I am not Christ or a philanthropist, old lady, I am all the contrary of a Christ…. I fight for the things I believe in, with all the weapons at my disposal and try to leave the other man dead so that I don’t get nailed to a cross or any other place.
— Che Guevara
For the purposes of this article, the “New left” is defined as a genuine group, party, or organization in the United States (US) that promotes Marxist revolutionary, Socialist principles in opposition to the Capitalist US government construct and society. This does not include anarchists, Democrats or independents. Also, the “Old Left” is celebrated as that great agitator and loosely revolutionary composite of unions, parties, and individuals, that historically brought us much needed reform from the 1900’s to the 1950’s. More in tune with this article is the contributions that the “New Left” provided through the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement in the US along with the grassroots led social movement that gripped much of Europe during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Unfortunately, those days are long past us and in its stead we have the neo-liberal establishment whose intentions are in no way revolutionary or even reformist in any meaningful way. The intent of this article, while I intend to point to the Social Democratic failures and the leftist media’s reformist attitude, is to identify the remaining groups that continue to agitate for a socialist state, society and monetary system that is dedicated to a Socialist state, just society and wealth distribution through politics leading to a welfare state even while I largely criticize their failed agenda.
The primary purpose is to identify the groups and any influence these groups have on domestic politics in the US and hence their chances of survival and performance inside and outside of US elections. Regardless of the multitude of self-proclaimed leftists, communists, and socialists who claim to carry the banner of the left, do any of these individuals and splintered groups exert an influence on the US political scene, US state and society. Are they leading us to a socialist state through reform? More importantly, does the US have any radical group, party, or even leftist armed militia that can be successful or even useful in leading the way to a socialist state? The question begs do any of these above elements matter in US and is there a Left, left in the US.
The Old Left.
Certainly there are numerous parties, alternative media outlets, or groups of people who claim to be the standard bearer of the Left in the US today. Yet, while their influence is minimal, the Old Left had great success. With support from Unions, parties like the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), The Socialist Party of the United States (SPUSA) or the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) have lived a long tradition of agitation that culminated in the election of 1912 where Eugene Debs, the socialist candidate, garnered 6% of the popular vote and in 1920, while in prison attained 3.5% of the popular vote. Never since this anomaly has any socialist candidate ever achieved such attention and support. These were different times. While the communists in Russia were transforming a feudal society into a statist workers society with revolution, the repercussions were felt worldwide to varying degrees. These events spread across the world and influenced even the most stalwart of conservative governments in most corners of the world. The world seemed ripe for revolution across continents and while the world celebrated an economic boom even the most conservative elements of high society dabbled in leftist politics. However, the most conservative and moneyed interests of the US were determined to break this movement in the US and its possessions. Debs died in 1926 after serving time in prison for his beliefs and activities and saw his revolutionary party split into the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a reformist, moderate party that never gained the popularity needed to lead the left to a victory. Eugene Debs reigned over the most leftist movement in US history. This has never been duplicated.
In the 1930’s, the Socialist Movement had splintered into many competing groups but it was the unions and the Communist Party that came forward calling for worker’s rights. However, there was another split that divided the Communist party and created the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in an obvious attempt to distance themselves from the communist party and its perceived radical reputation. The stigma that was attached to the Communist party came from a “Red Scare” with help from propaganda attacks from the US government and wealthy industrial owners. The left in the US was divided into smaller and smaller groups. The great depression had brought many people into the cities looking for work and the unions had trouble recruiting members. Yet, despite the divisions, the unions and the parties throughout the 1930’s were eventually able to gain better pay, shorter working hours, establish child labor laws, and win the right to organize in many places across the country, especially in the south. The burgeoning textile industry was a battleground unlike any other in US history as workers fought with their lives to move the plants and their owners into a new age of labor reform. While the credit for these reforms was ultimately attributed to the Social Democrats and Unions, it was clearly the acceptance of the violent revolutionary stance, organization of workers, and actions of the Communist party that was behind the success. Their creation of The National Textile Workers Union was a short lived experiment but the action of the communist party was ultimately successful in gaining extensive rights for workers.
The second “Red Scare” came in the 1950’s as the US government embraced McCarthyism, named after Joseph McCarthy, Senator from Wisconsin. This movement was initiated by an irrational fear that there were communist agents and traitors in the government and Hollywood and indeed across all of the US. Proponents of McCarthyism claimed that the CPUSA was so under the influence of Moscow that they were a virtual arm of the Soviet state. The Government set up trials that resulted in political repression such as unsubstantiated accusations, loss of jobs, demagogic attacks, and even prison terms for citizens. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested and executed as spies for the Soviet Union in 1953.
Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, through unprecedented spying, provided lists of suspected communists and the House Un-American Activities Committee accused and convicted those called before the committee without evidence but with threats, innuendo and gossip. This anticommunist activity was damaging to all levels of US society and its repercussions were seen for generations to come. When the Korean War broke out there was no doubt that the government saw the left and particularly communism as a real threat. No reforms were forthcoming and the left went into hiding.
The New Left
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, a new left emerged with the Johnson administration’s “Great Society” and the extreme student protests and leftist violent activities in Europe. The “Great Society” was an extension of FDR’s “New Deal” and JFK’s stalled initiatives. The European New Left was born out of rejection of the WWII values. Indeed, all across the world, especially Europe, saw a return to a leftist energy that culminated in some social reforms, student rights recognition and a new kind of protest —armed protest. This new generation of young adults rejected the conservatism of their parents and the previous old liberal establishment and created a worldwide movement toward the New left which demanded a new wave of social, political and economic life.
In the US, the Vietnam War rallied protestors against the imperialist state while the tragedy at Kent State showed the extremes to which the previous generation was willing to resort in order to keep their outmoded values intact. The Civil Rights Movement was a monumental effort resulting from a new resistance that solidified the new reforms. The old Jim Crow laws were attacked as racism became a national war cry and eventually created debate and legislation. Reforms such as The Voting Rights Act, The Civil Rights Acts, and the Economic Opportunity Act that declared war on poverty were triumphs for the New left. Despite the growing opposition, the War in Vietnam continued as the government continued its proxy wars against communism. While the Vietnam War ended, the “Great Society” and its achievements simply vanished as Nixon was elected President and promised a return to the old mores and a state which valued law and order. Yet, the New Left in the US had been highly successful with reforms and any stated return to the 1950s society was mere hyperbole.
It’s important to iterate on the events in Europe and elsewhere during this New Leftist emergence. Not only did old Europe experience a new left movement but it was more revolutionary and anarchist than reformist in nature and hence the violence that ensued is important to recall. The New Left in Europe, especially Germany and France, came to the conclusion to shake off the old left by embracing Maoist, Trotskyist, and anarchist principles. While the Civil Rights movement was happening in the US, the European socialists embraced a more extreme diversion from the old left. In France, riots broke out in 1968 while the Red Army Faction (RAF) was forming in Germany. The old left had embraced a reformist attitude, turned their backs on the next generation, and changed into a weak Social Democratic party. The new generation of students and intellectuals saw this as a retreat and surrender to the right-wing government exemplified by the election of De Gaulle. The RAF or Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Cells were motivated by feminist, racist and anti-imperialist politics and they attacked with bank robberies, shootings and bombings. These loosely attached groups are held responsible for hundreds of murders. Yet, they enjoyed the popularity that the Irish Republican Army had in Catholic Ireland and in England as they attacked the illegitimate Monarchial state and its army of repression in England. The German and French revolutionary cells denounced the “Nazi” generation and were born in the post-colonial era in Europe. They were influenced by the new and successful revolutionary and violent approach to change by figures such as Mao Zadong, Che Guevara, and Ho Chi Minh. The groups received much public support, especially from students, workers and intellectuals such as Jürgen Habermas, Herbert Marcuse, and Oskar Negt. Even the most famous of the existentialist philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, gave his support to the revolutionary tactics by visiting Andreas Baader and speaking on his behalf. These violent and revolutionary cells survived until 1998 when a letter reached Reuters announcing the dissolution of the RAF.
The reason I include this short biography of the European New Left is in order to compare and contrast the New Left of the US, which was a reformist, non-violent movement with the activities and philosophy of the European New Left. There can be no doubt that while the French and German New Left embraced Che Guevara, Mao Zadong and Ho Chi Minh and adopted the method of revolutionary, violent struggle, the US New Left adopted a program of weak reformism. This is our legacy. While the reforms of the Great Society and the Civil Rights Movement were laudable, there have been no such reforms or even a viable leftist opposition to the government since the 1960’s and 1970’s. There were viable revolutionary groups in the US such as the Black Panthers and The Weather Underground. But they never achieved the public support and intellectual promise that the European New Left enjoyed.
