Obama and building the movements

November 4, 2008

Todd Chretien answers a question about whether socialists should build their organization and vote for Barack Obama.

LAST WEEK, I wrote an article called "Why I'm not voting for Obama," which solicited a number of questions from SocialistWorker.org readers. One of them, Iris Chamberlain, writing from Seattle ("Vote for Obama and build the movements"), raised what I think are some of the best questions about SocialistWorker.org's position on this election, and I'm happy to have the chance to respond.

As Iris put it, "Recently, I decided to vote for Barack Obama, because I figure, why not? A lesser evil is still the better option."

To begin with, as I pointed out last week, SocialistWorker.org sympathizes with the millions of people who are voting for Obama because they want to see an end to racism and discrimination, a dramatic change in our foreign policy and a reversal of a 35-year transfer of wealth from working class to the rich.

The question is: How do we achieve our common goals? Many people believe that change comes from the top and hope that Obama will deliver at least half of what he has promised--or at least half of what they believe he has promised. But even in the best-case scenario, this will do little more than partially repair the years of damage--to say nothing of Obama's promise to escalate the war in Afghanistan.

The Democratic Party has supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
The Democratic Party has supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

“Half a loaf is better than no loaf” can be a strong argument, especially when you are hungry. It is better to reduce hunger (be it hunger caused by lack of food, work, racial justice, union rights or peace), and Obama's policies may move (timidly) in that direction on some fronts.

But unless we are prepared to accept hunger in all its forms as a permanent state of affairs, we have to ask another question: Why should the bakery be left in the hands of an owner who refuses to make enough bread to go around when it is obvious that there is plenty of wheat, yeast, milk and willing bakers to do the job?

WHICH BRINGS me back to Iris because this is precisely the question that she raises: "I understand how putting all efforts into voting for Obama and waiting for him to wave his 'magical wand of change' takes away from building movements--but I don't see how voting, but still building socialist organization, does so."

Iris agrees that we can't count on Obama to deliver the goods and that we need to build mass political movements as well as the relevance of socialist ideas. But she can't see how they are connected to the argument against voting for Obama and the Democratic Party.

I pointed out in my last article how that argument led the Communist Party in the 1930s to oppose the formation of a Labor Party. I still think that's the best historical example about why supporting the "lesser evil" can trip you up at a critical moment.

Mass social movements can push the Democrats to the left, but what happens when the Democrats push back, as Franklin Roosevelt did in 1937, when he turned against the unions and turned toward preparing for the Second World War?

"Movements" are never free from the influence of mainstream political organization. Either they support one of the existing parties, or they organize their own party. Of course, social movements are mass events, and not everyone will agree on what to do, but if the best organized radicals within the movement won't begin organizing a party to the left of the Democrats, who will do it?

The same thing happened in the 1960s. During the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, millions of young radicals butted up against the limits that the Democrats placed on their struggles.

But at every stage, they were faced with the same "lesser-evil" dilemma--be it "Half the way with LBJ" against the quasi-Klansman Barry Goldwater, or against Richard Nixon in the 1968 and 1972 elections. Each time, the Democratic Party leadership successfully intervened in the mass movements to dull their demands and drag activists into campaigning for Democratic candidates far to the right of the movements--because they were the lesser evil to the Republicans.

What did both of these historical periods have in common? Mass struggles, millions of radicals, powerful movement organization. However, they also both lacked a radical current strong enough, and with the political will to split with the Democrats when the historical opportunity presented itself.

Often, the key argument raised within movements is precisely one that Iris raises--that we should wait to openly oppose the Democrats "at least until there are movements strong enough to make this a possibility."

The problem is that the movement can only get so strong before it runs up against the opposition of the Democratic Party. The Democrats want movements to deliver them votes, but not strong enough to challenge ruling Democratic politicians.

SO TO answer Iris' question: Why can't we vote for Obama and build the movements and socialist organization?

The important point is we aren't talking about the personal decisions that individual socialists or activists make today in the voting booth. Individuals can spend 30 minutes voting, and not feel like it impacts their politics. But organizations (socialist and otherwise) must take public political positions and base their activities on principles in order to recruit and train a new generation of activists.

This holds true for other movement organizations as well. For instance, United for Peace and Justice, the largest antiwar coalition in the country, hasn't organized a major antiwar protest in 18 months because its leadership has made a priority of "voting out the Republicans"--and by none-too-subtle inference, voting in the Democrats.

Sometimes, the quid pro quo is not as obvious as this case, but political organizations, unions and movements always have limited resources and energy, and what they decide to do collectively as their political priority has an influence on their strength and direction.

The Democrats always want every left-wing or liberal group to put the Democrats first in terms of its time, money and energy. It is up to those organizations to decide if that is a step toward their stated goals and principles, or not.

In the 1930s and 1960s, the Democrats controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress by 3-to-1 majorities. We may well be on the verge of a similar period (although it is unlikely to be that lopsided in the short term because of the demise of the Democrats' "Solid South" ruled by the Dixiecrats).

Socialists welcome the Democrats in power--the more liberal, the better--because it will raise working-class expectations, put people into motion and show the limits that the Democrats want to place on our struggles. We look forward to working alongside activists who voted for Obama as we carry out a common fight for what we all want.

Iris is asking the right questions. Hopefully, they are questions that millions of people will begin to ask during an Obama administration.

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