Thinking About the American Left and Die Linke

The North Atlantic Left Dialogue (NALD), by bringing North Americans and Europeans together, allows participants to reflect on their own situation through the lens of the thinking of other leftists who face similar political issues in different contexts.  There are commonalities in the division between social movements on the one hand and political parties/labor organizations on the other; and there are differences, for example the multiparty system in Europe that allows representation by left of center-left parties on the one hand and the first-past-the-post winner-take-all structure in the United States on the other.  From attending NALD meetings, I have come to three conclusions.  The first is that, for all the differences in national political cultures, histories, and institutional specificities on both sides of the Atlantic, the left is faced with capital’s domination of the main political parties, whether they are called socialist, social democrat, or by any other name, and that the best-intentioned leftists functioning in government face irresistible pressures to accommodate unless they are deeply rooted in movements which hold them accountable.  It is not so much that they are always sellout misleaders; it is that they have to cope with decisions those not in office cannot begin to fathom, so elected leftists need to explain why they do what they do to the people who put them in office.  The second conclusion is that the divisions on the political right and left in Europe and the United States are not so different.  The spectrum from the extreme right through the business-oriented right to the corporate center-left to an underrepresented left of center-left is common to both.  There are of course unique features in particular countries, however, and I want to talk about the difference that working within a parliamentary system makes.

Among the most successful electoral formations on the left is Die Linke, the Left Party, in Germany, which now is commanding twelve percent of the national vote, far more than any other left of center-left party formation.  It benefitted from its base in the East, due to the shabby treatment former East Germans received at the hands of the West German system following reunification, and to an important degree in the West from Oskar Lafontaine, former chair of the Social Democratic Party and Finance Minister, who left the SDP in disgust and became co-chair of Die Linke.  The growth of support has come from its commitment to an anti-capitalist politics with a realism as to what can be done here and now and what should be proposed to make the connection between it and where they want to go.

The third conclusion is that the division on the left between social movements and political parties is substantial everywhere.  An outside-pressure strategy, rather than getting swallowed up in the compromises of electoral politics, seems sensible to a large part of the left.  So, it is interesting to see Die Linke attempt to attract social movement activists.  The Left Party is anti-capitalist but struggles to develop initiatives in the interests of the working class now which have transitional potential, that is, initiatives that can change consciousness and potentially lead to further expansion of the realm of solidaristic policy making.  (I will return to this point below, but I want to stress that the context of a party seriously contesting for political power is different from the situation of an American left which does not have the same sort of responsibility to a significant part of the electorate to speak to immediate need in long-term perspective.)

Die Linke faces the issue of whether to enter coalition governments at the level of individual federal states, and perhaps in the near future nationally as well.  Can they be an anti-capitalist party and be a junior partner in coalition with pro-capitalist parties which set the agenda?  Like any such formation there are “realists” and “fundamentalists” in Die Linke on this issue.  How does a left of center-left politics develop a vision of the future while taking a set of transitional steps which benefit people’s lives now to build support for it?  On the NALD blog Michael Brie and Dieter Klein (2005) offer a sobering, clear-eyed interrogation of what the left could achieve if it entered a coalition.  As they say, experience elsewhere suggests leftists could do little to effectively counter neoliberalism from within a government coalition.  They do not see radical transition as being realistically on the horizon.

Nevertheless, the importance of these explorations is that they take our thinking beyond the (necessary) defensive battles to protect past victories in the area of social protection and to present immediate alternatives to working-class austerity, demanded as “necessary” by capital and its ideological flacks in media, think tanks, and government.  The difficult task for the Left in Germany and elsewhere is to appeal to the precariat outside of unions and to technical-professional workers in high-tech communications and other post-industrial employment to develop a credible and inclusive “mosaic” left, uniting diverse but not antithetical goals into a shared critique of capitalism.  This is essentially the same challenge facing every other national left in the world.  The demand for an egalitarian, solidaristic form of societal governance (including global and ecological dimensions) is a shared one.

