Sunday, January 27, 2013

ADVANCING A PROGRESSIVE COALITION


 
HARRY TARG

Workers are marching in New York City, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco for their rights. Activists for women’s rights, gay rights, and the rights of people of color are on the move. Environmentalists are saying “no” Tar Sands and “yes” to moving nationally and globally against the dangers of climate change. Everyone is demanding that the Obama Administration reject demands by the rightwing to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security while protecting tax breaks for the rich and excessive military spending.
Millions of us worked to defeat the far rightwing in the recent election and celebrated the historic reelection of an African American for President. During much of Obama’s first term, the President sought to compromise with the rightwing, avoiding radical reforms, for example the one that would have provided Americans with single payer health care. He was reluctant to defend American public institutions, such as schools and libraries, worker’s rights, and to demand adequate resources for rebuilding our physical infrastructure and saving our environment.
However, in President Obama’s 2013 inaugural address he affirmed his commitment to social and economic justice, peace, and protection of our precious and threatened environment. The president referred metaphorically to Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall to underscore his commitment to women, African-Americans, and gays and lesbians. While he should have added Flint, Michigan, site of worker sit-downs in 1937 where rights to organize where demanded, Obama clearly promised to work toward empowerment of some of the traditionally voiceless, usually not referred to in inaugural speeches. Obama also raised in a forceful way the problem of climate change. The President, without raising specifics, clearly articulated a progressive agenda for the next four years that we on the left should organize around.
In addition, there are signs that the Obama election organization is being transformed into what could become part of a social movement to support a progressive agenda in the Congress. Organizing for Action (OFA) promises to take the resources, human and financial, that were mobilized during the campaign to build constituencies to work on issues and campaigns in Congressional districts. Skeptics correctly suggest that OFA may serve more to channel and control growing militancy at the grassroots rather than unleash it. However, those of us at the base can use the OFA format and resources as part of our own organizing.
Organizing at the grassroots in communities and states is particularly critical in the thirty states in which government is dominated by Tea Party and other conservative elected officials. And it is in these states and communities that outside money has poured in to reverse institutions and policies that service human needs. In many of the states, such as Indiana, advocates for reaction have gained an upper hand and threaten public institutions, social programs, and democratic representation. 
We, the left/liberal community, stepped back from activism after the 2008 election assuming that the new President would advance a people’s agenda. We were wrong. He adopted a cautious and pragmatic strategy incorrectly assuming he could achieve compromise policies with Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats. In 2010, a new group of Republicans opposed to virtually all public institutions, the so-called Tea Party Republicans, gained many seats in Congress, state legislatures, and governorships.
After the 2012 election the same progressive forces which withdrew from political combat after 2008 and sat out the 2010 elections mobilized to reelect the President in 2012. Since last November they have proclaimed that they will not become passive again.
We must stand for human progress inside the legislative/executive arena and everywhere in the public sphere. We must stand up for the populist agenda candidate Obama proposed in 2008 and was hesitant to deliver and he has articulated in his 2013 inaugural speech.
In short, we in labor, women’s, African-American, Latino, environmental, and civil liberties groups must build a coalition that recognizes that we share common needs and goals. We must realize we are all victims of an economic and political system that rewards the few at the expense of the many.
How do we come together? How should we relate to the electoral arena, in our communities and states? Should we work in the Democratic Party? A progressive segment of it and/or a Third Party? When and where should we protest? Can we begin to construct alternative institutions? How can we spread our messages through the media--print, electronic, public performance?
Perhaps most important is the question of our vision of the future. What kind of society would we want to create? How can we achieve economic and political justice for all?
These are heady questions but they can only be answered if we act together. As inspired by the Rebuild the American Dream campaigns and Occupy movements of  2011 we can begin to dialogue anew about building movements in our communities, identifying a range of issues to work on together, and, ultimately  advancing our states and society toward economic and social justice.

Friday, January 18, 2013

JOHN MCCARTNEY KNEW IDEAS CAN INSPIRE ACTIVISM

Harry Targ

I am trying to carry students on a ‘voyage’ in which they transcend their immediate experiences and impressions, and encounter in the process a ‘new’ world of ideas, values, and aspirations.” (quote from a letter Professor McCartney  wrote to the Provost, Lafayette College).
John McCartney was a colleague of mine, a political comrade, and a long-time friend, even though we had not been in touch in recent years. He was on the faculty at Purdue University from 1970 to 1979, serving as Assistant Professor of Political Science, and the first director of a new program in African American Studies. He returned to Purdue University in January 2003 to participate in a conference sponsored by Purdue’s Committee on Peace Studies. He gave a lecture on “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Question of Peace.” We in Peace Studies shared our ideas about social change at this conference with McCartney, labor leader Noel Beasley, and peace researcher Betty Reardon.
At that time John invited me to an upcoming conference on “Paul Robeson: His History and Development” at Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania, where he was Department Chair. In April, 2005, John and I gave presentations at that gathering on “Marx and Engels’ Influences on the Development of Robeson’s Intellect.”
While clearing my desk a few days ago, I came across the Robeson paper and decided to seek its publication in The Journal of African American Studies. I started to submit the paper online. The journal’s application required the prospective author to submit names and e-mail addresses of three possible article reviewers. So I typed in John’s name and then searched the internet to secure his e-mail address when I found the entry, “Memorial Resolution for John T. McCartney.” http://www.lafayette.edu/about/news/2012/07/11/memorial-resolution-for-john-t-mccartney/2012/
My first reaction was emotional devastation. For me, John was always out there even though we did not keep in touch. On reflection I began to realize how important he was to me as an educator and activist and I decided to share some remembrances. I do so not to celebrate McCartney nor to provide an emotional release for me, but to underscore the power of ideas, the importance of the educational process, and the obligation of us in educational institutions to link our work to political practice.
John came to the Department of Political Science at Purdue University from the University of Iowa, where he was completing a Ph.D. Our department head reported that John would teach urban politics, because that was what people assumed scholars of African descent would teach. But no, to the department’s surprise John was a political theorist, specializing in medieval political thought. Along with teaching a course on the history of political theory, John taught courses on St. Augustine. He was such a wonderful teacher that one would see lots of students carrying around with them The City of God, not the usual political science text being studied in the early 1970s.
John met philosophy professor Kermit Scott, another medievalist and dear friend of mine. Kermit and I worked with other activist faculty on a variety of student, anti-racism, and anti-war activities in those days. John and Kermit decided to team-teach an undergraduate seminar on medieval philosophy. Both were brilliant and had a small but determined following among students.
John led a mysterious life outside the classroom. Always kind, gentle, and caring he lived alone in a small apartment across the river in Lafayette and spent his free time talking with working folks who hung out downtown. At some point, Kermit and John started talking about post-medieval politics and to our surprise Kermit and I learned that John McCartney was the leader of the Vanguard Nationalist and Socialist Party of the Bahamas. Every summer he would return home and walk the streets of Nassau with his comrades talking with virtually every resident of the main island. His name would appear regularly in articles on the front page of the Nassau newspaper referring to “Dr. John McCartney, Purdue University Professor and Chairman of the Vanguard Nationalist and Socialist Party.”
It turns out that John, the oldest of 10 children, received a first-rate British colonial public school education, worked as an officer of the British Customs Service, received a bachelor’s degree at Drake University in Iowa, and his Ph. D at the University of Iowa.
Meanwhile John and a small coterie of comrades were constructing a Socialist party designed to challenge the elected leadership of the post-colonial government of the Bahamas. He was struggling to build a socialist movement to take power from many of those opportunistic Bahamian nationalists who were John’s school mates years earlier. So John, teaching St. Augustine, in Indiana, was sending his salary back home to support his nine siblings and the new Vanguard Party.
John and Kermit, who himself was increasingly drawn to the Marxist tradition,  decided to put their copies of The City of God back on the bookshelf and rework their seminar into an in-depth study of Marxism. In addition to a small but dedicated group of students several faculty would sit in on the seminar. I did so three times.
John was a hard driver as a teacher. Our first seminar assignment was to go through volume one of Das Capital. We would read the text line by line. Through most of the class John read a critical passage, explained it, and read it again. Over the three classes I took with John and Kermit we read theorists including Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Lukacs, Gramsci, and Euro Communists.
John organized several of us into a reading group that met on Sunday nights. We read Nkrumah, Cabral, Che, and some of the women in our group insisted we add some feminist voices to our readings and discussion. John needed to be brought along on “the woman question,” but of course he was not alone.
Kermit and I, mostly Kermit, began to do some work for the Vanguard Party, writing short essays for study groups that members engaged in back home and Kermit wrote a thorough history of the Bahamas for the party called “The Struggle for Freedom in the Bahamas.” Kermit visited the Bahamas often and I did so once.
During one meeting in the party office, which Kermit and I attended, some young ultra-left members pulled a revolver demanding that the party march “over the hill” and seize state power. John stood up to the leader of the revolt, a gun inches from his face, and asked, “What next?” We could not hold power he added primarily because not enough people would support a violent “revolution.” Fortunately, the rebel withdrew his gun and the next day party members resumed their work, walking the streets, talking to people, explaining socialism, and asking for the people’s support. Most importantly, the regular work in the community was done with respect for different views. John, the medieval scholar, was as much a man of the people as any revolutionary one could think of.
By the middle of the 1980s, the party fell on hard times and John, who had left Purdue and academia in 1979, returned to the United States to take an academic position. He taught for the rest of his life at Lafayette College, a well-known and expensive liberal arts college in Eastern Pennsylvania. In that powerful memorial statement about John, it was pointed out that both the college and John were taking a big risk. Neither the Department of Government and Law nor John was sure that he could adapt to teaching students from wealthy families. But on reflection the decision was a “no-brainer.” John loved people. He could hang out with the guys on the stoop in downtown Lafayette, walk the streets among the people he grew up with, and work hard to teach young people of all kinds the ideas that he valued so much.
When my wife and I attended the conference John McCartney organized in 2005 we caught up on our many years apart only some of which we were able to discuss when he attended the Peace Studies conference at Purdue in 2003. He spoke about how wonderful Lafayette College was, how open and tolerant the students were, and how important it was to communicate ideas to them. He admitted on the side, however, that “I teach a course in the local prison every year to keep in touch with the working class.” A former student reported that when John got sick and did not stop by the local Wawa food market, workers there would say: “Where’s Doc?”

