Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Springtime of Possibility (Speech to the November 15, 2008 National Committee

November 15, 2008

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Edwin Stanton, the tireless Secretary of War in President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet said at the time of Lincoln’s death, “He belongs to the ages.” Much the same can be said about this election: It too belongs to the ages.

The election challenged long-held assumptions, broke voter turnout records, and shattered seemingly unbreakable barriers – none more historic than the election of an African-American president for the first time. And all this happened in the face of negative appeals to the worst angels of the American people. But to our credit, we repudiated the old politics of fear, division, racial code words, red-baiting, immigrant bashing, and nostalgic appeals to a country and time that never were.

If the election of Barack Obama was a monumental victory, election night itself was a magical moment. In Chicago and across the nation, tears of joy and exhilaration mingled with memories of how far we have come. As the President-elect greeted the hundreds of thousands of well wishers in Grant Park, it was hard not to think of the many struggles for freedom mapping our nation’s history.

If anyone believes that democracy is nothing but smoke and mirrors in capitalist society, the election of Barack Obama should cause them to reconsider such paralyzing notions. Once again we learned that the struggle for freedom is a contested idea turning as it always has on whether one views freedom as inclusive or exclusive, as giving priority to human rights or property rights, and as accenting the common good or the individual good.

While millions can and should take pride in Obama’s election, African Americans have special claims. While the American people in all their diversity elected the new president, Obama is a son of the African American people. This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time, that African Americans and their leaders have dramatically inserted themselves at critical junctures in our nation’s history to expand democracy for all.

The breaking of the color line constitutes a landmark in the struggle for equality and against racism. To be sure, we haven’t entered a post-racial era, but the opportunities to further weaken racist ideology and to tear down the institutional barriers that sustain racial discrimination and exploitation have grown considerably. Hasn’t Obama’s election and Obama’s statements as President-elect demonstrated beyond a doubt that the struggle against racism in its ideological and institutional forms is as much in the interests of white workers as it is in the interest of the nationally and racially oppressed? As Marx wrote, “Labor in the white skin can never be free, as long as labor in the black skin is branded.”

To say that a sea change occurred on Nov. 4 is no exaggeration. On one side, the arguably worst president in our history leaves Washington disgraced. His party’s policies, ideology and cultural symbols are discredited. The GOP is in disarray and the blame game has begun. The red/blue state paradigm and the southern strategy, a strategy conceived exactly forty years ago to divide the nation along racial lines, are in shambles. And the entire capitalist class, not only its most reactionary section, is weakened.

On the other side of the changing sea, a sense of joy, catharsis and renewal is in the air. Expectations are high. A new era of progressive change is waiting to become a reality. If the past eight years of the Bush administration seemed like a winter of discontent, Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency feels like a springtime of possibility.

Man, moment and movement

The outcome of this election was due to the convergence of several factors. First of all, the political environment was toxic for the Republicans. Could it have been any worse? The spontaneous mass upsurge, beginning in the primaries in January and continuing to Election Day, was another factor. Then there was the diverse coalition of people and people’s organizations that mobilized millions to vote for Obama. Another factor was the Obama campaign, notable for its sound strategy, near-perfect execution, and employment of new techniques of communication, networking and fundraising. Still another reason for the outcome was the wisdom of the American people, especially the readiness of so many to throw off ignoble and self-defeating racist ideas. To suggest, as some have, that many white people momentarily set aside their prejudice to vote for Obama is an incomplete reading of the election results. Some did; but what stands out and what we have to take careful note of is that millions of white working people of all ages and nationalities responded to and voted for Obama enthusiastically. Finally, the candidate himself was brilliant campaigner. When all of these factors are combined, they turned this election into a rout of right-wing extremism, a reaffirmation of the decency of our country and people, a leap forward on freedom road and a people’s mandate for change.

No one, of course, expects that the securing of a better future will be easy. There is, after all, eight years of extreme right-wing misrule to clean up. The economic crisis is widening and deepening. Right-wing extremism, while badly weakened, still retains enough influence in Congress and elsewhere to block progressive measures. And class realities are still embedded in our society.

Nevertheless, in electing Barack Obama and larger Democratic Party majorities in Congress, the American people have taken the first and absolutely necessary step in the direction of building a more just society. We are not on the threshold of socialism for sure, but it is easy to see the further congealing of a growing majority that will realign politics, not incrementally and momentarily, but decisively and enduringly in the direction of economic justice, equality and peace.

