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Whither the Socialist Left? Round 2

Last year Portside published Whither the Socialist Left? Thinking the "Unthinkable", which created a lot of controversy, discussion and debate. Now, the author has written an update "Whither the Socialist Left? Round 2." Today he finds the broad progressive community remains largely fragmented, lacking a coherent overarching vision that would not only react to recurring crises, but offer ideas and values to guide and illuminate the road to more transforming change.

Equality, democratic rights, expanding democracy, labor, peace, the unity of the 99%, and socialism are streams in a mighty river.,image from Socialist Party, USA

June 6, 2014 marked the first anniversary of the forum sponsored by the Left Labor Project and other groups to explore left unity -- especially among a sector of socialist organizations responding to a Portside article advocating such unity that appeared in March 2013.  [Whither the Socialist Left? Thinking the "Unthinkable" .] An unexpectedly large audience (that required a change of venue) reflected a strong desire on the left for a convergence of generally like-minded organizations.

Unfortunately, panelists who represented their organizations did not forcefully express such interest. Except for opening remarks that attempted to frame the unity concept and a statement supporting unity by the publisher of Jacobin, the presentations by other panelists were marked by tepid and qualified responses to proposed cooperation. One panelist pleaded that her organization was making headway among students and was hesitant to be distracted by a unity project. Another speaker declared that unity first arises out of struggle. (One could respond that struggle arises out of unity.) Another speaker traced his organization's history of failed strategies and while his group was open to cooperation, it preferred for the moment to go its own way.  

From those quarters, the fruit of such uninspired responses is a year of little or no movement to build a unified and cohesive socialist left.

But varied and at times unanticipated expressions of left and left-center unity did happen in the past year. There have been significant gains for collaboration and joint action. Those gains have been marked by degrees of convergence among movements fighting austerity and for economic survival, fighting environmental catastrophe, and movements opposing wars and militarization. The inseparable links between those pressing concerns, and alliances based upon them, is opening a path to broader, more effective movements and to a deeper understanding of the systemic nature of the interlocking crises facing the country.

Perhaps the most portentous development has been the African American-led Moral Monday movement that arose out of struggle against right wing North Carolina legislative attempts to suppress the right to vote, slash Medicaid, increase taxes on working people and strip away the rights of workers, women and the LGBT community.

Moral Monday has now spread through a rising South to Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Missouri - now moving north to Indiana. It has responded to those assaults with large-scale civil disobedience and massive marches -- building upon the intersecting interests of class, race and gender and centered upon defending the rights and interests of the multiracial working class and its allies. The movement is a prime example of coalition building described by past NAACP leader Benjamin Jealous "as the key to [achieving] transformative power."

New alliances are emerging in Mississippi, combining to fight back against voter suppression and attempts to undermine women's reproductive rights. The Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary observance has challenged the effectiveness of "isolated issues," opting instead for a broad coalition-centered emphasis on the intersecting issues of education, voting rights, women's rights and healthcare.

The projected People's Climate March in September at the United Nations aimed at mobilizing a mass demonstration commensurate with the depth of the environmental crisis has linked the battle for clean air, jobs and  "an economy that works for all people" to fighting climate change. The Call to Action has stated emphatically: "this is the moment to bring our different movements together, articulate our common challenges and solutions - and go big."

Leading peace organizations such as United for Peace and Justice and Peace Action have consistently stressed the linkages between a stagnating economy and wasteful military spending - stressing the need for major stimulus spending to create jobs, dismantle a fossil fuel infrastructure and build a sustainable green economy instead of a regressive and provocative militarized economy.

An important current is the reemergence of class as fundamental - underpinning and intersecting a range of identity-based movements.  Growing fight back against low wages in the fast food industry and giant big box retailers is stimulating, and in some cases, converging with the resistance of highly exploited part-time, contingency and adjunct workers in academia and other fields. Responding to deep structural change in the economy that is driving the impoverishment of millions of jobless and under-employed workers (including legions of contingent college teachers, students ground down by debt, highly exploited student athletes, etc.), some labor unions are adopting new forms of struggle - stirring a latent spirit of "social unionism," reaching into working class communities to support emerging workers' centers and other creative ways of organizing in a society that has suffered for decades from relentless efforts to undermine the trade union movement.  

Campaigns to increase the minimum wage have become cornerstones of the fight back against growing working class impoverishment. Those battles are inevitably linked to the struggle against racism and against the historic super-exploitation of African Americans. They embrace the long battles of women for equality in wages and in the workplace. They promise to reach into depressed-wage farming, advancing the interests of largely Latino workers - building unity with undocumented workers and promoting progressive immigration reform. Crucially, the living wage movement holds out a hope, however dim at the moment, that white male workers, many of whom have given backbone to the right wing, will begin to abandon false resentments against rising national and racial groups and start to reassert their natural class interests in joining with their working class sisters and brothers in the fight for social and economic justice.

Mainly absent from those promising developments is a strong, politically mature and unified socialist organization/movement/party to assist in providing clarity, direction and ideological depth to emerging struggles.

Yet, objective circumstances continue to suggest significant growth of anti-capitalist sentiment shading into as yet dimly perceived socialist sympathies. For youth in particular, the standard assumption that their acquired resources would exceed those of their parents has been demolished by systemic economic stagnation, generating a stirring consciousness of the intractable flaws of capitalism. That explains in considerable measure the unprecedented success of Thomas Piketty's Capitalism in the 21st Century, a 700-page academic exploration of the bases for growing inequality. Whatever, Piketty's methodical flaws or the limited nature of his proposed nostrums, his fundamental thesis that the rate of return on invested wealth far outstrips economic growth, causing deep endemic inequality - has struck a powerfully responsive chord among an unexpectedly (and unprecedented) large audience.

