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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Where Hope Collides with Reality

The electoral failure of Center and Center-left parties in Europe and the US has brought forth a tentative turn to the left and a modest renaissance of the “socialist” option. With the marginalizing of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, France’s Socialist Party, and Italy’s Democratic Party by voters angry at the parties’ rightward turn, it was inevitable that some shocked party leaders would consider a new, somewhat leftward direction. Whether that sentiment is genuine or will be implemented is yet to be seen. Consistent with that sentiment, the Labour Party in the UK and Spain’s Socialist Party have made popular gains based on a left posture. In most cases, the content of the changes reverts back to the mid-twentieth century social democratic formulae.

In the US, the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 election generated both left rhetoric and a significant, moderate social democratic faction within the Democratic Party. Driven by energetic and youthful veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign (so-called “Sandernistas” gathering around Democratic Socialists of America), the new-found left in the Democratic Party is seeking to transform the party. Its limited, but surprising electoral successes serve to underscore their program for revitalizing the Democratic Party.

Opponents of this leftward tendency from both within and outside the Democratic Party have attacked it, resorting to everything from crude red-baiting to derision. The less scurrilous objections revolve around electability-- the supposed disconnect with mass sentiment.

Most recently, that argument draws upon a comparison with the failed 1972 Democratic Presidential run of Senator George McGovern, defeated handily by Richard Nixon. As Gerald Seib, The Wall Street Journal’s Executive Washington Editor, reminds us: “Richard Nixon, a Republican figure [was] as despised on the left as President Trump is now.”

Seib relies upon the odious Dick Morris-- a former close confident of the Clintons-- to underscore the danger: “The election of 2020 is showing distinct signs of being similar to that of 1972.” Morris adds that the Sanders and Warren “candidacies [are] energized by the same kind of rage as animated that of McGovern in 1972.”

For Seib and others, “[t]he question is whether Democrats are about to repeat that unhappy history.” Seib skillfully draws parallels between the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party before 1972 and the rise of a left within today’s Democratic Party. He calls upon top Obama advisor, David Axelrod, to affirm the comparison. However, “Mr. Axelrod thinks that Democratic voters’ top priority this time isn’t likely to be ideology, but rather the ability to defeat Mr. Trump.” Axelrod counts on the oft-repeated warning that electability must outweigh any and all ideological considerations, the same mantra that drove the center and right forces in the 1972 Democratic Party to oppose McGovern.

Similarly, the former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, Brad Woodhouse, doesn’t fear the rise of the party’s left: “I don’t think the discussion we’re having in my part of the Democratic Party has lurched way far to the left… Our primary electorate has tended to favor more establishment, more pragmatic, more mainstream candidates. I trust our primary process to sort this out.” Like Axelrod, Woodhouse is not overly concerned with the left-leaning candidates and their ideology.

Establishment figures submit that the McGovern comparison demonstrates that a similar left candidate today would be overwhelmingly rejected by voters. They see the 1972 election as foretelling that Sanders and the Sandernistas are out-of-touch with the electorate.

Democratic elites are taking no chances. They are counting on the primary process to sink any insurgency from the left. The fact that nearly 25 candidates have stepped forward avoids any head-to-head face-off between Sanders and, say, the establishment’s Joe Biden. The sheer number of candidates guarantees that delegate counts will be diluted going into the convention, allowing for the moderate, centrist candidates to throw their votes behind a “safe” Joe Biden after the first ballot.

Normally in an election against an incumbent, a party tries to discourage a multi-candidate blood-letting. But for this election, the Democrats are threatening to mount open, retaliatory opposition to only one candidate-- the most radical candidate, Tulsi Gabbard. They are counting on a diffusion of votes and superdelegates to stop Sanders.

But that stop-the-left-at-all-costs stance is also the explanation of the 1972 election sweep. Democratic treachery, and not mass antipathy, best explains McGovern’s resounding defeat.

While McGovern and his team made harmful blunders and moved persistently rightward during the course of the campaign, betrayal by Democratic Party elites contributed most to his defeat. George Meany and other top labor leaders held back support. Big city mayors like Chicago’s Richard Daley either cut-- worked against-- or gave only tepid support to McGovern. 

