What demands should socialists raise?

November 14, 2008

THANKS TO SocialistWorker.org for its excellent coverage of the U.S. elections, including the roundtable of activists and writers on what we can expect and should prepare for now that Obama has won ("What next for the struggle in the Obama era?").

I thought the contributions were for the most part excellent, including the comments by Mike Davis. But I think Mike gets carried away by the heat of the moment in his final paragraph. According to Davis: "'The great challenge to small bands of the left is to anticipate this mass disillusionment [with Obama], understanding that our task is not 'how to move Obama leftward,' but to salvage and reorganize shattered hopes. The transitional program must be socialism itself."

First, why is there any conflict between attempting "to salvage and reorganize shattered hopes" and attempting to force Obama leftward? As Davis himself notes, without mass social movements, there will be no new New Deal. In other words, socialists will need to emphasize the importance of building struggles on the ground as the only way of winning the changes that so many of Obama's supporters are hoping for.

Second, Davis's final sentence doesn't make a lot of sense. A transitional program is a set of demands that, while not explicitly socialist in content, will have the practical effect of leading people to draw socialist conclusions, and move the struggle further to the left. Depending on the circumstances, many demands can play this role, from calling for better public transit to advocating the nationalization of the banks.

If Davis's idea is that we no longer need such demands and that, as disillusionment with Obama grows, we will be able to rebuild mass movements on the basis of directly calling for the overthrow of capitalism and the institution of workers' control over the means of production, I think he is seriously misreading the current political situation.

It is true that the depth of the economic crisis has created an opening to win larger numbers of people to socialist politics in the U.S., but for the foreseeable future this will continue to be a small minority.

While consciousness has certainly moved to the left, the level of struggle in the U.S. remains a very low point (despite encouraging signs like the recent Boeing strike victory), and the only way that movements on the ground will be rebuilt is by fighting around relatively immediate demands, whether troops out of Iraq now, an end to foreclosures, or national health care.

I would like nothing more than to see mass movements mobilizing on the basis of openly socialist goals, but the reality is that we will need to raise immediate, transitional demands in the U.S. for some time to come.
Phil Gasper, Madison, Wis.

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