Fight or Die: The Future of the American Left

The election of Donald Trump weeks ago sent shockwaves through the United States and the world system. We are now confronted with a far right that is poised to take control of state power in multiple powerful nations almost simultaneously. (I incorrectly assumed, like many other comrades, that Trump would lose the election and that we would have an additional four years to organize to prepare for this inevitability.) There have already been far too many essays breaking down “how this happened.” In a previous piece for ROAR, I argued that fascism is on the rise globally because capitalism is mired in a structural crisis. Neither the neoliberal center nor the left has built a viable alternative to the present system, which has effectively ceded the terrain of “change” to the far right. In a time of dislocation and declining classes, fascist mythology preys on the fears and anxieties of a populace that has no convincing alternatives.

This essay will briefly lay out the likely future of the American left. I will begin by discussing the future of the Democratic Party, which is not part of the left but whose strategic choices will heavily influence our options in the years to come. I will then move on to the electoral socialist left and the revolutionary left, ending with a discussion of some contradictions that will face the opposition movement in the coming years.

The Future of the Democratic Party

The defeat of Clinton and the Democratic Party’s centrist elite at the hands of Trump should mark the political death of that tendency within the Party. Not only did the Party lose a national election to the most unpopular presidential candidate in modern U.S. history, but it fundamentally failed to mobilize sections of the electorate who should have been easy targets given the opponent’s glaring weaknesses. We can say what we will about the structural conditions that created this historical moment, but we cannot ignore the unbelievable arrogance of an elite that believed it could offer absolutely nothing to the vast majority of the electorate and still receive its consent to govern. When a social system reaches the absolute limits of its development, as was the case in France’s ancien regime, it seems to create a class of individuals who are so corrupt, cowardly, and downright stupid that they simply invite their own destruction.

The overall response of the liberal elite has been stunned silence. Clinton herself could barely muster the courage to appear in public, emerging only briefly to advise her supporters to work with the enemy and give the fascists a chance. Those pundits who couldn’t stand the prospect of keeping their mouths shut have lashed out incoherently in every direction, blaming everyone and everything from third party voters to the misalignment of the stars and the planets. Centrist liberals possess neither the personal experience (since they do not know any working class people) nor the structural critique to understand the ongoing process of left-right polarization in the United States, and are thus bereft of any realistic understanding of how to proceed from this point. This explains the weak, cowardly, and strategically-bankrupt plan to ‘selectively’ cooperate with the Trump regime in hopes of winning over a tiny fraction of his voting bloc in the next presidential election.

The only real chance for the Democratic Party to reconstitute itself as a viable political force lies in the progressive wing represented by Bernie Sanders (now firmly entrenched in the Party machinery), Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison. These figures have presented themselves as champions of the middle and working classes, and they are gaining the support of a relatively broad middle-class base. They are still able to somewhat convincingly present themselves as an “anti-establishment” force, which is absolutely vital for ensuring turnout and mobilizing volunteers in future campaigns. Most importantly, they are the only force within the Party that can offer a semi-coherent ideological narrative: a vision of a social democratic-lite future that reins in the excess of the 1% and restores class mobility for ordinary people. It is particularly telling that the New York Times‘ post-election Room for Debate collection on “The Future of the Democratic Party” contained only arguments from the Party’s left-populist wing. There was not one full-throated defense of the Clintonite centrism that brought the Party this stunning defeat.

That said, it remains to be seen whether the progressives have the institutional strength to prevail in the struggle for control over the Party. Chuck Schumer’s re-election as Senate minority leader suggests that entrenched powers may prevail, even if they are forced to grant empty symbolic concessions to the progressives. Much of the Party likely recognizes a need for vaguely-defined “change,” but there are relatively few mechanisms of internal party democracy compared to a party like the UK’s Labour. There is no direct voting for Party leadership and the entire process is controlled by less than 500 Party insiders. The immediate future of the Democratic Party thus rather dubiously relies on the Party elite recognizing its own failure and vacating its positions of power.

The leadership struggle in the Democratic Party will heavily influence the left’s strategic options in the coming years. If the progressives are able to win control of the Party and begin implementing a left-populist strategy, there is a serious danger that the resistance movement will be co-opted by opportunists and have its energies diverted into the Democratic electoral project. This would require the left to make a compelling case that the Democratic Party cannot be a party of working people and that the only options for real change lay outside the Party. If the centrists retain control of the Party, they will make this case for us and make our job much, much easier, particularly given their apparent willingness to cooperate with the regime.

