It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
It is easy to recall the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities at this moment in history. This is, indeed a season of darkness. As I write this, Boris Johnson has become the prime minister of the United Kingdom. In the New York Times, Nate Cohn has proposed a very plausible scenario in which Donald Trump could win an even bigger majority of Electoral College votes in 2020, even with a smaller share of the popular vote.
The Supreme Court of the United States has put its stamp of approval on partisan gerrymandering; Christofascists are on the march, unchecked in the United States, while their comrades assault Pride revelers in Poland; the foetid stench of fascism grows around the wounds of the global refugee crisis; there are concentration camps in the “sweet land of liberty.”
For so many of us, this is truly our winter of despair.
And yet, it is our spring of hope. Never, since the Civil Rights movement and the heyday of demonstrations to end this country’s imperialist adventure in Vietnam have so many Americans worked so diligently to advance the causes of social justice, equality and what George Orwell called common decency. Demonstrations for women’s rights, reproductive justice, and to end the federal government’s brutal detention policies have brought hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of protesters into the streets. Grassroots, local activism, ranging from Indivisible, to Extinction Rebellion, to Antifa proceeds at unprecedented levels.
In state and national politics, elected representatives openly advocate for policies once dismissed as too-hare-brained to even discuss: a national healthcare system, a $15 minimum wage, a Green New Deal. The once unspeakable is being spoken by a cadre of eloquent, committed representatives who, even as they draw the full fury of reactionary vitriol upon themselves, continue to speak fearlessly. And at least two of them proudly wear the label of socialist.
For those of us on the socialist left, the revitalization of even the label itself is a cause for unexpected optimism. More Americans today approve of socialism – as an alternative to capitalism – than at any time since the Great Depression. Bernie Sanders is running his second unapologetically socialist campaign for president, and he is one of the acknowledged frontrunners. Old journals of the socialist left that had hung-on though the dark days of McCarthyism, Reaganism, and the Contract with America have been revitalized, joined by new magazines, websites, and podcasts flying a red flag.
The reactionary right has its podcasts and websites too, of course, but socialism has come out of the wilderness and the American left – that vast, fractious, often dysfunctional political grouping opposed to the current administration, committed to some kind of social justice and, to a greater or lesser extent, critical of capitalism – has vastly superior numbers in the streets.
Despite the vile stench of the current administration and the grating chatter of its defenders, we find ourselves in our Season of Light, full of hope and possibility. That the meat puppets at Fox News have whipped themselves into a constant froth over the “dangerous radicals” in Congress and the “terrorists” of Antifa is surely evidence that our time has come. The victory of socialism and of the workers movement, though not assured, is at long last at least imaginable.
Only, there is no workers’ movement in the United States. Only a little more than ten percent of American workers are members of unions – that traditional incubator of class consciousness – down from 20 percent a generation ago. “Right to work” laws in 26 states have certainly done much to undermine organized labor, as have employment shifts in the wake of deindustrialization and the economic realignment that began in the 1980s. Even in states where labor unions have both traction and power, automation and the contraction of heavy industry has driven workers into non-unionized jobs.
Historically, workers organized where they found other workers, engaged in the industrial workplace. Sharing their toil in the space of the factory floor, they discovered their common interests and class identities. But, increasingly, workers no longer share either their space or toil.
Work itself has become atomized and alienated, subverting whatever workplace social bonds might sustain a cohesive, coherent movement. “The future of work for the world’s laboring masses appears to be one of flexible employment,” Ricardo Antunes recently observed in the Monthly Review, “with no pre-established working days, no clearly defined working spaces, no fixed wages, no pre-determined activities, no rights, and no protection or representation by trade unions.”
Capitalism has lost its bloom, the idea of socialism has rarely had as much traction among Americans, we are experiencing a golden age of serious – and often not-so-serious – debate, discussion, and theorizing from intellectuals in conceptual places as varied and contradictory as Jacobin, Z Magazine, Monthly Review, and Chapo Trap-House. All of this is good; all of it is promising. But there is not actual movement to make the theory into praxis.
