Inventing the American Left (1986)

Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) supports organizing drive at the A&S department store in Brooklyn. c. 1980s. via Labor Arts.

Excerpted from the epilogue to Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class

A Popular Left for the 1990s?

If the details of this scenario — hastily sketched but not, for all that, empty exercises in imagining the future — strike the reader as unduly pessimistic, the reason why they are so drawn is that the political and economic supports for a more humane capitalism no longer seem to exist. The view expressed here is diametrically opposed to that of many recent left-liberal and social-democratic writers, who profess to see vistas of new liberations and reformist possibilities in late imperial America. A virtual cottage industry has come into existence since 1980, providing visionary recipes for workers’ control, the restoration of craft production, expanded welfarism, economic democracy, and social control of investment. Most of these heartening schemes, typically offered as brains trust advice to the left wing of the Democratic Party, have been characterized by a complete absence of strategic design: that is, they lack any specification of the means for their realization. They contain no hint of how, in a period of rampant deunionization and the self-immolation of traditional liberalism — when to stem the tide of either would suppose some massive shift in the balance of forces to the left — they could find a conceivable agency.

Rather than taking hope from make-believe social democracy, it seems better to prepare for the colder climate ahead by reflecting as carefully and critically as possible upon the fate of the US left in the 1970s and early 1980s. What would be a summary balance sheet? The left in these years, it might be argued, invariably came back to the revival of one of three alternative projects, each with classical precedent in the history of American radicalism: the Debsian, the Fosterite, and, finally, the Browderite strategies. The first, advanced most energetically by NAM and the original editors of Socialist Review (when it was still called Socialist Revolution) as a counterweight to the "new communist" movements, encompassed an attempt to create a small, explicitly socialist public sphere as a prelude to more active and broader based socialist politics. The second project — which probably could be typed as neo-syndicalist as well — grew out of the belief, exemplified by William Z. Foster’s life and writings, that militant unionism matures almost naturally into political radicalism. This was the inspiration for the workerist groups of the 1970s, who believed that the rank-and-file revolt of the Nixon era would be a seedbed for a new labor left (if not for a new communist party). The third project, akin to Browder’s attempted dissolution of the Communist Party during World War Two into the ranks of the New Deal, was based on the idea that the left should act as the most militant and consistent wing of the Democratic Party in the conviction that liberalism could be gradually metamorphosed, via a program of economic democracy or populism, into a practical, Americanized version of socialism.

Each of these projects suffered major, arguably definitive, defeats during the 1970s and 1980s. As chapter seven explained, both neo-Browderism and its companion social-democratic strain (these representing the two principal lineages of DSA) were consumed on the pyre of the Mondale campaign and the anti-New Deal right turn of the Democratic Party. Fosterism foundered during the 1970s on the same reef it had struck in the 1930s: working-class economic militancy in the US is not in any sense automatically conducive to political radicalization — rather, the first is often a pragmatic limitation upon the second. Just as the "consistent" liberal often remains a liberal, so too the consistent trade-union militant remains just that.

As Lenin pointed out three quarters of a century ago, with a perspicacity that has yet to be fully assimilated, "political" consciousness comes from outside the immediate field of the economic class struggle — which is not to say that it is superimposed on the working class by intellectuals, but rather that it grows out of the overdetermination of the economic class struggle by other contradictions and forms of oppression. For instance, as I argued in my opening chapter, the "Jacobin" path to political class consciousness in Europe arose because of the fusion of early demands for suffrage with struggles for elemental workplace organization, while in Britain and the Antipodes, "laborism" emerged in response — among other things — to repression of trade-union organizational rights. One must not forget that in the USA, too, the hard core of Debsian socialism derived from the situation of an immigrant proletariat that endured economic exploitation along with cultural discrimination and, most often in factory towns, de facto political disenfranchisement.

The Fordist absorption of the new immigrant strata and their eventual "Americanization" during the 1940s and 1950s destroyed the social and cultural base of the existing forms of American socialism and communism. Their project could not be revived, as NAM and others essayed, by personal witness and local activism, however cleverly blended with popular culture. Nor is it likely, given the record of such movements up to the present and the growing fractures among various economic strata described above, that a mass socialist politics could ever grow incrementally from molecular conversions or from single issue campaigns of a sporadically radical character. It is equally implausible that such a mass movement could take the form of an "extension" of American laborism, as much of the traditional left has consistently imagined. For all its recurrent threats to form a third party, the trade- union bureaucracy remains firmly and closely, for this generation at least, tied to the Democratic Party. In turning from its original Debsian ideal toward entrism into the Democratic Party, most of NAM and the intellectual left aligned with it tacitly abandoned the hope of an explicit socialist politics, to become what Irving Howe has described as "loyal allies and supporters" or "friendly critics" of liberalism. 

