Even if Biden wins, the left must keep up pressure from below
The personal opinions of Biden and Harris are less important than are the social and class forces that are able to exert pressure on them. Here, Biden speaks to a crowd on Feb. 10, 2020, in Manchester, N.H. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

I’ve heard it said that an assessment of a politician’s stance on this or that issue shouldn’t rest on positions they took a decade or two ago. According to this view, the past is not a prelude to the present or predictive of a possible future. This argument was made about Hillary Clinton during the previous election cycle, and it’s been repeated regarding the Democratic nominees this time around.

Well, fair enough. It’s true, things are in motion, and individuals can and do change. This is not new: Take W.E.B. Du Bois or the Supreme Court’s Justice Hugo Black. Du Bois started out as a radical democrat and ended his life as a card-carrying Communist. Black, in his youth, joined the Klan but emerged as one of the 20th century’s most farsighted jurists. The older both got, the smarter they became, and better yet, so did their politics. For those two, such shifts were surely signs of intelligence, even genius. But is that all?

Lest we be accused of falling into the “great individuals in history” school of thought, it’s important to point out that both came of age, matured, and were shaped by the social upheavals and political storms of their times: social revolution, depressions and recessions, world wars, counter-revolution, and revolt. What’s telling is not so much that their opinions changed but that both men’s views deepened when popular opinion shifted.

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But the opposite is also the case: Once-stalwart spines of less-solid souls at times bend and bow when warm winds turn cold. In other words, folks can and do regress. Isn’t life replete with political and ideological backsliding? The reasons may vary: Sometimes it’s responding to changes in the relationship of forces or a decision to take the path of least resistance; sometimes it’s the influence of new facts; and, let’s be frank, sometimes people just get bought off.

So what, then, are reasonable criteria for making a judgment?

It seems rather simplistic to take changes in an individual’s opinions at face value, especially those of bourgeois politicians. The question is always why, what’s the context? To me, the issue is best understood in class terms—that is, the degree to which a position shifts in relation to changes in the milieu or interests a political figure represents. That’s not to discount an individual’s ability to grow and mature with new information. But what’s even more important than an individual’s view are the relative strength and organization of the class and people’s forces surrounding them. In addition, there is always the question of who else is contending for influence?

The late Gus Hall, the former chairman of the Communist Party USA, used to say that liberals, under pressure, always move to the right. Okay, Gus, but isn’t the assumption here that they’re under right-wing pressure, as in “money talks, and BS walks”?

But what if the pressure is coming from the left?

With the U.S Capitol in the background, demonstrators march on Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women’s March in Washington, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. | Jose Luis Magana / AP

Today, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and the massive social upheaval it has wrought. In this regard, have the current Democratic standard-bearers moved left? And if so, does it represent a genuine shift? The answer on some issues is yes. With respect to whether it’s genuine…honestly, who knows? One really can’t get inside their heads. What we do know is that their constituencies have moved left and that they, being smart politicians, move with them—after all, they want to get elected.

But at the end of the day, are their individual positions even all that important? I mean, who even cares what they think? Again what matters is whether the people’s movements on the ground, in the factories, streets, and campuses are able to compel the decision makers to do the right thing.

It’s true, for example, that the Democratic Party’s platform has shifted in a good direction on issues like equality, student debt, global warming, health care, and collective bargaining, largely under the impact of Sanders along with many others. But all of this is the fruit born of struggle. Platforms are wish lists, and they won’t matter a damn without massive ongoing pressure from below to implement them.

What’s that story about FDR meeting with a worker delegation demanding relief during the Depression? It’s said that the president replied to their earnest demands with something like “OK. Fine. I agree. Now go out there and make me do it.”

That’s what’s up: It’s all about making them do it. Everything else is just words in the wind.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Joe Sims
Joe Sims

Joe Sims is co-chair of the Communist Party USA. He is also a senior editor of People's World and loves biking.