Keep hope alive, build a transformative movement

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It is easy to become frustrated with the pace and the scale of change in recent years. Over the past 30 years or more, we have lost far more battles than we have won. Nearly every section of the working class - none more so than racially oppressed workers - has lost income, job opportunities, and rights as the capitalist class has ferociously pressed its offensive. Entire regions have been turned into economic wastelands. Many cities have become placeholders of poverty, inequality, and racial segregation. The temperature of the planet tracks upward. And wars and the buildup to wars for geoeconomic and geopolitical advantage, albeit disguised in the language of containing threats to world peace and stability, continue apace.

The election of President Obama in 2008 and his reelection in 2012 gave millions hope that this awful situation would change for the better.

But that hope hasn't been fully realized.

Some positive changes have occurred over the past four years to be sure. Indeed, we make a mistake not to acknowledge them.

But the changes have been far fewer than most working people had expected. Their hopes for a progressive turn in U.S. politics have yielded to a day-to-day grind that feels more like the past than a future filled with promise - thanks in no small measure to the obstructionist actions of right-wing extremism and its corporate backers.    

To gain some perspective on this turn of events, it is helpful to look at two periods in the last century - the 1930s and the 1960s - and the confluence of factors that resulted in progressive and democratic political transformations in both decades despite a determined and powerful opposition.

In those dramatic times, the conventional wisdom that legitimized reactionary politics and practices gave way to new democratic understandings among substantial segments of the American people. Broad democratic unity and alliances of diverse people and organizations were painstakingly constructed. Divisions in ruling circles were utilized by the mass movements. New leaders and organizations emerged and the left grew rapidly. Millions of formerly passive people shed their lethargy, took to the streets and streamed to the ballot box. And, above all, a transformative movement reaching far beyond the  "politically active" materialized in both decades, not all at once, not out of thin air, and not out of "revolutionary rhetoric," but out of the lessons learned and relationships built in day-to-day struggles.

We see signs of many of these features in today's struggles. But it is also fair to say that they haven't matured to the point where a change in the political dynamics in a consistently progressive direction is imminent.

We take understandable pride in the steady emergence of a working class, multi-racial people's movement that reached a new level in last year's elections. But it still doesn't possess, in my opinion, the depth of the movements of the 1930s and '60s, that is, their ability to reach down below and engage masses of people who up to then had been largely observers of the political process.

How do we explain this? There are multiple reasons, but I want to focus only on one. The three-decades-old neoliberal corporate offensive - ramrodded by right-wing extremism first of all - has galvanized resistance to be sure. But it also has - and this goes under-appreciated - crushed the hopes of countless numbers of people for the possibility of social change, while at the same time pushing them to rely on individual (not collective) responses to the crisis of everyday living (overtime work, second and third jobs, debt buildup, entry of the whole family - mothers of young children, teenagers, retirees, etc. - into the workforce) - not to mention debilitating behavior such as alcoholism, drugs, crime, suicide, and violence, especially against women.

Thus a task of today's movement is ideological as well as practical. It will have to combine its day-to-day organizing with a compelling and hopeful narrative that convinces millions that collective (and militant) avenues of action will bring changes for the better in their everyday lives.

In doing so, it will take a step closer to acquiring a depth of participation similar to the movements of the '30s and '60s, and thus become a transformative agent in U.S. politics.

Keep hope alive!

Photo: Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, State Capitol grounds, Richmond, Va., commemorating protests that helped bring about school desegregation in the state. The memorial was designed by American sculptor Stanley Bleifeld (1924-2011). Ron Cogswell CC 2.0

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  • I want to thank pinkjohn for commenting. Reading your comments made me want to speak to them, because I believe that so much of or political discussion is getting taken into blind alleys. While I'm sure john's comments are well-meant, they absolutely set up, then knock down a strawman, not the actual point here.

    First of all, I'd debate john's blanket characterization of the CP in the 1930's as "sectarian." The party of that time worked in left-center manner to help build massive people's movements that shifted the entire direction of our nation, the world. That is hardly the discription of sectarian policies. But that is a far longer, more involved discussion.