The Electoral Left

The first of the two significant forces on the American left is the constellation of socialist parties that participate in and advance their program through electoral politics. A non-exhaustive list of these parties and organizations includes the Green Party, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Socialist Alternative, Socialist Party USA (SPUSA), and the International Socialist Organization (ISO). (I did not include the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and Workers World in the list because, although they do participate in elections, they place a greater emphasis on revolutionary politics than electoral politics.)

The first thing that anyone unfamiliar with the politics of the American left will notice is the absurd proliferation of parties with only minor differences in ideology and strategic vision. With the exception of the Greens, the vast majority of the American public has never heard of any of these parties. As Salar Mohandesi argues, these tiny groups have outlived the historical conditions that produced them. They are the product of a time in which neither meaningful victory nor catastrophic defeat was an imminent possibility. Organizational splits and sectarian infighting were the natural result of a movement in decline that was insulated from life or death questions. (I don’t mean to unfairly single out the electoral left on this point, the revolutionary left was just as prone to this sort of behavior.) Today’s conditions are exactly the opposite: the left is growing rapidly and our present choices will have incredible consequences.

In the immediate future the electoral left faces two unavoidable strategic decisions: 1. Whether to continue working within and around the Democratic Party, or whether to break with the DNC conclusively; and 2. Whether to unify their parties into a single organization. Signals about how the socialist parties will answer these questions have been quite mixed. On the one hand, Jacobin‘s most recent issue, “The Party We Need,” is a clear call for a new socialist party. Seth Ackerman, a Jacobin editor, underlined this call at a recent talk in New York. This is pretty remarkable given that Jacobin‘s editorial staff is dominated by the DSA, which historically stood for working within the Democratic Party. On the other hand, the Greens have spent the past week raising millions of dollars for a pointless recount in certain Midwestern states, which would deliver the presidency to a candidate they opposed in the election. At best, this campaign is an ill-considered attempt to win the support of Democratic Party partisans who actively despise the Greens. At worst, it indicates a strategic decision by the leadership to effectively remain a satellite of the DNC.

Continuing to work within the Democratic Party would be a major strategic mistake. First, energies that could be spent building an independent pole of political power would be wasted fighting for basic concessions in favor of a social democratic agenda. Securing the addition of socialist planks on the DNC platform would entail brutal fights against the Party’s Wall Street backers. Even a victory on these fronts would be symbolic, as major party platforms are not binding in any way and are quickly forgotten after elections. Second, fighting inside the Democratic Party would obscure the difference between vague ‘progressivism’ and a socialist agenda. The vast majority of the socialist movement’s likely allies within the DNC are progressives – people who believe in a slightly more regulated form of capitalism. This is a completely different outlook from the socialist movement, which is anti-capitalist and seeks systemic change. Muddying the distinction between these two kinds of politics would be quite dangerous. It would grant grassroots legitimacy to progressivism by associating it with radicalism, all while making it that much harder to explain why a genuinely socialist politics is necessary.

Running candidates outside the Democratic Party is complicated by the fact that the U.S. electoral system is stupendously rigged against opponents of the Democratic and Republican parties. (Anyone interested in electoral questions should read Seth Ackerman’s recent piece on the matter, which discusses these barriers in depth.) Unique signature requirements to get on the ballot, direct legislative (read: Democratic and Republican) control of third party structures, and the so-called “spoiler problem” all conspire to drain resources and complicate electoral strategies. As Ackerman writes, third party participation in the U.S. electoral system is more similar to opposition parties in “soft-authoritarian” systems like Russia and Singapore than in other so-called democracies. (This should offer a hint about the distinction between supposedly democratic and authoritarian regimes.) Combined with the challenges posed by the profoundly undemocratic nature of institutions like the Senate and Supreme Court, building a successful socialist party in the U.S. electoral system would require unprecedented levels of dedication and strategic acumen.

The other significant choice facing the electoral left is the question of unification. To put it bluntly: it would be absolutely unforgivable if the electoral left failed to unite into a single organization at this crucial juncture. There are many models for coalition parties (see: Syriza) that allow platforms with competing ideologies to coexist within a single organization. I can think of no concrete benefit that will come from the continued existence of fractured zombie socialist parties. There is no question that unifying the electoral left’s resources and activists under one banner is the only way that a new party would be able to build a strong, independent movement. Egos and petty sectarianism are the only real obstacles that stand in the way of unification.

