Left Parties in the United States, 1989-2017

The decline of the Communist left in the US began long before 1989. Neoliberalism and the technological revolution brought fragmentation to the society as a whole, and the left was particularly shaken by the corrosion of working-class communities and the workforce. The particularities of the Communist Party USA, and the political movements it coexisted with in the national left, help to explain how the decline came about. They present a marked contrast to European parties.

First, there has never been a mass social democratic party in the US, let alone a communist party free or able to run successful major election campaigns in its own name. Beyond some local level electoral activity, the CP operated in relation to the Democratic Party and social movements, labor in particular. Presidents are not directly elected by the popular vote in the US, and the two-party, winner-take-all system is deeply entrenched, both de facto and de jure.

The red scare of the 1950s decimated socialist parties and left trade union leadership. The 1950s also saw the apex of xenophobic nationalism, accompanied by the demonization of socialism and communism. This was already prevalent in – and central to – the culture of a country where nativism is widespread. The foreign connotations attached to socialism and communism effectively isolated the left, and won some public acceptance for recurrent waves of repression and constant police infiltration.

During those years, the civil rights movement began to outpace labor as the main force for progress in the US. The hegemony of white supremacism, even in labor, became an issue that demanded rethinking and new politics, resulting in major adjustments in program and practice.

The CP lost many members as a result of the Stalin revelations as well, and entered the 1960s a shell of its former weight. It made minor short-lived gains from the Vietnam antiwar movement and the Angela Davis case; then it was hit hard by the collapse of the Soviet camp. This was the backdrop for a major split and abrupt shifts in the party’s outlook, although their practice was barely affected.

The CP’s response to the Gorbachev reforms offers an ironic coda to its story. Gus Hall was the entrenched leader of the party from 1959 to 2000. From its beginning, leadership fights in the CPUSA were settled on the basis of whose position was considered closest to the Soviet leadership’s. As a result, while the party favored a low profile in electoral and labor work – in part because of their enforced isolation – they held firmly to Marxism-Leninism as elaborated by the CPSU. Neither Maoism nor Eurocommunism could get a foothold in Hall’s party.

After the 1986 death of Henry Winston, Hall’s ranking equal in leadership, Hall eliminated Winston’s position rather than promote another member to co-leader status. Winston had been the highest ranking black leader for many years, and Hall’s move was seen as a slap at black members by many in the party. Hall, a pro-Soviet centrist in the post-1956 internal party fights, opposed Gorbachev as a defiler of Marxism-Leninism and socialism, but kept his views quiet until the failed anti-Gorbachev coup of 1991, which Hall said was justified as a defense of socialism.

A bitter fight then rose to the surface that cut across the ranks and leadership. The Hall leadership was charged with racism, breaking faith with the Soviets, corruption, and suppression of internal democracy. For the first time, the opponents of the CPSU leadership won the majority. Most younger leaders and most black members (including Davis) broke away to help found the Committees of Correspondence, a name harkening back to the American revolution. The two groups went their separate ways, both maintaining ties to parties internationally, both isolated within and beyond the national left. The Committees group loosened its pre-split orientation and welcomed leftists from other tendencies, but never came to terms with its history; it still exists but its influence has steadily dwindled.

The CP has retained some influence in the labor movement, but for the most part is a group adrift. Since the 2000 death of Hall, new leaders began to rethink the party’s identification with Marxism-Leninism and softened its traditional sectarian stance. A rightward drift led it to an agnostic position towards the Bernie Sanders campaign, leaning towards Clinton. This contrasted with the party’s stance in the 1972 and 1984 elections, when Hall chose to run himself against the left Democratic campaigns of George McGovern and Jesse Jackson, respectively.

As the civil rights movement turned from racial integration as a goal towards black nationalism in the late 1960s, new black-only political formations came into being that were brutally repressed by the FBI. For an extended period these groups moved towards an engagement with Marxism. The terrain shifted from the mid-1970s on, as black candidates, some historically connected to the Communist movement, began to successfully vie for local/municipal power, mostly as Democrats and mostly in cities with black populations politicized by civil rights/black power movements. This laid the groundwork for the Jackson and Obama presidential campaigns.

Most black elected officials have pulled back from the militant stance they usually employ when campaigning. In the South, there is a renewed effort to build active left electoral bases among black voters, including a successful mayoral campaign in Jackson, Mississippi by Chokwe Antar Lumumba of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. Peculiarly, the US Trotskyist groups that gained ground after the crash of state socialism were not from the center ring of American Trotskyism, but were established as outposts of obscure British trends.

