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Reform And The Left

Reform And The Left image Reform And The Left image
Parent Issue
Month
July
Year
1990
Copyright
Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
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Agenda Publications
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As the Cold War continúes to wind down, and profound changes sweep across Europe and the U.S.S.R., the politics of the United States appear all but unaffected. The military budget will remain at historica! wartime levéis, and U.S. aggression against smaller nations, especially in Latin America will continue to be waged under the pretext of "stopping communism," with the war on drugs as a murky altérnate. It seems as though the Soviet Union could literally disintegrate ovemight without affecting either the U.S. government's excuses for intervention in the Third World or its ability to use them. Part of the reason for the imperviousness of the U.S. to change is the political marginalization of the left. Compared to any industrialized (and many less industrialized) countries in the world, the political debate that reaches 98% of the U.S. population ranges from extreme right to center. And yet this does not, for the most part, reflect the views of the population. Polls show consistent majorities for deep cuts in military spending, comprehensive national health insurance, an end to U.S. aid to El Salvador, and other positions that rarely win an appearance in the public discourse. As Noam Chomsky is fond of pointing out, 70% of the public thought that the Vietnam war was "fundamentally wrong and immoral," a viewpoint that not a single commentator or columnist in the mainstream media has had the courage to put forward. It is therefore worth thinking about why the left is so small and marginalized here. Much has been written about some of the historicalstructural roots of this phenomenon. A few of the reasons commonly cited are: the differences between the U.S. and Europe, for example, where a long struggle against feudalismdevelopedtheclass-consciousness of European workers; the repression of radical labor movements in the U.S.; the role of racism and ethnic divisions among workers. There is another side to the quesüon, ho wever, which is internal to the left itself , although it cannot be completely separated from the historica! facts of the left's isolation and consequent political immaturity. I am including in the left all of those who have a shared visión of some formof socialism, or classlcss, egali tarian society as an ultímate goal, and are politically active. This includes all kinds of orthodox Marxists, as well as anarchists, pacifísts, and a whole range of lef t activists who may never havepaid much attention to Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao (or Bakunin). Almost all of these people are active in struggles for reform: of foreign policy, unions, gender and race relations. At the same time they remain committed to a much more radical transformation of society - "revolutionary" change. The relation between these and long-term goals is not necessarily antagonistic, but it needs to be reasonably consistent with historical conditions. The basic problem is that the left's outlook has its origins in the 19th and early 20th century, a time when revolution was on the political agenda, or at least appeared to be. Under such conditions reform takes on a very different meaning than it does in the relatively stable social formation that capi talism has turned out to be in the U.S. and otnei developed countries. Any reform, of course, is always adoubleedged sword. On the one hand it represents a victory for the people who are struggling to transform society, but there is also the problem that it can lend an (seo Reform, page 11) REFORM AND THE LEFT (from page 2) undeserved legitimacy to a fundamentally unjust and oppressive system. In a society that has arrived at or is near a revolutionary situation, the negative aspects of reform may have as much or more signifïcance than the positive ones. Thus Lenin supported reforms only as a means of winning workers and peasants to the revolutionary movement, and emphasized that the reforms themselves were a dead end. This approach is still the dominant one in 1 iberation movements such as the FMLN or the ANC, although both hold open the possibility of negotiatedsettlements which would initiate the revolutionary changes they are seeking. In a society such as ours, however, where there has not been a revolutionary situation for at least a century, reforms shou'.d be a tremendously important part of any 'eft movement' s overall strategy. Yet in spite of the often dedicated work of thousands of leftists in struggles for reform, this is not true. This can be seen in the way a typical leftist contemptuously dismisses "reformists" (it's considered an insult) and "reformism" (another dirty word). More importantly, it is evident in the left's failure to consider the strategie signifïcance of structural reforms, and its rejection of the electoral stiategics that are necessary to achieve them. Interestingly, the left appreciates the signifïcance of reforms when they are brought about through revolution, as in the case of the S andinistas ' achie vements in the areas ofhealth care and literacy. However, where even widesweeping reforms occur without an armed seizure of power, the left shows little interest. The people of Sweden enjoy free health care, education, and the most extensive system of economie rights in the world, including a state allocation of $ 1 1 ,000 per child for childc are - but neither the history nor politics of that country have attracted much attention from the left. During the Carter Administration there was a bilí before Congress that would have made it considerably easier to organize unions in the U.S ., by providing for union recognition wherever a majority of workers had joined. This would have eliminated the requirement for costly (to the unions) National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) representation elections that employers are often able to win, by propaganda and intimidation. The bill was defeated by heavy business lobbying, and today, after lOyears of ReaganBush institutional and legal changes that have weakened organized labor, the value of even this reform would be much more limited. But such legislation is not an unrealistic goal, and I cite it as an example of a structural reform that would help shift the balance of forces in favorof progressivechange. In