Reimagining socialism in U.S.

Print edition : August 05, 2016

Protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrate for a variety of causes at Zuccotti Park near the New York Stock Exchange on the second anniversary of the movement. A file photograph. Photo: SPENCER PLATT/AFP

Bernie Sanders during a campaign rally in Washington on June 9. Photo: STEPHEN CROWLEY/NYT

The author examines the Left’s critical role in American history and underscores the need to rejuvenate it in the current context.

The revival of people’s movements in Latin America, Greece and Spain, along with the fury of the Arab Spring, gives a new impetus to the wilting Left and a vision of the future that is now ready to challenge the neoliberal moral high ground that has failed to offer any solution to a fragile, and in certain regards, catastrophic present. The Left has always, through history, brought a moral grounding to any debate during any political or social crisis.

In the context of neoliberalism, the crushing of national dignity by hunger and violence and the unrelenting siege of many developing nations by bankers and the “commercial masters of the world”, as Eduardo Galeano puts it, are some of the factors that prompt the Left to condemn the systems that have usurped socialism. The Left, as visible in the Bernie Sanders phenomenon in the United States, is passing through a new phase of hope and expectation with its resilience to survive in its new-found passion for a complete turnaround through new strategies of mobilisation. Sanders’ vision for tomorrow lies in the recuperation of the support of the youth of the country, of a connect with the masses.

With this new development, Eli Zaretsky is bang on when he argues in his book that the U.S. is ripe for a “robust, self-respecting, intellectually sophisticated left” in spite of the long history of antagonism in the successive governments that were responsible for many coups around the world, for the genocide in Vietnam and for the conflict with Hugo Chavez and his radical politics in Venezuela.

Zaretsky examines the history of America in the context of the Civil War, the New Deal and the range of New Left movements in the 1960s.

It becomes obvious that the contribution of progressive Left movements to American liberalism cannot be ignored. For instance, if you take the case of the abolitionists, “they created the model for subsequent American lefts by insisting on equality as the way to resolve a national crisis”.

Or take the case of the drive for participatory democracy in the 1960s where you can see acts of resistance to the rise of “finance, consumerism, and marketisation” replicated in the Occupy movement. In other words, Zaretsky is making a case for the ever-existent Left in the U.S. and more so in the present context of electoral confusion with the rise of Trumpism.

The theoretical position of the Left as it has existed in the U.S., therefore, will have to be revised and put into the context of the simultaneous phenomenon of the rise of far-right-wing fervour. It is clear that the Left cannot be edited out of history. The spectre of Marx lurks wherever there is economic deprivation and where progressive struggles gear up for political and economic reorganisation more than ever in the face of the freak success of the presumptive nominee of the Republican party, Donald Trump.

Trump, a quasi-Republican who owns some of the most expensive real estate in the country, became the nominee by repackaging the hallucinatory vision of restoring American greatness and selling it to blue-collar, working-class whites, who have fiscally identified with the Democratic Party for generations but are now willing to enter into fisticuffs with anyone who opposes Trump.

Trump’s strategy of tapping into the deep disaffection with the established order and channelling the anger and hate against immigration, unequal trade policies, the scourge of globalisation that has robbed the non-college-educated working-class white of her job, and the disease of crony capitalism, where the rich have only got richer after the 2008 financial crisis, has yielded unparallel results. The anti-establishment fever has worked in his favour to an astounding degree. The most respected, politically seasoned and intellectually astute Republicans watched with incredulity as Trump swept the sea of delegates to his side through his manifesto of nativism and economic populism and now stands to win the nomination, barring a major, highly unlikely upheaval.

This racist, foul-mouthed and vapid demagogue and misogynist, lacking any political or administrative experience or foreign policy acumen, today stands a 50 per cent chance of becoming President of the richest and most powerful nation of the world.

Perplexing situation

Like the Republican phenomenon, on the Democrat side the situation is equally perplexing. Historically, the party nominee has won on the backs of the working-class manual labourer. The party, however, has pivoted to the educated, professional highly skilled demographic: entrepreneurs and technologists. A two-horse contest decidedly has an experienced, astute and politically savvy Hillary Clinton, who has been sold to the public by the media and the political industrial complex as the winning candidate. That perception has held sway despite the gains made by the ultra-socialist Sanders powered by his ardent following of millennial enthusiasts.

