What Is To Be Done About The US Left?

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I. Your Party Failed

The election of Donald Trump has shown to the most marginalized people of the United States that our electoral two-party democracy will not protect us.

From Socialist Alternative’s vacillation between Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein to the Green Party’s failure to be a working class party to the spectacle of the adventurist PSL and Workers World Party campaigns, it has shown that the US Leftist parties are sensationalist sectarians unable to build proletariat power in their current forms.

The Green Party’s electoral turnout was even worse than projected despite unprecedented interest in socialism in the United States. A social democrat, Bernie Sanders, did in a moment what the Left has failed to do for decades in galvanizing the energy of social movements into an electoral campaign.

But as myself, Howie Hawkins, Bruce A. Dixon, and many others predicted, Sanders was a sheepdog candidate who acquiesced to the unethical nomination of a corporate-backed war criminal. His supporters were not fooled — despondent, even with the terrible possibility of a Trump presidency on the horizon, the true candidate of the working class in the 2016 election was not voting.

The focus of the US Left throughout the past five years has been a reckoning with our own internal history of bigotry. Much of this process was needed and has been beneficial, many of the best leaders and communities on the Left being LGBTQ, people of color, and women who have for too long been denied their proper role at the forefront.

But many of these same leaders are realizing that their “social justice” comrades are not comrades at all. The election exposed the insulting tokenism that is held up as “progressive” — that all that matters is to elect a woman, a person of color, or a LGBTQ person rather than to elect women, people of color, or LGBTQ people who will fight for their communities. These are people more interested in calling out the choice of a conjunction or phrase than US and corporate imperialism.

Language matters, but so does perspective, and the racism of subtext in an op-ed versus the racism of slaughtering and starving millions of people of color for profit is simply not comparable.

The woman candidate that the “social justice” leaders and organizations rallied around thought that one could be feminist even if they were pro-life; thought that women like Berta Cáceres needed to “get a life”; thought that transgender women were so worthless that she could not even fill out a simple survey on her views about trans rights. She thought that the Black community was full of super-predators and the Palestinian community was full of terrorists. She thought that there was nothing wrong about taking millions to speak for the financial giants like Goldman Sachs and BlackRock. She thought that Levi’s making optimal profits was more important than Haitian families being able to afford to feed their children. She avoided unions like the plague even though their corrupt leaders endorsed her without qualm. The white working class she tried so hard to leverage against her Black opponent in 2008 was not worth her time when she had $1000 plate dinners in the Hamptons to attend to.

This was the candidate of the 21st century social justice movement, so we should all ask ourselves if this “social justice” is really worth supporting.

II. Where Is Power Being Built?

It is not all bad news for the US Left. In fact, the real story of the US Left in the 21st century has been more than ever about the people. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Standing Rock water protectors, the Ni Uno Más movement against deportations, the CWA Verizon strike, and the Chicago Teachers Union strike, these movements have had various leaders and even electoral components but have largely been about the mass mobilization of people.

But mobilization is simply not enough. And the comparatively strong showing of these movements compared to the Leftist political parties has allowed a toxic idea to permeate the US Left: that some centralization or even electoral politics itself is not needed.

This idea overlooks a very sobering reality: we had Occupy Wall Street but we are just as dominated by financial capitalists as we were before. We have Black Lives Matter and yet police murders of Black people have increased this year. While the fight is not over yet, the Dakota Access Pipeline construction has not been shut down and the incoming president has a vested interest in completing it. Even successes like the CWA Verizon strike or the record number of clemency granted to incarcerated people by the President and many governors are hardly comforting when the rising white patriarchal fascism threatens to undo it all, especially for undocumented people, criminalized communities, and unions.

These movements have not been failures. The local and short term victories do matter, and perhaps most of all it matters to show people that collectively they have power to fight back.

But it is not enough.

III. What Party Do We Need?

We do not need to reinvent the wheel to go beyond our current limitations of building power: we simply need to look to the lessons of history.

What do the Soviet Union, Cuba, Burkina Faso, Grenada, and Venezuela all have in common? They all experienced revolutionary change through the formation of a coalition bringing together key components of the Left in their respective countries, both in terms of formal parties as well as bridging the gap between the proletariat, the lumpen proletariat, and “the peasants.” The major weakness of our current politics is the failure to bring these three groups together.

The proletariat are those who are closest, in spatial proximity, to the means of production. They are needed for both their technical skills and their access to the machinery, both figurative and literal, that makes our economy move.

The lumpen proletariat are the criminalized populations, often placed in this underclass due to their race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, and sexuality. They are needed because, often for their entire lives, they have survived and even built entire underground economies in resistance to the violence of the state.

The peasants (now more often called “unskilled” or “informal” labor) are in many ways in between, their work not illegal but also, because of immigration status or simply lack of formalities, unprotected by the legal system. They are needed because they maintain traditions of collectivity that capitalism has largely stamped out of the other classes.

The animosities of these groups against one another has been incredibly advantageous to the wealthy and powerful.

In describing the attitude of the proletariat towards the peasants, Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth:

In the industrialized countries, the peasant masses are generally the least politically conscious, least organized as well as the most anarchistic elements. They are characterized by a series of features-individualism, lack of discipline, the love of money, fits of rage, and deep depression defining an objectively reactionary behavior.

