Why Doesn't the Left Do Differently?
by G. William Domhoff
Given the many failures and defeats the left has suffered, why don't leftists try something different for a change? There are several likely factors, which probably interact with each other and have different weights in different people. But it would take a very long and detailed study to sort it all out fully.
First, what defines those I am calling "the left" or "egalitarians"? A desire for:
- Greater equality and less hierarchy
- Greater participation in the decisions that effect people's lives, not just representation
- More emphasis on cooperation, less on competition
These are inclusive values. They are about sharing and caring.
Second, who holds these values? In the past, most leftists would have said they were socialists or communists, and they usually belonged to one or another political party that had one of those two terms in its name. Now they call themselves "radicals" or Greens or "anti-capitalists." They distinguish themselves from liberals, who are too tame for them because they are (1) usually Democrats, (2) almost always exclusively for nonviolence, and (3) out to reform the economy and polity, not overturn them. Sometimes the anti-capitalists call liberals "reformers," a term of scorn.
Most generally, then, leftists can be defined as people left of center who are Not-Liberals. That is, they define themselves against liberals.
So, if the projects of those who self-define as leftists have mostly failed, especially in recent years, why don't they try something different? The first possibility is that they may be right in believing that nothing else would work any better than what they are doing now. They may have a realistic assessment of the power structure. If that's the case, then the current strategies used by leftists make sense: organize into small groups focused on specific issues and then hassle the authorities with a wide variety of tactics, including the threat of some sort of property damage or physical confrontation. Be a nuisance. Be costly. Try to force concessions. As Todd Gitlin wrote in his recent book, Letters to a Young Activist, that is in effect what the New Left did in the 1960s. The one difference is that the New Leftists were closer to the power structure of their era due to family connections or their elite educational backgrounds, giving them some access to the authorities.
But let's also be clear about the underlying assumption of this approach. It is very elitist. It is not aimed at changing the minds of everyday people and winning their allegiance, although that's what some leftists claim they are trying to do. It's about attacking authorities in the name of everyday people because the leftists know what is good for everyone. The approach is justified in leftist minds because they are doing it for greater equality for everyone, not for their individual advancement, so they do not feel elitist. Furthermore, they take their actions with great confidence because they are certain that their theoretical analysis is correct, which is very intellectually elitist underneath it all. They know best.
The conclusion that the leftists are doing the best they can under the circumstances is not only plausible, it is comforting. They can be proud of what they have been able to accomplish, and proud that they keep trying against all odds. Since they have made no mistakes, they don't need to think about trying something different.
But as difficult as it is to challenge the American power structure in a very radical way, I believe there are other reasons why the left does not do differently. These reasons suggest that there are weaknesses in the general left approach. Put simply, there is an upside/downside nature to the left's two key dimensions, which are (1) a desire for greater equality and (2) a desire for an all-encompassing theory that will make it possible to achieve the goal of equality. When egalitarians look at the huge inequalities that are everywhere apparent, both in this country and across the world, they experience great moral anger about social injustice. This is in many ways their defining quality, especially when it is considered that most people just shrug their shoulders, say it's too bad there is inequality, and go about their business. Or else, if people are right of center, they think the inequality is useful in goading poor people to strive harder, and then pat themselves on the back as wonderful people, as proven by the fact that they are not at the bottom.
So the moral anger experienced by egalitarians is very rare even in a grossly unequal world, and it has a very positive aspect in that it leads to activism, including courageous and tireless organizing. From my reading of American history, it is very clear that egalitarians have played key roles in all the social movements that have made the United States somewhat more fair, open and equal--as abolitionists, as union organizers, and as participants in the Civil Rights, feminist, environmentalist, and gay-lesbian movements. But moral anger also has its downsides--a short-term outlook, great impatience with those who just want to go about their daily routines, and a sense of moral purism that makes it hard to work with people and organizations that are seen as compromisers and trimmers (i.e., "liberals" and "reformers").
In a similar fashion, the leftist desire for an all-encompassing theory has its good side in that it leads to many insights about how capitalism and American society operate. One of the reasons that small groups of leftists often have an impact is that they understand the strengths and weaknesses of the system, so they know where to apply pressure. Moreover, they learn how to make use of the media and can be very persuasive when they have the opportunity to make their case. But the search for the perfect theory also can lead, and often does, to a self-enclosed system that allows little room for mid-course corrections, or for toleration for slightly different theories (witness the ongoing battles among various types of Marxists and anarchists). The underlying rationale seems to be, and I have heard it from many different radicals, who often reference to Lenin or Mao as they speak--if we could get the theory right, we then could find the cracks in the system, and the key groups or classes to work with, and then we could topple it, like Lenin and Mao did, against all odds.
