Written by Paul Buhle
Tuesday, 26 February 2008
Whatever is written about the Democratic presidential nomination
before the concession of one candidate or another is likely to be
premature at best. Still, for those historically-minded, a great deal
of significance has already happened.
When Hillary Clinton, a few days ago, accused Barack Obama of leading
"a movement" and not "a campaign," she inadvertently identified the
most important phenomenon in mainstream American politics, and not
only liberal politics, in a generation. She could be accused of
partial inaccuracy because the movement, arguably, has pushed Obama
from campaign to something more, notwithstanding the capabilities of
his electoral machine.
We can rightly go back to 1936 for one precedent, because the
organizations of the Left, fresh from participation in city general
strikes, hardly to mention housing struggles and unemployed marches,
made a ninety degree turn. Not only Communists, of course, but
prominent socialist labor leaders and others who grasped that FDR was
reaching out and offering organizing space as well as a global tilt
against fascism (initially welcomed by the New York Times and
others). The influences were felt within the rising industrial union
movement and elsewhere. But the real effects would be within the next
few years, when the Left, as individuals and organized groups large
or small, played an enormous role in culture, labor and politics. The
US that entered the Second World War was a different place than the US in 1935.
We can rightly go back to the middle 1960s for another precedent. The
leadership of society emphatically including the organized labor
movement based in the warfare-welfare economy successfully resisted,
in the end, anything like a decisive shift in power. And yet: the
hopes and expectations of the Kennedy years, alongside the rising
civil rights movement and the emerging student movements, propelled
the sense of "movement" beyond anything that the professionals of the
Democratic party anticipated or wanted. Coming out of the 1960s, the
progressive and multiracial coalitions successfully taking local
elections during the 1970s, senate and congressional progressives,
few as these may have been, etc., all owe to the Movement model.
We drop further into the negative with the successful centralization
of power by the DLC, with its sources in Democrats for Nixon, the
Moynihan defeat of Bella Abzug, the rise of the Clintons and above
all the counterattacks against the Jesse Jackson campaign of 1988.
Here we find the story of the Superdelegates and their capacity for
mischief. And, in the months to come, those hawkish Democrats far
more eager to keep a potential peacenik out of power than to defeat
Republicans. Count on it.
Better that we rest our case, for the moment, on the positives. When
thousands of aging and aged African Americans in Chicago gather their
energies for Obama, when they are mirrored by thousands of mostly
white undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin, when prestigious
endorsements (useful though they are) seem pale compared to crowds
roaring for social change, then we have the basis of a Movement, the
phenomenon that, as Tom Hayden has said, individuals do not create
but history can create.
What can we do, as progressives of varying age and political
backgrounds, to bring a wider, more sustained social movement right
for our time into existence? I can't think of a more important question.
Paul Buhle, a Senior Lecturer at Brown University, was editor of the
SDS magazine RADICAL AMERICA, and is author or editor of many books
on the Left and popular culture.