The US Left: A Short Introduction

Socialists march at Occupy Wall Street, 2011, by David Shankbone

Socialists march at Occupy Wall Street, 2011, by David Shankbone

From time to time, WhoWhatWhy will bring you unusual perspectives you won’t likely find elsewhere. You may agree or disagree, but you should always find these thought-provoking. This piece is from Victor Wallis, who teaches history and politics at Boston’s Berklee College of Music

Is there a US Left? More specifically, is there a popular movement for socialism in the United States? And what chance does such a movement have for affecting national policy any time soon?

There are two directly promising signs. One is a national survey conducted in May 2012 which found that, among people under 30, there were slightly more who had a positive view of socialism than had a positive view of capitalism. This is quite remarkable considering the endlessly negative evocations of socialism by politicians and the mass media. The second hopeful sign is the election to the Seattle City Council, in December 2013, of Kshama Sawant, representing a group called Socialist Alternative; she received an absolute majority against an incumbent Democrat (see this website).

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Underlying both these developments is a broader public awareness, especially since the economic collapse of 2008, that capitalism cannot satisfy the basic needs of the majority. This awareness is indirect but no less clear. It is manifested in overwhelmingly hostile attitudes toward politicians and, more importantly, toward big corporations. These attitudes became sharply visible during the Occupy movement of 2011. More recent expressions have included nationwide demonstrations and strikes by low-wage workers against fast-food companies and against the mega-store Wal-Mart.

Still, there is an enormous gap between these developments and the emergence of a solid and coherent national political force with a capacity to grow. To understand this gap—and why it has been so persistent—we must return to a question that has been posed about the United States for more than a century: Why is the US so difficult for the Left? Deep structural factors are at work, and we need to take these into account before returning to the question of what can now be done.

The sheer size of the country is obviously a factor, along with the concomitant jurisdictional subdivisions. A comparison might be drawn with the political function of the European Union. 
The EU is a ruling-class project, as was the 1787 Constitution of the United States. In both cases, the larger structure serves to override progressive agendas within any of its member-countries or states. The co-existence of two levels of government is very effective for this purpose, as it allows for the more conservative member-units, even if they are only a minority, to block changes that might otherwise be instituted in response to popular demand.

In the US in the 19th century, the institution of slavery was enforced by the federal government for many decades after a majority of the states had abolished it. Even after slavery was abolished nationally, a compromise was implemented whereby the federal government allowed the Southern states—in violation of the amended Constitution—to disenfranchise former slaves, who at that time comprised up to 60% (in Mississippi and South Carolina) of their respective populations. The Southern states were like the so-called “rotten boroughs” of the 19th-century British Parliament. Their “representatives” in Congress, however, would come to play a key role at the national level in enforcing anti-popular economic, social, and foreign policy agendas.

This pattern was shaken up but not eliminated by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The Southern states to this day have disproportionate numbers of reactionary Congressmen and higher-than-average rates of poverty, incarceration, and executions. However, with the “war on drugs,” with the related policy of mass incarceration, and with the nationwide spread of laws and other practices impeding the right to vote, repressive measures traditionally associated with the South have spread to many parts of the country (especially urban areas, where there are high concentrations of African Americans and Latinos).

The laws in question are still enacted at the level of the particular states. There is no national guarantee of the right to vote; nor is there uniform legislation about what a new political party must do in order to get onto the ballot [i.e., to be officially recognized and offered to voters as a possible choice]. A small number of states can thus prevent any new party from mounting an effective national campaign.

These structural obstacles to a Left party are reinforced by a number of historical and cultural factors. Most important is the way the present territory of the US was populated by its originally European settlers. The conquest of indigenous lands in the West involved military actions that often took on genocidal dimensions. The whole of what is now the Southwestern US (from Texas to Colorado to California) was conquered from Mexico. The pacification of all those regions was carried out—as was the post-civil War suppression of the black population in the South—with heavy reliance by local authorities upon the kind of vigilante enforcement depicted in classic “Western” movies. In the South, this took the shape of the Ku Klux Klan; in response to early working-class organizing in the North, it took the form of private armies like the Pinkertons.

All this is relevant to the particular ways in which repression has been applied against the Left. Because of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, with its guarantee (albeit qualified) of free-speech rights, restrictions on political advocacy have always had to be presented as embodiments of patriotism or religious values. This very trait, however, has also made the repression more sweeping than it might otherwise be, as “civil society” has become a willing instrument of government policy. The vigilante factor is thus implemented through partnerships between governmental and private enforcers (including organized crime), while huge private donations to political campaigns have combined with the mostly corporate-owned mass media to shape public opinion.

