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Three left views on Obama: Howard Zinn, Mike Davis, Todd Chretien
Howard Zinn: `Obama creates an opening for change but direct action needed'
October 22, 2008 -- Real News Network -- Howard Zinn says vote against McCain, vote for Obama. Even though Obama does not represent any fundamental change, he creates an opening for a possibility of change. Obama will not fulfill that potential for change, unless he is enveloped by a social movement, which is angry enough, powerful enough, insistent enough, that he fills his abstract phrases about change with some content. We need direct action, because only that kind of indignation is going to have some affect on the people in Washington.
Howard Zinn is an historian, political scientist, social critic, activist and playwright. He is best known as author of the best-seller A People's History of the United States. Zinn has been active in the civil rights and the anti-war movements in the United States.
Paul Jay, senior editor, Real News Network: Thank you for joining us. Our interview with Howard Zinn. Thank you, Howard. So we're just a few weeks away from the election. Obama's ahead in the polls, although Obama supporters are still holding their breath and talk about October surprises and this and that. You've written about the election process as not being as democratic as it would like to call itself or people would like to call it. On the other hand, you still end up with the idea that people should participate, should vote, and I don't think you quite said "holding your nose," but with some reservation people should vote against McCain, vote for Obama. Explain what your thinking on this is.
However, there are certain moments in history when even a small difference between the candidates may be crucial, may be a matter of life and death for large numbers of people. I mean, when the French had a change of presidency in France during the Algerian War, it made a difference in their bringing the Algerian War to an end. And I think that there are such moments, and I think this may be such a moment in US history.
That is, we've gone through an insufferable eight years with the Bush administration, probably the worst administration in history, and, I mean, two wars in one presidency, and a total disregard of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and a shattering of the economy.
And in this situation, we are desperate for change. So even though Obama doesn't represent any fundamental change, he creates an opening for the possibility of change. That's why I'm voting for him; that's why I suggest to people that they vote for him. But I also suggest that Obama will not fulfill that potential for change unless he is enveloped by a social movement which is angry enough, powerful enough, insistent enough that he fill his abstract phrases about change, fill them with some real, solid content.
The Nader supporters and some of the other third-party candidates will say, "Well, there is an alternative." No. I interviewed Ralph Nader and I made the argument to him that there isn't a feasible alternative, and he says, "Well, yes there is. It's not feasible only when people keep saying it's not feasible." But what do you say to Nader and the other third-party candidates who say, well, the only way to break this paralysis of the two-party system is to start voting outside it?"
Well, you're not going to break the paralysis of the two-party system within the party system. In other words, you're not going to break it in the electoral system by putting up a third-party candidate whose showing will inevitably be pitiful and will therefore only be a demonstration of the weakness of the movement outside of the electoral arena. If you choose to go into the electoral arena, you'd better go in with strength. If you're going with weakness, you are not doing a progressive movement any good.
To me it is a waste of Ralph Nader's energy to throw himself into the electoral process, because his energy is best used by building a movement, by doing what he has done for most of his life very effectively, reaching out to millions and millions of people who will not vote for him but who really believe in his ideas, and help him to organize those people so that whoever is elected as president will then have to face a constituency, a citizenry which demands change.
Now, how does that movement develop now? I mean, let's assume that Obama is going to win this election. If the polls are right and there's no, you know, extraordinary event—which I suppose nobody can rule out—but the world as we know it today, it looks like Obama's going to win the election. And I say that with some reservation, 'cause if something big happens in four days, it's going to make this interview dated. So we'd better publish quickly. But given that, how does an independent movement develop? What are the obstacles to a national movement of the type you're talking about?
Well, the obstacles are a kind of resignation that things will go on as before. That's always the obstacle to change. The obstacle to change is not that people don't want change. People want change. But most of the time, people feel impotent. However, at certain points in history, the energy level of people, the indignation level of people rises. And at that point it becomes possible for people to organize and to agitate and to educate one another, and to create an atmosphere in which the government must do something. I'm thinking of the 1930s; I'm thinking of Franklin D. Roosevelt coming into office not really a crusader.
