Sunday, August 19, 2012

Communists for Obama: having their cake and eating it, too

Mike Ely on FRSO-FB and Obama: Amazing arguments for a terrible policy

Logos of  planned marches at the political conventions. The one at the RNC is (naturally) called "March on the RNC." But the march AT the DNC is not a march ON the DNC. It is billed a march against an entity called "Wall Street South" — meaning the Charlotte headquarters of various corporations.
Question: Why is there no march ON the DNC? Answer: Because the official protest aparatus in the United States supports the current president Obama and his reelection.

A few days ago, Kasama posted for discussion a position paper by Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO-Fight Back). We pointed out that this document contains a significant public declaration urging readers (and presumably supporters of FRSO) to vote for Obama.

Specifically it said:

"In terms of voting in the presidential election, it is better to vote against Romney, especially in swing states."

Since this is a presidential year, it is no surprise that there will be sharp debate among left and radical forces over whether to support the current president of the United States.  

* * * * *  * *

by Mike Ely

There is profound anger and discontent with this government — which has waged wars, conducted assassinations, maintained Guantanamo Bay, advocated austerity, ignored very basic needs of the people, and generally conducted itself rather close to its Bush-era predecessors on many issues of policy. Further, there has erupted the Occupy movement which consciously took distance from the "lesser evil" approach to politics — and refused to place itself (or its hopes) within the framework of electoral, Republican-Democrat choices.

In the case of FRSO-FB, this call for a vote "against Romney" (i.e. a vote for Obama), is an important moment — and a startling one.

FRSO-FB is well-known for opposing U.S. imperialist policy in the Middle East and Latin America — for opposing the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan — and the war Obama started against Libya(and his government's threats against Iraq and Iran. And they are well-known for having been the target of outrageous FBI raids (and ongoing threats). And they are well-known for describing themselves as "anti-imperialists" in regard to world events.

So it is particularly startling when their organization puts out a document calling for support for Barack Obama. In my own mind, I had trouble believing they had gone that far.

My first wicked thoughts

I confess that I mumbled imaginary slogans in my mind. I couldn't help myself:

"Oppose the war, support the war-maker!"
"Stop the FBI raids, support the White House that sent them!"
"Drones, FBI raids, presidential kill lists? Romney would be worse!"

But obviously, no one (on the left) is likely to declare their policy in such terms.

The FRSO piece simply buries the endorsement. The sentence announcing  its pro-Obama decision arrives in a long text about organizing the people in the streets. In other words, the explanation of policy could be describes as: Continue building movements, main blow at Romney, and [whisper] vote for the President.

And that essay avoids elaborating (yet) its core argument — that Romney is worse, that supporting Obama will help bring a better outcome, that a pro-Democrat lean will not help disorient or deradicalize people.

No illusions, just support!

The virtue of Josh Sykes' piece is that he offers some detailed explanation. He writes:

"[O]ur position was based on two principles:

"First, it was based on an understanding that the class character of the United States is imperialist, that is, that it is ruled by the monopoly capitalist class and in the interests of that class, and that this character cannot and will not miraculously change over night through an election, despite many people's hopes to contrary.

"Second, it was based on an understanding of the mass line. On the one hand, we have an understanding that it is the people who make history, and not the politicians. On the other hand, we understand that people are paying attention to and engaging elections as their main form of political engagement during an electoral period, and that revolutionaries have to engage people where they are at rather than at where we would like for them to be."

This is an amazing argument on BOTH its points:

First, it expresses a common tendency of some "Communists for Obama"  that they declare, rather proudly, that they have no illusions. Yes, they say, we know these are imperialists. Yes, they continue, we understand that change won't come through elections. Yes, they add, we are very aware of all the terrible and horrific crimes of these killers and oppressors.

And somehow we (the readers)  are supposed to feel better because their support for these killers and oppressors is so conscious and illusion free — that they are so untroubled by supporting forces so sinister!

(Perhaps: Supporting war-makers with illusions would be terrible, but supporting them without such illusions is quite fine?)

Then, it is argued (as Josh unravels his argument) that supporting the current president is part of the mass line: He arguesthat we are forced to start "where the people are at rather than at where we would like for them to be."

This too is a rather amazing argument. Sure we revolutionaries work with the people as they actually are (we can't after all invent some new, and more conscious people out of our desires.) But are we really  forced to adopt their backward and reactionary views?

