Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Left-center unity and the 2008 elections

By Joel Wendland

A slew of articles in recent days have announced, commented on, or criticized Barack Obama's "shift to the center." Look at a recent op-ed from The Nation, for example. We are regaled with the signs and wonders that indicate a centrist candidate, and implicit in it is the call to help move Barack Obama to the left.

While these articles may be helpful journalism, one could ask, Is this the role of left and progressive organizations, voters, and publications? Is it our role to be left shifters?

Perhaps, but only if we were of a mistaken opinion that Obama, apart from his campaign's genuineness, uniqueness, and its people-oriented character, is an independent, left-wing candidate who in a very short period of time has lost his way. Perhaps, if we have forgotten that the Democratic Party is a contradiction of capital and labor, party insiders and independents (like the labor movement), with inside and outside tactics.

In my opinion, it makes little sense to talk about Obama shifting this way or that. Campaign tactics are campaign tactics. Obama's special ability to invoke, speak to, mobilize, and unite a left-center cause, though being of the center himself, is a special characteristic of this moment. With his eloquence and message, Obama has brought millions of new voters and activists into the process in ways that third party candidates have so far only fantasized about. He has promoted a broad unity in ways that third party candidates have failed even to imagine.

At a speech in Illinois as his claim to securing the nomination neared, Obama spoke of bringing together people from "all parties" to win the White House, turn the tide against the ultra right, and take back our country. Accomplishing that is on his agenda. Is it on our ours? Do we have to agree with him on all things to get behind a movement of tens of millions of people for real change and progress? Does sniping at Obama (or the center as a whole) from the sidelines endear the professional left to the rest of the working class or the people for whom we claim to speak?

So what is left-center unity? Does it mean advancing all progressive issues and denying the reality that millions of voters who have the strongest influence on Obama are not self-identified progressives or leftists? Heck, winning on November 4th means Obama needs bitter gun-toters, radical leftists, evangelicals, tree-huggers, factory workers, IT specialists, janitors, professors, seniors, students, civil libertarians, law and order types, hermits, urbanites, farmers, cops, soldiers, peaceniks, war supporters, and even some Wall Street speculators and Republicans to vote for him and fund his campaign. Does he accomplish it by adopting The Nation's political agenda?

On the other hand, does left-center unity mean sidelining any progressive cause for the sake of pushing the center ahead to electoral victory and to set the political agenda? Does it mean perpetually contrasting left positions with the center's positions? Is that unifying?

People of the left of various parties, movements, and publications often confuse cynicism and skepticism with analysis and correctness. Who wants to be duped?

Fortunately, none of that is necessary at the moment. Let's ask and answer some of these questions instead: What are the key demands of the labor movement, women's equality movements, racial justice and equality movements, and the special struggles of young people that must be accomplished if a left-center agenda is to win both at election time and to succeed in passing in Congress in a potential Obama admin.?

Along with ending the war in Iraq, aren't these the demands that we should fight for and strive to win the unity of the center and left forces around in our struggle to defeat John McCain and the Republicans and bring Obama and the Democrats into power in a landslide?

Is it possible to view left-center unity in terms of compromise: yes, a lot of crap will get through, but do we win on a few issues that will strengthen the core forces of the working class and democratic movements so that we emerge stronger in a qualitative way for a future struggle? Does standing on principle against crap block our chances of strengthening our own hand?

What do you think?


Harold said...

Sure, "we" win on a few issues that will strengthen the working class, but supporting this "center-left" platform ensures that we will lose on many more than we win on. One step forward, two or three steps back.

We do not emerge stronger for a future struggle. We win some short term victories, but the center, right (and right-center) win more, only making our future struggle more burdensome. We take a hit in the long-term by supporting the center.

And once again the war of ideas (being furthered by no candidate except Nader) takes a back seat to our willingness to win some quick victories that have little to no lasting significance.

Anonymous said...


I think you do a great job of highlighting the difficulties of how to relate to the Obama campaign. It seems to me that there are two broad types of left critics of Obama's supposed "shift to the center." On the one hand are the Nation types who support Obama and are grappling with the contradictions that you describe. On the other are those who have always opposed Obama and take every occasion on which he fails to act like a leftist (which, of course, he is not) as an affirmation of their faith. These are the ones - many of them marxists - who seem like self-satisfied cynics to me.

