Carl Davidson : Bumpy Road Ahead: Obama and the Left

This is a time of great opportunity for progressives in America. The big question facing us is where to go next, and how to get there.

It is a question we plan to devote much attention to here on The Rag Blog. The following article by Carl Davidson, is, I believe, an important one and a major first step in the process. We urge you to read this article carefully and share your ideas with us, utilizing the “Comments” link below.

Carl Davidson is webmaster for and a prime mover behind Progressives for Obama. He was a major leader and thinker in the sixties New Left and has continued over the years as an influential writer and organizer for progressive causes.

Thorne Dreyer / The Rag Blog / November 18, 2008

‘Now a new period of struggle begins, but on a higher plane. An emerging progressive majority will be confronted with many challenges and obstacles not seen for decades.’
By Carl Davidson
/ The Rag Blog / November 18, 2008

American progressives have won a major victory in helping to defeat John McCain and placing Barack Obama in the White House. The far right has been broadly rebuffed, the neoconservative war hawks displaced, and the diehard advocates of neoliberal political economy are in thorough disarray. Of great importance, one long-standing crown jewel of white supremacy, the whites-only sign on the Oval Office, has been tossed into the dustbin of history.

The depth of the historical victory was revealed in the jubilation of millions who spontaneously gathered in downtowns and public spaces across the country, as the media networks called Obama the winner. When President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama took the platform in Chicago to deliver his powerful but sobering victory speech, hundreds of millions-Black, Latino, Asian, Native-American and white, men and
women, young and old, literally danced in the streets and wept with joy, celebrating an achievement of a dramatic milestone in a 400-year struggle, and anticipating a new period of hope and possibility.

Now a new period of struggle begins, but on a higher plane. An emerging progressive majority will be confronted with many challenges and obstacles not seen for decades. Left and progressive organizers face difficult, uncharted terrain, a bumpy road. But much more interesting problems are before us, with solutions, should they be achieved, promising much greater gains and rewards. for the America of popular democracy.

To consciously build on the gains of this electoral victory, it’s important to seek clarity. We need an accurate assessment of strengths and weaknesses–our own, as well as those of our allies and our adversaries.

The Obama campaign, formal and informal, was a wide undertaking. It united progressive forces, won over middle forces, then isolated and divided the right. It massed the votes and resources required the win a clear majority of the popular vote and a decisive majority of Electoral College votes.

At the base, beginning with the antiwar youth and peace activists, Obama awakened, organized, mobilized and deployed an incredible and innovative force of what grew into an army of more than three million volunteers. At the top, he realigned a powerful sector of the ruling class into an anti-NeoCon, anti-ultraright bloc. In between, he expanded the electorate and won clear majorities in every major
demographic bloc of voters, save for whites generally; but even there, he reduced McCain’s spread to single digits, and among younger white voters and women voters, he won large majorities.

Understanding the New Alliance

It is important to understand the self-interests and expectations of this new multiclass alliance. If we get it wrong, we will run into the ditch and get bogged down, whether on the right or ‘left’ side of that bumpy road, full of potholes and twists and turns.

The Obama alliance is not ‘Clintonism in blackface’ or ‘JFK in Sepia’, as some have chauvinistically tagged it. Nor is it ‘imperialism with a human face,’ as if imperialism hasn’t always had human faces. All these make the mistake of looking backward, Hillary Clinton’s mistake of trying to frame the present and future in the terms of the past.

The Obama team at the top is comprised of global capital’s representatives in the U.S as well as U.S. multinational capitalists, and these two overlap but are not the same. It is a faction of imperialism, and there is no need for us to prettify it, deny it or cover it up in any way. The important thing to see is that it is
neither neoliberalism nor the old corporate liberalism. Obama is carving out a new niche for himself, a work in progress still within the bounds of capitalism, but a ‘high road’ industrial policy capitalism that is less state-centric and more market-based in its approach, more Green, more high tech, more third wave and
participatory, less politics-as-consumerism and more ‘public citizen’ and education focused. In short, it’s capitalism for a multipolar world and the 21st century.

The unreconstructed neoliberalism and old corporate liberalism, however, are still very much in play. The former is in disarray, largely due to the financial crisis, but the latter is working overtime to join the Obama team and secure its institutional positions of power, from White House staff positions to the behind-the-scenes efforts on Wall Street to direct the huge cash flows of the Bail-Out in their favor.

How the Obama Alliance won:
Values, Technology and Social Movements

The Obama alliance is an emerging, historic counter-hegemonic bloc, still contending both with its pre-election adversaries and within itself. It has taken the White House and strengthened its majority in Congress, but the fight is not over. To define the victorious coalition simply by the class forces at the top is the error of
reductionism that fails to shine a light on the path ahead.

What is a hegemonic bloc? Most power elites maintain their rule using more than armed force. They use a range of tools to maintain hegemony, or dominance, which are ‘softer,’ meaning they are political and cultural instruments as well as economic and military. They seek a social base in the population, and draw them into partnership and coalitions through intermediate civil institutions. Keeping this bloc together requires a degree of compromise and concession, even if it ultimately relies on force. The blocs are historic; they develop over time, are shaped by the times, and also have limited duration. When external and internal crises disrupt and lead them to stagnation, anew ‘counter-hegemonic’ bloc takes shape, with a different alignment of economic interests and social forces, to challenge it and take its place. These ideas were first developed by the Italian communist and labor leader, Antonio Gramsci, and taken up again in the 1960s by the German New Left leader, Rudi Dutschke. They are helpful, especially in nonrevolutionary conditions, in understanding both how our adversaries maintain their power, as well as the strategy and tactics needed to replace them, eventually by winning a new socialist and popular democratic order.

As a new historic bloc, the Obama alliance contains several major and minor poles. It is composed of several class forces, a complex social base and many social movements which have emerged and engaged in the electoral struggle. There is both class struggle and other forms of struggle within it. There are sharp differences on military policy, on Israel-Palestine, on healthcare and the bailout. From the outside, there are also serious and sustained struggles against it. And some forces will move both inside and outside the bloc, as circumstances warrant or change. It is important to be clear on what the main forces and components are, and their path to unity. It’s also important to understand the relation and balance of forces, and how one is not likely to win at the top what one has not consolidated and won at the base, nor is failure in one or another battle always cause for a strategic break.

Obama obviously started with his local coalition in Chicago-the Black community, ‘Lakefront liberals’ from the corporate world, and a sector of labor, mainly service workers. The initial new force in the winning nationwide alliance was called out by Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq war, and his participation in two mass rallies against it, one before it began and other after the war was underway. This both awakened and inspired a large layer of young antiwar activists, some active for the first time, to join his effort to win the Iowa primary.

The fact that he had publicly opposed the war before it had begun distinguished him from Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, his chief opponents. These young people also contributed to the innovative nature of his organization, combining grassroots community organizing with the many-to-many mass communication tools of internet-based social networking and fundraising. Many had some earlier experience organizing and participating in the World Social Forum in Atlanta 2007, which energized nearly 10,000 young activists. Those who came forward put their energy and innovation to good use. Had Obama not won Iowa, it is not likely we would be talking about him today.

The Iowa victory quickly produced another major advance. Up until then, most African-American voters favored Hillary Clinton, and were dubious of a Black candidate’s chances. But Iowa is one of the ‘whitest’ states in the country, and Obama’s win there changed their minds. In short order, Obama gained wide unity in Black communities across the country, inspiring even more young people, more multinational and more ‘Hip-Hop,’ to emerge as a force. Black women in their churches and Black workers in their unions joined with the already-engaged younger Black professionals who were seeking a new voice for their generation. The internet-based fundraising was bringing in unheard-of amounts of money in small donations. A wing of trade unions most responsive to Black members came over, setting the stage for Obama’s next challenge, winning the Democratic primaries overall against Hillary Clinton.

Defeating Clinton and the corporate liberals backing her was not easy. Hillary’s main weakness was her inability to win the antiwar movement. Obama had mainly won the youth and Blacks, and through them, many young women and many Black women, but he had tough challenges. Clinton still rallied much of the liberal base and the traditional women’s movement. But it was not enough, nor was she able to deal with all the new grassroots money flowing his way. Her last reserve was the labor movement, most of which was still supporting her. She tried to keep it with a fatal error: playing the ‘white worker’ card in a racist way against Obama. It only moved more progressives to Obama, plus won him wider support in other communities of color, who saw the move for what it was. Even with her remaining base in a sector of the women’s movement and a large chunk of organized labor, after a fierce fight, he narrowly but clearly defeated her.

