The recording features a presentation at the December, 1980, Eurosocialism and America Conference by Olof Palme (1927 — 1986). At the time, Palme was a leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party. He was then between two of his stints (1969-1976 and 1982-1986) as Prime Minister of Sweden. At the time, the Swedish Social Democrats were attempting to implement the “Meidner Plan” which would have euthanized the rentier class essentially by buying it out over time.
The Eurosocialism and America Conference was organized by the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC)’s 501c3 arm, the Institute for Democratic Socialism. A few years later, DSOC merged with the New American Movement to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The conference was held at a strategic moment, after the pivotal November, 1980, election but before the January change in government. At least a few of Palme’s remarks are directed specifically at this. The conference was a Beltway wonder for a few weeks in that December but was ultimately buried by the flood basalts of the erupting Reagan Revolution.
Olof Palme is introduced by Chicago’s Carl Shier. Shier was an International Representative with the United Auto Workers Region 4 and a leader in the DSOC. While it is true that Olof Palme had many connections with the United Auto Workers, it is also true that a truly surprising number of foreign lefty politicians and union leaders knew Carl Shier, Palme among them.
[Recording time: 56:48]
This particular recording was among the several dozen tapes that Frank Llewellyn from the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office had sent to me sometime after the turn of the century. Allowing for duplications and individual tapes expiring from old age, I guessimated those tapes amounted to at least a week’s worth of full time work. I listened to a few of them and did an inventory, but that’s where I left it.
They remained in my closet for well over a decade. Now, voilà.
This is another of the cassette tapes from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) national office. While I found the content interesting, it also had some mild historical interest, being a presentation by Michael Harrington to a gathering of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) [update] on June 16 of 1980. I’d guess it was the DSOC Youth Section’s annual summer conference. DSOC was one of the predecessors to DSA, the other being the New American Movement.
The quality of the recording is adequate, especially as it may have been done from the audience. It is missing the first minute of the program, and there is another more irritating section of really dead air about two-thirds in. I don’t know who the person recording this was and any specific venue would be but a guess.
I found the presentation interesting in two ways. One is that apparently Keynesian economic policy has not always worked as advertised. Harrington nominates business cycles as a possible explanation. Maybe, though I don’t find that idea particularly exciting. An institutional or even academic memory of this misfire of Keynesianism of a sort, however, is of interest. IMHO. The other thing is: what a topic to present to an organizational meeting of a political group. That leaves a bit, good and bad, to unpack.
This debate between Norman Thomas and Barry Goldwater took place on a college campus in Tucson, Arizona in November of 1961. The event is mentioned in W.A. Swanberg’s biography of Norman Thomas, Norman Thomas: the Last Idealist, on page 436. There’s no indication in the notes whether Swanberg had listened to a recording of the debate or if he had cribbed from a written account of the event. The December 8, 1961 (Volume 2, Number 3) issue of the Socialist Party’s newspaper, New America, had this account:
Norman Thomas addressed a series of successful meetings in Arizona in late November. In Phoenix he spoke at the Phoenix Public Library on Conservatism and the Anti-Communist Craze. The sponsor of the meeting was the New America Forum. In Tucson, he debated Senator Barry Goldwater, and spoke at a dinner of the Tucson local of the SP-SDF. A drive to organize SP-SDF locals and YPSL chapters at Phoenix and Tempe is now taking place. New America readers in those areas are invited to participate. Contact George Papeun, 1628 N. Tyndall, Tucson, Arizona.
The opening statements and rebuttals were followed by a question and answer session. The question and answer session was not included in the copy that I digitized, unfortunately. Norman Thomas speaks first, then Senator Goldwater.
Length — 1:03:25
While this is one of the recordings I had posted on the Chicago DSA web site back when I was its web master, it is not one of the recordings from Carl Shier’s basement. Sometime in the early 21st Century, Frank Llewellyn, then DSA’s National Director, sent me a pile of cassette tapes that had been stashed in the DSA National Office. He asked that I let him know if there were any of interest. There were, and this was one of them.
(I still have the tapes, incidentally.)
The tape itself is of interest. In 1961, this program would not have been recorded on a cassette tape, not even an 8-track; the tape itself is a copy. A return address was taped to the cassette shell: Ben G. Levy of Houston, Texas. I do believe this is the late Ben Levy who made his name as a civil liberties / civil rights lawyer, including in his list of accomplishments being a co-founder of the Houston, Texas, chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union… in 1957.
Around the turn of the century, the ACLU honored Levy for his work, and Allan Turner in the Houston Chronicle began his story of the award with drama:
“The bullets always were fired at night, but the threats, curses and social snubs came at any hour of the day. Houston’s early American Civil Liberties Union members often found themselves in conflict with groups willing to use unsavory means to maintain the status quo.”
Given the state of the nation in 2020, it’s worth remembering how frequent political violence has been in our nation’s history. It’s hard to figure just what one is to do with that observation, but it does need to be part of the mix in judging our current mess, including the acknowledgement that, over time, violence has come from all parts of the political spectrum.
When I listened to this program again before reposting it on Yip Abides, I was generally disappointed. On the face of it, the idea of a Thomas – Goldwater debate is very cool, and it’s understandable why both Thomas and Goldwater took the opportunity to do it. How this program came to be has to be an interesting story, but I don’t count on ever hearing it. Yet there were three serious difficulties that seem to have escaped the event planners.
First, while both Thomas and Goldwater were iconic public representatives for their ideologies in the U.S., both of them were intellectual welterweights, more political than ideological. It’s interesting that in the debate Thomas aims at the politics and Goldwater at the ideology. While that still leaves the possibility for plenty of fireworks, it was never going to be the clash of ideological titans.