"Doc” knew that ideas mattered; that young people needed to study hard; that ideas had to be put to work changing the world.

Students, teachers, and political activists will miss John McCartney.

 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

MARTIN LUTHER KING AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS AND LABOR ALLIANCE (reissued)


Harry R Targ

Dr. King arrived in Memphis on March 18, 1968 to support the sanitation workers of that city who had been on strike for five weeks. These workers had many grievances that forced them to protest. Garbage workers had no access to bathroom or shower facilities. They were not issued any protective clothing for their job. There were no eating areas separate from garbage. Also sanitation workers had no pension or retirement program and no entitlement to workers compensation. Their wages were very low. Shortly before the strike began two workers died on the job and the families of the deceased received only $500 in compensation from the city. Finally, after Black workers were sent home for the day because of bad weather and received only two hours pay they walked off the job.

On March 28, 10 days after King arrived, violence disrupted a march led by him. He left the city but returned on April 4 to lead a second march. On that fateful April day, King told Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees or AFSCME: "What is going on here in Memphis is important to every poor working man, black or white, in the South." That evening Martin Luther King was killed by a sniper's bullet.

It was logical for King to be in Memphis to support garbage workers. Despite a sometimes rocky relationship between the civil rights and labor movements, King knew that black and white workers' struggles for economic justice were indivisible; that civil rights could not be realized in a society where great differences in wealth and income existed, and where life expectancies, educational opportunities, and the quality of jobs varied by class, by race, and by gender. The more progressive and far-sighted leaders and rank-and-file union members in the AFL-CIO knew it too. At the time of King's death working people were coming together to struggle for positive social change around the banner of the Poor People's Campaign.

Dr. King's thinking on the need for an alliance between the civil rights and labor movements was expressed many times. As far back as 1957 at a convention of the United Packinghouse Workers of American (UPWA) he asserted that "organized labor can be one of the most powerful instruments in putting an end to discrimination and segregation."

During an organizing effort of the Hospital Workers Local 1199 in the fall of 1964, King was a featured speaker at a fundraising rally. He said of the 1199 struggle," Your great organizing crusade to win union and human rights for New Jersey hospital workers is part and parcel of the struggle we are conducting in the Deep South. I want to congratulate your union for charting a road for all labor to follow-dedication to the cause of the underpaid and exploited workers in our nation." Shortly after, Dr. King left a picket line of Newark hospital workers on strike to fly to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Prize.

