The Historical Task of the Left in the Present Period

Senator Bernie Sanders and National Nurses United President RoseAnn DeMoro at a People's Rally for social and economic justice, Washington, D.C., November 18, 2016 (Lorie Shaull / Flickr)

Nothing like the title of this article has ever appeared in Dissent. It is a line frequently used by Joseph Stalin, and according to all the transcripts of his speeches, it was always followed by “Prolonged Applause.” But this seems the right historical moment to take it back. It originally was the beginning of the sentence that came in response to the question: “What ought to be done?”

So, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, when populist nationalism and brutal xenophobia threaten the liberal order in Europe, when democracy is on the defensive everywhere (and social democracy more so), when immigrants and minorities are at risk in every European country and now in the United States too, when neoliberal economics is dominant and the working class is pinched more severely than it has been since World War Two—what is the historical task of the left?

I have friends who are ready to put their bodies between the police and the first immigrant they try to arrest. All of us are planning to register as Muslims if there ever is a Muslim registry. One city after another is declaring itself a safe haven for the undocumented. Some liberals and leftists are wearing safety pins—and others are calling this much too small a gesture. But right now all this is gestural. It is important to imagine ways to resist the far-right momentum of a Trump government. But nothing that I have read about “resistance” points to a serious political strategy. Some good and not-so-good tactical suggestions have appeared online, but they don’t answer the “historical task” question.

I don’t think the question is easy; nor do I have an overall strategy to offer. But there are three historical tasks that we should be thinking about.


1) We need a sharp leftist analysis and critique of what is going on. The 836 accounts of why Hilary Clinton lost the election don’t count as the needed analysis. For one thing, center-left parties everywhere are in the same kind of trouble, so the particularities of Hilary’s loss are chiefly of local interest. They are not entirely unimportant: the interference of the FBI in an American election, the extreme naiveté of the Democrats about Russian hacking, and the rapid spread and apparent effectiveness of fake news should serve as lessons for leftists everywhere. But we need to attend to material, political, and psychological factors at work internationally.

We already have some excellent analyses and critiques of neoliberal economics, and these have been followed more recently by strong journalistic accounts of the harms done by austerity policies to the most vulnerable people. But we still need a better understanding of the political and psychological responses to those harms. Neoliberalism is no longer just an economic doctrine. It is the ideology of a triumphant capitalism. What is “new” is the extent of the triumph; we’ve been surprised by that, and our intellectual response has been slow. We’ve also been slow to recognize the dangers of populism—think of British Labour before the Brexit vote or of American liberals and leftists before November 8.

Populist nationalism is not the same thing as neoliberalism; it may even challenge some neoliberal orthodoxies. But the two are nonetheless closely related. Populism today is a politics made possible by austerity and neglect—by the indifference to men and women in trouble that neoliberalism has fostered. Populist demagogues claim to uplift those people, but since they do nothing to alter the power relations of the neoliberal economy or its colonized states, there is no genuine uplift. Populism can, however, be frighteningly effective in degrading the supposed enemies of the people, the scapegoated “others”: immigrants and minorities.

All this needs to be, as they say in the academy, “theorized.” But the current theoretical debate about the relative importance of identity politics and class struggle isn’t terribly helpful. There is nothing like the classic “working class,” neglected by Democratic politicians, waiting to be mobilized. The people we need to reach are a radically mixed group. They are economically mixed: they include unemployed men and women, old people without adequate pensions, part-time workers, rust belt workers with new jobs that pay much less than they once earned, workers without union protection and with few benefits, and the rural poor—all of them frighteningly vulnerable, watching anxiously for the next downturn. And they are mixed in their identities: black and white, Hispanic and Asian, men and women, gay and straight. These people could form what Charles Mills (in the Fall 2015 issue of Dissent) called “a transracial coalition of the disadvantaged.” But first they must come to see that their difficulties are not theirs alone. Think of them as a class in formation—or, in the old language, a class in itself but not yet for itself. How can we advance the formation? That is the question we should be debating.


