Strong But Mixed Signals

Against the Current No. 18, January/February 1989

Mike Fischer

Reshaping the U.S. Left:
Popular Struggles in the 1980s
Volume 3 of The Year Left
edited by Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker
London: Verso, 1988 (311 pages), $14.95 paper.

IN THEIR introduction to Reshaping the U.S. Left, the third volume in Versos The Year Left publishing project, editors Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker promise us a “mural, bold in sweep and rich in texture, of the new social movements, protest forces and radical programs thrown up during the 1980s” (2).

The collection is as good as their word. In essays on topics from the history of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) to the struggles against Hormel in Minnesota, and from the Solidarity movement in Canada to the canneries of Watsonville, the twelve accounts collected here do indeed offer a sweeping and informative account of some of the major social movements contributing to the popular left’s “genuine renaissance” (3) in the eighties.

All too often, however, Davis and Sprinker’s mural fails to move past an appreciative awareness of its own brilliant colors into the kind of analysis that might pinpoint why those colors are significant, and what they could contribute to a socialist upsurge in the nineties. Instead, what the editors themselves refer to as “twelve distinct politics” and political views (3) leave the reader with a dismaying sense that all the encouraging signs of renewed activism in this decade have failed to produce much in the way of coalescence among the all too separated movements characteristic of that renewal.

The consequence is a somewhat disjointed volume. At no point in its short history has The Year Left venture been so clearly in need of an identity. The first volume, concentrating at some length on the relationship of the left to the Democratic Party, offered a vigorous debate on the alternative strategies to electoralism and, especially in its middle section on Central America, explored how the ways in which we conceptualize one of those alternatives might be expanded. The second volume generated ideas on how one might combine a broad sweep and rich texture with a single and significant political project: developing rainbow politics in explicitly socialist and internationalist directions.

The Year Left 3, conversely, is never quite capable of telling one where it is going, because it is never quite sure of where it is. It cannot even begin to debate the shaping of the U.S. left, for its curious amalgam of essays advocating everything from new-age issues-oriented politics through a more traditional focus on dissident unionism to appeals for the power of an old-fashioned American populism leave this reader, at least, unclear on just how socialist some of these purportedly leftist movements are. Worse, in a disturbing number of the essays, objections such as this one are not even allowed onto the agenda, but are, rather, marginalized as examples of the kind of dogmatic sectarianism the U.S. left must avoid.

Solidarity or “Ultra-leftism?”

For example, Van Gosse’s essay on the Central American solidarity movement, which opens the volume, claims equally to blame “the excesses of ultra-Leftism” and “the political timidities of a ‘pragmatic’ progressivism” for the various problems that have beset CISPES since its inception (43). But he accepts the latter as a consequence of ultra-leftism, and his essay consistently dismisses a purportedly dogmatic left while uncritically upholding the virtues of the Sanctuary and Peace and Justice movements.(1)

Gosse’s political perspective reflects itself in the position he takes on the relative merits of anti-interventionism and solidarity with the struggles of the peoples of Central America. The left, he claims, needs to be more sensitive about approaching the public on its own terms. If most U.S. citizens disagree with Reagan’s Central American fiasco because they are anti-interventionists, then organizations like CISPES should try to build solidarity with the peoples of Nicaragua and El Salvador indirectly, through appeals to the immorality of U.S. foreign policy.

As Gosse correctly points out, the end results for Central America are often the same; if, for whatever reasons, U.S. citizens can hamper their government’s efforts to intervene in the region, the revolutionary movements there stand to benefit:

“organizations formally ‘in solidarity’ realized that often the most real solidarity is successful anti-intervention work: reaching the public on its own terms, limiting aid as much as possible, buying time and space in small increments for the Central Americans” (15).

On the surface, such a position has some merit But it leaves little room for an organization such as CISPES to counter right-wing lies concerning the Sandinistas or the FMLN-FDR, and it perpetuates the tactical illusion that a potentially powerful movement such as CISPES can be more effective as a congressional lobby against material aid than as a political and material force aiding the popular struggles in the region.

After all, a movement’s arguments against U.S. intervention are considerably weakened if outrage against the immorality of such a policy cannot be accompanied by a conviction that those revolutionary forces against which such outrages are perpetrated – like the FSLN and the FMLN — represent legitimate democratic alternatives to Washington’s foreign policy blueprint.

The result of such a suppressed tension in tactical goals is a sharp debate like that which met the CISPES leadership’s proposal last Spring to provide direct material aid to the FMLN’s two radio stations, Radio Venceremos and Radio Farabundo Marti. Arguments against the proposal included concern that such a “militant” stance would threaten CISPES’ image as a peace and justice group and hence damage both its relationship with the Christian community in North America as well as its ability to generate humanitarian aid in the form of military goods and foodstuffs.(2) Not only does such a position duplicate the very division between humanitarian and military aid so beloved of the Reagan Ad­ ministration, but, more significantly, it tacitly places a priority on solidarity with U.S. liberals over solidarity with the people of El Salvador.

