In Paths of Revolution, the leftist militant, journalist, political prisoner, public intellectual, historian, Adolfo Gilly bears witness to the tumult, triumphs, and defeats of the Left in the twentieth century in Latin America. Tracing a lineage from the Cuban Missile Crisis to Central America’s guerrilla movements, from Mexico’s Zapatista uprising to the indigenous mobilizations that swept Evo Morales into power in Bolivia, in these essays, Gilly captures what drives people to action under different forms of domination and what just might stand to illuminate the state of the Left in the Americas today.
Nicaragua and Bolivia: Two Paths (1980)
Twenty-four years ago, having just arrived in La Paz, I saw the Bolivian miners’, workers’, and peasants’ militias. It was my first sight of figures who up to that point had been mythical as far as I was concerned: workers and campesinos, armed and organized in their unions. A knot of emotion formed in my throat. The revolution of April 1952 was still fresh, the revolution that broke out in order to carry into power Víctor Paz Estenssoro and Hernán Siles Zuazo—elected president and vice president in 1951 but prevented from taking office by a military coup. Insurrections in La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí defeated and dissolved an army formerly at the service of mining tycoons and imperialist powers, which the people had called “the massacring army.” Its weapons were transferred into the hands of trade-union militias.
In 1952 the mines were nationalized, and in 1953 the agrarian reform was launched (when peasants had already occupied many haciendas). After that, the revolution stalled; the militias’ weapons began to age and they ran short of ammunition. The professional army was patiently reorganized, first by Paz Estenssoro and then by Siles Zuazo, and equipped with high-caliber modern weapons supplied by the US. At the same time, the state began to promote capitalist accumulation, private enterprise, and imperialist investments. The new army and new bourgeoisie developed side by side until, with the coup of 1964, that army once again seized power, resuming its murderous history. Everyone remembers one of the most notorious massacres, which took place on the feast of St. John in 1967, only months before the killing of Che Guevara.
Bolivia has one of the strongest and most politically conscious mass organizations in Latin America: the mining unions and the Central Obrera Boliviana as a whole. But in the absence of a political party to counter the national bourgeoisie and lacking weapons against the massacring army, consciousness, combativeness, and organization may suffice for heroic resistance—with dynamite and last stands on the barricades —but not for victory. It was Juan Lechín, one of the prime movers of the policy that led to disarming the militias, who affirmed that a military coup would be resisted by means of a general strike and some roadblocks. In Argentina in 1955 and 1976, in Chile in 1973, and in other countries at other times, that old formula encouraged the most fateful of delusions: the idea that the workers might resist, after the fact and empty-handed, a military coup that has been technically and scientifically designed to slaughter them. Via the same disastrously passive policy, the Peronist union bureaucrats paved the way for the military dictatorship established in their country in 1976. And it was the Argentine military that provided advice and guidance for the [July 1980] Bolivian coup, with its methodical project of mass murder, according to denunciations recently made in Managua by Jaime Paz Zamora, the vice president-elect of Bolivia.
A few days ago, watching the Sandinista militias in Estelí, I recalled the Bolivian campesinos parading by just as these were doing, a quarter of a century ago, confident of their revolution and marching with the very same gait.
I saw the Sandinista army, and the militias, too, in Managua on July 19th. The old army has been destroyed right down to the roots, and, unlike in Bolivia, the leadership of the revolution has no intention of rebuilding it; only the counterrevolutionaries dare suggest such a thing. I observed the discipline, the supple, easy stride, the modern weaponry of the Sandinista armed forces. I recalled the Bolivians once again, presently being slaughtered by another coup, despite the indescribable heroism with which they have resisted and even dismantled so many others. And I not only saw but keenly felt the radical difference between the two. It’s right that the army should be Sandinista, despite the objections of [Alfonso] Robelo, the Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada (Private Enterprise Council), conservatives, and others; it’s right for troops to train intensively; it’s right that this army should act as the shield of this revolution, until other, neighboring ones come to lighten its load and make the road ahead less arduous.
Those who prioritize democracy over class can say what they like: the unending martyrdom of Bolivia is their answer, the unfailing result of what they propose. The Bolivian Revolution was only able to hold out for so many years because it formed militias, implemented an agrarian reform, nationalized the mines, and was sustained by unions with a combativeness and a tradition of struggle beyond compare. If it was unable to hold out longer, it’s because all of this was interrupted halfway through, and the regrouping of capitalism and its army did the rest.
As the midterm elections wrap up with a better-than-expected showing for Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) is saying that the Democratic Party must make curbing the influence of deep-pocketed political donors one of its top priorities in order to save democracy from the far right.
The right is posing a credible and concerning threat to democracy in the U.S. — and their attacks on democracy are aided by the fact that billionaires and corporations are exercising ever increasing influence over elections, as enabled by 2010’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Sanders said in a new interview with Rolling Stone.
“We have got to do everything we can to defend American democracy,” Sanders said, explaining what he thinks the Democratic Party should prioritize for the next two years.
Something in this cycle that was “not talked about, I think, enough is the degree to which billionaire money impacted this election. It’s disgusting,” he said. “As I mentioned, I was in Pittsburgh with Summer Lee. She had to run against millions of dollars of AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] super PAC money coming in the last couple of weeks, and she ended up beating it back. This is a major, major problem.”