Second, both Thomas and Goldwater were representing severely damaged political movements. That may seem obvious enough with Thomas, what with the Socialist Party reduced to a ghost of its former self, and socialism, in any case, no more than just barely qualifying as a U.S. “mass movement” at the best of times. This is apparent in the way Thomas preferred the political over the ideological and the way Thomas had by that time bought into some aspects of Cold War liberalism. Goldwater, on the other hand, was a Senator. The power imbalance is stark. But even as late as the early 1960s, Republican conservatism was still suffering the aftereffects from becoming highly unpopular during Great Depression. And if McCarthyism in the early 1950s did all manner of useful damage to conservatism’s opponents, McCarthy (and by association, conservatism) was ultimately discredited and defeated. Consequently, Goldwater’s advocacy of libertarian conservatism comes across as oddly tentative if not downright milquetoast: We won’t change much; we’ll just nibble around the edges.
Third, Thomas was a very old man. I’m an old guy too. Maybe that made Thomas’ obvious difficulty in articulating his thoughts quickly or his difficulty in pivoting to a new rhetorical opportunity without stumbling so much more painful to listen to. This was not a new public speaking problem for Thomas as a senior, but he could cope well enough when he simply remembered to slow down.
So who won the debate without the question and answer session? I’d like to declare a tie, but I have to give the debate to Goldwater on points, mostly accrued during Goldwater’s final rebuttal. It’s not a victory that would change any minds, but I could see it motivating some already-believers to action.
These recordings are from another reel of audio tape from the late Carl Shier’s basement. This one was a real (begging your pardon) find as the recording dates from 1958. Furthermore, Shachtman, as I recall, was not in general enthusiastic about being recorded. If that sounds a bit shifty to you, it does to me as well, but that’s my bias. Shachtman, IMHO, was not someone who brought out the best in people. Also, if you know anything about open reel magnetic tape, it doesn’t always age well or for long, so it was a real surprise that the audio quality was as good as it was.
As with the earlier audio posts here at Yip Abides, the recording was posted on Chicago DSA’s web site back when I was the web master. This was done early in the century when a plurality of web access was still done through slow dial-up connections, so I had an incentive to degrade the quality slightly and divide the recording into five parts. Altogether, the program lasted nearly two hours. They had iron butts in back in the 1950s! If you have only the time for one, my recommendation would be to listen to Norman Thomas, but that’s mostly because Thomas dealt with issues that I find interesting.
The text below is a slightly edited excerpt of the text from the original web page:
Given the memory of the McCarthy inquisition and the image of the silent generation, it’s hard to imagine 1958 as a particularly optimistic time for the left. But by then, McCarthy-ism had largely been discredited, the Korean War had de-escalated to a fitful cease fire, the Civil Rights Movement was gathering momentum, labor organization was nearly at its all time high including a recent reunion of the two major wings of the movement: the AFL and the CIO. Nor was the economy especially good; the country was undergoing its first experience with “stagflation”: inflation accompanied by relatively high unemployment.
On a smaller scale, the left was coming together. The Socialist International had recently helped engineer a reunion of the old Socialist Party of America and the Social Democratic Federation from a split that had happened in the 1930s. Negotiations were underway to merge with Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League. As part of this process in Chicago, a series of public events, the “Democratic Socialist Forum”, were being held, and this is a tape made of one of them. The Democratic Socialist Forum was a joint project of Socialist Party – Social Democratic Federation, the Independent Socialist League, and the Jewish Labor Bund.
Max Shachtman of the Independent Socialist League leads off the discussion. Shachtman is one of the more interesting and obscure historical figures. He was one of the founders of American Trotskyism and an organizer of the Trotskyist 4th International and he played a major role in the famous Teamsters strike in the Minneapolis. In the 1930s, his organization (the Workers Party) entered the Socialist Party with the explicit (if covert) intention of either taking it over or destroying it. They more or less did the latter. But in later years, Shachtman (but most especially his followers) played an increasing role in mainstream politics, particularly the Civil Rights movement and the labor movement. For more information, see Peter Drucker’s biography, Max Shachtman and His Left. This is a rare recording of Max Shachtman and mostly interesting in the context of his political career.
Norman Thomas was the Socialist Party’s Presidential candidate from 1928 through 1948. Thomas was already in his 70s and his delivery shows it. But if Thomas showed some physical infirmity, his presentation (mostly on the problems of the left) touched on the concerns that dominate the left today [this was ~2000], including the problem of labor organizing in an economy that was already showing the effects of automation and a swing from manufacturing toward services.
This recording is an interesting historical record of two of the major players in the 20th Century U.S. left.
1. Introduction — George Watson
The introduction was by George Watson, a political scientist who was then the Dean of Students for Roosevelt University. The organizers of the meeting were probably expecting something better of Watson, but as the author John Scalzi has observed, the default failure mode of “clever” is “asshole.” Length — 3:20.
2. Max Shachtman
Max Shachtman begins the discussion with his vision of what a democratic socialist movement should be. Length — 39:48
3. Norman Thomas
Norman Thomas speaks to the problems facing the democratic left in 1958. Length — 40:24.
4. Max Shachtman
Max Shachtman’s reprise, wherein he speaks about Leninism. There’s about a 30 second gap resulting from the amateur engineer running out of tape and having to flip over the tape reels and rethread the machine, but you’ll have to listen closely to spot it. Sabotage? That’s a fanciful thought under the circumstances, but I’ve seen any number of amateurs and even a few professionals do the same. Length — 17:03.
5. Questions from the audience.
The question and answer session showed that lefties hadn’t changed much in the last half of the 20th Century. Strip away the specifics of current events in 1958 and this could have been from 2000. I suspect the possibility of something new is rather greater today, but I’ve not been to a political meeting in years. You tell me. Unfortunately, the questions are only somewhat audible. Length — 34:38.
