Perhaps it is premature for us to talk about the crisis the left is in and what our path should be. Most of us are shocked by the results of the election---perhaps not the outcome of the vote, but by the dimensions of the vote and the speed at which the right wing is able to pivot and the depth of the divisions among ourselves. Time is not being kind to us as we are torn between the understandable desire to mourn and reflect and the pressing need to take action and demonstrate that Trump and his forces do not have a mandate.
There are reports of fascist-inspired violence and the police are not being gentle at the demonstrations, a right-wing hate machine is turning out racist and homophobic rants and Trump’s followers take these reports for news, there is a real and public push to bring back the House Un-American Activities Committee and to convert Medicare to a voucher program, and the line-up for administration posts and the bureaucracy which makes every government function is so bad that reasonable people are saying that the administration won’t be able to function and will fall before four years are up. The KKK and Nazis are on the march. We are seeing homophobia, racism and xenophobia in motion: it is hard to overstate how serious this is. Freedom Road is correct when they say “We see the New Confederacy as both the main enemy and the dominant force shaping the US political terrain in this moment…” Many activists are attending conferences and doing national phone conferences which are putting together alliances and planning demos. Given this, I feel that anything that I write may be irrelevant tomorrow.
Were this the whole picture, matters would be bad enough. But we also have a left which is more divided than usual, or a left which is deeply divided in a moment when a real left is needed, and a center which struggles now to keep its head above the water. There is the spontaneous movement of people filling the streets in some cities and the on-going resistance at Standing Rock and the resistance carried out by people of color organizations, all of which show the capacity of the people to take action on their own, but there is not yet a mass organized resistance or a united front organized from below or the needed level of solidarity, or even the ideological and practical capacity present on the left, to organize resistance and a united front from below. I have the sense that the center is floundering and that the right-wing is seemingly triumphant in some part because we lack clarity and capacity. And I think that the right-wing is waiting out the protests, waiting for the spontaneity to do damage and then fade, before coming after us.
I trace the main features of this crisis to seven problems:
1. Clinton was a terrible candidate and her campaign was badly mishandled.
2. The socialistic impulse which moved the Sanders campaign was not consolidated into an organization.
3. The right advances as a reaction to the Obama presidency, as a racist reaction to Black progress and immigration more than a response to failed policies. Certain monopolies, like mining and the beef industry, and the armed forces of the state and the security-industrial complex have coincidental interests in making sure that this right-wing advance continues and does so at the expense of people of color.
4. We on the left have allowed the language of struggle---the idea of revolution and the words “socialist” and “progressive” and the living heat behind the possibility of socialist revolution---to be taken from us.
5. We do not yet understand the divisions or contradictions existing between the various branches of the capitalist system and the state, and we do not know how to make use of these divisions.
6. Green ideology and left sectarianism do great damage, but these yield in many instances to self-destructive forms of nihilism and ultraleftism.
7. The working-class, and particularly people of color and women in the working-class, have shared only incrementally, or not at all, in the post-2007 recovery, with much production and distribution work being taken over by automation.
I have not listed these in a particular order. I want to amplify my point that Clinton was a terrible candidate and ran a poor campaign with two observations. First, the Trump vote was not some kind of uprising or protest vote; it was driven by misogyny and racism and the very mistaken idea that Trump will make things better for people. Regardless of how bad Clinton was as a candidate and how badly her campaign was run, we needed to find a way to speak to people in the U.S. about the particular hatred motivating the Trump vote, and we failed. Why don’t we know how to speak to our people? And how can we advance if we can’t talk to people and win their trust? Second, we needed an electoral victory which united the left with the oppressed and exploited people at the very core of class society in order to win space and time to organize. We let the election be about candidates and not about a strategy and tactics which united women, people of color, workers, LGBTQI people, young people and others. We saw it as a contest between candidates and not as a means of naming and calling out what is sociopathic in this country. We let single-issueism get in our way and let the Democratic party leadership and the Republicans divide us along predictable lines. These were particular failures and they are costing us.
