Sunday, April 27, 2008

Into the Abyss?

Many of the people in the liberal and radical left have been drawn into the Obama campaign. An April 21, 2008 commentary by Norman Solomon is emblematic of this.

Solomon is the founder of the excellent group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). I benefit greatly from its work and recommend it highly to you.

I strongly disagree, however, with Solomon’s approach to the election – reproduced below. In essence, while Solomon speaks approvingly of the power of mass movements, citing the superlative work of historian Howard Zinn in the process, Solomon misconstrues Zinn’s argument and turns upside down the relationship between mass movements and liberal Democratic candidates.

This is a momentously important question. The stakes involved are exceedingly high.

My extended comments are interspersed in bold face and in brackets within Solomon’s essay.

Published on Monday, April 21, 2008 by
Party Like It’s 1932: The Obama Option
by Norman Solomon

Seventy-six years ago, to many ears on the left, Franklin D. Roosevelt sounded way too much like a centrist. True, he was eloquent, and he’d generated enthusiasm in a Democratic base eager to evict Republicans from the White House. But his campaign was moderate — with policy proposals that didn’t indicate he would try to take the country in bold new directions if he won the presidency.

Yet FDR’s triumph in 1932 opened the door for progressives. After several years of hitting the Hoover administration’s immovable walls, the organizing capacities of labor and other downtrodden constituencies could have major impacts on policy decisions in Washington.

[FDR’s election didn’t open the door for progressives. The Great Depression and the crisis of capital in the U.S. and in the world as a whole comprised the objective conditions within which two factors operated. First, there was the left’s work and leadership. Calling the communists and socialists of the day “progressives,” by the way, is a bit like calling lions “domestic cats.” It’s inconsistent with the historical record and with the critical role played by revolutionaries and radicals of the time (including, in particular, the presence of the then socialist country - the USSR).

Second, the crisis of capital and the revolutionary/radical response created the conditions that compelled FDR to adopt the New Deal. Not only was he forced to respond to the crisis, he was specifically forced to respond to the mass actions and revolutionary challenge from below and an international situation in which capitalism and socialism were in contention.

FDR himself said that he adopted New Deal policies, much to the consternation of many of the wealthy of his time, because the fate of capitalism itself was in the balance. “I wish that capitalists would see that what I am advocating is … really in the interest of property, for it will save it from revolution.” (The American presidency by Alan Brinkley, Davis Dyer, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994 at p. 277).

The “danger of revolution” that FDR was responding to didn’t - and doesn’t - arise spontaneously from a crisis of capital. Revolutionary demands, in other words, don’t exist separate and apart from real, living, human beings. A crisis creates the raw material for revolutionary demands to spread to millions, but the possibility of revolution only comes forth when - and if - radical and revolutionary leaders call for it and organize for it.

NS’s analysis here makes it seem as if the actions of the labor movement and that of socialists and communists were useless under Hoover – those “immovable walls” – but that with FDR in office, they now had a welcome ear. The election of FDR, in other words, was the key, opening the door for the mass movements of the day. This is the equivalent of saying that someone’s nose punched someone else’s fist.]

Today, segments of the corporate media have teamed up with the Clinton campaign to attack Barack Obama. Many of the rhetorical weapons used against him in recent weeks — from invocations of religious faith and guns to flag-pin lapels — may as well have been ripped from a Karl Rove playbook. The key subtexts have included racial stereotyping and hostility to a populist upsurge.

Do we have a major stake in this fight? Does it really matter whether Hillary Clinton or Obama wins the Democratic nomination? Is it very important to prevent John McCain from moving into the White House?

The answers that make sense to me are yes, yes and yes.

[Candidates will forever fool the people if the people are unable to see beneath rhetorical and tactical stances that are aimed at distinguishing politicians from the other candidates in the field and appealing to different segments of public opinion. Is Obama the most left-sounding candidate of those remaining? Yes. Does this mean anything? No.

The best indicator of what someone is going to do is not what they say that they’ll do, but what they have actually done. Obama’s been a U.S. Senator for several years. During that time he has had the power and obligation to decide on issues such as the fact that the White House had been illegally spying on all Americans since February 2001, the funding of the illegal and immoral war on Iraq, taking a position on the threats by the Bush White House to militarily attack Iran, and stopping torture as policy by the White House. On April 11, 2008 Bush admitted to ABC News that he approved of torture. Obama’s response?

“[O]ne of the things we've got to figure out in our political culture generally is distinguishing between really dumb policies and policies that rise to the level of criminal activity. You know, I often get questions about impeachment at town hall meetings and I've said that is not something I think would be fruitful to pursue because I think that impeachment is something that should be reserved for exceptional circumstances. “

In other words: deflection. Bush has just confessed! Bush and Cheney should be hauled immediately before the Hague for crimes against humanity. What more “exceptional circumstances” can one find than this and all of the other monstrous things this White House has been caught red-handed doing? Obama should have been – and should be - calling for impeachment, trials, and immediate resignations.

And what has Obama said about Iran and Pakistan?