A curious note from when the program was posted on the Chicago DSA site: The site, back then, was hosted by pair Networks. They provided access to the raw log files that recorded activity on the site, but the customer had to find their own analytic software. pair Networks provided two shareware open source options. We used Analog. Every month that I ran the numbers, there would be hundreds of requests for these audio files. That seemed unlikely. Further undermining its credibility, the volume of data (the total number of bytes sent in serving those file requests) would never come close to the total needed to account for all those requests. By examining the logs, it became obvious that when a user downloaded or listened to one of these files, that action would result in multiple requests for the file, each ending with a “partial download” code until a final request was served. By filtering out those requests returning a “partial download,” one still got a number that was too high. It turns out that many of the remaining requests were not for the file itself but for the “meta data” (title, duration, etc.) that one might expect if the file were part of a play list. And where were those requests coming from? Perhaps a majority of those were from web spiders that index the web, including China’s Baidu. The rest? A plurality by IP address, China. Of course, with VPNs, there’s no telling for sure where the requests were originating, but I had this fantasy of someone in Stalinist China setting up a honey trap for Trots… We’ll never know, but my experience counting beans for the web site left me with a profound mistrust for all traffic numbers for the web. It’s not that they are lies, necessarily, but the beans selected for counting on web servers were to serve the needs of the people running the servers not the authors and the editors (or advertisers!) of a web site. In general I regard the numbers as accurate only to within an order of magnitude.
May Day (May 1st) is the international labor day that commemorates all those who have risked life and livelihood for justice in the workplace and in the community and specifically the Chicago martyrs who were unjustly imprisoned and executed as part of the labor movement’s struggle for the 8 hour work day. Normally this day would be marked with parades, rallies, speeches and, yes, picnics and entertainment, but this being the Year of our Plague 2020, we’ll have to do this day online and in our hearts.
That being the case, I decided to post this booklet by Michael Harrington as an appropriate way of making an argument for the occasion. It was originally published as an article (almost the entire issue, apparently) in the May – June, 1970, issue of Dissent Magazine. It was reissued that year as a booklet by The Norman Thomas Fund, a short-lived entity that was intended (I think) to be an educational vehicle for the old Socialist Party – Social Democratic Federation. Much of the content went on to be incorporated into Harrington’s 1972 book “Socialism”. Note the cover price of $1.25. This was not cheap. In March, 2020, dollars that comes to $8.45. This PDF was created for the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America website back when I was serving as the web master.
A lefty Of A Certain Age would remember Michael Harrington because for much of the last third of the 20th Century, he was pretty much the public face of democratic socialism in the United States. I think it was William F. Buckley who observed this was rather like applause for being the tallest building in Wichita. (Or was it Topeka?) So it’s entirely understandable if Harrington is not as well remembered in 2020 as he should be. Also, he did die way back in 1989 — a lifetime ago for some. At times, while Harrington was alive and after, the Democratic Socialists of America as a national organization functioned more or less as the Michael Harrington Permanent Book Tour and Appreciation Society; sooner or later, it is time to move on and this brings a new generation who understandably have an urge to pee on the fire hydrant to make it their own. And finally, if one had (or still has) a devotion to Marxism-Leninism, it may be (for some) uncomfortable remembering someone who was very much a skeptic (at least!) of “real, existing socialism” as the Soviet-bloc was often styled.
Why is Harrington is worth remembering and why this publication in particular? Well, for one thing, the debates over socialism, and policies inspired by socialism, have been going on for a very long time. While the arguments for or against change slowly, it’s worthwhile revisiting them for a fresh perspective. Take a look at this document and decide for yourself how well, or not, Harrington’s argument holds up.
Robert Gorman’s 1995 biography of Harrington was aptly titled Michael Harrington: Speaking American. Harrington had a talent for combining the pragmatism of “what do we do on Monday?” with utopian idealism, and it was that political pragmatism that made his idealism plausible to an American audience. I don’t know that Harrington ever framed it this way, but there is a difference between politics as a means of implementing a philosophy and philosophy as means of guiding one’s politics. I view Harrington as firmly in the latter category. And for a surprising number of American lefties of a certain age, Harrington and this publication in particular strongly informed their politics then and even today.
In the 21st Century, this booklet may be the very definition of TLDR. But if you wish, nonetheless, to read / download the work, CLICK HERE or on this cover thumbnail:
These are some photos of minor historical interest, mostly for those preoccupied with left history or with Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.
My inspiration for posting them is this: Some days ago, I received an email notification of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America’s annual membership convention on June 8. If that sounds at all interesting, check out their web site; you need not be a member to sit in. While I’ve been a member since the organization was formed from a merger in 1982-1983, and a day-to-day activist from 1989 to 2017, I had only a transitory impulse to attend. There’s not much political about my decision; in fact, if you’re a Chicago lefty but not a marxist-leninist, I think you really ought to be there.
My decision is mostly personal. After almost 30 years, it’s time to spend my time on other things, even if I continue keeping an eye on politics as a spectator… mostly. But that transitory thought brought to mind a few photos I had taken of Chicago DSA’s old office at 1608 N. Milwaukee Avenue. These are from 2003 and 2004.
Chicago DSA’s very first office was in a building owned by In These Times at 1300 W. Belmont. It was a generous suite of offices that we shared with a regional DSA office run by the national organization. Along about 1985, it became clear that the money wasn’t there to maintain regional offices, never mind staffing them, so Chicago DSA had to look for smaller, cheaper space. We found the Northwest Tower Building. (Also see chicago.designslinger.) Our first office there may have been on the 5th floor or the 7th; I forget. We spent some time on both. By 1987, we were in a tiny space on the 12th floor. Sometime early in 1988, we moved to a somewhat larger space on the 4th floor, where we stayed until 2014. Around the turn of the century, we knocked down the wall to a tiny office next door to create a comfortable meeting area.
For most of the time we were in the Northwest Tower, the building was a commercial slum. I strongly suspect the owner for much of that period used the property as an ATM machine. The windows were the original 1929 installation, rarely cleaned and in precarious condition. On the other hand, they also opened from the top, making the office temperate for all but the very hottest days of the summer. When we expanded the office, we finally bought an air conditioner, mostly because of the intolerable roar of passing CTA trains and the dust and diesel exhaust from North Avenue.
The building was also notable for being one of the three remaining buildings (at the time, that I know of) in Chicago with public elevators run by human operators. The operators were all real characters and I fondly remember them all, especially the two mainstays of the operation, two Polish immigrants: “Grandpa” and Victor. The building would have been a disaster without either of them.
