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Two Responses to Max Elbaum’s Article “Left Strategy After Charlottesville”

Article published:
People standing in a long line to vote

Response from Christine Riddiough:

In his recent article on Left Strategy, Max Elbaum outlines a five point strategic perspective that I would summarize this way:

  1. …[B]reak the grip on power of Trump and the white nationalist bloc that is the driving force of the right’s overall anti-democratic and anti-working class agenda.
  2. Direct action and street protest make up indispensable components of the resistance, …[that need] to be carried into the 2018 and 2020 elections, … which provide the only avenues to actually remove the white nationalist right from power.
  3. …[T]the left needs to engage the fight within the Democratic Party over message, candidates, allocation of resources and institutional clout. …
  4. The struggle for a working class program of economic, racial, gender, and environmental justice – and peace – within the Democratic Party and society in general will be conducted beyond the next two or three election cycles. …
  5. …[R]ace, racism and the true history of the integral role people of color have played in the very heart of the U.S. working class from 1620 to the present day – are likely to stand out as determinants of whether or not the resistance continues to mature.

Elbaum is correct in specifying these five points as the core of a strategic perspective. I want to expand on two of his strategic considerations – engaging within the Democratic Party and the struggle over race and gender within the party.

Strategic considerations

There are two important aspects of left electoral strategy that Elbaum hints at but doesn’t directly discuss. He notes that struggles on race, gender and other issues within the Democratic Party will continue beyond the next two or three election cycles. That is correct and the implication is that the left requires a strategy that goes beyond these cycles.

If we look back to the situation of the right in 1964 – we see a shattered shell, broken by the overwhelming defeat of Barry Goldwater. But the right did not simply pack up and go away. They developed a strategy that looked 16 or 20 years into the future. They crafted Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’ and rode Ronald Reagan into the White House. Today they are, in some sense, getting hoist on their own petard – the success of their strategy has opened the door to extreme right, alt-right, and Neo-Nazis, forces that are becoming part of mainstream American politics.

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The left needs to learn a lesson from this – we cannot simply look at the next cycle but at years, perhaps decades ahead. While we can’t know what lies ahead there are some things that we do know. We know, for example, that the demographics of the United States are changing and those demographics – in particular, the increasing proportion of People of Color in this country – have the potential to change US politics. But that’s true only if the left has a strategy to ensure that those communities have a real right to vote and a reason to exercise that vote.

We also know that there is a Census coming up on 2020, a census that at this point is not going to have any questions related to counting the LGBTQIA+ community. That is just one of many aspects of the Census that could change representation in Congress and the State Legislatures. In addition the GOP currently controls the majority of state legislatures and thus will have the power to control that redistricting unless the left can impact upcoming legislative elections.

A second strategic consideration is the overall message we project as we work on our various projects and issues. Let me use as an example the Medicare for All campaign that DSA and other organizations have undertaken. I think we need to look at this issue not only as important battle in the fight to protect everyone’s right to health care, but also as a wedge we can use to open the door to broader support for government programs.

Too often there are stories of people who say ‘Keep the Government off my Medicare’ or ‘I like the Affordable Care Act, but not Obamacare.’ We need a message that underscores that these programs are government programs that help people. And we need to expand this message to other programs. Perhaps the next issue where this message is critical is education. Public education has been central to providing opportunity to all young people. Yet the right has, through vouchers and charter schools and now in the underlying message of Betsy DeVos, undercut that message of good public education for all students. Acheiving support for public education through college is critical to a long-term left strategy.

Democratic Party

In regard to the Democratic Party I fully agree with Elbaum’s key points:

  1. …[T]the left needs to engage the fight within the Democratic Party over message, candidates, allocation of resources and institutional clout. …
  2. The struggle for a working class program of economic, racial, gender, and environmental justice – and peace – within the Democratic Party and society in general will be conducted beyond the next two or three election cycles. …

While the question of working within the Democratic Party has been a source of controversy on the left for as long as I can remember, results from the last 50 years of third-party candidates from Frank Zeidler (Socialist) in 1968 to Jill Stein (Green) 2016 clearly show that a strategy of running Presidential candidates on a Third Party ticket is not only doomed to failure, but also self-defeating.

So how do we deal with the electoral arena? First, whether the election of a democratic socialist president comes via the Democratic Party or a third party, it’s clear that our initial electoral efforts need to be focused on the local level. While Bernie Sanders’ run in 2016 energized many people, a President Bernie Sanders trying to work with the current Congress or state legislatures would be doomed to the same fate as President Obama – unable to move forward with key proposals. Working with local candidates like khalid kamau in Atlanta and Carlos Rosa in Chicago enables us to build from the grassroots and will enhance the possibility of a President Sanders or a President Rosa having a Congress to work with that will actually adopt progressive positions.

We also have to remember that the Democratic Party is, at this point in time, the only real political voice for people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ people and many other disenfranchised groups. Weak though it may be in this regard, the Democratic Party is still the most diverse group in the US. Look at the delegates to the 2016 convention. Of the 4,766 delegates:

  • 25% were black, 16% Hispanic/Latinx, 9% Asian or Native American
  • Half were women
  • 633 were LGBTQ, of which 27 were trans

Certainly no group on the left that isn’t self-identified as a POC group or a women’s group can claim anything like those proportions of people of color, women, or LGBTQ people. If we want to build a multi-racial, gender diverse left, perhaps we should look to the Democratic Party for some guidance.

None of this is to say that the Democratic Party is perfect – far from it. It is still dominated by neoliberals from the Clinton era, Wall Street bankers and others of their ilk. Nonetheless it is the one place where an inside strategy holds real possibilities for change.


Response from Mel Rothenberg:

I just finished the Organizing Upgrade piece by Max Elbaum and also the article by Bob Wing. As expected they are both profound analysis of the present day political conjuncture and what the left must do to change the current awful balance and direction of political reality. There are many points of agreement between us, and as usual I learned a lot from these essays. However there are two major points on which I think their analysis is inadequate. One is strategic concerning the key forces behind the revival of a successful mass political movement capable of transforming the present political order, and the second is tactical about our relationship to the Democratic Party and its electoral activities.

From a long term point of view the fundamental strategic task now facing the Marxist left is helping forge a united working class capable of challenging the political hegemony of the bourgeoisie. I agree with both authors that a prerequisite for doing this is to turn back the Fascist wave being developed by the supporters of Donald Trump, and this involves defeating Trump electorally. However what Max ignores is that the table for Trumps electoral victory was set by the national Democratic Party abandoning whatever base it had within the working class to adopt a politics of neo -liberalism in order to consolidate its ruling class support. This was obviously true since the Clinton presidency but Obama finished the job by his massive bailout of financial institutions at the onset of the financial crash of 2007. One tends to visualize Trumps victory solely through the lens of his appeal to the racism and anti-immigrant sentiment of white workers, and, of course, there is some truth to this; but the turnout of Afro-American and immigrant workers was less than expected despite Trump’s obvious racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. And Trump received a majority among white women despite his rabid sexism and his opponent being the most well-known woman politician in the U.S. The strategic point here is that Fascism will not be defeated by the electoral defeat of Trump and his gang of racist cronies. If you recall, progressives hailed the removal of Nixon as a great triumph of progressive politics. This was followed a few years later by the election of Reagan and the consolidation of the hegemony of far right, neo-liberal politics which has lasted for forty years. This pretty well establishes that if Trump is ejected from the White House because of political ineptness there is no reason to expect the subsequent defeat of Fascism and rise of working class or even mildly progressive forces.  For this to happen the  great majority of workers, meaning white workers, Black workers, immigrant workers, woman workers must come together around a working class politics. If this doesn’t happen it will open the door for a significant section of the working class to embrace the racist, anti-immigrant, sexist views of the neo-Fascists and guarantee their dominance of U.S. politics.  The mobilization and organization of the working class around broad class interests is thus the key strategic challenge and one that the Marxist left has an essential role to play. The fact that organizationally and ideologically we are isolated and weak within the class must be overcome if we are to play this role. Of course that we are organizationally weak and strategically divided makes this a formidable challenge lasting over years. Until we overcome our organizational and ideological isolation from the working class we will not play a leading role in the fight against Fascism. The liberals will play this role and our task is to struggle for a progressive rather than a neo-liberal direction for the anti-Trump movement.

The question of the weakness of the anti-fascist forces and appropriate tactics now comes to the fore. The fact that the Sanders campaign attracted a mass following, particularly of young people is very encouraging. It establishes that left politics, at least of the social democratic strain, has a broad appeal  to young people, and young people are the core activists for any mass, popular movement.  Many of these young people have embraced a radical rejection of contemporary capitalism, being affected by the occupation movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the immigrant rights movement, and the radical feminist movement. This makes them open to socialist organizations. In particular, the DSA has grown five fold over the last year. However Marxist groups, with their stuffy, out of date politics, their sectarianism, and their dogmatism, and their domination by aging and dictatorial leaders have been unable to take advantage of this upturn in radicalism.

However, this Sanders inspired movement suffers from serious weaknesses.  The root cause of this is its class and racial composition. The great majority of the young activists are middle class white youngsters fresh out of college. This means their capacity to integrate with workers, and specifically Black and immigrant workers, is limited. Marxist organizations, despite their limited penetration of the working class could play an important role here since the Marxist groups have at least an ideological commitment to working class politics, and despite their inability to put it into practice, an ideological commitment which the Sanderists lack. Many of us radicals from the ’60s came out of left working class families, grew up in racially mixed neighborhoods, had some experience working in shops and factories, and were active in the Civil Rights Movement which allowed us to question capitalism and racism in a deeper way then simply rejecting consumerism, capitalist greed and unfairness. Despite this we failed to develop organic ties with either Black, immigrant and white workers and this led to our defeat. I think that the current young radicals by and large lack this background and face sharp difficulties because of this. Finally the disintegration of the trade unions, the source of working class political power under capitalism, to the neo-liberal restructuring of the world economy, made possible by the development of IT, as well as the abandoning of working class politics for neo-liberalism by the trade union leadership, removes a central location of class struggle.

All this means that our relationship with the Democratic Party must be complex and nuanced. In so far as we can promote the Sanders wing and hold their feet to the fire we have the responsibility of doing so. However we must never forget that the dominant, neo-liberal wing of the Democratic Party led by such figures as Hillary Clinton are our enemies and in so far as they retain political hegemony within the anti-Trump movement, even if they replace Trump and his most rabid followers in the Republican Party as the governing party, they are only once again setting the table for domestic Fascism and a new and more competent Fascist leadership to take over. We must never forget it is a basic falsification, a crucial instrument of bourgeois rule, to promote the illusion that all significant reform or social advance is accomplished through elected political leadership. Our duty is to challenge this and emphasize that serious change is the result of mass movements, fighting against various forms of class oppression. To keep this in focus must be at the center of our organizing.

Mel Rothenberg’s radical activism goes back to membership in Chicago Friends of SNCC in the early 1960s. He is currently on the editorial board of Science and Society as well as being an active participant in the Chicago Political Economy Group.


Max Elbaum will reply to these pieces as well as to Tobita Chow and Sam Webb’s earlier responses next week.





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