Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 9, 2009

Thoughts on the town hall disruptions

Filed under: Fascism,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 10:10 pm

On August sixth, a Marxmail subscriber posed the question of “proletarian defense guards for Democrats, specifically Democratic congress members attempting to hold town hall meeting.” He, as the rest of us, must have realized how anachronistic such a term was but added:

It sounds weird, true, but I was contacted today as part of a mobilization to confront the hysterical collection of Ron Paulites, birthers, and other associated storm troopers who will be attempting to shut down a discussion of health care tonight by our aging congressman. In other parts of the country liberal representatives have had to flee of be escorted out by the police. The UAW is also supposed to lend some rank and file militants to this so we shall see how things turn out.

Does a proletarian defense guard for an aging Democratic hack make any sense to anyone here? It is true that the local right wing is particularly virulent and I noticed several “Death to communists” at the “tea party” tax protest. It brought to mind the fact that all the Obama signs/ stickers I saw on campus were defaced with a Soviet flag stickers. Given how incensed these people are one wonders what they would do if a real socialist were in any elected office.

I am not going to agonize now over the popular front overtones about all this but I really hate these creeps and I can be as loud as these assholes any day of the week. The larger question remains is that what is the correct path in this era of political polarization and the increasing virulence of the neo-Nazi faction of the Republican Party. I would appreciate other comrades’ experience and thoughts on this issue.

A Huffington Post article fleshed out the Marxmail subscriber’s report on trade union involvement, as well as the frenzy that this had driven the rightwing into:

Union officials continued to receive a barrage of threats on Friday evening and into Saturday punctuated by warnings that if organizers were sent to counter-demonstrate at health care town halls they would be met with violence.

An official with the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor organizations, passed on what he described as a “pretty direct threat” to those union hands who were showing up to balance out anti-Obama demonstrations being waged at local Democratic forums.

“I will be going to a local town hall this weekend, all you union members BEWARE!” an emailer wrote at 9:40 Saturday morning. “We will be waiting for you. better make sure you have arrangements with your local ER. today is the day when the goon meets the gun. see you there.”

The rightwing has been posting Youtube clips about these confrontations. The one below shows the trade union defense guard clearing them out of a town hall meeting organized by Kathy Castor, a Democratic Congresswoman from Florida. It reminded me of some of the assignments I had defending meetings in the 1960s but I was about half the size of these guys.

So far most of the violence at these meetings has consisted of pushing and shoving from the rightwingers, but we cannot rule out an escalation at some point especially in light of the recent murder of an abortion provider in Kansas. For the last several months, talk radio, Fox TV, Lou Dobbs on CNN, the “birthers”, and the far right wing of the Republican Party in Washington has worked itself into a lather around a number of seemingly unrelated issues: whether Obama was born in the US or not; the supposed possibility that health care reform will lead to old people being thrown to the wolves; and a general sense of economic vulnerability.

When the evening newscast the other night was showing footage of the chaos at another one of these town meetings, I told my wife that it reflected the basic difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. The Democrats do everything they can to demobilize their base, who are seen as inconvenient and extraneous to their main way of getting things done, namely through closed door meetings with corporate executives and nonprofit honchos over how to screw the American people while giving the opposite impression. Meanwhile, the Republicans are much more reliant on an activist base because their social support is much narrower. As a party that rules directly and openly in the interests of the moneyed elite, it requires all sorts of grass roots organization to push its filthy agenda forward.

But in practice, this means that the grass roots is almost always reliant on seed money from deep-pocketed foundations and corporate benefactors. Conservatives for Patients’ Rights takes credit for interventions at these town meetings. A character named Rick Scott, who is a millionaire investor and formerly head of the Columbia/HCA health-care company, leads CPR. A fraud investigation in the 1990s resulted in the Columbia/HCA pleading guilty to charges that it overbilled state and federal health plans. It ended up paying a record $1.7 billion in fines. According to Politico, CPR has raised $20 million to fight health care reform. You can bet that this is more than enough to pay for transporting mobs from one town hall meeting to another, including the one that just got the heave-ho from trade unionists in Florida.