Is the approach of either of these types correct? Certainly, I would say that the latter is not. The former is a far more difficult question for me. On the one hand, I do feel that it is important for the constituent elements of the movement for Obama to propel this candidacy, and that of other Democrats, in the best direction possible. This does not necessarily mean shifting Obama leftward so much as pushing to make sure that the tasks of the left-center agenda are fulfilled.

The difficulty, in my mind, is exactly how to develop some kind of accountability to the the left-center coalition without dampening the kind of movement enthusiasm for Obama that will be necessary for the landslide victory that is the basis for fully enacting the agenda. Treating Obama as the "lesser evil" or anything of that sort will certainly not help in generating the enthusiasm that we need.

I find these to be difficult questions of strategy and approach and I'm glad that they're being raised and discussed here. To Harold I would say that I don't think that any of this means not participating in the battle of ideas. But ideas must be tied to making strategic advances. This is why I find what I've seen of the CP election policy inspiring. Also, I think that saying these victories will have little to no lasting merit is WAY off base. A Dem majority and a President Obama can pass the Employee Free Choice Act. If held accountable, they will do so. This would entirely transform union organizing in this country. That's just one example of the kinds of opportunities for significant victories that are open for the working class.

Sorry if any of this is unclear. Coffee is still kicking in.

-Mike K.

Harold said...


Regarding the potential passage of the Employee Free Choice, you say that a Dem. majority and President Obama would pass it if held accountable.

The problem, obviously, is how we are to hold the powers that be accountable - by means of our democracy, we have no such power. We can march and protest all we like (and we will), but history shows the for the most part, and particularly over the last 25 years or so, people's protest movements have little effect on right and center government administrations.

As Cheney and Dana Perino said just about a month or so ago, we have our voice to exercise once every four years. Sadly this is, again for the most part, true by all practical measures.

Call me a cynic of you wish - I understand where that impression comes from, but by no means am I satisfied - but the question remains: We can talk about holding them accountable, but how do we actually do it?

Anonymous said...


When I wrote the "self-satisfied cynic" comment I mostly had the writings from various ultra-left groups in mind. It wasn't meant to slight you and I apologize if it came off that way.

The question of how to hold elected officials accountable is an important one that I don't have an answer for. Certainly I think protest is a part of that. Some in the labor movement are thinking about strategies for accountability (see, in particular, SEIU's $10 million fund to "punish" politicians that they help elect who fail to advance a pro-worker agenda). What all this will mean remains to be seen.

My question, relating back to my previous post, is this: If we, as a movement, become overly concerned with questions of accountability now, will it be possible to aid in achieving the type of landslide victory CAPABLE of accomplishing the tasks of the left-center agenda?

-Mike K.

Peter Zerner said...

The notion of left-center unity is a crucial one in this election. A unity of the left and the center is the only way to move the country forward. It is the only combination that can deliver the votes to elect Barack Obama. Therefore, it is counterproductive to protest Barack Obama's reasonable attempts to unite the forces which together constitute the majority of voters in this country at the present time.

To work against Obama or withhold financial and get-out-the-vote support for him because of his vote on FISA, his comments on gun legislation, or his support for faith-based initiatives (with a secular underpinning in terms of employment and proselytizing)is counterproductive, in that it inhibits the real possibility we now have for progressive change in the US.

We have had a right-center coalition for some thirty years in this country, with disastrous results for the center and the left and everybody but the rich right.

The key point here is that the unity being promoted is a left-center unity. The left forces are bringing the center along with them to promote real change. This is the grassroots movement we are experiencing. It is a movement impelled by an independent, left-wing spirit, but we need the center, and there must be some tactical compromise to hold that left-center unity together.

Back in 1997, Gus Hall noted that "the left and center forces are the fastest-growing sector of the trade union movement. Only left-center unity can adequately respond to the new level of the class struggle.

