Crisis in the left: a modest proposal

Fork in the road

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).

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11 Responses to “Crisis in the left: a modest proposal”

  1. Darn good piece…a bit apocalyptical, but very good.

  2. Thanks Dave.

    And for those literalist humorless comrades, please note that this dues paying member of a revolutionary socialist organization is trying to make a point, not an actual proposal.

  3. I like your thought process. Some orgs are better than others, but we are definately trapped in different organizations repeating the same efforts. We are thinking really small and narrow when we should think big and broad. I recently put to film some similar hetetical thoughts about breaking down barriers that you might appreciate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHSbINT-AOU

  4. Swift’s proposal was eating babies, yours is letting the sclerotic gaggle of sects that make up the outward face of the present left die the death that by all rights should have happened a generation or more ago.

    Perhaps I am just too far gone but I think there need be nothing ‘modest’ about this proposal. Yes, the sects won’t take it seriously, but they aren’t the ones who are going to decide the course of the class struggle.

    It is something in the nature of the period that everything built in previous periods of struggle now seems to block its progress – the sclerotic sects still selling newspapers, nationalist dictators aged into bloody monsters, the unions committing some bureaucratic equivalent to self-immolation… If the left cannot get it together to play a positive role in the development of the class the least it could do is get out of its way.

  5. The problem with much of the left, in both Europe and the US, is that they still continue to try and pin any hopes for revolutionary struggle with political and social organisations tied to the main capitalist parties hoping to get an audience. Unfortunately, like the papcy, it is not only extremely difficult to get such an audience, but even if one succeeds, it is highly unlikely they will take anything said into consideration. It still feels too much like the vanguard of the proletariat, but those advocating it are sitting at the same table with the very people entrenched in the bourgeoisie doing the bidding of the capitalists. The ISO is a good example of this very tendency, but there are others who will preach revolution but allow themselves to be co-opted by the centrist parties in power, thereby stunting any potential to advocate any revolutionary agenda. Unless we begin to break away from this tendency, this will continue.

    • Connie,

      I certainly agree that class independence is, and always has been, the main source of the major divisions in the left since the beginning and part of the class transforming into a class ‘for itself’ is precisely the struggle to break those chains.

  6. There is much in your piece I like, especially about humans view history, and they way we should. That is excellent.

    But your proposed solution:

    “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….”

    For the most part, this has actually occurred. There are some zombie organizations left, but by and large, most comrades left these groups, and have gone on to do labor work and community organizing and the like.

    When these comrades get active again, they come up with groups like Solidarity and Freedom Road Socialist Organization, etc. The cure is every bit as bad as the disease.

    I posit that there is a new revolutionary movement, the most visibile expression of which was the Occupy movement. All across the U.S., you can see comrades, tired of the old Zinovievist BS, but also learning the lessons of groups like Solidarity and FRSO trying to forge something new: groups like Kasama, the North Star Network, Black Orchid Collective, One Struggle.

    Time will only tell whether these new efforts will work.

  7. Interesting suggestions and sure to be completely disregarded by all the revolutionary paper and magazine sellers who lurk on the margins of demos all around the world!I don’t know about the US,but in Oz the only people who persist in trying to engage with people through street stalls are the Salvation Army and the so-called ‘Leninists’.Is this a ‘revolutionary act’ in the internet age?

  8. Roy Rollin (MN Roy) Says:

    A key component of the left’s retreat to the right is the ongoing assault it’s internet intelligentsia have subjected “Leninism” to. Wheather nor not the leadership of the British SWP constitutes the real deal or not insofar as Leninism goes is not the issue here. Just the fact that they utilize Lenin to legitimize their activities has given their mainly reformist, i.e., even more more right wing opponents, yet another excuse to rail against Leninism as original sin and call for its abandonment once and for all. Of course if they actually had something better to replace it with, then maybe they might be worth listening to. But when all is said and done, and mostly said, since they are almost to a man (and/or woman) internet inteligentsia who make a living off of masturbating at the mouse, we hear little more than paeans of praise to anarchist “spontaniety” or reformist Labor party politicing, neither of which has amounted to much insofar as building a viable anti-capitalist left goes. It does, however, provide then an avenue to student radicals and left-talking trade union bureaucrats insofar as the British radical milleau goes.

    Indeed, it would seem that the main gripe that the assorted opponents of the SWP leadership all seem to have is that the organization’s “Leninism” gives it more bang for the buck when it comes to organizing. In other words they are just plain jealous of the SWP’s successes and hope that the current crisis will push this ostensibly revolutionary roadblock out of the way and in the process discredit “Leninism” as well. Only insofar as radicals and revolutionaries go, just what’s wrong with a small organization (providing it aspires to become a bigger one) that, because it adheres to a common set of ideas (or program, to use a bad word in some of these circles), can put them into practice by organizing even bigger mass movements. Isn’t that what happened with Occupy Wall Street…or rather didn’t happen because they had no real program. Isn’t that what Workers World and ANSWER did in building the anti-war movement when the liberals were too cowardly to do so after “9/11.” It’s certainly what the SWP did with the Stop the War Movement and then with RESPECT in the UK.

    If anything, the SWP could be considered “opportunist” insofar as it’s uncritical tailing after movement celebrities and superstars goes. None of the academics and authors that the SWP made superstars out of back in anti-globalization days had a problem with the SWP until it raised its own politics. Indeed, when things were going good between the SWP and George Gallagher in RESPECT, there were few complaints either…in spite of the SWP’s toning down its politics (on abortion and gay rights, amongst other things) in order to pursue Muslim clerics and petty bourgeois civic and community leaders. But when the shit hit the fan and there was a fall out, the SWP, whether it was in the right or the wrong, was held as the villain for sabotaging a desperate left’s chances at electoral success. Likewise when it comes to Greece, the SWP (and its Greek comrades) are attacked for suggesting that the Euro-reformist SYRIZA comes up short as an anti-capitalist alternative to the austerity regime there, since SYRIZA’s success at the ballot box is seen as the latest quick fix for the left. In spite of their hostility to Leninism, not a few of the SWP’s critics were ready to dig out Comintern formulae such as the “workers government” in anticipation of a SYRIZA victory…and their uncritical adaption to it in “Leninist” lingo.

    One could do a lot worse than reading Alex Calinicos recent article on Leninism, in which he not only lists what he considers to be the key components of the SWP’s “Leninism,” none of which sound on the surface to be the stuff that sectarians are made of, but counterposes them to the fly-by-night anarchist and reformnist panaceas of his opponents. He also points out that the failures of the French NPA just might have something to do with the anti-Leninist nature of that organization, which not too long ago was being hailed as the future of the far left. So with capitalism as oppressive and exploitative as ever, if not more so, let’s not be so quick to dump one of the few weapons that the working class has had in its fight against it…even if much of the left is willing to do so.

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