Three Questions for Socialists


What is the objective of the economic reforms advocated by the Obama administration? What measure of progress has there been, or can be expected, from the proposed reforms for the security and advancement of working peoples economic interests? How do the goals of socialists and communists differ from Obama, and how are they the same?

To answer the first question, Larry Summers speaks for the administration: 'Let me be absolutely clear at the outset about two aspects of President Obama’s approach about which he has been particularly consistent and firm since the crisis began while he was campaigning for president:

* The first is an unequivocal recognition that we only act when necessary to avert unacceptable – and in some cases dire – outcomes. Barack Obama ran for president to restore America’s role in the world, reform our health care system, achieve energy independence, and prepare our children for a 21st century economy... He did not run for president to manage banks, insurance companies, or car manufacturers. The actions we take are those of necessity, not choice.

* The second point on which the President has been unambiguous is that any intervention go with, rather than against, the grain of the market system. Our objective is not to supplant or replace markets. Rather, the objective is to save them from their own excesses and improve our market-based system going forward.' The most refreshing part of Summers' statement is the straightforward confession of conflict between goals, and necessity. The bias towards market solutions sits nakedly alongside the stark reality of serious market failures in critical sectors of the economic regime of the past 70 years: health care, financial services, auto, infrastructure, education, climate change preparation and energy. The difficult challenges before the American people all mandate a sharp turn from the status quo. And that turn simply cannot avoid a substantial expansion of long-term public intervention commensurate with the scale of market failures. Even without the stubborn and unrelenting resistance of finance capital, the insurance and pharma industries, the bondholders of the auto industry, the oil and power industries and other sundry so-called free market 'fundamentalists' these challenges would be daunting. But working people and progressive forces, including important forces aligned with the Obama administration MUST mobilize sufficient, indeed overwhelming, pressure to defeat the resistance, pass the reforms, enforce them, and – most important of all – insure that they redress the massive losses in income and security that have been suffered in the past 30 years. The right calls this creeping socialism. They are correct – that's exactly what the minimum necessary social democratic reforms are, and there is no point in concealing it. However, contrary to the alarmist hysterics of the ultra right, incremental steps in a socialist direction do NOT mean the end of capitalism. Far from it – universal not-for-profit health care, a green national energy and infrastructure policy, financial reform, very large investments in education and training will generate a new birth of capitalism in many areas of the economy. Innovation is vital to growth and human progress. Healthy, competitive markets play a critical role enabling science and technology to raise human productivity. In addition, with rising culture, human needs and wants – reflected in the DEMAND side of the economy – rise dramatically.

Soon almost all industry will be 'high-tech' industry, just as every science is now also part computer science. But insuring that the fruits of science and technology really meet human needs and advancement must be tested repeatedly in the furnace of actual economic demand. Markets are the only tools known for performing this task more or less spontaneously on a massive scale – and it is critical that they thrive. Markets are human institutions that will persist as long as there are commodities and a division of labor in society. They are not products of natural law. They can and must be managed to serve human ends. Relieved of the crushing burdens of private health care, able to draw on a more skilled and educated labor force, provided with customers who have rising incomes and needs, given access to stable credit markets – corporations and entrepreneurs will find a new boom in economic activity once the bankrupt vultures and dinosaurs of the last century are give a proper burial. There are some – thankfully a declining number – on the left who have long been infected with a caricature of socialism, and capitalism. They see capitalism as a fixed and unchanging system where efforts at reform are inherently futile – forward progress will inevitably be crushed, impoverishment is ultimately absolute, and only a 'revolutionary' transformation is capable of liberating working people from exploitation.

