on its own can bring its class opponents to its knees, I don’t minimize its strategic social power nor its leadership capacity.

No Direct Path

There is no direct or smooth path to socialism or a ‘Great Revolutionary Day’ on which the economy breaks down, the workers revolt and seize power, the state, economy and civil society are smashed and remade from top to bottom in one fell swoop, and socialism springs up full grown, like Minerva from the head of Zeus.

You may be thinking that this is a caricature, but such ideas have always had some currency in the communist and left movement.

The other vision of the revolutionary process, which makes more sense, is that the struggle for socialism goes through different phases during which the configuration of contending class and social forces changes, requiring, in turn, new strategic policies and demands to match the new alignment of forces and new level of mass political consciousness.

Periods of advance will yield to periods of retreat and vice versa. Shifting alliances will form and reform with each side struggling to turn provisional allies into stable ones and gain the initiative. Electoral and legislative forms of struggles will figure prominently, while cmbining with various forms of extra-parliamentary mass action. And control over the branches of government and state apparatus will occupy the attention of competing forces and blocs. Much depends on a meltdown in the structures of coercion and paralysis, if not divisions, within ruling circles.

Even when political ruptures occur, they will be neither complete nor irreversible. In fact, on the day after the transfer of power, socio-economic life will probably look much the like it did the day before.

Revolutions then are not single events or a single act, but rather a series of events and processes stretching out over time, anchored in the mass participation of tens of millions and the skillful leadership of a party or coalition of parties that enjoy the confidence of those millions.

Revolutions aren’t imitative either. They offer some regularities, but only in the most general sense. Yes, political power has to migrate from the hands of one class into the hands of another, economic transformations have to occur, and a revolution in values is absolutely necessary too. But all of this and more can happen in variety of ways.

At one time I held the view that the movement would narrow as socialism came into view. But I am of the opposite opinion now. Its constituency has to grow in breadth and depth. It has to be a mass social upheaval of all the discontented. Some will bring with them backward notions. Many will be newcomers to politics.

In other words, the struggle for socialism is not just a project of the left; it has to be a project of millions, a project whose mass character deepens, deepens again and deepens still again at every stage in the process. Without such a character, socialism will remain in our imagination.

Nationally specific path

In seeking forms of transition to socialism, we should be unabashed proponents of our own nationally specific path. We should study the experiences of other countries for sure, but the search for a universal path to socialism is a fool’s errand.

Each country has find its own particular way. For example, our path to socialism must include an unyielding commitment to expanding democracy as well as finishing the unfinished democratic tasks that we will inherit, beginning with the eradication of racism in all of its forms. Any, even the slightest, devaluing of democracy and equality in their many forms will keep the socialist movement on the political periphery.

We also have to expect that multiple parties and movements will lead the millions who are no longer ‘willing to live in the old way.’ In such a coalition, parties and movements will cooperate as well as compete over a range of issues and for mass influence, but the accent should be on cooperation and unity.

Obviously, a movement for socialism should seek a peaceful path, especially in this era. The American people should be allowed the be the final arbiter of the socio-economic character of their country. Of course, our ruling class has its own agenda. Thus, the best guarantee of a peaceful transition is an aroused, mobilized, united, and determined people.

The left has to heed the wishes of the electorate too, including the possibility of being removed from office by a majority of voters.

Conventional view

The conventional view of the communist movement was that after the revolutionary forces won political power, the period of consolidation would be relatively brief and new forms of popular power would emerge to replace hopelessly corrupted political institutions.

We also assumed that the state would extend its reach into new areas of social, cultural, and civic life, including control over the mass media. Another assumption was that centralized planning would replace the market as the mechanism to regulate economic activity.

Finally, we were of the opinion that socialist state property would be dominant and eventually become the singular form of economic ownership.

Revisit and revise

These assumptions have to be revisited and revised in view of experience and new theoretical insights. I would like to briefly turn to these questions.

To begin with, I don’t think that the people of our country will agree to dismantle the political structures that currently exist. Nor do I think that they will jettison the Bill of Rights or the Constitution or a system of checks and balances on concentrated political power.

More likely, they will extend, deepen and modify them based on the unfulfilled promises of our democracy, new democratic desires, and the needs of socialist construction. At the same time, I suspect – and historical experience would strongly suggest – that new popular institutions will emerge in this process.

