Not everybody is on same page

Let me begin with the obvious: the left (organized and unorganized) has seldom been of one mind. Differences over aims, strategy, tactics, programmatic demands, forms of struggle, etc. have been commonplace.

This moment is no different. In fact, I would argue that two distinct and competing trends have taken shape in the course of the first year of the Obama presidency.

One trend stakes out a left position on every issue, resists compromise, believes that the Democratic Party has no democratic/reform potential, pays little attention to right-wing extremism in its strategic and tactical thinking, and reduces President Obama to nothing but a puppet of Wall Street.

This trend turns criticism of the Obama administration into a measure of one's militancy. The sharper the tone the more legitimate one's left credentials. The main, if not the only, thing holding up far-reaching political and economic reforms, in the eyes of this trend, is the president. Somehow, in this rendition of the political moment, the interaction and struggle between (and within) competing political coalitions/blocs composed of various class and social groupings has no or minimal bearing on the process of change since the 2008 elections. In short, the class struggle in all its complexity is both simplified and invisible.

This same trend "damns with faint praise" the new currents, thinking and initiatives in labor and people's organizations, while it narrowly defines political independence as only electoral formations outside the two-party system. It acts as if militant minorities and moral outrage can reshape the political landscape alone, forgetting that popular majorities in the end make history.

Finally, this trend places an outsize accent on left initiative and unity, but detached from broader forms of unity and struggle.

The other trend on the left argues that the 2008 elections reset the political terrain to the advantage of working people and their allies.

While the Obama administration is not above criticism, this trend believes that criticism should be constructive and unifying, not a test of one's radicalism.

The main role of the left, according to this trend, isn't simply agitational - talking points, sound bites and militant slogans. Political agitation has an important place in class and democratic struggles, but only to the degree that the left is involved in day-to-day struggles in a sustained, practical and non-sectarian way.

In 2008, a broad people's movement was instrumental in electing Obama and a Democratic majority in Congress. Since then, however, it hasn't reached the same level and scale of activity. Without reassembling this coalition, progress will be largely unrealized.

This trend embraces left demands, but it embraces broader demands as well that masses of people are ready to fight for. It doesn't counterpose one against the other. Instead, it sees broader mass demands as a highway that has to be traveled to win more progressive and radical changes.

In a similar vein, compromise isn't a dirty word in this view. Instead, whether and when one makes compromises depends on a very sober estimate of the balance of class and social forces.

This trend understands as well that its task is not only to unite a broad multi-class coalition in the current phase of struggle, but also to assist the working class and its core allies to impress their unmistakable stamp on the struggle for reforms.

Unlike the other trend that shoehorns Obama into a tightly sealed political shell with little or no political potential, this trend believes he has a role, a potentially major one, to play at this juncture of the class struggle.

By the same token, it strongly rejects the notion that the task of the left is to reconfigure the struggle into a contest of the people's movement against President Obama.

This trend supports left unity, but insists that practical involvement with broader movements and coalitions and some rough agreement on strategic orientation among left groups are a necessary condition for such unity.

Finally, an independent, labor-based people's party is a strategic necessity in the view of this trend, but it doesn't see such a formation on the short horizon. In the meantime, it supports struggles for political independence (which take many forms) both within and outside of the Democratic Party.

No individual, organization or social movement on the left fits neatly into one or the other trend outlined above. Life is always more complicated than broad generalizations. Nevertheless, these two trends are taking more definitive form and the future of the left and its place in U.S. politics, in my opinion, hinges on which trend becomes dominant. I think it is obvious where I stand.


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  • I am honestly curious as to whether Mr. Webb is on some kind stipend from the Democratic Party, or whether he is just a servile nebbish who has imprinted on the DP as a surrogate authority figure after the fall of the U.S.S.R. Of course, the two scenarios aren't mutually exclusive.

    Posted by Steve-O, 02/19/2010 5:46pm (6 years ago)

  • In my opinion, criticizing President Obama is not the issue. I think that issue is a distraction, which by the way, has been raised over and over again by some in our party ad nauseam. As I see it, the real issue has been the lack of LEADERSHIP for the ORGANIZED fightback for the people's needs by our Communist Party. And here I don't mean the straw man issue of "going it alone" by our party. I mean the party ORGANIZED AS A PARTY, helping GIVE LEADERSHIP to the struggles for jobs, for health care, for stopping the war machine etc. Our communist leadership on these issues has been wanting to say the least. It has been whittled down to wishing, speculating, tailing, waiting, and sportscaster like commentary and analysis.

    In this commentary as in so many the past few years, I see nothing that can help our struggle or inspire the communists in our party to struggle. I see no class-clarity on the crisis our working class is now experiencing and with that no CONCRETE suggestions or plans of struggle for our party, that will help inspire a movement such as the one that helped elect President Obama to office. I see no ire directed at our dastardly class enemy. No sense of urgency to call all communists to battle for the peoples needs in the face of the current ruling class onslaught. An onslaught which shows no signs of easing, but of getting worse for our working class.

    Let's put our energy and our focus into talking about the class struggle and how we AS A PARTY will offer our solutions, our vision, and how we AS A PARTY will play our important pivotal LEADERSHIP role in all of those struggles.

    Posted by Michael Scheinberg, 02/19/2010 1:22pm (6 years ago)

  • As one who has struggled in the civil rights, anti-war and labor movements for the past 45 years I think I speak with some"authority" when I say that the need for unity is greater now than ever before! However unity is never true unity when one must see basic principles set aside to appease those who "are not ready" for the social change that is sorely needed in our country!
    Specifically I refer to those so-called liberals who would not support the passage of Medicare For All/single payer healthcare. If one looks deep enough one will see that the primary reason has nothing to do with being "ready". It has everything to do with how much bribe money (oops I meant campaign donations) they accepted from the HMO and other healthcare corporatists.

