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

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.

 

 
 
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