A revolution of, by, and for the people
A patriotic, anti-colonial reframing of the discourse of the US Left
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Left in the USA was a voice in defense of the just causes, a voice against racism, poverty, and war. It was spearheaded by youth, who belonged to a generation that had learned, through the insightful critiques of the civil rights, black power, and anti-war movements, that the United States of America was far from being the democratic society that it claimed to be. The white youth of the late 1960s had experienced childhood during the period of the golden age of capitalism and the zenith of U.S. hegemony. Experiencing in their daily lives the economic benefits that pertained to the nation at that historic moment, they had fully internalized the American claim to and promise of democracy. Insightful critiques of the historic omissions and hypocrisies of the American claim, the truthfulness of which could not be reasonably denied, shocked and angered white middle class youth, who became active in the student anti-war movement, often forming strategic alliances with radical organizations of black youth.
But since that time, the U.S. Left, black and white, has lost its way. The road to confusion and division during the last fifty years has been shaped by various factors and missteps.
First, the movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s was too driven by theatrics and not enough driven by serious intellectual work, through which the limitations and errors of the movement could have been effectively analyzed and rectified, providing the foundation for a sustained mass movement with leaders capable of explaining the structural sources of various injustices and offering solutions to the people.
Sensing the movement’s loss of direction and its incapacity to delegitimate the national political turn to the Right, Jesse Jackson in the 1980s offered a presidential candidacy based on a refounding of the Left on the basis of a “Rainbow Coalition.” It proposed the attainment of political power by the people through an alliance of all non-elite sectors among the people, based on a domestic program of the protection of the social and economic rights of all citizens, and a reorientation of U.S. foreign policy from East-West confrontation toward North-South cooperation. Constituting a social movement within an establishment political party, the movement leaders identified the necessary next step as the development of the Rainbow Coalition as a mass organization with chapters across the nation. But the Rainbow Coalition lacked the capacity to develop itself into a mass organization, and Jackson retreated, becoming an elite member of the well-paid speaker’s circuit.
Meanwhile, the Left was falling into fragmentation along the lines of different social justice issues, and it was given to exaggerated claims. Not capable of providing a structural analysis of social justice issues and offering a comprehensive plan for reform connected to the anxieties and hopes of the people, the Left became a politically weak caricature of itself.
The pathetic character of the Left was consolidated by the identity politics of the 1990s, which cast some favored sectors of the people as victims of a pervasive oppression and exploitation based in their identity; and it cast other sectors of the people as somehow complicit in the oppression. In the turn to identity politics, the Left ceased to promote social justice causes; it becomes instead a promoter of divisions among the people, thereby ensuring that the political power of the elite will not be effectively challenged by a united people’s movement that seeks to take political power in the name of the people.
The financial crisis of 2008 exposed the dependency of the nation’s economy on financial speculation, a process that had been unfolding since the neoliberal turn of 1980s. The tendency toward financial speculation was driven by an orientation toward maximizing short-term profits, which weakened investment in national production, and thus weakened the capacity of the nation to compete in the world-economy. The self-destruction tendency toward financial speculation was exposed when financial bubbles burst.
The people responded with an anger that perhaps had not been seen since the Vietnam War. They took to the parks across the nation, not only to protest, but also to “occupy.” The Occupy Movement put forth the slogan of the “99% against the 1%,” and in a flash, identity politics was rendered superfluous, as blacks, Latinos and whites, as well as men and women, where now united in a common struggle of the people against the 1%.
But the notion of the 99% was soon cast aside by Critical Race Theory, which resurrected racial division among the people by: abstracting slavery and segregation from the global historic processes of colonialism and forced labor; ignoring significant changes in racial laws, customs, and attitudes in the USA following the civil rights reforms of 1964 and 1965; manipulating statistics with the ideological intention of exaggerating racial disparities today; and decreeing actual racial disparities to be caused by white racism, ignoring various historic, social, and cultural factors. In recent years, this historically and scientifically inaccurate portrayal of race in America today has been aggressively endorsed by major corporations, creating profound ideological and cultural divisions among the people. The 1% surely must feel less threatened.
The example of Fidel
When Fidel Castro issued a call to revolution in 1953, he did not convoke “workers,” “workers and peasants,” or “workers and oppressed peoples.” He convoked “the people,” by which, he explained, he meant “the vast unredeemed masses, to whom all make promises and who are deceived and betrayed by all; who yearn for a better, more dignified and more just nation; who are moved by ancestral aspirations of justice, having suffered injustice and mockery generation after generation; and who long for significant and sound transformations in all aspects of life.” He called each sector of the people by name: agricultural workers who live in miserable shacks; industrial workers without adequate salary, pension, or housing; tenant farmers working on land that is not theirs; poorly paid teachers and professors; small businessmen weighed down by debt and plagued by graft imposed by corrupt public officials; young professionals in health, education, engineering, law, and journalism, who find that their recently attained degrees do not enable them to find work; and the unemployed.
Fidel convoked the people to revolution in the context of the neocolonial situation of Cuba in the 1950s, in which middle class and educated professionals and students, and not only superexploited industrial and agricultural workers, had an interest in a revolutionary transformation of the nation through the taking of political power by delegates of the people. He called all the sectors of the people to revolution, and he was right to do so, for not only did not revolution attain the necessary unity for the taking of political power, but in addition, members of the professional and educated classes would make important and heroic contributions to the revolutionary project during the subsequent decades.
