Obama Better than Bush? Yes, But for Who?

By Stephen Gowans

The view of the New York Times and its columnist Paul Krugman is that the Obama presidency isn’t proceeding the way it was supposed to. The president has failed his liberal Democratic supporters and capitulated to the Republicans.

Here’s their charge sheet:

Obama failed to end the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, failed to create a government-run health insurance system, and failed in his negotiations with Congress on raising the debt-ceiling to shelter Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

And in a yet-to-be approved deal to avoid default of the US government’s debt, Obama agreed to automatic cuts in social programs and defense spending if a bipartisan panel fails to agree on a deficit-reduction package, or its recommendations are rejected by Congress. Conspicuously missing are tax increases on the wealthy as one of the automatic triggers.

The ultra-wealthy will continue to avoid paying their share of taxes, loaning their spare cash, instead, to Washington, to be repaid in full with interest — an attractive deal for the rich, a swindle for everyone else. The upward redistribution of wealth continues as strongly as it ever did under Bush, the only difference being that Bush admitted the ultra-wealthy were his “base,” while Obama doesn’t.

On foreign policy, Obama’s record is no better. He has failed to close Guantanamo Bay, stepped up the war in Afghanistan, extended the war to Yemen, and wages war in Libya without Congressional authorization — which is only slightly worse than the fact that he’s waging war on Libya. What’s more, he has failed to prosecute his predecessor for authorizing the use of torture, arguing pathetically that he prefers to look forward, not backward.

All this means that for liberal Democrats, Obama is a clear disappointment. But that sure doesn’t mean they won’t vote for him. And Obama knows it. Liberal Democrats, progressives and even Communists are so terrified of the Republican Party right-wing, that they’ll vote for anyone to the left of it, even if “to the left”, means a long way toward right.

Which leaves Obama plenty of room to manoeuvre to advance the agenda of his ultra-wealthy backers. Michael Moore and others lambasted Ralph Nader for his third party presidential bid. It allowed Bush and his pro-war, pro-wealthy agenda to come to power, they charged. Okay, so now that a Democrat has succeeded him, what’s different?

To be fair, this kind of political dynamic isn’t unique to the United States. In Canada, a left-wing party with Marxist-Leninist roots greets every election campaign with the same rallying cry: Let’s stop the Conservatives. By which is meant: Vote for whoever can stop the Tories, even if it means a vote for the Liberals, whose record, policies, and class affinities are virtually indistinguishable from those of the Conservative bogeymen.

And in Britain, the Communist Party of Britain backs Labour against the Conservatives.

Which means that the parties of the nominally liberal wing of the business establishment can count on the support of everyone to left of conservatives, even while trampling all over them.

That liberal Democrats in the United States would quickly become disappointed with Obama can hardly be a surprise except to the politically naive and to those who put their brains in park and let wishful thinking take the wheel.

It was always clear that a president backed by corporate money and surrounded by a cabinet of ruling class partisans was going to advance the corporate agenda and champion the privileges of the ultra-wealthy. After all, that’s who bankrolled his presidential bid, and is bankrolling his re-election bid.

Trouble is, desperate for some kind of respite from the depressing string of defeats the left has endured (or inflicted upon itself) no one on the left wanted to hear this.

Neither did anyone else for that matter. The day after Obama was elected, a TV news crew showed up at my son’s school. A small group of students, my son included, was assembled and asked what they thought of Obama’s election. All gushed about how inspired they were and how relieved they were that the Bush era had come to a close, to be succeeded by a new, more hopeful, day. Except my son. He pointed out that it was unlikely that an Obama presidency would be much different from a McCain one. Obama was backed massively by corporate money, and he would depend on Wall Street to get re-elected. The piece aired with comments from all the students …but one.

“Oh sure,” it will be said, “Obama’s just a handmaiden of the establishment, but even if he’s only a little better than a Republican president, he’s still a little better.” And a little better can, as Noam Chomsky once said, make a big difference. I guess that’s true, depending on what your goal is. If your goal is to keep public pensions intact for another three years instead of one, little differences do count.

But there’s a point at which goals can go from difficult to reach but achievable to so modest that setting them amounts to capitulation. What’s more, it’s doubtful that the Democrats are even a little better.

The view on the left that they are comes from the belief that the Democrats and Republicans differ only in the degree to which they’re willing to make concessions to labor to buy social peace. Democrats will go further, we’re told.

But there’s another view, which liberals, progressives and timid radicals impatiently dismiss as “ultra-left.” It says that because they’re widely but erroneously supposed to be the party of the common man, the Democrats can go further in advancing the agenda of the ultra-wealthy—and do. The reason why is that once in office the common man goes to sleep.

Ultra-left or not, this view seems to more closely fit the facts than the competing view that the Democrats are friendlier to the average person (if only to serve ruling class purposes) compared to the Republicans.

Commenting on the difference between Labour and Conservative governments in Britain, the radical sociologist Albert Szymanski once remarked that Labour “followed the same sort of conservative economic policies vis-a-vis balancing the budget, reducing the trade deficit and resisting workers’ demands for wage increases as the Conservative and Liberal governments that came before and after.” But the “main difference between the two types of governments was that a Labour prime minister was better able to get the working class to accept” sacrifices that benefited banks, investors and corporations. (1)

In other words, if you want to pacify labor and the left while ramming through measures that advance the interests of capital at the expense of everyone else, bring in a Labour or Democrat or (in Canada) NDP government. Sure, they’re more apt to guarantee social peace, but only because voters think they’re in their corner.

