I have read Monthly Review off and on for nearly a half century. If any magazine introduced me to Marxism, it was MR. While the magazine’s analytical work dissecting capitalism and its inner tendencies was insightful, inspiring, and free of academic jargon, its politics, however, struck me as simplistic. More often than not, its prescriptive advice was to proceed straight to socialism!
Any consideration of stages of struggle, permanent and temporary alliances, tactical flexibility, immediate and longer range tasks, and, not least, the balance of power among contending movements and political blocs was, in most instances, rarely offered. I was somewhat surprised, therefore, to read in a recent issue a reference to an earlier article by founding editor Paul Sweezy that I had missed. Written in late 1979, the article challenges the view of many on the left at the time that the United States was irresistably on track to “an American version of the corporate state, authoritarian and repressive internally, increasingly militaristic and aggressive externally.”
“There are at least two problems,” Sweezy wrote, “with this ‘solution’ to the crisis of U.S. capitalism.
“First, it assumes that because the working class has never yet organized itself for effective independent political action it never will in the future either. In my view this reflects a simplistic view of the history of class struggles in the United States … Second, it assumes that the capitalists will be united behind a fascist-type policy of repression, and this seems to me doubtful too.”
“It follows,” Sweezy goes on to say (and here is his strategic advice), “that there is at least the objective basis for a cross-class alliance between those suffering most from monopoly capitalism and the more far-seeing elements of the ruling class, a kind of new New Deal, but with the working class as the organizing and hegemonic force.”
If that was sound advice forty years ago, (and it was, even though, as things worked out, the opposite happened: a cross-class coalition of the right – the rise of Reagan and Reaganism – ascended to power and imposed a regime, looking much like the one about which Sweezy warned) doesn’t the existential and palpable threat of white nationalist, anti-democratic authoritarian rule today require strategic as well as tactical shifts along the lines suggested by Sweezy if we have any hope of a livable and democratic future?
Doesn’t it beg for an inclusive coalition not only between “those suffering most” and the “more far-seeing elements of the ruling class,” but also tens of millions who occupy other locations in the class structure of our society?
Doesn’t it argue for a big tent strategy, linking the center, progressive, and left lanes of U.S. politics and anyone else on the political spectrum ready to resist the return of a regime that, if given another opportunity, would lay waste to our democracy and prove incapable of addressing the great existential challenges of the 21st century.
The obvious answer to each of these questions, to me anyway, is an emphatic “Yes.”
But what makes this conjuncture different from that of four decades ago is that Sweezy’s strategic advice isn’t wishful thinking. The 2020 election was a natural experiment, offering proof – not in theory, but in life – that a far flung, diverse, and multi-class coalition can be assembled and is capable of defeating a retrograde, racist, patriarchal, xenophobic, anti-working class, and plutocratic authoritarian-fascist like political bloc.
But what the 2020 election didn’t do is precipitate a sea change in power relations in Washington or across the country. Neither Biden nor Congressional Democrats won in a landslide. The victory was, in fact, a narrow one, something that too many of their supporters fail, even now, to appreciate. In the House, the Democratic advantage was only 9 seats; in the Senate, the split was 50 to 50.
A bitter and contentious transition
Normally, the transition from one president to another is smooth and peaceful, a celebration of U.S. democracy. But in this case it turned into its opposite, thanks to Trump and his acolytes. No concession speech. No photo ops. No handshake. No cooperation. No celebration.
Instead, he doubled down and went nasty. Without a shred of evidence, he declared Biden’s victory fraudulent and set his dogs loose to reverse the results. But when this reckless assault on democracy, truth, and election integrity came up empty, he did what a majority of Americans considered unimaginable. He and his thugs (no rhetorical inflation) organized a bloody and deadly assault on the for the Capitol to nullify Biden’s victory and install himself, once again, in the White House.