In the wake of these failed projects and lost directions, it remains to be asked whether there is any visible social constituency in the United States for a popular left. Or, to frame the problem in Lenin’s terms: are there any subaltern strata whose class position is fused with a special oppression that transcends the limits of bourgeois political reform, and whose struggle for daily survival, therefore, generates anti-systemic elements of protest and political solidarity? The traditional, despairing Hartzian answer, of course, is "no": there has been no socialism in America precisely because of the absence of any great, unfinished democratic agenda. Constitutional guarantees of suffrage and individual rights have consistently defused the explosion of mass socialist movements on a European model. But this answer, which is the most frequent (if not always acknowledged) justification given for "American exceptionalism," is both myopic and inaccurate. Early suffrage and a pioneering mass party system did help to deflect the thrust of early white working-class organization from independent political expression, but this has not altered the fact that the oppression of Blacks has remained a central contradiction at the heart of the American bourgeois democratic system. If, after the founding of the Republic, the contradiction that shattered the Union was slavery, the demise of the "peculiar institution" was followed by the defeat of the first Reconstruction, and the new servitude of debt peonage and Jim Crow. It was these that posed the sharpest democratic challenge to the nascent American left in the twentieth century. It should be recalled that, in 1933, there were two great oppressed social groups in North America: the first, we have observed, were the second-generation new immigrants who formed the bulk of semi-skilled labor in the mass-production economy; the second were the masses of Southern rural poor, a majority of whom were Black. While the New Deal reluctantly sponsored the successful reform struggle of the first through the new industrial unions, it was the agent of the social defeat of the second. The New Deal utterly failed to bring any liberation for Southern Blacks; instead, it strengthened the power of their masters by federalizing support for Southern landowners and big planters.

As I have argued at some length, the failure of the postwar labor movement to form an organic bloc with Black liberation, to organize the South, or to defeat the power of Southern reaction in the Democratic Party, have determined, more than any other factors, the ultimate decline of American trade unionism and the rightward reconstruction of the political economy during the 1970s. The frustration of any second Reconstruction was the pivotal event marking the end of the Rooseveltian epoch of reform and its underlying economic base: the integrative capacities of a Fordist mass consumption economy. The minimal democratic program of the civil rights movement, involving the claims to equal housing, equal employment, and equal political representation, has proved to be an impossible set of reforms for contemporary American capitalism to enact.

The struggle for substantive social equality for the Black and Hispanic working class is no longer simply part of the unfinished agenda of liberalism, currently on hold while those concerned wait patiently for it to be resumed in the next Democratic administration. Their struggle has evolved, rather, towards what might be called a "revolutionary–democratic" platform that challenges the current political economy of capitalism. At this juncture in history, as the Jackson campaign demonstrated, the return toward even the unsatisfactory Great Society levels of welfare maintenance and job subsidization would require halting the new Cold War and entail a massive shift of resources from the military to the social budget. Any real movement towards an economic integration of the working poor into a new high-wage environment would involve a radical expansion of the public sector and a complete undoing of the "overconsumptionist" logic that expresses the social power of the expanded middle strata. Substantive economic citizenship for Black and Hispanic America would require levels of change dangerously close to the threshold of socialist transformation.

Into the foreseeable future, the historic agenda of the civil rights movement will become increasingly incompatible with the tendencies of capital accumulation and distribution of political and social power now operative in the US. For the moment, Black reformist politics have anyway reached a crisis — a macabre symptom of which was the police massacre in the spring 1985 of MOVE militants in Philadelphia, which burnt out whole blocks of a Black neighbourhood under the administration of Black mayor Wilson Goode — which might issue in a new road toward radical, independent political action. Whether such radicalization could be realized along the lines of the mass left politics prefigured in the Jackson primary campaign will depend, above all, on the organizational unity and political strategy of Black and Third World socialists. The single most important organizational problem confronting the North American left today is the huge disjuncture between the progressive political consciousness of Black America and the weakness of any national Black socialist cadre (the same dilemma applies to Chicano/Mexicanos in the Southwest). Faced with the catastrophic social deterioration that has resulted from the crumbling of inner-city employment structures, there is an understandable urgency in the ghettoes and barrios for a resumption of the liberation movements. But precisely because reformist options have become so restricted, it will be very hard for collective action to generate the immediate concessions and victories that could provide momentum for a wider popular militancy.

The problems of political organization in working-class communities of the oppressed are in many ways perhaps greater today than they have ever been. But the crucial lesson to be learned from the political debacles of 1984 is two-fold. Democratic reformism has effectively and unceremoniously died. Yet, in the face of hostile media and a concerted (if often unpublicized) effort against it from within the existing Democratic power structure (white and Black, conservative and "progressive"), the Jackson campaign nonetheless succeeded in overcoming the barriers to mass reception of anti-imperialist ideas in the US. My thesis is that, if there is to be any popular left in the 1990s, it will develop in the first instance through the mobilization of the radical political propensities in the Black — and, perhaps, Hispanic — working classes. Reciprocally, the validity and popular appeal of any socialist program or strategy will depend on the degree to which it addresses the axial problem of the revolutionary–democratic struggle for equality. To do so, leftists must reject the "majoritarian" fallacy, nurtured by fellow-traveling in the Democratic Party, that all socialist politics must be cut to fit the pattern of whatever modish liberalism is in fashion or to conform with the requirements for securing "practical" Democratic pluralities. The horizon of the possible — and the necessary — is not the quixotic project of becoming a "loyal" fringe of one or another of the capitalist parties, but the fight to build an independent left politics that has real and effective social anchorage. To the extent that sections of the Democratic Party or elements of the middle strata can brought to return to more traditional liberal positions, it will only be because independent forces to their left are militant and well organized, with demands unvetted by the "realism" of consensus-building with establishment politics.