“So when you’re looking at democracy, it’s not just Trump. It is the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which has got to be dealt with,” Sanders continued.
Citizens United, which has been the subject of progressive ire for years, allows entities to pour an unlimited amount of money into elections.
This has handed an astounding amount of influence to billionaires and corporations, which progressives like Sanders say can essentially buy elections due in part to Citizens United. Indeed, OpenSecrets found in an analysis of House elections last week that, of the races called as of Thursday, 96 percent were won by the candidate who spent the most in the election.
Since Citizens United was handed down by the Supreme Court 12 years ago, the amount of money being poured into elections by deep-pocketed interests has been rapidly growing, with no signs of stopping.
According to a recent report by Americans for Tax Fairness, just 465 billionaires had poured an astonishing $881 million into the election by the end of September, putting them well on track to have spent a billion dollars on the election by the time Election Day came around.
Meanwhile, the flow of dark money — or political donations where the donors’ names and identities are hidden — has reached a record high for midterm elections, OpenSecrets has found. As of Election Day, outside groups, which are largely funded by dark money, had spent more than $2.1 billion in federal races this cycle, smashing the previous record of $1.6 billion, set in 2018.
Sanders has previously spoken up about this issue. In 2015, Sanders introduced a constitutional amendment that would undo the Citizens United decision, calling it “one of the most disastrous decisions in” the Supreme Court’s history at the time, and he has continually spoken up about the issue over the years.
Eric Blanc holds that the Marxism of the Second International in its classical years (1889–1914) remains the latest and highest stage of Marxist political theory, exemplified by the work of Karl Kautsky (1854–1938). In contrast, the Marxism of the Third International in its classical years (1919–24) was, by and large, an alien, purely “Russian” import, its Bolshevism rooted in and responding adequately to political struggles only in archaic, feudal, or quasi-feudal societies with “autocratic” regimes. Blanc concludes, logically, that Leninist strategy in advanced capitalist societies with bourgeois-democratic states was—and remains—irrelevant because it is inapplicable. Any attempt to universalize the Russian experience, or to use it as a model, can only bring disaster. This is Blanc’s central thesis. It was also Kautsky’s. In the last twenty years of his life, Kautsky shed his (ostensibly) “fatalist” and “deterministic” politics in favor of a relentless, activist crusade against the so-called Red Menace.
As a consequence, Blanc, like Kautsky, is unable or unwilling fully to address the limitations of Second International political strategy laid bare by the experience of the (initially) successful Russian Revolution in 1917, on the one hand, and the tragic, gut-wrenching failure of socialist revolution in the West in 1918–1923, on the other. For the fact is “revolutionary social democracy”—Blanc’s synonym for Kautskyism—maintained its counter-revolutionary hegemony over the working class movement everywhere in the advanced capitalist West—the very area where Kautsky’s political strategy was supposed to bring victory. The reasons for that hegemony were not self-evident and required analysis. The very best representatives of the Communist, pre-Stalinist alternative to classical social democracy—Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky—offered such an analysis. But Blanc will hear none of it.
Blanc’s Revolutionary Social Democracy: Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882–1917) is mistitled. For Blanc shows, in chapter 10, empirically, that the only social democracy in the Russian empire worthy of being called revolutionary—not just in words but in deeds, not just in times of revolution but in non-revolutionary times as well—was that of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). The party was founded de facto in 1902. Its revolutionary, Bolshevik wing, led by Lenin, emerged only in 1903.
Only Lenin’s partisans and those willing to follow their lead proved to be truly revolutionary, dedicated to achieving victory, at all times and everywhere. Those who did not, the social democratic parties that remained faithful to pre-1914 Kautskyist orthodoxy, turned out to be counter-revolutionary. Blanc shows this to be the case everywhere in the land of the tsars. It is the signal merit of his contribution. His book deserves the widest audience for that reason alone.
At the same time, Blanc unwittingly destroys the very foundations of his argument: he proves that post-1914 “revolutionary social democracy” was, in practice, counter-revolutionary. It is a contradiction that lies at the heart of his account that no dialectical legerdemain can resolve into a superior synthesis. Fortunately, the contradiction exists only in Blanc’s head, subjectively, owing to an incoherent analysis. However, the kernel of truth lying at the center of Blanc’s account can only be extracted by historical materialist analysis. But Blanc largely refrains from using contemporary Marxist categories of analysis because many of those categories were developed and refined—sometimes created ab ovo—only after 1914 and especially after 1917. These forms of understanding came out of the need to study the “miraculous” creativity of the international working class movement in 1917–22, to quote Lenin—not in the fideist sense, but in the sense that the “natural” potentialities of working creativity were far greater, richer, and multifaceted than Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and other Marxists had earlier thought possible. For them, if not for Blanc, there was something new under the sun.
What is the “bourgeois-democratic” revolution? What is the socialist revolution?
The category “bourgeois-democratic revolution” only makes cameo appearances in Blanc’s work. It appears most often under other names, usually the “democratic revolution.” This term abstracts from the difference between bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolutions, together with forms of party-political organization and strategies specific to each—distinctive forms and strategies that only a critical study of the 1917 Russian Revolution revealed. Whenever Blanc, like his mentor Lars Lih, abstracts out of his analysis these specificities by using the category “democratic revolution,” it is impossible to tell what kind of revolution he is talking about.