Roosevelt came into office, you know, with a balance-the-budgets history. It was not clear what he was going to do, and I don't think he was clear about what he was going to do, except that he was going to be different from Hoover and the Republicans. But when he came into office, he faced a country that was on strike. He faced general strikes in San Francisco in Minneapolis. He faced strikes of hundreds of thousands of textile workers in the South. He faced a tenants movement and an unemployed council movement. And he faced a country in turmoil, and he reacted to it, he was sensitive to it, he moved. That's what we will need.
We will need to see some of the scenes that we saw in the '30s.
And how do we get there?
How do we get there? Well, we get there by somebody starting it off, like the four kids in Greensboro in 1960 who started off the sit-in not knowing whether it would spread. We need somebody who is losing their home because they can't afford to pay their mortgage, we need them surrounded by their neighbors who then do not allow them to leave, do not allow their furniture to be taken away. This is what happened in the '30s. In other words, we need direct action, we need civil disobedience, we need to raise the level of tension in the country, because only that kind of indignation is going to have some effect on the people in Washington.
And in terms of building a movement that could give rise to a third party that actually had a chance—and in many countries of the world, parties do come and go—first of all, why haven't we seen some of that which one did see in the '30s? There were other parties that had some kind of weight. And are we entering with this financial crisis a period where something like that might be possible?
Well, third parties can have an effect on the existing parties. I mean, in the 1930s it wasn't a third party that won; it was the fact that there was a movement throughout the country. Part of it was socialist and communist, but a lot of it would be working people and tenants and so on, and they had an affect on the Democratic Party, which up to that point had not been a very militant or very energetic party. As a result it had lost elections in the 1930s to non-entities like Harding and Coolidge.
But I think it'll take the kind of energy that we had in the '30s to not necessarily create a third party that will win office, but that will transform the Democratic Party into what might be a third party, almost in the way that the Republican Party before the Civil War was transformed into a party that would do away with slavery or at least try to do away with slavery, even though that was not its primary objective.
If we're looking at four years, maybe eight years, of a Democratic administration, and if that Democratic administration follows the previous course we've seen from most of the people that are going to be leading it, then this movement is going to be directing a lot of its target or arrows at the Democratic administration.
Unquestionably. If we have a Democratic administration, that administration has to be the target of a new social movement. Problem with the years of the Clinton administration is that whoever in the United States really wanted to go beyond the Clinton administration in foreign policy and domestic policy became complacent, and they did not organize, and there was no real movement in the country in Clinton's time, as there had been in 1960s, to push Clinton into any good direction. That will have to be different when Obama and his administration come into office.
[A second part of this interview can be viewed HERE.]
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Can Obama see the Grand Canyon?
On presidential blindness and economic catastrophe
By Mike Davis
October 15, 2008 -- Common Dreams -- Let me begin, very obliquely, with the Grand Canyon and the paradox of trying to see beyond cultural or historical precedent.
The first European to look into the depths of the great gorge was the conquistador Garcia Lopez de Cardenas in 1540. He was horrified by the sight and quickly retreated from the South Rim. More than three centuries passed before Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers led the second major expedition to the rim. Like Garcia Lopez, he recorded an "awe that was almost painful to behold." Ives's expedition included a well-known German artist, but his sketch of the Canyon was wildly distorted, almost hysterical.
Neither the conquistadors nor the Army engineers, in other words, could make sense of what they saw; they were simply overwhelmed by unexpected revelation. In a fundamental sense, they were blind because they lacked the concepts necessary to organize a coherent vision of an utterly new landscape.
Accurate portrayal of the Canyon only arrived a generation later when the colourado River became the obsession of the one-armed Civil War hero John Wesley Powell and his celebrated teams of geologists and artists. They were like Victorian astronauts reconnoitering another planet. It took years of brilliant fieldwork to construct a conceptual framework for taking in the canyon. With "deep time" added as the critical dimension, it was finally possible for raw perception to be transformed into consistent vision.
The result of their work, The Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District, published in 1882, is illustrated by masterpieces of draftsmanship that, as Powell's biographer Wallace Stegner once pointed out, "are more accurate than any photograph." That is because they reproduce details of stratigraphy usually obscured in camera images. When we visit one of the famous viewpoints today, most of us are oblivious to how profoundly our eyes have been trained by these iconic images or how much we have been influenced by the idea, popularized by Powell, of the Canyon as a museum of geological time.
But why am I talking about geology? Because, like the Grand Canyon's first explorers, we are looking into an unprecedented abyss of economic and social turmoil that confounds our previous perceptions of historical risk. Our vertigo is intensified by our ignorance of the depth of the crisis or any sense of how far we might ultimately fall.
