Refounding a New Left: Next Generations & Their Experiences

Posted July 21, 2008


he period from 1999 to 2008 has created a new situation for remnants of the U.S. revolutionary left and the new progressive and popular movements. A new generation of radicals, who hadn’t been through the experiences of the traditional left, came of age around the struggles of the global justice and antiwar movements. They are joined by a small cohort who came of age during the ‘90s, around the first Gulf War and in opposition to the Republican “Contract with America.” Many activists from this generation cut their teeth on local struggles. They organized in communities of color with unions, around safe and affordable housing, redefined environmentalism to include the human rights of communities disproportionately affected by pollution and toxic waste, fought police brutality and the prison industrial complex, and forced queer and transgender issues onto the agenda. New forms of organizing, including workers’ centers, arose to champion workers’ interests both on and off the shop floor and to organize the unorganized.

Much of the most creative organizing and most of the most powerful thinking of the global justice movement took place within anarchist and anti-authoritarian circles. Various citywide Direct Action Networks (DANs) and spokescouncils struggled with issues such as balancing sporadic large mobilizations with ongoing community-ally organizing; centering the movement around those most attacked by neoliberalism; putting an anti-oppression framework into practice; calling for direct actions while ensuring safety for working-class, poor, and immigrant participants in actions; avoiding domination by a charismatic or cliquish few; and thinking one step ahead of the police and political and corporate elites. Their track record of successes in transforming themselves around these issues was quite mixed, but the fact that they wrestled with them was impressive.

Many global justice movement activists looked through a lens of anti-authoritarianism. They rejected the politics of “social democracy” in the leaderships of the AFL-CIO and traditional women’s and environmental organizations as too much a part of the “system,” and stylistically stale. Nonetheless, there was a pragmatic willingness to work with those forces in coalitions. Based on the sometimes commandeering and undemocratic, sometimes opportunist practices of most socialist groups they encountered, they also rejected Marxism. They constantly strived towards organizational horizontality, where leadership could be rotated. Frustrated with symbolic protest and civil disobedience politics, they put a commitment to placing struggles against racism (and, sometimes, sexism and homophobia) at the center of organizing, both within groups and in the world. They attempted to practice forms of politics that would excite, not alienate. From the beginning a tension existed between the nonprofit-based organizations and those consisting of unpaid, grassroots activists.

After 9/11, of course, the Global Justice Movement – already getting a bit bogged down in some of the more objective quandaries – was effectively subsumed into the nascent struggle against the war. Again, particularly on the West Coast, much of the most exciting organizing at the height of the antiwar movement was in the anti-authoritarian Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW), which shared the basic premises outlined above.

Much of these politics continue to be central to movement-building projects among young people where they exist, in various Social Forums, among the Anarchist People of Color tendency, to some extent in USAS and the new SDS, and in many campus-based worker-rights and antiwar organizing projects. The insights and experiences of these activists will be an important component in the process of left refoundation.

However, the politics of the global justice movement have reached a certain blind alley, and there has been a quantitative decline in the movement. Some global justice activists are thinking about new forms of revolutionary organization, while others seem trapped into endless discussions about red and blue states. And probably a few are doing both.

Activists carry a deep-seated distrust – if not anger and rejection – of capitalism as an inhumane system that brings exploitation, war, starvation and destruction of our planet. To varying degrees, they are anti-capitalist in their thinking. With this rejection of capitalism many also feel a need to be more than just “loose activists,” but rather part of a whole more effective that just the sum of its parts. They have begun to outgrow isolated, individual activism and hunger for different kinds of organization, one that would be based around a long-term commitment to shared work and developing a common (if not completely unitary and fixed) political vision. This hunger was evident at the US Social Forum.

The longings for comradeship, accountability, a better understanding of the world brought activists, in ones and twos, into Solidarity and into other groups and collectives. Twenty years after socialism was seemingly discredited, a new generation is revisiting socialism and socialist organization – asking questions from new directions, ready to accept much and reject much.

At the same time these new generations face incredible pressure to professionalize and /or devote themselves to their individual, personal lives, their careers and dating lives, their marriages and partnerships and children. The cultural and political sources of resistance to these pressures are weaker than in ‘60s and ‘70s, when “the revolution” was perceived as being around the corner, or at least within one’s lifetime. Combined with an economy that carried far less anxiety about finding a job, building personal economic survival was easier.

A socialist left is not nurtured mainly by sound theories and analyses. Unlike the generation that founded Solidarity, today’s activists have not experienced anything like the same level of global social upheaval – and victories. A left is built as a reasonably-sized force in conformity with living proof that struggle is possible, that consciousness can rise and lead to sustained action for social justice against capital. The new generations of activists have not yet directly experienced a compelling and sustained political environment of this nature. Inspiring movements do arise, but have been cut short before they get wind in their sails. While the global justice movement was undercut by the war on terror, the World Social Forum evolved toward domination by reformist forces.

An organized left, if it existed, might cohere resistance, focus it, and expound a new vision and a new practice. But in terms of social weight and placement, it does not exist. When we speak of “the left” today, this notion is a placeholder, an inexact way of speaking, an empty space needing to be filled. At best, “the left” in the United States is a project, a goal to be pursued not simply by regroupment, in the classic sense, but through refoundation: a fusing of new energies and a thoughtful examination and selection among old visions and programs. Solidarity would like to partner in such a project.

We invite the broad left to think collectively about: 1) the political state of the world, 2) the major political movements which structure our landscape of possibilities, and 3) the tasks and possibilities of some kind of left refoundation/regroupment which might have the audacity to really propose a social transformation. This analysis is necessarily incomplete and impressionistic. It is not a “line” in the classic Leninist sense, but more of an arc (a line of flight, rather than a line of march): an act of thinking together which we hope will clarify our project for ourselves as well as contribute to a dialogue with others – other groups as well as the ones and twos out there hungering for new ideas and forms of organization.

Continue Reading…

  1. Social Movements over the Last Two Decades

    “The re-emergence of the civil rights movement following World War II inspired and propelled forward all of the oppositional and liberation movements of the 1960s and ‘70s…
    For draft-age youth in the 1960s opposition to the Vietnam War was a pivotal experience…
    While the U.S. immigrant population had been stagnant throughout the 1960s, by 2004 it had risen fourfold (approximately 34.2 million)…
    Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, campus activists developed networks to coordinate labor solidarity, environmental, antiwar, global justice and anti-racist activism…”

  2. Regroupment, Refounding and the Arc of Resistance

    “In the decade of our founding, people on the left began talking to each other across ideological lines, in ways that hadn’t happened for a long time – with a common realization that the “party-building” of the previous years had effectively collapsed, and had been abusive in significant ways to the human beings committed to it…”

  3. Refounding a New Left: Next Generations & Their Experiences [ you are here ]

  4. The Tasks and Possibilities of a U.S. Refounded Left

    “U.S. revolutionaries need to understand how global capitalism is evolving, how that affects the confidence of the working class and social movements, and how those changes reveal new fault lines. We also need to support and participate in working-class and community-based struggles and social movements…”

  5. Refounding the Left: Taking Our Past Into Our Future

    “A forceful renewal of the socialist left is not entirely a matter of our will alone. It ultimately depends on developments of a more massive scale both here and around the world that in one way or another pose a significant challenge to the capitalist agenda from a left direction…”