Obama, coalition politics, and the struggle for reforms


President Obama's State of the Union speech reveals once again that president is a democratic reformer (on domestic issues) in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

And the fact that the president has a disposition toward reform is of great significance - not only to the millions who are struggling to mitigate the worst effects of 30 years of right-wing extremism and capitalist globalization, but also to people who desire social change of a radical nature.

Here's why.

First of all, we are not in a revolutionary period. Despite the severity of our economic crisis and the urgency of socialism, the subjective conditions don't yet exist for a revolutionary transformation of our society to put people before profits. What do I mean by that? It's true that capitalism doesn't enjoy the same support as it did in the decades following World War II, and the resistance to its destructive effects is growing. But the array of social forces struggling against three decades of right-wing domination and neoliberal globalization are not of sufficient breadth, depth, unity or inclination to challenge capitalist class rule. I wish that were not the case, but it is.

Contrary to what some on the left think, the starting point of transformative politics isn't its political desires and wish list, but a sober and concrete assessment of the balance of class and social forces on the ground - not least of which is the political consciousness of the majority of working-class people and what they are ready to do. And by this measure, socialist transformation is not on the agenda in the near and medium term. The American people, much like the president, are - to paraphrase Billy Joel - in a reform state of mind. They don't yet have the desire or the wherewithal to bring down the curtains on U.S. capitalism.

Second, the bottom-up version of history, as exemplified by Howard Zinn, among others, contains an absolutely crucial insight - the dynamic role of masses of people in driving the process of social change. But it suffers from simplicity too. In every period of far-reaching social change in the 20th century, a broad mass upsurge has combined with reforming elements in elite circles to effect that change.

Indeed, the reforming impulse of Roosevelt and Johnson - shaped by many factors, including but not exclusively by the mass movements of their era - helped to create a terrain on which millions could intervene and expand the boundaries of freedom. Similarly, Obama's reforming inclinations open up space for the broader movement to fight and win victories today - not to mention lay the necessary groundwork (ideologically, politically, and organizationally) for radical change in the future.

Of course, this president, just as Roosevelt and Johnson did, will surely attempt to limit the sweep and depth of the reform process. But to turn that into a rationale not to join him on issues of mutual concern such as jobs, immigration, climate change, gun violence, taxing the rich, cutting the military budget and nuclear stockpile and so on, is a recipe for the left's political marginalization.

Moreover, it forgets that the outcome of these struggles will depend on two things. One is the relative strength of the opposing sides - the Obama-led coalition for reforms vs. the Republican right and its corporate supporters. But the other is the ability of the organized people's movement to put its political imprint on the reform process within the broader coalition that they are a part, while at the same time, (and this is where politics becomes an art) maintaining the coalition's broad unity against the main obstacles to social progress - again the Republican right and its corporate supporters.

Coalition politics and reform struggles are anything but pure; they are, by nature, a polyglot; an uneasy amalgamation of disparate forces. Still they are the ground - and the only ground - out of which change, including radical and socialist change, will come.

Photo: merlune/Flickr

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  • Sam,

    I think this piece is fantastic. It ain't sexy, it doesn't call for simple, short answers, easy to achieve. It is sober thinking about the realities of what exists and the dialetics about getting from here to "there". Politics and radical reform is messy and complicated.

    Posted by Michael Arney, 03/28/2013 10:29pm (2 years ago)

  • chris---

    yes, what you say is correct, but (1) timing is everything in politics & (2) there are no new ideological questions, only the old ones that we debate again & again because we make the same mistakes over & over again!

    It is easy to hit the nail on the head if the 'nail,' ideologically, is a straw man! The issue, at this point in our struggle is NOT 'we should be part of the coalition,' certainly at least not in my mind. 'We' already are & there are struggles across the nation, generally, again as Sam states mainly struggles against ongoing attacks on our people & mvmt. The point IS, at THIS time, what do we do, how do get out of the morass we're in, find a way to begin ton the corner toward the offensive.

    Unfortunately, what I get from article is a failure to deal with this, the important issue for our mvmt, while continuing to discuss whether 'Obama is good, a reformer,' & how 'we should be part of the coalition.' I do not disagree here!

    The area that Sam, in my opinion, deals with in an incorrect manner, is exactly the above. The question on the table NOW is where we need to go, &, again unfortunately, what I'm taking from Sam's piece is that 'we' (left, CP, people's mvmt) should NOT take the steps nessecary to move org'd labor to TAKE THE LEAD, help lead the way out for the entire mvmt. This takes more than being "part of the coalition." It means that we need to help wk with & push labor to take the leading role of leadiing the entire mvmt, bring fwd 'the property question' to bring all together, pointing the ideological direction for the whole mvmt, against capital, that can help move our nation from the ridiculous obcession w/the deficient & fight for our people's needs.

    That leadership is NOT sectarian, but it needs to be more than 'part of the coalition.' If labor calls for a natl march, led by labor & allies, it could part 1-2 million in DC & begin to focus the mvmt. We need to look at the need for leadership & not continue to focus on just being there!

