It’s complicated: President Obama and mass movement building


A few on the left say that the absence of a mass movement on the scale of the 1930s and 1960s stems from the fact that millions of Americans still believe the president is an agent of progressive change.

What follows from this theory is the role of left and progressive people is to ruthlessly unmask the politics and progressive pretentions of the president, which in turn will melt away people's illusions in him and trigger a mass upsurge throughout the country.

But is this the case?

I don't think so. And I will tell you why.

The building of a mass movement on the scale of the 1930s or 1960s is a complicated process. A wide-angle lens is needed to capture its many sides.

Before we lay responsibility for the inadequate scale of today's movement on the shoulders of the president, we have to factor in the impact of three decades of right-wing ideological onslaught.

We have to consider the structural changes in the U.S. economy that have economically devastated, socially atomized and politically weakened traditional centers of working class and people's power.

We have to take into account the unprecedented attack against African Americans and other communities of color, dating back to the election of Reagan.

We have to acknowledge the reality of a smaller labor movement, in large measure the result of economic downsizing, production relocation and a fierce right- wing anti-labor offensive.

We have to factor in the impact of the ideological intensification of racism, male supremacy, immigrant-bashing and homophobia in recent years on popular consciousness.

We have to include in our political calculus the negative effects of capitalist-structured globalization on working-class consciousness, unity and capacity.

We have to bear in mind the consequences of the militarization of our society on our society.

We have to note the capitalist class's control and domination of the means of communication and education.

We have to recognize that people in the face of crises can opt for individualist as well as collective solutions.

We have to weigh in the force of habit and inertia.

We have to appreciate that the president operates in a complex of competing class and social forces, some of which (namely the extreme right) are determined to sabotage his presidency.

And we have to bring into bold relief the fact that the left and progressive movements are still too small to exert a decisive and sustained influence on the nation's political direction. Face it. We still preach to the choir.

The multifaceted nature of the process of change is not a reason to throw up our hands in frustration or to revert to simplified explanations, in this case presidential mis-leadership, for the difficulties of building a progressive mass movement.

Indeed, I would argue that today's movement has the potential to eclipse the popular movements of 1930s and 1960s in size, social composition, political consciousness and social power.

Who thought in 1920 or in 1950 that people's movements of enormous scope and strength would spring up and proceed to realign national politics a few years later? 

But that is what happened as many foreseen and unforeseen factors came together in such a way that massive social explosions rocked the country and new chapters of progressive change entered the history books.

These movements had their own complicated factors to deal with, including the global rise of fascism in the 1930s.

Should we think that the process of progressive change and the building of a mass movement with transformative capacities would be any less complicated in our time or any less doable?

You know my answer.

Photo: (Teresa Albano/PW)


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  • No memntion of the role of the Communist Party. Why?

    Posted by David Bell, 09/08/2011 12:25am (4 years ago)

  • Sam couldn't have said it better. However, i few thoughts of my own regarding this critical issue

    The 1930 movement was a culmination of labor struggle since the Haymarket square late 1800, the little steel strike in the 20' and the socialist immigrants who contributed to the ideological struggle. In addition there was the example of accomplishements of the nascent workers state the, Soviet Union.
    Again the accomplishments of the 60 did not occur overnight but a result of a lenghty period of struggle since the early fifties and also the eaxmple of the socialist world.
    What the left must recognize first and formost is how small it is. Obama was not elected by the left. Obama presidency is an opportunity - not the final solution - for the left to organize and push him. The fact that the left is unhappy with him is a reflection the left not having organized sufficient mass pressure to direct his course. That is the responsibility of the left.

    Posted by Bernie, 08/31/2011 6:00pm (4 years ago)

  • Great analysis. One positive development today, as opposed to the 1960s, is that, with the increasing blatant depredations of the capitalist system, more and more people, in the US and around the world, are beginning to understand the workings of that system in a Marxian way--even though, at least in the US, they are unaware that it is Marxian. In other words, as time goes on, more and more people with be receptive to the message of the Left.

    Posted by John Whiskey, 08/30/2011 11:25pm (4 years ago)

  • What we are given here is an analysis of the causes for the present deplorable state of affairs. A united front against the fascists can, however, be only one point of what must be a multi-level, multifaceted and multi-pronged combination of tactics and strategy to defeat not only the far-right, but also the liberal bourgeoisie that from at least F.D.R. have gulled the downtrodden and the proletariat into believing that their only hope for real improvement lies in the largesse of capital. This position has only been refined and utilized very effectively against the same liberal bourgeoisie that initiated by rightists such as Ronald Reagan. The liberal bourgeois are still bourgeois, and will, ultimately, when capital is threatened, stand with their own class interests and not with the proletariat and the oppressed. As we have seen in the last few years, and especially in the last few months, few of even the so-called liberal Democrats will barely defend the weak surviving remnants of L.B.J.'s war on poverty. The rhetoric of the liberal bourgeoisie does not match its actions. Regarding Obama's continual retreat under pressure from such political minions of Grover Norquist and the Koch brother as Eric Cantor, we might well be led to ask the same question that a Duma delegate once asked just prior to the February Revolution: "Is this stupidity or is this treason?" Clearly the elements of a United Front against fascism will break up today as surely as they did in 1936-39, as the liberal bourgeois retire from the struggle against a fascism that they deem to defend their class interests against the proletariat. Do not trust the "liberals" among the bourgeoisie to stand with the workers and the oppressed once they perceive their own class interests to be endangered by the success of the worker and the proletariat. Rather, our duty must be to educate the people in the reality that they have nothing to expect from capital except more of the same poverty, suppression, oppression, and control, accompanied by the occasional grant of a meatless bone from the hands of capital, in order to keep the people under control and hoping against hope for the occasional bone. (This is the reason that the radical right and their Republican allies above all others seek to destroy the public educational systems wherever and whenever they can.) What this means is that the defeat of fascism does not end the struggle. We cannot stop with half-measures; we cannot acquiesce to Fabianism; and neither can we make peace with the liberals.

    Posted by Irving, 08/30/2011 7:09pm (4 years ago)

  • Kinda dissapointed. if we continue to catagorically defend this administration, we risk (you risk) the loss of credibilty in working class and progressive movements. it's ok to be critical. it's not okay to hero worship.

    Posted by luis rivas, 08/30/2011 6:30pm (4 years ago)

  • We are the Communists-not the "complicaters".

    OUR way of looking at things, OUR approach to organization is MORE profound than human will, or how"complicated" or complications get in the way.
    How "complicated" is the need of an all people's unity?
    How "complicated" is it that war and violence kills people-that peace and non-violence supports life?
    How "complicated" is it that the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer and that the poor need jobs and freedom on a massive scale, and that the governmental actions and inactions over the last 50 years have produced this poverty and this need?
    The average, reasonable man, woman and child on the street and in the home understand this, full well.
    The will to live life, overiding all other will, to survive as a species, motivates the whole working class, in class struggle, we only have to help supply the spark and the regulation to lead and refine that spark, after ignition.
    The working class, is the most intelligent force on the planet, and daily, its intelligence grows-NO force can stop it. It knows its planet is dying along with it.
    Events it will perform over the next 50 years will amaze, even it. Who could predict that 6, 5, years ago, it would elect Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency of the United States of America?
    Maybe a genius like Stevie Wonder, who writes the article Symphony, or moves by Innervisions-supporting massive social movements of the blind, the MLK national holiday, or reveals through music, The Secret Lives of Plants, "who moves by faith and not by sight".
    Will progressives and revolutionaries build a movement which, while it secures the re-election of Obama, secures a massive federal jobs program, demilitarizes and makes modernized peace in an economy controlled by workers, to rebuild a 21st century United States, with a strengthened Wagner Act, Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act?
    How "complicated" is this?

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 08/30/2011 12:48pm (4 years ago)

  • Very fine article !

    Posted by Charles, 08/29/2011 10:23am (4 years ago)

  • Good article, Sam. But it seems to stop right where it should begin, or at least go on to discuss the steps we need to take to build the mass movement. I think Emile's wording of "critical support" for the Democrats is very good. We do need to support the Democrats to defeat the radical right. But we also need to build a fire under the Democrats, including Obama, to push them to more consistently progressive positions, insisting that only by doing so can they pull off a solid victory in 2012. Exactly how to do that, of course, is the question of questions; but at least we need to be clear about what needs to be done. Oversimplified ideas on one side or the other--wholeheartedly condemning the President and the Democrats from a "left" perspective on one hand, or tailing behind the Democrats and holding back from upholding the independence of a mass movement from the Democratic Party on the other--won't help.