Likewise socialism is pictured in no less idealized terms with virtually no connection to day to day struggles other than an opportunity to 'expose' the 'fraud' of reforms. For most of the past century working people in advanced capitalist countries have been ill-served by these tendencies, and in fact largely ignored them with the result that many are seriously marginalized. Despite the romanticized affections some in the marginalized left express for revolutionary movements against colonial and neo-colonial domination in the developing world, these movements, even when compelled to resort to arms in the absence of even minimal democratic rights, have actually been in the lead shunning dogma and devising radical innovations in mixed economic development. These efforts have produced unprecedented growth rates and been the primary cause of the reduction in world poverty rates in the past half-century. The popular processes playing out now highlight the innovation with which masses of people in the US as well are relearning, renewing and updating the principles of socialist and social-democratic economics and politics. The aggressively anti-communist, anti-government, anti-regulation coalitions of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Thatcher, Bush and Bush have brought the international economy into a deep crisis. Some see this crisis 'bottoming out' soon, but few, if any, see a path to actual recovery that markets alone, or even in the main, can find. While literally millions are giving 'socialism' a new look, and are dumping free market fundamentalism in the garbage bin of history, this does not mean they are turning to failed models of socialism – such as the Stalin and Mao periods. Thus many are instead quickly discarding many of the terms of the past centuries' debates on socialism and communism vs capitalism as futile – both the hysterical anti-communism of the 1950's, 1960's, 1970's and 1980's, as well as dogmatic and unscientific tendencies within the Left.

The second question

When comparing the stated market-oriented goals of the Obama administration AND its plain admission of the necessity of large scale public interventions no doctrine or received wisdom is needed to reveal the gigantic contradiction of interests between classes in US politics. And the comparison clearly identifies the main tasks facing the working class, and the left of the United States: 1. Rapidly expand the power base of democratic upsurge needed to defeat right-wing, corporate efforts to block structural reform. 2. Consolidate the US progressive working class and social democratic forces behind the minimum program needed for recovering working class incomes, promoting peace, economic justice, security and stable growth. One only has to inspect the compromises being discussed in negotiations between Obama and various congressional forces on each major programmatic front to appreciate the absolutely vital importance of these tasks. The defeat of the mortgage reform bill sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, – the only relief to homeowners so far proposed in Congress – demonstrated the power of the resistance. They would not even meet with Durbin, who concluded, 'They (financial sector lobbyists) own the place!' The subversion of any serious consideration of the single-payer solution to the health care crisis by insurance and pharmaceutical corporate forces, and their current contest – 'we can't afford it' – against ANY public option, re-affirms this threat, in the face of overwhelming working class support. The postponement of any cap and trade benefit to the environment for changing to renewable energy solutions for several years – another demonstration. The chorus of 'socialism! socialism!' denunciations of Obama's assumption of ownership in GM and Chrysler, and the somewhat pathetic performance of the UAW leadership in the Auto crisis – both profoundly threaten the possibility of setting a new and healthy foundation for a domestic manufacturing resurgence. The downgrading of the priority in passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) shows that the big business and right-wing hatred and fear of worker self organization has already pressured the administration and Congress to consider disarming itself. Yet the ability of workers to organize and take control of their own fate is most powerful reform weapon in changing the direction of our nation toward rising incomes and wealth for working people. The President's financial regulatory reform was greeted by lukewarm support on the left, but the spokesmen of finance capital have made no secret of their determination to kill it – accurately describing it as the biggest intrusion of federal regulation in financial capital markets in 70 years. It too faces an uncertain path in Congress. The financial crisis, the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies, health care, and energy policy all reveal the clear and sharpest points of contest in the class politics of this era. They are the test of whether the next five years will send us forward to enlightenment and progress, or failing victory, put us at risk of social chaos, and its result – strife that could make Iran's conflicts look pacific. In sum, these threats answer the second question: the Obama program is an opportunity for great progress. There have been some small but not insignificant victories – but the key tests of progress are still in doubt. Their fate rests in our hands. Lastly, in his Cairo speech, to the whole world, Barack Obama took the first, genuine steps backward from imperialist ideology, and the first genuine embrace of the principles of conflict resolution and non-violence in 100 years of our national history. It is impossible to underestimate the impact of this act for the peace of the world. Yet he, and we, have many enemies on this path. He is President. We are soldiers – or not – and only we can make the laying down of arms a reality.

The third question

Karl Marx answered this question in words that ring true through 160 years: In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement. The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole. In short there is NO distinction between the interests of socialists and communists of every persuasion, and the progressive, internationalist social democratic demands that also reflect the majority sentiments and interests of working people, in this era, in this time, in these next few years in the United States of America. We must embrace the best of Barack Obama's vision as our own, and hold him in the light of necessity and bar the forces of darkness from him with the multitudes.