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Turning Left

By: 
Harmony Goldberg
Date Published: 
March 11, 2011

The last decade has been a period of profound struggle and realignment for the Left in the United States. We entered the decade with a disorientation shaped by the exhilaration of the 1999 Seattle protests and the world-changing events of September 11, 2001. Ten years later, that disorientation has started to shift, and a new level of clarity is emerging.

We are, however, far behind the clock in terms of preparing ourselves to play the kind of political leadership role that history is going to demand as a number of intersecting crises unfold in the coming decades. To try to capture the development of our work over the last decade, I’m offering a few “snapshots” describing how we entered the last decade, how we are leaving it and how we need to approach the next ten years.

2001

Ten years ago, the Left (to be clear, I’m using the somewhat unsatisfying term “Left” to capture the political diversity of a number of different anticapitalist trends, not to signify everyone who is left of center) did not see itself as a coherent unit in almost any way. We shared a critique of capitalism and a belief in fundamental transformation, but we were deeply divided along generational, organizational and ideological lines.  Most of the older generation of leftists belonged to socialist cadre organizations, and many of them were engaged in a deep reevaluation of their approaches given the international crisis of the Left in the 1980s and 1990s.

Most of the younger generation of leftists emerged out of a number of different social struggles: youth and student protests against anti-immigrant legislation and cuts to public education; the fight against police brutality, prisons and gentrification in cities across the country; and community-based organizing against the elimination of welfare. Different people in our generation gravitated to different ideological traditions to give shape to our radical inclinations: Third World Marxism (particularly among the young leftists who were engaged in community organizing), anarchism and autonomist politics (particularly among activists who were building alternative institutions), nationalism, and indigenismo in Latin America.

While some of the younger generation of activists joined existent left organizations or started small revolutionary organizations, the great majority of this new generation manifested our left politics through community organizing work and through our work in social movements. Ten years ago, our left generation was composed of small circles of  organizers and activists, isolated in different cities around the country. We worked hard to build bases in constituencies that have been marginalized in the US left—including youth, LGBT communities, Black communities, immigrant communities and low-wage workers—and to build struggles that transcended historically narrow definitions of “class struggle.”

All of these different trends on the Left struggled with a sectarianism that limited our ability to work together, whether it was the line-splitting sectarian tendencies of the older left organizations or the self-righteousness of young leftists who were still forming our political identities. Marxists competed with anarchists and nationalists, left organizations struggled with each other, and people who were focused on organizing struggled with people who were focused on personal transformation and healing work.

While there were substantive and meaningful differences embedded in these struggles, we were unnecessarily divisive with each other. We also all struggled with a level of political purism and the kind of “miniaturized” approach to left politics that Max Elbaum described in Revolution in the Air, in which our radical politics served as more of a security blanket of self-righteousness than as a facilitator of mass radical political impact.

Regardless of our divisiveness, we shared many significant political commitments in addition to our basic anticapitalist orientation (even if we didn’t recognize it at the time). We were all clear that we needed to rebuild the Left and that it would take an open and unorthodox approach to politics. None of us had a narrow class politics; race, gender and imperialism were also central political questions for all of us. Although these developments are now the assumed terrain of most left politics in the United States, they were a significant advance ten years ago.

Many of us entered the new century with a real hopefulness.  We knew that our struggle would be a long road, but we felt like we were finally making some headway. The younger generation of leftists had founded a number of innovative mass political projects that were beginning to take root. Youth organizing and protests were on the rise in cities across the country. Unity-building projects like the Black Radical Congress suggested a different way to interact across old lines. And we were all riding high on the optimism of the 1999 WTO Seattle protests.

Then September 11 happened, and everything changed.  Our forward momentum ground to a near halt as we struggled to learn the new contours of the altered political terrain that had suddenly shifted distinctly to the Right. Demoralization set in among many sectors. With the exception of an initial tide of antiwar mobilization, many left efforts turned inward—some out of an understandable desire for reflection and reorientation and others out of the defeatism and left purism that we often turn to in response to challenging political conditions. Things did not look good.

2011

Thankfully, we are in a stronger place today. Many of our political efforts have grown and matured significantly (although not to anywhere near the extent that is needed to adequately respond to current political conditions). We now have a number of left organizers who have significant experience in mass political struggles and an emergent approach to our work that integrates organizing to end structural oppression with an attention to how we do the work. Many sectors of the left have started to break out of the “miniaturized” approach to left politics, and we have also developed a remarkable culture of unity that transcends ideological and organizational lines.

From where I stand, one of the most significant developments on the left over the course of the last ten years has been the maturation and consolidation of an independent Left rooted in organizing in communities of color. Over the course of the last decade, left organizers from around the country have built solid relationships and shared analysis through a series of conferences, national mobilizations and the US Social Forum process. Their organizing work has matured significantly on both practical and political levels.

