The Democratic defeat in Massachusetts on the anniversary of the start of the Obama administration makes a fitting conclusion to the lessons that the last year should have taught everyone in this country. The question is: will the lessons be learned, especially by left activists? Let us try to see what these lessons are.
Lesson 1: “Realism” in politics — tailing Democrats — leads to defeat. Last year, when the health care debate began, many activists argued that single-payer health care was “off the table,” that it was only “realistic” to fight for some watered-down “public option,” that compromises had to be “realistically” made if any progress was to occur on the issue. In other words, we had to support whatever was acceptable to the Democrats. The predictable result of the absence of a mass movement for single-payer was (surprise!) that the unopposed power of insurance companies pushed through Congress awful bills that gave them everything and picked the pockets of workers. Now, of course, those bills will be dead — one thing to be grateful for! The voters rightly punished the Democrats for doing nothing on the economy while passing this huge gift to the insurance companies.
Instead of this outcome, what would have happened if the left, unions, activists everywhere had united in a major campaign for single-payer that really started to scare the government? Would the result have been any worse than nothing, which is what Democratic “realism” brought us? Or could there have been a chance that, to try to defuse such a movement, Congress would make some real concessions to the working class on health insurance?
Lesson 2: It does not matter at all if the Democrats or the Republicans win. The United States needs a working-class opposition party.
Many activists put energy into electing Obama — very few put any into building a real independent opposition party. But in the past year, what has changed since Bush left office? Have jobs stopped disappearing? Have the trillions stopped flowing from the government to banks? Have the ICE raids and deportations stopped? Have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended? Has the torture chamber at Guantanamo closed? Has the government stopped claiming in court that the President can detain and hold whomever he wants without trial or charge? Has anyone who committed war crimes, ordered or carried out torture, violated the Geneva Conventions been prosecuted for their crimes? What has changed except the complexion of the President (and, oh yes, his grammar)?
What would have happened in the Senate election in Massachusetts if unions, activists, immigrant rights organizations, peace groups, everyone who is or should be fed up with the last year of no change united around an independent campaign that represented a real movement fighting for single-payer, for a massive direct government employment program, for an immediate end to all the foreign wars? Yes, sure, the Democrat would have been defeated. (How terrible!) That happened anyway. But how many would have voted for a REAL alternative if it had been offered to them, and what sort of boost would that have given to the movement across the country?
Lesson Three: Only a mass movement can win any victories for the working class, and only a mass movement can give rise to a real opposition party. We should not need any new lessons to know that the US government does not operate the way high school civics classes say it does. But last month’s Supreme Court decision legalizing unlimited corporate campaign expenditures tears the mask off, so that anyone who has eyes can see the real situation: there is no electoral democracy in the United States. Not that the decision really changes anything. Already, with existing campaign contribution laws, Congressional Representatives and Senators are either themselves wealthy capitalists or essentially employees of large corporations. But now, with unlimited corporate spending, and with corporate control of the mass media, it is surely crystal-clear that capitalists own BOTH parties lock, stock, and barrel, that the only way a real opposition can win is to build an independent mass movement with organization at all levels, from neighborhood to nation, that can engage and communicate directly with its own members.
Not only is that the only way possible today to build real independent electoral campaigns, it is the only way to win any demands from the Republocrat government or from its masters in the board rooms. What scares the corporations and the capitalists who control them is workers’ independent, democratic organization. “We are many, they are few,” and they know it: they rule only because we are divided and disorganized. Their social rule is threatened if a mass movement can organize and unify millions of workers.
They do not fear any top-down organizations, no matter their size. Leaders can always be bought off or, if necessary, destroyed. But if a mass movement arises that really organizes democratically at all levels, where workers feel that “we are all leaders,” then capitalists and their government will give concessions to attempt to stop the organizing process. They will fear the movement’s growth more than the losses the concessions cost them. That is how concessions were actually won in the last Great Depression, and much more recently how, last February, the month-long general strikes in Guadeloupe and Martinique won major concessions.
Today, in the midst of the Second Great Depression, capitalists will make concessions only when faced with the threat of loss of power. To think otherwise is to truly ignore reality.
To try to make friends with Senators and Representatives, to lobby, to placate them, to give them platforms at our rallies, to work with them to formulate “realistic” policies is the shortest path to political suicide for the left today. What we need to do is to build a movement that will strike fear into the hearts of those who really rule, fear for the existence of their rule of the few. Concessions from them and victories for us will follow from that fear.
Will we learn the lessons in 2010? Right now, some immigrant rights organizations are mobilizing behind the Gutierrez bill, saying that, while it is not ideal, it is what is “realistic” — it is, in other words, the best the Democrats can do. The Gutierrez bill excludes millions of immigrants from any hope of gaining legal status, steps up “enforcement,” making life more difficult for immigrants, and bribes young people into the military with the lure of citizenship. It is a rotten bill and if the immigrant rights movement supports it, the result will be the same as with the health care bill — either nothing or a law that makes things worse.
But many others in the movement know that instead we need to demand, in the streets, what we really want — Legalization for ALL, NOW. That is true realism. We must unify all who will benefit from legalization, which is the entire working class. And to win we must show how this demand is in the interest of all, linking it to create a broader mass movement of all workers.
A campaign for Jobs for ALL, Legalization for ALL. Here in New Jersey, a number of immigrant rights and community organizations are trying to do just that, unifying Latino and African-American workers with European-American workers behind three demands — Jobs for All, Legalization for All, a Massive Public Works Program — directly linking the crucial issues of jobs and legalization. Today, there is only one way to create jobs — the government must hire workers directly at good pay to do the work that needs to be done, the way the CWA and WPA programs hired millions in the last Great Depression. We must not fight among ourselves for the available jobs but must unite in one movement to win JOBS FOR ALL WHO LIVE HERE, immigrant and native-born, with NO ONE denied work. So to get Jobs for All, we demand: Legalization for ALL.
We are, with some success, arguing that we cannot unite in a movement for Jobs for All unless we demand Legalization for All. This means not only undocumented immigrants but all the millions of native-born who are denied jobs because of previous convictions, a grave concern among African-Americans particularly.
We are planning a series of forums and rallies in March and April leading up to and beyond a major demonstration on May 1. We are asking activists in other communities to build events around these same three basic demands. If these demands, which certainly have widespread support from many other organizations, become the theme for May Day demonstrations around the country, May Day 2010 can become a major step toward building the kind of unified nationwide mass movement working people need to win. It will become a step towards running independent working-class candidates for congressional seats in this November’s elections. If we can do this, then the lessons of the last year will have been well worth the learning.
Eric Lerner is a scientist and activist working with NJMay1Coalition, an immigrant rights organization, and with International Luxemburgist Network.