Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 27, 2009

The Communist Party versus Liza Featherstone

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

Liza Featherstone speaking about Walmart at Boston College

I usually don’t pay much attention to the Communist Party USA, but a reference made by Doug Henwood (Mr. Featherstone) on his LBO-Talk mailing list to an attack by the Communist Party on the excellent journalist and human being Liza Featherstone prompted me to say a word or two, especially since the CPUSA still has a significant presence on the American left.

The article, written by John Wojcik, appears in the People’s Daily World dated 5/26 under the title “Rumor of card check’s ‘death’ is greatly exaggerated”.

Wojcik is upset with all the reports of EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act) going by the wayside under an increasingly obvious pro-corporate Obama administration and decides to attack a highly respected journalist of the left than the Obama administration itself. Wojcik writes:

One story by Liza Featherstone published May 24 on Slate’s “The Big Money” blog claims that President Obama himself has pronounced “card check” dead and said the Employee Free Choice Act didn’t have the votes to pass but that a “compromise” could work.

By compromise, the article claims, the president meant a version of the bill without card check, the provision obliging employers to recognize unions after a majority of workers have signed cards.

Featherstone claims, “On the same day, Sen. Arlen Specter, a key swing vote, said that he, too, would support a ‘compromise’ on EFCA: card-check-free, of course.”

President Obama never said anything about “card check” being “dead.” He merely indicated that work is being done on developing a compromise. The same is true of Sen. Specter.

As past masters of double-speak, the CP tries once again to obfuscate the issue by referring to a “compromise”. In essence, this “compromise” is regarded by labor officials, and the majority of opinion in the mass media, as anything but. By gutting EFCA, namely the right of workers to form a union by simply turning in a sufficient number of cards indicating that determination, the legislation falls short of what was expected.

In fact, if Wojcik had simply quoted the opening paragraph of Liza’s article, the reader would have noticed that she had accepted that a “compromise” was in the offing and properly put square quotes around the word, as it deserved:

Last Thursday, President Obama pronounced “card check” dead, saying that the current Employee Free Choice Act didn’t have the votes to pass but that a “compromise” could work. By compromise, the president meant a version of the bill without card check, the provision obliging employers to recognize unions after a majority of workers have signed cards, rather than after an election. On the same day, Sen. Arlen Specter, newly “D”-Pa., a key swing vote, said that he, too, would support a “compromise” on EFCA: card-check-free, of course.

Wojcik faults Featherstone for failing to point out that at least one Senator is still fighting the good fight. She “didn’t interview Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democratic leader who has been working to develop a compromise that keeps the bill fundamentally intact.” Once again, we are dealing with that finely honed talent for double-speak that characterizes Communist journalism in the U.S. since a May 7th Wall Street Journal article indicates that Harkin is also ready to dump the card check feature overboard:

Compromise talks are being led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate. Kate Cyrul, a spokeswoman for Mr. Harkin, declined to comment on details of the compromise being discussed. But she said the senator “remains confident that we can address these issues without compromising the core provisions of the bill.”

Among the changes being discussed are dropping the card-signing provision and setting a 21-day deadline for an election to be held — about the half the median of 40 days that union elections currently take, according to people familiar with the talks. An aide for Mr. Specter said the senator is “generally supportive” of the idea that an election must be held within 21 days if the employer wants a secret ballot.

Wojcik attributes Liza’s failure to get the EFCA story right as a function of a deeper failure to appreciate the dynamism of the American labor movement:

The labor movement, for the last three or more years, has marched, picketed, sat in, demonstrated, petitioned and engaged in major strikes from one end of the country to the other. It mobilized for the 2006 and 2008 elections on all levels, reshaped the face of Capitol Hill, changed the Congress, changed the Senate and was critical in the election of perhaps the most pro-labor administration in U.S. history.

This prompted LBO-Talk luminary Dennis Perrin to quip:

Wow. All this actually happened? Clearly, I’ve been in a drug haze. Starting next month, or the one after that, I’m quitting acid and mushrooms for a whole week and committing myself to the New Reality. Or whatever passes for it.

For those who are startled to see the Obama administration now working overtime to crush the UAW as “pro-labor” at this point, it is what one might expect from a “Marxist” group that is even more craven in its support for the president than Daily Kos, the Nation Magazine or other soft-left venues.