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) told "the Chicago Tribune on September 26, 2004, '[T]he big question is going to be, if Iran is resistant to these pressures [to stop its nuclear program], including economic sanctions, which I hope will be imposed if they do not cooperate, at what point ... if any, are we going to take military action?' "He added, '[L]aunching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in' given the ongoing war in Iraq. 'On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse.' Obama went on to argue that military strikes on Pakistan should not be ruled out if 'violent Islamic extremists' were to 'take over'," Joshua Frank wrote January 22, 2005, for[1] (From

What has Obama said about the Military Commissions Act of 2006 which legalized torture (!) and abrogated habeas corpus rights for anyone designated by the President as an “enemy combatant?”

“The problem with this bill is not that it's too tough on terrorists. The problem with this bill is that it's sloppy.” (Obama’s statement for the record in the Senate, 9/28/06,)

Translated: it’s not a bad bill because it legalizes torture or indefinite detention. That’s not what’s wrong with it. Rather than contest the underlying and monstrous logic of the bill that says that it’s ok to torture and kill people in the name of protecting America and Americans, Obama embraces the immoral logic and claims that what wrong is that the MCA goes about it sloppily. But what’s wrong with torture isn’t that it’s sloppy. What’s wrong with torture is that it’s barbaric, inhumane, and if that weren’t enough, intensely counter-productive.

Obama voted against the MCA, but what he should have done is condemned it and filibustered it. He could have stopped it. He demurred.

What a sad day it would be when “progressives” are willing to accept this sorry excuse for a standard bearer who will not call out torturers and tyrants and refuses to use his political clout as a U.S. Senator to stop these horrid acts of the Bush White House.

What a sad day for the movement when it trades its power to mobilize the citizenry in the millions, acting as an autonomous political force, for the guile, sleight of hand, empty promises and cynical ploys of politicians.

What a sad day for the country when the roaring, irrepressible power of the masses is traded for a (hackable) punch card on Election Day.]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In 1932, there were scant signs that Franklin Delano Roosevelt might become a progressive president. By the summer of that election year, when he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, his “only left-wing statements had been exceedingly vague,” according to FDR biographer Frank Freidel.

Just weeks before the 1932 general election, Roosevelt laid out a plan for mandated state unemployment insurance nationwide along with social welfare. Even then, he insisted on remaining what we now call a fiscal conservative. “Obviously he had not faced up to the magnitude of expenditure that his program would involve,” Freidel recounts. “Obviously too, he had not in the slightest accepted the views of those who felt that the way out of the Depression was large-scale public spending and deficit financing.”

Six days later, on October 19, FDR delivered a speech in Pittsburgh that blasted the federal budget for its “reckless and extravagant” spending. He pledged “to reduce the cost of current federal government operations by 25 percent.” And he proclaimed: “I regard reduction in federal spending as one of the most important issues of this campaign.” If he’d stuck to such positions, the New Deal would never have happened.

As the fall campaign came to a close, the Nation magazine lamented that “neither of the two great parties, in the midst of the worst depression in our history, has had the intelligence or courage to propose a single fundamental measure that might conceivably put us on the road to recovery.” Looking back on the 1932 campaign, Freidel was to comment: “Indeed, in many respects, for all the clash and clamor, Roosevelt and President Hoover had not differed greatly from each other.”

The Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas, running for president again that year, had a strong basis for his critique of both major-party candidates in 1932. But in later elections, when Thomas ran yet again, many former supporters found enough to admire in FDR’s presidency to switch over and support the incumbent for re-election.

“The Roosevelt reforms went far beyond previous legislation,” historian Howard Zinn has written. Those reforms were not only a response to a crisis in the system. They also met a need “to head off the alarming growth of spontaneous rebellion in the early years of the Roosevelt administration — organization of tenants and the unemployed, movements of self-help, general strikes in several cities.”

Major progressive successes under the New Deal happened in sync with stellar achievements in grassroots organizing. So, in Zinn’s words, “Where organized labor was strong, Roosevelt moved to make some concessions to working people.” The New Deal was not all it could have been, no doubt, but to a large extent it was a stupendous result of historic synergies — made possible by massive pressure from the grassroots and a president often willing to respond in the affirmative.

[Before his election, as NS points out, FDR wasn’t advocating reforms. NS cites Zinn, but misses Zinn’s key thesis: that FDR’s actions were a direct product of the mass movements and capital’s crisis.]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Support of a candidate does not — or at least should not — mean silence about disagreement. There shouldn’t be any abatement of advocacy for progressive positions, whether opposition to nuclear power plants, insistence on complete withdrawal of the U.S. military and mercenaries from Iraq, or activism for a universal single-payer healthcare system.

For good reasons, Obama doesn’t say “I am the one we’ve been waiting for.” He says in speech after speech: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Whether that ends up being largely rhetoric or profoundly real depends not on him nearly so much as on us.

[The slogan “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” was appropriated by Obama’s campaign from the movement. Obama’s campaign is designed to project an image of collective action when in fact he is telling us that voting for him and accepting his promises constitute actual collective action.

