From the streets of Ferguson to the halls of Congress: U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO). Here she speaks at a 2020 campaign rally. Photo News 247, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By Max Elbaum
This is the second in a series of columns looking at Left strategy today. Key to Strategy #1 focused on the first component of Sun Tzu’s dictum that to prevail in battle it is necessary to “know the enemy and know yourself.” This installment tackles the “know yourself” challenge.
Social justice movements and the Left have grown by orders of magnitude in size and political sophistication since 2015. That explosive growth has given leftists tremendous hope. It’s punched a big hole in “always-on-the-margins” thinking and pushed radicals to set our sights on operating “at scale.” These are huge assets as we confront the challenges of a moment characterized by deep racial, economic, and environmental crises and intense political polarization.
Yet along with that boost, such rapid progress can spur magical thinking about our strength relative to the forces arrayed against us. Judged in comparison to the Left’s clout during the 40 years that preceded 2015, we are doing great. But we remain weak in comparison to the MAGA bloc that has turned the Republican Party into a white nationalist-driven “party for dictatorship.” And we do not match the institutional strength and mass following of the power-brokers anchored in and around the Democratic Party leadership.
The potential to gain further ground relative to these other actors is very real. But following several years in which longstanding arrangements and ways of thinking were rapidly upended, U.S. politics are taking shape as a kind of “trench warfare.” Further Left growth is unlikely to take the same forms it did during Bernie Sanders’ breakthrough campaigns or the 2020 uprising to defend Black lives. The hard slog ahead will require a focused, in-it-for-the-long-haul strategy for gaining power and greater alignment among the most dynamic groups that have been formed or grown rapidly in recent years. We will need big advances in our organizational capacity, and deeper roots in working-class and people of color communities.
To make the breakthroughs we require, it is necessary to conduct a frank inventory of where we are now.
BIG ADVANCE: A FOCUS ON POLITICAL POWER
On the level of vision, today’s U.S. Left is on more advanced ground than it was six years ago. For the first time in decades, elaborating a strategy to win a chunk of political power is a central feature of the discussions and debates that shape what social justice forces actually do.
Ideas about how to achieve political power have always been a feature of Left conversation. But since the 1960s upsurge ebbed, gaining power has been only an abstract or theoretical question for partisans of social justice and transformative change. Radicals have participated in and made big contributions to important struggles. But these have been either defensive or, when they have pushed things forward, were protest movements pressing those who held power to concede to popular demands.
The fundamental reason for this lay in the conditions the Left operated within. The successful backlash against the gains of the 1960s – globally as well as within the U.S. – closed off avenues for the Left to engage in any serious fight for political power. The deeply unfavorable balance of forces exerted great pressure on every radical formation to narrow its political horizons. (Or to become what Marx called “socialist sects” where the goal of “seizing power” is kept alive in internal culture and propaganda but has little to do with the groups’ practical organizing.)
In 2015-2016, conditions changed. The consequences of the 2008 financial crisis and the “Great Recession,” and the reaction of racially anxious whites to the demographic changes symbolized by the election of the first Black President, produced two political explosions.
On the right, the groundwork laid by the Tea Party, birtherism, and 40 years of backlash led to a right-wing populist insurgency that catapulted Trump to the GOP presidential nomination. On the Left, Bernie Sanders’ campaign became the vehicle for an outpouring of radical energy and mass discontent, building on ground laid by Occupy, Black Lives Matter, climate justice protests, and teachers’ strikes, as well as numerous local and state community organizing efforts that had been under the radar for the previous decade.
These explosions resulted in Trump winning the presidency and Bernie coming much closer to winning the Democratic nomination than anyone had expected. The combination upended previous thinking on the Left. The policies Trump pursued from day one showed that at pivotal moments it mattered a great deal which of the two major blocs/parties held governmental power. Bernie’s achievement indicated that the Left not only could contend on the national stage, but if we played our cards right, we might grab some power for ourselves.
BLOCK THE RIGHT, WIN GOVERNING POWER
Four years of Trumpism in the White House, the 2018 and 2020 elections, and January 6 and its aftermath have underscored these points and pushed Left discussion further.
The MAGA authoritarians have consolidated their takeover of the GOP and dug in to cover up the roots – and even the existence – of Trump’s January 6 coup attempt. The “big lie” that Trump won in 2020 is now a litmus test of party loyalty and the justification for full embrace of a suppress-votes-and-steal-elections strategy. The urgency of preventing the MAGA bloc from controlling either house of Congress and/or the White House is now all but universally acknowledged.
