Friday, August 8, 2008

Political Affairs in the Age of Reagan

By Norman Markowitz

I had hoped to get to this article earlier, but work prevented me. It continues my retrospective and perspective on PA through history, but picks up twenty three years later. Since I am writing it on a laptop with a not so great internet connection, I apologize for what I expect will be typos. I will begin with a lengthy historical intro to the period which I am sure will be very controversial for some readers, but in the words of the old umpire, Bill Klemm “I call them as I see them”and for me from what I regard as a Marxist framework.

In the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement had one great victories, ending de jure segregation and establishing both laws and, on paper a policy (affirmative action) to prevent de facto discrimination and achieve economic and social integration. The broad-based peace movement had played a central role in ending, even with its unprecedented and unequaled bombing (greater than in WWII and the Korean War combined) the U.S. neo colonial war in Vietnam (the way the Vietnamese saw it, and the only way that they could). Environmental and consumer movements and achieved major legislation and helped to influence mass consciousness in important ways. But the military industrial complex still stood very much in place and had weathered the storms. Many of these remarkable gains had not been consolidated. The “New Left” which had come to define itself in that way to separate itself from the “old left,” the stigmatized Marxist and particularly Communist class consciousness and socialist committed left, had ridden the wave of mass struggle and had largely collapsed after it had receded SDS was gone. The Black Panther Party had been destroyed by state repression. Sectarian spin offs of SDS and the larger new left which had caricatured Marxism-Leninism, especially the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist (CPML) and entered their own self segregating world. With its emphasis on direct action, decentralization, energy and movement (themes historically associated with collectivist or syndicalist anarchism) the “New Left” had no way to connect theory with practice, no way to learn from its failures and its victories, no organized way to retreat since it had no concept of organization.

The CPUSA, facing though had survived even through the anti-Communist ideology which had served to attack not only Communists but all sections of the Left and the Center who opposed cold war policy remained very much in place and through mass media was trickled down to the masses of people. The CPUSA was now operating with much more legality. In 1976, General Secretary Gus Hall ran for President on the CPUSA ticket (he got my vote, even though the President, Gerald Ford, had been an All American football player at the University of Michigan where I had gotten my advanced degrees in the late 1960s) The CPUSA had gone from what was brutal state repression from the late 1940s to the 1960s to a state which resembled what the important Marxist and Freudian influenced “new left” philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, had called “repressive tolerance.”

This meant that the CPUSA would be “allowed” to exist and this would be pointed to by the power structure as evidence of a “free society,” but would be effectively barred from mass media and from open expression in public venues. Communist publications were theoretically available but not on news stands.Communist speakers, in the very rare times that they appeared on radio and television would spend their time fending off attacks on the German Soviet non aggression treaty of 1939, the Soviet Gulag, the interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Chinese Communist “brainwashing,” the evil dictatorship of Fidel Castro, etc. In the society as a whole, and even among some CPUSA members, the postwar repression that the British Social Democratic writer David Caute had called rightly “the Great Fear,” continued to function.

In the U.S. a sinister coalition of reactionary forces emerged in the 1970s to not only seek to roll back many of the gains made in the 1960s but to attempt to overturn the social labor, social welfare and general welfare regulatory policies that had been instituted with the great victories of the Center-Left New Deal coalition in the 1930s. The anti-Communist and anti-progressive leaders of the AFL-CI0, George Meany, and his successor Lane Kirkland, were completely unable to resist these developments, even though it threatened their own power. The Democratic party under President Jimmy Carter, faced with a stagflation economy, moved sharply to the right on domestic policy (save its positive energy policies) gave no aid to the labor movement, encouraged a mentality of “doing more with less” and by the end of its four years, faced with a second energy crisis, responded to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (which National Security Adviser Brzezinski was to claim credit for years later, providing CIA aid to Muslim guerrillas to lure the Soviets into “the Afghan trap”)by intensifying the cold war, and in the midst of huge inflation, the highest interest rates of the postwar era, and a hostage crisis in Iran that was the “legacy” I would say of the CIA directed coup against a secular liberal government in 1953, fell before Ronald Reagan, the candidate of the Republican right, successor to Robert Taft, and Barry Goldwater, the most virulently rightwing Republican president since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.Reagan was to put up a picture of Coolidge, whose “deregulation, detaxation, privatization, business of America is business policies he would follow relentlessly as he expanded military budgets and cold war actions through the world. PA and the CPUSA fought these developments every step of the way, participating in labor and peace demonstration, using the press and the magazine to mobilize opposition to what in the 1980s was in effect a rightwing Blitzkrieg directed from Washington.

Let me begin with the December, 1983 PA edition, which reprinted excerpts from a number of addresses to the 23rd Convention of the CPUSA at Cleveland the previous month (as a delegate to the convention, I had heard the addresses live) The main task as everyone knew was to fight Reaganism which given the nuclear buildup meant fighting literally for human survival. Gus Hall gave the main report”Defeat Reaganism--’;The Day After; (The Day After was the title of a powerful television miniseries about the aftermath of a nuclear war in the U.S., which had angered the Reagan administration) Gus Hall’;s report lambasted the Reagan administration’;s invasion of Grenada in 1983. He looked at the mounting economic crisis which he interpreted in terms of the party’s traditional outlook, that is, a general crisis of capitalism, a structural crisis, and a cyclical crisis. While some of this was, from my present perspective, a bit rigid and dogmatic (in that it continued to return to its definition of a “triple layered crisis” which led it to exaggerate the degree to which U.S. and global capitalism was in crisis), it was very accurate in its portrayal of the Reagan administration’s attacks on labor (looking somewhat hopefully to AFL-CIO statements about the need to build alliances, Jesse Jackson’s decision to run, and the growing opposition of women's rights organizations to Reaganism.