Blanc, again following Lih, holds that Kautsky’s political strategy could simply be modified or adjusted to Russian conditions so that “revolutionary social democratic” politics could be deployed to destroy the feudal or quasi-feudal tsarist state and replace it with a capitalist state. “On the whole, the approaches of imperial Russia’s radicals reflected an implementation and development of orthodox Second International Marxism far more than a break from it. The roots of 1917 lie firmly in revolutionary social democracy.” (p.11.)
But how can this be? Does Kautsky’s strategy cater only to Western conditions of political struggle, as Blanc insists, or does it encompass non-Western conditions, as well, so that Kautsky becomes the “architect” of the October Revolution, with Lenin’s Bolsheviks using Kautsky’s political writings as guide? It must be one or the other but not both. For no social democrat conceived of Kautsky’s strategy so expansively and so abstractly as to cover both feudal or semi-feudal Russia and the capitalist West. Kautsky, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and just about every pre-1917 social democrat thought far more concretely, recognizing qualitative differences between the two, whereas Blanc’s account, like Lih’s, gets lost in abstraction.
Blanc’s argument regarding a democratic road to socialism is largely based on the short-lived experience of the Finnish Revolution and civil war of 1918. Photo, by Herald Netvig, shows a White Guards firing squad in Länkipohja.
For pre-1917 revolutionary social democrats—Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky— the specificities of Russian society and its autocratic state could not be deduced from an analysis of capitalist society and the capitalist state. It required fresh study. Kautsky was certainly the most read foreign Marxist theoretician among Russian social democrats but he had little to say about Russia beyond broad sociological assessments. The most read Russian Marxist among Russian social democrats was Georgi Plekhanov. But Blanc ignores his contribution to the Marxist analysis of tsarist Russia, developed in opposition to the Populist alternative that dominated Russian revolutionary thought in the 1880s and 1890s.
Plekhanov sketched out the basics, later endorsed by Kautsky. In tsarist Russia, the “democratic revolution” was an anti-feudal one, whereas in the West it was an anti-capitalist one. So, in the West, democratic revolution meant something completely different: it directly meant socialist revolution and building socialism, whereas in tsarist Russia it directly meant the bourgeois-democratic revolution to overthrow the feudal state, establish a capitalist state, ideally a democratic republic, thereby offering the working class the best possible political conditions under which to advance and defend its class interests over and against those of Russia’s emergent capitalist class. This is how all social democrats understood matters; it was the key to understanding what social democrats were doing, or thought they were doing.
Kautsky, the so-called pope of Second International Marxism, spelled out in many books, encyclicals, and articles how social democratic parties in the West could use the already existing capitalist state, specifically its legislative arm, in its various forms—parliament, Congress, chambers of deputies, the Knesset, and so on—to bring the working class to power by winning a majority in these bodies. The party would then pass legislation to expropriate the capitalists and socialize production.
In tsarist Russia, however, there was no capitalist state and no parliamentary road to establish. First because there was no parliament (Duma) until 1906. Even then, after 1906 and given the continued presence of autocratic rule, Russian social democrats split over whether the Duma was a real parliamentary form, as the Mensheviks believed, or an illusory one, as the Bolsheviks held. Yet, defying all evidence, Blanc’s “democratic revolution” is, apparently, a revolution against “capitalism” in the West and tsarist Russia. Again, how can this be?
Revolutionary social democrats thought the material premises of socialism and, consequently, of socialist revolution, were only present in the “advanced” West and not in “backward” Russia. It followed that virtually no revolutionary organizations… set themselves the programmatic goal of a democratic revolution that was socialist…
Of the seventeen ‘revolutionary social democratic’ parties, tendencies, sects, and micro-sects that rose and fell between 1882 and 1905, (p. 3) only one, the short-lived Proletariat Party, vaguely advocated socialist revolution against capitalism in 1882. It is easy to understand why the others did not. Revolutionary social democrats thought the material premises of socialism and, consequently, of socialist revolution, were only present in the “advanced” West and not in “backward” Russia. It followed that virtually no revolutionary organizations, even non-social democratic ones—and certainly those with significant links to and influence over the organized working-class movement—set themselves the programmatic goal of a democratic revolution that was socialist (“anti-capitalist”), as Blanc holds. On the contrary, it would be objectively pro-capitalist. In other words, the bourgeois-democratic revolution would allow the “modernization” then developing in imperial Russia—which Blanc takes to be capitalist modernization, as if it were self-evident and conceptually unproblematic—to develop fully and freely, without the feudal or semi-feudal tsarist autocracy standing in the way. In short, Russia needed to go through, and complete, the capitalist “stage” of socio-economic development.
However, in 1917–19, peasants and workers took the path of permanent revolution in Russia and the borderlands, threatening to abolish landlordism, as well as private and state ownership of industry. Faced with this anti-capitalist movement, all revolutionary social democratic political organizations that had not broken with pre-1914 social democracy stood in their way, crushing them whenever possible. They rationalized their counter-revolutionary stance not in violation of pre-1914 revolutionary social democratic doctrine, or Kautskyism, as Blanc maintains, but in full accord with it. For orthodox social democrats, Kautsky above all, thought and wrote that none of the national components of the tsarist empire was “ripe” for socialism and, consequently, for a working-class, socialist, anti-capitalist revolution.