    I believe that the real point of debate here is whether, right now, in response to the economic & political crisis we face TODAY, the party/left will find ways to HELP lead, develop a conscious program to work within the labor & other people's movements to help our suffering people find a way to fight their way out of this crisis, or whether we are to work only within movements, without any conscious direction, waiting on spontaneity to move folks. I would submit that, while I agree absolutely that the left cannot, should not even try, to lead BY THEMSELVES!

    However, that is just the point----that is a false strawman in this discussion. What our people need is a well-thought out, nuanced approach that can help org'd labor, the only force in our society that can lead the whole moveme4nt, the whole of our people, find a way to organize the fight to move us forward. That needs to be done, not by ourselves, but in concert with the rest of the people's movement, but it must be done! The lessons of the 30's, 40's, 60's and of our long & successful work in building the rank & file movement in labor, show us how to do this in a non-sectarian, inclusion manner.

    Without that, we are left to be only to be flotsam, floating thru this period without direction, only hoping that the movement will move forward, fighting to take us out of this morass. If that is the case, one can only ask; "what is the reason for the existence of the party, or left?"

    Posted by bruce bostick, 04/17/2013 11:57am (2 years ago)

  • I believe that Sam correctly identifies some of the issues we face today. I do absolutely agree that the dominant mood of people today is hopelessness, just an outright feeling (understanding) that they will not, cannot, never will emerge from the period of reaction we are now in. As well, I believe along side that is a growing anger, frustration, &, if org'd, if led, could become a real period of upsurge.

    I would add, however, that I believe that the left/party needs to see its role in helping move the org'd labor movement/org'd sector of the working class into real leadership of the entire people's movement. A good part of the hopelessness that we face is not only the continuing assault on working folk by the corporate/GOP alliance, but the complete logjam in DC. Only the labor mvmt can represent all sectors of the wide & growing people's movement.

    Movements are by no means only spontaneous. The Civil Rights mvmt emerged not only due to the immediate tasks at hand in the south in the 60's, but was built upon the long fights that had occurred there, the militant existence just decades prior of the Natl Negro Congress. Rosa Parks was NOT a tired lady who just couldn't walk to the back of the bus, but an experienced militant activist who, along with others of like minds, had actually planned that fight.

    Likewise the labor mvmt. The CIO emerged from yrs of struggles, many losses and a few wins, and many lessons learned on how to fight. WZ Foster esp, and many other fought to organize industrial unions, rather than by crafts. The CP/left played an important, in fact indispensible, role in these struggles.

    Occupy, on the other hand, tried to emerge and develop w/out the role of experienced, class leadership based on an alliance w/org'd labor. They proved to be only kindling wood, flaming up and burning out!

    The left/party is now part of the growing people's mvmt, fighting with all in the mainly defensive fights. However, if we do not find a way to help develop a push from below, a positive rank & file based push, to help the labor mvmt take the lead, in alliance w/allies, to militantly demand that the logjam be broken, to help the American people understand ideologically why this crisis is upon us, and how we can fight our way out, we will miss the historic ship & face an even more virulent, extreme ultra right wing, corporate, takeover.

    That, I believe, is what must be taken up now!

    Posted by bruce bostick, 04/14/2013 7:21pm (2 years ago)

  • Talk is important and necessary, but, actiion is the key to transformative change. All of us that were involved in the 30's the 60's, 70's and 80's should speak out publically about their experiences. The Party needs to help organize events and venues - esoecially among the youth- where those that have lived through successful reforms because of collective fightback can tell their stories.
    The election of Harold Washington for Mayor of Chicago is one such example of the movement for reform. There are many others thoughout the Country.

    Posted by Lance Cohn, 04/14/2013 2:38pm (2 years ago)

  • I believe that "pinkjohn" misses the point about leadership

    Leadership is not simply a matter of numbers or even public recognition (subjective) by others. Leadership is the ability to influence by action and ideas. In the case of the Communist Party in many periods of our history, it was leadership based on a grounding in Marxism-Leninism. In many cases that leadership was recognized by the embracing of our ideas without recognition. How proud I was when "People before Profits" became a popular slogan even though the Party was not credited.