It is impossible to predict what the next four years have in store but you cannot rule out such confrontations being repeated with some regularity given the sharpening of class tensions in the U.S. over what looks like a protracted L shaped recession. Even though the Dow-Jones index is heading toward the 10,000 level, the job and housing situation remain bleak.

Obama will do everything in his power to convince those who voted for him to remain patient while he carries out what amounts to a third Bush term, but there will be more and more defensive measures by the poor and the working class in defense of its own class interests. One can be reasonably assured that the level of discontent in the US will rise despite the African-American President’s clear gift for demagogy and deception.

And as the workers and the poor begin to fight for their rights, the retrograde social forces churned up from a capitalism in decay will become more and more violent and inclined to direct action. While this does not pose any immediate threat of fascism, largely a function of the unlikelihood of a revolutionary socialist movement gaining the necessary numbers and influence any time soon, there will be a need to study the 1930s just as the Marxism list subscriber alluded to when he referred to proletarian defense guards—the sort of thing that hasn’t been seen since then.

For one of the best introductions to the period, I can recommend Leon Trotsky’s Whither France, a sharp polemic against a Popular Front Government that like Obama’s tried to keep its social base demobilized while the fascists were taking over the streets. Trotsky wrote:

It is not the spirit of combination among parliamentarians and journalists, but the legitimate and creative hatred of the oppressed for the oppressors which is today the single most progressive factor in history. It is necessary to turn to the masses, toward their deepest layers. It is necessary to appeal to their passions and to their reason. It is necessary to reject the false “prudence” which is a synonym for cowardice and which, at great historical turning points, amounts to treason. The united front must take for its motto the formula of Danton: “De l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace.” To understand the situation fully and to draw from it all the practical conclusions, boldly and without fear and to the end, is to assure the victory of socialism.

I imagine that everybody will have no trouble understanding Danton’s French, but it turns out that he was saying: “Audacity, again audacity, and always audacity.” Given our weakened state, most leftists have difficulty thinking in terms of audaciousness. But if the period we are entering is marked by open conflict between workers and their class enemies, we have to dust off our weapons and march off to the class war once again.


  1. This sentence really captures the spirit of the times:

    “The Democrats do everything they can to demobilize their base, who are seen as inconvenient and extraneous to their main way of getting things done, namely through closed door meetings with corporate executives and nonprofit honchos over how to screw the American people while giving the opposite impression.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 9, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

  2. This dynamic seems to me a replay of the left’s defense of Clinton from attacks from the right while he was busy serving the interests of that very same right legislatively.

    It is so easy to slip emotionally into a passionate physical defense of elected Democrats while countering attacks against them from the corporate funded Republican right who violently attempt to maintain their privilege of living parasitically on the sick. The Democrats, however, are also members of the corporate funded right.

    I would love to launch into the Democrats for their abandonment of every ideal they allowed the voting public to believe they stood for. I am sure in the heat of physical conflict the Democrats would be unable to distill the meaning of the anger from the left directed against the corporate funded right, both Republican voters and elected Democrats.

    May they all be bound together like a bundle of sticks and burn in hell.

    Comment by Glenn — August 10, 2009 @ 1:13 am

  3. A big part of the mobs game, is open racism. There are effigys of Obama hung. The race card, may eventually overplay the issue of healthcare.

    The issue will be clearer in time.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — August 10, 2009 @ 5:53 am

  4. Your analysis is dead-on here, Lou.

    Comment by John B. — August 10, 2009 @ 10:45 am

  5. Very good article. Seeing these corporate sponsored ignorant slobs screaming their ridiculous slogans, I wouldn’t be upset to see the unions stand up against them. There is a chance for some grassroots democracy in these town hall meetings. I’ve been to some in the past where leftists made some good points that drew applause from others in the crowd. It is an avenue where a few could make a positive impact on the many.
    But when they are taken over my the right wing mob this is impossible.

