Failure of the American Left: Iron-Fisted Co-Optation

This week, Tuesday (Dec. 15) to be exact, I was a guest on Gary Null’s WBAI/Pacifica radio show, preceded by Chris Hedges, a solid analyst and critic of the contemporary social order, to discuss the failure of American radicalism to act as as a transformative political-ideological social force in opposition to repression at home, intervention abroad. As usual, Gary’s questions prodded interviewees through his penetrating insights to launch into orbit with mini-monologues on the given topic, and Chris was superb in his portion, focusing on Woodrow Wilson’s administration, its pursuit of repayment for Morgan and other bankers’ loans to European nations threatened by German victory as reason for intervention, its Creel Committee (CPI) steady propaganda to control public opinion, and of course its suppression of radicals, notably the Wobblies, as the genesis for modern-day US antiradicalism. This is persuasive but doesn’t go far enough either on Wilson or on America.

Let me here sketch out a more long-term analysis of the problem, not in criticism of Chris, for whom surviving radicalism is in debt for whatever life it still maintains, but merely as a further take on the situation of America’s declining Left. First, one must enlarge the historical context, Wilson simply one though perhaps pivotal step in the societal process of curbing and seeking to eliminate radicalism as having legitimacy in what, after all, has been the continuity of American capitalist development from the late 18th century through the present, which has narrowed the boundaries of structural and social change stifling the rise of ALTERNATIVE formations such as socialism and a more humane political culture and system of values. This is not a deterministic formulation, but only points up the conscious functioning and furtherance of class dynamics by which ruling groups have taken control through the normalization of capitalist fundamentals of wealth-and-power accumulation in a hierarchical framework. Exploitation plays a significant role, so does a market economy, so does the Constitutional, legal, and ideological protection of the property right, so does the suppression of labor violence, so does commercial penetration increasingly taking on global dimensions, so does the military factor, whether as the spirit of militarism, naval power in action, intervention, in ensuring the realization of a closed, one-track pattern of growth confronting and dismissive of all challenges to its moral rightness.

For better or worse (and I obviously think the latter), America is locked into a Capitalist Order admitting no deviations from government servitude to its needs for security and expansion, the State invariably the handmaiden of business in its myriad forms and undertakings. Liberalism from the start encapsulates the capitalist world view, as C.B. Macpherson brought out in his seminal book, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, in which proprietorship of the self becomes the primal act of owning, then extended to all things, ownership, next to God in the ranking of beatific splendor; and as Louis Hartz also brought out, in his book, The Liberal Tradition in America, in which he argues that America never had a feudal past, that instead it was born mature, a capitalist polity from its inception, having puristic capitalist institutions of property which separated it from the premodern structures and ethos of 17th century Europe. To be born capitalist as a nation, becomes a decided historical advantage in keeping the lid on in circumscribing and circumventing radicalism, placing the burden of proof for social change and democratization always on the dissenter, the protester, the radical. (One need not consult Karl Marx on the commodity structure, declining rate of profit, and other features of capitalism to gain a clear picture of class structure, alienation, a mono-cultural ideology, and the human-authored sources of historical materialism, for the record is before us and these writers, along with a multitude of others, have shown or implied the profound depths of antiradicalism in the American mind. John Locke is not V.I. Lenin.)

Even the political economy of American slavery, the seeming exception to the central focus on capitalist institutions, as rather, instead, exemplifying premodern, or semi-feudal, institutions, turns out to be eminently capitalistic, from the standpoint of investments, markets, profits, if still not on a plane with industry and agriculture in the North. But that per se is reason enough for fighting the Civil War (thank you Charles Beard), as working toward a more unified capitalist system of production and exchange, with the commensurate infusion of racism throughout the nation, the fuller popularization of exploitation, and the confirmed supremacy of the national government free now to address the needs and problems of a business civilization. The Civil War now opens not closes a chapter in the continuous stabilization, concentration, expansion of American capitalism, with the Great Railway Strike of 1877 a preview of labor suppression to follow, the Haymarket Affair of 1886 adding radicals and radicalism to the list of undesirables, and the Pullman Strike (Lockout) of 1894, all as highlights attempting to snuff out the lights of radicalism. Labor is by no means totally beaten down as the 20th century began, but from TR through Hoover, Wilson a standout performer, it has taken its licks, withdrawn more into itself, typified by Gompers’ leadership of class accommodation, not class struggle, and seeking, as in the building trades, a respectability, akin to 100% Americanism, nullifying its radical potential in the process.

