Monday, August 20, 2007

All is Not Lost, Alexander

Alexander Cockburn's piece in New Left Review this month brings a necessary combination of sobriety and radicalism into the current Leftist discourse in America. The two qualities are found often enough separately. Witness the Nation's consistent sobriety regarding the chances for significant political change in America. Of course, from this they draw the conclusion that because radical change isn't immediately around the corner, we should content ourselves with whatever craven lip service the Democrats are willing to pay us. Over on the other side, we can see the radicalism of people desperately want the war to end, and think that our action can bring that end about by Christmas. This position vastly underestimates the stakes the US ruling class holds in Iraq.

Cockburn's piece then, strikes a nice balance by both realizing the immense task that opposing imperialism actually is, yet still holding that task as the political necessity facing the Left today. Because of this, it is surely to be welcomed. However, I think the piece holds an overly gloomy tone regarding the current state of struggle in America. More to the point, I think Cockburn vastly underestimates the vitality of working class struggle, and its importance to the antiwar movement.

A look through the labor reportage of Socialist Worker over the past few months gives an idea. Waste Management workers defeat a Fortune 500 company by using inter-union solidarity. Harvard guards win a pay increase. Teachers in Hayward, California forced concessions from the school board. Nonunion workers in Chicago beat back an immigration status based attack. Lastly, there's the movement among undocumented workers which gave us the largest citywide strikes in American history.

Cockburn rightly points out that the war has been absent from the agendas of most of these struggles (though the two aren't hermetically sealed. Witness the VA organizing going on in Washington). However, I think he misses the point. First, this kind of class struggle hasn't been seen in nearly twenty years. Ever since the employers' offensive of the late 70s, workers' confidence has been desperately low. The last few months provide evidence that this is finally beginning to change. This shift alone is reason to be cheerful in the present moment.

But what this shift portends for the future is even more exciting. Successful movements give people the confidence to fight back in other areas, as well as providing a base of experienced activists who can help movements avoid reinventing the wheel. For example, the labor movement of the thirties and forties provided the base of activists and confidence from which antiracists launched an assault on Jim Crow (that this assault was defeated by McCarthyism does not take away from its significance). Similarly, the Civil Rights Movement proper provided the training ground for the first cadres of the anti-war movement. Mario Savio was part of Freedom Summer, Tom Hayden was a Freedom Rider. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement was kicked off when a former grad student at a CORE table refused to show ID to the cops. In its later stages, the Black freedom movement became a major obstacle to the persecution of the war in Vietnam, as the army attests to in its 1970 "Constraints of the Negro Civil Rights Movement on American Military Effectiveness." The Freedom movement also boosted labor, as Larry Isaac and Lars Christiansen argue in "How the Civil Rights Movement Revitalized Labor Militancy." The antiwar movement, in turn, helped to start both the Women's and Gay liberation movements.

I realize that, in relation to where we are right now, this is little more than speculation. No one knows if a revitalized labor movement will translate into a vibrant new antiwar movement. And this little history lesson is undoubtedly of little comfort to folks like Cindy Sheehan, who have spent the last few years devoting everything they have to ending the war and having precious little to show for it. What it does show, I think, is that we are not in the nadir of activism. This is not 2004. The stirrings of the labor movement are an indicator of the opportunities radicals are going to have in the coming years. What we do with those opportunities is up to us.