They have pushed the envelope tactically, struggling to innovate new organizing models that transcend the historic limitations of Alinksyite organizing models and to find ways to make historically marginalized radical politics relevant on a massive scale. These left organizers have made significant contributions in movement-building efforts nationwide, playing leading roles in building national alliances within different fronts and sectors of struggle (like the Right to the City Alliance, the Excluded Workers Congress, the US Social Forum and the Inter-Alliance Dialogue).

An independent left infrastructure has developed in relation to these organizing efforts, providing spaces for political education (like the School Of Unity and Liberation (SOUL) and Grassroots Global Justice’s recent “In It to Win It Left Strategies School”) and strategic reflection (like Left Turn and Organizing Upgrade). These organizers’ experiences in real-world political struggle have played an important role in helping our generation of the US Left begin to overcome the miniaturized approach to left politics.

Rather than approaching left politics as a way to maintain purity and comfort in a challenging political environment, today’s left organizers are beginning to try to understand how our politics can help us become more politically effective on a mass scale. It is an important but complicated transition. It requires letting go of overly-simplified orthodoxies and purist methods of work without drifting towards political centrism, where we silence our left politics in order to appeal to the political center.

Instead, we have to make a deliberate effort to make left politics relevant on a mass scale, to lay the groundwork for a transition to a deeper stage of struggle. This requires an engagement in questions of left strategy rather than the historic left focus on social critique. It requires us to root our broad analyses in the particularities of our time, place and condition. We will have to experiment with new organizing models and find ways to manifest our work on a larger scale.

For example, many left organizers are working to push their reform fights to be both bigger and more fundamentally challenging to neoliberal paradigms. They are experimenting with electoral organizing and building broad united fronts, often with unlikely and uncomfortable allies. There is still a long way to go in these efforts and many lessons to be learned, but I believe that a clear shift in that direction has begun.

There are, of course, significant challenges facing this section of the Left. For years, organizers have reflected on the limits of the “nonprofit industrial complex,” noting that even as it provides resources for organizing in oppressed communities, it tends to constrain struggles into short-term reform fights within limited-issue silos. Without an independent left space, it can be hard for organizers to think bigger and longer-term about the fight for fundamental transformation, and it can be challenging to stay connected to leftists—like artists, intellectuals and educators—who don’t work at nonprofit organizations.

Over the last decade, a broad cross-section of the Left developed a fundamentally different way of dealing with our political and ideological differences. Intentional unity-building efforts, most notably the Revolutionary Work in Our Times (RWIOT) process, have helped to promote a new culture of principled struggle and unity among different left forces. RWIOT has been led by Solidarity, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, Left Turn, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and the New York Study Group along with oLA Communities Organizing Liberation (LA COiL), Bring the Ruckus, and the Labor Community Strategy Center.

RWIOT has brought together left activists who are members of explicitly socialist organizations into strategic dialogue with revolutionary activists and organizers who are primarily rooted in social movements. These dialogues have been intentionally structured to explore political differences in ways that lead to deeper clarity rather than arbitrary division. All of those unity-building efforts seem to have helped us develop a culture of greater unity and collaboration. Rather than seeing our differences as a reason for competition or division, we can now live out our differences through a principled division of labor within a broad and diverse left ecosystem. For example, instead of seeing the work to “build alternatives” in opposition to “making demands on the state,” we can see these two kinds of work as distinct but equally necessary components of a broader political project.

Similarly, we have overcome a false opposition between the fight for structural transformation and the work of personal transformation. The only question is not what political work we do, but how we do it. This has manifested itself in the development of a number of different frameworks and arenas of work, including an attention to collective participation and consensus-building in decision-making processes, the development of “healing justice” as an arena of work, and the development of “transformative organizing” as an approach to organizing that incorporates personal transformation.

Looking forward

As hopeful as these developments are, we are still far from being prepared to play any kind of influential (much less leading) role in mass political struggles in the United States. And I believe that time is running out. At the risk of playing into the joke that “Marxists have predicted ten of the last three crises,” I believe that the coming convergence of a number of macro-level political crises will reshape politics in the United States and the world over the next thirty years: environmental crises, the ongoing economic crisis, and the political crises that will result from the decline of the US empire and the emergence of a people of color majority in the United States.

We can’t afford to continue to be caught surprised and flat-footed by the crises to come because we weren’t thinking ahead or because we were too busy quibbling over details. We need to build on the broad approach we have developed over the past decade—a non-sectarian and grounded but ambitious left politics rooted in mass struggle with an attention to how we do the work—and start to truly prepare ourselves for the coming crises.

Harmony Goldberg is a movement educator and writer.  She is the former Co-Director of SOUL: the School Of Unity and Liberation (www.schoolofunityandliberation.org) in Oakland and is currently a student at the CUNY Graduate Center.