A cautionary tale

Sometimes we can learn lessons from our adversaries. I better explain myself before I get in trouble.

No decisive and enduring shift in class relations in our country is possible without a decisive shift of power in the state sphere. Other things are necessary - mass sentiment, grassroots organization, popular insurgency, broad alliances, division in your adversary's camp, etc. - but by themselves these are not sufficient to fundamentally change the trajectory of the class struggle.

Only when combined with control over some, if not all, of the levers of state power (presidency, Congress, governmental agencies, courts, military, and more) does the wish for fundamental change turn into a real possibility.

This understanding informed, as we now know, the priorities and practical activity of right-wing extremism in the 1970s and ever since then. Everything was (and is) done with an eye to winning elective office and filling appointive positions in the governmental apparatus.

Towards this end, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was a crucial breakthrough, giving a powerful impetus to the long-term ascendency of the right wing of the Republican Party. Once in command, the arc of right- wingers, stretching from Reagan to Gingrich to Bush-Cheney, turned the state into the lead actor in a ferocious capitalist counteroffensive - politically, economically and culturally.

The state's role and functions were not so much downsized as recast. On the one hand, it became champion and facilitator of accelerated globalization, financialization, and redistribution of income (or in Marxist talk, surplus value) to the wealthiest families and corporations.

On the other hand, the state employed its considerable force to crush the oppositional forces - the working class and labor in the first place.

To a large degree, this offensive was successful - union membership declined; wages, benefits, and jobs were lost; the traditional strongholds of working class power were weakened; the social safety net was savaged, and the forward movement for racial, gender and other forms equality was halted. At the same time the power and profits of capital were restored and augmented.

There is a lesson here for those at the other end of the political spectrum. It is simple: the electoral arena is of overriding importance. The notion that electoral politics has little progressive potential, that it is "politics lite," that it pales in the face of direct action (an unnecessary juxtaposition) is mistaken and harmful.

Furthermore, a relationship with the Democratic Party isn't heresy or something to profusely apologize for.

Now, it's true that there is always a danger of losing one's political identity and independence in the mainstream of politics (which is where the left should be), but to turn it into a reason to boycott (or participate only half-heartedly in) the electoral arena is a recipe for marginalization. In fact, I would argue that for the left, a relationship to the Democratic Party at this stage of struggle is a strategic necessity and later on probably a tactical requirement.

In 2008, there was no way to defeat the right without such a relationship. The same can be said about this fall's elections.

What is more, there is no evidence that it backburners the struggle for political independence. In fact, new forms of political independence have developed in recent years in important ways, but differently than most of us on the left imagined. To our surprise, they took shape within the framework of the two-party system, not outside of it, and within labor and other major social organizations, operating under the broad canopy of the Democratic Party.

If an alternative people's party is going to emerge (and we should persuasively make the case for one as we participate in existing struggles), these new independent expressions will be its basis and combine with forms operating outside the two party system, such as the Working Families Party, the Progressive Party, and others.

Finally, the state in our society is a historical product and is structured to produce and then reproduce on an extended scale the profits and power of the transnational corporations and banks. Obviously this is an enormous advantage to the right since it favors capitalism in the raw. But still it doesn't follow that the left should avoid the state like the plague.

Properly organized and united, the working class and people's movement can win positions in government and harness them to shift public policy, institutions and agencies to the advantage of working people and their allies. And in so doing, they will create the practical and ideological conditions for more radical changes.

Frederick Engels wrote in the autumn of his life:

With this successful utilization of universal suffrage ... an entirely new method of proletarian struggle came into operation ... It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organized, offer the working class still further levers to fight these very state institutions. The workers took part in elections to particular diets [parliaments], to municipal councils and to trades courts; they contested with the bourgeoisie every post in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had a say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers' party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.

Note that Engels doesn't allow the class form to conceal the political possibilities of participation in "bourgeois" politics and institutions and political structures.

With the elections a few months away, we should quickly digest the lesson.

 

 

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  • You will not win. History tells us that Communism does not work without MURDER, DICTATORSHIP, and LIES. The Giant has awoken and it is too late for you. Obama is a failure and will go down in history as the worst president of the United States. Your Communist/Anarchist young teen morons will learn their lesson as a dog learns it's lesson after snapping at its master's hand. We will break the back of Communism and Progressivism and true freedom will return to the United States.

    Posted by THE NICOTINEGUN, 06/29/2010 12:13pm (4 years ago)

  • Quite the tale. A fairy tale.

    Posted by Max, 06/28/2010 9:30am (4 years ago)

  • I'm sending this article to every Obama-zombie I know. Too many of them don't believe that Barry and the Dems are in bed with Communists.

    As in the 80s, you will be beaten back again. Honor this country's founding, get out of it or poise for battle...comrade.

    Posted by G, 06/26/2010 10:19pm (4 years ago)

  • I am not sure with whom Sam Webb is debating. To me the essence of the problem is not that we participate in elections under current conditions, but how.