The crisis everywhere has been disorienting.  Many of the givens of normal existence are gone and traditional electoral politics has been stirred and shaken.  In the United States, the divisions exist between country-club Republicans (who have dominated their party in alliance with the religious right, the neoconservative hawks, and the business interests, which to some extent live off the state while denouncing it) and the Tea Party forces; and, in the Democratic Party, between the corporate or centrist Democrats, as they are called, who represent capital in an unvarnished form and the trade-union and minority-group base of the party.

Much of the Marxist left, because it sees the struggle between capital and labor as always central, fails to think through the implications of electoral politics.  In the United States, saying Obama represents the corporate Democrats and acts as the tool of capital in expanding wars of choice in “AfPak” and beyond and baling out bankers instead of creating jobs for working people, while true enough, does not begin to explain why the extreme elements of the Republican Party are doing so well or why the Democratic Party seems incapable of projecting — in the words of the slogan of the October 2nd march on Washington sponsored by 300 groups from the NAACP to the Sierra Club — “One Nation Working Together.”  The Democrats are afraid to be linked, in voters’ minds, to their own base.  The Republican base with its Tea Party face is quite happy to speak in terms of taking back “their country” from the base of the Democratic Party, and the Democratic politicians let them monopolize the symbols of larger beliefs about America without challenge.  The mass left represented in Washington on October 2nd, however, challenged such a politics.  A Marxist left which refuses to see itself as part of such a mass left, and which does not even give any thought to a politics of insisting America live up to its ideals because that is not the class-struggle politics that it regards as the only form Marxist politics should take, will of course always be marginal, unable to relate to the actually existing working class.

What the Tea Party resents is the idea of a government which respects fairness, headed by a man of color and staffed by “liberal elites” who tax “good hard-working Americans” to help “them.”  Recent data analysis by the Project Vote staff (2010) suggests that “the actual cause and target of the Tea Party’s rage is the real rising American electorate: black voters, youth voters, and lower-income voters.”  We also know how the Tea Party is funded and manipulated by a group of very rich reactionaries and political operatives.  The Project Vote staff rightly see the Tea Party as a counter-populist movement, in that it hopes to silence (or, at least, be louder than) the true rising American majority of black, youth, and lower-income voters.  However, the optimistic Project Vote conclusions are based on patterns of participation in the 2008 presidential election, not characteristic of the current mid-term 2010 contest in which, thanks in part to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision, a group with the anodyne name of Americans for Job Security can spend seven and a half million dollars in independent campaign expenditures to support Republican candidates without anyone knowing whose money is being spent and what they want (hint: it is not job security for working people).  The November election will be an important indicator of the Tea Party’s influence.  It will, as all elections do, reflect the influence of money politics.  It would seem this, for instance, is something a class analysis of capitalism can foreground, helping people to see that it is so central to a capitalist democracy and why the capitalist form of democracy is an exceedingly limited one.

On the broad left the disillusionment with President Obama is not unlike unhappiness with the parties of the center-left in Europe but qualitatively more intense given his African descent and the expectation of change we could believe in following George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, a feeling the Democrats are trying to revive for the coming election.  (“The Republicans are worse than we are, so stuff your disappointment, hold your nose if you must, but vote for us again.”)  The disillusionment is not only among those who thought he was the One, but among sober progressives who understand that the majority in the Senate is composed of a united Republican opposition (helped along by conservative Democrats and by rules which allow a minority to veto legislation and even an individual senator to block the nomination of an administration official) but still fault Obama for failing to tell the country what he is facing in Washington from the Pentagon, let alone banks, pharmaceutical companies, and the rest, and for not rallying the troops.  This “good czar” faith is still strong.

Marxists can suggest that, no matter what Obama’s personal views, they are irrelevant to a politics shaped by the limits of American capitalist democracy.  Of course, agreement on that point does not lead unproblematically to an alternative politics in the real-world context of the really existing system.  But it would help to remind angry voters that the Republicans will raise the retirement age for Social Security if they gain control of the federal government; that the retirement age should be in fact lowered to help older unemployed workers, who should also be covered by Medicare at 55; and that instead of doing away with inheritance taxes and lowering taxes on corporations and the very wealthy, who have benefitted most from the economic performance in recent decades, progressive taxation could and should pay for what is needed.  To make such simple points is part of mass work.

