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Whither the Socialist Left? Thinking the “Unthinkable”

March 6, 2013
By By Mark Solomon
Published by Portside (March 6, 2013)

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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