‘They came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live with a memory that serves no purpose.’ — Camus, The Plague
The first duty of socialists in the current era is not to build a narrow political grouping reflecting their own hyper-specific interpretation of old political questions. It is instead to build a mass party. Some may hackle that the two objectives ought to be pursued simultaneously; that may be true. For those in that school of thought, however, no one can wiggle out of the charge that most left groups have been horribly lopsided in their emphasis toward building sectionally instead of broadly.
It might not be their fault. Past conditions were possibly not favorable enough for a mass party to emerge, in the USA t least. The times we live in are different from the 1970-2008 timeframe. Unfortunately, though, the Left in that timeframe was defined by shattering into a thousand pieces. We can deterministically imagine this shattering as a symptom alone, or we can realize that it represented a series of choices informed by bad political methods. It’s true that splits emerge in times of weakness when a group is strained by the fact that no solutions can be found. But if we are sincere in searching for solutions, we should admit to ourselves that continual splitting is also not a solution.
However this essay is not (mainly) for the members of established socialist groups, comfortable in their homes. This is for the politically homeless, the exiles, the weirdos, the critics, the Divergents. This is for my people.
THE FREAKY WILDERNESS
The Left is undergoing a time of great creative destruction. Around the world, old bureaucratic fiefdoms are imploding and new formations are bubbling up. Like the Arab Spring, the trajectory is not necessarily clear; there is more commotion than decisively positive results. Sometimes things we’d rather keep around fall apart, and things we’d rather have less of emerge. The commotion itself could be viewed as a positive result in itself though, because it’s in the commotion that people learn in large numbers.
In this Dionysian flurry many oddities arise; some of the projects which have emerged are rather unique, and unlike anything which has existed before. No one thought Adbusters calling for an encampment would become a global movement of anti-capitalism in the form of Occupy Wall Street. No one thought Spain’s new party (Podemos) would form by some intellectuals calling for it over Facebook. No one predicted the Platypus Affiliated Society, either, however you would choose to describe it.
Many of us have a personal role in this maelstrom. Revolutionary Unity, Kasama Project, and Socialist Outpost all formed in breakaways from other groups, and either have a disproportionately high profile on the Internet or even exist entirely through it. Richard Seymour’s blog has both been a guiding force in terms of strategy, but also played a role in the SWP meltdown – and probably the ISN meltdown, too. The North Star was financed by an ex-SWPer and led by an ex-ISOer, then adopted by ex-Platypi. The Renewal faction came and went. The Chicago Socialist Campaign was launched by a conglomeration of independent actors, current members of various groups, ex-members of various groups (like Socialist Outpost), and finally sponsorship by the established groups in general. One of my favorite fast-growing groups, Philly Socialists, only started three years ago. All of this has happened extremely recently. It also is happening against the backdrop of the upset within the established groups, with Socialist Alternative’s tactics and victories causing it to rival the ISO in size and importance.
I’m sure that to the established groups, this feels like an outright siege. Not only do they have to compete with each other, as always, but now they can’t go anywhere without running into their old critics/dissidents/expel-ees. Worst of all, many of us actually insist on continuing to participate in movement politics. They probably feel surrounded by enemies – and yet, they have to continue engaging, or they miss out. The goal of guerrilla warfare is to provoke the larger enemy into clamping down on anything which resembles an internal or external threat. In the process of clamping down, they make even more enemies, and disgust everyone around them. This is why 9/11 was effectively successful in drawing the USA into a futile War on Terror which ultimately helped destabilize the USA’s own domestic politics, as well as destroyed its international alliances. This is why the SWP opposition’s open stand triggered an overreaction which smashed the party.
The Internet has changed everything. The expelled ghosts of the old parties come back to haunt them; in a connected world, you can no longer externalize a problem as effectively. Leftists dare comment upon Left groups they’re no longer a part of, in effect creating a socialist version of Consumer Reports. How audacious of us to publically declare that none of the options on offer meet our standards! Transparency, public conversations, and leakiness rip skeletons right out of the closets; WikiLeaks and the IST leaks may be very different, but to say there is no synchronicity whatsoever between a pair of embarrassed bureaucracies having their dirty underwear exposed by the Internet would be dishonest. Some people who have long deserved a voice finally have one; jerks who never deserved a voice have one now as well. (Nazis use the Internet too.) The critical Leftists and politically homeless, the Divergents and the Factionless, now all have a home in each other, through the spontaneous networking processes of social media.