Turning, then, to Wilson, one must be reminded of two things, first, that Theodore Roosevelt before him had already brought to greater perfection the antiradical agenda in US history, pace Chris’s locus of attention, and second, Wilson did greater damage to radicalism than generally viewed, suppression being the excrescence of a policy of government-business interpenetration which solidified capitalism under State protection (the euphemism, “regulation,” turning out to be on behalf of the interests to be regulated, anticompetitive in nature to facilitate monopolism and turn the business community still more in the direction of foreign trade than did even TR). Wilson “improved” on Roosevelt, the Battleship Navy, Panama, overseas markets, in foreign policy, through a framework of liberal internationalism that Gordon Levin brilliantly explored in his Woodrow Wilson and World Politics, a course steering between traditional imperialism and revolutionary socialism, between Germany and Russia, with the tilt of greater opposition to the latter, with the Siberian Intervention, which Levin correctly sees as the inception of the Cold War lasting to this day. As for domestic policy, TR again serves as precedent (even before, we see the Interstate Commerce Commission), beating Wilson to the interpenetration-punch with his Bureau of Corporations, signaling and signifying the co-partnership of government and the House of Morgan ostensibly for regulating the banking system, and the Hepburn Act, ditto for railroads.

But, yes, Wilson deserves “credit” as more than the continuation of TR, for in key areas of the economy, regulation dwarfs in importance the suppression of labor and radicalism in defining the structural and political climate for the decline of an American Left, the levers of power now completely centered in the advancing stage of corporate and financial capitalism. Notably, the Federal Reserve System practically mandated the centralization of banking under government auspices, and the Federal Trade Commission did the same for business, resulting in the creation of the domestic foundations of monopoly capital preparatory to unilateral global ascendancy. By the 1920s labor had internalized Americanism to the hilt, the AFL ceasing to be, if it ever was, a progressive social force, so that unions, a critical component of radicalism, ceased to function as a challenge to capitalism. Did the New Deal change the basic setting of Reaction? This is for me the basic question, the answer to which puts the decline of American radicalism into historical perspective. Chris rightly pointed out that FDR boasted he had saved capitalism, yet for a brief interlude, grounded in havoc of human suffering in the Great Depression, saving capitalism had a temporary democratizing effect, which I believe Roosevelt had recognized and intended.

This was more than subterfuge or deception. On the one hand, unquestionably the National Recovery Administration (see Sidney Fine’s splendid work on the automobile industry under the NRA) strengthened monopolization through the code authorities—TR’s Bureau of Corporations updated under Hugh Johnson to bear a striking similarity to Mussolini’s corporatist measures and Nazi-organized business “fronts,” a perhaps too easily-forgotten aspect of the New Deal having proto-fascist structural consequences, yet did not dominate over nor erase the other and I think more encompassing aspect of the New Deal, the genuine reaching out to the poor, the attack on unemployment, the blossoming of political and cultural radicalism, and, in the Wagner Act, encouragement of labor to organize, with the rise of the CIO (through its efforts as well, as in the Sit-Down Strikes) the militant alternative to the craft-oriented AFL. By the end of the 1930s, this was a different ballgame, at least it seemed, for the determination of America’s future. Yet, war intervened, and as we see with A. Mitchell Palmer’s contrived Red Scare during and following World War I, the Second World War and more particularly its aftermath saw the widening of social tensions, the rollback of labor’s gains, loyalty oaths, the purging of dissent in unions and the universities, translated into an all-embracing McCarthyism, itself the symbol for a wave of anticommunism (McCarthy a logical progression from Palmer, with Martin Dies and HUAC somewhere in between) designed and intended to bludgeon working people to patriotic submission in business dominance and foreign military expansion, and therefore the historical suffocation of radicalism, a plateau reached by, say, 1960 representing not only a repudiation of societal gains made in the New Deal, but also (McCarthyism here perhaps a pivotal point) the closing of the borders of the American mind.

