The Socialist Vision and Left Activism

Monthly Review‘s July-August issue, focused on the theme of “Socialism for the 21st Century,” made me ponder the question of possible working-class organizing in the 21st century to build resistance to capitalism, the resistance that can dialectically develop into socialism.

Harry Magdoff and Fred Magdoff wrote in “Approaching Socialism”: “[I]ntellectuals and specialists cannot derive a plan for a new society — it has to come from the people.  But a set of principles for setting priorities can be suggested.  Probably the most important is that the poorest have their minimum needs met — housing, food, education, and medical care” (p. 56). The unnecessary tragedy visited on the poor in Gulf Coast states, which illuminated the linkage of class and race, brought their remark to life. Katrina’s brief unmasking of poverty elicited “back-to-the-future” memories of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, 1962. But anyone who had traveled the U. S. with open eyes or studied social data should have been well aware of poverty’s vastness; and anyone who had examined trends in technology, globalization, and neo-liberalism should have known that the future of at least the bottom one-half (disproportionately of color) is in great jeopardy. Take, for instance, Detroit, the poorest, Blackest large city in America, where I have been involved in activism. It too is a disaster induced “naturally” by today’s ruthless capitalism — the city whose social pathos and crumbling infrastructure, a result of insidious neglect, have angered and depressed me beyond words. What can socialist activists confronted by such a disaster do?

My wife and I once worked hard on an educational project in the first part of the 1990s (the “world’s most prosperous decade” according to Joseph E. Stiglitz in his recent book The Roaring Nineties).  We tried to review the living history of the American left-activist community through the snowball technique in oral history — a practical complement to theoretical work in Monthly Review‘s July-August issue. Magdoff and Magdoff analyzed actual socialist experience to suggest new images of the future socialist endeavor. Like them, but at the level of concrete individual experiences, we sought processes, structures, and mindsets that might be useable in building 21st century socialism. Our purpose was to track down left activists, learn how they became radicalized, and solicit their guidance to the next generation of activists. We hoped to find passageways to the next wave of socialist activism. We did some 500 in-depth interviews in five urban regions: Detroit, Honolulu, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Albuquerque. Respondents were respected local activists still involved in politics, who had paid substantial dues in labor, civil and human rights, peace, anti-poverty, and other movements, some in the 30s, most in the 60s-70s. Two books of oral history (focused on Detroit and Hawaii) were born of our work. What did we learn?

After the first set of interviews (Detroit, 1991-92), we found substantive duplications elsewhere. Left activists in one urban area basically had faced similar objective conditions that acted upon their lives and organizations.  The oral histories were intrinsically interesting because each told a unique story of political socialization. Respondents were a red diaper baby, from a unionist family, from an at-risk group.  Some were influenced by a clergyperson, a teacher, or a peer group who interpreted poverty and discrimination, war and imperialism, in ways that the media and schools did not. We do not claim that we learned much new about how activists or revolutionaries are made that hadn’t already been covered in mountains of literature.  After 500 interviews, I’m still not sure what psychological elements define the permanent revolutionary personality, and I doubt if I care anymore.  But my interviews did find that most serious activists come from the deprivation caused by their own exploitation and oppression.  And that, of course, is the stuff from which socialists are made, past or future.

We also discovered the toll that capitalism’s will to “stop class struggle at any cost” had taken on even the most dedicated activists.

Our respondents were broadly aware of global capitalist economic trends, the politics of public policy, a changing class structure, and the decline of “actual” socialism abroad.  They knew that a major mission of capital and its government allies was to destroy any semblance of socialism and peoples’ collectivism, here and elsewhere.  They understood that the “end of history” meant the end of class struggle from below.  They recognized the right-wing propaganda escalation that condemned the New Deal “social contract” as “unfair” to capital and not in the interests of the United States (see Business Week, 9/3/79, 6/30/80, and 6/1/81). Based on testimonies we collected, I believe many American activists concluded that some form of socialism was required to fix the problems caused by capitalist exploitation and related social oppressions.  How to achieve any form of socialism — even to pose such a question — was another matter entirely. By the 90s, euphemisms like “progressive” had been substituted for “socialist” and “peoples’ action” for “class struggle.” Though nine out of ten probably leaned to socialism, the word by then had come to cause dissonance in their minds.  

