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How the Left Can Win

Robert Brenner
Bhaskar Sunkara

Robert Brenner and Bhaskar Sunkara on how the Left can seize the momentum and build a majority.

r-simoes / Flickr

Interview by
Suzi Weissman

Our podcast series is now up and running. One of the shows we’re hosting is Jacobin Radio with Suzi Weissman, hosted by Suzi Weissman, a professor of politics at St. Mary’s College of California, author, and longtime radio host.

For her first episode, Weissman interviewed Jacobin founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara and UCLA professor and author Robert Brenner. Their wide-ranging conversation covers prospects for resistance with a rising anti-Trump sentiment but a weakened labor movement, the Democrats’ refusal to learn any lessons from November’s election, and the widespread support for a social-democratic agenda that the Left can capitalize on.

You can read an edited version of the interview below, or listen to it here. You can subscribe to Jacobin Radio with Suzi Weissman and all of our podcasts at Blubrry, iTunes, and Stitcher; ratings and reviews are much appreciated.


SW

Bernie Sanders’ campaign showed us there’s a Left in the United States with a great deal of sympathy for socialist ideas. The millions who voted for Bernie have not retreated, and they’re on the front lines every day resisting each new executive order, appointment, and atrocity.
We have a new age of Trump, and, at the same time, we have tremendous resistance to it.

BKS

Obviously, this is a bad time for the world and the country. But the Left is now seeing growth and energy, partially because the center has so thoroughly discredited itself. We didn’t think that Clintonism would be capable of taking on Trumpism in the long run, but we did think that Clinton would be able to take on a candidate so buffoonish and gaffe-prone as Donald Trump.

We didn’t necessarily underestimate Trump — we overestimated Clinton.

Now people are looking for alternatives. This goes back to Bernie Sanders. Can you imagine how bad our situation would be if the number two candidate was Martin O’Malley? If we didn’t have the experience of Sanders?

We have the potential to build a majority for at the very least a social democracy in the United States.

RB

I would even be a little bit more optimistic: I think the Left has an opening of the sort that it has not had in memory.

If we look back to right after the election, people quickly realized Trump’s victory was not such a crazy outcome as it had initially seemed. Here’s the New York Times the day after the election, after it had of course uncritically backed Clinton throughout in the campaign:

As the dust settled, Democrats recognized two central problems of Clinton’s flawed candidacy. Her decades in Washington, paid speeches she delivered to financial institutions, left her unable to tap into the anti-establishment and anti-Wall Street rage, and she ceded the white working-class voters who backed Mr. Clinton in 1992.

Instead, they said, the Democrats targeted college-educated suburban voters.

The Hillary Clinton candidacy, which followed of course from Barack Obama, which followed from Bill Clinton, was a neoliberal candidacy.  As a consequence, the Democratic Party not only looked more than ever to top capitalists for funding, but to the well-off middle- and upper-class for votes. This is not by accident, but because they realize that if they’re going to support neoliberal politics and the capitalist interests those politics are designed to help, they cannot at the same time implement a very strong pro-working-class politics.

The Democrats’, and Hillary Clinton’s, commitment to neoliberalism was what opened the way to the populist campaign of Trump. This was all over the map, but, with the goal of attracting working-class voters, nonetheless focused on the Democratic Party’s support for finance and  globalization, in the sense of free trade and investment and relatively open immigration. So Trump put forward this right-wing kind of politics, which set him in line with the populist right on a world scale. And he won a big victory.

You might think that the Democrats would, in response to their catastrophic defeat, try to adjust to the populist surge and indeed try to capture it. But it seems to me very unlikely that they’re going to do this, for the very reason that Clinton took the political positions and adopted the electoral strategy she did.

In line with this, in the summer of 2016, Chuck Schumer proposed that the party orient to the upper-middle-class suburbs: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia.” So that is their strategy, their politics, and it is the reason that they will not have an easy time moving in a populist or working-class direction.

This opens things up for the Left in a big way. The political leadership of the Democratic Party obviously does not want to depend on mass action from below to oppose Trump. But they’re put in a terrible position with regard to it — and in fact can’t help but support it in formal terms — because of the extremity of the positions Trump is taking.

So in a sense, we’ve never had it so good. We can go out and demonstrate — by the millions at the Women’s March and tens of thousands opposing the Trump immigration ban — and there are no cops out there arresting us, there are no local mayors cracking down.

Of course, there are limits on this. But there is a wide-open space for us. We need to take it in the direction of politics that speak to workers’ needs across the board.

SW

Bob seems quite hopeful and optimistic. There is optimism everywhere, and I share it. But people are really frightened by all these fast and furious executive orders that are not only curbing liberties but basically overturning everything that they thought was progressive.

How do you respond to this sort of pressure that’s being put on the Democrats, who many have said now have to find a few vertebrae to be able to stand up straight?

BKS

There’s mass discontent, but not just with Trump. It’s with the political class in general. That lends itself to a broad, populist, anti-establishment mood. Trump was able to tap into that but only at a superficial level.

So that would lead us to believe that if we had a left populist alternative, that would be enough to even win, if not political power, than at least the White House in 2020. Within that tent, maybe more radical socialist currents can emerge and thrive and prosper. So of course I see that angle, and a lot of the work that Jacobin does is premised on that belief.

Where I’m a bit more pessimistic is I look at the social forces active out there, and I wonder, where are the concentrated, militant groups of people that have the power to disrupt the economy? Compared to other periods of mass upsurge in the 1930s and the 1960s, they are few and far between. Workers still have that potential power, but it’s still ages away from being realized.

It’s been said about the context of the United Kingdom by Andrew Murray and others, that we’re seeing the emergence of a new class politics but without a class base. We need to think about what it would look like when we have a national right-to-work law, with the labor movement even further degraded. These units of resistance keep getting smaller and smaller, more isolated. So we can still have these big demonstrations, but they don’t have the social leverage to present an alternative.

I am not clear that we can piece together a governing coalition that can not only win a couple of elections, but actually push through the reforms and demands we need to alleviate suffering and to reconstitute the social forces needed to push things in an even more transformative direction.

SW

Bhaskar concedes that right-to-work will be national and that unions will be further hobbled. That has always been the goal for the Kochs and others who want to crush the unions because they support the Democratic Party. Bob, how do you see it?

RB

In terms of attracting a broad social base, the Left has a tremendous opening. The Democratic Party is unlikely to fill this gap, and it’s wonderful that the mass movement is out protesting at Chuck Schumer’s house, trying to keep him honest in actually opposing Trump rather than finding some middle way where they can come together.

So that is one side of it: the Democrats have their backs to the wall, and the movement has the wind at its back.

But there remains the fundamental problem, we have had to face since the 1970s. The trade union movement — the main source for reforms in the old sense of initiatives and legislation that speaks to the living and working conditions of [is supportive of] the broad masses, from Social Security on down — is ever-weaker and, sadly, ever-more bureaucratized.

As a reflection of that weakness, the official labor leadership is undeterred in continuing to find the way forward for working people by looking to the Democratic Party. Their main tactic is to help the Democrats win at the ballot box. We know that the Democrats, time and time again, fail to deliver for them. Indeed, they practically say from day one, “We’re not going to deliver for you.”

How do we build some sort of institutionalized movement, meaning actual organizations, that can take up and fight for a program in the interest of working people in the absence of the movement that has been the basis of class struggle across the world throughout  the twentieth century? We have to face the fact that while the industrial working class is still a very important force in the United States, it’s become a very minoritarian force. So there is no longer the direct connection between a social base (industrial proletariat) and economic organization (trade union) and political party (social democratic or labor party) that constituted the point of departure for the Left throughout the twentieth century. Revitalizing the unions remains a key, but the story probably can’t end there.

So we face the extremely difficult task of coming up with forms of working-class politics to supplement and replace the traditional ones on which we have long relied. Perhaps one possible form to experiment with would be some type of cross-city organization that could bring together the disparate struggles now proceeding separately and in isolation. We could say that we have, at least skeletally or in embryo the forces, but they’re scattered, not collaborative, and therefore extremely weak.

I think one of the fabulous things about the Women’s March, which was initially organized in terms of rather vague and conservative politics, was that the people who came out there had their own militancy, their own anger, but saw finding and building solidarity with others as the heart of the matter. They were saying, “I’m with you. I’m in the women’s movement supporting trans people, fighting the racism of the Trump administration, putting a central focus on immigration, and backing poor workers’ organizing efforts.”

But the difficulty is to find the kind of formation that can allow this multiplicity of forces to support one another on an ongoing basis. How can we make it happen institutionally, when the problem is that the particular pieces of the struggle are themselves not organized in a way that could have representatives come together? We have informal labor organizing and of course there’s Black Lives Matter and the women’s organizations. But there’s a huge gap between ongoing instances of resistance and organized mutual support, which requires institutions.

SW

We’re in quite a different situation than we were prior to the incredible campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016. He didn’t create the Left, he revealed that it existed, and that’s what we’re dealing with right now. Bhaskar, you’re saying that we need something far more substantive to make this sentiment and support meaningful.

BKS

I’m not saying substantive in the sense that we need something necessarily more radical right away, though of course I also believe that. I mean substantive in terms of rootedness. I think Sanders definitely is a socialist — he was politicized in large part through his experience in the Young People’s Socialist League. This is someone with a deep ties to the American socialist tradition.

His campaign did support the striking Verizon workers; in fact, their campaign was largely timed to the New York primary and to all the enthusiasm around Sanders. But the importance of unions wasn’t a main part of his stump speech. It was more in these kinds of broader, more nebulous populist terms. I think that’s very telling.

Bob is getting at something intelligent when he says that we need to think about the city as an organizing sphere. Of course he’s not talking about municipalism; he’s talking about ways in which you can connect employed and unemployed workers across sectors in a city-central organization. It resembles what the labor movement was trying to do in the nineteenth century. As we’ve gone forward in time, we’ve gone backwards in terms of labor organizing, as the gains of the twentieth century have been eroded.

Fundamentally, we’re still talking about the need to challenge capital at the point of production, and our politics aren’t going in that direction.

Even though the Women’s March and the other social movements are promising, I don’t think we’re moving closer to disruptive action at the point of production. We have seen promising events like the Chicago Teachers Union, but they will face the rise of national right-to-work legislation that’s directed against public-sector unionism.

We need to look at other examples. We need to look at ways labor can create fronts to circumvent labor law, at new forms of organizing. But we can’t make a beeline around this problem of not having a militant labor movement.

With Trump, we’re seeing significant sectors of the labor movement falling behind where the majority of the country is. We’re seeing building trades take crumbs from Trump, which will be largely substandard wages, below regular prevailing union wages, for some short-term benefits for their members. It’s going to hurt their own members, and the broader working class, in the medium- and long-term. It’s going to be very tough for the UAW to resist Trump if he is trying to create all these measures to lure even more foreign auto manufacturers into the United States.

But there is a base for our politics right now. A majority of this country would support social-democratic policies. How do we create the social power to help any future administration implement them and hold them accountable?

SW

Trump was able to get a lot of support from that section of the working class that’s been left behind. He, and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, have said, “We’re going to invest so much money in infrastructure and bring back so many jobs.” What they don’t say, of course, is that they will undercut union wages and that there will be no protection.
Is it a terrible thing that the unions are going to have to find a new way, now that labor law will not be in their favor? Free of the shackles of labor law, can unions go back to wildcat days?

