The American Left's Love Affair with Defeat

by Lorna Salzman

How the Left Created the Right Wing

It cannot have escaped the notice of many Americans that the American Left -loosely defined as the anti-war/anti-Bush/anti-Republican/
anti-capitalist/anti-racism activist groupings - have made themselves dispensable from the political scene for nigh these fifty years or so.

This "retirement community" has been not only reclusive but occasionally hostile to the most important and most progressive movements of the second half of the 20th century, notably the environmental and anti-globalization movements. Even their fist-shaking protests against Wall St. have vanished into the mists.

Today, their recusal from the front-burner issue of gender inequality in Islamic nations continues, revealing that they still suffer from that "Old Timers' Disease" of indifference to the stark reality of genital mutilation, "honor" killings, enslavement, isolation, disenfranchisement and enforced purdah that characterize the Moslem world's treatment of women in the middle east and much of Africa.

It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the American Left has a studied dedication to failure, in its stubborn refusal to address, much less embrace, the most important movements of today. Indeed, they seem obsessed with a search for maximum irrelevance.

What is particularly striking is that their choice of issues to be shunned is precisely those where they would have the greatest number of allies and potential supporters.

Take the anti=globalization movement, which bared its teeth in Seattle in 1999.
"Turtles and teamsters" marked the participation of large numbers of blue collar workers, unions, and environmental activists. Yet leftist groups were notably absent. One would have expected them to turn out in droves, if not for the marches and demonstrations, then at least for the numerous workshops, debates, and lectures that took place for over a week, where leftists could have had a chance to distribute literature, network, and show their concern for the issue that traditionally has been their nightmare: global capitalism.

The same thing was true for the national debate on NAFTA, and later CAFTA; it was also true for the debate on Capitol Hill on whether to grant China, a major violator of human rights, Most Favored Nation status. This battle, like the Seattle anti-WTO protests, was led by Ralph Nader's Public Citizen - Global Trade Watch and its indefatigable director Laurie Wallach. Progressive environmental groups fought with the reactionary ones that were led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, to stop MFN. We lost. Absent again was the American Left.

Keep in mind that the WTO/NAFTA/CAFTA battles were the opening shots in the war to rein in transnational corporations, the IMF, and the World Bank.(Separate protests against the World Bank held a year or so later did attract some leftists; in fact it was these protests that finally awakened the somnolent progressive community). I remember reading complaints on the internet from radical groups and movements, mainly minorities, about how they werent invited to participate in the WTO protests...but of course the explanation was quite simple: they had never publicly shown any interest in the WTO at all, so how could the organizers know they even existed?

Then we have the environmental movement,which the Left passed over, like a weak bridge hand, from its inception and which even today they shun as if it were some plague. Now, here is the one movement that could conceivably have profited the Left and recruited new supporters. First, it cuts across all race, class, gender and professional lines; indeed the late political historian Walter Karp remarked on this exact thing and why this broad movement was suspect to the Democrats, because they realized that embracing environmentalism meant not necessarily embracing Democrats; it went against the notion of party loyalty. The Democrats would not get much mileage from being strong environmentalists, so why should they risk losing their corporate sponsors and the business community?

Second, environmentalism proved to be a wild success across the spectrum. In the 1980s, it was estimated that over 20 million people belonged to or supported one or more environmental organizations.It is probably twice that today. Public support was so strong, in fact, that Richard Nixon was forced to sign our most important pieces of national legislation: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, OSHA, Endangered Species.You name it, he signed it. The public had spoken and spoken loudly; they wanted the environmental protected and cherished,regardless of cost. And they still feel this way, though some other issues now have taken priority, such as jobs, health care and war.

Also, leftists, including democratic socialists, were hostile to electoral politics and believed then, as some like Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West do now, that it is only "mass" social movements that bring about political change.
So leftists tried to stop the formation of the US Green Party, pushing for the "movement-party" from which the proletariat would rise up and take power. They failed to stop the USGP but continued their efforts to subvert the party structure, by forming first a Left Green Network, and later when the USGP was legitimized, a separate movement called GPUSA which was not a party but which appropriated the name in order to confuse the public and the media. When this disintegrated because of the usual leftist in-fighting, they formed what now exists as the Green Alliance, whose membership requirement includes a vow to oppose capitalism.

Fast forward to today, and we have the rise of Islamic terrorism, jihad, and radical Islamism, which are spreading their poisonous plots and influence wherever they can: on campuses, within nonmoslem religious organizations, and of course the US Green Party, where their racist hatred for Jews succeeded admirably when the USGP National Committee (about half of them) dutifully obeyed them and enacted a resolution to boycott and divest from Israel.

SOme people (ignored of course) pointed out to the Greens that the Palestinians not only committed gratuitous violence in violation of international law - suicide bombings against civilians - but were part of the moslem world whose execrations against women and total lack of civil liberties and freedoms were shunted aside. Israel was the aggressor,to their way of thinking, and the fact that Moslem women were being tortured, knifed, raped, and beheaded by their husbands, fathers, uncles and grandfathers in Palestine and elsewhere - meant nothing. Moral judgement was, for them, reserved for Israel; violent misogynist authoritarian regimes who enslaved half their population could be excused on grounds that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". Any country that hated the US was perforce a friend of the American Left, whose hatred for this country knows no bounds. And many naive feminists as well as Jews swallowed this illogic. Today the left blasts the US for associating with Saudi Arabia, the training ground for terrorism, but says not a word about the rest of the Arab world or Islamism.

