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Perspectives for socialists in 2024

Interview with David McNally—Part 2

The Tempest Collective Editorial Board recently sat down with David McNally to discuss current geopolitical dynamics, economic fault lines, and labor struggles—and perspectives for socialists in 2024. This is the second part of a two-part interview. Part one can be read here.

Tempest Collective: What is your perspective on the state of resistance and movement internationally? It has been wonderful to see the Palestine movement in the United States reemerge at this moment. When one travels internationally, one gets that sense that people are looking at the movement in the U.S. and see its importance, especially because of the role of the U.S. government vis-à-vis Israel. Since the initiation of the  Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) in 2005, the Palestine movement has consistently faced outright hostility. Now it faces repression, and a more extreme form of McCarthyism than we’ve seen in this country for decades. What’s your assessment of the evolution of the Palestine movement, its political contours, and the challenges it is facing?

David McNally: The wave of McCarthyite attacks on campuses, in Hollywood, and other places that we’ve seen is ominous, but it will not hold. That doesn’t mean they are not dangerous. But I believe that the repression overcompensates for ideological weakness. Israel and the United States confront a legitimation crisis over Palestine. There are ingredients of a Vietnam moment right now, a series of elements that could create a huge social rupture in the U.S. and beyond.

Symptomatically, you see them in very straightforward ways. Let’s start with the scale of the mobilization. I’ve been going to demonstrations for more than 50 years. In November of last year, I attended the largest of my life. I walked with at least 600,000 people in London on the Palestine solidarity march. Some of the organizers are saying it was 800,000. I’ve never marched with 600,000 people before in my life. That alone tells us something.

Scores of President Biden’s staffers have picketed the White House wearing masks and protesting U.S. support for the war on Gaza. Employees of the World Food Program have written to their boss, a U.S. hand-picked political hack, protesting the war on Gaza. BBC journalists have written an open letter denouncing their own broadcasting corporation for its bias against Palestinians.

We’re only two months into the war. There are major unions, like the auto workers and postal workers in the United States, coming out for a ceasefire. It took five or six years with Vietnam to get a major union to come out against the war in Vietnam. All of this speaks to an enormous fracture in the hegemony of Zionism.

This is one of the reasons why the pro-Israel forces are so enraged right now. Among other things, they know they’re losing the support of Jewish youth. And the role of organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has been huge in this regard. What we’re witnessing is a generational break of the sort that we saw with Vietnam.

You’ve literally got millions of young people who are completely opposed to their own government’s position. As previously noted, this break is being reflected even at fairly high institutional levels: the White House with Biden staffers, the State Department, and the World Food Program. These are big breaks and they’re happening much earlier than they did with Vietnam. Part of the reason for this is the campaigning Palestine solidarity activists have done for years building the BDS campaign, campus-based Students for Justice in Palestine organizations, and others.

We have seen a kind of incremental shift that is now accelerating in the context of a genocide. This is a huge problem for the ruling class. Biden is using a word now that the New York Times tried to ban 30 years ago when Thomas Friedman (of all people) inserted the word “indiscriminate” into a New York Times report on the bombing of Lebanon. The editors struck out the word “indiscriminate.” They wouldn’t let that into the paper. Now Biden is using the term.

This is because they’re reading the polls and they know they’re losing young people and Arab-Americans in particular. I believe that if anything costs Biden re-election, it will be Palestine. The loss of youth and the loss of Arab-Americans is really going to hit them hard.

We should remember that the 1968 Chicago protests were at the Democratic National Convention. Social movements were mobilizing against a Democratic Party president who was leading an imperial war in Vietnam. At least initially and unknowingly, the Biden Democrats have reactivated these dynamics with their support for genocide in Gaza. And now they’re starting to get some intimation of what they’ve unleashed. The problem that they face is that when both major political parties are completely out of step with where millions of young people stand on war, it creates a huge social and political space. Social movements essentially filled that vacuum in the 1960s and early 1970s.

But the social movements that we have at the moment are not yet adequate to the task. We’re going to need many more mass organizing formations. And if this movement continues—we don’t know that it will—I think it’s possible that we’re in for multi-year social mobilization around Palestine. Internal documents indicate the Israeli War Cabinet wants another year in Gaza. They may not get this but they are openly discussing the expulsion of two and a quarter million people into the Sinai Peninsula or even south Lebanon. Whatever happens, we are looking at a wave of disease epidemics hitting Gaza in the coming months. When you destroy the water system and the health care infrastructure, that’s what’s going to happen.