RB

It would seem commonsensical to unite all of the anti-Trump forces together in one broad front behind the leadership of the original anti-Trump organization, viz. the Democratic Party. But this would be one more instance where the commonsensical turns out to be nonsensical.

Any new movement must proceed from an understanding of where the Democratic Party actually is today and leave behind debates about what it was or could be a half century ago. It is a hard line neoliberal party, and the shocking thing about this is the consistency and tenacity with which the Democrats are sticking with this.

You can see it, perhaps most strikingly, in their reluctance to grant the tiniest concession to the Sanders movement, which after all had millions and millions of votes, and would be one natural place for the Democrats to look to amplify the voting base of their party. But they have made it a point, in general, to hold Sanders heavily responsible for the defeat. Of course, they’re charging the Russians with it too.

SW

And the FBI’s James Comey.

RB

They will not take responsibility for losing because doing so would mean facing up to the manner and degree to which their generally pro-capitalist, specifically neoliberal politics structurally prevents them from adopting the broadly working-class approach that could appeal to that broad part of the population that formed the basis for the Sanders movement. It’s Schumer and Pelosi again, and they didn’t even let Keith Ellison, one of a tiny handful of congressional Democrats who backed Sanders, be head of the Democratic National Committee and help organize the party.

So the Democrats are not going to lead the fight against Trump. They’re going to try to consolidate a majority by moving rightward and taking as much as possible of the so-called moderate wing of the Republican Party — to be found among the better-off suburban voters whom they did very well with last election — to avoid having to confront capital and finance on labor issues.

On the other hand, Trump may very well be a more attractive force than we tend to think. The day-to-day operation is so ramshackle and so self-destructive, it is quite possible that the Trump people will undermine themselves before they can actually put forward their program. But they have already begun to do something fairly incredible, which is to get rid of the trade deals at the absolute heart of the neoliberal policy package. They got rid of the TPP, which Obama refused to allow the Democrats to drop — even verbally in order to win the election, — and they’re going to move against NAFTA. And this could be just the start.

BKS

They’re going to move against the overarching trade architecture, but they’re just going to replace it with bilateral trade agreements that are even freer of labor restrictions. I wouldn’t say that the Left shouldn’t have been for the repeal of NAFTA and these other deals. We’re not protectionists. We’re against these free-trade deals because we think they undermine the position of the working class. We might be for certain free-trade deals in the context of managing a capitalist state. The Swedish model was full of free trade.

So it’s a little too simple to say that he’s, by accident, carrying out parts of our agenda. But I still believe that if there’s two people sitting at a table, and one wants to institute social democracy in the United States and the other one’s project is ethno-nationalism, I think the social democrat has a better starting point to win a popular majority.

Following what we’ve seen in Europe, it makes sense that when the populist right is in power, the center-left moves to the right. The Democrats are a little bit different, in that you’re going to see some semblance of a leftward movement — doubling down on the social inclusion part of the Democratic Party — and resisting some of Trump’s nativism, while moving rightward on issues of political economy to try to win over moderate segments of the capitalist class. I think you’ll see a leftward and a rightward movement at the same time.

RB

I didn’t mean to say that Trump is going to be a real answer for the working class. But the politics that he’s putting forward will nonetheless excite a lot of his base, and that means there is a challenge for the Left. If we want to defeat a right-wing populist anti-neoliberal position with a left-wing socialist anti-neoliberal position, we are back to the issue of the core of that resistance.

One fragment that we need to look to is the left activist unions. There was a powerful unionists-for-Bernie politics, Labor for Bernie, which now needs to find a way forward that is not completely dependent on any particular electoral effort. Trade unions normally look to political party leadership for the social policies they need. But we have a preliminary issue, which is organizing the power of working people in the first place.

This means, inevitably, strikes and support for those strikes, bringing together people in the anti-immigration movement, the black movement, the women’s movement, and the labor movement. Among what we might call the activist unions today, we have the nurses, we have the telephone unions, we have the teachers, we have the transport workers, we have longshore, and hopefully a broad range of public workers.  This is a much weaker core than we once had, but it’s something.