In the 1990s, most US Trotskyists were struggling to position themselves in workplaces. The International Socialist Organization moved out of labor and into campuses, becoming the most recognized Marxist group among students who were just discovering politics. Young people feeling limited by anarchism and altermondialisme found a coherent set of politics and training in the ISO. During this period ISO grew into the largest orthodox Marxist group in the country.

ISO began as a split-off from the ‘third camp’ group International Socialists. Third camp Trotskyists in the US date back to Max Shachtman’s ancient dispute with Trotsky and his loyalists, taking a ‘plague on all houses’ stance in World War II. ISO joined the international trend around Tony Cliff, leader of the UK Socialist Workers Party, who emphasized a rote Leninist approach, over the looser orientation of IS in the US. ISO later broke with the Cliffites organizationally but maintained the same basic approach and politics.

ISO takes a hard line against working with or through the Democratic Party and the original sin of the popular front. It views all governments with hostility – including leftist governments, which they categorize as either social democratic or Stalinist. This was a matter of great controversy among other Trotskyists, who tend to support and even lionize the Cuban government.

Socialist Alternative won more attention after 2013, when it successfully ran a candidate for the city council of Seattle. This was the highest seat an open socialist had won in decades, and SAlt has skillfully turned it into a point of attraction. SAlt is a section of Committee for a Workers’ International, a London-based group with roots in the entryist UK Militant group, virtually unknown in the US.

Democratic Socialists of America emerged from the 1990s as the largest membership group on the socialist left, and the last influential vestige of the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. With 24,000 members as of mid-2017, DSA substantially outnumbers every other socialist group, whose active memberships range in the hundreds at best. The group was formed after a three-way split in the SP, which was a bastion of anticommunism on the left. Michael Harrington’s group became a fixture of the left wing of the Democratic Party. Harrington’s supporters merged with a post-new left group in 1982, forming DSA. After finding themselves eclipsed by Jackson in 1984, DSA began to take tendencies to their left more seriously and endorsed him in 1988. The group continued after Harrington’s death in 1989 but made only minor gains, mainly in youth recruitment.

Since the 2016 election, the tide has turned. Bernie Sanders’ decision to challenge the anointed Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, opened a floodgate of left populism that threw the whole political system off balance. Sanders ran as an independent for the Democratic nomination for president, describing himself as a democratic socialist. When he attracted millions of supporters despite this – or maybe because of it – Sanders gave the entire US left a new lease on life. He pointed to Scandinavian welfare states for a model, but even that was seen as radical in the neoliberal era.

The response of ISO, SAlt and DSA describes how Sanders’ leadership shaped the left. DSA experienced a growth spurt as Sanders supporters drew closer to the only organization with the name “democratic socialists,” offering a pluralist, open structure. The group was an early supporter of Sanders’ run, and members actively took part. ISO refused to take part and gave support to the Greens candidate. SAlt joined the primary campaign while lobbying Sanders to break with the Democrats. When Sanders lost the primary vote to Clinton, the Sanders supporters broke into two camps – one choosing to follow Sanders by joining the Clinton campaign as a united front against Trump; the other insisting that Sanders run against both major party candidates. DSA went with the first group, despite a disgruntled minority, while SAlt championed the second.

After Trump’s election, DSA’s membership quadrupled. Most of the new members have only months of political experience. They are mostly white, educated, and facing an uncertain future. The DSA leadership has been scrambling to expand the structure of the group, and lively debate has broken out over politics, future projects and overall direction.

If DSA can continue to develop, it will become the focal point for the socialist left for a long time to come. Newer members have pushed changes in DSA’s formal positions, including disaffiliation from the Socialist International (partly out of interest in exploring ties with other left parties internationally), the introduction of ideological platform caucuses, and hardening their critical stance toward Israel.

The fate of the left is tied to that of the Democratic Party, a relationship that is exploited by the latter as a means of mobilizing voters (which was decisive in Obama’s two races). However, to the extent that the left grows and opposes the pro-neoliberal policies of the party leadership, it is viewed by the latter as an albatross.

Sanders is both the recognized leader of the party’s left, and currently the most popular figure in US politics. He has his own organization, Our Revolution, but it exists mostly as a list of contacts, and is just one among several left Democrat groups involved in mobilizing the public protests known as ‘the resistance.’ Others include Indivisible, Progressive Democrats of America, MoveOn, Democracy for America, all broadly opposed to the Trump-Pence administration, the Republican Party, and center-right Democrats. All of these groups could play a role in a new realignment of the left and politics in general in the US.

Ethan Young