Today millions of people feel alienated from our government. Nearly one-half of the people don’t vote. Many people see government as disconnected from their day-to-day life, even an obstacle to their aspirations. Overcoming this sense of alienation constitute a major challenge to socialism’s development and future. Part of the solution to this conundrum lies in a robust civil society. Part rests on the devolution of power and resources to the local level. And it also turns on the shortening of the work week, thereby allowing working people to become activists and leaders in and beyond the workplace.

Federal power would have a role to be sure, but I also think that we have to keep in mind that such power is distant and beyond the reach of the very masses of people who are supposed to be authors and architects of this new society.

As for the economy, the main issue is not whether we would employ market mechanisms, but rather the issue is to what extent and for how long? In the past, there was a tendency to think market relations would disappear almost overnight. I’m unconvinced that that’s an accurate reading of the classical literature or a lesson that we should draw from the experience of socialist construction in the 20th century.

Mixed economy

I would expect that the economy would be a mixed one, combining different forms of socialist and cooperative property as well as space, within clear limits, for private enterprise. And while market mechanisms would operate, they wouldn’t take the place of democratic regulation and planning.

I would also envision a universal guaranteed income and the decommodification of some sectors of the economy like health care, food and nutrition, education, child and elder care, and so forth. In other words, the costs of the reproduction of labor power would be socialized as much as possible.

The federal budget would be overhauled and its priorities radically changed. The economy would be de-militarized and restructured. A social fund would be established to compensate for racial oppression, gender discrimination and other injustices. The narrowing of economic equalities would be a paramount goal of a socialist society.

One of the most complex tasks of a socialist society will be achieving a sustainable economy. It will, according to Marxist economists and ecologists, require major changes in our production methods and consumption patterns.

It is hard to imagine how this challenge, not to mention challenges like overcoming racial and gender inequality, demilitarization, urban and rural revitalization, and so forth, can be successfully tackled without planning. Market mechanisms can play a useful role in economic coordination as I said, but the redirection of the economy along fundamentally new lines requires a planning process at every level.

A final challenge on the morrow of the revolution is to re-imagine our nation’s role on a global level. Without going into detail, we will immediately remove our uniform of global cop and exploiter and take our place along side other members of the world community and demand no special privileges. There is much to love about our country, but the image of a city on a shining hill and arrogantly wielding its sword does the American people as well as the world’s people enormous harm.

In fact, if the city shines at all, it is in no small measure because our imperialism, often with the use of military force, has structured international relations between the capitalist core and its periphery so that astronomical wealth at one pole is combined with unspeakable deprivation and immiseration at the other. Eight million people die each year because of poverty and ten million from AIDS. Hundreds of millions of human beings are living in slums on nearly every continent. This has to change for all of humanity’s sake, but it won’t until we rethink and restructure our relationships with the global community.

Day after the revolution

I have confined myself to the day after the revolution, but extending the time frame a bit further into the future brings additional images and possibilities. Homelessness and joblessness would be eradicated. Toxic dumps would be cleaned up and replaced with gardens and playgrounds.

Our skies would be blue and pollution free. Our neighborhoods would become places of rest, leisure, culture, and green space. The whole panoply of oppressions that scare our people and nation would be on the wane. Human sexuality and sexual orientation would be enjoyed and celebrated. The audiences at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall would look as diverse as the people of this city.

The prisons systems would be emptied and the borders demilitarized and opened. Women would be regularly receiving Nobel prizes in the sciences. The Pentagon would be padlocked and the swords of war would be turned into plowshares and we would study war no more. Rinally, the full development of each would be the condition for the full development of all.

Back in the fray

Watching a powerful speech of former President Obama speaking to college students in Urbana, IL. It is the best speech challenging Trump and Trumpism that I have heard since Trump became president. Obama’s decision to play a larger public role at this moment, I would say, is extraordinarily important. No one speaks more persuasively and compellingly to such a big and diverse audience as he does.

Will any break rank

Is the late John McCain the last Republican who will break with Trump and the GOP agenda? With some crucial votes coming up in Senate, none more important than the nomination of Bret Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, is it wishful thinking to entertain the hope that one or two Republicans might refuse to follow script? Very unlikely, I know.

And yet I continue to hope that somehow a sense of higher duty to country and democracy might shake their narrow political logic and dissolve their bonds to party.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a senator turned their back on their party leaders. Others have done out of a sense of duty to a higher wisdom and morality that superseded party loyalty and interest. Obviously, it wasn’t an easy decision then. And it wouldn’t be easy in today’s circumstances. Any Republican senator who broke ranks would surely be considered a rogue, even a traitor by Trump and the right wing attack machine. They would immediately lose friends, alienate close colleagues, and become a persona non grata in Republican ranks.

