Opinion: Bhaskar is Wrong – The Left is Not In Purgatory

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By Henry De Groot

Responding to Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara, who writes in a February editorial that the socialist movement is stuck in purgatory, Henry De Groot contends that the last 10 years have been marked by incredible progress and that the socialist movement continues to take steps forward, even if we have work to do. This is the first part of a series, the second installment of which will explore the obstacles holding back our movement and what it will take to turn sympathy into socialism.

Massachusetts Memories

The latest issue of Jacobin sits on my desk to the left of my laptop as I finish writing this piece. On its cover, Ilhan Omar, AOC, and Bernie sit in a waiting room. In front of them on a coffee table lies a neatly fanned line of Jacobin magazines; behind the trio hangs a poster of a weatherman showing endless cloudy days, with the lines “The Left In Purgatory.”

My own copy doesn’t sit neatly. Instead, it is perched atop a pile of organizing notes. Crying out for attention from beneath it are the contact numbers of app workers, Working Mass assignments, a subpoena from Uber, and the number for a lawyer I need to call.

And on my screen, I see the graphic Shane made for this piece. The collage calls to mind memories of meeting Bernie on Boston Common, walking the St. Vincent picket line, interviewing Starbucks organizers, and fighting on the streets of East Boston and Somerville and Dorchester for socialist candidates or worker rights or both. You might have been there with me. IYKYK.

Purgatory, So They Say

In the latest issue of Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara laments that the American left is stuck in purgatory, drawing from Inferno to eloquently pepper his contribution with Dante quotations.

Bhaskar writes that “There is no doubt that we’re at the end of a period of rapid politicization and settling into one of either gradual decline or slow advance.”

He continues, writing that “there is something dangerous about being large enough to be a political presence in parts of the country — and a subculture for thousands of activists — but far too disorganized and powerless to carry out your political program.”

As ever in Jacobin, not far behind is a second lament about the hopeless inability of middle-class radicals to connect with our long-prophesied working-class base. But instead of laying a concrete path from the socialist movement to the working class, we are fed over-intellectualized self-pity.

Perspective, Not Purgatory

I’ve never read Dante, but I have read Marx. And just as important, I’ve been paying more attention to the movements of the working class and radical youth over the past decade than the whinings of the leftist intelligentsia.

Instead of laments of purgatory, what we need is some perspective on the last 10 years of our movement. Here’s a quick review:

When Occupy Wall Street captured the world’s attention more than a decade ago, pointing out economic inequality was considered radical. Now we hear about inequality every day.

When I first started trying to talk to students on my campus about socialism in 2014, I found some success. But I also received many cold shoulders, bewildered looks, and once I was literally spit on. Now the majority of our youth hold a critical view of capitalism and are rapidly moving to the left.

For the better part of a century, hardly a single socialist had been elected to public office in the United States. In 2016 and again in 2020, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns electrified millions of Americans, and over 1 million signed up to volunteer on his campaign

Just in Massachusetts, the DSA has made gains on the electoral and labor fronts. This past cycle, Boston DSA ran a slate of 12 socialists across four cities. We elected 7 and won a historic victory in electing the first socialist to the Boston City Council in who knows how long.

From McCarthyism up to the late 1990s, American labor unions played the role of reliable lackeys to American capitalism, while new organizing was all but ignored. Now the Starbucks workers movement is spreading like prairie fire, and two of the largest unions in the state — the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts — are led by DSA members.

Apparently for Sunkara, these steps forward are mere “cultural radicalism” which we should not equate with “real advance.” Dripping with pessimism, he concludes his piece by writing that “as one year of marginality drifts into another, it is increasingly hard to argue that the fault for the Left’s predicaments lies with everyone but ourselves.” He does not elaborate on his pessimism, for apparently his prowess and profile have grown so large that he need not substantiate his pronouncements.

It’s true, we do not yet live in a worker’s republic. Socialist electeds are still a minority, many of those who identify as socialists are merely social democrats — or worse, opportunists — and the string of exciting wins for the labor movement are far short of a fully realized revival for unions. Membership participation within the DSA is far too low and our membership lacks sufficient diversity or working class representation. On the electoral front, we don’t win every seat we contest. And socialists within the labor movement are poorly coordinated.

All told, there is a serious mismatch between our organizational capacity and sympathy for the socialist movement among wide layers of the working class and radicalizing youth. We have work to do. But when we remember where our movement was just a decade ago, or at the start of Bernie’s 2016 campaign, what we see is incredible growth, not purgatory; we see potential, not pessimism.

Henry De Groot is a Working Mass editor, Boston DSA member, and Executive Director of Massachusetts Drivers United.

Graphic by Shane Levett/Working Mass

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