Enjoying what deejays call heavy rotation, Bob Wing’s article on “Rightwing Neo-Secession or a Third Reconstruction?” has not only popped up on ZNet and Counterpunch, but even unsolicited in my mailbox at Columbia University, a receptacle generally for notifications on overdue books from the library and the usual spam with “My Beloved” in the subject heading. If I had to rate my mail by interest, I am not sure where Wing’s article would end up. I have been getting arguments from my Marxist brethren about the need to elect Democrats since 1967 and doubt that anything new could come along. After reading Wing’s article, I am glad that I stubbed my big toe on it since it raises some interesting questions about what the original Reconstruction meant and why Wing’s call for a “Third Reconstruction” is so, so wrong.
Before dealing with the substance of Wing’s article, some historical background might be useful for young people coming around Marxism that would help explain a seeming paradox—why someone like Wing, who can quote Marx like the devil quotes scripture—would make the case for electing candidates from a party that was totally committed to slavery in the 19th century. If anything, the open-and-shut case against the Democrats was made in the 1840s.
Wing was a leader of something called Line of March (LofM), a Marxist-Leninist sect that was part of the “New Communist” movement in the 70s and 80s. Unlike most of the groups that identified as Maoist, LofM was fixated on the early CP as a model. In a somewhat vain hope of spawning a party after this fashion, LofM focused on the shortcomings of the CP in its newspaper reminiscent of the CPGB’s fixation on the SWP in Britain.
The main leader of LofM was Irwin Silber who died in 2010. He used to review films for the Guardian, an American radical newsweekly. His approach was to “expose” Hollywood movies for racism, sexism, imperialism and the like. My approach is somewhat different. I generally avoid Hollywood and am mainly interested in drawing my readers’ attention to documentaries and independent films that get short shrift in the bourgeois press. By the 1990s Silber had become pessimistic about socialist revolution. He wrote a book titled “Socialism—What Went Wrong” that concluded Lenin was wrong. Capitalism continued to be a dynamic system and socialists had to learn to live with that fact. I recommend Reihana Mohideen’s article “Has capitalism won? A reply to Irwin Silber” that appeared in the April 12, 1995 Greenleft Weekly. (http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/9497)
I first ran into LofM when I was a member of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) in the early 80s. They and the Communist Workers Party were the only left groups who worked in CISPES. The CWP, a Maoist sect, was best known for its disastrous confrontation with the KKK in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979 that left five of their members dead. They had made the mistake of choosing to utilize armed self-defense as a tactic rather than building a mass movement against Klan terror.
In 1984 the CWP, LofM and the CISPES leadership decided to support the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign. For Marxists coming out of the CWP and LofM tradition, voting for Democrats is a tactical question. If there was ever any tactical motivation for voting for a Democrat, Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition might meet all qualifications. Many people, including me, hoped that the Rainbow Coalition could develop into a third party but Jackson was too much of a careerist to make the kinds of tough choices Ralph Nader made. One year after the end of the Jackson campaign, the CWP dissolved itself with a number of its members finding a home in the Democratic Party, including Ron Ashford, a very capable African-American who represented the CWP in CISPES. Today Ashford is a HUD bureaucrat.
The Line of March dissolved in 1989 with some of their former members deciding to work with Peter Camejo on a magazine called Crossroads. When it finally stopped publishing in 1996, the magazine reflected on its experience:
On the ISES Board [that published Crossroads], members of the Communist Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and smaller groups from the Maoist and Trotskyist traditions worked alongside ‘independents’ and former members of Line of March and North Star–not in a tactical, single-issue coalition or in organizing a one-shot conference, but on a common, ongoing socialist project. This was almost unprecedented on the U.S. left, and was decisive in institutionalizing CrossRoads non- sectarian character. Even further, the interaction between once-warring activists proved to be substantive, democratic and exciting. People found it politically and intellectually stimulating to get to know one another and tear down previously insurmountable barriers.
Bob Wing was a member of the ISES board and probably had a major role in the editorial policy of Crossroads. In keeping with the erstwhile attraction LofM members had to the CPUSA, Wing was solidly behind the formation of the Committees of Correspondence in 1992, a Eurocommunist split from the CP. Peter Camejo, who was probably adapting somewhat to the views of the ex-LofM’ers he worked with on Crossroads, joined the CofC and, if I remember correctly, backed the Jackson campaign. I was still not ready to vote for Jackson but did join the CofC. After going to one of their meetings, I resigned. It was filled with people, mostly in their sixties, getting up and talking about the work they were doing in their Democratic Party club. Camejo quit not long afterwards, writing a sharp rebuke of their orientation to the DP. I will try to find that article one of these days.
