The left needs to stop self-marginalizing


For too long the left has not been a major player on our political scene. It hasn't been sitting on its hands, but it can't claim the same political authority that the left commanded in earlier periods of the last century, which not coincidentally were marked by major social advances.

But that could well change in the coming decade. The left has the opportunity in the coming years to move from the margins into the mainstream of political life, to leave its distinctive stamp on the nation's politics.

I say this because the socio-political environment is changing in left-friendly ways.

The era of relative capitalist stability and broadly shared prosperity is long behind us. Slow growth, stagnation, growing inequality, and multiple and interlocking crises - some global in scope - have become the main markers of capitalist development.

The thinking of substantial sections of the American people is changing. While these changes go in contradictory directions, one current runs in a democratic, progressive and even radical direction on a range of issues from marriage equality to taxing the rich to cutting the military budget to climate change to socialism.

The labor movement, facing a crisis of survival, is renewing and renovating itself. While the process is uneven and its outcome uncertain, labor's new directions are already blowing fresh winds into the working class and democratic struggles.

New alliances on the people's side of class and democratic struggles are cropping up in reaction to the increasingly apparent need for deeper and broader unity.

A rising anger is evident among growing numbers of people. Emblematic of this trend is the growth of mass, nonviolent civil disobedience actions by broad sections of the people's movement.

Millions have engaged in the political arena in dramatic fashion in the past two presidential elections, despite systematic Republican efforts to block them.

Anti-racism is gaining ground, and is doing so in the face of an amped-up racist offensive coming from right-wing extremism and its corporate backers.

Most importantly, a loosely organized, multi-leveled movement - maybe coalition is a better term - is slowly maturing within the nation's body politic. It doesn't yet have transformative capacity, that is, the ability to realign politics, institutions, and mass thinking in a consistently progressive, anti-corporate direction, but it has the potential to grow in that direction.

But to take full advantage of this new opportunity the left can't simply rewind and play the same tape that has guided its thinking and activity for longer than I care to remember.

To begin with, it requires shedding some modes of thinking - a mentality and practice of self-marginalization - that have either outlived their day or never had much value.

I would include:

* The belief that the danger of co-optation is a reason to keep a distance from reform struggles and electoral politics. As I see it, if the left doesn't put itself in a position where it stands a chance of actually being co-opted, it isn't really serious about mass politics.

* The view that politics has few complexities, change is driven only from the ground up, and stages of struggle are for the faint-hearted and "reformists."

* A notion that differences within elite circles on foreign and domestic policies is of no strategic or tactical significance. A recent example was the sweepingly negative reaction of too many on the left to President Obama's speech on the "war on terrorism," a speech which in my view - and that of other sober-minded progressives - showed some retreat from past policies and provided some openings for mass struggle that were not formerly there.

* A "logic" that holds that because capitalism as a system can't be reformed in the sense of eliminating its crisis tendencies and contradictions, no grounds exist to struggle for reforms within capitalism's framework.

* A view that the two main parties of capitalism are carbon copies of one another - this in an era when right-wing extremism has taken over the GOP and imposition of an authoritarian form of capitalism has become its overarching political project.

* An attitude that the role of the left is always to double the bet. So that I'm not misunderstood: left demands have a place in class and people's struggles, but they are neither the takeoff point for united action nor the singular thing that the left brings to mass struggles.  

* A habit of looking for political purity which might exist in theory, but has never found a place in broad coalitions - the only reliable vehicle of social change - where people of varied views and interests gather, contest their views, but in the end struggle against a common foe.

* A pronounced predisposition to under-appreciate the role of labor and its growing layer of progressive leaders.

* A tendency to create false oppositions between electoral forms of action and direct action, or, to put it differently, between struggles against the state and struggles within the state. In its crudest form, it smugly declares, "Politics are of no importance, only struggle around issues matters."

* A penchant to elaborate tactics - that is demands, forms of struggle, attitudes toward compromise and alliances, and so on - apart from a concrete estimate of the balance of class and social forces at any given moment.

