American Left

Left politics in the United States / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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The American Left can refer to multiple concepts. It is sometimes used as a shorthand for groups aligned with the Democratic Party. At others, it refers to groups that have sought egalitarian changes in the economic, political, and cultural institutions of the United States.[1] Various subgroups with a national scope are active. Liberals and progressives believe that equality can be accommodated into existing capitalist structures, but they differ in their criticism of capitalism and on the extent of reform and the welfare state. Anarchists, communists, and socialists with international imperatives are also present within this macro-movement.[2] Many communes and egalitarian communities have existed in the United States as a sub-category of the broader intentional community movement, some of which were based on utopian socialist ideals.[3] The left has been involved in both the Democratic and Republican parties at different times, having originated in the Democratic-Republican Party as opposed to the Federalist Party.[4][5][6]

Although left-wing politics came to the United States in the 19th century, there are no major left-wing political parties in the United States. Despite existing left-wing factions within the Democratic Party,[7] as well as minor third parties such as the Green Party, Communist Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Workers World Party, Socialist Party, and American Solidarity Party (a Christian democratic party leaning left on economics), none of the parties have ever won a seat in congress. Academic scholars have long studied the reasons why no viable socialist parties have emerged in the United States.[8] Some writers ascribe this to the failures of socialist organization and leadership, some to the incompatibility of socialism and American values, and others to the limitations imposed by the United States Constitution.[9] Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky were particularly concerned because it challenged orthodox Marxist beliefs that the most advanced industrial country would provide a model for the future of less developed nations. If socialism represented the future, then it should be strongest in the United States.[10] While branches of the Working Men's Party were founded in the 1820s and 1830s in the United States, they advocated land reform, universal education and improved working conditions in the form of labor rights, not collective ownership, disappearing after their goals were taken up by Jacksonian democracy. Samuel Gompers, the leader of the American Federation of Labor, thought that workers must rely on themselves because any rights provided by government could be revoked.[11]

Economic unrest in the 1890s was represented by populism and the People's Party. Although using anti-capitalist rhetoric, it represented the views of small farmers who wanted to protect their own private property, not a call for communism, collectivism, or socialism.[12] Progressives in the early 20th century criticized the way capitalism had developed but were essentially middle class and reformist; however, both populism and progressivism steered some people to left-wing politics and many popular writers of the progressive period were left-wing.[13] Even the New Left relied on radical democratic traditions rather than left-wing ideology.[14] Friedrich Engels thought that the lack of a feudal past was the reason for the American working class holding middle-class values. Writing at a time when American industry was developing quickly towards the mass-production system known as Fordism, Max Weber and Antonio Gramsci saw individualism and laissez-faire liberalism as core shared American beliefs. According to the historian David De Leon, American radicalism was rooted in libertarianism and syndicalism rather than communism, Fabianism and social democracy, being opposed to centralized power and collectivism.[15] The character of the American political system is hostile toward third parties and has also been presented as a reason for the absence of a strong socialist party in the United States.[16]

Political repression has also contributed to the weakness of the left in the United States. Many cities had Red Squads to monitor and disrupt leftist groups in response to labor unrest such as the Haymarket Riot.[17] During World War II, the Smith Act made membership in revolutionary groups illegal. After the war, Senator Joseph McCarthy used the Smith Act to launch a crusade (McCarthyism) to purge alleged communists from government and the media. In the 1960s, the FBI's COINTELPRO program monitored, infiltrated, disrupted and discredited radical groups in the United States.[18] In 2008, Maryland police were revealed to have added the names and personal information of anti-war protesters and death penalty opponents to a database which was intended to be used for tracking terrorists.[19] Terry Turchie, a former deputy assistant director of the FBI's Counter-terrorism Division, admitted that "one of the missions of the FBI in its counterintelligence efforts was to try to keep these people (progressives and self-described socialists) out of office."[20]