The Gaza invasion has revealed the shallowness of U.S. progressivism, the so-called “left” current within the U.S. ruling class.
While tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets worldwide against the siege of Gaza, the Senate voted 100-0 to support it. That of course includes senators Elizabeth Warren, “the socialist” Bernie Sanders and Al Franken. Their liberal conscience was apparently unaffected by the images of murdered Palestinian children, whose deaths passed without mention in the Congressional resolution.
A couple days earlier, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, the celebrity progressive of the moment, likewise maintained his steadfast public support for Israel and its “right to defend itself.”
This is nothing new. All of these figures have a long record as outspoken Israel defenders.
De Blasio’s speech in front of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in January wasn’t just an endorsement of Israel. It was a pledge of servitude. He declared that defending Israel was “part of his job description” as mayor of New York — a statement that left many New Yorkers scratching their heads. He declared that City Hall “will always be open to AIPAC” and that,“When you need me to stand by you or Washington or elsewhere, I will answer the call, and I’ll answer it happily, ’cause that’s my job.” Well now apparently — with dozens of Palestinians being killed daily, the global outrage growing and the UN opening a commission of inquiry into Israeli war crimes — they need him.
What explains this bond between the most liberal current in U.S. ruling class politics and the most blatant colonial occupation and racist regime on the planet?
It may be that De Blasio is a philosophical adherent to Zionism, as he claims. This is troubling in its own right as a political ideology based on racist exclusion. Others will say this is mere pragmatism, De Blasio doing “what he has to” in a city with powerful Zionist interests and a large Jewish population that remains, despite growing dissent, largely pro-Israel.
Whatever De Blasio’s personal motivations, however, this is a larger political phenomenon that extends beyond the ideas bouncing around in his head.
The obsequious pro-Israel statements of De Blasio and Sen. Warren are not accidental. They serve to position their variant of progressivism safely in the orbit of the American Empire. It is a form of politics that appropriates the imagery and style of social movements, without the content.
It is their way of saying to the rest of the ruling class: “do not worry, there is nothing genuinely radical here.” Meanwhile, it says to poor and working people: “your struggle for ‘social justice’ is purely an American one; the world’s oppressed peoples are of no concern; you can improve your lot here without challenging the global system that is the backbone of corporate power.”
This is a recurring theme throughout U.S. history. Social movements here have repeatedly been tested, and their trajectories shaped, by international questions. In particular, this has been the case of imperialist wars — when the ruling class generally demands national unity. At such times, they assess the “legitimacy” of a given organization or individual, determining if they will be a “team player” (for imperialism) or a truly radical element that poses a real threat.
U.S. social movements in wartime
For labor unionists, the most militant and dedicated of whom were anarchists and communists, World War I became the moment that one section of labor (the AFL) finally attained “legitimacy.” By supporting the war effort, they won the 8-hour day and other work provisions for which previous generations had been hounded and killed.
Meanwhile, the antiwar radical unionists in the Socialist Party and Industrial Workers of the World were declared anti-American and their organizations repressed and split. Was the path of least resistance worthwhile for the AFL? Within a couple years, the ruling class had rescinded their seat at the table, eliminated their progressive concessions and, with the radicals severely weakened, declared war on all of organized labor, the AFL included.
While communists rebuilt their influence in labor in the 1930s, the same scenario played out again after World War II. It was declared a sin to defend the Soviet Union, oppose the Korean War or support anti-colonial revolutions. The radicals were driven out and repressed, while the “reasonable” labor leaders — as a reward for their patriotism, moderation and anti-communism — were given a seat at the table to discipline labor and arrive at a new era of “labor peace.” This too ultimately backfired on labor.
In the Black freedom movement, WWI played out similarly. WEB DuBois, then a NAACP leader and not yet a political radical or Communist, called for Black Americans to set aside qualms about the war and “close ranks” to demonstrate their patriotism in the field of battle. Black radicals and nationalists opposed this orientation, pointing to the absurdity of “fighting for freedom” abroad while enjoying none at home. Black soldiers were subject to Jim Crow segregation in the military and lynch mob abuse on U.S. streets. DuBois later called his pro-war position one of his greatest political mistakes.
In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s leaders and organizations were only deemed legitimate to the extent they “stayed in their lane.” Once the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee criticized Israel, or Dr. King criticized the Vietnam War, they were shunned by the liberal section of the ruling class. The New York Times editorial board — a body that generally sets the boundaries for “respectable” politics — viciously attacked King for his anti-war beliefs and critique of the Empire.
Nationalist forces like the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X were always considered illegitimate and extremist by the ruling class because they dared to question the racist origins of the American Empire, and linked the Black struggle with the historical anti-colonial movement of the peoples of Africa and Asia.
That the Black Panther Party proclaimed unity of purpose with the peoples of Vietnam, Cuba and China against Washington; that U.S. youth looked more to Che Guevara than Richard Nixon; that the emergent gay rights movement borrowed the name of Vietnam’s National Liberation Front; this was the essence of the era’s radicalism.