All social democrats agreed that the material premises of socialism were lacking in Russia. What are the analytical roots of Blanc’s misconception?
Blanc draws a purely political contrast between the tsarist state and the capitalist state, dividing states into those with political freedom, with parliament and civic liberties, and those without— that is between non-autocratic states of the West and the uniquely autocratic tsarist state. He cannot help doing so because Blanc abstracts from the very different relations of class and property that prevailed in the West and in tsarist Russia, together with the very different states dominant in each—a difference in kind, as the Bolsheviks held, not in degree, as the Mensheviks insisted. In this regard, Blanc has done a terrible injustice to Kautsky and Second International Marxism.
Kautsky understood the Marxist ABCs of political economy far better than Blanc. Like all social democrats, revolutionary or not, Kautsky determined the “ripeness” of society for socialism on the basis of its level of socio-economic development, not its political order taken in isolation from the class and property relations underlying it. But Blanc has little use for Marxist categories of analysis. Blanc is explicit: “a systematic analysis of the interaction between social structures and political orientation lies beyond scope of this project” (p. 19). He is true to his word.
Though Blanc lists an array of books in his Bibliography, not one agrees with Lih’s unique notion that Kautsky was the architect of the October Revolution, that Lenin and the Bolsheviks followed Kautsky’s Erfurtian strategy not just before 1914 but right through 1917, ostensibly establishing a seamless continuity in Bolshevik politics lasting nearly fifteen years. To be sure, being a minority of one does not invalidate an interpretation. But one has at minimum to come to terms with the competing alternatives. Lih does nothing of the sort—and neither does Blanc. Blanc just accepts whatever Lih says, without critical reflection, on faith.
Blanc lauds Kautsky’s Erfurtian strategy as ideally suited to work in conditions of political freedom and not where those conditions are absent, as in autocratic Russia. But the February Revolution destroyed the autocracy. Workers, along with workers and peasants in soldiers’ uniforms, created the freest, most democratic conditions of political struggle in the world—freer and more democratic than in the freest and most democratic capitalist states. At last, Blanc’s revolutionary social democracy would finally get a chance to show what it could do in these ideal conditions. Correlatively, it would also show that Bolshevism would find itself completely out of its element, unable to function freely, and doomed to political irrelevance in the new non-autocratic conditions.
The Bolsheviks took full advantage of the freedoms created spontaneously by a popular uprising…It is the Bolsheviks who won the support of the working class..it is the Bolsheviks alone who called for the transfer of “All Power to the Soviets” permanently …it is Lenin’s partisans who led the democratic revolution to victory…
But nothing of the sort happened. The Bolsheviks took full advantage of the freedoms created spontaneously by a popular uprising in February. It is the Bolsheviks who won the support of the working class, using the mechanism of a new state, the Soviet; it is the Bolsheviks alone who called for the transfer of “All Power to the Soviets” permanently and not, as everyone else did, provisionally; it is Lenin’s partisans who led the democratic revolution to victory, establishing a workers’ state.
Meanwhile, Blanc details how the representatives of revolutionary social democracy—the Mensheviks—did everything in their power to prevent this outcome. And so, Blanc shows, despite himself, that Bolshevism could work in both autocratic and non-autocratic conditions, where political freedom exists and where it does not, in states with bourgeois parliaments and those without.
Kautskyism without Kautsky
Kautsky’s strategy has long outlived Kautsky, as the recent examples of Syriza, Podemos, and the Corbynite left of the Labour Party show. Even so, Kautsky’s political writings, we are told, are relevant to socialists today in ways that Lenin and the Bolshevik, “insurrectionary, ” non–social democratic road to socialism, via the October Revolution, could never be. As proof, critics invoke the Stalinist outcome of the Russian Revolution, ostensibly resulting from Leninist vanguardism and disregard for workers’ interests. But that outcome proves nothing of the sort.
Kautsky spoke for all social democrats—regardless of political tendency, revisionist or orthodox, reformist or revolutionary—when he held that the working-class movement was ripe for socialism only in the West because the capitalist mode of production prevailed only there. However, tsarist Russia formed a category apart. Unlike the West, the capitalist mode of production was not dominant there. Consequently, there was precious little material basis for socialism—no matter what kind of political order prevailed, whether dictatorship, parliamentary republic, constitutional monarchy, Rechtsstaat, or autocracy.
To grasp quickly and straightforwardly what went wrong in post-1917 Russia, one must recall that, with its huge peasantry of 100 million and miniscule proletariat of 3 million, the country that gave birth to soviets was still not ripe for building socialism. This must be the starting point for all serious discussion about the ultimate fate of the October Revolution, not a “deficit”’ in Bolshevik “democratic political theory,” as Samuel Farber argues in Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy. The solution is not, as Michel Löwy asserts, quoting Rosa Luxemburg, “unlimited democracy,” as a substitute for the missing material basis for socialism, overcoming all problems. Such interpretations only rehash fossilized, post-1917 Kautsky, just as Blanc does in the book under review here.
