The Left and its Tasks
The U.S. left is a motley crew, politically speaking. Some on the left support Obama, others wish to build a movement that will make Obama be the president they believe he might be. Further to the left, Solidarity and other socialist organizations call for an independent politics and independent movements to challenge Obama and his policies.
The liberal left, represented by The Nation, only a few months ago absolutely enamored of Obama, has quickly become more critical, though it still tends to be critically supportive. In a recent article Robert L. Borosage and Katrina vanden Heuvel write that, “Without a grassroots uprising that challenges business as usual in Washington, we aren’t likely to get the change we were promised, much less the change we need.” Borosage and vanden Heuvel, however, still put their emphasis on build a movement that can support and pressure the president, rather than building a movement that challenges him and his party.
The Communist Party and its publication The People’s Weekly World, which also supported Obama in the election, take a similar position. Sam Webb wrote in the May 1 issue, “Currently, the level of mobilization of the diverse coalition that elected Obama doesn’t match what is necessary to win his administration’s immediate legislative and political agenda, let alone more far-reaching reforms.” Webb goes on, “And herein lies the role of the left. Its main task, as it has been throughout our country’s history, is to assist in reassembling, activating, uniting and giving a voice to common demands that unite this broad majority as well as draw in other people who didn’t vote for Obama.” The article makes clear that those on the left are to be drawn in behind Obama to push him forward so that the forces of finance capital do not triumph and pull his administration to the right.
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which claims to be the country’s largest socialist organization, published in its journal, The Democratic Left (Fall 2008), an election year statement by its honorary chair Frances Fox Piven, in which she argued for support for Obama. She wrote: “If turnout remains high, an Obama victory could mean a realignment of American electoral politics around a majority coalition similar to the one forged in the New Deal era, with African Americans and Latinos replacing the white South as the reliable core of the coalition. The composition of this new coalition would encourage presidential rhetoric that in turn could spur movement activism. It would simultaneously generate the hope that is always the fuel of movements from the bottom of society, and it would put in place a regime that is vulnerable to those movements. If there is political salvation in the American future, it can only be forged through the dynamic interplay between progressive social movements and elected politicians.”
In the Spring 2009 issue of The Democratic Left (Spring 2009) carries an article by Bill Fletcher, titled “What Now for the Left?” writes, “The left tends to either abstain from electoral politics; marginalize itself with small-party candidacies in partisan elections; or tail after the Democrats. It is time for the left to invest in a different approach, one that I and others have called a neo-Rainbow approach, which emphasizes an independent politics and organization that operates inside and outside the Democratic Party. Working the electoral arena that way opens up opportunities to develop a mass base and hearing for a left/progressive agenda.”
Solidarity argues that these approaches lead in the end to the subordination of the labor and social movements to the Democratic Party. All of these positions suggest that the movements should push Obama forward and upward, rather than building a politically independent movement with the ultimate goal of pushing him and his party aside. When leftists argue for supporting Obama and the Democrats, they disorient the movements and make it difficult to build the opposition needed to change foreign and domestic policy. As long as people think that Obama can be pressured to bring about health care reform, they will not build the independent movement that will be necessary to really make that happen. The inside/outside approach, advocated by Fletcher, tends in practice to become an inside pressure group approach – unless there is a serious strategy to carry voters out of the Democratic Party.
The International Socialist Organization (ISO), in the March-April, 2009 issue of International Socialist Review carries an article about “Obama’s Mixed Message,” suggesting that his talk of change has not been fulfilled in his political agenda. The ISR article continues, “Real change will be possible if and when the Obama Generation develops the political maturity and self-confidence to realize they don’t have to wait on leaders or symbols to bring about a better world: They can and must organize to make history on their own.” We in Solidarity share this view, which is another way of arguing, as we do here, that we must have an independent social movement if we are to make significant change in America. Such a social movement we would argue must eventually find political expression in a working class party.
Solidarity acknowledges that many social movement activists identify and work within the Democratic Party. We also know there is currently no viable, independent Left party to provide a political and electoral expression of our movements. Thus, we work with these activists everyday to build militant movements to the furthest extent possible, regardless of the particular face of capitalist power in the U.S. But we maintain that many of the crucial reform goals of these movements are incompatible with the dominant politics and historical role of the Democratic Party. Looking for influence within – or relationship with this or that figure in – a Democratic Party administration or coalition will weaken and disorient the movements.
Organizing and Program
At the present moment, as we face a deep economic crisis, we find that there is a great disjuncture between, one the one hand, the sense that we need a political, economic and social program that speaks to the crisis, and on the other, the low level resistance and struggle in society. We in the left have a wealth of historic programs we can draw upon from the socialist movement, while the crisis itself presents us with a ready made list of demands:
* Jobs at a living wage for all who need work.
* Housing for all who need homes.
* Health care for all without cost.
* Free public education K to Ph.D.
* Free and adequate public transportation.
To achieve these demands we can see that we would need a more elaborate political program:
* End the wars and use the military budget for social needs.
* Socialize and transform U.S. industry under the control of citizens, workers and consumers.
* End the carbon-based economy of coal and petroleum to stop global warming.
* Take up the fight for the rights of people of color, immigrants, GLBTQs, and other groups which suffer discrimination.
* Create a working class political party to fight for these measures.
We can also see that immediate demands and a political program, to really lead to change, would have to be organized and conceived in such a way as to lead to a transition to socialism. Virtually all of the groups on the left have developed programs such as these, more elaborate and sometimes more elegant than the items listed here. What is missing, however, is the connection between the labor and social movement’s struggle and such a program.
We in Solidarity put our emphasis therefore not on the development of a program or the construction of a political party, but on the rebuilding of the labor and social movements at the grassroots. We believe that at this time socialists should put their emphasis on rebuilding a layer of committed activists in the working class with a class struggle perspective, as well as reconstructing such a group within the social movements. When movements become large and powerful, then programs take on real importance. Unfortunately in most parts of the country the movement does not have the size or strength to put forward a program except in the most limited way.
Sometimes even small movements facing big problems can and must put forward programs which speak to the magnitude of the issues and the needs of working people. So, for example, rank-and-file Detroit autoworkers called for the take over of the failing auto companies by a public trust that would transform what had been auto into a new transportation and energy corporation organized along environmental lines with workers having significant involvement in the actual running of the new organization. Such a program in that case put forward a vision of a different way of thinking about the industry, one which was transformative, environmentalist, publicly owned and worker managed. Where such programs seem necessary and appropriate they should be advance, but such cases may be few at this time.
When movements—labor unions, immigrants, people of color, GLBTQ people, environmentalists—begin to intersect, then the combined movements begin to put forward programs which resemble those of working class parties. We have not yet reached such a stage.
We in Solidarity believe that we can engage in this task together with other socialists who share our commitment to building the movement while discussing our commonalities and our differences. We have found that in our work in the unions and social movements that we often share many of the ideals and methods of other left organizations and collectives which may not come from our political traditions. Since 2007 we have been in discussions with a number of groups—the Bay Area Activist Study Circle, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, Left Turn, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and the New York Study Group—and this summer will work together on the Revolutionary Work in Our Times Conference to be held in Chicago from July 31 – August 2. We see a conference such as this as a way to advance our common agenda of building the movements. We believe that a united revolutionary left will be essential in building the forces that can confront the crisis, challenge the Obama administration, and begin to create a revolutionary movement in this country.