* A new and growing view that the corporate hold on the federal government is so all-encompassing that struggles over policies and direction at that level are no longer viable.

* An attitude that the main task is to simply resist unrestrained corporate power, rather than addressing the harder task of making strategic and tactical linkages to move, not a handful of people, but millions forward - incrementally and to the next stage of struggle.

* An underestimation of the importance of the fight for equality in general and racial equality in particular. The search for common ground and a common program of action is not in contradiction with the fight for equality. In fact, the common ground will be wider, deeper and more durable to the degree the broader movement vigorously fights for equality in all of its forms.

While in recent decades vast political, economic, social and demographic transformations have occurred, the fight against racism retains its overarching importance.

Anyone who devalues this struggle limits the sweep of any victory at best. At worst, it provides an opening to the most backward sections of our ruling class to gain ascendancy. And racist filth has ramped up since Barack Obama's election five years ago.

A firm and broad rebuff to this counteroffensive is imperative. White people, in particular white workers, in their own interests should be in the middle of this fight.

* An under-appreciation that the struggle for reforms and democracy is the ground on which higher and deeper levels of unity and understanding emerge, which in turn are the necessary scaffolding of any movement that hopes to be the agent of fundamental progressive and radical change.

Shedding these old modes of thinking is only a first step for the left in becoming a major player in U.S. politics. It also has to be combined with the articulation of and fight for an expansive, unifying, and forward-looking politics that has an eye to meeting millions on the ground they occupy and moving with them to higher ground, where the wellsprings of economic security, political democracy, substantive equality, durable peace, and human freedom can fully open up.

It is a challenge, but a challenge the left must meet.

Photo: PW/Flickr (CC)

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  • Sam Webb's analysis on the Left is interesting, but can't the Left become cutting edge in U.S. politics without being coopted? Doesn't the latter imply surrender of basic principles (which is like suicide), and then potential isolation and/or dissolving?

    Posted by revolution123, 06/13/2013 1:16pm (3 years ago)

  • Besides, to live left is a much better way of living because it is the way to freedom.

    Posted by José Eduardo Ribeiro Moretzsohn, 06/12/2013 8:02pm (3 years ago)

  • I completely agree with Sam Webb on all of his points. In Chicago I have seen too many cases of left forces isolating themselves from the broader movement. For example, at an Occupy-Labor conference that I attended, a panelist said they would have to split from labor over the issue of supporting the re-election of President Obama. Others did not want to work with the official labor movement “because they were too bureaucratic”.

    But an organization can also be pushed to the margins when its membership becomes too small. In the early 1930s, as I remember it, there was a much larger Communist Party. They kick-started the people’s upsurge of the 1930’s by calling for Hunger Marches and raising the slogan of equality, “Black and White, Unite and Fight.” Among their achievements, they helped build a powerful, new labor movement. Today there is a much broader progressive movement that can lead the people’s fightback.

    But the ranks of the Communist Party have been thinned by years of McCarthy-style repression and other factors. The membership is too small. What to do?

    As Sam Webb wrote in his article, change is moving “in a democratic, progressive and even radical direction on a range of issues from marriage equality to taxing the rich to cutting the military budget to climate change to socialism”. If history is any guide, young people will be at the heart of this change. How to win them for the policies that Webb describes, to defend democracy, rebuild the labor movement with the goal of winning a socialist future. As Sam Webb warned in his “Reflections on Socialism”, we will win a socialist future. But we need to win it before global capitalism makes the Earth uninhabitable.

    Seems to me we need to fight for all of the policies that Webb outlined in his article. But at the same time, we need to bring the vision of a socialist future to the young people today, the fast food workers striking for $15 an hour, the war-weary veterans returning from Afghanistan and the students drowning in a debt bigger than the total credit card debt.

    Posted by Beatrice Lumpkin, 06/11/2013 10:45pm (3 years ago)

  • The article by Sam Webb points out that we must risk alienating some friends and recognize that the Cuban Revolution only 90 miles away still exists after 54 years. Despite a cruel economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the US government, living conditions for the Cuban people have improved. For this reason it more important than ever to demand that President Obama release and return the Cuban Five to their families and homeland.