Here again, the American Left snatched defeat and ran with it. Here, as with the WTO issue and environmentalism, they had the chance to reach out and attract women of all races and classes and perhaps, perhaps, reclaim some credibility. But it was not to be. Once again, they rejected the "call to greatness" that they had ignored in the past.

Perhaps the American Left will point to the protests that finally ended the war in Vietnam as an example of success. But the success of this effort was due not to the left but to the support, finally, of broad segments of the American population, not just the left and liberals. The termination of the Vietnam war was arguably the single most effective accomplishment ever initiated by peace activists but was not a sudden embracing of pacifism or anti imperialism by Americans; it was the result of years and years of outreach to ordinary Americans of all political views, using a variety of arguments for its effectiveness.

Had the hard line sectarian leftists been in charge, it is doubtful that war would have ended when it did. Today, the opposition to the war in Iraq rests, fortunately, not on the virulent anti Americanism promoted by leftists but on the number of body bags returning to this country as well as to the remarkably dumb acts and preachings of violence and terrorism committed by radical islamists.

So we need to ask WHY. The answers are probably multiple and mingled, but some things are clear. The American left has always touted "race and class" as their rallying cry. None of the above issues, except possibly the women's issues, fit into their preconception of what a political movement should be about. Too many dissidents, too many diverse viewpoints, too many new people, are attracted to and involved in anti-globalization and environmental activism. That spells trouble for groups intent on maintaining complete control of their movement.

In addition, none of these issues (to them, at least) appeared to be explicitly anti=-capitalist and anti-American. Indeed, environmentalism probably epitomized a kind of pro-capitalism because environmental activism necessarily involved working within the system: lobbying, education, regulatory reform, contact with government bureaucrats, and of course it required some intellectual effort to understand the underlying scientific and technological concepts.

For those of us who are environmental activists (myself for forty years), these characteristics of the movement were precisely WHY democracy worked and how it could work for us. Environmental rules and laws required public hearings, dissemination of information, and allowed the participation of the public. Few other countries in the world have such a system. Environmentalism encouraged civic activism and involvement in public policy. It opened up the whole system to scrutiny and to individual participation. And the fact that the Republicans and neo conservatives are going to such lengths to destroy its credibility is a testament to its effectiveness and accomplishments.

But it was what environmentalism stood for that the American Left so sorrily misread, and which the right wing understood immediately: that environmentalism, carried to its logical conclusions, presented the greatest threat to capitalism the world had ever seen. For capitalism depends upon endless growth and consumption,and environmentalism, directly and indirectly, questioned these and indeed opposed them in myriad ways. That the American Left didnt and doesnt understand this is not just a tragedy; it is a telling commentary on the fact that the American Left CHOSE NOT TO OPPOSE CAPITALISM WITH THE BEST TOOLS AVAILABLE.

Environmentalism represented the exact opposite of leftist mass organizing concepts, which even today some greens like Donna Warren, a black woman running for state office in California, are still promoting. One would think they would have learned something by now. But no, ideology, even if it means defeat after defeat, must be preserved in all its absurdity and rigidity. In these leftist terms, it is like life insurance: you only win when you lose.

Thus, the American Left has explicitly and repeatedly rejected ALL the objectives that were actually ACHIEVABLE and all the battles that were WINNABLE, that would actually have recruited support from the general public, that had a shot at making some kind of political change. And instead they have embraced the issues that not only are nonstarters but which have, without a doubt, produced the strongest backlash from centrists, ordinary Americans, as well as rednecks, racists and rightwingers. None of these will EVER believe that Moslems are anything but potential terrorists because neither the left nor the moderate moslem community will speak out against terrorism or in favor of women's rights under Islam.

As a result of their denial of the danger of terrorism and their refusal to address the oppression of women under Islam, they have allowed the warmongers and right wingers to take complete control of the public dialogue. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that their deliberate refusal to take on these issues has CREATED THE RIGHT. The neo cons moved into the space vacated by the American left. And they will stay there a long time, threatening civil liberties, supporting theocracies and authoritarians, and justifying it all by invoking terrorism, which is real but offers a splendid opportunity to impose right wing policies that the fearful public will embrace without hesitation.

Surrounding all of this is the fog of Political Correctness, by which the Left justifies "cultural relativism" and promotes the myth of Islamic victimization; Identity Politics, the perfect recipe for dividing and conquering radical movements; conducting a Hate America campaign that deplores American imperialism while declining to damn those countries who oppress and kill half their population: their women; and not least vilifying those who question them or disagree with their policies; and making repeated attempts to suppress freedom of speech, as the US Green Party's Women's Caucus has done. (I was expelled by them because I took issue with their rules banning freedom of expression).

My criticism of the USGP anti-Israel resolution 190, and notably my criticisms of Islam and its propagation of violence and terrorism have earned me the epithets of "racist" and "neo con". The American Left, including the US Green Party, has been revealed as authoritarians, in effect Stalinists, plain and simple, while all the while professing "Diversity" as one of their Ten Key Values. In my book, this is known as Hypocrisy.

In the light of all this, it becomes abundantly clear that the American Left and its fellow travellers in places like The Nation not only dont understand what is necessary to bring about substantive social and political change in this country, but that they dont WANT to. Why? Because their positions as political gurus and leaders would be threatened. New issues bring new people, new leaders and new policies. Threatened leaders always clamp down hard. They keep the doors closed to internal change. So it is in the US Green Party. So it has always been with the American Left. For them, it is far more important to keep control of their movement than actually bring about change. In this respect they eerily echo the two major parties in this country. In fact, it is getting harder and harder to tell them apart.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.