Two commentators on the recently posted account of the Pittsburgh G-20 actions demand a deeper and more thoughtful discussion of the state and prospects of the left in the US. Anonymous speaks with insight of the shortcomings and obstacles plaguing the US left, pointing to the many mechanisms employed by US rulers to thwart any labor or socialist militancy. Anonymous, briefly, but effectively, exposes the resourceful opponents of social change as well as noting the unfortunate diversions that serve to dilute developing struggles. At the risk of simplification, this correspondent reminds us of the often quoted sympathy of Che Guevara who consoled the US left over the difficulties of working “in the belly of the beast”.
With a small dose of sarcasm and a large dose of skepticism, Valentin Zorin challenges the US left to face some unpleasant, humbling facts. Though a Russian, Zorin has earned the right to speak directly and candidly to the US left. Arguably the doyen of Soviet-era journalists commenting on the US, he has lived among us and encountered the leading figures in the history of the Cold War. Today, he is respected for his insights on the US and active on Voice of Russia radio.
Zorin is right to point to the absence of a revolutionary party in the US at a critical time when dissatisfaction and frustration have reached a flashpoint. This is a harsh, but merited criticism that we simply cannot side-step. With Anonymous, I could construct an elaborate and detailed explanation of the forces arrayed against the revolutionary left in the US, not least of which is a security service far more advanced and technologically adept than any other in history. The rest of the world knows this only too well.
Historical, demographic, even geographical factors play a role as well. Despite our revolutionary heritage, forces have shaped the US into a nation ravaged by an unprecedented radical individualism that has successfully foreclosed collective action. No nation, no era has become so completely self-absorbed. The expression of this with the left is the aching desire for a knight on a white horse – an FDR, a Kennedy, or an Obama in our time- that would carry the burden of change while we, as Zorin puts it, “tend to our garden”. Collective action is demeaned, while we patiently wait for our Lenin. We see this in the qualitative leap that the anti-war movement took after Cindy Sheehan’s bold, but individual confrontation with George W. Bush. We see it today in the hope that Michael Moore’s new movie, Capitalism: A Love Story will raise the masses to a new consciousness… but without the hard, collective work of organization and joint action.
And, yes, the gardens we tend are rather large and luxuriant. As a Marxist, I object to the uncritical, unscientific term “middle class” for all those beneath the very rich and above the very poor. Nonetheless, the privileges of empire and the benefits of US hegemony afford most US citizens a comfortable, agreeable way of life that we believe rivals anyone else in the world. Though the economic crisis is challenging this view, millions have yet to feel its sharp edge and care little for its victims.
Our citizens are narcotized by a media that would shock George Orwell and other oracles of “totalitarianism”. No ruling class has mastered so skillfully the manipulation of consent to serve the interests of monopoly capitalism, wealth, and power. The two-party electoral system has absorbed all political energy into an empty ritual held periodically, pitting one snake oil salesman against another.
But do not view this as “American Exceptionalism”. For those living outside our borders, it is surely a foretaste of what capitalism will bring them in the future. The once-thriving multi-party systems of many European nations are inexorably morphing into the insidious two-party circus (France, Italy). US cultural and social values are spreading throughout the world like a virus, even deeply penetrating the former socialist countries and the People’s Republic of China.
Nevertheless, Zorin’s challenge persists. While all these factors extenuate, they do not change the brutal fact that the US left is far from adequate to meet the needs of the moment, or far into the future.
We can draw some solace from the fact that the US empire is an empire in decline. US imperial aggression has, despite enormous resources and sophistication, failed to prevail. The once staggering economic engine is running decidedly slower. Debt has become not only the currency of finance but the pillar of sinking living standards. If there is an American Century, this is not it.
So for those of us on the Marxist left, the challenge is to thrust ourselves into these new realities. It is important to recognize that our role must be cast in a larger picture. Generations of revolutionaries have never seen revolution. Those who have that good fortune enjoyed the efforts that preceded them. From the early Christian movements and the early Roman slave revolts to the handful of revolutionaries gathering in Mexico to venture on to Cuba, there is no way to anticipate the impact of the actions of a few dedicated to radical change.
But Zorin says: “It’s already too late. Finis”. Perhaps, but I think that this is a far too hasty conclusion. I am reminded of Lenin’s scolding of those who, after the brutally suppressed 1905 revolution, fell into despair, inaction, and “tending their gardens”. Of course things changed dramatically with the slaughter of the First World War.
It would be foolish to press this analogy too vigorously. The US is not Czarist Russia. Nor has the US left yet overcome the rank revisionism and craven opportunism that swept the left in Europe and the US, including many Communist Parties, after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Without clarity on this matter, a revolutionary movement has no chance of gaining traction.
Yet one legacy of the Soviet-era continues with genuine Marxist-Leninists: Internationalism. While US Marxists may be small in number and relatively ineffectual, they proceed with the knowledge that they are part of a world movement sharing both victories and setbacks. The crisis of the world economy brings this point home dramatically, with Marxists around the world playing an increasingly important, though not yet decisive role in shaping the response.
Surely Zorin understands the need for revolutionary patience and persistent organizing. In his own country – Russia - recent studies show that the average male now has a life expectancy of 60 years, dramatically down from the Soviet era and on a par with impoverished, sub-Saharan Africa. Demographically, this is a catastrophe – in terms of literally millions of unnecessary deaths – that rivals great famines and major wars. The Cold War calculators would place the blame for this devastation – holocaust, if you will – squarely on the back of the prevailing social system – in this case, capitalism. Yet despite, this blow to the Russian people, and despite a substantial Communist Party, this has not sparked a revolutionary upsurge. As in the US, the forces of crisis containment, distraction, and calculated obfuscation hinder this development. Capitalism has demonstrated great resiliency throughout the world.
Zorin raises the specter of US fascism. Of course this is a danger. Yet the fascistic 25% of the population has always been lurking in the body politic. During the great gains of the left during the New Deal, the Liberty Lobby, the Black Legions, the reactionary movement around the media celebrity, Father Coughlin, and the KKK enjoyed their greatest following. That was and remains a constant on the US scene. Unfortunately, much of the US left has posed confronting this evil as the sole task, cuddling up to the soulless Democrats in a twisted, misguided application of Popular Front policies. This has only added to the bleak landscape of left politics that Zorin correctly identifies.
So going forward, we – and our international comrades – have the daunting task of restoring revolutionary Marxism to the stature enjoyed in the twentieth century. There is much to digest, much to learn, and much to do. Admittedly, the US presents unique challenges, but we, and our friends abroad, should not underestimate the impact of a small revolutionary movement on the currents of US politics. The history of our twentieth century Communist Party shows many instances of its influence on major shifts in the trade union movement, the civil rights movement and the struggles against US aggression. If we are to help direct the course of this decaying empire, we must amplify these efforts.