Sure Josh is right that millions of people will vote for this war-making president. Millions support the drone attacks. Millions will support any policy of any American government.

But there are also people who have come to hate the two major parties. The main institutions of this corrupt society have never been so discredited. The whole Occupy movement rather militantly and generally refused to adopt pro-Democratic politics and demands. Don't those people count? Don't we have an obligation to unite with their consciousness, and not the illusions of others? Isn't the call to vote against Romney an argument for entering this political system on its own (well known and corrupting) terms?

Dare to go against the tide

What kind of a "mass line" requires communists to support imperialists, just because there are illusions among some people? Who are we training if we do this? And what are we training them to do?

Was it somehow "ultra-left" of Occupy to target Democratic mayors and to reject a Democratic posing of demands? Is it to use Occupy-like anti-corporate language at the DNC to avoid targeting the warmaker Obama at his own convention? Does that help radicalize those we reach, or train them in bourgeois politics/logic?

It makes me wonder how we draw the lines? What other backward views of the people should we adopt in this way? Should we appeal to god in our materials, because most people are believers? Should we wave the bloody flag because so many people like that? What happens if we a similar logic approach to racial views among white people? Or (another example) "buy American" has long been a mass demand among working people (and not a progressive one)… are we compelled to support it.

I'm not sure where Josh or FRSO would draw those lines, but the argument and method are themselves disturbing and unjustified. (And I urge readers to compare the opposing views on what the "mass line" actually is….)

An aside: Certain people have been arguing that if mass movements in Syria want NATO bombing "who are we" to oppose that. I feel like (ironically) Josh is making the identical argument: If sections of the people want to vote for Obama, who are we to oppose that?

Perhaps we need to revisit the communist spirit of "dare to go against the tide." Where will we end up without that?

I think, by contrast, that if we have shed illusions about Obama, we should help more other people shed their illusions, and encourage those who already agree with us.

In an election year people need communist work that is not just "organizing" people in various ways within the enforced framework (organizing them into unions, organizing them to vote, organizing them to marches at the DNC that aren't really protests…) We also need to conduct communist political work — analysis, agitation, debates — which (obviously) ALL other political forces are also doing. And our work should expose the imperialists, and their candidates, and their policies, and their political system — and not tail or, worse, promote illusions around those things among communists, among broader radicals or among the people.

The peoples struggles — reinvented a strange anti-Romney slant

Back to the original FRSO document. It says says (as our repost yesterday reveals):

"We must remain firm in knowing that building on these people's struggles is the only way to make the fundamental changes that voting never has and never will be able to make."

The term "these people's struggles" refers a series of rather diverse currents which are listed in detail. I will give their quote (which is one of those long boring lists we leftists write too often), but then I will break it down a bit:

"However, there is great hope in the rising struggles of the past ten years. First came the anti-war movement that rose up to oppose Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then on May Day 2006, the immigrant rights mega-marches made history, with millions of Chicano, Mexicano, Central American and other immigrants marching in the streets of cities across the country. Students who participated in both movements began demanding educational rights on campuses, opposing rising tuition costs and mounting student debt. African-Americans turned out in their greatest numbers ever to vote for and celebrate the election of Barack Obama in 2008, while the nationwide movement against police brutality and police misconduct reached new levels with a campaign demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. Workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states rallied to oppose Republican attacks on government workers and labor unions. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street Movement rose up to place the blame for the economic crisis squarely on the richest 1% and demand democratic reforms. Occupy captured the support of the masses until it was driven from the streets by waves of nationally coordinated police repression."

"The anti-war movement that rose up to oppose Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan" — why no mention of the antiwar movement to oppose Obama's wars? Well, first because the election of Obama virtually killed the antiwar movement, and because some forces don't want to mention too often that the President they intend to support launched wars.

The immigrant rights mega-marches of 2006  (again in the Bush era) — what about the resistence to the mass deportation of the Obama years? What about the disappearance (by mutual agreement of the major parties) of discussion of amnesty and the political rights of all immigrant workers? What about the crude politics played around the Dream Act (and the suspension of youthful hopes on an "executive order" — so that the future of all those who declare themselves now hangs on the, say it, reelection of Obama?

