Transformative Politics : German Left/US Left Same Challenge/Same Fight


Part Two

“…the question is not about an individual, the question is how social movements act upon opportunities as they emerge.”

Effective action to build such a democratic society, to bring about that greater freedom, in Germany as in the United States, is only possible through a political movement that connects social and economic rights by creating alternatives centers of power within society. Elsewhere, Sohn builds upon this analysis through a socialist-feminist analysis which sees the particular form of the exploitation of women’s labor as central to capitalist development and as anticipatory of the formation of the “precariat” in today’s era of financialization, corporate globalization, and stagnation — and also sees the centrality of women’s organization and leadership as indicative of the ability of socialist movements to fully break with capitalism when in power. What is essential is a form that challenges the structural basis of inequality within the working class as within society at large and thus creates the basis for meaningful solidarity and unified action.

The challenge his strategy addresses is how to seize on the possibilities opened up by current crisis within a framework in which coalition politics, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary actions are mutually reinforcing; grounding alternative power in a manner that points to a possible path out of the trap of marginalization vs. cooptation. It provides a projection of political action that builds on the existence of an alternative national political party such as Die Linke, but has a relevance even where such does not exist.

As in the United States. Under prevailing conditions, a principal challenge is to develop the means to integrate different forms and groupings of political engagement in order to move beyond scattered resistance to reaction and pose a systemic alternative utilizing the tools at hand; creating the prerequisites Sohn discusses. This is why the opportunities and contradictions that followed Obama’s election remain so crucial today — for the question is not about an individual, the question is how social movements act upon opportunities as they emerge. A position paper issued by US Labor Against War (USLAW) in 2008 spoke to the issue of understanding and choice:

Some people will naively expect and believe [Obama] will do the right thing and never challenge his choices or criticize his decisions. Others will sit on the sidelines and do nothing but criticize, finding fault with every decision. Both positions lead to the same result: a powerful elite and insiders who serve them will shape the Administration’s agenda. [The New Terrain for Labor’s Anti-War Movement, On-Line posting, December 6, 2008].

Eight years later, and that critique of two forms of passivity remains valid as does the continued need for pro-active program and policy, working for the change those who voted for Obama hoped or expected he would help bring about. Progress is dependent not on government action per se, but rather on how popular action able to use the space that those expectations (“change you can believe in”) to push government and create more space for action. Looked at today, a critical weakness in liberal/progressive national politics – from Obama to Sanders — is the limited critique ideologically and practically of US overseas policy and militarism. Attacking that lack in a vacuum, however, does little to change it, instead anti-war politics needs to reintegrate itself within struggles taking place in other arenas. Such an understanding was further developed in USLAW’s call to action:

… the labor movement … must not focus exclusively on domestic reform because the domestic crisis cannot be resolved so long as the US is straight-jacketed by a foreign policy that puts us at odds with the rest of the world, and military spending that actually undermines our economic security. This depends on successfully challenging the notion that the United States must be and has an inherent right to act as a global cop and bully, dictating to the rest of the world.

But the implementation of that call is possible only by working on multiple levels, around multiple concerns, in multiple arenas:

While it is important that we continue to manifest our demands in the street, we should think beyond just demonstrations. We need to broaden our alliances with those seeking health care reform, with the environmental blue-green alliance, with movements for immigrant rights and to all those responding to all the many manifestations of the “war at home.” [USLAW, ibid.]


And that brings us to current political possibilities. Bernie Sanders campaign offers an opening even though his political positions are not radical relative to those being debated by the left in Germany. Yet given the US context in which capitalism has become a virtual state religion, even a partial critique of the dominant system that reaches millions of people opens up avenues for debate and organization otherwise largely closed. And his politics and campaign – rooted in a denunciation of corporate capitalism, demand for universal social insurance, opposition to the Iraq war in all its implications, and a focus on climate change as the key issue in our time – pose a distinct and definite challenge to the existing political system. But the most significant part of Sanders’ presidential run is in his focus on mass action, on public pressure, being the means to bring about progressive change. For here the divide in US politics is not defined as being between Democrats and Republicans, rather it is defined as being between working people broadly defined and the corporations.

In this his politics runs parallel with those of Jesse Jackson whose campaigns developed a theme of community consistent with the character of the people of the United States as opposed to the definition of community used by Ronald Reagan: white, well-to-do, and intolerant of difference. So too it is consistent with and builds upon Occupy, with its denunciation of the 1%. And it is consistent with the demands of Black Lives Matters. Sanders campaign gives space to articulate a radical notion of inclusion, implied but left undeveloped by Obama; inclusion based on working people and labor, not by hands across the aisle compromises with those now in power.

Transformative politics is therefore not a question of program or platform as an abstraction, it is a question of mobilization and organization that relies on the solidarity of the excluded. If the possibilities his campaign demonstrates becomes the basis of a more unified alternative politics already put forward by Democratic Party reform movements, by the semi-independent Working Families Parties, by rooted third party groupings, by progressive community and state organizations, and the wide array of organizations fighting for justice in distinct communities or arenas across the country then a way forward can be found that avoids the trap of too much emphasis on elective office, avoids the marginalization of satisfaction of opposition without impact. The fluidity of US politics, often a source of weakness can be turned into a strength.

