Month in Review • January 2010

By Max Elbaum
January, 2010


by Max Elbaum

As antiwar and progressive activists take stock at the end of a dismal month, two speeches by leaders of U.S. social movements offer valuable food for thought. It is more than worth an evening's time to read and ponder the remarks of AFL-CIO head Rich Trumka at the National Press Club January 10, and the "Beyond Vietnam" address given by Dr. Martin Luther King during an earlier time of war and nationwide polarization. These can found here and here.
The agonies of January carry over into February as open wounds. Suffering in post-earthquake Haiti continues. Though fast-reacting radical analysts have written penetrating critiques of how colonialism, racism and U.S. policy are responsible for the scale of the disaster, the U.S. progressive movement has not been able to substantially impact the national conversation or the government response.

Casualties and costs rise daily in the wrong and hopeless Afghan war. A cocky Israeli government boasts louder than ever this month that it will keep more and more Palestinian land as an "eternal part of Israel."

Domestically, to the extent there is an "economic recovery," it is jobless and only benefits the already well-to-do. Right-wing populists have grabbed the initiative in harnessing popular anger and gaining traction for their mythological narrative about "hard working Americans losing their country" to an unholy alliance of liberal, America-hating elites and unproductive dark-skinned "others." The sentiment for progressive change that a year ago set the tone of national political debate, and which most expected to translate, albeit unevenly, into actual policy, has nowhere near its previous momentum. Indeed, ideologues of the right as well as some who are demoralized on the left declare it dead altogether.

This is the kind of moment when it is useful to take a deep breath and try to regain historical perspective, strategic clarity and moral inspiration. In that regard the words of Rich Trumka this month and Dr. Martin Luther King in 1967 are excellent starting places for serious reflection.

Rich Trumka's remarks are important not only because of their substance, but because of the position he holds. As the new president of AFL-CIO he is head of the largest explicitly working class membership organization in the country. Even with all the losses organized labor has suffered over the last several decades, trade unions remain the left-of-center popular organizations with the most resources and clout. Trumka himself comes out of a reform movement within the Mineworkers, and has remained engaged to a significant degree with labor's grassroots membership as well as broader layers of working people. His words carry weight and - while he doesn't claim to speak for other movements - his approach parallels that of many leading figures in the community organizing world, the progressive blogosphere, electoral campaigns, think-tanks, the academic community and beyond. See for example this assessment by Center for Community Change Executive Director Deepak Bhargava.

Trumka's speech is hard-hitting. It pillories vested financial interests and the dominant economic policies of the last 30 years. Trumka calls for a program of far-reaching reform that would address the pressing economic and social needs of working families. The combative flavor is clear:

"Our elected leaders must choose between continuing the policies of the past or striking out on a new economic course - a course that will reverse the damaging trend toward greater inequality that is crippling our nation…. A generation ago, our nation’s policymakers embarked on a campaign of radical deregulation and corporate empowerment – one that celebrated private greed over public service."

Trumka locates his perspective in the tradition of several valiant U.S. progressive movements. He embraces the legacy of Civil Rights and talks explicitly about the battles of African American and immigrant workers. Taking a position that would have been anathema for an AFL-CIO leader 15 years ago Trumka declared: "We are very proud of our alliance with the workers’ center movement that links the unions of the AFL-CIO with hundreds of grassroots organizations."

He offered warnings for Democrats along with his harsh indictment of the Republican right: "The reality is that when unemployment is 10% and rising, working people will not stand for tokenism. We will not vote for politicians who think they can push a few crumbs our way and then continue the failed economic policies of the last 30 years."

Trumka closed with a paragraph restating his essential framework and message:

"Our political leaders have a choice. They can work with us for a future where the middle class is secure and growing, where inequality is on the decline and where jobs provide ladders out of poverty. Or they can work for a future where the profits of insurance companies, speculators and outsourcers are secure. There is no middle ground. Working America is waiting for an answer."

All good as far as it goes. If the trade unions were able to rally their own membership and build a fighting coalition with other movements on such a program, the political landscape would be much changed for the better.

But there remains a problem. Peace is not mentioned in Trumka's remarks. Neither is the phrase "military budget" or any variant thereof. The word "war" does appear once - in a phrase saying that one of the things Obama inherited from Bush was "dishonest wars."