    Without an anti-monopoly approach within the broader concept of an all people's front the Party will not elevate inself to the critical leadership role it played in the 1930s and 1960s and more specifically in th struggle against racism.

    Posted by David Bell, 04/12/2013 1:46pm (2 years ago)

  • The 30's and the 60's do not necessarily provide a template for the type of mobilization needed today. They offer valuable lessons, but cannot and should not be thought of as "replicable" for today. The sectarian nature of the party marginalized its role in crucial points in both those eras, and needs to be avoided. The "cadre" concept will not work today. The current and emerging leadership of labor and progressive movements are not going to subvert themselves to the party line, and thankfully there is no longer any "Comintern" to dictate strategy or political line.

    Leadership is much more diffuse today, and that is a strength more than a weakness. Information travels faster and issues bubble up organically. But the infrastructure of mobilization and organizing through coalitions needs to be stronger and more ready to both lead and respond.

    The party, even if it were to grow ten-fold, would still be too small to be THE leaders of the progressive movement. Any change is going to happen through coalition or not at all. This was true in the 30's and 60's as well.

    Posted by pinkjohn, 04/12/2013 8:57am (2 years ago)

  • Let's not bemoan what is not-let us not focus on EXPLAINING OR INTERPRETING why is not.
    Let us rise, go, and do what is, what can be done-preparing ourselves for the inevitable and ignominious failure of the "universal selfishness" of capitalism and imperialism to the inevitable universal selflessness of socialism and communism.
    For our Du Bois, and for us, these former are doomed to self-destruction-while peace, objectivity and progress shall live on-forever.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 04/11/2013 5:57pm (2 years ago)

  • Excellent points, great article, Sam.

    There is a psycological theory known as "learned helplessness." When people (or other animals) become convinced that nothing they do matters, they often stop trying, and the cycle turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Much of the reactionary drive over the past decades has een to convince people that government is not capable of solutions, that market fundamentalism and personal riches are the only paths to a worthwhile and successful life, and that you might as well give up because the forces aligned against real change are so powerful and viscious that it "doesn't pay to fight City Hall" or any other obstacle to progress.

    Celebrating small, partial victories is one part of convincing people that they, by their actions, can make a difference. In some ways, that has to be a basic part of convincing them to take the risks of struggle.

    Posted by Marc Brodine, 04/11/2013 1:16pm (2 years ago)

  • I especially like this line:

    "Thus a task of today's movement is ideological as well as practical. It will have to combine its day-to-day organizing with a compelling and hopeful narrative that convinces millions that collective (and militant) avenues of action will bring changes for the better in their everyday lives."

    John

    Posted by John Case, 04/10/2013 9:11pm (2 years ago)

  • I have heard many criticize the inactivity of millions of suffering and exploited people as complacency or apathy. I think Sam's description of "crushed hopes" more correctly describes what's going on. We have to fashion our tactics with that in mind. Activity - side by side with other people - experiencing solidarity in real life - is the answer to those crushed hopes.

    Posted by bobbie, 04/10/2013 7:11pm (2 years ago)

  • One of the most compelling reasons why we haven't reached the depth of the movement of the 1930s and 1960s is that the Communist Party has not given the ideological and mass leadership it gave then.

    The direction of the CPUSA has been just the opposite: to depend on spontaneity, to lack ideolical direction, to minimize standards of membership, to deny principles of organization, to deny the need for cadre, to make mass circulation of program and positions impossible with little if any form of printed material, to minimize the special struggle against racism (If you examine the past several years of PW articles, you will find little on the struggle against racism except how the GOP and others attack Obama), and embrace some amorphis concepts put forward in the name of the 21st century.

    We need to revitalize the CPUSA and put it back as the objective vanguard of the working class. The concept of vanguard is objective and becomes subjective when elements of the working class recognize the role of the Communist Party. This was true in the 1930s and needs to happen again.

    Posted by David Bell, 04/10/2013 3:05pm (2 years ago)

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