While many readers will already know that I am not optimistic about the prospects of left electoral politics, I’ll offer two basic points for the success of an independent socialist party in the U.S.:

  1. A socialist party program should be socialist, not merely social democratic. Leftist parties in the developed world have been campaigning on a platform of defending 20th century victories for over 50 years, and they have lost almost every major battle inside and outside of government. If socialist parties want to capture popular imagination, their horizon must extend beyond social democracy. Socialist parties need to make the case for worker ownership of the means of production, workers’ control within firms, and reducing the length of the workday and workweek. This is obviously not an exhaustive list. The key is for socialist parties to present a serious alternative to the status quo. Socialists cannot win, electorally or otherwise, by offering a new version of “capitalism with a human face.” Voters should understand that supporting a socialist party means supporting a radically different system. In an era of global structural crisis, most people will be drawn to those who propose a bold vision. Timidness, indecision, and weakness are the enemies of victory.
  2. A socialist party in the United States must position itself as a movement, not as just another party on the ballot. Third parties have been advocating all kinds of platforms for years with little success. A socialist party will need to show its constituents not just that it has a good hypothetical platform, but that it can actually make a material difference in their lives on an everyday basis. A significant portion of the party’s resources should be devoted to grassroots organizing, service provision, and oppositional street politics. A number of the parties listed above participated meaningfully in the Fight For 15 movement, which was an important step. These efforts need to be expanded substantially. Most importantly, socialist party activists should see participation in grassroots struggles as an aim in itself, not merely as a stepping stone to electoral success. Electoralists should learn from Syriza’s experience. Even the electoral left has no chance of implementing its platform without a durable base of power rooted in working class communities.

Finally, all of these decisions must be reached and implemented as soon as possible. Time is not on our side. The DNC should not be given the luxury of pressure-free months to recompose itself as it wishes and gradually win back its alienated base. While decision-making in party structures inherently takes time, electoral leftists should recognize the urgency of the present moment and speed up their internal and inter-party discussions. If we reach the end of 2017 without a united, independent socialist party, the electoral left will have demonstrated that it lacks the strategy and instincts to fight for victory.

The Revolutionary Left

The other significant leftist force in the U.S. is the revolutionary left, comprised of anarchists, communists, and revolutionary socialists. The revolutionary left is made up of smaller parties, federations, affinity groups, and grassroots organizations. While there is a long history of revolutionary organizing in the U.S., the aftermath of Occupy and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement gave birth to many small groups of committed activists in cities across the United States. (Rural projects have been rarer, with the admirable exception of groups like Redneck Revolt.) Just as is the case with the electoral left, these revolutionary groups are seeing an unprecedented influx of interest and new participants.

In many ways, the present moment is best suited for direct action and grassroots revolutionary organizing. Partisan resistance to the fascist regimes of the 1930s and 40s was dominated by communists and the far left because only radicals possessed the ideological willingness and organizational experience to do what the circumstances demanded. Radicals today find ourselves in a remarkably similar situation, where our closest competitors are so focused on electoral cycles that they have little idea how to resist in the four years between now and the next national election. The increasingly blatant authoritarianism of the regime will push larger segments of society to look for immediate answers to their problems. Electoralism cannot provide these answers. Grassroots organizing and direct action will dictate the tempo of the resistance movement for at least the next four years, if not longer.

One of the most remarkable things about the aftermath of the election was the immediate, spontaneous unification of the once-fractured revolutionary left around a coherent practical program. Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, and anarchists found themselves advocating for and organizing for the same things. This coincided with a notable absence of the sectarian bickering that has long characterized revolutionary leftist politics, which is something that can hopefully be maintained for as long as possible. The practical program that varied groups are advocating, in broad outlines, is the creation of:

  • Community self-defense organizations to protect working class communities, communities of color, immigrants, Muslims, and LGBTQ people from the attacks of the far right, the police, and immigration raids.
  • An underground railroad network to shelter vulnerable individuals and groups from the assaults and abuses of the regime’s forces.
  • Survival programs to provide for our communities, particularly in areas where welfare provisions may be cut back by the regime. A non-exhaustive list includes providing food, housing, medical care, dispute resolution, ambulance services, legal aid, bond funds, childcare, and education.

