Why ameliorative reformism and lesser-evil-ism is failed strategy and what is the winning alternative!
The United States has experienced the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Great Society War on Poverty, and decades of promises by reformist politicians. Yet, many American workers receive so little pay that they struggle to satisfy essential needs. The homeless population in the US exceeds half a million. Tens of millions of Americans are still without health insurance. Barely one in ten of US workers is covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Inequality is steadily increasing. Government allows for-profit enterprises to continue poisoning the environment. A huge percentage of federal government spending goes to the merchants of death in the war industries. Meanwhile, the US intervenes (with military force, with coups d’état, with economic sieges [sanctions], with funding of opposition groups, etc.) in the internal affairs of other countries all around the world sometimes causing massive humanitarian catastrophes in the process. Despite statutory protections and Constitutional guarantees, violations of human rights (of women, of LGBTI people, of racial and religious minorities, of immigrants and asylum-seekers, etc.) remain pervasive. When the Democrats (under Obama, under Clinton, under Carter) controlled both the White House and Congress, their policies largely served to perpetuate rather than eliminate the social evils of capitalism? Reason would suggest that the commonplace policy on the left of relying upon Democrat politicians is an ineffectual and counterproductive strategy.
What, then, should be the strategy for progressives, socialists, and the social-justice movements? Why has opposing the rightwing Republicans by backing the center-left Democratic Party, not only failed to eliminate the social evils of the capitalist social order, but failed even to prevent major regress? In order to correctly answer these questions, it will be necessary to analyze the relevant political conditions including: (1) the class-based power relationships in contemporary American capitalism, (2) the alternative strategic plans for achieving lasting success in the quest for comprehensive social justice, and (3) the tactical considerations in implementation of the appropriate strategic plan.
1. Most important, which class rules? In the capitalist world, it is those with wealth and privilege (the capitalists) who (directly themselves or indirectly thru their agents and apologists) exercise predominant influence over economic affairs, civic policies, and public discourse. The notion that, under capitalism, working people are equal participants in making the decisions which affect their lives is absurd. Likewise, the liberal notion, that representative government (chosen periodically by an otherwise mostly passive electorate) in any capitalist country can be other than predominantly the tool of a self-serving ruling capitalist class, is delusional. Liberal governments, even under social reform parties, continue to function, at least in considerable measure, as facilitators of capitalist profiteering and predation. Economic power begets political power, and money rules. Strategy which neglects to take this fact fully into account is bound to fail.
2. Can capitalism be sustainably reformed? Historically and currently, many social justice activists have sought social progress thru a pursuit of incremental ameliorative reforms, a practice which requires operating primarily thru established governmental processes within the confines of the liberal regime wherein the capitalist-class exercises grossly disproportionate political power. This strategy is fundamentally flawed.
1st. Limits and exceptions. In actuality, the ameliorative-reformist project has rarely ever produced more than marginal gains except when a powerful faction of the ruling class embraced momentous reform out of concern that popular discontent was trending toward embrace of social revolution, as:
- during the Progressive Era (especially1900..20) when popular discontent was widespread and many avowed socialists were winning elections;
- during the 1930s when US workers were defiantly resisting evictions, occupying factories, and listening to the Socialist and Communist parties; and
- during the Civil Rights and Great Society years when racial minorities and other discontented population groups were staging mass protests, mass civil disobedience, and/or urban rebellions.
In those cases, it was actually the pressure from an increasingly discontented and rebellious populace which impelled the ruling class to make significant concessions. The governmental process (legislation, executive decisions, etc.) was merely the mechanism.
2nd. Nullifications. After quiescence was restored, adversely affected capitalists used their political clout to rescind or otherwise nullify most of such previously conceded reform as impinged upon their profits and/or proprietary freedoms. A few of the many examples of nullification which could be cited.
♦ Reformers responded to the widespread popular outrage over the rise of abusive corporate monopolies during the Gilded Age by enacting legislation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to break up the combines and prohibit their collusion against their independent competitors and their suppliers and consumers. Beginning in 1902 a burst of anti-trust action under Presidents Roosevelt and Taft broke up such notable combines as the Northern Securities (railroad) monopoly (1904), the (meatpacking) “Beef Trust” (1906), and Standard Oil (1911). Later, with the widespread complacent popular embrace of “normalcy” during the 1920s, antimonopoly law suits against other powerful combines with overwhelming dominance in their respective markets, such as United States Steel (with 67% of the domestic market at its formation) and International Harvester (created in 1902 thru merger of five companies with over 80% of the business), were unsuccessful (in 1920 and 1927 respectively). Units of Standard Oil have subsequently merged with major competitors to form such behemoths as Exxon-Mobil (1999) and Chevron-Gulf-Texaco (1985 and 2000). Since 1920, market domination by one, or a very few tacitly market-sharing firms, has generally gone unchallenged. In fact, such market domination is steadily increasing. 
♦ The progressive income tax (enacted during the Great Depression). From 1932 thru 1981 the highest incomes paid a top marginal tax rate varying between 63 and 94%; but since 1986 the nominal top marginal rate has been less than 40%. Meanwhile exclusions, write-offs, tax shelters, and other special breaks usable only by the rich have proliferated giving them an effective tax rate at a fraction of their nominal bracket-rate. Thus, income-tax progressivity is long gone. 
♦ The 1935 National Labor Relations Act empowered workers and resulted in huge increases in collective bargaining, but with popular quiescence came Taft-Hartley (1947) and renewed employer resistance which has drastically turned the tables against organized labor, reduced from a peak of 34.8% to 10.5% of US workers (as of 2018). 
♦ The 1960’s anti-poverty programs made a significant start by reducing official poverty from 17.3% in 1965 to 11.1% in 1973; but the subsequent enactment of budget-slashing and tax-cutting austerity policies eviscerated essential social welfare programs and sent poverty rates back up, so that the rate has fluctuated between 11 and 15.2% ever since . Meanwhile, since the 1970s income for most of the working class has stagnated or declined, while the rich have grown ever richer. In fact, much of the working class is jobless or under-employed, working for subsistence wages with no benefits, and in poverty. Many hundreds of thousands are actually homeless, often because of lack of affordable housing. Capitalists profit thru the downward pressure exerted on wage levels by the presence of a large reserve of impoverished and unorganized workers.