The coup – a characterization I’ve come around to – didn’t succeed, but what it did do is further radicalize the Trumpist political bloc, announced the full blown arrival of violent white power organizations in the public square, and provided the Trumpist movement with its own “Lost Cause.” It also turned the Trump steal narrative and the blizzard of other conspiracy theories into the accepted wisdom informing millions of Trump supporters. If anyone thought – not outlandish – that Trump’s defeat and then attempt to overturn the elections by force would trigger a political rethink in the GOP and push Trump to the party’s margins, they were quickly disabused of that idea. Nearly everyone in the Republican Party fell into line, save a few courageous dissidents, who became targets of death threats and outcasts in their own party.
Even a pandemic that kills over 850,00 people, disrupt everyday life beyond imagination, stoke inflation, mangle global supply chains, and persist far longer than most of us anticipated – due in no small part to Trumpist anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-science politics – became fodder for Trump and his acolytes to exploit for political advantage and score points against Biden. That more people, including their own supporters, would die unecessarily due to their politicization of a global health crisis is inconsequential to them. They don’t give a damn!
This rapid regrouping on the Trumpist right, one would have hoped, should have been matched by a speedy regrouping and re-engagement of the cross-class coalition that elected Biden and a Democratic Congressional majority, slim as it was, in the Senate and House. But that didn’t happen. The coalition took its foot off the gas petal as Biden took office.
In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Susan Glasser sees things differently. She writes,
“Many of the national indicators have improved, too: more than seventy percent of American adults are vaccinated; there are promising new treatments for covid; unemployment has fallen, wages have risen, the economy has rebounded, and the stock markets have hit record highs that would have had Trump beating his chest. Biden managed to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill through Congress, with more than a trillion dollars in new spending, something that Trump never delivered.”
But then she pivots:
“But the national mood is sour, and understandably so. Sanity, competence, and civility have not exactly returned to Washington; normalcy is not just around the corner. Biden, it is now clear, promised what he couldn’t deliver in a nation divided against itself. He trafficked in hope that was arguably as misleading in its own way as Trump’s lies.”
“A year into an Administration,” she continues, “is not the right time to judge its record. But with Biden’s ambitious Build Back Better social-spending bill stalled in the 50–50 Senate by West Virginia’s Democratic senator and a united wall of Republican resistance and with grim prospects for the Party in the upcoming midterm elections, few speak anymore of Biden as a transformative figure.”
In this account, Biden’s ambitions got the best of him. He “trafficked in hope,” made promises that he couldn’t keep, underestimated the resistance of the Republican Party, and proved unable to unite his own party. A “transformative figure,” he wasn’t. But what is conspicuously, but not suprisingly, absent from Glasser’s dissection of Biden is any hint that the coalition that elected him has any responsibility for the present political impasse, for Biden’s failure to move his full agenda.
Nor does she display any appreciation whatsoever that transformative presidents are as much a product of an aroused populace and changing circumstances as they are of their own doing.
Glasser’s omission, however, is remedied by Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. Instead of piling on Biden as Glasser does, which on its face is easy to do, he foregoes easy, but banal criticism and chooses to situate and evaluate the president in a larger historical context. After mentioning some of the main barriers facing the Biden administration – the rise and resistance of Trumpism, the braking actions of Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, and “the ancient features of the American State” (the Electoral College, gerrymandering, restrictions on ballot access, the filibuster rule, the institution of the Senate, etc.), Robin, in sharp contrast to Glasser, makes this trenchant observation of Biden and “reconstructive” presidents.
“Every reconstructive president must confront vestiges of the old regime. The slavocracy evaded Lincoln’s grasp by seceding; the Supreme Court repeatedly thwarted F.D.R. Yet they persisted. How?”
“What each of these presidents,” he goes on to write, “had at their back was an independent social movement. Behind Lincoln marched the largest democratic mass movement for abolition in modern history. Alongside F.D.R. stood the unions. Each of these movements had their own institutions. Each of them was disruptive, upending the leadership and orthodoxies of the existing parties. Each of them was prepared to do battle against the old regime. And battle they did.”
“Social movements,” he adds “… exercise a kind of power that presidents do not possess but that they can use. That is why, after Lincoln’s election, Frederick Douglass called the abolitionist masses ‘the power behind the throne’.”
“An independent social movement,” Robin concludes, “is what Mr. Biden does not have (my italics). Until he or a successor does, we may be waiting on a reconstruction [political, economic, and cultural – SW] that is ready to be made but insufficiently desired.”
