Whither the Socialist Left? Thinking the “Unthinkable”


Published by Portside
March 6, 2013

On February 4, 2010 The Gallop Poll released its latest data on the public’s political attitudes. The headline read: “Socialism Viewed Positively by 36% of Americans.” While the poll did not attempt the daunting task of exploring what a diverse public understood socialism to mean, it nevertheless revealed an unmistakably sympathetic image of a system that had been pilloried for generations by all of capitalism’s dominant instruments of learning and information as well as by its power to suppress and slander socialist ideas and organization.

In sheer numbers, that means a population at the teen-age level and above of tens of millions with a favorable view of socialism.

Why then is the organized socialist movement in the United States so small and so clearly wanting in light of the potential for building its numbers and influence?

That is a crucial question. At every major juncture in the history of the country, radical individuals and organizations in advance of the mainstream have played essential roles in influencing, guiding and consolidating broad currents for social change. In the revolution that birthed this country, radical activists articulated  demands from the grass roots for an uncompromising and transforming revolution to crush colonial oppression. Black and white abolitionists fought to make the erasure of slavery the core objective of the Civil War while also linking that struggle to women’s suffrage and trade unionism. A mass Socialist Party in the early 20th century fought for state intervention to combat the ravages of an increasingly exploitative economic system while advancing the vision of a socialist commonwealth. In the Great Depression, the Communist Party and its allies fought the devastations of the crisis – helping to build popular movements to expand  democracy, grow industrial unions and defend protections for labor embodied in the historic New Deal.

Small left and socialist organizations in the sixties supported a range of progressive struggles from peace to civil rights to women’s liberation to gay rights and beyond. The limited resources of those groups were effective in galvanizing massive peace demonstrations and in campaigns against racist and sexist oppression.
But the Cold War and McCarthyism had eviscerated any hope for a major influential socialist current. Consequently, no large and impacting force existed to extend to the peace movement a coherent anti-imperial analysis that might have contributed to its continuity and readiness to confront the wars of the nineties and the new century. Nor was there a strong socialist organization to contribute to the civil rights struggle by advocating for reform joined to a commitment to deeper social transformation. Had such a current existed, it might have contributed to building a broad protective barrier against the devastating FBI and local police violence against sectors of the movement like the Black Panthers.

There should be little debate today on the left over the need for a strong socialist voice and movement in light of festering economic stagnation, war on the working class, looming environmental catastrophe, a widening chasm between the super-rich and the rest of us, massive joblessness and incarceration savaging African Americans and other oppressed nationalities, crises in health care, housing and education. Such a strong socialist presence could offer a searching analysis of the present situation, help stimulate a broad public debate on short term solutions and formulate a vision of a socialist future that could begin to reach the minds and hearts of the 36 percent who claim to be sympathetic to that vision.

Back to the question: why is there no large respected socialist organization today? The answer is complex and not readily subject to a consensus. The failures of the first socialist wave in the 20th century, the unrelenting demonization of socialism by the dominant political apparatus, internal sectarian cultures and narrow social composition that inhibit outreach to youth and oppressed nationalities – have all contributed to a weak socialist presence.

Doubtless, some if not all, existing socialist organizations would insist that they are growing, respected and effective. That can be argued, but it is valid to acknowledge that existing socialist groups, to one degree or another, have made and continue to make important contributions to the struggle for a just present and better future. This is especially true of the work of individual socialists in various unions and mass organizations.

However, the small size and inadequate resources or socialist organization nearly fatally inhibit their impact and influence. No matter how hard working and principled, small socialist groups are drowned out by the power and pervasiveness of the dominant tools of information and education. The Internet has opened a
window to reaching mass audiences. But socialist websites (if one is successful in locating them) cannot substitute for the indispensable task of organizational outreach, of human beings making direct contact with other human beings, of physical debate and discussion, of well-orchestrated, highly visible mass actions.

The time has come to work for the convergence of socialist organizations committed to non-sectarian democratic struggle, engagement with mass movements, and open debate in search of effective responses to present crises and to projecting a socialist future.

