The Left in Purgatory

Socialists in the United States are stuck. How do we become masters of our own fate?

The question we may have to ask ourselves in the years to come is whether some of our actions could be hastening rather than reversing the process of class dealignment.

Here is a place where time stretches on. Where food has no flavor. Where we grow neither old nor young. It’s not bad, exactly. But it’s not where we had hoped to be.

Don’t worry, American socialist, you’re not in the Inferno — hey, it’s not like we’ve ever had the power to err and commit mass crimes — you’re in Purgatory!

When we use the word “purgatory” today, we tend to think of stasis, interregnum, even unresolved contradiction. It’s a place between places, a somewhat empty impermanence.

But for Dante, Purgatory was somewhere physical: a mountain the penitent must climb to approach Paradise, replete with stages, each of which imposed their own challenges that must be overcome to address past sins. That sounds a lot like our current political predicament.

The Left, however, isn’t always so willing to undertake this trek. When we fail in our efforts to reach promised lands, we are often content in blaming the incalculable power of our opponents or the intractable maze of the system. Our own misdeeds are rarely identified, let alone rectified.

Dante sees much the same tendency in his audience. At one point, he warns against abandoning penitence because it seems too difficult: “Reader, I would not have you fall away from good intentions when you hear the way God wills the debt be paid.”

After all, the Italian poet says reassuringly, whatever suffering we incur “cannot last beyond the final Judgment.” Failure to confront your sins involves a more eternal damnation.

The Fires of History

Okay, maybe it isn’t all our fault. Certainly, any account of today’s socialist movement in the United States has to start with an awareness of history and the obstacles in the way of our efforts.

Our early progress was stymied less by America’s bounty of “roast beef and apple pie” than by a peculiar combination of early industrialization and white male suffrage. Instead of being organized in industrial unions tied to socialist parties fighting for democratic rights, workers in the United States were represented by narrow craft unions and pledged allegiance to bourgeois parties. Classwide worker organizing capable of bridging ethnic and racial divides remained elusive.

When glimmers of radicalization did emerge through organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party, they were smashed by state and employer violence. At best, in the twentieth century, those on the American left were voices of conscience, pushing a certain strain of liberalism toward confrontation with capital and racist reaction and winning concessions for working people.

The first century and a half of the US left told a story of qualified but not absolute defeat. How, then, should we situate what’s happened to us in the past decade?

There is no doubt that we’re at the end of a period of rapid politicization and settling into one of either gradual decline or slow advance. Hence “the Left in Purgatory.” Socialists are now an entrenched part of mainstream American politics — no immediate setback, like the defeat of Buffalo mayoral candidate India Walton, covered in this edition by Branko Marcetic, or even the possible return of Donald Trump to the White House in 2024, will relegate us to our pre-2011 state.

Yet there is something dangerous about being large enough to be a political presence in parts of the country — and a subculture for thousands of activists — but far too disorganized and powerless to carry out your political program.

That is the path to political self-satisfaction, a marginality that is just large enough to sustain itself but that will never be strong enough to move beyond permanent resistance. Will it be enough for the thousands of people who read this magazine, or the many more radicalized by recent years across the United States?

Nine Circles of Hyper-Politics

I hope not, and I hope we won’t conflate the cultural radicalism of recent times with real advance. As Anton Jäger writes in this issue, while our era has certainly moved beyond the post-politics that dominated the 1990s and 2000s, it has not done so on the terms many of us on the Left might have imagined.

In place of a post-politics, we now live in what he describes as a “hyper-politics,” a time when everything is seen as political — and subsumed within the culture war debate — but we lack the organization to actually progress political disagreement beyond the discursive level. Power is rarely contested, let alone seriously challenged.

Liza Featherstone adds, later in this volume, that this state of affairs brings into question some popular left-wing common sense. When once feminists argued that socialists needed to see the politics in their day-to-day lives, and specifically in the home, today we seem to be trying to escape a scenario where politics is only personal — and where we lack any means to express collective agency.

And yet there was something undeniably collective in the experience thousands of us had of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns. They not only offered the prospect of improving the lives of millions of workers, they also helped to cohere widespread discontent into communal diagnoses of common problems — a shared worldview that saw the political and economic system was designed to benefit a tiny elite.

As Natalie Shure and Chris Maisano remind us in their articles, the Bernie moment shaped the politics of a generation of young people and gave the Left nationally recognized tribunes. Most of these successes, however, have happened at the local level, in relatively low-turnout races. The considerable talents of even national figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seem to be directed less toward confrontation with political and economic elites and more toward the terrain of cultural battles of late, destined to resonate most in “deep-blue” districts.

Even when we do foreground bread-and-butter issues, we’re couching them in rhetoric that has limited appeal. That was the lesson from a new study Jacobin did with YouGov and the Center for Working-Class Politics, whose director, Jared Abbott, was interviewed in this edition.

Commonsense Solidarity” found that workers preferred progressive candidates who focus primarily on clear, economic issues, and who frame those issues in universal terms. It’s not surprising that Ocasio-Cortez won her broadest support when foregrounding Medicare for All and speaking in populist terms, rather than telling students they can help ward off climate change if they “skip disposable razors and switch to safety razors.”

Stairway to Heaven

The radicalism of the past decade has yielded a new left, but one fundamentally inadequate to the tasks we have set ourselves. This movement emerged unevenly, as resurgent forces often do after long periods in the wilderness. Today, it is scattered among issue-based NGOs like Sunrise Movement, electoral initiatives like Justice Democrats, and fragmented Democratic Socialists of America working groups and caucuses.

This, perhaps, is the American manifestation of the 1980s European dream of a left-wing “coalition of coalitions” that binds together colinear movements without party organization or a hierarchy of priorities. It is rooted, in some respects, in the middle-class nature of our politicization. I don’t mean this pejoratively, just descriptively — most have joined us in ones and twos out of a moral objection to the status quo rather than through the experience of collective action.

We might feel more confident about the prospects for the Left if, rather than a momentary shift leftward in liberal economic priorities or the rhetoric of certain parts of the mainstream media, there had been deeper inroads made among workers. There have been rare exceptions, but on the whole, it would be delusional to say that our ideological left has made a decade of progress merging with a wider social base.

Indeed, the question we may have to ask ourselves in the years to come is whether some of our actions could be hastening rather than reversing the process of class dealignment.

On his journey to the top of Purgatory, Dante was accompanied by the great Roman poet Virgil. As he approached the higher reaches, having confronted his many sins, Virgil made his famous remark, “No longer wait for word or sign from me . . . . over yourself I crown and miter you.”

At last, Dante was master of his own fate. In politics, things are never quite so tidy. But as one year of marginality drifts into another, it is increasingly hard to argue that the fault for the Left’s predicaments lies with everyone but ourselves.

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Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin and the author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality.

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