Verbal remarks based on this report were delivered to 29th National Convention of Communist Party, USA, May 21-23, 2010 in New York City.
Welcome, everyone, to our 29th convention; and a special welcome to our friends and allies. I’m sure you are as excited to be here as I am.
Every convention presents new problems to be solved and new challenges to be met. This convention is no different.
What a difference between now and five years ago when we convened in Chicago!
At that time, a Puerto Rican woman raised in the South Bronx didn’t sit on the Supreme Court.
Then the president didn’t call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Millions had no health care and no promise of it in the near future.
The White House didn’t issue a proclamation on Workers’ Memorial Day.
The labor movement wasn’t a welcome guest at the White House.
A Mexican American woman – daughter of poor immigrants – wasn’t secretary of the Labor Department.
At that time, the war in Iraq wasn’t winding down.
Nothing was said about reining in Wall Street.
Global warming wasn’t on the White House agenda.
There were no presidential appeals to end racial profiling, homophobia, or restrictions on access to abortions.
At that time, Lilly Ledbetter couldn’t receive compensation for gender discrimination.
Torture wasn’t prohibited.
We weren’t in a position to fight for a progressive agenda, but on the defensive.
The pendulum of power didn’t yet tilt in favor of working people, people of color, women and their allies.
And, an African American wasn’t president.
Now an African American is president, and much else has changed as we convene our 29th convention.
On one side, the long night of rule by the most reactionary groups on the political spectrum has ended. The working class and labor movement are stepping up to the plate. A broad and loose coalition is rolling into action again after a short lull. Multi-racial unity is on a new level.
Anger is turning into protest actions. Protest actions are becoming more frequent and militant. And a new era of people friendly change is within our reach.
On the other hand, the nation is beset by a seemingly intractable and deep economic slump. U.S. soldiers are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Oil is spilling into the Gulf waters, the government seems dysfunctional at times, and the Middle East remains a tinderbox. Corporate negligence is killing miners and oil workers, a racist and anti-immigrant offensive is thick in the air, the planet’s temperature is rising, debt is piling up, and the right wing and finance capital – the two main architects of the economic meltdown and bulging federal deficit – are regrouping and trying their damnedest to reconstitute their power.
Sounds daunting! Could be paralyzing! And yet, without underestimating the challenges, we are brimming with confidence that the economic ship can be righted, restructured, and democratized, that swords can be turned into plowshares, and that “justice can roll down like a mighty river.”
Sí se puede!
Our Party fills a critical space on the spectrum of working-class and people’s politics. On a practical level and in the realm of ideas, our contribution is something we can take pride in.
Broadly speaking, our view of the general conditions of struggle and the strategic path forward is on the money.
We make mistakes and acknowledge them. But we didn’t make the big mistake – underestimating the danger of rightwing extremism in government and elsewhere.
To the extent that we applied our strategy, we extended and deepened our mass connections, we contributed to the historic victory in 2008, we enhanced our presence and visibility, and we increased our membership.
We didn’t grow as much as we would have liked, but we have a firm foundation on which to increase our size, visibility and readership of our publications in the period ahead.
Provided, of course, that we further build and unite the working class based coalition that came together to elect President Obama.
If when we leave on Sunday, the only thing we take back with us is a renewed determination to grow this coalition in the course of today’s struggles – especially for jobs and in the 2010 elections – this convention will be a success.
Why? Because only this coalition – only this many-layered, multiclass and multiracial people’s coalition in which the multi-racial working class and labor movement play a growing role, has the political strength to complete and consolidate the victory against rightwing extremism and, in doing so, weaken the capitalist class as a whole.
If another path exists to anti-monopoly and socialist governments and future, I don’t see it.
Only majority movements can skin the rightwing cat, the neoliberal dog, and the globalizing rat. Only majority movements can resolve the elementary contradiction between enrichment of the few and the insecurity, joblessness, and exploitation of the many. Only majority movements can remove the two swords of Damocles hanging over humankind’s future – nuclear weapons and a warming planet.
If the left could do it alone, as the late comrade George Meyers used to say, it would have done so a long time ago.
Frederick Engels insightfully wrote in the 1880s,
The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for [with body and soul]. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required.
In our case this “long, persistent work” must be coupled with renewed efforts to increase our membership and multiply manifold the online readers of the People’s World and Political Affairs.
Given the diminished confidence in the corporate driven economy, our growing connections, and the social networking capacity that we literally have at our fingertips, it is altogether realistic to double our growth and exponentially enlarge our online audience by May Day next year.
Of course, this will take planning, a more robust organizing and social networking culture, and individual initiative.
The building of the Party and our readership rests on the notion that a stronger communist, socialist and left current (a current that currently is largely unaffiliated to left organizational forms) in the working class and elsewhere is indispensible to the success of the broader people’s coalition at every stage of struggle – provided, of course, that it embraces breadth in its politics, good sense in its strategic orientation, flexibility in its tactics, and freshness and imagination in its analysis.
Our best days are ahead of us!
We are part of an international movement – the communist and working-class movement. From that movement we take inspiration, draw lessons – both positive and negative – from its experience, and employ to the best of our ability a dialectical-historical and open-ended Marxism.
At the same time, our roots are in this country. We are products of its culture and history. We are a part of its multiracial, multicultural, multilingual and multinational working class. Our vision of socialism comes through the lens of our nation’s experience. And we feel an intellectual and emotional kinship to the freedom struggles that map our past.
U.S. Communists have a special place in our hearts for the freedom fighters, progressive cultural warriors, and athletes that came before us. We stand on their shoulders. We draw courage from their example. And we take our place on the same democratic-radical continuum that goes back to the indigenous peoples resisting colonial dispossession and conquest and to the first slaves and indentured laborers resisting servitude.