There are socialist organizations already airing  divergent views within their ranks – reflecting  positions that overlap with other socialist  organizations committed to democratic struggle and  socialist education. The Committees of Correspondence  for Democracy and Socialism, the Communist Party USA,  Democratic Socialists of America and the Freedom Road  Socialist Organization have been meeting to explore  areas for cooperation in advancing the fight to defend  the needs and interests of all working people. With  involvement of their members, and with all who  honestly wish a unity project to succeed, those  organizations could constitute a starting point for  other left and socialist groups and individuals to  join as equal participants in building an imaginative,  revitalized socialist presence.

A conversation with a veteran socialist historian about merger brought a nearly apoplectic response: that will never happen; too much history of mutual antagonism; too much institutional self-aggrandizement; too much belief within each organization of their ideological and strategic “certainties,” etc.

His bleak assessment may well be valid. One could list even more problems: the comfort of organizational silos, the complexity of sorting out and merging the physical resources of each organization, selecting a conjoined leadership, lingering political and ideological differences.

It can also be argued that a merger of organizations with a combined membership of a few thousand would still not be large or vibrant enough to make an impact on a country of over 300 million; nor would its combined membership include a sufficient component of youth, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, etc., commensurate with the country’s changing demographics.

That perhaps misses a crucial point. While growth and dynamism are not guaranteed, the open-minded and comradely spirit embodied in a merger could excite and inspire thousands of former members of those organizations to join a new, collaborative entity. Many others impressed by a revitalized commitment by socialists to put aside narrow interests and seek common ground could also be moved to join. The simple declaration of unity and amalgamation by old ideological foes will stir an energized, hopeful response on the left.

Among socialist organizations there is a long tradition of opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia; a concrete record of unwavering struggle for racial and gender justice as indispensable to all working class aspirations. With that experience and consciousness a renewed socialist organization with augmented resources would have the potential to speak directly to young people of color, to the jailed and formerly jailed, to a new generation of students, to teen aged youth, to the large numbers who joined the Occupy movement, the unaffiliated leftists and socialists who have joined the rapidly growing Jacobin journal, Labor Notes, the large Left Forums, the Left Labor Project, etc. Whatever its initial form, an alliance of socialists offers the promise of a continuous, enduring framework for democratic struggle, for discussion, for debate, for learning, for growing – all within a stable, political and organizational environment.

With a visible presence for outreach to emerging but undefined left forces, a merged socialist movement could presumably generate the financial resources to hire and train young organizers. With stronger organization derived from convergence, it could tap latent left and socialist sentiment in “red states,” especially the  South and Midwest that would reawaken the truly national presence of socialism that characterized the Socialist Party in the early 20th century.

Those augmented resources could open up space for expanded socialist education through debate and discussion, through a combination of new publications and continuing publications of the merged organizations, through classes, think tanks and through utilization of the Internet.  The present Online University of the Left is an excellent example of the potential for utilization on a large scale of new technology for socialist education.

Despite the enormous challenges inherent in convergence, there are a number of reasons to anticipate readiness for unified socialist organizing:

