Decline of the American Left by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
Oct. 16, 2011

May Day '13, strikers in Union Square (LOC)

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

In The New York Times “Sunday Review” of Sept. 25, 2011, Michael Kazin, a co-editor of Dissent magazine, published an article entitled “Whatever Happened to the American Left?” It is drawn from a new book of his entitled American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. In the article (full disclosure: I have not read the book, only the review that appeared in The Times Sunday Book Review on Sept. 18) Mr. Kazin attributed the aforementioned decline to a number of factors. They included: unlike the (relatively) powerful left of the 1930s, the modern left, unlike the modern Right, has not been germinating for very long; in the 1970s they started leaving traditional “left” issues such as “class justice” for such things as rights for minorities and women; the failed promises of the Democratic Party, post pre-Viet Nam Lyndon Johnson; dependence on “politicians;” and “not reconnecting with ordinary Americans.” So, you see, the “decline of the US left” is all the left’s fault.

The legendary Big Bill Haywood, head of the I.W.W., was one of the earliest combative union leaders in the US. His kind has not been seen for almost 100 years, but the sorry state of American trade unions is not so much a product of their own flaws, as the inevitable result of an all-out never-ending assault on workers by private capital using all the forces and tools of the state, which they naturally control.

Well, historical developments like the decline, indeed the virtual disappearance of any real, socialistically-oriented left as real as its cousin, the “liberal/progressive” left, don’t happen in an historical vacuum. Indeed in this case it would appear that what the Right-wing, Corporate Power has done to the US left since the height of its power during the New Deal is the primary cause of its decline. Further it would appear that the failure of self-styled US leftists to recognize and come to grips with the amazingly powerful legal, legislative, and propagandistic forces that the US Corporate Power mobilized against the left, and then organize to oppose it with strength, is also a major cause of the US left’s decline.

Organized left-wings began developing in European constitutional democracies and monarchies in the late 19th century. In some, like Prussia, the left-wing party(s) appeared before the labor union movement did. In others, like the United Kingdom, the trade union movement came first, followed by left parliamentary parties. However, whichever came first, eventually any further successes that the left might have in their parliaments, in forcing concessions on labor relations, on health services, on the structure of work and leisure time, on any other broad-based national social legislation, was built on a base of strong trade union movement. This is the case in Western Europe down to this very day.

The US Corporate Power has recognized since the time of the New Deal that any ongoing left-wing success in the United States would be built on the back of a strong labor union movement. Their War on the Unions began the day after the ratification of the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act in 1938 (collective bargaining had not been legal before then) and has continued down to this very day (see Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and etc.) It was aimed at keeping the unions as weak as possible in terms of collective bargaining but it was also aimed at crippling the US left, at which it has been very successful. We don’t have the space to consider all of the Corporate Power’s tools over time, but here is a list of the most important ones.

  • The most powerful unions, ever, in the United States, were those of the 1930s-era Congress of Industrial Organizations, the C.I.O.: the United Auto Workers, the United Steel Workers, the United Electrical Workers, the United Mine Workers, and so forth. Many of these unions had Communists in their leadership. They were not revolutionaries, but they were very effective organizers and negotiators. The power of those unions that did not have Communists in their leadership but were actively “anti-communist,” the craft unions of the American Federation of Labor was much less. It was the C.I.O. that had provided the “push” for many of the New Deal programs, hated by the Corporate Power. And so that Power went after them first, with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. It put many limits of union structure and organizing ability, but perhaps most importantly it banned Communists from union leadership, removing the most militant of union leadership.
  • Next came McCarthyism, the “anti-communist” hysteria that had both foreign and domestic policy aims. On the domestic side its primary objective was to be able to taint anyone who put forward any ideas that were opposed to the interests of the Corporate Power as “commies,” and indeed “traitors.” This has effectively lasted down to this very day: see current GOTP propaganda, listen to Limbaugh and Hannity, see Ann Coulter’s book Treason, branding anyone who did not support GW Bush policy as traitor, treason being a crime that is punishable by death. It had a very broad aim, punishing people for holding left-wing beliefs, not with prison (for the moat part) but with loss of livelihood and profession.
  • McCarthyism, which crippled the US left across the board, beginning in the 1950s, was accompanied by state-level “right-to-work” legislation. It effectively banned union shops, which led to serious declines in union membership since even at firms where unions had negotiated contracts, workers (often company tools) could opt not to join the union and pay union dues.
  • The very powerful United (coal) Mine Workers, at one time 400,000 strong, were effectively wiped out, as were the railroad unions, by the conversions of inter-city shipping from rail to truck, heavily subsidized in the 1950s by the construction of the Interstate Highway system.
  • Related also to the decline of the unions, a power in the Democratic Party was the decline of the Democratic Party left, such as it was, following the murder of John F. Kennedy and the decline of Lyndon Johnson into the Big Muddy of Vietnam. The Democratic Right, which began forming around Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the “Senator from Boeing” (Washington State) abandoned George McGovern in the 1972 election, picked the then very weak and inexperienced Jimmy Carter in 1976, and eventually formed the right-wing Democratic Leadership Council under the leadership of Bill Clinton, et al in the 1980s. It was Clinton who, for example, when he became President vastly expanded the job and union-killing policy of the free export of capital that had begun in earnest under Reagan.
  • There are many other examples that one could give, down to the present time. But let me conclude this column with some words from the Editor/Publisher of The Greanville Post and Cyrano’s Journal Online, my dear friend Patrice Greanville:

“The American situation operates within a very powerful propaganda bubble which facilitates everything else. The Corporate Power’s (until recently) unrivaled capacity to infect the American mind with any version of reality they wanted allowed them easier passage to other anti-democratic areas like killing the unions, making the entire political class a fancy bordello, and [perpetuating the mythology that left-wingers are ‘traitors’]. The dominance of business propaganda in this country is key to understanding our situation. All ruling classes tend to have their narrative adopted as “the nation’s” narrative, of course it’s just that in the US we are supposed to be operating above and beyond such old-world ideological constructs and live in a self-determining democracy.”

But of course that “democracy” is designed to operate without a true left. And until people who think that the decline of the left is entirely the fault of the left wake up and realize who the true enemy is, no progress will be made. This is one instance where Pogo was wrong. The enemy is them, the Corporate Class, not us.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for Truthout/BuzzFlash (,, Dr. Jonas is also Managing Editor and a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Senior Columnist for The Greanville POST; a Contributor to Op-Ed; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; and a Contributor to The Planetary Movement.

Previously published Oct. 11, 2011 on The Greanville POST.