Gus Hall concludes with a call for the CPUSA to run its own candidates (he would run for a third time and I would vote for him for a third time, although I would find myself in New Jersey working with comrades tirelessly to defeat Reagan and in essence elect Mondale, at home point being told by working class people in a shopping mall that “we wish we had Democrats like you in our town. The party organization is more interested in protecting their jobs than working for Mondale) Gus Hall said prophetically that “it is self-evident that this anti-Communist campaign will go unchallenged if we are not in the campaign. No one else will do it.”

National Chair Henry Winston in the “Big Lie--the Road to Nuclear Disaster” focused on the Reagan administration’s use of anti-Communism in the U.S. to foster policies that tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people throughout the world saw as leading to “nuclear war.” He also focused on what were formally “liberal” publications like the New Republic and the New York Review of books in strengthening Reagan “cold war revival” defending the history and achievements of the CPUSA from the primitive “liberal=Communist=Moscow spy” equation that the Reagan administration was seeking to use to justify its nuclear buildup, general military buildup,and bloody hot wars against Nicaragua and Afghanistan and for the rightwing regime in El Salvador. Winston also quote Martin Luther King statement that “it is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist.” King mentioned Karl Marx support for Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause during the Civil War. He mentioned that it was not a problem that Sean O'Casey, the great playwright hailed throughout the English speaking world was a Communist; that Pablo Neruda “ considered the greatest living poet,” was a Communist member of the Chilean Senate and in a truly powerful conclusion that resonated with Marxism said “our irrational obsessive anti-Communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.”

Arnold Becchetti in his report “Communists are Working Class Activists” stressed the necessity of both building the party, developing more effectively a concentration strategy, and to think seriously about the building of a mass party. James Jackson addressed the central nuclear danger in his report “Anti-Sovietism; preparation for Nuclear Suicide, while Herbert Aptheker concluded the issue with a powerful and lucid denunciation of the conquest of Grenada “The lynching of Grenada.”

The June, 1984 issue, with which I will conclude had what I see as interesting and valuable theoretical statements. Gus Hall, writing on Reagan’s trip to China, noted that “the present Chinese leadership does not base its outlook on the class struggle and therefore does not see U.S. imperialism as the enemy of the Chinese people.” Hall went on to say that the Deng Xiao-ping leadership, by supporting U.S. strategic policies against the Soviet Union and Vietnam believed that it was using the U.S. and other capitalist countries to get capital for its “four modernizations” whereas it was being used by imperialism. My good friend the late Victor Perlo published an article “U.S. Soviet Competition--the Last Decade,” which given the subsequent destruction of the USSR, many would simply discard. But it was an intelligent article, which looked at how both the Soviet and U.S. economies had been adversely effected by the two energy crises and the transformation in the world economy over the previous decade. Perlo noted that in regard to price inflation this crisis had been passed on to the American people many times more than to the Soviet people. Perlo was also hopeful that Soviet advances in technology and the strengths of the Soviet system had created the situation were the decline in Soviet real wages was over (unlike the U.S.) and Soviet real economic growth would advance.

Although none of this actually happened of course in any way, as I read this fascinating article, I said this to myself, “Could it have happened “if Gorbachev had not come to power and pursued destructive policies that undermined the Soviet economy at all levels? Could the Soviet economy not only survived but actually advanced had it not been for the Gorbachev policies, even though as Perlo admitted the Soviets in labor efficiency and technology still lagged well behind the U.S?

There were articles by Timothy Johnson on the concept of “Anti-Monopoly Democracy,--A Transitional Stage,” it it developed historically in the aftermath of the Soviet Revolution, in the building of the United Front Against Fascism in the 1930s, and in the postwar cold war period Lee Lorch also had an interesting article on “Anti-Sovietism in Academia” focusing on a Little (at least to me and I am sure many of our readers) area, Mathematics, where the Soviets were undisputed leaders and various boycott campaigns in line with the Reagan cold war revival policies were being mobilized against them.

Finally, there was a long well written insightful article by my good friend and fortunately still very much alive Michael Parenti, “The Two faces of the Capitalist State,” which examined the “tricke up” policies then pursued by the Reagan administration to the intensification of capitalist crisis, which compels it squeeze in the form of lower real wages, more working hours, higher regressive taxes lower social benefits, more surplus out of the working class, in essence, restricting the democratic rights of the people which it has used to sustain its legitimacy (saying in effect, it gives the people freedom as it gives the people jobs) but which becomes a handicap to its increased exploitation.

I will end here and return soon (I hope to the 1990s). The anti-Reagan coalition that the CPUSA fought for of course failed to materialize in 1984. But la lutta continua, as the Italian comrades say. I expect and welcome comments of all kinds about this piece. I hope they will be constructive not “reactionary”(by reactionary, I mean both right and left reactionary. By that I mean those who will jump at comments that I have made to assert their positions from the right or the left on this or that event, denouncing the CPUSA for its support of the Soviet Union or denouncing the CPUSA for its support of the trade union movement or Democratic party campaigns in this or that moment without addressing the general points that I am attempting to make, which are my own as an historian, not any official position.