socialist movement

The Crisis in the Left and in the Working Class: A Zoom Discussion

On May 22, the Ukraine Socialist Solidarity Campaign (USSC) held a zoom meeting on the crisis in the left and in the working class. Fifteen people in all participated. Cheryl Zuur, long time socialist and former president of AFSCME Local 444 (in Oakland, California) gave the introduction plus some summary comments. Here is a transcript of her comments plus a written summary of the meeting. As you can see, there is also a video of the full meeting, for those who want to see/hear it in full. We are happy to produce this report on the Oaklandsocialist blog, but although we participate in the USSC, it is completely independent of our blog.

Cheryl Zuur:

It’s really been hard to describe what this presentation is about or what this discussion is about, because it’s like peeling the layers of a very large onion to understand first off how the socialist left ended up, mostly being in the camp of the tankies for not supporting solidarity with Ukraine, and being utterly confused when this war broke out. But it’s a bigger topic than that. So I just want to clarify that this presentation is going to be mostly US centric, because that’s my experience in the socialist left. I’m not that knowledgeable about the international left, but I believe that, in many ways, these processes that I’m going to talk about, have been fairly consistent around the world because the socialist left exists in groupings around the world. The other thing is just that I don’t really know anything about anarchism and anarchist movement. So I’m looking forward to other people’s contributions in both of those areas to fill out the discussion and the understanding.

Left Is Isolated
The way that this topic came to become a discussion here was through an article that was posted on the list. It was an essay by a Greek Marxist, Yorgos Mitrialis, which asked at the beginning of the article, “why are people turning their backs on the left? Why does the left seems so weak and lacking in credibility, especially since capitalism itself is not faring so well?” A beginning of the answer to these questions is provided by the left itself, or at least a very important part of it, by the way it has responded to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The article goes on to describe really the crimes of Stalinism in regards to Ukraine, and the continuation of those crimes under Putin and how the majority of the left has acquiesced to those crimes and has justified them in many ways. And it talks about the Stalinist falsification of history and more. I think everybody here is very familiar with that and I’m not really going to talk about that. And so I assume that Yorgos is talking mainly about Greece, when he says that people are turning their backs on the left, because in the United States, for most working class people, the only left that they know about exists in two contexts: One of them is Bernie Sanders, and the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party and AOC. And the other context is right wing nationalists, and white supremacists, who believes that communists, and globalists, and Jewish people and black people have taken over the US government and have turned it into a socialist nightmare. So that’s really the only context that the working class sees the left in my opinion. In my experience, the left here, is very, very isolated from ordinary people’s lives, and has very little influence. And I’m glad that most working class people have no idea that there is such a thing as tankies or people who have turned their backs on Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. They don’t know that. They just take for granted that the Ukrainian people’s war is a just one and that Russia had absolutely no right to invade that country. It’s just a gimmie for people.

US Socialists Abandoned Working Class
But the other part of the problem is that the socialist left abandoned the working class or any attempt to seriously organize in the working class decades ago. The working class in many parts of the world, particularly the white working class, but also workers of color, have thrown their support behind that their authoritarian figures and proto fascist like Trump. Bolsonaro, Orban in Hungary. And I think everybody here is aware of the fact that Bong Bong Marcos, the son of the discredited criminal dictator, Ferdinand Marcos won the presidency of the Philippines by a margin of two to one. I don’t even know what to say about that. So this is a process that’s been taking place over many decades.

So trying to understand what’s happened is something that’s bothered me for a very, very long time. And I’m guessing that it’s bothered all of you because with the exception of a few people here, we’re all of an older generation of Trotskyist oriented or anarchist oriented, socialist oriented leftists who spent a great deal of our lives, trying to build a movement, trying trying to build a movement of the working class that could end capitalism. And we haven’t succeeded. I’ll leave it at that.

