What's Left

December 19, 2002

Achieving radical change:
A hard look at the American left

By Stephen Gowans

"So, no, you don't overthrow that kind of destructive institutional behavior with a few antiwar marches or getting public opinion on your side or writing letters to legislators, not alone anyway."

I should have known when I wrote this sentence in "Can war be avoided?" that the word "overthrow" would be construed in its popular sense, rather than in the sense I intended. It's clear now that "overthrow" was a poor choice of words.

The point being made in "Can war be avoided?" was, really, a tautology: To end militarism and imperialism the conditions which give rise to militarism and imperialism must be changed. The theme of the essay was that these scourges arise in material conditions, and not from the personalities, ignorance, or immorality of leaders or electorates. Accordingly, changing a government's personnel, speaking truth to power, and moral suasion, are at best useless, and, if they divert efforts away from radical transformation, are counterproductive. Changing the conditions which give rise to militarism and imperialism would be radical in nature, for it would involve the overthrow of the existing conditions and their replacement with something different. In this sense, "overthrow" means "to radically transform."

Altering these conditions could also be said to be revolutionary. But again, there is a matter of terminology to be dealt with. Revolution, while referring to ends (a fundamental change) is often taken to refer to means (how the radical transformation is to be achieved) and to a particular means (violent insurrection), although there are multiple means for achieving radical change. Thus, one who calls for a revolution is often thought to be advocating insurrection or the violent overthrow of a government. But it is not in this sense that revolution is used here; instead, the word is used to denote "radical" or "fundamental" change.

Clearly, radical or fundamental change can be carried out, circumstances permitting, without recourse to violence or insurrection, and as a matter of principle, all non-violent methods of achieving radical change should be exhausted, before violent insurrectionary methods are contemplated. Even then, the insurrection must have some reasonable chance of success and must not create greater harm than the good it may produce. Expressed as a formula, the degree to which recourse to violence or insurrection should be contemplated is proportional to

the probability of success X (the benefit less the harm).

This form of calculus is germane in countries where there are no provisions for general elections that would allow a party committed to radical change to achieve a mandate for governance non-violently, and where other non-violent means of radical transformation are foreclosed. In Western democracies, however, this is academic, for the electoral arena (though presenting formidable obstacles) provides an avenue to achieve radical change. "Consitutionalism," to be sure, is inimical to parties or movements advocating a program of radical transformation, and the landscape is clearly titled toward conservative parties, but so too are conditions unconducive, and almost certainly more so, to success through violence and insurrection.

This is not to deny the very real challenges a governing party committed to radical change would face from conservative forces, those challenges no more evident today than in the attempts by conservative forces backed by Washington to overthrow the elected reformist government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Repeatedly, conservative forces have shown themselves to be committed to electoral democracy only insofar as it produces the right (that is, conservative) outcomes, quickly resorting to extra-constitutional means to restore government to conservative parties or rulers. That democracy under these conditions is illusory is plain, but that being said, the forms of electoral democracy at least allow forces advocating radical change to channel popular support in non-violent ways into a mandate to govern.

However, constitutionalism as a means to achieve a mandate to govern does not mean accepting parliamentary democracy as a permanent condition, not in its present form with very strong biases in favor of conservative forces. For the object would be to win a mandate to change the existing system to expunge those biases, not a mandate to work within the existing system permanently constrained by those biases. Further, exploiting the opportunities afforded by the electoral system does not mean abandonment of extra-parliamentary activism, nor the relegation of extra-parliamentary activism to a secondary status.

This neither is to deny the post-electoral challenges a radical government will face. Such governments will have to adopt authoritarian methods, to some degree, to survive in the face of extra-constitutional and insurrectionary challenges from conservative forces. This is a reality (however unpleasant) that must be faced up to. Anyone who is serious about achieving radical change through the ballot box must support these governments, for each time governments of this order are swept aside by blackmail, economic warfare, terrorism, and insurrection, organized by conservative forces and often backed by Washington, the chances for survival of any government seeking radical reform are thereby diminished, especially where multiparty democracy prevails and civil and politic liberties are respected, for it is here that radical governments are most vulnerable to destabilization and subversion.

Sadly, left movements, especially those in the United States, are far more likely to conspicuously eschew governments challenged by conservative forces, than to support them. There are a number of reasons for this, including: fear that the unpopularity of foreign governments smeared by propaganda campaigns will rub off and undermine chances of connecting with the larger American population; a revulsion of authoritarianism of any kind, even as a temporary defensive measure; failure to see through the propaganda. Whatever the reason, failure to challenge the propaganda of conservative forces simply makes undermining parties and movements seeking radical change (including any that arise in the United states) all the easier. It is, thus, self-defeating.

