What would a US left look like that could actually contend for power in the 21st century?
Let’s face it, the US left is a long way right now from contending for power.
One of many useful questions asked at last week’s Left Forum in NYC invited some of us to speculate on what an authentic 21st century US left might look like. Here’s what I came up with.
1. An authentic left must be independent of Republicans and Democrats.
Both these parties are the creations of and the servants of capital and empire. Their respective social basis differs, one is the White Man’s Party, while the other is obliged to pretend it is not a party of capital at all. Back in 1936 Communists led practically the entire US left and labor movements into the Democratic party. For many, the rest is more fixed than history, it’s practically geology. Despite the efforts of some of the best and brightest of every succeeding generation Democrats remain the party of capital and empire.
Grassroots Democrat activists can supply energy and credibility to their party, but they ride in the trunk, not in the front seat. There are no transmission belts between their policy wishes and what elected Democrats actually do. Elected Democrats take their orders from wealthy funders, not their party’s leftish activists. This is one of the things that the Green Party gets right.
2. An authentic left must be independent from corporate and church philanthropy.
It isn’t that many nonprofit organizations don’t do great and necessary work. Their problem is that they depend on the self-interested generosity of the wealthy to accomplish that work, to pay the salaries and keep the lights on. The nonprofit sector has developed its own culture, in which organizations are run by officers at the mercy of their boards, and both the officers and the boards are at the mercy of wealthy funders. Churches too depend on wealthy donors to keep the lights on, and frequently upon friendly politicians for patronage like charter school contracts.
In the US, the left organizations that get this right are bottom-up labor unions, which tax their own members to obtain operating funds. They’re a model we ought to emulate.
3. An authentic US left has to be unconditionally opposed to empire.
Just over a hundred years ago the first socialist international broke itself on this rock, when so-called socialists and their parties in some countries took the sides of their national governments in World War 1, instead of the working classes, the oppressed and the colonized.
With roughly a thousand US military bases large and small all around the planet, and its submarines and fleets under and in every ocean, the US is the world’s preeminent military power. By now humanity has had many centuries of experience with empires. Empires never, ever benefit the poor, only the rich and powerful, and the 21st century is no exception to this rule. The first duty of any US left worthy of the name is to the left is to stand against empire.
For some US leftists, even some self-professed socialists, this seems to be difficult. Bernie Sanders enthusiastically endorses US wars and murderous economic blockades around the world. When revolutionary black nationalist Chokwe Lumumba became a Democratic elected official in Mississippi, he muted his historic critique of empire. The Berniecrats of Our Revolution too have shockingly little to say about anything that goes on outside the borders of the United States.
4. An authentic US left must deploy solidarity as the antidote to white supremacy.
What’s called intersectionality often relies more on separating and shaming than identifying common interests, and uniting people to fight for those interests. It relies on ascribing magical and transhistorical powers to white supremacy, and leads to indefensible political positions, like specially targeted set-asides, which easily become special targets. This may help us understand how and why intersectionality has become the gospel of organizations funded by the nonprofit sector, and is highly favored in the academy.
Solidarity offers a more optimistic vision of humanity, in which white supremacy is overcome by common struggle in the self-interest of all parties, rather than a division of humanity into the virtuous oppressed, their allies and Hillary Clinton’s unredeemed “deplorables.” Both inside and outside the US, the wretched of the earth are majorities, and we can only achieve a majoritarian left with appeals to solidarity.
5. An authentic left must incorporate a class conscious opposition to capitalism.
Class, or the c-word, isn’t taboo in North American discourse because it doesn’t exist. It’s taboo because it’s very, very real. Capitalism is nothing less than class rule on the part of the owners of capital, their aspirants and their stooges.
In recent years this realization was a key breakthrough of the Occupy Movement.
6. An authentic US left will have to create spaces and traditions for discussion and debate.
Right now, those spaces, those traditions do not exist. We allowed Twitter and Facebook teach us manners for meatspace as well as online dialog. You disagree with someone, you call them names, drop the mic, un-friend them, call more names and unfollow them. That’s led to many of us talking to and reading only those with whom we agree and nobody else. I wrote about this at some length only a couple weeks ago, so I won’t cover that ground again here, and Jodi Dean has been describing the pitfalls of what she calls “:communicative capitalism” for years. Go read or listen to what she has to say on the subject, please and thank you. She also has a lot to say about the need for a party as well.
7. An authentic 21st century US left has to create economic and social organizations which prefigure the world we want to build, the world that will replace the ecocidal and genocidal supply chains of global capitalism.
We certainly cannot wait till the day capitalism is overthrown to figure out what just and equitable, sustainable economies of scale look like, on the micro or the macro level. We have to produce and eat right now, we have to educate our young, deliver health care right now, we have to look out for our elders right now, and we have to save the planet we depend upon for life itself right now.
Organizing new relations of production, distribution, transportation, recycling and service delivery are tasks which large sectors of the US left have tended to neglect. We’ve already seen that electing mayors and legislators doesn’t necessarily change how our food is grown and harvested, whether our workplaces are democratically managed, neighborhoods are liveable, what we generate as waste, whether our education, our transportation and our other system serve the people and the planet over profits or not.
A 21st century US left has to take the lead in helping establish a vigorous sector of democratically managed cooperative housing, performing arts, health care, service delivery and manufacturing entities of all kinds, or our practice will remain far behind our pronouncements.
8. An authentic 21st century US left must give birth to a revolutionary party of the working classes.
Without parties all we have are activists, responsible to nobody except their own consciences. That doesn’t lead to contending for power, it leads to “activist-ism” if there can be such a word. Parties are the instruments of collective will with which we shape the world around us. Revolutionary parties are not limited to running campaigns, either.
In a better world than the one we have, we might expect actually existing labor unions to take the lead in pulling together a party of the working class that might offer a serious challenge to the established order. But with union density hovering optimistically around seven or eight percent, that doesn’t seem likely. It may be that a party or local parties will have to first be established, funded by their own member dues and those parties will themselves have to take the lead in identifying strategic sectors for union organizing, hooking up with available partners and getting it done.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the GA Green Party. He lives and works near Marietta GA and can be reached via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.