Leftists and Popular Movements

There are a number of reasons why some of those who are left of center in the United States have not yet decided to support the Ralph Nader/Winona LaDuke Green Party independent Presidential campaign. Some have the usual “lesser of two evils” arguments, with the fear of Attila the Hun-like Supreme Court nominations often being at the top of the list. Others have problems with Nader because he has a poor track record when it comes to speaking out in the past on certain issues; e.g., police brutality, affirmative action, reproductive rights, lesbian/gay rights and peace issues. Although he is now speaking to them during his Green Party Presidential campaign, some activists still question the depth of his commitment to “doing the right thing” on these issues.

Then there are those who don’t support Nader because he’s not a socialist, or is not radical enough.

At the risk of offending some friends, I have to take issue with those in this latter category. I think that this approach is reflective of a larger problem among some sections of the political Left.

Why has the Left in this country been so relatively small and ineffective? There are many reasons, among them: the strength of individualism and competitive ideology, racism and racial divisions, a winner-take-all electoral system, a population with a large percentage of middle-income people, and repression and/or cooption of union organizing efforts, anti-racist activism and leftists. Also significant, however, has been a long history of sectarianism and “correct-lineism.”

Too many leftists have not grasped one of the most fundamental, most basic lessons from history when it comes to major social transformation:
masses of people in motion make history. Relatively small groups of organizers, no matter how dedicated or skillful, cannot by themselves overturn structures of injustice and oppression.

Our role as organizers, more than anything else, is to play a connecting and leavening role, helping broader and broader numbers of people become active with others as they learn through experience that only by doing so can their conditions improve.

What do I mean by “masses of people?” If we are talking about something as big as an actual struggle for power, for control of the government, which is ultimately what those of us who are serious about change have to see as our objective down the road, then we have to be talking millions, eventually tens of millions of people involved or supportive. Nothing else stands a chance against a ruling group as powerful as the tiny minority of ultra-rich individuals who stand astride the commanding heights of the corporate economy and the corporate-controlled government.

The United States is not a country with a history of mass socialist or communist parties as is true in western Europe, Japan and other parts of the world. Movements of opposition to the rule of corporate capital in this country have been programmatic and issue-based and not ideologically-driven, even when there are those within them whose work is ideologically-based. There is a relative paucity of knowledge within the U.S. population about Marxism, socialism, communism, anarchism and other historic Left ideological traditions, primarily due to government repression and mass media distortions of those ideologies.

Within this political context, it is unrealistic in the extreme to think that the way in which a broadly-based, popular movement for fundamental change is going to emerge is through an emphasis on socialist education, or the building of an ideologically-based political organization. It is not that these cannot be of value and even of significant value, long-term. But that value, that political impact, will only come to pass if a politically less radical, more populist, more issue-driven and program-based alternative emerges, grows and eventually succeeds in its objective of winning political power.

Those who are ideologically-driven need to swim in that people’s ocean, interact personally and politically with “the masses.” They need to learn how to talk to, influence and learn from working people from a wide range of backgrounds and with a mix of different ideas, some progressive, some conservative, some confused and some just plain common sense.

Progressive electoral campaigns, with candidates who are articulate and democratic in their approach to the campaign, can be one of the most effective ways to put forward a comprehensive, alternative vision of change. Such campaigns can plant the seeds to help increasing numbers of people grow in their understanding of our political/economic reality and their commitment to being part of the process of altering it.

They can also be an important arena for ideologically-based leftists to test their ideas in practice, gather signatures, ask for money, motivate people to come out and vote. In this way they can discover the extent to which their ideas match with reality. And as a result, the two can become more closely aligned.

Maybe then we’ll see the emergence of a 21st century organized Left in this country that is unlike any we’ve seen for decades: playing a significant role in a broadly-based, popular movement to take back our government from the corporate criminals who control it now. Let’s speed the day!