Reflections on Historical Leftist Activism and the Present Moment
I am not entirely sure I believe any of this analysis – it would be hard to validate, even were I to do extensive research. But I think it is at least a plausible way to understand the history it covers. As with other posts of mine, I expect it to be unpopular – it has something to offend everyone.
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I had, for a long time, believed that the 1930s split between the German communists (KPD) and democratic socialists (SPD), which allowed Hitler to come to power, was a result of Soviet machinations. That split seems to me to parallel a current split between factions of the USA’s Democratic Party. There are differences, to be sure. But I want to look at the parallels.
A stable emergent property of the US electoral system is two major parties. Third parties draw votes away from the major party which is closest to their politics, so forming third parties is rare; the only time it has been successful nationally was back in the 1800s, when the Whigs split over slavery, leaving space for the Republican Party to emerge. As a result, the major US political parties are broad coalitions – “big tents” in political parlance.
I have written before about factions in the Democratic Party, commenting that, though the Democratic Party had a large liberal wing, that on major issues – “war and peace, banking, and so on” – the Democratic Party was dominated by its conservatives. The fight over the Affordable Care Act highlighted the split in the Democratic coalition and at that time, eight years ago, I commented, “It is difficult for me to see how the Democrats can rebuild their coalition.” And so it has been.
In 2016, a socialist challenger arose to a centrist front-runner in the Democratic Party. The socialist, surprisingly, garnered substantial support in this most capitalist country, and being aware of the history of the KPD/SPD split, stood for the Democratic Presidential nomination. When the socialist lost the nomination to the centrist, he threw his support behind her. But a vocal minority of his followers did not support her enthusiastically. Some rejected her entirely, either not voting or voting for the radical-right Republican candidate.
As a result, I have revised my understanding of the 1932 German federal election. For a long time, I had assumed that the KPD’s refusal to make common cause with the SPD was a result of Soviet machinations – certainly the Soviet Union was influential in the KPD. Instead, I have come to believe that many in the SPD and KPD underestimated the threat of the Nazis. The infamous KPD motto was “Nach Hitler kommen wir” – “After Hitler, we come.” But the Nazi regime was more brutal than imagined, the leadership of the Soviet Union more corrupt and nationalistic than most of the KPD knew, and afterwards the Soviet Union destroyed the independence of the KPD. Ultimately, the KPD was banned.
It now seems to me that the history was the other way around: the KPD split with the SPD because of partisan conflicts which were encouraged by the Soviet leadership and then got eaten up by the Soviets. In like manner, I believe, the centrist and socialist factions within the Democratic Party have split because of internal factional conflict, aided by Russian information warfare. It seems, however, that Russia will not swallow up the socialist faction, finding instead both greater support from and ideological sympathy with the Republicans.
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In the 1950s, the wealthy and powerful elites of the USA felt threatened by communism. The elites, fools then as now, apparently believed that the despised and disorganized United States left was somehow a threat. Apparently, they genuinely believed a Communist takeover, aided by the USSR, was imminent.
The elite opposition to socialism proceeded on two paths: there were both carrots and sticks. An anti-socialist panic was created; the infamous red scare of the 1950s. Anyone who had been a Communist or socialist back in the in the 1930s, which was perhaps half a million people, was harassed. Jobs were lost, careers blighted. People were jailed. It became risky to be even moderately socialist. There was an actual subversive faction within the Communist Party, connected to the USSR, but it was tiny and, as anyone who read the socialist literature of the time can see, it was not very much in control of anything. US socialism has long had an anarchist streak, and the leadership of the USSR did not very well understand the United States.
On the other hand, a modest democratic socialism under another name was tolerated, at least as long as the participants were white families. Despite the anti-union Taft-Hartley act, passing into law over President Truman’s veto, unions were allowed to flourish so long as they did not organize into a worker’s party. Housing was subsidized. The United States was the only wealthy country with an intact industrial economy, so times were prosperous, and it was easy to pay workers well.
As soon as the Soviet Union fell, due largely to the corruption and paranoia of its ruling elite, American elites began to reimpose class oppression. It took a generation, but the wealth of the broad secure US middle income population has been looted, and now their civil rights are being taken. In reaction, the USA is seeing resurgent socialism among its youth, who do not want to join Marx’s “reserve army of the unemployed” and be subject to various forms of racial and gender oppression. I believe this has driven the resurgence of democratic socialism in the USA, leading to the popularity of Senator Sanders and now, two primary electoral victories for democratic socialists: Ben Jealous in the Maryland gubernatorial race and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the New York 14th Congressional District. NY14 is solidly Democratic and so, barring electoral manipulations or discovery of significant character failings, Ocasio-Cortez is likely to win the general election. It is less clear that Ben Jealous will win the governorship of Maryland in a general election.
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It is a dark time. The Roberts Court is likely to outlaw any attempt to ameliorate the brutality of this resurgent class war. The world will not stand still while the United States resolves its internal conflicts. Environmental degradation is not going to wait for us to put our house in order. Nor is the power vacuum the Trump administration is creating by withdrawing from international alliances likely to remain unfilled. I do not know who can win the US internal conflict, or how. Still, there is hope in the popular energy behind socialism, more hope than in fascism.