The Left and Obama

Posted July 20, 2009

How should the left relate to Obama? A response to Linda Burnham
Charlie Post*

There is a broad consensus on left—from those who actively campaigned on his behalf, through those who sat out the election, to those of us who supported the independent candidacies of Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader—that the election of Barack Obama represents an important opening for anti-capitalists and radicals in the US. The election of an African-American to the highest elected office in a republic founded on white supremacy was, in itself, an important symbolic blow against white supremacy. Even more importantly, Obama’s victory was a political and ideological defeat of the right. The 2008 election has raised popular expectations of the possibility of gains for working and oppressed people—national health insurance, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a renegotiation of NAFTA, the expansion of civil rights for queers, women and people of color, and an end to the imperial adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Linda Burnham, the long-time African-American socialist and feminist, has made an important contribution to the analysis of the Obama victory and the strategic challenges it presents to the US left. Burnham recognizes that the Obama administration has two “bottom lines”—the stabilization of US capitalism and the rehabilitation of the reputation of US imperialism with its allies in Europe and Japan. However, “the effective-steward-of-capitalism is only one part of the Obama story.” The Obama’s campaign brought together a new electoral rainbow coalition of people of color, youth, LGBT people, unionized workers, civil libertarians, and progressive urban professionals. According to Burnham, this new coalition was forged because Obama has moved the Democratic Party to the left:

[Obama has] wrenched the Democratic Party out of the clammy grip of Clintonian centrism. (Although he often leads from the center, Obama’s center is a couple of notches to the left of the Clinton administration’s triangulation strategies)…

Burnham excoriates those on the left who failed to support Obama’s residential campaign. She dismisses these comrades as hopeless sectarians, who rejected Obama because he was “insufficiently anti-capitalist.” Those of us who did not campaign for Obama are caricatured as interested only in fighting for demands that directly attack capitalist rule—abstaining from real, concrete popular struggles.

Burnham concludes that the U.S. left has three tasks in the coming period:

1. The left needs to defend “the democratic opening” created by the Obama victory. This will require a bloc with “centrists against the right” through Democratic Party electoral campaigns. Those leftists who have traditionally rejected participation in the Democratic Party’s electoral activity need to abandon their sectarian purity, and work to ensure an increased Democratic Congressional majority in 2010 and Obama’s reelection in 2012. This will require the left’s participation in voter registration and mobilization and actively campaigning for any and all Democrats in the coming four years.

2. The left cannot abandon the task of “building more united, effective, combative and influential progressive popular movements.” The gap between Obama inspired rising expectation of change and a deepening economic crisis “will likely spark new levels and forms of population resistance.” The left needs to continue to organize, educate, and agitate against US imperial policies in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, for national health care and pro-working people solutions to the economic crisis, and for a real answer to the looming environmental crisis.

3. We need to build the anti-capitalist left while simultaneously engaging in alliances with centrists in the Democratic Party, and rebuilding vibrant, progressive social movements.

Burnham’s claim that Obama has moved the Democratic Party “several notches to the left” of Clinton’s administration is very questionable. Even more importantly, Burnham’s strategy for left in the age of Obama is self-contradictory. Her first strategic priority—an alliance with centrists in the Democratic Party to ensure a Democratic Congressional majority in 2010 and Obama’s reelection in 2012—is incompatible with her second and third strategic priorities—rebuilding movements of social resistance and building an anti-capitalist left.

Is Obama to the Left of Clinton?

There is no question that many of Obama’s voters and active supporters were well to the left of either Bill or Hillary Clinton. Especially during the primaries, Obama won support because he appeared to be left of Hillary Clinton on the wars, economic and health care policies, immigration, and a myriad of other questions.

However, even a cursory examination of what Obama himself wrote and said during the 2008 campaign revealed that he was well within the mainstream of the Clinton-Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) wing of the Democratic Party. African-American radicals at the Black Agenda Report ( constantly hammered away at the huge gap between popular perceptions of Obama and his actual politics, as did the left-wing historian Paul Street in his Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

The record of Obama’s first “hundred days” only confirms Obama’s fundamentally neo-liberal politics. Obama’s cabinet not only includes re-cycled Clinton administration figures, but important representatives of major Wall Street investment houses and big Information Technology capitalists. The list of Obama’s proposals to revive US capitalism at the expense of working people, people of color, women and queer people are too numerous to catalogue completely. Among the highlights:

• Obama’s plan to restructure the auto industry on the backs of auto workers.
• The administration and Congressional Democrats waffling on EFCA.
• Outsourcing the torture of “suspected terrorists” from Guantanamo to other countries.
• The refusal to discuss revising NAFTA, and backpedaling on global environmental regulations.
• The embrace of John McCain’s proposal for immigration reform, including guest worker programs.
• The Obama “national health insurance plan” which will provide massive subsidies to private insurers.

