On March 25, 2008 Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Barbara Ehrenreich, and Danny Glover issued a statement launching “Progressives for Obama” that included a number of endorsers with impeccable Marxist credentials such as Robin D.G. Kelly, Immanuel Wallerstein and Francis Fox Piven. Meanwhile Bill Fletcher Jr. was a one-time member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a “New Communist Movement” (NCM) group that survived the 1980s implosion of Maoism described by Max Elbaum in “Revolution in the Air”. For most NCM groups, working in the Democratic Party was a tactic while for their Trotskyist adversaries it was rank class-collaborationism. Since the inspiration for the New Communist Movement was the “heroic” CPUSA of the 1930s and 40s, it was natural for them to keep an open mind about the Democrats even if the CPUSA itself was widely dismissed as “revisionist”.
The statement put forward the notion that pressure applied from below would work to move Obama to the left in much the same way that CIO activism in the 1930s acted on FDR:
However, the fact that Barack Obama openly defines himself as a centrist invites the formation of this progressive force within his coalition. Anything less could allow his eventual drift towards the right as the general election approaches. It was the industrial strikes and radical organizers in the 1930s who pushed Roosevelt to support the New Deal.
Maybe Obama himself bought into this formula since he put the burden of change on the grass roots in his 2012 speech to the Democratic Party convention:
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.
So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change…
If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible…well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.
Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.
Immune to Obama’s charisma from the get-go, the NY Times’s Maureen Dowd had little use for the “you were the change” nonsense:
We were the change!
We were the change? Us?
How on earth could we have let so much of what we fought for slip away? How did we allow Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, the super PACs, the Tea Party, the lobbyists and the special interests take away our voice?
“Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen,” the president chastised us. “Only you have the power to move us forward.”
We’re so lame. We were naïve, brimming with confidence that we could slow the rise of the oceans, heal the planet, fix the cracks in the Capitol dome.
After four years of White House catering to Wall Street banksters, Guantanamo, drone attacks on civilians, death lists that include American citizens, unparalleled deportations, and generally what looks like George W. Bush’s third term, selling Obama 2012 is about as daunting a prospect as opening a pork store in a Hasidic neighborhood.
As an eager albeit clumsy propagandist for the Democratic Party, Tom Hayden stepped into the breach with a challenge to Obama-haters everywhere: support the sleazy incumbent or be found guilty of “white blindness”.
Why Obama’s achievements are dismissed or denied by many on the white liberal-left is a question worth serious consideration. It may only be a matter of legitimate disappointment after the utopian expectations of 2008. It could be pure antipathy to electoral politics, or a superficial assessment of how near impossible it is to change intransigent institutions. It could be a vested organizational interest in asserting there is no difference between the two major parties, a view wildly at odds with the intense partisan conflicts on exhibit every day. Or it could even be a white blindness in perceptions of reality on the left. When African American voters favor Obama 94 percent to zero, and the attacks are coming from the white liberal-left, something needs repair in the foundations of American radicalism.
Tim Wise, who was one of the endorsees of the 2008 pro-Obama declaration, has a virtual monopoly on ferreting out “white blindness” so one hopes for poor Tom Hayden’s sake that Wise does not contact a good intellectual property lawyer.
Singled out as a “white blindness” miscreant is Harper Magazine editor Thomas Frank who had the temerity to conclude that Obama will never pursue a second New Deal because “that is precisely what Obama was here to prevent.” Frank, of course, is symptomatic of the wholesale disillusionment with Obama that Hayden is trying to dismiss. Like Hayden, Frank had a special place in his heart for FDR and devoted much energy and ink trying to advise Democrats how to get their mojo back. Once it became clear that Obama had no use for such advice (his chief aide, now Mayor of Chicago declaring war on the teacher’s union, dismissed anything coming out of “the professional left”), people like Thomas Frank decided that fighting back was the only thing that made sense. Tom Hayden, on the other hand, argued in the words of David Byrne that it was necessary to stop making sense.
Proceeding from the ridiculous to the not quite sublime, we consider now an article written for the excellent Jacobin Magazine by two long-time DSA members, Jason Schulman and Michael Hirsch titled “Beyond November”, which starts off on a high note and then plummets downwards at lightning speed.
Marx wrote in The Civil War in France that every few years workers got to decide which members of the ruling class were to misrepresent them. How right he was. And is. That is uncontestable.
The rest of the article amounts to a contesting of exactly what Marx wrote, an exercise in advanced dialectics I guess.