New York Times
WASHINGTON, July 17, 1972—The harsh opposition of George Meany to the Presidential candidacy of Senator George McGovern is creating widespread confusion, deep cleavages and spreading dissension within organized labor.
CHICAGO, August 24, 1972-- Timed to coincide with Senator McGovern's peace overtures to Mayor Daley, the luncheon was designed to open communication with campaign contributors friendly to the Mayor. Only two representatives of the regular Democratic organization showed up, and, a source close to the situation reported, they were there only to observe and report back to the Mayor.

Certainly the South was moving away from the Democrats and out of the traditional coalition, but, as the 1976 election shows, the Democrats were gaining liberal, suburban bedroom communities. 

While the McGovern candidacy makes for an easy, but misleading comparison for Democratic Party leaders bent on smothering the left, the truth is that they are so completely owned by corporate interests that they would rather risk defeat than accept a candidate minimally challenging to their capitalist sponsors.

It is worth noting that in the McGovern era, the Democratic Party had a sizeable bloc of leaders still wedded to New Deal politics, still associated with Lyndon Johnson’s reforms. Yet McGovern was too radical for them.

Now, after several decades of a persistent rightward drift, the Democratic Party establishment is far more hostile to left ideas and far more dependent upon Wall Street and other capitalist institutions for support.

It is not a question of whether voters are ready for left politics. Rather, it is a matter of whether the Democratic Party’s corporate masters will allow left politics to live in the house that they own. I think the answer is that they will not. The left may visit, but it can’t stay.

This, of course, raises the question of where does the left go. In the US, the failure to secure deep roots for an independent, principled, internationalist, and revolutionary socialist movement that is not totally absorbed with two-party electoral politics means that genuine left politics must suffer through the next 17-18 months of the two-party circus with a guaranteed unsatisfying outcome. And with the distractions of the backwash of the absurd RussiaGate, impeachment-mania, twitter wars, and celebrity missteps, the fate of ordinary Venezuelans, Iranians, Palestinians, and many desperately poor and exploited here will be left to the crazed Trump policy team, a group that the Democratic Party is shamefully reluctant to tackle.

But it’s never too late to plant the seeds of a new politics-- a politics that we need and not the one we have.

The political soil needs to be prepared by drawing lessons from the past. Certainly the McGovern campaign of 1972 speaks to the corruption of the Democratic Party and its leadership. Answers will be found elsewhere.

But there are useful lessons from the European experience as well. The trajectory of the powerful Italian Communist Party (PCI) of the 1970s-- by membership, the largest CP and, arguably, the largest left party in Western Europe-- affords a useful lesson, a caution. By committing without reservation to the course of bourgeois politics-- parliamentarianism, coalitions or alliances across classes, “responsible” governance-- the CPI exposed a Paradox of EuroCommunism and Social Democracy. Writing in 1981, two US academics, Larry and Roberta Garner, took note of “the limits of structural reformism” as exhibited by the PCI in 1978.

Despite their sympathies and hopes for the PCI, they noted that the reformist defense of workers before capitalism’s ravages requires that “moves to bolster the public or national interest must become moves to bolster the functioning of the capitalist firm… Moves that narrow capital’s profit margins, that reduce capital’s ‘space,’ run the risk of precipitating failures or flight within the capitalist sector… Specifically, structural reforms-- if they are genuinely structural-- weaken capitalism and contribute to a crisis… Individual firms fail, large firms have lowered profits, reinvestment does not take place, and, finally, deliberate political actions are taken by capital, such as flight abroad and investment strikes.”

Thus, under the weight of the crisis endured by capitalism in the mid-1970s, the PCI felt compelled to “call for restraint in pressing the traditional working class demands” that are portrayed as contributing to the crisis and jeopardizing job security and capitalist growth. 

In other words, the PCI was caught between advancing the “national interests”-- determined by sustaining capitalism’s health and capacity to supply jobs and benefits-- and advancing the cause of the working class at the expense of capitalism. The PCI, under crisis conditions, could deliver neither the short-term interests of the working class (structural reforms that burdened capitalism) nor the long-term interests of the working class (socialism). The party’s commitment to bourgeois institutions denied it an escape from this contradiction. As the Garners note, pressing forward with structural reforms would mean that the PCI would be blamed by its petit-bourgeois coalition partners for deepening the crisis. To not do so would disaffect its working class constituency.