As the world economy either continues to stagnate or grows at extremely slow rates in the coming years, we can expect even more pro-capitalist, anti-working people policies from the Obama administration. In the absence of significant movements from below—built independently, and if necessary, in opposition to Obama and the Democrats—any hopes of a new “New Deal” will be sorely disappointed.

Nor is it true that those on the left who did not support Obama’s campaign are hopeless sectarians who reject any partial struggles that do not directly strike at the heart of capitalist rule. This is clearly not true of Solidarity, the International Socialist Organization, the Greens, or the comrades around Black Agenda Report. While these groups differed about the importance or effectiveness of third party campaigns like that of Cynthia McKinney , none reject struggling for reforms—the end of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for single-payer health care, for amnesty and an easy road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, in defense of affirmative action and social programs. We did not support Obama because neither he nor the pro-corporate, neo-liberal Democratic Party support these struggles.

Can We Build Movements and Work for Democrats?

Burnham strategy of campaigning for the Democrats, and building social movement and the left is impractical. The idea that the left should work to elect pro-corporate Democratic politicians is based on the mistaken notion that electing liberal politicians is the key to winning reforms and fighting the right. This position mistakes cause and effect. It is not the election of “lesser evil” liberals to office that opens the possibility of reforms and progressive politics. Instead it is effective social movements that can force the ruling class and its political spokespersons—both Democratic and Republican—to grant reforms. The experience of successful struggle grows the audience for left-wing, radical politics.

The left cannot lose sight of the fact that capitalism makes the class struggle a zero-sum game. Gains for working people, racial minorities, women, queers, and immigrants come at the expense of capitalist competitiveness and profitability. Reforms are won through militant mass strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, and the like. Such struggles involve large-scale defiance of the law, and forge ties of active solidarity among working people. This experience of successful struggles for reforms is the basis for left-wing and radical politics among large layers of the population.

Historically, attempts to simultaneously build an alliance with Democratic Party centrists and build social movements have led the disorganization and decline of the movements and a shift to the right in politics. Time and time again—from the CIO upsurge of the 1930s, through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s, to the movements against the Vietnam War — the decision of the leaders of powerful and potentially radical social movements to pursue an alliance with the Democrats have derailed these struggles.

Electoral campaigns that are not expressions of social movements actually demobilize activists. Electoral campaigns are generally top-down, bureaucratic and seek to mobilize individual voters at the lowest common political denominator. Such campaigns, no matter what sense of satisfaction people gain from seeing their candidate win, reinforce the notion that change comes from above—through the ascendance of “good leaders” to office. Corporate funded Democratic Party election campaigns can not be anything but these sorts of mobilizations.

The dynamics of social movements—where people act collectively, organize democratically from the bottom-up and come to understand the connections between their particular struggle and those of other working and oppressed people—could not be more different from those of election campaigns. Successful social movements promote radicalism because they provide the lived experience of working and oppressed people exercising their collective power.

Once the elections are over, the continued alliance with Democratic politicians requires the leadership of movements of social resistance to trim their demands in ways that will not alienate the “centrists” – watering down their demands for pro-working class, popular reforms in favor of policies that the Democratic politicians and their corporate backers find “reasonable.” Even more importantly, the alliance with the Democrats requires abandoning militant forms of struggle—mass demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes and other forms of social disruption.

As the movement leaders water down their demands for concrete reforms and abandon “street heat” for lobbying, electoral campaigns and other forms of “pressure politics,” the movements become weaker. Democrats and Republicans only make concessions to working and oppressed people when compelled to—when the alternative is continued social disruption and conflict. Unable to win new reforms as movement leaders abandon their source of real social power, the gap between popular expectations and real change grows feeding demoralization and disappointment. In the absence of powerful social movements, Democrats and Republicans are under no compulsion to grant reforms and are free to move politics to the right in line with the wishes of their corporate capitalist sponsors.

