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.




Trump’s sorry, but dangerous speech in Poland

At the beginning of the Cold War, C. E. Wilson, the CEO of General Electric, said that the country faced two enemies: the Soviet Union abroad and labor at home. Today in Poland, Trump said that the country again faces two enemies in what he calls “a civilizational crisis.” But this time, the enemies are “radical Islamic terrorism” abroad and “the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people” at home.

He asked a bused in crowd from rural Poland and loyalists of the right wing Polish government, with a barely disguised subtext of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia, “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

In the late 1940s, Wilson’s aphorism became the outlook and policy guide for the country’s elite and what followed was a long era of war and intervention in far flung regions of the world and retrenchment and reaction here, put over in the language of the Red Scare and the Soviet Menace. But as bad as it was it would have been far worse had it not been for the civil rights movement in the early sixties and the other social movements that came on its heels, challenging official policy and offering a different vision to the country.

Today the majority of the American people aren’t drinking Trump’s Kool Aid like Americans drank Wilson’s and his Cold War counterparts in business, government, the media, and Hollywood during that earlier time. But it goes without saying that there is no reason for any of us to rest comfortable. The opposition to Trump and Congressional Republicans — at least from my small patch — while remarkable and encouraging in many ways, isn’t yet deep or broad or sustained enough to the challenge we face.

July 4

1. I’ve heard it said that it was the act of fighting and dying in the Civil War that earned slaves and freed Black people their citizenship rights.

There is obviously truth in that notion.

But leaving it there misses an important point. Citizenship rights shouldn’t have to be “earned.” They should be inalienable, natural, and universal, that is, derivative from our humanity. Clearly neither whiteness (nor gender nor property rights) should be a condition for obtaining and exercising these rights. Nor should they depend on combat credentials.

But, obviously, we don’t live in a just world in which full citizenship is the unqualified birthright of every person. In the case of the African American people, their unrelenting struggle for full citizenship rights continues to this day. And, as at the time of the Civil War, it carries great moral and political force not only because they spilled blood in the Civil War and wars that followed (despite the fact that Black troops were segregated and discriminated against until after World War II). But, more broadly, because they can righteously claim long seniority in this land, a singular and outsized contribution to the nation’s economic take off and subsequent development (obtained by violently coerced unpaid and then underpaid labor) and, not least, their front row position in every phase and dimension of the country’s democratic and progressive advance.

And that history also is the social and material basis for full restorative justice and remuneration on the stockpile of promissory notes earned by and owed to the African American community.

2. Below is an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ address on July 4, 1952 in Rochester, NY. It retains its power today, especially against the background of the rise of right four decades ago and Trump’s election last year.

“Fellow-citizens, I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad: it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. it fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet you cling to it as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!”

3. Here is a song, Independence Day, written and sung by Bruce Springsteen. Actually, it has nothing to do with July 4, except perhaps in a very roundabout way. But I thought I would include it in this post. It resonates deeply with me. It’s about Springsteen’s conflict and eventual break with his father.

I  had a similar Independence Day. Like Springsteen, I had conflicted feelings toward my father in my younger years. He could be kind and gentle. He was never absent in a physical sense, and he provided for our family. I also knew his life hadn’t been easy. He lost his father and moved from Canada to Maine at a young age, dropped out of high school early on, and did sweated labor his whole working life. He also suddenly lost his first wife (my mother) in his early fifties and surely felt ill equipped to raise three young boys, which as it turned out he didn’t have to do, thanks to my elderly grandmother and my step mother whom he married a couple of years after my mother’s death.

But my father also struggled with the terrible illnesses of alcoholism and depression. And when drunk, which was too many weekends, he got mean and verbally abusive. Needless to say, that took its toll on me and the rest of the family. So much so that when my father reached the ugly side of drunk on Christmas Day 1968, as we were sitting down for dinner, I snapped and left the table, and took a bus to Portland where I spent a couple of nights in the YMCA before making my way back to Connecticut, where I was then living and going to school. I forget exactly what I said as I walked out the door on that cold, wintry day other than he would never see my face on a holiday again — a promise that I unfailingly kept to his final day.

At the time it seemed like the right thing to do, and even a half century later I still think I did what I had to do. If I have any regrets it is that we never found a way to talk about our troubled relationship, even when he was at death’s door. I told him how much I loved him as I sat by his hospital bed. But we left it at that. The earlier pain between us wasn’t mentioned.

Since then I have had many imaginary conversations with him. In fact, as strange as it may seem, I sometimes wish that we could sit down for a good drinking session in a neighborhood bar. I figure that some of the walls of loneliness, heartache, and anger that surrounded and divided us might melt away as we drained a glass or two of beer. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but who knows? Sometimes drink can open a person’s heart and give voice to deep heartache, as the juke box plays and someone yells, “drinks all around.”

4. A left that doesn’t contest with the right over the meaning of national traditions, symbols, and historical events isn’t doing itself any favors. If we are looking for an example of someone who did this, we can probably do no better than to turn to the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. He was in my opinion the outstanding revolutionary democrat of the 20th century insofar as he sunk his program, oratory, and vision of radical democracy into the best of our nation’s traditions and broadly appealed to the American people.

5. Any strategic policy worth its salt should not only point out the main obstacle to social progress, but also the larger class and social forces that have to be assembled if there is any hope of slaying the immediate dragon and moving on to confront other dragons that block the doorway to freedom. Once this is done then a whole range of other questions — issues of struggle, forms of action, approach to unity, main sites of mass engagement as well as popular demands, slogans, and messaging become easier to resolve on grounds that move beyond individual political preferences and rest on larger objective realities.