It won't work. Without addressing the impact Washington's wars and militarism, even the most combative force addressing economic hardship cannot accomplish its goals. It's not a question of effort, intention, or lack of militancy - it has to do the structure of economics and politics in U.S. society. As long as the bloated military budget remains a sacred cow it is simply not possible to adequately fund the programs that could meet human needs at home. As long as U.S. wars are unchallengeable tests of "true patriotism," every progressive social movement is vulnerable to political and ideological attack for "undermining national security" and "giving comfort to the enemy." Until the heavyweights whose power is rooted in the military-industrial complex (from "defense" industry corporations to private mercenary "contractors") are hit hard and set back, the power of right-wing fear-mongers in U.S. society cannot be broken. And on the other end of the power spectrum, for sustaining a strategically savvy progressive movement - especially in the era of globalization, inter-dependence and environmental threat - a perspective is needed that goes beyond rebuilding the U.S. middle class to encompass international solidarity and a universal moral vision.

To remind ourselves of what that can look like, we can turn to Dr. King.

Martin Luther King's remarks in an earlier era parallel and reinforce everything Rich Trumka said. But King encased his call for economic justice at home within a broader framework. In a speech that reads almost as if it could have been given last week if only the word "Afghanistan" was substituted for "Vietnam," King tackled head-on the way war abroad undermines an economic justice agenda at home:

"A few years ago there was a shining moment. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor - both black and white - through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."

King did not stop there. He repudiated all demonization and dehumanization of "the enemy" (communists then; "terrorists", Taliban, and "Islamic Radicals" today). He instead called on U.S. leaders and the population in general to take seriously their point of view:

"Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves…. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition."

King did not romanticize Washington's opponents. But he did include in his remarks an in-depth recounting of why Vietnamese patriots - communist and not - had good reasons not to trust the foreign government with thousands of troops on Vietnamese soil. A speaker following in his footsteps today would find no shortage of similar historical facts explaining why an Iraqi or Palestinian displaced from his or her home, an Iranian remembering the 1953 U.S.-sponsored coup, or an Afghan whose family was killed in a NATO bombing raid might have a view of the U.S. role in the Middle East well worth taking into account.

Rebuking those who counter-pose love of this country against solidarity with inhabitants of other lands - a common weapon used against labor and every other social movement in 1967 and 2010 alike - King stressed the common interests of all humanity:

"I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours."

Attuned to the deep structural and ideological roots of war in U.S. society and their long-term consequences, King was eerily far-sighted about dangers ahead:

"The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality... we will find ourselves organizing "clergy and laymen concerned" committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru…. Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy…

"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

Today jobs, housing, health care, financial/bank policy and other "domestic-economic" issues - perhaps along with environmental/climate change - are the centerpiece and pivot of political conflict in this country. Organizing labor, community groups, workers centers, immigrant rights organizations, new kinds of grassroots and coalitional forms are in the thick of those fights. Most are focused, for a mixture of reasons, on their immediate specific issue and the immense challenges right in front of them. At the same time, most of the activists and leaders in these formations are personally skeptical of, or downright opposed to, Washington's current wars (though regarding U.S. backing for Israel we have a longer way to go, especially among labor officialdom). Huge portions of their base are open to an antiwar, anti-militarist critique.

Here is where the peace movement as such has a key role to play. Bringing the links between war, militarism and injustice at home to fore. Not mainly by appealing to those struggling around other issues to "come to us," but by getting in behind their struggles, showing support, and consistently bringing with us the perspective that the fights against "racism, extreme materialism, and militarism" rise or fall together.

In doing so, we combine reaching out broadly with upholding our moral and political foundation. Thinking of Haiti, thinking of Afghanistan, thinking of New Orleans and Detroit and so many other U.S. cities and towns afflicted by human-made disasters, again Dr. King has wisdom to offer:

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

"A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, 'This is not just.' It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, 'This is not just.' The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just."


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Max Elbaum has worked with War Times since its founding. He has been involved in peace and anti-racist movements since joining Students for a Democratic Society (known as SDS) in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1960s. Through the 1970s and 1980s he participated in campaigns defending affirmative action and opposing U.S. military interventions in the Third World while writing extensively for the radical press and taking part in then-widespread efforts to construct a new US revolutionary political party.

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