Key developments on the other end of the spectrum include the election of AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley to Congress in 2018 and expansion of The Squad with the victories of Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman in 2020; the growth and political tightening up of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; the achievements and growth of power-building formations in Florida, Virginia, and other states; the role of social justice forces in 2020 battleground states and especially the Georgia Senate run-offs; and the fact that key elements of Biden’s domestic program are both very popular and a break with the “old orthodoxy” of neoliberalism. These and other factors have underscored the ways progressive electoral engagement can affect national politics, shift the dynamic within the Democratic Party, and expand the grassroots base of the Left.
This has resulted in more radical organizations moving the idea of fighting for “governing power” at the municipal, state, and federal levels central to their strategic thinking. The electoral abstentionism that accompanied a Left whose main activity was mobilizing protests and issuing propaganda has diminished influence. It is being replaced by a push for social justice groups to use electoral campaigns to bring previously “siloed” movements together, reach out to win majority support, and fight to win. As they engage with electoral work, these groups synergize it with mass action (strikes, demonstrations etc.) and with ambitious communications strategies to “change the narrative.” They link election campaigns with sustained efforts to revitalize civil society organizations – the labor movement and community groups of various kinds – that bring people together who share conditions of life across political and sociological divides.
The bulk of those taking this course have also decided that most of their electoral efforts will involve fighting on Democratic Party terrain. A wide spectrum of views exists on what that means and what the medium-term goal of those fights should be. At one end are perspectives that oppose any involvement in Democratic Party affairs or structures beyond running Left candidates in primaries to win the Democratic ballot line. Some but not all advocates of this view accept the idea that they need to vote for even backward Democrats to keep the MAGA bloc out of power.
A larger number of progressives, including Bernie, advocate an across-the-board effort to win maximum influence within and eventually control of official Democratic Party structures. And they – along with others still agnostic on how exactly to deal with the Democratic Party – stress that being in the forefront of electoral, election-protection, and non-electoral efforts to defeat the GOP is not only necessary to protect hard-won democratic space but crucial to winning the confidence of key constituencies and building the independent strength of the social justice trend.
“UNRIG A RIGGED SYSTEM”
Most throwing themselves into electoral engagement are aware of its limits. Maurice Mitchell, leader of the Working Families Party, frequently describes the challenge facing the Left this way:
“We need to get enough power within a rigged system to unrig it.”
Mitchell and others point to the racist and undemocratic nature of key structures of the U.S. state such as the Senate and Electoral College. The same applies to bodies such as ICE, police departments and the prison system.
These structures must all be abolished and replaced with different structures if popular power is to be secure. They cannot simply be taken over and used differently. But as longtime organizer and Executive Director of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression Frank Chapman says, “You can’t abolish unless you first control.”
The fight for governing power is, among other things, a crucial component of gaining the control needed to accomplish the Left’s abolish-and-replace tasks. Putting that idea in classical Marxist terms means noting that “governing power” is not the same as “state power.” But it is a necessary step in that direction.
STRONG STATES CAN’T BE TAKEN SOLELY FROM OUTSIDE
No one on the Left has figured out how to win governing power, much less how a combination of electoral victory and “outside” fighting capacity could capture state power. But the probing discussion that is now underway is more advanced than the U.S. Left’s conversation the last time a new radical cohort thought a path to power was on the near-term agenda.
That round was the late 1960s/early ’70s upsurge which produced my generation of revolutionaries. The victories of national liberation revolutions and the “Road of October” (Russia in 1917) led us to think states could be overthrown purely from “outside.” And right here in the U.S. it seemed for a brief but intense moment that elections were considered obsolete not just by radicals but by millions, especially youth. Most of us were not ideologically anti-electoral: how could we be given the influence on us of the voting rights struggle and Mississippi Summer? But most of the ’60s revolutionary generation embraced strategies in which electoral engagement was at most a minor tactical option while the “real” struggle took place outside it.
Experience across the globe since then has shown that only states that have near-zero mass legitimacy and a fragile social base (mainly client states imposed by a foreign power) can be overthrown purely from outside. States that have functional electoral systems – even if those function badly – have proved capable of navigating major crises without being toppled.
No successful socialist transformation has occurred in any such country. No part of the Left can claim to have “the answer” to the question of how to take power. But strong evidence indicates that it will take a combination of winning significant governing power and building deeply rooted and combative mass-based forms outside of state structures to win consistent democracy and social transformation.
THE UPRISING AND THE CENTRALITY OF RACIAL JUSTICE
The uprising in defense of Black lives following the murder of George Floyd has led to the other major advance in U.S. radical thinking. The uprising thrust the fight for racial justice and the pivotal role of the Black Freedom Movement into the center of the conversation about transformative strategies. It aligned the present activist generation with a dynamic central to U.S. politics since 1619.
Before the uprising, the cycle of radicalization that got the most media attention began with the 2008 financial crisis and Occupy and was mainly driven by the economic squeeze. The numerically largest layer in this radicalization – educated young whites – had been led to expect fulfilling careers and a bright economic future. Instead, they faced mountains of student debt and job prospects circumscribed by austerity and the “gig economy.”