    Posted by Hank Millstein, 08/28/2011 4:17pm (4 years ago)

  • I appreciate your sober analysis of the struggle faced and the issues to be dealt with in creating a new labor and mass movement, whose goal is not simply the election of a single president, but to make significant structural changes to society. However, what is completely lacking is HOW one is to contribute to this new movement, or where the revolutionaries fit in and what the plan is. This is a great misjustice to the the strength of what should be the first opening to a longer explanation.

    You say, "Indeed, I would argue that today's movement has the potential to eclipse the popular movements of 1930s and 1960s in size, social composition, political consciousness and social power." This is certainly true on the issue of size, which comes with it strength. However, the issue of political and class consciousness is mis-evaluted. The campaign against labor which has categorized the last 30 years of American history has left working people disoriented, alienated, confused and alone. There is no voice to unite them, no organization for which they feel they can belong, no union they can start or join, and the television only speaks towards the interests of people for which most working people have never met: the Capitalist.

    Your article does enumerate the reasons why the struggle has recently been retarded, but it gives no framework for how this new movement needs to be kick started. Surely, you could direct us to the CPUSA site and show us articles written by whomever, but what people what...what workers for someone to show them what they can do, not simply to enumerate the problems. In What Is To Be Done, Lenin laid out very clearly how he saw the goal of the party given the struggle before them in the beginning of the 20th century. "We must take upon ourselves the task of organising an all-round political struggle under the leadership of our Party in such a manner as to make it possible for all oppositional strata to render their fullest support to the struggle and to our Party. We must train our Social-Democratic practical workers to become political leaders, able to guide all the manifestations of this all-round struggle, able at the right time to dictate a positive programme of action for the aroused students, the discontented Zemstvo people, the incensed religious sects, the offended elementary schoolteachers, etc., etc."

    He further went on to enumerate both the challenges and programme for which he states is necessary to dictate to the workers and students. This too is what is needed from today's CP. Explain how the CPUSA is prepared to fight against each one of these struggles in a concise, and realistic fashion. No simple slogans or dogma can convince the newest generation of exploited workers how they can fight against those who seem to be in control of everything.

    In simple terms the program ought to include the following. A training and education program to develop a new cadre of revolutionary leaders, trained in political organizing and revolutionary principles. A renewed focus on local party building and providing services to working class families to rebuild the image of the CPUSA in the wake of a disinformation campaign which has spanned nearly 100 years. A reconfigured marketing approach whereby the CPUSA can compete with other organizations for the attention and membership of the working class. Providing a platform which is an alternative the status quo and educating the masses about this plan and how it would benefit them.

    I enjoy peoples world, but this should not be the most important party work. Instead we need boots on the ground, trained in political activity and filled with revolutionary fervor, ready to share our goals with anyone who will listen. Perhaps an addendum to this article is necessary by which you can explain what the party has been doing as of late, preparing a programme like the one mentioned by Lenin in What Is To Be Done. If there is no such programme, then surely there ought to be much pressure from CP party members for one, and if not, there is certainly a clamoring for something in the halls of factories, schools and universities. Please, give the people what they want; an alternative.

    I look forward to hearing your response, and would love to see the programme that we as CP members can use as our flashlight in the darkness of warped class conscious which defines our generation of proletariat. Thanks you!

    Kevin C. Gustafson
    Orlando, FL

    Posted by Kevin Gustafson, 08/28/2011 10:40am (4 years ago)

  • President Obama is not the impediment to creating a progressive mass movement, but too much enfasis on electoral politics certainly is one. As a union member who just had to vote for concessionary agreement put to us by a Democratic governor that we worked very hard to elect while he and other Democrats did almost nothing to make the wealthy pay, I believe we put too much organizing effort into electoral politics. Our principal contact with our members is during election campaigns. Instead we need to be more independent and organize our members in struggles such as fighting the financial institutions that triggered this crisis, to stop foreclosures and make these tax evading criminals pay for their crimes.
    Obama does not care about us. His priorities are clear as he goes around the country holding fund raising events for his campaign in which he lunchs or dines with corporate contributors who donate tens of thousands of dollars to his war chest. When did he ever sit down and have dinner with struggling workers?
    We have to learn to fight for ourselves.

    Posted by Blair F. Bertaccini, 08/26/2011 10:23pm (4 years ago)

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