Robin could have easily included Lyndon B. Johnson to his short list of reconstructive presidencies and the civil rights movement led by Dr. King as LBJ’s “power behind the throne.”
Where is the power behind the throne
Now it’s not as if everybody has been sitting on their hands since the election. They haven’t. It’s easy, in fact, to point to popular struggles and campaigns since then, perhaps none more impressive, to me anyway, than the series of labor strikes and organizing drives. I’m also sure liberal, progressive, and labor lobbying arms in Washington have been busy in the halls of Congress, making a case for the Biden’s political and legislative agenda.
But what is still missing is mass action by his election supporters on a scale necessary to move and codify into legislative statutes many of the democratic and progressive elements of his agenda as well as pushback on his wrongly conceived foreign policy that could land far more people than we probably think in dire and deadly circumstances.
Or, to put it differently, the diverse, cross-class coalition – a coalition that stretches from Bill Kristol on the right to Michael Bloomberg and “woke” capital to the AFL-CIO and its new leadership to the Democratic Party and its progressive wing to people of color and their organizational infrastructures to the women’s movement to the LGBTQ community to the majority of young people to a slice of rural America and the religious community, and finally, to Angela Davis and the electionist left – that carried Biden across the finish line in November 2020 has done nowhere near enough since then to drive the administration’s progressive, domestic agenda or restain his aggressive impulses on a global level.
When Biden, for example, introduced Build Back Better – a bill that if passed would strike a blow against 30 years of neoliberalism and Reaganism – this same coalition, save Reverend Barber and the Poor People’s campaign and a few others, did little in the public square demanding the bill’s passage. The bill was more an object of interest than a subject of struggle. Nothing like Solidarity Day I or II in the early Reagan years saw the light of day. Or, the Women’s March at the time of Trump’s inauguration. Or, the social uprising triggered by the police of asassination of George Floyd captured public attention.
Even when the bill, albeit in shrunken form, was hanging by a thread, there were few feet on the ground in Washington or other cities and small towns across the country calling for its passage. No doubt their absence made it much easier for West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to oppose it and, in doing so, kill the bill, as it is currently constructed.
Nor have deafening voices ricocheted across the country or impatient feet filled the National Mall, as the Civil Rights Movement and the peace movement did in the sixties, demanding peace in the latter case and in the former, the repeal of the filibuster, the passage of a voting rights’ bill, and other measures to democratize the state and society. Such measures, if combined with present day demands, such as statehood for DC, a new Wagner labor rights act, a reconstruction of the criminal justice system, protection of Roe v. Wade, and the repeal of Citizens United, would, if enacted, create a structural “fortress,” to use the language of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, to protect, expand, and embed democratic rule and rights into the political fabric of the state and the social-cultural fabric of society.
Finally, in the daily clashes over the Covid pandemic, the people and organizations that elected Biden haven’t left their collective mark on these clashes, even though Covid and its myriad issues surrounding it will be fiercely contested in the midterm elections this fall. The same passivity isn’t evident on the other side of today’s great political divide however. From school board meetings to state legislatures to right-wing judges to right-wing and social media outlets to public demonstrations, pin the blame on Biden for Covid and its disruptions is the blood sport of the Tumpist movement.
Granted the pandemic makes a mass presence difficult. But making the difficult doable is what leaders of mass organizations are elected to do. If there’s a will, and a splash of creativity, there’s a way.
Leave an imprint
Of the reasons to explain the absence of mass struggle since Biden’s election, what sticks out is a failure of political imagination, expressed in two ways. First, the coaliton that elected Biden seemingly didn’t comprehend that if Biden is successful in enacting the democratic and progressive elements of his poltical and legislative agenda, its political hand would be strengthened in every other field of struggle going forward.
Second, it also failed to understand that when a Democrat sits in the White House and Democrats control both chambers of Congress, the imperative of mass and sustained engagement of their supporters in practical and ideological terms retains every bit as much urgency as it would were the Republicans – God forbid – in control of the White House and Congress.
