Friday, April 29, 2016

A few words to the Left

It has been a long time since anyone posted on our Oregon Socialist Renewal blog. We need to renew this work and better describe who we are and what we do as socialists.

Our Salem, Oregon group has people in it who are involved in their unions, in local racial justice work, in political campaigns, in environmental projects, in trans awareness and rights struggles and in the kinds of activist-driven community campaigns that are hard to label or describe. We are working-class people, we’re non-hierarchical and we show up at rallies and do the work of the rank-and-file. I think that we listen to people and that we have our feet on the ground. We are in worksites, in the union offices and on the streets and in the housing complexes and in the social justice groups every day learning from people and talking to them. Most of us come to this place with strong backgrounds in organizing, and it is this focus on organizing which moves us forward, even if it is in fits and starts.

On the other hand, we are not very focused, we don’t function collectively much of the time, we don’t study together and we find agreement and cohesion more by accident than through a more deliberative process. We have found ourselves in several national organizations over the years, the latest being the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy andSocialism (CCDS).

CCDS has not had much effect on our praxis over the years. I wish that matters were turning out differently, but our ties to CCDS have only meant real ties to our comrades in Corvallis and to a few others. CCDS as a national organization seems either set to dissolve or to shift to being an educational effort. We, on the other hand, have wanted something which would assist us in local organizing, connect us directly to people in our region doing work similar to what we do and be supportive of our international work. Some of us have hoped for a more politically-driven and centered organization with a cadre more focused on political organizing and party-building; CCDS is not that organization. When a few of us have tried to develop stronger ties to CCDS we have felt frustrated. On the other hand, we have not used the great CCDS educational resources that are available and we have not been able to put time aside to participate in the discussions underway about the organization’s future. Participation in these conversations has been inhibited by technology and schedules which have not worked for us.

We are currently discussing how we can help sponsor and build a series of socialist conferences which have the ability to carefully consider our options and build a larger and more cohesive regional socialist presence.

We also notice---and we have experienced this in our group many times over the years---a widespread tendency on the left and in social movements to function without real commitment and accountability. People take on responsibilities and then drop out soon after, people show up to “sample the goods” but don’t commit, there is a culture here of making political work transactional and an unwillingness to take our ideas out to others, people get bored by bureaucratic union meetings and don’t return to fight for a militant program, there is an inability to think dialectically, mansplaining does great damage, there is not a love of the people and a willingness to serve the people.

This mix of positives and negatives, frustrations and walls, false starts and reinvention might be common on the left these days. We don’t know because we don’t have enough contact with other left groups. I often ask other people on the left what they actually do day-in and day-out---how they organize, what their daily praxis is---and get vague answers. It seems to me that many people on the left live in a kind of self-imposed exile, not willing to reach beyond the walls that we have constructed around ourselves. We also have many people on the left who have put aside their politics in order to work in liberal movements, for unions and in non-governmental organizations and these folks are incredibly busy, often too busy to think through what they’re doing and what they’re about.

The people who aren’t organizing and mobilizing spend a great deal of time on social media trying to convince us that our daily work is futile and misdirected, while the folks buried in the liberal groups and unions work very hard to convince us that every compromise is a step forward and that class struggle and revolutionary demands are destructive. If the people in the first group are super-attentive and come to what they do with something like laser-like intensity, quick to criticize and correct, the folks in the latter group most often drop the ball, don’t return calls and e-mails and show up to use and derail movements when they feel that this is the necessary course to follow.

I am describing matters with a certain flourish, not in great detail and not mindful of all of the complexities involved. I want to mention in passing that there are many groups which do not fit into these categories. Freedom Road and the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, whatever their differences and whatever disagreements we may have, have risen far above the common left experience. The Sanders campaign has helped build the Democratic Socialists of America---certainly not one of our favorite organizations---into something with a real presence and base. We have no direct ties to the KentuckyWorkers League or to the Southern Workers Assembly, but both seem to be saying and doing the right things. The continuing success of Labor Notes and the stabilization of the workers’ rights centers movement also point in good directions. We take from these groups the lesson that we win when we fight back. What we need here are the people willing to commit to fighting back and seeing the struggles through.

Sanders’ politics stop where mine begin, and I am often put off by the naïve white men in the Sanders movement who want to preach revolution to me, but the Sanders movement has helped shift almost everything to the left in the US. It is hard to imagine that we will see a rollback or that conditions will return to normal even after Sanders loses the nomination, and even if he endorses Clinton. We have come very far in a short period of time, and this journey has not been particularly spontaneous or driven solely by reformism. There is the critique that the Sanders movement owes its energy to the Occupy movement, but I think that its roots are more properly located in the Jackson campaigns or, for that matter, in the Henry Wallace movement. There is the ultra-left critique that Sanders is ultimately the same as Clinton, but this seems simply wrong and misdirected. There are important policy differences between the two candidates, but the real difference is in the quality and quantity of the campaigns; Sanders has a movement and Clinton has a campaign, Sanders attracts some of the most politically engaged forces at the grassroots while Clinton manipulates those forces. And there is the reformist argument that Sanders has declared the start of a political revolution all by himself, that corporate money and Citizens United are all that stand between this revolution and its victory, that it is the concentration of wealth that matters more than any other social questions. The reformist argument is extremely naïve, perhaps willfully so, and it dovetails with the Clinton argument that real change isn’t really possible.