Ukraine War: “Something Has Been Broken Open”
But the war in Ukraine has broken something open. And I’m inspired by that,. You know, we are just a very tiny group of people that, I believe understand the importance of what’s happened, and why we must absolutely support a victory in Ukraine by the Ukrainian working class. I don’t have any illusions that this small group of people that exists around the world now is going to dramatically change the prospects for building a new socialist left. But I think, more importantly, we really we have an obligation to struggle for clarity around ideas that might make a difference, and to not make the same mistakes that were made before. So [Note, see screen shot of the list to which Cheryl refers here] it’s not that there haven’t been opportunities in the United States and around the world to for socialists to have an influence, and to have success in building a movement of the working class and even a working class party in the United States. There’s been a long, long list of resistance and uprisings that have occurred since 1999. And I just went back to 1999, because that was the year of the Battle in Seattle, or the mass movements against globalization.

Protests in US
I just want to say one other thing about the seminal historic event that took place in 1991, with the the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is an event that threw the entire socialist left into a mass array of confusion, which we’re living with today. Because the end conclusion of that is many people would say today, “well, there can only be one bad imperialist nation, and it’s the United States.” And so, that was a seminal event that we’re still living with. [In any case} I went back to 1999 to try to get a snapshot of how many protests there have been, mass protests and movements, where there was something should have happened, there should have been a cohesive outcome to those movements, and there wasn’t not that I’m aware of. [Screen shot]

So I think everybody here is familiar with the 1999 protests in Seattle, which was a huge movement.We haven’t seen anything like that since. And why that didn’t happen. We can talk about that. But you know, 911 happened, which changed many, many things.

2007 2008 were the years where millions of people marched in 140 cities in 39 states in support of immigrant rights and opposing really reactionary federal legislation.

2009 was the shooting of Oscar Grant Oakland, where there was huge protests here and in other parts of the country.

The Occupy movement, I would say, the WTO protests and the Occupy movement were clearly very popular movements amongst ordinary people. There were movements and protests that had to be covered by the mass media. Ordinary people were paying attention, working class people were paying attention, and were supportive of it. I mean, everybody related to “we are the 99%”. People were angry about the inequality in society and wanted something to be done. Well, okay, we could talk about what happened with 2011 – why it did not end up with a cohesive demand or program but that happened.

2014 The shooting of Mike Brown – massive uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, the rise of Black Lives Matter. 2016 the Dakota Access Pipeline direct action protests again, which I think many people supported across the country, ordinary people. these were not isolated things.

The Women’s March January 2017. I included 2017 in Charlottesville “Unite the Right protest”, because because it was really a shock to many people, including on the left [over] the appearance and that the organized right made itself present in such a loud way. And, of course, with Trump’s support.

I’m just mentioning the Yellow Vest movement in France, because again, even though it wasn’t covered that much in the media here, it had a big influence, and everybody was aware of it. And it wasn’t organized by any particular organization. It was a sort of spontaneous movement of anger that people had against their demise of their lives and their quality of life, their living standards, etc.

September 2018, climate change strikes, those the movements around climate change in the environment continues to this day.

I don’t even have to say much about the summer of 2020, the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, which turned into international protests, the likes of which we had never seen before. And again, I think that again, ordinary people [made it] like the WTO. It was like the Occupy movement for me. The uprisings in the summer of 2020 were things that had massive support amongst the working class. People were horrified and they wanted something done, but what was it that should be done? And the fact that there was once again, no cohesive demands other than defund the police, which was very problematic.

I included January 6 2021, because I think many of us thought, or hoped that in our lifetime, we would see something that looked like that. But that was led by workers. But it turned out that it was led by fascists. So I feel like that was another sort of seminal moment. A slap in the face, like “how did we get here?”

So as of today, if the figures are accurate DSA allegedly has 92,000 members, the Democratic socialists of America has 92,000 dues paying members, I know that the anarchist movement around the world has grown. But again, I know very little about that.

And also, again, important to note that Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016, in 2020, and as a result of his campaign, socialism was revived the word “socialism” and the idea “what is socialism?” There was a discussion about that. And people started thinking about it and not associating it with the Soviet Union and tyranny. That was a really big deal again, was there any attempt by the socialist stuff to take advantage of all of that, go into working class movements and broaden that and build something have to have the discussion we’re having today? No, not that I’m aware of.

Where Did It Lead?
Was it inevitable that things have ended up where they are? I don’t think so. Maybe it was unrealistic or naive on my part, or any of our parts to think that there should have been an opportunity, there should have been something that came out of any one of those movements that would still stand today. And that we would have would not have ended up in a situation where it’s such a small number of people internationally that are standing in solidarity with Ukraine, but that is what has happened.

