just asking questions

What Does the Radical Left’s Future Look Like?

Michael Kazin. Photo: Phil Humnicky/Georgetown University

As a historian, Michael Kazin has chronicled America’s radical tradition. As an activist, he has participated in it. His books have traced an arc from the early abolitionists, to the Populists, to Occupy Wall Street. His life has taken him from the ranks of Students for a Democratic Society to the Democratic Socialists of America. The journal he co-edits, Dissent, curates some of the contemporary left’s most interesting internecine debates. Here, he offers some perspective on the DSA’s recent successes and the radical left’s prospects in the years to come.

Do you see the current moment as more auspicious for the radical left than others in your adult lifetime?
The radical left hasn’t seen a moment like this since the late 1960s or early 1970s. It may even be a more promising moment. That previous period was dominated by the Black Power movement, the movement against the Vietnam War, and the beginnings of the gay and lesbian movements. Those last two movements are still doing quite well. But all of them existed as fragments of their own more than as part of a larger self-conscious left. What’s promising about this moment, by contrast, is that the left seems to be finding a way to focus on economic issues — enlarging the welfare state, making it more egalitarian — goals that can reach a wider circle of people, while still maintaining connections to the fragments, practitioners of so-called identity politics, which obviously represent the desires and needs of millions of people.

You’re saying DSA has proved itself more adept at wedding identity-based movements to a broad economic message than SDS was?
Yes. I also think, in terms of electoral politics, they’re a lot more practical. Not all members of DSA, of course. Some are unwilling to support Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders and other self-proclaimed socialists when they run as Democrats. But I think most are. And other DSA members have run for local and state offices. Some have done well, some haven’t. But they’re definitely more electorally pragmatic than Students for a Democratic Society was, when I was in it. Of course, it was a different Democratic Party back then in many ways. Democrats were prosecuting a horrible, near-genocidal war in Indochina, so it was difficult to convince radicals to run as Democrats or support Democrats. Harder than it is now.

If Bernie hadn’t run as a Democrat in 2016, most Americans would never have heard of him and he wouldn’t be in a position to mount the kind of campaign he’s going to run. I think the left cannot just be a movement outside the party structure, looking askance at the party and thinking that somehow it can win real reforms and transform American society without engaging with the party. You’ve got to be both radical and Democratic with a capital D.

What do you think is responsible for this pragmatic turn away from the anarchist tendency that informed the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s or Occupy Wall Street and toward a greater concern with winning and exercising power within existing institutions?
Some of that derives from the excitement that a lot of people on the left had with Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. That year, Obama was supported by pretty much anybody who considered themselves to be a leftist, except the most sectarian ones. That hadn’t happened in American politics since 1936 when FDR ran for reelection and even then the Socialists and Communists ran symbolic campaigns. The fact that people had hoped Obama would be a more left-wing figure in office than he turned out to be made people on the left more comfortable with competing for power. I think it led a lot of leftists to say, “Well, he wasn’t the candidate we expected him to be, he didn’t do what we hoped and expected he would do. So let’s find someone who would be the kind of candidate we thought he was. And let’s get involved in the Democratic Party so that will be possible.” Then, of course, Sanders pops up and opposes Obama’s hand-picked successor, Hillary Clinton.

Christopher Lasch once said, in a quote that you’ve cited, “Radicalism in the United States has no great triumphs to record … but the sooner we begin to understand why this should be so, the sooner we will be able to change it.” And so I’m wondering why this is the case. Why is there no socialism in America? Or, at least, so much less socialism than in other parts of the developed world?
I still subscribe to the conventional interpretations of why America is a country in which the rich traditionally have been so comfortable. One is race and the fact that even a group of badly off, badly paid white working people could say for most of American history, “Well, at least we’re better often than blacks.” And the Democrats, who were more favorable to labor than the Republicans, were also the more racist party up until the 1960s. Compared to other industrial nations, there have also been fewer disruptive periods in American history, the Civil War notwithstanding. The U.S. was not invaded by other nations and it kept growing and kept prospering. Most people — white people — felt that they were prospering along with it. So you didn’t have two nations divided by class as in most European countries.

Also, the American ideology of equality and liberty is itself utopian, an alternative to socialism. It is a radical ideology. So that makes it more difficult for a radical left to say that it wants to replace the nation’s existing ideology. That problem didn’t really exist in Germany or Eastern Europe or Russia or in many other countries where the left took power.

Do you see anything advantageous in America’s indigenous utopianism? Earl Browder of the American Communist Party once argued that communism was “20th-century Americanism” — in other words, that practically realizing (and universalizing) America’s founding ideals in the modern context required egalitarian revolution. Can democratic socialism be 21st-century Americanism?
I think there’s still a popular belief that America has great ideals, that we just have to find a way to turn them into reality. There’s a reason why politicians from both parties talk that way, a reason why Trump gets many working-class white people to wear those red hats with his Americanist slogan on it. But that will change if most Americans begin to see America as a nation just like any other nation, if they only feel close to it because it’s where they grew up. In that case, constructing a left-wing style of patriotism and national idealism won’t be necessary. But I’m not sure what will replace it.

Assuming you have your crystal ball handy, what do you see as the best-case scenario for the DSA over the next decade and beyond?
I’m a historian and not real good at predicting the future. But, as always, it depends what happens in the U.S. and the world. If Sanders continues to be a major candidate, and of course, if he wins the nomination, then I think DSA will certainly grow. And even if he doesn’t win the nomination, the visibility of Ocasio-Cortez and, to a lesser extent, Rashida Tlaib and other people running as socialists in the Democratic Party in the coming years will make more Democrats comfortable with joining DSA. Of course, growth creates its own problems. The larger an organization gets, the more factions there are going to be, the more disagreements there are going to be. Already DSA contains a lot of factions. There’s even a Communist Caucus in DSA, which is sort of hilarious because that doesn’t really go along with the D in DSA.

Of the things that are not in DSA’s control, what most threatens its prospects for success?
The election of a Republican president typically moves the center of political gravity to the right. Trump hasn’t done that because he’s been such an unpopular figure. But if he gets reelected, people on the left will be depressed as hell and whoever the Democrats run against Trump is going to be even more unpopular than Hillary is now. If it’s a progressive, that will produce some painful second thoughts for DSA and for the broader left. We’ve had 40-plus years of mostly neoliberal governance, and American power is declining. Trump has just accelerated that decline. That produces a lot of anxiety, a lot of disenchantment with the powers that be, and that may continue to help the left. So there are going to be crosscurrents. It’s hard to know who will benefit.

What Does the Radical Left’s Future Look Like?