As the Sanders movement loses its collective naiveté in the face of hard struggle a certain number of Sanders’ followers are bound to walk away disenchanted and burned out. They will take Clinton’s point that we have to settle for less, if they are willing to engage with politics at all at that point. My concern is with those people and also with the most politically engaged folks backing Sanders; they both need a radical alternative based in a revolutionary praxis which loves, serves and organizes the people.

The Sanders movement has done a great job in changing the national conversations on wealth, power, race and foreign policy. “Socialism” is no longer a word to hide from and progressive alternatives are being debated everywhere. For the first time in many years we have the opportunity to make a case for change before the American people. And the field is filling up with progressive candidates like Dave McTeague who can help carry a people-before-profits program through if they can win support from workers, young people, people of color and women.

Even after Sanders and some of the best candidates lose we will have a stronger foundation for winning a higher minimum wage and workers’ rights, rent control, equal rights for all and defeating racism and sexism, real immigration reform, a peoples’ budget and money for healthcare and education (and not for wars and occupations). Our group supports these goals and works for them every day.

The political campaigns remain weak on foreign policy, racism and sexism, trade policy and immigration. Sanders and the candidates running with him need a firm push from the people in these areas. Real internationalism needs to replace foreign policies driven by short-term American interests and trade deals. White, male and heterosexual privilege needs to be defeated. The door needs to be opened to women, youth and people of color in every area. Strikes and worker resistance to corporate power need to be encouraged and supported. The passions which built the Occupy movement, the civil rights and womens’ movements, the environmental movement, the immigrant rights movement, gay liberation and union organizing need to be continuously reignited and every politician must be held accountable for their relationship to these movements.

When I talk to people on the left about this---and particularly with people who are ultra-left---I hit a very stubborn refusal to work with the people and the peoples’ movements. With Verizon workers on strike and the Communication Workers of America (CWA) officially backing Sanders, there is a historic opportunity for the left to learn and to build, to break out of our confines. It would be opportunistic to jump into the struggle later with a list of criticisms. It would be sectarian to stand on the sidelines and sit out the necessary fights. It would be elitist and sectarian to try to influence matters from a distance and without a base among the workers and in the Sanders campaign as well. Still, these are relatively strong tendencies on the left. These tendencies developed over years of isolation from peoples' struggles and from not having a dialectical understanding of how movements function. Also, the misunderstanding that there is a contradiction between quantity and quality has been widespread on the left for many years, and this has worked out in a way that distrusts any large movement that is not narrowly and explicitly revolutionary.  

The US left left does not come to this place by accident. We have not grasped dialectical materialism, we have no leading left party or left front, we did not consolidate forces before Obama was elected, we were demobilized by corporate Dems and by people on the left who saw more in Obama than is there, we allowed a certain distance to grow between the left and the Black working-class masses, and we’re not generally about building principled united fronts. None of this is to our credit.

So a major union in basic industry (CWA) is on strike and that union has officially endorsed Sanders. I am a leftist. I can do any of the following. Which should I do?

1. Get on FB and rant about Sanders and union leaders selling-out. It's easier than doing anything else.
2. Go down to the rally and the picketline and sell my paper and hand out my leaflet telling everyone the Truth. It's the only way workers will ever learn anything.
3. Identify the political level of the most advanced workers and tell them what they need to know. Then I can get back on FB and go back to my group and feel like I've done something.
4. Work on delegitimizing unions, Dems and the rest of the left who I disagree with. I know better than they do 'cause I've studied this stuff for a few years and have read some great books. Fighting with people I disagree with creates ideological clarity, and everyone is depending on me to do this.
5. Think about what skills it would take to get a job in basic industry, acquire those skills and become someone in a workplace who coworkers respect and then use that position to build a group and organize from.
6. Go to the Sanders and union meetings, participate in the most basic ways so that I learn organizing skills, listen to what people are talking about and work together with them to find solidarity. Dedicate myself to talking to 3-5 people every day who do not share my politics and making 80% of those conversations listening.
7. Find some compromise positions among a number of labor and community groups that I'm in that everyone is good with, build political power in my workplace/neighborhood and help use that power collectively to change power dynamics and fight the right and racism from where we are.
8. Continue on with things like Occupy, the Greens and inner-left battles because that has all proven to be so successful so far. After all, its the movement from the margins and the periphery that changes things.

A closing point: we need to ask ourselves what we are willing to critique and give up in our praxis, throwing out whatever it is that puts distance between ourselves and the people we need to win over.