By Cameron Orr
In These Times published an editorial on Friday signed by 74 members of the Democratic Socialists of America entitled, “The Left is Under No Obligation to Support Hillary Clinton.”
My first argument is with the title.
Forces of progress do not stand above society; they are a part of society. The main forces of progress comprise the broadest layers of society; they are not a detached section of society that entertains lofty ideas. Neither are ideas a force for positive change in themselves. The main forces of progress are the multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-generational working-class which, by forming alliances with other sectors of society, including other people of color, women, LGBT folk, youth, elderly, disabled, farmers, students, intellectuals, small business owners, and others is capable of achieving fundamental, even revolutionary change as these broad masses fight in an organized, unified, and strategic way for the best interests of the vast majority. The Left, if it means anything, must mean these main forces and the subjective experience of their own struggle. The science of Marxism and Leninism grew directly out of this struggle and, separated from the struggle of the masses, is empty phrase mongering and sloganeering. As the Apostle Paul once said, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Obligation, separated from the practical needs of the people, is the language of morals. We Communists have no allegiance to the fulfillment of an ideal moral code in the abstract. We engage practically for the best interests of the 99%. The editorial itself openly acknowledged the practical need to defeat Donald Trump, stating, “We share the disgust and revulsion at Trump that so many have expressed to justify their support for Clinton, and our preference is for a Clinton victory—which at this point is highly likely.”
If it is a necessity for working people, people of color, and women to defeat Donald Trump, then it is a necessity for us. We will not “leave it to the masses” so that we can engage at a higher level of struggle or demonstrate our superior standards. There is no higher level of struggle than the immediate needs of the people and this is our struggle as well. The immediate needs of the 99% are rooted in the systemic violence of capitalism, and provide the basis for building unity among the broadest possible sections of the population. Underscoring the roots of exploitation and oppression in the midst of the struggle is, by definition, radical. This provides the basis for moving continually forward, starting with the immediate and most fundamental needs of the current moment, and also provides the basis for going beyond them.
Furthermore, a Clinton victory will be “highly likely” only under one condition – if there is high voter turnout that overwhelmingly votes for Clinton. This will have to occur in the face of twenty-five years of right-wing conspiracy theories and smear campaigns launched against the Clintons ever since SCHIP, FMLA, and the prominent position of women in that administration put the first chink in the Reagan consensus. It will have to occur in the face of billions of dollars of free advertisement for Donald Trump by the media, recent help from the FBI, and Trump’s vigilante supporters heeding his call to undermine the minority vote. In order to be spared from a repetition of 2000 when the oil interests behind Bush and Cheney performed a soft coup against the fair election results, it will have to simultaneously be an electoral win so overwhelming that Trump’s attempts to challenge the results are discredited before they have even been launched.
At a time when the foundations of formal democracy in the U.S. have never been more openly and directly challenged by the right-wing opposition, and at a time when the right-wing has never been more menacing in its promotion of racial violence, hatred against women, and military control, the cavalier assumption that Clinton will “likely win” without so much as lifting a finger in the interests of the people is not only highly irresponsible; it is arguably calloused.
At the very outset, the position paper lays out the progressive argument for defeating Trump and electing Clinton. “We have no illusions about the Democrats, but leftists and progressives should vote for them because the political terrain will be much more favorable to us with them in office.” Yet, only three paragraphs later, it responds to the argument by pretending to have not understood it: “In practice, campaigning for Clinton entails convincing people that she and her party will move to do a number of things—attacking the finance sector, opposing bad free trade deals, raising the national minimum wage to $15 per hour, defending and expanding Social Security, etc.”
Often, misrepresentation revolves around the removal of key concepts or facts. The authors could have written, more honestly, “In practice, campaigning for Clinton entails convincing people that she and her party can be moved, through popular struggle, to do a number of things….” However, this would have undermined their entire position.
Instead they write, “Socialists should not undertake this work because it has the potential to undermine our efforts to build a base after the election, when all too often the promised effort to ‘hold the Democrats accountable’ doesn’t materialize.” The charge that these efforts have not materialized falls flat when the same letter acknowledges the need to participate in struggles like #BlackLivesMatter, and the #Fightfor15.
It is precisely because of ever-mounting struggles like these, and others for immigration reform, women’s rights, LGBT rights, native rights, environmental justice, police accountability, ending for-profit prisons and mass incarceration, ending Citizens United, and many other important movements that the self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders rose to such prominence and influence, despite corporate resistance and major media blockouts. It is because progressive, working-class movements are on the rise that the campaign was able to successfully leverage the construction of a Democratic Party platform that is genuinely progressive in its domestic policy.
Engaging in this work at the grassroots and political level does not “undermine our efforts to build a base after the election.” It is part and parcel of how we build a base and how we build practical points of unity between labor and its allies. Winning immediate demands is integral to building confidence and unity. Anything that undermines our ability to win practical demands in the short term also undermines the effort to build the unity and power of working people.
The DSA 74 insist on the necessity of building new institutions and political formations to foster an emergence of a “new left,” including “new left-wing and socialist parties.” However, working-class institutions already exist. What they lack is not “newness,” but strength and unity.
Labor unions are certainly one of the most, if not the most important institutions that working people have. Yet, the open letter goes on the offensive against the labor unions for pursuing a self-preservation strategy, seemingly unaware of the fact that this might have something to do with an extraordinarily low level of union membership and a history of right-wing assault against unions. It is very hard to imagine labor becoming politically emboldened without a serious growth in the size of its rank and file. Unions can fight for more when they are more. We should be pouring our energy into defending unions and the rights of workers to form and join them, and into union organizing activity.