  1. First and foremost, the present crisis of world capitalism is systemic. While there will continue to be economic peaks and valleys, the overall prognosis is for enervation and stagnation that will increasingly demonstrate capitalism’s declining ability to provide decent lives for present and future generations.
  2. There is likely agreement among various organizations on the need for a long-range socialist transformation. There is a likely consensus on the validity of Marx’s basic critique of the contradictions inherent in capitalism: increasingly socialized production colliding with private appropriation of the fruits of that production – constituting the key source of the system’s inherent instability. Historically, the relations of production (manifested in social classes) become fetters upon the productive forces (human beings and machinery) – thus requiring the overturning of the old system – socializing the relations of production in order to bring them into harmony with highly socialized productive forces. With globalization of capital that contradiction between social production and private appropriation has itself become global – resulting in the accumulation of unimaginable wealth by a small minority while masses languish in deepening poverty and social misery.
  3. There is likely agreement that both the path to socialism and its essential character are subjects for study, debate and experimentation. There is much to study: the “solidarity economy” posits 21st century socialism with workers’ control of all essential institutions, a market function and imperative ecological concern.  There are a growing number of experiments in cooperatives, workers’ self-management, and local public ownership of energy. Other approaches stress confrontation with corporate power through mass struggle for control of state policy – aiming to expand the public sphere while reducing and eventually eliminating  corporate control of the economy and society. In sum, a new socialist organization will open avenues to fresh, challenging exploration of social transformation.
  4. There is a likely consensus among socialists that “vanguard” organizations and sectarian “cadre” groups have been negated by the existence of a broadly heterogeneous multiracial working class of women and men. The present-day working class and its allies are too diverse to be led by a single, narrowly conceived political current. A renewed socialist organization must reflect that heterogeneity as well as the determination of members to be full, controlling participants in present struggles and in charting a socialist future. The new organization’s structure would likely be neither fully “vertical” nor fully “horizontal.” In the past the former has often undermined democratic participation and the latter (illustrated by the experience of the Occupy movement) has often led to organizational incoherence and stasis.
  5. There is likely agreement that there should be no preexisting, standard for socialist organizing that mandates a “take it or leave it” rigidity. The door should be open to experimentation in exploring both organizational and theoretical issues. There is also likely agreement for the short-and-medium-term at least that a  converged organization should not be formed as party or electoral organization. The electoral issue, a major point of contention on the left, could be a major topic of exploration and debate. There should be no obstacles for those who sincerely wish to join the struggle against the ravages of the system and who seek a socialist alternative. In that regard it is important to note the variety of left and socialist movements around the world worthy of study. Clearly, there is no single “correct” path to 21st century socialism.

Greece, in the midst of existential crisis, has given rise to Syriza, merging a remarkable range of organizations despite sharply different ideological and historical roots into a unified party whose platform rejects austerity, demands the cancellation of Greece’s debt and reform of the European Central Bank. Syriza emerged in 2001 from a group called “Space for Dialogue for the Unity and Common Action of the Left.” In June 2012, Syriza received  almost27% of the vote in parliamentary elections, making it the main opposition party and positioning it as the potential future governing party.

In France, a coalition of left and socialist parties has formed a Left-Front coalition that ran a unified campaign in the last national elections. Germany has “Die Linke,” the Left Party formed from a coalition of the successors to the old ruling party in the German Democratic Republic and a militant West German labor organization. An all-European Left Party is a continental formation of an impressive array of left and socialist parties and organizations. Latin America is perhaps the region with the greatest left and socialist experimentation that generally stresses democratic and participatory engagement at the grass roots in building alternatives to capitalism. The Latin American left in particular has advanced some of the most compelling interpretations of Marx’s thinking concerning the crucial issues of ecological preservation and survival. It has also engendered, country-by-country a variety of social experiments based upon distinct national conditions involving various degrees of mixed, transitional economies on the road to socialism.

Speaking only for myself, I would like to see the creation of an entirely new organization. However, a total merger of organizations at this time can justly be viewed as utopian at best and naïve at worst. One must acknowledge the need for a patient process – for ongoing consultation, for gradual building of mutual comfort and mutual confidence, for a possible stage of confederation or alliance. Crucially, joint activities to defeat austerity and the right wing offensive constitute a sound basis at this juncture on the road to convergence. In the long term, the next generation and generations beyond will determine the form and content of the struggle for social transformation based on changed circumstances that cannot now be fully envisioned.

That does not negate the need for “all deliberate speed” in building an advanced, effective political instrument to help forge the linkages between the economic crisis, the environmental crisis and the crisis of militarism and war. That instrument is needed to help provide political depth and interconnectedness to burgeoning movements on the environment, immigration, gun control, women’s rights, the prison-industrial complex, voting rights, student debt, protection of Social Security and Medicare, jobs and union rights, and the struggle against interventionism and the national security state. Above all, the urgency of the deepening crisis of capitalism demands the political will of socialist organizations to take those bold and resolute steps to forming a strong new alliance capable of having a powerful and lasting impact on the struggle for justice, peace and a socialist future.

