Below is a reply to a recent analysis written by Max Elbaum as well as some earlier private communications between us. So there is no misunderstanding, when I mentioned to Max that I would like to post my reply to his analysis on my blog as well as send to my email list, he encouraged me to do so, adding that in the interest of dialogue he would have no problem including our earlier communications as well. It makes for a long post, but hopefully you will find time to read it.
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
Earlier private communications, beginning with the first.
Just read your recent analysis. Really liked it; if I had any issues it would be on approach to Democratic Party and the immediate election priorities. Will send you a couple of thoughts later.
Hope you are well; still working? Doing ok here. Peace, Sam
Thanks so much Sam. I’ll look forward to your further comments. I read the fb posts you sent – completely agree on the value of a nationwide coordinated action/mobilization to keep up the pressure … even in the last few days the right is taking hits – Trump’s DACA bash which pleased no one and put GOP congress people on the spot, his deal with Schumer over the debt ceiling exacerbating divisions in the GOP camp…
Hope all is good in your corner.
peace and hope!
Here are my thoughts, hastily written on the coming elections. Posted on fb and will send out later.
I’ve enjoyed stepping down and retirement, although it was a transition for me. But have a pretty good routine now.
By the way, what I hear of Our Revolution is very mixed. Not sure how it is catching on around country. As for DSA, seems very positive, but reaching some kind of strategic coherence, I suspect, won’t be easy.
Anyway, here are some thoughts on elections:
10 thoughts on the 2018 elections and an addendum
1. The coming elections are the main lever to rein in Trump and the damage that he continues to do, notwithstanding the importance of other forms of opposition.
2. Protecting and expanding the vote is of critical – no decisive – importance.
3. To insist that the program of the left is the point of departure for unity in the Democratic Party makes little sense. And that’s putting it diplomatically. Nevertheless. too many on the left appear to have this attitude. An example is to turn Medicare for All into a litmus test determining whether a candidate should receive support or not.
4. Candidate selection should be determined by more than a candidate’s position on one or another issue. Zephyr Teachout, who ran and lost in my congressional district to a Republican in 2016, was spot on issue wise, but had little name recognition, a limited history in the district, and few natural organizational connections. To wit: a wide-angled approach is in order, if we hope to shift control of Congress into Democratic hands.
5. The problems facing Democrats, progressives, and the left is as much – maybe more – organizational than political. In many congressional districts it is the right that has year-round organizational presence. And they use that foothold to shape attitudes toward politics and culture that eventually find their way into the voting booth. Change that organizational equation and much else will change, politically and otherwise.
6. Today’s Democratic Party is different from the Democratic Party of the Clinton years, even the Obama years. The constant refrain against its “neoliberal” wing is to some degree a straw man. The party as a whole has shifted in a progressive direction. Bernie can claim some credit for this shift, but broader changes in the economy, politics, and culture figure in any explanation as well. At any rate, this shift should inform the thinking and tactics of progressive and left people in the near and longer term. Our approach should accent breadth, flexibility, and the search for common ground.
7. An economic populism that is silent on matters of race, gender, immigration, and sexuality seems to have fewer adherents these days, especially in the wake of Charlottesville and much else. And that’s a good thing.
8. The posture of progressive and left people in the Democratic Party shouldn’t be to “take it over.” Such a strategy is seriously flawed. Instead, the long term strategic objective should be to unite its various trends around a progressive/left program. If you think that the left alone can shift the politics of the country then I want to smoke what you are smoking. Didn’t happen in the 1930s or ’60s. The militant minority can’t do much without the immense majority.
9. The country is polarized; in fact it has been for a while. Admittedly, the lines of division are sharper today, thanks to Trump and longer term political and cultural shifts on both sides. And yet, no one should conclude that people of moderate views are a dying breed. They aren’t and they number in the millions.
10. Finally, the main challenge in the coming elections isn’t so much to swing Trump’s base to our side (although who would be against that?), but to bring the many millions, many of whom are moderates, to the polls who are unhappy with Trump and the Republican right as well as desire a change in direction.
My addendum: The monster storms wreaking destruction in the Caribbean and southern states — and the storms to come — are bringing new attention to the issue of climate change, which, in turn, could become an Achilles Heel of Trump and the Republican Party in the coming elections and beyond.
Thanks Sam. I mostly agree with what you write. But there is an implication in the package that all the major trends in the Democratic Party can be united around a progressive program without much of a fight because underlying trends are pushing in that direction, and the somewhat connected implication that if there are conflicts, it is the fault of the left (or Bernie people) for picking ones that are unnecessary. It doesn’t say that explicitly, but the tone of what is there combined with what isn’t said gives that impression (at least to me). And if that is an accurate reading of the package (you may disagree that it is, but that’s how I read it), on that I differ. Just as one for instance, I strongly agree with your point #10, I think in fact I made the same argument in my article. But there is already a very aggressive campaign being waged by some influential Democrats to go in the exact opposite direction. The cover is an attack on so-called identity politics, especially focused on race but also targeting women’s rights. I don’t see how that is going to be countered without a big fight. In the absence of any discussion of that tension or other battles that are being imposed on the progressives, I don’t think your piece will resonate with people who are directing their main fire at Trump and correctly think those who take the third party road or avoid the electoral battlefield are marginalizing themselves, but keep bumping up against deep opposition, often combined with doses of baiting and semi-smears, from more than a few Democratic players.
Peace and Hope,
My reply above followed.
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