The following speech by Sam Webb, chairman of the Communist Party USA, was prepared for a public event scheduled the same week as the Homecoming Celebration at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada. It was originally published by Political Affairs.
It’s wonderful to be back on campus. I have been a stranger here for many years. But not because I have bad memories; in fact, I have fond feelings for the university and nearly everyone I encountered, although I have to admit I didn’t have a notable college career by any measure.
My grades oscillated from term to term.
I was a mediocre basketball player, a no-show at a religious retreat that was an annual affair back then, and ended up on disciplinary probation for two years. My best friends were expelled for a year for a long forgotten episode that followed a long afternoon of drinking at the Colonial Tavern in New Glasgow. One priest who we met walking across the campus a day or two later said that we had done ‘irreparable damage’ to the university.
To top things off, I left without an X-ring on my finger and missed graduation. But the latter wasn’t entirely my decision. About a week and a half before receiving my diploma, a Canadian Mountie tracked me down at a restaurant on the outskirts of town late one evening and told me in less than diplomatic language to be out of Antigonish by sunrise.
As you can see, I was closer to a rascal than a good citizen of this university. Nevertheless, or maybe because of this, memory of my years here still brings a smile to my face. When I re-entered the U.S. in the spring of 1967, not in the wildest dreams did I think that I would plunge into politics and a political career, especially on the left of the political spectrum.
Had I returned to the U.S. a decade earlier, or even five years earlier, I more than likely would have ended up on a different path. Instead, my transition from college student to young adulthood became embedded in the fracturing social fabric of my country and not surprisingly, this fracturing left its mark on me in many ways.
Only a few months after graduating, the armed services sent me a letter telling me that I had to report for a physical. Had I passed I would have been drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam.
Luckily, I failed the physical, but the same can’t be said about another classmate and friend of mine, Dick Cotter, who passed the physical, was sent to Vietnam, and returned in a body bag to my sorrow.
While that senseless war tragically took the lives of 58,000 young Americans in the spring of their lives, it also contributed mightily to the radicalization of a considerable section of my generation.
Vietnam wasn’t the only thing that turned many restless young men and women into radicals at the time, but speaking for myself it was a pivotal factor in throwing me on a personal and political trajectory that I wouldn’t have imagined when I was on campus 40 years ago.
This goes to prove that we are not the ONLY authors of our lives. Indeed, other and much larger social forces leave their footprint on who we are, what we think, and the choices we make.
To quote Karl Marx, ‘People make history, but not as they please.’
I could easily regale you with more stores, but I’m not sure that you would find them very interesting nor is that my topic this evening. So let me turn to contemporary politics in the U.S.
At the crossroads
The U.S. is at a crossroads.
Why? Because the right-wing political bloc — a bloc that has dominated political life for a quarter century — is finally losing its momentum and potency. The Bush administration, which is the latest and most dangerous iteration of right-wing extremist rule, is on the defensive for the first time since 9/11. His political bloc is fraying; his popular approval is tanking; his control of Congress is kaput; and his (and Karl Rove’s) plan to permanently re-align politics in a conservative direction is dead in the water.
His closest advisers are cleaning out their desks. His plans to privatize Social Security, Medicare, and public education are in shreds. His massive spying apparatus, sanction of torture, and denial of due process rights are criticized from many quarters.
The swagger and bravado of my dear president is less and less on display these days. Instead, Bush and his aides are largely reduced to stalling and blocking Democratic Party legislation. Unfortunately, because of the thin Democratic majority, the White House has had some success.
Republicans, of course, are aware that these blocking actions could come back to haunt them in 2008, particularly if their candidates go into the elections defending a very unpopular occupation and president.
While General Petraeus’ cherry picked report on the ‘surge’ bought Bush a little breathing space and reigned in the wavering in his own Party, a majority of Americans — not to mention all the Democratic presidential hopefuls — are still insisting that the troops be withdrawn according to a timetable.
