Max Elbaum

Strategy Debate at an Urgent Political Moment

Strategy Debate at an Urgent Political Moment
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Max Elbaum replies to comments and critiques in response to “Left Strategy After Charlottesville.”

I appreciate the thoughtful responses to my article “Left Strategy After Charlottesville” from Tobita Chow, Christine Riddiough, Sam Webb and Mel Rothenberg. The importance all give to formulating strategy matches the urgency of the political moment. I look forward to both ongoing dialogue and practical cooperation with Tobita, Sam, Mel and Christine as we go forward. In that spirit I offer a few brief remarks on each of their viewpoints.

Tobita Chow raises a number of important distinctions and insights in his critique. Both his making a distinction between white nationalism and economic nationalism and his stress on the unique features and rising danger of anti-Semitism add depth to our assessment of the far right and the danger it poses. His point that internationalism is not only an imperative for the resistance to Trumpism but also provides a strategic opportunity for organizing in today’s globalized economy is especially compelling.

Still, I am skeptical that economic nationalism can be separated from or replace white nationalism as a powerful right-wing rallying point in on-the-ground politics. Steve Bannon often does claim in various statements to be the first but not the second. But his practice both at Breitbart and while he was in the White House has completely intermingled the two and, in my estimate, relied mainly on appeals to white nationalism to galvanize his base. (See for instance this and this.) In a similar vein, I think an accurate read on the precise role anti-Semitism plays in the right’s arsenal requires a deeper conversation about the difference between the U.S. social formation (where the white-over-Black relationship has been central to national identity formation for 400 years) and Europe (where the type of anti-Semitism Tobita describes has comparably deep roots).

Those analytic hesitations expressed, I agree with the political punchline of his comment: the left needs to move internationalism and the fight against anti-Semitism higher up in our messaging and our organizing work.

Christine Riddiough’s point about the importance of a long-range view that goes beyond 2018 and 2020 and her linking that to the country’s demographic change and the fight for voting rights is well-taken. And I strongly agree with flagging the importance of the 2020 Census and subsequent re-districting for both the immediate and long-term future.

Less than two weeks ago, documents unsealed by a federal court revealed the full extent of Trump Election Commission Chair Kris Kobach’s plans for voter suppression. As reported here, Kobach’s playbook has three core elements: (1) disenfranchise new voters with severe registration restrictions; (2) amend the Voting Rights Act to allow election officials across the country impose any voter registration restriction they wish regardless of evidence (or the lack of it) of voter fraud or other abuse; and (3) cover your tracks. Steps in this direction are already standard operating procedure in states where the GOP holds power and Trump and company are eager to implement Kobach’s full program at the federal level. Stopping this move and regaining ground already lost on the voting rights front must be both short and long term imperatives for the fight against racism and the defense of democracy for all.

I also think the left would do well to further explore Christine’s suggestion that the fight for quality free public education through college may match the potential now on display in the surging “Medicare for All” battle. This is another area where there is a bridge linking a defensive battle already underway with a long-range progressive program, and one that can appeal to very broad constituencies.

Regarding Sam Webb’s criticism of my article, I think we have one crucial disagreement, but that his comments also mis-characterize what my article actually says. On the latter, Sam claims that “you recoil from your impressive strategic insights and end up endorsing, with some amendments, the main current tactical wisdom on the left — upping the ante regardless of circumstances.” I am not convinced that a blanket line of “upping the ante regarding of circumstances” is the position of most of the left as Sam asserts. But to the extent that position is out there, rather than reinforce it “After Charlottesville” critiques it: “the fight over message and which voters to prioritize will come down to specifics district-by-district and state-by-state. One-size-fits-all ideological formulas will not cut it.”

More important, though, is our difference of opinion. The thrust of Sam’s comment is that the main if not sole threat to the left working effectively to defeat Trump and the GOP in 2018 and 2020 is that it will be too aggressive in fighting more moderate/centrist/”establishment” Democrats. I agree that is one serious danger, but don’t think it is the only one. There are powerful forces within the Democratic Party who think Russian election meddling is the only reason Hilary lost in 2016 and that campaigns that echo her 2016 effort in terms of message, which voters to target, and methods of reaching voters (funding television ads vs. door-to-door/community contact) will provide the road to victory. I disagree and think that without a message that both inspires and prioritizes turning out the core sectors of the “Obama coalition” the GOP is unlikely to be defeated. Those kinds of campaigns are not going to happen automatically in 2018 or 2020, they will only happen if left and progressive forces fight for them. It is a caricature to paint a strategic and tactical policy based on recognition of this reality as “upping the ante everywhere.” Rather, it is an important consideration in formulating effective contest-by-contest tactics to defeat Trump and the GOP. In other words, yes, our accent has to be on unity, but if we return to unity around the approach of Campaign 2016, we are likely to lose once again.

Mel Rothenberg’s critique of my article comes from the opposite direction. It registers agreement on many key points: defeating Trump electorally is a prerequisite for building a powerful working class movement and radical left; Marxists need a “complex and nuanced” approach to the Democratic Party; a long term goal is building a united working class capable of challenging bourgeois hegemony. (My article put that last point this way: we have the “strategic task” of “building a base in the multiracial working class, reviving the labor movement, and constructing a unified, independent organizational vehicle on the basis of a progressive agenda.”)

But Mel’s critique also offers a number of warnings and exhortations: defeating Trump electorally will not end the danger of fascism; we must not forget that there are forces in the Democratic Party who are our class enemies; we must fight the illusion that serious change comes from electing better leaders rather than mass movements. It’s true that these points are not stressed in “After Charlottesville” as they are in Mel’s comment, though I believe all are present or implicit. The key question, though, is how would a shift in emphasis translate differently in terms of concrete strategy for 2018, 2020 and beyond. It seems Mel differs from my perspective on regarding how to maximize the chances of beating Trump and the GOP while simultaneously strengthening the working class movement. But it is unclear what different path is being proposed.

There are perspectives advanced within the U.S. left which argue that building a radical working class movement is not just a long range task but the central immediate priority; and that calls to defeat Trump electorally or support Democratic candidates are distractions from or obstacles to that task. That’s not Mel’s viewpoint. Rather, his push seems to be for a different mix of electoral and non-electoral action and some different electoral approach within the context of a defeat-Trump priority. Also hinted at in Mel’s downbeat assessment of all current socialist organizations is a felt need for a new and different Marxist organization-building effort. There may be ideas here worth exploring. But short of more specifics on those than was presented in this critique, I am skeptical that there is a path here that doesn’t in practice downplay the urgency of dealing Trump and the GOP a serious electoral defeat.

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Since all four of these replies to my “After Charlottesville” article were written, the landscape has shifted once again. The results of the November 7 election have provided a much-needed boost of confidence to all those on the left who take elections seriously. An array of candidates unprecedented in their demographic diversity, including many fired-up progressives and a number of socialists, won local and state elections and drove an unexpectedly large anti-GOP turnout. Also important to note when compiling a balance sheet: Trumpism was defeated in the Virginia governor’s race by a candidate running a more moderate, and sometimes backwards, campaign, even as the center of gravity of the Democratic Party overall is shifting leftwards. So debates about the most effective strategy going forward to both defeat the authoritarian racist right while building progressive clout and expanding the socialist left will continue, and deserve the attention we hope to have given it here at Organizing Upgrade.

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