After another change in ownership and another bankruptcy, the building was sold to a developer who would gut the structure to convert it into a boutique hotel as it is today. Right before we moved, I wrote this for New Ground 151:
“After something like 28 years in the same building, Chicago DSA is moving. Chicago DSA staffer Mark Davidson found the Northwest Tower Building when it was a nearly empty shell in the process of being rehabbed. The neighborhood was neglected, sometimes dangerous, and gritty. The landlord was politically friendly. The rent was cheap. We moved in.
“It hasn’t been all 28 years in the same office. The first few years we moved just about every year, dodging the rising drywall. But we have been in 403 since 1988. Come the 21st century, we took over the office next door so we could have meetings in the office, and we added an air conditioner, mostly to cut down on the noise and dirt from outside.
“Built in 1929, the Northwest Tower (sometimes called the “Coyote Tower”) is a gently art deco 12 story (190′) masonry clad structure (architect: Perkins, Chatten, & Hammond). Its construction was financed by the long defunct Noel State Bank whose gorgeous headquarters still stands (as a Walgreens today) right across the street. The capital, it is said, came from the alternative pharmaceutical trade.
“Even after having been rehabbed, the Northwest Tower building was not in the greatest of shape. And the quarter century since has not been kind to the structure. The neighborhood, however, has become an expensive part of Chicago’s party district. Judging by the number of bars, bistros and restaurants, it’s not clear that anyone actually cooks at home in Wicker Park / Bucktown except to entertain and maybe not even then. Or that they go home sober on a weekend evening.
“The property has gone through two bankruptcies in the years we’ve been here. This last was rumored to be a saga of fiscal chicanery that involved ten different banks. But now that’s all settled. The building (and the “fireproof” warehouse next door) is to become a boutique hotel.”
I wish I had taken more photos of the rest of the building: the elevators, the doors, the stairwells. But with a film camera, I was overly parsimonious with my shots.
Chicago DSA ended up at 3411 W. Diversey Avenue, right at the northern border of the Logan Square neighborhood. It is a smaller and less expensive space with a different set of advantages and disadvantages. But like the Northwest Tower Building, it’s also an art deco structure, dating from 1939.
It is almost certainly a stretch to take one person’s opinion to represent an entire political tendency, but Vox recently published a remarkable interview with Brad DeLong. Brad DeLong is in many ways an archetypical centrist Democrat. He had been a mid-level political appointee in the Clinton administration (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy at the U.S. Department of the Treasury) where, according to Wikipedia, he “and Lawrence Summers co-wrote two theoretical papers that were to become critical theoretical underpinnings for the financial deregulation put in place when Summers was Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton.”
Gee, thank you Professor DeLong: That was a fabulous Great Recession you gave us, not to mention NAFTA, the dotcom crash, and various and sundry currency crises. Sorry. I’m a tad bitter.
In any case, DeLong is now urging centrist Democrats to not simply support the left, but to look to the left for leadership. How did it come to this? This exchange between Vox’s Zack Beauchamp and Brad DeLong gets to the nub of the matter:
What you’re describing is a broad theory of political economy, in which a vision for what economic policies are best is intertwined with a particular view of what makes policies popular and sustainable. You say something about this is wrong — do you think it’s the political part, the economic part, or both?
We were certainly wrong, 100 percent, on the politics.
Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney’s health care policy, with John McCain’s climate policy, with Bill Clinton’s tax policy, and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. He’s all these things not because the technocrats in his administration think they’re the best possible policies, but because [White House adviser] David Axelrod and company say they poll well.
And [Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel and company say we’ve got to build bridges to the Republicans. We’ve got to let Republicans amend cap and trade up the wazoo, we’ve got to let Republicans amend the [Affordable Care Act] up the wazoo before it comes up to a final vote, we’ve got to tread very lightly with finance on Dodd-Frank, we have to do a very premature pivot away from recession recovery to “entitlement reform.”
All of these with the idea that you would then collect a broad political coalition behind what is, indeed, Mitt Romney’s health care policy and John McCain’s climate policy and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy.
And did George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years?
No, they fucking did not. No allegiance to truth on anything other than the belief that John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell are the leaders of the Republican Party, and since they’ve decided on scorched earth, we’re to back them to the hilt. So the politics were completely wrong, and we saw this starting back in the Clinton administration.
Today, there’s literally nobody on the right between those frantically accommodating Donald Trump, on the one hand, and us on the other. Except for our brave friends in exile from the Cato Institute now trying to build something in the ruins at the [centrist] Niskanen Center. There’s simply no political place for neoliberals to lead with good policies that make a concession to right-wing concerns.
Hah: “… tread very lightly with finance” indeed! Do you wonder why nearly no one went to jail as a consequence of the 2008 Crash and Great Recession, especially when there had been such blatant fraud and self-dealing? The answer is complicated and major corporations were fined billions, but much of the blame for the lack of criminal prosecution can be laid on Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder. Holder maintained that prosecutors should take “collateral consequences” into account when “conducting an investigation, determining whether to bring charges, and negotiating plea agreements.” In other words, a perpetrator can look at a prosecutor and say: “Nice economy you have here… pity if something should happen to it.” Oh, yes, those collateral consequences: too big to fail, too big to be criminal.
If you want to explore the issue of accountability for the 2008 débâcle in justice, American Public Media’s Marketplace had a reasonably detailed examination of the whys and wherefores that you can find HERE.
Contrast this with the late U.S. Representative Phillip Burton whose 1977 proposal for expanding the Redwood National Park, for example, was adamantly opposed by the timber industry. He showed them a plan that looked to put them pretty much out of business then he showed them his proposed compromise. Agree to the compromise by tomorrow, he told them in a meeting, or my proposal is what you get. Burton’s biographer (A Rage for Justice, University of California Press, 1995), John Jacobs, quotes Burton as saying, “If you show them the depths of hell, everything else looks pretty good.”