Featured Image Credit: Photo of Vorwarts newspaper, 1902, by Julie Wolfthorn Image modified by Tempest.
The win was the result of “hundreds of national and grassroots organizations, along with concerned Americans from coast to coast, working together for the health and safety of frontline communities and a livable future for the planet,” said one campaigner.
Recent polls have revealed that “threats to democracy” are a top priority for many of us living in the United States. On the one hand, this is good news. Acknowledging the dangerous path we are on will hopefully galvanize more people to get involved in our shared civic life. The bad news is that Americans have wildly divergent understandings of where the threats to democracy are coming from, who is responsible and the solutions needed.
Democracy has become a partisan issue, more and more politicized in today’s toxically polarized environment. While it is a foundational ideal and the system of government on which our country was supposedly based, the loud cries to “protect democracy” are increasingly divisive and seen as weaponized for political gain.
For example, Biden gave a prime-time “democracy in crisis” speech that has received critiques for being overly divisive. By squarely naming the “MAGA faction” as the biggest threat to democracy, the argument is that the president missed the opportunity to separate the specific anti-democratic behaviors of political leaders (and the systemic actors that support them) from the broad mix of everyday citizens who may have voted for former President Donald Trump. They may be left wondering where they fit in the democratic future Biden says he wants to build.
MAGA Republican politicians on the other hand have made very clear who does not belong in their vision of America by enflaming racial grievances and stoking fear of LGBTQ populations to dangerous effect.
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As we celebrate the International Day of Democracy on Sept. 15, how can we better establish a shared national project to uphold and reshape our democracy that rises above any one political party? How do we mobilize citizens as partisans for democracy? Inviting our fellow Americans to sit on the same side of the table — confronting together this shared problem of democratic decline — will require all of us to re-evaluate the ways we define our most pressing priorities; who and how we engage across differences; and, what we demand from our elected leaders and institutions. Below are seven considerations for how we may come together as partisans for democracy.
1. Look beyond electoral politics. As the mid-term elections are fast approaching, many Democrats are gripped with mobilizing and expanding their base, and some Republicans are organizing to ensure that “anti-democratic” candidates within their party are not voted into office. This is crucial work because elections do indeed have consequences; however, partisanship for democracy cannot mean that only liberals or progressives will win elections.
As scholars of democracy from around the world have long shown, a pluralistic, inclusive democracy requires more than one functioning political party. We need leaders on both sides of the aisle who are committed to accountability and decision-making processes that are fair and transparent, allowing for ideological diversity and debate. Democracy entails much more than elections or voting, even as those essential institutions are currently being attacked and dismantled in many states.
How we engage in our electoral politics right now with a long-term vision of a healthy democracy that allows for ideological diversity is just as important as the outcome of any one election. The Republican party must be reformed from the inside. So, the way that current MAGA supporters are called into that work is key. We need all Americans to see themselves in a shared future where our system of government works for all, and everyone is free to advocate for the issues and policies they care about most.
2. Define “anti-democratic” behavior beyond partisan identities. “Democracy” is seen as an amorphous concept for many Americans distinct from their daily realities — and yet, “saving democracy” is also being deployed as a rallying cry by each political party and their donors and media ecosystems. Our partisan identities increasingly supersede other identities, hardened by those actively stoking division and fear of our fellow Americans. If we feel truly threatened (both in perception or reality) by our political opponents, how can we co-create a pluralistic and inclusive future where all people thrive?
Partisans for democracy therefore must take extra care not to further entrench political identities, instead naming the specific anti-democratic behaviors and systems that have dangerous consequences for our nation. We can do this without blanket statements and toxic othering of whole groups of people.
3. Bridge the understanding of “anti-democratic” behavior to mobilize against it. The majority of Americans think of themselves as good people, or are dealing with trauma and the impact of isolation and lack of belonging. Bridging work is necessary to find that sense of belonging to each other again, with the goal of mobilizing to co-create the country we want for our future. There is an urgent need, therefore, to jointly define what we all consider anti-democratic behavior that we must then agree to apply across the board to all our leaders no matter their political affiliation, distinguishing democratic norm-breaking from policy solutions.
The words we use matter and can trigger political identities and backlash, and we often get stuck in a loop of what-aboutism and both-sideism in our quest to find “common ground.” However, partisanship for democracy calls us to find ways to have hard conversations that address real threats we jointly face: Political violence and intimidation have no place in a democracy and those spurring violence with their rhetoric should not hold political office. No one is above the rule of law, and we must hold our leaders accountable if laws are broken or changed to rig the system.
All citizens should have easy access to voting and have their votes counted. Citizens have a right to organize, to freedom of speech and to all other internationally recognized human rights. All of us should expect our government leaders to focus on solving real problems that respond to our urgent needs as a society, instead of distracting us with cultural wedge issues and stoking fear and grievance.
Amplification of the “big lie” narrative that the 2020 election was stolen and that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was necessary to defend democracy are a clear and present danger to the country. Being a partisan for democracy calls all of us to find ways to speak truth, to jointly take courageous stands; and yet, do so in ways that calls in the biggest number of our fellow Americans to join in this urgent endeavor.