Neoliberalism and the Need for Violent Resistance
And, here is the problem with any US socialist, communist, or unionist cause or party. As I will lie out below, reformism does not work in the US. Only revolutionary politics can change such a government behemoth that pretends to offer change through a two-party system which we all recognize as the uni-party, duopoly, or oligarchy. There are many successes by socialists. The Cuban Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Greece, and Venezuela are examples. But, Socialism will never succeed in the US without the fire of Che Guevara and the wisdom of Mao Zedong or the persistence of Ho Chi Minh. I know of not one Left-wing armed militia in the US today. All the while, right-wing armed militias are growing and with the support of the government. Recently, in the Ferguson protests, while the people filled the streets in righteous indignation of police and state murder and abuse, armed right-wing militias gathered on the rooftops with their AR-15s aimed at the protesters in support of the official, government, police thugs.
While non-violent protests won the day in the Civil Rights Movement, never will this government, this state, this populace, ever become a socialist entity without violence. The ultra-right and its minions eliminated our reformers. JFK, RFK, Dr. King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X were murdered and we did nothing but retreat into a neoliberal imperialist state just as the ruling class wanted. Also, we are a heterogeneous society, diverse, and multi-cultural unlike the homogeneous cultures in Scandinavia who enjoy a socialist state after hundreds and hundreds of years of assimilation. The divisions in the US are a result of a young, immature state, multiculturalism, and propaganda by the state mass media which continues to remind us of the divisions and frighten us with stories of threats from within and without.
The Socialist Press
There are many news outlets, parties and unions in the US which claim to be socialist and I cannot deny them that. Many of them do good work and inform us of the lies our government peddles. They do good work in calling attention to the imperialism of the US state, the duplicity of politicians, and the US crimes abroad. Yet, many are more anti-US than anti-Capitalism. Some are more indignant than effectual. Also, some are more divisive than inclusive. The very magnitude of their existence, the history of their failures, and their separation from each other reduce the opportunity of a genuine socialist party emerging in the US. Much of the socialist press and their messages are clouded with such diversions as animal rights, Vegan proclamations, international conspiracy, celebrity gossip, and the insistence that voting for the Democrat du Jour is a duty. All of these topics are respectable and deserve to be uncovered and debated. But, the message that we need to build a socialist front from amongst these devoted outlets is sadly missing. There is never a call to arms. There is never a message to put aside our differences and build one socialist party that can challenge the uni-party. While I have no doubt that these parties and news outlets are genuine in their beliefs, they are missing the most important point. They are competing instead of cooperating. Hasn’t that always been the problem with socialism? Divide and divide until there is no common value. I can only wonder what Jack Reed endured in the 1920s as he attempted in vain to consolidate the various communist factions in his struggle to inform the workers of their need to end the infighting and fight the real enemy: Capitalism. These divisions are just what the ruling class depends on day after day.
The Socialist Parties
In the US there is the Communist Party USA, The Socialist Workers Party, The Socialist Party USA, The Party for Socialism and Liberation, Workers World Party, The Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), Democratic Workers Party, Socialist Action, Marxist Workers Party, Workers Party USA, and on and on until I couldn’t count them. There are scores of self-proclaimed socialists, countless ineffectual unions, and hundreds of news outlets that claim to be the one genuine party or group that represent socialists. There are so-called, loose local and state socialist parties that gather like book clubs with an agenda of achieving nothing more than the right to smoke Marijuana. While each entity brings a value to the table, the socialist message gets multiplied and splintered until the movement means nothing. When multiple meanings get piled upon one word, the word becomes meaningless. While trying to mean everything it means nothing. As these multitudes of groups seem to be a triumph for the US leftist population, not one socialist is represented in any state legislature or the US Congress. Some parties claim to have 1000 members. Other parties can count 50 members if they are lucky. When put all together, they may represent a significant population of the US. But they are divided by the same cause.
As for now, we have no Che. We have neither Mao nor Ho Chi Minh. We only have each other and until a person or a consolidated party emerges we will continue to be nothing but insignificant to the US political process. We need more than incremental reform that is devised to benefit the ruling class while placating the neoliberal interests in this country. We need revolution.
I often wonder what Che Guevara would think of this world if he were alive and active today. Would he succumb to the crumbs left behind by the ruling class? Would he hang up his Kalashnikov and enjoy the adoration of the world? I can’t imagine Che doing any such things. I like to think he would fight the good fight wherever it exists, especially in the US. And, I have no doubt that many would follow him. I would.
JP Miller is a writer and journalist who has published political non-fiction and fiction in The Greanville Post, Cyrano’s Journal, Pravda, Countercurrents, New Politics, The Literary Yard, The Southern Cross Review and PIF Magazine among others. He is a disabled veteran who lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina beside the Atlantic Ocean.