Many on the Marxist left, however, do not think it their job to come up with ameliorative solutions but rather to detail the failings of capitalism, ending their denunciations with a call for socialism. In the United States’ two-party system, the Democrats sound comparatively progressive (to whatever extent they still do) during election season, but, as a party in office, they do not oppose corporate capital, only looking for solutions which amount to government bribing the private sector to behave better.  (This does not stop the right from calling their efforts to help corporations “socialism.”)  There are, however, decent progressive Democrats who get elected and make sensible proposals even if they get little media coverage.  Such people often have to do things to stay in office which the left of the left does not like.  Just to denounce such progressives in office is understood in some corners of the left to be a revolutionary act.  There are even socialists who refuse to put out any proposal at all except to end capitalism since it is not our job to fix the system.

In a parliamentary system, in contrast, left parties which want to build a potential majority must and do go a step further.  They need specific programs which embody their ideals and implicitly reflect a critique of capitalism.  What the European left which engages in electoral politics does is to put forward steps which will make things better for working people and the planet, with a view to changing consciousness about what can be done within capitalism in order to move toward socialism.  Such steps are denounced there, too — just as in the United States the right shouts down any progressive ideas — but they need to be put out boldly to give people real choices.  It is here that the left of center-left has a problem.  We think it is the job of liberals to do this, not ours.  Our job is to advocate socialism.  But between specific issues which would make a difference in people’s lives on the one hand and system change on the other, there is a space which needs to be occupied.  Without a left occupying that space, the right gets stronger and the discourse only shifts further right.  If socialism is about anything, it is about advancing alternatives to market logic and to an individualism which substitutes false solutions for solidaristic programs.

The fear of some on the left of center-left is that appealing to popular outrage and advancing real-world alternatives can only reinvigorate a social democracy, which, when it gains popularity and achieves electoral victory, is bound to sell out as in the past to capital, which is ever ready to buy its services or else punish it by funding the right.  That is a reasonable fear to be sure, but it also speaks to an isolation from mass movements and a preference for ideological purity that is two-edged.  On the one hand, clarity of analysis of capital and class, on which the critique of potential co-optation is based, must be maintained; but, on the other, if that is maintained by eschewing any involvement in real-world politics because it inevitably leads to compromise, it is in effect an isolationist stance.  This would seem a time to get one’s hands dirty by moving beyond the comfort zone of a left which is content for the most part with debating theory.

In America, as in Europe, many voters are in a nasty mood, circling the wagons around identity communities, rejecting “the Other,” whether Roma or Blacks.  Racked by hard times, there is a taxpayer rebellion as well as pressure from bond markets and reactionaries of all stripes to cut welfare-state funding.  Income inequality is at historic highs as is an individualism that defends narrow and often exceedingly selfish short-term greed.  As Jeffrey Sachs writes, channeling The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Marx, 1844):

The lesson from America is that economic growth is no guarantee of wellbeing or political stability.  American society has become increasingly harsh, where the richest Americans buy their way to political power and the poor are abandoned to their fate.  In their private lives, Americans have become addicted to consumerism, which drains their time, savings, attention and inclination to engage in acts of collective compassion.

Center-right parties now dominate in Europe, after moderate Third-Way social democracy’s failure to do more than offer a weak echo of neoliberalism.  The continent’s conservatives have adjusted to modernity and embraced carbon emission restrictions, some welfare state, and ceding some sovereignty to European-level governance, while arguing that they can run government services more efficiently; as a result the center-left is left with little ground to stand on.  Moreover, the center-right paints the center-left as the real conservatives for trying to preserve what needs to change.  A ruling idea is that the left in power was able to increase public welfare out of the surplus produced by the market economy, but the crisis has removed economic growth and raised public debt to unacceptable levels, and the left does not know how to make hard choices, let alone create wealth — to create wealth, we must, irony of ironies, trust a market system which has shown itself totally untrustworthy and socially destructive.  As the center-left is discredited in Europe, the extreme right is winning representation, often with votes which once went to the left parties.  So, the newspaper of record, the New York Times, leads a front-page article headlined “Europe’s Socialists Suffering Even in Bad Capitalist Times,” declaring: “A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of Socialism’s slow collapse” (Erlanger, 2009).  This is another version of the idea that the progressive coalition which elected Obama is dead.  Neither, however, is quite accurate.