♦ The Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] was supposed to mandate safe working conditions, but it has been so severely underfunded that it would take 129 years for the agency to inspect every workplace under its jurisdiction. In fact, while capital has cut costs by neglecting safety, workplace fatalities (as reported for 2011..17) exceed 4,000 annually in the US. 
♦ Regulatory agencies (EPA, FTC, CFPB, etc.) which are supposed to protect the environment and/or consumers: have been made so toothless that violations often remain profitable even when the puny prescribed fines are imposed; and/or are placed under the control of administrators who are opposed to the regulatory mission or unwilling to offend affected businesses; and/or are so underfunded and understaffed that they are unable to perform their prescribed function. Meanwhile, consumers and environmental activists: have no prescribed enforcement role, and can respond to violations only thru protest and/or resort to costly, time-consuming, and often fruitless litigation.
3rd. The social imperative. In contradistinction to socialism wherein the social imperative is to satisfy human and social needs, under private-enterprise capitalism economic activity is driven always by the pursuit of private profit and the accumulation of ever greater concentrations of private wealth. Said pursuit is exploitative, predatory, and causative of persisting social evils. Thus, in actual effect, ameliorative reformism comes to be a pursuit of an unnatural reformed capitalism; and, to whatever extent capitalism has ever been reformed, it has eventually reverted back toward the previous unreformed and naturally predatory capitalism as the relatively pro-reform center-left and generally anti-reform rightwing parties (both of which accept the essentials of the capitalist social order) have alternated in and out of control of government. Therefore, the achievement of a sustainable social justice depends upon: the effectuation of a political revolution to replace political domination by the capitalist class with rule by the people, and social revolution to replace private-enterprise capitalism with socialism.
3. Revolution? When a formerly ruled class ousts the former ruling class and replaces it in control of the state power, that constitutes a political revolution. When a political revolution also transforms the social order thereby liberating and empowering a formerly subjugated and exploited class; that constitutes a social revolution. A political revolution may or may not produce a social revolution. Some illustrative examples of revolutions.
♦ The US War for Independence from British rule effectuated a political revolution i.e. transfer of state power from representatives (including appointed colonial governors) of the propertied classes (especially merchants and industrial capitalists) in Britain to elected representatives of the propertied classes in the American colonies. For the most part, it did not result in a social revolution because it did not produce fundamental changes in the social order; it did not abolish slavery or indentured servitude, nor did it then end the exclusion from the right to vote and to participate in civil politics of the 94% of the population who were not white male property-owners.
♦ The Mexican revolution for independence (1810..21), as led at first by Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Morales, aimed for a social revolution to obtain equal rights and social justice for all Mexicans including the oppressed non-white castes (mestizos, Blacks, and Amerindians). It was ultimately consummated by Mexican conservatives as primarily a political revolution with transfer of state power from the (Spanish-born) peninsulares to the (Mexican-born) criollo propertied elite, with little more than nominal change in the social order.
♦ The 1860 US election and subsequent Civil War resulted in: a political revolution i.e. the transfer of political domination from the southern planter class to the mostly-northern industrial capitalists; and a social revolution i.e. the abolition of chattel slavery (already having been achieved peacefully over the previous several decades in the northern states where its economic advantages were generally minimal) and its replacement with wage labor.
♦ The termination of radical Reconstruction was a US counterrevolution with: the re-subjugation of the former slaves as servile sharecroppers and convict-forced-laborers, their mass exclusion from the vote, and the violent enforcement of white supremacy (in the interest of the wealthy white ruling elite).
♦ In the Russian October Revolution (1917) the Revolutionary Military Committee of the elected Congress of Councils [Soviets] representing the workers and peasants (and with the Bolsheviks and their allies in the majority), seized state power nearly bloodlessly from the unelected Provisional Government. The Soviet government then withdrew Russia from the imperialist war and began the revolutionary social transformation of Russia for the benefit of the workers and peasants. Massive blood-letting came only after armed reactionary counterrevolutionary forces, backed by intervening foreign imperialist armies, commenced the civil war in a failed attempt to reverse the revolution. Contrary to the assertions by anti-Communist liberal historians (who regard the unelected Provisional Government as legitimate and its ouster as illegitimate), this new Soviet government was a genuine popular democracy [A] with competitively elected officials accountable to a politically involved worker-and-peasant-majority electorate.
[A. Note. In order to prevail in the civil war, it was necessary for the worker-peasant state to militarize the government and the economy with accompanying bureaucracy and an erosion of democratic norms. With victory after three years of the civil war, Lenin called upon the governing Bolshevik Party to reverse the bureaucratization and to remove Stalin from his position as General Secretary, the key administrative post, where he had proven unable to refrain from abusing his power. Unfortunately, with Lenin struck down by a stroke and soon dead, the Bolshevik leadership ignored Lenin’s recommendations, the result being the development of an authoritarian welfare state ruled by a privileged bureaucratic elite rather than a genuine socialist regime ruled by the working class.]
♦ The Communist-led popular revolutionary conquest of state power in mainland China in 1949 also introduced a social revolution resulting [B]: in the overthrow of the rule of the landlords, the comprador capitalists, and the warlords (groups allied to Western imperialism); and in land reform, worker rights, worker and peasant access to education and health care, and other popular revolutionary social programs.
[B. Note. Led by a top-down bureaucratic Communist Party modeled on the Soviet Party, the new regime, as in other Communist-governed states, soon evolved into another authoritarian welfare state. Meanwhile, hostility from a powerful US-led regime-change-seeking Western Empire naturally induced the authoritarian welfare states to generally respond in self-defense by suppressing (largely Western-incited) political dissent and by becoming more rigidly authoritarian.]
4. Who will make the social revolution? Ruling class reformers and their privileged middle-class allies may act to ameliorate some contemporary social evils, but they will certainly not willingly acquiesce to an abolition of private-enterprise capitalism. Under capitalism the working class is the one revolutionary class.
