In the 1980s, Mike Davis compared the left in Europe with the left in the United States. He claimed that the American left benefited from being positioned in a multiplicity of single issue groups as opposed to a European scene dominated by Communists, Socialists, and Social Democrats. Thirty years later in the United States, the crisis in capitalism has deepened, gaps between rich and poor have grown, and levels of poverty have risen while access to health care and education has declined.
In addition, a broad array of groups have emerged shaped by identities and issues involving the environment, civil liberties, police brutality and gun control. While the crises deepen across all these issues, activism increases. Debates have emerged about strategy and tactics to fight reaction and advance some kind of 21st century socialism. “Poles of activism” include those who pursue constructing “left unity,” expanding the Occupy Movement, and/or “building a progressive majority.” It should be acknowledged at the outset that the distinctions made below emphasize the differences of activist approaches which many advocates do not see as mutually exclusive. Particularly, those who advocate for left unity see that project as intimately connected to building a stronger more effective progressive majority.
This presentation will describe each approach briefly and suggest that they parallel and reinforce each other
Mark Solomon in an important essay “Whither the Socialist Left? Thinking the ‘Unthinkable” (Portside, March 6, 2013) discusses the long history of socialism in the United States, the brutal repression against it, damaging sectarian battles on the left, the miniscule size of socialist organizations today and yet paradoxically the growing sympathy for the idea of socialism among Americans, particularly young people. He calls for “the convergence of socialist organizations committed to non-sectarian democratic struggle, engagement with mass movements, and open debate in search of effective responses to present crises and to projecting a socialist future.” Again, the Solomon article does not conceptualize “left unity” and “building the progressive majority” as separate and distinct projects but as fundamentally interconnected. For him, and many others, the role of the left in the labor movement and other mass movements gave shape, direction, and theoretical cohesion to the battles that won worker rights in the 1930s.
Solomon’s call has stimulated debate among activists around the idea of “left unity.” The appeal for left unity is made more powerful by socialism’s appeal, the current global crises of capitalism, rising mobilizations around the world, and living experiments with small-scale socialism such as the construction of a variety of workers’ cooperatives.
Effective campaigns around “left unity” in recent years have prioritized “revolutionary education,” drawing upon the tools of the internet to construct an accessible body of theory and debate about strategy and tactics that could solidify left forces and move the progressive majority in a socialist direction. The emerging Online University of the Left (OUL), an electronic source for classical and modern theoretical literature about Marxism, contemporary debates about strategy and tactics, videos, reading lists, and course syllabi, constitute one example of left unity. The OUL serves as resource for study groups, formal coursework, and discussions among socialists and progressives. Those who advocate for “left unity” or left “convergence” celebrate these many developments, from workers cooperatives to popular education, as they advocate for the construction of a unified socialist left.
The Occupy Movement, first surfacing in the media in September, 2011, initiated and renewed traditions of organized and spontaneous mass movements around issues that affect peoples’ immediate lives such as housing foreclosure, debt, jobs, wages, the environment, and the negative role of money in U.S. politics. Perhaps the four most significant contributions of the Occupy Movement include:
1.Introducing grassroots processes of decision-making.
2.Conceptualizing modern battles for social and economic justice as between the one percent (the holders of most wealth and power in society) versus the 99 percent (weak, economically marginalized, and dispossessed).
3.Insisting that struggles for radical change be spontaneous, often eschewing traditional political processes.
4.Linking struggles locally, nationally, and globally.
During the height of Occupy’s visibility some 500 cities and towns experienced mobilizations around social justice issues. While significantly less today, Occupy campaigns still exist, particularly in cities where larger progressive communities reside. Calls for left unity correctly ground their claims in a long and rich history of organized struggle while “occupiers” and other activists today have been inspired by the bottom-up and spontaneous uprisings of 2011 (both international and within the United States).
A third, and not opposed, approach to political change at this time has been labeled “building a progressive majority.” This approach assumes that large segments of the U.S. population agree on a variety of issues. Some are activists in electoral politics, others in trade unions, and more in single issue groups. In addition, many who share common views of worker rights, the environment, health care, undue influence of money in politics, immigrant rights etc. are not active politically. The progressive majority perspective argues that the project for the short-term is to mobilize the millions of people who share common views on the need for significant if not fundamental change in economics and politics.
Often organizers conceptualize the progressive majority as the broad mass of people who share views on politics and economics that are ‘centrist” or “left.” Consequently, over the long run, “left” participants see their task as three-fold. First, they must work on the issues that concern majorities of those at the local and national level. Second, they struggle to convince their political associates that the problems most people face have common causes (particularly capitalism). Third, “left” participants see the need to link issues so that class, race, gender, and the environment, for example, are understood as part of the common problem that people face.
At this point in time as the recent data set called “Start” shows (http://www.startguide.org/orgs/orgs00.html ) there are some “500 leading organizations in the United States working for progressive change on a national level.” START divided these 500 organizations into twelve categories based on their main activities. These include progressive electoral, peace and foreign policy, economic justice, civil liberties, health advocacy, labor, women’s and environmental organizations. Of course their membership, geographic presence, financial resources, and strategic and tactical vision vary widely. And, the variety of progressive organizations at the national level are reproduced at the local and state levels as well.
In sum, when looking at social change in the United States at least three emphases are being articulated: left unity, the Occupy, and building a progressive majority. Each highlights its own priorities as to vision, strategy, tactics, and political contexts. In addition, the relative appeal of each may be affected by age, class, gender, race, and issue prioritization as well. However, these approaches need not be seen as contradictory. Rather the activism borne of each approach may parallel the others.
Presentation for a Seminar on Socialist Renewal and the Capitalist Crisis A Cuban-North American Exchange, University of Havana, Cuba, June 24-28, 2013