In recent years, we have seen this dynamic at work in the movement against the US war in Iraq. In the Winter and Spring of 2003, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding no US war against Iraq. Despite the relatively quick defeat of the Saddam Hussein regime, renewed Iraqi resistance to the US occupation continued to fuel anti-war sentiment and activity in the US. Organized opposition to the war emerged among military families, veterans, active duty GIs and the ranks of organized labor at a much earlier stage than during the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, many of the leaders of the anti-war movement—especially in United for Peace and Justice (UfPJ)—believed that they could harness this burgeoning movement to the efforts of anti-war liberals and centrists to elect Democrats to the White House in 2004 and 2008. During both election cycles, the UfPJ leadership put national demonstrations on the back burner and downplayed both the demand for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and their opposition to the continued US occupation of Afghanistan.

Obama’s election appears to have all but destroyed the national anti-war movement. Significant funders of UfPJ, like, and many activists who had sustained the anti-war movement no longer see any reason to continue anti-war activism at the grassroots. For them, Obama’s election has made the war a “non-issue.” Unable and unwilling to confront the Obama administration as it retreats from its promise to gradually withdraw from Iraqi cities and its fulfills its promise to increase troop strength in Afghanistan, the UfPJ leadership is no longer in a position to act as an organizing center for national anti-war protests. As the anti-war movement declines, Obama is free to maintain US troops in Iraq and pursue new military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The same pattern is and will be repeated by the leaderships of the labor and social movements in the age of Obama. Not wanting to alienate Obama and the Congressional Democrats, the leaderships of both the AFL-CIO and CTW have done little to publicly oppose the Democrats back-pedaling on the EFCA—with Andy Stern of the SEIU, as always, leading the retreat. The labor officials and many mainstream immigrant rights groups are abandoning the struggle for universal amnesty and a direct route to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in favor of the Obama-McCain plan. Proposals for a single-payer insurance system appear dead in the water, leaving the Democrats and Obama free to implement their “universal health care” program based on massive subsidies for private insurance companies. The list can, depressingly, be multiplied across a wide variety of popular reform issues.

Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, grasped this dynamic quite well in a 2000 essay :

No administration in modern history has been as good for American business as has the Clinton-Gore team; none has been as solicitous of the concerns of business leaders, generated as much profit for business, presided over as buoyant a stock market or as huge a run-up in executive pay… The Clinton-Gore administration delivered on policies that Republicans failed to achieve—fiscal austerity, free trade, and a smaller government—and Al Gore was in the lead. This confirms a pattern to American politics: Once in office, recent Democratic presidents in an era of business dominance have had an easier time moving right rather than left from where they campaigned since the Democratic base has no one else to turn to.

The left needs to champion any and all popular demands—but refuse to water down these demands to placate centrists and liberals. We need to reach out to any and all Obama supporters who want to continue the struggle against war, racism, sexism, homophobia and for social justice—reminding them that change has come “from outside Washington”, from mass movements from below. The anti-capitalist left needs to be in the struggle, building organizations and movements that have the power to force those in power to give concessions in the form of concrete reforms that benefit working people in this country and internationally.

If the anti-capitalist left is going to take advantage of the real opportunities of the “Obama moment,” we will need to be rooted in real social struggles. We have already seen important struggles that have seized popular attention and enthusiasm—the Republic workers’ sit-down strike being the most important. We need to build support for every strike and organizing drive among workers, no matter how local and defensive. Struggles against government austerity and cuts to social services are another important arena for building alliances between public employees and working class and people of color communities—like the United Teachers’ of Los Angeles (UTLA) May 15th one day teacher-student-community day of action against budget cuts. Radicals and anti-capitalists need to rebuild the anti-war movement to press for immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Such movements cannot be summoned at will, but are the results of rising popular expectations confronting the realities of capitalist crisis and the intransigence of the ruling class. Today, the movements of social resistance are at a low point. The left needs to help build and support the “militant minority”—those who attempt to organize and struggle even when mass movements are dormant. Such militant minorities can set larger struggles in motion—struggles that can win gains and shift politics to the left. The key to the building of militant minorities and the sparking of larger struggles is the need for political independence from the corporate rulers and their political representatives.


11 responses to “The Left and Obama”

  1. Isaac Avatar

    While the topic of electoral political strategies is important, I feel like the tone has shifted to what could become an endless back-and-forth resting on old formulas. If this was a face to face discussion, I’d probably ask that the participants step back and see if there are any other voices to be heard. So, instead, I’m doing it this way.


  2. Carl Davidson Avatar

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear, VS. Our PDA group is independent of the official Party in everything but voting and working for some of their candidates. We define our own platform, which overlaps with their on some points but not on others. We are not bound by any of their decisions. We get no money from them; we have our own treasury and funds that we raise. Our lists and resources all belong to us, not them. Almost all our members are workers. We have our own publication, Beaver County Blue,, that serves as our public face and voice. Perhaps this still doesn’t count as independent politics in your book. If so, then that’s part of the problem, isn’t it?