    Comment by Joanne Gullion — August 10, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

  6. Excellent post Louis. Could you elaborate on these “birthers” as I have not heard of the before.

    Comment by Rohan Gaiswinkler — August 10, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

  7. No. 2 is right on the money. Bill Clinton carried out neo-liberal attacks on wages and living standards and drove sections of the middle class either into the arms of the “radical right” (remember the midwest “militias”) or the more respectable right via Newt Gingrich’s “Contract on America” electoral alternative in 1994. For their part, the left, and more importantly, the labor movement, offered no alternatives other than supporting the “lesser evil.” That is, until fresh new forces were brought into play by the “Global Justice” movement which weren’t as enthralled to “lesser evilism” or closing ranks behind phony “fascist” threats. Unfortunately, 9/11 and the Leslie Cagan liberal left took care of that promising movement via “ABB” and finally Obamamania.

    Now you have Obama acting as an errand boy for Wall Street with his corporate welfare, gutting the wages and living standards of auto workers and making sure that “single payer” health care never sees the light of day. And he’s keeping two imperialist wars going as well, although you’d never know it from the bourgeois media. The labor movement and the left are, of course silent, once again offering no alternative as they are totally in thrall to America’s first yuppie president. So don’t be surprised if the GOP makes a comeback next year posing as “populists,” as more and more middle and working class people are again driven into the arms of the “right.”

    Comment by MN Roy — August 10, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

  8. […] the verbal gem by Louis Proyect regarding the health-care activism from the right wing and the lethargy from the left […]

    Pingback by He Said it Better (Re: Town Hall Wingers vs. Liberals) | Broadsides — August 10, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

  9. Rowan: Just GOOGLE “birthers.” They’re the idiots who are trying to claim Obama was born in Kenya instead of Hawaii and is therefore an illegitimate President.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 10, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

  10. I agree complete. Re comment #3, check this out: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/8/9/763919/-Race,-Taxes,-Birth-Certificates,-and-Eugenics

    Comment by Fred Murphy — August 10, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

  11. […] Thoughts on the town hall disruptions On August sixth, a Marxmail subscriber posed the question of “proletarian defense guards for Democrats, […] […]

    Pingback by Top Posts « WordPress.com — August 11, 2009 @ 12:18 am

  12. I’m going to see how this plays on my blog. Some who comment there are part of the mob.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — August 11, 2009 @ 1:50 am

  13. Number Seven: My memory is that Bill Clinton is America’s first yuppie president.

    Comment by Townsend Harris — August 11, 2009 @ 2:41 am

  14. Number Thirteen: Billy boy was more of a “good ol’ boy” and “bubba” who spent his time fooling around with women in between bombing Serbs and starving Iraqis and didn’t deliver condescending lectures on why working people were living too high off the hog while he was helping to lower their wages and destroy their living standards the way Obama does when he does the same thing. While I would be willing to concede that Clinton may have been a yuppie, that would then make Obama America’s first snooty and pompous yuppie president…who also happens to be Black.

    Comment by MN Roy — August 11, 2009 @ 3:15 am

  15. Renegade Eye: Yes, yes. And wbere is that street movement the Obamites swore up and down they created during the election? As de-mobilized as Proyect says here, which is the usual farce from the “democrats”. The right wouldn’t be able to play the race card so well if the “democrats” were about any kind of street strength. And as usual, it’s only sections of the mobilized workforce that are out there trying to protect these god damn idiots from themselves. Working folks take political action, but never under the conditions they would choose for themselves, just like the old man said.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — August 11, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

  16. “Proletarian Defense Guards” was an outmoded term when the Socialist Workers Party came up with it in 1934 – Trotsky had suggested “Workers Militias” but Jimmy Cannon and the SWP said that sounded “too foreign” – even though America has a tradition of militias dating back to the 1620’s and “proletarian defense guards” is the name that sounds foreign, like it was literally translated from German or something.

    On the political issue, any time that revolutionaries advocate organizing workers militias on behalf of our class enemies, it is an act of counterrevolution of the highest order – we should NEVER lead our class into the armed defense of our enemies (even the liberal ones)!

    Comment by Gregory A. Butler — August 12, 2009 @ 3:02 am

  17. Also, in the American trade union world, we would NEVER speak of a “trade union defense guard” – that phrase isn’t even in idiomatic American English!

    My union – the United Brotherhood of Carpenters – has historically had “Wrecking Crews”, a term used by other building trades unions.

