Saturday, February 6, 2016

SEIZE THE MOMENT: BERNIE SANDERS AND BUILDING THE PROGRESSIVE MAJORITY



Harry Targ

The multiracial working class in alliance with trade unions, women, African Americans, Latinos and other people of color, youth, and progressive sectors of business now form the promising components of the progressive majority. The profound challenge before the working class and its allies is to organize this majority into a coherent force capable of responding to the various issues it confronts. (“Goals and Principles,” Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, adopted at its 6th National Convention, July, 2009, www.cc-ds.org).

Protest Movements in the United States

            In addition to anecdotal evidence, aggregate data confirms the continuation and expansion of activist groups and protest activities all across the face of the globe. For example in the United States, Mark Solomon in an important essay “Whither the Socialist Left? Thinking the ‘Unthinkable’” (March 6, 2013, www.portside.org)  discusses the long history of socialism in the United States, the brutal repression against it, damaging sectarian battles on the left, the miniscule size of socialist organizations today and yet paradoxically the growing sympathy for the idea of socialism among Americans, particularly young people. He calls for “the convergence of socialist organizations committed to non-sectarian democratic struggle, engagement with mass movements, and open debate in search of effective responses to present crises and to projecting a socialist future.”  The Solomon article does not conceptualize “left unity” and “building the progressive majority” as separate and distinct projects but as fundamentally interconnected. For him, and many others, the role of the left in the labor movement and other mass movements gave shape, direction, and theoretical cohesion to the battles that won worker rights in the 1930s.

            Solomon’s call has stimulated debate among activists around the idea of “left unity.” The appeal for left unity is made more powerful by socialism’s appeal, the current global crises of capitalism, rising mobilizations around the world, and living experiments with small-scale socialism such as the construction of a variety of workers’ cooperatives.

            Effective campaigns around “left unity” in recent years have prioritized “revolutionary education,” drawing upon the tools of the internet to construct an accessible body of theory and debate about strategy and tactics that could solidify left forces and move the progressive majority into a socialist direction. The emerging Online University of the Left (OUL), an electronic source for classical and modern theoretical literature about Marxism, contemporary debates about strategy and tactics, videos, reading lists, and course syllabi, constitute one example of left unity. The OUL serves as one of many resources for study groups, formal coursework, and discussions among socialists and progressives. Those who advocate for “left unity” or left “convergence” celebrate these many developments, from workers cooperatives to popular education, as they advocate for the construction of a unified socialist left.

            A second manifestation of political activism, the Occupy Movement, first surfacing in the media in September, 2011, initiated and renewed traditions of organized and spontaneous mass movements around issues that affect peoples’ immediate lives such as housing foreclosure, debt, jobs, wages, the environment, and the negative role of money in U.S. politics. Perhaps the four most significant contributions of the Occupy Movement have been:

            1.Introducing grassroots processes of decision-making.

            2.Conceptualizing modern battles for social and economic justice as between the one percent (the holders of most wealth and power in society) versus the 99 percent (weak, economically marginalized, and dispossessed, including the “precariat”). 

            3.Insisting that struggles for radical change be spontaneous, often eschewing traditional political processes.

            4.Linking struggles locally, nationally, and globally.

            During the height of its visibility some 500 cities and towns experienced Occupy mobilizations around social justice issues. While less frequent, Occupy campaigns still exist, particularly in cities where larger progressive communities reside. Calls for left unity correctly ground their claims in a long and rich history of organized struggle while “occupiers” and other activists today have been inspired by the bottom-up and spontaneous uprisings of 2011 (both international and within the United States).

            A third, and not opposed, approach to political change at this time has been labeled “building a progressive majority.” This approach assumes that large segments of the U.S. population agree on a variety of issues. Some are activists in electoral politics, others in trade unions, and more in single issue groups. In addition, many who share common views of worker rights, the environment, health care, undue influence of money in politics, immigrant rights etc. are not active politically. The progressive majority perspective argues that the project for the short-term is to mobilize the millions of people who share common views on the need for significant if not fundamental change in economics and politics. 

            Often organizers conceptualize the progressive majority as the broad mass of people who share views on politics and economics that are ‘centrist” or “left.” Consequently, over the long run, “left” participants see their task as three-fold. First, they must work on the issues that concern majorities of those at the local and national level. Second, they struggle to convince their political associates that the problems most people face have common causes (particularly capitalism). Third, “left” participants see the need to link issues so that class, race, gender, and the environment, for example, are understood as part of the common problem that people face.

