“In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.”
Jean-Paul SartreAll the various media platforms I follow are doing their end-of-the-year specials. I thought about doing one, too, but it feels too much like spinning my wheels in a snowdrift.
All the summarizing of recent events makes me think about the trajectory of various other things, though, such as the broader scope of history that brought us up to this point that we're at at the end of 2022.
It was talking with longtime Green Party activist, and at this point, my old friend Nathalie Paravicini over Christmas Eve dinner that got my mental juices flowing with regards to writing an RIP for the US left, though. It's notable when someone who's been consistently involved with organizing for over two decades, who was once the co-chair of the national Green Party when it was at its peak, to comment that "the left is dead."
I'll hasten to add here that both Nathalie and I are fairly obviously committed to the notion of revitalizing the US left, which should be evident in terms of what the both of us are up to in life. But the comment rings true not only to me, but to so many others I've talked to, particularly since last February.
The entirety of Ukraine became a battlefield in February, and this has dominated the year-end summaries across the western press. In many other countries there have been large and spirited popular demonstrations calling for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, or rejecting the idea that NATO bears no responsibility for starting -- or negotiating an end to -- this conflict. But not here in the country that is providing the vast majority of the military aid to Ukraine.
In fact, though annual military spending in the US has grown from $700 billion when Biden was Vice President to more than $850 billion now that he's the commander-in-chief, as US-made bombs continue to rain down and cause death and destruction in a country that is currently facing famine as a result -- I'm talking about Yemen, of course -- the last really largescale demonstration against US militarism that I'm aware of that has taken place in the nation's capital was in the fall of 2005.
How did we get here, to this point where the notion of the workers of the world being pitted against each other and killing each other en masse isn't even worth someone organizing a protest that involves more than a handful of people calling for negotiations, or even making a pretense of attempting to hold the empires behind the conflict responsible for their long histories of imperial slaughter?
I often think of that quote of Jean-Paul Sartre I opened with. Perhaps a little more in the wake of the World Cup. In that final, very dramatic match, there was nothing inevitable about Argentina's victory over France, which came down to penalty kicks. It could very easily have gone the other way, despite all the narrative about Messi's supposed destiny and all that.
Most activists and organizers coming out of leftwing movements tend to cling to a kind of revolutionary optimism. They know there's no chance of a campaign succeeding -- let alone a chance for a bigger kind of success like the creation of an egalitarian society -- without optimism. They know there's no hope without hope. The great orators among them like to say things like "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Whether they really believe this stuff is often another matter.
I first met Bob Steck when I was in my twenties, and he was in his seventies. When I was born, Bob was the age I am now, incidentally -- 55. Bob died 15 years ago. He was born in 1912 and grew up among the socialist farmers of the midwest. As a young man he went east, and spent most of his adult life living in or in the general vicinity of New York City and the Hudson Valley, which is where I met him, in northwestern Connecticut.
When I met Bob he was recently retired from spending thirty years teaching history to high school students. Bob played an outsized role in the history of the twentieth century himself. He answered the call to go to Spain and join the Republican side of what they called the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Bob spent much of his time there in one of Franco's prisons, was incorrectly judged while there not to be Jewish by German Nazis who visited one day (Bob had a very small nose), and narrowly avoided execution, by being part of a prisoner exchange, coming back to New York two years after he hiked over the Pyrenees Mountains to join the war.
Bob and I talked a lot about history. Actually, it was almost all we talked about. Bob's assessment of the history of human civilization was that the main thing that characterized the whole process was the conflict between the haves and the have-nots. Although his most life-defining event involved losing a war to the forces of fascism, which ruled Spain for several decades after the war ended, despite his disillusionment with the Communist Party over time, Bob was an eternal optimist. His wife, Jo, was not, which made for many slightly tense moments in the conversations in which she deigned to participate, though mostly she just let him be his optimistic self with little more than the occasional eye-roll.
I think about Bob because there are so many other moments in history that bear some resemblance to the Spanish Civil War -- moments of great promise that ultimately don't go as hoped. The history of the US left is full of such moments.
This is also true of the history of Spain and many, many other countries. My focus in this little missive is the US left, but for those paying attention to global news, there are key moments in countries often discussed as places full of corruption and dominated by gang violence, where things were going in a very different direction, and would very likely have continued to do so, if not for US intervention.
Haiti under Aristide was producing most of the food the people needed. The US backed the coup that overthrew him, and put a stop to that. When the recent history of Haiti is talked about in the news, they rarely go back as far as the 1990's, when the popularly-elected priest-turned-president was overthrown with Papa Bush's approval. Would Haiti be in the disastrous situation it's now in without the US undermining Haitian democracy for centuries? We'll never know. Would there be so many refugees fleeing Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador if the US had not so severely undermined all of these societies by supporting military dictatorships, or by stealing their money and sanctioning their economy, in the case of Venezuela? We'll never know.
