[Marxism] Toward a Strategy for the U.S. Left

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 2 07:22:12 MDT 2013

In the Wake of Occupy
Toward a Strategy for the U.S. Left
By Luke Elliott

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

In January 2012, Occupy Nashville forced a $20,000 mortgage principal 
reduction from JP Morgan Chase and saved the home of 78-year-old Helen 
Bailey, a former Civil Rights activist. From the outside, this modest 
but significant victory seemed natural, like a wave – the crisis of 2008 
produced Occupy Wall Street, which spawned Occupy Nashville, which had 
the momentum to force a major bank to sacrifice a bit of profit to avoid 
further public shaming.

But from the inside, this victory was the result of something much more 
specific. After several months of networking and finger wiggling, a 
group of Occupy Nashville participants decided to pick a fight and win 
it. The ‘housing working group’ was the first to form around an issue, 
rather than tactics and logistics (e.g. the ‘direct action’ group). This 
enabled them to develop a strategy, sequence a set of tactics, and enact 
a viable plan that resulted in a tangible outcome.

Slavoj Žižek may have been a touch too gleeful when he warned Occupiers 
that ‘carnivals come cheap’ – but he made an important point. Both 
carnivals and strategic organizing projects come and go; but successful 
organizing leaves a residue, in the form of material gains for people 
struggling to survive. When he is not busy lobbing quasi-useful jabs at 
the Occupy movement, Žižek pushes the world to re-evaluate ‘the idea of 
communism’, attempting to liberate it from its historical association 
with Stalinism and the USSR. But there is a massive void between the 
idea of communism – which in and of itself is a kind of intellectual 
carnival – and the practice of strategic organizing. It is the goal of 
any serious left formation to fill this gap and link innovative radical 
analysis to strategic practice.

A quick scan of the United States reveals a goodly number of leftists 
who are engaged in strategically-driven projects: for poor and working 
class people, immigrants, people of color, women and a number of other 
subjugated groups. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has successfully 
pushed a dozen or so major corporations to join their Fair Food Program 
in as many years. Since the 1980s, UNITE HERE (then just ‘HERE’) has 
combined worker organizing, electoral politics and anti-corporate 
campaigning to win a number of large victories. In the last few years, 
the Dreamers have used a range of creative tactics to move the Obama 
administration on immigration policy, setting the stage for the 
possibility of significant reforms in his second term. There certainly 
is not enough scaled, strategic organizing, as any observer of the 
dwindling U.S. labor movement will tell you. But it does exist.

As important as these various organizing initiatives are however, they 
stop far short of constituting a full-blown left. Bill Fletcher Jr. and 
Carl Davidson write that there are two and a half lefts in the United 
States: the social movement left, described above; the ‘organized left’, 
in the form of small, mostly sectarian or regional anti-capitalist 
political organizations; and finally, the ‘lone rangers’ (see: this 
author), who have no political affiliation and minimal structural impact 
beyond perhaps writing, teaching, agitating or performing music. There 
is certainly nothing in the United States like the range and scale of 
political organization that has given rise to popular left front SYRIZA 
in the wake of Greece’s financial crisis. The U.S. is filled with 
leftists; what it lacks is a left with power.

However, this was not always the case. Even a cursory reading of U.S. 
history reveals the impact of organized communists, socialists, and 
occasionally anarchists on some of the most important movements of the 
20th century. Labor strategy and organization in the 1930s was deeply 
influenced by the Communist Party (CP), and in cities like New York, 
communists had a positive impact well into the middle of the century. 
Indeed, before becoming a vibrant Civil Rights leader, Ella Baker spent 
time in the City and once said in an interview quoted by Charles Payne, 
“I don’t think we have any more effective demonstration of organizing 
people for whatever purpose [than the Communist Party].” The reactionary 
right often derided the Civil Rights movement as heavily communist, and 
they were not entirely incorrect; communist influence spread deep into 
the south, helping to move forward the nascent Civil Rights movement, as 
the experience of the young Ella Baker illustrates.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons from the history of the 
organized left in America come from 1930s’ New York, where left labor 
unions, the Communist Party and the American Labor Party (ALP) wielded 
incredible influence. The Communist-led Congress of Industrial 
Organizations (CIO) unions were far more likely than their American 
Federation of Labor (AFL) counterparts to strategize for the benefit of 
the working class as a whole, and their racial and gender politics were 
far more progressive. But the left built power in the city beyond just 
the workplace. Joshua Freeman writes that in 1945, the New York City 
Counsel boasted two open Communists and two ALPers, one of whom received 
more votes than any other candidate. The benefits of this practical 
radicalism were obvious: mid-century New York City claimed the most 
comprehensive rent control laws in the country, hundreds of thousands of 
units of public housing, and a dirt-cheap public transit system – all 
thanks in large part to the efforts of Communist-led and influenced 
organizations. Such history makes clear the correlation between 
strategic left-oriented organization and tangible outcomes for poor and 
working class people.