They are already organized, they already have forms that could be set in motion in struggles against employers, and this is where social power is actually created. So if we could activate such struggles and move from these battles to some kind urban, trans-urban organization, we could be in much better shape.

BKS

But now we’re back to the classic problem: we have a party, the Democrats, in which our labor movement is organized, that sees segments of the employer class as a major part of its coalition.

This is a hard thing to overcome, and we should conceptualize this left, populist energy around Bernie Sanders in such a way that could actually direct some of its ire toward the employer class.

You saw the anger at the Uber CEO for collaborating with the Trump administration. You saw this connection being made: Silicon Valley will sell us out for nothing. They use the rhetoric of social inclusion, but they in fact really only are accountable to their bottom line.

This kind of populist anger can go in a good direction, because employers need to play ball with Donald Trump. He’s in power. They need to help shape his legislation and make sure he doesn’t veer too far in any sort of direction. A lot of people are going to call for a more intransigent position that employers can’t possibly take. So I think there’s some promise in the actions against the Uber CEO.

SW

This goes back to talking about how to organize. You’ve both brought up the problems within the Democratic Party, but we have a system in which it’s very difficult to organize outside of the two-party system.

We have to address the whole nature of the period we’re in, in which we have a large precariat or however you want to talk about it: people who are not gainfully employed in jobs where they have union protection.

What you saw with Uber was that they essentially scabbed on the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which was supporting the resistance to the immigration ban at JFK Airport. Tens of thousands of Uber accounts were deleted with the help of social media. But this is an important issue to take up as we go forward organizing, using both the power of community and the power of labor.

RB

It’s getting harder as we refine the questions to come up with convincing answers because we’re directly facing the large gap between where we need to go and where we are today. We require, for example, important initiatives from a weak labor movement — most of which is not used to fighting capital at all.

One top priority, I think, is strengthen the links between those militants in the unions that have been organizing the rank and file independently of the officials. Not to operate, not to act independently of them, but to force the officials and the unions as a whole into struggle.

In a number of the unions we’ve been talking about, for example, the Chicago teachers, there was a lengthy period in which a movement from below was struggling to break the power of a moderate leadership — which wasn’t that bad in national terms, but was not quite up to the struggle we needed to see. Radicals took control of the union and were able to carry out a very dramatic, if limited, strike.

The beauty of the Chicago Teachers struggle was their determination to link the full range of forces that will have to be brought together if any powerful alliance from below is actually going to be constructed — the union, the teachers, the parents, the students, the broader community with its own needs . . . and other public sector unions. And it goes without saying that such a movement, if it is to succeed, has to be not just in the interest of the teachers, but everyone connected to the educational process. It has to be to be reduce class size, to keep schools open, to allow kids to get to school safely, and so forth. A series of social issues have to be combined with the workplace economic issues.

These are natural alliances, but a look at the forces opposing them — note, it is Obama’s closest ally in Chicago that has been leading the fight against the teachers’ union — make clear what they are up against. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is in a sense, the quintessential  representative of the Democratic Party. He was one of the leading forces in transforming the party into the neoliberal monolith it is today, from Clinton I onward. And he makes no apologies for it.

What that means is that it will be much more difficult to unite rank and filers, to force the union officials to fight, to win the active support of other urban unions, and to get across the idea that a successful fight is only possible if we break beyond the narrow interests of the union workers (which of course aren’t narrow in themselves) to those of all those who are invested in improving education and what is required to achieve that.

If they’re going to have power, they’re going to have to make these links. We’re at a point, I realize, in this discussion where the gap between what we have and what we need is rather gaping and rather intimidating. But I think that’s where we have to be looking.

BKS

These questions of how to revitalize the labor movement and how to build something on a national scale are of course too hard to tackle definitively. What is the socialist left do in the short term? Because that’s something we could actually have a lot of control over.