In an article that might have prompted Dennis Perrin to check into a mental hospital, CPUSA chief honcho Sam Webb announced to PWW readers that Obama was even more of an FDR than FDR himself:

After the first, perhaps over analyzed, hundred days of the Obama administration, it is fair to say that President Obama is a reformer and we are entering an era of reforms, possibly radical reforms.

Some on the left (ignoring the right wing talk shows and their fantastic claims about Obama’s socialist pedigree) mockingly dismiss the new president and his reform inclinations, saying that his main mission is merely to save capitalism. Even if that is true, and there is no reason to doubt it, what does it tell us — that he is neither a politician of the left nor an advocate of socialism? Well, we already knew that.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, too, had no aspirations to change the foundations of capitalist society. But he realized that in order to preserve capitalism it had to be modified (and, yes, it can be modified), and he had to respond to the anger and yearnings of millions of Americans caught in the web of a seemingly intractable economic depression.

Given the contemporary economic crisis, Obama appears to be of a similar mind, though he comes to the White House with deeper democratic and reform sensibilities than FDR.

So far, Obama’s presidency has not only broken decisively from the right-wing extremist policies of the Bush administration, but has also taken measures domestically and internationally that go in a progressive direction.

No, comrades, this really appears in the CP newspaper and not in the Onion. Although I would not have supported FDR back then, unrepentant Marxist that I am, I think there is ample evidence that Obama resembles the man who preceded FDR rather than FDR himself. This point was made most eloquently by Robert Fitch, who like me is no fan of FDR, at the recent Left Forum in NYC:

Think of Roosevelt as a gardener. He sprays to kill the weeds, not to destroy the lawn. Rexford Tugwell acknowledged that the New Deal consisted almost entirely of programs initiated by Herbert Hoover: the Reconstruction Finance Corporation; fiscal pump priming; steep taxes on the rich; huge infrastructural projects to increase employment. The biggest exception of course was FDR’s campaign against financialization. It’s a judgment that raises an important question. Ignoring foreign policy and big areas of domestic policy, just concentrating on economic stabilization, and recognizing we’re only 100 days into the Obama presidency — to whom does Obama stand closer: Hoover or FDR? On the evidence so far, I would say Hoover. Except that Obama’s political skills are closer to FDR’s than Hoover’s. And, unlike Hoover, Obama would never dream of advocating a 62% marginal tax rate on top income earners.

Another area where Obama stands closer to Hoover than FDR is his approach to the nature of politics. In political ideology, Obama and Hoover are pluralists who articulate a politics of the common good. FDR adopts a conflict perspective. In his first inaugural address, FDR pointed directly to those who were responsible for the great crash: “the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed,” he said, “through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.” “Money changers” is not a term of endearment in Christian populist discourse. It is redolent of William Jennings Bryan’s electrifying demand that Wall Street not crucify mankind. And at the same time, it looked forward to Roosevelt’s 1936 acceptance speech, when he called for the overthrow of the financial oligarchy.

In a way, it is almost academic which Democrat becomes president of the U.S. Whoever it is, the CPUSA will find a way to turn that person into the second coming of FDR. Since the “Popular Front” turn of the late 30s, they have operated basically as the left wing of the Democratic Party, an institution that was born out of the Indian-killing and slave-owning Andrew Jackson presidency.

If and when a genuinely radical party takes shape in the U.S., it will have to confront these yellow-dog Democrats and win people to a perspective of unremitting struggle against both the Democrats and the Republicans. One can and must pay tribute to the heroism and the sacrifices of the Communist Party activists who stood up to Jim Crow and who fought to build the CIO but seen dialectically their presence in the U.S. left today only helps to sustain the policies of the Democratic Party with its more than 150 year old traditions of racism and commitment to big business.

17 Comments »

  1. Yeah, but Obama is akin to Hoover? Isn’t that a little bit of a stretch? If that’s the case, why aren’t the Republicans stumbling over each other to support him?

    Comment by Tom Cod — May 27, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  2. Hoover was actually not that bad in comparison to current-day Republicans. I would describe him as a moderate Republican in the Nelson Rockefeller mold. Of course, that is what the Democratic Party is today, moderate Republicans in the Nelson Rockefeller mold.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 27, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

  3. The CP is right-Featherstone went overboard. EFCA won’t pass in its current form no matter what Obama does. Whether a EFCA compromise still counts as a victory for labor depends on what is actually in there, something Featherstone doesn’t know yet.

