Behind the Decline of the US Left

Stansfield Smith
The left has not become marginalized because of exhaustion or infighting. Its decline was caused by the US government’s more than century long police state operations, purging the left from its historic home in the working class movement, so that it now has only tenuous connection with the organized working class. The national security state – the actual US government – has constantly worked to neutralize anti-imperialist and class conscious working class voices, and instead promoted a “compatible left” in their long-term strategy to divide and control the left.

The working class, particularly the sector in industrial production, had significance for the left not because workers are progressive in their thinking, but because they possess the power no other social forces have: they can vanquish the rule of capital by halting production, shutting off the capitalists’ ability to generate surplus value, life blood of their system. The entire economy halts if these workers, those engaged in manufacturing (primarily factory workers), but also construction, electric power and utility workers, miners, dockworkers, truck drivers, warehouse workers – amounting to 20% of the US working class – stop working. That is why Marx, Engels and Lenin regarded the working class as the revolutionary force in this phase of human history, and the paramount task of the left is to fight to win its leadership.

In the US, the trade unions are the only mass self-defense organizations of the working class, built through painful and bloody class struggles against the bosses and their government. Gains for human rights result from struggles by the exploited and oppressed, including the organizing of unions, the fight for improved living standards, greater rights for Blacks and women, often won through strike battles that were a class vs class civil war.

The Working Class Left Wing

There has always existed a militant layer of workers who resisted, committed to destroying the main cause of their torments, the capitalist class. Most of these fearless organizers of the workers movement found their guide to action in Marxism, which clarified the proletariat’s pivotal role in transforming society.

These activists exemplified the class struggle left wing of the workers movement, where we would find what is now called “the left” 75-130 years ago, in the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist Party, Communist Party, and others.

Today’s left has long been separated from leading working class struggles against the bosses. While imposed on us through US government purges, the isolation continues today seemingly almost by choice.

Before, leftist leaders were working class activists: Big Bill Haywood, Gene Debs, Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons, Elizabeth Gurley Finn, William Foster, Joe Hill. They risked everything to help organize and lead workers battles, including the Colorado, Lawrence and Paterson strikes, and the 1919 steel strike. The “Red Scare” repression of 1917-1920 and the Palmer Raids crushed the movement, with some 6,000 deported or imprisoned.

A generation later, in 1934, four strikes shook the country: longshore and maritime workers on the west coast, the textile workers in the southeast, the Toledo Auto-Lite workers, and the Minneapolis Teamsters. Those labor battles were virtual civil wars, pitting the workers against the bosses and their government, and led in part by working class left wing organizations — the Communist Party, Muste’s American Workers Party, and the Trotskyist Communist League of America. Soon came the labor struggles creating the CIO, which relied heavily on the exemplary work of Communist organizers. (Whose class character difference from much of the left today is seen in the first part of Seeing Red)

These working class leftists formed the backbone of the new stewards organizations of industrial unions, shared information and analysis across union and industry lines, and collectively pushed for broader mobilizations. All through these periods, the left meant the left wing leadership element in the working class movement.

The Ruling Class Purges the Trade Union Left Wing

With the ending of World War II, came a massive strike wave: 3.5 million trade unionists in 1945, then 4.6 million in 1946, the most in US history. US capitalist rulers responded with a ferocious counterattack against the working class and peasant upsurge around the world and at home.

In 1947 the US government imposed the Taft-Hartley Act, preventing solidarity strikes or secondary boycotts (crucial in forging the unions), denied federal employees the right to strike, and outlawed Communists and their defenders from the labor unions. The trade unions as a whole did not challenge this witch hunt.

Then in 1949, shortly after the people’s victory in China, the CIO leadership launched its own purge of the working class left wing, expelling eleven unions, including its third largest, the United Electrical Workers, totaling one million members. This soon brought a halt to the growth of the CIO and the labor movement. The trade unions, by condoning and participating in this purge, were making themselves irrelevant as the force to remake society.