Upon his return from Norway, King returned to the picket line; this time in support of Black women workers of the Chemical Workers union at the Scripto Pen Plant in Atlanta. He said there: "Along with the struggle to desegregate, we must engage in the struggle for better jobs. The same system that exploits the Negro exploits the poor white..."

At the Negro American Labor Council convention of June, 1965 King called for a new movement to achieve "a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God's children." In February, 1966, King spoke to Chicago labor leaders during his crusade for the end to racism and poverty in that city. He called on the labor movement which had provided techniques and methods, and financial support crucial to civil rights victories to join in the war on poverty and slums in Chicago. Such an effort in Chicago, he said, would show that a Black and labor alliance could be of relevance to solving nationwide problems of unemployment, poverty, and automation.

One year before his death, King spoke at another meeting of Hospital Workers 1199. He said a closer alliance was needed between labor and civil rights activists to achieve the "more difficult" task of economic equality. The civil rights movement and its allies were moving into a new phase to achieve economic justice, he announced. This would be a more formidable struggle since it was in his words "much more difficult to eradicate a slum than it is to integrate a bus."

In early 1968, Dr. King incorporated his opposition to the Vietnam War with his commitment to economic justice. He called for an end to the War and the utilization of societal resources to eliminate poverty. To those ends the Poor People's Campaign was launched. It demanded jobs, a guaranteed annual income for those who could not find work, the construction of 6 million new homes, support for employment in rural areas, new schools to train jobless youth for skilled work, and other measures to end poverty.

While preparing the Poor People's Campaign, King got a call to go to Memphis. Before leaving he sent a message to be read at the seventh annual convention of the Negro American Labor Council. He wrote that the Council represented "the embodiment of two great traditions in our nation's history: the best tradition of the organized labor movement and the finest tradition of the Negro Freedom Movement." He urged a black-labor alliance to unite the Black masses and organized labor in a campaign to help solve the "deteriorating economic and social conditions of the Negro community... heavily burdened with both unemployment and underemployment, flagrant job discrimination, and the injustice of unequal education opportunity."

Forty years later the social and economic injustices of which Dr. King spoke continue. But so does his vision of a working class movement united in struggle to survive, a movement of Blacks, whites and Latinos, men and women, young and old, and organized and unorganized workers. The times have changed but the importance of Dr King's political vision remains.

Harry Targ teaches political science and is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES IS NOT UNTOLD