While we should look at the outcome of the elections objectively, I would argue that the biggest danger is to underestimate the political significance of what has happened. I am suspicious of advice that suggests that we temper our understandable joy and enthusiasm as if nothing of great importance has happened.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A “New Deal” Model for the Obama Cabinet

11-26-08, 11:21 am

As appointments and stories of appointments to President-elect Obama’s cabinet fill mass media, the interest in Doris Kearns Godwin’s fascinating study, Team of Rivals, which deals with Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War cabinet has been mentioned prominently.

The purpose of these accounts seems to be to encourage President Obama to establish something like a “national unity” cabinet. The idea is to put political rivals like Hillary Clinton prominent positions in major cabinet positions. In today's context, unlike Lincoln’s situation during the Civil War, it would mean having Democrats and perhaps one or two Republicans in the cabinet to the right of the President.

If the country were facing a non-nuclear World War and President Obama had already established the main lines of his domestic policies, this might make some sense. For example, Franklin Roosevelt appointed Henry Stimson, Herbert Hoover’s former Secretary of State, as Secretary of War as the US moved toward World War II. Roosevelt also gave his corporate “rivals” a major incentive to produce for the war effort by establishing a war production program that both guaranteed them high profits and was administered largely by their own executives.

But the crisis the nation and the world face today is that of a looming world depression. A “New Deal” model for the new cabinet makes much more sense for both Obama and the people.

A “New Deal” model for the cabinet would begin to consolidate President Obama’s victory by creating the “Center-Left” administration that is necessary to both contain the likely depression and also end for the rightwing domination of US politics over the last thirty years which the electorate has rejected

After his victory in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt faced a depression that was veering toward total economic collapse. While he appointed “regular” Democrats to his cabinet, including Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Attorney General Homer Cummings, and others, he also began appoint to high cabinet positions “new people,” progressives from academic and activist backgrounds who had continued to fight against right-wing domination in the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover years of the 1920s.

These included the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, a long-time progressive activist in Illinois politics and enemy of the Chicago political machine who would distinguish himself as an advocate of economic planning and also an opponent of racism. (Up to then, there had been very few open opponents of racism in the federal government since the end of Reconstruction.) When Roosevelt asked Ickes how he should inform the mayor of Chicago about his appointment, Ickes allegedly said “with an oxygen tent.”

Roosevelt also appointed Henry A. Wallace, an agricultural economist, plant geneticist, and editor of an influential newspaper for farmers. Wallace was an advocate of a wide variety of policies aimed at production planning, soil conservation, and education to protect both working farmers and produce a more abundant agriculture.

From his own circles, Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a cabinet position, as Secretary of Labor. Perkins was a champion of the abolition of child labor and strong supporter of national economic planning in the interest of workers and consumers. Also from the Roosevelt circle was Harry Hopkins, a professional social worker with a unique ability to get things done quickly. Hopkins served in a number of major capacities, most importantly as director of the Works Progress Administration, the most ambitious and successful public works/employment program in US history.

Hopkins saw the interests of the poor and the unemployed as his first priority and used his organizational skills to help them as quickly as possible. Others, including progressive attorney David E. Lilienthal, would serve as director of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the New Deal’s hugely successful public power regional development program. (TVA was perhaps the most important program denounced by the right as “socialism.") TVA was and is a program based on public ownership and development of energy that produced major economic development and raised the living standards of an impoverished region).

Along with others, these people were the leadership cadre that came to be known as the “New Dealers.” They worked alongside organization and conservative Democrats, including those who were unsympathetic to the New Deal as anything but a meal ticket for themselves. To the outrage of conservatives, the administration also began to develop new crisis agencies with powers to supersede the existing cabinet bureaucracies. While this created all sorts of intergovernmental conflicts, it also sparked important policy innovations and enabled the administration to experiment with policy as it moved to work with labor-led mass movements to both regulate capital at a much higher level than before and to implement major reforms in the interest of the people.

This really did constitute a “sea change” in government and public policy. This shift in implementing policy won the loyalties of a divided and battered working class, inspired large numbers of progressive activists to see the opportunity of working with as against the federal government and, even with the major reversals of the cold war period, including of course the political purges and outright persecution of the left of the New Deal’s center left coalition, and put major reforms in the peoples interest into place.

What would a “New Deal” model mean for an Obama administration today? Here are a few suggestions. First President Obama might look to longtime progressive activists whose names would produce the same sort of reaction that Harold Ickes and Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins did to the corporate leadership and conservatives in the 1930s. Marion Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund might be a good choice for Secretary of Education. Lani Guinier, whom Bill Clinton abandoned for a federal position in response to the attacks on her by Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio “entertainers” 16 years ago, might make a fine Attorney General.

