Why the US Left is Weak – and What to Do About It*
July 14, 2009
By Barbara Epstein
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
The topic of my essay is the current weakness of the US left, by which I mean those of us who want a democratic and egalitarian society, a demilitarized world, and a respectful relationship between humans, other creatures, and the natural environment, those of us who are convinced that this will require a massive redistribution of power and wealth, within the US and internationally. This is hardly the only possible definition of the left. Some on the right use the term in a way that includes all Democratic office holders, and anyone who votes for them. Some use the term to include anyone who favors a firmer challenge to corporate interests than the Obama administration is willing to countenance. Those who fit this description might be called left liberals, or progressives, and they are like leftists in many ways: they support changes that leftists also support, and collectively, like the left, they are fragmented, disorganized, and have less impact than their numbers would warrant. The difference is that they tend not to see the need for fundamental, structural social change. My essay is concerned with those of us who do see such a need.
I believe that as long as capitalism holds sway our ability to achieve the social order described above will be at best partial and tenuous. The profit motive is not a basis for a society that could be counted on to promote peace, demoracy, equality, or a viable relationship between humans and the rest of the planet. The neo-liberal form of capitalism is more destructive of human society, other species, and the environment than any previous form of capitalism. It would be difficult to consider anyone who is not critical of capitalism part of the left. But hardly anyone, even among those of us who consider ourselves socialists, thinks that socialism can be achieved any time soon. If we were to pose the quest for socialism as the most urgent aim of the left, or, worse, to pose it against reforms short of socialism, we would find ourselves ignored, by progressives as well as the mainstream and the right. Probably the best we can hope for, for the foreseeable future, is a form of democratic socialism in which capitalism is severely regulated, and some redistribution of wealth and power is achieved through regulation of corporations, the expansion of state spending on social programs, and a dramatic increase in popular participation in politics. If such a shift could be achieved, it would alter the balance of power between the corporate elite and the rest of us, and would constitute a step toward socialism. But making socialism the most immediate issue on our agenda would be self-defeating.
Another reason not to make socialism our central issue is that there is a large sector of the left that rejects capitalism but is at least ambivalent about socialism. Anarchism is the dominant orientation among young radical activists, and while the vast majority is anti-capitalist, many look forward to a decentralized and stateless society that they would not describe as socialist. While I can’t see how a society can function without some governing structure, the question of what form that might take in a post-capitalist society seems to me a legitimate question. One legacy of the left’s past that I think we need to avoid is readiness to define those whom one disagrees with out of the left. I envision a left that includes anarchists, Marxists, and everyone in between, or perhaps approaching the left with a different vocabulary altogether. There remain ethical boundaries: Stalinism should have been rejected in the past, and support for repressive and authoritarian movements, or states, remains alien to a democratic left. But it seems to me that there should be room for debate about the relationship of the left to the state.
The problem with debating the fine points of a left vision is that, in the US, we barely have a left. The first question, it seems to me, is, why is the left so weak, and what can we do about it? The movements of the sixties had a great impact on American society, shifting many people to the left, and leaving a legacy that has shaped the views of large numbers of young people. But most of the left organizations of the sixties collapsed as the movements that they had sustained lost their impetus. The central ideas of those movements were social equality at home and an end to US wars of aggression and the aim of US world domination that lies behind them. These ideas drew a large sector of a generation into political activity; they were, and remain, enormously compelling. But they came to be intertwined with other ideas that were considerably less persuasive, most of them connected with the illusion, widespread among left activists of the late sixties and early seventies, that revolution was around the corner. Though hardly anyone on the left still thinks that revolution is imminent, many of the ideas that arose in connection with this view continue to plague the left, and to narrow its appeal. Perhaps these ideas hung on in part because the mass participation organizations of the movements of the sixties disappeared, and with them any arena for collective reconsideration of which of the ideas of the movements of the sixties were valid and should be carried forward, and which had done damage and should be abandoned.
The left organizations of the sixties and early seventies were, on the whole, not designed to last. This was partly because the movements of the time were youth movements, and thought of themselves as such. Very little thought was put into the question of what the left would look like when we ceased to be young. For many of us, our left politics and our youth were so intertwined that we avoided confronting the possibility that one day we would no longer be young. For some left activity may have been a youthful fling, to be abandoned, ultimately, with a certain relief. The Communist Party, and other organizations of the Old Left, were founded on the view that social change was a lifetime commitment. The movements of the sixties for the most part did not address this issue.
The Old Left was built on the assumption that strong organizations were the foundation for a strong and effective left, and in the early years of the New Left the same assumption held. Members of SNCC, SDS, and other organizations of the Civil Rights movement and the northern student movement were dedicated to building and strengthening those organizations. But there was also a widespread view, especially in the northern student movement, that the enemy was “the system” and the bureaucracy entailed in it, that the movement represented spontaneity against structure. In many of the organizations of the early sixties there was enough internal agreement and willingness to compromise that a spirit of spontaneity was more a strength than a weakness. In the latter part of the sixties spontaneity remained a strength: the “let a hundred flowers bloom” mentality created room for the young people, pouring into the movement, to express their rage at the war and at the system as a whole in myriad ways.
Spontaneity and the suspicion of organization also became a weakness for the movements of the sixties. These principles were taken to extremes, as in cases of radical feminist groups in which those who took on leadership roles might be attacked simply for occupying those roles. It was also a factor in the collapse of organizations that held the movement together and that might have provided the basis for a continuation of the left beyond the end of the war. In the last years of the sixties the leadership of SDS became consumed by bitter conflicts among several ideological tendencies, each arguing on behalf of a particular path toward the revolution. SDS was by this time very large: it had hundreds of chapters and perhaps 100,000 members. But most chapters functioned largely autonomously and paid little attention to the debates taking place in leading circles. When the battle among the sectarian groupings at the center tore the organization apart, there was no one to point out that keeping the organization alive was more important. In some parts of the US, as in the Bay Area, for the most part organizations of the left didn’t even take hold. In Berkeley each new crisis prompted the creation of an Ad Hoc Committee, consisting of self-appointed leaders, which would call demonstrations and issue statements. Between crises movement activity would subside. Many, perhaps most of those who considered themselves part of the movement belonged to no ongoing organizations, except perhaps households consisting of movement supporters. As long as the war lasted, and especially as long as the draft was in effect, the movement remained strong. But once the war was over the movement dissipated, with few structures remaining to sustain left influence in a different period.
Suspicion of organization was not universal in the movements of the late sixties. The Marxist-Leninist/Maoist/New Communist current, often called the party building movement, took the opposite approach and constructed hierarchical, tightly disciplined organizations modelled on revolutionary organizations in China and elsewhere in the Third World, intended as vanguard parties that would lead the revolution. The Black Panther Party and some other radical organizations of people of color adopted similar organizational styles. This sector of the movement had considerable influence on the thinking of activists throughout the movement, but more for their confidence that the revolution was imminent, their focus on anti-imperialism, and their identification with Third World movements, than for the structure of their organizations, which were hierarchical and often authoritarian, were at odds with the spirit of the movement and appealed to only a minority of activists. But Maoism, the dominant ideological current in the party-building movement, had a profound impact on the movement as a whole. Maoism introduced a theory of anti-imperialism that made sense in the context of the war in Vietnam: that the “main contradiction” was no longer capitalism versus socialism, but US imperialism versus the anti-imperialist movement. The view that a revolution could take place, soon, in the US, was also promoted by Maoism, along with the idea that the prospects for revolution had more to do with the discipline and dedication of a revolutionary movement than with conditions external to the movement. Maoism encouraged the view that “Third World people” in the US would lead the revolution. And it encouraged a dismissive view of democracy and human rights.