Today there is neither socialism nor the PCI in Italy.

This should bring to mind the governance of SYRIZA in Greece. The “left” party folded its boasted militancy and joined the mavens of austerity to guarantee the survival of capitalism, while shirking the duty to defend the working class from its enemy. They choose reviving a dying capitalism over hastening its demise.

Managing capitalism, as the Greek Communists insist, betrays the working class and blocks the path to socialism. The tragic collapse of the once powerful PCI demonstrates the fate of social democratic movements that plan to dance with multiple partners and to sing different tunes.

History provides many invaluable lessons. They are ignored at our peril. They allow us to move forward without any illusions. They remind us to choose our political friends and our tactics carefully.

Greg Godels

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Problem with Labor

Labor leader Leo Gerard recently wrote an article, The Untold Story of Trump’s ‘Booming’ Economy, that circulated widely on the Internet. Gerard is the President of the United Steel Workers of America, an industrial union once a leading force in the pre-Cold War, center-left CIO, the last major expression of labor militancy in the US.

In many ways, Gerard’s article is a notable compendium of indicators that track the status of US working people over the last half century. His essay lists many telling facts and figures that document the economic decline of the millions who constitute the working majority of the population.

Gerard shows that workers labor longer and make less with fewer perks and greater insecurity. They are stressed, unhealthy, and commanding fewer rights. At the same time, the wealthy are growing more prosperous. In a word, one that Gerard cannot seem to find in his vocabulary, workers suffer growing “exploitation.”

Certainly, President Gerard’s “untold” story has been told many times before. But as a concise, authoritative chronicler of the dire straits of most working people, Gerard may be without peer. However, as a leader of the struggles of working people, Gerard is without answers.

Just as he cannot utter the word “exploitation,” the Steelworkers President cannot pronounce the word “capitalism.” The enemies of the people are, in his words, “...the system: the Supreme Court, the Congress, the president... [I]t is the system, the American system, that has conspired to crush them [workers].”

But Gerard does not mean to indict the system as an institution, as an institution corrupted, and chronically aligned against workers. He does not charge that corporations, capital, or capitalism own these institutions.

Rather, he means that a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, a Republican Congress, and a Republican President have conspired to keep the workers down.

Of course, this flies in the face of the history of the last five decades that has seen Democratic Congresses and Democratic Presidents join the cause of eviscerating the social gains and material conditions of US workers.

To acknowledge this fact would require Gerard to look beyond the Republican Party as arch villain and recognize that the Democratic Party also contributes to the anti-worker trend. He would need to challenge the facile, deceptive Democratic Party claim of partisanship for the cause of labor. This he cannot do.

Instead, it’s the fault of the right-wingers. If only we could return to a non-existent age when institutions were friendly to labor. “Just like the administration and the Supreme Court, right-wingers in Congress grovel before corporations and the rich,” Gerard exclaims.

It’s hard to square Gerard’s disdain for corporations with the fact that USW recently mobilized busloads to defend the US Steel Corporation against indignant citizens facing life-threatening pollution. When the corporation’s pollution-control equipment was damaged in a fire, allowing dangerous pollution to spew forth in the environs of the company’s Clairton works, Gerard’s union brought counter-demonstrators to confront the angry neighbors forced to choke on the pollutants. Indeed, the union has sought partnership over confrontation since it surrendered to Cold War imperatives.

The union also joined “right-wingers” in the Trump administration to defend corporate interests in last year’s tariff battles. They unhesitatingly joined steel corporations in their racist attacks on Chinese competition and, before that, competition with Japanese steel makers. So much for “grovel[ing] before corporations.”

Nowhere in his essay does Gerard mention the role of workers’ solidarity, union militancy, or activism in defending the gains of workers. Nowhere does he mention the workers’ greatest weapon against corporate power and for improving their conditions, the strike. Nowhere does he address the responsibility of union leaders to rally workers and their friends and neighbors to directly confront corporate power in the workplace and in communities, as well as in the courts and in the election booths.

After the Cold War purge of the left in the labor movement, labor leaders-- sanitized of the militancy and partisanship that Communists and Socialists brought to the movement-- made an unholy pact with capital. They traded class confrontation, international solidarity, and democratic demands for class collaboration, international betrayal, and a junior corporate partnership. As the Cold War drew to a close, capital discarded the partnership and mounted an unbridled offensive against workers. With a complacent union leadership, allergic to confronting their corporate “partners” and with no taste for a fight, the result was the rout that Gerard documents so well.

