The problems on the Left

antiwar protest. White House

From Zmag, talking about how the major presidential candidates represent pro-war positions.

Where does this leave those of us who still see the occupation of Iraq as empire’s most vulnerable point—a key part in the puzzle to build a more just and sustainable world for future generations?

While I understand what they mean, that a collapse of the US war effort could mean an end to the occupation and maybe even US imperialism, it also implies that a) something seriously bad needs to happen before the Left can become ascendant and b) it cedes initiative and waits for the Bad Event to happen. You see this attitude in the global warming movement too, waiting for calamity to strike, so then people will understand and act.

When the US war effort falls apart in Iraq (and it will), the result rather than being a Glorious Victory for the people is more likely to be a bloodbath followed by lawlessness that will destabilize the area. The Left needs a coherent strategy and position for when the war ends. Right now it doesn’t have one, except for saying that it is morally correct.

Part of this phenomenon is that certain segments within the left are still convinced that, as Mao famously said, “the correctness or incorrectness of the ideological and political line decides everything.”

Mao couldn’t have been more wrong, but that’s what you get when true believers become convinced of their inerrancy. But people will not magically convert to your cause simply because you believe it to be true.

Another problem, especially in the antiwar movement, is looking back to the 60’s and expecting the same tactics to work again. If the populace is increasingly antiwar yet antiwar protests are getting smaller, then new tactics are needed. 60’s antiwar organizers pulled off protests that were at least as large as any during the Iraq War, and did so without the Internet and cell phones. So, given modern technology, the protests should be bigger now. But they aren’t. So maybe mass protests simply aren’t as effective now, given a 21st century where information flows effortlessly across the planet and counter-attacks happen almost instantaneously.

On the far left there’s what I call WWLD. When confronted with a quandry, some leftists will retreat into Marxist texts to determine What Would Lenin Do. This can result in deeply exciting and ferocious arguments (How many Marxists can dance on the head of a pin) but too often not much real action outside of the little group of squabbling comrades.

The Right packages their story well, stick with us, they say, and you’ll prosper. It matters not if it’s true, only that many believe it. The Left needs a story like that too. Something optimistic, something that will convince people to join because they want to, because they like the message.


  1. A very intriguing post, and one that invites discussion. Some observations:

    Belief in doctrine does not promote democracy, since the People are driven not by doctrine but by pragmatics. If one believes in democracy (which is a system and not a doctrine), one must put doctrine second. From what I’ve read, Ho Chi Minh understood this: he was a communist, but believed first in democratic nationalism.

    Marx was a German, Lenin a Russian, and Mao Chinese. None of them are welcome in most American living rooms. But most Americans have at least a passing acquaintance with, and many identify with, the world’s first communist and practitioner of peaceful protest: Jesus of Nazareth. If you want to quote doctrine and get heard, quote His.

    The antiwar movement of the 1960s was ultimately effective in ending one war abroad, but it was also combative. The divisions sown by that internal conflict remain as open wounds in this country forty years later. I’m amazed that the U.S. peace movement continues to use tactics of conflict to try to achieve its goals.

    There is a better way: the path of inclusiveness that sees conflict and combativeness as the enemy, and invites those with opposing views to join in. I’ve discussed this path at some length. In Sri Lanka, it laid the groundwork for the 2002 Cease Fire Agreement. And though we dropped the ball by failing to continue our efforts, I can say in good conscience that we’ve seen it work. Important contributions to this method have been made by (among many others) Mohandas Gandhi, A. T, Ariyaratne, and Sharif Abdullah– the writings of all of whom are widely available.

  2. Great post; you are correct, in that the Right puts forth the feel good message of hope which, even though it’s never seemingly fulfilled is believed by so many. The Left needs a message of hope. The biggest problem I see for the Left is that it’s message is usually something of a double edged sword in that it promises base line relief in the form of socialized medicine, free or subsidized housing and food, etc. on the one hand and promises to pay for it by taxing the productive class into economic oblivion. There should be a better way to package socialism.