Today as then, powerful political and economic forces are blocking freedom’s promise. But this is no surprise.
Freedom Road is never smooth and straight. There are curves, bumps and detours. Marching proudly are long marchers, not summer soldiers; optimists, not pessimists; dreamers, not cynics; and doers, not armchair critics, and people of all races and nationalities.
Only a united movement of millions with our multi-racial, male-female working class at its center will continue the journey until “the freedom of each is the condition for the freedom of all.”
Let freedom ring!
Terrain of struggle
At our first National Committee meeting after the last convention I said we are entering an era of reforms and possibly radical reforms. In hindsight, I overstated the nature of the election victory. The right, while undeniably weakened, wasn’t decisively defeated. That remains to be done.
A decisive defeat of the right – signified by larger Democratic majorities, the growth of the progressive wing in Congress, a higher degree of trade union organization and struggle, a decline in the influence of rightwing ideology, a higher degree of multiracial unity and anti-racist consciousness, greater unity and vision of the all people’s coalition, and so forth – will profoundly alter the political landscape.
Imagine what the past year would have looked like if the right had been fully dethroned from its positions of power in the last election! Granted it wouldn’t mean fair skies and clear sailing for the people’s coalition, but it is in the realm of possibility to think that the health care bill would have been stronger, the stimulus bigger, unemployment lower, resistance to military spending and escalating the war greater, relations with Cuba and Latin America better, and financial reform tougher.
In the words, a decisive victory over the right will set the stage for a period of sustained, deep-going anti-corporate democratization and reform. Thus, the struggle against the right, as some suggest, doesn’t submerge or bypass or postpone the class struggle; on the contrary, it is evident that it brings to the surface, clears the ground, and creates a more favorable terrain for a more open struggle against finance capital, corporate power, neo-liberalism, and imperial rule.
For now we are in a transitional stage. We aren’t fighting from a defensive position, but the right and the sections of capital that support still have to be slam dunked “Lebron James style.”
We don’t pick the ground of struggle on which we fight; that depends on the balance of class forces and the level of political consciousness, organization, and unity of millions.
Stages of struggle, and especially transitions from one stage to another, are never clearly defined. In the best of circumstances, they capture the main trends of political, economic, and ideological development among a morass of competing tendencies and complex processes.
On a concrete level, class struggles are never “pure” in content or forms. Some may think so, but they will never live to see it.
The historical and political process is more like a mutt than a pure bred. Its distinguishing features are not so obvious. It is incumbent, therefore, to make a concrete and sober analysis of what the main obstacle to social progress is, who has to be assembled in order to move to the next stage of struggle, and what the main task is.
Sí se Puede!
Spike in mass struggles
The lived experience of millions is one of constant worry – worry about their job, home, health care, debt, old age, racial profiling and police violence, illegal roundups, and their children’s future.
Not since the Great Depression have so many Americans been so uneasy and so angry. For nearly half a century the nation’s working people embraced and took comfort in the American dream – a dream whose promissory note read that if you work hard and do the right things, a good and secure life is attainable.
I wouldn’t say that dream is dead, but more and more people have less and less hope that it is within reach. Forces beyond their control have snatched it from them.
Many, not knowing where to turn, simply resign themselves to their circumstances.
Others (teabaggers and all) are captured by lies, half-truths, and hate-filled rhetoric steeped in a subtext of racism, male supremacy, distrust of immigrants, and false patriotism, and end up doing the bidding of the very people and corporations that are grinding them down.
And still others – especially of late – are turning their anger into purposeful and collective rage.
To mention a few examples:
Union workers at Hugo Boss in Ohio prevented their plant from closing, with help from actor Danny Glover.
Opposition to Arizona’s draconian and unconstitutional immigration law is mushrooming there and elsewhere.
Florida’s governor vetoed a rightwing-inspired overhaul of public education, thanks in great measure to a “friendly nudge” from outraged school employees, parents and the general public.
The student mobilizations on University of California campuses against cutbacks and tuition hikes were impressive.
Labor’s May Day marches struck a high note in a number of cities, including New York.
The campaign for jobs and against Wall St. initiated by the AFL-CIO and other major organizations is off and running.
The near-victories by Rick Nagin and Rudy Lozano in recent election campaigns are a sign of the times.
Battles over education reform, protests against police violence, and contract struggles are making the news.
The anti-nuclear conference and rally at the UN in early May struck a much-needed note for peace.
And, not least, the struggle over health care reform signifies this turn towards action.
You could easily say there was one mood before the health care bill passed and another mood afterwards.
In fact, viewing the struggle through a dialectical lens, the bill’s passage was not only a victory on its own terms, but it also changed the larger political dynamics of Washington and the country in a positive way.
It broke a Republican-engineered logjam in Congress, brought people into the streets, and gave a fresh push to the process of progressive change.
In short, people’s anger is growing, the popular mood is changing, and the coalition that elected the president is moving forward again.
Yes we can!
The two issues of overriding importance are the 2010 elections and the economic crisis – especially growing and chronic joblessness. I will address each in turn, and then add two cautionary tales.
For more than a year, the main issue that captured our energy and the energy of millions of others was health care reform.
With the signing of a health care bill, our attention is shifting to job creation, (although I should add that much still has to be done to acquaint the American people with the content of this bill in order to counter the legion of lies that spill from the mouths of the fulminating fools of the Party of NO and to press for more basic solutions to the health are crisis.)
To state the obvious, the jobs picture of the working class (broadly understood) is bleak and likely to remain so. In the racially and nationally oppressed and immigrant communities it is worse than bleak. There the struggle for many is to survive.
To change this depression-like situation, greater working-class organization of the employed and unemployed, job creation programs (for example, a public works program and state developmental bank), multi-racial and broad people’s unity, and mass actions (mass is relative to circumstances) are imperative. It is urgent to win immediate legislative battles – unemployment compensation, the Harkin education jobs bill, the Miller Local Jobs for America bill, the Murray bill to help veterans find jobs, etc.