So, what did Bush do that Obama hasn’t done?

Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, escalated Bush’s war agenda, but faced no concerted public opposition. Parts of the antiwar movement have been in hibernation since Obama stepped over the White House threshold. The Communists are heartened that Obama initiated a troop withdrawal from Iraq (seemingly oblivious to the reality that he needed to transfer troops from Iraq to Afghanistan where the occupation was going badly.)

While Guantanamo Bay was an embarrassment under Bush, its continued operation is not even remarked upon under Obama. And nowadays, the United States is prepared to carry out extra-judicial assassinations of its own citizens. Even Bush didn’t go that far.

Bush was scorned for lying about WMDs to justify an illegal war on Iraq, but Obama lies about the reasons for war on Libya. No one even maintains the pretence it’s about protecting civilians anymore—except when NATO covers up the war crime of bombing civilian infrastructure, claiming the heinous deed was necessary to protect civilians. There has hardly been a peep of protest. On the contrary, liberals, progressives and many leftists have fallen into step with the peace president on Libya.

Of course, in reality, Obama isn’t the peace president. He’s the pacifying president. And it seems a great injustice, to consistency at least, that the Nobel committee didn’t award its peace prize to Bush. After all, Obama’s contribution to peace is no greater than Bush’s was. Indeed, it’s marginally worse.

Today, 25 million US citizens want full time jobs but can’t find them. By agreeing to cut spending when the US economy is stagnant (its annualized rate of growth for the first half of the year is no better than US population growth), Obama will add to the Himalaya of idleness that has gripped his country, courtesy of capitalism, but exacerbated by a lack of political will to significantly palliate the problem.

And why palliate it? There’s no restiveness on the streets and an expanding reserve army of labor offers the welcome promise (to Obama’s real base) of downward pressure on wages, benefits and working conditions. Profits will soar – as they have been.

True, it can always be said that McCain would have encroached even further on working class interests, and that the Tea Party’s strength is a factor, but as Krugman points out, Obama has staked out positions even further to the right than the average Republican is comfortable with. And it’s doubtful that McCain could have got even half as far as Obama in stepping up the war and agreeing to budget positions that are indulgent to the wealthy and harsh to the poor without provoking pressure from below.

Obama is a failure? For the vast majority of US citizens, yes. But not for an elite of owners and high level managers of income producing property. Which is the way it was always supposed to be.

Albert Szymanksi, The Capitalist State and the Politics of Class, Winthrop Publishers Incorporated, 1978. P. 268.

26 thoughts on “Obama Better than Bush? Yes, But for Who?

  1. AmericanSocialist: “The reason why I didn’t suggest a large Socialist Party is because I don’t see how that will happen anytime soon”

    Would it be a good idea to re-evaluate that in light of the last few weeks? (the occupy movement)

  2. US citizens may dislike the word “socialism” but it’s doubtful they dislike socialism itself. It’s more likely that they intensely dislike the reality of capitalism–and the bad that comes with it. I would think that the point of a socialist party is to start the conversation about how, surely, we can do better than capitalism–rather than trying to push the Democrats a little to the left. After all, what’s the point of a socialist party if your program has nothing in any meaningful way to do with socialism, and is really only about the Democrats? You might as well be honest and call it the Let’s-make-the-Democrats-more-Liberal Party…or simply the Michael Moore Party.

  3. Good points regarding the difficulty of pulling the Democrats to the left. The reason why I didn’t suggest a large Socialist Party is because I don’t see how that will happen anytime soon, due to the intense antipathy against socialism from so many Americans. It seems more likely that one could build a majority party of mathematics PhDs. A small party of socialists could be formed but in our winner-takes-all style of Congressional and Presidential elections the chances for success are next to nil.

  4. Saleh Waziruddin. Your points about Labour and Democrats being worse because they can lull the working class is a variant of the idea that the worse things get the more mobilized the working class gets.

    Gowans. Nowhere did I say that the worse things get the more mobilized the working class gets. Also, if there’s a connection, as you claim, between what I did say and the idea that the working class becomes mobilized the worse things get, I can’t see it.

    Saleh Waziruddin. I can testify first hand that as a candidate for the Communist Party of Canada in the last federal election, I told people in no uncertain terms to vote Communists, that that was the best way to stop the Tories.

    Gowans. How could it possibly be that the best way to stop the Tories was to vote Communist? The best way to stop the Tories, was not to split the vote among Liberals, the NDP, the Green Party, the CPC-ML and the CPC. The best way to stop the Tories was to unite behind the one candidate most likely to defeat them (and that clearly wasn’t the Communist Party candidate.) This is the only meaningful interpretation of “stop the Tories.”

    By the way, why didn’t the CPC urge voters to stop the Liberals? Are they better than the Tories?

  5. American Socialist. I’m planning to write a piece speculating later on whether a small, organized Socialist Party in the USA could at least drag the Democrats to the left.

    Gowans. Why do you want to drag the Democrats to the left? Why not build a large, organized Socialist Party, rather than a small one, that does what the Democrats won’t do?

    Concerning the likelihood of dragging the Democrats to the left: Did a small, organized Communist Party drag the Democrats to the left? Did Ralph Nader’s bid for the US presidency drag the Democrats to the left? Did Michael Moore’s once backing Nader drag the Democrats to the left? Has the Communist Party of Britain ever dragged Labour to the left?

    The Democrats will never be dragged to the left. (1) Most of its funding comes from corporations. (2) No matter what, the left always finds an excuse to vote Democrat.

  6. Saleh Waziruddin. What does fighting social conservativism have to do with Marxism – only a strategy for overthrowing capitalism, that is all.

    Gowans. However much same-sex marriage, access to publically-funded abortions, gender equality, and prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of race and sexual preference are desirable, their achievement does not amount to overthrowing capitalism.

    Saleh Waziruddin. It is quite common for the leadership of a communist party to go in one direction and the membership in another.

    Gowans. This is an odd argument. Because something is quite common, it’s okay. Slavery was once quite common too, but that does that justify it? Either the CPUSA is internally democratic or it isn’t. It sounds to me like you’re saying, “communist parties aren’t internally democratic, but that’s quite common, so don’t worry about it.

  7. what does this have to do with Marxism – only a strategy for overthrowing capitalism, that is all

    you are not distinguishing between the leadership of these parties and the membership when you say they are part of the ruling class coalition. Certainly the right-wing leadership of these parties would not be in the peoples coalition, but some of the forces in these parties would be because unlike the working class members of the Republican party these forces are progressive, some working class and some not. The ultra-left on the other hand are fundamentally opposed to such a strategy which is why would not make likely candidates of such a coalition.

    Lastly it should not be surprising to anyone that while the leadership of a party like the CPUSA may go in one direction events will drive the membership in the opposite direction, this is quite common. After all this is what happened in the SPUSA as an example. It is a mistake to call the membership spineless for not having won without being aware of their efforts, for example read the convention discussion from last year or mltoday.com or various blogs and polemics from the membership against their official policies.

  8. A good point and something I’ve been considering more lately. I knew in 2006 that Obama was going to try to smile and gladhand his way into the White House while making the minimum in way of definitive statements, and that happened. And it has become obvious while he has been in office that he is only slightly better than what McCain would have done (although probably much better than what Palin would do if McCain couldn’t handle the strain, but that’s not saying much).

    Really, he has already proven himself a failure to uphold the principles of those who elected him. In 2012 he is going to campaign on a whole new set of promises that we already know he will not deliver. So what to do? I’m planning to write a piece later speculating on whether a small, organized Socialist Party in the USA could at least drag the Democrats to the left, in much the same way the Tea Party has dragged the Republicans to the right. I don’t know what more can be hoped for short term. Personally, I will vote third party in the next election, and if a Republican wins that’s the price the country pays for accepting a false choice every four years.

  9. Whether labourites or democrats take their voters for granted or not, there are several election dynamics you are missing:
    – people who get turned off and frustrated and stay home
    – people who do vote for smaller left parties in increasing numbers
    – most importantly, people who used to vote labour or liberal or democrat but become turned off and get picked up by the demagoguery of the right

    I think the liberals and democrats know some of this and know it is not as simple as taking anyone to the left for granted. The know for example turnout is important and uninspiring candidates result in low turnout.

    On another point, your point about labour or dems being worse because they can lull the working class is a variant of the idea that the worse things get the more mobilized the working class gets. This is just not true. If it was we would have revolutions already in many more countries than we do. It is true that class collaborationists would try to lull the workers, but that does not mean we can take it for granted that this is what happens.

    Finally, I can testify first hand that as a candidate for the Communist Party of Canada in the last federal election I told people in no uncertain terms to vote Communist, that that was the best way to stop the Tories (although not necessarily in this election), although I cannot say all candidates took the same position.

  10. For any one who may be interested in the reasoning of two of the several CPs in Britain regarding support for the Labour Party (extracts taken from respective websites):

    From the CP of Britain (which supports Labour in general elections):

    Any serious strategy for socialist revolution in Britain must identify such forces at each stage of the process, developing policies that meet their interests but which also make inroads into capitalist power. The aim must be to maximise the forces for progress and socialist revolution, and neutralise or minimise those in opposition…

    Since its formation, the Labour Party has been the mass party of the organised working class. It continues to enjoy the electoral support of large sections of workers…

    Yet the Labour Party is different from social-democratic parties in other countries in one crucial respect. It is a federal party with mass trade union affiliations…

    The unique structure and composition of the Labour Party has ensured the continuation of a significant socialist trend within it. These socialists have at times won major advances in the battle of ideas within and beyond the party. They have supported policies for democratic public ownership, progressive taxation, capital controls, trade union rights and nuclear disarmament that challenge monopoly capital in the interests of working people…

    But the Labour Party left is not a cohesive and united force. The predominance of the social-democratic trend over the socialist trend in the Labour Party leadership, especially in Parliament, has helped ensure that Labour governments have only ever reformed capitalism rather than abolishing it…

