Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Victory for the Best of the Past, and Present, and a Hopeful Future

by Norman Markowitz

There were many people with tears in their eyes on TV late yesterday after Senator Obama's victory; many who remembered the struggles and sacrifices of the Civil Rights movement; older white pundit reporters and former political organizers remembering that they had gone to segregated schools and only saw Blacks in menial positions.

Even the Reagan right-wingers were trying to sound "centrist," as William Bennett for example saying that the question remained whether Obama could "govern" and be a "unifier" rather than be the representative of a "movement." (this from the "good soldier" of the right-wing "culture war").

My favorite comment though came from Joe Klein, old New York Magazine guy, inside dopester with the cynicism of a Tammany ward heeler who made his bones in pop journalism by baiting black militants and radicals until he found his way to Bill Clinton, looking pleased as punch and saying that he had received an email from a friend Afghanistan, an "entrepreneur" who told him that with Obama as president the Taliban would be ready to negotiate, an example of the new world that was being created.

Afghanistan doesn't really have an economy for entrepreneurs and the Taliban, created by the Pakistani ISI and CIA is still around, but the silliness of people like Klein and U.S. media, the pundits of the Center and the Right (there are no "pundits of the left" in mass media) scurrying around to throw words together than will keep peoples interests until the commercials are really not so important. What happened yesterday was a great peoples victory.

These are my preliminary thoughts about it, as a U.S. historian and a Marxist and a partisan of the socialism that McCain and Palin confused with President-elect Obama's advocacy of a revival of progressive taxation and regulation.

1. As an old Civil Rights activist said in the 1950s, "if you can beat racism you can beat anything" and yesterday the people. led by labor and the African American people, with the support of large numbers of college educated technical and professional workers (who are workers and who face outsourcing and deskilling), beat racism, which was the last line of "defense" for the Republican Right. In states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the trade union movement is strong and the right had long cultivated divisive prejudices among manual workers in small and medium sized cities(a strategy that goes back to Richard Nixon in its consciousness and organized development) an election that was supposed to be "very close turned into solid victories. The support I think that a unified labor movement gave to the Obama candidacy, the turnout and activism of African-American people, both manual and technical and professional workers, produced this victory, which would have been considered impossible four years ago, much less forty years ago.

2. Barack Obama was when I last looked leading in what was a large turnout by seven million votes, the largest victory that any Democrat has won since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In terms of the percentage of the electorate that he won, Barack Obama did better than any Democrat elected after the Civil War except of course Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom did better in percentage terms than Senator Obama and both of whom implement the legislation which has defined what progressive and liberal mean in U.S. politics, that is, the right to establish trade unions, social security, unemployment insurance, minimum wages, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental and consumer legislation. The left and especially Communist influenced labor movement(Communist influenced in a very positive way) and the Civil Rights movement, which also both influenced and was influenced by the broad left, including CPUSA activists, provided the mass base that enabled these administrations to do positively what they did, although a necessary and positive war, WWII, and disastrous one, the Vietnam War, helped to create a new balance of political forces that undermined both the New Deal program after WWII and Johnson's Great Society Program after the 1960s.

3. Barack Obama can build on the New Deal and Great Society traditions and policies, which are the policies that turned the historically factionalized and regionalized Democratic party into a majority party from the 1930s to the 1970s in its control of Congress at the federal level, to build a new and inclusive political majority in the U.S. that will do in the twenty-first century, what Franklin Roosevelt sought to do and did to a considerable extent during the depression--catch up in regard to social policy with the most advanced countries in the developed world. Roosevelt said in the 1930s that in areas like social insurance, job protection, labor legislation, the U.S. was fifty years behind the most advanced countries.

Today, when it comes to a national health care system, labor legislation to protect trade union rights, social welfare policies for the unemployed and to families with Dependant children, along with other areas that is true once more. The pundits will say that the American people are not ready for a real national health care program of the kind that Representative Conyers has put forward under the slogan, "Medicare for All," (HR646) repeal of the Taft-Hartley law and major increases in minimum wages along with other programs. They said the same thing about Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, the National Labor Relations Act, and the minimum wage and hours provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act in the 1930s. When the people not only accepted those acts but supported them fervently, the pundits either saw them as an example of Roosevelt's dictatorial policies ("conservative") or as reforms that were necessary but should be as limited as possible (centrist).

4. Working people, the broad left, even rank and file Communists and socialists really revered Franklin Roosevelt, even if their party leaders often criticized his specific policies and sectarian leaders denounced him and those on the left who supported his administration (which the usual self -isolating sectarians are doing now about Obama).

Working people, most broad left activists that I know, including Communists and non affiliated people who look identify themselves with socialism have really come to respect and admire Barack Obama. Obama will need the active support of labor, progressive activists in all of the peoples movements, to govern effectively. Franklin Roosevelt not only won such people over but saw many of them come to Washington to become part of a wide variety of New Deal agencies to implement policies of relief and reform in the agricultural sector, in public works programs, in the NLRB, and to a lesser extent in the expanding regulatory agencies. They. along with prominent agency leaders and cabinet members who "co-existed" with traditional Democratic party politicians, became the New Deal. They helped to bring about and then
defended the changes against a very powerful and ruthless rightwing opposition. Obama will need activists from the organizations of the broad left in and outside of his administration if he is to be the transforming president that he can be.

5. Lyndon Johnson was never revered by progressive activists and his disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War turned these people, who most strongly supported his Civil Rights and anti-poverty legislation against him. Barack Obama can learn from the failure of the last progressive government (on domestic policy) that the U.S. has had, the Johnson administration, by moving boldly to get the U.S. out of Iraq and moving also to develop multi-lateral, diplomatic, and developmental policies for the regions of the world that Bush has targeted for military intervention. Without a progressive foreign policy it will be very difficult if not impossible for an Obama administration to advance a progressive domestic policy.

Lyndon Johnson feared that if he "lost" the war in Vietnam, the right would accuse him of losing to "Communism" and his domestic program and administration would collapse. Instead, because he could not go beyond the political straight-jacket of cold war politics, he destroyed his administration by escalating a war that his domestic enemies supported and those most likely to support his domestic policies opposed. Obama must not make the same mistake. Since he is not mired in a cold war or militarist mindset, and his withstood the hysterical and comical attacks of those who sought to link his policies with "terrorists," I don't think he will. Obama is intelligent enough to understand that "terrorism" is a police rather than a military matter, a problem that requires allies and international cooperation, not unilateral military interventions. Will he be able to begin the cutting down to size of the military industrial complex, the reduction of first tens of billions and, assuming he is re-elected, hundreds of billions in military spending? This will probably be one of the biggest battles of his administration and it is one in which labor and the broad left must fight to be on the same side, to realize the enormous benefits that will derive to the society from a U.S. military budget that will not be many times greater than any other in the world.

Let me conclude by saying that this was a great people's victory, not only for those who were mentioned on TV yesterday, but for so many others, Paul Robeson, Ossie Davis, Ben Davis and Angela Davis, Henry Winston, A. Philip Randolph and Claudia Jones, to name a very small number of African-American activists of the political and cultural left, Carl and Anne Braden and Virginia Durr and so many others white activists in the struggle against racism. The first Africans were "imported" into North America in 1619 and North American slavery did not end until the end of the Civil War in 1865. After the defeats of the struggle to democratize the former slave states, segregation and disenfranchisement did not end legally until the 1960s, a century later. The victories won in the name of Civil Rights were pushed back after the late 1970s in terms of policy. Those defeats went hand in hand with the Reagan administration's war against labor and the poor.

They are part of the catching up that the people must do and, in the present political situation, can do.