There can be no really big advances without left-center unity. History shows that it was left-center forces that led the early organizing struggles of the 1930s. It was left-center unity that organized to fight for all the progressive legislation down through the years, including labor and civil rights laws. There can be no effective struggle against racism without left-center unity."

Gus was talking about the labor movement and the working class, but most people in America are part of the working class now, whatever the work they work for love or money. So the labor movement and the working class have both expanded. It is left-center unity that will bring victory in November, and progressive change will follow fast on the heels of that victory. Let's not be side-tracked at this crucial juncture by left-wing sectarianism, let's work for left-center unity and a landslide victory in November.

Because of the continuing corporate assault and the growing state- monopoly character of the forces and power arrayed against labor, the trade union movement must become a bigger factor in the field of electoral politics. The trade unions cannot forever remain tied to the Democratic Party. The working class must establish a political party that fights for its class interests.

Peter Zerner said...

Please note that the final paragraph in my original comment is an inadvertent cut-and-paste from Gus Hall - it makes great sense as part of his remarks on left-center unity in the trade union movement in 1997 but should be deleted from my own remarks on the present political situation.

Anonymous said...

This has been an excellent series of responses to a very valuable and insightful article by Joel. I would only put in my historian's two sense to say that Obama is talking to both elites and masses as he prepares his campaign.

He is a Center-Left Democratic politician who, like others before him, including Lincoln and Roosevelt, will take positions that will disappoint and even anger left forces who support him, not to mention those who would never support anyone who wasn't 100 percent commmitted to what they stood for.
The question is, as the campaign develops, will Obama focus on the economic crisis and its effects on the society, the injustices that it has radiated through the society, and mobilize what is an anti-racist and anti-reactionary majority.
I think that he will and I haven't been worried by his recent maneuverings to take away evangelical votes from the right Republicans, to affirm support for Israel because of the importance of Jewish American voters and activists to the victory of the forces that have projected him forward, etc.
It is not only that Obama is a less worse than McCain but that he clearly has represented in broad outlines a break with the dead end politics of the National Democratic Party since Center-Right Democrats regained control of the party after McGovern's 1972 Defeat.
What strikes me and other comrades here in New Jersey and from what I here in other parts of the country is that Obama has inspired a grassroots movement and campaign of large numbers of activists who are independent of the Democratic Party and are in the campaign to end the Bush domestic and foreign policies, get a national health system, raise living standards, protect the environment, pursue a peace oriented and United Nations oriented foreign policy. These are the people whom we can relate to and influence with our political understanding as the campaign develops on the issues and gain strength from. But, it is Obama, like Roosevelt in the 1930s who has really galvanized them.
The second phase of the struggle to build an anti-racist progressive politics will begin after Obama has won the presidency and, hopefully the Democrats have substantially strengthened their position in Congress. But for the second phase to happen, the first phase, where we are now, must be successful.
Norman Markowitz

Harold said...

I think it will be interesting for us all to discuss these things, if Obama is victorious (don't get me wrong - Obama must win in November), in a couple of years, to see how the "possibilities for progressive change" have panned out.

Karin Coddon said...

Dear Joel --

You articulate my own views quite eloquently; we on the hard left (a term I proudly use) must work our hearts out to ensure that McCain loses and Obama wins with a broad coalition of left & center. I'm under no illusions that Obama will radically alter a political system that is structurally broken, but he does represent reasonable hope that some of progressives' most cherished goals will be realized. An end to the Iraq war, a Justice Department that serves the interests of the disadvantaged and not the executive branch, a Supreme Court not poised to overturn Roe v. Wade ... the list goes on. And let's not forget what happened in 2000 when so many liberal/leftists went for Nader and made it all the easier for Bush to steal the election. It's safe to say that 8 years of Gore would have been a hell of a lot preferable to what we as a nation have endured under Bush. I like "The Nation," but their position you referenced reminded me yet again why I prefer PA, both as a reader and a frequent contributor.

Anonymous said...

Those who try to push Obama to the Left don't expect Obama to be a leftist but merely expect a bare minimum of Obama not embracing far-right positions such as support of faith-based initiatives. Heres a good article on the subject.

Also, since Political Affairs is a marxist publication and The Nation is a liberal one I would expect PA to be more critical of Obama then The Nation.

