In his article “Our Alternative,” Jacobin magazine’s editor Bhaskar Sunkara writes,
“There are huge opportunities for left advance, and we should be wary of thinking that we need to save the liberal center … even though the people in charge of the bourgeois state at any moment (then Obama, now Trump) are our main enemies, much of our political activity should be challenging (broadly conceived) the political center. By this, I don’t mean individual liberals, but the centrist leadership of the Democratic Party at every layer, and the caste leading liberal reform groups in this country.”
“This is a moment,” he goes on, “when we should be leaning on the labor movement … [we] shouldn’t rally behind just any sort of anti-Trump politics, but rather to redouble our efforts to support rank-and-file struggle against a union bureaucracy that will sell out the entire working class for even the smallest of concessions.”
Escaping Sunkara’s critical glare is Bernie Sanders, but only because “Sanders and others are engaged in a process that, at its best, creatively produces divisions and polarizations within the party that complement the activity that we’re doing outside of it.”
“Our immediate step,” Sunkara concludes, “must be to continue building the majoritarian left alternative we saw emerge with the Sanders campaign, while pushing polarization and conflict — against Chuck Schumer, against Hillary Clinton, against Cory Booker, against all of them — while also shielding against the reactionary policies of Trumpism.”
This sure sounds radical, but it isn’t by a long shot. It’s “fool’s gold.” Sunkara’s repeated insistence on turning the political center – the Democratic Party leadership at every layer, the leading liberal reform groups, labor’s leadership, and former president Obama – into the main enemy alongside Trump, notwithstanding its militant tone, is strategically and tactically empty. It is exactly the wrong thing to do at this perilous moment.
The right thing is the exact opposite, that is, the left and progressives should join with the political center to resist the Trump administration and its authoritarian tendencies. Such a coalition would be the basis of a still broader and dynamic opposition to Trump’s ethno-nationalist, corporatist regime.
The moral authority and political power of such an alliance would lie in its unity in action in defense of democratic values, rights, protections, and institutions. Whatever differences crop up within it – and they inevitably would – the accent of this coalition, if it hopes navigate the country to a safe harbor, would be on cooperation, on finding common ground against the existential threat of Trump and Trumpism.
This is a huge undertaking, but it’s not as if it has never been done before. In escaping a massive economic crisis and constructing a new political economy and social compact in the 1930s, in overthrowing a many layered and deeply racist system, sanctioned by law, custom, and violence, in the 1960s, and in electing the first African American president in our nation’s history in 2008, disparate people, organizations, classes, and political tendencies and formations joined hands in pursuit of a common objective. And the Democratic Party was part of this, as well as labor, people of color – especially African Americans – women, youth, and, not least, new social movements that captured the political imagination of the under- or unrepresented, while infusing new energy and fresh ideas into the larger coalitions.
The left in each of these transformative moments chose not to stand apart from the galaxy of people, social organizations, and political formations that comprised these coalitions, not to position itself at unremitting loggerheads against the political center, certainly not to snipe and exacerbate tensions from the margins in a spurious effort to become “hegemonic.” On the contrary, it interacted with a broad range of people and organizations, found common cause with “reformists” and “centrists,” like Roosevelt, LBJ, and Obama, and engaged in “bourgeois” electoral and legislative politics. This engagement didn’t weaken their cause or their brand or their mobilization from below; instead it opened up new opportunities to enhance each and move off the margins of political life.
Some on the left surely had hesitations, but these didn’t prevent them from rethinking and stretching out their strategic and tactical concepts and practices to match the new political realities and challenges of those moments. In an about-face, they embraced a “class politics” that allowed for stages of struggle, a dialectic between reform and radical demands, a place for the art of compromise, and a willingness to mingle with allies not yet ready to “storm heaven.”
In the end, they realized that politics of “principled” opposition and outrage, of seeking to fast forward to the future, and of dividing the house no matter what the circumstances, is like a drug. It brings a momentary high, and it may make a difference here or there. But it has no transforming potential on a scale that can change the lives of millions for the better. It offers no pathway for the broader movement (or the left for that matter) to move to higher ground – the ground of radical democracy and democratic socialism.
Isn’t it time to leave those politics behind? The answer is that most left and progressive people – and people generally – already are, as evidenced by the inspiring, largely spontaneous, politically ecumenical actions in opposition to Trump. The accent was on broad unity and cooperation, not narrow division.
The communist movement that I was once a part of was profoundly wrong in the early 1930s in Germany, the U.S., and elsewhere when we turned social democratic and democratic currents to the right of us into bitter adversaries. That changed a few years later, but by that time, it was too late in Germany, and much harm had been done in other countries.
We shouldn’t make the same mistake again. Too much is at stake.