Hillary Clinton may be dogged by trust issues, or have miscalculated the risk in Benghazi, or even have been less than completely honest in her dealings, but she was still eminently more electable than Sanders, who unsuccessfully tried to shed the image of an ageing “Commie” loyalist.

Thus, the drama goes on. The sharp lines that were etched to differentiate the two parties have considerably blurred; while Trump must deliver on the promise to put millions of jobless poor back to work, Hillary Clinton is just as much beholden to her wealthy Democratic donors as she is to the classic trade union Democrats.

The current anti-Trump fervour within the Republican Party, along with the majority of women voters in complete abhorrence of Trump, can have severe consequences on the psyche of the conservative voter, who may decide not to vote at all. This bodes well for the Democrats and the progressive agenda. To take full and timely advantage of the internal strife within the Republican Party, Sanders would be well advised to rally behind Hillary Clinton and urge the large swathe of his millennial supporters to do the same. A strong, united and progressive Democratic Party with an experienced and astute leader like Hillary Clinton would be an invincible force in the face of the fractured and seriously conflicted Republican Party.

However, one message has undoubtedly reached the general public. With Sanders giving Hillary Clinton a tough fight, the rise of the Left in the U.S. cannot be discounted. This rising tide of the renegade Left movement within the disempowered, under-30 youth is the most tantalising aspect of this presidential election. It is not simply that the Republican Party is rife with internal discord or that their front runner is a rabid firebrand; what is worth mentioning is that this hate-spouting xenophobe also happens to be a rare breed of Republican, whose raging popularity rests on support from the blue-collar-formerly-middle-class worker who feels as disenfranchised as the young Sanders supporter espousing extreme socialist views.

The phenomenal rise of Sanders is entirely the result of the unflinching support of the youth of this country. He is their messiah, and his message of truth to power, social justice, free tuition, free medical care, income equality and the revision of the entire banking sector is like the gospel that comes in the form of the New Left —a vibrant, socially conscious, economically equitable movement modelled on the liberal socialist democracies of Western Europe.

It would be misguided to dismiss Sanders as a delusional idealist professing a socialist agenda in a country deeply entrenched in a capitalist mindset.

He has seen the light; he is looking to the far horizon, and to several elections from now, when the millions who support him will become serious players in their constituencies and shape policies that bring America to the left of centre. That will usher in the New Deal from which may arise the third party, an alternative to the Democratic Party still run by the old guard and beholden to the capitalist power brokers. This will be an enlightened socialist party, ideologically Left but tactically fully cognisant of the American political landscape. Sanders understands that the fire has been ignited and that the embers must be stoked so that a slow revolution can occur. This is not a question of “if”; this is about “when”.

Sanders’ tangible success, visible in the strong fight he has given Hillary Clinton, augurs well for radical democratic politics in the U.S. with sustained post-mortems of Marxism and effective interventions in the politics of the future and in the crisis of both efficacy and legitimacy in democratic politics. Sanders has forcefully drawn serious consideration to the re-evaluation of economic progress, the future of the Left, and more than anything else, the re-energising of the Democratic Party’s organisational strength through mass mobilisation. He has definitely shown what Zaretsky also believes—that the Democratic Party “is spineless and ineffective without a left”. However, for the final success of the Left the sine qua non is a liberal centre, without which there are possibilities of it becoming “sectarian, authoritarian, and worse”.

It is clear that a tangible scrutiny of material situations is what the Left requires. Mass unemployment, homelessness, violence and economic oppression are issues to be focussed on, and it has to be seen in the coming days whether Sanders succeeds in giving the people’s movement a massive fillip.

The orthodox Marxist model favouring economic determinism of history and consciousness that overlooks the role of political movements and human will is rightly being revised and reformulated by the Left, spearheaded by Sanders, who has diligently examined wider processes of society, especially the role of the media and the building of a new alliance between feminists, marginalised groups, gays, lesbians, ethnic groups and teachers, thereby developing a significant radical movement the likes of which the U.S. has never experienced.

The nationwide impact of Sanders has indeed proved that each “New Left” has always succeeded in the construction of a new political consciousness, a harbinger of a new social order.

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