Weimar returns in Limbaughland
Let me confess that, as an aging socialist, I suddenly find myself like the Jehovah's Witness who opens his window to see the stars actually falling out of the sky. Although I've been studying Marxist crisis theory for decades, I never believed I'd actually live to see financial capitalism commit suicide. Or hear the International Monetary Fund warn of imminent "systemic meltdown."
Thus, my initial reaction to Wall Street's infamous 777.7 point plunge a few weeks ago was a very sixties retro elation. "Right on, Karl!" I shouted. "Eat your derivatives and die, Wall Street swine!" Like the Grand Canyon, the fall of the banks can be a terrifying but sublime spectacle.
But the real culprits, of course, are not being trundled off to the guillotine; they're gently floating to earth in golden parachutes. The rest of us may be trapped on the burning plane without a pilot, but the despicable Richard Fuld, who used Lehman Brothers to loot pension funds and retirement accounts, merely sulks on his yacht.
Out in the stucco deserts of Limbaughland, moreover, fear is already being distilled into a good ol' boy version of the "stab in the back" myth that rallied the ruined German petite bourgeoisie to the swastika. If you listen to the rage on commute AM, you'll know that ‘socialism' has already taken a lien on America, Barack Hussein Obama is terrorism's Manchurian candidate, the collapse of Wall Street was caused by elderly black people with Fannie Mae loans, and ACORN in its voter registration drives has long been padding the voting rolls with illegal brown hordes.
In other times, Sarah Palin's imitation of Father Charles Coughlin -- the priest who preached an American Reich in the 1930s -- in drag might be hilarious camp, but with the American way of life in sudden freefall, the specter of star-spangled fascism doesn't seem quite so far-fetched. The Right may lose the election, but it already possesses a sinister, historically proven blueprint for rapid recovery.
Progressives have no time to waste. In the face of a new depression that promises folks from Wasilla to Timbuktu an unknown world of pain, how do we reconstruct our understanding of the globalized economy? To what extent can we look to either Obama or any of the Democrats to help us analyse the crisis and then act effectively to resolve it?
Is Obama FDR?
If the Nashville "town hall" debate is any guide, we will soon have another blind president. Neither candidate had the guts or information to answer the simple questions posed by the anxious audience: What will happen to our jobs? How bad will it get? What urgent steps should be taken?
Instead, the candidates stuck like flypaper to their obsolete talking points. McCain's only surprise was yet another innovation in deceit: a mortgage relief plan that would reward banks and investors without necessarily saving homeowners.
Obama recited his four-point program, infinitely better in principle than his opponent's preferential option for the rich, but abstract and lacking in detail. It remains more a rhetorical promise than the blueprint for the actual machinery of reform. He made only passing reference to the next phase of the crisis: the slump of the real economy and likely mass unemployment on a scale not seen for 70 years.
With baffling courtesy to the Bush administration, he failed to highlight any of the other weak links in the economic system: the dangerous overhang of credit-default swap obligations left over from the fall of Lehman Brothers; the trillion-dollar black hole of consumer credit-card debt that may threaten the solvency of JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America; the implacable decline of General Motors and the American auto industry; the crumbling foundations of municipal and state finance; the massacre of tech equity and venture capital in Silicon Valley; and, most unexpectedly, sudden fissures in the financial solidity of even General Electric.
In addition, both Obama and his vice presidential partner Joe Biden, in their support for Secretary of the Treasury Paulson's plan, avoid any discussion of the inevitable result of cataclysmic restructuring and government bailouts: not "socialism," but ultra-capitalism -- one that is likely to concentrate control of credit in a few leviathan banks, controlled in large part by sovereign wealth funds but subsidized by generations of public debt and domestic austerity.
Never have so many ordinary Americans been nailed to a cross of gold (or derivatives), yet Obama is the most mild-mannered William Jennings Bryan imaginable. Unlike Sarah Palin who masticates the phrase "the working class" with defiant glee, he hews to a party line that acknowledges only the needs of an amorphous "middle class" living on a largely mythical "Main Street."
