As a member of what most people would consider the political left, I am often flabbergasted and let down by my colleagues (or in this context, my comrades). The history of leftist coalitions is one of faction and division. The 1960s and the aftermath of all its rage and radical politics showed little progress, in some cases facing strong backlash. The United States began a forty year turn to the right, joined by many European democracies. 1968 saw a devastating defeat for anti-Vietnam elements and the rise of Richard Nixon. There were also setbacks in the student’s revolt in Mexico, and the events of May in France; a series of unprecedented general strikes created a socialist opposition to Charles De Gaulle that took his government to the brink of collapse. Yet a few weeks later the conservative establishment was in firm control of France, convincing winners of snap elections.
It is not easy to pin down why so many leftist movements, so many pivotal moments in history where change was possible, have ended in disappointment. In modern times, some of this is capitalist force, who can influence and control governments. There is also an inevitable, perhaps logical conservative backlash, as many people are reluctant to move into an unknown world. The events of 1968 in the United States led to a split between those that wanted change and those that valued law and order. Nixon was the personification of the law and order politician who continue to hold the reins of power in America.
One of the main reasons, speaking personally, is that the values of leftist ideology do not often lead towards true solidarity. Solidarity as a political term is almost entirely associated with socialists, anarchists, and other strains of the left- but has little to do with the dictionary definition. The emphasis on free speech, which seen as less critical in fascist, monarchist, or conservative forces, can cause a falling out between groups that outsiders might see as natural allies. As many groups may view coercive authority antithetical to their ideology, there may be a mantra much like that in Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name”- “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!”
What cannot be discounted, though, is the urge for ideological supremacy. While the idea of a broad coalition of all stripes of the leftist spectrum is appealing, there is also the feeling that one type of Communism, or anarchism, is the true way to run a new society. Thus the usual political backstabbing, intimidation, and splintering commences- the splits created before, during, and after the Russian Revolution show that groups with many important commonalities will be ruthless with one another to gain dominance.
There is a media group called Indybay, one of the results of the 1999 World Trade Organization protest, colloquially known as the “Battle of Seattle.” As a counter to mainstream media, it helps keep track of progressive and leftist action- picket lines, anti-war protests, discussion groups. While I often find events that interest me and are valuable, they often link back to the same few groups, often with a sharp agenda to cast over the social action. In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting, I attended a small march of about fifty people in downtown Oakland. What I eventually found out is that the march was organized by the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and that the speeches being made over the microphone were by RCP members.
Often during the protest, the leader would say things like “I think we need a revolution, don’t you?” I found the interjection of Communist ideology into a protest about racial injustice to be unnecessary if not distasteful. Most disconcerting was that in the rally before marching, white activists dominated the speaking time, despite the majority of protestors being black. Having these few radicals telling a group of people of color what the Trayvon Martin shooting meant was insulting- after all, much of the crowd had been the victim of serious racial injustice, or had family that were victims.
The Occupy protests produced optimism- often the people involved had never engaged in overt activism, or talked about bedrock issues of globalization, capitalism, and corruption. This feeling was soured by members often ignoring rules- rules set by consensus about how the meetings and the larger protest would be run. Some people who didn’t believe in any kind of authority allowed potentially dangerous things happen- letting members who were expelled for violent behavior, or bringing contraband that could lead to police action. They were mostly not participating in the assemblies, then afterwards declining to enact subsequent decisions. Such a fundamental disagreement over methods stops a social movement from gaining crucial inertia.
While there is plenty of evidence that a single leader is not needed for an effective social movement- Gene Sharp’s work on nonviolent change has posited that leaderless revolution avoids the inherent vulnerability of high-profile organizers. But in the absence of hierarchy, there must be unity of the masses. A successful union action, for instance, requires both cooperation and ability to weather adversity over a substantial period of time.
Groups can not only be at odds with other leftist groups, they can undermine recruitment of the non-political public. Hard-liners have a strong ability to infiltrate groups that are not particularly radical. The World Worker’s Party (WWP) is the force behind several groups, one being ANSWER, one of the two major anti-war factions in America today, the other being United for Peace and Justice (UPJ).
A key destabilizing factor to unity is the use of wedge issues. ANSWER often gains support by focusing on minority and indigenous rights, while UPJ attempts a more traditional anti-war agenda. This inevitably leads to groups pitted against each other, despite substantial agreement. The unjust and unnecessary as the War in Iraq should be grounds for a united peace rally, instead it is marked by bickering. ANSWER and other WWP shell groups intentionally undermine similar leftist and left-leaning groups in order to gain power. This is especially disconcerting because the WWP is hard-line Marxist-Leninist, and an unapologetic supporter of 20th century butchers such as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. This sense that anyone anti-American is worth defending poisons the well for hesitant people looking to be politically active.
Leftist unity is a difficult thing to achieve- but to combat societal problems it is mandatory. Leftist action is behind the rights of workers and minorities over the past century. There are enough forces working against aggressive social change; fighting over crumbs is a strategy that has no future.