The true left
Left wing politics used to be dominated by Marx and Marxism. In that perspective, the existing problems of poverty, exploitation, and injustice were the work of a capitalist economic system. That system needed to be replaced by a different, a socialist system. In due time, capitalism would destroy itself. The capitalist class would shrink and lose much of its power, allowing all the working people to create a new democratic socialist society. Working people, now the overwhelming majority, would lay hold of the power of government and use that power to destroy capitalist economic institutions and replace them by socialist ones.
Ever since the rise of the New Left in the 1960s this scenario of social change has lost its persuasive power. The examples of Soviet and Chinese communism appeared to teach a very important lesson, namely that governments powerful enough to refashion society and the economy could not be trusted to only serve the good of the people. There seemed to be good reasons to believe that such governments would easily turn tyrannical and become the enemies of the people they were supposed to serve.
The strategy of "conquering the commanding heights of state power" was jettisoned by all but a collection of very small groups that called themselves 'political parties' and still subscribed to some version or another of the Marxist program. Beside those small splinter groups many, many people today still believe that nothing short of structural or system change will succeed in creating a democracy that truly responds to the needs and opinions of the vast majority. We are being told again and again that tinkering with existing laws and institutions may remove specific ills but still leave us with a society that causes needless suffering and misery to a large portion of our population.
But how to bring about structural change if we are not willing to use the coercive power of a central government?
There are today many different and many very interesting undertakings to effect social change. Reformers focusing on politics have produced a number of different conceptions of democracy all of which are intended to return control of government into the hands of ordinary citizens and to take control away from corporations and the super-rich. Reformers focusing on economic issues propose different ways in which ordinary American workers can become owners of their workplaces and come to control the functioning of those workplaces. In education, a few colleges give central power to students, to design a curriculum and choose members of the faculty. There are many progressive schools that are at great pains to treat the students as human beings as much entitled to respect as adults even though their judgment may not always be completely trustworthy. There are many different cooperatives. There are many organizations that serve a particular group but do not seek a profit. There are different groups that concern themselves with the current, worsening environmental crisis. There are nonprofit organizations that try to save farmland for farming instead of seeing it developed into subdivisions.
This list could be extended almost indefinitely.
All of these projects are worthwhile. The participants in each are to be admired for their efforts. But all of these proposals differ from the Marxist project which aims to replace capitalism—an all encompassing social system—with the equally all encompassing system—socialism. The many change projects that are currently in the works are much more limited, much more specific and are capable of being actually executed today. With respect to these much more limited, much more concrete projects, a crucial question remains: will all these different projects in their totality serve to produce the structural change that everyone agrees we need? It is clear that no structural change is forthcoming from all these many projects in the foreseeable future. No one knows what will happen in the long run.
The effect of this transformation of the Marxist left into a large collection of different social, economic, pedagogical, and other projects has an interesting effect on ordinary electoral politics. Food co-ops or co-ops of craftspeople, progressive schools and colleges, organic farms and the lot have limited interest in electoral politics. These projects are not the basis for forming political parties or offering candidates in elections. With that, the true left in the United States today drops out of the electoral political process. Pres. Obama and his Democrats are as far to the left in electoral politics as we have seen in a long time and they depend mightily on Wall Street financial experts and some benign billionaires. They are, if leftists at all, leftists in name only.
With few exceptions, the left in electoral politics is thoroughly right wing because the true leftists are growing organic vegetables or running progressive pre-schools, or coffee houses to encourage local musicians and poets. They may very well support Bernie Sanders or Sen. Warren but have no hope that they will manage to reduce the power of Wall Street or of the 1%.
The absence of a true left from electoral politics is a serious lack. But it is also one more sign that what we call our democracy has very limited effectiveness and that in fact the most important actions for social change take place in other parts of our country. We should pay as little attention as possible to the Wall Street Left of Pres. Obama and give all the support we can to the true leftists, wherever they may be working to save a small part of this precious world.