Today the neocolonial world-system is in sustained structural crisis, and the United States is in decadent commercial decline and ideological division. In these conditions, do not middle-class professionals have an interest in a revolution by, of, and for the people? Do they not have an interest in a politically stable world characterized by ecologically and economically sustainable growth? Do they not have an interest in a peaceful and prosperous world? Do they not have an interest in a nation that can attain political consensus with respect to national goals? Do they not have an objective interest in a people’s revolution? Do not we intellectuals of the Left have a duty to explain it to them?
We of the Left must leave behind the rhetoric of “workers and oppressed people.” We must call all sectors of the 99% to a people’s revolution.
An anti-colonial discourse
In calling the people to revolution, we need to focus on patient and thorough explanation, facilitated by new structures of the people’s education that we invent in the course of struggle. This was the approach the American revolutionaries, who wrote and disseminated numerous pamphlets. And it was the approach of great revolutionary leaders like Lenin, Mao, and Fidel.
A solid understanding of the political and economic issues is the basis for deep commitment. It is the most powerful weapon against the ideological distortions and disinformation manufactured and disseminated by the elite.
In seeking to educate the people, we have to develop the capacity to focus on the fundamental sources and causes, and not the symptoms. Accordingly, we have to above all understand and explain the colonial foundations of the today’s world. When we understand the colonial foundation of the world-system, we are able to understand the sources of global inequalities and the essential logic of the anti-imperialist movements of the peoples of the world. Understanding the colonial foundation of the world is the key to understanding the logic of imperialism as a decadent logic, pointing toward the necessary road of cooperation and mutually beneficial trade among nations.
In addition, the colonial framework enables us to understand the ascent of the United States as well as the reasons why U.S. hegemony is no longer sustainable. And it enables us to discern that the power elite and the political establishment of the USA, not seeing the unsustainability of U.S. hegemony, have irresponsibly led the nation to economic and political decadence.
When we understand the colonial foundations of the world, we see that the anti-racist ideology misses the mark. And it violates a fundamental principle that the great revolutionary leaders stressed, the necessary unity of the people. To be sure, we have particular concerns as women or members of racial groups or nationalities; but attention to these issues must occur in the breast of the revolution of the entire people, with which all revolutionaries identify.
. . . but a patriotic discourse
U.S. citizens of the Right often call themselves patriots and invoke patriotic symbols. And one of the reasons for this is the feeling that progressives and leftists are not patriotic, and conservatives reject this lack of affection for and commitment to the nation.
Anyone who studies great revolutionary leaders like Ho Chi Minh and Fidel cannot overlook the fact that they were great patriots. Ho once called himself Nguyen the Patriot, and when Fidel launched the revolutionary struggle, he quoted from the Cuban national anthem. Although he condemned the structures of the neocolonial republic and the policies of governments that defended elite interests, Fidel nonetheless identified with the historic struggles of the people during Spanish colonialism and the neocolonial republic. He did not judge the discourse and strategies of historic leaders of the people’s struggle by the standards of his own time; he focused on their positive contributions to the abolition of slavery and the sovereignty of the nation.
If we were to follow the example of Fidel in the context of the USA today, we would not dismiss the American Revolution of the 1770s for its tolerance of slavery and racial discrimination. We would focus on the fundamental achievement of the American Revolution as the first revolution that attained political power on the basis of a proclamation of equality and liberty for all. It is an achievement that today is recognized throughout the world. Ho and Fidel, for example, quoted from the American Declaration of Independence at important historic moments in their revolutionary struggles.
Most of us in the USA today are not the biological descendants of the generation of the American Revolution, inasmuch as most of us are the descendants of post-1789 immigrants and/or slaves. But as citizens of the Republic that the revolutionary generation established, we are their spiritual sons and daughters, and as such, we ought to have the moral and intellectual capacity to see what the peoples of the world see, namely, the important place of the American Revolution in the democratic revolutions of the modern era.
If were to follow the example of Fidel, we would develop critiques of U.S. foreign policy as a patriotic discourse. We would declare U.S. imperialist foreign policy to be a violation of the values proclaimed by the American Revolution, basing our claims on the interpretations of the American Revolution by the historic popular movements of the nation, including the African American movement of 1917 to 1988, the student anti-war movement of 1965 to 1974, the American Indian Movement of the late 1960s, and the nineteenth century movements of workers and farmers.
A patriotic discourse has to include appreciation and respect for the Constitution of the Republic. The Left ought to carefully and fully respect the balance of powers established by the Constitution. It should never seek to adopt policies on its agenda by demanding that the judicial or executive branches exceed the constitutionally defined limits of their authority. All of us should respect the Congress as that body directly elected by the people, however imperfect the electoral process, and therefore as the most important voice, the voice of the people. We should not try to circumvent the Congress when most of the representatives or senators do not share our political agenda. Our political agenda can only become real in a legitimate form: on the basis of a persuasive discourse that leads to majority consensual control of the Congress, through the enactment by the Congress of new laws, and by the passing of Constitutional Amendments.
The constitutional amendment was the historic road of the people of the United States in defense of its interests against the elite and the political establishment. If we do not have sufficient popular support for our cause to accomplish our agenda through constitutional and legislative means, we should focus on improving our discourse and our communication techniques, rather than adopting strategies that circumvent constitutionally established procedures, which were designed to ensure that no one voice could impose its will on the nation as a whole.
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