Leftist action and analysis are most needed now that capitalism is beset by many crises.
But clarity of thought and revolutionary discipline are often lacking.
The U.S. has entered a dark period. Economic crisis wracks its capitalist system. Military instability and chaos reign supreme over its imperialist ventures. Political illegitimacy worsens by the year, at times by the month. These conditions sound favorable to the growth of revolutionary possibilities within the citadel of imperialism.
But such is not the case at the moment. Discipline and organization are at perhaps their weakest point in generations. Young people are moving toward socialist politics. However, a similar number of people have embraced the politics of a U.S.-led New Cold War against Russia and China which seek to destroy any alternative to imperialism. Little clarity has been developed on the question of what socialism would look like in the United States, an obvious indication that a century of Red Scare politics has made a decisive impact on the political direction of the so-called Left.
Add to this a global pandemic which has deepened the isolation of an already alienating social order and the recipe for confusion is ready to serve. Moments of retreat breed reaction. Organizations splinter. The actions of singular figures disappoint and frustrate grassroots activity. Mindless entertainment, click-bait, and partisan trends dominate the ideological landscape.
This isn’t a condition primarily of our own doing as neoliberalism would have us believe. The masses of people are not sabotaging themselves, and when they are, it isn’t the principal contradiction. State infiltration and the repression leveled upon us by the dominant class is first and foremost responsible for the sickness of the American Left. Anti-communist and COINTELPRO operations did not die with the end of the Cold War. Their legacy of dismembering the American Left remains; and perhaps more importantly, the counterinsurgency war that primarily targeted organized leftist formations has been mainstreamed to the entire population as a mechanism of social control.
Under such an arrangement, fascism festers and grows. People seek out “tradition” and embrace the old to sooth their fears about the present and the future. American patriotism, democratic socialism, American exceptionalism, and a host of outmoded ideas have taken firm hold of political discourse. All of them are manifestations of a hyper-partisan environment where bourgeois elections and corporate algorithms set the parameters of debate. And all of them facilitate some form of retreat into the ideological jaws of one side of the ruling class or another.
Moments of retreat call for the development of an even higher level of revolutionary discipline under difficult material conditions. In Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder , Vladimir Lenin answered the question of how such disciplined is tested:
First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian [emphasis mine] masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, [emphasis mine] that they are correct.
In summary, revolutionary discipline in part means building organizations and linking with the masses of people in all of our political work. We must demonstrate to the masses of people in word and in deed that socialist and anti-imperialist leadership is the correct path. Independent journalists and media activists have a particularly daunting terrain to navigate in fulfilling this duty to the masses. Amid the unprecedented monopolization of both news and social media, leftists and socialists involved in media work face isolation, censorship, and a chronic deficit in resources. Entire media outlets have been removed or suppressed in the name of warding off Russia and China, and those that remain face the difficult choice of walking a path of marginality or the darker road of corporate cannibalism for increased visibility.
Duopoly politics thrive and even take on newly disguised forms under these wretched conditions. The American Left’s sickness can be largely credited to its capture within the Democratic Party. Successive Democratic Party administrations have corralled the American Left into supporting war, so long as it is pursued by a Democrat. Democratic Party-led austerity is fine, too, under the same conditions. Racism, a key struggle for any force that calls itself the Left, has nearly lost all meaning amid Democratic Party hypocrisy. Democrats have co-opted “Black Lives Matter” on the one hand while championing Joe Biden and his diligent leadership in building the racist mass incarceration regime on the other.
Democratic Party bankruptcy has strengthened the ideological hand of the other side of the duopoly, the GOP. GOP politicians have been able to flank to the left of the Democrats on issues of war and censorship. Donald Trump and others in his camp have flirted with calling the GOP a “working class” political party. The GOP remains a corporate party, but the lack of a socialist alternative has meant that its hard right ideology has been influential on the Left. This is evident in a number issues, most prominently the crusade against “identity politics” and online censorship in the name of Russiagate.
Make no mistake, the Democratic Party and many liberals indeed support censorship and a corporate-brand of “identity politics” that favors representation over substantive policy that benefits the working class. However, the GOP and its Trump-led faction has no interest in the working class or “freedom of speech.” Tepid support for Julian Assange and a reduction in weapons transfers to Ukraine among figures like Marjorie Taylor-Greene occur in a political environment where bipartisan support for war and censorship renders minority opposition in Washington of little consequence. Greene has no accountability to the masses of people. While the Left should support this kind of opposition, it shouldn’t come at the expense of an independent political orientation that differentiates socialist politics from duopoly politics.
Any strategic elevation of opposition to war and censorship within the duopoly (if any such thing exists) must also include an explanation for how a genuine political Left represents a more favorable alternative to working class people. Take the following example. Liberal “identity politics” are indeed an impediment to revolutionary organizing, but so too is the ongoing presence of actually existing racism. Racial disparities at all levels of U.S. society from incarceration , policing , wages, and wealth are genuine problems for the working class, not merely “woke” talking points. Class war is the real war, but it isn’t a monolith. Racism, sexism and other social relations deemed “identity politics” are class struggle issues and can’t be simply ignored by a left that claims to be accountable to the people.
Pitting class against any other aspect of exploitation under U.S. imperialism does nothing to combat liberal “identity politics” or academic-laden “intersectionality.” Ideologies such as American patriotism cannot be divorced from their class roots in the oppressive material foundations of colonialism and capitalism. Our hatred of liberalism should lead us to revolutionary socialism, not some disorganized and disoriented amalgamation of Left and bourgeois politics Working class people are not simply victims or champions of ideological programming. They are people who live within the most propagandized capitalist and imperialist order to date, one with centuries of two-party corporate rule.
That means our work, as Lenin suggested, is manyfold. We must demonstrate the correctness of our ideas in the practice of struggling alongside the people willing to take risks to improve their lives toward the ultimate goal of revolution. We must not shy away from difficult conversations while being careful not to further class divides. We must, as Mao Zedong taught us , learn by doing and do by learning.
Study and action. Action and study. That is the dialectic of revolutionary change. Anyone who calls themselves the Left should understand the importance of conducting both of these activities independently of the ruling class’s duopoly political system and all of its hirelings. It doesn’t matter how independent or attractive their words may sound. Our task is to build a movement strong enough to seize ruptures in ruling class unity, not tailgate them.
The path to recovery for the American Left resides in the healing qualities of solidarity and political education. Moments of retreat call for winter soldiers trained and hardened by deep experience and study. Independent media of the leftist variety should not choose momentary popularity at the beat of corporate algorithms or waves of political reaction. We find working class unity by coming together around common causes. Many such causes exist. Majorities of people support healthcare for all, a living wage, student loan cancellation, and a host of other socialist policies .
We can come together on all of this and take necessary advances when the opportunity strikes. That is what is meant by the word vanguard. Socialists don’t take up the rear and push reactionary politics forward. We get out in front, carefully explaining and demonstrating why the current social order is no longer governable or worth holding onto. It is thus possible to push forward class solidarity and fight institutional racism or any other malady of capitalism just as its possible to be an anti-imperialist and a socialist while opposing American patriotism. Anyone who says differently is less interested in leftism than in branding exercises that bolster personalities, not movements.