[Mark Solomon is past national co-chair of the United States Peace Council and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He is author of The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 and is currently working on a memoir/narrative at the Du Bois Institute at Harvard University on the freedom and peace movements in the 1940s and 1950s.]


Posted by Portside on March 6, 2013

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  • I am sure that not only the United States has difficulty understanding left-wing ideas. The confrontation of the world capitalism ideas of equality, fraternity, justice is clear and understandable. The reasons for the failure of society to understand the basic principles of fair economic model. The difficulty of understanding is expressed in fear to abandon free market, capitalist economic model. Because this model is a basic and rather old in most of the world's economies. The Soviet Union was unable to resist the stubborn agitation for change of economic model. Then followed the changes and the political that led to power-hungry and greedy people.FoldRusse Dictionnaire

    Posted by Vladimir Vol, 10/26/2014 8:57pm (4 years ago)

  • We will achieve unity in struggle. I seriously doubt we will achieve unity, or anything else, through "more discussion." --Jim Lane

    Posted by jim lane, 02/28/2014 7:44pm (5 years ago)

  • Some Special Problems:
    The idea of a merger of socialist organizations that presents a united front to fight the Right-Wing and its corporate allies as well as advance a common socialist vision is a worthy goal. But the American Left faces special problems in creating such a unified Left. The author calls such attempt as ‘thinking the unthinkable.’ Why call it unthinkable? CPs around the world have been in the forefront of creating and unifying socialist and left movements into ‘popular fronts.’ In the US that task has become more difficult as a result of decades of government propaganda, persecution, and purges. Much of the noncommunist Left is reluctant or afraid to join in united front actions and movement building with the communist Left. A renewed socialist movement that unifies the Left would also see the return of McCarthyism. The author also suggests lowering standards of organization, leadership, and ideological goals in order to create an alliance of socialists. He tells us issues of leadership, organization, and ideological goals should be the subjects of ‘discussion and debate.’ What does that mean? Another problem is who should be included in a merged socialist movement? One reason the OWS movement has fizzled out is its lack of organization, leadership, and goals. Its anarchical methods of operating should exclude it from any ‘united front’ or merger of Left organizations and movements. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) anarchical groups would have to hold a ‘town meeting’ first to decide whether or not to obey an order to ‘take the hill.’ Ridiculous. Such groups are more hindrance than help. There should be minimum standards of organization, leadership, and goals before slapping together an ad hoc socialist alliance. If such problems can be overcome, there will be a strong socialist influence on American politics, challenging both liberals and conservatives. NT

    Posted by Nat Turner, 01/27/2014 9:21am (5 years ago)

  • Gil Green in his pre-incarceration book (he had written it before reporting to his Smith Act sentence) The Enemy Forgotten, wrote that despite the lack of electoral success of the CPUSA, despite the dominance of the two-party system, despite the misleading received impression about the party generated by a merciless press, despite the apparent futility of the party as a successful political movement; despite all these things, the CPUSA must remain on the scene, must remain a political party, must continue its weave in the carpet of American affairs, because the real enemy, capitalistic oligarchy and monopolism still remained and the party represented the only real and lasting solution to the harms the latter perpetuated. I think Green would have applauded popular front efforts like suggested above, but not at the price of dumping M-L and not realizing that such negotiation-led strategies always, always lead to capture eventually.

    Posted by Michael Sweney, 09/04/2013 2:48pm (5 years ago)

  • I refuse to believe the current party is now at the margins of American social and economic reform. To the contrary, it is at the heart of reform to clearly see the frame that leads to enslavement, however comfortable that condition may appear and however subtle the restrictions.

    A piece of pie given to a jail prisoner still leaves him a prisoner. Social reforms offered by even well-intentioned organizations, are like the pie piece. We still are left in a cage of power imbalances. What good our SUV's HD tv's and McMansions when the reality is still that the system that yields material prosperity is still predicated on fundamental imbalances? A golden cage is still a cage and it need a very clear vision to see that cages do indeed make a difference.

    As a gedankenexperiment, consider a future where every material want is met by the State, but the recipients of this largess do not have control over the production or distribution of the largess. Now consider a future where not every material want can be met, yet what largess there is, is controlled by the people themselves and not some elite. Wealth vs justice. This is the fundamental issue. I would choose for my grandchildren, the second future.

