Two Lefts? by Konstantin Kaminskiy

by Konstantin Kaminskiy
Guest Writer
Dandelion Salad
Questions of Political Economy in Modernity
Oct. 14, 2011

Occupy Wall St. Protest in Zucotti Park Octobe...

Image by emilydickinsonridesabmx via Flickr

This is a report on and some thoughts inspired by “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation with Michael Kazin,”a panel discussion hosted by Demos. I have described them before as broadly wanting a New Deal. I will add to that – they are progressives, or Left Democrats, or “Obama-pushers.” This constitutes one of the Lefts represented at the event. The other is Occupy Wall Street, which was represented by one of their organizers.

Michael Kazin’s new book is titled “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.” Actually the title sums up the framework pretty nicely. The Left goes through stages. First it dreams, in the form of Henry George, whose “Progress and Poverty” apparently sold more than anything Marx wrote and Edward Bellamy (“Looking Backward”). These dreams are utopian and see the complete transformation of society as desirable. The movement becomes large enough to pressure politicians to pay attention to them and enact some sort of changes. Communists are important as far as they are a part, and sometimes at the heart, of this pushing.

Examples of this include the anti-monopoly laws and most significantly the creation of the American welfare state, connected by Kazin with pressure on Roosevelt from radical socialists and general strikes in multiple cities. The argument is that the left has been “culturally successful but politically a failure.” Anti-corporate films are, after all, successful at the box office, and that is the continued legacy of the New Left. The Left has also been successful as far as it took society as it is, which means accepting all sorts of religiosity. The Left is not, however, going to take power, or anything like that – the revolution, for Kazin, is impossible. The best we can do with our utopian creativity is force what are really cosmetic changes. He seems to not note the ways in which the “cultural left” has reinforced the system of capitalism.

The comments of Kelly Heresy, described as an Occupy Wall Street organizer, were refreshing by comparison. OWS has failed to propose any creative demands. It has failed to push politicians. That seems like anathema to them, the corporate-funded system is not to be trusted to originate or secure any real changes. Between the Democrats and Republicans there is no difference. At OWS they are “having a conversation,” and have found that assembling at the park is a way to do that. There is a core of devoted organizers, but “some college kids who think it’s a vacation” have also become involved and are bad for the image.

He sees us “at the beginning of a new era in human history” because we are so connected by modern media. OWS is about participatory democracy and direct action. For Kazin this must eventually give way to the political process, to compromise – for those at OWS a new world of acting as individuals on a direct democracy basis, without representation, seems to be open.

These are two different ways of viewing the world, and the OWS way seems to me to be the more profound, open and interesting way. They take for inspiration the Paris Commune and the Greek Agora – to a Marxist there is deep irony in both. But there is possibility – they have yet to decide that the best we can have is a “more fair” distribution of resources or “democracy in the workplace,” whatever those things might mean. They hold open the possibility of “taking back the system for ourselves.”

When, time after time, Kelly Heresy defended against the “you must push power and vote” formula with the “greedy corporate funding runs everything” formula I wanted to scream out: “Lenin would agree!” Roosevelt was not funded in the same way that Obama was funded, but this matters little. Lenin says that the “real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism” is “to decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to misrepresent the people” (The State and Revolution). This can be applied to Roosevelt as much as to Obama – Roosevelt and his class had something to fear, the radical left. Obama and his class have no such fears, OWS has not been able to shut down entire cities while keeping people fed and orderly. Kazin sees that time and time again concessions have resulted from this process – since the left has been able to get something it has been successful, and must do this and only this. OWS, by comparison, seems to hold history open.

In the Q&A I introduced myself as “an economics major at Baruch and a Marxist.” My comment to the panel, and question, was almost word for word this – “I see two lefts here. The first left had at one point theorized about why the world is as its and how it could be changed. It now declares to us that the revolution is impossible, that the best we can do is little changes. The other Left, in a very embryonic form, is thinking about systems and how they can actually be changed. We have been pushing Obama for the last 150 years. We are here, with some of the greatest inequality ever. I could go on. Is the pushing of Obama a viable strategy for meaningful change?”

To complete the paradigm: the historian Kazin did not understand the pun. Obama is not 150 years old, he pointed out. We must push the Democratic Party, not Obama. The OWS organizer had no difficulty in seeing what I meant by the “Two Lefts.”

Seeing the General Assembly of OWS later that day forces me to add to my comments here – OWS seems to believe that the revolution has already been achieved, that the task now is to spread it to more places, occupation is revolution. They have constituted a new society already. But what is to become of them, of this movement, is at least more open-ended than the world of Kazin, in which the power as it is cannot be challenged or replaced, period.


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

Occupy Wall Street: Populist Financiers Supporting Protesters Is Part of the Problem, Not the Solution by Finian Cunningham

Rumble from the people by Ralph Nader

Occupy Wall Street: Potentials and limitations of the 2011 American Protests by Fazal Rahman, Ph.D.

Don’t Divide, UNITE! From Occupy Wall Street to Liberate the World + We Want to be Free! by Andrew Gavin Marshall

16 thoughts on “Two Lefts? by Konstantin Kaminskiy

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  7. ” Is the pushing of Obama a viable strategy for meaningful change ”

    Not unless you want to be the modern day version of Sisyphus.

    • I do not consider it a legitimate strategy, but it looks like Kazin, looking backwards, sees that its the only thing that has happened, therefore it is the only thing capable of happening.

      • Those on the left willing to be satisfied with little changes are the kind of people that abandoned anti-war protest as soon as Obama was elected, they deserted without a word of explanation, the so called wars now became Obama’s’ good war.
        It just proves that to many on the left issues don’t matter, only the party. They just can’t conceive that a total overturning of the political system is possible. Guess they don’t remember the collapse of the USSR

        • You’re right that the French and Russian monarchies are more pertinent to what’s going on here. The U.S.S.R. collapsed for many reasons, not just due to a massive uprising of the people.

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