The current crisis in the British SWP is a long time coming and has brought out a ton of ‘I told you so’s’ and rather precious pronouncements of superiority in too much of the left. We can only hope that the best of that organization comes out of it by shedding the Zinovievist albatross that has prevented the left from developing a relationship with the working class that could actually contribute to building a party the left rightly claims as necessary. Gloating is absurd. The whole house of the left is in crisis.
The revolutionary left, at least that part of it which wishes to engage in the world around it, has spent a good deal of time these last few decades prostrating itself before the sins of the past. This is especially true of that generation of 1970s party builders who misspent their youth vying with each other for the mantle of legitimate leader of the working class. The experience itself was, apparently, not bad enough so they never cease to remind the youth of its dangers reciting story after story of expulsions from the Socialist Workers Party or a terrifying session of Anti-Revisionist self-criticism. Yikes. Sounds like it really sucked comrades. It’s a wonder any of you walked away from the experience with any of your marbles to play with. Unfortunately, as the crisis in the SWP today in part shows, a good deal of that 1970s party building business is not yet in the past.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have my own guilty past to plead ‘guilty’ to. An organization I once belonged to made us intervene at a National Organization of Women conference from the floor to demand it support the victory of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Yikes is right. But there is something of the parent lecturing the child about the need to grow up and avoiding the parent’s mistakes in all this. Ignoring that it was precisely the experience of those mistakes that allowed for the parent to outgrow whatever they felt they needed to overcome. There is also something, and I think this is strongest in the generation of baby boomer radicals, so self-centered and self-absorbed in it.
We’ll make our own mistakes, thank you very much. And make them we will.
There are plenty of lessons to draw from the past and from the present. We shouldn’t be afraid to discuss any and all of the assumptions we make about ourselves and our world. On the contrary, those questions are the indispensable breaths of air needed to live for the left. No more so true than the assumptions about the past we base ourselves on in the present.
However, there are ways of looking at history. One is to look at history backwards, looking over your shoulder at the past to see how you got to where you are. This view of the past tends to see inevitabilities and not contingencies as the past progressed to the present. It’s a crap way of looking at how we got here and tells us far more about our current state of mind than it does anything about the past. It’s lazy and often leads us to place our current selves in the past and lecture its inhabitants with what they should or should not do; the view of what to do conveniently illuminated by the knowledge of the consequences of what is already done. It leads us to assert things like: the ‘Bolsheviks should not have banned factions at the 10th Party Congress in 1921.’ I have lots more ‘should haves’ and ‘should not haves’ to apply to history. For example, if I were in Hernando De Soto’s position, I would not have invaded native North America. That understanding and two dollars and fifty cents will buy me a decent cup of fair trade coffee and a clear conscience.
The other way to look at history is from the past forward. The makes the past live; where people act among a host of contingencies particular to their place and time without knowing the outcome of their actions beforehand. This way to look at history, where people are responding to their world, not ours, doesn’t mean that all things are simply relative to their own time, they are not. The past is entirely responsible for the present and the present is the point at which the past and future meet. To understand the living past, and therefore to genuinely understand the moment we are in now, it is first necessary to understand the contexts in which the past, and not the present, took place. Which among other things means a lot more work than the other way. But it is infinitely richer in lessons and understanding, including in the kind of humility that some of the ‘should have’ crowd wrongly claim.
The revolutionary left is in crisis. A reading of left history will rarely show a time when it was not. I can’t think of one period since 1848 where the left did not think there was a crisis on the left. But that doesn’t make this crisis any less real. Aside from places like Greece, the left has not developed during the general capitalist crisis of the last years. In fact, politics has been pulled further to the right nearly everywhere (including Greece). Organizations across the spectrum, with few exceptions, have not greeted the new situation with new organizational outlooks. On the contrary, it has been a whole lot more of the same.
The left makes a fetish of organization, often basing those organizations at a fixed point in a tradition. How many organizations was Trotsky a member of? And yet it is the Fourth International of 1938 that defines what it is meant to be a ‘Trotskyist?’ Marxism itself would have been moribund early if Marx and Engels had insisted the First International soldier on organizationally after its crisis (and of the changing circumstances that crisis was a part).
A modest proposal: Every left group in the US to go out of business tomorrow, spend a few years in the social movements and working class creating political space free from current organizational fetters so that the organizational reconstitution of the left might come about through the needs of the class and the movement rather than the needs our current organizations have. I am not advocating the end of organization, just the end of all the current ones so that we might build anew. I am not advocating abandoning politics or the best of our tradition, quite the contrary. I want to make those politics matter and give life to that tradition.
A bold throw of the dice to meet the new day comrades!
In the absence of the left taking me up on my idea, which seems likely, I propose that we solve the crisis by me and a few friends declaring the Fifth International (or Sixth if that one is taken as I think it might be) over a weekend conference in my apartment. We’ll need at least eight people to have a seven person National Committee, so who’s in? Since we are ultra-democratic, the person who has to be the rank and file member will be rotated bi-annually (until we become mass).