4. Calling out toxic othering. Partisanship for democracy will require all of us to refrain from dehumanizing language, and we must actively call out our colleagues and political leaders who fuel toxic “othering” if we are going to rebuild our democracy. The MAGA faction within the Republican party has been successful in stoking fears with great message discipline, using labels for their political opponents like “communists,” “groomers,” “terrorists” or “Antifa.” The constant reinforcement within MAGA echo-chambers of the great replacement conspiracy theory furthers racial resentment. Democratic leaders have also engaged in toxic othering language and tactics, such as equating a vote for Trump with being a racist or homophobe.
5. Now is not the time for neutrality. There are too many overlapping existential crises facing humanity for our democratic system of government to fail us; and in fact, these crises should and could be a force for bringing us together. The United States has a long history of movements coming together to face hard challenges and we can do it again. To find common cause with our fellow Americans, however, does not require being “neutral” as we bridge across divides, when core values and injustices are at stake. Rather, we must stand united against those specific anti-democratic behaviors and unjust systems.
6. Partisanship for democracy versus bipartisanship. Many pro-democracy efforts prioritize bringing representatives of the two political parties together to form bipartisan alliances to address specific reforms. The Our Common Purpose Report released by the American Academy for Arts and Sciences for example includes 31 recommendations that were carefully crafted with bipartisan input, many of which take a long-term view towards renewing a culture of citizenship and institutional responsiveness and accountability. All of this work is necessary and worthy of attention.
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And yet, to maintain their bipartisan inclusivity, many of these coalitions often shy away from some of the most divisive and difficult issues, such as confronting the “big lie,” the outrageous independent state legislature theory, or engaging with racial truth, healing and transformation processes. In particular, we cannot achieve democratic renewal in the United States without addressing the historic and current nature of systemic racial injustice. Just because this has become such an effective wedge issue for many within the MAGA faction doesn’t mean that partisans for democracy shouldn’t be courageous and insist that we attach our national conversation about race to the conversation about democracy. This is an opportunity, as Heather McGhee has so eloquently written in “The Sum of Us,” to address the ways that systemic racism hurts everyone in the country.
7. A cross-ideological democracy movement is both necessary and possible. Many on the progressive left have treated “saving democracy” as a solely left-wing issue. Yet, there are many conservatives organizing pro-democracy efforts that need to be better linked to progressive democracy movements. Robert Kagan has called for a “national unity coalition,” Christine Todd Whitman is advocating for a “common sense coalition,” and Rep. Adam Kinzinger is building a “country first” movement. Multi-sector platforms are establishing concrete targets to measure progress, such as the Partnership for American Democracy. Additionally, there are many issue-area coalitions like Issue One, focused on protecting poll workers, and grassroots organizing platforms such as People’s Action (and many, many others.)
Whatever this broad democracy movement is called, a unified front must come together that cuts across partisan, ideological, race, class, geographic and other divisions. Many segments of society are feeling the immediate threats of our democratic decline in different ways; and, pro-democracy initiatives are coming to this work from various vantage points, focusing on either short-term or long-term priorities to bring about societal change.
All of the work is essential and potentially reinforcing, and yet coming (and staying) together as a front won’t be easy. Building the connective tissue between and amongst these different democracy efforts, centering the problem not so much on our polarization but our fragmentation will help in achieving a renewed and mobilized group of partisans for democracy.
This story was produced as part of the Democracy Day journalism collaborative, a nationwide effort to shine a light on the threats and opportunities facing American democracy. Read more at usdemocracyday.org.
If Democrats can pull it off again, four or five generations after FDR did, it may well signal a second repudiation of Republican trickle-down style economics.
It’s easy to get lost in despair and outrage over the state of affairs in America. Women and queer people are being forced back into the kitchen and closet, climate change is killing scores of Americans every week, our schools and public areas are under constant assault by armed Republican gangs and GOP-sanctioned mass shooters. Over the past decade more than a million American lives have been lost to “deaths of despair” as a result of our 40-year experiment with Reagan’s neoliberalism.
And it’s not just domestic bad news coming out of the GOP’s open opposition to democracy. After Trump betrayed Ukraine, Russia attacked them; China is openly threatening a similar sort of war against Taiwan. There’s lots to be concerned about.
Nonetheless, I’m hopeful right now. I believe we’re on the cusp of a new “great turning” of American history, a replay of the crisis into which President Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped four generations ago, while revisiting many of the same solutions. And, ironically, it’s all coming about for for many of the same reasons.
In 1933, the United States was in the worst moments of its second greatest crisis of all time, eclipsed, in danger to the nation, only by the Civil War which had ended four generations previously:
Climate change caused by human activity — particularly deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices — was driving farmers off their land while throwing up hundred-mile-long dust clouds from the Midwest to New York City. (My old friend Dennis Weaver wrote heartbreakingly in his autobiography All The World’s A Stage [I wrote the foreword] about his family’s escape in their broken-down 1930s car from Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl to Oregon so they could pick strawberries, he as a migrant farm-worker child.)
Food prices were skyrocketing relative to income; homelessness was epidemic; entire regions of the nation were being depopulated as crime, fear, and despair stalked our nation.
The three previous Republican presidents had cut taxes on the morbidly rich from 91 percent down to 25 percent and deregulated Wall Street, throwing the nation into a depression so severe that fully a third of the country was unemployed and people were literally starving. The stock market had crashed to lows with a speed not seen in living memory; every bank in America had collapsed, the final few hundred just in the week before the new president was sworn in.
The nation was still reeling from a world war and a flu pandemic that had killed millions. Parents despaired that their children would never reach the standard of living they’d enjoyed; well over half the country was living in poverty.
The morbidly rich had literally never done so well; the preceding decade was called the “Roaring 20s” because wealthy people were lighting their cigars with $1000 bills and speculators and industrialists were in a wild competition over who could throw the most gaudy, expensive, and wasteful parties.
Meanwhile, when working people tried to organize unions, local police, rightwing “militia” gangs, and private security people would attack with dogs, chains, and live ammunition. Because there were no laws protecting the right to unionize, working people across the nation were routinely murdered for the crime of demanding a living wage.
Minorities — from racial minorities to gays to Jews — fared even worse than working white people. Lynching had made a comeback, the Klan and hundreds of “white citizen” organizations and “citizens militias” affiliated with it were on the rise, and few prosecutors in the nation would try to hold anybody to account. Local and state ordinances only protected wealthy white men, and, as there were no federal laws against murder or depriving people of their civil rights, even federal courts turned a blind eye to the spreading violence.
Fascists were rallying in American cities and rural areas, wearing swastika armbands and sporting Confederate flags, preaching a new form of government that had already taken over Italy and was on the verge of seizing complete control of Germany and Spain. So many Republican politicians had taken to the floor of the US House and Senate to praise Adolf Hitler and his new German fascism that the nation’s best-selling author, Rex Stout, compiled their speeches into a book titled “The Illustrious Dunderheads.” (My father gave me a first edition copy for my birthday five decades ago.)
Across the Atlantic and Pacific the world was rattled by talk of war. Japan was undergoing a massive rearmament and talking loudly about war with China; Mussolini and Hitler were publicly imagining a world without democracies where, in an echo of Tacitus, unitary fascist world leadership would bring about “a thousand years of peace.”
Into this maelstrom a new president stepped up to the microphone on the balcony of the Capitol and spoke:
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth,” he told the nation, “the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself: nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
This was no happy-talk speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his inauguration. In the next sentence he acknowledged the multiple crises facing America:
“[Stock] Values have shrunk to fantastic levels: taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; and the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.
“More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return.
“Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.”
And, yet, in that moment FDR galvanized the nation.
On March 19, 1933, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Anne McCormick wrote a full-page article for the New York Times Magazinetitled: The Nation Renews Its Faith: Out of the Swift Succession of Events That Has Marked Two Weeks of the New Deal, This Fact Stands Out: That the Confidence of the People in Government Has Been Re-established.
“One reason for the present meekness of both Houses,” McCormick wrote, “is that every member is practically buried under avalanches of telegrams and letters from constituents. These messages come to Democrats and Republicans alike. Sometimes profane, always imperative, they are mostly variations of a single order: Support the President: give him anything he wants.”
The people had seen the disastrous consequences of Republican rule, and rose, united, to reject it and support the new Democratic president.
The result was the creation of the first more-than-50-percent-of-the-people middle class in world history and a major leap forward for American — and worldwide — democracy.
If my analysis of today’s conditions is correct, we’re at a similar hinge-point of history:
Like in 1933, the morbidly rich are riding high.
Almost exactly like 1933, in fact: this is only the second time in American history when three men owned more wealth than the bottom half of the nation, when giant corporations fought unionization tooth-and-nail, and about half of all new income created every year goes straight to the top 1% and is typically taxed at less than 3%.
Like in 1933, Republicans crashed the economy and presented a united front to sabotage Democratic efforts to rebuild it.
Republicans have fully revealed their true economic agenda, and twice in the past two decades we’ve watched them give multi-trillion-dollar tax-cut and deregulation gifts from the public purse to their billionaire owners while driving our economy straight into the ditch. The Bush Crash of 2008 and the Trump Crash of 2020 are analogous to the Republican Great Depression of 1929.
Like in 1933, women are at the forefront of progressive change.
While women got the vote in 1920, they first participated in a measurably big way in the election of 1932 that kicked the GOP out of federal office and set the stage for the New Deal. Women then were outraged that Republicans had thrown their families into poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Women today are outraged that Republicans want to seize control of their bodies and their lives.
Like in 1933, climate change is changing the face of America and influencing our politics.
Deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices during the decades of the Industrial Revolution led to the Dust Bowl, which wiped out family farms and produced dust storms that shut down or nearly shut down entire cities (including New York). Americans demanded action, and FDR delivered with the Civilian Conservation Corps, putting Americans to work planting millions of trees across the country and ending the Dust Bowl.
Today, fifty years of lies from the criminal fossil fuel industry and the billionaires it created have stalled initiatives that could have prevented or softened the impact of global warming.
The result is drought, floods, and forest fires like never before seen in the memory of modern humans. Americans want action and the GOP continues to claim there’s no such thing as global warming or, if there is, we shouldn’t do anything to stop it.
