This article is based on remarks made at a panel discussion June 5 in New York City. Titled “The Future of the Left – A Conversation on Socialist Unity”, the event was hosted by Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, Communist Party USA, Democratic Socialists of America and the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, with participation and support from Jacobin Magazine, Left Labor Project, and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung-New York Office. The panelists responded to opening remarks by Mark Solomon, whose article ““Whither the Socialist Left? Thinking the ‘Unthinkable” has generated a lot of discussion and debate on the topic in recent months.
Left unity should always be the outcome of the struggle, not its goal.
Because of this, unity in action is the basis of left unity. When we focus on reconciling differences in theory or program we naturally focus on differences between us. But when we work together in the movements we come together based on common work and what we agree on, not what divides us.
Of course, left unity won’t come about on its own. We should strive for left unity, but not mechanically. There have been many attempts over the decades to forge “unity of the left” – a new group or alliance or merger – some more successful than others. Rarely do these attempts on their own represent a major shift in the actual capacity of the left or the balance of political forces.
History shows that actual moments of heightened left unity, or significant regroupements on the left, or the emergence of new organizations, usually appear due to a major shift in mass consciousness, or due to the birth of new powerful movements, or as the result of decisive shift of the balance of forces in society as a whole.
In other words, formal unity flows from the actual unity of social forces, not the other way around.
There are also several unique political realities and challenges in the U.S. that the left must grapple with in building left unity:
First, many people – probably most – who are moving towards socialist ideas are not in left organizations but are being radicalized in the social movements, and even sometimes outside of the social movements via the Internet, self-study, higher education, etc. And many of these leftists are skeptical of political parties and organization generally. While it is possible that uniting several left organizations will inspire some, it is also likely that it will go unnoticed by many more. An approach to left unity must address this sector of people.
Second, unlike in Europe and Latin America – where several left unity projects are underway – we do not have a parliamentary system and have little opportunity for electoral alliance. What does a non-electoral left alliance look like? How do we handle differences of approach to the elections and the two-party system? We must learn from the experiences of left unity around the globe both current and historical, but our left unity must be built in a U.S. context based on objective realities.
Third, the progressive mass social movements, be they labor, peace, environment, student, etc., while often led by or influenced by the left are not comprised primarily by “left” organizations. Uniting relatively small left groups in a country of millions will not have as big a political impact as building the strength of the working-class and democratic movements as a whole, and the unity of left action within those movements. There is also unprecedented openness to left ideas and even organizations in many movements. This opportunity should not be squandered or abused. So we must craft left unity that includes and involves these mass movements without dictating to them from the outside.
These three issues (among others) question the efficacy of merging left organizations alone as the solution (not to say that is what Solomon or anyone else is arguing for).
It should go without saying that left unity cannot distract us from the current democratic and class struggles. It must be forged within them, not separate from them, artificially. Left unity must therefore not take precedence over working-class unity, a much greater and more decisive task. Left unity should also not be pitted against left-center unity to greatly curb the ultra-right and the monopolies, which we believe is the strategic challenge of our time.
The left can and should initiate campaigns, concepts and struggles, but not set apart from the masses of people already in motion, not against the existing movements and mass organizations, but where it is strategic and unifies broader forces not just the left.
The fact is, a bigger, broader movement more engaged in the struggles will create the conditions for a vibrant left of greater size and scope. That is exactly what generated the largest radical upsurges in U.S. history.
Not that a successful new left form or a merger of existing players is or isn’t necessarily going to come about in the future, but if it does, it would most likely be due to the ascendance of the working-class movement and a dramatic shift in the balance of political forces in a progressive direction, not from the left’s weakness.
Of course there will never be a single “left unity” bringing everyone under one umbrella. There will be several hubs of unity where leftists who reach a level of agreement and cooperation will come together for a short time and in some cases for the long haul. Unity – even organizational unity – is also not won once and for all time, but is constantly struggled for and will have advances and setbacks. As it stands, any new significant structure or instrument of left unity on a national level is likely far down the road.
But that doesn’t mean we should wait. Like-minded socialist groups can work more closely together, moving from cooperation to coordination and even collaboration. We can build a comradely dialogue and open new forms of communication and exchange. We can create social and political spaces to get to know each other. We can commit to relate to each other’s organizations as equal partners, with no monopoly on the truth, with flexibility and respect. We can strive to work together where we are in agreement and learn to disagree without being disagreeable.
And we should keep talking. Not just among ourselves but with the broad left and progressive movement, organizations and individuals alike. I think these discussions, in various venues, both internal to our groups, public, private, among some of us or all of us, including the groups here and many others that are not, should continue.
The size, influence and political health of the broad left and the balance of forces in the country will be determined in the course of building the broader social movements and struggles. The Communist Party looks forward to continuing this dialogue and we look forward to continuing the work with others to unite and build a left that is up to the huge tasks at hand and in our future.