Not just any movement

The passage of the health care bill, one would think, would breathe new enthusiasm, a "yes we can" spirit, into the movement for progressive change. To a large degree, that has happened. Most people are fired up.

Yet some are saying the bill is a setback. I couldn't disagree more.

First of all, while it is undeniable that the bill doesn't provide universal care or eliminate the insurance industry from health care provision, is this the only or even the main criteria that we should use to appraise the new law of the land?

The answer is emphatically "No."

The bill does provide health care coverage to millions - many of whom live on the edge. And that is nothing to turn our noses up at. As a trade union leader once said to me in reference to a past presidential election, "It may make only an inch of difference if so-and-so is elected, but you know what? A lot of people live on that inch." That's a fact that is easily forgotten.

Moreover, it isn't helpful, in fact it is harmful, to make an assessment of what was achieved in the health care struggle removed from the actual class struggle on the ground at this particular moment. I may think a national health service is the best solution to the health care crisis, but I would be a fool, not to mention a poor communist, if my desire for it left me adamantly opposing or mocking struggles for more modest health care measures.

To properly gauge the significance of the health care bill, my desire for a more radical solution can't be the sole or main determinant of my attitude toward it. It is obligatory to situate it within the context of the existing balance of class and social forces at this moment. It was in this matrix that this battle was fought out and its outcome determined - not in some frictionless political universe that exists only in our heads. This approach, however, appears to be missing from the analysis of many of the sharpest critics of the health care bill.

Third, this bill even with its limitations goes against the grain of the political and ideological logic that has been dominant for nearly three decades. This logic, the offspring of right-wing extremism and neo-liberalism, holds that government is "the problem" and "free and unregulated markets" are the magical solution to every social ill - when it comes to social welfare, the less government the better. In passing the health care bill, that logic (though clearly not to the degree that we would have liked) was successfully challenged and a positive role of government was reaffirmed.

Perhaps most importantly, the bill and the multi-tiered struggle surrounding its passage changed the political dynamics and mood in the country. The terrain of struggle shifted in a more favorable direction.

On one hand, the Republican right, despite its claims to have come out on top and its promises to repeal the legislation first chance it gets, lost ground. Its protestations, ranging from racist to homophobic to nativist to simply wildly hysterical, poorly position it going forward this year. The American people in their majority aren't buying this bill of goods. The more they hear about the new law, the more they will like it.

On the other hand, the president and the movement supporting health care gained in confidence, grew in stature, deepened unity (anti-racist unity in particular), found new energy, and reclaimed the initiative. What the extreme right hoped would be the administration's Waterloo turned into a victory that, if built upon, will favorably impact on the elections this fall and on the president's overall legislative agenda.

To employ a sports metaphor, on the heels of the election debacle in Massachusetts, the president and other supporters of health care legislation were on the ropes, absorbing blows from their opponents (and some of their friends), and exploring ways to retreat, but in the end they cleared their head, counterpunched, took the initiative, and now find themselves controlling the fight - not entirely, but enough so that there is ground for optimism.

No doubt, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and their ilk will claim that they are in the driver's seat, that the American people want nothing to do with "creeping socialism" and "big government."

No doubt congressional Republicans will talk tough. And no doubt the tea party activists will insist that they are going to "take back the country."

But no one should be intimidated by such talk. The ball is back in the people's court. The volubility and strident tone of the right wing in Washington and elsewhere is testimony to the fact that they understand that they lost this round and are going into the next round at a disadvantage.

Of course, the labor and people's movements should resist overconfidence in the wake of victory. The health care struggle was only one battle in a much longer war that will determine what kind of country we are.

The vision of this wide, loose coalition is inclusive, egalitarian, multi-racial, multi-cultural, deeply democratic, empowering, respectful of difference, and peaceful. Our opponents have another vision that goes in the opposite direction. If the former vision is to become the American vision and reality, the task is to further build a broad-based movement. But, not any kind of movement.

Only a particular kind of movement possessing a particular kind of strategic vision has the capacity to challenge the array of forces on the other side of the class struggle at this juncture.

At its core are the multi-racial working class (and its organized sector), the racially and nationally oppressed people, women, and youth. But gathered in and around it are many other social movements, including undocumented immigrants, and political forces, including the Obama administration and sections of the Democratic Party.

Yes, sections of the Democratic Party! Until a large section of the mass constituency of the Democratic Party, as a result of its own experience primarily, is ready to build a new party with a pronounced anti-corporate vision, the broader people's movement will have a tactical relationship to the Democrats, if it has any political sense. Slogans like "Break with the Democrats" may sound radical and may look good on one's resume, but at this moment it is a recipe for marginalization.

In the meantime, we should deepen our participation in immediate struggles (the struggle for jobs in particular), continue to build this broad popular movement, and encourage the new forms of political independence in the labor movement and elsewhere springing up before our eyes.