To speak in more specific terms, large parts of the American left refused to support the government of Slobodan Milosevic, citing Milosevic's authoritarianism and happily denouncing the Yugolsav president as a genocidist, ethnic cleanser, and dictator, even though these were obvious propaganda points made, without foundation, by a US government engaged in engineering the overthrow of the Yugoslav leader and the dismemberment of the Yugoslav federation. It should be emphasized that while Milosevic was called a dictator, he was the elected head of a multiparty democracy that boasted a vibrant opposition. What's more, that Milosevic's government found itself in the position of having to contend with a violent secessionist movement in the name of the NATO-backed Kosovo Liberation Army is by no means irrelevant to the question of the government's authoritarian measures.

Nor is it irrelevant to the motivations of the US government and its allies that the coalition of opposition parties it supported, and that eventually overthrew Milosevic's government, advocated, and have since begun to implement, a robustly neo-liberal program violently at odds with the social ownership policies of the Milosevic government. This is not to say that the Milosevic government was a model for those seeking radical change, but it was far from a gang of Nazis as Western governments, the media, and large parts of the American left would have it.

Equally reviled by leftist forces in the United States is the Zimbabwean government of Robert Mugabe, which is engaged in an attempt to achieve its long standing, though so far thwarted, program of radical land reform. Mugabe's government too is under challenge by conservative forces working to put an opposition party in power that is committed to a neo-liberal economic program and conservation of the country's unbalanced distribution of land. Again, concerns are raised among America's liberals and progressives about Mugabe's "authoritarianism," lining up with, indeed reinforcing, the propaganda of conservative forces, allowing the left to deflect accusations that it always backs (to borrow from the prescribed vocabulary) "monsters," "thugs," and "dictators."  While there may be elements of truth to propaganda aimed at undermining radical governments and securing support for their overthrow, the American left's inclination is to accept the propaganda holus-bolus, dissenting only in rejecting the means for overthrowing the offending regime.

These views about seeking radical change through electoral means, and the necessity, at times, of employing harsh measures to thwart the insurrectional and extra-constitutional depredations of conservative forces, find their least sympathetic audience in the United States. Among Americans committed to radical reform, antistatist and strong libertarian views are everywhere in evidence, on the left as well as the right. This, of course, is just as conservative forces, which have none of this antistatist bias, would have it, for it effectively leaves them in positions of power by default. There is a long history of such antistatism in the country, which, in large measure, accounts for the singular lack of success left movements have had in the United States, though mass parties of the left have in Canada and Western Europe, where libertarian and antistatist views hold less sway, pressed for, and made impressive '"statist" gains on behalf of ordinary people. It also accounts too for why much of the American left will never pass up an opportunity to join conservative forces in witch hunts against the "statist excesses" of left governments abroad. This, like much else that characterizes what the American left does, is, and has always been, self-defeating.

Suspicion of statist solutions and an absence of vocation for governance among those committed to radical transformation means the prospects for radical change in the United States are dim, and that conservative forces, which share none of the left's disdain for governance, are free to maintain, if not enlarge, their hegemony over the country's politics. In place of a vocation for governance many American leftist have set their energies to building oppositional movements (as in anti-capitalist movements, antiwar movements, anti-WTO movements.) "We oppose governments, we don't form them." American leftists, it is said, know what they're against, they just don't what they're for.

Significantly, conservative forces almost invariably target their propaganda to the traditional libertarian concerns of the American left -- human rights, political and civil freedoms, democracy. (Economic rights take a back seat, perhaps because the most prominent members of the American left are well-fed, have sufficient shelter and warm clothes, and lead economically secure lives. Their first concern is to have the liberty to write and speak without threat or interference from the state, not to get enough to eat.) So it is that Hugo Chavez is called a dictator or authoritarian, playing to the strong anti-authoritarian bias of American libertarianism, though in no sense is he either. And even if he was, it would be in no way moral or just to engineer his ouster, although one sometimes thinks Americans, including liberals and progressives, believe it is their civilizing mission to impose democracy (or what Americans understand democracy to be) on foreign countries. The difference between the American government and the country's political left is that the government hides its true aims behind rhetoric about imposing democracy, while the American left would, if it could, actually impose democracy, turning the government's rhetoric into reality. Both cases reflect the American view (as strong on the left as anywhere else) that Washington has the right, indeed, the obligation, to impose its values on other people, a paternalism that is central to fascist, and certainly, imperialist countries.

It is not unusual, then, for the US government to garner support for some manner of intervention simply by saying it aims to impose democracy on whatever country it targets for take-over.  The cleavages between the government and the left are not defined by the question of whether an intervention should be undertaken (for the left always concedes it should) but on how the intervention should be carried out: by military means, by subversion? Almost invariably, the government favors military means, the left, meddling in elections or supporting the "democratic" opposition. Those who argue against intervention are accused of offering no solution (to a problem contrived by the government) and are dismissed as apologists for dictators and monsters, the usual tags hung, after a concerted program of propaganda, on the leadership of the country to be intervened in. Hence, the American government, in the way it uses libertarian bogeymen to demonize foreign leaders, establishes an affinity with the country's political left. This may be why it's often said by those not steeped in the American libertarian tradition, that America's progressives appear to working for the State Department.