- With its members needing to sell their commodified labor-power in order to obtain the means to provide for themselves and their families, the working class is relegated to an unenviable role under the capitalist social order, namely to be ruled and exploited as a servile mass.
- It is the one class which, as a class, has nothing to lose and everything to gain from the abolition of capitalist exploitation of labor and the establishment of socialism.
- Because of its indispensable role in the operation of the economy, it has the predominant capacity to make the social revolution.
Thus, it is only the working class, with its allies, who can be expected to make any such social revolution. Moreover, experience confirms the observation by Marx [in the General Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association (1871)] that “the emancipation of the working classes” can only be effectuated “by the working classes themselves” . Hence, the working class with its allies must first wrest state power from the capitalist class and then reconstruct the social order.
5. What will induce the working class to become revolutionary? The working class exists in a capitalistic environment where it naturally comes under the influence of the self-seeking mores [C] which permeate the existing social order. As long as workers interact as individuals and narrow self-seeking groups and/or passively rely upon others to serve their particular interests, they will be largely imbued with those mores. The working class thus affected will be incapable of cohering as necessary in order to wrest political power from the capitalist class; and even if it did come into possession of state power, it would lack the moral consciousness and capacity to effectuate a socialist reconstruction of the social order. However, as the working class engages in class struggle and in the pursuit of social justice, it naturally remakes its mores, becomes socially conscious, transforms itself, and makes itself fit to carry thru the revolutionary transformation of the civil society. Consequently, mass working class participation in the struggles for social justice is one prerequisite for a successful socialist revolution. (Unfortunately, even where US workers are connected to class struggle thru collective bargaining organizations, union officials, with too few exceptions: (1) relegate the rank-and-file workers to passive reliance upon said officials rather than bringing them into active participation; and (2) fail to educate their members for solidarity with other struggles, domestic and foreign, against the social injustices of capitalism. For the workers’ organizations to become revolutionary, this must change. For the workers’ organizations to become revolutionary, this must change.) A likely second prerequisite is the arrival of one of the periodic crises which capitalism has proven incapable of preventing, the consequences being: (1) the class antagonisms inherent in the capitalist social order becoming generally transparent, and (2) adverse impacts on the lives of the people such that they are induced to react.
[C. Definition: mores (pronounced “mo-rays”) = the accepted traditional values, customs, and usages of a social group.]
6. The need for genuine democracy. Career politicians compete for votes at election time and then expect their voters to passively trust them to govern in their voter’s real interests. As Marx observed [Civil War in France (1871)] the actual result of popular election under a liberal “democracy” was and is the electorate “deciding once in [every few] years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in [government]” . What is the alternative? Grass-roots popular participatory democracy, in contradistinction to passive reliance upon politicians who primarily serve their big-money campaign contributors and/or can be held accountable by the general electorate only at election time, must always be an essential socialist objective. As Marx also observed [in the Manifesto (1848)] the first task of the socialist revolution is to “raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy” .
1st. Phony “democracy”. Liberals are defenders of the representative “democracy” (aka “bourgeois democracy”) which serves as a façade for what is actually pseudo-democracy and plutocracy [D]. They also demand preservation of the individualistic freedoms of the liberal social order including, in some form, the capitalist freedoms to engage in private commercial enterprise and to accumulate private wealth (disregarding the fact that such activity generally depends upon predatory exploitation of labor, of the environment, of consumers, etc.). Liberals are divided among ideological factions. Social liberals (such as investment banker Asher Edelman, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and politician Bernie Sanders) seek a reformed capitalism (usually with mixed economy). Classical liberals (such as the billionaire Koch brothers) oppose social and regulatory reforms as infringements upon capitalist freedoms. Centrist politicians (such as Bill and Hillary Clinton [HRC] and Joe Biden), while firmly committed to capitalism, otherwise embrace whatever policies, progressive or regressive, as are most expedient for advancing their political careers. Neoliberalism is classical liberalism with privatization carried to the extreme. With their embrace of government by periodically elected officials, liberals, regardless of faction, stand (or will eventually stand) in opposition to the real democracy wherewith the working-class majority actively participates in governance and actually rules.
[D. Note. To whatever extent liberal welfare states (as in Scandinavia) have ever actually provided some measure of popular democracy, capitalist influence has ultimately eroded and displaced it with capitalist domination.]
2nd. Requisites for sustainable democracy. Real democracy depends upon people power at the grass-roots level with the people actively directing their elected representatives. This then provides the basis for compelling governmental institutions to actually serve the people. Also necessary is the rule of law with provisions for comprehensive social justice including human rights and civil liberties. The rule of law is necessary in order to prevent majoritarian abuses and abuses by dominant factions, which, if permitted, will result in division, strife, corruption, and incapacity to govern for the general welfare.
7. What must be done? The ameliorative-reform strategy, because it accepts the liberal political regime which perpetuates political domination by the capitalist class, is necessarily and inevitably a loser. What then must be done? The efficacious alternative to ameliorative-reformism has always been to educate and organize all those, who are receptive, into a revolutionary movement for social-justice [RMSJ] which must seek to become a potent political force capable of effectuating the needed revolution?
1st. Action plan. In order to become a potent political force, this RMSJ must grow its popular support by fighting for reforms in a revolutionary way while simultaneously building popular support for social revolution. What is the revolutionary way? The socialist movement must return to Marxist basics, which bespeak the following.
♦ Revolutionary activists must draw people into active participation in struggles for social justice so that their experience will educate them regarding the class antagonisms of capitalism and the need for political and social revolution.
♦ Revolutionaries must also combat gender, racial, sectarian religious, and other bigotries and the attendant injustices which corrupt, disunite, and disempower the people.
♦ Activists must expose the inadequacy of “reforms”, whenever, as usual, they fall far short of fully correcting targeted social evils, but instead offer only the token or marginal improvements so often favored by center-left politicians.