  3. Tom Smith Avatar
    Tom Smith

    First, an apology for the misspelling of Carl SCHULZ’S name as Schurz. Dr. Post will perhaps remember who the original Carl SCHURZ was, and the role he played in subverting an originally radical Republican Party–as well as adversarial role vis a vis the Red Doctor Marx in the Revolutions of 1848.

    My Freudian slip is showing.

    Second, V.S., I believe you are responding to Carl, not to me. I agree with everything you say here.

    Of course I cannot agree with Carl, when he launches the following canard:

    “I think Tom gets too carried away with notions of a working class he thinks OUGHT to be there and what they ought to think. I’m concerned with longer-range perspectives, too, even if Tom thinks its ‘drivel.’ (I could return that compliment). But I’m much more in favor of starting by taking the workers as they are, as the class that history has presented us with, and then finding ways to move forward from there.”

    Carl mistakes the superficial, temporary political consciousness of the working class now–in which the same Red Doctor repeatedly expressed a profound disinterest–for their essence, for “workers as they are.” Workers as they are, as Antonio Gramsci said, are bound by a “contradictory” consciousness.” Lenin, Trotsky, leaders of the Bolsheviks and of the original Comintern, designed the transitional program to tap into the revolutionary potential of the proletariat.

    Carl, and other 40s-60s SDS and CP reformist refuse confuse the present day reformism, apathy, racism, sexism, homophobia, national chauvanism, pro-imperialism–and whatever pro-Democratic Party sentiment exists in the rank and file and not just the labor bureaucrats, with which all this other drekk, especially the pro-imperialism and racism, is INTEGRAL– with the potentialities of the working class. He thus assumes that our task is simply to pander to these conservative tendencies. And in some ways, this is Charlie’s, and Solidarity’s (made up as it is of the followers of Shachtman and Pablo) failing as well. But if we do this, we throw in the towel before the game is actually played. The transitional program capitalizes upon these revolutionary tendencies instead.

    Charlie is right to argue, quite firmly, that right now we need to declare complete political independence from the bourgeoisie and all its representaves and parties (this includes Nader, McKinney, and the Greens, by the way. Why reject the one set of bourgeois political forces–and embrace the other? None of the above. Fight for a workers socialist party!). But in so doing, we must also have demands which push workers to adopt an independent political and social CONSCIOUSNESS. Not those which adapt to their present consciousness, fostering their present illusions in the existing system.

  4. VS Avatar

    Sorry Tom, I think you’re off-topic here. In reply to Carl, I think your argument hinges on a key statement:

    “It’s not like there’s great successes around third party tactics while we have great defeats around forms like PDA.”

    Yet this is precisely what Charlie’s arguing: the movements against the Vietnam War and for black liberation (among others) were successful to the degree they maintained organizational independence from the Democratic Party. They were defeated to the extent they entered & got co-opted.

    I’m really happy you’ve worked with local Dems, which I actually don’t think Solidarity would have a problem with that (I don’t speak for them). But the key question is organizational independence. How much energy does that sap from building non- or third-party struggles independent of the capitalist class? And how much have leftists in or around the DP had to modify their demands once their candidate got in office?

    Historically, the Dems have taken over and de-clawed every left force that’s tried to work in them. It’s the same up here in Canada with the NDP, and that was a social democratic party. Not because radicals are smart/stupid, but because ruling class parties regulate capital accumulation. They’re not a terrain of struggle.

    None of which means avoiding coalitions with people you disagree with, or reaching out to progressives supporting the Dems. But I think the historical evidence supports Charlie’s argument: as soon as you join the ruling class party, you compromise the capacity for democratic mass-mobilization.

    Anyhow, these aren’t new arguments. I’d just say that with enough empirical, historical evidence, it’s possible to theorize some general rules. And I think the evidence is in Charlie’s favour.

  5. Carl Davidson Avatar

    I have no interest in debating Comrade Smith of Trotsky’s Transitional Program. I made my mind up on that long ago.

    I do, however, think there’s a labor aristocracy, even as the edifice of privilege accruing to it is rather eroded, and eroding more, these days.

    What I think is rather silly is his view of the working class, and its various sectors and layers. I’m not beholding to a union job or staff position. I mainly work with both union staffers and the rank-and-file in the social movements, strike support, elections and anything else worth writing about to a wider world and internally to the unions and among their members.