This legislation can assist the lives of millions of families facing personal catastrophe while modestly improving the overall economy. No less important, they can put the necessary and more transformative anti-corporate, anti-military, and anti-super rich changes into the public conversation.
In recent months, we participated in a range of actions for jobs, relief, and financial reform. In many cities, we are now a part of the jobs campaign led by the labor movement.
Many comrades participated in the mobilizations on May Day and in the actions the preceding week. In some places we were part of the planning committees. Isn’t it a sign of the times that May Day is once again becoming a day of celebration and action, thanks to the labor movement and immigrant rights organizations?
We also organized several discussions at the national, district, and club levels on the jobs crisis. And in mid-July the Party will host a jobs conference with the YCL.
As positive as this is, we aren’t satisfied with our work; we aren’t fully mobilized as a Party; not every district or club has had a full discussion and mapped out specific initiatives.
Thus, the challenge is to step up our activity from Maine to California. That won’t happen overnight or without some adjustments in our work. Required are creative and practical ideas, party-wide attention, ongoing coordination, doggedness, experimentation and plenty of initiative.
I will go into the status of the economy and a more basic program of jobs and economic revival below.
It takes a fight to win!
The other key arena is the Congressional elections this fall. This will be a fierce battle. I don’t have to tell you that its outcome is uncertain and will have vast repercussions, either good or bad.
It’s pretty clear that if the Democrats lose their majorities in Congress both the president and the broader people’s coalition will be weakened. Going forward will get a lot tougher.
One difficulty is that a section of voters who supported candidate Obama are unhappy with the administration and Congress for various reasons.
Some are unhappy with the pace of change; some are confused by the right wing and its amplifiers on television and talk radio; and some still have illusions about how easy it is to make change. Neither class structures nor political forces are on their radar screen.
Whatever the case, millions have to be convinced that they have a stake in the outcome of the fall elections.
Only an incredible grassroots effort by the core political forces (working class and labor, nationally and racially oppressed people, women, youth, seniors, immigrants), and other social movements will turn back rightwing extremism and increase the Democratic majority in both chambers in Congress. Any less than that is playing with fire.
The right wing’s minimum program is to regain the House and its maximum one is to regain the Senate as well.
Much like the last election, all hands should be on deck. Not every club has to do the same thing, but every club – bar none – has to make its imprint, however big or small, on the outcome.
No one should sit this one out. Actually, I expect the leadership and membership will respond to the bell. It’s pretty hard not to see what is at stake. We will join with the broader movement, including new formations like Organizing for America and MoveOn.
Cautionary tale 1
Hearing that the immediate challenges facing the American people are joblessness and Congressional (and state) elections this fall this some may ask, “Are we putting everything else on hold?” The answer is no, but I would add that both of these issues have to command our primary attention.
Other issues such as Afghanistan and Iraq, the military budget, the elimination of nuclear weapons, green jobs and a safety net, the environment crisis and global warning, budget deficits and national debt, the fight against racism and for equality, repeal of the draconian immigration law in Arizona, passage of comprehensive immigration reform, a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, normalization of relations with Cuba and freedom for the Cuban 5 – all of these issues and more have to be a part of the 2010 elections and the struggle against the economic crisis.
By the same token, the elections and jobs campaign have to find their way into each of these struggles. Neither the elections, nor jobs, nor anything else can be won if the battle is fought along narrow lines.
Success depends on connecting the links on the chain of struggle, while understanding that the jobs and election struggles are the two links that have to be grasped at this moment in order to move the entire chain forward.
Of decisive importance is the mobilization of people whose resumes don’t read “political activist.”
For some voter education and registration or canvassing or online support for the Harkin, Miller, and other jobs bills may be what draws them into politics.
For others, it may be participating in a Labor Day march or urging their organization to pass a resolution supporting comprehensive immigration reform.
For still others it may be organizing a town hall meeting or establishing a jobs and relief committee in their local or central labor council or volunteering to be an election captain or lobbying elected officials to reroute monies going for war to cities and states.
Finally, it may be some form of mass civil disobedience – a tactic that will resonate in current circumstances. Imagine the buzz if a group of UAW retirees sat down in a plant scheduled for closure!
In short, a fresh surge of popular, sustained, and ever wider insurgency and militancy in the neighborhood and workplace, in churches and community, on college and high school campuses, in the corridors of political power and the in the streets is a necessary condition for progressive and radical advance.
If numbers aren’t there initially, they will come as people come to understand the protracted character of this crisis and the necessity for organized action.
As for us, we will continue to be in the mix – building people’s confidence, fighting for unity, keeping strategic focus on the right wing and the corporate criminals, bringing clarity and vision to a growing audience, and staying attuned to the thinking and mood of the American people.
I say “staying attuned to the thinking and mood of the American people” because that is the point of departure as far as building broad united action is concerned. What we think and how we say it to a larger audience is important and necessary for sure. In fact, our message is needed now more than ever.
But we should not make the mistake of assuming what we think is necessarily what the American people think and are ready to fight for.
Nor should we make the mistake of thinking that what unites working people and their allies and what they are ready to fight for is a static target. What energizes people today can easily give way to something of a more radical nature tomorrow.
What’s the moral of the story?
It isn’t that socialism is around the corner; it isn’t.
Nor is it that millions are ready to vacate the Democratic Party; they aren’t.
It is that a new era is rolling out, defined by an intensification of class and people’s struggles on national and global level.
That being so, we should:
Stay tuned, stay connected, be sober minded, be flexible, be a long marcher, think dialectically, appreciate fluidity, be ready to shift gears, have the courage to lead, and build the constituency for jobs, peace, equality, political independence and socialism.