By some significant measures, the influence of the organized left in the 
early to mid 20th century was stronger in New York City than anywhere 
else. But New York was certainly not the only part of the country 
inhabited by the organized left. Martin Lipset and Gary Marks describe 
the zenith of Communist Party influence in U.S. politics from 1935-1939. 
During those years, the Party followed a ‘Popular Front’ strategy, 
engaging meaningfully with liberal organizations throughout the country. 
They successfully influenced elections in 35 of 48 states, and held 
significant control of the Democratic Party structure in four. 
Additionally, CP members organized a wide range of student, religious 
and farm groups. And perhaps most importantly, their leadership and 
militancy in many CIO unions, especially the United Auto Workers, was 
fundamental to the formation of the American middle class.

McCarthy era repression and left purges changed all of this, and the 
U.S. is still feeling the effects. In excruciating detail, Freeman 
documents the assault on Communists and other radicals. In addition to a 
long list of anti-labor revisions to the National Labor Relations Act, 
the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act forced anyone who stood before the National 
Labor Relations Board to take an anti-Communist oath. In union after 
union, anti-Communist fervor spread, and those of a conservative ilk 
replaced strong left leadership. At times the anti-Communist wave was 
inauspiciously mixed with anti-black and anti-Jewish racism to form a 
violent brew: a Paul Robeson concert in 1949 was attacked by 
anti-Communist racists who threw rocks, beat some attendees and even 
burned a cross – not in the deep south, but in the distinctly northern 
town of Peekskill, New York. By the mid-1950s, the Communist Party was 
relegated to the shadows, the ALP was long gone, and labor union 
leadership was measurably more conservative, setting the stage for 
labor’s demise.

Today a common narrative suggests that the dwindling U.S. labor movement 
and corresponding rise in inequality are tied directly to globalization 
and outsourcing, cemented by Reagan’s assault on organized labor. But it 
is no coincidence that labor’s decline followed a full frontal assault 
on communists and socialists of all stripes who held significant 
leadership positions in the movement. Given the dynamics of capitalism, 
globalization feels inevitable. But U.S. labor’s lackluster response to 
a rapidly changing economy is also the product of a leadership purged of 
any radical political orientation – which inevitably resulted in myopic, 
industrially specific responses to labor outsourcing.

In a material sense, the decline of labor is tied intimately to the 
decline of the left. If a new left is to emerge today, invigorating the 
labor movement and building power for a whole host of oppressed groups, 
it must combine the two and a half lefts elaborated by Fletcher and 
Davidson to build a strategic left practice. Throughout academia and in 
a handful of independent presses, there are ‘lone rangers’ creating 
radical consciousness, but with no corresponding strategic program. The 
social movement left is waging inspiring battles and winning many 
important victories against monolithic corporations and entrenched 
elected officials. But their efforts are regional, local or narrowly 

Sadly, not much needs to be said Fletcher and Davidson’s so-called 
organized left. The U.S. boasts but a small handful of non-sectarian, 
mass-based political organizations: namely the Vermont Progressive Party 
and the Working Families Party, which operates in two of the five states 
that allow fusion voting. But while their electoral and legislative 
impact is compelling, both parties remain geographically constrained, 
and neither has used their engagement with the many organizations that 
constitute them to build a fully radical, powerful, tactically creative, 
mass-based movement.