The radio station debate demonstrates that anti-intervention does not always translate into solidarity, effective as it admittedly can be as a starting-point for building such solidarity. To CISPES’ credit, its strenuous effort to educate its members about the FMLN-including numerous tours and position papers promoting further debate about the FMLN’s policies and aspirations-demonstrates the organization’s willingness to learn from experience.

Bureaucratic Barriers

Both Gosse and Michael Kazin — whose essay on U.S. labor suggests the adoption of a similar “reach the people where they are approach” in arguing that labor dissidents would be more effective if they would substitute the appealing rhetoric of American populism for socialist categories of analysis — assume that in the long run such an approach will accomplish the same goals as the more “dogmatic” approach they reject If the boys stay home, it won’t matter what anyone thinks about El Salvador; if slogans like “the people” win votes where ones like “the worker” won’t, you can still accomplish the same objectives after the election.

But this strategy’s appealing “art of the possible” squashes the possibilities of imagining more radical alternatives and pushing for their implementation. As John Trinkl notes in his essay “Struggles for Disarmament in the U.S.A.,” such pragmatism would have made it impossible for the Civil Rights Movement to imagine it could challenge Jim Crow and impossible for the mere handful of anti-war protesters in the early sixties to believe that the huge marches of the late sixties could ever happen.

As for the disarmament movement, Trinkl argues that its adoption of the pragmatic “lowest common denominator approach” led directly to the Sane/Freeze decision to put more and more of its energies into fundraising and congressional lobbying. Trinkl bitterly condemns this tactic, blaming it for the decline in mass action protests against nuclear weapons, the refusal to admit that the U.S. was far more obstructionist in arms negotiations than the U.S.S.R., and the movement’s growing willingness to work with the Democratic party, despite the Democrats’ disgracefully imperialist and pro-defense record.

The dangers of bureaucratization cast a long shadow over nearly every essay on labor in the collection. Articles on the P-9 strike against Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, the Watsonville strike against the vegetable packing industry, and the struggle to keep the GM Van Nuys plant in California open all demonstrate the overwhelming extent to which the union leadership of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Teamsters, and the UAW, respectively, are willing to compromise with and even support the very companies they are pledged to oppose.

The essays devoted to these three struggles wrestle far more concretely and carefully than those by Gosse and Kazin with questions that are central to a reshaping of the U.S. left, including the role of people of color, the difficulties inherent in maintaining a position that is neither reformist nor maximalist, and the connections between economic and political struggles.

In the P-9 struggle in Austin, for example, as Phill Kwik and Kim Moody carefully document, what began as a strike about wages eventually transformed the workers involved into highly conscious participants in solidarity actions with both tanners as well as Central American and anti-apartheid activists. Kwik and Moody’s use of this transformation to suggest #a model of what unionism could be” (142) — that is, a genuinely political union — is exemplary in its ability to move from a highly readable and informative account of a particular struggle to an analysis of what about this struggle might prove useful in expanding the focus of what is often a single-issue constituency.

Frank Bardacke’s piece on the Watsonville cannery strike and Eric Mann’s account of the struggle to keep GM Van Nuys open are adept at drawing similar connections. Both campaigns were largely successful because of their ability to mobilize and place in positions of leadership large numbers of Chicanos and Mexicanos. Bardacke and Mann draw upon the multi-racial composition of the Watsonville and Van Nuys workforce, respectively, to explore the intersections between race and class.

Mann in particular examines how the Van Nuys campaign helped advance the GM workers from a traditional “workers v. capital” strategy to one that, while acknowledging the fundamental importance of this conflict, could recognize how an emphasis on “race” and nationality were “critical to legitimizing the local’s struggle as a broad social movement in the spirit of civil rights and liberation traditions” (198).

This kind of “reshaping,” which simultaneously works to preserve the analytical framework of a socialist vision while expanding its relevance, provides a far more useful paradigm for how a left political perspective might appeal to a constituency without necessarily compromising its most important features.

Nonetheless, Mann as well as Bardacke have mixed reactions to the role the organized left played at Watsonville and Van Nuys. Bardacke is excellent in exposing the pitfalls of union reformism, highlighting the ways in which it undercut the power of the Watsonville strike. But his assessment of how and why the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) — a rank-and-file union movement in which many leftists participated — lost its original influence on the strike committee is limited. While he offers a detailed account of how the Teamster bureaucracy’s tactics were partially responsible for this loss, his analysis of TDU’s own possible weakness focuses primarily on the overwhelmingly male leadership of the local TDU. Yet he explains neither why such a gender-based hierarchy was allowed to develop nor how, if this was TDU’s “greatest weakness when going into the strike” (168), the organization initially played such a prominent role in organizing it.

