Whither the Socialist Left? Thinking the “Unthinkable”

Historian Mark Solomon looks at the prospects for a new socialist left.
By Mark Solomon
March 6, 2013

On February 4, 2010 The Gallop Poll released its latest data on the public’s political attitudes. The headline read: “Socialism Viewed Positively by 36% of Americans.” While the poll did not attempt the daunting task of exploring what a diverse public understood socialism to mean, it nevertheless revealed an unmistakably sympathetic image of a system that had been pilloried for generations by all of capitalism’s dominant instruments of learning and information as well as by its power to suppress and slander socialist ideas and organization.

In sheer numbers, that means a population at the teen-age level and above of tens of millions with a favorable view of socialism.

Why then is the organized socialist movement in the United States so small and so clearly wanting in light of the potential for building its numbers and influence?

That is a crucial question. At every major juncture in the history of the country, radical individuals and organizations in advance of the mainstream have played essential roles in influencing, guiding and consolidating broad currents for social change. In the revolution that birthed this country, radical activists articulated  demands from the grass roots for an uncompromising and transforming revolution to crush colonial oppression. Black and white abolitionists fought to make the erasure of slavery the core objective of the Civil War while also linking that struggle to women’s suffrage and trade unionism. A mass Socialist Party in the early 20th century fought for state intervention to combat the ravages of an increasingly exploitative economic system while advancing the vision of a socialist commonwealth. In the Great Depression, the Communist Party and its allies fought the devastations of the crisis – helping to build popular movements to expand  democracy, grow industrial unions and defend protections for labor embodied in the historic New Deal.

Small left and socialist organizations in the sixties supported a range of progressive struggles from peace to civil rights to women’s liberation to gay rights and beyond. The limited resources of those groups were effective in galvanizing massive peace demonstrations and in campaigns against racist and sexist oppression.
But the Cold War and McCarthyism had eviscerated any hope for a major influential socialist current. Consequently, no large and impacting force existed to extend to the peace movement a coherent anti-imperial analysis that might have contributed to its continuity and readiness to confront the wars of the nineties and the new century. Nor was there a strong socialist organization to contribute to the civil rights struggle by advocating for reform joined to a commitment to deeper social transformation. Had such a current existed, it might have contributed to building a broad protective barrier against the devastating FBI and local police violence against sectors of the movement like the Black Panthers.

There should be little debate today on the left over the need for a strong socialist voice and movement in light of festering economic stagnation, war on the working class, looming environmental catastrophe, a widening chasm between the super-rich and the rest of us, massive joblessness and incarceration savaging African Americans and other oppressed nationalities, crises in health care, housing and education. Such a strong socialist presence could offer a searching analysis of the present situation, help stimulate a broad public debate on short term solutions and formulate a vision of a socialist future that could begin to reach the minds and hearts of the 36 percent who claim to be sympathetic to that vision.

Back to the question: why is there no large respected socialist organization today? The answer is complex and not readily subject to a consensus. The failures of the first socialist wave in the 20th century, the unrelenting demonization of socialism by the dominant political apparatus, internal sectarian cultures and narrow social composition that inhibit outreach to youth and oppressed nationalities – have all contributed to a weak socialist presence.

Doubtless, some if not all, existing socialist organizations would insist that they are growing, respected and effective. That can be argued, but it is valid to acknowledge that existing socialist groups, to one degree or another, have made and continue to make important contributions to the struggle for a just present and better future. This is especially true of the work of individual socialists in various unions and mass organizations.

However, the small size and inadequate resources or socialist organization nearly fatally inhibit their impact and influence. No matter how hard working and principled, small socialist groups are drowned out by the power and pervasiveness of the dominant tools of information and education. The Internet has opened a
window to reaching mass audiences. But socialist websites (if one is successful in locating them) cannot substitute for the indispensable task of organizational outreach, of human beings making direct contact with other human beings, of physical debate and discussion, of well-orchestrated, highly visible mass actions.

The time has come to work for the convergence of socialist organizations committed to non-sectarian democratic struggle, engagement with mass movements, and open debate in search of effective responses to present crises and to projecting a socialist future.