This is not to suggest that deep disagreements do not remain among the wide range of forces on the revolutionary left. Debates will continue about organizational strategy, the role of parties, and so on. I cannot stress enough, however, that debates about ideology and history should not overshadow the extraordinary importance of practical cooperation. Repression will fall hardest on us, and failure to unite in an antifascist front will spell the violent death of our movement. (Indeed, state forces will try to sow division in our ranks with infiltrators and informants as part of their repressive strategy.)

The success of grassroots revolutionary organizing relies on a number of factors. On a local level, radicals will need to do the hard, day-to-day work of reaching out to people in their apartments, homes, and trailers, at bars, sports events, or other places where public gatherings happen, and with highly visible symbols of resistance like posters, murals, and flags. Outreach needs to be combined with material examples of the successes that radical politics can bring: rapid response groups that protect people from fascists, cops, and ICE, food distribution programs, free healthcare provided to those suffering from Medicare cuts, and so on. Poor and working class people are desperately looking for alternatives to the present system. If radicals are able to diagnose the problems in our communities accurately and start alleviating those problems, we will be able to build a durable base of power. It is from this base that any revolutionary challenge to the system will emerge.

On the national level, radicals need to forge bonds of shared struggle between groups that are now divided along racial, economic, and geographic lines. The most crucial link of all is the formation of a sense of shared identity (as “the oppressed,” “poor people,” “working people,” or “the people”) between working class people of color and poor white people. We will need to work very hard to overcome the cleavage between a largely urban working class of color and a largely rural white working class. Practical solidarity and mutual aid between working class organizations fighting in the city and the countryside must coincide with anti-racist education and agitation. However, this is not the only important cleavage that needs to be overcome. Radicals need to articulate a vision that can supersede differences between neighborhoods of extreme poverty and working poverty, the employed and the unemployed, workers in different industries, neighborhoods that have different ethnic compositions and speak different languages, and so on.

In Black Against Empire, Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin argued that the Black Panthers were able to rapidly build a strong revolutionary organization because they combined the legitimization of their social projects (Breakfast for Children, etc.) with practices of resistance that made it impossible for the state to carry on business as usual. The Panther practices of armed copwatching, conducting an armed march in the California statehouse, and so on inspired working class black people and their accomplices to believe that resistance to the system could be successful. Their confrontational actions created a movement that simply could not be ignored. In doing so, the Panthers transformed angry and disillusioned but disorganized communities into sites of serious struggle. To an extent, today’s radical left knows what social projects are needed and is in the process of organizing them. What we need to find as well are practices of resistance that make business as usual impossible to carry on, that can spread like wildfire from place to place, and that can inspire our communities to shake off fear and apathy and take part in the struggle. It is an open question what shape the resistance will take, and I encourage you to do your part to develop the strategies that will bring the movement victory.

Contradictions in the Movement

There is no such thing as a totally coherent movement. Any social or political movement is also a contest between groups with competing interests and ideologies. The extraordinarily wide base of possible resistance to the regime means that the resistance movement will inevitably be the site of serious conflicts over goals, strategies, and tactics. There will be three major intersecting sources of contradictions in the movement:

  1. Contradictions between social groups divided along racial, economic, and ideological lines.
  2. Contradictions between the major formations of the opposition: the Democratic Party, the electoral left, and the revolutionary left.
  3. Contradictions within each of these formations.

The left will have to tailor its approach to individual conflicts based on a simple analysis of material factors. Simply, the left needs to realize who is a natural part of our base and who is not. Leftists should spend a great deal of time patiently working with, speaking with, and educating all of those who it is possible to reach. We should waste no time, however, trying to tailor our message and tactics to groups and individuals with whom we share little in terms of material interests.

The left should be concerned with whether its message is received well in working class communities, not whether it is palatable to liberals and functionaries of the Democratic Party. There is no chance that the white-collar professional/Wall Street coalition that drives the modern Democratic Party is going to swing toward even a vaguely leftist politics. As the resistance movement grows, the left should always side with the demands, vision, and practices of its working class elements over those of paid liberal organizers from groups like MoveOn. This problem will weigh most heavily on the electoral left, which will have to decide whether it wants to cease operating as left-wing caucus of the Democratic Party and thus abandon political practices designed not to alienate upper-middle class liberals. In short: the left’s base is the working class and the poor and it needs to behave unapologetically as such.

