Recently, Counterpunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair posed the question “Is there a Left in America today?” His article was not the first in recent times to pose the question but it did receive a fair amount of attention given the prominence of Counterpunch in the US Left. To sum the piece up in a sentence, it stated that yes, there is a Left, but it is in a fairly deep slumber. Whether one agrees with St. Clair’s essay or not, the facts are as follows. St. Clair is not the first of today’s leftists to pose this question, nor is it a question easily dismissed by some stock answer regarding cynicism, ignorance of the facts on the ground, or some other dismissive remark (one I heard accused the writer of ultra-leftism.)
The question is fair and needs to be asked. The magazine St. Clair edits is known for its provocative style. That’s why it’s called Counterpunch. It’s supposed to make its friends feel uncomfortable on occasion and its enemies unsure on their feet in the ring of politics. Ideally, it causes the latter to fall down for the count every once in a while and the former to challenge the zone they feel comfortable in. Even more to the point for those who are its friends, it should provoke debate that will move the revolution we all know we need that much closer.
I don’t want to sound like an old-timer here–in part because I don’t feel like one mentally or emotionally (physically is sometimes another matter)–but mostly because what I aim to write is not passé or irrelevant to the current situation. The Left has been here before. The historical circumstances were different, but the static situation was eerily similar. Although I could be referring to the 1950s in the United States, when anti-communism was the national faith and leftists were considered on a par with Satan and his dominions by the mainstream media and most of its readers, the period I want to talk about is the 1970s and 1980s.
The New Left was in retreat. A combination of victories and half-victories, massive repression, a retooling of the Democratic Party, and the demise of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had created a situation where a multitude of organizations existed on the US Left. All too many of them considered their line to be the correct one. None were very willing to compromise, preferring instead to fine tune their particular interpretation of Marx, Lenin and the rest to such a point that instead of gaining adherents, they slowly but surely lost them. By the end of the 1970s, some of these groups were working on the left end of the Democratic Party, hoping to expand the small opening created by George McGovern’s 1972 campaign into creating a genuine left parliamentary opposition in the US. Other groups were fighting amongst themselves, listening to provocateurs in their midsts, or just dissolving into thin air, as it were. Meanwhile, the US right wing was consolidating its forces behind millions and millions of corporate dollars. The result was the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House and the portrayal of Jimmy Carter, the creator of the Carter doctrine (which further bound the Empire’s military to the authoritarian regimes under whose lands the energy industry’s oil profits lay), as a leftist and wimp.
Nothing has been the same since. The Left waged successful campaigns against US support for apartheid, but hardly bothered to oppose the US invasion of Grenada. It was also fairly successful in opposing US support for the Contras in Nicaragua and the bloody regime killing thousands in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America. Unfortunately, their activities did not foresee the creation of an extralegal funding process for the Contras or the emptiness of the legislation against the human rights violations of the El Salvadorian government. Also, despite one of the broadest campaigns against nuclear weapons in history, the Pentagon and its corporate cohorts placed their missiles throughout Europe. By 1989, the response of the Left to the Bush administration’s invasion of Panama was barely a whimper. Then came Bill Clinton–the popular pretender to the progressives’ throne. In a litany fairly well known, Clinton pushed the neoliberal wet dream known as NAFTA through Congress. Then he “reformed” public assistance to the poor. Then he pushed through the Omnibus Crime and Terrorism Bill, making federal crimes out of a multitude of political activities and increasing the number of federal crimes that were punishable by death. Oh yeah, he reneged on LGBT equality and injected racial coding into his campaign as if he were a modern day Republican. Meanwhile, he and Tony Blair maintained a deadly sanctions regime on Iraq while bombing it at will. Besides all this, Clinton lobbed cruise missiles much like Barack Obama launches armed drones. On top of all this, he helped create the situation that provoked the crash of 2008. No, he wasn’t solely responsible, but the illusion of money where there wasn’t any greatly expanded during his rule. And the Left was rather silent.
So, what does this have to do with today? To begin, the Left is rather silent. There are a few campaigns organized around the suffering environment, some of them even bringing thousands of people to the streets. The Occupy movement raised the question of corporate greed and responsibility, but when certain elements within the movement directly challenged not just “bad” corporations but the system of capitalism itself, the Democratic White House aligned with the forces of law and order and cracked down hard. This was after the White House’s current occupant rode to his position on a wave of disgust with the wars and cronyism of Wall Street, the Pentagon and Congress. After decades of painting corporate liberals as tantamount to socialists and communists, the right wing dominates the political arena in the United States. The loyal opposition is spot on when it comes to instances of individual racism like the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2011, but ignores the ultimately more damaging institutional racism that has never been far removed from the US mainstream. That same opposition chastises a lone protester who challenges the president on his drone assassination program and the prison camp known as Gitmo, but says little or nothing when those programs murder and imprison innocents. This is the hegemony of capital at work. There is nothing it can not purchase, silence or kill. Elections and highways, politicians and militaries, there is a price on it all. And it is us who pays that price. It is also us who must end this dynamic.
It is time to organize. We don’t have time to bicker. Debate over tactics and approaches, yes. Bickering and name-calling, no. Leave the latter to those whom we wish to defeat.