So, we could be in for a much longer period of global Palestine solidarity mobilization. If that’s true, then we need to think about what social movement organizing looked like over a period of years as with the Civil Rights Movement, for instance. While it’s true that Dr. Martin Luther King still occupied a very significant position on the national stage in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King and the SCLC did not lead on the ground by the mid-1960s. It was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that started to drive youth activism, the Freedom Summer, voter registration campaigns, and so on. Students for a Democratic Society exploded in growth. Both were civil rights and anti–Vietnam War organizing fulcrums. The initiative then shifted for a period of time to the Congress on Racial Equality, which became absolutely central to organizing.

In other words, the movement is required to reinvent organizational forms as it proceeds. We should not assume that the current organizing structures are set in stone. At some point, if this movement grows, then some kind of large framework that brings together unions, faith organizations, student groups, dissident scholars, and social movement organizers into new organizational rubrics will become possible–and necessary.

I’ve noticed this already in Toronto. Initially, much of the organizing for Palestine solidarity work was essentially being driven by one youth organization in Toronto. But quickly there emerged a working coalition of unions, migrant justice organizations, campus-based organizations, faith organizations, and groups of artists. As a result, the demonstrations in Toronto grew from 5,000 to 50,000 because this new organizing framework came together. Now, there are problems here, particularly because union leaderships often like to control things from backrooms.

That’s going to be the challenge. Can we, in the coming months, start to envision, strategize about, and contribute to new and more broad-based campaigning type structures and organizing frameworks? If we can, there’s potentially a movement of millions to be built in a country like the United States.

Key ingredients are already there in a country like Britain. As I said, I marched with 600,000 or more in London. Enormous marches happened in Manchester and Glasgow and elsewhere in the country on the same day. We’re back, potentially, into that level of antiwar organizing.

Palestine March, London, November 11, 2023. Photo shows large multi-racial crowd waving Palestinian flags.
Palestine March, London, November 11, 2023. Photo by Julian Stallabrass.

Although I think there are huge challenges because of how depleted our infrastructures of dissent are after decades of neoliberalism, we also need to remind ourselves that the movements that rebuilt a Left in the 1960s in the United States were coming out of McCarthyism. They were coming out of the crushing of a previous Left. So, it’s possible to rebuild and to reinvent, but that’s going to be the challenge.

I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing the difficulties. They’re real. But I also don’t want people to underestimate the opportunities of the moment for a mass scale organizing like we saw in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) moment of the George Floyd uprising. Of course, it was too short-lived for new mass organizations to develop on a large scale.

The struggle in Palestine may not be deflected like the BLM uprising was, in part because the Democratic Party pulled the plug on the BLM uprising. Barack Obama spoke to LeBron James and encouraged basketball players to put an end to the athlete strikes. They wanted no more workplace stoppages for fear those would hurt Biden’s presidential campaign. They secured an end to the strikes in exchange for promising that basketball arenas would be used as voter registration sites.

The Democrats can’t do this now over the issue of Palestine. They can’t send Obama or Biden or any Democrat in to kill the movement right now. The stakes during a genocide are too high. One of the strategic discussions that we’re going to need over the next few months on the Left in the United States is how we can begin to create broader frameworks for Palestine solidarity and mobilization. The opportunities are there.

TC: The moment of the Democratic Party being discredited is happening at the same time as the far right is resurgent internationally and nationally. The discrediting and weakening of the support for Biden actually predates October 7 and the Democrats’ naked support for genocide. But the far right in many ways has been able to present itself as a counter hegemonic power to answer the problem of the establishment, “the swamp.” This isn’t just Trump but also Javier Milei in Argentina. The far right everywhere is presenting themselves this way—and the Left in many ways is not.

DM: You’re absolutely right to emphasize this. The political initiative, particularly in the electoral arena, has been with the Right, and in some cases, frighteningly, with the Far Right. For any of us on the socialist Left to underestimate this would be disastrous. Because what they’re trying to do, and in some cases are having a reasonable degree of success at doing, is to displace working-class anger away from the employing class toward socially oppressed layers of the working class.

This is a dynamic that we’re familiar with. We can go back to great writings from the 1970s like Policing the Crisis by Stuart Hall, with a number of coauthors, which essentially said to us, “Listen, they are repackaging the economic crisis of capitalism as a crisis of personal safety and policing. They are targeting people of color as the cause of social crisis. And if we don’t have a counter to that, we’re in trouble.”

Part of the problem was that older forms of class solidarity were being eroded. In some cases, they were being smashed institutionally. And we always have to remind ourselves that neoliberalism depended on inflicting a series of defeats on working-class organizations.

Margaret Thatcher in Britain knew that the National Union of Mine Workers had to be defeated in the interests of neoliberalism. If you were going to break a politics of working-class solidarity, the miners had to be crushed. In Bolivia, the neoliberals knew it was the tin miners, perhaps the most militant union in South America. In 1985, thousands of them on a march were taken on by the army and beaten.

On a less dramatic scale, but still as socially significant, was the breaking of the air traffic controllers strike by Ronald Reagan in the United States. Once the organizations and unions that provide the institutional foundation of working-class solidarity are destroyed or massively depleted, then people will tend to fall back on individual survival strategies unless another form of organization on the Left can fill the vacuum. And that induces competition and rivalry, rather than cooperation and solidarity.

The far right continues to capitalize on that fact. Their message is: If you want an individual survival strategy, then we’re going to elevate you above those “lesser” types who have been getting handouts from the liberal elites in the form of affirmative action, diversity, equity, and inclusion, social welfare programs, softness on crime, and so on.

This problem is going to persist until the rebuilding of working-class organizations on a significant scale pulls large numbers of working-class people back into collective projects and collective organizational forms.

Palestine solidarity struggle can feed into workplaces, as I’ve said. Large social movements can play an extremely important role. Even though they don’t have the workplace-based endurance that unions do, they create new collective solidarities. They become a breeding ground for new political identities. The idea that mass action can get results feeds into other forms of organizing, such as community-based and workplace organizing.

As socialists, we need to be trying to work with all of those little green shoots that have emerged in terms of workplace and union organizing. They’re incredibly important to cultivate, but we also need to be very cognizant of the openings for much larger scale social mobilizations because these will pull in young workers and workers of color in particular.

If we can build a real grassroots mass-based Palestine solidarity campaign against the war on Gaza right now, it will percolate. It doesn’t mean that the Right will disappear electorally, but one of the key things that we’ve got to grasp strategically for the Left is that the electoral arena is less propitious for us than it is for the Right. The electoral arena suits the Right better because they’re not trying to break the institutions of capitalist power. It suits us the least because the Left overwhelmingly is forced to accommodate when it gets inside the machinery of the state, even its elected structures.

Of course, you can create huge counterweights if you’ve got mass social movements, so I’m not saying never contest power within the electoral arena. But one of the things we’ve seen is that unless Left elected representatives are anchored to mass social movements, which exert a pull away from electoralism, they accommodate—and this is terrible for us.

Right now the electoral advances of the Right need to be countered in every way possible. But if we want to stop the attack on reproductive rights in the United States, for example, we should not focus on getting Democrats elected. Instead we need to rebuild a mass based reproductive choice movement. That’s what we’ve seen elsewhere, and it’ll be the case in the United States, just as it was in the 1970s, in terms of winning on reproductive rights.

Mass social movements create a different kind of politics. They teach people that politics doesn’t have to be submitting to the Clintons of the world. We’re never going to win over working-class people if that’s what we project to them as the alternative—that a bunch of technocratic elites like Biden and company, who have been lifelong political hacks in a Democratic Party machinery, represent your future.

We’re not getting anywhere and we’re ultimately losing politically in those terms. The real question for us is creating a mass counterbalance and political life that prefigures a different kind of politics, a different kind of organizing, and a different kind of struggle.

That will inevitably produce electoral spinoffs. For instance, think of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party or the Peace and Freedom Party associated with the Black Panther Party in California. There will be electoral spinoffs, but right now the one overwhelming priority is creating a Left force in politics to counter the Right. Ultimately, we need mass Left movements to do that. We’ve got to get back to street, community, and workplace mobilization as the key. There’s an opening right now around justice for Palestine. I hope we don’t squander it.

Featured image credit: BullMoose1912; modified by Tempest.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

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David McNally View All

David McNally specializes in the history and political economy of capitalism. He teaches in Department of History at the University of Houston and is the author, among other books, of Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, and Blood and Money: War, Slavery, Finance, and Empire.