Now it was Obama versus McCain, and the Republicans were in the weaker position. Some think McCain made a mistake picking Sarah Palin as his VP choice, but actually it was his smarter and stronger card. To defeat Obama, he had to both energize the GOP core rightwing base, plus win a large majority of the ‘white working class.’ Palin’s proto-fascist rightwing populism was actually his best shot, especially with its unofficial allies in rightwing media. The Fox-Hannity-Limbaugh machine, and its allies in the right blogosphere, escalated their overtly racist, chauvinist, illegal immigrant-baiting, red-baiting, terror-baiting, anti-Black and anti-Muslim bigotry to a ceaseless fever pitch. The aim was to manipulate the significant social base of less-educated, more fundamentalist, lower-income white workers who often seek economic relief through being tied to the military or the prison-industrial complex. They threw everything, from the kitchen sink to the outhouse, at Obama, his family and his movement. They whipped their crowds into violent frenzies. The Secret Service even had to ask them to tone it down, since assassination threats were coming out of the woodwork with each rally like this.

This now put organized labor in the critical position. Even though they represented only a minority of workers generally, they had wider influence, including into the ranks of the white working-class families who were for Clinton, and leaning to McCain. But both national coalitions, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, did the right
thing, and in a big way. They knew McCain was their ‘clear and present’ danger. So they mobilized their resources and members into the streets, especially in the ‘white working class’ battleground areas in critical electoral states, and among Latino voters in the West. They won a wide majority of union households. They won among women and younger workers, as well as Latinos and other voters of color. Although they still did not get a majority of white working class voters for Obama, they brought the spread down to single digits. In many areas, they did better with Obama than Kerry had done four years earlier. It was enough to put Obama over the top.

There are books to be written about many other aspects and components of the Obama alliance. But these five: insurgent antiwar youth, a united African-American community, Latinos and other communities of color, women with a grasp of the importance of reproductive rights and health care, and organized labor-these form the major elements of the social base of Obama’s historic bloc against neoliberalism and the right. Add these to the disgruntled progressive-to-liberal regular Democratic voters in the suburbs and elsewhere, and it brought the era of the conservative right’s dominance in the White House and Congress to an end.

The Obama Alliance From Below and Within

The alliance was also diverse in terms of political organization. At the very bottom grassroots, in the final months, there were often four campaigns, overlapping to one degree or another, united to one degree or another, but not the same by a long shot.

First, the local Obama offices were mainly run by the Obama youth, twenty-somethings, many of them young women, who worked their hearts out, 16-hours-a-day, seven days a week, months on end. They were deployed in a vast array of ‘neighborhood teams,’ with old teams often generating new ones, connected via the social networking of their own blogs, email, cell phones and text messaging. Each team knocked on hundreds, if not thousands of doors, and tracked it all on computers. The full-time leaders were often ‘parachuted in’ from distant states, skilled mainly in mobilizing others like themselves. But add up dozens, even hundreds of teams in a given county, and you’re making a serious difference.

Second, the Black community’s campaign was more indigenous, more traditional, more rooted, more deeply proletarian-it made use of the Black church’s social committees, tenant groups and civic organizations, who widely united. Many day-to-day efforts were in the hands of older Black women who knew everything about everybody, and had decades of experience in registering and getting out the vote. In some parts of the country, there were other nationalities working this way-Latino, Asian, Native American-and they found the way to make common cause with the African American community, rebuffing GOP efforts to appeal to anti-Black racism or narrow nationalism as a wedge. Some of the older people in these communities learned how to use computers, too, and sent regular contributions to Obama via PayPal in small amounts. But multiply one of these experienced community-based women organizers by 50,000 or 100,000 more just like her in another neighborhood or town, and something new and serious is going on. They always faced scarce resources, and there was friction at times with the Obama youth, who were often mostly white or more of a younger ‘Rainbow.’ They worked it through, most of the time.

Third, organized labor carried out its campaign in its own way. They had substantial resources for meeting halls, phone banks and the traditional ‘swag’ of campaigns-window signs, yard signs, buttons, T-shirts, stickers, banners, professionally done multi-colored flyers directly targeted to the top issues of union members and the wider working class. They put it together as an almost industrial operation, well planned with a division of labor. Top leaders of the union came in, called mass meetings, and in many cases, gave fierce no-nonsense speeches about ‘getting over’ fear of Black candidates and asserting the need to vote their members’ interests. The central offices produced walking maps of union member households and registered voter households, political district by political district, broken down right to how many people were needed for each door-knocking team to cover each district or neighborhood. They printed maps with driving directions. They had tally sheets for interviewing each voter, boxes to check, to be scanned and read by machines when turned in. Hundreds of member-volunteers from that ranks came to each hall, raffles were held for free gas cards, and when you got back and turned in your tallies, free hot dogs and pizza. Sometimes busloads and car caravans went to other nearby states, to more ‘battleground’ areas. They often shared their halls with the Obama kids, and tried not to duplicate efforts. It was powerful to see, and it worked. There’s nothing to replace a pair of union members standing on the porches of other working-class families, talking things over.

Fourth, the actual ongoing structures of the local Democratic Party did things their way. In many cases, the local regular Democratic leaders were very good, and took part personally in all three of elements of the campaign described above. But frequently, there was no ‘mass’ to the local Democratic organization. The mass member groups of the old Democratic Party were just history. (It was a problem, but Progressive Democrats of America, to grow). Each incumbent, moreover, had their own staff and core of donors and loyalists, lawyers and media consultants, and guarded their own turf. Some were Obama enthusiasts, some more low-key, but more than a few avoided any responsibility to win Hillary voters to Obama. They capitulated to ‘Democrats for McCain’ elements in their base, elements who worked informally with the GOP right. This latter group was called ‘the top of the ticket problem.’ They worked their campaigns as independent operations, but avoided identification with the ‘top of the ticket’ or those working locally for it.

The Core Message of Change

While all four of these sub-campaigns were united by the central message and ‘change’ theme from the top, each also carried out the ‘change’ message in its own way. One issue linking at least three of them, save for a few ‘Blue Dog’ incumbents, was the need for a rapid end to the war. From Obama’s personal appearances on down, whenever a speaker forcefully made this point to a crowd, it got the loudest applause, if not a standing ovation.

The people in these crowds constitute a new component of the antiwar movement. It needs to be understood, however, that they have a different character than the traditional left-led antiwar rallies. Demands to end the war here are deeply connected with supporting our troops, getting them home and out of harm’s way, supporting veterans across the board, expressions of patriotism, and a view of the war as an offense to patriotism. They hate the waste of lives of people from families they know; and they hate the waste of resources and huge amounts of money. Ending the war is stressed as the way to lower taxes and revive the economy by spending for projects at home, People will denounce oil barons, but you’ll hear very little put in terms of anti-imperialism or solidarity with various other liberation struggles around the world. ‘We were lied to getting us into this’, and watchwords. There are a few incumbents who will take positions to the right of Obama on the war, trying to stake out various nuanced and longer ‘exit strategy’ processes, or who just don’t mention the war at all. But at the base, most just want to troops rapidly and safely out, while a few cling to the right’s calls for ‘victory.’ But there’s not much in the middle.

The other components of ‘change’ at the base are, first and foremost, new jobs and new industries. People are especially motivated by practical plans for Green Jobs in alternative energies and major infrastructural repair, health care for everyone, schools and support for students, and debt relief and other protections of their economic security in the face of the Wall Street crash. In fact, the Wall Street crash was the major factor in many older voters rejecting McCain and going for Obama. Regarding health care, many unions and local government bodies are signing on to HR 676, Single-Payer health care, but some will accept many other things, wisely or not, as a step in that direction or an improvement over the current setup.

The Nature of Rising Hegemonic Blocs

Within the Obama historic bloc, there are at least four contending trends regarding ‘change’ and political economy-two major and two minor. The two major ones come mainly from the top, while the two minor ones come from below.

At the top, the Obama White House will be pulled in two directions. The first is the ‘tinkering at the top’ approach of traditional corporate liberal capitalism, mostly concerned with securing the major banks by covering their debts and reducing the deficit through ‘shared austerity’ cutbacks. The emphasis will be on greater
government-imposed efficiencies in entitlement programs, tax reform and adjustments in global trade agreements. Some of their favored programs, like pressing businesses to provide more 401K plans for employees, may be set aside because of the stock market’ volatility.

The second direction is Obama’s own often-asserted ‘High Road’ green industrial policy capitalism, which wants to restrict and punish pure speculation in the ‘Casino Economy’ in favor of targeted government investment in massive infrastructure and research, encouraging the growth of new industries with ‘Green Jobs’ in alternative energy sectors. Since resources are not infinite, there will be a major tension and competition for funds between two rival sectors–a new green industrial-education policy sector and an old hydrocarbon-military-industrial sector. It’s a key task of the left and progressive movements to add their forces to uniting with and building up the former, while opposing and weakening the grip of the
latter. This is the ‘High Road’ vs. ‘Low Road’ strategy widely discussed in progressive think tanks and policy circles.