I don’t propose Burton as a role model. For one thing, Burton’s compromises tended to include provisions buying off the opposition, with the cost not very high on the list of considerations. In this regard, he was almost a living specimen of the conservatives’ “tax and spend liberal” stereotype. But at some point during the 1980s and onward, political professionals working the Democratic brand stopped playing poker and began playing chess instead. Unable to transcend the limits of calculated possibility, is it any wonder they kept getting their butts kicked? Is it any wonder an outsider, Bernie Sanders, came so close to defeating Hillary Clinton; that indeed no one else of any consequence had been willing to try?
As DeLong said, you most certainly did see it “back in the Clinton administration.” But my mind boggles that, after having the 2000 Presidential election ripped off by the Supreme Court (Bush v. Gore), anyone would have any illusion that the conservative stance toward President Obama would be any different.
(Obama, at least, had a better excuse: to be President and to live to tell about it. Large parts of our country, albeit a minority of it, were not ready for him as President at all. To anyone under 40 years old, this may seem hyperbolic, but assassination was all too common in the 1960s and 1970s, much of it done from the right, much of it motivated by racism or bigotry. Also, remember Oklahoma City. It hard to imagine this not being a factor in Obama’s decisions.)
If that had not been enough, there were more clues about what awaited an Obama Administration in the healthcare policy debates prior to Obama’s election. These debates were done on the state level, including here in Illinois. When a task force appointed in Illinois to consider healthcare alternatives reported in favor of what was then Republican Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan, that recommendation gained no favor among conservatives. To be fair, the left was equally unimpressed. See “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Universal Health Care How!”
A lot of us on the left had been making this point since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election as President: Reagan was not another Eisenhower or Nixon or Ford, but represented a movement with an ideological agenda that would compromise only to the extent that it could be checked.* In Illinois, for example, we (DSA predecessor DSOC was a member organization) helped organize the Illinois Coalition Against Reagan Economics to educate and agitate the public and public officials about the nature of this new movement. Some among liberals and labor were willing to listen; others had to learn through repeated experience.
Some Republicans saw this more clearly, even back then. In that 1980 election, Illinois Republican Congressman John Anderson ran for President as an Independent and earned 6.6% of the popular vote. As early as 1963, liberal Republican Senator Jacob Javits (who spent a few years in the second decade of the 20th Century as a member of the Young Peoples Socialist League) was speculating on a right-wing takeover of the Republican brand, although as late as 1982, it was possible for a DSA member to be elected to a state legislature as a Republican: Tarrel Miller, South Dakota’s 14th District. This could still happen today, depending on the vagaries of state election law and local demographics; it’s all up to who wins the primary. But consider how unlikely that seems.
Well, whatever. Welcome to the Resistance, Professor.
(Watch your backs, folks.)
* I am aware of the irony: This is very much the stereotype that is held by many conservatives about socialists. Irony, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a dandelion in the field of politics. We exclaim over each delicious blossom but, bugger all, they’re everywhere. And their seeds are legion in the wind. I’m not unique in this attitude towards turn of the century conservatism, however. Consider Natalie Wynn’s informed and entertaining and (warning) ribald Decrypting the Alt-Right.
Wait! Look! There’s another irony in bloom: at least some of the current state of affairs could be blamed on a decades long 20th Century project by ideologues on both the right and the left to “realign” the Republican and Democratic brands. Among Democrats, this project dates back to the 1930s. On both the right and the left, this was accompanied by a desire for party government rather like what is found in most other countries but is discouraged by the U.S. Constitution. One could reasonably argue that the present polarization is yet another example of “be careful what you wish for.” On the other hand, the process hasn’t finished playing out.
And I would contend that some of the extremism on the right is a consequence of panic born of the 1960s and 1970s, aggravated and maintained by radical changes in the economy, means of production and demography of the turn of the century. Whoever is in charge gets to make the rules that will profoundly shape the nation for decades to come. But I’m getting into waters over my head here.
If you want to explore the current state of political polarization here in the States, I’d strongly recommend The Geography of Partisan Prejudice by Amanda Ripley, Rekha Tenjarla and Angela Y. He, posted this March at The Atlantic. Some of their findings are not at all surprising but some of the others are indeed interesting or unexpected.
No really, as of the January 26 – 27 weekend, the Federal Government was not entirely up and running. With President Trump’s promise to sign the legislation, Congress passed HJ 28 that pertains to spending for all the outstanding appropriations except the Department of Homeland Security. Trump has signed it, extending funding for those parts of the Federal government for several weeks. Money for the Department of Homeland Security is covered by HJ 31. Both the House and the Senate passed this bill, but the Senate had amendments that need to be reconciled with the House. These appear to be mostly proof reading changes, but it still requires legislative action by both chambers.
Beyond that, these bills place the situation approximately where it was right before Trump did his informal veto. The continuing resolutions were the final items on the 115th Congress’ agenda. When Trump humphed, Congress swore and went home. Trump must have felt this would inevitably put the blame on Congress. That it ended up splattering mostly upon him must have been an unpleasant surprise. Will he try it again?
There are some major exceptions to this status quo ante, however. One is the damage done to Trump’s political base of support, both within and outside the government. This has been much commented on, particularly with regard to the Fox News commentariat, blogs, and social media. But while Trump has been seen to jump in response to these folks, it’s also true that the House Freedom Caucus had lit their farts in support of a veto. Now that Trump has “caved”, it will be harder for Trump to assume their support. How badly does he want or need it? Depending on the answer, it may mean we will be facing a second shutdown when the clock expires on these two continuing resolutions.
Or it may mean that the House Democratic caucus gives Trump a piece of his wall. Because that is the other major change: the House of Representatives has changed from being run by the Republican caucus to being run by the Democratic caucus. What will the House Democratic Caucus be willing to give in exchange for keeping this assortment of government departments and agencies open, and how will that affect internal Democratic politics? And what shall we say of the Senate Republican caucus?