    A Starbucks-Whole Foods compromise that guts automatic first contract arbirtration would be a sell out. The compromise lanaguage hinted at above would be a huge step forward. Card-check has never been the only thing in EFCA and very few labor leaders view secret ballots on their own as the major obstacle to organizing. It’s lack of enforcement of labor law as it exists and the ability of an employer to draw out elections and contract negotitations until the union runs out energy and resources.

    The opponents of EFCA have made clear they want no compromise of labor law reform whats so ever, btw.

    Comment by jj — May 27, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

  4. This reminds me of the one valid insight contained in Schlesinger’s anti-communist screed The Vital Center – at one point he talks about how the environment within the CPUSA fosters a sort of reverse social Darwinism: those capable of critical thought quickly become disgusted and leave the party within a year, while all the dim bulbs and pliable, authority-craving nebbishes fit right in and quickly rise through the ranks.

    Comment by Steve — May 27, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

  5. Sam Webb has convinced me of what J. Edgar Hoover never could: communism really IS destroying America.

    Obama killed Muslim babies during his first week in office. When he proposes indefinite preventive detention, he is standing up for the rule of law in precisely the same way Alan Dershowitz did when he proposed legal “torture warrants” and sterile needles for insertion under fingernails.

    Comment by Jim — May 27, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

  6. The CP is not only irrelevant they are so wrong its scary. At a time when LIBERALS are backlashing a bit on the lack of vigor in the Democrats, self-described Communists are deriding a journalist for speaking the truth.

    The EFCA debacle, really has the chance to show organized labor that an insider-lobbying approach doesn’t work. It has a chance to create a movement within the labor movement that favors more traditional modes of demonstrating class power. The CP-USA that has had shit politics ever since John Reed died, with the exception of their union organizing in the 30s and consistent advocacy of civil rights, have been wrong on just about everything.

    It’s safe to say they are too the right of the MoveOn.org crowd. I feel bad for the good activists that wade into the Communist Party, including it’s youth branch YCL, and waste good years organizing with them. The movement could use them elsewhere.

    Comment by Bhaskar Sunkara — May 27, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

  7. Yes, the CP are blockheads and to the right of Obamaphiles like Olbermann and Maddow. But…. Featherstone does spends 400 of 1100 words giving voice to the idea that card check is variously (1) paternalistic, (2) can be used by the union to bully people into unionization, or (3) won’t get good contracts because a campaign is necessary. Even if all three of these concerns are genuine they pale in comparison to the far greater harm done by not having more unionized workplaces. A bad union is far better than no union at all. A weak union organized under card check and having negotiated its first contract via an arbitrator could learn how to become a strong union over time. A crucial first hurdle will have been crossed and rank-n-file activism could proceed to develop. Not having a union until the workers are sufficiently organized and energized to withstand the bosses onslaught in the run up to an election puts a heavier burden on the workers. Every work place with more than 10 employees should be required by law to have a union. No card check, no elections. if capital can organize collectively into corporations then labor must be similarly organized in unions. Bagwhati and Pope are fools and Featherstone is seriously mistaken to give their views such an uncritical airing. Losing card check is a serious blow and should not be minimized.

    Comment by SN — May 28, 2009 @ 12:29 am

  8. How ironic. I just mailed in my PWW subscription renewal payment. As a strong supporter of unions and the working class I appreciate the pro-labor content in the PWW. If more workers read the PWW this nation might be past the EFCA debate and on the road to a more sane and labor friendly business environment.

    Educate workers and support the Democratic Party now, socialist revolution later.

    Comment by Doug — May 28, 2009 @ 12:56 am

  9. #7: I don’t think that card check is the panacea it is described as by the trade union officials, but workers will definitely be better off with it.

    #8: In the interests of transparency, it must be pointed out that Doug is a CP’er. So this is like Nancy Pelosi saying that she likes Barack Obama. As far as “socialist revolution later” is concerned, I wouldn’t even call this lip service. I would describe it more as cloaca service.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — May 28, 2009 @ 1:06 am

  10. Production is international – working organizations have to become so. The most vital link to be created is with the working class of China, which is basically invisible to the West, but has the most potential power on earth right now – given that their labor has stabilized the profit system over the last decade.