There are at least three tendencies which need to be confronted now. One is the willingness to give Trump a chance, to talk about uniting as a nation and to talk about respecting the outcome of the vote. This demobilizes people and gives Trump and his forces the opportunity to speed up their clock. Polarization will work for us, but only to the extent that it creates real options. Another problem is the tendency for us to blame one another and to avoid focusing on blocking Trump and building an effective united front from below and under the leadership of people of color and women. The “I told you sos” of the Greens and ultraleftists do nothing to build this left unity, and even undermines it. The moralism of Jill Stein and the ultralefts blocks strategic and tactical unity. The appropriation of liberal and progressive political campaigns by certain unions also blocks unity. A third tendency or problem which needs to be confronted is the unwillingness or inability to organize patiently with the people in the workplaces and in our communities. Patient and long-term organizing is needed of the kind which forces us to put aside the no-longer-relevant aspects of our thinking and pick up the daily tasks of loving and serving the people to revolutionary ends.
A united front could push for a new leadership and restructuring of the Democratic party and build a program for change and have it in place for the next elections. Our friends who focus on building a true left within the Democratic party are not wrong or misguided in their efforts if they do this in principled ways. They will be needed in a united front and can bring to that effort credibility and experience. A united front could take the best of the Sanders program and give it life in a broad front of truly progressive forces. A united front could join wide democratic demands to the advanced and necessary program put forward by the Movement For Black Lives and do the absolutely necessary work of bringing people into the streets in support of these demands after it builds trust and credibility on the ground. If we are not in the streets then we are nowhere. A united front could support a struggle in the labor movement around stopping the pipeline, supporting the strikes which will likely occur later this year and in 2017 and replacing union officials who want to compromise with Trump. A united front could carry out the defense work which will be needed as deportations happen and as the inevitable political trials take place.
The election did not mark a defeat for neo-liberalism, as some on the left would have it. Neo-liberalism may be reaching a new stage, and will do so with or without Trump, or it may be changing course, but it has not been defeated. Proponents of the view that Trump’s election marks a defeat for neo-liberalism are logically stuck advocating that we remain on the sidelines and hoping that the system crashes and that a humane alternative then emerges, a nihilistic and opportunistic view if ever there was one and a view which only adds to the crisis. In a social collision under current conditions we will be among the first victims.
At another time we could say that we will pass through a period of protests and adventurism and eventually find our way. We do not have that luxury today. Somewhere between the Moral Mondays movement, the bold interventions of Black Lives Matter, the historic discipline shown by industrial workers when we struck en masse and the creative energies of the Chicano and Native American movements is the example of what we should be doing. Moving from here to there requires constant contact with the masses and accountability, and we won’t find that contact and develop that accountability if we define ourselves by what we are against and do not organize for what we are for. It also requires the humility of going to these movements with a desire to learn before leading. The positive approach is to build broad unity. The psychology of being the critics and the opposition, and not the builders and co-creators alongside of the working-class, has taken hold in much of the left and needs to be discarded.
Democracy is important because it brings us into a consciousness of our true selves, into an understanding of ourselves as human beings with great potential, and it trains us and disciplines us in methods of organizing and taking and holding power. This is why the right-wing so hates democracy, and so it is also why every struggle in this country starts with a struggle for full democratic rights and why our separate struggles have the expansive power that they do. What concerns me here is that some of the loudest voices on the left say that there is nothing to lose, that there has been no change, that we hit a wall long ago. Countering that is the optimistic spirit of the people and the desire among the people for peace, justice and security. Whatever we build on the left needs to be built by people who invest in radical change because they know that they have something to lose if things don’t change.
The question I am struggling the most with as a white working-class male living in a small town is where our immediate organizing responsibilities lie. Do we organize among the most politically engaged people and draw them in to taking leadership, or do we organize among the most disaffected people, the people who feel no real stake in the system, and work among them to build radical engagement? These are two very different strategies and require different tactics and structures.
The analogy or metaphor that I’m most comfortable with in the present moment is an old one taken from the mining unions: we were effectively “on strike” against racism, misogyny, the wealth divide, college debt, poor healthcare options and police brutality, our “picket line” was our vote, and scabs broke our “strike.” We are returning to our jobs defeated, but now our task is to win over some of the scabs and “strike” again and use all of our smarts when we do. Ultraleftists criticize my reasoning, but I can’t see that I’m completely wrong here.
We are struggling with defeat and setbacks, but defeat is not inevitable. Never give up!
We are struggling with defeat and setbacks, but defeat is not inevitable. Never give up!