How to Rebuild the Left
31 March 2023
One might as well state the matter clearly: given the realities of global warming, rampant environmental destruction, escalating imperialistic clashes, and a crisis-prone global economy, there is no hope for the world unless an international left can be resurrected. A left at least as powerful as the one that created social democracy in the wake of World War II. As complex in their origins as the world’s ills are, they can be expressed and explained in a single sentence: internationally, there is a political right, a proto-fascist far-right, and a stagnant though tenacious center, but, in effect, no left. That is, there is no real force that represents the interests of the exploited and immiserated majority. No wonder things are so bad. The burning question is: how to build such a left?
How not to build it is clear: devote overwhelming attention to issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Indeed, a major reason the left is so weak today is that for decades it—or something that has claimed the mantle of the left, in academia, the media, and politics—has focused disproportionately on such issues, neglecting grievances that unite people across boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. The ineffectual nature of such a “left” should be obvious from one consideration alone: “universal” issues—which affect workers whatever their identity—of wages, working conditions, income and wealth distribution, scarce housing, unemployment, public health, student and consumer debt, ecological destruction, the shrinking and starving of public goods, murderous imperialism, hypertrophying militarism, and the very survivability of human civilization are scarcely touched by discourses and activism around racial and gender disparities. (“We want to have it as good as white cisgendered men!” Okay, meanwhile you’ll still be dealing with all the crises I just listed.) If you want to build a new world, you don’t go about it by ignoring working-class grievances as such, attending only to matters that affect, say, women, gays, and black people; you target the very structures of capitalism, the class-defined exploitative institutions that have oppressed billions (of white men too, even heterosexual ones!) for centuries.
It has been fashionable among liberals and “leftists” for years to ridicule this so-called “class reductionism,” but thankfully resistance is finally building to reactionary postmodern notions of the priority of racial and gender oppression over class. Norman Finkelstein, for example, who is widely known as the courageous and academically martyred advocate of Palestinian rights, has just published a book called I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It!: Heretical Thoughts on Identity Politics, Cancel Culture, and Academic Freedom.
I’ve written a lengthy review here; suffice it to say that Finkelstein is fearless, and ruthless, in his exposition of analytical and political common sense. Adolph and Touré Reed are well known for exposing the follies of what they call “race reductionism”—for example, the gloomy and ahistorical academic school of Afro-pessimism—and their colleague Cedric Johnson has published a book called The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now: Debating Left Politics and Black Lives Matter that eviscerates the current faddish nostalgia for Black Power. (Again, for anyone who would prefer a summary and critique, I wrote a review of the book that also goes into some depth in defense of Marxism against its postmodern critics.)
Examples could be multiplied, but Musa al-Gharbi has already performed this service in a recent article titled “Woke-ism Is Winding Down.” If it is true that wokeness has passed its peak and is, or soon will be, on the decline, this is likely not something to be uncritically celebrated. Nevertheless, it may open the space for a more serious left politics that tackles agendas such as rolling back American imperialism and rebuilding social democracy. Or even, perhaps, advancing the distant goal of economic democracy, i.e., workers’ control of the economy. Somehow, this traditional lodestar of the left has been almost totally forgotten and abandoned.
Left academics have honed the art of “problematizing” political common sense, for example by inventing a concept called “racial capitalism” and using it to argue that “white supremacy” is a pillar of capitalism no less foundational than class exploitation itself—as if Shanghai or, say, Lagos, Nigeria, not being ruled by “whites,” aren’t capitalist cities—but people with a modicum of analytical intelligence will see through these woke gambits. The more you talk about how racist all whites are and how much more oppressed all blacks are, the more you’re serving the business class by dividing the working class. Why else would the New York Times, quintessential outlet of liberal business, have invested enormous resources into the 1619 Project if not that it understood the profoundly non-radical implications of such racialism? Better to talk about racial capitalism than simply capitalism—racial exploitation than class exploitation—reparations (at the expense of white workers) than socialism. The reparations discourse is a brilliant way to destroy working-class solidarity.