Take, for instance, the September 29 demos in Brussels around the theme “We Won’t Pay for Your Crisis” and the simultaneous demonstrations throughout Europe involving millions of people protesting austerity.  Tens of thousands of protesters against spending cuts held the biggest demonstration Brussels has seen in years.  Marchers came from 30 countries to warn of the human cost of public-sector belt-tightening.  For the first time since the European Union expanded eastwards, workers from east and west were demonstrating side-by-side.  Alongside substantial trade union delegations from France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany — and smaller groups from Italy, Spain, Britain, and Portugal — Polish, Romanian, and Slovenian workers came to Brussels.  While the coverage of the demonstrations in the U.S. media was muted, the working-class message still got through: “‘No’ to more and more austerity plans by governments and European institutions, which make the workers pay their cost.”  But in the quality media the other message was also conveyed: none of this would change the European Commission and others’ plans to force the cost of the financial crisis on the workers.  What remains needed is a vision of how things could be different, how the economy could function on solidarity rather than austerity principles.

If the global financial crisis leaves us with high unemployment, dearth of productive investment, and slow growth, is there then an opening for a left to the left of the center-left — an anti-capitalist left?  The decline of the traditional industrial working class has prefigured the decline of left politics, but this does not mean that beyond the professional-technical class, nor even for them as a whole, has there been adequate creation of jobs capable of sustaining a secure life.  The left’s old electoral base may be gone or dramatically diminished, but what of the unemployed youth and a worried citizenry, even the enraged who blame the immigrants?  Could a positive program of job creation and a healthier economy based on solidaristic principles and investment in meeting the needs of the present and the future be effectively presented in the political arena?

In the U.S. context, David Harvey’s stirring manifesto (which is also on the NALD blog) asserting the need to displace capitalism by creating an entirely different mode of production and distribution speaks to the left of center-left in a way which combines a sharp analysis of capitalism in our time, an unabashedly Marxist critique, and an intense moral power — it highlights the need for a wider Marxist-influenced left.  It takes on issues of decision making by movement groups, coalitions, on the left of center-left.  It suggests what this left has to offer to other people by way of principled politics that can lead to a more radical analysis of what needs to be done.  Harvey’s manifesto has historic significance — OK, historic within what remains a small socialist left, but also for a potential socialist left which is far larger than many have assumed, one that can exert the kind of pressure the Tea Party does on the right.  Such a comparison may seem overdrawn.  The forces of the left Harvey addresses do not have the money, the media, and the rest.  However, despite decades of anti-communist and anti-socialist bombast, our fellow citizens in surprising numbers are willing to listen to a left of center-left which speaks to them in a manner calculated to appeal to the sense of common decency and anger at capitalism, explaining in clear terms what is at stake in allowing this system to go on determining our lives and the fate of the planet.

A Pew poll published on May 4, 2010 asked a random group of Americans what they thought of words like “socialism” and “capitalism.”  Only 52% viewed capitalism positively (37% had a negative reaction to the word), and 29% viewed socialism positively.  A 2010 Gallup poll found 36% of Americans thinking socialism “superior” to capitalism.  Moreover, in the aforementioned Pew poll, just 43% of Americans under 30 describe “capitalism” as positive.  Even more striking, the same percentage of young Americans, 43%, describes “socialism” as positive.  In other words, the new generation is equally divided between capitalism and socialism.  Reflecting on such results, the sociologist Charles Derber (2010) writes:

Keep in mind these findings reflect an overview of the public mind when Right-Wing views seem at a high point — with the Tea Party often cast as a barometer of American public opinion.  The polls in this era do not suggest a socialist country, but not a capitalist-loving one either.  This is not a “Center-Right” America but a populace where almost 50% are deeply ambivalent or clearly opposed to capitalism.  Republicans and the Tea Party would likely call that a Communist country.

