Mitchel maintains that the failure of the Left to provide “direct action communities of resistance and nurturance” has the consequence that people turn to fascist and rights wing groups in order to provide for their social-psychological need for community and for meaning (Cohen 2013: 180, 250-51, 310-16). “The Left preaches against fascism while providing no coherent framework for activities that could cut into fascism’s appeal” (Cohen 2013: 312).
I think that this is an important observation by Mitchel. Drawing upon the work of Leon Trotsky, Mitchel discerns that fascism responds to a need established by anxieties and fears provoked by the dislocations of capitalism. This is why both fascism and socialism gain in influence as crises occur.
I am in agreement with Mitchel that the appeal of the Left would be greatly enhanced if it were to organize activities in which people could be involved. Such activities could include the kind of direct action projects that Mitchel advocates, and it also could include some activities that Mitchel mentions only in passing: sports teams, political groups, alternative discussion groups, community centers and legal counseling (Cohen 2013: 251).
But addressing the social-psychological needs of the people requires not only involving people directly in activities; it also requires the formulation of a political program that addresses the concrete needs of the people. If we study triumphant socialist revolutions, we see that leaders were skillful in formulating a proposed program of action that responded to the frustrations that the people experienced in their daily lives. In the case of Lenin, the slogans that captured the people were peace, land to the peasants, and power to the popular councils (see “The Russian Revolution (October)” 1/23/2014). In the case of Fidel, the concrete proposals included the ceding of land to tenant farmers, the sharing of profits by workers in industry and mining, increasing small farmers’ share of the sugar yield, nationalization of foreign companies that charge exorbitant rates, and just punishment for corrupt government officials (see “The Moncada program for the people” 9/5/2014 and “Reflections on ‘History will absolve me’” 9/8/2014 in the category Cuban History). When popular revolutions move forward under the guidance of charismatic leadership, the people become involved in the revolution, providing them with a sense of belonging and meaning in life.
But the US Left has not formulated a program of action that connects to the needs of the people. In the first place, that Left has jumped from issue to issue, rather than formulating a coherent plan. Moreover, the Left has framed a number of these issues in ways that are insensitive to the concepts, values, religious sentiments, and patriotism of the people. From 1967 to the present, the Left has not been creative and sensitive in the formulation of its concepts, and thus it has not demonstrated an affinity with the concerns and aspirations of the people. And as a result, it has not convinced the people that it is prepared to make any sacrifice necessary in the people’s defense. It has failed to formulate a national project that can unify our people into a great movement.
The formulation of a coherent program that connects to the people is precisely the challenge of leadership. When revolutions take-off, it is because charismatic leaders have emerged to offer a plan of the people, of which the people previously had a sense but were unable to formulate. When charismatic leaders emerge, a vanguard begins to take shape, educating the people and exhorting the people to sacrifice in their own defense.
Popular revolutions, therefore, are to some extent top-down. They involve leaders who teach, exhort, clarify and unify. But they also are bottom-up. For the gift of charismatic leaders is precisely their intimacy with the people, their understanding of the people’s needs, their capacity to formulate a plan for addressing the needs of the people, and their boundless commitment to the people; qualities that the people see.
Yes, as Mitchel argues, we must offer our people the chance to be involved in direct action projects and the creation of communities of resistance, and in doing so, we would undermine the appeal of fascism. But we also must formulate a program of action, an alternative national project, rooted in the historic values of popular movements in the United States. This would unify us, overcome our confusion, and lead us forward. If we study the history of revolutions, we see that the formulation of an alternative national plan is what charismatic leaders do.
As an old intellectual who has seen the glory of the Third World revolution, I call for the emergence of charismatic leaders in the United States, younger men and women of all classes and colors. Leaders with the discipline to do the intellectual work necessary for understanding the fundamental dynamics of human history, overcoming the ideological distortions that they have been taught. Leaders with a capacity to explain the dynamics of the nation in a global and historical context, and who can formulate a comprehensive plan of action that connects to the needs of all of the people, voicing the needs of each popular sector with sensitivity to the concerns of other sectors. Leaders who can unify the people and lead them in the quest for the taking of power and in societal transformation. I know that such leaders are present, perhaps without fully understanding it, for they are present in all lands. Your time has come!
For further posts on this theme, see “A socialist revolution in the USA” 2/1/2016; “Lessons of socialism for the USA” 1/18/2016; “Popular democratic socialist revolution” 1/15/2016; and “Presidential primaries in USA” 8/25/2015. They can be found in the category Revolution.
Cohen, Mitchel, et.al. 2013. What is Direct Action? Reframing Revolutionary Strategy in Light of Occupy Wall Street. Brooklyn: Red Balloon Collective Publications.
Key words: socialism, fascism, direct action, social psychology, human needs