At the time of Crossroad magazine’s demise, I wrote an appraisal that I think holds up pretty well:
A closely related question is why the 1996 convention of the Committees of Correspondence drew only 300 people. The two events are symptomatic of the same process, and that process is the exhaustion of “regroupment”. While regroupment was necessary, it could not by itself fuel a new revivified left. In CrossRoads’ view, the warning signs had been apparent for some time:
Less tangible but more important were the limits that soon became evident in the broader left dialogue process. The interaction between activists from different traditions produced a certain energy by its very novelty, and many harmful stereotypes were laid to rest. But soon the excitement of getting-to-know-each-other sessions passed. Beyond consensus on a few generalities–democracy, non-sectarianism, etc.– little was produced in the way of strategic unity or theoretical insight into a new model of socialism. Better ties between activists were built, but the ‘socialist regroupment’ current was unable to generate sufficient momentum to conduct large-scale campaigns or undertake any major cross-tendency realignment. A noticeable ‘generation gap’– few under-30 activists were attracted to socialist renewal efforts– began to registered as a serious problem.
I concur with these observations and want to amplify on them, as well as draw out some other ideas on what the problem may be and what solutions are possible.
To begin with, it is a mistake to think that any single organization can be the vehicle for a new resurgence of the left. Not only does C. of C. suffer from this illusion, so does Solidarity. While neither, to their credit, sees themselves as a “nucleus of a vanguard”, both have trouble seeing a new Marxist left emerging outside of their own framework.
In the case of the C. of C., there are obvious reasons for this. To a very large extent, the C. of C. exists as spin-off from the CPUSA. Much of the functioning and attitudes of key leaders is identical to what they picked up in decades of experience in the CPUSA. I attended one C. of C. meeting over a year ago and was struck by how “routine” things seemed. All of the behavior and discussion suggested to me that most of these people had known and worked with each other for decades. Alas, this was probably true. When one old-timer got up during a discussion period and suggested that the C. of C. follow the example of the CP of Japan, which had cleaned the streets of working-class neighborhoods, I knew we were in troubled waters.
The plain fact of the matter is that newly radicalizing youth are likely to be put off by a meeting with such a character. Why would you want to join an organization whose culture and internal life seem so rigid and one-dimensional?
Turning now to Wing’s article, it likens the differences between the Republicans and Democrats to those that existed in the time of Lincoln but with a complete role reversal. In 1860 the Democrats were the pro-slavery party and the Republicans would eventually become the abolitionist party under the pressures of the battlefield. He writes:
The main precedent in U.S. history for this kind of unbridled reactionary behavior was the states rights, pro-slavery position of the white South leading up to the Civil War. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called out the attempts at nullification in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” and the movement of the sixties defeated it. As shown in the ultra-conservative playground that is the North Carolina legislature, the new laws and structures of today´s rightwing program are so extreme and in such stark contrast to the rest of the country that I believe both their strategy and their program should be called “Neo-Secession.”
Does anybody believe that the white South is a secessionist threat today? Frankly, this sounds like a variation on the “fascist threat” rhetoric that has been deployed since the Goldwater campaign in 1964 to stampede voters into backing Democrats. The danger of secession is less than zero. There is a simple reason for this, one that does not enter Wing’s calculations. There are no class differences between the ruling class in North Carolina and New York. As Malcolm X once said, everything south of Canada is the South. In 1860 the South seceded because it wanted to preserve chattel slavery. What mode of production exists today in the South that needs to be preserved against Northern designs? Wal-Mart? The oil companies in Louisiana whose toxic dumping has been protected against regulations by Democrats and Republicans alike for most of the last century? The big three auto plants located in the South that cut deals with the UAW to create a two-tier labor system? And what about the crackdown on undocumented workers, a form of racial oppression just one step above peonage? What hope should we pin on electing Democrats when the President of the United States deported 409,849 immigrants in 2012, breaking all records under the evil Republican administration of George W. Bush.
As a sign of an utter lack of political discretion, Wing cites Melissa Harris-Perry’s call for “a Third Reconstruction that builds on the post-Civil War first Reconstruction and the Civil Rights/Second Reconstruction.” (In Harris-Perry’s schema, the second Reconstruction was the civil rights movement of the 60s that ended Jim Crow.)