    Sam says, "Now, it's true that there is always a danger of losing one's political identity and independence in the mainstream of politics (which is where the left should be), but to turn it into a reason to boycott (or participate only half-heartedly in) the electoral arena is a recipe for marginalization. In fact, I would argue that for the left, a relationship to the Democratic Party at this stage of struggle is a strategic necessity and later on probably a tactical requirement." Again, who is boycotting the election? Of a all the pre-convention discussions expressing concern about the direction of the Party, less than a handful could be interpreted as so sectarian as to advocate boycotting elections.

    Unfortunately, the warnings and concerns about marginalization were ignored. I would suggest that the Party has lost its "political identity" and resists clearly identifying its revolutionary role. It is distressing to see members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus taking more advanced public positions than the Party.

    Out of Iraq and Afghanistan now! The timetable is not our problem. Cut the military budget in half now! Tell the truth about the deficit!

    Posted by David Bell, 06/24/2010 1:06pm (4 years ago)

  • To the person unwilling to sign his/her/any name on the Engels quote. I agree with Sam's point. If yours' is something like "what would Engels do" I think that is absolutely ridiculous. Ugh. Move ahead two centuries please.

    Posted by Minnie, 06/23/2010 5:05pm (4 years ago)

  • On a personal basis I can vote for a Democrat who is truly willing to do much more than what the DNC is pushing. Folks like Kucinich, Grayson. But they are a very small minority. To dedicate myself to the Democratic Party will never occur. I don't belong and they do not represent my class interests, never have and never will!

    There are millions of trade unionists, unorganized workers, environmentalists, civil libertarians, civil rights activists, disenfranchised by the two party system. These people are angry and they are scared! Angry at the democrats for continuing to betray them and scared as they see the current economic crisis in the U.S. for what it is; a depression!

    Now more than ever progressives and all of the above mentioned must unite, set aside petty differences and seriously organize a viable third party alternative! This third party must be inclusive to all of the above as well as gays and lesbians! This new party must not accept corporate funding and must be committed to at least the following: Labor rights, Peace, Real immigration reform, and willingness to act in solidarity with people's movements across the globe!

    There is an old saying in the mental health field that more or less states; "Repeating the same thing over and over again expecting different results is the true definition of INSANITY! Not breaking our dependence on the Democrats is also insane!

    Posted by Pancho Valdez, 06/22/2010 5:51pm (4 years ago)

  • Well after reading this comment I am still really sad because I feel like the Communist Party has not really been heard from in a decade or even two. My parents were communists and activists and I grew up in the party. We held meetings in our home when "I led three lives" a show about a "Hero" FBI agent who infiltrated party meetings was on prime time TV. I watched Ronald Regan denounce the people in the movie industry on National TV during the HUAC hearings. Our government is now so corrupt that we could be in any third world country, and while I still believe in the voting in the voting process I no longer believe in the goverment of these United States. Sadly the Democrats are no different then the republicans despite what they state on TV. Where is the true left? where is the true party. The party that stood up to the union busters in the 30's and 40's. The party that had real labor laws. Today children of the farm workers work in the fields all day long and we hear nothing! I guess I am too old to believe the Democrats are going to give us Health Care, or education or living wages and labor laws. Guess what! they did not give them to us in the first place so why do we expect that from them now. Where is the fire of Gus Hall and the party I knew as a kid!

    Posted by Sheila Malone, 06/22/2010 5:15pm (4 years ago)

  • The Engels quote is interesting historically, but it's irrelevant to the real issue. If the only way forward for the working class at this point is to take part in electoral struggles, then engagement in those struggles is the way to go, whether Marx and Engels said so or not. It's nice if you can find quotes from Marxist classics to back up that position, but it's still beside the point. Remember, Marxism is science not religion. We have to analyze the situation for ourselves using our own knowledge of the current situation and historical materialism to guide our judgment. We must use the method as our guide, not Marx and Engels quotations. Even if they had said "never engage in electoral politics" it would be just as wrong for us to boycott elections on that basis as it would be to participate in elections on the basis of the Engels quotation in Webb's piece.

    Now here's the elephant in the room--Do we have the finesse to participate in electoral politics without being coopted by the two party system and the bourgeois political parties? Who can deny that there aren't some among us who will be unable to resist the temptation to betray the working class in order to fell accepted by the bourgeois mainstream?

    Posted by , 06/22/2010 12:32pm (4 years ago)

  • I like the one simple quote of Engels and your comments bringing it forward in history. However, what exactly did you mean by the following?

    "Finally, the state in our society is a historical product and is structured to produce and then reproduce on an extended scale the profits and power of the transnational corporations and banks. Obviously this is an enormous advantage to the right since it favors capitalism in the raw. But still it doesn't follow that the left should avoid the state like the plague."

    Esther Moroze

    Posted by , 06/20/2010 8:49pm (4 years ago)

  • He's arguing:
    1. Don't turn your nose up at electoral politics.
    2. Support the Democrats in the 2010 elections.
    3. If Engels were around today he'd do the same thing and so would Marx.

    Posted by , 06/19/2010 9:21pm (4 years ago)

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