The movements of the late sixties and the early seventies undermined themselves not only through their ambivalence toward organization but also by adopting perspectives that were not very credible at the time (and, to the extent that these perspectives have persisted, they are considerably less credible now). In the late sixties and early seventies it was widely assumed, among radical activists, that the revolution was around the corder. The word “revolution” meant different things in different sectors of the movement: to those in the radical core of the anti-war movement, who generally identified with one or another version of Marxism, it meant the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism; to radical feminists it meant a restructuring of gender relations; to many activists of color it meant an end to racism and whatever changes in the social order might be necessary to bring that about. To virtually everyone who adopted it, the idea of revolution was intoxicating, and few looked closely into what it meant or how it would come about. In fact there was no basis for revolution. Only a very small sector of young activists was committed to revolution. A much larger number used the word, but more to indicate the depth of their anger than out of any intention of overthrowing either the state or the capitalist system. Very few outside the radical youth movement had any interest in revolution.
The belief that revolution was possible took hold partly due to the example of Third World revolutions and revolutionary movements, and partly because the approach of “working within the system,” trying to induce the government to adhere to the espoused liberal, democratic values of the US, was not working. Democrats in power were at best reluctant allies of the Civil Rights movement, unwilling to confront the violent backlash against it. Self-proclaimed liberals were running the War in Vietnam, and shutting the anti-war movement out of the political arena. First in the Civil Rights movement and then in the anti-war movement, many activists came to the conclusion that it was time to turn to revolution, leading to a debate over what sector of the population would lead the revolution. Some argued that it would be the “new working class,” students and professional and technical workers. Many students were at least becoming open to the possibility of revolution, but professional and technical workers were not following suit, so this proposal was abandoned. A few argued that women, not just individuals but massive movements of women, would lead the revolution, but this idea did not take hold in the left as a whole, and in fact, while very large numbers of women were turning toward feminism, they were not necessarily adopting the cause of revolution. Some looked to the working class, and dropped out of school to take factory jobs in the hope of promoting radical activity among workers. This produced little in the way of results.
By the late sixties the dominant view on the left was that blacks or more generally “Third World people” would be the agents of revolution, due to their special oppression, and also their support for revolutions in the Third World. It was true that significant numbers of young blacks, some young Chicanos and Native Americans, and a much smaller number of young Asians, were turning toward revolution. But in none of these cases did the turn toward revolution include large numbers of adults, or for that matter more than a small minority of the youth. Very large numbers of blacks, especially young blacks, were angry about the persistence of racism and especially the War in Vietnam and the disproportionate numbers of black recruits and black casualties. Movement activists’ tendency to equate anger and militancy with revolution made it possible to mistake widespread black anger over racism and the war for revolutionary sentiment. By the late sixties and early seventies the American public as a whole was turning against the war. Young radicals, at the center of that movement, similarly tended to mistake popular support for their opposition to the war for revolutionary potential.
Revolution, in the late sixties and early seventies, was intertwined with anti-imperialism, due to the centrality of the war in Vietnam to radical activism, and to the solidarity of anti-war radicals with anti-imperialist movements and states in the Third World. On the one hand such solidarity was an enormous achievement. Few American young people had even heard of Vietnam before the Gulf of Tonkin made it headline news; few knew much of anything about China or even Cuba before the struggle against the war, and US imperialism, brought the Third World into the movement’s line of vision. Over the course of the war large numbers of American young people came to see the war as imperialist. Ohers understood the war as a mistake, but nevertheless aligned themselves with the Vietnamese people rather than with their own government. Neither anti-imperialism nor solidarity with a foreign people had ever before taken hold, in a US movement, to this extent. But the conceptions of anti-imperialism and of international solidarity that spread through the movement were simplistic. Many radical activists regarded the world as divided between US imperialism and its allies, on the one hand, and the forces of anti-imperialism on the other. According to this way of thinking, everything bad that happened in the world was the result of US influence, and anti-imperialist movements were inherently and necessarily progressive. Solidarity, it was thought, meant uncritical support for the movement one was in solidarity with, and imitating the strategy and organizational form of that movement in the US.
Finally, in the movements of the late sixties and early seventies it was widely assumed that radicalism and separatism were linked. The radical wing of the black movement was the first to adopt separatism, the radical wing of the women’s movement followed suit. There were good reasons for blacks, women, and others to form separate organization, or to meet in their own caucuses in general organizations. But separatism, and the fragmentation of the movement, came to be equated with militancy and revolutionary sentiment. The pursuit of unity, or even of a common purpose, became suspect.
Many of the ideological problems of the left in the late sixties and early seventies were particularly linked to the influence of Maoism, though also supported by other currents in the movement (the disappointment with and hostility to liberalism of a broad spectrum of activists) and by events (the War in Vietnam, the Sino-Soviet split and the upsurge of revolutionary movements in the Third World aligned with China). Maoism promoted the view that revolution could take place in the US, that its prospects depended more on the dedication and discipline of revolutionary activists than on conditions external to the movement. It supported the view that “Third World” people in the US would lead the revolution, that the revolution would be tied to revolutions in the Third World, and that they would follow patterns established by those movements, in those societies. It encouraged the view that the “main contradiction” in the world was the conflict between US imperialism and anti-imperialist movements, led by the Third World, and that democracy and human rights were secondary concerns, tainted by their association with the West.
Hardly anyone on the left still thinks that revolution is around the corner. But many of the ideas that accompanied this conviction, in the movements of the late sixties and seventies, persist in the contemporary left. It is widely assumed that the more oppressed or marginalized a group is, the more strongly it will support the agenda of the left. The US left has a very mixed history in regard to issues of race and homosexuality, and these, as well as issues having to do with gender, need to be continually addressed if the left is to be a vehicle for a shift toward a more egalitarian society. Efforts need to be made to include more people of color, women and gays (and for that matter, working class people) in the left. In recent years anti-Semitism has also become an issue in certain sectors of the left. But vigilance in regard to these issues should not be confused with an expectation that any sector of the population can is the constituency of the left. The view that the most oppressed will be the strongest and most effective agents of social change almost always turns out to be wrong. Under most circumstances people need a degree of stability and security in their lives in order to consistently engage in social action. Furthermore neither oppression nor marginality necessarily leads to left politics.
The term US imperialism has come to be widely used though with a somewhat different meaning than in the sixties. Many people, not only in the left, recognize that the US has sought to impose its will on the rest of the world, and that this is not good for those whom the US seeks to dominate or for the US itself. But it has become glaringly obvious that movements and states that oppose the US are as likely to be reactionary as progressive. Those who twist themselves into knots trying to find reasons to support Ahmadinejad, or Al Queda, only discredit themselves and the left. It has also become obvious that the world is too complex to fit into a simple opposition between the US, or the West generally, and everyone else. There are dictatorships that are opposed to the US, and there are liberation movements that identify with the West. The US continues to do a great deal of damage in the world, as in the case of the US occupation of Iraq. But as the ability of the US to determine world events declines, it becomes less and less convincing to portray US imperialism as the source of all evil.
Separatism as a principle of left organization made more sense in the sixties than it does now. As an occasional organizing tool it still makes sense: sometimes people of color, or women, or members of other groups, need to organize by themselves. But this does not have to mean a fragmented left. Without a sense of common purpose, the left is weak, and all the fragments suffer. In the eighties and nineties fragmentation was promoted by the sector of the academic left that was conducting a campaign against grand narratives, for reasons that had more to do with gaining ascendancey within academia than with advancing left politics. A shrill version of identity politics was sustained longer than it might otherwise have been in this context, and was a major pillar of a left culture in which many people hesitated to speak for fear of being denounced for sins ranging from racism through anti-Semitism. Sometimes these problems have been real, but the atmosphere of denunciation has done little to build the left. This culture has thankfully dissipated, but while it was at its height it made the left, especially left academia, unpleasant and often disfunctional, and undermined support for the left.
The membership organizations that formed the basis of the left in the sixties and early seventies have disappeared or shrivelled and have not been replaced. In the late seventies and eighties there were efforts to build new movements of the left on the same basis (the anti-nuclear movement, the movement against the arms race, the solidarity movement) but these did not take hold on anything like the scale of the movements of the sixties/early seventies. By the eighties, many left activists had abandoned the idea of forming membership organizations and were instead becoming part of the non-profit sector, forming small, staff-run organizations that focused on particular issues and sent newsletters and appeals for money to supporters. Meanwhile the right had decided to emulate the practice that the left was abandoning, organizing large membership organizations. The success of the right in this effort demonstrated that such organizations could still be built. They had ceased to exist, on the left, either because left activists had decided to focus their efforts elsewhere, or because the constituencies supporting the left had lost interest in joining organizations, or some combination of the two.
We now have a very large number of non-profits concerned with progressive issues, several left journals and several annual conferences explicitly associated with the left. There is a strong left presence in academia, in publishing, and in a number of professions (health care, for instance). In many cities there are particular neighborhoods where left influence is concentrated and there are small cities that lean strongly to the left (Berkeley, Amherst, Santa Cruz). In many such places left, or at least progressive, events take place fairly regularly. For those living in these communities, it is easy to forget how isolated and lacking in influence the left is nationally. There are no large organizations of the left, capable of giving it a voice in the public arena. For most people, being on the left means participating in an arena of opinion: voting for the Democratic candidate furthest to the left, reading The Nation or other left journals, associating with people who think similarly, writing checks to progressive non-profits and occasionally attending a demonstration.
There is a much more activist, anarchist-leaning youth movement. Its members were instrumental in organizing the Seattle 1999 protests against the WTO and subsequent protests against neo-liberalism, in mobilizing protest against the War in Iraq. Since then many have turned to anti-racist and other social justice campaigns. But this movement has failed to spread widely. It requires a high level of involvement; many of its members sustain this by holding jobs in the non-profit sector, allowing for an overlap between work and political activity. There are few organizations, on the left, designed for people who hold ordinary jobs. On the whole those involved in political activity are students or recently out of school, those who hold jobs on the left, retired people, and those with independent incomes. For others who might want to participate in political activity, there is often no place to go.
The lessons that I draw from this history are:
1) We need organizations. First, we need an organization, or perhaps organizations, of the left. A sense of common purpose and an atmosphere of comradeship should create an arena in which differences of perspective can be discussed in a friendly way, and in which differences of time commitment can be accomodated. It should be possible for people with jobs to be active members of left organizations. People on the left should organize progressive organizations: we need those as well.
2) Left organizations should uphold a set of principles that might be described as socialist-humanist (with the meaning of “humanism” expanded to include other living creatures and the environment). We should avoid focusing on the socialist component of this diad in a way that would narrow or marginalize the left.
3) We should judge our political positions against our core principles: social equality, substantive, participatory democracy, anti-militarism, human and animal rights, environmental balance and sustainability. We should reject positions that conflict with these principles, or with evidence, logic and common sense. Any position that would be laughed at by anyone other than a confirmed leftist should at least be reconsidered.
*With thanks to John Sanbonmatsu for helpful criticisms and suggestions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I became involved in the peace movement (Student Sane) as a high school student in New York City in the late fifties/early sixties. I also became a socialist, and in 1963, during my first year in college, I joined the Communist. Party. Five years later, by that time a graduate student in Berkeley, I left the CP, having concluded that it was hopelessly dogmatic and unlikely to go anywhere. I was involved in the anti-war movement and the women’s movement, and became a member of the editorial collective of the journal then called Socialist Revolution (later Socialist Review). I got a Ph.D. in History and a job at UC Santa Cruz, tried hard to maintain involvement in activism, but found that it was very difficult to do this consistently while also teaching and writing. I write about social movements, I have connections with Socialist Register and Monthly Review, and I have been sporadically involved in activism, especially in peace/anti-war movements and currently in the Middle East peace movement.