The Left Has Lost Its Nerve and Its Direction

by on April 22, 2008 · 9 comments

in Civil Rights, Election, Organizing

by Chris Hedges / April 21, 2008 by the Philadelphia Inquirer

The failure of the American left is a failure of nerve. It has been neutralized and rendered ineffectual as a political force because of its refusal to hold fast on core issues, from universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care for all Americans, to the steadfast protection of workers’ rights, to an immediate withdrawal from the failed occupation of Iraq to a fight against a militarized economy that is hollowing the country out from the inside.

Let the politicians compromise. This is their job. It is not ours. If the left wants to regain influence in the nation’s political life, it must be willing to walk away from the Democratic Party, even if Barack Obama is the nominee, and back progressive, third-party candidates until the Democrats feel enough heat to adopt our agenda. We must be willing to say no. If not, we become slaves.

Political and social change, as the radical Christian right and the array of corporate-funded neocon think tanks have demonstrated, are created by the building of movements. This is a lesson American progressives have forgotten. The object of a movement is not to achieve political power at any price. It is to create pressure and mobilize citizens around core issues of justice. It is to force politicians and parties to respond to our demands. It is about rewarding, through support and votes, those who champion progressive ideals and punishing those who refuse. And the current Democratic Party, as any worker in a former manufacturing town in Pennsylvania can tell you, has betrayed us.

“The mistake of the former left-wingers, from Tom Hayden to Todd Gitlin, is that they want to be players in the Democratic Party and academia,” said John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s magazine, speaking of two prominent 1960s activists. “This is not what the left is supposed to be. The left is supposed to be outside the system. The attempt by the left to take control of the Democratic Party failed with [Eugene] McCarthy and George McGovern. The left, at that point, should have gone back to organizing, street protests, building labor unions, and the mobilization of grassroots activists. Instead, it went for respectability.”

The rise of a corporate state, and by that I mean a state that no longer works on behalf of its citizens but the corporations, is as much a part of the Democratic agenda as the Republican agenda. Sure, every four years Democratic candidates pay lip service to the old values of the party, but then they head off to Washington and do things such as ram NAFTA down our throats, throw 10 million people off welfare, and peddle health-care proposals acceptable to the HMOs, huge pharmaceutical giants, and for-profit health-care providers who are, after all, the very sources of our health-care crisis. What we as citizens need and work for in a corporate state is irrelevant.

The working class has every right to be, to steal a line from Obama, bitter with liberal elites. I am bitter. I have seen what the loss of manufacturing jobs and the death of the labor movement did to my relatives in the former mill towns in Maine. Their story is the story of tens of millions of Americans who can no longer find a job that supports a family and provides basic benefits. Human beings are not, despite what the well-heeled Democratic and Republican apologists for the free market tell you, commodities. They are not goods. They grieve, and suffer and feel despair. They raise children and struggle to maintain communities. The growing class divide is not understood, despite the glibness of many in the media, by complicated sets of statistics or the absurd, utopian faith in unregulated globalization and complicated trade deals. It is understood in the eyes of a man or woman who is no longer making enough money to live with dignity and hope.

“The other side has religion, and we need some,” said the Rev. Susan B. Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary. “We need a more robust understanding of the role of religious values, values that prevent us from compromising the sanctity and dignity of human life. The left, because it is largely secular, did not do enough as the working class was finished off. And now the same thing is happening with the middle class. It is the loss of the left’s spiritual resources that has crippled the movement. The left forgot that nations, like individuals, have souls. Once you sell your soul, it is hard to get it back. History is not linear. History is about constant struggle. It is the struggle, if you come out of faith, which matters.”

The failure of the left is the failure of well-meaning people who kept compromising and compromising in the name of effectiveness and a few scraps of influence until they had neither. The condemnations progressives utter – about the abuse of working men and women, the rapacious cannibalization of the country by an unchecked arms industry, our disastrous foreign wars, and the collapse of basic services from education to welfare – are not backed by action. The left has been transformed into anguished apologists for corporate greed. They have become hypocrites.

“The loss of nerve by the left comes down to this lack of faith,” Thistlethwaite said. “Having a soul means there is coherence between our actions and our values. The left can no longer claim this coherence. It has no moral compass. It does not know right from wrong. It has, in its confusion, lost the capacity to make moral judgments.”

Hope, St. Augustine wrote, has two beautiful daughters. They are anger and courage. Anger at the way things are and the courage to see they do not remain the way they are. We stand at the verge of a massive economic dislocation, one forcing millions of families from their homes and into severe financial distress, one that threatens to rend the fabric of our society. If we do not become angry, if we do not muster within us the courage to challenge the corporate state that is destroying our nation, we will have squandered our credibility and integrity at the moment we need it most.

Chris Hedges is author of “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” and “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.”

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

jettyboy April 24, 2008 at 11:07 am

In my opinion this author should be commended for saying what so many “progressives”, and new left apologists have either failed to, or are unable to see through their blinders. Socialism, & Marxism have become terms no longer considered politically correct in the left movements in the US. The right has so controlled, & framed the debate in this country that we are left without a firm and dedicated ideology with which to base our struggle upon. To proclaim oneself a Marxist today seems to automatically cause a negative response by many so called progressives.


Molly April 24, 2008 at 1:25 pm

Oh, jettyboy, and marxists have done so well around the globe, haven’t they. USSR, China – they both were in the forefront of progressive leftist conduct, weren’t they.
This author would rather be politically correct than deal with the realities of life. The socialists in pre-Hitler Germany really had the correct view, didn’t they. Damn the social-democrats, full steam ahead.