  3. Bingo = a) something seriously bad needs to happen before the Left can become ascendant and b) it cedes initiative and waits for the Bad Event to happen. We can’t afford to wait on the so-called “Left”, “something seriously bad” is happening.

    We need to see beyond the windshield.

    “Going to hell in a handbasket implies momentum (physics is everything). Momentum, implies an ability to anticipate where the wheels are going once they’ve come off. We who would see our grandchildren survive need to recognize that in it’s current state we are a failed state, with the “Left” and the “Right” members of the same party, The One Party: The Corporation, pursuing common cause – obstruction. And upon that recognition realize it is not only in our own best interests but our responsibility to either collectively or individually take matters into our own hands.

  4. You see this attitude in the global warming movement too, waiting for calamity to strike, so then people will understand and act.

    This is an absolutely unfair statement. Environmentalists have been talking and advocating on global warming and associated issues for 40 years. Earth Day started in 1970. It’s not environmentalists who have been waiting for calamity to strike, but society (and, more particularly, the capitalists and their media) who haven’t responded or taken serious notice until the crisis was imminent.

  5. Unfortunately, Rapture as an exit strategy appeals to those who see no hope (much like suicide bombing). Plus it requires no personal sacrifice and no responsibility to others. It’s inconsistent with biblical Christian doctrine, but far too common nonetheless.

    As to the global warming movement, I think Bob is right: environmentalists have been warning us for decades, but (like the Left) have failed to engage people in the kind of grassroots face-to-face contact that changes things.

    The Right has been out there organizing, adjusting its message as it learns what works and what doesn’t. The Left and the environmentalists have largely been content to preach to themselves and the already-converted– and bewail the fact that everyone else ignores them.

    So, are you ready to adopt some new methods?

  6. > It’s not environmentalists who have been waiting for calamity to strike, but society (and, more particularly, the capitalists and their media) who haven’t responded

    The mainstream hasn’t acted, thus environmentalists wait for something bad to happen in order to force the needed action.

    We need a better action plan than that. We need, to put it in 4gw terms, a compelling story that makes people want to join us and to take action now.

    Ditto for the antiwar movement.

  7. The U.S. anti-war movement needs a complete rethinking, not just a compelling story. It needs to move beyond using the tools of conflict to try to end conflict. There is a minority under the anti-war umbrella that understands this, but they typically get little attention.

  8. Most American citizens are so wedded to the concept of the United States as the Chosen Land, incapable of doing any wrong, that all anti-war activities will ultimately be meaningless until Americans change their view of themselves in the world. It didn’t happen after Vietnam; if anything, Americans are becoming more and more Wilsonian, imbued with a Protestant ethic of making the world perfect (and, not so coincidentally, in Our image).

    The differences between the Left and the Right on this issue are not because the left (or the Democrats) are weak or cowardly, but because there is no substantial difference once you believe that you have the right to intervene to change history or to rescue people. It will look somewhat different at the margins, but the logical incoherence we see is because neither Left nor Right truly disagree with the concept of American intervention around the world.

    I don’t have any magic answers. If Americans could see themselves as other nations do and witness their own heavy-handedness, maybe, but Americans have been so self-congratulatory for so long that no one can image a different reality where we do not go forth looking for dragons to slay. American would have to move beyond its adolescent self-indulgance toward something that approaches political maturity. I don’t see that happening anytime soon since it’s a LOT more fun to believe oneself to be invincible and of spotless morality.

  9. Joe suggests an interesting point: the idea of remaking society in one’s own image is a Left idea that has migrated to the so-called Right. Many complain that there is no Left anymore– but there really isn’t much Right, either. It’s as if many of the conservatives adopted a Marxist approach to Christianity: forcibly remaking society into something that isn’t quite what the teacher meant. We’ve forged a centrist doctrine using the worst of both sides.

    From where I sit, the seeds of the shift Joe suggests may be found largely in the traditional conservative roots of this nation: libertarianism, non-interventionism, conservation, community identity. From the traditional (pre-Marxist) Left, we might add the teachings of Jesus, which are both part of the fabric of our culture and (as taught) arguably the most peaceful of religions.

    (“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Luke 6:41-42)

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