So, as Vladimir Lenin asked in 1901, we must ask ourselves “what is to be done?” But our answer must be different this time. There can be no vanguard party to lead the workers movement because there is no movement to lead. Rather, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri wrote upon witnessing the cycle of mass demonstrations that culminated with Occupy Wall Street and the occupations it inspired across the country in the fall of 2011: “We need to empty the churches of the Left even more, and bar their doors, and burn them down!”
The reality of left politics in 21st century, post-industrial America is that we must build a movement from the ground-up, from disparate instances of struggle. Despite what theoretical purists and celebrity radical podcasters might tell you, class in the 21st century is not the same thing as it was in the halcyon days of industrial capitalism. It has been complicated and problematized by the digital revolution, consumer capitalism, and neoliberal globalization. It is not possible to focus solely on the politics of class and economy because both are constituted along the axes of race, gender, sex and myriad categories of social subjectivity and citizenship.
In effect, we need to mobilize what Antonio Gramsci called the National-Popular and, in the absence of a vanguard or a party we must talk about a United Front. The very notion surely raises the hackles of the ideologically pure, but purity is a sure path to isolation and irrelevance today. Nor is frontism alien to the history of the American left. As much as we would like to imagine that socialism as a zero-sum game, the left has historically won its most significant victories through strategic alliances. The right to organize and strike, restraints on predatory capitalism, state intervention on behalf of the worker: as imperiled as these principles are today, we only achieved them through the Popular Front participation in the New Deal.
Indeed, very success of The Squad to advance and normalize the goals of the left speaks to the effectiveness of a United Front. The entryist strategy of the Democratic Socialists of America – of which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a member and which has endorsed Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley – is a frontist strategy. Indeed, as these members of the House of Representatives appealed for humanity and decency, and articulated a progressive, inclusive vision of America in their press conference last week, they invoked neither party nor faction.
“We are more than four people,” Pressley said. “Our squad is big. Our squad includes any person committed to building a more equitable and just world.”
So, we need to talk, and not just to the endless variety of socialists, but to progressives, anarchists, communists, sectarians, and even those people on the fuzzy left flank of liberalism. We need to talk because, despite our differences, we share at least some goals and, if not goals, inclinations. Make no mistake; our differences are significant, serious, and real. Whether capitalism can be made fairer and more humane, whether it can be reformed out of existence using the mechanisms of liberal democracy, or whether it must be swept away in a cataclysmic spasm of revolutionary action is hardly an idle question.
And frontism is not without its perils. If history is any guide, the risk of betrayal is real. Germany’s Social Democrats were willing to throw the Communists under the bus in 1933, to the Nazis’ benefit. The American left that accomplished so much through the Popular Front in the 1930s disintegrated almost to dust when the alliance fell apart after 1945. Always uneasy partners, the socialists sold out the Communists, and were subsequently abandoned by vital-center liberals. Postwar Dissent magazine makes for chilling, cautionary reading. Gramsci himself warned, in 1921, that, if “the tactic of compromise… has been of use to anyone, then clearly it has been to the fascists themselves.”
We need not equate cooperation with compromise, however, nor a partnership of political expedience based on shared goals (like the defeat of Trumpism) with permanent truce. It does not mean that, by seeking allies among liberals and progressives, and finding ways to use the institutional resources of the Democratic Party to advance our goals, we are somehow obligated to go all the way. It does not mean that we need to hold our noses and pull the lever for a neoliberal centrist on election day if there are better alternatives.
But we – socialists, progressives, liberals, and the rest – collectively face an adversary that wields not only the material power of the state, but also the power of hegemony. It follows that we can best fight a War of Position by leveraging that collective for against it. The time will doubtless come when our United Front will longer serve this purpose, but that time is not yet here. For now, we need to talk.
Photo by David Seymour