Essay — From the February 2016 issue

Left of Bernie

You say you want a revolution

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It takes faith to think of spears when all one sees are splinters. “The U.S. left has always lacked unity,” says Carl Davidson, once the vice president and national secretary of S.D.S., later a leading figure in a New Communist group called the October League, and more recently in the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism as well as Progressive Democrats of America. After a lifetime of left activism, Davidson continues to see the formation of a classless society as “the North Star,” an achievement we’re not likely to see “for a couple hundred years.” For now, he says, very few of the people who identify with the left belong to some group, and as for organizing the left as a whole, “it’s like trying to organize a wheelbarrow full of frogs.”

A new generation of activists is willing to try. One of these is NTanya Lee, who after twenty years as a community organizer helped to found an organization called LeftRoots as “a space for people who have the same experiences of organizing everyday people” to meet with the aim of “making social change from below.” About two years old as of this writing, LeftRoots has more than fifty members in the San Francisco Bay Area chapter and claims a thousand “multi-tendency” affiliates around the country. Most members are in their twenties, thirties, and forties, though older members, some of them veterans of the New Communist Movement, have also found a place on the rolls.

“Reaganomics radicalized me,” says Lee, now forty-six. “I was a thirteen-year-old black free-lunch kid at the moment when Reagan said ketchup was a vegetable.” She came out as a “young dyke” when the right was first beginning to organize its antigay campaigns. Lee sees “radicalization on a personal level” as an essential part of her group’s ethos. “We like to root our analyses in the experiences of people in this country,” as opposed to the sorts of ideological “line struggles” that preoccupied and often split many of the New Communist groups. If you held a meeting to struggle over party line today, Lee tells me, most of those who showed up would be white, male, and over fifty. “And most of us are not at the place where we have the left literacy to engage in those struggles.”

As stated on its website, LeftRoots rejects “vanguardism and the associated practices of operating secretly within mass organizations while trying to control them; creating front groups; or being opportunist and leaching onto authentic mass struggles to avoid doing the hard work of building a real base.” Lee refuses to speak pejoratively of any left group currently in operation, though the list of “associated practices” comes pretty close to how others have described the recent activities of the R.C.P.

Notwithstanding Lee’s commitment to “the more democratic vision of twenty-first-century socialism,” to “a left that’s vibrant, relevant, and broad” — to something new, in other words — she speaks with reverence of her political forebears, especially “the black Communists who played really critical roles in addressing the suffering of black people. They weren’t in the university somewhere. They were on the streets with people. They were from the people. They were often not even literate. People my age and younger don’t have those traditions.” Even among the community organizers she has surveyed, three quarters of whom identify themselves as “anticapitalist,” many do not believe that there’s an alternative to capitalism. “You can’t start an explicitly left organization in our country and ignore that reality.”

It was difficult for me to converse with Lee and other young activists without the imaginary voice of Bob Avakian weighing in. These supposedly new approaches are nothing more than the warmed-over loosey-goosey power-to-the-people New Leftism that we Communists walked away from fifty years ago. If you want to succeed in any struggle against capitalism, you need a vanguard party, you need a correct party line, and you need a visionary leader at the helm.

These may be valid objections, but they prompt a retort at least as valid: Is the revolutionary rhetoric of far-left parties basically an expression of the fear of winning? For Yotam Marom, a former Occupy protester who now directs an activist-training initiative called the Wildfire Project, the question of winning is hardly academic. “If we don’t get powerful, we’re going to die. There’s no other way around it. If black communities in this country don’t get powerful, they’re going to die. If people under danger of foreclosure don’t get powerful, they’re going to be homeless. The climate crisis makes this a relevant question for nearly everyone. If the Movement isn’t capable of thinking about becoming its most powerful self, then it’s over.”

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His most recent essay for the magazine, as well as the book that followed, was entitled “Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher” (September 2011).

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