    The working class and peoples of Britain need a mass political party, based on the labour movement, which can win General Elections, form a government and implement substantial reforms in their interests…

    The Communist Party’s role is to work with all left trends that have a real, sustained base in the labour movement, urging them to unite around policies and in actions which raise the combativeness, confidence and political consciousness of the working class. This would lay the basis for their convergence in a reclaimed or re-established mass party of labour, one federally organised to permit the affiliation of socialist and communist parties and committed to the fight for socialism…

    From the 2004-founded CP of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) (which does not support Labour in general elections):

    The British Road to Socialism (programme of the CP of Britain – ed.), in a nutshell, says that a peaceful socialist revolution can take place in Britain, through the election of a left Labour and communist majority in parliament, supplemented by trade union pressure and mass democratic (peaceful) action pushing it to the left. Under this fairyland scenario, not only is it assumed that the imperialists will cheerfully accept the will of the majority and hand everything over to popular control, it is also forgotten that the trade unions are run mainly by the same sort of labour aristocratic elite that runs the Labour Party. This labour aristocratic elite has a vested interest in the maintenance of imperialism. The Labour Party is not there to respond to, let alone satisfy, the demands of the majority. For example, 2m people peacefully protested against Britain going to war against Iraq, but were totally ignored by the Labour Government. Besides, if the Labour Party, which has been an imperialist party since its inception can be pushed to the left when in power then, surely, so can all other imperialist parties? Taken to this logical conclusion the whole programme and reasoning of the CPB shows that they are well overdue for liquidation since, to follow their logic, the proletariat needs no party of its own, steeled in Marxist-Leninist theory, for it can just ‘push’ any government to the ‘left’!

    Another point constantly brought forward by those who choose to ‘misunderstand’ Lenin is his advice to the CPGB to support the Labour Party in a general election. This advice, it is claimed, is for all time and gives them the excuse to carry on their support ad infinitum. But Lenin only advised electoral support for the establishment of the first Labour Government – and only in order to prove to the workers the opportunist and treacherous nature of the Labour Party. Lenin’s advice was to elect Labour in order to show them up for what they were or, in his words, “support the Labour Party like a rope supports the hanging man”. Of course, once you have done this, there is no need to keep repeating the lesson. Lenin had no illusions about the British Labour Party and said: “The Labour Party is not a political worker’s party but a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although it consists of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst reactionaries at that, who lead it in the spirit of the bourgeoisie and with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns, they systematically deceive the workers.”

  11. Indeed, by the “Right” I mean the overtly conservative parties. My personal understanding of the Right would be the Tories and Liberals (in Canada), the Republicans and most of the Democrats (in the US), and the Tories and most of Labour (in the UK).

    Immediately, however, I see the weakness in what I’m saying. Clearly it’s a problem for any one claiming to be a Marxist to say “well, *some* of the NDP/Democrats/Labour are OK, so we should conditionally or tactically support them”.

    I realise this position is, as both Gowans and Murray have said, seriously flawed. My concern, however, is the perils of total isolation (which would come about from, say, the Maoist position of total rejection of the present political process – a position I can understand but not quite bring myself to agree with).

    So, yes, you would have interpreted my position correctly by saying that my current understanding (however shaky, admittedly) of a people’s coalition would need to include some NDP/Democrat/Labour elements.

    I don’t disagree that the Democratic Party/NDP/Labour are part of the Right in so far as they are wedded to imperialism and capitalism on the level of leadership – but there are small sections within each of these parties that are far more progressive. Although I suppose being part of a “peoples coalition” would force them to leave their traditional party formations (or be expelled).

    I will say, though, that your suggestion that these parties are actually more damaging than the more right wing parties when actually in power is highly compelling, and forcing me to examine my previously held position. New Labour under Tony Blair and the Democrats under Obama are very strong cases in point.

    You’re right about those major Marxist figures you mention leading small movements and not being adverse to polemics. But I don’t think any of them were quite as determined to isolate themselves and ignore all potential allies as some of the highly sectarian Trot groups out there.

    So, where does that leave us? You make an excellent case for abandoning pretensions of ever working with bourgeois parties by pointing out what happens when Marxists are naïve enough to fall for someone like Obama. So how should we move forward if not by attempting to reach out to progressive elements in otherwise bourgeois-orientated forces? I’m left with a picture of tiny, isolated Communist Parties (like in Canada/UK/US) simply crying in the wilderness and making even less progress than they are now!

    On the question of the CPUSA: from what I gather (on the basis of limited but nonetheless reliable information) there is an intense crisis in that party right now. Many ordinary members, who have been calling for their leadership to wake the hell up regarding Obama for sometime, have been side-lined by a clique in the leadership (presumably supported by at least some of the ordinary membership) who are absolutely determined to liquidate the party and simply become and fraction within the Democrats. One can get this impression from reading their publication “Political Affairs”, which has included articles calling for rejection of Marxism-Leninism and total dissolution of the CP.

    Certainly the CP-USA has abandoned any form of democratic organizational principles from what I understand, and this has enabled this trajectory into the abyss. I suppose some people still think the party can be “rescued”, so it’s not so much that they’re as spineless as the leadership, but that they want (desperately, perhaps impossibly) to save the party from becoming a social-democratic formation and think this remains a possibility. I know there are lots of CP-USA members openly calling for the leadership to be removed, but the last central convention of the party was a total sham, by all accounts.