Note what Samantha Power, former advisor to Obama, told BBC in early April 2008:

“Candidates have a tradition of revisiting campaign promises once they are in office, and security officials and analysts close to the Pentagon say it is easy to see Obama or Clinton ordering a review of Iraq policy and then leaving troops there.
In fact, one of Obama's former policy advisers, Samantha Power, said Obama would weigh security conditions in Iraq in implementing a withdrawal.

She told a BBC interviewer Obama ‘will of course not rely upon some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate or U.S. senator,’ and he would take into account the advice of generals on the ground.”

A mass movement that acts as an independent political force on the scene is true collective action. Anything else is illusion.]

A crucial task between now and November is to get Obama elected as president while shifting the congressional mix toward a progressive majority. Next year will bring the imperative of organizing to exert powerful pressure from the base for progressive change.

[Excellent advice! Getting a Democratic majority into Congress in 2006 sure worked marvels, didn’t it? Why, they stopped funding the war, told Bush and Cheney in no uncertain terms to not attack Iran, halted the NSA’s illegal spying on all Americans, shut down GITMO and Abu Ghraib, ended rendition, stopped torture and proceeded to impeach and convict Bush and Cheney for crimes against humanity and as war criminals. Opps! Sorry. That was just a dream.]

At a recent caucus in California’s 6th congressional district, I was elected as an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention. It’s clear to me that Obama is now the best choice among those with a chance to become the next president.

Barack Obama has the potential to become as great a president as Franklin Roosevelt — while social and political movements in the United States have the potential to become as great as those that made the New Deal possible. I seriously doubt that Hillary Clinton has such potential. And John McCain offers only more of the kind of horrific presidency that the world has endured for the last 87 months.

“War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,” the documentary film based on Norman Solomon’s book of the same name, has been released on home video. For information, go to:

[From Howard Zinn’s March 2008 essay, “Election Madness:”

“The Roosevelt Administration, coming into office, faced a nation in turmoil. The last year of the Hoover Administration had experienced the rebellion of the Bonus Army—thousands of veterans of the First World War descending on Washington to demand help from Congress as their families were going hungry. There were disturbances of the unemployed in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York, Seattle.

“In 1934, early in the Roosevelt Presidency, strikes broke out all over the country, including a general strike in Minneapolis, a general strike in San Francisco, hundreds of thousands on strike in the textile mills of the South. Unemployed councils formed all over the country. Desperate people were taking action on their own, defying the police to put back the furniture of evicted tenants, and creating self-help organizations with hundreds of thousands of members.

“Without a national crisis—economic destitution and rebellion—it is not likely the Roosevelt Administration would have instituted the bold reforms that it did.”

Who, then, is the horse and who is the cart?

The Vietnam War ended under a Republican President. The war began under a Democratic President, JFK. Nixon was forced to withdraw from Vietnam by the combined power of the Vietnamese people’s resistance, the anti-war movement at home (and abroad) and the fact that US troops were increasingly refusing orders. The war, in other words, ended despite the politics of the sitting American president.

In the last three elections, people have been told by well-meaning (and not well-meaning) individuals that the fate of the nation depended upon defeating the Republican candidate.

The GOP candidates in 2000, 2004 and 2006 were beaten, yet Bush and Cheney took office anyway.

The same hackable electronic machines that gave them that “victory” have not been fixed; the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2007 decided that they would not do anything about these machines until at least 2010.

Should Bush and Cheney launch a war on Iran before they leave office - something they have been obviously gearing up to do both by positioning the military near Iran and creating the justifications for an attack - and should another 9/11 attack on the US occur in conjunction with this (whether real or staged), what would happen to the energy and hopes that people have put into the presidential campaign?

What stand would Obama, Clinton and McCain take in the case of another terrorist attack upon the US?

We all know the answer to that question. It’s staring us in the face, like Anton Chigurh (the amoral assassin) from “No Country for Old Men,” asking us to hold still.

The presidential candidates have all signed onto Bush and Cheney’s war on terror, Obama nibbling away at the edges of it, but not challenging the underlying, fundamental logic or its inherent immorality.

Indeed, he and the others have adopted the same perspective: American Empire good, opponents of the Empire, bad. Anything done to defend and advance that Empire is justifiable.

If an attack on Iran and/or another 9/11 should occur, would this not be exactly what Bush and Cheney need to advance their vicious agenda? Why would they refrain? All they have to do in order to succeed and get what they have always wanted, unfettered powers, is to fail once again to prevent a terrorist attack.

What would you do, if you were in their position and shared their worldview?

The only realistic response to all of this is for the American people to mobilize themselves, to speak out, and to call on everyone they know to take a public stand against torture, tyranny and unjust wars. The American people must speak as an independent political force.

We must embark on an entirely different path than the one being taken by our government and by all of the pretenders to the throne who are calling on us to follow them into the abyss.

Declare it now. Spread the Resistance. Wear Orange Daily.]

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