The authors claim that “if we want to move beyond the cycle of mobilization and retreat that dominates left electoral activity in the US, we have no choice but to build our own political formations, as difficult as that will be.” Cycles of mobilization and retreat are a fact of political life. It would have been more accurate to have concluded, “we have no choice but to exit reality.” Since we cannot exit reality, what we really need to do is understand how to engage in forward advances and retreats in a tactically advantageous way. We gain more by knowing how to fall back with both feet on the ground than by falling forward on our own swords.
The article states that the Democrats and Republicans each “have their respective popular bases, organizational structures and funding networks dominated by the rich,” but there is no examination of what they are, leaving one to conclude that they must be exactly the same. It seems to be of no consequence to the DSA 74 that the “popular base” of the Republican Party includes white nationalist movements fostered by four decades of corporate backed race-baiting while the popular base of the Democratic Party includes virtually the entire labor movement, people of color, and the majority of women, youth, and LGBT folk. It seems not to matter that the sheer respective sizes of these popular bases have forced the GOP to be the party that suppresses the vote, especially those of people of color, while the Democratic Party has a direct political interest in expanding voting rights. Left completely unexamined is also the fact that all the most destructive corporations – including oil, weapons, and agribusiness, contribute the majority of their politicking money to the GOP and the vast network of think-tanks that have engaged in fostering fascistic forces inside the Republican Party. It is these efforts that have led to insurgencies like the Tea Party, which launched politicians like the obstructionist Paul Ryan into Congress, and the so-called “alt-right,” which lambasts Paul Ryan as a liberal and is much more animated by the belligerent rhetoric of Donald Trump.
The point of all of this is not to say that the Democratic Party is unequivocally a party of the working-class, but that there is a reason why progressive social forces are overwhelmingly lined up behind one party and not the other. Within the limits of imperialism and a two-party system, political leverage still exists, and the forces of progress have been lined up in opposition to the Republican Party ever since the New Deal coalition. Our main battle is currently against the extreme right-wing which is defined by racism and its ties to the old slavocracy. This fight against the extreme right-wing is in large part an effort to fully secure the gains won by the Union victory in the Civil War. We can fight for changes that strike deeper at the root of capitalism while we engage in that fight, especially since capitalists will always rely in part on racism to maintain their power. We are already seeing these more thorough-going challenges to the system taking place with the emergence of the “political revolution,” organizations like the Working Families Party, and representatives like Zephyr Teachout running viable, though difficult, campaigns. But the fight against the right and its racist underpinnings cannot be substituted with a fight against capitalism without it resulting in a retreat into full surrender. At the heart of the fight against the extreme-right is the fight for a new Reconstruction, and this remains a primary revolutionary fight in the United States at this point.
It is true that “Republicans have moved steadily to the right while most Democrats have moved ever further to the center.” It is unfortunate, but true, that a right-wing assault correlates to a growth in corporate power and its most chauvinistic, militaristic sectors, and that this results in a general move to the right. It is also important to understand why this has happened. McCarthyism, the Reaganite assaults on the unions, and the entrance of robotics into industry all weakened the labor movement tremendously, leading to the Democratic Party relying more on technological industries for their power base. These are historical factors the labor movement is slowly recovering from. If it is not yet strong enough to move the Democratic Party in a fundamentally new direction, on what basis can we assume it can form a party strong enough to challenge both parties at once?
The article ends with many broad recommendations for how the “left” should engage. The problem is that the working class has never been initially stirred to lead broad sections of the population in any country by being ideologically convinced of the need for “socialism” or the values of “the Left” in the abstract. Such revolutions have been driven by the necessity of securing practical wants and needs like “Peace, Bread & Land,” or national liberation. In the U.S., major breakthroughs and qualitative advances for working people are most likely to be driven by struggles for jobs, living wages, affordable housing, clean environment, peace, police accountability, reproductive justice, child care and other practical needs. They are not likely to come about because working people have been won over by ideological appeals to “socialism” and “the Left,” as if political battles do not imply consequences any more serious than the outcome of a baseball game.
If we do not engage in efforts to elect the representatives we are most likely to be able to win concessions from, we are less likely, not more likely, to be able to continue these struggles for the practical needs of working people, people of color, women, LGBT folk, youth, elderly, or disabled.
The DSA 74 have said that we should “raise people’s expectations of what is possible instead of managing them downward.” Yet, despite the many general recommendations for political engagement, when it comes to the specific question of what needs to be done within the next couple days, they have offered us no solutions, no way forward. They write, “Socialists should campaign for whomever they want (or nobody at all).” Such a blatant disregard for democratic engagement is a slap in the face to those who continue to be threatened at the polls by racists, and yet go anyway. The least these writers could have done is advocate for “leftists” to protect the polls. At a time when a horde of white nationalists are seizing the Trump candidacy as a useful basis for building a new Nazi movement, and an opportunity simultaneously exists to win major advances for the vast majority, making a concrete proposal to do nothing is hardly a way to help us plan for the future.
Jarvis Tyner, Chairperson, Communist Party of New York(CPUSA)
Estevan Bassett-Nembhard, District Organizer, Communist Party of New York(CPUSA)
Cameron Orr, Co-Coordinator, Young Communist League of New York (CPUSA)
Sara Ladino Cano, Co-Coordinator, Young Communist League of New York(CPUSA)
Tina Nannarone, Organizational Secretary, Communist Party of New York (CPUSA)
Emile Schepers, International Secretary, Communist Party USA (CPUSA)
Gail Ryall, Communist Party of Northern California(CPUSA)
John Pietaro, writer, musician, cultural organizer