There are socialist organizations already airing  divergent views within their ranks – reflecting  positions that overlap with other socialist  organizations committed to democratic struggle and  socialist education. The Committees of Correspondence  for Democracy and Socialism, the Communist Party USA,  Democratic Socialists of America and the Freedom Road  Socialist Organization have been meeting to explore  areas for cooperation in advancing the fight to defend  the needs and interests of all working people. With  involvement of their members, and with all who  honestly wish a unity project to succeed, those  organizations could constitute a starting point for  other left and socialist groups and individuals to  join as equal participants in building an imaginative,  revitalized socialist presence.

A conversation with a veteran socialist historian about merger brought a nearly apoplectic response: that will never happen; too much history of mutual antagonism; too much institutional self-aggrandizement; too much belief within each organization of their ideological and strategic “certainties,” etc.

His bleak assessment may well be valid. One could list even more problems: the comfort of organizational silos, the complexity of sorting out and merging the physical resources of each organization, selecting a conjoined leadership, lingering political and ideological differences.

It can also be argued that a merger of organizations with a combined membership of a few thousand would still not be large or vibrant enough to make an impact on a country of over 300 million; nor would its combined membership include a sufficient component of youth, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, etc., commensurate with the country’s changing demographics.

That perhaps misses a crucial point. While growth and dynamism are not guaranteed, the open-minded and comradely spirit embodied in a merger could excite and inspire thousands of former members of those organizations to join a new, collaborative entity. Many others impressed by a revitalized commitment by socialists to put aside narrow interests and seek common ground could also be moved to join. The simple declaration of unity and amalgamation by old ideological foes will stir an energized, hopeful response on the left.

Among socialist organizations there is a long tradition of opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia; a concrete record of unwavering struggle for racial and gender justice as indispensable to all working class aspirations. With that experience and consciousness a renewed socialist organization with augmented resources would have the potential to speak directly to young people of color, to the jailed and formerly jailed, to a new generation of students, to teen aged youth, to the large numbers who joined the Occupy movement, the unaffiliated leftists and socialists who have joined the rapidly growing Jacobin journal, Labor Notes, the large Left Forums, the Left Labor Project, etc. Whatever its initial form, an alliance of socialists offers the promise of a continuous, enduring framework for democratic struggle, for discussion, for debate, for learning, for growing – all within a stable, political and organizational environment.

With a visible presence for outreach to emerging but undefined left forces, a merged socialist movement could presumably generate the financial resources to hire and train young organizers. With stronger organization derived from convergence, it could tap latent left and socialist sentiment in “red states,” especially the  South and Midwest that would reawaken the truly national presence of socialism that characterized the Socialist Party in the early 20th century.

Those augmented resources could open up space for expanded socialist education through debate and discussion, through a combination of new publications and continuing publications of the merged organizations, through classes, think tanks and through utilization of the Internet.  The present Online University of the Left is an excellent example of the potential for utilization on a large scale of new technology for socialist education.

Despite the enormous challenges inherent in convergence, there are a number of reasons to anticipate readiness for unified socialist organizing:

  1. First and foremost, the present crisis of world capitalism is systemic. While there will continue to be economic peaks and valleys, the overall prognosis is for enervation and stagnation that will increasingly demonstrate capitalism’s declining ability to provide decent lives for present and future generations.
  2. There is likely agreement among various organizations on the need for a long-range socialist transformation. There is a likely consensus on the validity of Marx’s basic critique of the contradictions inherent in capitalism: increasingly socialized production colliding with private appropriation of the fruits of that production – constituting the key source of the system’s inherent instability. Historically, the relations of production (manifested in social classes) become fetters upon the productive forces (human beings and machinery) – thus requiring the overturning of the old system – socializing the relations of production in order to bring them into harmony with highly socialized productive forces. With globalization of capital that contradiction between social production and private appropriation has itself become global – resulting in the accumulation of unimaginable wealth by a small minority while masses languish in deepening poverty and social misery.
  3. There is likely agreement that both the path to socialism and its essential character are subjects for study, debate and experimentation. There is much to study: the “solidarity economy” posits 21st century socialism with workers’ control of all essential institutions, a market function and imperative ecological concern.  There are a growing number of experiments in cooperatives, workers’ self-management, and local public ownership of energy. Other approaches stress confrontation with corporate power through mass struggle for control of state policy – aiming to expand the public sphere while reducing and eventually eliminating  corporate control of the economy and society. In sum, a new socialist organization will open avenues to fresh, challenging exploration of social transformation.
  4. There is a likely consensus among socialists that “vanguard” organizations and sectarian “cadre” groups have been negated by the existence of a broadly heterogeneous multiracial working class of women and men. The present-day working class and its allies are too diverse to be led by a single, narrowly conceived political current. A renewed socialist organization must reflect that heterogeneity as well as the determination of members to be full, controlling participants in present struggles and in charting a socialist future. The new organization’s structure would likely be neither fully “vertical” nor fully “horizontal.” In the past the former has often undermined democratic participation and the latter (illustrated by the experience of the Occupy movement) has often led to organizational incoherence and stasis.
  5. There is likely agreement that there should be no preexisting, standard for socialist organizing that mandates a “take it or leave it” rigidity. The door should be open to experimentation in exploring both organizational and theoretical issues. There is also likely agreement for the short-and-medium-term at least that a  converged organization should not be formed as party or electoral organization. The electoral issue, a major point of contention on the left, could be a major topic of exploration and debate. There should be no obstacles for those who sincerely wish to join the struggle against the ravages of the system and who seek a socialist alternative. In that regard it is important to note the variety of left and socialist movements around the world worthy of study. Clearly, there is no single “correct” path to 21st century socialism.

Greece, in the midst of existential crisis, has given rise to Syriza, merging a remarkable range of organizations despite sharply different ideological and historical roots into a unified party whose platform rejects austerity, demands the cancellation of Greece’s debt and reform of the European Central Bank. Syriza emerged in 2001 from a group called “Space for Dialogue for the Unity and Common Action of the Left.” In June 2012, Syriza received  almost27% of the vote in parliamentary elections, making it the main opposition party and positioning it as the potential future governing party.

In France, a coalition of left and socialist parties has formed a Left-Front coalition that ran a unified campaign in the last national elections. Germany has “Die Linke,” the Left Party formed from a coalition of the successors to the old ruling party in the German Democratic Republic and a militant West German labor organization. An all-European Left Party is a continental formation of an impressive array of left and socialist parties and organizations. Latin America is perhaps the region with the greatest left and socialist experimentation that generally stresses democratic and participatory engagement at the grass roots in building alternatives to capitalism. The Latin American left in particular has advanced some of the most compelling interpretations of Marx’s thinking concerning the crucial issues of ecological preservation and survival. It has also engendered, country-by-country a variety of social experiments based upon distinct national conditions involving various degrees of mixed, transitional economies on the road to socialism.

Speaking only for myself, I would like to see the creation of an entirely new organization. However, a total merger of organizations at this time can justly be viewed as utopian at best and naïve at worst. One must acknowledge the need for a patient process – for ongoing consultation, for gradual building of mutual comfort and mutual confidence, for a possible stage of confederation or alliance. Crucially, joint activities to defeat austerity and the right wing offensive constitute a sound basis at this juncture on the road to convergence. In the long term, the next generation and generations beyond will determine the form and content of the struggle for social transformation based on changed circumstances that cannot now be fully envisioned.

That does not negate the need for “all deliberate speed” in building an advanced, effective political instrument to help forge the linkages between the economic crisis, the environmental crisis and the crisis of militarism and war. That instrument is needed to help provide political depth and interconnectedness to burgeoning movements on the environment, immigration, gun control, women’s rights, the prison-industrial complex, voting rights, student debt, protection of Social Security and Medicare, jobs and union rights, and the struggle against interventionism and the national security state. Above all, the urgency of the deepening crisis of capitalism demands the political will of socialist organizations to take those bold and resolute steps to forming a strong new alliance capable of having a powerful and lasting impact on the struggle for justice, peace and a socialist future.

[Mark Solomon is past national co-chair of the United States Peace Council and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He is author of The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 and is currently working on a memoir/narrative at the Du Bois Institute at Harvard University on the freedom and peace movements in the 1940s and 1950s.]


March 6, 2013