The other thing that I want to say is that just anecdotally, and I’m interested in other people’s comments, the fact that there’s been endless protest after endless protest, with no visible change in society, and no cohesive movement has been very demoralizing. I mean, I’ve wondered, “where, where, where have all the young people, black and otherwise, that participated in those actions in the summer of 2020 — where are they today?” Some of them have given up, some of them are waiting for the next movement. Some – I don’t know what they’re doing. But some of them decided to become full time paid organizers and make a career out of it. I don’t even have words for that.

So by the end, the Socialist left continued on with their rhetoric into the 90s and the 2000s. [they continued on with] “yeah, the working class working class is the force in society that is going to change the world.” But in practice they absolutely abandoned any serious attempts to organize in working class communities at every turn in the road. Just one anecdotal experience that John and I and others when we were in Labor’s Militant Voice had: we were part of one of the anti war groupings, I think, it was organized by the ISO against the war in Iraq. And we said, “why don’t we go to working class and poor communities even go door to door, before we have some sort of a march or protest, to talk to working class people about this and to develop a base there, because they’re not benefiting from this war?” And there was absolutely no interest whatsoever. The only kind of protests that are permitted are downtown San Francisco, in the financial district, under the same banners. And no one who attends these protests really expects things to change as a result, it’s not a part of their everyday lives, it’s really just an expression of, “well, I did something I showed up, I made my voice heard, and the politicians will take care of things for me now.” So for the socialist left, including a lot of the Trotskyist left, organizing in working class meant being involved in unions, and really just having resolutions passed by the leadership that had nothing to do with fighting for workers’ rights in the union itself.

So in the absence of a working class movement, this thing that is called Identity Politics took his place. And as a methodology, as a political philosophy ]it] dominates the left. I’m not going to explain what it is because I think everybody here is familiar with it. I call it the tyranny of identity politics. And it was a perfect fit for the union leadership because it gave them yet another cover that they were somehow fighting for equality, fighting for a better world by hiring staffers who were women or LGBTQ or immigrants, etc., all the boxes checked. And who followed all the policies of the leadership that were one betrayal after another to the members.

Demise of Nation State”
I have a few minutes left to talk about the demise of the nation state: I think everybody here knows what the nation state is.The average ordinary working person doesn’t know what the nation state is, that the nation state was, was birthed by capitalism, but it’s outgrown it now because of because of globalization, the inevitability of, of capitalism as a global system, the nation state is falling apart. And as this article that’s called “The Demise of the Nation State,”  writes: “20th century political structures are drowning in the 21st century ocean of deregulated finance, autonomous technology, religious militancy and great power power rivalry.” We’ll have to talk about that more, but I just want to say that the nation state is a structure at least in Western democracies that’s taken for granted. And we see numerous examples of its demise in terms of the attacks on voting rights. The news is filled with examples of its demise without it being talked about directly, millions of people since this collapse, but without understanding it or having any hope or something out there left with an impending sense of doom, confusion and fear. So I’m gonna end this by just saying that as Trotsky said, in his essay, “learn to think” in order to carry a correct policy in times of war, we have to learn how to think in terms of peace.

Art Francisco, who participated in the discussion, summarized it as follows:
The meeting was centered around the question: “Why does the Left seem so weak and lacking in credibility?”

Cheryl raised a number of good points, not all of which I wrote down, but I would say that one was the inability to actually build on various struggles and protests.. instead chasing one after another. “Waiting for the next big movement,” for what I consider, protest tourism.

But there are other things, that most of the group seemed in agreement on. One being the absolutely shit politics by the “tankies” in supporting various tyrants of the world which is repulsive and repugnant to the working class–and the complete failure to engage into conflict with the corrupt trade union leadership that runs a tyranny over the trade unions, the workers organizations in embryo.

There was also a consensus in the group that the war in Ukraine is significant, as it is further exposing positional trends. There are “The Pacifists” who oppose arms to Ukraine and make the pox on both houses argument… the Tankies, who blindly side with Putin, and then there’s those who support the victory of Ukraine (arguably also divided).

