Sunday, November 9, 2008

Some Thoughts About A Left in a Rut

by Norman Markowitz

I have been picking up a variety of comments from individuals on the left who are not affiliated and some from groups I have long considered sectarian.

Some actively supported Ralph Nader for President or other very minor candidates. Most of them attacked Barack Obama's candidacy as another capitalist candidacy, often with great vehemence(tailing the far right). Now, they are also in general minimizing the significance of the victory (also, once more tailing the far right). All of them also pooh poohed the significance of an Obama victory as a victory against racism, as if they were unconsciously taking the old "color blind" position that the Socialist Party took when it contended that all the troubles of minorities would be solved through socialism and had a blind eye to institutional racism within the working class, even in some unions where socialists were leaders.

It would be easy to mock such groups and views. The French did so in a variety of ways from the late 19th century on, laughing at groups who took the position("no one to the left of us" regardless of what they were really doing) calling others "impossibilists"(although that got thrown around against Marxists to) and even using a term that got translated in this country as "phony left." Then there were more American jokes-- certain sectarians(I won't name the group because I don't want to start old battles again) who go to heaven and immediately organize a protest because it is not perfect and is being run by angelic revisionists).

Robert Forsythe, a satirist popular in CPUSA circles in the 1930s (a classic collection of his articles can still be found in some libraries under the title Redder Than the Rose) portrayed such leftists as those who believed they could storm New York's Gracie Mansion as the Bolsheviks stormed the headquarters of the provisional government and capture Mayor La Guardia in his night shirt, thus bring about the revolution. Later, there was the mock song, to the tune of the old Soviet National Anthem, that CPUSA youth used against Trotskyist youth (here I must the group) "with Trotsky our leader and no one behind us, we'll fight every battle, we'll win every war."

But I think much of this left is really in a bad rut. It has no understanding of how to act politically, how to be comradely to each other, (something that has been totally forgotten) and how to even contemplate speaking to and influencing the working class. Some of it reminds me of the old left Hegelians who believed that criticism of the existing order was the end in itself, the way to advance the dialectic, which meant that you ended up building criticism on criticism, spending most of your time debating each other as you became more divorced from reality. If you want a religious analogy, this left uses its conventional arguments and assertions to, as an old Jewish non believer joke against Rabbis went," to talk to itself, answer itself, and agree with its own answers."

It is clearly uncomfortable from what I am picking up with the Obama victory because that both challenges its preconceptions and opens up opportunities that are new. The Right (which in this country is of course vastly more powerful institutionally and ideologically than any left, which has no support from billion dollar corporations and a significant minority of elected politicians) knows it has suffered a defeat and is using its influence to minimize that defeat, to try as far as it can to coerce Obama into becoming another Clinton, and, without any positive program of its own, hanging out like vultures to seize upon any Obama act to make his administration appear inept, "radical," etc., to take the onus off themselves.

But why should those individuals and groups of the left about whom I am talking be doing much of the same thing, if they are serious about politics? Why should they be jumping on Obama's choice of a White House chief of staff who is very much of a centrist Democrat, a political operator, and keeping silent about Obama's press conference in effect challenging Bush and the lame duck Congress to pass a stimulus package to deal with the peoples crisis and to extend unemployment insurance immediately.

Also, unlike Clinton, who curried favor with the Republicans and conservatives from the first moment of his election, Obama made it clear that a stimulus package (which Clinton by the way promised but never delivered 18 years ago) would be the first priority of his administration.

The stimulus package is much more important than the choice of Rahm Emanuel. Also, I wouldn't simply see him as an establishment center right Democrat but as a fairly colorful political wheeler dealer who will be working for President Obama to get things done, not setting any political agenda. (I also see Emanuel as someone who is likely to change whatever agenda he had in the past to suit the administration as some like him did in the Roosevelt administration.)

But does the left that I have been talking about want an Obama administration to succeed? Do they see any success, like a national health program, a major strengthening of the trade union movement, major social investments in infrastructure. a revival of the public sector, as victories for capitalism. If they do than however much they quote Marx, they are not Marxists, since Marx always opposed both an opportunist right and a self isolating left in the workers movement, always called upon those who called themselves his followers to both fight for vital reforms, the eight hour day, political rights for the entire working class, trade union rights and the right to strike, while at the same time educating workers that such gains were not in themselves socialism and that only the establishment of working class rule and socialism political economy would enable those gains to be fully consolidated and society to reach a higher level. Have this left even posed the question in in this way, meaning what a successful Obama administration would mean?

Do they want to see a reversal of thirty years of trade union decline (U.S. private sector unionized workers today are 7.5%, the lowest in the industrialized world). This will take both major federal legislation and an administration in Washington that actively encourages substantial trade union growth as a matter of policy. Do they want to see public sector and infrastructure revitalization, a new "war on poverty" and a major shift away from present U.S. foreign policy? That to will require both mass movements gaining strengthen outside Washington and legislation from Washington. Do they think that attacking Obama even before he takes office based on their own abstractions and continuing to do that will win them any support among the working people who voted for him or be related in any way to moving him to the left?

Not that I am saying that the administration will not deserve criticism as it moves forward and shouldn't get it when its actions deserve it. But criticism will mean nothing if it is not connected to mass organizations that are advancing, and it is the Obama campaign and its political victory that has opened the possibility of major mass advances.

After the victory of the free speech movement at Berkeley in 1965, Mario Savio, its principled and brilliant mass leader, said that the students had one a victory for "free speech" which would and should be responsible speech, because the victory had created the context in which free speech, critical speech, could be responsible.

The Obama victory has created potentially the context in which a left voice in U.S. politics can begin to be raised seriously for the first time since the 1960s and successfully for the first time since the 1930s. For that to happen, that left voice I think must develop in the context of critical support and reasoned criticism, to an administration which is a break with the last forty years of "mainstream" U.S. politics at the very least. Such a left voice if it is to be a left influence will need the Obama administration (as it in the 1930s needed the Roosevelt administration). And an Obama administration will need such a left if it is not to falter badly and fail eventually. If history can teach us anything it is that.

For those on the left who fear that such support will lead in the future to something like the brutal political persecution that the left which supported the New Deal broadly faced in the cold war era, there is little that can be said because no one can predict the future in a very specific way.

But what I think still holds true is a statement from a CPUSA leader in the 1930s (I am paraphrasing) against those who feared such alliances, that what they were proposing was to isolate themselves now because they are afraid that they will be isolated in the future.

Now is the time to begin to think what were once commonplace thoughts, to seriously build left unity, to come forward with specific programs that working people can understand and relate those programs to a longterm path to socialism, to make socialism and working class empowerment practical to as many people as possible. To do that we should positively toward the new administration rather than make ourselves as irrelevant to what is happening and thus contribute not only to our own isolation but to to the loss of those new opportunities.

I wrote this article not in anger, although some of these attacks have been focused on the CPUSA in a knee jerk way, but in the hope that people on the left who are for socialism, people who see Marxism as a guide to action(not dogma or personal property) will begin to think about what is happening in the U.S. today, since such moments in history rarely come, and whether they result in victories or defeats usually have tremendous effects on society.