A look back at U.S.'s radical Left

"His campaign has given rise to a strong Leftist force and this momentum should not be lost even if he is not the democratic nominee"

Updated - October 18, 2016 02:49 pm IST

Published - June 26, 2016 05:00 pm IST

If the Bernie Sanders campaign has proved anything, it is that there is still space in the U.S. for viable politics to the Left of the Democratic Party. It has also showed that Left politics in the U.S. cuts across broad and very diverse sections of the population. However, transforming that diversity into a national movement remains an elusive goal.

“The U.S. Left is diverse, intellectual, and divided,” says socialist organiser Jeevan D’Souza of the Democratic Socialist of America.

“The Sanders campaign has succeeded in bringing the radical Left together when it comes to issues like income inequality, gender equity, race-relations, socialised healthcare and education reform, but they still have their differences and will not merge into a national party,” says D’Souza.

The radical Left in the U.S. is very different from its Indian counterpart. The Indian Left includes strong communist organisations and broad social movements with large mass fronts that are capable of participating in electoral competitions, winning entire States, and participating in governing coalitions (or alternatively, waging low-level insurgencies against the State).

The American radical Left lacks an organisation capable of uniting activists nationally in a single structure. This weakness was much discussed during Occupy Wall Street over the course of 2011 and 2012, when activists were divided over creating a national organisation or remaining a decentralised movement. While the national movement against income inequality and corporate control of government failed to birth a structured organisation, it Left a mark on American society and rejuvenated both the liberal and radical Left.

A new generation of activists, organisers

#BlackLivesMatter represented a major development for U.S. politics, specifically for the Left. The movement against the killing and targeting of black youth by police grew to become a national movement in 2014, broadening its scope to address a wide range of issues related to structural racism. The movement emerged largely from youth of colour, including many women and LGBTQ people, previously not members of specific organisations and alienated by many of the traditional organisations of the black community. The movement was arguably influenced by, but clearly distinct from, Occupy, and also articulated a criticism of white privilege in social movements themselves. This led to debates on the Left and among activists of colour on the role and relevance of interracial solidarity and the nature of “white allies” in political struggle.

Both Occupy and Black Lives Matter produced a new generation of activists and organisers, eager for a new, intersectional, action-oriented politics independent of both mainstream political parties. It can certainly be argued that both paved the way for the Sanders campaign, and that the “political revolution” he is trying to lead is very much in the debt of those two movements. The Sanders campaign has stitched together a diverse coalition of supporters, including Latinos, students, women, youth of colour, indigenous people, Arab Americans and part of the labour movement. He has at the same time failed to make inroads with older black voters, especially in the south, or with women above the age of 45. Some of his supporters have been accused of sexism on twitter and he has had difficulty shaking the image of his campaign as being an essentially white, male university student-driven affair.

The traditional parties and groups in the U.S. radical Left of Marxist and Socialist extraction also participated in both Occupy and Black Lives Matter, but appear to have largely failed to capitalise on this new political demographic. It is likely that new organisations will have to emerge to meet their needs.

From the 20 th century

The United States has seen different waves of radical organising since the late 19th century. In the early 20th century a large radical movement emerged, grounded in the labour movement and largely populated by newly-arrived migrants from Europe. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organised thousands of workers across the country, employing radical tactics. The Socialist Party of America (SPA), which contained many IWW members, at one point succeeded in electing 79 Mayors, 32 State representatives and even a congressman. The openly revolutionary IWW and the increasingly electoral SPA clashed over political direction, and were gradually eclipsed by the nascent Communist Party and American Federation of Labour, and later by the Congress of Industrial Organisations.

The Communist Party remained largely hegemonic on the far Left and in the labour movement throughout the Great Depression until the 1950s. During this period the party focused its efforts on civil rights advocacy (even at one point advocating an independent black State in the south), union work within the AFL and CIO, support for USSR foreign policy and targeting of political adversaries on the Left, such as the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. The CP was severely weakened by both political repression of the McCarthy era and the revelations of the crimes of Joseph Stalin by Nikita Krushchev in 1956, and was largely eclipsed in the following decade by the feminist, anti-war, black and minority movements.

During the 1960’s the New Left, especially Students for a Democratic Society, brought back many of the ideals of direct democracy that had been a staple of the IWW, part of the SPA and also the anarchist movement. At the same time the Cultural Revolution in China resulted in the spread of Maoist and Marxist-Leninist ideals among American youth, politicised and radicalised by the Vietnam War and the violent attacks on civil rights organisers in the south.

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s the radical Left splintered and spread over a wide range of dogmatic Leninist groups, or alternatively “single-issue” struggles, like the feminist, environmentalist, gay liberation or the anti-nuclear movement. The anti-globalisation movement, while grabbing major media attention for protests like those at the 1999 IMF meeting in Seattle, largely failed to create an effective coalition capable of intervening politically on the local and national level. The anti-globalisation movement was also the vehicle through which anarchism re-entered the political Left, having been absent for decades. Anarchist spaces, publications and subcultures are now a small, but very influential part of the U.S. radical Left.

The SPA’s political heritage can be seen today in two organisations: the Democratic Socialists of America and the Socialist Party USA. The DSA, which is the larger of the two at roughly 5,000 members, supports Mr. Sanders while the smaller and arguably more radical SPUSA has refused to, running its own candidate, California community organiser Emidio “Mimi” Soltysik.

Mr. Soltysik and the SPUSA argue that Mr. Sanders is not really a socialist, and criticise his positions on foreign policy and the Middle East, on Israel in particular.

“We are explicitly socialist, as in ‘worker control of the means of production’,” says Mr. Soltysik.

“Sanders seems to advocate for social democracy/progressive Democrat policy. He also has a terrible foreign policy record. Those aren't inconsequential differences.”

The IWW still exists, now as a largely anarchist organisation, and while small has led organising drives in the service sector that foreshadowed developments in the mainstream labour movement, such as the creation of Starbucks Workers Union in 2004. The CPUSA still exists, but is very small and largely without influence, even on the radical Left. For decades it has practised a pragmatic electoral stance, endorsing Democratic Party candidates in the name of defeating the far Right. While it did not oppose Mr. Sanders, party leaders expressed scepticism about his electability.

‘Momentum should not be lost’

The struggles of Mr. Sanders’ supporters and other Left activists in the U.S. are nothing new. The U.S. hasn’t had a cohesive national movement of the Left in decades, and the Democratic Party has solidly absorbed organised labour, represented by the national confederation AFL-CIO with few exceptions. Those exceptions can be seen in the Left wing of the labour movement and in grassroots campaigns like Fight For 15, the national drive for a $15 minimum wage, focused on the service sector. Many of the organisers and activists of this sector support Sanders, and they represent the labour face of the radical Left in the U.S. today.

While organisationally challenged, there are signs that there is still much room to grow for the radical Left in the U.S. Recent polls show an increasing number of millennials favouring socialism to capitalism. Leftist magazines like the Nation, Dissent and Jacobin (an openly Marxist publication based in Brooklyn with more than 20,000 print subscribers), along with many other online print and online publications are influential and bridge the gap between radical and socialist discourse and mainstream politics.

“His [Sanders] campaign has given rise to a strong Leftist force and this momentum should not be lost even if he is not the democratic nominee,” says D’Souza.

“The momentum should continue and manifest itself in other areas of activism and government.”

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