A turning point in the struggle against the Bush administration and right-wing extremism was last year’s congressional elections. The elections were both a referendum on and a public protest of Bush’s policies, particularly the illegal occupation of Iraq.
But more importantly, they shifted control of Congress from Republicans to Democrats, thereby not only turning Congress into a site of real debate and struggle, but also creating a much more favorable terrain for the labor-led people’s movement on which to fight.
Now no one thinks that wrongs will be righted overnight, that justice will roll like a mighty steam, or that the people’s movement can rely on the Democratic Party — a capitalist party and not only in the last instance — to carry the day.
Nevertheless, there is a palpable feeling in the labor-led people’s movement that the moral arc of the universe is once again beginning to bend towards justice.
Indeed, hope — that precious sentiment that shakes us from our lethargy and allows us to seize the day — is alive. A sense of possibility fills the air. The tempo of political life is picking up.
The oppositional movements are showing more bounce to their step.
Suddenly a people’s agenda is not simply an exercise in wishful thinking, but something that can be fought for and won.
In short, the election outcome last year was a people’s victory. And because it was, people’s struggles, which are at the core of the political process no matter how favorable the balance of forces in Congress, continue on more favorable ground.
Loss of legitimacy
The declining popularity and authority of the Bush administration in the United States is mirrored many times over worldwide. With the exception of your own prime minister and a few other heads of state across our planet, Bush is considered a dangerous rogue, or to hoist Bush up on his own petard, ‘the axis of evil.’
Probably never has an American administration been so reviled by the world community or the legitimacy of the United States sunk to such a low point.
How do we account for this turn of events? How do we explain the Bush administration’s loss of legitimacy? In an immediate sense, nothing figures more prominently in an explanation for its unpopularity than the Iraq war.
Ironically — and history is full of ironies and unintended consequences — this unilateral, unnecessary, and bloody war that Bush and his neoconservatives advisers thought would catapult U.S. imperialism into a position of unrivaled dominance for the foreseeable future has come back to bite them. More than anything else this imperialist war, which even former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan says is all about oil, accounts in large measure for Bush’s plummeting support.
Admittedly, it took a while for public opinion in the U.S. to turn against the war. But as the occupation of Iraq morphed into a quagmire, as the blood and treasure of the American and Iraqi people spilled without an end in sight, as lies piled upon lies, as the ghastly images of torture of so-called enemy combatants filled the TV screen and the Internet, as the web of spying ensnared millions of ordinary people, as presidential powers expanded at the expense of constitutional protections and congressional oversight, as the rest of the world expressed its dismay and anger — as all of this happened, popular support for the illegal occupation began to crumble to the point where the majority of Americans oppose the war.
In fact, no matter where you look, save the White House and Pentagon, you will find little enthusiasm for this war. In Bush’s own party few cheerleaders are found, and many will increasingly put some distance between themselves and Bush, as the 2008 elections get closer. This spring, I suspect, the Republican exodus will hit full stride. After all, even rats have sense enough to jump a sinking ship at some point.
But you might be thinking, why did take the American people take so long to oppose the war? Because of time I won’t get into that other than to say that it is much easier to oppose the actions of the U.S. government and military if you reside in Canada or Germany or Brazil or South Africa or China. In the belly of the beast the pressures on the people and their representatives are palpable and enormous, particularly in the wake of 9/11.
To stop here however — that is to hang Bush’s demise only on the Iraq war — leaves us with only a partial explanation for the changing fortunes of the Bush administration. In a more general sense, the undoing of the Bush administration is also the result of a grand, but in the end unrealistic project of empire building on the part of the most reactionary section of the U.S. ruling class, anchored in the energy, military, pharmaceutical, agribusiness, finance and other industries. As important as the Iraq war was, it was only a piece, albeit an essential piece, of a much larger project of world domination that is proving to be another instance — and there have been many in history — of imperial overreach.
To expand on this point: In the 1990s, this same section of the U.S. ruling class and its ultra-right political representatives decided that the anti-working class, anti-people, anti-socialist counteroffensive that began full throttle with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and that was rationalized in the idioms of militant anti-communism, racism, and nationalism hadn’t fully achieved its aims.