    Posted by bruce bostick, 03/02/2013 2:01pm (3 years ago)

  • First, I don't have the take-away message that we're being 'urged to not work with labor...', etc.

    The compelling reason I agree with Sams discussion is that in my experience, it is NOT "a given" that we need to "be part of the overall coalition, fighting for immediate aims." It is a fine line to put forth advanced demands while not distancing ourselves from immediate aims.

    Posted by Chris, 02/27/2013 4:47pm (3 years ago)

  • I've read & reread this piece, only to become more frustrated!

    I certainly do agree that Obama is a "reformer" & that we need to fight to shift the balance of forces in a better, more pro-labor/people direction. We most assuredly need to be part of the overall coalition, fighting for immediate aims. That much is a given. However, I cannot figure out what the article offers in terms of leadership, where we need to go from here.

    I take from this piece, & I hope I'm wrong, that we're being urged to not work with org'd labor, the people's movement, to try to find unifying ways to bring the whole movement together, to find ways to raise the ante in the fight against the right and the corporate enemy!

    Marx spoke in the Manifesto of needing to "fight for the immediate aims of the working class," while also needing to "take care of the future of that movement." While fighting for the immediate aims, in this case mostly defensive struggles, as yet, the need is to "bring to the front, the property question." In this case the "property issue" is the right of workers to organize and the fight for good union jobs to rebuild our nation.

    Obama did not just overlook labor in error, when he recognized in his SOTU speech, both 'Selma' & 'Stonewall,' but NOT 'Flint' or 'Youngstown.' While it was wonderful that those were brought fwd, it is only org'd labor that can speak to ALL working people and its goals be that of all of our nation. Org'd labor, our working class, while PART OF the overall alliance, is purposely pushed to the back by the corporate (liberal) forces in charge. This is not a reason, as some ultra-left & middle class folks would say, to break the alliance, but it absolutely IS an extremely important reason why labor MUST step forward in an independent manner, offering leadership in this tough and confusing time. Those on the legitimate left need to become practiced at that 'political art' Sam speaks of, in order to help labor find the unifying way to do so.

    Furthermore, I would submit that when labor steps fwd, as they did in the New Deal period, the struggles become clearer, the goals better understood by all working people & the fight more mainstream. Leadership in how to be able to carry this out is badly needed in the people's struggle today!

    Posted by , 02/20/2013 8:39pm (3 years ago)

  • So why has gasoline prices have doubled since Obama took office?

    Posted by jude, 02/20/2013 4:58pm (3 years ago)

  • Wish I had more time to elaborate, but I just want to say thank you, Sam. I agree and my experiences confirm your remarks.

    Posted by Chris, 02/19/2013 12:35am (3 years ago)

  • I wish I had more time and energy to respond to Sam's article and the comments below. Suffice it to say I agree with the viewpoint Sam has expressed. While there is certainly a lot more to say on the subject, this is a point to develop our thinking and understanding of the times we live in. It certainly expresses my experiences. Many decades in the last half century could be considered "revolutionary" (just think of the 1990's, the massive demonstrations led by labor and in particular Jobs with Justice, not to mention WTO protest) based on the assessment that the Occupy movement in and of itself constitutes a revolutionary period. But, sadly, we are not there yet.

    Posted by Chris, 02/19/2013 12:19am (3 years ago)

  • "Revolutionary periods", existed before Karl Marx's discovery of historical materialism, after which, they themselves were revolutionized.
    Brother Sam, in many ways, sad and dismayed to inform you-but the age/period of OCCUPY IS a "revolutionary period", period.
    Again, again, and again Karl Marx has drilled into us-it is not the consciousness of human beings that determines our reality-but our reality that determines our consciousness.
    In other words, even though billions and billions of humans/workers on our planet do not think of themselves as revolutionaries, visionaries, socialists, and yes- communists, the activities of their very hands and brains qualify them, as they partake of the objective conditions of the age which the great W. E. B. Du Bois, way back in the dawn of the twentieth century proclaimed with uncanny prophecy and intelligence, even before reading Das Kapital, 1906-
    "The morning breaks over the hills. Courage brothers! The battle for humanity is not lost or losing. The Slav is rising in his might, the yellow minions are testing their liberty, the Black Africans are writhing toward the light, and everywhere the laborer is opening the gates of opportunity and peace." This quote is from Gus Hall's response to Du Bois's 1961 application to the CPUSA.
    In the binary and atomic age, after the very real revolutions, which we must build on, from the Atlantic Revolutions to the Arab Spring Revolutions, with labor becoming instantaneously more and more conscious of its power, this current period is a revolutionary period.
    Lenin led a revolution in backward Russia in 1917 and proved with both John Reed's and W. E. B. Du Bois's approval, that statement written to head this comment:
    Marxism revolutionized our conceptions of what revolutionary periods are.
    You should know this and live this-if you do, we can't tell from this article.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 02/15/2013 12:40pm (3 years ago)

  • This analysis is very incomplete without a discussion of international and military policies of our country.

    Posted by gary hicks, 02/15/2013 3:23am (3 years ago)

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