Presidential campaign poster for Eugene Debs, Socialist

Presidential campaign poster for Eugene Debs, Socialist

The first major wave of repression against socialists came during and immediately after World War I. Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned in 1918 under an expressly designed provision of that year’s Espionage Act. The wider campaign against the Left focused especially on immigrants (treating socialism as a “foreign” idea) and culminated in the 1927 execution of the Italian anarchist immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti on trumped-up murder charges.

A second wave of repression—perhaps the most severe ever within a “constitutional” regime—was carried out immediately after World War II. Although its ostensible target was the Communist party (against which the specter of foreign infiltration was again invoked), the rhetoric of “guilt by association” sought to discredit all progressive ideas, including in particular criticism of racial segregation and of US global military interventions. As in earlier repressive campaigns, the government operated in partnership with private entities, as business enterprises—sometimes prodded by the FBI—gladly fired employees suspected of having progressive opinions.

Where the earlier wave of repression had narrowed the popular base for the newly forming Communist party, the post-1945 stigmatization of the CP instilled among radicals of the 1960s a general apprehension about disciplined Left parties, and encouraged ultra-democratic aspirations instead. The resulting separation between democracy and discipline has not yet been overcome.

The political assassinations of the 1960s present many still-unanswered questions, but the hand of the federal government has been most fully proven in the murders of Martin Luther King (1968) and of the influential young Black Panther Fred Hampton (1969). In the former case, as detailed in testimony at a civil trial, the murder also involved elements of organized crime (see William F. Pepper, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King, and presentation here); in the latter, it was the direct work of the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program).

In terms of the Left, the significance of King is that he had become clearly radicalized during the last year of his life, and had the capacity to bring class-based and anti-war movements together with the movement for racial justice, offering inspired leadership to all of them.

The Black Panthers, drawing directly on the legacy of Malcolm X (assassinated in 1965), represented a further radicalization, with deep roots in the urban ghettos and, in the case of Hampton in particular, a strong commitment to unify across racial lines.

With such promising beginnings systematically crushed, how can the Left come to constitute an effective political force? What has it accomplished in the four decades since these events, and what new prospects may it find?

The last 40 years in the US have witnessed the almost uninterrupted escalation of neoliberal policies. Many of the social gains of the 1930s have been undone. Social mobility through higher education has been eroded as state funding has moved away from universities and toward the construction of prisons. All these developments help account for the new openness to radical alternatives. In addition, it is in this period that the ecological crisis has taken a central position in any popular agenda, providing compelling evidence of the need to ground economic activity in priorities other than profit.

There have also been some positive organizational developments. The steadiest advances have been in the sphere of alternative media. There are now numerous radical Internet sites whose combined audience is well over a million. This may not seem like much in a population of over 300 million, but its share of the politically active population is much higher. And the one million can be multiplied many times over when these media report an event of broad interest. It was through the alternative media (Wikileaks) that the sensational video of the helicopter-massacre in Baghdad (disclosed by Chelsea Manning) became known, and it was through the independent journalist Glenn Greenwald—writing for the UK Guardian but previously prominent in the US alternative media—that Edward Snowden was able to make public his revelations about the NSA (National Security Agency) mass surveillance.

The emergence of whistle-blowers like Manning and Snowden both reflects and contributes to the impact of an alternative media-culture, which in turn will provide—as it multiplies its reach—the necessary point of reference for the development of any serious Left political force.

Precursors to such a force have appeared sporadically during the recent period. One was the global and cross-sectoral alliance that blocked the 1999 conference of the World Trade Organization in Seattle; a similar alliance is now being mobilized to resist the corporate-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership. A second precursor is the World Social Forum process, which has been mirrored within the US by the US Social Forum—5-day gatherings of thousands of mainly low-income activists held in 2007 and 2010, and planned again for 2015. A third precursor was the Occupy movement, which, despite its early dissolution, continued to infuse political debate, crystallizing the opposition of the “99%” to the “1%.”

What will it take to raise all these efforts to a new level? Projects currently underway include a nationwide education and action campaign for “Earth Day to May Day” under the title Global Climate Convergence. With core organizers from the Green party, the dates of its anticipated 10-day program symbolize—as does the composition of its initiating group—the fusion of ecological and working-class concerns.

Many such steps will be needed before the Left can be considered a viable political force. The democratic impulse will have to sustain itself without succumbing to anarchist suspicion—common among younger activists—of all structures of authority.

It is impossible to foresee what events might precipitate the needed “quantum leap” in political organizing. But, as the great historian Howard Zinn often reminded us, we have to build for that moment even though we can’t see it coming.

IMAGE: Occupy Wall Street Protest

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