What is called the McCarthyite Red Scare went far beyond targeting Communists. The Chamber of Commerce “said that the real danger came from non-Communists, ‘those who engage in pro-Communist activities’ such as fighting for higher wages, housing, or the repeal of the thought-control Smith Act” (Labor’s Untold Story, p. 349fn). All those who struggled for social and economic justice and civil liberties could be targets. 

Herman Benson, a Workers Party union activist at the time, noted, “In those days [the 1930s-40s], radical intellectuals and radical workers were bound in a fraternity…They shared more than common ideals; they often shared membership in the same party or group.” But because of the witch hunt, “Around 1950, intellectuals and union dissidents went rocketing off in opposite directions.” (The World of the Blue-Collar Worker, p. 221)

Not only government destruction of the trade union left wing undermined the workers struggle against capitalist assaults. Prosperity also acted as a conservatizing force. The US, the only industrialized nation not destroyed in World War II, dominated world markets, enabling the bosses to grant continual wage increases to placate the working class. The average yearly increase (now completely unheard of) was 3.4% in real wages for unionized industrial workers, combined with ever better health coverage and vacation time. The trade union movement grew increasingly bureaucratized and went into political retreat, ruled over by pro-imperialist layer. As Kim Scipes pointed out:

Labor’s foreign policy leadership is wedded to the idea of Empire: they believe that the United States should dominate the world, that unlimited financial resources should be dedicated to ensuring this, and that all other considerations are secondary or less. (p. 113) …one more “service” the AFL-CIO provides to the Empire…it undercuts opposition to the imperial project from within the United States, and especially limits the power of the most organized section of American society, organized workers…the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy program neutralizes arguably the key leadership in our society that has the ability to mobilize American workers against the imperial project. (p. 119)

The unions were blunted as fighting instruments for the 99%. Workers control over production (job conditions on the floor, control over the pace of work, control over work safety conditions) was rolled back. The needs of unorganized workers, women, Blacks, immigrants, the fight to win broad social programs such as health care for all, and opposition to US overthrow of foreign governments were neglected. The trade unions often no longer led important social and political struggles.

Popular Movements Detour Around the Tamed Trade Unions

With the left wing purged from the unions, fighters in the 1950s – 60s Black rights struggles, against the US war on Vietnam, the environmental movement, the Chicano, gay and women’s liberation struggles lost their most powerful ally and had to detour around these working class mass organizations. The trade union bureaucracy generally opposed participating in these struggles, sometimes even attacking them.

As a result, these political movements won significant concessions from the ruling class without mobilizations by organized labor. To new generations arising since the 1960s it seemed that the working class and its trade unions were not the foundation for building a left wing leadership, nor even necessary to advance social struggles. For generations of youth, including industrial workers, the trade union movement did not appear as the fundamental class enemy of the capitalist class, but as part of the Establishment.

Some politicized youth from the 60s did recognize its revolutionary power and sought jobs in industry, becoming activists in the trade union movement. However, even during the 1970s labor upsurge Labor Notes Kim Moody points out,

There were no nationally recognized leaders or organizations that straddled the movement as a whole. Nor was there the sort of radical core of organized leftists that has provided so much of the indispensable grassroots leadership, at the shop-floor level and across the movement as a whole, as there had been in earlier labor upheavals. Socialists and other radicals played important roles in some rank-and-file organizations  [Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), Miners for Democracy (MFD), United National Caucus (UNC) in the UAW, Steelworkers Fightback] but their numbers were few, and none of their organizations were strong enough to provide anything like national leadership and direction to the movement as whole….Nor did the leading rank-and-file organizations of the era, like TDU, MFD, UNC, or Steelworkers Fightback, make serious attempts to relate to one another, let alone organize umbrella organizations that might help them to provide mutual support. (Understanding the Rank-and-File Rebellion in the Long 1970s, in Rebel Rank and File, p. 144)

No organized working class left wing coalesced, providing national grassroots leadership during the 1970s labor upsurge. Since then we refer not to the working class left wing, but to a disembodied “left,” with no substantial connection with the industrial working class.