And then there is the prospect of a State of Emergency. Sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it? With Trump in charge, you needn’t be an American lefty to start measuring the distance to the Canadian or Mexican borders. But in fact, a State of Emergency would not be anything new. These have been extensively if incompetently legislated. We’re actually living under several of them right now. This does not mean you should be any less concerned than you would be if asked to venture into a field of land mines. Congress today is potentially about as meaningful as the Roman Senate was under Caligula, and Trump is only the immediate hazard. My fellow Americans, Congressional incompetence has all our asses in the wind. If you are at all curious, I’d recommend this recent article by Elizabeth Goitein.
Keep in mind that walls and border police are in fact more effective at keeping people in than fencing people out. Gulag America?
And about round two? Oh, right. I’m supposed to be answering these questions, pretending to a punditry I do not possess; I’m not quite the walking definition of unhip, but the circles I inhabit are a long way from within the Beltway. Given that half to two-thirds of politics is gossip, I’m at a severe disadvantage. But the metric I’m watching (lacking, as I am, in gossip) is Trump’s approval polling, though not so much his disapproval numbers. Just what one is to make of them is hard to say as I believe it will depend on context. For example, is Trump cornered? What is the impact on Republican radicals?
An obvious strategy for Democrats is finding a way of splitting the Republican coalition. It seems unlikely that this would be fruitful in the space of a few weeks, but however long it would take, the resulting policies would not likely be thrilling for us lefties.
Yet these are just the latest battles in what will be a decades long conflict, the latest manifestation of a disease afflicting the American body politic like a recurring infestation of malaria. Trump is correct in identifying immigration as a major issue right now, though he sees it as means of mobilizing fear, bigotry, alienation and anger to his own ends. Indeed, that’s why he wants a wall rather than pursuing other policies. But I see migration and refugees as possibly a defining characteristic of much of the 21st Century. Granted, the 20th Century saw its share, but that illustrates how extreme I suspect the not-too-distant future will be. Even with Trump gone, this will remain a major issue.
If you judge that this is a thoroughly pessimistic vision, you’re quite right. People leave home for a foreign country mostly because their situation at home has become untenable in one way or another. And that’s pretty much what I see happening over large portions of the world. Historically, humans have attempted to deal with ecological collapse and climate change through military means. This is how I perceive much of what is happening along the southern and eastern Mediterranean coast, but it is happening elsewhere, too, closer to the U.S.A., with all the consequent people looking for new homes.
Would you stay, suffer and die if migrating were even a long-shot option?
Despite being a charter member of the Democratic Socialists of America, I don’t believe in uncontrolled borders for people, never mind goods and money. Regarding people, the most diplomatic way of putting it is that there is something about migrants that does not bring out the best in humans, most especially among the receiving population. The migration doesn’t have to be across international borders. Just think of the California of The Grapes of Wrath or the less than welcoming streets of northern cities during the Great Migration or the urban “hillbilly” slums that provided refuge for the Appalachian dispossessed. Nor are the newbies necessarily any more saintly; mostly they’re simply at a disadvantage.
Having said that, keep in mind that people are going to do what people want to do or feel they need to do. After a while, setting up a system of rewards and sanctions whose consequence make whatever it is (in this case, immigration) impossible, it becomes an exercise in malice and stupidity: exactly what we have with our current laws regarding immigration and asylum.
I don’t have much optimism that the left, including DSA, will come up with a workable solution to this issue. Calling for the abolition of ICE, for example, is a fine way of throwing rocks through the windows of the Establishment, but anyone governing will end up reinventing that institution. (Which could still be a step forward.) At best, along with the labor movement, I might hope for some mitigation of what big business clearly would love: some system of indentured servitude, something the current system of H-2B visas closely resembles.
If I could speculate on what a workable system might look like: allow people to come to the States under normal tourist or student visas. If they intend to look for work or if they are offered work, charge them (and perhaps their employer) a fee for a taxpayer ID number that would be partially refunded if they choose to leave. It could be paid in installments in lieu of Social Security deductions, for example. The cost for migrants would still be far less than what a smuggler would charge, these days at least. Depending on your level of bigotry, one might propose further punitive details involving criminality much like the last so-called “compromise” regarding immigration did, but I leave these as an exercise for your sick imagination.
Incidentally, don’t assume that U.S. citizens are automatically welcome and accepted elsewhere. It hasn’t become an issue, but various countries (Mexico and Costa Rica for examples) have populations of U.S. citizens resident with dubious documentation: retirees, mostly, but one could easily imagine circumstances where we come to work. I recall that some of the proposed “free trade” agreements in the past had provisions for numbers of foreign workers to come here. There really should be reciprocity in these agreements.
Refugees are a special category of migrant. Keep in mind that some of them will be U.S. citizens: think Louisiana, Puerto Rico and California as current examples. There will be more in the future. It’s time we start dealing with this in a more systematic way, and we may as well include provisions for foreigners as well.
One last word, this about conservatives: One ongoing point of conservative agitation is the charge that Democrats and the left (oddly synonymous among right-wingers) favor open borders because the migrants (Mexican and Central Americans in particular) will therefore end up voting for Democrats. In its more delusional manifestations, said migrants end up voting for Democrats long before they even become citizens.
Conservatives have some reason to worry about this, though realistically it’s mostly because of their own behavior. Such an unwelcoming political brand! But in the past, conservatives were steadfastly in favor of admitting migrants from communist countries: Vietnamese, Russian Jews, Cubans. And those groups did tend to vote Republican once they became citizens. Providing them a new home was the right thing to do even if it was also blatantly hypocritical. For example: the Haitian human rights record was far more sordid than Cuba and the Haitian economy every bit as wretched or worse than Cuba. Upon setting foot in America, Cubans could stay but Haitians go home! Since immigration policy has been so plainly political for conservatives, it’s easy to see why they’d be prone to panic and to assume hostile motivation. Asking conservatives to get over it is probably futile, but…
was a Wednesday and found me on a train, delayed, sitting in the LaSalle Street terminal in downtown Chicago. I was on my way to my parents’ home for Thanksgiving. It was a morning of shock and desolation for me and for much of Chicago. Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black Mayor, had just died of a massive heart attack. He was 65 years old.