Moreover, even the angry Tea Party voters may not be angry simply because nonwhite Americans will soon be a majority in this country but because their faith in capitalism has proven misplaced.  They may think they are just rejecting “government,” but as Gail Collins (2010) observes,

Here’s my thought for the day.  The Tea Party people say they’re angry about socialism, but maybe they’re really angry about capitalism.  If there’s a sense of being looked down upon, it’s that sense of failure that’s built into a system that assures everyone they can make it to the top, but then reserves the top for only a tiny fraction of the strivers.  Capitalism is also a system that lives off of change.  When people say this isn’t the America they grew up in, they’re right.  Nobody gets to grow old in the America they grew up in.

The people guiding the Tea Party understand the best defense is a good offense. What the Glenn Becks of the U.S. have succeeded in doing is to put that understanding in practice: be outrageous and promote all manner of dubious “facts” and project endless conspiracies to keep people fearful and steer their anger; and intimidate not only the corporate Democrats, but also labor and progressives (leftists who do not call themselves leftists), through the withering demonization of organizations, ideas, and even words.

Harvey, rather than being defensive about his politics, lays out a radical vision in broad strokes.  He outlines briefly but effectively the key elements of capital’s offensive, a counter-narrative of where we are and why; he discusses the hurtful consequences of capitalism for working people and the planet, what is wrong with an economy dependent on war, toxic derivatives, and the rest, and then a host of ideas about a humanistic communist vision for organizing society.  What is so compelling about Harvey’s piece is the powerful morality combined with rigorous analysis — a rarity on the left — which allows readers to take seriously ideas and language which have for the most part been excluded, by intimidation, from the possible ways of talking about politics.  

But there is another aspect of the left’s task.  While Harvey is excellent on the critique of capitalism at the general level, detailing its unfitness, the middle ground of electoral politics gets slighted by Harvey, too, as in much of the left in the United States.  This carries over to designs for organizing society.  For example, Harvey’s ideas for horizontal coordination and his mention of Elinor Ostrom’s nested hierarchy of decision-making (which is helpful in the context of Rainer Rilling’s invitation to rethink the public sphere and public goods — also on the NALD blog) step too quickly over capitalism as a global system.  The national framing and appeal to local control in the face of a world system controlled by capital is insufficient, especially in a country whose labor movement all too quickly accepts a nationalistic outlook, seeing the U.S. versus China, not U.S. and Chinese workers versus the elites who control their labor and governments.

Thinking in class terms is one of the key contributions the left has to make to building a movement.  The other is what André Gorz in the 1960s called a strategy of non-reformist reforms which do not base their validity on capitalist logic but criteria and rationales which are anti-capitalist.  This is what separates the left (to the left of the center-left) from the center-left which tries to find answers that capital can not only live with but embrace.

The reality is that capitalism doesn’t work for working people.  The alternative is social control of investment to meet social needs and to address the cost of ecological destruction which capitalist accumulation, with no regard to environmental costs, has caused.  The creation of meaningful work is possible in a society that has resources available to be marshaled for productive purposes to end the waste of human lives and unsustainable patterns of accumulation, and we can and should explain this in sensible fashion.  The best response to the lies of the extreme right is to assert simply why they are nonsense and then return to the more important conversations they are designed to abort.  The right is about misdirection through the creation of fear.  This extreme right becomes prominent when the ideology of capitalism is in trouble, when its performance fails, and when the system is seen as what it is more clearly by more people.  This is the time to build a broad left, of which we will be a very small but not unimportant part.

William K. Tabb is Professor Emeritus, Queens College, City University of New York.  He is the author of The Amoral Elephant: Globalization and the Struggle for Social Justice in the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review Press, 2001) among other publications.

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