    Even just day-to-day living, almost everyone around here is working class, of the blue collar sort, active or retired. That’s my milieu these days; its where I was born and bred. I know it rather well, and have no need to demonize or romanticize it

    Here’s my point. With all of this, I’ve yet to find some carefully hidden and tucked away rank-and-file sector that’s chomping at the bit, boiling with suppressed militancy, primed for ‘revolutionary leadership’ of the transitional program sort, read to bust loose once they hear of it.

    There are some rank-and-file workers, a minority for sure, you could identify as left-social-dems of a sort, whose views would match up with the more active and open union staffers, those who would love to break away from some of the restrictions of the more conservative business unionism of their co-staffers. There are some more rank-and-filers you could call ‘left’ populists some of the time, although they can and do flip over to rightwing populism, of which there are far more.

    Politically, the more advanced workers here, still a minority, favor Kucinich (Cleveland is nearby, and the Croatian last name helps) and follow his views. One third of the union members are registered Republicans, and vote likewise. I assure you, you can peel away layer after layer, but like peeling an onion, there’s no bunch of proto-Trotskyists that you’re going to uncover.

    I also assure you that I never claimed these workers I know are for the Democrats naively and ‘wholeheartedly’, to use Tom’s adjective that he puts in my mouth. There may be a few wholehearted Dems around, but I haven’t met them yet. What I have met are people who look at the Dems pragmatically, very clear on their limitations, then most of them pick them over the GOP. When I raise the notion of ‘third party’ with some, they explain to me that under the existing rules, that just helps the GOP. Maybe, some add, if the rules were changed someday.

    I think Tom gets too carried away with notions of a working class he thinks OUGHT to be there and what they ought to think. I’m concerned with longer-range perspectives, too, even if Tom thinks its ‘drivel.’ (I could return that compliment). But I’m much more in favor of starting by taking the workers as they are, as the class that history has presented us with, and then finding ways to move forward from there.

  6. Tom Smith Avatar
    Tom Smith

    I take up my keyboard to critique Dr. Post from the Left once again (BTW, Chuck, love the Schurz-inspired logo!), with some trepidation. This is because the last time I tried it, in response to Charlie’s “Myth of the Labor Aristocracy” articles, he baited me as a doctrinaire and a racist for my Leninist views. But be that as it may. I will continue to promote them.

    I have no problem with the often quite brilliant analysis of why the Left should not support Obama. It’s a pity that Carl Davidson cannot grasp the superior logic of what Charlie is saying. If he did, perhaps he would not fill the internet airwaves so with his pro-Democratic party drivel.

    What I have a problem with is with statements such as these, which appear in the last few paragraphs in Charlie’s article:

    *”The left needs to champion any and all popular demands–but refuse to water down these demands to placate centrists and liberals…”

    *”Such movements cannot be summoned at will, but are the results of rising popular expectations confronting the realities of capitalist crisis and the intransigence of the ruling class.”

    *”Today, the movements of social resistance are at a low point. The left needs to help build and support the “militant minority”—those who attempt to organize and struggle even when mass movements are dormant. Such militant minorities can set larger struggles in motion—struggles that can win gains and shift politics to the left. The key to the building of militant minorities and the sparking of larger struggles is the need for political independence from the corporate rulers and their political representatives.”

    These three statements sum up, whether explicitly or implicitly, the animus that Charlie has, not to the centrists and liberals (an animus with which I have, as I’ve said before, absolutely no problem), but with the hard Left. He has made statements like this before: with Kit Wainer, in the Solidarity recruiting pamphlet entitled “Socialist Organizing Today.” He made them in his “Myth of the Labor Aristocracy” article (2nd part), and that is what I attempted to critique. These statements, this animus toward the Leninist view, are solidly in line with the general Left-centrist flavor of Solidarity itself.

    When Charlie writes that *”The left needs to champion any and all popular demands–but refuse to water down these demands to placate centrists and liberals…,” he contradicts himself. What Charlie proposes is that we “champion any and all popular demands” that come down the pike, without filtering them out to determine which are reformist, which are potentially revolutionary. Thus, Charlie’s proposal, in effect, is ALREADY, to “water down” our revolutionary program (or what’s left of it in the U.S., as the result of such Left-centrism/opportunism)

    Leon Trotsky, in his “Transitional Program” (The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, 1938, at offered a method of so filtering popular demands in such a way as to produce demands that run counter to the basic logic of capitalism. Thus, rather than solidify the naive faith of the working masses in the illusory capacity of the Capitalist state (Please, Mr. Obama, won’t you ‘bail out the people’?) such “transitional demands” raise the question of workers power and of socialism, before the masses.