There are varying signs of an increasing socialist and left consciousness. Growing interest and engagement in the theoretically challenging Online University of the Left is a vivid example of expanding involvement in left and socialist ideas. The continued growth of the annual Left Forum, the growing annual Labor Notes conference, the innovative youth-oriented Jacobin journal and various large gatherings with socialism as a unifying theme - all give concreteness to a sense of rising interest in left ideas.

On an organizational plane, there are promising developments - prominently among them the emergence of LeftRoots, a gathering of activists in a variety of vital struggles who "see the need for a new vision of transformative and liberatory socialism." Of great significance, LeftRoots stresses building an organization rooted largely in "people of color/oppressed nationalities, the working class, LGBT folks and other marginalized peoples" who must be at the core "of any successful movement to challenge the hegemony of capital, white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy and imperialism."

The Left Labor Project in New York energetically seeks to build broad working class participation in accelerating battles for economic justice, environmental sustainability and to reinvigorate the spirit of social unionism.

Left Strategies is a gathering place for labor activists to address how left organizers and activists can "adapt our work to step up to the demands of our rapidly changing historic moment." Bill Fletcher's voice in Left Strategies' explorations is representative of the richness of its discussions.  In a recent exchange, Fletcher pointed out that while "the form and nature of a national Left organization in the USA," is as yet undetermined, Left activists have a pivotal role in advancing a "worldview" that offers a framework for working people to understand and thus transform reality. There is a compelling need to help "people understand . the nature of the system," the nature of the enemy, the nature of potential allies and the "directions we can pursue towards victory (or victories.)"

Fletcher then discusses social justice unionism. For the Left, that means confronting capitalism beyond trade union consciousness "or even economic justice alone." Social justice means advocacy for all who are oppressed; it includes meeting the challenge of environmental catastrophe and the survival of the planet. Social justice means a concrete labor movement strategy to address the special role and significance of African Americans; it means addressing the growing major status of women in the work force. It is the Left . that has the historic responsibility . to shatter racist oppression, gender oppression, homophobia, etc., "and insist on a transformational approach aimed not only at . the destruction of these various forms of oppression, but the construction of a popular, democratic bloc that can win and hold power."

Important advances for progressive policies and ideas have marked the electoral arena in the past year led by municipal victories for coalescing progressive forces New York, Boston and other locales. Further to the left, the election of Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternatives organization, to the Seattle City Council, driven largely by emphatic advocacy of a fifteen-dollar minimum wage provided vivid evidence that an articulate, effective advocate for an advanced progressive agenda and a socialist perspective can win.

There are also indications of leftward movement among left-center organizations like the Center for American Progress, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, MoveOn, People for American Way and others. Generally, those organizations have been supportive of the movement for a living wage, recognizing the central issue of inequality first advanced by the Occupy movement. They have grasped the seriousness of the far right challenge and have sought to coalesce broad opposition to the Tea Party and other right wing formations. They have stood for a progressive immigration policy. They have been increasingly critical of Washington's interventionism and have stressed diplomatic alternatives to the use of force.

Those are all promising, positive developments. But despite signs of upsurge, the broad progressive community remains largely fragmented, lacking a coherent overarching vision (a "worldview" articulated above by Bill Fletcher) that would not only react to recurring crises, but offer ideas and values to guide and illuminate the road to more transforming change.

Largely missing from the political landscape is that strong, unified left/socialist voice, well positioned to offer effective leadership to present struggles and that compelling vision of social change. There is no intent here to denigrate the work of the four organizations (Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, Democratic Socialists of America, Communist Party USA and Freedom Road Socialist Organization) that came together for discussion one year ago. They are all making important contributions and under present circumstances are perhaps experiencing some growth. However, the political will to make a dramatic break with the old "silos" into which some are sealed remains absent.

That is especially disappointing in light of signs of potential for broadening the cooperation of socialist organizations. The Labor Notes conferences and the Chicago-based "Socialism 2014" gatherings have been sparked by socialist organizations that in the past have shown little or no interest in cooperation with others. Yet, they have recently opened the platforms that they influence to a variety of left voices - showing new signs of an ecumenical spirit that suggests in some measure the long range possibility of a broad left/socialist alliance similar to Syriza in Greece, the Left Party in Germany and the new Podemos alliance in Spain. Under the clouds of growing European crisis of joblessness and under-employment, those alliances have achieved unprecedented breadth even embracing sworn enemies in the past.

Of course, we are a long way from such collaboration in the USA. The failure of even like-minded left and socialist groups to find ways to work together has been dispiriting to some who have foresworn efforts to build unity among unresponsive organizations. A few on the left are turning to inter-generational dialog, sensing potential for significant progress through communication between older activists and newly engaged young people in Jacobin discussion groups and in emerging organizations and projects like LeftRoots, Left Labor Project, etc.

Given the depth and intractable nature of the a system in crisis, no longer able to offer a better life to present and future generations; a system dogged by stagnation with only military muscle to confront vast changes in global power relations - there is little doubt that out of present turmoil and struggle new forces will emerge to create new ideas and new forms for building left unity. For existing left/socialist organizations, the train may be leaving the station. Yet, their experience is needed to help give depth, "worldview," and the tenacity of political long distance runners to the struggles bursting all over. Let's hope it's not too late.

[Mark Solomon is past national Co-Chair of the Committees of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He is author of The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans 1917-1936 and is editor of Victor Grossman's Crossing the River: A memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and life in East Germany. He is currently an associate at the W.E.Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.]