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Needed Now: A Real and Radical Left

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in 2016. (Marc Nozell / CC BY 2.0)

It’s “socialism or barbarism.” So wrote the brilliant German Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in 1915. The 20th and 21st centuries have borne her out. The list of barbarian horrors that have disfigured the human record under the class rule of capital across the last century is daunting indeed.

Now, however, we have to say that Luxemburg put things too gently. Marx and Engels got closer to our contemporary reality in 1848. They wrote in “The Communist Manifesto” about how the long-standing class struggle between producers and appropriators always ends “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

It’s socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky. To be more precise, its eco-socialism or annihilation as capital turns the planet into a giant greenhouse gas chamber. The earth science is perfectly clear. The “common ruin” of all is precisely where humanity is headed after half a millennium under the rule of a system that relies on permanent unsustainable expansion to avert collapse. “The rich,” the French ecological writer Herve Kempf observed 11 years ago, “are destroying the Earth.” Well, not the earth itself, just the chances for a decent and organized human future.

The 21st-century global bourgeoisie isn’t doing this because it is loaded with malevolent ecological Scrooges who need to be visited by ghosts of the environmental Christmas past, present and future. Capitalists are driven to pillage and poison and rape the common good, including the ecological commons, by systemic imperatives compelling them to relentlessly commodify everything under the sun and to drive infinite growth on a finite planet.

For Marx, and I think for any authentic left today, the moral predisposition of bourgeois “elites” was and is of little concern. It’s not about speaking truth to wealth and power. Beseeching our capitalist masters to be nicer and smarter for the common good of all is a fool’s errand. We’re not trying to write a Charles Dickens novel in which rich Mr. Brownlow saves the day for poor Oliver Twist or the bad capitalist Scrooge becomes the good capitalist Scrooge. We know there’s no appealing to capitalist chieftains’ better angels where money and profit are concerned.

Real leftists know that five people owning as much wealth as the bottom half of the species while millions starve and lack adequate health care and half the U.S. population is poor or near-poor is capitalism working.

We know that giant corporations buying up every last family farm, tapping every new reserve of cheap global labor, raping the Congo’s raw materials in alliance with warlords, purchasing the votes of nearly every elected official, extracting every last fossil fuel and driving the planet past the limits of environmental sustainability is capitalism working.

We know that a giant military-industrial complex, generating vast fortunes for the owners and managers of high-tech “defense” (war and empire) firms while schools and public parks and infrastructure and social safety nets are underfunded—we know that that too is capitalism working.

I could go on.

The only solution, a real left would know, along with Marx, is for workers and citizens to organize collectively to overthrow the amoral profits system and take control of what they produce and how society is organized.

Power to the people. Power to the workers. And power to the commons, whose enclosure was and remains among other things the making of modern capitalism and its wage-enslaved working class.

That is what I have always understood to be the basic irreducible bottom-line perspective of anything that deserves since the time of Marx to be called “the left.”

I’m always amused when I hear mainstream U.S. media reporters, talking heads or pundits refer to “the left” in statements like “the left won’t like Trump’s tax plan” or “the left is gearing up for the 2018 midterms.” What left are they talking about?

In the reigning U.S. media-politics culture, “the left” refers first and foremost to the Democratic Party and its many allies at places like The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS, MSNBC, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, the Center for American Progress, most of academia and a host of other elite sectors and actors. But for anyone who knows anything about the history and meaning of radical movements, calling the dismal dollar-drenched Democrats and their many media allies “the left” is like calling the National Pork Producers Association vegan. As the multimillionaire House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told a young CNN town hall questioner last year, “We’re capitalist and that’s just the way it is.”

The Robert Rubin-approved and Goldman Sachs- and Citigroup-backed presidential candidate Barack Obama wrote and spoke with gushing praise for the lords of capital and their supposedly glorious profits system, which he called the source of a “prosperity that’s unmatched in human history.” His policy record as a militantly pro-Wall Street and arch-neoliberal president consistently matched his words. He did more for the nation’s leading financial institutions and corporations than any Republican president could have in the wake of the Great Recession, caused by concentrated wealth.