Not least, shed what is outdated, renovate, modernize, rebrand and grow the Party and online readership of People’s World, Mundo Popular, and Political Affairs!
Full speed ahead!
Cautionary tale 2
We shouldn’t pit the economic struggle against the electoral struggle. The two are organically interrelated and success in one arena will depend to no small degree on success in the other.
I have heard it said that the economic struggle is a higher form of class struggle than the struggle to resolutely dislodge the right from its political perch. To the uninitiated this sounds radical, but it is just plain wrong. Both are sides of the class struggle; they don’t compete, but complement and reinforce one another.
Since 2000 labor and its allies have said the electoral arena is the main and broadest form of the class struggle. Why? Because rightwing extremism held a tight grip on political power and its defeat would change the overall framework of struggle in ever arena – for jobs, health care, immediate relief, labor rights, comprehensive immigration reform, equality and peace.
Or to put it differently, in labor’s view the electoral arena was the key link to move the whole chain of class and democratic struggles forward.
Let me come at this from a different angle because of its crucial importance:
Right-wing extremism has never been confused about the importance of winning positions in the political structure at the federal, state and local levels. Control of critical levers of political power, it understands, position it to pursue at full speed its reactionary domestic and international policies wherever class and social confrontations occur.
There was never any doubt in the right’s mind that control over the state (governmental, courts, military and other structures) was the necessary “midwife” of globalization, neo-liberalism, financialization, and massive redistribution of income (or in Marxist talk, surplus value) to the wealthiest families and corporations. The state in the eyes of the right was not simply a lubricant for its anti-working class policies, but the main battering ram to radically change class relations in every arena of struggle – and especially at the point of production.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the right put flesh to the bone of its plan. Before unpacking their bags, Reagan and company broke the air traffic controllers’ strike. This signified a change in the role of the state as well as the terms of the class struggle. No longer was there a desire to simply readjust the social contract between labor and capital in changing conditions; its aim was to abolish it, to crush labor and strip it of any rights, to throw the working class onto the labor market, naked and defenseless.
Reagan’s camp had much the same attitude to the rights and conditions of the racially oppressed, women, youth, seniors, GLBT, disabled, and other social groupings.
To a large degree, Reagan and the right wing were successful – union membership declined, wages and benefits were lost, the manufacturing sector eroded, the industrial unions were weakened, the forward movement for racial, gender, and other forms equality was reversed.
In tandem with this domestic offensive came an equally ferocious offensive internationally. Bush and Cheney continued this offensive at hyper speed while in office, but were thankfully unsuccessful in the end.
In contrast to the right, some left people see the electoral/political arena as almost a burying ground of radical politics. It has little progressive potential in their view; it is politics lite. To entertain any sort of relationship with the Democratic Party is nearly considered heresy or, at least, something that you have to profusely apologize for.
Does this make sense?
Political subordination and cooptation are always dangers, but to turn them into a reason to participate either not at all or only half-heartedly in this arena of struggle, in which we find millions of ordinary people, is a recipe for marginalization.
I would argue that a relationship to the Democratic Party at this stage of struggle is a strategic necessity and later on probably a tactical requirement. It also isn’t at loggerheads with the struggle for political independence.
In 2008, there was no other way to defeat the right without such a relationship. The same could be said about the health care struggle.
What is more, political independence has developed within the framework of the two party system. In fact, the independent political bases of labor and others are the most important forms of political independence even though they remain within the two party orbit. If an alternative people’s party is going to emerge (and we should persuasively, not argumentatively make the case for one as we participate in existing struggles), these new independent expressions will be its basis and combine with other broad, non-sectarian forms of political independence outside the two party system.
The state in our society is a capitalist state, but it doesn’t follow that the state is like the plague, to be avoided at all costs – or like a gigantic rock – immovable. The capitalist state and capitalism are monsters, but not necessarily rigid monsters.
Properly organized and united, the working class and people’s movement can win and utilize positions in the government and state apparatus to bend public policy, institutions and agencies to the advantage of working people and their allies and create the conditions for more radical changes.
Engels wrote in the autumn of this life:
“With this successful utilization of universal suffrage … an entirely new method of proletarian struggle came into operation … It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organized, offer the working class still further levers to fight these very state institutions. The workers took part in elections to particular diets, to municipal councils and to trades courts; they contested with the bourgeoisie every post in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had a say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.”
Note that Engels doesn’t allow the class form to conceal the political possibilities of participation in the “bourgeois” electoral arena and political structures in capitalist society. Nor should anyone think that he is pitting electoral activity against “rebellion.” In his view, the main thing is that both be mass in character.
This ends my cautionary tale, but before moving on, I should repeat in order to avoid any misunderstanding. Forms of class struggle interact and mutually reinforce one another. And at this moment our twin task is to dig into the fall elections and the jobs struggle, especially at the local level.
To the grassroots!
Beware of the new racist counteroffensive
Many people say that racism is simply an attitude or a prejudice of one people toward another people. That allowed Republican senators, during Sonia Sotomayor’s Senate confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court, to make the ludicrous claim that she was a racist.
Racism is actually a historically developed set of practices, institutions, and beliefs that systematically subordinates racially oppressed people to an inferior status in every area of life, while at the same time, creates a major fault line of division and disunity within the community of working people and between the working class and its allies. In doing so, racism undermines democracy and social solidarity, corrodes the living conditions of the entire working class, and saps the strength of the working class and its allies.
Its genesis lies in the practical economic and political requirements of the interwoven systems of predatory colonialism, slavery, annexation, and nascent capitalism in the “new world” centuries ago.
These systems of exploitation in the Americas needed not only an unlimited supply of unpaid or underpaid labor to work in the seized mines and fields, but also a system of rationalization – racist ideology and a corresponding set of institutions – to legitimize and naturalize its theft of lands and resources, the unparalleled subjugation of tens of millions, and genocide on a nearly unimaginable scale.
Slavery and other forms of subjugation were eventually eliminated, but after a short burst of freedom, were replaced by new forms of racist and class oppression.
In the South, the old slaveowners and their reactionary coalition, defeated decisively on the battlefield, was able after a brief retreat to regroup. It seized political power, and then constructed with the use of nearly unimaginable forms of coercion, both public and private, a new system of racial oppression, ostracism, exploitation and political economy, popularly called Jim Crow.
In the Southwest and West, the forms of oppression and exploitation of Mexican, Asian, and Pacific Islander people, mutated too, but discriminated labor, extra exploitation and national and racial oppression continued.
As for the Native American Indian peoples, their racist subjugation continued on reservations as well as in urban settings where many were moving.
In other regions of the country, the forms of racist discrimination and oppression changed, adjusting to the new stage of development of U.S. capitalism in the 20th century and intensity of class and people’s struggles.
Only in the sixties did the modern civil rights movement and other struggles for equality upended most of these “legal” forms and structures of racism, discrimination. But, as Martin Luther King said more than once, racism and national oppression, though not legally sanctioned, persisted in old and new forms in urban and rural settings.
Moreover, in recent decades racism has worsened in some ways, under the weight of crisis tendencies of a globalizing capitalism, the unraveling of the New Deal coalition, and the rise of the extreme right and finance capital.
Seen through this lens, Barack Obama’s stunning victory, as significant and as promising as it is, doesn’t eliminate in one fell swoop the structures and institutions on which racist oppression and ideology rest in the early 21st century.
Nor does it mark a withdrawal from political life by the forces of reaction and racism. Proclamations of a post-racial era are exceedingly premature.
In fact, the election of the nation’s first African American president has triggered a new racist counteroffensive in much the same way as the North’s victory in the Civil War set into motion a racist and restorationist counteroffensive by the former slaveholders and their allies.
The new racist counteroffensive, much like the earlier one, hopes to turn the clock back as well. It not only aims to strip away the popular support for the first African American president in ways that are both coded and crude (witness the use of the “n” word by tea party activists when Congress member John Lewis passed by them on his way to the capitol building – not to mention the “f” word upon seeing Lewis’ colleague Barney Frank), but it also hopes to make invisible the democratic, class, and human bonds shared by tens of millions of American people, and trigger racial fissures in the coalition that elected the president. And in so doing, restore the power of rightwing extremism to power in 2012.
My guess is that the Republican Party, which has turned into an instrument of unabashed racism – not to mention militarist, obstructionist, anti-working class, anti-immigrant, anti-women, homophobic, anti-democratic, anti-scientific, and so forth, will not be successful. But only if its racist barrage runs into a powerful anti-racist response coming not only from people of color, but also from the white majority and white workers.
To no small degree, the success of this anti-racist struggle depends on the ability of white people to understand that racism not only impacts the dignity and life prospects of people of color (native born and immigrants), but also cuts against the material and moral wellbeing of white people. Nothing is so immobilizing of united action and so corrosive of democracy and social progress as the poison and practice of racism. If unchallenged, it could lead to disaster, to a much uglier version of the Bush-Cheney administration. That should be a sobering thought and a wake-up call for the people’s movement.
To say that the Republican Party is the party of extreme reaction and racism is not to say that the Democratic Party is a consistent anti-racist force or ready to challenge the corporate power and capitalism in a basic way – far from it. But that shouldn’t obscure the differences between them that are of great import at a strategic and tactical level.
Unite and fight!
The Obama administration
President Obama is variously described as a Wall Street politician, a centrist, a Clintonian, a liberal, a progressive, and a “small d” democrat. He probably fits each category depending on circumstances, but I don’t think he consistently and completely embraces any of them.
Enclosing him in a narrowly defined, tightly sealed political category – as many on the left and right do – is a mistake. His personal and political formation suggests that any political category that isn’t contradictory and elastic will be of limited value.
It also goes in the direction of pitting the president against the working class and people. That the right does it is no surprise, but when left and progressive people do it, it is wrong strategically and extremely harmful politically.
To say that we support the president when he takes good positions and oppose him when he takes bad positions is sound advice as far as it goes.
But our attitude to the administration has to be more nuanced. It has to take into account that the success of this presidency is of great importance to racial and class relations, to the country’s future.
Let’s be blunt: there is no progressive alternative. If the president loses in 2012, we will lose too, and the country will once again be in the hands of rightwing extremism. There is no option to the left of President Obama.
Furthermore, this administration isn’t the main obstacle to social progress. It’s the right wing and the corporate class and their political representatives who either attempt to block reforms of any kind or contain them within acceptable limits to capital.
In my view, the president will change with changing circumstances, much like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Johnson.
When the rightwing AFL-CIO president announced the first Solidarity Day in 1981, we didn’t say, “About time, you bum.” To the contrary, we enthusiastically welcomed Kirkland’s announcement and mobilized broadly. Our approach to the president should be much the same.
Where we have differences with President Obama, we should state them (and we have) in a clear, constructive and unifying way. We shouldn’t do it to score points or show off our left credentials.
The main organizations of the working class and people do much the same. They don’t treat the president (or Democratic Party leaders) as an intransigent enemy. In fact, they consider him a friend and are mindful of the unrelenting attack rightwing extremists are conducting against our nation’s first African American president as well as the broader opposition – corporate, military, judicial, etc. – to his agenda.
The left has something to learn from their approach. To simply say, as some on the left do, that our main task is to bring pressure and non-negotiable demands on this administration sounds good and certainly has a militant ring. But it is simplistic and undialectical in the sense that it is blind to the mix of conflicting forces that have a hand in determining the political direction of the country.