    I can’t really say much more as I don’t have the details. But the party is on the verge of a split, it seems, and this issue of backing Obama has brought things to a head over the last 18 months.

    When you say:

    “While they might flatter themselves that they’re pragmatic and sensitive to the possibilities of the moment, their tactics amount to allying with whatever force on the right claims to be least injurious to labour’s interests – a program which has no other end but continued defeat….”

    I can’t help feeling you’re right.

    And I’m grateful for being confronted with an argument which has forced me to examine and re-assess my position. I must admit I find this a very difficult question, though.

    Also, I must say that Murray provides overwhelming reasons for the Labour party in the UK to be seen as a total dead-end for Marxists. The curious thing is that the CP of Britain still backs them, explicitly. I’m going to have to look very closely at how they justify this (although incidentally, a new CP was founded in 2004 by Harpal Brar which directly challenges and opposes the idea that Communists should support Labour under any circumstances. They still have a very small membership though – not to say the CP of Britain has a massive membership itself!).

    I have one final issue for Gowans and Murray – should CPs in countries like Canada/US/UK take part at all in federal/general elections, or call instead for working people to boycott?

  12. What i BELIEVE Chevy is getting at is how one builds a people’s coalition, not what its ideology it upholds. Communist Party of Canada publications tend to use the line “stop the right” because thats what an average person is more likely to respond to. However if one actually reads the articles that follow these headlines, one will generally find that after bashing the conservatives, the articles will go on to explain why the liberals are no different and why the NDP, Bloc and Greens are only slightly better. The idea behind a people’s coalition is not that the Liberal or Democratic (with the exception of Kucinich and a few others) or Labour parties are progressive, but that lots of their followers are. There are a lot of idiots who mistook Obama for an anti-war President during his campaign and are still ok with him (many are even falling for his lies about Libya). Those people are not going instantly abandon the Dems for a Communist party, but they would willingly join a people’s coalition against the right. That coalition would provide the perfect opportunity for them to see that Obama is no better than the GOP.

  13. Albert Szymanski made a good argument against the theory of a labor aristocracy in his book Logic of Imperialism.

  14. I don’t disagree in the slightest with this. The point is rather a more fundamental one. As a party of the labour aristocracy, Labour is of necessity bound to share the trappings, as well as the class interests, of this privileged section of the working class. The elite character of its membership is but one instance of the former, and its record both in and out of government is an instance of the latter. As a party of the labour aristocracy, Labour owes its existence to the continued existence of British imperialism, and because of this is bound to support and sustain the dominance of the City of London on a global scale.

    The highly qualified professional makeup of the Labour Party is but a surface appearance of its class character – that of the most reactionary and privileged bought off section of the working class. There is no suprise, therefore, that hand in hand with the call to vote Labour goes the repeated attacks on Lenin’s theory of imperialism, and further still of the split in socialism.

  15. If your point is that members of the Labour Party are unrepresentative of the British electorate as a whole, that’s largely to be expected. I would venture to guess that the membership of any political party, no matter what its orientation, is different from the population in its educational attainments and in other ways as well. After all, members of political parties are already set apart to begin with. They’re members of a political party and most people are not. With that goes other characteristics.

    Some might say that despite the Labour Party’s membership being more highly schooled than average, that the bulk of people who vote Labour at elections are from the working class. This, however, is of no significance, since the bulk of people who vote Conservative and Liberal Democrat at elections are also working class.

    On the other hand, it might be said that the class character of those who occupy the key posts in the Labour Party bureaucracy and stand as Labour candidates in elections tend to be very different from that of their opposite numbers in the Conservative Party—far more likely to be working class, even if university educated. That, on the whole, I think, is true.

    But the crucial question is not who makes up the membership of a party but what its goals are and in whose fundamental interests it acts. Labour may be more working class in its membership than the Conservatives, but has it advanced the interests of the working class against capital, and has it been anything but a reliable guardian of capitalist interests—often at labor’s expense?

    The problem is that the class nature of a party’s membership offers no consistently reliable guide to its politics. What muddies the waters is the differential level of class consciousness between the working class and capitalist class—weakly developed in the former and strongly developed in the latter. Accordingly, political parties dominated by bankers, corporate lawyers, investors, and high-level corporate executives—and this includes the Democrats in the United States and the Liberals in Canada—are single-minded in the pursuit of capitalist interests. It is then true that in the case of capitalist-class dominated parties that the class nature of the party’s top-level membership predicts the party’s politics.

    But for parties with a greater degree of working class members and formal trade union participation the correlation breaks down. And that’s because the working class doesn’t have a sense of itself as a class, doesn’t see its common connections, and isn’t aware of its common interests, in the way the owners and high-level managers of capital are aware of themselves as a class. Indeed, many members of the working class would never think of themselves as such, rejecting even such euphemisms as “common man” or “average person” as descriptive, preferring instead to think of themselves (in North America anyway) as “middle-class.”

