Progressives have always had a fraught relationship with the radical left. Progressivism, steeped in Enlightenment liberalism as it is, sees the free market and private property as on-balance pillars for the economy: though free enterprise needs to be heavily regulated to prevent brutal unfairnesses, it’s the next-best means of lifting people out of poverty, checking the power of the state, and securing economic opportunity humans have come up with so far. Radical leftists, obviously, have a rather different assessment of the merits of capitalism.
Moreover, the American center-left is perpetually fending off charges from the right that anyone who favors more redistribution than Paul Ryan is the second coming of Vladimir Lenin, leading mainstream liberals to distance themselves from socialists in a fashion that can border on ridicule. The nexus of substantive disagreement and political expediency brings out the broader left’s seemingly natural tendency to devolve into infighting more vicious than any critique it manages to launch of the political right.
For obvious reasons, I can’t speak for socialists or Marxists. But one irony for progressives in this state of affairs is that the mainstream left would have a great deal to gain from the rise of a radical left movement that, in all likelihood, we’d mock and assail mercilessly.
A witty, self-deprecating manifesto in the new issue of the Marxist-chic magazine Jacobin serves as a good jumping-off point here. Comparing the current left to “someone getting to know himself” on the subway, founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara argues that the “socialist left” — which appears, for Sunkara, to encompass all left-wing groups who want to replace capitalism with a more some more collectivist economic system — needs to stop playing with itself and start organizing. American radicals, Sunkara argues, are “fragmented into a million different groupings,” creating “an environment that breeds the narcissism of small differences” (no argument here). His proposed palliative? Good old-fashioned organizing:
If it comes to fruition we’d see the convergence of American socialists committed to non-sectarian organizing under the auspices of an overarching democratic structure. This in itself may not seem like a significant undertaking — we’re only talking about a few groups and a few thousand people — but we shouldn’t let those humble beginnings obscure the potential that a fresh start for the organized left holds.
Suppose this comes to pass, and radicals, broken since end of the Vietnam-era New Left, end up with an organized apparatus capable of marshalling moderate amounts of people for rallies and other actions. What does that do to our politics?
History is some guide here. Contra received wisdom, the United States has a long tradition of radical economic activism, albeit one that’s forever been unable to break into the political mainstream. A number of early 19th century abolitionists and feminists were also radically redistributive, and the economic fringe left has since organized under various banners, ranging from the Industrial Workers of the World to the Communist Party to some elements of Occupy Wall Street. An easy introduction to all this is Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers, a book I’ve discussed on TP Ideas before.
Kazin traces the concrete influence of economic* radicals in two ways. First, they’ve been able to secure discrete, concrete benefits for the country’s poorest through direct action. Radicals, especially around the turn of the 20th century, helped strengthen labor unions and back them up during strikes, which in some, but not all, cases helped extract concessions from capitalists that benefited laborers. For example,a group of Jewish socialists played a key role in organizing New York City garmet workers’ strikes in 1909 and 1910 that secured the right to unionize and higher wages.
The second, and more significant, set of leftist accomplishments involved pushing the mainstream center of political gravity to the left. Sometimes leftists put concrete political pressure on liberals through organizations like the Populist Party. In other cases, they raised a specter of radical upheaval real enough to scare elites into mollifying poor and working class folk with welfare state expansions, an argument oft (though not necessarily persuasively) made about elements of the New Deal. Through these and other mechanisms, Kazin suggests, radical leftist movements contributed towards the great liberal-progressive expansions of the welfare state. So while the left never had a much of a chance at overthrowing the dominant political and social order entirely, it played a real part in helping mainstream progressives improve the lives of America’s poorest and most vulnerable.
It’s not hard to imagine how a revived radical front could fill both of these historic roles for radicals without actually posing a threat to the liberal capitalist system writ large. Union membership has declined precipitously in the past 45 years; a well-organized cadre of leftists dedicated to reviving organized labor’s potency could help restore a historically critical source of progressive power. Injecting an unapologetically class-conscious critique of revanchist right-wing policies and fiscal austerity into public life could also serve as a leftist counterweight to the underappreciated radicalism of Tea Party conservatism.
These are points Sunkara recognizes. His cri de coeur hopes that “a new organization would focus on anti-austerity and work hand-in-hand with liberal allies who want to see the welfare state rebuilt.” While his ultimate aim of going “beyond liberalism’s limits” is beyond quixotic, that’s a feature, not a bug, from a progressive point of view. If history is any guide, American radicals end up furthering the objectives they share with liberals, like expanding the welfare state, while failing abjectly to advance the ones they don’t, like the abolition of private property or the overthrow of the constitutional order. So long as radicals eschew the use of political violence, something progressives unflinchingly oppose on both principled and practical grounds, there’s little to fear, and potentially something to gain, from a rebirth of America’s leftist dreamers.
*Kazin argues, with some force, that some folks with far left economic views had a much greater influence in on American socio-cultural views about race, gender, and sexual orientation. He probably overstates the importance of radicals here, as elsewhere, but it’s worth noting he sees cultural radicals as far more successful than economic ones in the long run of American history.