And he was proud of it. “People call me a socialist sometimes,” Obama told some top corporate executives at The Wall Street Journal CEO Council with a laugh in late 2013. “But no,” the arch-neoliberal president, TransPacific Partnership advocate and drone war champion said, eliciting chuckles from his ruling-class friends, “you’ve got to meet the real socialists. You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.” The CEOs in attendance got a big chuckle out of what CounterPunch called that “tender ruling class moment.”

“Socialists”? The “lying neoliberal warmonger” and arch-corporatist Hillary Clinton recently added those nasty socialists in the Democratic Party to the list of people other than herself and her Wall Street bankrollers that she blames for her defeat in 2016. If socialists in the Iowa Democratic caucuses had properly understood and respected her commitment to what top Democrats oxymoronically called “inclusive capitalism,” Hillary thinks, Trump would not be president.

Leftish liberals call for the supposed “party of the people” to abandon its “corporate and cultural elitism” and “return” to its purported grand mission of “fighting for social justice and ensuring that workers get a fair deal.” When, the plaintive progressive cry goes, will they learn how to win? But for the dismal Dems it isn’t about winning; it’s about serving corporate masters. As William Kaufman told Barbara Ehrenreich on Facebook last year, “The Democrats aren’t feckless, inept, or stupid, unable to ‘learn’ what it takes to win. They are corrupt. They do not want to win with an authentically progressive program because it would threaten the economic interests of their main corporate donor base. … The Democrats know exactly what they’re doing. They have a business model: sub-serving the interests of the corporate elite.”

The reigning corporate Democrats would rather lose to the right, even to a proto-fascistic white nationalist and eco-apocalyptic right, than lose to the left, even to a mildly progressive social democratic left within their own party. So what if Bernie Sanders, running (imagine!) in accord with majority progressive opinion would have been considerably more likely to defeat Trump than the incredibly unpopular and transparently elitist Hillary Clinton in the general election in 2016? The Democrats preferred handing the presidency and Congress to the Insane Clown President and the ever more radical right over letting a leftish neo-New Dealer into the White House. That was the “Inauthentic Opposition”—as the late Sheldon Wolin called the Democrats in 2008—doing its job.

Among other things, Russiagate is the Inauthentic Opposition following its business model and doing its job, working to cover its tracks by throwing the debacle of its corporatist politics down George Orwell’s memory hole and attributing their largely self-made defeat to Russia’s allegedly powerful interference in our supposed democracy. Russiagate is meant to provide corporate Democrats cover not only for 2016 but also for 2018 and 2020. It is meant to create a narrative that lets the Fake Resistance Party continue nominating corporate captive neoliberal shills and imperialists who pretend to be progressive while they are owned by the nation’s own homegrown oligarchs, the real masters of America’s oxymoronic “capitalist democracy.” This year’s crop of Democratic congressional candidates is disturbingly loaded with military and intelligence veterans, a reflection of the Democrats’ determination to run as the true party of empire.

As Jeremy Kuzmarov and John Marciano write in their book “The Russians are Coming, Again,” “The scapegoat of Russia functions as a distraction for a ruling class that has lost its legitimacy.”

What is the Democrats’ leading cry? That the terrible Trump is truly terrible. And, of course, that is all too terribly true. But after you’ve bemoaned the terribleness of the beastly, orange-tinted Trump for the 10,000th time, are you ready to get serious about the systemic and richly bipartisan, oligarchic context within which he has emerged? “The Trump administration,” my fellow Truthdigger Chris Hedges reminds us:

“did not rise … like Venus on a half shell from the sea. Donald Trump is the result of a long process of political, cultural and social decay. He is a product of our failed democracy. The longer we perpetuate the fiction that we live in a functioning democracy, that Trump and the political mutations around him are somehow an aberrant deviation that can be vanquished in the next election, the more we will hurtle toward tyranny. The problem is not Trump. It is a political system, dominated by corporate power and the mandarins of the two major political parties, in which we don’t count.”

Corporate Democrats could well re-elect Trump in 2020. The smart money now is on their running the tepid neoliberal centrist Kamala Harris. Part of what could make her irresistible to the corporate and professional-class know-it-alls atop the party is that she would be a “progressive neoliberal”-bourgeois identity politics double whammy when it comes to keeping their own party’s portside wing at bay. With Obama as their standard bearer, the corporate-war Democrats got to call their progressive critics racists. With Hillary as their candidate, the corporate-war Democrats got to call their progressive critics sexists. With Kamala Harris atop the ticket they could call their disobedient left racists and sexists if progressives dare to publicly notice her captivity to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the Council on Foreign Relations and the military-industrial complex.

Not that Sanders, who was the Democrats’ best chance to defeat Trump, is all that “left.” Bernie “F-35” Sanders’ occasional and carefully hedged claims to be a “democratic socialist” were contradicted by his dutiful if quiet embrace of the mass-murderous U.S. military empire. It takes real chutzpah to repeatedly mention Scandinavia as his social-democratic role model without once noting that Sweden, Denmark and Norway spend comparatively tiny percentages of their national budgets on militarism. Failure to tackle the giant U.S. war budget (a vast mechanism of upward wealth transfer) means that you can’t pay for poverty-ending progressive transformation at home.

Sanders has never seriously criticized capitalism, the profits system or modern class rule. He has never questioned the underlying and foundational institutional despotism of capital over labor and the commons that makes a mockery of the West’s democratic pretense while placing human life itself at grave peril. Along the way, Sanders has sustained progressives’ deadly attachment to the nation’s narrow and strictly time-staggered election- and candidate-centered politics. “The really critical thing,” the great American radical historian Howard Zinn once sagely wrote, “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.”

“The only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change,” Noam Chomsky told Abby Martin in the fall of 2015, “is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle.” Sanders was and remains about the masters’ election cycle, which is dedicated to the delusional notion that we the people get meaningful democratic input into policy by spending three minutes in a voting booth choosing from among a handful of candidates selected in advance for us by the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money once every two years.

The Democrats know that lots of citizens think like Zinn. That’s why they set up Astroturf outfits like Indivisible and Move On and the Town Hall Project. These fake resistance groups masquerade as extra-electoral grass-roots movements, but they’re all about channeling everything into a big get-out-the-vote campaign for candidates affiliated with the not-so-left-most of the two reigning corporate parties.

A number of Sanders supporters have migrated into DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America, whose popular online “Thanks Capitalism” video defines “socialism” as little more than collective bargaining and civil rights. It says nothing about capitalism’s destruction of livable ecology or about its evil twin, imperialism, whose vast military budgets cancels out social democracy in the “homeland.” The video says nothing about Marx’s and other authentic leftists’ long-standing understanding of socialism as workers’ control.

A panoply of outwardly and sometimes substantively progressive advocacy, policy and service organizations can be found across the U.S. But as Les Leopold has noted, they are badly crippled by single-issue-ism, related to do their budgetary dependence on private foundations. “For the last generation,” Leopold wrote last year, “progressives have organized themselves into issue silos, each with its own agenda. Survival depends on fundraising (largely from private foundations) based on the uniqueness of one’s own silo. The net result of this Darwinian struggle is a fractured landscape of activity. The creativity, talent and skill are there in abundance, but the coherence and common purpose among groups is not.”

There are multi-issue nonpartisan progressive policy, lobbying and protest groups in the Citizen Action tradition across the nation. Their 501c3 (nonprofit) status prevents them from openly identifying as Democratic Party-affiliated groups, but that is what they are. Real authentic root-and-branch radicals who want to keep their jobs know to tread carefully and watch their backs when they work in the “progressive” nonprofit sector. It’s the same in “higher education” and the so-called labor movement.

There are a number of groups that call themselves Marxist in the U.S.—an alphabet soup whose various names and sectarian tendencies can be reviewed on Wikipedia. None of them have anything close to a large membership. Many of them spend more time tearing each other apart in sectarian squabbling than in organizing or inspiring anyone to fight the many manifest evils of capital.

Left anarchism seems as fragmented, marginal and sectarian as the Marxist left.