    Nowwhere in the Democratic (or Republican) party is it written and/or specifically addressed the non-acceptance of corporate bribes by candidates and/or elected officials! Given this fact and the recent ruling of the Supreme Court, we the people are in essence in the control of the corporate monster! (How far we wish to be dominated is the basic issue of this reply)

    I recall as a young member of the CPUSA in the '70s that we were to build alliances with others and in doing this we would educate folks to be more accepting of socialism and our party. I see now that we are in the year 2010 some positive results of this strategy, but nowwhere near enough to have stopped Bush and other right wing extremists. Nowwhere do I see the so-called liberals who blindly follow the Democratic Party calling for real accountability from the White House or Congress. I keep hearing that "we should not criticize the president or democratic congressmen, because they are all we have now!" If that is so, then we are in deep trouble!

    The need for a third party has never been greater. However some folks have problems with change, yet they didn't seem to have much problem with Bush stealing two elections, starting two unnecessary wars and his blatant disregard for International law and our Constitution!

    The bottom line change will not come about from any pooitical party that continues to accept bribes from the corporations. Change will only come about when people organize and demand change as we did back in the 60's over civil rights! Expecting us to be complacent and accepting of the misdirection of the Democratic Party will lead us only to become further disenfranchised and maybe even disillusioned. How could that possibly be healthy for the Left or the people in general?

    Posted by Pancho Valdez, 02/19/2010 1:13pm (6 years ago)

  • This analysis was on time and in time as my old friend Scott Douglass, from Birmingham, use to say. I, as a communist and African American, am really proud of how our Party is standing tall in this moment of truth when the most racist and fascist elements are trying to stir up a lynch fever against President Obama. No we should not try to reconfigurate the peoples movement against Obama! Who would that benefit? Racism is the old reliable dirt that the ruling class thinks it can throw in the eyes of white workers, blinding them to their true class. Like I said I for one am proud of our principled stand that sets us definitively apart from the political lynch mob daily fired up by the ultra right. Thanks Sam.

    Posted by Frank Chapman, 02/19/2010 12:23pm (6 years ago)

  • I agree with Joel W.

    Away with phony militancy -- militancy for its own sake. Let's just do the work of social change and majority-building.

    Jim, Warren, and Armando all hit on this same point I think.

    As for D. Bester's comments: When so-called "bourgeois politics" is where the masses of people are focusing their attention, then yes, it is where we need to be focusing our attention too. Building true progressive and democratic majorities in popular thinking and action is the only way to move forward over the long term.

    I really don't think that cherry-picking from Lenin's writings about circa 1920s Britain or comparing Obama to Czar Nicholas II is an accurate way to assess our current political strategy or to decide if Obama is a "class enemy".

    As for the two trends that Webb outlined, I'll cast my lot with the one that is concerned with moving forward.

    Posted by C.J., 02/19/2010 11:31am (6 years ago)

  • Amen! I'll say it again. Amen!

    Posted by Gabriel Falsetta, 02/18/2010 11:45pm (6 years ago)

  • I think it is time to leave behind the politics of militancy for its own sake, which really phony militancy. Building the broadest possible movement for change is the only way to go. I do not know why some leftists are so intent on preventing this from happening by forcing splits among labor and the democratic forces.

    Posted by Joel W., 02/18/2010 7:42pm (6 years ago)

  • Webb's commentary creates a straw man dichotomy between people who criticize Obama as a class enemy, who are supposed to be inactive, ultra-militant, separated from the masses, etc. and those who "believe that criticism should be constructive and unifying" who somehow are able to accomplish more (what they've done that's so great isn't mentioned).

    Question: how can you express "constructive and unifying criticism" when substantive criticism along Marxist lines apparently means being labeled as "ultra-radical"?

    Question: is it appropriate for the Chairman of the Communist Party to disparage "militant minorities" filled with "moral outrage"? Who are the historical analogies, the abolitionists? Most communists?

    Question: Don't we as communists have better things to do than argue over bourgeois politics. Did Lenin spend his time trying to divine whether the latest comments of Nikolai II and his ministers could lead to broad left-center unity in the struggle for reforms?

    Didn't he write in Left Wing Communism that the British communists should support Labor's Henderson only in order to "support him as the rope supports the hanged man"?

    As Bertrand Russell put it: "He thinks that, if Mr. Henderson, for instance, were to become Prime Minister, nothing of importance would be done; organized Labour would then, so he hopes and believes, turn to revolution. On this ground, he wishes his supporters in this country to do everything in their power to secure a Labour majority in Parliament; he does not advocate abstention from Parliamentary contests, but participation with a view to making Parliament obviously contemptible."

    Why does Webb stress the "democratic/reform potential" of the Democrats, who aren't even an explicitly Labor party ala British Labour when Lenin was writing?

    Posted by D. Bester, 02/18/2010 7:09pm (6 years ago)

  • Though I can't put my finger on the exact quote, I think Ben Franklin said "between the fire brigade and the fire there is no compromise." I think Sam Webb's picture could use a little bit more of this perspective. If we don't recognize that some right wing positions are flat out mean and will never ever empathize with working people, then we'll forever be toyed with. Sam is right that managing trends is the critical goal, and pressure from the bottom is the critical tool. I personally think that sometimes trends have to be shifted with a sledge hammer. Then, if the idea is righteous, the mass of people will appreciate it. The right wing never would have compromised their way to social security. Political leadership had to do it, and hand it to the country and, to tell the truth, be rough with opponents until the thing was done. The truest thing Sam Webb said is "I think it is obvious where I stand. Thanks.

    Posted by Mark Baldwin, 02/18/2010 4:43pm (6 years ago)

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