The combination of moral anger and the search for the perfect theory, I am now saying, leads the left into what I think are self-made traps, traps that isolate them from the people they most want to reach. Basically, the left comes to the conclusion that it is not doing better because people are bamboozled in one way or another about what is really going on. If people did understand, they would pay attention to the alternatives offered by the left and join together to change the system toward greater equality, participation, and cooperation. This assumption lies behind the frequent claim that the left fails because the mass media brainwash people. In a much more sophisticated form, this is the assumption that underlies the classical Marxist theory of "false consciousness," where the problem is located in the very structure of how the capitalist system operates, making it unnecessary for capitalists to do much propagandizing in favor of the system. The system sells itself by appearing to offer a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. This emphasis on the systemic origins of bamboozlement also is present in the claims by Gramsci, Marcuse, Foucault, and Bourdieu.
So, the system has bamboozled the people, but not the leftists. Their all-encompassing theory has allowed them to see the system for what it is. The theory also explains why more workers do not more fully challenge the system, and explains why leftists therefore have to lead the workers. This leadership is often carried out through "exemplary" actions, such as attacks on property or the police, which might ignite the spark for justice and equality that lies dormant in exploited people. It ends up very elitist, and everyday people can sense that from a mile away.
Elegant though the theory may be, and even if it has some validity, it is a self-made trap because it precludes any re-thinking and encourages an elitist mentality. It provides a very satisfactory explanation for why the left has failed. It is never a matter of the left's inadequate strategies, but of the people's false consciousness. But this also leads to a cycle of frustration and withdrawal, perhaps followed by impulsive actions. More commonly, it leads to the current stance of the left, which was described earlier: start small groups focused on specific issues that hassle government officials.
Is there an alternative to this impasse? I think one can be found in various findings in the social scientists, which can serve as anchors. I think studies in social psychology and sociology show that people understand their circumstances better than bamboozlement theories allow, and that what people do makes a fair amount of sense. On the one hand, they have pleasures and routines that bind them to everyday life, even when everyday life is less than a bed of roses. On the other hand, they have racial and religious prejudices which make it difficult for them to think about aligning with people of different colors or different religions, or worse, with people who may have no religion at all.
If people are not bamboozled, then it follows that leftist views must be off base somewhere because they do not have appeal to very many people. That means there is a need to re-think strategies, which is not the same thing as the abandonment of egalitarian values. It means re-thinking the projects that have been used to realize the values -- such as third parties, attacks on property as a social movement strategy, sticking with some form of non-market planning for the economy, and continuing to define the conflict as a "class struggle." All of these strategies are critiqued in other documents in this section of whorulesamerica.net.
The ingredients of a new strategy are at the middle-range of theory, based on empirical findings, not at the level of a Grand Theory based on yet another exegesis of basic texts from the early Greeks down through modern-day Parisian philosophers. So it is striking that virtually no prominent leftists advocate all of the ingredients.
Consider their stance in the electoral arena:
- Many hundreds of well-known leftists signed on for Nader in 2000, ignoring the potentials for the disaster in which they participated.
- A prominent Left sociologist ran for governor of New York on the Green Party ticket in 2002.
- Other leading leftists are active in the still-nascent Labor Party, or are part of small Trotskyist groupings.
Or consider the situation when it comes to social movements:
- A few left leaders minimize the damage to the global justice movement from acts like smashing windows in downtown storefronts or tearing down a fence that was meant to keep demonstrators from entering government buildings where meetings were being held by elected officials from several countries.
- Others prefer not to speak on the issue.
Or take the situation when it comes to creating a more egalitarian economy:
- Some continue to espouse one or another form of socialism, usually without mentioning the term or going into any of the details of how such an economy might work.
- Others simply call themselves "anti-capitalists."
In conclusion, I think there is plenty of room for leftists to do differently, and to have far more success than they have had in many years. But there is not much hope that they will do differently as long as they insist on moral purity and take refuge in the bamboozlement theory as the explanation for their failures.
Next: Third Parties Don't Work: Why and How Egalitarians Should Transform the Democratic Party
First posted March 2005