    Posted by Michael Sweney, 08/09/2013 2:09pm (5 years ago)

  • In reply to JW: X is trust, which in the case of the Communist Party USA can only be earned by decades of being trustworthy. Trust was lost through historical misadventures, most of which American communists had no control over whatsoever, and sometimes though lack of discipline by aggressive cadre. (I'm not sure that is what you call your members, but you know what I mean)

    By the way, please follow the link to "my website" and jump in, inquiring minds want to know...

    Posted by Fred Bauder, 08/08/2013 7:58am (5 years ago)

  • This discussion is in the nature of "we've been here before" Back in 1957 or so Dennis brought up his plan for a broad front of socialist organizations before the national convention. What happened was that the "hard-liners" (and that is a prejudicial term made up by the insurgents) attacked the idea as both opportunist and liquidationist. That is the old language for saying that the leopard was attempting to cast off its Marxist-Leninist spots and become something like Browder's ill-fated CPA, standing for everything socialist but nothing much in terms of class struggle and the inevitable dictatorship of the working class.

    Democratic centralism back in that era was more centralism than democratic, and so although Dennis was widely acclaimed, the real power lay on the "9th floor" and the idea slowly lost adherents one by one.

    Now it is 60 years later and the idea of alliance is getting more and more attractive. And rightfully so. But there is still the issue of what is the basic raison d'etre for the CP? In the thread below, I have made my own suggestions, and I would like to hear other voices.

    Posted by Michael Sweney, 06/27/2013 6:45pm (5 years ago)

  • The way out of the box.

    Socialist organizations are too often like clouds floating over the great earth on which stand the people. The organizations deal with each other, with politicians, with NGO's and sometimes with elections, but that is a cloudlike existence...removed from the reality of the masses.

    To generate goodwill among the masses a socialist party must live with them, work with them, eat with them, share their lives and difficulties. A socialist party, if it is to be successful, must be truly a grassroots organization aimed at far more than electoral success. It must be aimed squarely at helping individuals, families, groups, in hard times and for a huge number of our brothers and sisters in this country, the Great Depression never ended and hard times is all their generations have known.

    Tactics are one thing...I am giving strategy here, but if one wants to look at tactics...think hard times...who is experiencing them? how can we help them? That's the tactics.

    If a Socialist party really wants to ground itself in the people, it must be totally transparent, honest as the day is long, non-manipulative, and completely, I repeat completely, altruistic.

    Now if some group can step up and serve this function unremittingly and without expectation of reward, then I say they are the true vanguard revolutionary party of this country for they have broken capitalism off at the ground level.

    Posted by Michael Sweney, 06/20/2013 6:58pm (5 years ago)

  • this is in answer to the really excellent question JW posed on this thread:

    "Could a socialist organization follow the model in some respect? Generate X, Use X to expand organizational structure, get bigger, generate more X. Repeat.

    What would X be? How would X expand the organization? Does anyone have an idea?

    Posted by JW, 04/14/2013 2:35am (2 months ago)"

    the answer:


    it's that simple.


    Posted by Michael Sweney, 06/20/2013 1:38pm (6 years ago)

  • The reason people talk about the past is to learn the lessons of the past. History is our species memory and doesn't start with one's own generation: tactics failed for specific reasons..some of which still are relevant.

    "Name dropping" and recounting the thirties and forties and fifties and sixties, etc. has a real purpose of sharing within the community what went before: what worked, what didn't work and why.

    The football game analogy is interesting. Now why go on to the field with no plays? Plays after all are the products of the old worn-out past are they not? There is a reason why the classic T formation isn't seen that much anymore but it wasn't because it lost effectiveness but because there were so many effective modifications made of it up to the present time: the basic idea is still sound. The playbook is a product of the evolution of offense v defense development. It is a historical creation. If you are going to think outside the playbook, you better realize first what is in the playbook and what has genuinely never been tried before.

    Posted by Michael Sweney, 06/17/2013 1:31pm (6 years ago)

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