COMMENTARY: The door to real change is wide open

Let me begin with a simple observation: If the last 30 years were an era of reaction, then the coming decade could turn into an era of reform, even radical reform. Six months into the Obama presidency, I would say without hesitation that the landscape, atmosphere, conversation, and agenda have strikingly changed compared to the previous eight years.

So far Obama’s presidency has both broken from the right-wing extremist policies of the Bush administration and taken steps domestically and internationally that go in a progressive direction.

At the same time, the administration hasn’t gone as far as we would have liked on a number of issues. On economic matters as well as matters of war and occupation we, along with others, advocated bolder actions.

All and all, however, the new president in deeds and words – and words do matter – has created new democratic space for peace, equality, and economic justice struggles. Whether this continues and takes on a consistently progressive, pro-people, radical reform direction depends in large measure on whether the movement that elected him fills and expands this space.

The struggle going forward, much like the New Deal, will be the outcome of a contested and fluid process involving broad class and social constituencies, taking multiple forms, and working out over time.

It will pivot on the expansion of social and economic rights, the reconfiguring of the functions of government to the advantage of working people, and the embedding of a new economic architecture and developmental path into the nation’s political economy. It will also entail the recasting of the role of the U.S. in the global community along egalitarian and non-imperial lines.

New phase of struggle How do we understand the current phase of struggle? On the one hand, our strategic policy of defeating right-wing extremism doesn’t quite fit the new correlation of class forces. On the other hand, neither have we arrived at the anti-monopoly stage of struggle – a stage in which corporate class power is confronted on every level of struggle.

In short, we are in transitional phase that contains elements of both.

In the course of this struggle, political conditions – consciousness, organization, unity, and alliances, including temporary and conditional alliances – will hopefully mature to the point where corporate power emerges as the main hindrance to radical democracy and socialism in the minds of tens of millions.

We can conjure up pure forms of struggle and direct and unencumbered paths to socialism in our impatient minds, but they don’t exist in real life. The struggle for a socialist future is complex, contradictory, roundabout, and goes through different phases and stages.

Propaganda and agitation by themselves won’t bring millions of people to the threshold of socialism. They need their own experience in day-to-day struggle for their essential (what is essential is variable and expands over time) needs.

Currently, the American people aren’t sitting on their hands. Anger is out there, hardship is widespread, and the fight back is taking shape.

And yet, it is fair to ask: does the level of mobilization of the diverse coalition that elected President Obama match what is necessary to win his administration’s immediate legislative and political agenda – let alone far radical reforms, such as military conversion to peacetime and green production, a shorter work week, a “war” on poverty and inequality, democratic ownership of critical economic sectors, and a retreat from empire?

I think the answer is no – not yet. A favorable alignment of forces exists and mass sentiments favor change. But political majorities and popular sentiments are consequential only to the degree that they are an active and organized element in the political process.

And herein lays the role of the left. Its main task, as it has been throughout our country’s history, is to persistently and patiently assist in reassembling, activating, uniting, educating, and giving a voice to common demands that unite this broad majority.

Some on the left dismiss the new president as simply another centrist or a right social democrat, or an unabashed spokesperson of Wall Street. Still others call him the new face of imperialism. I find it unwise for strategic and tactical reasons to put President Obama into a tightly sealed political category. We should see the president and his administration as a work in progress in an exceptionally fluid situation.

Let’s remember that he is the leader of a diverse multi-class coalition and a party with different currents. Let’s not forget about the balance of forces in Congress that has to enter his – and hopefully our – political calculus.

Let’s not turn any one issue into a litmus test determining our attitude toward the administration and Congress. Let’s be aware that he has to keep a coalition together for his long-term as well as immediate legislative agenda. Let’s give President Obama some space to change and to respond to pressures from below.

Finally, we should resist pressures from some sections of the left, and a few in our Party, to define the current struggle as one that arrays the people against President Obama. That’s not Marxism; it’s plain stupid.

The American people and their main mass organizations have good reason to be angry and frustrated, but few embrace an approach that turns the Obama administration into the main roadblock to social progress. (Read for example, the outstanding speech of AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka to the national convention of CBTU, in which he speaks of labor’s positive view of the new administration and the new openings for class and democratic struggles that now exist.)

That we have spurned such an approach too is to our credit.

We can help re-bend the arc of history in the direction of justice, equality, and peace. But only if we, and millions like us, pursue a sound strategy that brings into motion broad sections of the American people, only if we are able to extend and deepen the role of the core forces of the people’s movement – the working class and its organized sector, people of color, women, and youth, only if we master the art of combining immediate and radical reforms in a unifying way, and only if we look for alliances no matter how temporary and conditional. Majorities make history, not militant minorities.