The train was delayed because, coincidentally, a stout middle-aged man had collapsed in the doorway of my passenger car. The paramedics were called. Someone was giving him chest compressions. When they arrived, the paramedics got him stabilized enough to move, but it didn’t look hopeful, nor did it look hopeful, at that moment, for Chicago.
My own involvement with Washington was simply as one of the thousands of volunteers who worked on his 1983 and 1987 campaigns for Mayor. It was mostly phone work for me, as I recall, though there may have been a few occasions for canvassing and voter registration… It’s been a while and memory fades.
Washington’s reign as Mayor also corresponded with several years when I was more or less taking a break from politics, except occasionally in a “Jimmy Higgins” role. My organization, the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), had endorsed Washington’s 1983 campaign at a meeting in a church in the Logan Square / Palmer Square area. Harold Washington appeared at the meeting to make a pitch for his campaign. I remember being at the meeting though I no longer recall what Washington had to say.
DSA, I should add, made a credible contribution to Washington’s 1983 and 1987 campaigns in terms of volunteers, campaign leadership, and even some money. This was not reported then nor is has it been mentioned in any of the Chicago histories or Washington biographies that I’ve read.* Part of it is a cultural bias. Have you noticed how the indexes of U.S. histories mention far more individuals than they do organizations; how the histories are written mostly about individuals and not about organizations? It was also a very different time politically. An organization like DSA would not have been considered part of mainstream politics and thus not in the horse race. Plus, Washington’s “horse race” would be mostly decided in the Black and Hispanic wards. That was why he insisted on a successful voter registration drive prior to formally beginning the 1983 campaign. Most histories follow the story in those communities. Everywhere else was a side-show. In that side-show, DSA’s contribution was matched or more by the Independent Voters of Illinois — Independent Precinct Organization (then the Illinois affiliate of the Americans for Democratic Action, maybe 2 to 4 times Chicago DSA’s size with a good deal more money) and the Heart of Uptown Coalition (a community group).
The last time I saw Harold Washington was just a few weeks before his death. It was at a banquet that was part of a “Democratic Alternatives for Illinois” conference held in Chicago. “Democratic Alternatives” was a series of conferences organized across the nation by DSA but this particular event was organized primarily by the Illinois Public Action Council (now known as Citizen Action / Illinois) with DSA and other groups (including some unions) in a supporting role. All of the conferences were directed at strengthening the left in electoral politics, but this one had a particular urgency as Washington’s second term would be the first where he had majority support in the Chicago City Council. His hands were finally free of an obstructionist opposition, but so were Washington’s allies. Washington had a stellar record as a state legislator and as a U.S. Representative, but he had his start as part of the Mayor Daley’s Regular Democrats. This made for awkward choices while he was in the Illinois legislature. Not all of his community and city council support were all that interested in liberal / left policies but would have preferred to simply trade a White political machine for one of color. Washington faced a municipal budget crisis not too dissimilar to what Chicago faces today, and his response was “austerity”. To paraphrase Marx, humans make history, but not just as they please. How would or could Washington balance these tensions?
We’ll never know.
And yet, those brief four years that he was Mayor made a huge difference in Chicago’s political culture. Some of it was timing and some of it was Washington himself. But that’s another story.
* I don’t claim to have read any where near everything published about Washington’s campaigns. I do know that Jim Weinstein mentioned DSA in passing in an In These Times op-ed about the Chicago municipal election in April of 1983. But that was a socialist publication. Right-wing polemicists (Stanley Kurtz, as an example) for whom merely mentioning the word “socialist” is an inspiration to fear and outrage discovered DSA’s support for Washington some years ago, mostly in the context trying to persuade people that Obama is / was a socialist: an excellent example of how ideology can sometimes make people politically tone deaf. They ramped up the noise around that narrative right when the economy was crashing.
I don’t recall that the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (a predecessor organization to DSA) was particularly involved with Washington’s unsuccessful 1977 campaign for Mayor, but the New American Movement (the other predecessor organization to DSA) certainly was.
There’s a major problem with the subject of this book and Timothy Minchin runs slam bang into it: The topic is too damned big for a book of a mere 414 pages. Oh yes, Minchin does try to narrow the topic, pointing out and so excluding bodies of other work that deal with various historical aspects, such as the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy, and many of the externalities that affect organizing. In fact, Minchin himself has written extensively about Labor’s campaigns to organize in the South. Even so, he still ends up beginning this account not in 1979 but at the beginning, at the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. And sensibly so as it is impossible to discuss the organization’s history post-Meany without some idea how its origins set the stage for that subsequent history.
But what promises to be a history of the AFL-CIO ends up with a primary focus on the leaders of the labor federation: George Meany, Lane Kirkland, Thomas Donahue, John Sweeney and Richard Trumka. Maybe there’s no other way to compress the subject into the space available, but it’s a limited window on to a very big subject.
History’s judgement on the AFL-CIO leadership is one Minchin’s main interests anyway. He feels that the labor federation’s presidents have gotten something of an unfair reputation as being backward looking and unreceptive to new strategies, particularly in the case of Lane Kirkland. He makes an good case for it. Unfortunately the main reason so many scholars and historians have it in for union leadership is that those leaders make such convenient stones upon which ideological axes can be sharpened. Under those circumstances, counterfactuals drift like ticker tape and no broom will contain them. Nonetheless, Minchin brings considerable research to this account, including numerous interviews with the players and access to the AFL-CIO’s own archives.
As the title, Labor Under Fire, implies, the book intends to be a history of the AFL-CIO’s attempts to deal with the labor movement’s decline. The second half of the Twentieth Century has not been kind to unions anywhere in the world; the United States is not unique in seeing a decline in membership and in union density. Here in the States, Minchin feels there were two especially rough patches: the Ronald Reagan administration / PATCO strike and the George W. Bush administration / 9-11 attacks.
The PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike has long been identified as a turning point in U.S. labor history, but Minchin’s account provided me with useful context. The Reagan administration was something almost unprecedented in Twentieth Century politics: The near total exclusion of organized labor from any contact with the White House, at least at the beginning of the Reagan Administration. As far as the Reaganistas were concerned, unions had nothing to say that they were at all interested in even pretending to hear. This, as much as any of the details of the strike itself and Lane Kirkland’s responses to it, is important.
