Reform or Revolt?
Toward a More Radical Common Sense
by Cory Dolgon
I'd like to thank Mark Weisbrot for his thoughtful and thought-provoking critique on "the left's" relationship to "reform" politics (AGENDA, July 1990). Starting with a variation on the theme of American exceptionalism - "why [is] the left so marginalized in the U.S.?" - Weisbrot argues that the left, ignorant of political and historical realities, repudiates reform strategies and alienates itself from mainstream, popular support. Thus, Weisbrot implies that "reform," (and more specifically for him, electoral politics) is the reality of American culture.
However, the history of progressive-led political campaigns demonstrates that just the opposite may be true. In "The Populist Moment," Lawrence Goodwyn argues convincingly that the Populists' shift toward emphasizing electoral politics and away from organizing economic cooperatives and other alternative, collective institutions diluted their militancy and alienated their grassroots constituency.
Goodwyn writes: "...the structural weakness of the People's Party evolved from the failure of its organizers...to understand that the third party, in order to be authentically democratic, had to be organized as a mass party with mass membership. It was organized instead like all large American parties before and since. as a representative party, with elite cadres of party regulars dominating the organizational machinery from precinct to national convention. The People's Party spoke... in the name of the people. But in structural terms the People's Party was not made up of the people; it was comprised of Party elites."
Univ. of Wisconsin education professor Michael Apple explains in his essay "The Politics of Common Sense" just how the New Right's counter-reform efforts developed in response to successful social and political reforms won by the progressive protest movements of the sixties. While neoconservatives organized in the seventies and the eighties, Apple writes, progressive forces were disarmed because "leaders of many of these movements had been absorbed into state-sponsored programs, which - although the adoption of programs was in part a victory - had the latent effect of cutting off leaders from their grassroots constituency and lessened the militancy at this level...as movement demands were partly adopted in their most moderate forms into programs sponsored by the state."
"Militancy is transformed into constituency," Apple contends, "...dependent on the state itself. And very importantly, when the neoconservative and right-wing movements evolved with their decidedly anti-statist themes, the gains that were made in the state came increasingly under attack and the ability to recreate a large-scale grassroots movement to defend these gains was weakened considerably."
Again, the emphasis on reform and institutional work diverted radical leaders and left the movement ill-equipped to combat New Right counter reforms.
Finally, the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988, although offering momentary glimpses of potentially significant changes won through electoral politics, disintegrated as Jackson was forced to compromise principles and support the powers of the Democratic Party over the interests of his constituency . His series of retreats and conciliatory "common ground" speech at the '88 convention not only abandoned radical supporters, but frustrated and disillusioned many of the Black and poor people' s coalitions that had worked hard on his campaign.
Ultimately, Weisbrot might claim that his only point was to address the left's lack of an adequate reform stategy which should include electoral politics. But his analysis is based on too simple an interpretation of historical conditions. At best, the historical and political realities offer mixed lessons about the need for the left's involvement in electoral politics and certain reform movements.
If the historical and political conditions do not expose as clear a course as Weisbrot finds for negotiating between short-term and long-term goals, what lessons can the radical left learn from past experiences with reform movements and electoral politics? I have two suggestions.
First, I think that Weisbrot is right when he claims that "unlike the left, the right is often keenly aware of the strategic implications of structural reforms." The left too often ignores the importance of actually analyzing these conservative strategies. The New Right's success in instituting reactionary structural changes evolved from intense grassroots and high-tech political organizing efforts that effectively linked a rearticulation of powerful ideological themes (individualism, equality, and freedom) with a conservative political movement. This focus need not place the left in a defensive posture, but should inform comprehensive theories on existing and changing economic, political, and social conditions. Whether radical activists and organizations decide that it makes "strategical sense" to engage in reform movements or electoral politics, these groups must be able to analyze and counter the strategies of those groups opposing them, as well as understand the necessity of remaining close to the grassroots connections which initially fuel successful mass movements.
Secondly , the left needs to do a better job of creating and recreating this idea of a "strategic sense," not only by examining the right, but by understanding the divisions within itself and working to heal some of those schisms. Again, here is where Weisbrot's piece does the most good as a critique which attempts to break down real or imagined barriers (most a result of silence) and begin some honest thinking and debate over strategies.