fact it is diffícult to imagine any such change in the U.S . without a large and powerful organized labor movement; yet we now have about 15% of the non-agricultrual labor forcé in unions, by far the lowest in all of the industrialized world. There are many other examples that could be given. Dukakis' campaign proposal for a Social Security-like payroll tax for financing student loans would have relieved a good deal of the tremendous pressure that students now feel to gradúate quickly and find high paying jobs to pay off their loans. Politica! activity among U.S. students has been very adversely affected by the rapid rise in these debt burdens, and it is unlikely that it will ever reach levéis comparable to many European countiies without some major structural changes. Reform of campaign laws is of the utmost strategie importance, since more than 98% of incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives win their bids for re-eleclion. This is a difficult problem to attack, since Congress obviously does not want to vote to abolish its own"tenure"sys tem. But other coun tries with less of a democratie tradition than this one (like Brazil, where campaign spending limits helped the Workers' Party get very close to winning the presidency this year) have a considerably more level playing field in the electoral arena. Ho wever, the left has shownno interest in campaign reform. Unlike the left, the right is often keenly aware of the strategie implications of structural reforms. Thus Reagan instituted tuition in the previously free California state university system when he became govemor and as president did his best to destroy the NLRfi. Perhaps more importantly, the mortgage income tax deduction along with other measures encouraging home ownership in the postWWII era helped to drive a wedge between homeowners and mostly poorer renters. This remarkable piece of social engineering had the dual (and intended) effect of creating a sizeable class of homeowners with a conservatizing interest in real estáte values, while depriving renters of the political base they would need in any struggle for tenants ' rights. And in the last decade, changes in the tax code have helped to significantly expand a permanent electoral base for regressive politics in the U.S., in both parties. These and other counter-reforms make our tasks considerably more difficult. It does not appear that the left, lacking a concept of strategie reform, can ful - ly appreciate how far we have been set back in just the last decade. The left conceives of itself as a protest movement, and offers no realistic strategy for change. Protest is of course, very important and it is conceivable that demonstrations, riots, and even insurrectionary rebellions will by themselves force concessions from those in power, as has occasionally happened in the past But most of the changes we want will require political power, and in the forseeable ture that power will be have to be won priman ly at the ballot box or it will not be won at all. The lef t has no electora] strategy primarily due to its 19th century approach to reform. Many lertists even celébrate the low and decreasing voter turnout, especially among poor and working people. They see it as a sign of disaffection with the two major parties, when it primarily reflecls a profound alienation from the entire sphere of politics. One of the greatest immediate costs of the left's self-limiting world view is the loss of many dedicated and lal en led activists who could make important con - tributions. Many of these people end up selling out in various ways, not so much for the financial and societal rewards (although they quickly become accustomed to these), but because they wanted to see some results of their political work, and the left offered them little hope of doing so. Many others end up pursuing their political activity as individuals. As academies, lawyers, professionals, etc; some of these people do not sell out, but their contribution is much less than it could be if they were to participate in an organized movement. There are of course important ceptions to this tendency of the left to treat reform struggles as merely a means of winning people over to the revolutionary movemenL One of these can be found in the labor movement, where organized labor is seen, in accorOur only hope is that at some point, perhaps in a future period of political upheaval, large numbers of ordinary people wilt concern themselves with questions of political power, and force their common sense down the left's collective -throat. dance with the Leninist (and Marxist) tradition, to be of particular strategie importance. Henee leftists have been able to make some signif ie an t ins ti tu tional changes in this sphere, from the Communist Party's historie role in . the building of the CIO, to the present day where leftists of many stripes play an active role in unión elections, collective bargaining, etc. But we have reached the point where organized labor's very existence as an arena of struggle will now be contingent on serious legislative and insiitutional changes outside the labor movement itself. There are of course many leftists that do notshare this 19th century view of reform, but unfortunately they are in the minority among the most active and dedicated political organizers. (Among intellectuals respected by the left,ManningMarableisanexampleofaradical thinker whose approach to reform is grounded in contemporary society). A good part of these activists belong to small sects, whose organizational history reveáis very clearly the origins and mode of reproduction of the left attitude toward reform, as well as these groups' lack of grounding in U.S. politics and history. But there are numerous others who do not belong to any of the sects yet nonetheless share this fundamental approach to reform. I would like to end on an optimistic note, and say that the left is gradually shedding that part of its world view that prevents it from playing a significant role in the politics of the United States. But for now, at least, it looks like the left will enter the 21st century with its feet still firmly planted in the 19th. Our only hope is that at some point, perhaps in a future period of political upheaval, large numbers of ordinary people will concern themselves with questions of political power, and force their common sense down the left's collective throat. The slogan of the anarchist bumper sticker will then come true: "When the people lead, the leaders will follow."

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