    The confusion doesn’t end there. Many socialists and communists haven’t a firm grasp of what the working class is, envisaging it, wrongly, as made up solely of manual and blue collar workers—without university educations, and hardly “middle-class”. In point of fact, the bulk of people with university degrees, and who think of themselves as “middle-class”, are proletarians—even if many of them would reject the designation and react with dread to discover that’s what they are. Class is defined, not in terms of income, or whether work is manual or mental—or whether you went to university–but in terms of one’s relation to the means of production.

    A party’s having a mainly working class membership cannot therefore be a sufficient condition of its pursuing its members’ fundamental interests. If the working class was aware of itself as a class it would be otherwise, but sadly, it isn’t. Consequently, it makes sense to ask of parties that count working class and trade union activists among its top membership whether its goals and actions are those of a class conscious working class party. Does it seek to elevate labor to the status of ruling class, or only to carve out a better deal for it within capitalism? Does it surrender to the idea than capitalism is a long-term reality with which we all must live indefinitely, and insist that, in meantime, the best we can do is to work for reforms within the system? In other words, is it social democratic in practice? Or is it, in practice, nothing more than an ABC (anything but the Conservatives) or ABR (anything but the Republican) party, whose meaningful political horizons are no broader than those of Labour or the Democrats, and whose effect on the real world as a separate party is no different from what it would be if it liquidated itself and had its members join the Democrats or Labour?

    No, the problem with Labour is not that its membership is more highly educated than the population as a whole, but that’s its answer to the question–Surely, we can do better than capitalism?–is a resounding no.

  16. The major underlying assumption of all this, is, of course, that Labour, the Democrats etc are wihere the working class is. In Britain at least this doesn’t hold up to the facts. As far back as 1987, the Whitty report demonstrated that 60% of Labour Party members had a degree or equivalent compared to 11% of the general population. More than 20 years of “prawn cocktail offensives” and cosying up to the City of London later, the idea that the Labour Party is a seething mass of workers just waiting to be led into the class conscious vanguard (presumably by “left” Labourites like Benn, McDonnell and Corbyn) is almost entirely laughable.

    The working class has no illusions in Labour, so it does make you wonder why the “left” does..

  17. You say you don’t disagree with me. BJ says he agrees 100 percent. Okay. Next, you enumerate tactics that few would disagree “are clearly absurd for contemporary conditions in countries like the UK, US, or Canada.” So far, so good.

    But somehow, from this, you arrive at:

    • The main threat is “the Right”—without defining what the right is.
    • The best way to fight “the Right” is to work within a “people’s coalition” of “all progressive forces”.

    By “the Right”, I gather you mean the more overtly conservative political parties, but not the Democrats, or Liberals, or NDP, or Labour, or Social Democrats, or Socialists.

    And I’m guessing that the “people’s coalition” of progressive forces of which you speak includes those parties named above which are considered to be to the left of the more conservative ones.

    Have I represented your position accurately?

    Let’s assume, for the moment, that I have. At the very least, the view that I have rightly or wrongly attributed to you matches that of many others, so I’ll address my comments to them, but also make reference to some of your specific comments.

    The first point is that you can define “the Right” narrowly as comprising social conservative forces that advance the interests of capital over labor, or less narrowly as comprising forces that advance the interests of capital over labor, full stop. According to the less restrictive definition, the Democrats, Labour, the Liberals and so on, are part of “the Right.”

    This is a critical point, because the idea that the best way to fight “the Right” is to work within a “people’s coalition” of “all progressive forces” means something very different depending on how “the Right” is defined.

    If it is defined as social conservative forces that advance the interests of capital over labor, then your argument is that the best way to fight social conservative forces that advance the interests of capital over labor is to work within a “people’s coalition” of “all progressive forces” including forces that advance the interests of capital over labor, but which are not socially conservative, like Democrats (some of them), Liberals (some of them), Labour (some of them) and so on.

    This reduces to: the best way to fight socially conservative forces is to ally with forces that aren’t socially conservative. Okay, fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But what does it have to do with Marxism?

    I believe that when you and BJ say you agree with me but at the same time don’t agree me, that what you’re saying is that you believe that the Democrats and Labour and their equivalents are part of a “people’s coalition.” But I think the bulk of evidence very strongly points in another direction. They are part of a big business, or ruling class, coalition.

    The other question is whether these parties are less injurious to the interests of labor than their nominally more conservative counterparts. I think this is debatable. A cogent case can be made that the interests of capital contra labor are advanced further when these parties are in power because labor is pacified by the myth that they are parties for the common man. However, whether true or not, this hardly negates the reality that if these parties are less and not more injurious to labor’s interests, they are still injurious. Accordingly, working with them amounts to working for the injury of the working class’s internets. This might be defended as “practical politics” but it is in no way politics in the interests of labor.

    Your comments seem to point to your being more comfortable with capitalist parties that are not overtly socially conservative than with Maoists, insurrectionists, and “Trotskyite vanguards of a dozen or so middle-class professionals, (who) spend all (their) time in polemics against other Leftists.” I gather by your reference to Trotskyite vanguards comprising few people, all middle-class, that your comfort zone is support for parties that have large mass followings. You perhaps suppose that if an organization has many followers, mainly average people, that it is necessarily progressive. If I show how the Democrats have consistently advanced the interests of capital at labor’s expense, which means it can hardly be considered progressive, you’ll reply “but it has many supporters, most average people.” Well, the Republicans have many supporters, most average people, as well. Why not ally with them? It may have also slipped your mind that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Castro and Che Guevera where all middle-class professionals. None of them were adverse to polemics against other Leftists. All were involved in the leadership of movements that at one point were very small, and all refused to forsake the difficult task of building from a small base.