Back to the US. If we're following my autopsy narrative, there are certain key moments in history where the left, or what we may for our purposes refer to as the left, was in a tremendously influential position in society, to the point where everything was at a sort of crossroads, and then the opposing team -- the powers-that-be, the state, the ruling class, the 1% -- developed their strategy and made some new moves that changed the equation, or perhaps they were (also) aided by external events in changing all the rules.
My autopsy could begin in 1919. The Industrial Workers of the World had achieved things that no other organization had done before. They formed a nationwide union with millions of members and millions more supporters that emphatically welcomed the working class into the fold regardless of race, gender, or national origin. With their popularity and pioneering tactics, they had become such a threat to the status quo that the US government saw fit, for the first time in its existence, to form a national police force, which they called the FBI. After all the World War 1 propaganda and so many prison sentences meted out to members of the IWW who opposed the war, along with prison sentences on so many trumped-up charges, after the execution of Joe Hill by firing squad and so much more, the IWW was still a major force in US society. With the formation of the FBI, two years to the day after the Russian Revolution, the Palmer Raids were launched, which saw union halls burned to the ground all over the country, many people killed, tens of thousands rounded up, thousands deported to Europe, the entire leadership arrested or forced to flee the country.
These concerted efforts to destroy the radical, multiracial American union movement of the day did not succeed in immediately wiping out the IWW, but they were the beginning of the end of this working class movement's heyday. The 1920's saw some impressive outbursts of activity -- including the biggest armed uprising of workers in US history, which was also a very multiracial one, in West Virginia. But by and large, the radical labor movement had been suppressed, and wouldn't have a sustained resurgence until after the stock market crashed in 1929.
The 1930's saw another moment that was pivotal, and could have gone in so many different ways. The ruling class feared an armed uprising led by left elements prior to FDR's ascension to power. The New Deal dampened such talk dramatically, with so many more people benefitting from government programs to feed, house, and employ the formerly hungry, unhoused, and unemployed. Unions succeeded in their organizing campaigns more and more throughout the 1930's, despite the Great Depression and chronic unemployment across the country, because the federal government did not oppose their efforts, very unlike a generation earlier, when it was the IWW rather than the IWW's heir, the Congress of Industrial Organizations doing the organizing.
This progressive government was the one that brought the US into World War 2, which was far from the overwhelmingly popular war depicted in the history books. My great aunt Betty Chamberlain's journalism during those years attested to this fact, with so many accounts of those who had many questions about the situation they found themselves in, with so many of the young men drafted and gone to fight the Japanese Empire on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
1946 was the biggest year for wildcat strikes to date, a clear indication that there was still a tremendously militant working class movement, the same left movement that had been so dominant on the streets of every city in the country as well as in so much of the countryside, throughout the 1930's. How might this movement have developed, if not for the very concerted efforts of the bipartisan US ruling class in rekindling what had become the latent Cold War with what had just been their wartime ally, the Soviet Union? If the US ruling class hadn't then seen fit to make the war economy permanent, what possibilities might have existed for an internationalist socialist movement in the US, of the sort that was thriving in the 1930's? We'll never know, but if we look at Scandinavia and many other countries in Europe where this Cold War system and extreme military spending did not become the norm, and where similarly large and militant labor movements also existed in the 1930's, perhaps we can guess.
Without such forces in the ascendancy, fighting against so many forms of inequality, the US instead saw a retrenchment of the forces of racial apartheid and anti-communist propaganda, and war after war, both overt and covert, waged against popular movements and elected governments across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and parts of Europe as well, in the post-World War 2 period.
With the rise of the movements for racial equality in the 1950's and 60's, more moments of tremendous possibility. What might have come of the Poor People's March on Washington Martin Luther King was preparing to lead, if not for his assassination? On a broader level, how might the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement -- two largescale and extremely popular, nationwide mass movements -- have developed if not for the FBI's nationwide campaign of disinformation and violence against these groups, including dozens of assassinations and heretofore unknown forms of subterfuge, as documented in the Cointelpro papers? We'll never know.
In my own adult life, constituting the 1980's to the present, by far the most hopeful period of radical left potential was represented by the global justice movement that could be said to have begun with the uprising of the Zapatistas in response to the devastating North American Free Trade Agreement coming into effect on January 1st, 1994, and seizing the attention of people across the United States with the popular movement in Seattle that saw the meetings of the World Trade Organization shut down in November, 1999.
This movement was truly global, and represented the first time in decades in this country when there was a real understanding being forged between the labor and environmental movements, and so many others who saw the commonality of their cause against the capitalist machine that sought to both destroy our environment and keep our wages as low as possible. With the rise of the internet, global alliances were forming at a rapid pace, and the global elite could hardly meet anywhere on the planet without tens or hundreds of thousands of protesters shutting down or seriously curtailing their fancy meetings.