In fact, in the heart of the Empire, this is the only thing that genuinely scares the political establishment: a movement of working class and oppressed people that identifies and links up with those fighting back abroad. Everything else they can manage.
Palestine in the anti-war movement
The same dividing line, on one’s acceptance or rejection of the U.S. Empire, exists and inevitably emerges within every social movement in the United States. Usually the division takes the form of simply breaking organizational silence on international struggles, as many groups prefer to confine their work to “their issue.” Non-profits that are structurally and financially tied to powerful donors have a material interest in maintaining such blinders.
But the logic of the class struggle itself, which takes place on a global scale and ultimately impacts all of politics, always forces the issue of imperialism to the foreground.
In the 2001-2008 anti-war movement, this division took place between those who advocated for the inclusion of Palestinian demands, represented by the ANSWER Coalition and others on one side, and on the other side those groups which demanded that “controversial” issues like Palestine be set aside. This other wing was represented principally by United for Peace and Justice,which brought together various liberal and social-democratic organizations.
The battle in the movement was not really about Palestine, but an attitude towards the U.S. ruling class and imperialism. Many of the individuals in UFPJ considered themselves pro-Palestinian in theory, but understood that taking up such politics would alienate some sections of the U.S. ruling class who had come out against the Iraq war. For UFPJ, maintaining “respectability” — in other words, the blessing of some ruling class figures — is an essential precondition for social movements to be practical and succeed.
When the ruling class was completely united, such as in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, protests even with the most moderate slogans appeared “extremist” and these same groups hardly mobilized at all. In 2004, they put the movement on hold so as to not disrupt the John Kerry presidential campaign. In 2009, when President Obama came into office, giving the Democratic Party equal ownership of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, these same organizations essentially ceased to exist.
Dividing lines today
In the LGBTQ movement, the dividing line of imperialism emerged last year over the attitude toward Chelsea Manning, particularly after she was popularly elected to be an honorary Grand Marshal of S.F. Pride. Moderate LGBTQ groups, who take money from drone manufacturers and billion-dollar corporations, rejected Manning as a “an insult to every one, gay and straight, who has ever served in the military of this country.” In previous years, they had honored Dan Choi, a gay lieutenant and Iraq veteran and unrepentant supporter of that criminal war.
Among women’s rights advocates there are several prominent groups that have endorsed the Afghanistan war and occupation as somehow liberating for women. They frequently offer themselves up to the propaganda machine at times of sharp foreign conflict so as to provide progressive rationales for intervention. By harping solely on the abuses in other countries, they reinforce the core imperialist propaganda.
Among immigrant rights groups, Congress briefly attached the Dream Act to the war budget several years ago, prompting sharp debates among activists about whether they would stoop to fight for a bill that would extend the illegal and murderous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
International solidarity must be starting point
Many have celebrated the rebirth of a progressive trend in the Democratic Party, embodied by De Blasio, which openly embraces social movement causes and labor, and is capable of winning elections.
If a new progressive movement is to be powerful and transformative, however, capable of pushing back and defeating corporate rule, it must be internationalist in character and built on solidarity with the oppressed. It will, as a consequence, be in struggle with the Democratic Party, not part of it.
Why should activists and organizers insist on taking up controversial international questions if it means alienating potential members, allies, donors, etc., who would otherwise support their work? Why not follow the path of last resistance to improve the lot of poor and working people? Shouldn’t labor just stick to getting higher wages and union recognition? Aren’t international questions in the grand scheme of things irrelevant to the bread-and-butter struggle?
The question of when to take up a certain struggle, what to prioritize when, etc. is one of tactics for which there is no abstract formula. But what can be said with certainty is that the location of U.S. activists, within the heartland of the Empire, is never a far-removed question. At some point, such as now, it reappears with enormous force in all struggles.
The structure of U.S. society is integrated into an imperialist system in a thousand ways. No working-class movement can be reborn, grow stronger and transform political consciousness in the United States if it embraces the objectives of its own imperialist ruling-class, or if it ignores international issues altogether as somehow “foreign.”
What would be activism in Madrid in the 1500s if it ignored the conquest of the Americas, or London of the 1800s if it ignored the colonization of Africa? Today, as then, activists and revolutionaries are part of a world system, which structures the fundamental policies of the U.S. government and the flow of all political developments, domestic and international.
That the U.S. working class operates in the center of the Empire is an enormous challenge. It feeds intense national chauvinism — a belief in U.S. superiority — which serves as the glue holding together an otherwise divided and unequal society.
But this also presents opportunities. Those critical moments of international solidarity and identification have generated the most intense, dynamic and radical ruptures within U.S. society — the type of ruptures that can really push back against the endless corporate onslaught and their war machine.
That is the task of the present — to convey the reality and urgency of Gaza to the emerging low-wage worker, immigrant rights and others movements. When those fighting for a living wage declare their solidarity with the Palestinians’ struggle to live, and those fighting to stop the deportations of child refugees join hands with those defending the children of Palestine, when the multiple movements in essence become one movement, then all of society will shake and the ruling class will finally be put on the defensive. Now that would be progressive.