    As for your comments about the CPUSA, I’m left scratching my head. You say that “a very large proportion of the CPUSA membership were never happy with endorsing Obama, and that party’s continued timid backing of him comes largely from a spineless clique in the leadership, not the grass-roots.” But how do you account for the striking inconsistency that in a reputedly internally democratic party, the leadership is headed in one direction and the grassroots in another? Either a large part of the grassroots isn’t opposed to backing Obama, or the party isn’t internally democratic. If it’s the latter, why do you reserve the obloquy “spineless” for the leadership alone? Surely, a grassroots that refuses to overthrow an antidemocratic leadership or break with the party is equally “spineless.”

    Finally, it might be pointed out that the record of “practical politics” within a “people’s coalition” is one of abject failure. Labor has suffered a string of unrelieved defeats since the late 1970s, often at the hands of “people’s coalition” parties, supported by communists working under the banner of “practical politics.” While they might flatter themselves that they’re pragmatic and sensitive to the possibilities of the moment, their tactics amount to allying with whatever force on the right claims to be least injurious to labor’s interests – a program which has no other end but continued defeat.

    The goal of militant leftist activism is popular education and mobilization of the masses on behalf of working class interests, not on behalf of the ruling class interests championed by the Democrats, Labour and their equivalents.

  18. I think what BJ Murphy is driving at is the practical issue of actually fighting on the ground, in the political arena, rather than passing comment from the side-lines, which is not only lazy, it’s very easy and prone to idealism and utopianism.

    We must work within the given historical and material conditions that we each find ourselves in and attempt to find the best way to achieve the destruction of capitalism and its replacement with socialism.

    I’m not really disagreeing with what Gowans has written, and all the contributors so far are making valid points. I’m interested in finding practical solutions for unity among Communists and actually defeating capital (I’m sure we all are).

    The crux of the matter is this: what do we actually do? We can’t just write articles and engage in debate endlessly (not that all this stuff isn’t important, and clearly What’s Left is an invaluable resource for Marxist-Leninist information).

    Do we plan for Protracted People’s War? The Maoists certainly urge this, and castigate anyone who dares to call themselves a Marxist-Leninist and doesn’t support this line.

    Do we launch an insurrection, perhaps exploiting an occasion like the G20 protests last year in Toronto?

    Do we totally separate ourselves from real life and form a pure Trotskyite “vanguard” of a dozen or so middle-class professionals, and spend all our time in polemics against other Leftists?

    All of these propositions are clearly absurd for contemporary conditions in countries like the UK, US, or Canada.

    Gowans has criticized a party in Canada with “Marxist-Leninist roots” for urging a “stop the Tories” approach to political struggle in that country, but what else should be the main priority for the Communist Party of Canada (or Britain) when a federal election comes around?

    It’s not as if the CP of Canada (or the other CPs in western capitalist countries) only comes awake during election campaigns – most of their work has nothing to do with bourgeois elections, which are quite clearly not the main front for fighting the socialist cause.

    (In fact, it’s a miracle they even exist at all given the constant pressure from every conceivable angle to erase them and their ideology)

    Besides, the CP of Canada doesn’t just say “stop the Tories”, it puts forward a detailed and clearly Marxist-Leninist plan for socialism and attempts to take that to the people under conditions more suited for fascism than anything else these days. It also does not explicitly say “vote anyone but Tory”, or “vote NDP”, but rather aims to unite the progressive Left into a “peoples coalition”. Its message is “vote communist”, and then after the election is done, “keep fighting the Right and putting forward the socialist alternative”!

    People aren’t born Marxists. They have to be engaged somewhere, and at some level. In a viciously right-wing environment that can be an infuriating and usually depressing thing to do. But what choice do we have but to act in some way?

    If anyone has any better ideas for Marxist work in very right-wing environments than a “peoples coalition” of all progressive forces which fights elections as well as every where else it possibly can to both defeat the main threat (i.e. the Right) and advance the clearly defined goal (i.e. socialism) I’m all ears.

    I’m genuinely open to suggestions here…

    P.S. From what I gather a very large proportion of the CP-USA membership were never happy with endorsing Obama, and that party’s continued timid backing of him comes largely from a spineless clique in the leadership, not the grass-roots. We should bear this in mind.

  19. Goodness me BJ,where are you comming from.Capitalism lives well in the plutocracy of the westminster system and its american equivalent.All capitalist parties lead to capitalism and the advancement of the capitalist classes interests,no where else,certainly not socialism[the social ownership of the means of production].We need to tell it like it is,not partake in the futile arguements like the left of the right of the centre of the middle of the top and bottom of the left,right capitalist goobeldygook,aaaarrgh.You should reread your Marxism,and try Lenin too.

  20. I used to think the Democrats were slightly better, and that although Obama was going to be a centrist Clintonite type, that would be slightly better than McCain-Palin. I now recognize the folly of that. Most importantly, the minds of the “left” (those who think they display intellectual courage by criticizing Fox News) shut off completely with Obama. They cannot comprehend what he’s doing, even when he announces his intentions publicly, repeatedly, for years.