P.S. Nader didn't cost Gore any votes. Heres a link that proves it.

Nutmeg Socialist said...

"I'm under no illusions that Obama will radically alter a political system that is structurally broken, but he does represent reasonable hope that some of progressives' most cherished goals will be realized."

Doesn't this sentence contradict itself? If the political system is "structurally broken" and affords no possibility of a real challenge to the ruling elite, how will "some of progressives' most cherished goals" ever be realized by working within its constraints as Obama does? And isn't making this broken system "unbroken" one of the left's most cherished goals in and of itself? Supporting Obama in this context basically amounts to an extremely rash trust exercise: you are trusting a bourgeois politician, with zero accountability to you but substantial accountability to those with vested interests in the way things are, to “do what’s right” out of the goodness of his heart. Obama may give a decent speech, if you ignore the utter lack of real content, but I doubt he’s the type to spontaneously morph into a latter-day version of Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith while in office. This also applies to most, though not all, of the Democratic Party.

Take the issue of withdrawal from Iraq: Firstly, it should be noted that Obama and the majority of the Democrats, pardon my language, do not give a good goddamn that the occupation has killed one million Iraqis (thus tripling in five years what Saddam Hussein managed in thirty) and displaced millions more, that it has permanently ruined most of the country’s infrastructure and human capital and thus precluded all possibility for real development, that it has set up Iraq for a regimen of neoliberal depredation unprecedented in our modern era, or that it signifies the U.S.’s complete disregard for the rights of people in any part of the world which it perceives as in the way of its global hegemony. Instead, they harp endlessly on a comparative handful of U.S. casualties at the hands of a valiant and justified Iraqi resistance, and on all the tactical inefficiencies that an extended occupation presents in the project to consolidate said hegemony. Thus, the fact that Obama is “refining” his position on withdrawal to a Nixon-esque “peace with honor” line , now that the occupation is going “well” (i.e. ethnic cleansing has succeeded in completely ghettoizing the country and has therefore run its course, and the resistance has been either bought off or asymmetrically massacred along with the civilian population). This reveals that all along his views on Iraq were contingent on how the occupation entered into a rational calculus of elite interests, with a bit of populist fodder thrown in for the families of dead soldiers. Obama’s belligerent stance toward Iran and Pakistan is evidence enough that he has no deeper aversion to the U.S. imperialist project as a whole.

On the issue of the Justice Department’s blithe negation of the Bill of Rights, Obama’s position on the FISA amendment speaks for itself. His rationale for supporting it was basically “Well, I’ll be more judicious with the whole warrantless wiretapping thing.” In other words, he acknowledges the need for a healthy bit of despotism in the “post-9/11 world”, but under him we don’t have to worry because it’ll be benevolent despotism. Pardon me for not falling all over myself with enthusiasm. The same thing goes for his views on free trade, social programs, the criminal “justice” system (he even advocates the death penalty for non-murderers), and fiscal practice: fundamentally right wing, but accompanied by a smile and a pat on the back.

As for the Supreme Court, okay, that's important. My personal view of Roe v. Wade is that it’s an identity politics issue and people can take or leave it; I think what should really have us all terrified is that one more justice along the lines of Scalia or Alito will turn the judicial branch into a subordinate of the executive for the long term - basically, it won't even matter who's president anymore, because the right-wing, anti-democratic elements in government will be intrinsically favored by way of "judicial precedent." This is the only angle to me wherein pragmatic support for Obama would actually make sense - although I emphasize that it would be pragmatic support, not uncritical cheerleading with token "well, we know he's not really leftist, but..." boilerplate caveats thrown in to make the position look more independent than it actually is.

