Competing socialists? Really? Isn’t competition for, you know, capitalists?
I once heard a socialist make fun of the group Solidarity by saying “they have two different positions on Syria – isn’t that INSANE?” Actually no, I think it makes total sense. Yes, there may be some people in the group who are attending different demonstrations on this ONE issue. However, 99% of the time, the people in a socialist group are going to have similar positions, allowing organizational continuity.
There are these two other groups which allow internal disagreement, and are slightly more successful than America’s grassroots socialists, you may have heard of them – the Democrats and Republicans.
The genius philosopher Lukacs once made the observation that a group which means what is says must act accordingly, and therefore its members must be bound to carry out decisions collectively voted on. This makes sense, and really it was a criticism pointed at socialist groups that did nothing but elect socialist legislators who were not held to any particular stance. (These days I’m of the opinion that it’s not the rank-and-file who should have to follow the letter of the law, but any elected officials or delegates.)
The problem is that modern socialists have carried this idea to an absurd extreme, where every group can have only one centralized position on EVERYTHING from Syria to peanut butter, and difference of position must be followed by a split in organization. Because the possibilities of fine-tuned disagreements are infinite, this leads to a continual process of splitting within socialist groups. Is it true that different tactics require different subgroups? Yes, different subgroups, of a larger socialist group that generally stands for socialism and collaborates most of the time.
Here’s the main thing: contemporary socialist groups are basically set up to be sub-factions of a greater socialist argument. The problem is, there is no main public face of socialism in the USA. THE LITTLE SOCIALIST GROUPS ARE SUB-FACTIONS OF NOTHING, AND THEREFORE UNNOTICEABLE. When they are noticed, what people notice is that there’s a million groups, and they rightfully laugh and move on.
For reasons explained elsewhere, I think this historical moment is critical and we need to use any artificial means to establish a large-scale socialist group, plus some thoughts on how this will actually happen.
Think about it – the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, essentially over the all-important question of revolutionism versus reformism, occurred in 1903-1905 just as the 1905 revolution was happening. Revolution was a real question. But in the context of the USA, revolution is not an immediate thing we need to be splitting over right now. And yet we split over so much less than that, we split over shades of opinion. So anyone who says that being in a million different groups is “Leninist” is dead wrong.
THE UGLY REALITY OF SOCIALIST COMPETITION AT THE LOCAL LEVEL
There’s this idea that the incredible splittage within the socialist movement doesn’t matter because of the “united front.” The idea is that socialist groups can have separate existence while cooperating in single-issue coalitions – over opposing budget cuts, antiwar stuff, unions, environmentalism, etc. In my experience it’s the opposite.
There is a competitive rush within every single-issue movement or coalition, between all the socialist groups, to recruit as many people from it as possible, and in the process talk shit on every other socialist group present. The pressure towards cooperation often comes from tactical decisions – the socialists in a coalition often have similar ideas about how to make the coalition a success. The pressure towards competition and splitting comes from recruitment time.
The inter-group rivalry gets intense because of the market-like dynamic that if your group doesn’t gobble everyone up first, the other groups might get to them. It can feel like being the one woman in a party full of dudes — everyone is hitting on you, everyone is laying on the pressure. Pretty soon you just get sick of it and leave the party — or the movement.
Because many of these conversations are one-on-one rather than addressed to the whole coalition, socialists are individually pressed by would-be recruits to explain the differences between groups. Except it’s only one person’s explanation of those differences. This is where all the most disgusting exaggerations of every other group’s shortcomings are propagated. So often rather than the socialist groups getting together and making one united presentation to their fellow activists about the need for socialism, with the discussion/debate of fine differences happening openly in front of everyone, the real discussion of ideology gets compartmentalized into different groups who talk shit on each other with no reality-check of open, daylight debate where absurd accusations can be corrected. From the outside looking in, you might feel that there is more conversation of what is wrong with other socialists than what is right with socialism.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Now I know that we live in capitalism, and we can’t expect every facet of socialist organizing to mirror the socialist dream of cooperation, but this might be one of those areas where we can do better. Right now we sound like a bunch of competing salespeople, trying to outdo each other for our own company’s product. (To be fair I think the whispering campaigns of shit-talk also happen along the socialist-anarchist fault line as well.)
People say things like “it’s just criticism and debate, not sectarianism.” But we end up discussing nuances that aren’t remotely relevant to the 2013 USA context just to score points against each other. We need less of that, and more of a practiced belief that we are one united swarm.
Does this mean all socialist groups should drop their identities and converge? That might be asking more than most organized socialists are ready for, though it wouldn’t be the worst idea. This way we could stand together on the 99% of stuff we agree on, and the fine points of difference would be exactly that – fine points of difference. (The fact that socialists emphasize the fine points of difference as their primary political identity is individualistic in the bad sense of the word.)
Maybe instead of total formal convergence, a few groups could get together, if they feel they are similar enough. Maybe we could run candidates together, or hold joint-sponsored/organized meetings on issues where we share common ground (like the general need for socialism or environmentalism*). Again, we could just generally stop viewing our fine points of difference as our primary political identity, being socialists first and partisans second.
If there’s anyone capable of getting over our differences and uniting, it should be us.
*Edit: credit where credit is due, Solidarity and the International Socialist Organization are overcoming some of the partisan BS by co-sponsoring the EcoSocialist Conference in New York City on Saturday April 20th. I think some other groups are getting in on it too.