♦ The revolutionary movement must educate people and frame the pursuit of reforms:
- as forced concessions to be squeezed from the powers-that-be;
- as reversible achievements which adversely affected capitalists will, when opportunity presents, act to nullify; and
- as incomplete measures, which should not be regarded as ends in themselves but as building blocks in the quest for a new social order in which the social imperative is the satisfaction of human and social needs.
♦ Revolutionaries must not permit the reform agenda to be confined to palliatives bestowed upon passive beneficiaries by paternalistic agents of the reformist faction of the ruling capitalist class in order to temporarily ameliorate immediate popular discontents. Rather, insofar as possible, activists must: demand reforms which empower the people. People empowerment includes: collective bargaining, litigation rights, citizen initiatives, public participation and oversight, FOIA access, voting rights, civil liberties, human rights enforcement, etc.
♦ Revolutionaries must also demand measures which reduce and constrain the powers of the ruling capitalist class: public interest regulation of for-profit businesses, ending and reversing privatizations, expanded public services and social welfare programs, bans on corporate money in election campaigns, restraints upon the powers and reach of the repressive state apparatus, etc.
Ω Note, people empowerment plus constraints on the power of the capitalists will provide the strongest prospects for social revolution to be effectuated with a minimum of violent counterrevolutionary resistance.
2nd. Social justice solidarity. The quest for social revolution can succeed only if the revolutionary movement becomes a unified quest for comprehensive social justice targeting all manifestations of systemic oppression, abuse, and persecution.
♦ Particular struggles. Insofar as the particular struggles against the multifarious social injustices of the capitalist order are conducted in isolation, no complete and lasting victory against such injustices can reasonably be expected. These injustices include: working people subjugated and exploited with thousands of millions of them consigned to poverty and privation, plundering of finite natural resources and poisoning of the natural environment leading to future worldwide catastrophes; neocolonialism, imperialism, militarism, and predatory wars; misogynist persecutions and other sexist abuses, racial oppressions, sectarian religious impositions and persecutions, abuse of children and of people with infirmities or disabilities; and so forth. Admittedly, in the natural operation of this social order these injustices impact each of the distinct victim populations with its own particular form of oppression. However, these oppressions have always been, and must necessarily continue to be, an integral feature of the capitalist social order because they result from the predatory capitalist quests for profit and/or for domination. Hence it will not be possible to eradicate these predatory features of capitalism without eliminating the capitalist social order itself. Neither can the social order itself be supplanted without the revolutionary social movement being solidly enlisted in the fight against all of its ubiquitous predations and persecutions. For this reason, among others: the revolutionary movement must act in opposition to all forms of social injustice, and the struggle for social justice must be indivisible.
♦ Regarding imperialism. Metropolitan country capitalists have obtained the acquiescence of much of the metropolitan-country working class:
- by pandering to ignorant racial anxieties and national chauvinist prejudices in order to prevent it from making common cause with the working class in the peripheral countries;
- by providing cheap consumer goods produced in peripheral-country sweatshops; and
- by sacrificing a part of their super-profits from operations in colonial and neocolonial dependencies to pay for concessions to ameliorate the discontent of much of the metropolitan working class and thereby buy its widespread acceptance of empire.
Thus, the struggle for social revolution in any metropolitan country is inevitably hindered as long as that country continues its participation in the imperial domination and/or neocolonial exploitation of other countries. As Friedrich Engels recognized [in his Speech on Poland (1847)] “A nation cannot become free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations” . Consequently, the struggle against imperialism must be a prominent and constant component of the revolutionary program and practice.
8. Lesser-evil-ism. Proponents of ameliorative reformism generally seek to defend existing reforms, to regain lost reforms, and/or to achieve further advances thru the policy of left unity behind the lesser-evil centrist politicians who have been seducing and betraying much of the left for decades. This is a failed policy.
1st. Deceivers. At least since the 1990s centrist Democrats (Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama, HRC, Pelosi, Schumer, Biden, et al) have pandered to their popular base with: lip-service to popularly-embraced progressive values, mostly empty promises of improved economic conditions for working people, and minimal reforms on the margins as sops to their left-leaning constituents. Meanwhile, they: are allied to the Wall Street mega-banks and other capitalists, are imperial foreign-policy hawks serving the war profiteers and transnational capital, and have consistently avoided doing anything which would imperil the survival of any powerful capitalist interest group or seriously jeopardize its profits. In the final analysis, centrists’ actual allegiance is to capital rather than to their popular constituencies.
2nd. Subservience and expediency. Centrist politicians have no firm commitment to progressive principles, and they readily jettison such principles whenever it becomes politically expedient to do so. Their only firm principle, aside from protecting and/or advancing their political careers, is the preservation of private-enterprise capitalism and liberal pseudo-democracy (and their commitment to that preservation rests upon their dependency upon support from the liberal capitalists who provide the bulk of their campaign funding and other crucial support). Obsessed as they are with their own personal career political success, centrists readily shift their policy stances, and such shifts include abandonment of progressive positions whenever it becomes politically expedient to do so. Consequently, their subservience to capital and expedient submission to rightwing political winds is entirely to be expected. Some illustrative examples.
♦ In the 1970s, when under pressure from racist white constituents opposed to school desegregation, Senator Joe Biden switched his position from support to opposition on court-ordered busing to end school segregation. Then, after having been a critic (in 1981) of Reagan’s push for tougher prison sentences, Biden discovered that being “tough on crime” was popular with much of the electorate and spent a lot of effort from 1984 to 1994 pushing Congress, over opposition from the NAACP and the ACLU, to enact (with support from most Senate Democrats) a series of “tough on crime” crime bills which contributed hugely to the disproportionately racial-minority mass incarceration (including: mandatory minimum sentences, the 100 times harsher penalty for crack as for powder cocaine, stripping inmates of appeal rights, and a big increase in the number of crimes subject to the death penalty). 
♦ Obama posed as a progressive in the 2008 Presidential primaries. Then as President his choices (in 2009) for Treasury Secretary and chief economic advisor were neoliberals US Treasury bureaucrat Timothy Geithner and World Bank vice-president Larry Summers. The then-ruling Democrats’ response to the 2008 economic crisis was: to bail out, rather than nationalize, the big banks which had created the conditions which were its principal cause; and to provide minimal relief measures which nevertheless permitted some five million homeowners to lose their homes to the banks in Obama’s first six years, with many forced into bankruptcy while official unemployment doubled to 10%. 