President Obama might also begin to create new activist agencies on the New Deal model. A new WPA could deal directly with both infrastructure revitalization and unemployment, a state and municipalities aid administration (SMEA), to directly aid state and municipalities, a Federal Energy Authority (FEA) on the TVA model to begin to both develop public energy and also alternative energy sources on a national level.

He could also appoint pro-labor administrators and staff to the National Labor RB who were there in its early years as a way to reverse decades of anti-labor policies. Along with the Employee Free Choice Act (and hopefully the eventual complete repeal of both Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin) such an NLRB would play a positive role in what is most desperately needed, a massive union organizing drive which will bring many millions of new workers into the trade union movement.

Obama will have to confront the problem of the significant number of federal Civil Service appointees who come out of right-wing conservative societies and “think tanks” like the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, who I imagine will do what they can to undermine the implementation of progressive policies. I am not suggesting the kind of harassment that the Bush administration used against civil servants who opposed their political agenda. But, the New Deal government used new agencies to work around such people, who were, given the size of the federal government far less of problem to a progressive administration than they will be today.

Roosevelt also surrounded himself with a “brain trust” drawn from academic and legal backgrounds that reflected the center-left orientation of his administration. Such policy advisors in the Obama administration would serve as a healthy antidote to the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Federal Society policy planners and advisors who have staffed the Bush administration. There are progressive policy organizations that President Obama can and should look to develop a “brain trust” rather than the sort of Democratic Leadership Council organization men and women and “process liberals” (those who see themselves as centrist managers in government rather than active policy planners).

But what is most important is the administration’s overall orientation, which should be to innovate, to break with the past, to as Franklin Roosevelt said over and over again, to seek the path of “action and action now.” Lincoln’s Civil War cabinet with its “team of rivals” is a flawed model for President Obama as he faces the present crisis. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” model with its “brain trust,” new agencies, new and different people in important leading positions and commitment to experimentation and action is an excellent one.

--Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reflections on Socialism

by Sam Webb National Chair of the Communist Party USA

The main political task at this moment is to assemble the necessary social forces to defeat Bush and his counterparts in Congress and elsewhere.

The urgency of that task, however, should not be converted into a rationale for socialists and communists to push the mute button on the socialist alternative. To the contrary, we should bring our vision of socialism into the public square; we are, after all, the Communist Party and socialism is at the core of our identity.

The ruling class, not surprisingly, shows no reticence in shaping popular (mis)understanding of socialism. In fact, establishment think tanks, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, have said that socialism is not simply damaged, but damaged beyond repair.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the political spectrum, this subject is slowly finding its way into political discourse. At first glance, this may seem surprising, given that socialism took such a big hit a decade ago.

But on closer inspection it is not such a mystery.

The very advances of capitalism bring in their train new oppositional forces. Admittedly, they don’t yet embrace socialism as we understand it, but they do imagine a society without the hardships, oppressions, worries, pressures, and unbridled profiteering that are emblematic of and structured into present day capitalism. They desire a future that brings material security and a sense of community, insist on some power over their lives, yearn for a new birth of freedom and hunger for a joyous life, and they want a little heaven on this earth.

Obviously, this structure of feeling doesn’t, all at once, translate into a mass constituency for socialism, but it does mean that we can bring our vision to a much larger audience. And doing so can only have a positive effect on ongoing class and democratic battles – not to mention the longer-term prospects for socialism. It is no coincidence that the most far-reaching reforms in the 20th century were secured at moments when socialist ideas had their greatest currency and constituency.


In advocating socialism today, we can’t simply repeat what Marx and Engels said. Call it what you want, a blessing or a burden, we can’t act as if socialism wasn’t a defining feature of world development in the 20th century. And, to say the least, that experience was tumultuous and contradictory.

On the one hand, socialism transformed and modernized backward societies, secured important economic and social rights, assisted countries breaking free of colonialism, contributed decisively to the victory over Nazism, constituted by its mere presence a pressure on the ruling classes in the capitalist world to make concessions to their working classes and democratic movements, and acted as a counterweight to the aggressive ambitions of U.S. imperialism for nearly fifty years.

On the other hand, the shortcomings and mistakes in the political, economic, and cultural fields, not to mention the egregious and indefensible crimes against the Soviet people and Soviet socialism during the Stalin period, were so serious that in the end, the Soviet Union (and the Eastern European states) collapsed with barely a word of protest from their citizens or ruling parties.

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