Our respondents told stories of establishment repression, some of which we pledged to secrecy.  Some knew of government and right-wing infiltration in their own activist organizations while others had witnessed establishment-engineered brutalization, imprisonment, or even murders. The closer respondents got to theory or practice with a socialist vision, the greater the coercion and cruelty visited upon them. Though very talented, many of our respondents had experienced the social rejection and downward mobility that comes from being identified as a lefty troublemaker. They were hard-working movement leaders who took drubbings in their work and social space, experienced broken families, and abandoned or deferred “normal” gratifications.  The result for some: burn-out, depression, insanity, even death.  Some reduced their pain by rejecting the left and accepting establishment buyoffs, however guilty they may have felt about it.

What compounded the establishment’s successful destructive strategy were movement realities that contributed to the decline of left activism and therefore class struggle.  Some “single-issue” goals were ostensibly met: the Vietnam War ended, civil rights laws passed, a few poverty programs put in place, etc.  Furthermore, unseemly elements of U. S. social structure and culture (racism, sexism, individualism, opportunism, hedonism, etc.) contaminated activist groups, where equality and democracy should have reigned.  Those of our respondents who evolved toward socialism felt isolated.  Support and guidance from the “old left” seemed unavailable.  Strategic planning efforts fell apart and split groups asunder.  A tiny bunch moved further left into sectarian enclaves, but most activists became neutralized.  Socialism and class struggle were not on the agendas of most activist groups, and the establishment found all manner of ways to keep it that way. 

Thus, the left moved into the 21st century with no known broad plan, few reliable cadres, and general demoralization, while the right-wing juggernaut marshalled all its political, financial, legal, and propaganda weapons against working-class social and political development.  Not all is lost, however. Some of our interviewees believed that only after suffering great deprivation from an intense capitalist crisis would the working class be propelled into serious resistance. The current conditions of the U. S. (and the world) suggest that we may be entering such an era today. 

Those entering 21st-century class struggle come from two major social bases: the poor (disproportionately of color) and the non-poor supporters of the poor.  Poverty is being “rediscovered” because the poor are swelling in numbers and increasingly becoming self conscious.  Magdoff and Magdoff’s radical challenge that “the poorest have their minimum needs met” echoes in the first stages of organizational development.  A new poor people’s movement may be budding, illustrated by strong rumblings in New Orleans-based Community Labor United, Black Workers for Justice, ACORN, the Millions More Movement, and the thousands of unheralded community groups that mobilize against poverty and for survival. Much can be learned from the extensive anti-poverty struggles of the past fifty years — their successes and mistakes in organizational culture and structure, in tactics and strategy. “The poor shall lead” should be an overarching priority in the coming period.

The second major social base for early 21st-century class struggle, the non-poor supporters of the poor, is the large body of experienced left activists from recent decades.  Though aging, somewhat demoralized, and mostly “middle class,” they possess skills, money, and social dedication needed to support future class struggle.  They have participated in substantial numbers in the recent battles with the establishment on domestic and foreign policy.  Many are available for consultation and solidarity with young leaders now emerging.

Organizationally, the coming class struggle that orients itself to socialism must start almost from square one.  But the intellectual content in square one is more developed than thirty years ago.  The new progressive left is entering a period of reorganizing and dialogue that I hope will be covered by Monthly Review in the future.

Robert H. Mast has published Detroit Lives (Temple University Press, 1994) and (with Anne Mast) Autobiography of Protest in Hawaii (University of Hawaii Press, 1996), as well as various articles on labor, race, and community. A semi-retired sociologist, he is a member of UAW Local 1981 (National Writers Union), an officer in the Detroit Labor Party chapter, and an activist in Detroit.