Just to cover their left flank, Hirsch and Schulman write just the sort of thing designed to raise Hayden’s dander:
The prospects of selling Obama as the preferred candidate are daunting, if worth doing at all. With his proliferation of the national security state, his refusal to put juice behind the Conyers jobs bill, his water-carrying for the insurance companies and destruction of any near-term possibility for single-payer health care, his failures on card check and other labor law reforms, his refusal to treat Wall Street as a criminal enterprise, his embrace of reactionary education philosophies, his incursive black-ops foreign policy, and his ten o’clock scholar’s embrace of gay marriage, his is an administration not to praise but to damn.
Well, hurrah for damning. Where do I sign up?
Apparently our two intrepid leftists have a bait-and-switch scheme up their sleeves because they end up finding reasons to vote Democrat, even if it falls within the category of damning with faint praise. As an unrepentant Marxist, I won’t settle for anything less than pure damning—Dante 9th circle style.
After describing 3rd party election campaigns like the Greens as being based on a “prayer” rather than a “plan”, they make the hoary case for being practical:
The Democrats as a coalition are hegemonic because they provide a service, finite as it is, that is indispensable for institutions, whether they be unions, social service providers, or community-based organizations.
The article concludes with a call for reelecting Obama—if you read between the lines:
Allowing Obama to be reelected without any critique from the Left – even one that is purely propagandistic, as the Green and Socialist parties will offer – only ratifies his centrist approach of cottoning to and co-opting the Right while neutering the Left and any possibility for substantial social gains. We can do better.
In other words, it is okay to vote for Obama just as long as you make sure to make the record that he is something of a pig.
Maybe Michael Hirsch felt constrained to deemphasize the need to actually vote for Obama in 2012—the official position of the Democratic Socialists of America, the group he has been long associated with—because Jacobin’s editors are quite a bit to the left of the DSA, even if a few are members. If you go to the DSA website, you can find a position paper on the 2012 elections that makes the “lesser evil” case quite openly even while renouncing it. That’s the art of dialectics, after all:
In light of the threat that would be posed to basic democratic rights by Republican control of all three branches of the federal government, most trade union, feminist, LGBTQ and African- American and Latino organizations will work vigorously to re-elect the president. And in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and elsewhere, many DSA members may choose to do the same. But DSA recognizes that an Obama victory, unaccompanied by the strengthening of an independent progressive coalition able to challenge the elites of both parties, will be a purely defensive engagement in lesser-evil politics.
This is the same argument I have been hearing since 1968, a year after I joined the Trotskyist movement. Ironically, I became disillusioned with the Democratic Party three years earlier, just after graduating Bard College.
I was too young to vote in 1964 but if I had been old enough I surely would have voted for Lyndon Johnson. I was not that concerned with Vietnam since it was still a very much low intensity affair but the idea of Barry Goldwater’s finger on the H-Bomb trigger scared the bejeezus out of me.
He told audiences, “Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict. They call upon the U.S. to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do. We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves. We don’t want to get . . . tied down to a land war in Asia.”
It turned out he had plans to escalate the war all along. I spent most of 1966 staring at the evening news on television trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. How could a “peace” candidate turn out to be such a warmonger?
Within a year I got educated into class politics through new members classes in the Young Socialist Alliance and particularly “Socialism on Trial”, which amounted to the court proceedings in the trial of SWP leaders in 1941 for violation of the Smith Act. James P. Cannon testified on the party’s attitude toward Roosevelt’s New Deal:
Q: What is the position of the party on the attempt of Roosevelt to improve the social system in this country?
A: How do you mean, “improve the social system”?
Q: To set capitalism into motion again, after the depression of 1929.
A: Well, all these measures of the New Deal were made possible in this country, and not possible for the poorer countries of Europe, because of the enormous accumulation of wealth in this country. But the net result of the whole New Deal experiment was simply the expenditure of billions and billions of dollars to create a fictitious stability, which in the end evaporated.
Now the Roosevelt administration is trying to accomplish the same thing by the artificial means of a war boom; that is, of an armament boom, but again, in our view, this has no possibility of permanent stability at all.
Q: With reference to the misery and suffering of the masses, what would you say as to the existence of that factor in the United States?
A: In our view, the living standards of the masses have progressively deteriorated in this country since 1929. They haven’t yet reached that stage which I mentioned as a prerequisite of an enormous upsurge of revolutionary feeling, but millions of American workers were pauperised following 1929; and that, in our opinion, is a definite sign of the development of this prerequisite for the revolution.
There’s not much that I retain from my ill-spent youth in the Trotskyist movement but I’ll take James P. Cannon over Tom Hayden’s circumlocutions and Hirsch-Schulman’s “dialectics” any day of the week. Hopes for Obama launching a new New Deal are all the more vain in light of the fact that the original was a con job to begin with. And that’s that.