    What is Charlie’s response to this? *”Such movements cannot be summoned at will, but are the results of rising popular expectations confronting the realities of capitalist crisis and the intransigence of the ruling class.”

    In other words, a complete, albeit implicit, refusal to raise transitional demands, dismissed by Charlie as so much attempt to “summon up a popular movement AT WILL.” this is a crude caricature of the transitional program and the Trotskyist approach, a canard which is then easily dismissed, by Charlie, as fast as it is presented. We, the Left, those already conscious of socialism and perhaps at least marginally cognizant of the history of the socialist movement and how socialism was fought for in the past by leaders such as Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, must not, like they did, attempt any longer to EDUCATE the masses with such slogans as well as by attempting ourselves to organize.

    Instead, once again, infected as he is by the 60s Left aversion to the tasks of leadership, the 60s cult of “autonomy,” by which every oppressed group should basically separate from each other, and all should separate and never take leadership from revolutionaries, Charlie argues that our task is merely “to help build and support the ‘militant minority’—those who attempt to organize and struggle even when mass movements are dormant.”

    How can we “help build and support” this “militant minority”? “The key to the building of militant minorities and the sparking of larger struggles is the need for political independence from the corporate rulers and their political representatives.”

    But the question this statement begs is as follows: why are these militant minorities NOT now independent from the Democrats? Why do they, as Davidson rightly points out, support the Democrats wholeheartedly, instead? Is this just innocent ignorance, on their part? Or is it rather the case that Lenin’s theory of the labor (and popular movement-bureaucrat) aristocracy is not just a myth? that in fact, it is the relative privileges, and the role of these bureaucrats and privileged sectors of the working class that bind them to the existing system? Should we indeed “help to build and support” this layer, in the futile hope that we can gently persuade them to come over to our independent political point of view? Or is it rather the case, contra Wainer’s and Post’s contention in SOCIALIST ORGANIZING TODAY, that this layer, this militant minority, is NOT the vanguard that is needed to lead the socialist revolution, that their militancy only goes so far, that we need to do that tired old stuff that Lenin, Trotsky, et alia did: CREATE A VANGUARD PARTY with serious roots in the working class, recruiting from the militants of today, but only AFTER they have given up their cooptation into the present system and are willing to convert wholeheartedly, perhaps under the stimulus of economic crisis, to revolutionary socialist consciousness?

  7. Carl Davidson Avatar

    My point is not to tag Solidarity with ‘purism.’ I’m making a broader point, ie, that if you want to say the inside-outside electoral strategy is a ‘graveyard’ of social movements, you can use much of the same analysis and evidence to show that the ‘third party’ strategy does the same. It’s not like there’s great successes around third party tactics while we have great defeats around forms like PDA.

    Ever since the election ‘reform’ of the late 1920s, outlawing fusion in all but New York and one or two other places, and makiing ballot access more difficult, the ruling class has hamstrung independent options as well.

    That’s why Fletcher and I proposed a new twist, a nonpartisan grassroots alliance set of tactics.

    The socialist movement, taken as a whole, is hardly moving toward unity on this or other matters. In fact, it is split and headed to two opposite directions. How one voted in 2008 is as good of a rule of thumb revealing the two as any. On one side, there’s the RWIOT gathering, with almost all the forces opposing a vote for Obama, and in fact seeing him as the main enemy. On the other are most of the groups that took part in the CCDS Democracy Charter symposium–although even my group, CCDS, has a majority and minority on the matter. In our work around ‘Progressives For Obama’, we nuanced it even further by saying we could even unite with those Greens who would vote for McKinney but aim their main blow at McCain.

    None of this, naturally, means any number of groups on either side of this divide can’t engage in united action on any number of immediate struggles. Even if taken case by case, it’s still rather easy to do, but doesn’t mean that much on the level of our strictly socialist tasks.

    But the larger divide is not going to go away, as we can see by the revenge-seeking surge of rightwing populism, refusing to accept the legitimacy of Obama for racist and reactionary reasons. They have to be beaten back, divided, isolated and defeated–and we are going to be in an alliance with the Obama forces, especially the unions, to do it, in the streets and in the 2010 and 2012 elections. That doesn’t mean we cease mobilizing against Obama and/or pressuring him on other matters, building our independent strength in the process.