From below, Obama is being presented with a plethora of redistributionist ‘New New Deal’ plans, including Rep Dennis Kucinich’s 16 Points, to Sen. Bernie Sanders 4 Points, to theInstitute for Policy Studies ‘Progressive Majority’ plan. One outlier ‘Buy Out, Not Bail Out’ proposal, David Schweickart’s Economic Democracy option, goes beyond redistributionism, and proposes deep structural reforms of public ownership in the equity of financial firms in exchange for the bailout, in turn directing capital into community investment banks to build worker-controlled options within the new wealth creation firms of green industries.

From the other side, the unreconstructed rightwing neoliberals will be out of positions of executive power but not without positions of influence. Centered among the House GOP and allied with the rightwing media populists and anti-global nationalists, with Lou Dobbs as a spokesman, they will remain a powerful opposition force. They are likely to try to sabotage Obama, as best as they can without their own mass base, suffering from the crisis, turning against them. This was the role they played in the rightist opposition to the corporate liberal bailout plans stirred up by the far right Human Events journalists.

The key point here is shaping the exact nature of what Obama unfolds as ‘change.’ What will bring about any progressive reform and protect ‘Main Street’ and the ‘Middle Class’ against ‘Wall Street’ is still open and not fully formed. In fact, it will be a focus of intense struggle both internally at the top and on the part of mass social movements defending and advancing their interests from below. Class struggle will unfold within the bloc, to be sure.

The Bankruptcy of the Ultraleft

This is where the questions facing the left and an account of its tasks become critical. What is our role? Who are our friends and allies? Who are our adversaries, of various sorts? What is our left platform within broader proposals for growing and uniting a progressive majority? What is our strategy, tactics and orientation
for moving forward? All these need to be re-examined in this dynamic and new situation.

We have to start by acknowledging the real crisis across the entire socialist left for some time. While some progress and innovation has been made by some in recent years, no one is surging ahead with major growth and breakthroughs. What this election, its outcome, its battles and ebb and flow, and the engagement of the masses, has especially done is reveal the utter bankruptcy of almost the entire anti-Obama Trotskyist, anarchist and Maoist left, save for a few groupings and some individuals. The crisis was not nearly as deep among the wider left-those hundreds of thousands working among trade union activists, community organizers and our country’s intellectual community, but often not identified with a given socialist group or anarchist project. Whatever their problems, most of them understood this election and what to do, even if their efforts were limited. They ‘got it right’, even if they lacked the organizational means to advance the socialist project.

But among those belonging to organized socialist and anarchist groups with enough resources to put out their views, most got it dead wrong. On the election, only the CCDS (Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, cc-ds.org, ) the Communist Party USA, cpusa.org, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO, freedomroad.org) got it mostly right, mainly because they have some grasp on the importance of racism, elections and mass democracy. But we know these three groups, even if well situated, are rather small and not growing in any major way. Next was DSA which at least saw the importance of defeating McCain and backing Obama, even though they only managed to put out a rather wimpy pro-forma statement without once mentioning race. The other 10-to-15 groups, with the larger majority of organized US socialists, communists and Marxists in them, failed miserably, whatever the subjective feelings and views of their individual members. Besides broadsides against Obama and those backing him, they had nothing new or relevant to say, and some of them didn’t bother to say anything, especially among the anarchists. Go to the sixty or more Indymedia sites, and you hardly see anything useful said besides macho bluster and shit-talk against the few pro-voting-for-Obama postings put up.

This is the face of this crisis: While there was an upsurge of millions of Obama volunteers in one of the most critical elections in our history, a true milestone, which was combined with direct engagement from a united Black community and the best elements of labor, from precisely the sectors all of them have been claiming to try to reach for decades, and almost all they could was bark at them: ‘You’re deluded!’ You’re Obamaniacs! ‘You’re wrong!’ ‘Obama is a capitalist!’ ‘Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid! Obama is the more dangerous warmonger because he’s the new ‘Uncle Tom’ Black face of imperialism!’

If the question of the day was immediate working-class mass action on seizing power from the capitalist class, for reform vs. revolution, socialism or capitalism NOW, they might have had a point. But it’s not. Even with the financial crisis, it’s not even close. Besides getting troops out of this or that country, they don’t even have a package of demands or structural reforms worthy of the name being put forward. Worse of all, they don’t think any distinction between revolutionary and non-revolutionary conditions is all that important. What that means, in turn, is that it’s almost impossible for them, as groups and as a trend, to correct their course.

It’s not a matter of being critical of Obama. Everyone engaged in his movement had criticisms and alternate positions of all sorts. Some made them public, some did not-but all these did so in a way designed to help him win, not to take him down, to add votes to his totals, not to subtract them.

As mentioned, the wider left, the left that defines itself as more than liberal but not necessarily socialist, did relatively well. These are the union-based organizers, community organizers, campus organizers, and the readers of Portside, The Nation, Black Commentator, Huffington Post and DailyKOS. For the most part, they
were fully engaged for Obama in this election. Comparing the online commentary in these media voices and outlets with that of the Indymedia anarchists and the socialist papers of the far left was as revealing as the difference between noon and midnight.

We have to break decisively with this ultra-left, semi-anarchist perspective. While the hard core of this trend is small, it reach is wider than some might think. It’s not a matter of purges; it’s a matter of emancipating the minds of many on the radical left from old dogma. There’s no way forward under these new conditions if we don’t. We have to break with it not only in our own ranks, the groups working with ‘Progressives for Obama’, where it’s not that influential, but across all the mass democratic organizations of the wider social movements as well. We have to spotlight it, stand up to it, isolate it and defeat it. It’s not that we are demanding a split. The split has already taken place over the past two years, in real life and in actual battles. Many of us, for instance, stood up to the rightwing
media’s racist attacks on Obama, his family and his movement; others from this corner of the left added fuel to the fascists’ fires and fanned the flames. We are sharply divided. We are as far apart in practice as we can be. What we have to do is acknowledge it, sum up its lessons, and warn others of its dangers, and try to unite all who can be united on a new path forward.

Charting Our Path Forward

So what is our path? Again, we start by getting clarity on where we are. We were in an alliance with Obama and the forces and movements that brought him to power against the NeoCon neoliberals and the far right. If we assess things accurately, we’ll see that we are still in this alliance, although its nature is changing. We are part of a new emerging counter-hegemonic bloc in our country, an historic multiclass alliance. The Obama forces at the top are in turn linked to the multipolar, multilateralist sector of global capital. A new bloc on this higher, global level is both trying to consolidate its power against its rivals and maintain a degree of both unity and struggle among the contenting poles and centers of power within it. Our task is to grow the strength of the left, the working class, and broader communities allies within it, to secure strong points, and to win, step by step, the ‘long march through the institutions’ until we emerge with a new counter-hegemonic bloc of our own, in an entirely different period.

From the beginning, the Obama alliance brought together left-progressive forces, along with moderate center and center-right forces, from the grass roots level through middle-layer institutions to the top. No one or even two of these voting blocs was enough to win alone. It took the entire coalition to win-and driving out any one part of it may have made defeat far more likely and risky. We were part of a left-progressive pole in a broader sub-bloc comprised of social movements, primarily antiwar youth, minority nationality communities and organized labor. While we were the most numerous of the blocs, we were not necessarily the most powerful.

A political pole or sub-bloc’s power in electoral campaigns is a combination of three things-first, an organized platform of ideas appropriate to solving the problems of the day that, second, is in turn embodied in organized grassroots voters and, third, those organizations have readily available amounts of organized money. We
can take part in an alliance without some or even all of these things, but we shouldn’t then expect much clout.

Let’s look at each of these three elements from the perspective of left-progressive activists.

What was our platform? First, we stressed an end to the war in Iraq and a prevention of wider wars, even if Obama talked of going into Afghanistan in a bigger way. Second, we were demanding ‘Healthcare Not Warfare,’ and in many cases, pressing HR 676 Single-Payer even if Obama opposed it. Third, we stressed Green Jobs and New Schools, and Obama eventually pushed these in a big way. Fourth, we stressed Alternative Energies over dirty coal, offshore oil and unsafe nuke plants, even if Obama waffled. Fifth, we wanted Expanded Democracy and Fair Elections, and Obama pressed voter registration and early voting in a big way.

The Obama volunteers in the official campaign often couldn’t put things out exactly like this. Their messaging was more controlled from the center. But nothing stopped either organized labor or independent forces like PDA, MDS or other local groups connected to ‘Progressives for Obama’ from exercising our ‘independence and initiative within the broader front.’ We simply did what we thought best, but in a way that still maintained solid unity among local allies.

The Importance of Independent Mass Democracy

How did we organize voters? Many progressives simply worked through the local Obama campaign, registering and identifying voters with the neighbor teams. This was fine, especially if you spent some time in a mutual education process with the young staffers. But some of us were looking for something more independent and lasting. So we joined with groups like PDA, or set up ‘voters for peace’ groupings based on local coalitions, or worked through union locals. The idea was for the information gained–voter lists, donor lists, volunteers lists, contacts and such-to remain in the hands of the new grassroots formations, to grow them in size and scope, so as to help further struggles down the road.