And Karl Marx is rather infamous for his dismissal of the lumpen proletariat in The Communist Manifesto:

The “dangerous class”, [lumpenproletariat] the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.

But the hostility comes not only from the proletariat, but against them as well, especially from those who espouse so-called “Third Worldist” views that label the proletariat “labour aristocrats.” One such is example is this fiery attack against the CWA strike:

These are hardly the “proletarians” that the left has made them out to be, and their cause is hardly as noble. We are quite aware of how these workers have come to have such a privileged position in the arena of global labor. Their highly inflated wages are the result of the parasitic super-exploitation of Third World workers by the imperialist countries...the conspiratorial accusations of “job theft” and focus primarily on the effects of capital export as it relates to their concept of “offshoring” rather than on the slave-like conditions of Third World peoples.

And of course there are the amusing lumpen manifestos of the Crime Thinc. “Ex-Workers’” Collective:

Most of us don’t get much pleasure out of the things we have to do to work inside the system. We’d rather be reading books on our own than writing assigned papers for school, rather be using our skills, energy, and time to work on projects of our own choice than selling ourselves to employers. But we feel like we have to work for them, whether we like it or not. It never occurs to us how much more fun, and perhaps more effective, it could be to take our labor out of their hands and do something else with it. Sure it would be hard at first, but nothing could be harder than to have to put up with this bullshit for the rest of our lives, right?

And while they are written primarily by bourgeois liberals, many people in all three of these classes have been sharing anti-proletariat articles like this one:

It is a phenomenon that transcends the prevailing liberal (and Trumpian) theory that the white-black underclass was caused by the departure of manufacturing jobs. That may have been true 40 years ago, when the jobs began to leave. But it is less true now, as habits of indolence–the inability to show up to work on time, the refusal to follow orders on the job, the preference to hang out at a home often subsidized by the federal government–have taken hold.

Despite these animosities, the potential for unity is palpable. Black Lives Matter has practiced an intersectional politics that recognizes the particular struggles of transgender women, immigrants, indigenous people, and the working class. The US labor movement has finally begun to cast aside its xenophobic aversion towards immigrants, most notably in the successful campaign against Sheriff Joe Arpaio. CWA, unlike many other unions, has supported the water protectors at Standing Rock.

IV. What Is To Be Done?

On January 20th, there will be a general strike against the inauguration of a xenophobic fascist sexual predator as the president of this country. No work. No school. No shopping. There will be a mass mobilization to confront the struggle of the next four years by every marginalized aspect of our society: criminals and workers, union members and day laborers, atheists and Muslims, people with disabilities and people with addictions, the transgender and queer, the homeless and the indigenous.

But this organizing does not end on January 20th. The success of this general strike will not be measured by total turnout or what gets shut down. It will be measured by whether its participants can be coalesced into a political formation to nationally challenge a two-party political system that would put a fascist into power without even a popular vote.

Of course not every group or person will be interest in unity. And this is the first factor in our priorities: we will not waste time with those who are dedicated to sectarianism. Those who seek a politics that matches with their individual ideas of what is right 99.9% cannot be included, for they will only detract from our mission. Such a massive undertaking requires discipline: the purists have none.

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Michael Parenti, historian and purveyor of real talk.

After this, our focus must be on bringing together the three groups previously described: the proletariat, the lumpen proletariat, and the informal laborers.

We must bring the unions of this country back to the Left and away from the Democratic Party. This will require changes in leadership and, when warranted, more radical locals breaking off from their liberal nationals. It will also require forms of building worker power outside the traditional union model. Most of all, unions must fight only for workers, not for businesses or politicians.

We must fight for the abolition of mass incarceration and support organizing of incarcerated people. We must fight against any profiling of Muslim communities as terrorists, especially the proto-genocidal tactics of mass registration. We must fight against the segregation of transgender people from public life and the criminalization of prostitution. We must ensure reproductive healthcare for all and stop the obstruction and punishment of those who seek abortions. And we must promote a shift in consciousness to recognize that it is the crimes of corporations and politicians that causes the majority of violence in the world, not the misconduct and mistakes of individuals.

We must fight against every single deportation. We must fight against a class of workers being denied labor protections and other rights because of their country of origin. We must fight against Nativist ideas among the proletariat. We must fight against every trade deal which dissolves protections for all workers while militarizing borders. We must eliminate the colonialism against Native people like the Oceti Sakowin Oyate that denies them legal rights over their own community and land.

The liberals were quick to blame this election on anything but their failed candidate. They will tell you that we must be less radical, that we must accommodate racism, that poor people created this situation. They want you to think the choice is between bigotry and bigotry lite, between poverty and diet poverty, between taking a shot to the face or to the knee. They would keep us in a cycle of warmongering neoliberal mediocrity and warmongering neoconservative nationalism forever.

We will break the cycle when we form a coalition of the exploited and oppressed that has the knowledge, size, and strength to take power.

Workers, undocumented immigrants, and all criminalized people: we will unite to stop our oppression once and for all.

Written by

Feminist socialist writer fighting for econ justice. Views do not represent my firm, DSA, or my cats, who are sadly both ultra leftists.

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