The left needs to stop self-marginalizing

For too long the left has not been a major player on our political scene. It hasn’t been sitting on its hands, but it can’t claim the same political authority that the left commanded in earlier periods of the last century, which not coincidentally were marked by major social advances.

But that could well change in the coming decade. The left has the opportunity in the coming years to move from the margins into the mainstream of political life, to leave its distinctive stamp on the nation’s politics.

I say this because the socio-political environment is changing in left-friendly ways.

The era of relative capitalist stability and broadly shared prosperity is long behind us. Slow growth, stagnation, growing inequality, and multiple and interlocking crises – some global in scope – have become the main markers of capitalist development.

The thinking of substantial sections of the American people is changing. While these changes go in contradictory directions, one current runs in a democratic, progressive and even radical direction on a range of issues from marriage equality to taxing the rich to cutting the military budget to climate change to socialism.

The labor movement, facing a crisis of survival, is renewing and renovating itself. While the process is uneven and its outcome uncertain, labor’s new directions are already blowing fresh winds into the working class and democratic struggles.

New alliances on the people’s side of class and democratic struggles are cropping up in reaction to the increasingly apparent need for deeper and broader unity.

A rising anger is evident among growing numbers of people. Emblematic of this trend is the growth of mass, nonviolent civil disobedience actions by broad sections of the people’s movement.

Millions have engaged in the political arena in dramatic fashion in the past two presidential elections, despite systematic Republican efforts to block them.

Anti-racism is gaining ground, and is doing so in the face of an amped-up racist offensive coming from right-wing extremism and its corporate backers.

Most importantly, a loosely organized, multi-leveled movement – maybe coalition is a better term – is slowly maturing within the nation’s body politic. It doesn’t yet have transformative capacity, that is, the ability to realign politics, institutions, and mass thinking in a consistently progressive, anti-corporate direction, but it has the potential to grow in that direction.

But to take full advantage of this new opportunity the left can’t simply rewind and play the same tape that has guided its thinking and activity for longer than I care to remember.

To begin with, it requires shedding some modes of thinking – a mentality and practice of self-marginalization – that have either outlived their day or never had much value.

I would include:

* The belief that the danger of co-optation is a reason to keep a distance from reform struggles and electoral politics. As I see it, if the left doesn’t put itself in a position where it stands a chance of actually being co-opted, it isn’t really serious about mass politics.

* The view that politics has few complexities, change is driven only from the ground up, and stages of struggle are for the faint-hearted and “reformists.”

* A notion that differences within elite circles on foreign and domestic policies is of no strategic or tactical significance. A recent example was the sweepingly negative reaction of too many on the left to President Obama’s speech on the “war on terrorism,” a speech which in my view – and that of other sober-minded progressives – showed some retreat from past policies and provided some openings for mass struggle that were not formerly there.

* A “logic” that holds that because capitalism as a system can’t be reformed in the sense of eliminating its crisis tendencies and contradictions, no grounds exist to struggle for reforms within capitalism’s framework.

* A view that the two main parties of capitalism are carbon copies of one another – this in an era when right-wing extremism has taken over the GOP and imposition of an authoritarian form of capitalism has become its overarching political project.

* An attitude that the role of the left is always to double the bet. So that I’m not misunderstood: left demands have a place in class and people’s struggles, but they are neither the takeoff point for united action nor the singular thing that the left brings to mass struggles.  

* A habit of looking for political purity which might exist in theory, but has never found a place in broad coalitions – the only reliable vehicle of social change – where people of varied views and interests gather, contest their views, but in the end struggle against a common foe.

* A pronounced predisposition to under-appreciate the role of labor and its growing layer of progressive leaders.

* A tendency to create false oppositions between electoral forms of action and direct action, or, to put it differently, between struggles against the state and struggles within the state. In its crudest form, it smugly declares, “Politics are of no importance, only struggle around issues matters.”

* A penchant to elaborate tactics – that is demands, forms of struggle, attitudes toward compromise and alliances, and so on – apart from a concrete estimate of the balance of class and social forces at any given moment.

* A new and growing view that the corporate hold on the federal government is so all-encompassing that struggles over policies and direction at that level are no longer viable.

* An attitude that the main task is to simply resist unrestrained corporate power, rather than addressing the harder task of making strategic and tactical linkages to move, not a handful of people, but millions forward – incrementally and to the next stage of struggle.

* An underestimation of the importance of the fight for equality in general and racial equality in particular. The search for common ground and a common program of action is not in contradiction with the fight for equality. In fact, the common ground will be wider, deeper and more durable to the degree the broader movement vigorously fights for equality in all of its forms.

While in recent decades vast political, economic, social and demographic transformations have occurred, the fight against racism retains its overarching importance.

Anyone who devalues this struggle limits the sweep of any victory at best. At worst, it provides an opening to the most backward sections of our ruling class to gain ascendancy. And racist filth has ramped up since Barack Obama’s election five years ago.

A firm and broad rebuff to this counteroffensive is imperative. White people, in particular white workers, in their own interests should be in the middle of this fight.

* An under-appreciation that the struggle for reforms and democracy is the ground on which higher and deeper levels of unity and understanding emerge, which in turn are the necessary scaffolding of any movement that hopes to be the agent of fundamental progressive and radical change.

Shedding these old modes of thinking is only a first step for the left in becoming a major player in U.S. politics. It also has to be combined with the articulation of and fight for an expansive, unifying, and forward-looking politics that has an eye to meeting millions on the ground they occupy and moving with them to higher ground, where the wellsprings of economic security, political democracy, substantive equality, durable peace, and human freedom can fully open up.

It is a challenge, but a challenge the left must meet.

Photo: PW/Flickr (CC)


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.