Of course it didn’t have to go this way. To imagine a different outcome one only has to study the history of the old left-led industrial unions of the CIO. When the USW, the ILWU, the UE, the UAW, the UMW, and the other CIO unions embraced class struggle unionism, they organized millions, energized their members, mounted relentless assaults on their employers, and won unprecedented gains. That history is ably recounted in the still eminently relevant, Labor’s Untold Story.

When Trump is gone, capital and rapacious corporations will remain. The promise of change will be hollow if unions fail to return to the fighting legacy of their forebears. That is the “untold” story that union leaders need to embrace.

Greg Godels

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Three Words that Need to be Retired

Words can be tyrannical. They can dictate the tenor, the direction, and the limits of political discourse, even political action. 

Contrary to the simplistic positivist account, words are elastic, they take on different meanings in different contexts, with different communities, from different motives, and at different times. Users can manipulate, distort, or shape usages to fit particular ends or effects. The coinage of new words-- like the creation of brands-- can persuade or influence. Indeed, words can become a political weapon, possibly unrecognized as such by its victims.

In his own fashion, Marx warned of the tyranny of words. He seldom couched his theories in the linguistic mode, preferring, broadly speaking, to write directly about the referents of words, as was common before the linguistic turn in philosophy. 

Nonetheless, it is sometimes useful to recast some of his thought into an argument about the role of words. This tactic is particularly of value in explicating his wonderfully rich and suggestive Fetishism of Commodities, Section 4 at the end of the first chapter of Volume one of Capital. Marx felt it necessary to devote an entire section to this often misunderstood idea after the publication of the first edition and in subsequent editions. Much could be said about this topic, but, suffice it to say that, in ordinary discourse, the word “commodity” and words denoting various commodities exert an almost hypnotic effect over our thinking, obscuring the complex of historically and materially determined relations that constitutes the deeper analysis of commodities found in Capital’s chapter one. But there are other fetishisms as well...

“Terrorism” and its associated words should be retired. To most of us, they conjure a vicious, brutal attack upon defenseless, innocent victims. Acts of terrorism are thought to be senseless and cruel, the product of a callous disregard for the lives of its victims. In this sense, “terrorism” aptly describes the slaughter of colonized peoples in Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. 
The word is tailor-made for the plight of the indigenous peoples of these lands and their experience at the hands of European colonizers. 

Indeed, colonial genocide of native peoples might well serve as the ostensive definition of “terrorism.” What makes these acts so morally despicable is the gross asymmetry between the might of the colonizers and the powerlessness of their resisters.

But since the Second World War, the meaning of “terrorism” has been completely turned on its head by capital’s stable of idea-shapers. Western governments and the Western media have turned the resisters into “terrorists.” The Mau Mau risings in Kenya, the Hukbalahap resistance in the Philippines, the FLN in Algeria, the ANC in South Africa, the PLO in Palestine, and virtually all other national liberation movements have been slandered as terrorists by the colonizers, occupiers, and aggressors and their allies. Despite the overwhelming asymmetry of power and resources, the victims of that power are labelled “terrorists” for feeble, often desperate attempts at resistance.

In the brilliant movie, The Battle of Algiers, a telling moment comes when the fictional leader of the FLN, Ben M’Hidi, is captured. At a press conference, an indignant French reporter asks Ben M’Hidi how he can justify acts of “terrorism” against colonials. He replies, “Is it less cowardly to drop your napalm on our defenseless villages? ...Let us have your bombers and you can have our women’s baskets [in which the FLN plants bombs].”

Director Gillo Pontecorvo’s point is a profound one. In a war of liberation, the resistance must fight with the weapons available or submit to the oppression of their aggressors. In the best of circumstances, the balance of power still overwhelmingly favors the oppressor. The oppressed have their determination.

Similarly, Native Americans who fought against their genocide at the hands of US land thieves and the US military were called “savages” by the government and press of that time. Today, they would be called “terrorists.”

The US government has abused the term further by promiscuously using “support for terrorism” as a charge levelled at a whim to justify sanctions, blockades, and aggression, a charge levelled or withdrawn based on whether those charged are in or out of favor.