    The garment unions historically had “Education Committees” that served the same function.

    The Teamsters has historically had it’s “Goon Squads”.

    Most unions also have an official local officer post with a security component – the United Auto Workers has “guides” my union has “Wardens” and “Conductors” many unions have “Sergeants at Arms” ect.

    But no American labor union has ever had anything officially or unofficially referred to as a “Trade Union Defense Guard” or anything similar – it’s a clunky foreign-sounding phrase and, in an American context, “Guard” generally means “Security Guard” (and many of the older AFofL unions – including mine – still have clauses in their constitutions banning security guards from membership – because of the historic strikebreaking role that security guards have always played in our country and continue to play).

    So maybe we should have “Wrecking Crews” or “Sergeants at Arms” or “Education Committees” – but whatever name we pick PLEASE use an American-sounding phrase that actually has historical roots in American labor!

    Comment by Gregory A. Butler — August 12, 2009 @ 3:11 am

  18. The corporate government has done a superb job in dividing the working class (or non-working presently)into anti-abortion, religious, anti-immigration etc etc etc.
    People, we’re all in this together.
    The people disrupting “town hall meetings” (they’re not even town hall meetings) are basically correct, but for the wrong reasons.
    Obama’s healthcare plan is a disaster and we should all oppose it.

    Comment by Wolynski — August 12, 2009 @ 3:29 am

  19. Actually, those divisions among workers have roots in real conflicts within the class.

    Immigrants are used in place of American born workers – particularly African Americans and Latinos – and this does lead to very real conflict over jobs.

    Also, the more privileged labor aristocratic layer of White American workers also are threatened by competition by lower paid workers, which – along with good old fashioned American White supremacism – is the material root of their opposition to immigration (it’s also the same reason that those labor aristocrats are against Affirmative Action for African Americans, Latinos and women of all races).

    On the abortion question, many White labor aristocrats are very socially conservative and very much believe in male dominated nuclear families – women having control over their reproductive rights is a direct threat to the patriarchal family and male economic domination of women – consequently, this group are fanatically anti abortion.

    The government didn’t just invent those divisions within the American working classes – the normal functioning of the American capitalist system did. Class forces, not a conspiracy, are at work here.

    Comment by Gregory A. Butler — August 12, 2009 @ 3:36 am

  20. #17 swrote: “But no American labor union has ever had anything officially or unofficially referred to as a “Trade Union Defense Guard” or anything similar.”

    That’s not true insofar as the victory of Flint’s Sit Down Strikers likely wouldn’t have been possible without the UAW’s famous FLYING SQUADS.

    Here’s some of their history in the UAW:


    Interestingly the term is said to be coined by old Engels. Acording to Wiki:

    “A union flying squad is an unofficial group of autonomous workers (usually members of a single union) who carry out actions for the benefit of their labor struggle. Squads are a form of affinity groups and tend to be the result of union members who feel that the union bureaucracy is not working satisfactorily in their interest or for the interest of a unified labor movement. The first reference to a flying squad may originate with a remark by Friedrich Engels during an uprising in Paris during the 19th Century.

    Flying squads emerged in North America during the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934. They have seen somewhat of a revival since the 1990s, particularly in local unions in Ontario such as the Canadian Auto Workers and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 12, 2009 @ 4:46 am

  21. Karl,

    Yes, the UAW had “flying squads”.

    But they called them “flying squads”.

    They did NOT call them “Trade Union Defense Guards”

    And I suspect the name had it’s roots in the military background of the many World War I veterans involved in that struggle.

    So my main point still stands, brother.

    Comment by Gregory A. Butler — August 12, 2009 @ 4:52 am

  22. As a side note, even though Reuther prevented Black workers from gaining union leadership positions until 1961, back in 1945 during a bloody strike an Ontario UAW Local 600 had Flying Squads comprised of both black & white workers who cracked the skulls of the class enemy together:


    This kind of solidarity struck such fear through the ruling class they started drafting the taft-Hartley Act which was rammed through in 1947.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 12, 2009 @ 4:56 am

  23. We’re quibbling over semantics here since I strongly agree that it’d be an utter waste organizing any squads of workers in defence of the DNC –who deserve their skulls cracked as much as any other class enemy.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 12, 2009 @ 5:06 am

  24. Karl – the UAW also had a huge contingent of Ku Klux Klan members in the GM plants – with a large concentration of klansmen in the Cadillac Main plant.