We’ve seen hopeful seeds of rank-and-file people’s organizing over the years with developments like the Wisconsin Rebellion before it was electorally co-opted, Occupy, the Fight for $15, the Chicago and subsequent statewide teacher strikes, the Verizon strike, rebellions and the movement against racist police killings—a movement bigger than just the Ford Foundation-funded and Borealis Foundation-coordinated Black Lives Matter brand. There’s been the Malcom X Grassroots Movement, We Charge Genocide, the remarkable Standing Rock moment, the broader struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline, the successful struggle against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the remarkable alternative economy political developments led by black radicals in Jackson, Miss., something that strikes me as the most potentially radical and remarkable development of all so far.

Now we have the Poor People’s Campaign, just underway, under the leadership of the Rev. William Barber, who has criticized U.S. militarism and kept Democratic Party politicos off his speaking platforms. Perhaps the PPC can develop in ways that will help us build an authentic radical left—not just another leftish moment that gets folded into a Get Out the Vote for Democrats campaign. To do so, it will need to open its platforms to serious left anti-capitalists. It will have to step further away from the not-so left-most party of capital, the Democrats. It will need to speak less in terms of the immorality of poverty and more in terms of how poverty is rooted in the profits system of class rule and the racism and imperialism that go with capitalism “like white on rice.”

“For whatever reason,” a PPC supporter writes me from Pennsylvania, the campaign is “unwilling or unable to name the disease, capitalism. In the absence of this diagnosis,” he says, “I worry that the PPC might be nothing more than a sheepdog for the Democrats in 2018.”

For now—and this must change—“the [U.S.] left” is still far too scattered, excessively siloed, overdependent on corporate foundations, overly identity-politicized, excessively episodic, excessively metropolitan and bicoastal, excessively professional and middle-class, insufficiently radical, insufficiently working-class, insufficiently anti-capitalist and insufficiently distanced from the dismal, demobilizing, depressing and dollar-drenched Democratic Party.

Noam Chomsky’s judgment five years ago remains all too accurate today: “There is no real left now” in the United States, Chomsky told David Barsamian. “If you are just counting heads,” Chomsky elaborated, “there are probably more people involved than in the 1960s, but they … don’t coalesce into a movement that can really do things. We’re not supposed to say it,” he continued, “but the Communist Party was an organized and persistent element. It didn’t show up for a demonstration and then scatter so somebody else had to start something new. It was always there and it was there for the long haul. … That mentality is basically missing [now]. And it was during the 1960s, too,” Chomsky said.

The absence of a real, dedicated, persistent and serious, adult left is profoundly dangerous. People who are getting shafted and who know it are going to get behind militant and angry politicos seeking to channel their understandable rage. If there’s no effective, durable, organized, intelligent and durable through-thick-and-thin anti-capitalist left around, the job of channeling that popular anger falls by default to the white nationalist racist, nativist and sexist right—the Hitlers, Goebbels, Marine Le Pens, Geert Wilders, Matteo Salivinis, Nigel Farages, David Dukes, Steve Kings, Donald Trumps and Steve Bannons of the world. Resentment abhors a vacuum.

At the same time, without a functioning left able to fight and do things for ordinary working and poor people, we will have nothing to defend and sustain our households, families and communities when the next big capitalist meltdown comes—an event that is due in the very near future. Before the coming collapse, Hedges tell us, “We must invest our energy in building parallel, popular institutions to protect ourselves and to pit power against power. These parallel institutions, including unions, community development organizations, local currencies, alternative political parties and food cooperatives, will have to be constructed town by town.”

Hedges’ list of institutions for parallel people’s power should be expanded to cooperative production, under the participatory and self-managed ownership, control and design of the “associated producers” themselves in harmony rather than at war with the natural environment.

It’s no small matter, given what we know now to be the essentially ecocidal nature of modern capitalism. “If there is not future for a radical mass movement in our time,” Istvan Meszaros rightly argued 15 years ago, “there can be no future for humanity itself.”

Paul Street
Contributor
Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books,…
Paul Street

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