“New Period? A Letter to the Editors

Against the Current, No. 12-13, January-April 1988

Steve Downs

THE “LETTER FROM the Editors” in ATC #11 argues that a new period may be opening in U.S. politics. While this may be true, the case you make is weak and the conclusion you reach regarding the tasks of socialists is puzzling. In my opinion, you overestimate both the importance of the Reagan Right’s ideological hegemony and the significance of the defeats it has suffered.

You use phrases such as “devastating blows” and “knockout blows” which may have been accurate in describing the Tyson-Holmes heavyweight title fight, but are not especially useful in describing what is taking place in U.S. politics. After all, while individuals, and maybe even the Reagan administration as a whole, have suffered devastating blows, the broad bi-partisan support (that you describe) “for the employer’s offensive, the huge step-up in military spending, intensified intervention in the Third Wdrld and the policies of welfare for the rich in the form of tax breaks while austerity for everyone else. .” will ensure that nothing of substance will change.

Whence then comes the possibility of “a new phase … that could offer significant openings for workers, movements of the oppressed and the left”? You seem to see it in the ideological defeat of the Reagan Right. This not only exaggerates the strength of right-wing ideology and the significance of its relative weakening in the ‘corridors of power,’ but also suggests that workers and the oppressed either accepted or were cowed by the ideology of the right. It would be more accurate to argue that they lacked an alternative strategy. The ascendancy of the Reaganite brand of right-wing ideology had at least as much to do with this lack of a viable alternative as it did with the attractiveness of Reagan’s actual program.

The commitment of all shades of capitalist political opinion to the economic and foreign policy goals of the Reagan administration, combined with the absence of a credible socialist alternative means that the ideological defeat of the Reagan right does not in and of itself create significant openings for the good guys.

This is not to say that things haven’t changed or that openings don’t exist. However, rather than seeking to explain these openings by the rise and fall of certain sets of politicians and their supporters, we should look at what’s been happening at the base of American politics. If we are entering a new phase, it’s because of the struggles at the base that are the fruit of a decade-plus of austerity policies, foreign intervention and social conservatism combined with the efforts of those activists who have helped to build and sustain mass anti-intervention sentiment, the movement for gay and lesbian rights, the rebirth of an anti-racist movement and a few shining examples of labor militance and solidarity.

Finally, your conclusion seems to be at odds with your central argument. After briefly describing the crisis of profitability, its implications for the policies that any capitalist government must follow and the consequences of those policies for the rest of us, you then state that the key task for the socialist left is to … fight for reforms. It won’t be easy, you say, but it can be done. If only we can build broad, powerful social movements we can win significant social reforms from capitalism. Somehow that seems inadequate. Especially in a period of economic crisis, when the irrationality of capitalism is becoming more and more apparent, isn’t the key task for socialists to fight for socialism, not for capitalism with a human face?

Of course we must participate in the social movements, organize in our communities and workplaces and fight for reforms. Mass support for socialist politics and organizations cannot be built by abstaining from these struggles. But, the fight for reforms must be seen as a part of the broader political and ideological struggle for socialism and not, in and of themselves, the central task for socialists. Unfortunately, this is far from dear in your letter.

Janueary-April 1988, ATC 12-13

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