Published on Monday, December 3, 2001
The U.S. Left: Down But Not Out
by Seth Sandronsky
It was 1967 and I was a fifth-grader. Market Street in San Francisco was
the place. Thousands of people were protesting the Vietnam War, including
my mother and sister. We were there with friends to join others in a call
to end the war.
Then, many common people were dissenting against government policies at home and abroad. The anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements had energized large sections of the U.S. public. People were participators rather than spectators in American democracy. They made up the U.S. Left, broadly defined. It is a long way today from that high-water point.
In the 1960s, the Black Panther Party, based in Oakland, marched on the state capitol in Sacramento. They were making a public statement on their right to defend themselves and the black community generally. This freedom struggle against American apartheid, in turn, had strengthened other movements for social justice.
Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1968. He had promised to end the Vietnam War. That was good enough for many voters. They had been influenced in part by the anti-war movement.
Meanwhile, the sun was starting to set on the Golden Age of U.S. capitalism. It had ruled the global market since the end of World War II. American corporations responded partly by beginning to move factories to the Third World, featuring lower labor costs and weaker environmental regulations.
Driven by competition for global markets, U.S. corporations needed fewer unionized factory workers. Not that there was full employment then, but wealth was more equally produced and distributed in America. That was before German and Japanese corporations began to grab market share and profits from their U.S. counterparts.
As American corporations decreased their demand for a relatively well-paid and educated work force, skin-color profiling rose (never dormant) to better dominate the "dangerous class" in the U.S. Their opposition to the system had been perhaps the most radical to circles of power. Nixon, reelected in 1972, quickly caught on, crafting policies to neutralize this part of the Left.
Take the phony Drug War. It helped to make criminals of darker and younger people. Accordingly, America now leads the world in the number of citizens it cages, some two million. Those with brown complexions are disproportionately incarcerated. Where was the Left during the beginning of the great American lockup?
The nation’s political police had paved the way for this policy of reaction. I mean the FBI's COINTELPRO attacks against the Panthers and American Indian Movement. These vital struggles for freedom were badly damaged in big and small ways. The Left is still recovering.
On the ideological front, the weakening of the Left since the 1960s remains one of the major untold stories of the nation’s history. Very few honest accounts of the rise and demise of the Left have entered America’s public mind through the education and communication systems, increasingly owned and controlled by the nation’s corporations. They have no material interest in advancing news and views that promote people’s liberation from oppression.
The Left was far more organized in the 1960s than it is today. Yet organization is a partial explanation. Consider two current Left movements around oppression at home and abroad. One movement opposes racial profiling, and the other protests Iraq’s sanctioning. Both are a part of—not apart from—the current crisis of the market system and thus share common interests. But are these movements conscious of this?
During the 1960s, the Left was able to connect some of the dots between domestic and foreign policies. Such advanced positions were due in no small part to the independent news media that existed in America at that time. Avenues for such public communication are essential to popularize critical theory and action. Organized labor currently has the money to fund a national working-class newspaper, radio and TV stations, but its leadership’s fatal attraction to the Democratic Party prevents this.
America’s rulers now have greater political-economic power than they did during the 1960s, which has weakened the Left. Then, the relative economic security of the Left created favorable conditions for some of them as they protested against the Vietnam War and for Civil Rights. Today, such economic security is largely a memory. Consequently, large numbers of the U.S. working-class have shaky food, health care and shelter security. In fact, their material fate is a direct result of policies devised by corporate Republicans and Democrats. These details, to be sure, are only part of a contradictory social movement story, always unfolding.
Contradictions are the basis for change, as sure as night follows day. Such has always been the way. The dissenting 1960s that followed the conforming 1950s in the U.S. prove that. When will the American Left, down but not out, rise again? Much hangs in the balance for the nation and the world.
Seth Sandronsky is an editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento's progressive newspaper.