During a recent trip to New York I was able to connect with some people on the left in that great city. The US has so much cultural power over countries like South Africa, and so much political and economic power over most of the world, that what happens there is highly relevant to us.
The US had a powerful left in the 1930s, and then of course there were also the movements of the 1960s. But for almost 50 years the left has been very weak in that country. However, that began to change with the protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999 (dubbed the “battle of Seattle”), the Occupy movement in 2011, which followed the Arab Spring, and then Black Lives Matter in 2013 and 2020.
It is always impressive to see how many young people in the US have committed themselves to do the day-to-day political work of organising.
In terms of electoral politics, the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2020 was also the key event in the growth of the left and galvanised a generation of young people to seek change through the Democratic Party.
But Sanders was crushed by the warmongering and solidly neoliberal Democratic Party establishment, in much the same way that the Labour Party establishment in the UK, along with the now increasingly right-wing Guardian, crushed Jeremy Corbyn with entirely spurious allegations of anti-Semitism.
In the US and the UK, it is now clear that progressive change will not come through the major parties that once had their base in the unions and represented the working class.
But there are positive signs for the left in the US despite the fact that union membership is down to some 14 million, from close to 18 million members in 1983.
The US has the fifth-lowest density of trade union membership compared to 36 OECD member nations, but a recent Gallup survey shows that more than 70% of Americans now approve of trade unions, the highest measure since 1965.
There have been major breakthroughs in union organising in companies such as Amazon and Starbucks, as well as among precariously employed academics and graduate students. There is also a growing ecosystem of left spaces, publications and podcasts, and polls showing that just over 40% of Americans are now supportive of socialism. This is a moment of real possibility for the US left. And the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) now has a membership of more than 92 000, with chapters in all 50 states.
It confronts two key issues, though. One is that after the Democratic Party bosses crushed Sanders and the movement of young people that supported him, it is now clear to all that an independent left party is required.
The other is that parts of the US left have been insufficiently clear about the catastrophic impact US imperialism continues to have on the world.
There is a palpable although of course not a consistent sense of Eurocentrism in the Jacobin, the leading publication of the US left, although other spaces like Viewpoint Magazine and the Cadre Journal podcast are much better in this regard.
On a blisteringly cold weekend in New York City, I meet a leader of the DSA. The young woman, who asked not to be named, has spent time in South Africa as a student and therefore has a fairly good grasp of our left politics and its intersections with left politics in the US.
I tell her that 92 000 members is a pretty small number for a society like the US. She reminds me that DSA membership was only 5 000 in 2016. In the midst of the “Bernie boom” the number rose to 50 000 by 2019 and is likely to increase to well over 100 000 soon.
More and more young Americans find the politics of the left refreshing and reinvigorating. Many of them have been radicalised and the machinations of empire are being contested and debated more intensely now; perhaps for the first time since the 1960s.
The DSA is not without its problems and contradictions, though. A fellow activist who joins the conversation makes an important point. “The DSA is perceived by many of us as being too white and many young Black progressives don’t feel at home in the DSA since we don’t see others like us in the leadership and on the ground,” she tells me.
She explains further that “I think the connotation of the Democratic Socialists of America at the national level is ‘college-educated white male’.
“Homogenous networks, regardless of an organisation’s values, perpetuates more of the same. Centring the voices, power and leadership of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour members within DSA is essential to diversifying and strengthening the organisation. I think the DSA’s Afro-socialists and Socialists of Color caucus is invaluable and is pushing the majority-white organisation in the right direction.”
It is clear that the DSA has much work to do to address these issues but the leader I meet tells me that the DSA acknowledges this and is committed to moving forward. It also, she stressed, needs to build greater ties and solidarities with the trade union movement in the US.
I was also able to attend an impressive public event by the anti-war movement, which included leading figures of the international left such as Noam Chomsky, Vijay Prashad and Jeremy Corbyn. Here there was a strong argument against militarism in general and for negotiations rather than military escalation to bring the war in Ukraine to an end as soon as possible.
Chomsky, making his opposition to Putin and to his invasion of Ukraine crystal clear, stressed that unless wars end in the total destruction of one side they end in negotiation, and that moving as quickly as possible to negotiations is vital considering the risks of a nuclear conflagration posed by the escalation of the war.
This is sane politics at a time when the US establishment is waging an all-out proxy war against Russia, and taking an increasingly belligerent stance against China too.
This was a very impressive public event, and there was a clear sense that, perhaps for the first time since the 1960s, there is a possibility of anti-imperialism being placed at the centre of the US left’s agenda. Chomsky, of course, has been a leading critic of the US empire for decades but he has often been an isolated voice. At this event, it was clear that he is not alone, and that there is a strong turn by many younger leftists, a good number of them people of colour, to anti-imperialism.
I left New York invigorated and excited about the prospects for the US left. But I also left worried about the future of my own country where, unlike in the US, we simply don’t have a large layer of thoughtful middle-class people working with popular organisations to build a vibrant left from the ground up.
Posturing and sectarianism won’t cut it. After close to thirty years of abject failure, the South African left really needs to wake up. The same people, many with outsize egos, having the same conversations and waging the same petty but brutal internecine battles will take us exactly nowhere.
Dr Imraan Buccus is a postdoctoral fellow at the Durban University of Technology and a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute.