[This essay was the winner of the 2011 Gandhian Forum Student Peace and Justice Writing Contest.]
The Case for a Neo-Left
Being a Leftist is probably the most frustrating hobby in America right now. We are witnessing class war, imperialist wars, draconian austerity, environmental degradation, civil rights abuses, and many other horrors that leave even the sturdiest empathetic spirits distraught. Each day, the alternative news world informs us of 10 large battles lost to every 1 small victory in the ongoing struggle for humanity. On top of this, those of us committed to exposing iniquity and fighting against it cannot seem to collectively develop a vision or strategy for reversing the present political tendency in the US and abroad.
If the progressive spirit that spawned the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement is going to capture the imagination of this nation, a critique must be done of the Left itself.
It is very easy to criticize capitalist exploitation of working people. And one does not have to be Martin Luther King Junior to articulate that all human beings should be treated equally and fairly. These ideas are old, but why have they not been realized? There is a tendency to blame the Right for its corporate power and subsequent ability to control the media and politicians. There is also a tendency to blame "the masses," those innocent yet ignorant people that would surely overthrow their oppressors if only they were properly "re-educated." Both positions are only descriptions of the present moment, and neither lends itself to a coherent strategy. Additionally, they lead to elitism and vanguard-ism. Rather than fatalistic views on how power-relations have developed, Leftist analysis would be better served by focusing more on the what has limited the success of the Left itself.
Progressive Agency through Solidarity
Recent events this year have illustrated what a unified and potent progressive force looks like. The uprisings in Egypt were successful, but not because some genius or vanguard party finally elucidated the population's ills and offered a hitherto unthought-of solution. Rather, a collective understanding and courage manifested itself so powerfully that it shattered divisions, and allowed a cohesive group to focus on its own general interests. In Egypt, Muslims, Christians, atheists, the young, the elderly, liberals, the apolitical, and many conservatives, all united with a single voice and purpose. And despite an enforced police state, counter "protestors," and a litany of other repressive mechanisms, a dictatorship fell. In one month. As inspiring as that was to all of us, the implications that it reveals about the nature of power in civil society has not been emphasized enough.
The failure of the public to be truly united is the primary precondition for oppression and domination. The American Left's fragmentation is a symptom of the fragmented consciousness of society at-large. And neither case is an actual expression of ignorance or apathy. Both are very human reactions to overwhelming, multifaceted, systemic, and abusive power-relations. In most cases, the response is an attempt to survive and function. Humans are an adaptable and versatile species, and we would not have survived this long if we were not capable of functioning in a relatively wide array of environments and social organizations. Simply going to work, paying one's bills, trying to take care of one's family, and attempting to find fun and happiness in-between is consuming enough for most people. This is why the old Margaret Mead quote rings so true, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Genuine social solidarity arises from mutual understandings of common struggles and individuals believing in their own capacity to change social institutions and organizations. It requires tremendous amounts of courage. But most importantly it demands that individuals and groups transcend their own narrow ideologies. The Left must realize that the struggle against oppression, domination, and authoritarianism are not unique to any one tradition, whether they be anarchists, communists, socialists, liberals, Christians, Muslims, Jews, anti-racists, feminists, LGBTQ activists, peace activists, philanthropists, human rights activists, environmentalists, or anything else. Within these various social-justice orientations, the multitude of factions, splits, subdivisions and other forms of sectarianism are themselves harmful to those specific movements and to any broader movement in general. Many people feel compelled to fight for social justice, and ask: "Where should I start? Which organization is most effective and right for me?" Unfortunately, whatever their choice ultimately is all too often traps them in the work of particularity. Particular tendencies, ideologies, and projects utilize the vast majority of Leftists in a restricted manner that does not allow the type of populism, interconnections or interdependencies that are vital to progressive movement.
A Neo-Left must emerge that recognizes the power and resources at its collective disposal. The group with potential agency for changing society is that broad group already engaged in the process. It is the Left itself. But not the presently divided, and sometimes dogmatic, Left.
The Path to Unity
The first step the Left will have to take to achieve unity will be to identify who the enemies are, and who the allies are. Having an enemy allows people to be galvanized and for concrete goals to be set; realizing the commonalities between groups allows for trust to be built and for mutual action to proceed. The enemies are all authoritarian tendencies, oppressors, and anti-democratic powers or institutions. This includes the corporate media, corporate plutocrats, members of the government that do not serve their constituents' legitimate interests, and the military-industrial complex. Also, any elite that rises to power, be it in a union, political party, or non-profit, should be criticized and scrutinized by the full force of the progressive community.
Our allies are all institutions and tendencies that enhance democracy, give people more control over their lives, and fight domination. This includes independent media and journalists, bold academics in the humanities and social sciences, provocative artists and performers, critical writers, and the internet. We must, individually and collectively, invest heavily in these valuable resources. The oligarchs and plutocrats largely dominate us now because they have spent so much to purchase the media, art, culture, and academia. We must now begin to cultivate counter-hegemonic tendencies to reverse this effect.
The Democrats and the Left
Relations with the Democratic Party have been the single most divisive issue among Leftists for the past century. To some, the mere idea of attending a meeting with a democrat reeks of counter-revolution and selling-out. To others, the Democratic Party's history of being the party of labor, championing what social change we have seen as a nation, along with the peculiarity of America's two party system, results in a view that working with the Democrats is a pragmatic necessity. Indeed, this can be seen quite clearly in the split of the old Socialist Party of America, and the divisions that continue today between its successors, the Socialist Party USA and the Democratic Socialists of America. The two are the largest socialist organizations in the country, but have a history of not marching together, co-sponsoring events or doing much political work together at all because they take different positions on working with the Democrats. SPUSA attempts to get its own members elected to office, or sometimes supports Greens; DSA endorses progressive Democrats and candidates, but does not run candidates for office. Besides this issue, the two organizations are nearly identical. According to SPUSA's website, "The Socialist Party strives to establish a radical democracy that places people's lives under their own control - a non-racist, classless, feminist socialist society... where working people own and control the means of production and distribution through democratically-controlled public agencies." According to DSA's website, "We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane international social order based both on democratic planning and market mechanisms to achieve equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a healthy environment, sustainable growth, gender and racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships." Both organizations are multi-tendency, democratic-socialist feminist groups. Understanding exactly how they might transcend their differences can give us a better idea of how other Leftist groups may transcend their own.
What qualities should we look at when assessing the legitimacy of an individual or institution for the progressive cause? Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. But we must limit our examination of the past to what is reasonable; arguing about Trotsky's efficacy or the third international serves no one. Analysis of the past decade or so is a more sound approach. The Democratic Party as a whole in recent years has completely failed to represent the interests of the public. There are some individuals in the Party, particularly in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, that seem somewhat appealing. Dennis Kucinich and John Conyers are two examples. And the CPC's recent "People's Budget," which proposes a national jobs program, a financial transactions tax, and preserves Medicare and Social Security, is an example of genuinely progressive life in the Democratic Party. It is worth noting that the single CPC member in the US Senate is Bernie Sanders, an Independent. Also, with the recent Citizen's United Supreme Court ruling that allows for unlimited anonymous donations to political campaigns by corporations, and the increasing dependency of the electoral system on massive amounts of financial support, there is little reason to think that making electoral politics the focus of a progressive movement will have substantial results. Electoral institutions are far too embedded into the status quo to be the primary vehicles for progressive change. And only a resurgent and more unified Left will have the power to reclaim the electoral system.
Coalitions, Reunification, and the Neo-Left
Rigid and absolutist stances do not promote the cause of democracy. They lead to dogma, uncritical support, and senseless divisions. Formal and informal pressure on the system can both result in short and long term gains. Refusing to work with another group on the basis of tactical disagreements is as self-righteous as it is self-defeating. It assumes that one's particular ideology or tendency has discovered the one true strategy toward creating a more just society, and places narrow control and relations above actually creating a broader and more effective movement.
Groups that are redundant or overly similar, where geographically feasible, should merge, or at least form formal relations and begin a path towards merger. The same donors can then contribute to one larger organization, which will have a larger staff, and a larger reach.
Coalitions at the local, state and national level should be developed, composed of all organizations fighting for the same broad goals or principles, i.e. the socialists should have their own coalition, but also the socialists communists, and anarchists should have a coalition, with the binding statement of principles of the coalition being more or less specific depending on the different groups involved. Ultimately there would be a single, national progressive front of some kind.
To be maximally effective, any progressive coalition should have joint publications, media, concerts, classes, and cultural events. We must transform our lives, and the build the very institutions that we wish to see. These coalitions should develop their own collectively owned banks, grocery stores, farm cooperatives, workplace cooperatives, and housing cooperatives wherever possible, maximizing individuals' democratic control over their lives.
A movement must also be made to revive the Academy as one of the pillars of our democracy. Academics in the progressive movement must break free from the constraints of isolated, mechanical, and reductionist models, and begin to make use of interdisciplinary views and critical theories. Most importantly, academics must begin to publish clear, accessible, and less jargon filled work, for the public good. If this requires new journals and formats, then we will produce them.
There are more individuals, organizations and tendencies fighting for social justice now than at any other time in our history. Our resources are broader and more effective than ever. Enhancing the interconnections that already exist, dissolving old divisions, and uniting under populist interests and the common good are the only way we will be able to move forward. We must put pressure on the elites and reclaim our democracy, with united action, alternative policy approaches, counter-hegemonic institutions, civil disobedience, sit-ins, strikes, marches, and consistent protests. But the Left must come together as a whole to pull this off, or face the danger of losing our democracy.
1. Socialist Party USA. Retrieved 5/27/2011.
2. Democratic Socialists of America. Retrieved 5/27/2011.
3. The Congressional Progressive Caucus. Retrieved 5/27/2011.