In my view, President Obama is a reformer – not a socialist reformer, not a radical reformer, and not even a consistent anti-corporate reformer – but a reformer nonetheless, whose agenda creates space for the broader people’s movement to deepen and extend the reform process in a non-revolutionary period.
Unfortunately, the broad coalition supporting reform is not yet of sufficient size, strength and understanding to guarantee passage of his reform agenda – let alone impress its political will on the nation’s politics and stretch the president’s agenda in a radical direction.
For this reason alone, it is premature to say what the president’s political limits are, or to put it differently, to smugly dismiss him as a “Clintonian” Democrat, as simply another Democratic Party centrist.
When our movement is on the level of the popular upsurge of the 1930s and 1960s, we will be in a better position to say if his views are elastic enough to accommodate more deep-going change, as Roosevelt and Johnson did.
There will be differences and tensions with the White House as we go forward. In some cases, the differences will surface over the pace and depth of reform; in other instances, they will be more fundamental. How we navigate these differences while maintaining strategic unity is the needle that the broader movement and the left must skillfully thread.
Hurling abuse at the president or the Democrats in Congress is easy, but it doesn’t solve a very complicated problem – the further building of a broad labor-led, multiclass movement that has the capacity to decisively defeat the right and resolve the hard-edged crisis faced by the working class, people of color, women, youth, seniors, small and medium business people, sections of industrial capital, and others.
A reform-minded president – and certainly one who has transformative ambitions – is only successful to the degree that a mass and militant insurgency is part of the political mix.
Unity and struggle
The economic crisis is nearly two years old. I like to call it the Second Great Contraction, to borrow a term from a mainstream economist, to distinguish it from other postwar economic downturns.
Notwithstanding the “good” reports on GDP, employment and personal consumption growth, there is plenty of reason to be uneasy about the economy.
Investment is sluggish, trillions of dollars in real and fictitious capital have disappeared and will not return, and exploitation increases and wages fall. The housing crisis has eased a bit, but the foreclosure rate and the number of houses underwater are still enormous. Consumer spending remains low as households begin to work off their debt. State and local government spending is declining, even though it should be increasing to counter downward economic pressures. Income inequality is worsening, debt levels remain enormous, manufacturing is limping along; export growth is weak and poverty is ratcheting up, particularly in the racially oppressed communities and among single moms.
And no one should expect China to become a buyer of last resort in global markets.
The one indicator that shows some rebound is – you guessed it – corporate profits, especially in the financial sector. With no shame, management committees at the biggest financial institutions are awarding themselves a huge payout in salary and bonuses. Just when you thought the criminals on Wall Street might lie low, they come out in the open and flaunt their new wealth with supreme arrogance.
By most standards, the recovery falls somewhere between modest and stalled. To say the economy is getting back on its feet is to look at the economic indicators selectively.
Many mainstream economists fail to appreciate that the Second Great Contraction is different in its origins, magnitude and resistance to quick fixes, compared to earlier crises.
If history is any guide, the return to normality following a crisis of this kind will be slow. And still within the realm of possibility is not only a new downturn – a double dip, as it is called.
Furthermore, because of the hyper-connectivity of global markets, the power of bondholders/finance capital, the socialization by taxpayers of losses of “too big to fail financial institutions,” and the buildup of external and internal debt in most countries prior to and after the crisis, one can’t rule out a financial crisis breaking out in one or a few countries and potentially spreading worldwide.
Capitalism, says David Harvey, doesn’t resolve crises so much as it moves them around.
So far the financial crisis has been contained here, but no one should sleep soundly. The notion that it “can’t happen here” has been pulverized by events.
Even if it is contained, the mushrooming of debt is becoming the new instrument to bludgeon working people worldwide, as is evident in Greece. “Tighten your belt and rein in your expectations” are the new clarion calls of deficit hawks worldwide. As if it didn’t get enough, the investor/finance class wants more surplus value from the working class and people in the form of lower living standards and fewer social benefits.
Here there is talk of social security and Medicare reform. And the current budget gives the green light to discretionary spending cuts. What is missing in the dialogue is any talk of a deep going change in the tax structure, reductions in the military budget, and a debt moratorium for ordinary Americans and state and local government.
As long as this out of the conversation, the solution to indebtedness will fall on working people and the poor.
To make matters worse, the endless talk of fiscal responsibility conceals the underlying causes of the crisis: income inequality, the rise of finance and financial liberalization, the hollowing-out of the manufacturing sector, the undermining of working-class power, the entry of new competitors in the global economy, and chronic overproduction in world commodity markets.
No solution to the nation’s economic and financial woes that doesn’t address these fundamental causes of the dire economic situation stands “a snowball’s chance in hell” of succeeding.
Another world is necessary!
From the standpoint of the top layers of financial institutions – Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo – the current legislative struggle over financial regulation is but one battle, albeit a crucial one, in an ongoing struggle to fully restore themselves to the preeminent position they occupied in the global economy for the past three decades.
After sitting at the pinnacle of power, seeing their wealth multiply exponentially, and shaping the dynamics and contours of the world economy, they are not about to easily yield – or even slightly diminish – their power and privileged position.
Call the financial czars here and elsewhere whatever you like, but they are well aware of their class interests. What is more, they are mindful that the New Deal hemmed them in for roughly four decades. Admittedly none of them starved, but neither did they enjoy the nearly unchallenged political and economic sway as they have in recent decades.
If finance capital is able to reconstitute its power, the prospects of working people here and elsewhere are bleak. If, on the other hand, its power is progressively curbed, as it can be in the course of successive and contentious struggles, the future of the multiracial working class and its allies is far brighter.
Tough regulation and reduction in bank size are critical, but not enough.
