What’s Left in the US?

15 September 2014

What’s Left in the US?

The left movement in the US has seldom in recent years had the chance to make history. There are nevertheless in the heart of world capitalism people and organisations working hard to realise a democratic socialist society. At the beginning of August SP national secretary Hans van Heijningen took part in a conference in which grassroots activists, representatives of left parties and socialistically-oriented researchers mapped out the prospects.

Hans van Heijningen

Although the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) around the time of the First World War and the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s stamped their mark on national politics in the US, communist and socialist parties have in general never succeeded in escaping marginalisation. The existence pf small, tight-knit organisations combined with a profusion of state repression – as was the case during McCarthy’s witch-hunt in the 1950s – meant that left parties have generally exhibited strongly sectarian traits and had few supporters. Nevertheless, left activists certainly played a significant role in the struggle for the abolition of slavery, in the New Deal politics of Roosevelt during the 19930s and in the fight for civil rights in the 1960s.

On the defensive

Recent decades have only seen the influence of the left within the US grow still smaller. Amongst other things this has to do with the decline of traditional bulwarks of labour – witness the crisis in the auto industry in Detroit – and the strongly growing service sector, in which permanent jobs, and decent wages and working conditions are the exception. In addition, the fall of communism and the world-wide ‘sell out’ on the part of social democracy have not done the power of attraction of a progressive alternative any good. A section of the left in the US, where an anarchist tendency has always existed, has as a result become hostile to party building.

In stark contrast to the influence of the right wing activist Tea Party within the Republicans, the left in most states is fragmented and scarcely visible. What has also not done the progressive cause any favours is that the leadership of the Democratic Party, just as has happened with the social democrats in Europe, has moved ever further towards the centre and as a result no longer constitutes an appealing alternative to the right. It is significant that left organisations, which in 2008 played an important role in the Obama campaign, showed their disappointment in the election campaign of 2012.

Splinter-groups and Freethinkers

As for left organisations, this can be summed up quite briefly: a Communist Party with around a thousand members in the whole of the US, an entire series of Trotskyist organisations most of which keep busy simply ‘spreading the word’, and a social democratic party with some four thousand members and branches in most major cities on both west and east coasts. Socialist academics form the only category to enjoy the privilege of being able to work in relative peace and freedom. Activists from social movements and parties have in general less room to demonstrate and have to deal more often with state repression. What keeps socialistically oriented scholars firmly in check is the ideological offensive from the populist and extreme right (Tea Party, Fox News) and the spending cuts and trend for privatisation within the academic world.

Red ‘Green Shoots’

Yet there are also in the US solidly socialists green shoots: small, militant labour unions; organisations of minorities (African-Americans, Latinos) peace movements, environmentalist groups, women’s groups, consumer groups and religious groups. The colour of your skin, furthermore, is to a large extent determinant of the social class to which you belong, of whether you have a job or access to services, and of your chances of finding yourself in prison. Blacks and Latinos, the latter now confirmed as the biggest ethnic minority, are under huge pressure. Sometimes they enjoy the support of mainstream unions, but there are also numerous cases where labour unionists, anti-war activists and civil rights organisations are left in the lurch by union leaders.

Germans in New York

Are there, within this bleak picture, nevertheless some prospects of socialism? That was the big question posed by the New York branch of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the research bureau of the German Left Party (Die Linke), which has subsidiaries in eighteen countries throughout the world, at the conference Mapping Socialist Strategies. In addition to dozens of representatives of socialist organisations from Canada and a substantial number from European countries, there were also present some sixty people representing the American left.

Shortly before the meeting began I received a request from an American researcher and a representative of the democratic left in the US to participate in the opening forum. My account of the SP formula, in which working amongst the people and participating in elections are both of importance, was explained and the crucial importance of activism was emphasised, went down extremely well. After my fellow panel member had expressed her doubts about the concept of party-building, a young black woman – an irate Eliandra Williams - asked to speak from the floor. ‘You surely don’t think I’ve come all the way from Jackson this evening to hear that the whole question is whether the building of a democratic socialist party is the correct step from an organisational perspective?’, she asked. ‘We’ve organised our people and they expect us to move towards a national form of cooperation and organisation. As the left we represent very little, but we’re surely not going to resign ourselves to that?’ Applause from the hall, which set the tone of the conference. For two days we discussed the workings of neoliberalism, the defence of the public sector, the building of communal property – or ‘common goods’ – and the prospects for the rebuilding of the left.

Best practices

The most important strength and potential of socialist organisations in the US lies in the mass struggle conducted in recent years in some states which has led to practical results and the construction of organisations. Public sector workers in Madison, Wisconsin protested in 2011against the legal ban on collective bargaining of wages and working conditions. The conflict, which began on a small scale, ended in a two week occupation of the town centre by more than a hundred thousand people. Despite backpedalling by the Republican senator, it did not prove possible to capitalise on this success electorally. This did not, however, alter the fact that thanks to this mass resistance new forms of activism came into existence in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. Another successful example is the education strike which took place in Chicago in 2012. What began as a teachers’ strike developed into a mass movement in which teachers, students, their parents and people from the affected neighbourhoods rose up, demonstrated, held sit-ins and occupied schools. And they got results. The city council executive, dominated by right-wing Democrats, saw itself forced into keeping open numerous schools slated for closure. In addition, plans for privatisation of Chicago’s education system died the death and teachers won improved working conditions.

A long way to go

At the New York conference numerous initiatives were presented which commanded sympathy and respect: the black cooperative movement from Jackson; the National Domestic Working Alliance, which in organising household workers is confronted with a lack of solidarity on the part of middle class feminists; the National Guestwork Alliance, which in New York and other east coast cities fights for an increase in the lowest wages; Bargaining for the Common Good, which in Los Angeles and east coast cities confronts banks which are exercising a financial stranglehold on local authorities; and the Occupy movement, which through direct contact and via Facebook and Twitter has put millions of young people in contact with left-wing mass struggles.

Among the activists present at the conference there emerged a broad consensus that closing the gap between ‘local activism’ and ‘national organisation’ was not a matter of fine words. Getting to know each other, analysing successes and failures, swapping experiences and seeking common ground are necessary conditions for arriving at effective forms of national organisation. In this respect our socialist friends in the US still have a long way to go. But given their efforts, their dedication and their talents, there is certainly a chance. The most inspiring thing? The eloquent and assertive organisers, amongst whom were a remarkable number of young women. People who in many cases have been formed by the ‘ghetto university’, are convinced ideologically of the importance of activism and demonstrate in practice that they are capable of mobilising people.

First published in Spanning August 2014.

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