A further reason to retire the word “terrorism.”


When “globalization” became a popular word, it was never clear what people meant by it. Some saw globalization as a new stage of capitalism: post-imperialist, post-nation-state, or on a course returning to a kind of new mercantilism. All those claims seem silly now, with imperialism caught in perpetual wars, a new burst of populist nationalism, and global trade struggling to reach levels attained before so-called “globalization.”

Even capitalist elites concede that it is time to retire the word.

Others, including many labor leaders, saw globalization as a job-sucking aberration of capitalism inspired by political mis-leadership and corporate over-reach. Lacking a class-struggle perspective, they failed to see that what they called “globalization” was really a continuation of a process that dated back to antiquity: the division of labor, in this case, a malignant global division of labor. 

In pursuit of profit and supported by revolutionary advances in the productive forces, capital was able to find cheaper sources of the commodity, labor power. They happened to find sources outside the old imperialist nexus, leaving the advanced capitalist countries with job growth only in finance capital, the professions, and the low-paying service industries, while locating manufacturing in low-wage countries.

By coining or embracing the misleading term “globalization,” labor and political fabulists were able to distract workers from the real source of job loss: the capitalist system. For that reason alone, “globalization” should be retired.

The Middle Class

All efforts to objectively and materially anchor the concept of social class have failed except for that of the Marxists. For Marxists, classes are grounded in a division based upon social relations dictated by the material production of society’s wealth. In the capitalist mode of production these social relationships produce a sharp division between those who purchase labor power and those who sell it. This division identifies two classes, appropriately named the “capitalist class” and the “working class.”

Of course there are grey areas-- strata-- at the edges of the two classes, varying in size and importance at different times, places, and under different conditions. Between the working class and the capitalist class, Marx identified a stratum which he dubbed the “petite” or “petty bourgeoisie.” This social stratum is comprised of people exhibiting some social relations of both classes, but subjectively identifying with the bourgeoisie while having a tenuous hold upon this intermediate status. 

Examples of this strata in today’s world of mature, monopoly capitalism are some doctors, lawyers, and small business people, as well as a coterie of courtiers, parasites, and entertainers to the bourgeoisie.

In the most wealthy countries of North America and Europe the petty bourgeoisie is large, even growing in size and wealth. It constitutes a buffer and political base for the much smaller bourgeoisie.

Historically, many social scientists have conveniently used the term “middle class” to designate the petty bourgeoisie, without doing great injustice to the Marxist distinctions.

But today, charlatans in the US union leadership, the capitalist media, and the political parties use the term differently. They describe everyone occupying the huge space between the hyper-rich (the so-called 1%) and the poor as “middle class.” 

Such a broad, wide-ranged notion of class is an affront to rigor and clarity. It blurs distinctions that reveal the social, political, and economic character of the capitalist system. It artificially and unrealistically ties the class interests of the working class with the apologists, advocates, and beneficiaries of the capitalist system. It masks processes that are impoverishing working people and enriching the capitalist class and much of its petty bourgeois appendage.

With this definition, the retail clerk and the laborer are in the same social class with the small business owner and the salaried mid-, even upper-level manager, sharing the same interests.

By consigning nearly everyone to a nebulous middle class, politicians, bankrupt union leaders, and media lapdogs paint a picture of harmonious common interests shared by everyone but the very rich and the very poor. There is no class friction except possibly at the extremes. Everyone shares in the bounty, shares a common world-view, and strives for the same goals, though some are more “successful” than others. Those outside the harmonious “middle class” and the “extremely successful”-- that is to say, the poor-- appear as somehow misfits, saddled with poor motivation and social dysfunction, worthy of society’s charity.

This Panglossian best of all possible worlds serves capitalism well, obscuring genuine class differences and conflict, while masking the need for working class struggle.

It is time to retire this misleading usage of the term, “middle class.”

The tyranny of words is insidious, especially when so much popular “communication” is limited to 140 characters. Social media encourages brevity, with little room for elucidation or nuance. Hence, millions pounce on words that seem witty, fashionable, or clever. Wit, fashion, and cleverness have never been the measure of clarity or truth.

More ‘subversive’ or ‘misleading’ words in future postings!

Greg Godels