The new balance of forces in Congress, the greatly weakened position of the Bush administration, and the growing activity of the labor-led people’s coalition have rearranged the political playing field in our country. Everyone involved in politics has to adjust their tactics to these new realities.
Those of us on the left are no exception. Some sections of the left have adjusted, others are in transition, but some are still stuck on an outdated approach that doesn’t serve either them or the larger movement well. Below I outline some of the Communist Party’s thinking on tactics taking into account the new realities and opportunities now shaping our nation’s political life.
ssues that stir millions
First of all, the left has to engage in the main struggles of our working and oppressed people. Mass struggles, not on issues that roil the left but on the issues stirring tens of millions, are the ground floor of any serious tactical policy. The struggle to end the occupation of Iraq is the most compelling issue at this moment, but developing struggles for universal health care, real immigration reform, union rights, and equality and against racism are also important. In addition there are many local issues where the left must be engaged if it is going to be a relevant and growing factor.
Second, people on the left have to be an integral part of what we call the core constituencies of the people’s coalition — the working class, the nationally and racially oppressed, women and youth — and their organizations. Their efforts in the 2006 elections were the main reason for the favorable shift in the political terrain on which we all find ourselves. They are not left-minded in their majority. But they are angry and open to new ideas, engaged in battles of one kind or another, and looking ahead with great hope to the 2008 elections. Neither victories in the struggle for peace or any other issue nor a decisive defeat of the extreme right in 2008 is attainable without the active engagement and leadership of these very forces. The left can’t do it alone — if it could, it would have done it a long time ago.
Republicans vs. Democrats
Third, notwithstanding all the deficiencies of the two-party system and the obvious need for an independent party based in the core forces of the people’s movement, we on the left have to make distinctions between Republicans and Democrats. While neither party is about to challenge the overall imperatives and rationale of U.S. capitalism, their policies and constituencies are not identical. It is a mistake to ignore the differences between and within the two parties and their presidential candidates over issues like preventive war, diplomacy, nuclear proliferation, global warming, democratic rights, racism, abortion, affirmative action, immigration — and a real timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.
To approach the two parties as a single party of corporate capitalism when there are obvious divisions will surely isolate the left from the developing progressive coalition that makes such distinctions, both in immediate struggles and in the 2008 elections.
Finally, left-thinking people should avoid counterposing their demands against the demands of others and expressing displeasure toward those who aren’t yet ready to embrace advanced demands, but are ready nonetheless to support more partial ones.
Instead, the left should have the view that supporting legislative demands that fall short of their own demands, and embracing compromises, is absolutely justifiable morally and politically in many circumstances. In no way does supporting a partial measure, say real drug benefits for seniors, delay the struggle for far-reaching measures, such as universal health care, or risk alienating the left’s constituency.
In our view, a serious left tactical policy shouldn’t be reduced to simply staking out a left position and not budging from it, on the assumption that this will shift the debate in Congress to the left, force liberal and centrist Democrats to either get off the fence or reveal their opportunism, and prevent needless compromises.
Such left pressure does influence the political-legislative process, but if it is the only consideration that enters into our calculations it easily becomes simplistic and counterproductive.
Arriving at an effective tactical approach requires that we take into account the evolving balance of forces in Congress and the country, and keep our focus on the Bush administration and the extreme right.
Alliances are necessary
It requires that we try to win allies, no matter how temporary, and strive for the broadest unity. It compels us to examine closely the complex dynamics and diverse political makeup of congressional Democrats. It obliges us to be mindful that mustering a majority in Congress to end the war or pass any positive legislation requires the support of not only progressive Democrats, but also centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Above all, it requires the left to appreciate that participation in day-to-day struggles for partial steps addressing the problems confronting millions, whether peace or other issues, is the main way that millions gain experience, achieve broad unity, and come to understand that a deeper perspective and more comprehensive measures are necessary to defeat U.S. imperialism.
The tactical policy of the left should assist, unite and lead millions to more advanced positions and forms of struggle, to be sure. But it will only be accomplished to the degree that the left engages in struggles and embraces demands that are readily embraced by tens of millions, only to the degree that it is able to flexibly develop and combine various levels and demands of struggle and popular education, only to the degree that its tactical policy is grounded in concrete realities.
Thus, the vote on the nonbinding resolution and supplemental bill with a timetable for Iraq withdrawal this spring, for example, was a missed opportunity for some of the left to deepen unity within the antiwar coalition and to draw peace-minded people into struggle who were not yet ready to fight for more advanced slogans, such as “out now” or “cut the funding now,” but who wanted to register their bitter opposition to this foreign policy disaster.
It was also a missed opportunity to deepen the thinking of those in the left’s constituency who cling to the notion that nothing short of maximum demands is worthy of support.
Politics inevitably involves compromises. The issue is, what is the nature and context of the compromise; does it strengthen the struggle or weaken it going forward? To go into any struggle with the position that no compromise is permissible on political and moral grounds yields an unnecessary advantage to the opponent.
What is more, we should retire the idea that any compromise on the Iraq war or some other issue will necessarily erode the constituency of the left. Some people will see any compromise as an unprincipled retreat, but many won’t if the reasons for the compromise are explained forthrightly. This is especially the case with the nation’s multiracial working people. More than any other grouping in our society, working people (particularly racially and nationally oppressed working people) appreciate the contradictory nature of struggle, are well aware of the overriding importance of the balance of forces in setting the contours and prospects of struggle, and realize that compromises, partial demands and tactical flexibility are an inescapable part of political life.
Opportunities and challenges
With the possibility of ending the Iraq war looming large, and of decisively defeating the extreme right in 2008, it is imperative that these kinds of understandings of our nation’s working people inform the tactical policy of the entire left.
A left that hopes to exercise a decisive impact on our nation’s political direction has to combine realism with radicalism, carefully and concretely measure the balance of class and social forces at every moment, not stand aloof, but fully engage in the struggles that are most deeply felt by millions. It has to accent at every turn the necessity of broad unity and the struggle for racial, gender and other forms of equality, combine different levels of action, demands and education, and qualitatively deepen its connections to our multiracial, multinational working class and the broad people’s movement.
Not since the 1950s has the left been sufficiently rooted in the multiracial working class and trade union movement. The working-class-based left was shattered for all practical purposes by Cold War politics and political repression.
Nearly a half-century later, we have an opportunity to positively resolve this shortcoming. A left embedded in the core constituencies of the people’s movement is the best guarantee that broad and flexible strategy and tactics, derived from a sober analysis of the political situation, will guide the struggles of millions on a political terrain filled with new hopes, new possibilities and new challenges.
Sam Webb (swebb @cpusa.org) is national chair of the Communist Party USA.