If we are especially concerned about the fate of the poor or unemployed, we are left to read between the lines, with no help from his talking points that espouse clean coal technology, nuclear power, and a bigger military, but elide the urgency of a renewed war on poverty as championed by John Edwards in his tragically self-destructed primary campaign. But perhaps inside the cautious candidate is a man whose humane passions transcend his own nearsighted centrist campaign. As a close friend, exasperated by my chronic pessimism, chided me the other day, "don't be so unfair. FDR didn't have a nuts and bolts program either in 1933. Nobody did."
What Franklin D. Roosevelt did possess in that year of breadlines and bank failures, according to my friend, was enormous empathy for the common people and a willingness to experiment with government intervention, even in the face of the monolithic hostility of the wealthy classes. In this view, Obama is MoveOn.org's re-imagining of our 32nd president: calm, strong, deeply in touch with ordinary needs, and willing to accept the advice of the country's best and brightest.
The seath of Keynesianism
But even if we concede to the Illinois senator a truly Rooseveltian or, even better, Lincolnian strength of character, this hopeful analogy is flawed in at least three principal ways:
First, we can't rely on the Great Depression as analog to the current crisis, nor upon the New Deal as the template for its solution. Certainly, there is a great deal of déjà vu in the frantic attempts to quiet panic and reassure the public that the worst has passed. Many of Paulson's statements, indeed, could have been directly plagiarised from Herbert Hoover's Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, and both presidential campaigns are frantically cribbing heroic rhetoric from the early New Deal. But just as the business press has been insisting for years, this is not the Old American Economy, but an entirely new-fangled contraption built from outsourced parts and supercharged by instantaneous world markets in everything from dollars and defaults to hog bellies and disaster futures.
We are seeing the consequences of a perverse restructuring that began with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and which has inverted the national income shares of manufacturing (21% in 1980; 12% in 2005) and those of financial services (15% in 1980; 21% in 2005). In 1930, the factories may have been shuttered but the machinery was still intact; it hadn't been auctioned off at five cents on the dollar to China.
On the other hand, we shouldn't disparage the miracles of contemporary market technology. Casino capitalism has proven its mettle by transmitting the deadly virus of Wall Street at unprecedented velocity to every financial center on the planet. What took three years at the beginning of the 1930s -- that is, the full globalisation of the crisis -- has taken only three weeks this time around. God help us, if, as seems to be happening, unemployment tops the levees at anything like the same speed.
Second, Obama won't inherit Roosevelt's ultimate situational advantage -- having emergent tools of state intervention and demand management (later to be called "Keynesianism") empowered by an epochal uprising of industrial workers in the world's most productive factories.
If you've been watching the sad parade of economic gurus on McNeil-Lehrer, you know that the intellectual shelves in Washington are now almost bare. Neither major party retains more than a few enigmatic shards of policy traditions different from the neo-liberal consensus on trade and privatisation. Indeed, posturing pseudo-populists aside, it is unclear whether anyone inside the Beltway, including Obama's economic advisors, can think clearly beyond the indoctrinated mindset of Goldman Sachs, the source of the two most prominent secretaries of the treasury over the last decade.
Keynes, now suddenly mourned, is actually quite dead. More importantly, the New Deal did not arise spontaneously from the goodwill or imagination of the White House. On the contrary, the social contract for the post-1935 Second New Deal was a complex, adaptive response to the greatest working-class movement in our history, in a period when powerful third parties still roamed the political landscape and Marxism exercised extraordinary influence on American intellectual life.
Even with the greatest optimism of the will, it is difficult to imagine the American labour movement recovering from defeat as dramatically as it did in 1934-1937. The decisive difference is structural rather than ideological. (Indeed, today's union movement is much more progressive than the decrepit, nativist American Federation of labour in 1930.) The power of labour within a Walmart-ized service economy is simply more dispersed and difficult to mobilize than in the era of giant urban-industrial concentrations and ubiquitous factory neighborhoods.
Is war the answer?
The third problem with the New Deal analogy is perhaps the most important. Military Keynesianism is no longer an available deus ex machina. Let me explain.
In 1933, when FDR was inaugurated, the United States was in full retreat from foreign entanglements, and there was little controversy about bringing a few hundred Marines home from the occupations of Haiti and Nicaragua. It took two years of world war, the defeat of France, and the near collapse of England to finally win a majority in Congress for rearmament, but when war production finally started up in late 1940 it became a huge engine for the reemployment of the American work force, the real cure for the depressed job markets of the 1930s. Subsequently, American world power and full employment would align in a way that won the loyalty of several generations of working-class voters.
