By Ben Barker / Deep Green Resistance Wisconsin
If the political Left was what I thought it was growing up, I would want nothing to do with it. It’s not what I thought it was, however; at least not in its true form. A Left worth the name is less a sold-out party line and more a grassroots revolutionary force of the kind we’ve not seen for far too long. No matter what we want to call that force, now is the time to build it again.
It starts with political. I know the connotations: we think charades of Presidential elections and we think the textbook spectrum to which we’ve never been able to relate. We all know that the political system is boring, pointless, and corrupt (and did I mention boring?). Politics, however, is not the political system.
That which shapes the world we live in, from the most global to the most intimate sense; that which determines who has power and who doesn’t, who has wealth and who doesn’t, who eats and who doesn’t; this is the real meaning of the political. The term comes from the Latin politicus, meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens.” Need I say that this concerns and should be important to us?
To ignore politics or revile it is to do nothing more than sit on the sidelines as society unfolds. Decisions will be made, whether or not we participate. Thus, we have two choices: concede power over our own lives to the powerful or take that power back for our communities and landbases.
I have, at different times, been both apolitical and anti-political. Like so many who dream of a saner way to live, I placed no more faith in the Left than I did the Right to take us there. It’s all the same, I convicted; sad but true.
But there’s something deeper in that word: the Left. What if, instead of being one end of a spectrum, one pillar of the status quo, it could sink that spectrum and topple those pillars? What if the real meaning of the Left is a culture of resistance: a fiery populist radicalism potent enough to shake the power elite with even the smallest dose?
“Left” has become a dirty word even amongst those ostensibly most aligned with its values. For some it comes on too strong; it’s too political, too confining. For others, it’s too weak; it reflects but one arm of a wholly corrupt machine. In either case, when we wash our hands of the political Left, we wash our hands of the potential for a better world. Neither best wishes nor fierce posturing will cut it.
There is no American Left. Once upon a time there was, but it died long ago: stamped down by force, kept there by fear.
Its remnants are pitiful: one part those who act nothing like a Left, but call themselves such, and one part those who have the potential to build a Left, but can’t get over the name to get together; the essence of modern liberals and radicals.
I’m not sure Leftists know our own history. It starts with revolution in France. Within the Estates General, a political assembly, those opposed to the monarchy and in favor of revolution sat on the left side of the room. Old Regime heads occupied the right.
Since that time, “Left” has been applied to a vast array of worthy movements: anti-colonialism, anarchism, socialism, lesbian and gay liberation, environmentalism, anti-racism, feminism, anti-imperialism, and so on. What bound them together—and should still bind them together—was one simple thing: opposition to the ruling class.
Read that again. The Left, in its original and most honest meaning, is an opposition to the ruling class. Not a loyalty to it. Not an indifference to it. Not even a hatred of it. But an opposition. And in our case, it means an opposition to capitalism. This is why there is no Left in America. This is why we so desperately need one.
Devoid of any meaningful political opposition to join, potential activists are diverted instead into the benign, the fringe, and the bizarre. Each one heads in a unique direction, but in any case it’s never one that leads to the transformation of society.
Some want to remain in the center. They want to take from both the established Left and the established Right to find bipartisan solutions. But the problem is bipartisanism itself: Democrats and Republicans are for more alike than they are different. The only real political party in this country is the capitalist one. How can any well-meaning person want to be in the center of that?
Some imagine themselves radical beyond the Left. It’s called post-Leftism, pitting itself against traditional Leftist values like organization, political struggle, and morality. At its core, this is merely a cult of the individual. No matter how righteous those individuals imagine themselves to be, social change is a group project.
Some wander into conspiracy theory. Obscure schools of thought masquerading as movements appeal to those privileged enough to imagine that social control happens largely in the head rather than through grinding poverty and oppression. Yes, there exists those who are conspiring against us, but they’re called multi-national corporations, not “the new world order.”
The task before us now is to rebuild a home for these would-be Leftists. We must make it the common-sense avenue for resistance. Moreover, we must be a reminder that the political is important. We must be a reminder that the world can be changed, that there is an organized opposition capable of making that happen.
Until then, we have the indifferent and the disillusioned to work with.
I have friends who are silent revolutionaries. Their bones shake enough at every injustice to make even Che Guevara proud. They don no labels or political affiliations, but passionately desire a better way of life; one without systemic atrocity; one worth living in. These friends know things are bad and are just continuing to get worse. They know we need some force of nature to change that. But they don’t imagine that they, themselves, would make up such a force. They simply don’t know it’s possible.
Similarly, I have friends who are outspoken militants. But they, too, don’t see themselves as part of the Left. Why? Two words: Red Scare. It was but fifty years ago that the most passive and compromised of the Left stabbed in the back their active and steadfast counterparts. “[W]riters, actors, directors, journalists, union leaders, government employees, teachers, activists, and producers,” were fired, deported, or otherwise crushed by those in power, writes Chris Hedges in Death of the Liberal Class. “The purge,” he writes, “was done with the collaboration of the liberal class.” Indeed, it was a gleeful bloodlust. So much for solidarity.
Our energy is diffuse, but vast amongst these pools of the disenfranchised. It’s up to us to give common people, in the words of Hedges, “the words and ideas with which to battle back against the corporate state.” And it’s up to us to rescue our opposition from the status quo of the ruling class, where it became “fearful, timid, and ineffectual,” says Hedges. He continues, “It created an ideological vacuum on the left and ceded the language of rebellion to the far right.”
It’s impossible to say exactly what an actual Left would look like in today’s America. Certainly, the project won’t be easy. We won’t always agree. But our debates could be held behind that shared banner, our unwavering Leftist vision of opposition to the ruling class. There’s a chance it won’t work. But right now that ruling class is driving our world to ruin. A Left that means it could put a stop to it once and for all. That chance is worth it.
Beautiful Justice is a monthly column by Ben Barker, a writer and community organizer from West Bend, Wisconsin. Ben is a member of Deep Green Resistance and is currently writing a book about toxic qualities of radical subcultures and the need to build a vibrant culture of resistance. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.