That said, leftists should recognize the need for patient discussions and political education even within our natural base. The modern media and education system do an incredible job of cultivating the idea that submission, passivity, and apathy are normal traits, even among people whose everyday experience contradicts the hegemonic ideology. Deeply-ingrained prejudices against people of other races, genders, and religions are the norm. Though many working class people are ready to revolt, most are not. We need to explain our politics patiently to all who will listen, and we need to listen to the thoughts and concerns of those in our community who have yet to be radicalized. Those of us who have been involved in the movement for many years, through Occupy and Black Lives Matter, will have to fight our tendency to be impatient with our brothers and sisters. We have to remember that many people have been living in a different world, insulated from the images of police brutality, the carceral system, or imperialist war that brought us to adopt our present views. Most people do not have particularly well-formed political ideas, and it is quite likely that you will be the first person to ever talk to them about radical socialism, anarchism, or communism. One conversation can be the difference between someone remaining ‘apolitical’ or becoming a dedicated participant in the struggle.

The way that we deal with class issues is complicated by an emergent generational split. The young people who are in high school and college today have grown up in an era of profound unrest, dislocation, and deprivation. Young people from a middle class background occupy a different class position than their parents. They are fewer and fewer avenues for them to achieve traditional visions of success and economic mobility. Many, if not most, are stuck in low-paying dead-end jobs that were traditionally associated with poor and working class people. They have little chance of ever owning significant property in the form of real estate. Despite their middle class education and tastes, they are in a similar material position to the rest of the working class, which explains their generally progressive and often-vague left-leaning attitudes. (A recent YouGov poll suggests that over 20% of 16-20 year olds would vote for a communist candidate, despite the relative lack of organized communist agitation and education in the United States.) As such, we can expect more success working with young people from wider class backgrounds than would be the case with the rest of their class.

As stated above, the forces on the left must find ways to overcome cleavages and contradictions within the broader working class. Organizers will also have to push members of fragmented social groups to forge a sense of solidarity and common identity. For example, we will have to bring middle class students together with working class people to combat ingrained prejudices like classism and racism. The radicals in Richmond who pushed a student-dominated protest to march through housing projects deserve praise and emulation. Revolutionary movements can emerge at the moments when once-disparate forces recognize their common interests and shared fate.

The second question is how we deal with contradictions between the major formations in the opposition. For the reasons outlined earlier the left must conclusively break with the Democratic Party. I can see no compelling reason to work with the DNC, and even arch-reformists seem to be pushing for the formation of an independent party. The far more relevant question is how the electoral left and the revolutionary left interact with each other. This may place me in the minority on the radical left, but I believe there may be potential benefits to a broad alliance between the electoral left and revolutionaries. Such an alliance would have to be based on the equality and organizational autonomy of all concerned parties. From the electoral left, I would expect the end of critiques of revolutionary tactics being positioned “from the outside,” an unambiguous endorsement of grassroots organizing efforts like self-defense organizations and survival programs, and participation in these efforts. In exchange, the revolutionary left would agree to not campaign against left electoralism in our grassroots organizations and offer strategic support with voting and mobilization campaigns in key elections. Such a bargain would have potential pitfalls for both sides and would have to overcome legacies of competition and distrust. Nevertheless, it may prove necessary in atmosphere of intense repression and constant attacks from the state and fascist paramilitary groups.

The final question is how we deal with contradictions within formations on the left. In the electoral left, this consists of the splits between the many parties and between the competing ideologies of social democracy, democratic socialism, and electoral Trotskyism. On the revolutionary left, this consists of the considerably wider divergence of ideology between anarchists, Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, left communists, and so on. I am not repeating calls for unity on spurious grounds. Unity cannot simply be forged by invocations; it is the product of a genuine convergence of interests. I call for unity due to the simple fact that the threat facing us is so great and the room for mistakes and defeats is so small.

The coming years will decide the fate of not just the left but of our planet and our entire species. Capitalism’s dying gasps threaten to swallow us all in murderous authoritarianism and general war, plunging our ecosystem toward the general extinction of the food, clean water, and resources upon which human life itself depends. There is no previous era when the challenges facing humanity have been so vast, and yet there has also never been a time when the preconditions for total liberation have already been present. The false choice of the center has crumbled decisively; there will no longer be any middle ground between socialism and barbarism. Now is not the time for pettiness, indecision, and cowardice. Now is the time to fight or die.

I’ve included a flowchart laying out some of the possible outcomes for the American left in the coming years. Like any diagram, it is includes a lot of simplifications, omissions, and potentially misleading visual cues. The major problem with this diagram is that it implies a sequential flow between the major decision points when, in fact, these decisions are all being made at the same time.



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