America's left uses cogent observations about the dangers of electoral democracy and the past errors of parties committed to radical change to justify its self-marginalization. Such slogans as "if elections made any difference they would be illegal," as well as "there are no radical alternatives to vote for" and "communist and radical socialist parties are authoritarian and Stalinist" all have an element of truth, but the truth in the observations in no way implies that the abandonment of electoral means to achieve power, or of communist and radical socialist parties, makes much sense. "If elections made an difference they'd be illegal" is a succinct way of summing up the history of conservative forces titling parliamentary democracy in their favor, and of abandoning parliamentary democracy whenever the outcomes are not conducive to their own interests. But as has been argued above, while the challenges inherent in achieving an electoral mandate to enact a program of radical change are formidable, they are almost certainly less formidable than the obstacles awaiting those choosing other routes. Saying radical change through the ballot box is difficult to achieve, is not the same as saying it's impossible to achieve; nor does it imply that alternative routes are less difficult or fraught with pitfalls.

The abandonment, or more aptly, the failure to commit to radical parties (for commitment to radical parties has never been strong in the United States) is no less justified by the parties' hierarchical character or the Stalinism that once marked the communist movement. From the fervency with which much of the American left denounces what it terms the authoritarian character of radical parties you would think a leader and hierarchy were somehow inventions of Lenin, and not, as they are, fixtures of political parties long in place before Lenin came along, and fixtures of mainstream political parties today (including social democratic parties), the latter of which somehow escape the intense disdain of America's "non-authoritarian" left, despite these parties' equally hierarchical and authoritarian character. As for Stalinism being a feature of modern communist parties, the charge is historical with no relevance to today and is tantamount to calling Germany a Nazi country for its Hitlerian past.

And yet American leftists bemoan the lack of radical alternatives at election time, although clearly there are radical alternatives available; it's just that they don't want to vote for them, don't want to acknowledge them, or don't want to defy the pervasive propaganda that paints these alternatives as dangerous, unsavory, and undemocratic. This is unfortunate, for the goals and platforms of such parties, with their emphasis on free health care, free education, full employment, social housing, a significantly reduced military reoriented to national defense, not international conquest, and an end to imperialist foreign policy, are simpatico with what the American left claims to want. A party platform that proposed to: legislate a 32-hour work week; raise the minimum wage; lower the voluntary retirement age; cancel NAFTA; end support for WTO and IMF policies; replace regressive taxes with robustly progressive taxes; provide free post-secondary education and free health care; introduce proportional representation and the right to recall legislators and members of the executive; provide fair media access for all parties and candidates; ban strike-breaking and scabbing; dismantle NATO; end economic sanctions against Iraq; prohibit arms exports; negotiate the abolition of weapons of mass destruction; end economic embargoes, might seem a dream, but parties promoting such platforms already exist. Indeed, this platform was lifted from an established Communist party. Sadly, leftists who agree in every particular with this platform cast their vote -- if they vote at all -- for parties that promise only mild reform, if that, either because they don't know about these radical alternatives (the legacy of decades of anti-Communist and anti-Socialist propaganda making them give these parties a wide berth); do know, but are afraid to vote for a radical alternative (again, the legacy of the same propaganda); figure that a vote for a radical alternative is a pointless act of throwing one's vote away (a self-fulfilling prophesy); or are waiting for the spontaneous insurrection that will sweep the government and conservative forces from power (which is kind of like waiting to win the lottery.)

Accepting the propaganda of conservative forces does most us little good. It means we steer away from parties putting forward policies we agree with and fervently wish for. It also means we reinforce the propaganda, leaving the targets of the propaganda isolated and vulnerable. Accepting a purely oppositional role for our politics doesn't help us either, for all we end up doing is setting up obstacles, which conservative forces all too easily figure out how to circumvent. It was the Pentagon, not the left, that learned the most from the oppositional anti-Vietnam War movement, and now Washington wages wars in ways that significantly minimize the chances of new antiwar movements coming into existence. Opposition is a survival strategy -- trying to hang on to the little that is good, while doing nothing whatever to move forward. What's more, it isn't working.

A revolution simply means turning things around. When something is broken, or doesn't work, we say, "We've got to turn things around." And that's what we need to do: We need to turn things around; we need a radical transformation. "Radical" conjures up images of bomb throwing lunatics, wild-eyed hard-liners brandishing submachine guns. But all a radical is, is someone who wants to turn things around. We have an opportunity to turn things around in a non-violent way, through the electoral system, and by opportunities afforded for extra-parliamentary activism. A libertarian disdain for governance, on top of decades of pervasive propaganda designed to make people who hope for something better turn away from parties offering programs of radical reform, have obscured that opportunity, or has made it seem unrealistic, or undesirable. Difficult, fraught with pitfalls, offering no guarantee of success, it is; but unrealistic and undesirable? No.


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What's Left