Era of Trade Union Defeats and Concessions Began in the 1980s

Two major ruling class assaults on the workers movement put an end to the labor upsurge of the 1970s, beginning an era of significant setbacks. The UAW leadership swallowed the Carter administration’s Chrysler “bailout,” settling for a contract that broke the Big Three pattern agreement covering workers at GM, Ford and Chrysler.

Reagan’s firing of all 13,000 striking PATCO workers in 1981 followed. This evoked only a tepid response from AFL-CIO chiefs, leading to a devastating defeat for the workers movement. Soon to follow were defeats such as the Greyhound strikes, Phelps-Dodge (1983-86), Hormel and UFCW P-9 (1985), Eastern Airlines (1989), and the Bridgestone-Firestone, Caterpillar and Staley strikes (1992-95).
Kim Scipes comments:

This belief in the U.S. Empire has prevented AFL-CIO leadership from even attempting to address the worsening economic conditions and resulting social situation that has been developing in this country since the early 1970s….The only thing the AFL-CIO leadership has done in response to the worsening economic conditions is to spend millions and millions of dollars to elect Democratic politicians, especially presidents, into political office. (p. 113-114).

The working class struggle was paying a heavy price for its lack of an organized left wing leadership, in contrast to the early 1900s and the 1930s.

Yet some battles were successful, such as the UPS (1997) and Verizon strikes (2016), and A Day Without Immigrants (May 1, 2006). While the 2011 Madison, Wisconsin labor occupation of the State Capitol inspired working people around the country, it was derailed, with state public sector unionization plunging from 50% in 2011 to 22% by 2021. The 2012 Chicago teachers strike won by championing issues benefiting both its members and the communities they serve, igniting a series of teacher strikes elsewhere.

These labor battles could not have succeeded without some class struggle left wing presence pushing them forward. But the different struggles produced no way to coordinate, no recognized national leaders. There was no organized connection between this current in the labor movement and what is called the left today.

The Myth of US Deindustrialization

The capitalist effort to extract more and more surplus value from the working class has not let up since Marx’s writing of Capital. For instance, US auto companies sought to replace the lax standard of 45-52 seconds of actual work per minute in car assembly with Toyota’s model of 57 seconds of actual work per minute by extracting 5-12 more seconds of work per minute, which increased the surplus value produced per worker by $29,215 a year (Moody, US Labor in Trouble and Transition, p. 34- 35). We may overlook it, but the capitalist class has never stopped increasing the rate of exploitation of the US working class.

The inaccurate leftist view that the US empire is declining is partly based on alleged US deindustrialization. That would imply the industrial working class is losing its central revolutionary role for Marxists. Moody< disputes this deindustrialization story: while manufacturing employment has decreased 40% just between 1979-2014, this has been offset by continual increases in labor productivity, a higher rate of surplus value extraction through “lean production.” The workforce in steel production did fall 65% from 1980-2017, yet work-hours to produce a ton of steel fell more, 85%. The US still produces 75% of its own steel. The overall national industrial production index US is actually manufacturing more than ever, even though its world share has dropped from 22% in 2004 to 16.8% in 2020.  What has declined is the number of unionized private sector workers: just under 7.0% today, down from almost 35% in 1953.

The Left Goes Off Course and Marginalizes Itself

Now, long after the left wing’s purge from the trade union movement, there has been no campaign to rebuild it. Today’s left exists in a separate domain from the industrial working class, more oriented to the university than to the shop floor, further enfeebling the left. Today’s left does focus on issues such as US foreign interventions, women’s, Black and immigrant rights — not as part of the trade union movement, but outside it, which vastly weakens these movements’ social weight. Only a very small percent of those who identify as Marxist, whether in left groupings or not, are part of the industrial working class, or even seek to be. Yet Marx explained here the working class left wing must be to inflict terminal damage to the relentless capitalist class warfare against workers at home and abroad.