To be sure, our influence, compared to the incredibly sophisticated, well-funded and innovative Obama campaign, was relatively minor. That didn’t matter so much; what was important was that we weren’t simply a tail on the Democratic machinery, but that we were building our own independent strength for the future. In nearly every major city, independent blogs or clusters of blogs went up to serve as a public face and organizing hubs of these grassroots forces. Case in point: The local Obama offices are now all closed, but our local groups or coalitions have doubled or tripled in size, we now have news blogs getting thousands of hits, and our efforts are ongoing and more connected with labor and community allies.

How did we raise money? To be frank, we didn’t raise that much independently. This is a fault, not a virtue. Some groups in the African-American community went into the T-shirt and button business, making a range of campaign items, selling them to raise stipends, gas money and donations to Obama, then turning some over to make more T-shirts and buttons, and so on. In some places, we relied a good deal on the resources supplied at local union halls-meeting space, phones, and printed materials. ‘Progressives for Obama’ kept itself alive from a few initial startup donations from individuals, then from its two blogs and listservs on the Internet via PayPal in small amounts.

But to return to our platform of issues and demands, the key underlying principle was segmenting the business community into productive versus speculative capital, rather than asserting an all-round anti-capitalist or anti-corporate perspective. We want to see mills reopened with new companies we can support that would make wind turbines via Green Jobs, while we oppose the Casino gamblers on Wall Street or insurance company parasites blocking universal health care. People can and will denounce every sort of corporate crime or outrage to make a point. But when it came to the platform of reforms for uses of our taxes dollars, we were much more focused on what kind of businesses we wanted to see grow, and how we wanted them to relate to their workers and surrounding communities. This approach did very well in getting many rank-and-file workers to take us seriously, especially in areas where many people suffer more from the lack of business than its presence.

The main point is that we now have mass democratic organization anchored in many communities, workplaces and schools, and that they have a basis to expand. PDA is a good example. Starting with only a few dozen people in 2004 with an ‘inside-outside’ independent view of dealing and working with Democrats, they have grown to some 150,000 people scattered across the country in every major city, with most of that growth taking place in the context of the last campaign to defeat the GOP and McCain. At the Democratic convention, together with The Nation magazine, PDA delivered a week-long series of panels and workshops that drew thousands of activists and hundreds of delegates, establishing itself as the ‘Progressive Central’ mobilizing and organizing pole for the week in Denver. Many PDA local chapters mobilized members that became the backbone of the Obama campaign offices, as well as boosting local labor mobilizations. The PDA chapters built their credibility by advocating Healthcare Not Warfare and backing local progressive candidates down the ticket. They helped unite progressives within the various trends of the Obama campaign with local unity events.

On a smaller scale, Movement for a Democratic Society groups did well, too. Austin, Texas is a great example, where they combined with The Rag Blog, which is now getting over 25,000 hits a month. On campuses, where the New SDS was able to make a break with anarchism and relate to the Obama youth, they also report successes and growth.

The Critical Priority of Organization
and the Relative Importance of Socialist Tasks

What the heart of this says is that for left-to-progressive activists, organization-building trumps movement-building in this period. The movements are very wide and diverse, and in front of our noses. But the current wave has just peaked, and will now ebb a bit. In situations like this, it’s more important than ever to consolidate the gains of mass struggle, including electoral struggle, into lasting organizations, either expanding earlier ones or building new ones. The same goes for coalition-building of local clusters of organizations, then networking them across the country, horizontally and vertically, via the internet. We need organizers now, more so than activists and agitators.

What about the ‘socialism’ part of the socialist left? Up to this point, I’ve mainly addressed the mass democratic tasks we share in common with the non-socialist left and progressive activists generally. Fortunately or unfortunately the Wall Street financial crisis combined with the right wing’s red baiting of Obama as a ‘Marxist’ and ‘socialist’ has given the ‘S’ word far wider circulation and interest than it’s had in decades. Unfortunately, in the mass media, it’s mainly discussed in a one-dimensional, cartoonish way as ‘socialism for the rich’ or ‘sharing the wealth.’

No matter. This expanded media buzz serves to underscore the main aspect of our socialist tasks in today’s conditions. Our work here is mainly that of education, theoretical work, and the development of program and policy options. We need our own think tanks and networks of study groups developing our policies and platforms for deep structural reforms that serve as transitional levers to a new socialism. Before we can fight for it, we better have a fairly clear idea of what it is in this country in today’s world-both among ourselves and the wider circles of the best left and progressive organizers with whom we want to share this learning process and
socialist project.

It is a good time, however, to expand this work in a serious way. One small example: in the context of the initial wave of reaction to the Wall Street crash, and the first round of progressive proposals to deal with it, ‘Progressives for Obama’ asked David Schweickart, one of our country’s foremost proponents of socialist theory, to write up his take on it. He wrote not only his account of why the crisis happened, but also briefly contrasted today’s capitalism and its downturn and crash with the socialist alternative. His own ‘successor system theory’ of Economic Democracy, however, is designed to be a bridge to socialist options. If we, the public, are to buy up the bad debt of failed banks and firms, why not demand equity in the stock and public seats on the board, or buy them out entirely. Instead of simply paying off debt and providing the wherewithal for big bonuses and Golden Parachutes, why not do more than simply restrict or forbid this? Why not use these now-public resources to launch local community-owned investment banks to partner with labor and local government and entrepreneurs to build the new worker-owned factories of green industries and alternative energies?

These are excellent take-off points. Schweickart’s article was widely circulated as an authoritative piece, commented on across the political spectrum. In several cities, leftists in and around the Obama campaign even set up study groups to go over it. This shouldn’t be exaggerated, but it does show the possibilities and frames our socialist tasks more accurately.

Both Immediate and Transitional Programs

But the more pressing task for us as part of the left is sharply and concretely outlining our immediate and transitional programs and their platforms. The immediate program of demands, like Kucinich’s 16 Points, are basically redistributionist programs aimed at taking wealth from above and spreading it around below. Given the vast inequalities of our society, that is both pressing and desirable. As a
stimulus, it also spurs the generation of new wealth. The transitional program of deep structural reform, like Schweickart’s Economic Democracy, takes public resources to generate new wealth, but in a way that alters power relations in favor of the working class and broader public.

Some of the best proposals and projects on the table combine both of these. The Apollo Alliance, where steelworkers and environmentalists come together, put forward a range of recession-busting programs. Van Jones’ Green Jobs programs for inner city youth do the same, as does HR 676 Single-Payer health care. The Blue-Green Alliance is still another.

Our task is to put flesh on these in a way that melds with our local conditions. We start by uniting antiwar Obama youth, community and labor locally, then build outwards and upwards from there. We start with an understanding of the critical role of a united African-American community, the most consistent defenders and fighters
for a progressive agenda in the country, especially when it works in alliance with Latinos and other minority nationalities. We also grasp the significance of women and labor, and the overall intersection of race, gender and class in defining our policies, seeking out allies, and setting priorities. We design a package of critical local reforms, whether in rebuilding Ohio River locks and dams, constructing high-speed rail in California, or delivering single-payer healthcare
everywhere. Then we make the fights for these a centerpiece to unite the entire area, win over all the public officials that we can, and then, in turn, take it to an Obama administration, demanding an end to the war and war making, in order to fund it and make it happen. It’s really the only way out of this mess.

Our great victory in this election, finally, is that efforts and programs like this won’t fall on deaf ears. The challenge to Obama is that to get it done, he has to end the war, avoid wider wars and cut the military budget in a major way. If he does, he can be a great president. If he doesn’t, he’ll have hell to pay.

Summary

Here are the key points, once again:

1.) We have won a major victory, now consolidate its gains.

2.) Start where you are, and build mass democratic grassroots groups bringing together the best local activists from the Obama campaign and others like it.

3.) Build a coalition with local partners in labor, campus and community groups that did the same.

4.) Start local left-progressive blogs to have a public face, and link it to others.

5.) Develop a program of deep structural reform and immediate needs for your area, and take it upward and outward through the elected officials and government bodies, all the way to the top.

6.) Break decisively with the ultraleft mindset, in order to deepen and broaden left-progressive unity.

7.) Prepare the ground for mass mobilization to end the war this spring, and to prevent wider war. Link this battle to the economy. Green Jobs over War Jobs, New Schools, Not More Prisons, HealthCare Not Warfare, Peace and Prosperity, Not War, Greed and Crisis. You get the idea.

8.) Study socialism seriously, the version for today, and bring it to bear in developing policy and uniting the most advanced fighters for the whole, not just the part, and for the future, not just the present.

[If you liked this article, go to Progressives for Obama, and offer some support by using the PayPal button. Other writings by Carl Davidson are available at Carl’s website and contact him for speaking engagements at carld717@gmail.com.]

Also see Thorne Dreyer : Our Progressive Opportunity / The Rag Blog / Nov. 20.