Mann, in an admirably balanced treatment of the role of the organized left at Van Nuys, concludes that it was an important contributing factor in the success of the campaign, but that it was only one of many. Moreover, he concludes that despite the left’s generally positive role at Van Nuys, the majority of the workers who became involved conceptualized their opposition to GM within a still rigidly pro-capitalist framework. Drawing upon Roger Keeran’s landmark work The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Union, Mann confronts the painful truth that now as in the thirties, communists are forced to recognize that workers often respect them “in spite of their ultimate aims rather than because of them” (201).

The Gender and Race Challenge

The struggles at Watsonville and Van Nuys highlight an issue integral to the successful development of every progressive movement in the United States, whether it is labor-oriented or not: their need to shape their priorities and strategies in ways that address the concerns — as well as encouraging the participation and leadership of — women and people of color. There will be no mass socialist movement in this country unless these challenges are met, a point well made by a number of essays in the volume.

Barbara Epstein, in an article on the non-violent direct action movements of the early eighties, underscores the importance of women in coalitions such as the Clamshell and Abalone Alliances as well as the Livermore Action Group. At the same time, however, her claims that “Marxism no longer offers a compelling vision of the future” and that it is potentially limited by its inability to fully grasp the “patriarchal” character of militarism (87) detract from an otherwise excellent analysis of how the anarchistic nature of such movements undermined their longevity.

Epstein seems to recognize the need for a more comprehensive political strategy than these movements developed (77, 88), and yet her essay is consistently pessimistic about the possibilities of a socialist practice that could both provide such strategy and still remain faithful to the feminist politics she champions.

Johanna Brenner’s essay on feminism and the peace movement seems to offer a way out of this dilemma. Without ever losing sight of the specific ways in which social institutions such as the military establishment construct powerful mythologies that discriminate against women, Brenner insists that a feminist analysis recognize how other factors — including economic and geopolitical concerns — are as, if not more, crucial than patriarchy in trying to understand the twisted logic of and motivation for the defense industry. Only when feminist peace activists recognize how militarism oppresses workers and people of color as well as women, Brenner argues, will the women’s peace movement be able to expand its base of support.

Two of the best pieces in the volume, Margaret FitzSimmons’ and Robert Gottlieb’s essay “A New Environmental Politics” and David Roediger’s critique “‘Labor in White Skin’: Race and Working-class History,” concentrate on transforming the political movements they consider so as to address the concerns of one of those groups that Brenner claims an essentialist feminism frequently excludes: people of color.

FitzSimmons and Gottlieb are rightly critical of the elitist environmentalism represented by groups such as the Sierra Club, arguing that they fail to make environmental issues meaningful to the urban poor. As an alternative, they propose challenging the quality of urban life, linking it soften deplorable condition to both industry’s ruthless exploitation of natural resources and its exploitation of people, especially people of color. Roediger’s exhaustive analysis of written labor histories makes an impassioned plea that the labor movement learn to see anti-racism as integral to worker emancipation instead of continually foregrounding class.

Together, these two essays sum up what is best in The Year Left project: in their willingness to challenge rather than passively accept both popular opinion and traditional leftist categories, they bring together movements built around issues which, like the peace and labor movements, initially seem to have little in common.

Most importantly, their imaginative suggestions for how women and people of color might lead the left of the nineties provide hope that The Year Left 3 might one day be remembered as a significant precursor of the future rather than as yet another antiquarian curiosity.


  1. Van Gosse depicts the anti-parliamentary Left-which he claims is “one of the most persistent problems of the solidarity movement” — as an unholy alliance between “ossified sectarians” and those “conditioned by two decades of ‘counter-cultural’ alienation’” (46). He not only provides no support for this position, but also fails to distinguish the various components of this part of the political spectrum. While certain Leftists might well fit his definition, it leaves little room for the many people and parties capable of manifesting a principled commitment to the solidarity movement without simultaneously preaching their own revolutionary agendas.
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  2. These arguments were advanced at the Ann Arbor Latin America Solidarity Committee (LASC) debate on the Radio Station proposal in the Summer of 1988. LASC eventually voted to endorse the CISPES proposal, but with the significant qualification that it would probably not itself be raising money for the radio stations. The LASC has since proven more amenable to an active commitment to the CISPES proposal — partially as a consequence of its large delegation at the impressive CISPES Midwest Regional Conference in Chicago (November of 1988).
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    1. January-February 1989, ATC 18