Is the Left Dead?
Reviewing historian Michael Kazin’s “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation” in The New York Times, Yale history professor Beverly Gage declares “the American left is dead.” She cites as evidence the fact that the Tea Party has been a more visible opposition force since the financial crisis than anything from the left, and the defeat of the movement in Wisconsin that tried to stop the stripping of collective bargaining rights from public workers. For his part, Michael Kazin himself has had an article saying something similar published in The New York Times on September 24. According to him, since the late seventies, the long-term institutional building and ideological work has all been on the right. Is this true? Is the Left dead?
In short, I would say no, perhaps not surprisingly given the name of this website. But what about those factors that Gage referenced? Why is the Tea Party more recognizable as an opposition force than anything on the left? Why hold out any hope for labor, given that states like Wisconsin are now rushing to catch up with the remnants of the Jim Crow South and ban collective bargaining for public sector workers? What about the lack of an animating vision like socialism?
We need to understand a little about the timing of change. Things bubble beneath the surface for a while. Then they rise and explode suddenly, at which point they retrospectively seem inevitable. Right now, the bubbling is getting more intense, even though it hasn’t quite broken the surface. A major factor keeping the lid on is that nearly every social movement organization (labor unions, civil rights groups, women’s groups, etc) is heavily connected to the Democratic Party, and deeply uneasy about challenging the Obama administration. More than anything else, this is the reason why the Tea Party, which is close to the Republicans, has been more visible than any opposition to Obama from the left. Perhaps the main challenge for the left is just to break this sense that we cannot be out in the streets while the lesser of two evils is in the White House. It is not surprising that the Tea Party was able to take the initiative, given this reality.
There are actually two interrelated dynamics that occur when a left develops, as has happened three times in U.S. history – in the late nineteenth century (populism), in the thirties (the Communist Party) and the sixties (the New Left). One is the emergence of mass movements (civil rights, unions, anti-war, feminism, etc) demanding greater equality and freedom. These involve many people employing all sorts of tactics from letter writing and petitions to strikes and boycotts to riots. The second aspect, which is the more precise concept of the left, includes networks or organizations that seek to develop visions of what changes should be implemented and what sort of strategies should be pursued. These two are interrelated, and grow in tandem; as more people struggle, more find the notion of joining together with others to determine a more sustained strategy attractive, and, for a time, the existence of such networks and organizations can spur struggles, as they provide the means to communicate and coordinate larger struggles.
What is striking is that I see loads of evidence that both–mass struggles and networks devoted to more overall strategic questions – are on the upswing in the U.S. They may not have made as many headlines as the Tea Party, but numerous protests and struggles have been developing, such as civil disobedience in support of single payer health care or in opposition to the Tar Sands pipeline, protests around banks and foreclosures, immigrants’ rights struggles, struggles against cuts at the state and city level. The Wisconsin movement was not successful in stopping Scott Walker and the Republicans from passing the law they wanted, but the high water mark of that struggle – thousands of furious people outside the state capital the night the bill was passed, with hundreds chanting “general strike! general strike!” – was high indeed, and there is no reason to believe it marked the end of an era. It was more like the beginning of something. In the last year or two, we’ve seen the two biggest prison revolts in decades, and a notable upsurge of labor struggle. The latter includes not only Wisconsin, but striking Verizon workers, Ikea workers winning a union, strikes of California nurses, of teachers in Tacoma,Washington and more. This is a lot more than we’ve seen in recent years, even if not enough yet to be described as a “strike wave”. Nor should we discount the effort to “Occupy Wall Street” , which is now being replicated in a number of cities around the U.S.. Although we should not ignore the media savvy and electoral effectiveness of the Tea Party, it can be fairly said that more people have been involved in protests from the left than from the right since the beginning of the Obama administration . Now it is a question of whether these growing movements can be made to resonate with each other, precisely the task of organizations and networks usually described as “the left”.
On that front, the development of networks and organizations, things have also been picking up speed. Attendance was way up at The Left Forum this year, while the United States Social Forum held a huge event, attended by 15,000 people, in Detroit in 2010. Marxist economist Richard Wolff (an important figure in The Left Forum) caught the current mood well when he commented on the radio (I’m loosely quoting) “I’ve been talking about economic matters for decades. In the last year, I’ve received more requests to speak from labor unions, community groups, and academic groups than in the rest of my career combined.” This is not to discount the challenges facing the creation of an effective left, most notably the social segregation in the U.S. along class/racial lines (in other words, left intellectuals are often isolated from those they regard as their constituents) and a political system that, given its heavy bias towards the two major political parties, tends to undermine the existence of an independent left. But it may also be the case that the prospects for an enduring left are brighter than they were during the last two periods of left upsurge – the thirties and the sixties – when the promise of U.S. capitalism to incorporate substantial portions of oppressed groups into the middle class was greater. For those like Kazin who emphasize the slower, long term work, I recommend they have a look at Jarol Manheim’s “Biz-War and the Out-Of-Power Elite: The Progressive-Left Attack on the Corporation”, which documents precisely this sort of work since the late sixties.
What of the claim that the failure of state socialism has doomed the left? I think it matters less than people realize. The left is an effort to end the hierarchies that define society. State socialism was one means to that end. Already new means are being explored, most notably by the more radical Latin American social movements. There are also probably dozens of different economic systems that have been hypothesized by radical economists. Whether movements in the U.S. or globally choose to call the new forms developed “socialism” or something else is a matter the movements will eventually decide for themselves. But the failure of state socialism does not mean the end of the search for an equal and just world, even if some wish that were the case.
Whenever I read declarations that the left is dead, and I’ve read such declarations many times over the last couple of decades, I’m reminded of the immortal words of German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, in her last known piece of writing:
“Order prevails in Berlin!” [or: "The left is dead"] You foolish lackeys! Your “order” is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will “rise up again, clashing its weapons,” and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!
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