This post includes links to additional feature articles recently published on The Rag Blog that deal with this subject matter, by such writers as Paul Buhle, David Hamilton, Tim Wise, Ron Ridenour, Bill Ayers and Robert Jensen.

The Rag Blog

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14 Responses to Carl Davidson : Bumpy Road Ahead: Obama and the Left

  1. Zwarich says:

    The Bumpy Road Ahead
    A critique of Carl Davidson’s Excellent Piece

    On Monday, November 17, noted progressive leftist Carl Davidson published an excellent essay giving his assessment of the current circumstances in which the American progressive left finds itself. I would highly recommend that any who have not yet seen it, should make an effort to read it. It is a rather lengthy 7500 word piece, but it provides us a fascinating documentary ‘take’ on the historic nature of recent events. Any can read the article on Mr. Davidson’s own blog. http://carldavidson.blogspot.com/ . It is well worth the time.

    In an excellent and insightful analysis, comprising an ‘anatomy of the election’ format, Mr. Davidson provides us with a fairly detailed documentary history of the coalition that Obama rode to the White House. Many will no doubt think it falls short in many regards, as any one person’s viewpoint always must, but we can all value what it offers, even as we may criticize its possible shortcomings.

    In extolling the new found power of the center-left coalition that has brought Obama to the doorstep of the White House, for example, the article fails to adequately account for the fact that McCain actually forged into a brief lead in the polls in early September, before the bottom fell out of the economy barely two weeks later.

    That is not to detract from the efforts of the coalition whose ‘victory’ Mr. Davidson so proudly promotes, but it is somewhat sobering to consider how close the election actually was, (a bare four percent swing), in spite of the stark failures falling in on the heads of the Republican regime from every side. Had the regime in power been able to stave off this economic collapse for a mere few additional weeks, it is highly possible that the outcome of the election would have been much different, in full spite of the massively well financed efforts of the Obama machine, and the progressive left supported coalition that it assembled. Mr. Davidson’s claim of a ‘major victory’ does not reflect the closeness of the election outcome, even in spite of the economic calamities, which is an indication of the powerful and deep divisions that still divide American society.

    Despite the high quality and value of Mr. Davidson’s piece, I know that many progressives besides myself will very likely find much within it that is disturbing. I hope that Mr. Davidson will accept my sincere congratulations and appreciation for the value of what he has offered us, and in doing so will receive my criticism graciously, for it is the elements that are disturbing that I want most to discuss.

    We are reading many pieces these days trumpeting out a ‘major victory’ for the Left, as does Mr. Davidson’s. Many people on the Left, however, are very worried that these celebrations of victory are so premature, and are so essentially groundless at this point, that they are only bound to hinder the ability of the Left to push forward with its agenda, and especially with our pressing need to organize, (which Mr. Davidson himself advances). While Mr. Davidson himself ironically points to several of the major policy positions established by Barack Obama that are decidedly NOT progressive, he passes over them glibly, as if they were minor annoyances, rather than the major impediments to the progressive cause that they are, (or at least very well might be).

    The massive irony seems to be lost on him, for example, that Obama’s soaring rhetorical skills won him the support of the progressive anti-war camp, in spite of the fact that he is an aggressive hawk who is enthusiastically accepting the mantle of the US imperial mission. He plans to expand the already bloated US military, and he has clearly stated that he plans to escalate the war in Central Asia, pushing the US further into a quagmire that will prove to be just as futile, tragic, and intractable as the tragically failed mission in Iraq.

    His opposition to the war in Iraq has never been based on ‘anti-war’ principle. It has been based on strategic and tactical pragmatism. It is stunning to hear progressives, (like Michale Moore, for example), proclaim the election of an “avowed anti-war candidate”, when this man has NEVER been ‘anti-war’ on principle, but rather only opposed a specific war for pragmatic reasons, then continually voted to fund that war once it was underway.

    In his recent ’60 Minutes’ interview, Obama pledged to vigorously prosecute the Bush regime’s ‘war on terrorism’. Coupled with his enthusiastic embrace of Zionism, reinforced by his appointment of Rahm Israel Emmanuel as his Chief of Staff, this does not portend well for any meaningful ‘change’ in US foreign policy.

    Many progressives, Mr. Davidson among them, seem to be so carried away with their claims of a ‘major victory’, that they are unwilling to consider the full implications of this appointment, which was Obama’s FIRST act as president-elect. Rahm Emmanuel’s own revered father was a Zionist terrorist who personally helped drive the terrified indigenous Palestinians off their land in 1948, using machine guns rather than cattle prods, so that foreigners, ashkenazi Jews from Europe, could take it over.

    At a time when his own nation went to war, Rahm Emmanuel volunteered to serve the Israeli army, where he was ostensibly assigned to repair brakes on military vehicles. Since he was, at that time, already a well-connected and rising young star in US power circles, and since his father served as an IRGUN terrorist, and was well connected with Israeli intelligence, it is widely assumed by anyone not born just last night that Emmanuel’s service in Israel was in an intelligence capacity.

    The full implications of this are staggering. Anyone who identifies themselves as a progressive must surely be concerned that the person that Obama selected to be the second most powerful person in Washington has direct, deep, and strong ongoing ties with Israeli intelligence.

    The story of Obama’s embrace of Zionism is a disturbing one, though few who are now trumpeting this ‘major victory’ for the progressive cause are willing to consider it. Barack Obama once used his silver-tongued oratorical skill to eloquently plead for justice for the Palestinian cause. It was not until he decided to launch his own political career that he cynically dropped his ‘passionate’ concern for these long-suffering people, like a rock into the ocean, in order to embrace Zionism ‘overnight’.

    Like any ambitious politician, Obama clearly understood his need to placate the power of the Zionist Lobby. US politicians simply do not advance very far, if at all, in US circles of power, unless they embrace Zionism. Such is the staggering power of this Zionist Lobby to influence US political policy, and now, through their manipulation of this brilliant and charismatic, (though conveniently pliant), Black politician, they have secured a virtual ‘mole’ not only in the White House, but as the second most powerful person in Washington.

    Yet in his entire 7500 word essay, Mr. Davidson barely mentions that Obama’s position vis-a-vis the tragic plight of Palestinian Arabs is somewhat lacking from the progressive perspective. He gives a bare few words, in passing, (as he does to all of Obama’s massively UN-progressive policy positions), to Obama’s disturbing embrace of Zionism. It is Zionism, and its cruel and starkly ‘racist’ apartheid treatment of an entire nation of people, which is at the root of the so-called ‘war on terrorism’, which Obama has promised to faithfully prosecute. It is staggeringly ironic that this man who is being exalted as a champion of the defeat of racism in his own country, would embrace the cruel racist policies of Zionism to such an extent that he would choose an avowed Zionist as his FIRST-chosen and most powerful aide.

    Many progressives will disagree with Mr. Davidson’s glib dismissal of Obama’s decidedly UN-progressive platform. Many think that it is crucial that we make ourselves keenly aware of exactly where Obama stands, rather than foolishly gloss over his un-progressive agenda, so that we can gloat in our ‘major victory’. Many progressives are very worried that when people of Mr. Davidson’s stature are claiming ‘major victory’, our awareness of the need to continue to organize will be seriously blunted. Mr Davidson puts forth the rather strange notion that we should rejoice in our major victory, and indulge our sense of unrestrained jubilation, to realize that we need to gird ourselves to oppose the policies of the very one in whose election we are rejoicing.

    Uhhh…..Well……All I can say is that many progressives regard the odd logic behind this notion as very dubious.

    I do admire Mr. Davidson for promoting our need to organize, but it seems very strange that he thinks that irrational claims of ‘major victory’ are going to mobilize people in that direction. We can already see the deleterious effects of this irrational exuberance beginning to manifest themselves. Progressives who are celebrating this ‘major victory’ are NOT retaining the least awareness of Obama’s decidedly UN-progressive positions, and they are certainly NOT thinking about our need to organize to oppose him in those regressive positions. They are showering him with unabashed, unquestioning, and irrational, (from a progressive perspective), hero worship. Pure an simple. They are anointing him as a ‘savior’ even as he goes on ’60 Minutes’ and promises to effectively continue to prosecute the Bush regime’s ‘war on terror’.

    What’s more, and quite possibly much worse, considerable counterproductive divisiveness is being engendered as people like Mr. Davidson heap foolish and merit-less scorn on the sincere concerns of many progressives who are trying hard to make their fellow progressives regain their senses and acknowledge the mere facts of actual reality.

    I discussed this with Mr. Davidson in personal correspondence before the election, in trying to explain to him the great danger to the progressive cause that I saw might develop in the aftermath of an Obama victory. I now see this danger developing much faster, and in a much more pronounced fashion, than I had ever imagined. What we have seen thus far is a completely irrational embrace of ‘Obamamania’ by the progressive left, which is nothing but a willful ignorance of, (an agreement to willfully ignore), the reality of Obama’s MANY decidedly UN-progressive positions.