            A 2005-2007 data set called “Start” (startguide.org) showed that there were some “500 leading organizations in the United States working for progressive change on a national level.” START divided these 500 organizations into twelve categories based on their main activities. These included progressive electoral, peace and foreign policy, economic justice, civil liberties, health advocacy, labor, women’s and environmental organizations.  Of course, their membership, geographic presence, financial resources, and strategic and tactical vision varied widely. And, many of the variety of progressive organizations at the national level were reproduced at the local and state levels as well.

            In sum, when looking at contemporary social change in the United States at least three tendencies have been articulated: left unity, the Occupy Movement, and building a progressive majority. Each highlights its own priorities as to vision, strategy, tactics, and political contexts. In addition, the relative appeal of each may be affected by age, class, gender, race, and issue prioritization as well. However, these approaches need not be seen as contradictory. Rather the activism borne of each approach may parallel the others. (the discussion of the three tendencies of activism appeared in Harry Targ, “The Fusion Politics Response to 21st Century Imperialism From Arab Spring to Moral Mondays,” ouleft.org, and was presented at the “Moving Beyond Capitalism” Conference, Center for Global Justice, San Miguel de Allende Mexico, July 29-August 5, 2014). 

Building the Progressive Majority in 2016

The statement above from CCDS was published in 2009 and the description of the three political tendencies in the United States was presented in 2014. Since then, the Moral Mondays Movement in North Carolina captured national attention and stimulated a growing campaign around Reverend William Barber’s narrative of United States history referring to the “three reconstructions” and the articulation of his theory of “fusion politics.”

The egregious police violence against African Americans, particularly young men and women of color, has sparked a vibrant Black Lives Matter campaign that has caused a renewed interest in understanding the functions the police serve, the role of white supremacy, rightwing populism, and Michelle Alexander’s “New Jim Crow” in America.

Militant workers in growing sectors of the economy are rising up. Fast food workers are organizing around the “Fight for 15.” Health and home care, and other service sector workers are demanding the right to have their unions recognized. And teachers, transportation workers, and state employees have hit the streets and legislative assemblies to demand worker rights.

The peace movement has begun to resuscitate itself challenging a new cold war with Russia, boots on the ground and drones in the air to fight ISIS, and the unbridled growth of the military/industrial complex.

Finally, environmentalists have made a convincing case that the connection between neoliberal global capitalism and environmental catastrophe “changes everything.”

The three tendencies presented above—left unity, the Occupy Movement,  and building a progressive majority—continue to be reflected in different kinds of organizing around the country based on the issues, levels of organization, predominant ideological manifestations, local political cultures, and the composition of movements in different places based upon class, race, gender, sexual identity, religious affiliation and issue orientation. And all these tendencies are worthy of attention and support, particularly in the 21st century “time of chaos.”

But a new campaign (potentially a movement) has emerged since the summer, 2015. Bernie Sanders, an aging left-oriented Senator from Vermont began his long uphill march to secure the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency. A sixties activist on civil rights and peace, a populist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, a Congressman and Senator from that state, Sanders, since his early days of political activism,  has articulated an anti-Wall Street, anti-finance capital mantra that has its roots in various progressive currents in United States history, These include the populist campaigns of the 1890s,  the militant workers struggles of the  Wobblies during the Progressive era, the popular electoral campaigns of five-time Socialist Party candidate for President, Eugene V. Debs from 1900 to 1920; the industrial union movement of  the 1930s which built the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and support for the New Deal legislation that provided some measure of economic security to many workers; to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and beyond.

Sanders has proceeded to excoriate finance capital and to link the enormous accumulation of wealth and income at one pole of American society and the maintenance and growth of the misery of the masses on the other. He has advanced his narrative by linking class, to race, to gender issues, and has begun to incorporate the apocalyptic possibilities of a future without addressing climate change. In a word, he has articulated a program that the CCDS program defined as the vision of “the progressive majority.”

The vision of a progressive majority is one that emphasizes the systematic articulation of the causes of human misery and what needs to be done to overcome them and the belief that the vision already exists among the majority of the American people. So far, the popularity of the Sanders campaign, the particular enthusiasm it is generating at the grassroots, including from youth, labor, feminist, anti-racist, and environmental organizations, and the demographics reflected in the Iowa caucus turnout and polling data, suggest that activists from the three tendencies identified above should direct their energies to supporting the Sanders presidential run. Most importantly, the Sanders campaign has inspired the possibility of building a long-standing progressive movement that will survive and grow until the November, 2016 election and beyond.