While the balance of power back then had been re-tilted back in favor of capitalism and imperialism and against socialism and national liberation, and while the profits and wealth of the ruling classes had been restored in tandem with the weakening of labor and other democratic movements, and while the world capitalist economy had regained some momentum, and while the U.S. had seemingly re-established its uncontested dominance worldwide — while all this was going on, there were unintended consequences too.
New economic contradictions, instabilities and bubbles sent shock waves across the global economy. Income inequality within and between countries and regions was aggravated to the extreme, thereby creating economic and political instability. Class, racial, and gender tensions were heightened. And robust and durable growth was a no show.
What is more, geopolitical rivalries among the core capitalist countries over resources (especially oil) and spheres of influence (especially the Middle East) were intensified. New economic competitors and configurations of regional power on nearly every continent arose. China mushroomed, albeit faster than anyone expected, into a potential counter hegemonic power to U.S. imperialism.
And, finally, widespread and fierce popular resistance in nearly all quarters of the globe surfaced during this period — nowhere more so than in Latin America where popular, anti-imperialist governments were elected to power.
Thus, as Marxism would anticipate, the very successes of capitalist globalization and its fierce offensive generated the new conditions, contradictions, distributions of power, and oppositional movements that threatened the political dominance of U.S. imperialism at the beginning of the 21st century.
Domination by force
Given this contested situation, the most reactionary section of the ruling class reached the conclusion — and it is embodied in the document, ‘Project for a New American Century’ — that a change of policy from hegemony that combines consent and coercion to a policy of uncontested world domination that relies exclusively on force was necessary in order to restore the unrivaled position of U.S. imperialism for years to come.
Making this decision much easier was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which had been the main counterweight to U.S. imperialist aggression for nearly a half century.
But for this plan of global domination to become a practical policy, for it to migrate from conceptual to practical stage, two conditions had to be met. First, control of the presidency had to be secured and, second, a pretext to rationalize this dangerously mad policy had to be found.
The first condition, as you know, was met when the right-wing-dominated U.S. Supreme Court selected Bush to be president in 2000, thereby allowing Bush, Cheney, and a team of neo-conservatives to take over the reins of government and grab the levers of coercive power. Many of them, including Cheney, had been authors of the New American Century document.
Nine months later, the other condition was fulfilled when planes struck the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in the early morning of September 11. In an instant, this horrendous act gave the Bush administration the much-needed pretext and rationalization (this time in the idiom of ‘fighting international terrorism’) to pursue its policy of global domination with a vengeance.
With unmatchable military power and formidable economic assets at their fingertips, these right-wing operatives attempted to lay waste to ‘rogue states,’ intimidate rivals that had the moxie to challenge their plan of global domination, and run roughshod over opponents at home and elsewhere.
Yet, six years later, this project of world domination is in near shambles. Even among some sections of the U.S. ruling class, the Bush administration is considered a failure. And the military intervention in and occupation of Iraq are considered unmitigated disasters that no matter how they resolve themselves have weakened U.S. imperialism economically, politically, and ideologically.
What should we conclude? Simply put, the unilateral pursuit of empire is a difficult project to achieve. While the U.S. military possesses truly awesome power, it is also true that limits and obstacles exist to the exercise of that power. Empire building in any age is a dubious proposition, but particularly in the 21st century, it is full of contradictions, resistance, blowback, steep costs, and counterbalancing by other powers. The 21st century will not be a unipolar century for the U.S. or anybody else.
So is Bush’s jig up? Is the Emperor without any clothes? Is it curtains for the right-wing project of world domination?
Not entirely! As the struggle to end the occupation in recent months proves, the Bush administration’s hands are not completely tied. To be sure its power is far more circumscribed; but it is not yet a ‘paper tiger.’
Declining poll numbers notwithstanding, this administration is still reckless to the extreme.
