It’s complicated: President Obama and mass movement building


A few on the left say that the absence of a mass movement on the scale of the 1930s and 1960s stems from the fact that millions of Americans still believe the president is an agent of progressive change.

What follows from this theory is the role of left and progressive people is to ruthlessly unmask the politics and progressive pretentions of the president, which in turn will melt away people's illusions in him and trigger a mass upsurge throughout the country.

But is this the case?

I don't think so. And I will tell you why.

The building of a mass movement on the scale of the 1930s or 1960s is a complicated process. A wide-angle lens is needed to capture its many sides.

Before we lay responsibility for the inadequate scale of today's movement on the shoulders of the president, we have to factor in the impact of three decades of right-wing ideological onslaught.

We have to consider the structural changes in the U.S. economy that have economically devastated, socially atomized and politically weakened traditional centers of working class and people's power.

We have to take into account the unprecedented attack against African Americans and other communities of color, dating back to the election of Reagan.

We have to acknowledge the reality of a smaller labor movement, in large measure the result of economic downsizing, production relocation and a fierce right- wing anti-labor offensive.

We have to factor in the impact of the ideological intensification of racism, male supremacy, immigrant-bashing and homophobia in recent years on popular consciousness.

We have to include in our political calculus the negative effects of capitalist-structured globalization on working-class consciousness, unity and capacity.

We have to bear in mind the consequences of the militarization of our society on our society.

We have to note the capitalist class's control and domination of the means of communication and education.

We have to recognize that people in the face of crises can opt for individualist as well as collective solutions.

We have to weigh in the force of habit and inertia.

We have to appreciate that the president operates in a complex of competing class and social forces, some of which (namely the extreme right) are determined to sabotage his presidency.

And we have to bring into bold relief the fact that the left and progressive movements are still too small to exert a decisive and sustained influence on the nation's political direction. Face it. We still preach to the choir.

The multifaceted nature of the process of change is not a reason to throw up our hands in frustration or to revert to simplified explanations, in this case presidential mis-leadership, for the difficulties of building a progressive mass movement.

Indeed, I would argue that today's movement has the potential to eclipse the popular movements of 1930s and 1960s in size, social composition, political consciousness and social power.

Who thought in 1920 or in 1950 that people's movements of enormous scope and strength would spring up and proceed to realign national politics a few years later? 

But that is what happened as many foreseen and unforeseen factors came together in such a way that massive social explosions rocked the country and new chapters of progressive change entered the history books.

These movements had their own complicated factors to deal with, including the global rise of fascism in the 1930s.

Should we think that the process of progressive change and the building of a mass movement with transformative capacities would be any less complicated in our time or any less doable?

You know my answer.

Photo: (Teresa Albano/PW)


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  • I think Sam is right on all this, but a lot of what he says has been true since the beginning of the last century.

    There are at least two big differences between the Great Depression and today. First, the possibilities for averting disaster on an individual basis were almost totally absent during the Depression. Today people facing unemployment, foreclosure, medical emergencies, etc. have many possibilities for getting some relief on an individual basis within the legal system and the shrunken social safety net. This necessarily ties up people and grass roots movements in processing these options. Second, small numbers and disunity on the Left takes diverts people who are organizers away from building a broad, united movement.

    I think we are facing an extended period of crisis in which we need to engage in persistent organizing and struggle.

    I think it is also true that we need to put emphasis on helping to organize the unorganized and rebuilding Labor. For example, there are huge non-union auto plants in right-to-work states. Organizing them will be tough. It will take a new movement of youth and workers who are ready to face repression to get the job done. But I believe it CAN be done. This will be the single biggest blow on the side of the working class in evening the balance of forces in the struggles to come.

    Posted by Ted Pearson, 08/26/2011 6:23pm (4 years ago)

  • I agree with Sam Webb that there is potential for a mass upsurge that will eclipse the movements of the 1930s. We have already seen some signs of the potential:

    1. The huge immigrants' rights marches of 2006 and 2007, which in some cities were the largest mass protest activities ever. Also the very broad coalition, with labor playing a key role, that was spawned by that uprising. A million and a half marched in Los Angeles and 700,000 in Chicago.

    2. The splendid Wisconsin rebellion. To me, the fact that they were able to take away two Republican seats in the Wisconsin Senate and that the Democrats did not lose any of their own, is a VICTORY for the working people of Wisconsin, given the extreme difficulty of being successful in recall elections in this country.,

    However, whatever the role played by President Obama and the Democratic Party in the various struggles, I think that the emphasis should be on the INDEPENDENCE of the grassroots movement. Otherwise, the vicissitudes of the Democrats' electoral and legislative considerations, not to mention the class orientations of their key leaders, do have a potential to impede the growth of mass movements.

    This does not mean that one should avoid alliances with the Democrats or sectors of them, or that one should take a "plague on both your houses" stance vis a vis the two bourgeois parties. A Republican victory in 2012 would be a disaster, and obviously there is no other political party other than the Democrats to contest them at the polls; nor can one be created out of thin air in the one year 3 months that remain until the election. All national level third party or independent efforts will be of symbolic or protest value only; they can not contest power at this point.

    But the health of the mass movement is key to stopping the lurch to the right, and it is not healthy for the mass movement to walk on eggshells for fear of offending the Democrats, or, more often, this or that Democratic Party figure rather than the whole Democratic Party, which is a very big tent including everybody from social democrats to reactionaries. To grow, the mass movement, whose motor is class struggle whether people use the term or not, has to deal forthrightly with the issues facing the working class and other mass sectors, without pulling punches, or it will lose credibility with its own base.

    We should take a stance of "critical support" toward the Democratic Party in 2012, and continue to do everything we can to strengthen the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women's, youth, immigrant, gay-lesbian and other people's movements, because that is the only way to counter the massive corporate infusions of money on the other side. This will sometimes bring us into conflict with some Democratic Party personalities and policies. So be it.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 08/25/2011 5:54pm (4 years ago)

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