    Every single thing he’s done would have seen opposition from these people if he were Bush. That’s why, as far as our mostly meaningless election goes, I can only hope it’s Obama vs. Romney. Romney would be about the same, but our tribalist pseudo-leftists would oppose the hideous things he’d do. The difference between them might be too small to even generate much interest in the election. If it’s Obama vs. some Tea Party creature, these people will be too frightened not to vote for Obama. I realize that is the entirety of the Obama reelection strategy. He may be entirely dependent on the Tea Party for a second term.

  21. So what you’re saying is that because many working people vote Democrat, communists should do the same to show they’re on the same side?

    Okay. Many, if not most, working people in the United States support the bombing of Libya. Should communists do the same, to show working people they’re on the same side?

    At one point, many working people supported the US war on Iraq. I guess communists should have done the same, to…how do you put it? “play along as well and to show we’re on their side” in order to “get the masses behind us.”

    Most working people in the United States have a “capitalist mindset”, in your view. Maybe communists should embrace it, to show “we’re here for them, not just for ourselves.” That way we won’t be “alienating ourselves from the masses.”

    BJ, I think you need to rethink this one.

  22. No, just that we should organize the working class against whatever capitalist attack comes their way. Obviously, when we’re organizing for workers to have better wages, retirement, etc., we’re fighting for things that’s obsolete from our overall goal – the dismantling of the capitalist system. But, despite this fact, we’re really making people more class conscious and showing them that we’re here to fight for them.

    And so, keeping in mind the conditions of 2008 we were facing, although we were very certain that Obama was going to be another capitalist politician, given that his party was just as much big business as the other party, the people were organizing for all kinds of issues, like anti-war, healthcare, against tax-cuts for the rich, etc. So our duty, to uphold the mass-line, would be to organize them under said banners.

    But how are we to do that? With imaginary figures who aren’t even relevant to their capitalist mindsets? No, we organize them under banners they relate to and show that we’re here for them, not just for ourselves. If we would’ve thrown around banners speaking anti-Obama rhetoric – whether or not what we’d be saying is true – then we’d be alienating ourselves from the masses.

    Gotta keep in mind that the U.S. masses are under a capitalist mindset, and so we’ve gotta figure out ways in gradually transitioning said mindset to a socialist one. But that requires us to play along as well and to show we’re on their side. That’s how we get the masses behind us.

  23. I’ve probably misinterpreted what you’re saying, but you seem to be saying something like: IBM should tell Mac users that Macs are better than Dells to get them to buy IBMs.

  24. Spot on article, as usual. It’s worth mentioning the experience in Britain, as you touch on it in the article quite correctly. We have a Tory-Lib Dem coalition government implementing £113 bn of budget cuts and tax rises. This much, the opportunist left – the “Communist” Party of Britain, the Socialist Worker’s Party, Counterfire and so on – will mention.

    What is of course swept under the carpet is that £73 bn of these were planned by the last Labour government in the pre-election budget. It is the same Labour Party who are implementing some of the deepest cuts at local council levels, voting through austerity budgets across the country. It is the same Labour Party who, when in government, handed £850 bn over to prop up the parasitic banking system of British imperialism.

    Naturally, the opportunist left has become the “left” electoral machine for a future Labour government. Trotskyists and the CPB alike join hands to silence criticism of Labour councillors who implement cuts – recall ex-SWP councillor Michael Lavalette’s pleas of “working with people to our right”, including Labour councillors who support cuts. In action as well as words, they have become the most eager support group for Labour politicians.

    It has been a century since the British Labour Party was formed. Its history, just as with the Conservatives and Liberals, is one of imperialist war, austerity for the working class, and vicious racism. Yet still the opportunist British left parades Labour Party politicians as the saviour of working class interests, or at least better than their blue tied colleagues. As with “progressives” and “radicals” calling for votes for Democratic party stooges, you can but ask yourself when the idiocy will end.

    First as tragedy, then as farce.

  25. I agree with the vast majority of this. Hell, you could even say I agree 100%, but have certain questions over things I believe you’re leaving out.

    We’ve got to keep in mind that there’s a good chance that McCain would’ve increased economic destitute in the U.S., in comparison to Obama. In relevance to that of our current conditions, McCain would’ve massively increased the deficit, in comparison to Obama. Since, after all, Bush and the conservative party contributed in over $5 trillion in spending, whereas Obama and the liberal party only contributed in over $1 trillion in spending:


    This isn’t to say that Obama’s got the working class’s interests at heart. In fact, he and his party are just as much big-business capitalists as the republicans are (both GOP and Tea-Party). But aren’t you forgetting about the necessity, as Marxist-Leninists, in upholding the mass-line? We’ve gotta show the people, as socialists, that we’re fighting for them, not just for ourselves.

    Upholding campaigns declaring “Don’t Vote McCain!” would be to address the working class’s conditions while under republican leadership – and keeping in mind that they’re still riddled in the capitalist mindset – and to try and ensure better economic conditions than that of the contrary, while still under capitalism (pre-revolution conditions).

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