A kind of strength needed in Germany so that the question of a coalition of the parliamentary left is conceived and developed as a coalition rooted in the direct engagement of working people, migrant communities, the disposed, putting forth an agenda of social solidarity – so that the definition of what lies inside or outside a putative national consensus is itself transformed, so that those whose legacy and current practice lies in the domination of the few over the many are the ones who are defined as being outside. To achieve that is to organize at the points of interconnections of various strivings for those rights once proclaimed as self-evident, toward “justice for all.” In both countries, finding the path toward building a rooted socialist presence in society, within social movements, within labor, requires reconstructing an open Marxist presence, a presence that is critical and popular, a presence that is creative and engaged with other ideas, other conceptions.

The challenge for the socialist movement is to integrate the near and the far. Creating organic links between each partial reform and between those reforms and forms of collective self-organization can provide the basis for a needed fundamental change. An assertion of equality requires an assertion of freedom that flies equally in the face of capitalist exploitation and capitalist alienation — potentially allowing one challenge to lead to another and another and another carried along by a utopian impulse made concrete by roots in what is possible. This brings us to the question of self-determination and the connection between individual self-awareness and social activism, to a critical resistance which combines the personal and the systemic – which is at the heart of any radical politics be they electoral or non-parliamentary.

Today questionings and actions, are being taken amongst those who have done well yet still feel insecure about the future because of economic volatility, because of awareness of social fragmentation, because of awareness of the fragility of nature due to climate change. Questions that are a form of rethinking of matters that had previously been taken for granted. So too questions are asked, actions taken by those impoverished, by those directly assaulted in the present and who in their vulnerability see only uncertainty on the road ahead if society continues on its present course. People who are increasingly looking not just for immediate improvements, but for changes that can make for a qualitatively better future. Combined these developments can lead to cultural shifts, new ways of seeing and looking that enable a different future to become graspable, can turn what necessity had made acceptable into a reality become burdensome. A cultural shift that is itself a political shift that can lead into social engagement by those who had previously seen life’s options only in the realm of the private. Such changes, stimulated by organization and action, stimulating further and wider organization and action is the means by which a genuine class consciousness, a socialist consciousness can emerge. Consciousness which connects the struggle over power in the present with a realizable alternative vision of the future.

Angela Davis in an introduction to a new edition of her 1969 pamphlet Lectures on Liberation commented:

Many of us thought [in the 1960s and 70s] that liberation was simply a question of organizing to leverage power from the hands of those we deemed to be the oppressors. Frederick Douglass certainly helped us to conceptualize this, but this was not, by far, the complete story. Today readers of Douglass, scholars and activists alike, do his text justice by bringing a much more expansive sense of what it means to struggle for liberation, one that embraces not only women of color, but also sexually marginalized communities as well as those subject to modes of containment and repression by virtue of their resident status as immigrants. Equally important, as we recognize the extent to which Douglass sustained the influence of the ideologies of his era, we might better learn how to identify and struggle with those that limit our imagination of liberation today. [Ibid. pp 36-37]

We act to be free, but freedom can’t be obtained if for oneself alone, if for some if not others — let alone if bought at the expense of domination of those without. The control by some of the labor of others, the layers of power and hierarchy that flow from or are furthered by the segmentations intrinsic to such control, can only be overcome through the linkages that connect everyday experience to the broad array of political and social issues within which that experience is lived. The rebirth and renewal of democratic systems that have become broken as much as the rebirth of socialist movements pushed to the margins lies in the strength of those linkages. Socialism as movement and goal is built around a program of equality and freedom, is built around a program of asserting public control over the economy and over public institutions, is built around creating the basis for ever greater self-realization. What we do in the political realm can give content to what has become hollow and help create a world in which actual choices, actual possibilities belong to the vast majority.


About the author

Kurt Stand

Kurt Stand was active in the labor movement for over 20 years including as the elected North American Regional Secretary of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers until 1997.  That year he was arrested and served 15 years in prison on charges of having committed espionage for the GDR, charges he unsuccessfully contested at trial and upon appeal.  Currently he works at a bookstore, is a member of the Washington Metro DSA, is active in Progressive organizations in his community of Cheverly, Maryland, serves as a Portside Labor Moderator and is the facilitator of a Metro DC Labor/Reentry jobs project. View all posts by Kurt Stand →

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One thought on Transformative Politics : German Left/US Left Same Challenge/Same Fight

  1. Important discussion. I feel fortunate to live in the Baltimore metro. region where decisive grassroots organizing is opening up the political space this article promotes. The racial dynamics within the Democratic party, characterized by the divergent bases of the Clinton and Sanders campaigns, need to be better understood. I highly recommend the practical analysis and examples advanced by Lester Spence, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in his sharp history and critique of black neoliberalism: Knocking the Hustle:

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