Eclipse of the Sun (1926), by George Grosz
Michael Harrington, the founder of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and one of the foremost figures in American public life from the 1960s until his death in 1989, famously defined the political task of socialists in the United States as building a “left wing of the possible.” For Harrington, this meant “walking a tightrope between the sectarian irrelevance of the visionary whose vision is not connected with anything that’s going on in this society, and the pragmatic irrelevance of those who so perfectly adapt to the daily struggle that they lose sight of the larger struggle." In practical terms, this sensibility resulted in a commitment to create a political home for socialists in the left wing of the Democratic party, the trade unions, and all of the myriad social movements traditionally associated with broadly progressive politics so as to shift the center of American politics to the left. This continues to be the political orientation of DSA and those who share similar politics to our own.
In Harrington’s time, the fundamental soundness of this orientation was fairly obvious. The bulk of the Democratic party was still committed to egalitarian social welfare liberalism. The trade union movement was large and politically powerful. The civil rights movement and the women’s movement were undoing deeply embedded forms of oppression and remaking the social relations of daily life. And outside of these movements, there were even more radical left movements of varying size and effectiveness pushing for an even more far-reaching transformation of American society. In short, there was a left, and the range of what was politically possible had room for the forthrightly social democratic politics that Harrington tirelessly advocated.
Today, the political situation is dramatically different. Outside of a small and marginalized remnant, the Democratic party has abandoned any commitment it had to broadly egalitarian social policy. The trade union movement is in potentially terminal decline, and the radical social movements of the 1960s and 1970s are for the most part a spent force. Corporate power rather literally owns the political system and forces members of each major party to do little else but cater to its interests. It often seems as if nothing short of armed revolution would be necessary to win even comparatively modest reforms such as a real national health program, an equitable public school system and affordable higher education, or labor law reform. In this light, we need to ask ourselves the question: What does it mean today to advocate for a “left wing of the possible” when there is no real left to speak of and when even modest reform often seems to be beyond the realm of possibility?
It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that a continued, unquestioning commitment to this largely anachronistic orientation means a further slide into political irrelevancy and despair. One of the fundamental realities of American political life today is that there is no real left to speak of, and because of this all political activity is pulled inexorably to the right by capital and its allies. They set the political agenda at all levels, and the near total victory they have won over the last thirty years in the realms of both political economy and ideology has narrowed the already limited parameters of American politics even further. Continually trimming our sails by resigning ourselves to achieving what’s possible under the current circumstances only ensures that this situation will never change.
The tragicomic spectacle surrounding the effort to reform our atrocious healthcare system is a good example of what happens when what’s left of the left traps itself in this prison of the “possible.” We all know that a Canadian-style, single-payer system is the best way for our country to provide health insurance to all citizens and to get skyrocketing healthcare costs under control. Obviously, winning single-payer is not possible in the short term because the private health insurance companies would fight tooth and nail against it, so the “left wing of the possible” position was to settle for the public option before the fight over reform even got underway. Thus, the debate was pulled to the right before it even started, and because of that we’re going to have healthcare “reform” that does not achieve universal coverage or effectively control costs. No wonder the insurance companies are running television ads supporting it. They’re going to make a killing.
This scenario plays itself out time and time again. The left, such as it is, sacrifices its core commitments in a futile attempt to preempt right-wing opposition, and in return, wins less than it might otherwise if it had militantly demanded what it actually wants. If more individuals and organizations who really want single-payer had kept demanding it, then perhaps a robust public option could have been the compromise position. Maybe not, but when your union wants a 10% raise in contract negotiations, you start off by asking the company for even more, don’t you? Besides, isn’t the role of the left to raise seemingly unrealistic demands and work for the transformation of society? If that’s not what we’re doing, what use is it to be involved in politics at all? Instead of constantly resigning ourselves to what seems possible in the here and now; shouldn’t we be working tirelessly to redefine the spectrum of what’s possible?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a retreat into sectarian irrelevance or third party building. That’s just as much a waste of time as tailing the efforts of liberals or going weak in the knees every four years for whichever horrible candidate the national Democratic party throws up for election to the White House. The left can and should be involved in fights over everyday issues, it shouldn’t hesitate to work in coalition with forces further to our right if it makes sense, and as the Old Man said, we can’t make history as we please. The ideological and institutional constraints in which we operate are very real. But we need a new watchword that reflects the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in at the beginning of the 21st century, where the gap between rich and poor is wider than it’s ever been and ecological destruction threatens the very foundations of human existence. “Be as radical as reality itself,” Lenin once said. I’m not the man’s biggest admirer, but that would be a pretty good place to start.