The people who are calling for a “center-left coalition” that will lead to a “landslide” against the GOP miss the fairly obvious point that if you can only achieve a landslide by pandering extensively to the right, then the landslide doesn’t give the left a mandate, because it’s not what most of the people were voting for. If anything, it’s actually counterproductive – if the Democrats see that Obama’s soft conservatism veiled in vacuous, pseudo-inspirational speechifying is their electoral magic potion, what’s to stop them from adjusting the bulk of the party accordingly in a rightward direction? This is, after all, what happened in 1992 with Bill Clinton’s landslide: a similar, “centrist” Obama landslide would likely just undo the leftward progress that the Democrats have been slowly making since 2000. At any rate, who cares what views have majority status now? Instead of frantically adapting ourselves to existing majorities (the signature practice of unprincipled bourgeois office-seekers worldwide), we should remember Gramsci’s comments on the “war of position” in times of revolutionary dormancy: if your views don’t have a majority, then work on building one for them. I have a feeling that this type of party work, wherein we tirelessly educate people in Marxist theory and the fundamental injustices of capitalism (which has killed far, far more people than Mao and Stalin combined and doubled), will be much more fruitful in the long run than posting superficial and dogmatically pro-Democrat election analysis like a half-assed Daily Kos, or spending a million dollars of party funds on a swank New York office. Just my two cents.

Joel said...

To last anonymous: Who said anything about Nader? Your second url goes to a rambling op-ed and doesn't "prove" anything. One has to be a little off on the math to think that out of 97,000 people who voted for Nader in Florida, 538 of them wouldn't have otherwise been Gore backers in 2000 – the margin of victory for Bush.

Also, there are a lot of social justice faith groups. Why would you assume that it is automatically far right? Why would you insist that anyone who is religious is right wing? That seems to me to be a very narrow view.

On your point about criticism. The assumption that a marxist is automatically more critical than someone else could be viewed as narrow and dogmatic – even ultra leftist. Above criticism a marxist aims to promote tactics for building unity to accomplish a strategic goal.

In this case, struggling to hold the next Democratic president accountable to win some basic victories for our class: ending the war, win labor's rights, universal health care, environmental turn around, and making advances on key democratic questions such as equality. Not dividing and splitting people away from the movement of tens of millions who are now marching toward real change in order to get a few votes for a chimera and a victory for John McCain.

LubbockGreen said...

Nutmeg socialist: I think an inside outside election stand is superior to the outside only (read: lose always) concept some on the left propose. After 8 years of Bush and 30 years of ultra right rule we need some victories not just a lot of talk.

nutmeg socialist said...

lubbock: Fair point. My main beef with a lot of left groups is that they look horribly askance on ever strategically voting for Democrats in any scenario, and yet they don't take singificant action to forge an alternative, either. (I'm looking at you, Trotskyists.) However, the CPUSA's current line is the opposite extreme: Always vote for the Democrats, never aim any real criticism at them whatsoever. If an organization takes this approach, they make themselves just as irrelevant as the hardcore microsects: the Democrats are free to drift further and further to the right, the system retains its unassailable inertia, and we utter nary a peep because "At least the Republicans aren't in power." And then the Republicans do come into power, and we're right back where we started.

LubbockGreen said...

nutmeg: I think the CPUSA gets it right on the money: right now defeating John McCain and Republican rule (and all that comes with that) is more important than criticism of allies in the left-center unity thing. When we get past that point, we (of the independent minded, labor-oriented left set) are freer to rethink tactics and strategy and agenda because we have new ground on which to struggle.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't criticizing religious people. Many religious groups have criticized Bush's faith-based initiative. I thought someone had mentioned Nader. I might have confused this blog post with another one. In reply to a previous postes. Criticism of Obama and working to support a Center-Left coalition to defeat McCaina are not mutally exclusive. One of the the reasons that Bush and the right have been in power for nearly eight years is efforts by Democratic Candidates such as Gore and Kerry to move to the right. Left wing criticism is a problem not the solution. During the Clinton Administration, Gus Hall supported efforts by the Left to stop Clinton from moving to the right. Supporters of independent left wing candidates such as Nader are a major part of the Left and to reject them is just as narrow and dogmatic as rejecting all Democrats. How can you have a Left-Center coalition without the Left?

nutmeg socialist said...

"The assumption that a Marxist is automatically more critical than someone else could be viewed as narrow and dogmatic – even ultra leftist. Above criticism a Marxist aims to promote tactics for building unity to accomplish a strategic goal."

