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Moving Left Is Always Better


When Democratic Party leaders move to the right, astute leftists quickly criticize them. The critique has three core components.

* One… watered down pandering ignores real needs. Democrats make themselves irrelevant.

* Two… supinely ceding moral high ground to Republicans is an operational disaster. Democrats make themselves weak.

* Three… compromising political aims does reaction’s work for it. Democrats become Republicans.

Why then do many leftists follow the same rightward path that whimpering Democrats follow? Why do we jettison radicalism for liberalism?

Yes, countering Bush will require a vast outpouring of dissent. But why does this imply that radicals should leave their radical politics behind and take stances closer to the mainstream? Why can’t we facilitate more people opposing Bush while we uncompromisingly persist in our radical critiques, visions, and practices?

When we jettison our aspirations and water down our messages, our deeper aims literally disappear. Without those aims, when victory comes against Bush it will lead to a Kerry or a Clinton, but not further. Attaining long run systemic change is impossible when everyone with radical aims takes on liberal manners, tones, agendas, and styles.

Yes, sectarian or ignorant posturing is worthless. I don’t urge that kind of “leftism.” And yes, isolating oneself from normal ways of talking and interacting, much less ridiculing them, is also counter productive. I don’t advocate holier than thou-ism either. But for radicals to set aside our true aims as if temerity would better aid organizing would be disastrous. The left should develop and pursue a radical organizational, moral, and intellectual alternative, not parrot liberal positions.

And we also need radicalism of the deepest kind in the short run. Consider the anti war movement.

It ought to be clear that the war in Iraq is part and parcel of U.S. foreign policy more broadly. It is fought partly to punish even the slightest deviation from American agendas, but largely to enlarge U.S. control over Mideast oil. Elites seek to enhance their wealth and power. They will not easily cease their war policies, not only because they would fall short of the greater oil hegemony they desire, but also because once having begun a battle to lose it would inspire hope that opposition to U.S. agendas is possible.

This is the real logic of the U.S. being “hip deep in the big muddy” to use a literary allusion from Vietnam days. Having invested in a repressive campaign, the U.S. must follow through or risk a dangerous precedent.

It follows that to end this war will require that movements raise a threat that is seen by elites to be even worse than the costs of losing their war aims. In other words, the anti-war movement has to convince elites that if the war continues opposition will persist and will grow sufficiently massive, committed, diversified, and aggressive to challenge not only war policy but even society’s structures of power and control more broadly.

This is a tall task. An anti war movement that is huge but is only angry about this war will not win peace and justice. Elites can wait it out. No matter how long it takes, when elites victoriously end their war, the movement disappears and along the way nothing was in doubt but the policies pursued.

So we have insight number one – to be effective at raising costs the anti war movement has to have a plausible likelihood of transcending this war to oppose all war and of transcending opposing war policy to opposing war producing institutions and injustice per se. When an anti war movement says to elites if you keep pursuing the war you run the risk of unleashing a movement that will not stop protesting until you no longer have your wealth and power – elites have a real calculation to make.

Do Bush, Cheney, and Co. want to continue the war to expand their geopolitical interests, or do they want to end the war to preserve status quo advantages rather than risk unleashing a growing opposition that threatens those too. Until it raises that specter, while it may be annoying an antiwar movement is for elites just a temporary by-product of their preferred policies. They can anticipate such a movement disappearing when they win their war. They do not have to give up their war to get rid of the movement.

Of course, while it is necessary it is not enough that an antiwar movement graduates broad and systemic opposition. To be successful, an antiwar movement must also be very large, and must threaten to grow much larger still. It must be perceived by elites as ripping up the fabric of society, robbing the system of the next generation, and creating an abiding hostility to wealth and power. And it must do all this far and wide in society, not just among a few dissidents.

What kind of movement can reach so wide and so deep? Not a movement that presumes most people can’t be communicated with. Not a movement that alienates most people by conveying to them that they are considered not worth reaching out to and listening to. Not a movement whose internal operations are uncongenial to massive constituencies – whether women, minority groups, or working people.

Instead, what is needed is a movement that tries to meet its members’ needs and empower its members, welcoming precisely those constituencies with most reason to dissent. But this is not what liberals build. Even without a strong radical left, liberals may create enough opposition to win the White House – but only to persevere in war. To win the White House and also end the war and significantly improve life, we need more than liberalism.

A movement that thinks that the population has no moral fiber and motivation, much less a movement that is afraid of the population becoming aroused and committed, is doomed. A movement that thinks the population will oppose a war that costs too much without having decided that it is immoral – or that thinks the population will support a war that doesn’t cost much regardless of its morality – has such a jaundiced view of the people it ostensibly wants to organize that those people will not be interested in it. This is a Machiavellian movement, however leftist, not an honest and morally sound movement.

This war is wrong for radical reasons. It is imperial and vile in its effects on Iraqis and world relations regardless of costs at home. Precisely that message is critical to building a movement that is deep and broad.

GIs desert when they think what they are doing is wrong, not because they think paying for their own safety in battle is too expensive. And the same goes for desertion from support for war at home. Radicals must bring morality and systemic understanding to the oppositional mix.

Where the movement should relate to issues other than the well being of people we are bombing and occupying is largely inside its own structures and inside the U.S. The reason an antiwar movement’s attitudes about class, race, and gender matter to its war and peace agenda is because they matter to whether people in diverse constituencies want to be part of that movement or are repulsed by it. An antiwar movement needs to empower people from all kinds of backgrounds and to be congenial to their aspirations.

The upshot is simple but somehow always seems to have to wage an uphill battle to register in practice. Movements can’t spend their time worrying about losing some highly educated supporters due to having too wide an approach. Instead, they need to realize the opposite need. A wider sensitivity is precisely what is needed to attract the largest base of support.

And a movement can’t think that its constituency is a greedy lot, unable to show solidarity with people beyond U.S. borders. It can’t think its constituency is unable to distinguish right and wrong and to oppose the latter on moral grounds. These calumnies against our fellow citizens are not only wrong, they remove the most compelling reasons for anti war opposition and they so degrade others and ourselves that we loose humanity and effectiveness.

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