Molly April 24, 2008 at 1:26 pm

… to the ovens.


jettyboy April 24, 2008 at 5:53 pm

Boy let’s fall right into the trap. I’m afraid you should actually read Marx instead of allowing the distortions you seem to think were Marxists to color your views. Because the Soviets and Chinese claimed to be Marxists didn’t make it so. A quick history would explain to you that there is /was a big difference between German social democrats, the USSR, & China. Perhaps you haven’t heard of Lenin, or Mao, and their distorted manipulation of Marxism, that’s to bad because then maybe your knee-jerk reaction wouldn’t be so sad. Or perhaps you really don’t see a class system in western industrial society, and you believe we’re all treated equally no matter how much property and wealth we have, and wealth doesn’t really have any influence on law and society.


jettyboy April 24, 2008 at 5:59 pm

Oh Molly, I forgot to thank you for making my point so elegantly.


Molly April 24, 2008 at 8:33 pm

Okay, let’s go. By the sound of your nickname, you must be a surfer, maybe had too much water get in thru the ol’ ears. But I tell you, I probably have over the years have read more marx than you. My point is that your so-called Marxists have not created socialism. And any leftist who espouses Marxism better start with a critique of the USSR and China. One can’t simply leap into a “Marxist” critique without dealing with the problems that Marxists have caused in the struggle against capitalism. Creating a state-capitalist society is not my idea of socialism. Don’t get me wrong, Marx, Lenin, Mao, and others have done great stuff. Trotsky, maybe you’ve heard of him? Rosa Luxembourg? Gramsci? Herbert Marcuse?
I didn’t lump the USSR/ China with the German Social Democrats, it was a different point, which is when so-called Marxists offer themselves as the correct path as they battle those damn social democrats, they made very lethal and catastrophic decisions – they saw the social democratic party in Germany as more dangerous than the Nazis – which is what I hear you and the author preach.


jettyboy April 25, 2008 at 7:51 am

Holy shit Molly, you sure read more into posts than are really there. No where did I defend anything that happened in the attempt to create a socialist society. And you did lump the fascists in Germany with the Marxist movement, re read your posts. “to the ovens” that certainly seems to suggest a connection don’t you think? Where did I claim Marxists actually created socialism anywhere? My point, and unless I’m way off base, the authors point, was that the US left has lost it’s way because they have compromised everything to become more acceptable to “mainstream” America, which has left us with no clear ideology to ground the movement. How do you interpret what he said? And by the way I don’t believe his was a Marxist critique, and having years of water through my ears hasn’t hurt my ability to see through the capitulation of the movement. Maybe you should reread my initial post and see what I actually wrote. If your experiences are different so be it.


Frank Gormlie April 25, 2008 at 11:00 am

In enjoying the dialog between you all, i remember a quote from a famous american revolutionary who said, “I will compromise everything except time and date of the revolution.”


Gary Ghirardi April 26, 2008 at 2:20 pm


I want to direct this response to you because I believe it might give you some food for thought.

Last night my wife and I were invited by a friend (Who produces some of the public service announcements for the socialist government here in Venezuela) to a dinner at the cafe of the Contemporary Art Museum here in Caracas. The night began with a Afro-Venezuelan car attendant taking our car at the street and we went into a small and trendy restaurant and sat down to an art inspired five course meal. During dinner we were visited at our table by the Conductor of the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel , who you may have seen on a recent story on 20/20 for a brief and symbolic hello, then afterwards a tall, bald, moreno gentleman in fashionable sports apparel who made the same symbolic visit to the table. I was later informed that this was the ex-vice president, a psychologist by trade, Jorge Rodríguez. After dinner we went outside to the courtyard where our friend and project collaborator Andrea, and I had a smoke and a woman came to say hello who was Jacqueline Faria Pineda, the President of Movilnet, the main and newly “de-privatized” mobile phone company of the country. This was definitely not my scene or my circle but I had to wonder what is the face of 21st century socialism?

It seems that I, like most U.S. Americans, have had our image of “Socialism” formed by the notions of a “Totalitarian State Apparatus” that turns us all into little worker bees at the disposition of “State Capitalism” falsely called a workers state.

Well who could tell? I have traditionally been antagonistic, and still am, towards elitist museum circles and those who use their position and power to further personal gain. As I inquired about the character of all these personalities I was given from my wife, no elitist by any measure, a good report card on what they believe and how they walk the talk. So what was happening in this picture that did not fit with revolution and Socialism? It seems me.

I am a product of my country and what I have been raised to believe and I am a progressive! But I like artful food and beautiful surroundings and accomplished people who go there by merit of hard work and talent so maybe their is another way to view a change for the United States.

I think, based on the article above and much more of similar realizations that what we need to do in the U.S. is decide what drives our standard of living and what are we are willing to trade from it for peace and prosperity. I want a good life and I believe most people do, but not at the expense of other people’s suffering, or expropriating the resources of other countries. How does this all work?

If we stop buying anything from companies with military contracts what are our choices remaining? Can that help to force a change? If we partner with other countries in good faith with the immense talents and technology of the U.S.A. what could be the result? Can we help construct a better world or is it too late for us?

One thing is for certain. For now progressives are immobilized as a political force and we are complicit in the grand cultural myth of the Great United States of America like those conservative co-citizens that we often disdain.

We need to see what another kind of idea about government is and we need to insist on it by legal struggle. And in a very public and unrepentant way! By the way, unless we have forgotten, like the rest, all government is essentially a socialist enterprise. Whether it is socialism for the rich and their corporations or the majority and their stolen benefits is the rub. Can you hear me Ronald Reagan?


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