Now if Biden had a congressional majority in the Senate and House approximating the majorities that Roosevelt and Johnson could count on in their first terms, the argument, perhaps, would carry less force. But he doesn’t. Far from it. The Democratic advantage in the Senate and House, as everyone knows, is razor thin and Republican opposition to Biden’s agenda is locked in and fierce. Any defection in the Senate, therefore, is a legislative bill’s death knell.
In these circumstances, mass intervention – practically and ideologically – on our side of the political ledger sheet into the fray of politics should be a no brainer. But it clearly wasn’t.
In short, Biden has pressed his agenda better than the diverse coalition that elected him has fought for it and, in some instances, against it. But luckily for us, the past isn’t always prologue to the future. In the next nine months that same coalition and its powerful constituencies have an opportunity to make a necessary mid-course correction, thereby allowing them to leave their collective stamp on the legislative process, on policies of the administration in the global theater, and on the midterm elections.
As for the latter, it’s past time to turn attention and energies to this field of struggle. If anything is of singular importance to the future, it is the fall elections and the next round of elections two years later. On their outcome, the fate of democracy and the future could well rest.
Urgency of now
Like the 1850s, 1930s, and 1960s, someone (or ones) have to step up and assume the role of energizer, if not convenor, of this larger election coalition. Will it be labor and its new leadership? Will it be the Democratic Party and its progressive wing (and I understand that term broadly)? Will it be the African American people? The Latino people? The women’s movement? Young people? Or some combination of the above that become the catalyst of sustained mobilization and dynamic unity?
I would include the left, broadly defined, here, but I don’t think it yet has the political and organizational capacity to assume such a role. Nevertheless, there is a major role for it, just not this one. What then?
For the section of the left that is radical but realistic, mindful of the existential danger to democracy and democratic governance, and ready to mobilize voters to elect Democrats without enumerating at every opportunity a long list of qualifying criticisms, its participation will surely make a difference. Some of these activists already participate in left led political-electoral formations in states, like VA, NY, FL, TX, and more. Others, and the more the merrier, will leave their mark (as happened in the 1930s when the left in general and communists in particular were instrumental in energizing labor and tranforming it into the “power behind throne”) in broader political and social formations – especially the labor movement, the Democratic Party, and one or another of the array of new electoral forms – that are committed to rebuffing Trumpist candidates and electing Democrats this November. This, I believe, is crucial. For when powerful and well resourced organizations combine with the energy of young activists to educate and mobilize voters, an uphill election contest can quickly turn into a winning campaign, in which Democrats best their Republican foes and how big is that?
It’s real big!
After all, it’s no secret that the outcome of the elections this year as well as two years hence will go a long way in determining whether the country descends into the dark tunnel of racist, anti-working class, patriarchal, plutocratic authoritarian or fascist – your choice – rule or begins a new ascent to a more liveable, sustainable, egalitarian, peaceful, and democratic future. That may sound hyperbolic, a bit over the top, but, I’m afraid, it isn’t. These are the stakes and thus elections and voting matters! In fact, nothing, absolutely nothing at this MOMENT matters more! Much will depend on which of the cross class coalitions expends the most energy, articulates the most persuasive messages, and turns out the vote on election day.
The overarching imperative on our side, therefore, is to ACT. Though delivered a half century ago and notwithstanding the difference in circumstances, the speech of Reverend Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in New York where he declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam, is worth recalling,
“We are now faced,” he said, “with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: Too Late.”
No doubt there will be headwinds. There already are, as I have tried to outline above as well as tensions that will crop up within the popular coalition fighting for democracy, substantive change, and a larger Democratic governing majority. And to this we should add the current inflationary pressures, the trajectory of the pandemic, the power of the right wing-Republican Party messaging machine, and other tripwires, some that I haven’t mentioned, others that will unexpectedly arise.
But none of headwinds are insurmountable. If the expansive coalition that elected Biden acts with a heightened sense of urgency and unity – particularly multi-racial unity – and morphs into the latest iteration of “the power behind the throne,” the present and palpable danger to democractic rule and the other existential challenges of our unsettled times can be vanquished and we can climb to higher ground. END