Today, of course, the situation is radically different. A bigger Pentagon budget no longer creates hundreds of thousands of stable factory jobs, since significant parts of its weapons production is now actually outsourced, and the ideological link between high-wage employment and intervention -- good jobs and Old Glory on a foreign shore -- while hardly extinct is structurally weaker than at any time since the early 1940s. Even in the new military (largely a hereditary caste of poor whites, blacks, and Latinos) demoralisation is reaching the stage of active discontent and opening up new spaces for alternative ideas.
Although both candidates have endorsed programs, including expansion of Army and Marine combat strength, missile defense (aka "Star Wars"), and an intensified war in Afghanistan, that will enlarge the military-industrial complex, none of this will replenish the supply of decent jobs nor prime a broken national pump. However, in the midst of a deep slump, what a huge military budget can do is obliterate the modest but essential reforms that make up Obama's plans for healthcare, alternative energy, and education.
In other words, Rooseveltian guns and butter have become a contradiction in terms, which means that the Obama campaign is engineering a catastrophic collision between its national security priorities and its domestic policy goals.
The fate of Obama-ism
Why don't such smart people see the Grand Canyon?
Maybe they do, in which case deception is truly the mother's milk of American politics; or perhaps Obama has become the reluctant prisoner, intellectually as well as politically, of Clintonism: that is say, of a culturally permissive neo-liberalism whose New Deal rhetoric masks the policy spirit of Richard Nixon.
It's worth asking, for instance, what in the actual substance of his foreign policy agenda differentiates the Democratic candidate from the radioactive legacy of the Bush Doctrine? Yes, he would close Guantanamo, talk to the Iranians, and thrill hearts in Europe. He also promises to renew the Global War on Terror (in much the same way that Bush senior and Clinton sustained the core policies of Reaganism, albeit with a "more human face").
In case anyone has missed the debates, let me remind you that the Democratic candidate has chained himself, come hell or high water, to a global strategy in which "victory" in the Middle East (and Central Asia) remains the chief premise of foreign policy, with the Iraqi-style nation-building hubris of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz repackaged as a "realist" faith in global "stabilisation."
True, the enormity of the economic crisis may compel President Obama to renege on some of candidate Obama's ringing promises to support an idiotic missile defense system or provocative NATO memberships for Georgia and Ukraine. Nonetheless, as he emphasizes in almost every speech and in each debate, defeating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, together with a robust defense of Israel, constitute the keystone of his national security agenda.
Under huge pressure from Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats alike to cut the budget and reduce the exponential increase in the national debt, what choices would President Obama be forced to make early in his administration? More than likely comprehensive health-care will be whittled down to a barebones plan, "alternative energy" will simply mean the fraud of "clean coal," and anything that remains in the Treasury, after Wall Street's finished its looting spree, will buy bombs to pulverize more Pashtun villages, ensuring yet more generations of embittered mujahideen and jihadis.
Am I unduly cynical? Perhaps, but I lived through the Lyndon Johnson years and watched the War on Poverty, the last true New Deal program, destroyed to pay for slaughter in Vietnam.
It is bitterly ironic, but, I suppose, historically predictable that a presidential campaign millions of voters have supported for its promise to end the war in Iraq has now mortgaged itself to a "tougher than McCain" escalation of a hopeless conflict in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal frontier. In the best of outcomes, the Democrats will merely trade one brutal, losing war for another. In the worst case, their failed policies may set the stage for the return of Cheney and Rove, or their even more sinister avatars.
Copyright 2008 Mike Davis
[Mike Davis is the author of In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (Haymarket Books, 2008) and Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso, 2007). He is currently working on a book about cities, poverty, and global change. You can listen to a podcast of Davis discussing why the New Deal isn't relevant as a solution today by clicking here.]
Why I'm not voting for Barack Obama
Todd Chretien makes the case that remaining independent of the two mainstream parties is necessary for building an effective struggle.
October 22, 2008 -- Socialist Worker (USA) --"TERRORIST!" "KILL him!" "He's an Arab." "Obama Bucks." John McCain has let the dogs loose. Apparently, he's decided that if winning the White House means whipping the right wing into a racist frenzy, he'll lead the charge.