In the US, this movement was one that began and grew under the rule of a Democratic president (Bill Clinton), and as such, it bore none of the hallmarks of a partisan movement that was hoping things might get better with the election of another Democrat. We had a Democrat, and he was all for mass incarceration, oil drilling, and speeding up the global race to the bottom with free trade agreements aimed at circumventing regulation by elected governments and lowering environmental and labor standards everywhere.
With the election of George W. Bush, this movement didn't lose steam, though it continued to face widespread police brutality and serious efforts on the part of the corporate media and police departments at disinformation. What succeeded in taking the steam out of the global justice movement in the US -- though not in many other countries -- were the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. The movement proved unable to meet the challenge of the new circumstances, with the rise of rabid patriotism and nationalism in the US, and the massive mobilization of the militarized security state, for which 9/11 was the perfect excuse. And then there was the widespread propaganda associating the global justice movement with Al-Qaeda.
Where might the global justice movement have led, if not for this huge turn of events? We'll never know.
The next moment in my historical narrative when so many people in the US came together with hope for real change was in November, 2007, when Barack Obama was elected president. With great naivete, millions of people, both within and outside of the US, actually, believed Obama was going to prosecute war criminals from the previous administration and enact policies that would greatly improve the lives of the working class. Not that he ever said he would do either of these things, but nonetheless there was a widespread belief in this kind of thing happening, and it's why so many people got involved with his campaign, along with his spellbinding oratory and good looks.
Despite, at the beginning, controlling both houses of Congress, the Obama administration continued Bush's bailout of the banks, without any meaningful bailout of the people, who lost their homes in numbers not seen since the Great Depression. The banks got bailed out, and none of the thieves running them did a day in prison for their financial crimes against society. The people lost their homes or saw the cost of staying in them skyrocket, while the bankers that immiserated them got off scot-free, just like the war criminals who tortured their terrorist suspects at black sites all over the world under the previous administration.
How might the politics and the polarization in the US have developed during and in the wake of the Obama administration, if not for its failure to live up to the hopes of so many, its failure to meet the growing needs of the growing numbers of struggling Americans, whose expenses continued to rise as their earnings continued to stagnate? What if the hope so many people placed in his election saw war criminals imprisoned, troops withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the people bailed out from the financial crisis of 2008, rather than the banks? What if, instead, criminal bankers were also prosecuted and sent to prison, instead of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning? We'll never know.
If even a Democrat's Democrat like Obama can't be against militarism or put the brakes on runaway capitalist insanity in this country's ridiculous real estate market, then who shall people turn to? With so much of what might be identified as the left morally invested in the idea that despite all evidence to the contrary, this man is a progressive like FDR or something, where do reasonable people turn? Who gets to harness this antiwar sentiment, this sentiment against US taxpayers supporting all of these imperial occupations of other countries, seeing their sons and daughters killed or returning home broken? Not the we-must-support-Obama left, that's for damn sure.
If there was still an organized left left that opposed militarism, we'd be seeing it on the streets today, but it has never returned to the streets of our capital cities in any significant way in many years. Opposing militarism, empire, and what they like to call the Deep State is now increasingly the purview of the right, since these positions seem to have been abdicated by the left. By the same token, since the collapse of the global justice movement in the US, opposition to free trade deals is now also the domain of the right as well. (If this seems strange, it's probably because you're over 40, remember the global justice movement and the antiwar movement that followed its demise, and haven't gotten used to our new reality yet.)
What if the right hadn't managed to capture the hearts of so many people who are tired of sending troops to other countries and seeing their children die or come home broken? What if the right hadn't managed to convince so many people that with their opposition to some free trade deals, they are more interested in the prosperity of the forgotten man? What if the left had somehow managed to cut through the news and make the case for internationalism, solidarity, socialism, and opposition to unregulated capitalist insanity, and of course undemocratic free trade deals and invasions of other countries, by opposing the Obama administration's wars and bank bailouts loudly and in the streets in large numbers? We'll never know.
To be clear, in all these cases I'm not just describing missed opportunities, but an opposing team consisting of the leadership of both ruling parties, that understands the threat it faces from an organized left, and will tend to do everything possible to destroy any sufficiently threatening movements of the left that arise, through all kinds of different means, some of which may lead to radioactive fallout.
My biggest hope isn't that the next iteration of a left mass movement in this country finally manages to defeat the forces of capitalism, apartheid, and empire, to be honest. My biggest hope is that my children might live to see such a movement have a chance to exist at all, in a world that has not yet been forever transformed by its first nuclear winter. There's certainly nothing inevitable about such a movement managing to arise before that happens. But I can dream.
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