Synthesis/Regeneration 13   (Spring 1997)

Toward a Radical Democracy on the Left

by Greta Gaard, Green Party of Minnesota

The various positions articulated in the political roundtable of S/R 12 -- the Labor Party, New Party, Socialist Party, Peace & Freedom Party, Greens/Green Party, the Campaign for a New Tomorrow-give us a spectrum of political organizing on the Left. Moreover, many of the authors in S/R 12 tell us that their constituencies want to see an effective coordination on the Left, citing the New Zealand Alliance and the Independent Progressive Politics Network as models of such coordination. But before we can come together, we need to name and to recognize what is keeping us apart.

Democracy -- as a political practice of decision-making that requires the participation of all those affected by the outcome of the decision -- is not being practiced on the Left because the voices of women, gays/lesbians/bisexuals/transgenders, and people of color are not being heeded. The reasons are two-fold: first, the leadership and the projects of the progressive left are still shaped by the society we want to change, and hence they are still predominantly white, predominantly male, and predominantly heterosexual. Second-whether because of internalized racism, sexism, and heterosexism, or because we have been seduced into believing our concerns are being met by other progressive groups-women, queers, and people of color have not created our own autonomous electoral organizations (notable exceptions being NOW's 21st Century Party, which quickly vanished after its founding, and the five-years-strong Campaign for a New Tomorrow). For the most part, our communities are still relying on the Democrats to meet our needs. The lack of autonomous progressive electoral organizations external to groups like the Greens, the New Party, or the Labor Party means that those of us working within those parties tend to be taken less seriously because we have nowhere else to go.

. . .the presence and participation of diverse constituencies isn't needed for political correctness; it's needed for political effectiveness.

The solution, like the problem, is two-fold: first, those progressives who profess a commitment to social justice need to make good on that commitment by examining their own organizations for barriers which prevent the full participation of women, people of color, and queers. These barriers will be invisible to members of the dominant group; however, the absence of projects specifically addressing the needs of women, queers, or people of color will serve as a reliable indicator. And, let's remember why anyone would bother with this effort in the first place, because the presence and participation of diverse constituencies isn't needed for political correctness; it's needed for political effectiveness. One of the S/R 12 writers cites Robert and Pamela Allen's Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States (1976) as an example documenting how progressive movements have failed to achieve their goals largely because they have failed to address their own racism. Similarly, Margaret Randall's Gathering Rage: The Failure of 20th Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda (1992) uses the socialist revolutions of Cuba and Nicaragua to demonstrate that feminism cannot be a goal that is "added on" to a liberatory agenda; rather, feminist concerns and feminist strategies must be integral to a liberatory social vision if it is to succeed. Studies such as these prove that progressives aren't doing anyone a favor by ignoring the centrality of racism and sexism to the social order we seek to dismantle. Instead, we are simply undermining our own effectiveness. Let's learn from our predecessors' mistakes.

Simultaneously, those of us who believe our voices are not being acknowledged by the Left must organize our respective communities so that we create electoral, identity-based alternatives for ourselves outside of the Democratic party (where we continue to function as "special interest" caucuses) and outside of the progressive Left organizations (where we continue to function as "special interest" groups whose liberation is seen as secondary or tangential to the larger revolution). As autonomous groups working together in a coordination such as the Independent Progressive Politics Network, which allows for the recognition of electoral and issues-based organizations, we can then participate in democratic decision-making on the Left, and by our example and our actions, we can hold out the promise for transforming the larger society.

Progressives need to look directly at who is in their movements, whose views are represented, and which groups they have been most able to mobilize. It is neither necessary nor possible for any single movement to internalize the diversity of the society, though at various points each movement organization has hoped that it alone might become the all-inclusive "umbrella" under which other movements would gather. Understandably so: the US has been founded on the cult of the individual, and influenced by monotheism. There is a strong socialization to create "one out of many" (e pluribus unum). Unfortunately, when the many become one, that one tends to reflect the characteristics and the concerns of the dominant group. Instead of a single, comprehensive movement, we can create a radically democratic movement only by developing a comprehensive understanding of the interconnections among the many forms of oppression, articulated as a commitment to build coalitions with those groups not represented in our own constituencies. To protect and to strengthen the many voices for social justice, the many must remain many.

In the 1980s and '90s, social change activists have become increasingly aware of the fact that an effective movement for social and ecological justice will have to be a grassroots, populist movement, embodying the full range of differences of identity and articulating the fundamental interconnections of all oppressions. Building such a movement depends upon fostering a widespread recognition that all these progressive movements are potential allies in a larger struggle for freedom, ecological health, and economic and technological sustainability. For activists seeking to join identity-based and issues-based constituencies in a populist framework, our most important lesson involves the importance of practicing participatory democracy and dialogical politics-voicing and listening to difference, and building a comprehensive critique in which everyone's vision is represented. Genuine, lasting coalitions cannot be built on a lowest common denominator or single-issue foundation; rather, new transformative coalitions for social and ecological justice will have to be shaped with a genuine awareness of and commitment to the concerns of each member constituency. And every constituency in society must have a voice in this process.

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