The good news is that a majority of American voters are walking away from the John McCain-Sarah Palin freak show. Even David Letterman is grilling McCain.
In recent days, McCain even added the word "socialist" to Barack Obama's supposed list of sins. "You see, [Obama] believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that help us all make more of it," said McCain. "At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives. They use real numbers and honest language. And we should demand equal candor from Senator Obama."
Just this once, I find myself wishing that something McCain says were true. Yet any serious look at Obama's record and platform signal that he intends to govern well within the mainstream of American politics.
To begin with, there are his stated policies. He wants to keep at least 50,000 troops in Iraq to "fight terrorism" indefinitely, and he wants to send those who are withdrawn from Iraq to fight in Afghanistan. He agrees with John McCain that the size and budget of the American military must be increased, he stridently supports Israel's suppression of the Palestinian people, and he has said "me too" to reasserting American military might in Latin America, being especially hostile to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.
Obama would be the first to repudiate the idea that he is any sort of anti-militarist or anti-imperialist--and we should take him at his word.
Domestically, Obama recognizes, unlike McCain, that the era of reckless deregulation and neoliberal supremacy has run its course. His policies will aim to re-establish order between the "hostile band of brothers," as Marx called competing capitalists.
Yet no serious look at Obama's policies indicates a plan to fundamentally reshape the American class system. As Malcolm X once said, "You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches, and then pull it out six inches, and say you're making progress."
Obama may support some modest economic band-aids--extending unemployment benefits, for example. He'll most likely make some reasonable policy shifts, undoing the craziest of the Republican excesses--especially those that don't cost much. For instance, he'll appoint centrists to the Supreme Court if he gets the chance (although the justices most likely to retire are liberals or centrists anyway).
Obama will also end George Bush's ban on stem cell research, and he'll take modest steps to deal with global warming. He might even reduce the number of anti-immigrant raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
But even if Obama has his way at every point, by the end of his first term in 2012, the schools will remain underfunded, the prisons overcrowded, and the gap between the rich and the working class more or less unchanged.
Compared to the last eight years of Bush, any change will be seen as a good thing. Obama's modest reforms will most likely earn him a honeymoon for a longer or shorter period of time. He also has the advantage that the Republican Party finds itself deeply divided, and those divisions will only increase if McCain loses badly.
But the modest changes Obama has promised fall far short of what is needed. Ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and economic crisis will form the backdrop to Obama's first term. This calls for far more radical measures than Obama has contemplated, even in the most generous reading of his intentions.
This reality requires a serious political discussion about how to build a working-class movement that can change the rules of the game--and it's in this context that the question of whether those who want to work for social change should vote for Obama must be discussed.
First, some historical perspective is needed. If the opinion poll trends hold up, McCain's racist strategy will lose, and Obama will be elected the first African American president. In a nation built on slavery, this will be an historic accomplishment and a cause to celebrate for every genuine opponent of racism and bigotry of all kinds.
This point deserves emphasis. America's economic wealth was literally extracted from the backs and minds of more than 10 generations of Black slaves. This wealth wasn't incidental to the nation's fortunes. Without slavery, there would have been no riches for Northern merchants and bankers, and no boom in Northern industry. It took a ferocious Civil War to abolish slavery--a conflict that demonstrated the tenacity of the slave owner's defense of the system.
The freed slaves achieved a 10-year period of partial democracy and reform in the South during Reconstruction. Defended by heavily armed troops, they elected hundreds of African Americans to state legislatures and Congress.
This Southern revolution was drowned in blood, as the KKK lynched its way into power, leading to 80 years of apartheid-like legal segregation. The heroic and bloody struggles of the civil rights movement finally broke Jim Crow's back, paving the way to voting rights, affirmative action in education and jobs, the creation of a Black middle class, and the possibility of Barak Obama's campaign.
All this is often dismissed as ancient history. Yet it is worth remembering that when Barak Obama was born in 1961, millions of African Americans were still legally barred from voting in the South.
Even when the history is acknowledged, it is often asserted that the wrongs have been righted, and Black people should stop "complaining." As if the racist taunts shouted out at McCain rallies aren't buttressed by a powerful system of institutional racism which guarantees that African Americans disproportionately go to the poorest schools, suffer the highest unemployment rate and account for 50 percent of the nation's 2 million prisoners, although they constitute just 13 percent of the population.