Likewise, the turn of the millennium found an optimistic Labor movement in the process of building powerful coalitions outside the union movement. The infamous attacks on 9-11 in 2001 took place during the presidency of George W. Bush, an administration every bit as hostile to unions as the Reagan Administration. A malevolent Federal government and a public stampeded by fear and war is not an advantageous environment for organizing or for progressive public policy.
With respect to the Reagan administration, unions took a while to figure out that they were dealing with something new. They were not unique. In 1981, Chicago DSA (DSOC/NAM) was a part of the Illinois Coalition Against Reagan Economics and we found that part of our task was convincing liberals and unions they were facing an existential threat. It took a while. It took years for some liberals.
In comparison, unions did respond and relatively quickly. One of the AFL-CIO’s responses under Kirkland was the September, 1981, Solidarity Day march on Washington. Minchin goes for the reasonably conservative crowd size estimate of 400,000, but it may have been twice that. (I was there.) The march also wasn’t a one-off event but was followed by a series of similarly branded local events including, ultimately, a tenth anniversary march on Washington in 1991. Minchin reports that the original 1981 event did make the political atmosphere in Congress more favorable to union priorities yet it certainly did not halt the erosion of union organizations. At best (it seems to me, as Minchin doesn’t argue this) Solidarity Day made conservatives a bit more cautious about directly confronting the union movement… until George W. Bush.
This speaks to a problem I had with the book generally. Minchin describes any number of interesting and innovative AFL-CIO responses to the crisis in union organization. Sometimes he will judge the initiative to be successful (for example the Strategic Approaches Committee established in 1989), but there’s never enough information to allow the reader to come to their own conclusion. I strongly suspect most unions, including the AFL-CIO federation, are not strong on metrics with which to judge political and educational projects. This allows leaders and staff to make their own, sometimes self-serving judgements. For example, how many of the “follow-ups” to the Solidarity Day march were simply rebrandings of activities local unions were going to do anyway? I remember a follow-up rally here in Chicago that was attended by dozens — hardly a turnout to encourage Labor’s friends or to worry Labor’s enemies. My prejudice (and unfortunately nothing in the book argues against this) is: If a union program does not contribute immediately to that union’s ability to serve and expand its membership then that program is optional and expendable, even if it might pay off in the long run. Marxists may regard that as a symptom of false consciousness, but unions survive, sorta, and marxists not so much.
Minchin ends his account just before the end of the Obama administration. I don’t feel he deals with the AFL-CIO in the Twenty-First Century in as much detail as he does its history in the Twentieth nor with John Sweeney and Richard Trumka as much as he does with Lane Kirkland. This may be prejudice on my part; I’m not so much interested in bettering Kirkland’s place in history. Or it may be how material was triaged for space.
As a small example, Minchin does not mention that John Sweeney was a member of my organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), but he does mention that Lane Kirkland was not a member of the old Social Democrats USA (SDUSA). SDUSA membership is an odd sort of issue to simply mention in passing; very few people have even heard of SDUSA. Thus it seems to me to be a truncated thread in Minchin’s narrative. Street gossip in 1995 was that Sweeney had joined DSA specifically to irritate Kirkland and his supporters; SDUSA and DSA, for many years, did not much get along: If you were known as a DSA member (aka “a friend of Harrington”), you’d have no luck being hired at the AFL-CIO HQ. Kirkland also did his best to sabotage Michael Harrington’s “Eurosocialism in America” conference held in Washington in the early 1980s. Until 1989, Kirkland’s assistant was Tom Kahn, a leading member of SDUSA. While one of Kahn’s main tasks, even in the early 1980s, was foreign policy (one of Kirkland’s pet priorities), it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Kahn was one of the early promoters of the 1981 Solidarity Day march idea within the AFL-CIO. Kahn had been deeply involved in organizing the 1963 March on Washington so for all that I know, Solidarity Day may even have been Kahn’s idea. There is a story to tell but arguably tangential to the main narrative and the SDUSA observation looks like a stub that may have been intended to lead toward it.
A maybe more important thing that Minchin does not deal with at all is the role of contract negotiations in forming the political culture within unions. Full disclosure: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of a union. (My Dad, however, was a member of NAGE, currently a part of SEIU.) That’s the way it is here in the States. But as a member and (for a time) a leader in Chicago DSA, I’ve spent a good bit of time with union staff and officials. The war stories unionists share focus on the adversarial and transactional process of bargaining, whether for a formal contract or for an individual grievance or even for candidates for public office. It seems to me that this experience has informed much of their behavior with respect to other organizations, other unions, and even other players within their own union. In some circumstances, this confrontational behavior and game playing is productive but other times not so much — it can be a handicap. It may very well be a partial explanation of why some of Labor’s efforts have yielded less than optimal harvests. But this criticism speaks more to my questions about labor history generally than it does regarding what Minchin intended to accomplish in this book.
So is Labor Under Fire a significant contribution to the historiography of Labor in the United States? Go ask someone else; I’m not an academic. Yeah, that’s a cop-out answer. But here is what I’m comfortable saying. If Timothy Minchin wanted to set the record a bit straighter for Kirkland, he makes a good but probably futile argument. On the other hand, for most people with a layman’s interest in the union movement, this is a useful introduction to the AFL-CIO’s history even if the focus ends up on the top leadership. In particular, I think it is useful in illustrating the nature of the AFL-CIO as a federation of independent unions. During the Meany years and during much of the Kirkland years, this awareness of being a federation was as much a part of the organization’s ideology as it was a political fact. It informed what Kirkland was willing to undertake and had a similarly big impact on the success and failure of various programs in the Sweeney years. You might nod your head when told that the AFL-CIO is not a union but a federation of unions, but Minchin’s account makes it real. In a federation, “solidarity” is often only the title to a song no one remembers the lyrics to.
For people with an interest in unions, it’s certainly worth your time to read and, depending upon your wallet, your money too.