Lenin said the task of the party is “to organize the class struggle of the proletariat and to lead this struggle, the ultimate aim of which is the conquest of political power by the proletariat and the organization of a socialist society.” (my emphasis; Collected Works, v. 4, p. 210-21). When leftists are not there, part of the class struggle left wing of the labor movement, they abdicate the most essential task for Marxists. Moreover, not being a trade union left wing activist disorients your worldview on what social forces today we consider can change society. We would be orienting ourselves not towards broadening the class consciousness and self-confidence of working class fighters who produce surplus value, Marx’s approach, but instead towards what he explained were less impactful sectors of the US population.

This inevitably causes leftists to sideline ourselves in leading the struggle for basic social change. No longer a working class left wing, we have become reduced to leftist groupings and circles. Lenin pointed out that left groupings – all that we have today — “they are not a party of a class, but a circle.” (CW, v. 31, p. 57), and insisted that “we are the party of the revolutionary class, and not merely a revolutionary group…” (CW, v. 31, p. 85). He adds, “our parties are still very far from being what real Communist Parties should be; they are far from being real vanguards of the genuinely revolutionary and only revolutionary class, with every single member taking part in the struggle, in the movement, in the everyday life of the masses.” (CW, v. 32, p. 522-523).

Today’s left and liberal-left intellectuals have become so disconnected from the working class movement that they no longer regard our working class as the great countervailing power to corporate America. Too many feel the working class may be the force that will overthrow capitalism and build a more just society, but not the working class we have: it is too backwards, bought-off, too white privileged. The left made their estrangement from the working class evident in their hostility to the protests of working people in Ottawa against dysfunctional covid restrictions.

Since we do not orient in practice to the industrial working class as the agent of social change, it follows we are turning elsewhere. In the last half century we found it in mass movements, in the progressive or “left of center” sector of the US population. These the Democrats also appeal to, making the Democrats seem the “lesser evil,” and leftists have reciprocated by looking for ties with seemingly progressive Democratic politicians. This “leftist” approach became pronounced as fear of Trumpism grew.

This progressive milieu is seen by much of the left as a pressure group to push Democrats “left” against the Democratic National Committee (DNC) bosses and the Republican Party. That puts the left in a position of weakness, especially as mass movements, such as Black Lives Matter, dwindle. Inexorably, the left has steadily shifted rightwards over the years.

Ruling Class Control over the Movement

While there is widespread sentiment for a party that represents the 99%, we must confront the corporate elite, their national security state and their Democratic and Republican machines having US society under lockdown. The corporate rulers do not intend to allow a working peoples party and possess many tools to prevent it.

With their Democratic and Republican party machines, they control the state apparatus of rule: the legal system, the open and covert police agencies, the military, the mass media, most of the country’s wealth, and the national security state — the actual government. They control elections through funding, deciding who gets media airtime, who gets favorable press and who smeared.

The rulers are ingenious at neutralizing movements independent of their two parties, whether the anti-Iraq war movement, the Occupy movement, the MeToo Marches, Tea Party protests, Black Lives Matter, or the Ottawa trucker protests. They can even control the left through selective repression and corporate foundation funding of a “ compatible left.”

Ruling Class Police State Continuous and Unconstitutional Repression

In Democracy for the Few “The Repression of Dissident,” Parenti notes the “boundless” resources of the “law” to derail mass protest movements. Activists can be spied on, victimized by grand jury witch hunt investigations, by serious beatings and death threats, arrested on trumped up charges, faced with exorbitant bail and long jail time (Obama used against whistleblowers, Leonard Peltier), by confiscation or freezing of their funds ($64 million imposed UMWA because of a 1989 strike), by offices being raided and destroyed (Black Panthers), by government run media smear campaigns (Russiagate against Trump, or against Gary Webb)