♦ Obama and the Congressional Democrat leadership refused to permit consideration of the single-payer option and limited their healthcare “reform” so as to ensure the survival and continued profiteering of affected capitalist interest groups (in the health insurance, pharmaceutical, and service-provider industries), while still leaving tens of millions un- or under-insured and often without the means to access many of their often-vital healthcare needs.
♦ Democrat actions to protect against climate catastrophe consist of: lip service (speeches); unenforceable aspirational goals (the Paris Agreement); regulatory enhancements (fuel efficiency “standards”, the “clean power plan”); market incentives (carbon tax, “cap and trade” schemes, subsidies for renewables); and fantasies (“clean coal”). Those actions may appear to constitute progress toward cutting climate-destroying carbon pollution, but the meager 4.5% reduction in US CO2 emissions during Obama’s 8-year presidency actually depended largely upon independent market factors (especially cleaner alternative energy sources become cheaper than coal). Meanwhile, Obama counteracted the effects of his inadequate reform program by actively promoting: huge increases in production of fossil fuels (with increased drilling permits, expanded offshore drilling, huge increase in fracking and production of natural gas, and a 13% increase in fossil-fuel pipelines from 2011 to 2015). He also issued large new leases to coal producers. Under Obama, US exports of coal, oil, and natural gas increased massively (1,000% in the case of oil); while Obama-approved Export-Import Bank loans and guarantees for fossil-fuel projects abroad nearly tripled from the level under G W Bush. In 2017 (the year Obama left office) the US, with 15.3% of world oil production, was the world’s top producer, well ahead of number-two Saudi Arabia’s 12.7%. Meanwhile, “climate champion” Governor Jerry Brown increased offshore drilling in state waters, eased restrictions on drilling and fracking, and fired regulators who stood firm against unsafe drilling practices. Democrats are all for saving the climate, but only as long as so doing doesn’t include what is actually necessary, namely shutting down the profitable poisoning operations of the politically-powerful fossil-fuel companies. 
♦ While Democrats’ have acted for the benefit of some women and minorities in the middle class; for most women and minorities of the working class, Democrat policies overall have done more harm than good. Consider: the mass incarceration (disproportionately targeted against African-Americans and other racial minorities) resulting from Clinton’s 1994 crime bill; Clinton’s punitive 1996 welfare overhaul (which leaves the poor, especially poor women and their children, to endure privation on starvation wages); the bipartisan 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall banking reforms (repeal which unleashed the speculative and exploitative mortgage-lending practices which produced the aforementioned great recession and avalanche of home foreclosures); Obama’s support for increasing privatization in K-to-12 schools  (which robs already under-resourced public schools and students of desperately needed resources); and so on.
3rd. The end result. Social-liberal reformists, including many avowed “socialists”, present the policy of pragmatic unity behind the lesser-evil center-left Democrats as the necessary means to resist the bigoted and other antisocial policies of the Republicans. The actual effect of this policy is:
- to objectively support many of the same antisocial policies;
- to largely sacrifice the opportunity to present the needed anti-capitalist response to the current mass popular discontent, much of which results from conditions for which Democrats (with their embrace of: neoliberal privatization panaceas, grossly excessive military expenditures, destructive US imperial interventionism against independent foreign states, corporate giveaways, and other antisocial policies) deserve much of the blame;
- to foster widespread popular cynicism and political passivity; and
- to become ineffective in efforts to prevent regressive measures on some basic human rights of minorities and women.
The ideal of Democrat control of Congress and the Presidency (and of the Supreme Court by their appointees) may seem comforting to many progressives; but past achievement of that arrangement, while not entirely inconsequential, has neither eliminated the social evils of capitalism, nor precluded the eventual reversal of past progress.
4th. The alternative to lesser-evil-ism. It is only the popular revolutionary movement for social justice which will be able: to force truly significant concessions (including actual curtailments of the abuses of state power) from the governmental institutions; and to eventually wrest state power from the agents of the capitalist class preparatory to the socialist reconstruction of the social order. Building this movement must therefore be the current focus for all those seeking to eliminate the social evils of capitalism.
9. Strategy. The key issue in revolutionary political strategy is who owns the state power. If the revolutionary movement for social justice is to succeed, its activists must unite behind the situation-appropriate strategic objective with respect to the state power and embrace the corresponding strategic plan. Then they must forge a broad strategic alliance of all those political forces which can be persuaded to embrace that strategic objective and will make meaningful contributions to effectuating it, notwithstanding their differences on secondary issues.
1st. Inapplicable antifascism. If that strategic objective were antifascist, that is seeking to restore a lost, or preserve a seriously threatened, liberal “democracy”; then the alliance would include as many as possible of the liberal politicians and of those capitalist factions which fund and favor them. However, despite many leftists branding the Trump Presidency as “fascist”, Trump has nowhere near the despotic power of a fascist despot nor any prospects for achieving the power to suppress his many active and vocal critics. In fact, the pluralist liberal regime with its civil liberties remains essentially intact (notwithstanding the ever-constant need to fight against the ever-present persecutions of vulnerable and stigmatized individuals and groups). Therefore, an antifascist strategic objective and corresponding strategic alliance are currently not appropriate. (For explanation of the conditions which lead to fascism, see referenced article .)
2nd. The appropriate course. Despite the ever-present pro-reform/anti-reform differences over many aspects of public policy, and despite the current rancorous partisanship, politics and government remain dominated by a ruling capitalist class which (on a bipartisan basis) is: united in defense of private-enterprise capitalism, overwhelmingly insistent upon the US-led Western imperial domination of the world, and generally supportive of preserving the liberal political regime (often somewhat rigged to the advantage of one or other or both of the duopoly parties) in the US. In these circumstances the strategic objective must be to prepare the conditions for social revolution which means building the popular activist revolutionary movement for social justice [RMSJ] which will eventually wrest state power from the entire capitalist class so that it can then effectuate the socialist reconstruction [E] of the social order. The STRATEGIC alliance will, insofar as possible, include all those political forces which will share and contribute constructively to the pursuit of this anti-capitalist revolutionary objective. (This does not preclude TACTICAL alliances, as explained below, with pro-capitalist factions on issues involving civil liberties, human rights, environmental defense, etc.)
