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What's Left of the American Left?

There's no denying its historic decline, but the left does not lack for issues. It needs only organization.

"In contradiction" best describes the American left today. On the one hand, it is fragmented and dispirited, feeling itself distant from the tumble of daily US politics and acutely disgusted by its many-layered corruptions. It hardly knows itself as a part of society, so deep runs its alienation. After all, leftists, too, are affected by the mass media's wishful pretense that the American left has simply disappeared and the extreme right's paranoid caricatures that recycle 1950s McCarthyism.An estimated 100,000 people gathered at the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin on Saturday 26 February 2011 to protest Governor Scott Walker's budget bill that would remove collective bargaining rights from public employees. (Photograph: AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, John Hart)

And yet, the US left is actually quite strong and getting stronger by the minute. Very many young people find far more meaning in the left social criticisms of Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert than they do in the stale Republican or Democratic activities that those popular comedians mock. The devotees of much current popular music want and respond to lyrics rich with social criticism. The assaults of the right in the US on access to abortion, on civil rights and civil liberties, on the separation of church and state, and on immigrants, are less and less suffered in silent resentment and increasingly opposed by a revived left criticism and activism. From the mass mobilizations of immigrants to the outpouring of support for the embattled public employees in Wisconsin to the gatherings of support for Planned Parenthood, the US left's size, depth and diversity are evident.

The proportion of respondents polled about their religious affiliation who answer "none" is growing faster than any other group of respondents. As one famous philosopher wrote, "the criticism of society begins with the critique of religion." The million who marched in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq quietly persuaded a majority to make recent national polls repeated referenda against all three US wars (Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan).

The young are perhaps outraged most by the vulnerability and erosion of many social conditions they had taken for granted as permanent. Anger and activism are rising against the incapacity or unwillingness of the political establishment to restore those conditions. The radical generation of the 1960s, after middle years devoted to careers and families, is now returning to political engagement likewise to restore those conditions. That combination of rising youthful passion and political experience with mass radical action represents a potent mass base for a new US left political formation to emerge.

Organization is what the US left lacks. Not issues, not members, not a wide public audience: the US left now has all of them in abundance. Indeed, the economic crisis that exploded in 2008 – now becoming a social crisis because the "recovery" bypassed the majority that needed it most – has only enhanced that abundance. Yet, a deeply rooted and continuously nurtured aversion to unified organization undermines the US left's social influence and collective action at every turn. The decline of past left organizations – the socialist and communist parties, student groups such as SDS, SNCC, major segments of organized labor – has fostered a sense of the futility of organization. The demonization of those and other left organizations, by liberal as well as conservative voices, renders individual left thought and action sometimes acceptable but collective criticism and activity always deeply suspect.

The US left will become a political force with immense potential if it can generate and ally unified organizations able to mobilize and express their constituents' views and aspirations. Such allied organizations can enable the US left to reach and enlist the mass of the citizenry in left responses to the current economic/social crisis rather than the right responses of further social subservience to private business interests, further cutbacks of state services and employment, union-busting, etc. Only organization can yield the financial resources needed to defeat the current program of corporations and the rich that aims to return the US to the unequal income and wealth distributions of the late nineteenth century (with its concomitant politics and culture).

Solidarity – the theme of the 2011 Left Forum – was well chosen to suggest and inspire the US left's attention to this new imperative of organization.

Richard Wolff is appearing on several panels at the Left Forum 2011 conference, 18-20 March, at Pace University, New York. This week on the Guardian/UK, follow the series of articles on the theme of 'The new solidarity'

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