From Kennedy to Obama (Democratic bookends to bipartisan corporate hegemony and proto-fascist policies of aggression and counterrevolution) the grand march of militarized advanced-capitalism has continued, labor and radicalism battered in war’s aftermath now–with Kennedy-Johnson as political-structural take-off–internalizing Social Patriotism (the Vietnam war as the convenient midwife for ideological closure) as a boa-constrictor stranglehold on free thought. Nothing in today’s presidential contest surprises me, including the bold consensus operating in both parties for counterterrorism as the next stage for, or refinement of, anticommunism, as code for further submission to the privatization of human consciousness, public property, and Nature itself, and globalization as the medium and mechanism for undisputed American world supremacy, amply supported by a universalized US military presence and power, from bases to trade agreements, to alliance systems and joint maneuvers with “friends and allies,” to foreign aid embodied in weaponry, training, and advisors, to the manipulation of international bodies starting with the IMF and World Bank, to, finally, though the list might continue ad nauseam, an alacrity to proceed with covert action and regime change to keep the pot boiling at home and punish dissenting forces from US suzerainty (yet still interfering in internal affairs) abroad—all leading to the knuckling under, the overawing, of the American public, especially its labor and radical elements.

The Wilsonian Ideal, however, may prove decisive for the ideological kneecapping of labor and radicals, a stimulus in the last analysis for false consciousness in which purported opposition to the Right (Germany/traditional imperialism) provided incentive and license for, and appeared to necessitate, an anti-Left position of equal if not greater strength, resulting in a Centrism as the expression of the status quo of corporate monopoly capitalism, assuredly a false centrism which contains the existing structure of wealth and power and its militarized accompaniment gained in the present-day at the expense of the Left and to policy makers an almost nonexistent Right. Projecting ahead, we find World War II Centrism to be in opposition to the Axis Powers while simultaneously (as in delaying the opening of a Second Front, the use of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki before the Soviet Union entered the Pacific war establishing claims to the occupation of Japan, and curtailing guerrilla and/or Marxist forces in China, Greece, etc.) planning to contain Russia and even develop a slew of policies aimed at the political-economic subordination of our own allies. Centrism, then, was/is a hoax, a stalking horse for American capitalism internationally, while at home a certification of Exceptionalism and democracy in which radicalism has no place, economic and military power is used only for humane purposes, and the Right is avidly portrayed as by definition the true freedom fighters because of their assault on the Left, from Chiang Kai-shek to Pinochet to Sisi and at many points in-between.

To conclude, my segment with Gary (I don’t have a transcript, and my memory is notoriously bad) continued the discussion of the decline of American radicalism in which I emphasized the historical structuralization of repression, all points on the capitalist compass working toward the breakdown of independent volition so that, as reflected in the consistent shift rightward, one finds the internalization of values propelled from the top downward, i.e., radiating from the centers of power AND from the very nature of the political economy. One reason I place less stock in specific sources of repression, e.g., the Patriot Act, is because capitalism itself qua system manufactures repression as the condition of its existence. Structure (as in hierarchy), politics (as in fundamental agreement on the authority of upper groups), and culture (as in the cleansing of ideas to conform to a scripted ideology of closure, excluding class consciousness as demeaning to the individual) all three converge on the inculcation of loyalty to the System and its supposed betters as the natural leaders, and all three legitimate a political culture grounded in the property right as divine gospel, in both cases resulting in a vacuum of moral authority to be filled by drone assassination and whatever else cunning, devious minds contrive to ensure the continuation (quite literally) of business-as-usual, a behavioral syndrome busily engaged in fleeing from the penitentiary and/or war-crimes tribunals. Only, the culprits never seem to get caught, and instead get elected to higher office or occupy a corner suite at Morgan, Chase.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at