But, on the other hand, the majority of Americans and, at least, a sliver of Republicans would support them. Also, in less than two months, the election results could well vindicate, if not earn them a ticket back into the good graces of their party, when a majority of Americans, worried about an unstable, unfit president and the country’s future, cast their votes and take control of the Congress out of Republican hands.

Finally, history, assuming its arc bends toward justice, would remember them well — as someone who took a stand when it wasn’t an easy, who demonstrated courage at a moment when decency, humaneness, fairness, equality, and democracy were imperiled, who defended the country at a time when tyranny was knocking on the door.

As I said, it’s a hope. But in the meantime, tomorrow I will be doing what gives our country the best chance of escaping a present fraught with danger and creating a pathway to a better future: canvassing for the local congressional Democratic candidate who is running against an incumbent Republican. Hope you’re doing the same.

What a week and it isn’t over

1. I find much of the negative criticism from our side of the political divide of the unsigned oped letter in the NYT blasting Trump to be gratuitous, self serving, and in many cases wrongheaded.

The letter isn’t a game changer and it would have been probably better if the author identified himself. But to write it took a lot of guts. And while it won’t bring the House of Trump down, it is nonetheless another exposure — in this instance an unvarnished critique of Trump from an insider no less — in a series of exposures of Trump over the past month or two that have cumulatively and increasingly weakened Trump and the Republican Party in the eyes of a growing majority of voters.

2. The election of Ayanna Pressley is historic and surely exciting. And that it happened in Boston where the Democratic Party keepers of the gate have considerable clout and where racism has been such a negative and persistent force makes it all the more so.

But, at the same time, Pressley’s election wasn’t something out of the blue; something that no one saw coming. In fact, my guess is that a lot of people in Boston saw it coming and continues, moreover, a trend of electing candidates in primaries across the country who are far more socially diverse, representative, and progressive, if not left in their politics.

And while this trend probably causes some strains and tensions in the Democratic Party, it hasn’t triggered a “Civil War” within it, as some in the media have suggested. Indeed, it strikes me that the Democratic Party is heading into the final months of this election year united by and large.

Of course, the words and actions of Trump and his Republican co-conspirators have had a big hand in creating this broad and unified opposition, not to mention political shift. But, as important as Trump and Trumpism is in any explanation for the rise of this trend, it doesn’t account for it entirely. Other factors have to be considered as well, some near term, others of longer standing.

A few thoughts about that later, but right now Yogi is insisting that we go walking.

3. The new book by Bob Woodward is generating lots of commentary. Some people like it; others not so much. Still others question Woodward’s motives. All this is interesting, but what matters most is how it resonates with millions who will probably neither read the book nor the commentary. But they will come across its juiciest excerpts in the next week, while watching tv or listening to the radio or skimming a newspaper or doing facebook. To the degree that happens, my guess is that the book will become one more strike against Trump among the anti-Trump majority.

4. An unfit Republican Party will never be a check on a very unfit president. Vote and get others to vote this fall. It’s not the only issue in the elections, but it should figure prominently.

5. The notion that all the political and social ugliness that we see here and across Europe is simply belched up and explained by the contradictions of the capitalist economy is one sided at best and misleading at worst.

6. In thinking further about the criticism of the anonymous letter in the NYT, I’m reminded that we shouldn’t insist that everyone dance to the same beat. Indeed, anyone who wants to dance should be given space to do so, even if they are a bit out of tune and step, provided they are ready to pay the admission fee — opposition to Trump in some form or manner. Wasn’t it Sly Stone who sang, “Different strokes for different folks?”

Brief notes on another week of tumult

1. Yesterday’s funeral for John McCain was, no matter how you cut it, a powerful expression of opposition to the authoritarian personality and policies of Trump. That the president was uninvited to this carefully choreographed political event that included anybody who’s anybody in Washington, had to be noted by the tens of millions who watched in real time or later. It was a visual that spoke more than a thousand words about a president that doesn’t fit on what is considered the traditional spectrum and within the normal boundaries of U.S. politics.

But no less powerful than the visuals of an absent, uninvited president was the equally powerful message, delivered by former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and Meghan McCain. Each, and especially Obama and McCain, robustly defended democratic values and institutions, constitutional norms and boundaries, the rule of law, inclusion, an independent press, and human decency.

It is easy to get jaded by the obligatory rhetoric of speeches of this kind that extols the singular virtues and indispensability of “America,” not to mention grouse about the mistaken policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. But, in doing so, we run the danger, if taken too far, of losing sight of the main substance of each of these orations, that is, they forthrightly contested the present authoritarian, anti-democratic direction of the Trump administration and were delivered by individuals who enjoy, each in their own way, a broad following across the country. While Trump’s name went unmentioned in the speakers’ tributes to McCain, no one there or in the viewing audience had any doubt that he and his dictatorial methods of governance were in the bullseye of the speakers’ remarks.

I’m not in a position to say what the exact impact of McCain’s funeral will be on the November elections or over the the longer haul. but what I can say is that the funeral for John McCain was a singular event in many ways that surely touched millions in a way that can only help our existential struggle against Trump and Trumpism.

I would guess that few, if any, Republicans in the audience yesterday or around the county felt that the politics on display there gave them a leg up as they attempt to rally support for their candidacies.

Whether they created any fissures between the GOP and Trump only time will tell. In the meantime, the rest of us have to do whatever we can to elect a Democratic majority to the House and Senate in two months.

2. Watched Andrew Gillum on Morning Joe this morning. Very impressive. And his focus was on the day to day needs of Florida’s people. Wouldn’t allow the election to be put into a left versus right or pro Trump, anti-Trump framing.

That makes good sense as a candidate appealing to a broad cross section of Floridians, but it is hard not to think that such a framing won’t come to dominate the airwaves.

By the way, Gillum’s victory didn’t come out of the blue nor is he Bernie’s candidate.

There is also no way to “splain away “monkey this up.” Anybody who does is an apologist for racism. It was neither an inadvertent slip of the tongue nor a dog whistle. It was a racist appeal, pure, simple, undisguised. And surely the first of what will be many from the candidate and campaidn. Does anybody really believe that Trump’s supporters heard it as nothing more than a slip of the tongue by their Trump supported candidate?

3. One more thing on John McCain: more than one person has said I gloss over McCain’s voting record in the Senate over the past two years. To that charge I plead guilty. But I would add that, while my critics read the score card right, what they miss is the main action happening on the field. Millions of people, however, don’t.

What they see and hear was someone steadfastly opposing a loud mouthed and crude bully who, if allowed, would impose authoritarian rule on the country. So much so that the bully goes out of his way to defame his critic in the most mean spirited manner, even on his death bed and in death itself. This battle royale between these two bitterly opposed protagonists may seem insignificant for many on the left, but for many other people who don’t live and breathe politics every moment the words and actions of Trump’s critic give them courage and hope that we can prevail against tyranny.

4. Fascism isn’t imminent, but let’s not make the mistake of the left in Germany that failed to understand the impending danger the country faced as it was developing, not to mention when it was staring them in the face. And thus didn’t unite against it. And we know the rest of that awful story.

By contrast, it seems like the progressive and left community here is avoiding that sinkhole. Indeed, lots of energy is being expended on the election of a Democratic Congressional majority this fall. It helps that Democratic candidates are tacking in a progressive direction, which, in turn, activates the not so old Obama coalition.

5. When I was the National Chair of the Communist Party I tried to keep in mind Lenin’s admonition a century ago to his coworkers to avoid what he called a “small circle mentality.” Still seems like good advice.

6. As you may know, I come out of the communist movement where democratic and moral values were considered subordinate to working class and socialist imperatives. That doesn’t mean that communists didn’t fight for democracy in its many manifestations; they did (and still do), consistently and at times bravely.

Nor am I suggesting that communists didn’t have strong moral convictions; they did and do. But still the advancement of class interests was considered primary in the framing of their thinking and actions. And in most instances, this presented no problem, as class interests converged with moral values and democratic struggles. But there were instances where that wasn’t the case, especially when class interests were narrowly constructed. The most egregious was the uncritical attitude of most of the communist movement toward Stalin and the Soviet Union. As the first country of socialism, the official interpreter of Marx and Lenin, and the primary opponent of imperialism, it was considered above any serious reproach in the eyes of most parties and communists, myself included.

It wasn’t until the 1990s and then later as national chair of the party that I began to seriously examine this way of thinking and found it wanting.

7. The most uplifting event this week was without a question the funeral and celebration of Aretha Franklin. In song, story, and prayer, this extraordinary woman, daughter of Detroit and the African American people and church, and incomparable artist and musical genius was celebrated by family, friends, and millions of admirers.

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