The political center, the Democratic Party, and taking racism out of the shadows

1.  The notion that Democrats are clinging to the political center strikes me as problematic. Things are clearly changing in the Democratic Party and across the country, and have been for a while now. The party’s election platform reflected these changes as did Hillary’s campaign. Free trade, unregulated banks, and austerity aren’t the toast of the party as they had been. Instead, the conversation is trending in a progressive direction, even if what is doable legislatively is very limited for the moment. And without question, Bernie Sanders and his campaign had a considerable hand in this process.

Furthermore, at the local level, new faces and energy are filling the rooms at Democratic Party meetings. And perhaps to the surprise of some, the party’s leadership in Congress has conducted themselves quite well in difficult circumstances.

That said, much still needs to be done. And the immediate challenge is to unite its various currents against the Trump-right-wing-authoritarian juggernaut — and especially in next year’s elections, while, at the same time, contesting in a cooperative spirit over program, policies, and priorities and rebuilding the Democratic Party in urban and rural America alike.

What isn’t of any value is over-zealous efforts to call out the “center” or to isolate the “left. The unity of one with the other, notwithstanding political tensions, is especially imperative in present circumstances.

2. It is said by some on the left that the political center in U.S. politics has disappeared. Some say it is “imaginary.” I find that to be a harmful notion if taken seriously. The country is polarized in many ways, but it doesn’t follow that tens of millions comfortably fit on the progressive-left end of the political spectrum. I wish that were the case, but I don’t see the evidence for it. In my own interactions, which I realize can’t be generalized, people hold very contradictory — some disturbing — positions on a range of issues. Few possess a consistent and articulated progressive-left worldview. Many are of mixed, even warring, minds. Most don’t like Trump, but more than a few are suspicious of “big government,” worried about taxes and terrorism, and on issues of race, gender, and immigration the conversation can become problematic.

To say otherwise in my view comes from a radicalism that is in too much of a hurry and too anxious to reach its final destination as well as isolated from everyday working class life. It fails to understand that the maxim”haste makes waste” can ring true in politics.

Now don’t get me wrong. Progressive messaging and candidates are a indispensable piece of the puzzle, but only a piece. It will also take millions of conversations on people’s doorsteps and elsewhere and involvement in seemingly mundane day to day struggles — not to mention a left that has majoritarian politics on its mind.

3. Bernie Sanders’ speech at the recent People’s Summit in Chicago sounded a lot of right notes, but I couldn’t help noticing that he largely reduced racism to simply a tool of division and disunity in the working class movement. I have heard others on the left, usually advocating a progressive populism, do much the same.

What goes unmentioned in this narrative is that racism is also a material reality that leaves people of color in subordinate positions and discriminated against in every sphere of life. What also is missing is any mention that racist ideas are pervasive, crude as well as subtle, reach people in both direct and roundabout ways, and rest, in the last analysis, on the systematic reproduction of the conditions and substance of racial inequality. Without the latter, the popularization of racist thinking would have an infinitely harder time finding a receptive audience.

It also dodges the relative, but real, advantages conferred on white workers due to their whiteness, even in this period where broad decline in living standards across large sections of the population, including white workers, has been a defining feature. This isn’t to suggest that racism doesn’t confer by far its greatest on the 1 per cent nor that white workers aren’t disadvantaged in innumerable ways due to racism, but to understand its durability any analysis can’t stop here. It has to take into account as well the relative advantages received by white workers and people for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Finally, an appreciation — let alone a deep one — of the unmatchable political experience, political/strategic clarity, and dynamic role of people of color — and especially African American people — in the working class and broader people’s movement over time is nowhere to be found in this narrative.

How do we explain this blind spot? If it is simply an oversight, it is easily correctable. But if it expresses a political-class strategy that considers issues of equality other than divisions along income lines a hindrance to the formation of common class interests and a broad popular coalition against Trump in the near term and corporate capitalism in the longer term, it’s a much more serious problem that should be squarely faced.

For unless it is, it becomes virtually impossible not only to grasp the present moment and how we arrived here, but also how to extricate the country from the current mess and onto a new political trajectory.

4. In his review of the production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” now staging in Central Park. New York Times op-ed writer, Ross Douthat writes that Trump’s presidency is but the latest expression of “a creeping Caesarism in the executive [that] has been a feature of our politics for many years.” I find this highly misleading and disingenuous. Trump and Trumpism constitute a break from past politics – a rupture. Trump constitutes a danger to democratic governance that we haven’t faced ever before. He’s not typical, but atypical. Trump may be a symptom of the larger crisis and longer term trends, but his combination of megalomania, authoritarianism, and plunder with no governor of labor and the earth’s natural systems, is his unique staple and our worst nightmare. If he is a creature of anything, it is, first of all, the rise of the right and its racist, nativist, misogynist, anti-democratic, homophobic, and anti-working class posture and politics. But, at the same time, he is a unique and unprecedented threat to the fundamentals of democracy and life itself.

5. Speaking again of Douthat, in another oped in the NYT he argues that both sides of our polarized political climate are to blame for the violent rhetoric and violence. He mentions Kathy Griffin in the same breadth with Sean Hannity. On its face it may sound sensible to many readers, but if set against the actual record of the past 40 years, its intellectual dishonesty and political opportunism is unmistakable. No one — and Douthat has to know this — comes remotely close to approaching what the extreme right has done to poison the atmosphere and politics of the country. Its stock and trade has been racism, misogyny and sexism, nativism and anti-immigrant incitement, homophobia, anti-unionism, hyper nationalism, and violence.


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