Obama’s second term: Which road to liberation?

Larry HolmesWW photo: Brenda Ryan

Larry Holmes
WW photo: Brenda Ryan

These excerpts are from a Feb. 23 Workers World Party Black History Month Forum in New York City given by Larry Holmes, WWP’s first secretary and Secretariat member. Other forum speakers included Brenda Stokely, a leader of Million Worker March Movement, and the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a representative of the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly.

I really loved what Brenda said about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks — where you give the individuals credit for their courage, but they were connected to a mass movement. When we think about their centennial anniversaries, one of them passing [Tubman] and the other of their birth [Parks], we don’t just think about them as wonderful sister freedom fighters, but we think about the struggle, where they represent millions of people.

The same thing is true of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom that C.D. talked about. With all the anniversaries we think about through Black History Month in 2013, it seems that the re-election of Barack Obama may appear to some people to be more relevant. Indeed, it is an unusual phenomenon: Not only was an African American elected to be president, but re-elected. What does that all mean?

It is a mixed bag because I hope you all agree that nothing has changed fundamentally. But the election and re-election of Obama does reflect a change that the masses have undergone. It is revealing. They are tired of racism, reaction, war, homophobia and stepping on women’s rights. They want another planet. They want something done about climate change, about justice, equality and social needs. They don’t want to be the enemy of people who speak different languages and live across bodies of water. Maybe they are not able to articulate it, and the candidate they voted for certainly doesn’t represent this. But I would still argue that the re-election of Obama is a sign that people want to break from the past; that the re-election has also nudged Obama to a left posture. Emphasize “nudge” and emphasize “posture,” as opposed to any real meaning.

The fact that people have moved and are moving to the left, however you would characterize it, has given Obama the room to posture to the left — nothing real; posture. And this is a political and even an ideological problem for the working-class movement, for the African-American movement, for oppressed people, fighting in the struggle.

Not so much at the grassroots. People are still doing their worker organizing. They are still fighting to stop hospital closings. They are still doing the foot-soldier work that the other two speakers described so eloquently. Maybe at the middle and higher levels of leadership in the labor movement, that is where you see this political and ideological problem that Obama has come to represent. It is a temporary problem.

It seems to usher in a revival of the Democratic Party — a box with no exit for the working class and oppressed masses. It seems to revive the idea of bourgeois liberalism, FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] and the New Deal.

Where is the jobs program? There is no jobs program. Everyday more and more people lose their jobs. And lose the possibility of a job in their lifetime.

Where are the social programs? They are not coming. They are going. Everything is being taken away. But still through Obama there is this illusion of a revival of bourgeois liberalism. It died a long time ago. And it is only an illusion that it has some life in it.

Most importantly, it can give some people, if not consciously but on another semi-conscious level, the idea that maybe capitalism has some hope; that there is some hope for reforms. In other words, restore faith in capitalism at a very interesting time in the global scene when conditions are getting worse everywhere; when the magnitude of this unprecedented global crisis of capitalism and imperialism has never been more of an opportunity for a revolutionary growth of consciousness, deep down amongst the masses — an anti-capitalist, pro-socialist, pro-revolutionary political consciousness. The times have never been riper for that.

But instead, for a little while, for some, because of the re-election of Obama, what you get is a nice face on capitalism and imperialism; a nice face on the expanding drone war against Africa — they just opened up another base in Niger — against the Middle East and Asia; a nice face on the deportation of immigrants — almost half a million more than Bush; a nice face on the train taking young people to jail and mass incarceration; a nice face on austerity, on union busting, on cops brutalizing, killing people. There was a Stop the Cops demonstration today which was pretty good, especially since it was raining.

Obama’s words & actions

Obama did something very clever after the election. Instead of talking about austerity or emphasizing austerity, he said, “I am going to emphasize ‘Let’s tax the rich’; not much, a little bit. But I am going to yell about it. But at the same time, of course we have to have some cuts, Social Security and Medicaid. Those programs are not sustainable.” You all heard it — “We’ve got to give up something — health care and daycare — but we are going to tax the rich a little bit.” So that will be like sugar coating for a pill with poison in it.

It is just so interesting, looking at all of the missed opportunities because of this illusion that somehow Obama can now usurp and replace the workers and the oppressed and fight on behalf of them. The politicians in Michigan, Democratic politicians, told the union members when they put in the anti-union law a couple of months ago, “Don’t worry, when we get the governorship back we’ll do something to help out.”

The five Democratic Party mayoral candidates in New York City sent a letter to the workers [school bus drivers and matrons] that said: “Go back to work. Stop your strike. When we get elected, we will do something about job security.”

This is what Obama has come to represent: “I will fight the rich, fight the right, fight the Republicans so you don’t have to fight. As a matter of fact you can go home. Why have a new office? Who needs a new office? I’m going to do it for you.

