Obamania and the left
James Turley sees the illusions of millions reflected in the left
A couple of years ago, I spent an overly large part of my life in endless polemics with various rank-and-file leftists on internet forums, mostly of American extraction.
I was particularly harsh on the US International Socialist Organization, formerly the franchise of the British Socialist Workers Party until its completely apolitical expulsion in 2001 from the SWP ‘international’, which has consistently supported leftish consumer advocate Ralph Nader in his presidential runs.
The ISO’s justification was twofold - firstly, significant success for Nader would “break the two-party duopoly” [sic]; and secondly, that there had built up around him a significant grassroots movement which ticked all the right-on soft-left boxes for an opportunist group like the ISO. To the first point, I, along with others, retorted that rightwing businessman H Ross Perot had not managed to break the Republicrat stranglehold, despite votes and prominence vastly in excess of Nader’s - his Reform Party is today in much the same league as the Greens, Libertarians and other no-hoper third parties.
To the second, we would point to the fact that, by mid-2007, it was abundantly clear that the Nader movement had all but wilted. So where had these people gone? To the Barack Obama campaign, of course: the electrifying orator and prophet of “hope”, “change” and a host of other vagaries had poached this grassroots constituency with impunity. Should the job of Marxists, according to ISO logic, not be to support Obama, to ‘get a hearing’ in this great movement?
Well, it seems that some comrades on the left have been blown over by the might of our endless flaming - but in the worst way possible. They have decided that, yes, the movement really is everything, and that meekly weasel-worded support for Obama is quite necessary.
One expects no better, of course, from the rump of the ‘official’ communist movement. The Communist Party USA has been rather unashamed in its support for the left (and, come polling day, the not so left) of the Democrats for decades now. The current guise of this popular-frontist self-negation is the burning necessity - outlined in the CPUSA’s tortuously mechanistic programme, the Road to socialism USA - of a “coalition against the ultra-right”: Bush and his various hard-line neo-conservative and Christian allies.
The bourgeoisie is split on these distasteful lunatics, meaning that the more “realistic” members of that class - those who support the Democrats’ “less arrogant” domestic and foreign policies - are “important though temporary allies” of the “people’s movement”.1
The words change, but the implication remains remarkably constant: the CPUSA’s capitulation to the labour bureaucracy, and the latter’s capitulation to the Democrats, ensures this popular-frontist bilge shall be reproduced time and time again, no matter how obviously counterposed Democrats and their bourgeois support are to the “people’s movement”.
And so it is with the election of Obama. The first issue of the CPUSA paper People’s Weekly World to appear since his victory can barely contain its euphoria - sample headlines: “Dawn of a new era”; “Tears of joy greet Obama election” (November 8). The paper’s website has a further article which cites no less than eight (yes, eight!) “pro-worker changes” that “may” be coming in an Obama presidency, as well as an entirely uncritical puff piece on his intentions to “fix the economy”.2
Though the organisation has not for almost 80 years been close to revolutionary, this does mark something of a new low in the CPUSA’s politics, at least in its recent history. A glance at its public statement following Clinton’s re-election in 1996 reveals alongside a fawning pose before the AFL-CIO union federation, a distinctly lukewarm attitude to the incumbent commander-in-chief. That critical distance, already too small, has simply disappeared. Achilles has caught up with the tortoise.
This side of the Atlantic, of course, has no shortage of decrepit Stalinists hoping to jump the ‘Obamania’ bandwagon. The Communist Party of Britain’s Morning Star proclaimed, in an editorial for November 4, that an Obama victory would be a “triumph for hope”. His threat to go to war with Iran if it attacks Israel is not a concern, because Ali Khamenei “has no intention of attacking Israel” (Well, that’s all right then ...). In point of fact, continues the Star editorial, there are “positive” reasons for supporting Obama - he would likely appoint pro-choice supreme court judges, and, of course, is riding to success on the back of “anti-war and pro-social justice campaigning”.
On the same day the paper carried an interview with Sue Webb of the CPUSA, in which her tripe about ‘fighting the ultra-right’ was carried uncritically.
You might expect something better from those corners of the left without a directly Stalinist heritage. The SWP, however, has so consistently failed to live up to the most elementary tests of principle that it has long become a special case.
The lead article in the latest Socialist Worker, entitled ‘The movement behind Barack Obama’, is reasonably well balanced: “… Obama’s victory is the product of two forces converging behind him - one from below and one from above” (November 15). However, Weyman Bennett is rather more upbeat in his ‘The reaction to Obama’s election in Britain’: “A group of black post workers I know said that people were coming into work cheering after the election. It has raised people’s confidence - the post workers are using the phrase, ‘Yes, we can’, when they negotiate with their managers. It’s important that people feel that they can change things and that’s what Obama’s election has meant for lots of people.”