I'm not as optimistic as Weisbrot is about the possibility of "large numbers of ordinary people" establishing a collective common sense with which to influence the left. I do believe, however, once the left comes up with a powerful strategy for rearticulating and influencing a more radical idea of common sense, then the kind of mass democratic movement necessary for ordinary people to lead may no longer seem merely a romantic anarchist vision suitable only for bumper stickers.
Dogmatic Reformism Foolish!
Maoist Internationalist Movement
This is a response to Mark Weisbrot's article (AGENDA, July 1990) criticizing revolutionaries for not adequately appreciating structural reform struggles. It is true that part of the problem is that reforms lend legitimacy to a fundamentally unjust system. But it is only one factor in why revolutionaries should oppose most reform struggles going on in the United States. The most important reason why those fighting to end oppression of social groups should oppose the vast majority of reform struggles is that they simply do not work.
Ironically, it is the reformists who engage in the protest politics that Weisbrot correctly cites the limitations of. Of course protests are necessary but everyone recognizes that no fundamental change is going to happen until the "left" starts winning some things - resources of various kinds inciuding, ultimately, state power.
Weisbrot talks about the revolutionaries as if they were the ones wasting most of the political energy of the "left" in this country. But was it the revolutionaries working in the McGovern campaign? Is it the revolutionaries saying people can win seats in Congress when people with millions of dollars of effective backing gain re-election at a rate of more then 98%?
It is this tremendous waste of energy that Weisbrot should focus his fire on - dogmatic reformism. Many more people waste their time trying to end oppression by expressing themselves in reformist battles than make meaningless revolutionary noise. Dogmatic reformists make a principle out of working within the system and losing.
How many revolutionaries haven't heard that they should vote for a Democrat because not voting is just apathy? The real issue is what will voting accomplish? What will campaigning for x, y or z candidate who does not have the necessary financial and media backing do? Those singing the praises of the civic duty to vote are stuck in an 18th century idea from the French and American Revolutions.
Humphrey, McGovern, even Carter and now Jackson - left-wing reformists - have made a principle out of losing. From mayoral races in Boston to congressional campaigns in Michigan, it is the reformists who need their dogmas straightened out.
This is not to mention that electing some of these liberals would not result in any change. Jesse Jackson endorsed the bombing of Iran and a crackdown on crime like the War on Drugs. Meanwhile the Democratic Socialists in France increase investment in South Africa and socialists in West Germany supported Cruise and Pershing missile deployments. But this article is not about all the contradictory mush in the reformist left that makes it incapable of moving forward even if it had the necessary resources.
This article is about what is effective to do in moving forward toward the end of oppression. Revolutionaries put together their own newspapers and other media outlets; as of yet, the imperialists have not found a way to stop that. Some revolutionaries are involved in creating bookstores. Whereas the mainstream media is not very obliging to anything but two-tone politics, as Weisbrot points out, revolutionary newspapers and countless other independent grassroots institutions can and do go forward.
Maoist Internationalist Movement in particular has involved itself in a number of local struggles that involved seizing resources for the "left" - things Wiesbrot would call reforms. The point is none of these mundane revolutionary struggles have the excitement or glamor of an election campaign, especially where the stakes are high, but they are unstoppable means of gathering, organizing and seizing resources.
By the way, the two examples Weisbrot gives as struggles worth fighting - student loans and campaign reform - are good ideas. Weisbrot is certainly correct that people seeking to end oppression need to figure out how to win struggles that will make future struggles easier. He just picks overly large targets that are well within the grasp of the capitalist class. Smaller items like getting student governments to make places on every campus where people can pick up free political literature of all shades is a useful and a more winnable struggle.
What needs further examination is what forces are involved in opposing good ideas like Weisbrot's and can they be overcome in the legislative arena? Groups like Common Cause have been working on campaign reform for a long time, Why have they failed so far? Could it have something to do with Big Government and Big Money?
Maybe the reason revolutionaries look at the 19th century figures that Weisbrot denigrates is that they see a method of thinking, a realistic method of thinking. Marx for one would have looked at the Big Money and its intertwining with Big Government. He would have noticed that they are hard to beat on their own turf.
Another more recent figure Weisbrot disapproves of instructed his followers on how to analyze a situation to win a battle - Mao Zeddng. As a result of Mao's efforts, the Chinese communists were able to turn around the most lopsided strategic situation possible within the largest country in the world and win, one small but winnable battle at a time.