    Posted by Richard Grassl, 06/11/2013 6:00pm (3 years ago)

  • A good article on an important topic about how a certain section of the self-declared left are often disconnected from the main areas of struggle or are focused on issues that do not have mass appeal. I agree with Bobbie's comments about how we should also have a discussion about who constitutes the left -- as she says, the people, organizations, and movements we are most interested in building coalitions with are often not a part of this self-declared left. They may see themselves as part of a broad progressive trend, but not necessarily as left.

    But of course, if we are going to bring a bigger and longer-term vision of social change to the mix, we are going to be forced to do debate with and differentiate ourselves from the sectarian, marginalized 'left' in the eyes of potential allies.

    We must broaden our concept of who constitutes objectively left forces, but also make a distinction between ourselves (who are self-declared left forces) and other self-declared left(s).

    Posted by C.J., 06/11/2013 3:37pm (3 years ago)

  • This article, along with commentary is very constructive, by and large.
    The elusive "left" must become more and more concrete, identified, unified and active, involved in peaceful but real battle to protect itself and the earth from very real imperialists, oppressors, war-mongers, exploiters and racists-and like Jim Lane writes-moving for socialism.
    We are the vast, vast, majority of humankind and shall win this battle(more than even 99%).
    The history of Sam's CPUSA (along with the peoples of the Americas)has poised itself to ensure the win, with the national and international unity of the positive organizations bobbie lists.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 06/11/2013 2:01pm (3 years ago)

  • An excellent piece. It is a guide to building a broad activist left; a left with deep roots in the mult-racial working class. A left that can help bring together black, brown, white,red and yellow, women and men, young and old, gay and straight, documented with undocumented in a mighty movement that fights to advance democracy and peace while convincing 10's of millions to push for the realization of the Socialist vision.

    Posted by Jarvis Tyner, 06/11/2013 12:53pm (3 years ago)

  • Beware of the "perfectionist left," that is, those groups on the left who have "the answer" as to what to demand and how to get there. They exhibit the traits that Sam Webb has very clearly described. It is either their way or the highway, which leads often to no way.
    Also, "compromise" is not a dirty word. As Sam points out, politics is a major part of the struggle for a better life and better world. As such, since there are many forces involved in politics the working class has to accept that fact and fight for the best that can be won at a given time. Many of the great political victories in history--the 13th amendment that outlawed slavery, the Social Security Act, and the Civil Rights Act, to name but three--were the results of political compromise. These advances, as great as they have proven to be, are only the floor upon which the next stage of struggle takes place.

    Posted by David G, 06/11/2013 12:21pm (3 years ago)

  • Sam hits many nails on the head.
    Self-marginalization is a form of self-segregation, which plays directly into the hands of the capitalist class and all reactionary forces. The strategy over generations has been to both demonize the left(from the abolitionists on) portray them as an alien force opposed to "American Liberty"(which the slaveholders used against abolitionists, and to make them "invisible" in all areas of American life. These practices follow the pattern of American racism, and there is an enormous literature on that.
    I would add that the party of which Sam is General Secretary, the CPUSA, won the most important victories against those policies, which meant that the capitalist class and ruling media targeted it more than any other group through hte 20th century, portraying it as evil agents of a Soviet directed global conspiracy to rule the world and also denying its role in the organization of industrial unions, the victories won by the working class, the organization and campaigns against racism and segregation in all areas of American life, and the emphasis on organization, education, and coordination of peoples struggles, which remains the time tested tactics for advancing the interests of peoples movement just as I would say the CPUSA remains the group on the left that has the most to offer both to the rest of the left and to peoples movements in general

    Posted by norman markowitz, 06/11/2013 10:59am (3 years ago)

  • Thank you Sam for an overarching view of necessity that is facing the working class and its allies .... the political left, I believe is ready to move on this.

    wage peace
    fight the right!

    Posted by Gabe Falsetta, 06/10/2013 9:19pm (3 years ago)

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