by constant police harassment (Malcolm X), by government murder (Martin Luther King, by police death squad murders (as with 34 Black Panthers), or by FBI front groups (KKK killing four anti-Klan activists in Greensboro), by bannings from internet media (many of our alternative media groups and writers today), jailed for constitutional free speech (Julian Assange, Eugene Debs), by bans from using the mails (Margaret Sanger’s Woman Rebel), denied any speaking engagements (Paul Robeson), by revoking passports (Robeson), by being banned from entering the United States (Charlie Chaplin, Arnold August), by mass deportations (IWW, Palmer Raids), death sentence frame-ups (Mumia Abu Jamal, Sacco and Vanzetti, Joe Hill, Haymarket martyrs), with blacklisting (Hollywood Ten), and jailings (Communist Party members), funding “compatible” leftists to smear you, FBI infiltration and disruption (such as Cointelpro, now under a different name), denial of ballot status (Green Party), exclusion from election campaign debates (all non-corporate candidates), drug frame-ups, by freezing of bank accounts (Ottawa protest leaders), time-consuming trials that paralyze their organizations, exhaust their funds, consume their energies, destroy their leadership (Socialist Workers Party, 1940; Communist Party 1949). Or being publicly threatened with mass execution: The Los Angeles Times wrote in September 1917, “The IWW conspire against the government of the United States and…every day commit actual treason…and ought to be shot as actual traitors to the country   which has given them life and liberty”.  These are but a sampling of ruling class police state methods to crush working class opposition.

Activists in movements that do threaten the status quo learn they are not free but live under a police state. Lefties know at some level that building a progressive party and a new leadership means the more effective you are, the more the above methods will be used to stop you.

Consequently, we opt for something safer and seemingly more feasible: working for any social changes that we feel are viable under the present system – or diverted into peripheral issues such as identity politics. This may be why most leftists have not committed ourselves to the working class fight for national health care or a livable minimum wage. Exercising your First Amendment rights – never actually upheld* – means you give up your somewhat comfortable and safe life for one of combating government operations out to destroy you. Bernie Sanders clearly recognized this, given his capitulation from his previous views calling for a new, progressive political party.

The Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns did show mass attraction for socialism. Hundreds of thousands attended his events around the country, millions were organized to vote for him. Here was a base that could help build a mass opposition party to oligarchic rule. (But he stayed loyal to the DNC, did not use his huge supporter lists to launch a new party, instead turning it over to the party bosses).

Pressing issues do exist to unite left forces and the working class in a collective fight for demands we all benefit from: the labor campaign for national health care, or for a livable minimum wage. The left today has not focused on these basic needs, yet what could more galvanize working people than gaining health care for all?

Reconstructing a Working Class Left Wing

The trade unions have the tools to fund and build a working people’s party. In 2020, organized labor spent more than $1.8 billion to help elect candidates of the two corporate parties, besides mobilizing thousands of foot soldiers to campaign. The unions possess $29 billion in net assets. Consequently, the consciousness is there, the willingness, and the funding, where we fail is in reconstructing a working class left wing. 

Our left that is declining, step-by-step surrendering to the Democratic Party, becoming “left” propagandists for their anti-Trumpism or for their regime change wars, is the left that arose disconnected from the working class. It has never been possible to build a left wing that didn’t arise directly from the battles of the working class. Building a left outside of that arena is a pointless Sisyphean task, like reforming the Democratic Party.

Kim Moody noted, “For half or three-quarters of a century, socialists have been over on one side, and unions have been on the other, and there hasn’t been much interconnection.” What we have witnessed has been a too-long detour from our home base. As long as we delay and keep our focus in other social milieus, not on the producers of surplus value, we only continue to sideline ourselves. Working people become active when no longer endurable work or life conditions propel them to act, assuming they feel meaningful change can result. A new, qualitatively different left wing from today will re-emerge, as it had previously, growing out of inevitable working class fightbacks forced upon them by the capitalist class driven to relentlessly increase their exploitation. We should be there preparing.


* There are endless examples of how much the First Amendment has been dismantled, given it states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

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