    In fact, when we look past his soaring silver-tongued rhetoric, (which was, indeed, heroically ‘progressive’), we are hard pressed to find a SINGLE major policy position that he has established that is progressive at ALL.

    His enthusiastic support of the US imperial mission, his embrace of Zionism and the ‘war of terrorism’, and his current process of choosing between the long time members of the Washington power-elite to serve him in his cabinet, make a meaningless mockery of the inspiring mantra for ‘change’ that he rode to power.

    His health care plan is nothing but a plan to subsidize insurance companies, to preserve our innate human need and desire to be healthy as a lucrative profit opportunity, and will likely kill efforts to institute a sane single-payer system, and set back true health care reform for at least a generation. The insurance, drug, and health care industries have a true and loyal friend in Barack Obama.

    His avid and unquestioning support, as a candidate, for the reverse Robin Hood bailout of the rich by the common people, not even asking for adequate equity in return, (as Mr. Davidson avers), was a disgraceful and direct insult to Democracy itself, as he threw his support for this historic travesty directly in the face of The People, the VAST majority of whom were shouting at the top of their lungs AGAINST this stark larceny.

    Mr. Davidson is correct to point out that Obama has called for an end to the disastrous era of laissez-faire de-regulated capitalism, and is calling for the increased role of government in regulating capitalist greed. So were John McCain and Sarah Palin. The question, as yet unanswered, is how and by whom will this re-regulatory role of government be affected?

    We are yet to see what direction this man will go, (and I have my hopes just like everybody else; I got my share of goose bumps while listening to him speak), but his unquestioning support for the bailout, coupled with the massive financial support that he received from Wall Street wonks, (it is a false myth that his unprecedented success in fund-raising, which represented his reneging on a solemn pledge, and likely killed campaign finance reform for the foreseeable future, was the result of the ‘little guy’ sending in their quarters and dimes), simply do not suggest an indication that his plans are to buck the ‘powers that be’, (as did FDR), to institute a ‘new New Deal’ for the American people.

    None of us has a crystal ball. I will be very glad to have my fears be proven groundless. Time will pass, and we will see if this man’s inspiring rhetoric will find any expression at all in meaningful policy. But so far, in all his stated major policy positions, it has NOT!

    I hope all will understand that I avidly support Mr. Davidson’s exhortations that we must organize. I am especially impressed with his support for moving beyond an amorphous desire to ‘build a movement’, and to realize that we need to build functioning democratic organizations.

    It is odd however, to consider the organizations he points to as examples. I worked extensively with PDA, for example, whom he extols as a shining example of a democratic organization, as they were forming. I spoke to people all over the country who were trying to be involved in this effort, but who were becoming discouraged over the direction that PDA was taking. Huge resentments were engendered as local groups were told by people at ‘the top’ who their leaders would be. Many people had the quaint notion that people in an ostensibly ‘democratic’ group should elect their OWN leaders.

    I met nothing but defensive rancor from the upper echelons of PDA when I tried to convince them that they could build something MUCH more significant and powerful if they would allow it to be genuinely democratic. This was simply not the direction they wanted to go. Like virtually everybody who builds a group, these people, who were the remnants of the ’04 Kucinich campaign, wanted to have control over the group that their efforts built.

    They have become a valuable group that does good work, but except in the sense that people can ‘vote with their feet’, to either support PDA or not, they are not democratic in any sense at all. Their leaders are not subject to election or recall, their agenda is set from the top, and the only channel of communication they maintain is top down. The people who built PDA built it over the objections of others who were trying to participate, into a very typical top down chain-of-command organization. One wonders in what sense Mr. Davidson thinks they are ‘democratic’?

    The fact that they claim 150,000 ‘members’ is typical of the way in which groups on the Left crow about their own power. One wonders what Mr. Davidson thinks these ‘members’ do in the course of their involvement with the organization. I am a member myself, and just like many other people who lost interest in this group when the nature of their top down structure became apparent, I have not done anything but occasionally read their mass emails that they still send me, which all pretty much say “hooray for us, we’re doing a great job for you, send us more money”.

    Though many are likely not aware of the fact, Progressives for Obama itself, the organization over which Mr. Davidson holds a ‘leadership’ position, is not showing signs of being a democratic group. Its primary channel of communications, its main forum, is heavily ‘edited’, (a popular euphemism for ‘censorship’ that is commonly used by censors), by none other than Mr. Davidson himself. He will not allow authentic and legitimate progressive voices to appear on ‘his’ forum, if he does not like what they have to say.

    Such practices are anathema to the inspiring goal that Mr. Davidson himself sets for us. Without freedom of speech, there is no democracy. Period. Exclamation point. It would seem to me that anyone worth her or his salt as a ‘progressive’ would know that, but it is massively discouraging that so many progressives do NOT, (or at least do not seem to). Censorship of those who dissent from top down control of agendas is widespread on the Left. Genuine Democracy is exceedingly rare.

    Although this piece from Carl Davidson is extremely valuable for many reasons, it is also very disturbing in the highly counterproductive and divisive manner in which it seeks to ‘isolate and ostracize’, (the age old leftist ‘party line ‘ tactic), entirely authentic and legitimate progressive points of view, in order to foist his own on us. His use of powers entrusted to him by people with democratic aspirations, to enforce censorship of the voices he wishes to ostracize, is a ploy that smacks of Stalinism, and it belies his support for Democracy.

    I applaud this valuable effort from him, and I will hope that he will reconsider the overbearing arrogance of some of his statements, intentions, and positions. Humility in leadership is a crucial and characteristic trait of genuine Democracy. In a True Democracy, people who are entrusted with ‘leadership’ are the ‘hired help’, NOT ‘the bosses’, and although he offers us many valuable ideas, together with a considerable degree of energy and inspiration, I’m not sure, especially after reading his very noteworthy piece, that Carl Davidson understands that at all.

    Zwarich

  2. Anonymous says:

    A bit long; however, an excellent analysis of what the true Progressives can do to encourage a Liberal outlook in the Obama administration.

    All true Progressives should be getting The Rag Blog, as here is our latter day Izzy Stone.

    S. R. Keister

  3. Anonymous says:

    This was a great thought-provoking article.

    Jeff Jones

  4. RogerB says:

    Many good observations in Carl’s essay.

    I do have a feeling that the fight for deep-seated progressive change is just beginning. World capitalism is in crisis.

    How the various (class-based) struggles for social justice will play out is largely dependent on the grassroots political consciousness that develops, and which way Obama turns as this crisis unfolds.

    Some key Dems in power now are not backing off an inch, as the following link indicates:

    http://thehill.com/leading-the-news/party-wont-turn-left-dem-leader-says-2008-11-18.html

  5. Anonymous says:

    Zwarich,

    Thank you for pointing out some inconvenient truths.

    Funny thing. I have never supported Obama but I am not a Trotskyist, Anarchist or any other ist.

    I oppose the war machine. Sadly, Mr Davidson seems to be willing to unquestioningly support the war machine. Just as long as it is a Democratic party war machine.

    I have asked, multiple times as to what the difference is betwen those who supported LBJ, his war and Obama and his war.

    I mean apart from the fact that LBJ had an agenda to help the poor and Obama does not.

    Will this post survive censorship? Who knows.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Zwarich, I think you miss the point of the recent victory and Carl’s piece.

    Obama’s victory landed a serious blow to white supremacy. In many ways it concluded one period of the struggle for equality so that a new one can begin. You didn’t seem to notice that Obama is Black, a fact that did not escape the white supremacists who became increasingly hysterical as the campaign wore on. This is a huge deal. There was euphoria in the streets after Obama was announced the victor — not only because Bush is hated (no one would have been celebrating in city streets John Kerry or Hilary won) it was because white supremacy suffered a major defeat.

    Your response has a profound contradiction at its heart. First you tell us how close the election would have been if it weren’t for the financial crisis and then you complain that Obama wasn’t left enough. You can’t have it both ways. Obama was as far to the left as possible while maintaining a majority coalition. If you are going to win a national election there must be a majority for your politics. That is how democracy works. Democracy means we will have to get dirty—hopefully the almighty will accept us despite our impure souls.

    Obama’s race speech was the most progressive thing that could have been sd about race while maintaining (or striving for) a majority. It matters if there is a majority for any given position. The Republicans lost because there are some demographic shifts as well as political shifts. Reactionaries are dying, and people who didn’t grow up under Jim Crow are voting—there is no longer a majority for their backwards cultural war. And since Obama didn’t run for cover when McCain accused Obama of “class war” (for taxing the rich) we were finally able to start to define class economically instead of culturally.