With a kernel of political rationality, one can see that it’s necessary to reach out to white workers, not alienate them or ignore them. Leftists could learn a thing or two from (of all people) Ralph Waldo Emerson, of whom a woman who frequently heard his lectures said, “Whatever else it might be that I cannot understand, he tells me this one thing, that I am not a God-forsaken sinner. He has made me feel that I am worth something in the sight of God, and not a despised creature.” The contemporary “left,” from feminists to critical race theorists, essentially tells white men (and the women who identify with them) that they’re despised creatures worth nothing in the sight of God. It shouldn’t be a surprise when people take this message to heart and turn to a Republican Party that cares not a whit about their well-being but at least tells them it does.
It’s common sense that empathy, rather than demonization, is necessary for organizing a movement. If, like most liberals and leftists, one doesn’t live among the mythologized and despised “white working class,” one can at least read about their experiences, thus undermining one’s own prejudices and finding common ground on which to educate and organize. Take a book like Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, published in 2016. She makes it clear that, however misguided are most supporters of Donald Trump’s Republican Party, the large majority are not neo-Nazis, virulent racists, or wealthy cynics eager to crush the working class. “Blue-collar” white men across the South, and the communities they represent, are “victims” no less than the victimized groups celebrated by liberals. Neoliberal capitalism has left them behind, as they suffer from (at best) stagnating wages, environmental pollution and destruction, decaying infrastructure, decaying communities, and poor public health outcomes. Meanwhile, they’re conscious of their low status: “we’re seen as backward and poor.” Hochschild’s exercise in empathy, as in the following passage, is sadly lacking among most liberals and leftists today:
You [an average white man in the South] are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored…
You turn to your workplace for respect—but wages are flat and jobs insecure. So you look to other sources of honor. You get no extra points for your race. You look to gender, but if you’re a man, you get no extra points for that either. If you are straight you are proud to be a married, heterosexual male, but that pride is now seen as a potential sign of homophobia—a source of dishonor. Regional honor? Not that either. You are often disparaged for the place you call home. As for the church, many look down on it, and the proportion of Americans outside any denomination has risen… People like you—white, Christian, working and middle class—suffer this sense of fading honor demographically too, as this very group has declined in numbers.
To begin to wrest power from a depraved Republican and Democratic elite, a corporate sector that cares about literally nothing but profits, it is necessary to appeal to “white America” no less than “black America” (to use race-reductionist metaphors suggested by identity politics). As always, you start by emphasizing what you have in common with people, for instance that you care deeply, as they do, about community, family, economic security, a healthy natural environment, and that you resent no less than they do impersonal government bureaucracies that tax your hard-earned money to wage wars abroad and in fact—here’s an opportunity for education—redistribute income upwards, to wealthy investors and big business. You don’t talk about how racist these people are—after all, everyone is a little racist (including against whites), a little sexist (against men too: “Men are arrogant, stupid, misogynistic!”), and has numerous prejudices and unappealing traits—but instead you argue that people of all races are being exploited and victimized, and that ostensibly “lazy” black people work just as hard as whites to get ahead but are just as burdened by taxes and bills and debt. It doesn’t require much imagination to find common ground with struggling whites. Over time, using the “class reductionist” strategy of Bernie Sanders, you educate people and build a movement that promises to transform society much more radically than little identitarian programs of reducing disparities will.
None of this requires that you sacrifice the interests of minorities. It is rather the only way to fully realize those interests, given both the necessity of a broad popular movement and the (in most respects) shared interests of minorities and working-class white men. Through common struggle, not through woke demonization, you’ll succeed in reducing the incidence of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other such vices.
In short, as Finkelstein argues in his eloquent new book, it’s urgent for leftists to shed their race obsessions and gender obsessions and remember the Marxian lesson that class solidarity—albeit incorporating identitarian goals—is the sine qua non of a revolutionary movement. Hardly anything is more important today than organizing to make class struggle the defining issue of, for example, the left wing of the Democratic Party.
Objective economic structures, not subjective identities, are the fundamental evil to be combatted. Until they are, the left will remain, in effect, nonexistent.