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  • Sam's analysis is concretely couched in the moment, exposing the big lies of the ultra right while cautioning communists and those who seek more radical measures in health care reform not to mock the struggles for more modest reform. Subjective evaluation divorced from the objective social relations driven by class struggle can never be the basis for judging social progress. This is what Marxism teaches us.
    This article correctly assess the danger of the ultra right and their efforts to block any and all reform measures in health care. They made no secret of it, they declared that the defeat of health care reform would be President Obama's Waterloo. The main point here is that the vicious, reactionary attempts to block reform by using red scare tactic (calling Obama a communist and health care reform socialism) and out and out racist slander were soundly defeated by the peoples movement. It was and is an important victory and a well delivered blow for social progress.
    Even the bourgeois pundits recognize that this victory is a serious breach of three decades of Republican political domination. The political terrain has changed. The ultra right Republicans can be defeated.
    Thanks for a sound Marxist analysis that will help us find the pathway forward.

    Posted by Frank Chapman, 04/05/2010 2:51am (6 years ago)

  • a quick comment - I'm not speaking to the far left nor to those who advocate in all or nothing approach. My comments are directed at people in the movement who are mocking this victory whether they are in the Party or elsewhere. What they lack is a strategic and dialectical sense, to be perfectly honest.

    Posted by sam webb, 04/03/2010 11:50am (6 years ago)

  • Excellent way of putting this healthcare bill in perspective. I'll share this article. Canadian friends will hopefully enjoy it...they'll be able to see why this bill is such a huge deal (even if it is not single-payer like they have). Thanks.

    Posted by C.J., 04/02/2010 11:12pm (6 years ago)

  • I guess chastising has become the order of the day. The writer’s words contain a lot of frustration at people who have a different view of the world than his.

    We don’t need, at this Moment, to have fissures and wedges drawn between and among activists. Was that the writer’s intention, I hope not, but, it is certainly one end result.

    In our health movement, and be sure, it is a wide and broad movement, there are many trends and directions. To narrow this period of time down to - do you or don’t you support the Obama Health Bill, is a serious misreading of where the health movement is at; and, more importantly the movement needs to stop further erosion of our standard of living.

    Every business journal and newspaper is replete with articles describing the continuing interpretation of the legislation towards corporate interests.

    What we need is an opposite force to counter them. Lowering the Medicare age to 55; dramatically expanding Medicaid; covering all immigrant workers [a public health demand that is a precondition to stop the spread of epidemics]; honoring Roe V. Wade and keeping abortions as a right of every woman, not just those who can afford it; eliminating the tax on working peoples’ negotiated health benefits...those are all demands that we need to make sure, will not go away.

    Time would be far better spent analyzing the Corporate/Wall Street forces, both those operating for them and, also those politicians who receive money from them. The recent Supreme Court decision will just make matters worse. We are an independent Party that needs to act and perform that way.

    We need leadership that seeks unity of forces; not demonizing and isolating those who may not agree on this or that point. This rapidly becomes a self-isolating paradigm.

    Social Security and Medicare

    Corporate America is very satisfied with the health bill, nobody differs with that analysis. Insurance company stocks soared after the bill was signed. Wall Street's appetite is wet with joy.

    Their next aim is the privatization in whole or in part of the Social Security system and further privatization of Medicare.

    These two public programs are on the chopping block.

    That is why Congress REFUSED to establish an “Entitlement Commission.” They know how the American people feel about them. They know to do that would set in motion a corporate frenzy that would be hard to stop. Their re-election would be in deep jeopardy.

    Why did the Administration establish it anyway?

    Those activists in the health care movement who still oppose the Health Care Bill; those who don’t like major portions and remain quiet; or, those who support it for whatever reason, must be brought together to stop the destruction of Social Security and Medicare. Activists in the health care movement are not pointing fingers, it would be best to not do so as an outsider.

    The trillions of dollars that Corporate America says is needed to balance the federal budget and keep the U.S. corporate world afloat are seen, by them and too many politicians, to exist in these two programs.

    Please, unity, not chastisement and division is what is needed. We don’t all need to speak with the same tongue, the same thought processes, or the same allegiance.

    Our principles, at least in the health care movement, are shared by far and away the majority of activists. Diversity must be seen as a good thing since unity under one standard is not only not possible, it is foolhardy and destructive.

    Posted by Phil E. Benjamin, 04/02/2010 8:47pm (6 years ago)

  • excellent article i remember some of these same type of naysayers trying to vote down a union contract after a long strike and we got a partial victory and mostly held our own. what some people apparently don't understand (but the extreme right wing does) is that health care will now b considered a right not a priveledge. just like unemployment insurance and social security. there is already a movement, primarily led by cogressman john conyers and a number of workers , to get single payer and conyers encouraged people to support the present health care law signed by pres obama. in solidarity jim

    Posted by jim, 04/02/2010 4:40pm (6 years ago)

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