    You called Carl a “Stalinist” (you might be able to sell that epithet to the next republican campaign since “socialist” didn’t work for them this year) because he argued that the section of the left that sat out this election or, worse, worked against Obama should be ignored or broken with. I am not sure what you are getting so worked up about. The Obama movement is what Carl called a counter-hegemonic bloc and there is a now-irrelevant section of the left that chose not to be a part of it. They jumped in the swamp. No one pushed them in, and Carl is wisely advising us not to be stuck holding their hands when they sink. There is nothing anti-democratic about it. In fact, quite the opposite — there is broad based support for Obama’s presidency and some of us want work with that and push his presidency to the left (by building our end of the coalition, as independent organization, so that we can maintain a majority while we move left) no one has the right to stop us and we have every right to push those who try out of the way. Why must we waste time with people who do not understand elementary things?

    What is it that these so called progressives do not understand? That Obama is leading a movement that he did not build. What is important is the movement, the alliance, the coming together of the forces that Carl outlined in his essay. Those are the forces that are crucial for any left politics.

    One last point Zwarich, I agree with you that democracy is the best form of organization because it is both the most efficient and most effective. But your criticism of PDA is lame. Most organizations are not democratic. So if you don’t dig PDA organize something else. We need less whining and more organizing. If you don’t like what is out there then lead. If your analysis is right and you organize around that analysis then the results will confirm it.

    Keith Joseph

  7. Anonymous says:

    The thinly veiled anger and sarcasm in parts of this interchange is disappointing.
    Zwarich and Davidson both make some excellent points.
    Let me emphasize two key issues:
    First, as a woman, the fact that Obama’s stated positions on women’s health and reproductive rights matter to me SO MUCH, that on this issue alone, I would support him. Voting in the Lesser of Two Evils (as we did), actually means huge, very significant differences for women- on the ground, where we live- in our very bodies!!
    Second, the “facts” of Obama’s heritage (African and American, Hawaii childhood) and his personal insights flowing from that heritage- were also important to me in choosing a President. It was his speech in Philadelphia about race that caused me to take another look at him (I’d been supporting someone else until then).
    Here’s one way to think of our situation:
    We have been suffering for so long from the boiling frog syndrome- all of us simmering away in the hell that the Bush regime has created, the heat increasing day-by-day- that when a bit of cold refreshing water stops the cooking, we happily reach to be lifted out of the pot, grateful to our rescuer.
    Do not underestimate the importance of psychological states vs political ones.
    The sheer relief of having a candidate speak to the country about the need to understand (and fight?) racism was enormous.
    Yes, we hold onto the hope that Obama can bring something different, some small improvement to the office and the nation.
    I’m not blindly jubilant about Obama’s election, I would echo what Cornel West said early on in the Persidential campaign- “yes” he would, of course, vote for Obama on November 4th, but on the following day he would become the man’s worst enemy.
    That is where we are right now. Post election.
    We have work to do.
    What’s next? A splintered left that can barely talk civilly to one another OR a brand new- very diverse- coalition?

  8. Anonymous says:

    I agree with most of Carl’s analysis. However, we differ on the need to “decisively break with the ultra-left”. Maybe it’s just that Austin doesn’t have much of a history of organized sectarian struggle on the left. Throughout the past year, the debate over the correctness of leftists participating in the Democratic Party or supporting Obama has raged on the mds-austin list service. Many of us supported him, others ridiculed the idea.

    On the Rag Blog, editor Thorne Dreyer was an Obama supporter, editor Richard Jehn was not. But the debate remained relatively civil and did not prevent us from standing shoulder to shoulder at Iraq Moratorium vigils or working together on projects unrelated to the election.

    The issue of whether it makes sense to work for Obama’s elecion is over. The ultimate resolution of this debate over the efficacy of that electoral effort will be decided by whether or not President Obama achieves appreciable goals. Let the debate continue.

    Let the critics keep us honest and hopefully they will fairly judge
    progress.

    Let’s be more specific about organizations. Do progressives who
    supported Obama need a national organization in order to amplify our voice? Is PDA that organization? If not, what’s the alternative?

    Regardless, tonight in Austin, there will be a meeting of “Texans for Obama” at the famed Scholz’s beer garden, for those who worked on the campaign and want to keep a grassroots influence alive.
    Tomorrow night in the nearby suburb of Round Rock, a local MoveOn group is meeting for the same purpose. Obviously, those of us who seek to advocate for a
    left agenda within the Democratic Party should be involved with these groups, which are currently probably popping up all over.

    David Hamilton
    Austin MDS

  9. Most anti-imperialist grassroots left activists are more likely to want to see the U.S. anti-war movement break with the Big Media-promoted Democratic Party that supports continued funding of the Pentagon’s war machine than to “decisively break with the ultra-left” anti-war grassroots activists (like Cindy Sheehan) who have been the folks that have most consistently resisted in non-violent ways the endless U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    That’s why Howard Zinn, for example, urged U.S. anti-war voters to vote for Nader recently in the “safe state;” and why grassroots activist sites like the Black Agenda Report site endorsed Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney rather than Obama in the recent 2008 presidential election.

    Urging U.S. anti-imperialist grassroots left activists to “decisively break with the ultra-left” sounds like a re-cycled version of the kind of red-baiting which left-liberal/social democrats like Michael Harrington attempted to push on the New Left in the 1960s, but which was always rejected by non-violent anti-imperialist left grassroots activists like Dave Dellinger.

    Anti-imperialist grassroots left activists in the USA who want to see the U.S. government finally agree to pursue a pacifist foreign policy (which also ends all U.S. government military support for Israeli militarism and promotes full national self-determination rights and the right of return for the Palestinian people)in the 21st-century will probably tend to want to unite with everybody on the U.S. anti-war grassroots left, not just with elitist Democratic Party loyalists within the U.S. anti-war left.

  10. Ed A says:

    “Breaking with the ultra-left.” Why that would even be an issue with Progressives, I have no clue. I am not sure what is the thinking of these writers. Obama was anti-Iraq war, not a knee jerk anti-war pacifist. I think that the Progressives are going to be disappointed by Obama as he will represent all American; not the few that are socialists, pacifists, POUM, CNT bla bla bla. The quickest way for him to become Carter II is to follow the advice given here and we will end up with the Palin doctrine. We ended up with Bush because of those who voted for Nader.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Marxists for Obama: a bumpy road ahead – Louis Proyect

    The pro-Obama, self-described Marxist left has a tough job on its hands. Well before taking office, Obama has made it painfully obvious that his administration will be in effect Clinton’s third term. With Mrs. Clinton about to assume the office of Secretary of State, a perfect symbol of the kind of bellicose foreign policy that the dovish President-elect campaigned against, one wonders whether the primary was just some kind of elaborate deception foisted on a gullible public yearning for change.

    Perhaps nobody with Marxist credentials after a fashion is better qualified to serve as a spin doctor for the incoming Obama administration than Carl Davidson, the 65 year old 1960s SDS leader and editor of the Guardian newspaper, a New Left weekly newspaper that morphed into a Maoist publication around the same time that the shards of SDS were launching the New Communist Movement. The New Communist Movement, embodied in sects like Bob Avakian’s RCP, styled itself after the CPUSA before it became “revisionist”. In keeping with their neo-Stalinist ambitions, such groups became past masters at lying through their teeth and opportunist politics, including a turn toward the Democratic Party. In realigning with the 150 year old party of racism and imperialist war, they came full circle. If SDS had resolved to go “part of the way with LBJ”, many of its veterans who came to embrace the DP were now ready to go all the way with Obama.

    In a prolix article titled “The Bumpy Road Ahead: New Tasks of the Left Following Obama’s Victory” that was posted to Portside, a mailing list moderated by the Eurocommunist Committees of Correspondence, Davidson uses every trick he learned in the neo-Stalinist milieu to shore up support for Obama and discredit his opponents on the left who are stigmatized as “ultraleft” for their opposition to the “war on terror”, Wall Street bailouts, Zionism and other disgusting policies about to be carried out by the Democrats.

    After reminding us of what a breakthrough it was to have a Black president (an observation that will likely begin to wear thin after a year or so of DP misrule), Davidson attempts to explain Obama’s presidency in class terms:

    The Obama team at the top is comprised of global capital’s representatives in the U.S. as well as U.S. multinational capitalists, and these two overlap but are not the same. It is a faction of imperialism, and there is no need for us to prettify it, deny it or cover it up in any way. The important thing to see is that it is neither neoliberalism nor the old corporate liberalism. Obama is carving out a new niche for himself, a work in progress still within the bounds of capitalism, but a ‘high road’ industrial policy capitalism that is less state-centric and more market- based in its approach, more Green, more high tech, more third wave and participatory, less politics-as- consumerism and more ‘public citizen’ and education focused. In short, it’s capitalism for a multipolar world and the 21st century.