In a larger sense the struggle is to change the whole social structure of governance and process of accumulation. For more than three decades, the main contours, dynamics and interrelations of the U.S. economy were shaped by finance capital and an exploding and nearly autonomous financial sector.
In previous periods of capitalist development, financial bubbles occurred at the peak of the business cycle. Today, however, financial bubbles are better seen “as manifestations of a longer-term process of financialization, feeding on stagnation rather than prosperity.”
In contrast to conventional wisdom, the severe erosion of the manufacturing sector was not a product of financialization, but the other way around in the early going. New conditions and contradictions – intense price competition, entry of new producers in the global marketplace, high unit labor costs in American manufacturing relative to their counterparts elsewhere, and the consequent difficulty of maintaining adequate levels of profitability in the 1970s – combined with de-regulation and a recession (engineered by the Reagan administration) to stimulate the flight of capital out of the manufacturing and other sectors of the real economy.
Most of it ended up in speculative channels, while some went to plant relocation in countries abroad where costs were cheaper. The center of economic gravity shifted from industry to finance and over time the wheels of financialization, greased by both parties, brought the country to ruin, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression.
Much of what is now taking place in the political arena is driven by the battle to reconstitute the economy and along what lines – labor or capital. Or said another way, the corporations or the people.
Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed; that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor! (Abraham Lincoln)
A New New Deal
The Obama administration’s immediate challenge will be to revive the economy. The question is how? Where will economic dynamism come from in the near term? What change in political and economic structures and property relations are necessary?
Part of the answer is massive fiscal expansion, that is, large injections of money from the federal government into the is no answer to growing joblessness.
According to conventional wisdom and mainstream economists, near-full employment and healthy profit rates are the normal condition of a capitalist economy. Perhaps that was the case at an earlier stage of capitalism’s development, but not now. Indeed, one has to wonder what the long-run prospects of U.S. and world capitalism are.
The collapse of Lehman Brothers and the near meltdown of the financial system announced the death knell of capitalism, as we know it. What the future holds no one knows for sure, but it does look dim for working people if the economy is allowed to run its course.
It is hard to draw any other conclusion, given the fragility of the world economy, the incredible debt that has built up worldwide, overcrowded and hypercompetitive world markets, the emergence of the Asian tigers and now the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and particularly China, the entry of hundreds of millions of people into the workforce, and the resistance of many sections of the capitalist class to structural economic change.
No chains shall bind us!
New model of economic governance
What is needed is a new model of political-economic governance at the state and corporate level that favors working people, the racially and nationally oppressed, women, youth, seniors, small business people and other social groupings.
This new model of governance won’t be socialist, but like the New Deal, it would make substantial inroads into corporate power, profits and prerogatives; democratize state and quasi-state structures like the Federal Reserve; give communities, workers and small businesspeople a say in corporate decision-making, encourage small and medium size businesses and new forms of social property such as cooperatives; place energy, finance and transportation in the public domain; demilitarize and green the economy; deepen and extend equality, and reconfigure our government and nation’s role in world affairs.
Furthermore, militarism and militarization of the economy are incompatible to a peaceful world and a people friendly economy.
Yes terrorism is a problem, but projecting U.S. military power overseas and frightening the American people is no solution; its solution requires police action, intelligence sharing, and a more just world.
In any event, class and democratic struggles over the direction of the economy will intensify and will be resolved ultimately in the political arena. These struggles and capitalism’s growing incompatibility with human aspirations and the future of the planet will reveal the new necessity of socialism, to which I now briefly turn.
A new era of struggle!
Socialism has its material roots in the inability of capitalism to solve humanity’s problems. Working people gravitate toward a radical critique of society out of necessity, out of a sense that the existing arrangements of society fail to fulfill their material and spiritual needs.
Thus, the gravitation towards socialism expressed in public opinion polls is closely connected to the end of an era in which U.S. capitalism was relatively stable and provided reasonable economic security.
Economic crises alone, however, do not prepare the soil for revolutionary change, though they’re important. The soil is prepared via the cumulative impact of a series of crises (economic, political, social, cultural, and moral) taking place over time that together erode people’s confidence in capitalism’s capacity to meet humanity’s needs and sustain life on our planet.
Our vision of socialism is a work in progress.
At the end of his life, Engels wrote, “To my mind, the ‘so called socialist society’ is not anything immutable. Like all social formations, it should be conceived in a state of flux and change.”
We should take this to heart. Our socialist vision should have a contemporary and dynamic feel; it should be rooted in today’s conditions and experience. It should be brought in line with current realities, trends, and sensibilities. It should reflect our values, traditions, and culture. It should be multi-racial, multi-national, and multi-lingual. It should welcome immigrants.
If it has an “old or foreign” feel, people will reject it.
In the 20th century the Soviet Union became the universal model of socialism. This universalization came at a price – it narrowed down our ability to think creatively and “outside the box.”
The transition to socialism will mark an end to one stage of struggle and the beginning of a new one, distinguished a qualitative expansion and deepening of economic security, working class and people’s democracy, egalitarian relations in every sphere of life, and human freedom in both a collective and individual sense.
I don’t frame the matter in this way to replace the more traditional notion, in which the transition to socialism is distinguished by a revolutionary shift of class power from the capitalist class to the working class and democratic movement. What I want to do is to correct one-sidedness in our thinking.
A transfer in class power – which will more likely be a series of contested moments during which qualitative changes in power relations in favor of the working class and its allies take place rather than “the great revolutionary/to the barricades day” — is absolutely necessary, but it is not a sufficient condition for a successful transition to and consolidation of socialism.
In fact, a singular emphasis on the question of class power (a means), at the expense of social processes and social aims (economic improvement in people’s lives, working class and people’s democracy, rough equality, and freedom and solidarity), can lead — did lead — to distortions in socialist societies.
