As I wrote back in April when progressive pundits in D.C. were so deeply baffled by Obama’s supposed “tactical mistake” in not insisting on a clean debt ceiling increase, Obama’s so-called “bad negotiating” or “weakness” is actually “shrewd negotiation” because he’s getting what he actually wants (which, shockingly, is not always the same as what he publicly says he wants).
Arguing, one way or another, about Obama’s possible motivations misses the point — I think. Regardless of Obama’s intentions, his presidency is already a tragic episode in U.S. and world history.
All analogies are faulty, but the best I can think of right now is that of Russia’s provisional government in March 1917, after the czar was bumped out of power, leaving a big mess for Kerensky’s government to deal with. With Russia being bled by the war, landless peasants aggravated by debts, and the specter of famine in cities and country, Russia needed the urgent and forceful use of power to extricate itself from the situation. Kerensky, a pathetic figure without the fortitude to take any decisive action, always tiptoeing around the powers that be, squandered his chance in petty political maneuvering, allowing the monarchists to regroup (and Kornilov, their leader, to conspire overtly against the government and the emerging soviets). Kerensky was only bold and aggressive against those on his left flank. Effective political paralysis in the face of catastrophic social inertia of the kind — paralysis not by reference to the intentions of leaders, but by reference to actual social needs — tends to lead to greater suffering and upheaval than it vainly tries to avoid.
Prominent Bolshevik leaders (let alone the rest of the left) were lulled by the impasse. “Perhaps the news from the war front will improve.” “Perhaps we’ll get lucky and the monarchists will accept their fate and abandon their plots.” Lenin, a man not so different from the rest of us, saw the writing on the wall and escaped to Finland — just to barely avoid capture and an almost certain assassination. Exiled in Finland, Lenin prepared his return, campaigning to persuade his Bolshevik comrades — incapable of visualizing themselves in power — to take decisive action and preempt the “catastrophe that threatens us.”
We are not in Lenin’s position. The organizations of the U.S. left are in no way tested and ready like the Bolshevik party was in the fall of 1917. (And please note that this is mutatis mutandis!) But, in many ways, we are in a better position than the Bolsheviks were back then, and we certainly can do much more than we think — and do more we must. Although we are not facing tragedy on the scale afflicting Russia at the time, economic dislocation, unemployment, poverty, and mass suffering are at intolerable levels and on the rise. We are involved in three bloody wars, none of which is getting better.
I can imagine some writers at the time arguing heatedly that Kerensky was not a pathetic figure, that he was decisive and clear-minded, because he was advancing his own agenda, even if at the expense of the mass of Russia’s working people. As if that mattered. Who the hell cared what Kerensky truly wanted in his heart of hearts? The fact of the matter was that Kerensky’s actions did not measure up to what Russia, as a society avoiding disintegration in the summer and fall of 1917, truly needed — peace, bread, and land. More importantly, it was precisely the chasm between the social needs as felt by the Russian people and the pitiful inaction of the Kerensky government, a chasm that exhausted their tolerance and forced them to take matters in their own hands, that propelled the October insurrection.
I am absolutely convinced that voting for Obama, and calling people to vote for Obama, was the right thing to do in 2008. It wasn’t — I argued then — about Obama personally, but about disenfranchised sectors of the working people — Blacks and Hispanics, the youth, in the U.S. and abroad — who, as anybody with eyes could see, felt the fervent need to have a Black man in the White House, and got deeply vested in the campaign. It wasn’t about a self-infatuated individual making it big time, but about groups of people crushed by the social order who needed to expand the scope of what they deemed possible. Even Fidel Castro, from a distance, could tell what Obama represented for them. The left can suck its own thumb, basking at the purity of its radical goals, or view itself as a political instrument of concrete working people in motion. It is not the business of the left to foster the illusions and prejudices of working people. On the contrary, the left is in the business of helping people dispel those illusions and overcome those prejudices. But how to do it is of the essence. Mechanically, there’s little difference between rape and consensual romantic sex. Yet, humanly, they are two polar opposites. The process of helping people dispel their illusions requires, not righteous detachment and admonishment, but respectful engagement with them. Helping them achieve and sharpen their goals is the starting point; not because their goals are the ultimate goals we can envision, but because their goals are theirs. The opposite of alienation is appropriation. For working people at the bottom, overcoming alienation — without which no human liberation whatsoever will be possible — means making the world out there their world.
This morning, as I often do, I was thinking about what made the Cuban revolution stick against all odds, about what turned Fidel into such an effective leader. I thought of how he treats people. A few weeks ago, the man — a man who many thought to be terminally ill — probably saved Hugo Chávez’s life for the second time! The first time, he personally directed the diplomatic isolation of the coup in 2002, preventing Chávez’s assassination, and then assisting in the organization of his release by the presidential guard. The second time, early in June, by noticing Chávez’s illness and persuading him to undergo a medical examination that detected a potentially deadly tumor in his belly. This way of treating people, caring about their needs, is not something that Fidel limits to people of Chávez’s official stature. I will illustrate this with a personal anecdote: Back in 1983 or 1984 (I can’t remember now exactly when this happened), as the Caribbean sea threatened to swallow those of us living on the northern low edges of Havana City (a phenomenon the Cubans called “ras de mar” — a tidal penetration that flooded several blocks adjacent to the Havana Malecón), I saw at an arm’s distance, the man himself, directing our rescue, asking questions and issuing orders, comforting children and elders, physically pulling people out of basements and shuttling them on boats to safe places. Vast material damages, but not one single human casualty! Unthinkable in any other Latin American country. Unthinkable in Louisiana under Bush. The message he and his Communist Party sent to us was loud and clear — “We’ve got your back. We’ll spare no effort to protect your lives. Your needs are our needs.”
Obama is the anti-Fidel. The needs of Wall Street, the needs of the establishment, the needs of insurance companies, the needs of the military-industrial complex are his needs. Our needs, the needs of working people, are alien to him. Those of us who supported and celebrated his ascent to the White House have good reasons to be disappointed and angry. He escalated the war in Afghanistan (it doesn’t matter if, during his campaign, he said he’d escalate that war). His economic choices are devastating the lives of working people. I wouldn’t change my 2008 vote if I could. But, that is past now. Given the chance, Obama refused to grow as a leader and do what the times demanded from him. He will join Kerensky in some fitting niche of Dante’s inferno. We must draw the right lessons from our experience and fight.