    Unfortunately, a large number of socialists will fail to do this in an effective way, which is why we’re having this discussion

  8. Nelson H. Avatar

    Carl, I agree with part of what you are getting at here in a real way. I think that questions of elections, especially whether to entertain tactical flexibility that includes working with Democrats, are very important in the current period. I think that elements of several left organizations’ practice around electoral politics, specifically the insistence by folks including many comrades in Solidarity to only work in third party formations and on campaigns for candidates that cannot include folks running on the Democratic Party ticket, complicate certain projects that are part of the broader objectives on left unity in the US.

    I attempted to take up similar questions in a recent post to the Fire on the Mountain blog here:

    That said, as redchuck4 points out there is still much work that needs doing, for many of these tasks we agree upon quite a bit, and for those of us who as revolutionary leftists can find space to work with Democrats I think we would be greatly remiss to elevate contradictions around some questions with folks whom we generally agree with a good deal to such a point as to preclude this work. I guess what I am saying is that presently I find a lot less I disagree with in Solidarity’s politics and practice than the Dems and I am still willing to entertain working with those fuckers.

    Another important point this discussion raises for me, and I think that this can be directed to Carl as much as it could be at many folks in the camp that he is critiquing here: we cannot allow left unity to be reduced to whether we can force programmatic agreement around a certain series of questions right now. Hey, if that can happen, fucking-a. Even during this current protracted period of left fragmentation and disunity mergers of collectives, organizations and the building of trends can and is taking place. But a much larger danger is the mistaken belief that the major next step is some kind of unity process that quickly leads to a large-scale regroupment.
    Presently there are not large trends, and very little of the socialist movement in this country is “moving in a single direction” as folks might have said back in the day.

    Furthermore, too much of those who identify with the socialist movement to the point of having joined an organization come from backgrounds that are very homogeneous – largely white, petit bourgeois, straight guys with some level of college education. I include myself in that description. This varies from organization to organization, and some groups have made transformation a key task in their organizational development. This is also not meant to diminish the large and numerous contributions of people of color, queer folks, white women, folks from working class backgrounds, and trans/gender non-conforming comrades. Nor is it to imply that white dudes who went to college and come from middle class backgrounds don’t have contributions to make. But y’all know what I mean.

    As for programmatic unity, pick a series of questions (elections, areas of concentration in the trade union movement, struggles against patriarchy, worker centers, the special oppression of Black folks in the US south, the international socialist/communist movement and international solidarity) and you are going to find folks on a variety of sides within organizations, let alone across the left more generally. For me this is a pretty big deal, because I think it demands that folks on the left see “left unity” in ways that are very multi-layered and nuanced. This is going to require many spaces, spaces that take up different questions, sometimes in ways that split hairs and drive us bonkers, but spaces that are able to meet the varied needs of varied audiences, spaces that may be largely insular and spaces that must exist simultaneously even if they do not largely overlap.

    These spaces may draw different organizations, collectives, and constellations into their orbit, and frankly probably should. The fact that some folks move in a certain set of circles but not circle X or space Y should not be elevated to the point of preventing that group from engaging in spaces A through G.

    To me this gets at the idea of “left refoundation,” in contrast to “left unity” or “left regroupment.” Too often it seems to me like a failure to understand this important concept leads down a cul-de-sac where that next summer school, or after that next Convention, or after that next round of joint workshops, etc. left unity/regroupment is just going to plop into our laps.

    What’s more, it elevates theoretical struggle in ways that tend to undermine organic fact-finding – through practice and struggle. Lines of distinction can and do need to be drawn; once drawn joint work with honest summation of what it accomplished needs to happen. Left unity spaces need to be continued, founded and built. But in this work we have to avoid the tendency that has done us very little in the way of good to rush at the “I told you so’s”. Not saying anyone’s perfect, but in this case I think folks – both the Post piece and Davidson’s reply – need to work at engaging in the arguments at hand in more honest and principled ways.

  9. Alex Fields Avatar
    Alex Fields

    I’m not going to attempt a full-scale defense of Charlie’s article (which I largely agree with) against the criticisms Carl has posted here (and the similar criticisms he posted of Dan La Botz’s article on the Rustbelt Radical blog), but I think it’s telling that he sweepingly ignores the historical and highly practical commentary of the article in order to characterize the Solidarity position as “purist” and disconnected from work on the ground. The whole argument being made is that movement work has consistently been led to its doom in the DP. The history of radical movements in the US is largely the history of efforts that begin as strongly anti-capitalist/anti-establishment and get swept into the DP based on promised reforms–which usually don’t come, of course, but since the movements themselves dissipate into electoral politics, the energy necessary to either hold the DP accountable or renew efforts in a more anti-partisan direction is gone. The examples we do have of broader left parties show that they usually emerge from groups or movements that have been explicitly anti-capitalist all along and are often formed as a response to the centrism (or even outright rightism) of the supposedly progressive dominant party.

