An Independence Day Lesson for the American Left

Despite having expatriated myself with little intent of ever returning to the Land of the Free permanently, I have kept myself abreast of the American left by staying on listservs and reading American lefty periodicals online. I fled the States in September 2004, and now, nearly two years later, the left is exactly where I left it: fighting unsuccessfully against a war that a majority of the country is opposed to. In that time in my adopted country, where equality and fraternity are prized as much as liberty, the left has shut down the neo-liberal monster in two magnificent ways: once via shunning the so-called “European Consitution,” and once via scrapping the “Contrat Première Embauche (CPE),” which essentially sought to enslave young French workers the same way American college students are, wasting precious time doing menial tasks for low pay at Subway or Starbucks. This isn’t to say that all is hunky dory in France, as the place is replete with ethnic and racial tensions, and still maintains some of the most sour vestiges of old Latin civilization, including its dastardly treatment of women, its inane bureaucratic industrial complex and its absurd exam-dependent education system,. There is also a growing rightward drift felt in the ranks of the university system, as more and more little Milton Freidmans are popped out of these institutions (from Nanterre to Science Po to Sceaux) every year, so that Paris begins to reek more and more like Chicago’s Hyde Park. But despite all of this, the left here is alive and well, and the reason is this: they are firm and uncompromising, the same way the American left should be.

My last hoo-rah in the ranks of the American non-profit left was working with Peace Action, the merger of the Sane and the Freeze, two once-successful nuclear non-proliferation organizations. Despite not being part of my job description, they were trying to enlist my help for “get out the vote efforts,” as they had firmly slid into the nonsensical pits of the “Anybody But Bush: movement. The reason they took this decision was entirely un-ideological: they merely thought it would be good for fundraising. They didn’t want to risk annual income figures on being too controversial, even if it meant flinging support at a presidential candidate whose record ran completely contrary to the stated objectives of the organization. This is largely the essence of these membership organizations: they spend most of their life just staying alive, rather than fighting for the issues they pretend to care about when they pop you for your annual donation. They sell the peace product the same way that Nike sells its product: marketing a logo and an identity rather than something of practical use. It costs you forty bucks to advertise Nike’s swoosh on a baseball cap, and the same price will get you an annual membership to Peace Action, thus clearing your conscience and making you feel like a well-intentioned citizen for one year. Fabulous!

I refused to join the “Anybody But Bush” brigade, thus isolating myself from all of my hipster, “leftist” friends who were spending half of their lives doing slave work for Kerry and Co. When I would tell them that I refuse to support a staunch neo-liberal who voted for the war, and who was pledging to broaden troop involvement rather than reduce it, and that I would instead support Nader, they would nod guiltily and mutter “I hear ya..” I eventually lost out to the hipster majority in the Peace Action office, who were popular as they were more effective at selling the peace product. I was given a bad review and told that if I wanted to receive a better review the next year I should work better with others in the organization. I decided to quit instead and then jet the country.

Now in France, where free speech is appreciated, you don’t have to worry about marketing your ideology. Sure, the representation of placards and leaflets is still important, but no one worries about watering down their message in order to try to do the impossible: appeal to all segments of the population. People are different and, as such, have differing opinions and perspectives on the world. This is not a crime. As such, stating your views is an appreciated art, regardless of what they may be. I’ve had plenty of conversations with rightist French people, toting their brief case between work in La Defense and home in Boulogne everyday. Surely, they praise Sarko and his efforts to cleanse France of its problems such as diversity and social democracy. But that doesn’t mean that they verbally assault me when I tell them that I am closest in alignment to the “Ligue Communist Révolutionnaire” (LCR), a sort of post-modern Trotskyist party that is strikingly up and coming in France. It makes me different than them, but commits no crime.

When enough of a broad range of opinions congregate together on one particular issue, they can more aptly create change in this context. The social movement left, the unions, and some segments of the mainstream Parti Socialiste (PS) came together against the EU Constitution, campaigned against it, and killed it. The “yes” campaign attempted to fork out a compromise, something asinine like “vote yes now, and we will discuss the exact structure of the document later.” This was obvious bait, and no one bit. Instead, they stuck with their stated objective of killing the document.

Compare this to the states, where a peace movement rapidly developed, combining students, some unions, peace groups, and far left groups into the fastest growing peace movement in American history. These groups came together with the one common objective of stopping the war in Iraq, though there were a variety of other planks offered in addition. The Democrats, a majority of which supported the war at the time, threw out the bait of: “First let’s get Bush out of office, and then we’ll begin to discuss withdrawal after we solidify our troop presence in Iraq.” Most of the left bit the bait, and the peace movement breathed its last breath. It’s been dormant since.

There are exceptions like Cindy Sheehan, whose Camp Casey had people talking about a resurrection for a while. Furthermore, there are many spots on the internet, where leftists can wrangle on and broaden their following. But, this is small enough for the mainstream to ignore. People outside of certain areas of the country, mostly inside major coastal metropolises, don’t even notice that there’s a left at all. To this majority of the country, leftism comes in the form of Jon Stewart, a well-oiled tool of the media industrial complex rather than an ideologue of any sort. He makes money off of hating Bush, a la, Peace Action, the PIRGs, and other such lefty marketers.

The problem is that the left isn’t in your face everywhere and anywhere. When the EU constitution was voted down, France was covered in “NON!!” placards everywhere you went. Demonstrations were weekly, if not daily. No one was afraid to express their opinion no matter where they were. Some people accused them of being “anti-Europe,” the same way leftists in the states might be accused of being anti-American. But the French leftists would just respond with simple reason: “we want a good Europe, not a neoliberal Europe.” If you are going to fight for a political cause, one can’t hide in caves of fear and ignorance: you have to be in the face of the opposition and your country writ large.

This year’s successful fight against the CPE was even more dramatic: as the unions would shut down the metros and buses at least once a week, and all segments of the left would block the streets with marches of millions of people at a time. Students occupied the Sorbonne and other universities, Lycee students walked out of classes (including mine where I taught English), and some daring activists would pour out onto transit lines to stop the trains when they weren’t already on strike. France was paralyzed, and she couldn’t move forward unless someone did something. That something was to toss the bill into the dustbin of history. There was no need of a left wing president or PM for either this movement or the one against the EU Constitution. A strong left needs no friend in power, as it can succeed well enough on its own.

The American left can learn, but first it needs to get some nerve. As an organizer back at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champagne, it was like pulling teeth to enlist student support for walkouts, street closures and other forms of civil disobedience. People fear the police state and fear for their future if they are arrested. The unfortunate reality is that if something doesn’t change quickly, our collective futures will be much worse off than if we have an arrest on our record. Being imprisoned by a criminal regime is not morally incorrect. In fact, the opposite is true. It is the right of every citizen of this earth to combat the criminal government of the United States, using all means necessary, in order to prevent its continued descent into corporate dictatorship. In fact, it is not only their right, but also their duty. But don’t listen to me; take is straight from Thomas Jefferson:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

The man was an aristocrat who loved showing off his knowledge of French language and culture. He was inspired by revolutionary thought here in France, and most certainly brought this inspiration into account when writing the Declaration of Independence.

Hopefully this July 4th, people will follow in this founder’s footsteps and learn a little bit from the French and their rebellious ways.

MATT REICHEL now lives in France. He can be reached at: