President Obama's State of the Union speech reveals once again that president is a democratic reformer (on domestic issues) in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
And the fact that the president has a disposition toward reform is of great significance - not only to the millions who are struggling to mitigate the worst effects of 30 years of right-wing extremism and capitalist globalization, but also to people who desire social change of a radical nature.
First of all, we are not in a revolutionary period. Despite the severity of our economic crisis and the urgency of socialism, the subjective conditions don't yet exist for a revolutionary transformation of our society to put people before profits. What do I mean by that? It's true that capitalism doesn't enjoy the same support as it did in the decades following World War II, and the resistance to its destructive effects is growing. But the array of social forces struggling against three decades of right-wing domination and neoliberal globalization are not of sufficient breadth, depth, unity or inclination to challenge capitalist class rule. I wish that were not the case, but it is.
Contrary to what some on the left think, the starting point of transformative politics isn't its political desires and wish list, but a sober and concrete assessment of the balance of class and social forces on the ground - not least of which is the political consciousness of the majority of working-class people and what they are ready to do. And by this measure, socialist transformation is not on the agenda in the near and medium term. The American people, much like the president, are - to paraphrase Billy Joel - in a reform state of mind. They don't yet have the desire or the wherewithal to bring down the curtains on U.S. capitalism.
Second, the bottom-up version of history, as exemplified by Howard Zinn, among others, contains an absolutely crucial insight - the dynamic role of masses of people in driving the process of social change. But it suffers from simplicity too. In every period of far-reaching social change in the 20th century, a broad mass upsurge has combined with reforming elements in elite circles to effect that change.
Indeed, the reforming impulse of Roosevelt and Johnson - shaped by many factors, including but not exclusively by the mass movements of their era - helped to create a terrain on which millions could intervene and expand the boundaries of freedom. Similarly, Obama's reforming inclinations open up space for the broader movement to fight and win victories today - not to mention lay the necessary groundwork (ideologically, politically, and organizationally) for radical change in the future.
Of course, this president, just as Roosevelt and Johnson did, will surely attempt to limit the sweep and depth of the reform process. But to turn that into a rationale not to join him on issues of mutual concern such as jobs, immigration, climate change, gun violence, taxing the rich, cutting the military budget and nuclear stockpile and so on, is a recipe for the left's political marginalization.
Moreover, it forgets that the outcome of these struggles will depend on two things. One is the relative strength of the opposing sides - the Obama-led coalition for reforms vs. the Republican right and its corporate supporters. But the other is the ability of the organized people's movement to put its political imprint on the reform process within the broader coalition that they are a part, while at the same time, (and this is where politics becomes an art) maintaining the coalition's broad unity against the main obstacles to social progress - again the Republican right and its corporate supporters.
Coalition politics and reform struggles are anything but pure; they are, by nature, a polyglot; an uneasy amalgamation of disparate forces. Still they are the ground - and the only ground - out of which change, including radical and socialist change, will come.