A White House aide quoted in the New York Times Magazine shortly before the presidential elections in 2004 captures well the mentality of Bush’s team even now, ‘This administration doesn’t worry about reality because it makes its own reality.’
Although I am sure that there is some hyperbole, it, nevertheless, contains more than a grain of truth in so far as the Bush administration believes that a combination of political will, control over the state apparatus, and readiness to project power is enough to overcome the most intractable problems and unfavorable balance of forces. While it is true that all analogies suffer, a similar mindset guided the Third Reich.
Only last week Newsweek magazine disclosed secret talks between Cheney’s office and the Israeli government where an Israeli strike on Iran was actively considered.
What then is to be done? Vigilance is imperative. Broad unity is necessary. Every inch of democratic space must be defended and enlarged. And the struggle to end the occupation of Iraq and prevent a new war with Iran must be ramped up further.
Every bit as important, all democratic and peace-minded people in my country must throw themselves into the 2008 elections. And while we can’t dismiss the possibility of an ‘October surprise,’ the main thing for the labor-led people’s movement in the U.S. is to fight for the broadest mobilization of the American people in order to break the right-wing grip on our nation’s political structures.
Why do I say this? Because the elections are the main arena where a fundamental and necessary realignment in the balance of forces can be effected at this moment. Other struggles can weaken the Bush administration and the extreme right, but none of them, even taken together, have the same potential to inflict a deadly body blow to the far right and shift the balance of power in a qualitative way in a progressive direction.
The aim of the labor-led movement is to elect a Democratic president and larger Democratic majorities in Congress. A landslide Democratic victory — taking the presidency and Congress by substantial margins — will create far more favorable conditions for progressive change than presently obtain. It won’t change the conditions of life for the working class and its allies overnight to be sure, but it will change the political atmosphere and significantly alter the terrain of struggle on which they fight for the better. After a quarter century of right-wing rule, this should not be minimized.
Race for the White House
As for the presidential candidates in the Democratic Party, the front-runners are Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. On many issues they are saying the right things, albeit with some backpedaling and contradictions, especially on Hillary Clinton’s part and especially on the scope of the pullout from Iraq.
What is more, the possibility that Obama, an African American, Clinton, a woman, or Bill Richardson, a Mexican American, could be elected to be the next president is historic and speaks well of the democratic instincts of the American people.
As for the Republicans, aren’t they a sorry reactionary bunch? Their battle is uphill, especially given the fact that Bush isn’t bouncing back in the public opinion polls. Like it or not, they are tethered to a very unpopular presidency. Moreover, none of them has a program that matches the shifts in mass thinking that have been taking place.
In a sense they espouse the politics of yesterday. They fail to realize that a paradigm shift in the structure of thinking and feeling across the country is occurring. The exact nature of it and its sweep still needs to be analyzed, but I do feel that sentiments and understandings of millions are changing to the disadvantage of the Republican candidates.
Hanging their hat on cultural issues, for example, will resonate among some sections of the voters to be sure, but these issues don’t have the same mobilizing power that they once did. Even the issue of immigration falls into this category in my opinion, although expect the Republicans to attempt to exploit people’s fears and insecurities on this issue.
What issues will frame these elections and the post-election period? To begin with, the Iraq war and in larger sense the role of the U.S. in the international arena will figure prominently in these elections.
No Democrats are going to embrace the Bush doctrine, and most Republicans will put some distance between themselves and the doctrine considered as a coherent grand strategy.
Combating terrorism will be part of the national conversation, but the accent will be Al Qaeda, police actions, intelligence sharing, international cooperation, and so forth. Large-scale interventions and occupations will not be the flavor of the month among any of the candidates.
We will hear greater talk about the importance of diplomacy, restoring America’s image worldwide, multilateralism, the judicious projection of power, and talking with our enemies. The candidates will have to address the role of the U.S. in the post-Cold War, post-Iraq world.
None of them, with the exception of Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich, are going to yield ground on the primacy of U.S. in world affairs. Each will insist on its necessity and indispensability. While they will accent allied cooperation, they will also argue that without U.S. primacy the lights will dim on democratic governance, enlightenment, order, and peace worldwide, that the world will slide into anarchy and disorder.
