Seeking Left Unity Through a Definition of Progressivism

In common usage, the distinguishing lines between what identifies a person as a liberal, progressive, “leftist” or socialist are indistinct. Some of one persuasion believe they are of another. Critics of anyone along the left of center spectrum may make good use of the imprecision to “discredit” even the mildest liberal by labeling them a socialist or communist. Here, we should include critics who nominally inhabit a left location, as well as those on the right.

Clearly, there was no ideological purity among the millions who mobilized behind the Bernie Sanders primary campaign, nevertheless, since Clinton became the nominee the DNC and the rest of the Democratic Party establishment lumped them all together as a group to be marginalized and prevented from playing any significant role in the party’s future direction.  Many Bernie supporters however, are ignoring the Party’s broad brush approach and are working at the local level trying to establish an inside, “insurgent” beachhead.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is a Democratic Socialist. That places him on the right end of a socialist continuum. He shares the general socialist political analysis that points to capitalism as the root of all societal problems—broadly subsumed under economic, social, racial and environmental injustice. Sanders’ solution, however, differs from the revolutionary socialists at the left end of the continuum. He seeks to reform the current system into a hybrid socialism/capitalism modeled after those systems extant in Western and Northern Europe, while the revolutionary socialists seek to replace capitalism entirely with an economic system run by and for the people through State or cooperative ownership of industry.

Some clarification of the labels is possible and necessary. If the labels are to have any meaning at all we should at least assert that liberals are not socialists of any sort. If we place liberals at one end of the Left spectrum, revolutionary socialists anchor the other end. Remember, as the Right has become more extreme, they have pulled the Center over with them, such that former moderates are more conservative and former liberals are more moderate, while still labeling themselves as before. Socialists are still socialists and continue to inhabit the left pole. One might visualize it as a contraction of the right political spectrum and a stretching of the left spectrum.

I moderate the Facebook page of a local progressive organization and I interact with the pages of other progressive groups. The range of positions that I observe among people who identify as “progressives” suggests there is a real constituency out there that conflates liberalism with progressivism. Without some key defining characteristics, this ultimately makes for conflict between people who believe, but do not actually share, the same points of view. Unity on the Left is imperative if we are to achieve our goals. It is not served by such avoidable discord.

In the spirit of helping people align themselves more accurately with others who share their political views, I offer the following. Some will call this a litmus test. So be it. This business is so serious and the stakes are so high that the value of knowing who our friends are from the beginning cannot be overstated. Bottom line, to be considered a progressive you must subscribe to the belief that the US political and economic systems are largely or wholly controlled by unelected wealthy and corporate interests. And that the solution to this de facto coup is, at the very least, the one proffered by Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists. One that requires a new and expanded New Deal, where corporate and individual power and influence is defanged. One where the needs of the people are put first through a mandatory living wage or guaranteed income, universal, single payer health care, true social and racial justice and permanent protection of the environment.

If the reform agenda is pursued, it must avoid the mistakes of FDR’s New Deal. It must build in mechanisms, and I assume these must be in the form of one or more constitutional amendments, to permanently prevent the re-emergence of the corporate state, the re-capturing of power by the wealthy elite. In the history of this nation capitalists have been in the driver’s seat except for a few brief periods, measurable in decades. Whenever the people, through amenable Administrations, managed to unseat the control of money, the wealthy elite bought and cheated their way back to the top. Unchecked, this natural cycle of capitalism will continue. Laws will not suffice to end this process. They can and will be changed to suit the rich. Only through constitutional amendments will any such reforms be durable.

Revolutionary socialists today in the US are far from being able to take on the 1 percent. The reform approach has legs and is our only realistic option when it comes to bringing the capitalists under popular control. Trying to reform the Democratic Party is a dead end and will only delay the inevitable, the establishment of an independent progressive/workers party. Genuine progressives should find each other and band together to build the party that will return our government to popular control.