But certainly the lessons, conditions and elements exist for such a 
comprehensive organization to emerge. The limits of sectarianism and the 
horrors of Stalinism are clear and suggest the need for an open-minded 
and non-authoritarian approach to left movement building. Meanwhile, the 
Civil Rights, Black Power, feminist, immigrant rights, gay rights and a 
host of other mid and late 20th century movements have made it clear 
that class need not be the fundamental identity of vibrant left 
organization. At the same time, the crisis of 2008 has accelerated an 
inequality that has been steadily rising since 1980 – and the economic 
hits are more extreme for black and brown Americans. Economic class is 
still a vital point of departure, even as new organizational formations 
become more conscious and strategically inclusive of an array of 
structural oppressions. And finally, the history of left organization in 
the 1930s and nascent political formations today, point toward the 
potential of a radical, mass-based political organization that is 
constituted by but independent of labor unions, community organizations, 
left academia and the many other entities that compose liberal civil 

And indeed something like this began to emerge in the first month of 
Occupy Nashville: union local presidents and organizers, Civil Rights 
leaders past and present, immigrant rights organizers, student radicals, 
social workers, professors, progressive elected officials and many more 
were regularly at the encampment. The energy was palpable. Occupy 
capitalized on a collective anger and transformed it into a sense of 
possibility. In some limited situations, that possibility became 
actuality. The ‘housing working group’ that snatched Helen Bailey’s home 
from the hands of JP Morgan Chase is now the Nashville Housing Rights 
Campaign. They are currently taking on one of the city’s most egregious 
‘slum’ landlords. An anarchist reading and action group formed through 
Occupy Nashville and continues to boast significant membership. Many 
smaller collaborative projects also emerged from the stir of the encampment.

But there is no doubt that Occupy Nashville was also a missed 
opportunity. Nearly every organization that would constitute a 
mass-based, strategically oriented left was present. But no one knew 
quite what to do. Rather than attempt to build the improbable by uniting 
the two and a half lefts, it was easier to jump into the immediately 
practical or retreat into the ideologically abstract. As the encampment 
faded, the two and a half lefts were not much closer to forming a 
mass-based movement than when the first tent was pitched.

Occupy has offered countless lessons through its many success and 
failures. But one lesson is particularly important for the future of the 
U.S. left: It is not enough to gather together, absent a plan. It is 
important. It is fun. In some significant ways, it is radical. But 
without a viable plan for poor and working class people of all colors, 
genders and sexual orientations to build power, the gathering will fade. 
And what it leaves behind, however important, will be rife with many of 
the same limitations that have faced the U.S. left for decades.

Occupy offered affirmative lessons as well: If strategic left entities 
are to form today, the city will be their birthing ground. Antonio Hardt 
and Michael Negri suggest that the city is for leftists today what the 
factory was in the 19th and 20th centuries. Where past 
Marxist-influenced left efforts focused on organizing factory employees, 
new left projects must organize all of those vibrant but subjugated 
people who constitute the urban environment. Vast theoretical 
limitations notwithstanding, Hardt and Negri offer a tangible starting 
point for a new left, one that is corroborated by the experience of 
Occupy: the city.

 From New York to Nashville, from Boston to Los Angeles, the city is 
vibrant and contradictory: diverse, creative and liberal, but dominated 
by wealth, developers and landlords. U.S. cities are governed by 
capital, but constituted by a vast array of labor unions, community 
organizations, tenant rights groups, feminist organizations, anti-racist 
formations and more.

There is power in the city. In 2005, the Transit Workers Union Local 100 
crippled New York, shutting down the subway with an ‘illegal’ strike and 
winning their contract demands in short time. And just weeks ago, in 
2013, the bus drivers in New York City struck for job security, slowing 
the economy as parents spent extra time getting their children to 
school. One can only imagine the results if such militant tactics were 
used as instruments of a strategically oriented, popular left, fighting 
for goals broader than individual contracts. It would quickly become 
clear just who actually creates and controls urban capital.


When Occupy Nashville successfully tore property from the hands of JP 
Morgan Chase, one lesson was clear: there is wisdom in picking fights 
that are winnable. But another lesson was latent: there is also wisdom 
in re-positioning, such that new and larger battles can be fought 
successfully. The task of the two and a half U.S. lefts is to 
re-position themselves and the countless people and organizations that 
constitute them, to build real, tangible and long-lasting power for poor 
and working people of all colors, genders and sexual orientations.

The first step, as with all tangible left projects, involves organizing: 
Members of the social movement and lone ranger lefts pushing one another 
to form an organized left.

Sitting in the same room together and making a plan.

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