    Way too much time is spent by Leftists on important, but old, issues. There are more Left articles on Palestine and Israel than there are on all the peoples of Asia. And I have read articles for the last 15 years about a revival of American Labor even as it dwindles. American Labor will simply have little power if maintains nationalistic stances, and does not pursue serious dialogues with similar organizations around the world.

    Comment by purple — May 28, 2009 @ 5:33 am

  11. I have great respect for the people in the CP, who are dedicated and have done a lot of hard work locally. But… I remember being “taught” in a CP political economy class that if working people liked ‘Mork & Mindy’ then we have too, as well, or at least appear to like it (apologies to those too young for that M&M reference).

    Obama is today’s Mork & Mindy, except for all those slaughtered Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Palestinians, etc. (and those billions for financiers to enslave us all in perpetuity, and the rest of his agenda).

    Comment by jp — May 28, 2009 @ 11:14 am

  12. So in 1979 Mork was up there with Lenin and Marx?

    ‘Well, Mork, what have you learned today?’
    ‘Today I learned that the crisis of over-production leads inevitably to capitalist wars.’
    ‘I see.’

    Did Exidor stand in for Trotsky?

    Comment by Fellow Traveller — May 28, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

  13. #6 — “The CP-USA that has had shit politics ever since John Reed died, with the exception of their union organizing in the 30s and consistent advocacy of civil rights, have been wrong on just about everything.”

    They were certainly wrong when they (and a crapload of other erstwhile leftists) championed (right along with the imperialists!) the notion that “Persetroika” would bring about progress to the workers in the former Warsaw Pact countries.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 29, 2009 @ 1:13 am

  14. Actually, as I recall, the bulk of the CPUSA opposed Gorbachev’s reforms and supported the “hard-liners'” coup. Pro-Gorbachev elements later broke from the party to form the Committees of Correspondence for Democratic Socialism, or something.

    I’m slightly embarrassed that I even know this.

    Comment by Steve — May 29, 2009 @ 3:18 am

  15. I’m pretty sure they were all pro-Gorbachev until it was clear Perestroika meant the Czarist flag would soon be flying over the Kremlin again, then they lurched toward the hardliners at which point the Party split with the formation of the CofC.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 29, 2009 @ 4:05 am

  16. Who didn’t think the Stalinist system was terminally flawed and was going to be shaken up. If you thought the idea of another workers’ revolution in Leningrad was utopian, why wouldn’t you look to Gorbachev’s reforms to see if he could find a way forward.

    The Soviet system was dismantled from within, not from outside forces of imperialism. It was a heavy-handed, inefficient, brutal society not did not afford worker’s even the modest rights they enjoy under bourgeois democracy— hardly a dictatorship of the proletariat. Obviously the collapse of the USSR was a disaster, but I think it was merely a matter of Gorbachev and the reformers misexecuting, something had to be shaken up.

    “To perpetuate it would be, as Pecquer rightly says, ‘to decree universal mediocrity.'” (Marx, Capital)

    Comment by Bhaskar Sunkara — May 31, 2009 @ 11:21 am

  17. Allegedly “the Soviet system was dismantled from within, not from outside forces of imperialism.”

    You still have it backwards. Stalinism would be impossible to emerge in the USSR without the devastating economic blockade imposed by imperialist encirclement. When an 800lb gorilla simultaneously plants its knees into the chest and its thumbs on the adam’s apple of a child the child’s face, so long as it survives such an overwhelming assault, is bound to look grotesque & distorted & thus becomes so intolerable that willing surrender to the dominant mode of production is the inevitable outcome.

    What the Michael Harrington’s and Allan Young’s of the world could never understand in their complaints regarding Cuba, for example, is that political repression is far more a byproduct of imperialist strangulation rather than the machinations of individual leaders like Fidel Castro.

    Again Mr. Sunkara, your anti-communist ideology in general and your anti-soviet rhetoric in particular will always reveal an intellectually stunted character so long as you refuse to read classics like “The Revolution Betrayed” which is not only an indespensible sociological tool for analysing the class character of the soviet state in any given period but also provides a historically contexted starting point for a critique of Stalinism from the left. Without that you’re just criticisng revolutions from the right and there’s nothing novel about that.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 31, 2009 @ 7:21 pm


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