    In 1973, when the UAW leadership needed a goon squad to break up a Black Maoist led sit down strike at the Mack Avenue Stamping Plant, they relied on 1,000 UAW “international representatives” (the UAW’s equivalent of Business Agents) and 1,000 klansmen from Cadillac Main (GM actually suspended production for the day so the klansmen could go help the union fight the communists)

    And I do agree with you that we should NOT under any circumstances organize any kind of defense of the Democratic Party!

    Comment by Gregory A. Butler — August 12, 2009 @ 5:42 am

  25. You’re preachin’ to the choir my friend. A dear comrade of mine named David Soul was one of the Fleetwood 10. During that spontaneous Wildcat strike some trench coated UAW goons came up to the picket line and pulled out sawed-off shotguns from under their coats and dispersed the picket line. Like Trotsky always said, the bosses rely on the union bureaucracy to keep the workers in line.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 12, 2009 @ 6:35 am

  26. Indeed – the leaders of my union had a longstanding alliance with the contractors – and with the cosa nostra families that stood behind the contractors. They used the union to help contractors fix prices, keep out competitors and prevent the big corporations who own the buildings from forcing contractors to pass along labor cost savings that came from contractors illegally paying workers less than union scale. And yes, in many cases, that was exactly what the “Wrecking Crews” were used for.

    Comment by Gregory A. Butler — August 12, 2009 @ 6:41 am

  27. Whatever you choose to call them, I wouldn’t allocate one union man or woman to defend any of the pro-war, pro-Wall Street and anti-single payer Democratic party politicians. Milliions of workers and middle class people rightly feel threatened by “Obamacare.” And why shouldn’t they? Obama was staunchly supported by both the insurance and drug companies and his “reforms” will only make things better for them and worse for us. The trade union bureaucracy should be mobilizing its members to support real national health care…but they won’t do that because they support the Democrats in general and Obama in particular and the liberal-left tags along after them claiming that Obama’s “government option” is the best we’re gonna’ get. Hence they leave the field wide open for the “right;” exactly what Trotsky pointed out in his writings on the rise of fascism in Germany, when the Social Democracy tried to prop up the system and drove the petty bourgeoisie into the arms of Hitler. Or as a number of participants in this discussion have already pointed out, what happened when Clinton was in office.

    Comment by MN Roy — August 12, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

  28. MN Roy – the unions have another, crassly and vulgarly material, reason to oppose National Health Insurance.

    Many unions are in the insurance business.

    The AFL-CIO and a number of the larger affiliates jointly own ULLICO – the Union Labor Life Insurance Co – which is run just like any other insurance company (take in as much premiums as possible, make as much as possible from investing those premiums and pay out as little as possible to the claimants).

    Also, many individual unions – on the international, District Council and local union levels – operate Taft Hartley Funds, which are also run just like private insurance companies, and are also a rich source of no show and/or no work patronage jobs for the unemployable relatives and mistresses of union officers.

    If we had national health insurance, that whole huge multi billion dollar racket would go up in smoke – and the union leaders of America just cannot have that!

    So they are resolutely opposed to single payer, no matter how much it will help their members!

    Comment by Gregory A. Butler — August 13, 2009 @ 6:07 am

  29. Incidentally, the creation of Taft Hartley Funds after World War II – and the almost immediate corruption of those funds by corrupt union officials – is one of the main reasons that American labor leaders have always opposed single payer – because if we had one unified national health insurance system, that huge source of legalized graft for union officials and their relatives and extramarital partners would dry up overnight and that would significantly reduce the living standards of the American labor bureaucracy.

    Comment by Gregory A. Butler — August 13, 2009 @ 6:09 am

  30. [i]Given how incensed these people are one wonders what they would do if a real socialist were in any elected office.[/i]
    Um, Bernie Sanders?

    Comment by Lamont Cranston — August 17, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

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