Harry Targ

Oliver Stone has made an enormous contribution to discussions of the United States role in the world. His films have described the horrific consequences of United States foreign policy for the people of El Salvador and Vietnam, the American political system, and the U.S. soldiers victimized by wars not of their making. While his films, such as JFK, raise controversial claims, they have stimulated important public conversations.
This television season, Showtime, a cable channel, is showing a ten-part series written and produced by Stone and his academic collaborator, historian Peter Kuznick. The series, “The Untold History of the United States,” is a brilliant and entertaining narrative of the United States role in the world since the onset of World War II. It warrants broad distribution within educational institutions and among communities of political activists. Because of our ahistorical culture people do not have a sense of the critical decisions that were made fifty or a hundred years ago which have structured the political and economic life of the country ever since.
Critical moments in United States history have channeled the prospects for progressive social change today and tomorrow. From the arrival of colonial armies to the “new world,” to the introduction of slavery to the Western Hemisphere, to revolution against British imperialism, to the civil war and the defeat of post-war reconstruction, the American experience has been shaped by class and race in the context of burgeoning industrial and financial capitalism. The Spanish/Cuban/American war stimulated the rise of the United States as the preeminent empire from the Philippines to the Western Hemisphere.
Most of us have received a sanitized history of these earlier historical moments. In addition, our understanding of the rise of socialist movements in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression and the global fascist threat, the realities of World War II, and the emerging U.S. hegemony after the war which led to the “Cold War” between global capitalism and socialism have been limited as well. Oliver Stone’s ten-part “untold history,” in collaboration with Professor Kuznick, fills in some of the void. Several themes about the onset of the Cold War are particularly important:
First, while the series overemphasizes the role of elites in shaping U.S. history Stone and Kuznick do point out that these elites always perceived the threat workers, radicals, and other rank-and-file activists meant to ruling class dominance. Much of foreign policy was designed to crush revolutionary ferment overseas and at home.
Second, in the first two episodes emphasis is placed on the lost opportunity for the left that resulted from the successful efforts of political elites, particularly in the Democratic Party, to force Henry Wallace, President Roosevelt’s third term vice president, and 1948 candidate for president on the Progressive Party ticket, from power. Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture during the New Deal was an economic populist, anti-racist, and pro-union sympathizer and after World War II an advocate for United States/Soviet Union collaboration.
Stone and Kuznick probably exaggerate Wallace as an alternative to the imperial, counter-revolutionary, and racist path the United States took after the war but correctly make it clear that CEOs from massive corporations and banks and political elites from both political parties were committed to crushing those left forces that flowered in the United States in the 1930s and grew in popularity all across the globe. The Soviet Union was one manifestation of global resistance to capitalism that paralleled the spread of massive anti-colonial ferment in the Global South.
Third, the film makers provide overwhelming evidence to show that the defeat of fascism in Europe was largely the result of the massive Soviet military machine. Americans suffered about 290,000 wartime dead and the Soviet Union 27 million. And Stone, who narrated the documentary, suggests that while Joseph Stalin was a cruel dictator, his policies must be understood in the context of the rise of fascism in Europe and the refusal of western powers, particularly Great Britain, France, and the United State, to stand up against it. He correctly portrays Stalin as a nationalist who was prepared to sacrifice all principles, in this case Communist ones, to prepare for and to defend the Soviet Union. This overriding commitment, Stone implies, carried over into Soviet diplomatic interaction with the rest of Europe and the United States after the war.
Fourth, in great detail Stone and Kuznick make it clear that the United States did not have to use two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force the Japanese to surrender in the summer of 1945. The Japanese leadership knew they were soon to be defeated. Many had advocated for surrender by the time of the Potsdam Conference of July, 1945 and American policymakers were aware of it.
President Truman’s advisors knew that if the Soviet Union declared war on Japan which the Soviets promised to do by August 8, the enemy would give up. But despite this, the film makers suggest, President Truman tried to use the powerful new weapon against the Japanese before the Soviet Union had a chance to enter the war, and thus be a diplomatic player in Asia after the war. Also, and this was critical, the bomb was designed to send a message to the Soviet Union as well as Japan. The United States in the years ahead would be the dominant military power in the world.
Stone and Kuznick point out that the decisions to drop two atomic bombs on Japan signaled the dawn of a new age. Now weapons of mass destruction would be used to pursue global hegemony. There no longer would be any limits on the possibility of death and destruction derived from world affairs.
In other words, Stone and Kuznick are making the case that at least from the onset of the Cold War to today, U.S. foreign policy has been driven by economic and political interests to dominate the world and has responded violently to a multiplicity of forms of resistance. The locales of struggle changed as would the forms of resistance. But the structure that was put in place after World War II remains the albatross around the necks of those who seek change today and tomorrow.
The series is an indispensable lesson for peace and justice activists today. However, it should be added that the “untold” story has been told before. As a result of the threats of nuclear war in the 1950s, United States policies toward Cuba and Vietnam in the 1960s, and patterns of U.S. covert interventions and violence against peoples on every continent, progressive scholars began to use their methods to uncover this history fifty years ago.
Historians and activists were inspired by the classic text by William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Williams’ work, called then “historical revisionism,” inspired other groundbreaking studies of the onset and perpetuation of the Cold War by Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, Gar Alperovitz, Diane Clemens, Lloyd Gardner, Walter LaFeber, Thomas Patterson, and many more. The works on McCarthyism, repression of labor militancy, and mystification in popular culture could fill libraries.
While it is true that documentary films cannot provide footnotes, it is important for viewers to realize that progressive scholars during the depths of the Cold War used their skills to research, teach, and for some, engage in political activism based on their findings.
And finally, if the “untold” story has in fact been told many times, a question that becomes important is why we as a people, even the political activists among us, are not apprised of it. And this leads to analyses of how knowledge has been appropriated in the service of United States foreign and domestic policy.