Black Lives Matter was in the mix, part of a radicalization process more rooted in communities of color that kicked off after Hurricane Katrina and moved through the massive 2006 immigrant rights demonstrations to Ferguson and beyond. But the Black Freedom Movement did not yet manifest a level of social power comparable to its role in the 1960s or in the 1980s Rainbow Coalition resistance to Reaganism. And too much of the self-described socialist Left and too many prominent white progressives did not fully appreciate its importance, or the increasingly significant role being played by radical circles rooted in Indigenous resistance and Latinx, Asian American, and Arab American communities. The shortcomings of Bernie’s 2016 campaign in addressing racial justice was only the most visible reflection of this weakness.
The uprising caused a sea-change. It reminded everyone (not just the Left) that the fight for racial justice – and against anti-Blackness in particular – was a central component of the fights for democracy and radical change. Indeed, in 400 years of U.S. history it has frequently been those struggles’ driving force.
An outpouring of scholarship on the deep interconnection between white supremacy and the development of U.S. capitalism, and a torrent of newspaper, film and television attention to events and themes previously off-limits, has reshaped the national conversation about race. The right-wing assault on the New York Times 1619 Project – and now the hysteria over schools teaching “critical race theory” – indicates the potential impact of this shift. But it is the uprising that showed – to put it in old-school terms – the potential power of ideas when they become a material force among millions.
Not every sector of the Left has sufficiently incorporated these realities into their strategic thinking. And no part of the social justice movement has solved the problem of building a durable multi-racial bloc for radical democracy and social transformation. But post-uprising, the Left conversation about how to do that has been catapulted forward.
INTERNATIONALISM, CLIMATE CHANGE
Unfortunately, the strategic conversation in the social justice eco-system lags on the equally urgent challenge of combating war, militarism, and imperial bullying. Yet internationalism is especially important at a moment when the Biden administration is adopting many welcome policies on “domestic” issues while doing all it can to shore up U.S. global hegemony and block the rise of any potential rival. (Read: Target China.) There has been some creative thinking on the Left on how to move forward (pieces by Phyllis Bennis and Van Gosse/Bill Fletcher Jr.) but we have a huge distance to travel before a movement that is making major gains on “domestic” issues effectively integrates peace and anti-militarist programs into its efforts.
There is a more widespread appreciation on the Left of the danger of climate change, a reality which in Naomi Klein’s words, “changes everything.” But alignment on strategies that effectively address the difference in pace between climate change (time is running out) and power-building (arduous and slow) is yet to be developed. The potential for progress, however, is indicated by the recent advances in climate justice activism – the rooted work led by indigenous peoples which has led to important victories, and the creative campaign that has catapulted the idea of a Green New Deal into the mainstream.
CONVERGENCE, BUT A LONG WAYS TO GO
Accompanying these advances in Left conversations about strategy has been a growing convergence of formations from different sectors around a few key points. Many of the social justice groups that threw down to beat Trump and the GOP at the ballot box in 2020 shared a common view of Trumpism as an extreme danger, race and racism at the pivot of the country’s current polarization, and the need to engage electorally not just to beat the right but to contend for governing power. Coordinating their electoral efforts through vehicles such as United Against Trump, The Frontline, Win Justice, and various state tables deepened this agreement and strengthened practical ties. The broad consultations over messaging and tactics among an even broader range of forces to protect the results was also a promising step forward.
But coordinating efforts in one specific campaign is a long way from joining together in a coalition or single formation united on a strategy for sustained work across different states and numerous election cycles. And while some organizations are larger or more influential than others, no single group in the social justice eco-system has the combination of a compelling strategy and sufficient social weight to bring most others into its orbit. Even common vehicles for organizing strategic debate in a way that makes it more systematic and more accessible are not yet in place.
The problems this creates for the Left are underscored by comparison to the level of strategic clarity and coordination that characterize our opponents. The MAGA movement is pursuing a clear strategy to gain political power and it is united behind a single center (talking points from Mar-a-Lago are spread to millions within hours). The Democratic High Command is less monolithic, and though it is shedding neoliberalism it has not yet formulated a clear alternative model. And even if we on the Left believe its strategy is not adequate to either soundly defeat the GOP or satisfy the demands and aspirations of the anti-Trumpist majority, the Biden-Schumer-Pelosi bloc is operating in far more unified fashion than the progressive movement which is challenging it.
In short, our strategic thinking and degree of coordination have advanced substantially since 2015, and the “progressive wing” is now a player in national politics. But even on the level of vision and unity we trail our opponents.
We lag even further behind our opponents in terms of institutional strength, organizational capacity, influence within government, and the size of our mass base. An attempt to “know ourselves” regarding those key components of contending for power will be the focus of the next column in this series.