[E. Note. Socialist reconstruction will operate to institute a socialist order with the following features.
- The means of production will be socially owned and be administered by the civil authority for the benefit of all of the people.
- Production enterprises will be operated in accordance with a central plan: with concern to protect the natural environment; and with the objective of satisfying the needs of workers, consumers, and residential communities.
- The civil authority will allocate resources and set priorities to ensure universal provision for human and social needs: employment, disability and retirement income, childcare, education, health care, housing, public transit, emergency services, public security, et cetera.
- The surplus will be used for the benefit of the workers and of the community rather than to concentrate wealth in the possession of a class of proprietary capitalist exploiters and/or to fund special privileges for a class of ruling bureaucrats.
- There will be jobs for everyone who is able and willing to work; and every employee will be paid in accordance with the principle of equal pay for equal work. Thus labor-power will cease to be simply a commodity.
- A truly independent judiciary will act consistently in accordance with the rule of law so that human rights, civil liberties, and due process rights will be protected. Civil liberties will naturally include the right to criticize officials, public policies, even the social order; however, there will, of course, be no right to commit, or conspire to commit, acts of corruption, sabotage, or counterrevolution.
- Major informational media will actually serve the public by: publishing information relevant to public concerns, by providing equal space for opposing views on controversial public issues, by publishing rebuttals and corrections to misinformation, and so forth.
- Government will be organized so as to ensure control by and accountability to the working class and its allies thru: fair electoral processes, popular input and oversight over the actions of governing officials, constraints on bureaucratic accretions of power, and respect for the independence of workplace collective bargaining organizations and other civic associations. ]
3rd. Focus. As long as social justice activists limit their focus to struggles over ameliorative reforms and which politicians are more or less favorable or hostile to that reform agenda, agents of capital will continue to control the state power. Reform struggles are necessary; but until socialists take control of the state power and end the rule of capital, they will not sustainably eliminate the social evils of capitalism.
10. Tactical policy decisions. Compromises, pragmatic alliances, tactics, etc. need to be consistent with social justice principles and with the strategic objective which currently must be to educate, organize, unite, and empower the revolutionary class and its allies so as to create the requisite conditions for anti-capitalist social revolution.
1st. Engagement. Certainly, the revolutionary organization should not isolate itself into political irrelevance by adopting a sectarian purist policy of refusal to ever enter into alliances [F] with antisocial factions and/or their duplicitous politicians. However, there is a principled and astute way, as well as an unprincipled and/or misguided way, to conduct an alliance policy.
[F. Note, alliances may range from formal mutually agreed-upon pacts to incidental de facto concordances.]
2nd. Limits. Tactical alliances with antisocial partners (e.g. Democrat politicians, and sometimes even with some Republicans) are often appropriate and necessary whenever there is something of real value to be gained. In fact, in order to obtain success in extracting any concession from the ruling power, it is generally necessary to forge alliances which include all those who are able and willing to contribute in the struggle for the pertinent concession. Any such alliance must, of course, be a temporary arrangement limited to the particular shared objective.
3rd. Principles and compromises. In order to forge and sustain needed alliances, revolutionary organizations must make pragmatic compromises; but, in order to achieve ultimate success, they must also remain faithful to their social-justice principles.
♦ Such compromises generally involve joint or congruent actions with alliance partners in pursuit of immediate objectives, such as: in candidate commitments when seeking the election to public office of one whose candidacy or election is reasonably expected to be useful to the revolutionary movement, or in narrowing the scope of the demands to the extent necessary in order to obtain a useful concession for people-empowerment or constraint of ruling-class power. Compromises, which enable joint or congruent work toward the achievement of specific current shared objectives, are appropriate as long as, and only insofar as, they: do not sabotage other essential revolutionary objectives, do not include any abandonment (by the revolutionaries) of social-justice or other fundamental principles, and do not concede more than necessary. Unprincipled compromises: corrupt the revolutionary movement, discredit it in the appraisals by many needed supporters, and set it on a path to eventual abandonment of the revolutionary cause (as occurred with the parties of the Socialist International [SI] in the years preceding the Great War (1914..18) [G].
[G. Note. SI politicians (some out of national chauvinist prejudice and others out of political expediency) had gone silent on the colonialism, imperialism, and militarism of their own governments. Then when the imperial rivals went to war over the spoils of empire, these “socialist” leaders supported their ruling capitalists in sending their workers to slaughter, and be slaughtered by, fellow workers of the opposing states.]
♦ Recent examples of abandoned principles. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign on behalf of the 99% against the abuse of power by the 1%, in his pursuit of the Democrat presidential nomination, deserved critical support (i.e. tactical alliance). However, when politician Sanders echoed HRC’s new-cold-war Russia-blaming campaign rhetoric and later went on to campaign for her election as President in 2016, and when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez heaped unqualified praise upon arch-imperialist and militarist John McCain in order to gain respectability in the eyes of liberals and to enhance her prospects for a successful political career; they betrayed the struggle against US militarism and imperialism to the detriment of all of the peoples of the world (including oppressed and disempowered Americans). Why? Because disempowered peoples will not be able to liberate themselves as long as they are induced to acquiesce: in the oppression of other peoples; and/or in unprovoked aggressions (wars, military threats, economic sieges, etc.) against foreign countries for purely-capital-serving (resource appropriation, market-opening, policy-subjugation, and/or military-procurement profiteering) goals. (The evasion and abandonment of principle by left groups, with respect to imperial interventionism and oppressions of the peoples of other countries, is the subject of a separate article titled America-first racism in the US left, which can be accessed by google search at https://specter-cp.home.blog ~ post 8.)