    I’m less annoyed by what I see as a mistaken strategy than by the implication that those of us (including most of Solidarity) who don’t support that strategy fail to support it because we live in some kind of purist theory-land without a real connection to the struggles (including struggles for reform) that are going. This is hardly the case. We disagree based on experience and a grounded analysis of where this strategy leads. Charlie’s post explicitly deals with the practical, historical questions that Carl raises and explicitly addresses the question of reform struggles. We’re not living a leftist fantasy. If you disagree, fine, but state your disagreements in response to the actual content of the articles and not in response to a strawman who’s unaware of conditions on the ground and has no practical suggestions for movement work and/or party building.

  10. redchuck Avatar

    Hopefully all radicals, socialists, anti-capitalists– no matter what their attitude toward/participation in the Democratic Party– can work together against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for single-payer, for a real EFCA, etc. It would be truly tragic if the DP became an excuse to avoid united activity where we agree in rebuilding movements of popular and working class resistance.

  11. Carl Davidson Avatar

    The article is an good example of why including Solidarity in a Left Unity Project together with the socialists who encouraged a vote for Obama is problematic, to say the least.

    CCDS members where I am in Western PA worked together in the Obama campaign with PDA, the most active trade union people, all the local Black activists, the Obama youth and even a few, but hardly all, local Dem officials.

    PDA maintained its ‘Out Now’ and HR 676 positions before, during and after the campaign. If the local Dem incumbents had a problem with it, it was their problem, not ours. Most of the average Dem voters agreed with us on those matters, and we continue to work with them.

    The local grassroots Democrats spanned the range of progressive, center and right. We united with the left and center in the campaign, and worked against the right Dems. These were the ‘social conservatives’ under the influence of rightwing populism who formed ‘Democrats for McCain,’ and we took them on, tit for tat, day in and day out.

    Now that the election is over, both PDA and CCDS are much stronger than before the campaign. After Obama’s victory in PA, we successfully worked with both progressive and center forces to get the local former steeltowns of Aliquippa and Ambridge to pass HR 676 resolutions, and we worked with them to send a bus to the recent mass rally for Single Payer in DC.

    So don’t tell us we can’t build the social movements and work with progressive and center forces in the local Dems at the same time. We do it every day of the week. In fact, I would say the contrary: if we didn’t work with these people, we would be much further behind in building the ‘healthcare not warfare’ social movement and the antiwar movement than we are.

    None of us has any illusions about the Democratic party, especially at the top. Here locally, we know who’s hands are in which cookie jars very clearly. We aim our blows at the Blue Dogs, the GOP, rightwing populism, and the closet neoliberal finance capitalists in Team Obama, precisely to highlight the contradiction at the heart of the Democratic Party, with the aim of supplanting it with a new political instrument to the left. But we are sane enough to do this in a step-by-step way that strengthens the left, builds the progressive majority and weakens the right.

    We have zero interest in splitting the left and progressive forces in the next or any other election.

    Our task is to organize and emerging progressive majority of the workers and their allies around an independent pro-worker platform–‘out now,’ ‘HR 676, EFCA, Green Jobs, Debt Relief, especially for youth trying to go to community college. At the same time, we organize among a militant minority to study socialism, build socialist organizations and project the appropriate radical structural reforms that can serve as a bridge pointing to a socialist future–‘buy out, not bailout,’ worker-owned coops and the like.

    But all the local working-class and minority community people who are at all politically active and interested in these things identify themselves and register as Democrats. If we don’t go where they are, and with the appropriate forms of organization and struggle, we only isolate and cripple ourselves.

    I have my own criticisms of Burnham, along the lines that I think organization building trumps movement building in this period, and she doesn’t.

    But where you are coming from here has no relevance to our work in Western PA, and in fact would be quite counter-productive to what we have accomplished and planning to take further.

    Perhaps others in Solidarity think differently. I hope so, Bill Fletcher and I put out a proposal to learn from the Nonpartisan Leagues of the early 20th Century in ways for progressive Democrats, third parties and independents to work together in the electoral arena. So far, unfortunately, there has been little feedback willing to break with old ideas on the matter. Hopefully, things will change.

    For those interested in our mass work, check out the ‘Beaver County Blue’ website,