“But we have to be reasonable. You are not going to get everything. As a matter of fact, almost everything is going to be taken away from you. But if you want to be realistic, I’m going to get you the best deal you can get.”

More brutal cuts

And in the meantime, our movement is paralyzed. It is a huge problem. Potentially devastating.

In terms of March 1, another deadline for sweeping brutal cuts and layoffs, I am not even sure what is supposed to happen, because they keep it purposely confusing especially for ordinary people. It could amount to as much as a million furloughs of people who get government paychecks, more than 100,000 layoffs, permanent layoffs, closings of daycare centers, and schools and hospitals, and yes, including school bus drivers and matrons, cuts in aid which would push some states into bankruptcy.

Whether this is all going to happen on March 1 or April 1, it is all bad news. It is capitalist austerity to save their system. If there wasn’t this delusion that Obama was going to do it all for us and we need not fight, and if the working class really realized that what is needed more than ever is to be independent and to fight the system that exploits and oppresses you, maybe March 1 would be a nationwide general strike, not just of the unions, but all the people just coming out into the streets and just stopping things like the Palestinians do, like people all over the world do when they are angry.

And instead of an ultimatum being placed on us by the two bourgeois parties, maybe the working class will make the ultimatum — either we have our jobs and our schools and our unions and all the things we need, or we will shut down everything. One day it is going to happen.

I am not saying this to discourage anyone. This delusion, however long it might last and [whomever it affects], is temporary. Our class is going to fight back. They will find their road to fight back. They will clear the cobwebs. We are certain of that.

As revolutionaries, though, we can’t wait for that. We are obliged as revolutionaries to organize and plan and help the fightback.

I know that there are a lot of progressives, militant revolutionaries and activists who are deeply frustrated by the situation I am trying to describe; some of them so much so that they are blaming the masses for being taken in by Obama. And if you read some of the things they write and you see the anger and frustration, I don’t know if this is having any effect. I understand it. We are with them, but it seems to me to be to no avail. It won’t help.

Independent program of fightback

What we need is a plan, and it has to be at least a two-part plan. One is to make sure that whoever is plotting to paralyze the class struggle is defeated. It means planning the fightback. I am deeply interested in what the sisters are going to do on International Women’s Day, which is very close to the centennial of Harriet Tubman’s death.

I am interested in May Day, which was important last year, the year before, but even more important in 2013. The coalitions have come together. They are figuring out their program and their demands, how to make it big, and how to force the unions to be a part of it. And also how to be connected to May Day all around the world, which is all the more important because of the global nature of the crisis.

I am also deeply interested in what brother C.D. raised about May 11 — the Poor People’s March on Washington, starting from Baltimore.

Most of the people will be coming from Baltimore and the region, but they want delegations to come from all around the country so that it will be at least a representative march and that it is not only the people from Maryland marching on Washington, on the White House, on Congress and wherever else they will march.

Maybe they will camp there for a few days and I am hoping, one of the final things they will do while they are in Washington in the days May 11, 12, 13, 14, is to convene a People’s Power Assembly.

I think they are thinking about getting a big tent. Maybe we’ll get it on the Mall — wherever we can get away with it — where we will have delegations from all over the country coming and the purpose will be, on top of this Poor People’s March, to sit down and plan a nationwide fightback against these attacks.

The people are going to fight. The question is: What are we going to do? They are going to fight back because conditions are going to get worse. Whether it is March 1 or two months from now, hell is coming. And it is not only austerity. It is the global capitalist crisis. It is deepening.

In a New York Times article entitled, “In the developed world, growth contracts,” it stated: “For the first time since 2009, the economies of major developed countries are shrinking. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 34 countries, said this week that the combined gross domestic product of its members declined at an annual rate of 0.6 percent in the final three months of 2012. It was a sign of just how far the global economy has weakened since 2010, when it appeared that the recovery was gathering strength.”

What does this mean? We have to open up a serious ideological offensive against capitalism. What the hell do we want with a system that says you can’t retire; that we can’t afford to give you retirement benefits, social security, pensions; we can’t afford to take care of you; we don’t have enough?

We have got to get rid of this system, but we have got to fight it ideologically. If we don’t do it, our inaction will only serve to inflate the illusion that all of these things have been revived: the Democratic Party, bourgeois liberalism and faith in the capitalist system.

You are not going to win the hearts and minds of young people who are angry and ready to fight if you are not telling them that we need revolutionary change. It is not going to happen. We will find ourselves taking up the rear, instead of leading.

We are obliged to do it. Remember how surprised some of you were when Obama was elected? It never could happen in our lifetime. Well maybe if you hold up high the revolutionary socialist banner, maybe we will be surprised by how many people will come and say, “I’ll carry that.”

Happy Black History Month everybody.