During a recent trip to New York I was able to connect with some people on the left in that great city. The United States has so much cultural power over countries like South Africa, and so much political and economic power over most of the world, that what happens there is very relevant to us.
The United States had a powerful left in the 1930s and, of course, there were also the movements of the 1960s. But for almost 50 years the left has been very weak in that country. However, that began to change with the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 (called the “battle for Seattle”), the Occupy movement in 2011, which followed the Arab Spring, and then Black Lives Matter in 2013. and 2020.
It’s always impressive to see how many young people in the US have committed to doing the daily political work of organizing.
In terms of electoral politics, Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign was also the key event in the growth of the left, galvanizing a generation of young people to seek change through the Democratic Party.
But Sanders was crushed by the warmongering and solidly neoliberal Democratic Party establishment, as was the UK Labor Party establishment, along with the now increasingly right-wing. guardiansquashed Jeremy Corbyn with completely false accusations of anti-Semitism.
In the US and UK, it is now clear that progressive change will not come through the major parties that were once union-based and represented the working class.
But there are positive signs for the left in the US even as union membership has dropped to about 14 million, from about 18 million in 1983.
The United States has the fifth lowest density of union membership of all 36 OECD countries, but a recent Gallup poll shows that more than 70% of Americans now approve of unions, the highest measure since 1965.
There have been great strides in union organizing at companies like Amazon and Starbucks, as well as among precariously employed academics and graduate students. There’s also a growing ecosystem of left-wing spaces, publications and podcasts, and polls showing just over 40% of Americans now support socialism. This is a moment of real possibility for the American left. And the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) now has a membership of more than 92,000, with chapters in all 50 states.
However, it faces two key issues. One is that after the Democratic Party bosses crushed Sanders and the youth movement that supported him, it is now clear to all that an independent left party is required.
The other is that parts of the American left have not been clear enough about the catastrophic impact that US imperialism continues to have on the world.
There is a palpable, though of course not consistent, sense of Eurocentrism in the Jacobeanthe main publication of the American left, although other spaces such as point of view magazine and the Cadre Journal podcast are much better in this regard.
On a bitterly cold weekend in New York City, I meet with a DSA leader. The young woman, who she asked not to be named, spent time in South Africa as a student, and therefore she has a pretty good understanding of our leftist politics and its intersections with leftist politics in the US.
I tell you that 92,000 members is quite a small number for a society like the American one. She reminds me that DSA membership was only 5,000 in 2016. In the midst of the “Bernie boom,” the number rose to 50,000 by 2019 and is likely to rise to over 100,000 soon.
More and more young Americans are finding left-wing politics refreshing and revitalizing. Many of them have become radicalized and the machinations of the empire are being contested and debated with more intensity now; perhaps for the first time since the 1960s.
However, the DSA is not without its problems and contradictions. A fellow activist joining the conversation makes an important point. “Many of us perceive the DSA as too white and many young black progressives don’t feel at home in the DSA since we don’t see others like us in leadership and on the ground,” he tells me.
She further explains that “I think the connotation of the Democratic Socialists of America at the national level is ‘college educated white male.’
“Homogeneous networks, regardless of an organization’s values, perpetuate more of the same. Centering the voices, power, and leadership of Black, Indigenous, and people of color members within the DSA is essential to diversifying and strengthening the organization. I think the DSA caucus of Afro-Socialists and Socialists of Color is invaluable and is pushing the majority-white organization in the right direction.”
It’s clear that DSA has a lot of work to do to address these issues, but the leader I met with tells me that DSA recognizes this and is committed to moving forward. Also, he stressed, he needs to build greater ties and solidarities with the US labor movement.
I was also able to attend an impressive public event for the anti-war movement, which included leading figures from the international left such as Noam Chomsky, Vijay Prashad and Jeremy Corbyn. Here was a strong argument against militarism in general and for negotiations rather than military escalation to end the war in Ukraine as soon as possible.
Chomsky, making clear his opposition to Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, stressed that unless wars end in the total destruction of one side, they end in negotiation, and that moving as quickly as possible towards negotiations is vital considering the risks of a nuclear war. conflagration raised by the escalation of the war.
This is a sensible policy at a time when the US establishment is waging an all-out proxy war against Russia and also taking an increasingly belligerent stance against China.
This was a very impressive public event, and there was a clear sense that, perhaps for the first time since the 1960s, there is a chance that anti-imperialism could be placed at the center of the agenda of the American left. Chomsky, of course, has been a leading critic of the American empire for decades, but he has often been an isolated voice. At this event, it became clear that he is not alone, and that many young leftists, a good number of them people of color, are turning strongly to anti-imperialism.
I left New York invigorated and excited about the prospects for the American left. But I also left concerned about the future of my own country where, unlike the US, we just don’t have a large layer of thoughtful middle-class people working with grassroots organizations to build a vibrant left from the ground up.
Postures and sectarianism are not enough. After nearly thirty years of abject failure, the South African left really needs to wake up. The same people, many with inflated egos, having the same conversations and fighting the same petty but brutal internal battles will get us exactly nowhere.
Dr. Imraan Buccus is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Durban University of Technology and a Senior Research Associate at the Auwal Institute for Socioeconomic Research.