Challenges facing the US Left
There is no revolution without crisis. But crisis does not necessarily lead to revolution.
Over the last months, diverse movements, rallying under the banner #BlackLivesMatter, outraged by repression and exhausted by forced isolation, have stood up to militarized cops in every U.S. state, knowing that doing so risks horrific outcomes—losing an eye to a rubber bullet or gas canister, contracting the coronavirus, even death. And yet these protests have spread globally, with massive demonstrations in dozens of cities over five continents.
This is a time for guarded optimism and bold mobilization. Caught in the moment of rebellion but constrained by a deadly pandemic as well as by the limits of present Left political capacities, we ask, How should socialists respond to these re-emerging social movements? In what spirit should we engage the unfolding debates and contests on the streets and in the voting booths?
Four strategic considerations stand out: (1) the need for coordinated mass organization; (2) new opportunities for synthesis around race and class; (3) the exposed weakness of capitalist state institutions and ideology; and (4) the fundamentally international character of the crisis.
(1) The unprecedented street rebellions against both the symbolic and coercive instruments of power outstrip the organizational capacity of movements historically active on these issues. What forms can unite this movement?
While many of these mobilizations have united around the Movement for Black Lives, the absence of any overarching national organization to connect and coordinate let alone encompass the rebellion is disturbing but by no means surprising. Within the USA, anti-capitalist and anti-racist organizations with the vision and the vigor to lead in this way—from the CPUSA of the 1930s to the Black Panther Party of the 1960s—have been relentlessly attacked by the U.S. ruling class. The sweeping character of the present uprising suggests the possibility for new leaps, but these gains must be organized, the lessons clarified and generalized. For the situation is multifaceted, and enemy forces are at work to undermine and co-opt the movement. Privately-owned, for-profit national media have amplified and framed the rebellion for their own purposes, while (neo)liberal politicians and corporations fasten upon a tightly circumscribed “anti-racism” to shore up their images and market shares.
(2) This “state of emergency” has exposed underlying social cleavages, creating an opportunity to connect longstanding grievances about racism and police violence to class realities through the lens of the mishandled COVID pandemic—which as of this writing has led to the preventable deaths of over 150,000 people in the USA, disproportionately poor, working-class, Black, and Brown.
Questions of racial inequity are increasingly understood as class questions as the concrete circumstances of age, geography, occupation, comorbidities, and healthcare access further worsen the longstanding vulnerability of indigenous, Black, and Latinx communities. This recognition has yielded principled and material grounds forchallenging the co-ruling parties of capital and white supremacy. In short, it is becoming clearer than ever that “race” inflects class position, conditioning access to the things people need to live: healthcare, food, shelter, clean water and air—none of them safe from capitalist predation.
Socialists need to support and construct initiatives that reach across ethnicities and race lines within the broad working classes—including relatively privileged layers among the professions and the so-called “middle class.” Such initiatives and network-building can support the street rebellion without ignoring the crucial electoral contests ahead. Expanded voter registration and turnout, especially among working-class, indigenous, Latinx, and Black neighborhoods, can exert popular pressure on the political process, opening terrain more favorable to the Left.
While neither ignoring nor fixating on the elections, working-class and cross-racial Left formations should deepen their ties to organized groups across the country, listen to and learn from the “essential workers” on the front lines, and fortify the extant trade union movement—particularly in public institutions, where unions often remain a significant force.
No less crucial is building the solidarity economy with its alternative institutions that directly satisfy a wide range of needs, starting with housing and food and extending to reproductive health, art, and culture. Across the globe, such initiatives are reinventing democracy and building the capacity of ordinary people for local self-organization. A socialist net must be woven and wielded to bring the ruling class down from their perch of power while shielding the working classes and oppressed from the brunt of the pandemic.
(3) We need to strategically navigate the multi-layered response of the state and of capital, exposing their spectacular repressive power and their austerity-driven refusal to address the population’s needs. At the same time, it would be a mistake either to conflate such brutality with state power itself or to underestimate the capitalist state’s capacity to respond creatively to some dimensions of the crisis. The ruling class remains able to co-opt and absorb popular energies, partly through symbolic concessions (e.g., retiring offensive public monuments) and partly through economic benefits and even structural reforms that may be necessary if U.S. capital is to survive a new era of disillusion and inter-imperialist competition.
(4) We should recognize that the pandemic arose, predictably, from ecological/economic global crises inherent to transnational capitalism whose long-time damages will exceed COVID-19 and killer cops combined. Both COVID and rising state repression transcend national frontiers, reminding us that socialism is a project not just to capture or resist one’s own nation-state but to liberate all of humanity at a moment when our very survival is in question. The same system of inequality that prioritizes border control and repression over public health and education weaponizes human rights and corrodes our planetary home itself, erecting walls to hold back populations even as the floodwaters continue to rise. And, as global public health experts have been warning for years, COVID-19 may be the harbinger of worse pandemics to come.
Taken together, these four vital considerations—the need for mass organization; the deep links between race and class; the need for a strategy to link struggles on many fronts; and the imperative of internationalism—point us toward an open, inclusive, and global convergence of oppressed communities, the broad working class, and the Left, one that is attentive to struggles to build alternatives both within and outside the existing state, to the ballot box as well as to the street.
Socialism and Democracy’s mission aligns with and seeks to contribute to such a strategic convergence—a renewed socialist movement, united across its diversity. Facing such enormous challenges, Socialism and Democracy considers it more important than ever to engage in theoretical work that “brings together the worlds of scholarship and activism, theory and practice, to generate informed analyses of the many different approaches to bringing about fundamental change.”Insofar as the meaning of modern life for many people remains deeply bound up with ethnicity and racism, socialists must listen to and learn from the Movement for Black Lives and all other uprisings among the oppressed. But insofar as the structure and direction of modern society remain determined above all by the relentlessly exploitative and ecocidal force of capitalism—with its twin imperatives of ever-higher rates of profit and ruling-class social control—the tradition of Marxism, including the “isms” of socialism and communism, remains indispensable.