4th. Independence. The revolutionary organization must maintain its organizational independence. Hence, it must neither merge with, nor give allegiance to, any antisocial alliance partner.
♦ The revolutionary organization must preserve and exercise its freedom to criticize any behavior on the part of its alliance partner, whenever said behavior undermines other objectives or is violative of fundamental social justice principles (in the spheres of economic justice, environmental justice, human rights, civil liberties, anti-militarism and anti-imperialism). One need not be a Maoist to recognize the wisdom in the statement by Mao Zedong [in On Policy (1940)] that “United Front policy is neither all alliance and no struggle nor all struggle and no alliance, but combines alliance and struggle” . Revolutionary organizations must never neglect either the alliance side or the struggle side in their working alliances.
♦ Negative example. In the 1972 presidential election, much of the left appropriately supported the anti-war candidacy of George McGovern because his election would have served as means to end the imperialist US war against Vietnam. However, much of this left-activist support was conducted inappropriately within the Democratic Party and the official McGovern campaign, where there was no space to educate the people: as to the flaws in his ameliorative reformism, or as to his inability to oppose many of the other social evils of capitalism and imperialism, or with respect to the reasoning as to why he should be elected despite his evident faults. Consequently, most of the millions of anti-war protestors were left to regard the War, not as the normal response of capitalist super-power empire, but as a “tragic mistake”; and they were soon coopted into the Democratic Party (as it continued its allegiance to the ruling US capitalist class with all of its oppressive practices including its ambition for world domination).
11. Electoral activity. Although revolutionary organizations should not limit their efforts to electoral and lobbying activities, they should, if they have the requisite resources, nearly always avail themselves of opportunities to participate in electoral politics.
1st. Use. Such participation is an indispensable means for communication with the people, for educating and organizing. Also, if and when sufficient electoral success has been achieved, it can be deployed, along with organized movement pressure, in pursuit of useful reforms (as noted in 7 above).
2nd. False choice. With respect to elections, most of the US left has apparently defined its strategic choices as limited to two. This is a false choice.
♦ Purists. Some avowed revolutionaries refuse to support the election of any candidate running as a Democrat (either by rejecting electoral politics or by voting only for third-party or independent leftist candidates). They argue: that backing election of a candidate, even an avowed socialist running as a Democrat, fosters illusions (in electoral politics, and/or in the capitalist-serving Democratic Party); and that such illusions then become an insurmountable obstacle to socialist revolution. This argument evades the essential facts: that the US is mostly a two-party duopoly; and that the overwhelming majority of those voters, who favor progressive policies, seek progress by voting for Democrats. Consequently, those who refuse to ever work within the Democratic Party isolate themselves from most progressives and reduce themselves to irrelevant sects. Moreover, remaining aloof from the Democratic Party does nothing to eliminate any of its voters’ popular illusions about the political system. It is only by working with people that it becomes possible to help them to overcome their illusions.
♦ Tailists. Other left groups routinely back Democrat politicians, purporting this practice to be the only viable means to oppose the rightwing policies of the Republicans. In effect they give allegiance to the Democratic Party and rely upon it to produce social justice and social progress; but that Party is so subservient to capital that its politicians are incapable of eliminating the many social evils which are inherent in private-enterprise capitalism. Such allegiance actually does foster illusions in a political practice which is ineffective and counterproductive. It also leads much of the electorate to eventual cynicism and political apathy.
♦ The way to avoid both erroneous choices is to establish an independent socialist organization which then: uses the Democratic Party ballot line without offering any allegiance to that Party, and freely criticizes and/or opposes other Democrat candidates as appropriate. Since the two parties have imposed the 2-party duopoly with exclusive privileges (state-sponsored primary elections, automatic ballot access, etc.) for the two privileged establishment parties, they have no moral claim on the allegiance of activists who are deprived of any viable opportunity to compete otherwise than thru them.
3rd. Current application. When, as currently, social revolutionaries have far too little electoral support to wrest legislative or executive control of government at the federal and state levels from politicians who are subservient to capital; they can and should use both their election campaigns and their elected legislative office (if achieved) primarily to educate and organize in opposition to the injustices perpetrated (by for-profit businesses, by government, and by other establishment institutions) on behalf of capital against peoples, not only in the US, but all around the world.
♦ The rationale for this practice is that it is an indispensable tool for the mass education and organization-building, thru which to create the popular revolutionary movement for social justice [RMSJ], which is the only force which will ever be able to eventually wrest state power from the capitalist class and begin a real socialist reconstruction. Unless and until a preponderance of the politically-active people embrace the revolutionary struggle for social justice, they will remain incapable of liberating themselves from the shackles of capitalism.
♦ Example of inappropriate alliance. Nearly all national politicians in both major US political parties embrace the racist bipartisan foreign policy consensus which holds that the US should arrogate to itself the privilege of deciding for nearly every other country which political actors should govern its people. This policy then “justifies” rampant militarism and vicious imperial interventions (with coups d’état, invasions, economic sieges, funding of antisocial opposition groups, etc.) often inflicting horrific violence, economic collapse with widespread privation and death from loss of access to food and medicine, civil chaos, and/or other catastrophe upon the peoples of the targeted countries. Because firm and consistent public opposition to these cross-border racist crimes against humanity must be an essential component of an anti-capitalist strategy as well as an inviolable component of the social justice program; the strategic objective was effectively obstructed insofar as leftist organizations directly or indirectly backed the neoliberal-racist-imperialist-militarist candidate (Hillary Rodham Clinton [HRC]) for commander-in-chief in preference to the opposing demagogue-panderer-to-xenophobic-racist-and-other-bigotries candidate (Trump). In fact, from the moment that these two became the major party 2016 US Presidential candidates, the only election policy consistent with principle and with anti-capitalist strategy was: to campaign against both; to educate people as to the racist and other faults of each; and to tactically back an alternative (such as Jill Stein) who was actually speaking against cross-border racism, imperialism, and militarism, and was basically progressive on other important social-justice issues.