The document mentions student movements against debt and tuition hikes, the movement against police brutality, working class resistance to "Republican attacks on government workers and labor unions" and (tellingly) the voting and celebrating among African-American people s around the 2008 election of Barack Obama. (I.e. both the resistance to the Republicans and the pre-disillusion celebration of a new Democratic president are part of the peoples struggles.)

FRSO then adds that "Inspired by the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street Movement rose up to place the blame for the economic crisis squarely on the richest 1% and demand democratic reforms. Occupy captured the support of the masses until it was driven from the streets by waves of nationally coordinated police repression."

Note: This mentions that the attacks on government unions is by Republicans, but its description of "nationally coordinated police repression" chooses to avoid mentioning the Democrats who coordinated it (in the White House, in Holder's DOJ and in offices of mayors like Oaklands Quan.) What is the meaning and impact of such shaving of reality? What does it mean to target Republicans when they are oppressive, but no mention Democrats when they pull out the billy clubs and drones?

In other words, this is two-fold nuanced argument that the change we want is made by "building on the peoples struggles" and in a nuanced way those peoples struggles are described in a way that focuses on George Bush and the more recent Republican attacks (but avoid confronting the actions and impact of an Obama presidency and the Democrats.)

(Just one example, it is necessary to reference an antimovement in the Bush years because (obviously) one of the negative impact of Obama's election has been the throttling and withering of massive antiwar protests.)

We think all of this needs ongoing and in depth discussion. We need to excavate the political positions people take, and explore their implications. What are radical and discontent people being trained to do? How are they being urged to view their oppressors? That kind of discussion has started over the last few days (in several places, including here on Kasama).

FRSO urges votes for Obama: Own it.

I have heard, in the last few days a charge from FRSO supporters that our headline "Freedom Road (Fight Back) urges votes for Obama" was inaccurate.  One piece wrote:

" For Kasama to title their repost of the FRSO editorial as "Freedom Road (Fight Back) urges votes for Obama" is dishonest and harmful…"

I'm not sure what to say, since FRSO's piece obviously urged votes for Obama — and explicitly so.

To be candid: I suspect the real issue is different parts of FRSO have different levels of discomfort with endorsing Obama over Romney. And it may be that some want to split hairs (pretend that a "vote against Romney" is not an endorsement of Obama, or their own personal vote for minor left candidates in non-swing means they are not "supporting" Obama, and so on.) But clearly FRSO is urging votes for Obama, and denying it just  reveals the shameful mess they have backed themselves into.

Every FRSO supporter I have talked to in the last few days has been adament and proud that they (personally) are NOT going to vote for Obama. Well if the organizational lean toward this president is so odious  – why support it? Why announce it and pretend that it really has no meaning?

The other argument I found interesting was a demand to explain "what do you propose doing?" (with heavy emphasis on the word "doing") As if politically exposing the two parties and tickets isn't doing anything. As if organizing an ambiguous event at the DNC is positive because it is "doing" something — even if what it is doing appears to be channeling Occupy-energized forces into the exhausted and often-rejected calculus of lesser evils.

Do we need to list what these parties have in common (despite their major differences)? — on empire, patriotism, military aggression, naitonal defence, CIA assassination, capitalism, exploitation, propping up of banks, counterinsurgency, cutbacks, deportations, dismissal of amnesty…. on and on and on and on?

Well we shouldn't need to list this, but if some want to make all that disappear (and make the "main enemy" appear to be some arc from Bush/Cheny-to-Romney/Ryan) then we do need to revisit basic reality in public (and in polemic).

In an election year, in war time, with a threat of war against Iran in the air, with the Democrats auditioning for Masters of Coming Austerity — we need to expose and oppose both parties, both tickets, and this imperialist system.

But even more to the point: Voting  is really is not the issue, because (as FRSO also explains from their own perspective) voting actually doesn't change things. It is the politics and channeling around the voting that matter. And the politics of emphasizing the evil of Republicans, while soft-pedalingthe crimes of the Democrats (who btw hold a  lot of power) is far more significant than whether this or that leftist votes (or whether this or that FRSO support mobilizes votes). In other words, the significant thing is that FRSO (and its supporters) train people in the terrible logic and practice of the lesser evil (even if each of them insists that they, personally, would never vote for him).

The argument of lesser evil is a demand for politics that is not "at distance from the state of affairs" — that is locked into the grid and logic of dominant politics, that accespts its terms (not just its candidates).

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