The Democrats, of course, on this score will be better than the Republicans, and those differences can count for a lot. But, aside from Kucinich, each of them will make the case for U.S. imperialism’s pre-eminent position in the world.
Unfortunately, such striving for hegemony in a changing world and regardless of who is in the White House, will inevitably land us — not to mention others — in trouble. We need to fashion a different vision and place for ourselves in the world community.
We need to give prominence to cooperation, respect for the rule of international law and international treaties. We need to support the UN and other peacekeeping institutions. We need to use our wealth to solve global problems. We need to narrow the gap between and restructure our relations with the global South. And we need to close military bases, withdraw our troops, and demonstrate a practical commitment to dismantling nuclear weapons.
Another issue that will frame the elections is economic well-being. Not for a long time have the conditions of economic well-being been so bad. And they could easily get worse, given both short and longer-term political and economic trends.
The new explosive factor in the mix is the collapsing housing market. Its collapse is being felt across the economy. We should remember that the collapse of the housing sector in Japan triggered an economic crisis and left that economy mired in a seemingly intractable state of stagnation for roughly a decade.
To make matters worse, the world economy continues to be awash in excess commodities and underutilized production capacity, and the transnational corporations are driving down living standards and shedding workers as quick as they can.
Not for a long time has the working class felt such insecurity. More and more workers don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
A third issue that will frame the election is global warming. There is a growing consensus that the rising temperature of the earth is one of the main challenges facing humankind in the 21st century. It is no longer going to happen; it is happening now; nearly everyone in the scientific community agrees that the evidence is indisputable.
Even the Bush administration has to acknowledge that the earth’s temperature is rising because of the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal). And the clock is ticking. Most climatologists say that global warming is the most confounding national security issue in the 21st century and that we have to take action now. We can’t wait another five years.
Thus there is no time to delay.
Then there is the issue of immigration. The issue of immigration has surfaced dramatically over the last decade in our country and worldwide. And it will take up much of the oxygen in these elections. It appears to be the most favored wedge issue of the Republicans.
Immigration can be only understood in the context of the new stage of capitalist globalization and the pushes and pulls that this new stage brings to bear on working people. Never before have there been such massive flows of migrant labor within and between countries and regions.
It is not natural population growth, but the uneven development and deployment of productive forces and capital across global space in the context of a worldwide accumulation crisis that account for these vast movements of labor power from economically stagnant cities, regions, and continents to more dynamic ones.
Racial and gender quality
Racial and gender equality, not to mention civil liberties, will command attention in these elections as well. The Bush administration with the full support of congressional Republicans has done immense damage to our constitutional liberties, while systematically dismantling structures and measures that promote racial, gender, and other forms of equality. The state and its agencies have been turned into a racist, misogynist, and anti-democratic wrecking ball, targeted at reforms, rights and freedoms won in the course of my nation’s history.
These then are some of the issues in what make for a very contentious election.
Across a broad spectrum of public opinion, a consensus exists that the world is changing in far-reaching and unprecedented ways. In his recent book, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security director in the Carter administration and an international relations theorist, says that the most salient feature of the 21st century will be a great political awakening that is beginning to sweep the globe.
What does this mean for you? In a few words, the world in which you will grow to adulthood is in transition from old certainties wherein the political, economic, and power relationships were defined and predictable to a new world that is far less predictable and orderly. It contains both incredible dangers and enormous promise. I take no pleasure in saying this to you, but which wins out — the dangers or the promise — depends in large measure on you and your generation.
If I could give you some advice, I would say: commit yourself to a world of justice and peace. Challenge the structures of profit and privilege, as you engage in day-to-day battles. Struggle against racism, sexism, homophobia and other hateful, divisive, and undemocratic ideologies. Appreciate difference, while accenting the solidarity of the human family. Think big and act boldly. And most important of all, like Martin Luther King, fearlessly speak truth to power and always bring a crowd.