But I believe that these divisions are based on confusion in the left on whether Russia is an imperialist nation (and “what is imperialism?”)–which is also connected to the question of whether China is imperialist. Questions I believe that are largely avoided.

Furthermore, I believe that a lot of the problems in the left have to do with the decentralization and localization of information and organization. As counter to that fetish of club-house localization and decentralization (exhibited by the cults/sects), I brought up my work in The Marxist Line with Andrew Gilberds. And such decentralization and localization has lead to a situation where the most powerful, wealthy, and established careerists lead the theory and direction of the so called left.

Now there were some thoughts on doing another zoom meeting on Russian imperialism etc.. but I stand by my assertion that there must be centralization and there must be a national discussion and national organization here in the states. For that reason I encourage attendance to Labor Notes, which has become a magnet for the most conscious and progressive workers. I’ve also encouraged for years, to have a national conference of Marxists–something that has been shrugged off by the old fogeys as an important step.

But without a strategy, without taking big steps that actually build in the direction of the working class power–what can you expect but the same outcomes given the same patterns of behavior?

Oaklandsocialist adds: There was also some discussion and disagreement over whether it is accurate to describe the situation as a “demise of the nation state”.This is an issue that needs a lot further discussion, but the concept derives largely from an article in the Guardian newspaper of that title. (Click on link.) The fact that we could have a friendly disagreement over this issue was an example of the serious attitude of all those who participated.

After an extended discussion, Cheryl made some concluding comments:

This has been one of the richest discussions that I’ve been part of in a very long time. And I appreciate so many of the comments that filled in details that I wasn’t able to do in the introduction. I absolutely agree with Chad that it’s a very unfortunate set of horrendous circumstances that this war in Ukraine has broken open something in the socialist left. But the truth is that we as a disparate group of people, but with the same ideas, essentially wouldn’t be having this discussion, and that the Ukraine socialist solidarity campaign would not have even been formed, if it hadn’t been for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So in that sense, I don’t know if the word is optimistic or hopeful.

I’m 67 years old. And most of the people here are, I would say, I don’t know, over 50. And we’re still here. And that means a lot. So I totally agree that what’s happening in Ukraine has created this opening for, as Ted said, overcoming sectarianism of the left in the past and other things. On the other hand, I think it would be foolish to pretend that the world situation we’re in particularly the confusion of the working class and the rise of right wing movements is not a very sobering set of circumstances that we find ourselves in, in my lifetime. And this is related to the discussion on the nation state, and the rise of authoritarianism. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like this. So I am also tempered in my optimism, by all of that. So I I’m really happy with the discussion.

And I completely agree that we need at least three different discussions on Russia, China and the demise of the nation state. And I think that this, this discussion that needs to be had by a broader group of socialists and activists, and I think it’s a discussion that young people want to have. I mean, this is what I run into everyone — I talked to people who aren’t leftist who are like, “Why is this happening?” They don’t understand, and they deserve answers. And so for myself, every time I prepare a presentation like this, or participate in this discussion, I’m thinking about them, and how I’m going, how I would explain this to them, because if we’re lucky, we’re going to get that chance. If we’re lucky, this opening that’s been created will turn into a situation where we actually do get to talk to workers and unions or workers who want to organize unions. And we need to have those skills. I think leftists and socialists need to know how to talk to people who aren’t socialists. And that is a big skill that I think is lacking. In the left as a whole, I include myself in that, how do you translate the ideas of Marxism, and the history of Marxism and socialism and all the things we’ve been talking about today, in a way that an ordinary person who maybe didn’t even graduate from high school or who’s yet to translate that in a way that is powerful, as somebody said, I think it was, Brian, “you don’t have to convince a worker of class consciousness, they have it. It’s there mixed in with a tremendous confusion and also hopelessness and fear and anxiety.”

So I’m just saying that, for me, everything that I do is a form of practice. Even though I’m 67 years old, the odds are getting smaller and smaller than I’m ever going to be in that situation. But if I am, I want to be prepared. And I’m sort of expressing that to all of you as well. Someone on the list on Facebook had suggested this idea of a teach-in. And I thought it was an incredibly great idea for an organizing tool for where to expand this campaign. And maybe at some point, part of the teach-in which could be in a public place, you know, like in a park or something like that would be to try to answer this question that we’ve been talking about today.

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