    For those a bit puzzled by the reference to “third wave”, this is the very same buzzword coined by Alvin Toffler to describe a post-industrial society. The first wave was composed of small farms and the second is synonymous with the industrial revolution. Needless to say, this schema developed by a former editor of Fortune magazine has little to do with Marxism. Davidson, a computer consultant, became smitten with the idea a couple of decades ago and promoted it as part of a high-tech driven brand of market socialism called “cyRev”. I analyzed his theories in an article that can be read here. As an unrepentant Marxist, I felt quite put off by the kind of Silicon Valley boosterism that pervaded cyRev:

    In our view of socialism, we affirm the entrepreneurial spirit, the motivating energy of the market and the right of individuals to become wealthy through the private ownership of the capital they have helped to create. At the same time, we fundamentally reorder priorities in how both property and capital is defined. While both personal property and capital may still be owned by individuals, we no longer see ownership as an absolute power. Property, especially productive property in the form of capital, is to be seen primarily as a social power relation that can be guided and regulated, just as other power relations are regulated for the common good of society. Incomes are also subject to progressive taxation.

    Beyond the “third wave” nonsense, one has to wonder what use it is to speak of “neoliberalism” as some kind of bogey man. Terms such as “neoliberalism” and “globalization” do not have very much use in understanding the dynamics of the American economy or divisions within the bourgeoisie for that matter. For example, trade agreements such as NAFTA are generally understood to be symbols of neoliberalism but there is little likelihood that Obama will do anything to overturn them. Furthermore, in choosing Eric Holder as his Attorney General, Obama has shown indifference to imperialist crimes (a term I find more useful than neoliberalism or globalization) in Colombia, as WBAI reporter Mario Murillo points out:

    In 2003, an Organization of American States report showed that Chiquita’s subsidiary in Colombia, Banadex, had helped divert weapons and ammunition, including thousands of AK-47s, from Nicaraguan government stocks to the AUC. The AUC – very often in collaboration with units of the U.S.-trained Armed Forces – is responsible for hundreds of massacres of primarily peasants throughout the Colombian countryside, including in the banana-growing region of Urabá, where it is believed that at least 4,000 people were killed. Their systematic use of violence resulted in the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of poor Colombians, a disproportionate amount of those people being black or indigenous.

    In 2004, Holder helped negotiate an agreement with the Justice Department for Chiquita that involved the fruit company’s payment of “protection money” to the AUC, in direct violation of U.S. laws prohibiting this kind of transaction. In the agreement brokered by Holder, Chiquita officials pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a fine of $25 million, to be paid over a 5-year period. However, not one Chiquita official involved in the illegal transactions was forced to serve time for a crime that others have paid dearly for, mainly because they did not have the kind of legal backing that Holder’s team provided. Holder continues to represent Chiquita in the civil action, which grew out of this criminal case.

    Trying in vain to cover his opportunist politics with a Marxist veneer, Davidson tries to explain the Obama “alliance” (i.e., Wall Street investment banks and the moveon.org member operating a computer from his bedroom) in terms of Gramscian “hegemonic blocs”:

    What is a hegemonic bloc? Most power elites maintain their rule using more than armed force. They use a range of tools to maintain hegemony, or dominance, which are ’softer,’ meaning they are political and cultural instruments as well as economic and military. They seek a social base in the population, and draw them into partnership and coalitions through intermediate civil institutions. Keeping this bloc together requires a degree of compromise and concession, even if it ultimately relies on force. The blocs are historic; they develop over time, are shaped by the times, and also have limited duration. When external and internal crises disrupt and lead them to stagnation, a new ‘counter-hegemonic’ bloc takes shape, with a different alignment of economic interests and social forces, to challenge it and take its place. These ideas were first developed by the Italian communist and labor leader, Antonio Gramsci, and taken up again in the 1960s by the German New Left leader, Rudi Dutschke. They are helpful, especially in nonrevolutionary conditions, in understanding both how our adversaries maintain their power, as well as the strategy and tactics needed to replace them, eventually by winning a new socialist and popular democratic order.

    This, of course, is just a bunch of malarkey. For Gramsci, the goal was not to work within hegemonic blocs in alliance with the bourgeoisie, but to create counter-hegemonic blocs led by the working class and a (genuine) vanguard party. In a useful article on the relevance of Gramsci to today’s struggles that appeared in the journal Socialism and Democracy, Thomas J. Butko noted:

    It is clear to Gramsci that the first stage in a war of position must involve the dissemination of new ideas by the counter-hegemonic bloc to intellectually, culturally, and morally prepare the ground for the revolutionary force and its ascent to hegemonic dominance. In this context, it is only by persuasively demonstrating to society at large that its conception of the world is inherently superior to those of the dominant powers that such a counter-hegemonic force can conquer civil society and eventually exert its political leadership.

    In any case, for those who take their Gramsci seriously, the task today as it was in the 1920s is to challenge the dominant powers, as Butko puts it. If Davidson is intent on maneuvering within the hegemonic bloc, that of course is his privilege as long as he understands that this has nothing to do with Marxism.

    In a section titled “The Bankruptcy of the Ultraleft”, Davidson castigates a wide range of opponents who refused to get on the Obama bandwagon, namely the “Trotskyist, anarchist and Maoist left.” (For obvious reasons, Davidson does not refer to Counterpunch or Znet since these outlets of opposition to Obama can not be dismissed to the margins of the left. Counterpunch gets something like 100,000 unique visits a day, hardly the stuff of the Spartacist League.)

    As opposed to these wreckers and splitters, the ones who “got it right” in his words were the CCDS (Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, cc-ds.org, ) the Communist Party USA, cpusa.org, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO, freedomroad.org). He also puts in a good word for DSA “which at least saw the importance of defeating McCain and backing Obama, even though they only managed to put out a rather wimpy pro-forma statement without once mentioning race.”

    He is also peeved at “the sixty or more Indymedia sites, and you hardly see anything useful said besides macho bluster and shit-talk against the few pro-voting-for-Obama postings put up.” All of these ultraleftists were content to bark at a “united Black communist” and “the best elements of labor”:

    ‘You’re deluded!’ You’re Obamaniacs! ‘You’re wrong!’ ‘Obama is a capitalist!’ ‘Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid! Obama is the more dangerous warmonger because he’s the new ‘Uncle Tom’ Black face of imperialism!’

    Of course, for this kind of harangue to have any effect, you must make sure to put words in the mouths of your adversary. As somebody who has written a fair amount against Obama, including an article on his economic advisers that has been read by nearly 18,000 people to date, I don’t traffic in crude reductionisms like “Obama is a capitalist”. My main problem with Obama in fact is that he does not even operate as a Democratic Party liberal. Here is a snippet from the aforementioned article:

    Another adviser with a particular interest in health care is David Cutler, a Harvard economist who was also an adviser to Bill Clinton-surprise, surprise. Cutler wrote an article for the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 asserting that “The rising cost … of health care has been the source of a lot of saber rattling in the media and the public square, without anyone seriously analyzing the benefits gained.”

    Anxious to show the good side of rising costs, Cutler and a group of other economists defend the idea that a powerful and profitable medical industry can serve as an engine of economic growth in the USA as the wretched Gina Kolata reported in the August 22, 2006 NY Times.

    It is not worth correcting all the errors in Davidson’s interminable article, so I will just conclude with some comments on a dichotomy he draws between “revolutionary” and “non-revolutionary” conditions:

    If the question of the day was immediate working-class mass action on seizing power from the capitalist class, for reform vs. revolution, socialism or capitalism NOW, they might have had a point. But it’s not. Even with the financial crisis, it’s not even close. Besides getting troops out of this or that country, they don’t even have a package of demands or structural reforms worthy of the name being put forward. Worse of all, they don’t think any distinction between revolutionary and non-revolutionary conditions is all that important. What that means, in turn, is that it’s almost impossible for them, as groups and as a trend, to correct their course.

    This is really a timeworn argument going back to Eduard Bernstein. During the late 19th century, under conditions of a long imperialist expansion, socialists began to feel that revolution was a far-off ideal whose arrival in the distant future would be commemorated each year at banquets. In the meantime, efforts would be directed toward achieving ameliorative reforms such as the kind that fell under the rubric of “sewer socialism” in the U.S. Of course, whatever else one would say about our socialist forefathers and mothers from 125 years ago, they at least put their energies into building socialist institutions of a counter-hegemonic nature rather than ringing doorbells for a bourgeois politician.

    But more to the point, it is entirely possible that we are entering a period that will have much more in common with the one that preceded WWI or WWII as capitalism entered a period of intractable contradictions. With daily reminders of 1929 in the mainstream press, it is incumbent on those who still take their Marxism seriously to begin constructing a counter-hegemonic bloc that can finally put an end to the system that exploits the working class and threatens the future of the planet.

  12. If you want to read a back-and-forth between me and Proyect and some other Trotsky fans, go to the comments on his ‘Unrepentant Martist’ blog –CarlD

  13. Anonymous says:

    “We have to spotlight it, stand up to it, isolate it and defeat it.”

    If “ultra-lefts”, using your Stalinist terminology, are so irrelevant and isolated by to you need to isolate it and defeat it?

    I think you old Mao-Stalinists turned Democratic Party functionaries don’t like the idea of a real “new left” pushing you and your worthless market stalinism aside.

    You want

  14. Alan says:

    That’s nice, I just enjoyed it reading.. tegaderm

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