♦ Leftwing America-first-ism. It must be noted that, unfortunately, many of the avowedly “progressive” and “socialist” organizations, obsessed with defending and/or advancing the domestic reform agenda in the US, have for decades embraced an objectively racist left-liberal America-first policy of tailing behind, and giving allegiance to, the Democratic Party in every general election, while evading the fact of the Democrat politicians being committed proponents of the racist bipartisan foreign policy agenda. Career politicians almost universally have few, if any, firm principles. Democrat politicians generally oppose obviously racist policies which adversely impact the domestic racial minorities because of their pragmatic need for the votes of said minorities; but said Democrats can be, and usually are, indifferent to foreign victims of racist US policies because those victims do not vote in US elections while transnational capital demands that the US superpower keep foreign markets and resources accessible for its profitable exploitation. Lip-service “anti-racist” and “anti-imperialist” movement organizations, which practice this left-liberal America-first-ism: make themselves complicit, and incapacitate the movement by helping perpetuate ignorant misconceptions and chauvinistic impulses among the electorate rather than educating it. (For a more detailed analysis of America-first-ism in the left, including imperialist crimes perpetrated under Democrat governance and/or with their complicity, see referenced article .)
4th. Concerted action. The RMSJ must not neglect: to make appropriate demands of allied politicians, and to use whatever clout it possesses to obtain compliance.
♦ Lesser-evil Democrat politicians presume that most progressives will have to vote for them because they will be perceived as the least bad of the two electable alternatives. These Democrats will never end their plutocrat-serving antisocial actions unless and until so doing becomes their only way to win their elections. Progressives need to stop routinely rewarding such presumption and instead apply corrective pressure (thru: exposé and denunciation, backing primary-election challengers, backing progressive third-party candidates, abstention, and/or any other appropriate means); even if that will result in election of the supposedly greater-evil candidate. Failure to practice this hardline policy has resulted (certainly over the past four decades): in both major Parties shifting ever further to the right; and in the Democrats’ ever firmer embrace of the national chauvinist, imperialist, and militarist foreign policy, while increasingly acting against the economic and other needs and concerns of their base working-class constituencies.
♦ Bloc voting. Social-justice activists, as individuals, are faced with a difficult dilemma. Faced with a choice between the greater-evil Republicans and the lesser-evil Democrats in nearly every federal election: refusal to vote for the lesser-evil appears to indirectly help the greater-evil, while voting for the lesser-evil constitutes support for many policies which are adverse to social justice. Moreover, as an individual voter with only one vote, one cannot bring real pressure to bear on the lesser-evil politician whichever way one goes. Therefore, in order to bring real pressure to bear, progressive voters must act in concert. Social-justice movement organizations (which currently are highly fragmented with nearly every group acting with little or no coordination with others) need to establish a social-justice solidarity voters’ bloc [SJSV] which will organize voters to pledge to collectively follow its advice as to when to deliver or withhold their votes in a particular election involving a lesser-evil politician. While this bloc would need to consider tactical consequences, it generally would need to make its decisions based upon the politician’s record and commitments with respect, not to single issues, but with respect to a comprehensive social justice program agreed upon by the participating organizations. Moreover, said organizations would need to commit to mutual solidarity and refusal to allow any politician to break bloc-solidarity thru use of divide-and-conquer tactics.
♦ Positive example. It was a powerful and demanding anti-war movement, which largely refused to back Hubert Humphrey and other pro-war Democrats in and after 1968. It then: (1) compelled the Democrats to nominate a peace candidate for President in 1972, and (2) eventually compelled a bipartisan majority in the Congress to cut off funding for the US War against the peoples of Indochina. Unless and until the left makes a concerted effort to compel the contemporary Democrats to act against militarism and imperialism and to take really forceful, rather than minimal, action against other capitalist wrongs; most of said Democrats will certainly not do so.
5th. Member politicians. The revolutionary organization must never permit its member politicians (candidates and office-holders) to operate as free agents doing whatever they deem expedient for personal success in their political careers. It must require its member politicians: to be subject to its organizational discipline; and to consistently act in accordance with its (hopefully real) social justice principles, its program, and its directives.
♦ Negative examples. Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and others of their ilk entered politics as leading opponents of an imperialist war; but, as ambitious free-agent career politicians unconstrained by any such organizational discipline, they easily transitioned to become agents of capital and thoroughgoing imperialist perpetrators of crimes against humanity.
1st. Ameliorative reformism. The ameliorative reform policy of seeking sustainable progress on social justice from Congress and/or the President and/or the courts, rather than by building the power potential in a growing activist popular social-justice movement, has ultimately been a failure. Attempting to achieve socialism or even a reformed capitalism in incremental fashion thru reliance upon politicians and normal governmental processes has actually eventuated in a basic or total nullification of many hard-won reforms conceded (under strong popular pressure) in the past.
2nd. Lesser-evil-ism. The long-standing “left” policy of attempting to move US politics to the left by giving blank-check backing to Democrat politicians has resulted in both Parties moving ever further to the right. Electing Democrat career-politicians to Congress and the Presidency certainly has not removed the militarism and imperial interventionism from US foreign policy. Those leftists (many of whom call themselves “socialists”) who continue to advocate reliance upon Democrat politicians should be required to explain how continuing to do the same thing will produce a different result.
3rd. Popular action. Reliance upon center-left and/or social-liberal reformist politicians has not, and will not, produce any lasting advance toward socialism. Obsessing over which capitalist-controlled Party controls government is not the solution. Ultimately, it is only the people (i.e. the working class with its allies) who can take power from the capitalist class and reconstruct the social order to produce a lasting social justice, and then only if they embrace a program for comprehensive social justice. Until there is sustained independent progressive political action based on this fact, lasting advances toward socialism cannot be achieved. The task of socialists is to educate and organize and to build the popular revolutionary movement for social justice.
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Author: Charles Pierce. Date: 2019 Jul 14, latest updated 2020 Feb 16.
Charles Pierce is: a working-class retiree, a past union steward and local union officer, and currently a researcher and writer on history and politics. Other articles by Charles Pierce can be accessed by google search at https://specter-cp.home.blog.