The Democratic Socialists of America has over sixteen thousand members now.

SW

The Bolsheviks had just 16,000 members in April 1917!

BKS

Yes, and at over sixteen thousand members, probably the largest a socialist group in this country has been since the 1956 Khrushchev speech. But where are these people? And who are they demographically? How are they coming to the socialist movement? They’re coming in ones and twos, they’re not coming en masse. So, this gets back to the constant thing we’ve both returning to, which is this question of rootedness and power and leverage.

And right now, a lot of the people being drawn to the Left are people being drawn from the middle classes or the declassed sons and daughters of the professional class. They’re not being drawn to the movement as workers or through the process of industrial collective action. That’s a problem that we need to overcome.

The Trump era potentially encourages a return to an excessive and single-minded focus on just anti-oppression politics on campuses and elsewhere. That’s not to say these politics aren’t important and that we should just ignore all other struggles except for the immediate economic ones. But it does tell us that if the new socialist movement means people getting recruited in ones and twos and not leaving their strata, not figuring out how to relate to a broader labor movement or a broader working-class current, then we’re in trouble.

I don’t know exactly what the solution is. I would imagine it has to do with a lot of directing the close to twenty thousand people in DSA and other places toward workers’ centers, toward immigrant rights centers, toward a new vision of politicized social service work and things of that nature. It’s about figuring out how to develop a deeper class base to this movement.

Part of this comes through electoral struggles, which involves working at times within Democratic primaries. But we shouldn’t do so in the old Harringtonite realignment strategy, by trying to elect better Democrats or create a labor left-wing of the Democratic Party and then make it hegemonic. We should be willing to develop our own basis of funding, our own platforms and programs, then hold not only elected officials — because a lot these campaigns won’t end up winning — but the campaigns themselves to the discipline of a membership organization.

This would be a very different use of the Democratic or perhaps even Republican ballot lines. We should be looking at independent ballot lines, especially in cities that are dominated by Democrats like in New York. This strategy is a way forward and a shortcut to us actually figuring out how to develop a base to knock on doors and canvass and hold open town meetings.

But the main thing is just not being content with recruiting people in ones and twos off social media. Instead, we have to think about how to make this much deeper. I’d rather have fewer and better than have just more and more people that are disparately connected. (But obviously, I would like to have more and better.)

SW

More and better, and also better better. We’re now into the area of both the hope that exists today — some would say the revival of social hope — and the reality of how difficult this next period is.

RB

The electoral road is a very tricky, not to say imposing, one. The profoundly undemocratic electoral system that we have makes first-past-the-post such a dominant feature of elections that it is virtually always extremely difficult to run as a third party. But the biggest part of the question is to get to the point where you could conceivably have candidates that would actually be able to challenge incumbents.

We must distinguish this new mass of people, who were in Occupy, who were in Sanders, who are now flocking to DSA or Jacobin reading groups or strike support or fighting the Trump immigration ban, from their forebears in the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s. Those were middle-class people who had a very good opportunity not only to organize but also to go into middle-class occupations and ultimately take leading roles in social-democratic — mainly Democratic Party — organizations.

Today that option is frankly not there. One of the reasons we’re continuing to get radicalism expressed politically is that the people who have traditionally formed the liberal-social reform base are no longer able to be middle class.

The analyses of jobs created since 2000 show that practically none are appropriate to college-educated people. You need much more than that to get anywhere. And so, you have people who are going to come into the movement and be willing to make a long-term commitment.

Can we figure out a way to have progressive unions allying with worker centers, allying with centers of immigration, allying with women’s rights, reproductive rights, gay rights? These are central working-class issues that can unite people very broadly. To take that step is the difficult one.

End Mark

About the Author

Robert Brenner is Director of the UCLA Center for Social Theory and Comparative History and on the editorial board of New Left Review.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin.

About the Interviewer

Suzi Weissman is the author of Victor Serge: A Political Biography.