Even as the fossil fuel industry continues to fund lies about climate change, fully 66 to 80 percent of Americans now want “major climate mitigation strategies.” And Democrats — without a single Republican vote in either the House or the Senate — just delivered the largest climate bill in the history of America.
Like in 1933, working people are rising up against employers who deny them the right to unionize.
Firing, beating, and even killing strikers and union organizers was widespread during the Republican Roaring 20s; today most of the anti-union activities are done by giant law firms with the blessing of dozens of 5-4 anti-union Supreme Court decisions between 1970 and today, nearly every one objected to by Democratic nominees to the Court.
While workers aren’t being killed in the streets like in the ‘20s, giant profitable corporate employers shutting down stores and firing union organizers while giving their CEOs tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation are driving a similar working-class rage across the country. Gallup notes:
“The National Labor Relations Board reported a 57% increase in union election petitions filed during the first six months of fiscal year 2021.”
Labor unions today are enjoying a resurgence in popularity not seen since the 1950s. Gallup reports that 71 percent of Americans approve of unions, and 40 percent of unionized workers describe their unions as “very important” to them.
Like in 1933, religious hustlers and televangelists are preying on low-income Americans while making themselves rich and grasping for political power.
Radio came into its own in a big way in the 1920s, and by 1933 was dominated by hard-right religious figures supporting Republican politicians. Billy Sunday, Sister Aimee McPherson, and Father Charles Coughlin (who briefly supported and then turned on FDR) dominated the American airwaves, preaching fascism, racism, and worker exploitation to every part of America, just like rightwing hate radio hosts and televangelists do today on over 1500 radio stations from coast-to-coast.
In 1925, right-wingers successfully prosecuted Tennessee high school biology teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution. Today, right-wingers — again citing “values” and religion — are threatening to prosecute high school teachers for informing schoolchildren about America’s true racial history, climate change, and the simple reality that some people are gay or trans and have been throughout human history.
Like in 1933, right-wing rhetoric is driving an explosion of attacks on people of color.
That year, which saw the inauguration of FDR and the beginning of the end of the Republican dominance of American politics (for the next two generations), also saw a 350 percent increase in lynching in America over just the previous year. Roosevelt took the victims’ side, calling for civil rights legislation. As History.comnotes:
“The Great Depression impacted African Americans for decades to come. It spurred the rise of African-American activism, which laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The popularity of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal program also saw African Americans switch their political allegiances to become a core part of the Democratic Party’s voting bloc.”
Today we’re seeing a newly revived and broadened Civil Rights movement, as killer cops, discriminating employers, and brutal, racist, white supremacist gangs are being held to account in ways unimaginable just twenty years ago. While Republicans and right-wing media continue to demonize minorities and call for everything from giant walls to Muslim bans, groups representing race, religion, and gender identity interests are collaborating under the banner of the Democratic Party.
Like in 1933, a Democratic President is calling out fat-cats and fascists in the GOP while uniting Americans in a great project to rebuild our nation.
FDR railed against the men he called the “Economic Royalists,” saying:
“For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. … There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small business men and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. …
“It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property.
“And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.”
President Biden is calling out the same people, those who use their great wealth to oppress workers while promoting what Biden calls “semi-fascism.”
“Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic. …
“And here, in my view, is what is true: MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people.
“They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.
“MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards — backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.
“They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country.”
Between the obscene excesses of the GOP — from gifting billionaires with trillions of tax dollars; to using hate as a political weapon; to fighting forward progress on climate, voting rights, and rebuilding the middle class — and the united front Democrats are now offering, change is in the air.
Inflation is down, gas prices are normalizing, and even former Republicans are disgusted by Trump’s treasonous behavior and his followers’ support and rationalization of it.
Women and young people, in particular, are registering to vote in record numbers and on my talk radio show I’m sensing electricity in the air.
We just saw four special elections for seats in the House of Representatives, and in every one Democratic candidates outperformed President Biden’s 2020 vote in those same districts. A ballot initiative in Kansas to outlaw abortion was soundly defeated in that Red state, as Democratic candidates are integrating criticism of Republican support for the Dobbs decision into their campaigns.
Republicans are running scared, frantically scrubbing their websites of any mention of their extremist anti-abortion positions and deleting references to their climate denial and embrace of billionaires.
While we can never discount the impact of billions of rightwing dollars authorized by the Supreme Court’s corrupt Citizens United decision, or the ability of Republican-controlled swing states to suppress or even refuse to count or acknowledge the vote, this all still points to a positive, 1933-like political trend this fall.
And if Democrats can pull it off again, four or five generations after FDR did, it may well signal a second repudiation of Republican trickle-down style economics and a second major renewal of the American middle class.
This election may well be the turning point, when Reaganomics and neoliberalism are finally rejected and America gets back on track to work for it’s people rather than just its billionaires.
Bottom line: double-check your voter registration and get active. Tag, you’re it!
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Trade has been a big factor in the reduction of the manufacturing wage premium. The country lost millions of jobs to imports in the 90s and 00s. The jobs that remained often paid far less than the jobs that were lost. A big part of this story was the decline of unionization in manufacturing. In 1980, close to 20 percent of the manufacturing workforce was unionized. This had fallen to just 7.7 percent by 2021, only slightly higher than the private sector average of 6.1 percent. More