Obama's election will raise the hopes of millions of Black workers across the country. Those who have suffered the brunt of American capitalism--and its most important tool, racism--will have a justifiable sense of pride at Obama's rise.
And for those who believe that the white working class can be won over to the fight against racism in the interest of class-based solidarity, Election Day will show that, even when offered the chance to vote along racial lines (first by Hillary Clinton and then by John McCain), tens of millions of white workers from all parts of the country will vote for Barack Obama instead.
None of this ends racism, but it certainly demonstrates the potential for interracial unity in the working class.
Historically, the US left has faced this dilemma: try to transform the Democratic Party or try to build an alternative to its left. During the last Great Depression, this choice was posed in particularly stark terms--and although history never repeats itself, there are some important lessons to be learned from what happened then.
The stock market crash in October 1929 led to bank failures, factory closures and skyrocketing unemployment, as well as a rising level of working-class anger--and, eventually, strikes, protests, union drives and all kinds of social protests.
The 1932 election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt has important parallels to Obama's campaign. He won in a landslide, replacing an unpopular and out-of-touch Republican administration, by promising a New Deal.
However, like Obama's call for "change," the content of that New Deal was meager when Roosevelt promised it on the campaign trail. It was mostly designed to shore up the banks and business, while offering small reforms for workers and the poor.
Yet the combination of anger and hope proved electric. Between 1934 and 1937, millions of workers went on strike and created the most powerful unions in US history. In that struggle, the American Communist Party grew from 7,000 members in 1929 to 80,000 by 1938.
At first, it seemed like the working-class movement and Roosevelt were headed in the same direction. As workers got more radical and organized, Roosevelt was forced to deliver more reforms (Social Security, the National labour Relations Act, the Works Progress Administration jobs program, unemployment insurance, etc.).
In fact, it seemed so obvious to many political radicals that Roosevelt and the working class were headed in the same direction that when the Communist Party dropped its opposition to the Democratic Party (on orders from Moscow) and became Roosevelt's biggest champion in 1935-36, very few complained.
But as the unions and Communist Party came to see defending Roosevelt from the Republicans as the central priority, they began to oppose the kinds of strikes and street actions necessary to continue the process of winning ever-more radical reforms for fear of "scaring the center."
Once this dynamic became dominant, the movement began to fall apart. The abandonment of this independence destroyed the possibilities of building an independent labour party, one that could stand for workers' rights, consistently fight racism and oppose US wars abroad.
And when Roosevelt, the Democratic Party and big funders who really ran the party felt threatened by the demands of the unions, Roosevelt pre-emptively turned against the movement. On Memorial Day 1937--just months after Roosevelt won re-election with the overwhelming support of organized labour--police shot and killed 10 striking steelworkers in Chicago. It was then that FDR issued his infamous "a plague on both your houses" remark about the strike, which gave the green light to the bosses to use violence against the union movement.
By 1938, the New Deal economic policies had utterly failed to end the Depression. Instead, there was a dramatic worsening of the economy. At this point, Roosevelt turned towards building a massive war machine to fight the Second World War. This would include developing and dropping the atomic bomb in the interest of spreading the American empire to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The Democrats, having sidetracked the possibility of breaking the two-party cycle in the 1930s, then helped launch the anticommunist McCarthyite crusade, a war in Korea, the Cold War with the USSR and, eventually, the war in Vietnam.
How to use opportunities
No one has a crystal ball, but it appears that global capitalism is entering a historic period of crisis. The question of how to use the opportunities this will open up so that we don't repeat the mistakes the left made in the 1930s will be crucial if we want a different outcome this time.
I believe that voting and giving political support to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party will weaken the fight for a fundamentally different kind of world, a socialist world.
Arguing against a vote for Obama and the Democrats is not political abstention, however. It is part of a larger strategy that argues positively to continue building a socialist movement, based on the independence of the working class from the two mainstream parties.
There are many dedicated activists who will disagree with this point of view. They look forward, above all, to seeing the Republicans defeated after eight long years of George Bush. But can they make a positive case that Obama and the Democrats will take us closer to breaking the domination of the rich over the working class in this country?
The fact that millions of American workers look set to elect the first Black president is a good barometer of what could be. But it's no substitute for systematic political debate and the patient building of social movements, socialist organisation and practical action.
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