Speaking at the November 8 conference of the SWP’s front, Left Alternative, Shaun Doherty was positively gushing. Warning that it would be wrong to “respond negatively” to the Obama election - that would “cut us off from millions of people” - he went on to demonstrate the opposite failing. He recalled how, on the day after US election night, people had said to him, “Isn’t it great, Shaun, what’s happened?” Although he had to stop and think for a moment what they were talking about, he was quick-witted enough to respond, “Yes, it is.” And he soon got into the right mode. Within a short time he had produced ‘Celebrate Obama’s victory’ publicity material for a Love Music, Hate Racism gig - young black kids were enthusiastically volunteering to distribute it, he said.
This enthusiasm has also affected the SWP-run Stop the War Coalition, which issued a statement welcoming the election of Obama, declaring itself “delighted”. The president-elect is praised for his “forthright opposition to the Iraq war” and his “commitment” to troop withdrawal. This schizophrenic press release at least manages to point out that he also favours more troops in Afghanistan and “has not ruled out [sic!] an attack on Iran”.3 Delightful ...
Which brings us back, after a fashion, to the ISO, whose response is largely in the vein of the SWP’s (no event in the last seven years has proved capable of forcing a cigarette paper between these feuding organisations). Its own Socialist Worker is also critical of Obama: “a closer look at Obama’s stated policy positions - as opposed to his soaring rhetoric - points to a big gap between the hopes and expectations of Obama voters and the cautious, moderate programme he has put forward” (November 7).
It too, however, has lent its name - via the soft-left Democrat-run United for Peace and Justice anti-war coalition - to the most vulgar, fawning reception for Obama on the American left (outside the CPUSA, of course).4 Support for pro-war Democrats would, you would think, be a split issue for any serious anti-war organisation. But then, popular frontism has never let basic political logic get in the way of a good opportunist lash-up.
It should be pointed out that these opportunist outbursts contain one very important grain of truth. This is that Obama, through a combination of his own considerable personal charisma and a razor-sharp political campaign, genuinely has captured the public imagination on a basis of very little solid policy.
This has worked out splendidly for him so far - oppressed sections of the population voted for him in spades (along with a majority of the top earning bracket, interestingly). But there is another sense in which he is playing with fire in courting this constituency. These millions of Obama supporters have, in a limited but important way, been animated as political agents.
This really was not just a typical election - while the substantive policy on offer was no more diverse than any other year, the appearance of events suggested the opposite. Giving people the semblance of power is obviously not really to give them power - but it can make them more apt to react angrily, rather than despondently, when disillusionment kicks in. We are already, furthermore, in a period of crisis, when social upheaval is likely on the agenda anyway.
I am emphatically not suggesting any kind of mechanistic ‘crisis of expectations’ perspective for explosive growth of the left - it remains to be seen which social forces will ultimately benefit from the new assertiveness in the especially poor, young and black American voters who turned out for Obama. However, it cannot be denied that the emergence of this movement - which dwarfs the right-on Naderites in every way possible - is an event of very real importance in American politics, and the rough-hewn political consciousness of this constituency presents an equally real challenge to the American left.
It was correct, as far as it goes, for John McDonnell to claim at a Hands Off the People of Iran conference earlier this year, that principled anti-imperialists must connect and relate to this movement. But how? Our job as Marxists is to agitate and propagandise for independent class organisation in any situation - particularly in America, where mass migration, state repression and imperialist hegemony have combined to leave its working class with no long-lived mass parties, even of the reformist social democratic or Stalinist types.
This means breaking the illusions of the millions in Obama. It means, for that matter, breaking the illusions of the dwindling thousands in Ralph Nader, a dubious localist with some horrific policies, notably on immigration (where he is often to the right of George W Bush). The latter deluded souls still include Socialist Alternative, our own Socialist Party’s US franchise, with the apparent consent of the mothership.5
Instead of proclaiming a victory for the anti-war movement, we should be pointing out wherever possible the president-elect’s pronounced hawkish tendencies. Instead of digging up eight (eight!) possible pro-worker policies from a morass of half-forgotten stump speeches, we should expose the wholly reactionary nature of Keynesianism, how it sapped the revolutionary energy of the dispossessed in its heyday and ultimately sent millions of proletarians to their deaths in the battlefields of World War II.
Obama has done the left a service by mobilising millions. We should not return the favour by letting him keep them.
2. www.pww.org - November 11 and 6 respectively.
5. See The Socialist April 2 for some uncritical Nader support.