Elections 08: embracing the moment

The expected presidential nomination of Barack Obama is a path breaking and historic achievement from many standpoints, not least the struggle for equality and against racism. Obama’s nomination leaves an enduring mark on every aspect of our nation’s culture – a culture steeped both in racism and anti-racism.

Eugene Robinson, a columnist for the Washington Post, had this to say:

“A young, black, first-term senator—a man whose father was from Kenya, whose mother was from Kansas and whose name sounds as if it might have come from the roster of Guantanamo detainees—has won the marathon of primaries and caucuses to become the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. To reach this point, he had to do more than outduel the party’s most powerful and resourceful political machine. He also had to defy, and ultimately defeat, 389 years of history.”

The breaking of this barrier says much about the candidate but it also speaks volumes about the American people. While it augurs well for our country’s future, it must be very disconcerting for the ruling class – that class which has been the main architect and beneficiary of racism for nearly four centuries.

People crossed racial and gender barriers in numbers that many of us didn’t think possible only a few months ago. Some said an Obama nomination was impossible, that it would never happen, and that white voters would never pull the lever for a Black presidential candidate. But the primaries proved that the doubters were wrong.

Breaking barriers

The Clinton campaign also broke barriers. Her concession speech was stirring as well as profound in many ways. While we had disagreements (and stated them) with the racist text/subtext in her campaign, it is also true that she captured the imagination of millions of women who in their own lives encounter gender barriers and oppression in the home, work and community. I am not sure if we have taken full measure

Her candidacy dissolved male supremacist notions disfiguring the thinking of men and plowed away barriers preventing women from playing a full and equal role in every aspect of social life. The struggle for full equality of women won’t necessarily be easy going forward, but Clinton’s campaign did take the fight to higher ground.

Decent and democratic minded people are rightfully celebrating the breaking of these barriers. Imagine how enthused the depression-era communists – those who gave their lives to Black/white unity and equality at a time of legalized segregation and lynching with impunity — would be about these turn of events.

Soberness in politics is essential, but it should be combined with passion, hope, excitement and images of a just and peaceful future. If we are going to err with respect to the significance of the moment and the potential of the coming elections, it is better to err on the side of passion and hope.

Anti-racism at a new level

Most, I suspect, underestimated the growth of anti-racist feeling among white people to one degree or another. Consider this statement by Loree Suggs, executive secretary of the Cleveland building trades, in reference to Obama:

“Go back to your locals. Now is the time to unite. We cannot let any bias or racial thoughts get in the way. If your members have any problem with racial bias, tell them to get over it for all time, but especially now for this election, get over it. We must put Barack Obama in the White House and, if we don’t, we are in deep trouble.”

This may not be typical of changing sentiments of white people in general and white unionists in particular, but it isn’t atypical either. Mass thinking is changing. Again, to quote Robinson,

“[T]he amazing thing isn’t that there were instances of overt, old style racism during the campaign, it’s that there were so few. The amazing thing is that so many Americans have been willing to accept – or, indeed, reject – Obama based on his qualifications and his ideas, not on his race. I’ll never forget visiting Iowa in December and witnessing all white-crowds file into high school gymnasiums to take the measure of a black man – and, ultimately, decide that he was someone who expressed their hopes and dreams.”

While I don’t think that we have fully digested the political meaning of this turn of events, we can still say that the readiness of so many white voters to cast their ballot for an African American candidate in the presidential primaries gives confidence that the struggle against racism in its ideological and material forms can proceed on higher ground and in a bolder fashion.

Beware of rigid concepts

Tightly sealed political categories in this moment are not useful. It is said, for example, that Obama is a centrist or, worse still, a bourgeois politician. But aren’t categories of this kind, even if they capture some aspects of reality, too closed to be useful in a dynamic situation?

Political categories should allow for complexity, contradictions, transitions and new experience. If this is true in general then it is even truer at this moment when politics are fluid and social actors (individuals and social groups) are in motion?

Isn’t it possible for a social group or an individual to occupy more than one political space? Isn’t there something to be said for Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “contradictory consciousness?” Shouldn’t we think twice before embracing cut and dried assessments of social actors that not only fail to capture complexity of their politics, but also impede our political imagination to creatively elaborate strategic and tactical positions?

Assessments of candidates should be informed by their political formation and sensibilities, the movement that has sprung up around a candidacy and the overall context of these elections, including the presence of a powerful right-wing attack machine. Rather than pigeonholing Obama, for example, as a centrist or bourgeois politician, it may be more useful to characterize him as a potentially transformative political figure, much like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. were. None of them were revolutionaries, but they each had a keen appreciation of the moment in which they lived, they each interacted with the larger movement of their time and they each understood the necessity of expanding and giving new content to democracy and citizenship rights, albeit in the context of their times.

It isn’t ordained that Obama will fit into this category, either, but it is also far too early to foreclose that possibility. Life and struggle will decide.

Appreciating political realities

There is a tendency – especially among some on the progressive and left part of the political spectrum — to nitpick every single position of this or that candidate, including Obama. Some people on the left were apoplectic over Obama’s speeches to AIPAC and a Cuban American group in Miami. It is true that there is much in each speech that the left would disagree with, but at the same time we should look for positive openings that the speeches offer, if not now, then in the event of an Obama presidency. Unfortunately, looking for openings, by the way, isn’t something that the left is skillful at doing, especially in the electoral arena.

There should be an appreciation of this broad popular movement that has arisen around Obama’s candidacy. It has diverse currents and trends, including sections of the ruling class – all of which have to be taken into account. This campaign is also up against a very powerful right-wing attack machine – not to mention powerful and reactionary corporate interests.

What is more, to win, the campaign has to reach out to independents and disaffected Republicans. Without winning a section of them, a landslide victory is improbable.

The broader movement should give some wiggle room to this path-breaking candidacy. Obama is not running for city council in Berkeley or a safe congressional seat. Instead he is running for the highest national office in 50 states and in every region of the country.

Being right in the right way

Communists and others on the left can and should differ with Obama and other Democratic candidates. But the more important question is how we do it. Carl Winter, a former national leader of the Communist Party, said to me on more than one occasion: “It is not enough to be right, but you have to be right in the right way.” By which I understood Carl to mean that Communists, in advancing our views, have to be not only respectful of other people’s opinions and circumstances, but also to present them in a way that deepens people’s understanding, confidence and unity in the context of our strategic objective.

In order to advance one iota of a pro-people’s agenda, the people’s movement has to elect Obama and to enlarge the Democratic Party majorities in Congress. Without that everything else is wishful thinking.

However the focus in these elections should neither be solely on the candidate nor solely on the movement, but rather on the interactions and connections between the two. We should accent dynamics, fluidity and possibilities of the political process rather than dwelling on this or that shortcoming of either the candidate or the broader movement. If the latter consumes us, if it becomes the main thing, we will miss the forest for the trees. Sam Webb is chairman of the Communist Party USA. This article is based on excerpts from his latest report on the 2008 elections. For more information: .



Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.