No. If you interpret Marxism this way, you stretch its definition to the point where it no longer means anything. Marxism holds that the ideology of liberalism, and the state structure that prevails under the capitalist system, are in the last analysis instruments of bourgeois class rule. If you work unquestioningly within this system, you only serve to validate it and are thus complicit in the continuing subordination of the working class. There once was a time, it's true, wherein the goals of Keynesianism in the West roughly coincided with the preliminary goals of socialism. One could thus argue that certain alliances of a limited and pragmatic character were in order then. However, this era has been over for thirty years. The hard-right, neoliberal consensus of the ruling class that has prevailed since then is now accepted across the board, not just by a bunch of meanie Republicans. No “mainstream” bourgeois candidate of either party can hope to induce major change in this system by playing according to the rules, because it’s the neoliberals that made these rules. Keynesianism, as limited as it was, only emerged in response to the threat of the Soviet Union, the ravages of two internecine imperialist wars, and wave after wave of global working-class militancy: neoliberalism at present doesn’t face any such imperative for change. It is our duty as Marxists to create an imperative, not to forego criticism of the system (which Barack Obama and the majority of his followers are thoroughly part of) in favor of pallid ideals of “unity.”

On that note, you should keep in mind that the “unity” you constantly emphasize is bound to be one-sided. Let’s do a thought experiment for a minute, wherein we imagine that the CPUSA is actually a significant political force that most people in the country have heard of – similar to, the AFL/CIO, etc. Do you honestly think that the Dems would meet overtures of “unity” on the CPUSA’s part with anything other than sheer horror and revulsion? This isn’t just because of electoral concerns over the negative connotations of “Communist”, either. The vast majority of Democratic officials are staunchly anti-socialist, anti-Communist, anti-materialist, and anti-everything that Marxism regards as important. They are not our friends. By and large, they are not decent people with socialists inside them trying to get out. They are not bourgeois knights-in-shining-armor taking up the crusade for social justice when the working class falters. To the extent that Democrats don’t outright overlap with the GOP, they merely represent a different section of capitalists– the “New Economy” based in information technology, finance, exports, and the entertainment industry, as well as bureaucratic union leadership which more often than not takes a collaborative role with capital in suppressing working class demands. These may be less viscerally unappealing to you than the likes of Enron, WorldCom, and Wal-Mart; their young, Obama-supporting up-and-comers may woo you with rhetoric of “hope” and “change”, but they are still capitalists, still operate under the same imperatives for profit at all costs, and still embrace the same fundamentally asocial relations of production which lead to economic instability and the collective disenfranchisement of workers and common people across the world.

Joel said...

Nutmeg: I think you have missed some basic points: 1) unity of working class and people's forces – left and center – isn't contingent on the Democratic Party. 2) this moment is a particular set of circumstances that requires certain types of actions; if the outcome we and tens of millions of working people and democratic minded people seek occurs and the ultra right is decisively defeated we can move on 3) thus, the assumption this moment will go on forever is mistaken: it will change and the way working people continue to struggle will also change 4)it is precisely that the socialist and communist left is not very big that it makes little or no sense to snipe from the sidelines

Harold said...

This has been a great thread, but I think everyone (outside of Nutmeg, who touches on it) misses the point here that the Dems (read: Obama) are moving to the right because the positions (or lack thereof) that they are espousing are ones that the people, including the working class, are going to vote for. Look at Joe Bageant's book "Deer Hunting With Jesus" where Joe gets to the heart of the issue with working class America - the majority of what we call "working class" people are voting with the right, so if Dems want to win their vote and the election, they have to pander to the right.

The point is, as Nutmeg said, our views don't have a majority. We have to build one for our views. Which means what?

It means that the most important thing the CPUSA could be doing is working to change people's minds - fighting a dreadfully important battle in the war of ideas. People need to be educated in Marxist theory, yes, but the implications and applications of these theories are the true bread and butter of what this party should be about. NOT about fighting for the right (in a Democratic party costume). And please make no mistake - the Dems do not represent the left, as there is essentially no theoretical or practical difference between the Dems and those who get referred to here as the ultra right.

Anonymous said...

Still even more on faith-based issues:

Consider content as well as form.