Unfortunately, little of the US left’s modest success penetrated the labor movement, a social force defanged and declawed by anti-Communism early in the Cold War. And little of the left’s wave of vitality challenged the two-party system in any serious way. As the risings of the sixties recede further and further in our collective memory, the quantity and quality of popular struggle diminishes as well.
It’s not just the number of actions or the size of the crowds that are shrinking, but also the ideological understanding that purports to animate our US left. That is, the ideas embraced by various elements of the left have grown more and more murky and superficial.
What Ails the Left?
There are many symptoms and causes of the relative decline of the US left.
But always looming in the shadows of struggles for social justice is the demon of anti-Communism. Other peoples have suffered periods of hysterical, paranoid anti-Communism, but few countries outside of the US have elevated it to a state religion. While fear of Islam may have currently replaced Cold War fears as the national obsession, anti-Communism remains deeply embedded in the national psyche. Recent movies featuring West Coast and East Coast invasions of the US by forces from the tiny Democratic People’s Republic of Korea only underscore the persistence of this demon.
Of course the US left is neither immune from nor unwelcoming to Red-baiting. From the fifties, “leftists” could earn respectability and credibility with the public ritual of denouncing Communism. It was from this period that critical financial umbilical chords from the most prominent, most influential left and liberal formations to wealthy donors, foundations, and, in some nefarious cases, the security services were established. Any independent organizations deriving grass roots funding from workers’ organizations or the nationally oppressed were routinely looked at suspiciously for Red ties.
By the early sixties, the purge of everything Red or even Pink was largely completed. Everything—words, ideas, associations—even vaguely linked to Communism had disappeared from the mainstream. And the rise of a “new” left reflected the weight of that legacy. Both opportunism and ignorance led most of the left’s new leadership to establish a political camp to the right or left of Communism, demonstrably distant from Communism: radical democracy and social democracy to the right; Maoism and anarchism to the left.
Arguably this failure to establish an honest, objective encounter with Communism, this Cold War attitude of framing all politics as a counterweight to Communism, contributed mightily to the decline of the left in the next decade. The student base and alienation from working people demonstrated the shallowness of New Left ideology. Most leaders and activists turned to careers, the Democratic Party, the social service bureaucracy, or retreated to the universities.
Anti-Communism continued and continues as a blind faith. The fall of Soviet and Eastern European socialism added a new dimension to the anti-Communist canon: Not only was Communism evil, but it didn’t work.
Without the foil of real existing socialism, the US left drifted aimlessly. Some found an ideological anchor in “market socialism,” especially with the rise of Market-Leninism in the Peoples’ Republic of China. Others found romantic answers in Comandante Zero, a pipe-smoking, inscrutable poet/revolutionary diminutive caricature of Che Guevera. Still others attempted to restore life to the New Left of the sixties. One cannot but be reminded of the situation of Russian revolutionaries after the suppressed 1905 uprising as described by Lenin:
The years of reaction (1907-10). Tsarism was victorious. All the revolutionary and opposition parties were smashed. Depression, demoralisation, splits, discord, defection, and pornography took the place of politics. There was an ever greater drift towards philosophical idealism; mysticism became the garb of counter-revolutionary sentiments. (Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder)
Where most European Communists degenerated into social democrats in this period, US leftists, scarred by anti-Communism and with no similar tradition, found hope in narrow-issue activism, cult-like formations, or the unlikely revival of the New Deal Democratic Party.
Obama and the Left
The candidacy of Barack Obama proved to be a disaster for the US left. Anti-war and social justice activists put aside their signs and plans and flocked to the Obama campaign. Grandiose expectations were conjured out of thin air; a candidate associated in the past with conservative Democrats and a professed admirer of Ronald Reagan was imagined to be the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and even cautious measures of critical support were overwhelmed by wild-eyed enthusiasm.
After the election, most of the US left kept faith with Obama, a faith that has produced very little of the anticipated change, but succeeded in disarming the left. The big loser was the historically most progressive element in US politics: the African American community. Understandably, African Americans rallied to support the first African American president, but his administration has neither represented African Americans nor lifted a finger to relieve the sinking material conditions of life for that community. In fact, often more has been done for African Americans under Republican presidents when the left is actively and vocally pressuring and Democrats are in opposition! As an example, no Republican president would get away with so few African American appointees or nominees in an administration as has the current President!
The US ruling class has successfully and opportunistically gauged the hard won level of racial tolerance of US voters. The new face of US policy and diplomacy presented by Obama was welcomed everywhere—at home and abroad—over the failed Bush regime. A byproduct of this tactic is the disarming of the left and the silencing of African American leaders. Tragically, the US left has accepted the shallow symbolism of an African American president at the expense of the African American masses.
The Crisis and the Left
For the left in the US and internationally, the profound economic crisis beginning in 2008 and continuing today offers a great opportunity to mount an anti-capitalist offensive and project a clear alternative. For over a century and a half that alternative was socialism. The vision articulated over that period differed from time to time, but shared some straightforward features: the theoretical primacy of class relations, public ownership of productive assets, an end to exploitation, a new democracy based upon the rule of the working majority, and social and economic planning. Each feature clearly addresses a glaring, unacceptable shortcoming of capitalism.
But in the US, our left will not address the devastation wrought by capitalism and embrace these features or even discuss them honestly. One of the most prominent and respected national leaders of the anti-war movement recently said: “I used to think I was a socialist… But I also think that people should have the right to be individually enterprising. I have yet to see the society that I would like to live in but I see pieces of it, bits and pieces of it here and there.” This is hardly encouragement for the 11.7 million US citizens looking for a job, the nearly 8 million who would prefer a full-time job over their part-time employment, or the tens of millions who still lack health insurance, all benefits once guaranteed and delivered by real, existing socialism.
Another prominent left pundit, in reviewing another left oracle’s “new economy” manifesto, remarks that the author’s assumptions are “…that socialism, as we have known it in the 20th century did not work.” He blithely concedes that the book’s author “spends little time critiquing 20th century socialism.” Not deterred by the lack of argument, the reviewer affirms that “I was persuaded… that a glimpse into the future is critical largely due to reality of the failure of 20th century socialism, or more accurately, what is better described as the crisis of socialism.” “…did not work, “failure,” “crisis” are the unexamined, easy assumptions of our floundering left.
So what do they offer as an alternative?
Anything but the socialism associated with Communism. They take us back to the foolishness that Marx and Engels called “utopian socialism,” the schemes concocted by Fourier and Owen in the early 19th century. In the Communist Manifesto they conclude that utopians “…therefore, endeavor, and that consistently, to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms. They still dream of experimental realization of their social utopias, of founding isolated phalansteres, of establishing ‘Home Colonies,’ or setting up a ‘Little Icaria”—pocket editions of the New Jerusalem—and to realize all these castles in the air, and they are compelled to appeal to the feeling and purses of the bourgeois… They, therefore, violently oppose all political action on the part of the working class; such action, according to them, can only result from blind unbelief in the new gospel.”
We find a modern incarnation of utopianism in the “New Economy” movement, the US left’s current flavor of the day. Back in late 2011, Professor Gar Alperovitz reached for the golden ring of utopia with his America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming our Wealth, our Liberty, and our Democracy, a book that promised to take the disenfranchised in the US from peasants to lords. Alperovitz, like his utopian predecessors, believes that ideas generously given from a fount of wisdom will, if only embraced by those below, lead to “democratizing capital.” Alperovitz’s magical ideas are the spawning of “thousands of co-ops, worker-owned businesses, land trusts, and municipal enterprises” that will, with time, “democratize the deep structure of the American economic system.” A more romantic version of Marx and Engel’s derisive “new gospel” I cannot imagine.
The very notion of “democratizing” something, let us say “capital,” that doesn’t wish to be “democratized” is mind-boggling. Will capital be embarrassed into sharing the wealth? Will the success of co-ops demonstrate to Exxon that energy should be free to all and produced in an environmentally sound manner? Will the 17-trillion-dollar US-based multinational corporate behemoth shudder in the face of worker-owned enterprises and co-ops, surrendering control of the boards of directors to the people?
I don’t think so.
Alperovitz points to existing self-styled alternative ownership models like ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Programs), community development corporations, co-ops, etc. as the way forward (he concedes that ESOPs have a dubious record). As such, they would offer a relatively painless “evolutionary” road different “from traditional theories of ‘revolution’.” Many “businessmen, bankers, and others, in fact, commonly support the idea [of co-ops] on practical and moral grounds,” Alperovitz proclaims. Of course they do; they see no challenge to capitalism and a possible opportunity to cash in!
The fact that “castles in the air” ideas like Alperovitz’s actually gain traction demonstrates the sad state of the US left. The fact that opinion polls show a decided increase in interest in socialism is encouraging; however, the fact that those new to the idea must taste through the unappealing, non-nourishing gruel currently favored by so many on the left is disappointing.
For more than a century and a half, socialism—the public and democratic ownership of the essential means of production under a majority peoples’ democracy—continues to be the only ultimate answer to a tenuous and destructive capitalist system.