2) Theory is hard, but the practical political work of the next few years is all too obvious; it is the defensive version of standard left activism. We have to defend what’s left of the gains of post–Second World War social democracy. The right-wing attack is extraordinarily ambitious: against immigrants, unions, public schools, health care, welfare generally, and the still inadequate constraints on environmental damage. In resisting these attacks we obviously need to join any coalition that offers some chance of success. But we also need to muster a specifically left defense of what was, however incomplete, a specifically left achievement. Our reasons for defending the existing health care system, for example, should also be arguments for its radical improvement. The defense of public education requires also an expanded account of the public and of the meaning of democratic citizenship.

We should promote a militancy all our own, identifiable as leftist, social democratic, or socialist in form and content. Think of this as the continuation of Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign—though we cannot depend on the energy and unexpected charisma of one old man. We need bench strength, which we haven’t had in a long time: many Bernies or, even better, many Michael Harringtons, Norman Thomases, Dorothy Days, and Eugene Debses. In any case, we need men and women speaking the language of the left at meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and marches.

Though I hope defense isn’t our permanent posture, there are advantages in defensive politics (as in defensive warfare). We are defending values that are more widely held than our numbers suggest. We have strong positions from which to fight, and when we fight for the nearby public school, or the teachers’ union, or the immigrant family down the block, or for city air that we can breathe, we will find allies. And some of these allies, in the course of the battle, will come to recognize themselves as leftists. In recent decades, social democratic and welfarist politics has been called boring; the defense of social democracy against a ferocious assault won’t be boring at all.


3) But fighting from the left isn’t all we have to do. The dangers we face today are not dangers only to the achievements of the left—to the welfare state and the multicultural society. Constitutional democracy is also at risk. I can’t say how great the risk is; talk about “fascism” seems reckless to me right now. But we are facing a moment of the sort that William Butler Yeats described in a famous poem:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed…

One of the historical tasks of the left in the present period is to help hold the center.

Some of our comrades won’t find this congenial work. I have friends who had to hold their noses to vote for Hilary Clinton—and a few who couldn’t stand the “stink” and refused to vote for her. But I also have a wiser friend who explained why he found the vote easy. Don’t think, he said, of your own scruples; think of the welfare of the most vulnerable people in the country. And then vote, gladly, for the candidate who minimizes their vulnerability. That maxim should guide our politics today. What the most vulnerable people need right now is the protection afforded by a strong constitutionalism. The defense of civil liberties and civil rights in the name of the constitution—this is a centrist politics. So whatever else we do, we have to work with other Americans to rebuild what Arthur Schlesinger years ago called the “vital center.”

Are there other Americans to work with? The “responsible” Republicans who, some of us thought, would hold the center by rejecting Trump turned out to be few in number—and those few not exactly courageous. But I still believe that there are men and women, liberal and conservative, ready to defend the constitution when it is directly attacked, as it will be. We may need to buck them up—and then stand with them.

More than this: we should work closely with anyone who believes in civil discourse, who respects the truth, and who is ready to live with political and religious disagreement. Does she defend the social hierarchy? Does he think that free enterprise is the be-all and end-all of economic life? Are they more ready than we are to use force abroad? Those are arguments we need to have and should not give up, but we still have to join with people like these wherever we find them—so that the center holds.

In fact, of course, the survival of a vital center is also the precondition of an active left. Never think that “the blood-dimmed tide” is a threat only to immigrants and minorities. It is a threat to all of us: dissidents of every sort, union organizers, left intellectuals, feminists, peaceniks, men and women of conscience, students discovering Marx, teachers who don’t like standardized tests, and journalists who write about the misdeeds of the rich and powerful. We all need constitutional protection; we all need a center that holds. We have to stand in the center and on the left at the same time. That may be complicated, but it is our historical task.


Michael Walzer is editor emeritus of Dissent.

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