If you have access to Nexis, as I do, you can find the source of Harris-Perry’s quote above, an MSNBC show from July 7, 2013 that encapsulates everything that is wrong with her way of thinking. The show originated from the Essence Festival in her native New Orleans. She spoke about some of the sponsors:
On this show, we spent a lot of time scrubbing with big corporation over their treatment of their workers and their consumers.
Coca-cola has tried to escape blame in its roll for the obesity epidemic. Workers for McDonald`s and in other fast-food chains have gone on strike in multiple cities this year to demand better pay. And then there is Walmart with its everyday low wages.
But credit where credit is due. All three of those companies, no matter how evil their policies maybe are here at the essence festival, putting in their time and making the effort to connect with the African-American community.
What Harris-Perry left out was that all three of these corporations were in favor of the Voter ID laws that Wing singled out as a prime neo-secessionist danger. They only backed off after consumer boycotts were threatened. But more to the point, how can anybody deny the reality that the Democrats, the ostensible salvation of the South, have had an incestuous relationship to these corporations for many years now? Deval Patrick is a Coca-Cola board member. Bill Clinton relied heavily on the Waltons for campaign contributions. Meanwhile, McDonald’s has gone one step further and named an African-American as its CEO in July 2012. Walmart and Coca-Cola have corporate headquarters in the South. Does anybody in their right mind think that the Northern bourgeoisie has class interests opposed to those in the South? Frankly, does it really matter to Bob Wing who sees politics as some kind of battle between “reactionaries” and “progressives”, as if what people think is the main cause of racial oppression in the U.S.
I also find Wing’s take on the New Deal outrageous, with its ostensible distinction between FDR and racists. Is he kidding? He describes Southern racists as having “survived” the New Deal, as if they were trees confronting a forest fire. He also says “Since the Nixon and especially the Reagan administrations, the rightwing has sought to rout both the New Deal and the Civil Rights reconstruction, and replace it with an updated version of racism and reaction.”
Maybe I have my facts wrong but the Southern Democrats were a solid base of the New Deal. Racism did not have to “survive” the New Deal. Indeed, it flourished under Roosevelt.
Back in September 2008, I dealt with FDR and racism and invite you to read the article that includes these facts:
To begin with, the political reality of the Democratic Party is that it catered to the racist wing of the party based in Dixie. Roosevelt felt it imperative to retain the support of politicians like Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, an open white supremacist who proposed an amendment to the federal work-relief bill on June 6, 1938 that would deport 12 million black Americans to Liberia at federal expense to relieve unemployment.
While most people are familiar with Roosevelt naming Hugo Black, a former Klan member, to the Supreme Court, there was just as much insensitivity involved with naming James F. Byrnes, a South Carolina politician, to the same post. Byrnes once said “This is a white man’s country, and will always remain a white man’s country” and most assuredly meant it.
If you are worried about neo-secessionism, you’d better stop kidding yourself that FDR was a “friend of the Negro”.
I do think it is useful to analogize from secessionist the Civil War, and Reconstruction but not in the manner found in Wing’s article. Today the question that confronts the left is not chattel slavery but wage slavery. In Lincoln’s day, there was a Democratic Party and a Whig Party that both supported slavery. There were some Whigs who opposed slavery but not so much so as to bolt from the party. In some ways the far left of the Democratic Party were like the anti-slavery Whigs. But it took independent political action in the form of the Free Soil Party to begin to set in motion the forces that would eventually become the Republican Party, a revolutionary party in terms of its challenge to the backward agrarian wing of the capitalist class in the South.
Our goal today is to create equivalents of the Free Soil Party but along the lines of the Nader campaign, the Greens or any other initiative that refuses to compromise with the two-party system. In 1959 Carlos Fonseca joined a guerrilla group in Nicaragua because the two-party system there had excluded the possibility of reforming the system. In taking such a chance, he risked death.
In the U.S., opposing the two-party system will not get you killed but it will earn you the scorn of people who are committed to piecemeal reform, especially those who enjoy a good living working for a nonprofit funded by some liberal hedge fund manager or real estate magnate. With hundreds of millions of dollars devoted each year to magazines and newspapers that routinely include articles dismissing socialists as hopelessly Quixotic, it is a miracle that any of us keep tilting at windmills. I guess the fact that we are dealing with real horrors rather than imaginary ones is what keeps us going.