Millions make change

The two main eras of progressive change in our country in the last century were accompanied by a broad and spirited upsurge of people.

In the Depression years, a powerful people’s movement, in the forefront of which was the working class and its organized sector (trade unions), crystallized into a mighty force for social progress. It was the backbone of a series of people’s legislative victories – Social Security, unemployment insurance, welfare benefits, the right to organize into unions, etc.

Three decades later a movement led by Martin Luther King broke the back of legal segregation and enacted civil rights laws, while at the same time inspiring a host of popular struggles that followed on its heels.

Both movements – of the 1930s and the 1960s – were diverse, mass, militant and spontaneous as well as organized. Both combined political action and mass action. And both, as mentioned, were decisive to the change process specific to their era.

In other words, had they not been on the scene at the time, progressive change would either not have occurred or occurred in a much more limited way.

Which brings me to the present. Following the recent debt agreement between the president and the Republicans, progressive and left voices were critical of the administration. Many felt that it gave up too much and got little in return.

There is truth here, but I’m not sure if that is main lesson that should be drawn from this deal.

For me what stands out is the inadequate mobilization of the American people in this struggle. To be sure, the seniors movement left its imprint on the process in so far as entitlement programs were not touched for the time being. But that shouldn’t obscure the larger reality that too many Americans were onlookers, waiting to see what would happen behind closed doors in the nation’s capital.

If this were a problem specific to only this struggle, it would be one thing, but it isn’t. It dates back to the day after the election of Obama.

For whatever reasons, the level of mass activity at the national level hasn’t approached that which took shape in the course of the 2008 election campaign. During the campaign mass activity was broad, grassroots, united and sustained over time. It brought millions into organized activity as well as influenced the thinking and actions of many more millions who went to the polls.

But it didn’t carry over to the post-election period. And in not doing so it reduced the progressive potential of the Obama victory since then.

Social progress without mass pressure is never easy in a capitalist system. Capitalism is structured to resist change of a progressive and radical nature. But it is especially tough going in circumstances where the right wing controls many levers of power, as it currently does.

Indeed, without a powerful people’s movement mobilizing millions and advancing a program of a progressive character, the political discourse will tack to the right and legislative victories will be few and far between, as in the present situation.

The political imperative of this moment, therefore, is clear: the quantitative and qualitative strengthening of the people’s movement for progressive change.

Whether it happens depends on the human factor, that is, on what ordinary people do. Just as the initiatives and actions of the American people were an essential ingredient in the progressive-democratic thrust in the 1930s and 1960s, so too will the initiatives and actions of millions feeling the awful weight of this terrible and protracted economic crisis be essential in today’s conditions.

Seize the time!

Photo: Stand Up Chicago rally, June 14, 2011. PW


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.