Socialism fully develops only to the degree that working people are empowered and participate in every aspect of society. Working class initiative, a sense of real ownership of social property, and a democratic and participatory socialist state are foundational aspects of socialism.
“… socialism cannot be reduced to economics alone. A foundation – socialist production – is essential for the abolition of national oppression (in our context racial and national oppression), but this foundation must also carry a democratically organized state, a democratic army, etc. By transforming capitalism into socialism the proletariat (working class — SW) creates the possibility of abolishing national oppression; the possibility becomes reality “only” — “only!” — with the establishment of full democracy in all spheres.”
Note the weight that Lenin attaches to democracy and working class initiative. Do we share his view? To a degree, but I would argue that re-centering working class and people’s initiative, democracy, and needs at the core of our socialist vision is a necessary corrective.
While the political leadership of communist, socialist and left parties and social movements is indispensible, in the past, our understanding of our leading role came close to substituting ourselves for the wide-ranging participation and leadership of masses of people and for a vibrant public space in which these same people gather, compare ideas, and take action.
The struggle for socialism will bring a broad and diverse coalition with varied outlooks and interests into motion. And while we fight for the leadership of the multi-racial, multi-national working class in this coalition and for its deep imprint on the political process, we also combine that with the search for broad strategic and tactical alliances. At times this dual task will cause tensions, sometimes strongly felt ones, but the resolution of these tensions is condition for radical change.
Finally, the socialist economy of the 21st century should give priority to sustainability, not growth without limits. Socialist production can’t be narrowly focused on inputs and outputs, nor should purely quantitative criteria be used to measure efficiency and determine economic costs. New socialist production (and consumption) models are imperative. Both must economize on natural resources and protect the planet and its various ecological systems. The future of living things that inhabit this earth will depend on it.
Defend and take care of Mother Earth!
That said, we cannot wait for socialism to address the dangers of climate change and environmental degradation. That must be done now. We are approaching tipping points that if reached will give global warming a momentum that human actions will have little or no control over.
The planet is now warmer than it has been since the end of the last glacial age roughly 12,000 years ago, and if this pattern continues it will result in catastrophe for humanity. Both governments and peoples must take emergency measures now or the planet’s future is in doubt. It is easy to make a case that climate change is the preeminent challenge to humankind in the 21st century.
Global warming is not new. In 1750, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the main cause of the rise in global temperatures – measured 280 molecules of carbon dioxide for every one million molecules in the air. Today, it is 387 parts per million (ppm), largely because of industrialization, urbanization and consumerism – all of which were cradled and shaped by capitalism.
The quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increased gradually since 1750, but it spiked upward in recent decades as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases poured into the atmosphere at a feverish pace as a result of “human forcing,” which are human activities that “affect the energy balance and temperature of the Earth,” as opposed to natural forcing (volcanoes, change in the sun’s radiation, etc,)
At one time the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) believed that carbon dioxide could rise to 450 ppm in the atmosphere (roughly increasing average global temperature by 2 degrees Celsius) without doing significant harm. New research suggests that this is far too optimistic. A rise of carbon dioxide to 350 ppm in the atmosphere brings us into the danger zone. But, as mentioned, we are already at 387 ppm.
The old calculation failed to take account of amplifying feedback factors. An increase in the earth’s temperature, for example, causes the melting of ice and snow, which in turn results in less reflection of sunlight back into space and, instead, its absorption by the land and ocean and, consequently a further rise in the average global temperature.
This new scientific finding, says climate scientist James Hansan, makes it imperative to “immediately recognize the need to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 ppm in order to avoid disasters for coming generations.”
If we continue to produce and consume as we have over decades (business as usual), the Earth will be warmer than it has been since 3 million years ago.
So what’s the big deal? The great ice sheets will melt and eventually sea levels could rise as much as 80 feet. The frozen northern tundra will thaw and release tons of methane into the atmosphere. Whole ecological systems will collapse and species, unable to migrate or adapt to new conditions fast enough, will become extinct. Violent storms will become commonplace. Water vapor (a major cause climate change feedback) will increase. And more.
At some point, human intervention will be unable to slow down and stop this process. Obviously civilization as we know it will change drastically.
While responsibility rests on every nation, for each contributes to the planet’s warning, it doesn’t rest equally. The main polluters of the atmosphere as well as the land and water are the core capitalist countries.
China issues more carbon into the atmosphere now in absolute numbers. But when measured on a per capita basis the United States is still the main culprit.
Moreover, when considered as a cumulative process (which most people fail to consider) over nearly three centuries, the leading polluters are the United Kingdom and the United States.
These findings argue for an accelerated transition to new energy sources and sustainable development. We could begin with an immediate carbon tax that would penalize those with the largest carbon footprint – big corporations – while also making a case for the elimination of coal production and expansion of alternative energy sources.
More fundamentally, global warming and the various forms of environmental degradation are a compelling argument for the new urgency of socialism – a society that privileges people and nature.
This concludes my report. As you can see it doesn’t answer every question, but I do hope that it does provide a framework for our convention discussion and decisions.
Now the ball is in your court and I’m confident that you will run with it as you have done in the past.
I’m sure by Sunday we will be full of energy to rejoin the battle and full of optimism that another world is possible.
I will end with a few prophetic words by late Studs Terkel, the unparalleled story teller of working class life, that capture the mood of the American people and the possibilities of this moment:
“There are signs, unmistakable, of an astonishing increase in the airing of grievances: of private wrongs and public rights … A long buried American tradition may be springing back to life. In a society and time with changes so stunning and landscapes so suddenly estranged, the last communiqués are not yet in.”
Sí Se Puede!
Yes We Can!
We Shall Overcome!
A People United Will Never Be Defeated!
Note: I want to thank the National Board members, many members of National Committee, and the many participants in the pre-convention discussion for your thoughts and contributions.