What, then, of the organized labor movement? To recognize that the Black working class is the potential cutting edge for socialism in North America does not diminish the urgency of defending the —  still overwhelmingly, white — trade-union movement. Among the central tasks of the left throughout the remainder of this decade will be to support the construction of national networks of anti-concession locals and rank-and-file activists. The first effects of the next downturn will undoubtedly be a worsening of the conditions of struggle between labor and capital. As the trade-union movement is forced into ever more desperate defensive battles, the strategic task of greatest moment is unlikely to revolve around new "qualitative" demands: it will be to defend, at all costs, the principles of egalitarianism and solidarism. Above all, the left must oppose the trend, exemplified in the fateful auto settlement of 1984, to abandon the unemployed and the inner cities in exchange for precarious security for senior (white) workers.

Furthermore, an alternative strategy will need to develop new links and alliances, from the bottom up, between trade-union groups and community/political organizations in the inner cities. Only radical protest — on a scale comparable to and utilizing the direct-action tactics of the 1960s civil rights movement — has any realistic chance of winning battles over plant closures or abating the rampant deindustrialization that has devastated areas like Eastern Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and will certainly spread to other locales with the rapidity of a modern-day plague. The crucial question will be whether struggles of unionized industrial workers to save their jobs can be united with struggles by the young jobless, and whether local unions can become broader campaigning organizations. In this regard, the British miners’ strike, which led to the creation of extraordinary networks of support between mining villages and inner-city ghettoes, is a premonitory example. But all these questions come back to the central, burning issue for the American working class as a whole: whether, through the agency of some form of activist Rainbow Coalition, a nascent trade-union left can form organic and sustained linkages with revived Black and Hispanic movements.

Another pivotal difficulty, of course, is the degree to which Blacks and Hispanics, poor citizen working class and undocumented immigrant working class, can find bases of common civic unity and action. The recent sabotage of a broad Black–Hispanic anti-Koch coalition in the New York mayoral contest by a clique of Black Democratic ward heelers typifies the kind of narrow ethnic maneuvering that will surely become more frequent in a period of declining resources and exacerbated inter-group competition for jobs and patronage. A true Rainbow Coalition would have to build largely from below, in opposition to the ethnic machines. It will have to confront the desperate competition in job markets that divides not only Blacks from Hispanics, but Hispanics from Asians, and, in the Southwest, Chicanos from Mexicanos. One of the most innovative experiments, however still provisional in scale, has been the emergence in California of political workers’ organizations of a general kind that combine strike support, community organization, union building, and left political education. But the ability of any resurgent social movement in the ghettoes, barrios, or factories to challenge the present mass property bloc of capital and the middle classes in the United States is more closely linked today than ever before to the fate of US imperialism on a world scale. If one precondition for the future of a popular left in the United States is a revived struggle for equality based on independent socialist political action, the other and equally crucial condition will be increasing solidarity between the liberation movement in Southern Africa and Latin America and movements of the Black and Hispanic communities in the USA.

The possibility for organizing mass solidarity must be one of the principal hopes of international socialism. Just as the struggles in South Africa and Central America can provide models of commitment, creativity and organization to youth in the inner cities, so could the development of a broadly based solidarity movement in the United States act as a major constraint on America intervention abroad, and a common basis for political action that crosses the color barrier which has inhibited much of the left’s political activity during the past decade. It is no disparagement of the existing anti-nuclear or anti-intervention movements to insist that the real weak link in the domestic base of American imperialism is a Black and Hispanic working class, fifty million strong. This is the nation within a nation, society within a society, that alone possesses the numerical and positional strength to undermine the American empire from within.

Ultimately, no doubt, the left in the United States will have to confront the fact that there is never likely to be an "American revolution" as classically imagined by DeLeon, Debs, or Cannon. If socialism is to arrive one day in North America, it is much more probable that it will be by virtue of a combined, hemispheric process of revolt that overlaps boundaries and interlaces movements. The long-term future of the US left will depend on its ability to become both more representative and self-organized among its own "natural" mass constituencies, and more integrally a wing of a new internationalism. It is necessary to begin to imagine more audacious projects of coordinated action and political cooperation among the popular lefts in all the countries of the Americas. We are all, finally, prisoners of the same malign "American dream."