Yet it’s not enough. We need more than ruins or spontaneity. We should do more than knock down old castles. We should build something. Where is this all going?
TO BUILD OR NOT TO BUILD?
Can we ignore the things we learned in our various experiences/departures/expulsions? Absolutely not. Do these lessons need to be crystallized by embodying themselves in an organization? Definitely.
And do we need new formations, just to have some nucleus of socialists to continue building now that we are absent from the old ones we came from? Obviously.
But do they need to be stand-alone groups, organizationally separate from the rest of the socialist movement? No. That would probably be a bad idea. If you’re a pragmatist at all about how the outside world views the circus of the Left, you realize that we probably need fewer acronyms, not more.
Yes, our critiques of the established Left groups are often valid. Yes, their democratic mechanisms have been shut down by cultures of dogmatic groupthink, and bureaucratic overdependence on a supposedly indispensable staff of permanent leaders. Yes, many of them disgustingly repeat silly old routines that don’t make sense anymore, but which go unchallenged because nobody has built anything better yet. Yes, most of them simply have no real prospects of growth beyond a narrow academic and activist demographic, constrained by a glass ceiling they cannot understand. Yes, many of them have simply lost their fire for whatever reason. Yes, most of them are far too specifically-defined to be appropriate for the newly-radicalizing masses, who are interested in socialism generally, but not ready to commit to a specific interpretation of the USSR or many other things. Yes, despite all their talk of having a historically-proven strategy, most of them just don’t seem to be going anywhere; most of them have a strategy which sounds like a plausible model in theory but for whatever reason is just not a good strategy for working in real life. And for all their talk that we “haven’t built anything,” they are still drops in the bucket in a country of 300 million.
And yes – we need more than unity! We need to build something new and better than these established groups! But then I have to ask why, precisely, this has not happened in a decisive way which has posed a real challenge and offered an alternative to these groups, instead of only pestering them?
WHY HAVEN’T OUR PROJECTS CHALLENGED THE LEFT’S STATUS QUO?
We have failed to challenge the sectarian, bureaucratic Left because we are still organizing along narrow sectional lines – but first, other difficulties. A thousand challenges face you when you want to start a new group:
- People who put forward any decisive, specific vision of what to do next fear being perceived as “just the next Left group dictator”
- You’re still demoralized from your past experiences
- You lack the infrastructure of an established group you’re accustomed to working in
- The combination of the previous two leads to a strong initial demoralization from being smaller, wondering if there’s even a point, and feeling slightly ridiculous for even trying
- We overcompensate from the past group’s mistakes – the ISN is a major case in point, reacting to the SWP’s reductionist authoritarianism with absurd identity politics and ridiculously loose organizational structure
- Get ready to dish out money on your independent infrastructure
- Different people leave with dramatically different lessons, making us more united by what we are against than what we are for
- This leads to a Fear of Establishing Boundaries – who is in, who is out?
- The bureaucratic nagging to keep participating is suddenly gone
- It’s the fucking post-Recession job market, and life gets very busy and demanding
- You could just go get drunk instead (this is solved by combining political and alcoholic activities)
- We are too demoralized to have much audacity, especially enough to opt for starting a new national structure instead of a local one
- You have to explain all this shit to people diplomatically, avoiding the old mistakes, avoiding the overcompensations, patiently enough to not come off as a dictator, but urgently enough that the group actually starts doing stuff and building momentum (as someone who has done it, walking this tightrope can grind on your nerves dramatically)
With all of the above against us, the self-imposed restriction of basing ourselves as an ideological clone of what came before us makes most projects specific to the point of total irrelevance to ordinary people, and often deals the deathblow to the initial morale and early momentum of many projects. At the very moment when we most need the supporting wind of the masses, we cut ourselves off from it all the more severely.
BUILD A BROAD FORMATION WORTHY OF BEING A FACTION INSIDE
The plethora of new groups I listed earlier – they need each other. And I am not saying they need to dissolve. But I think most socialists would agree that we could all do with a bit less emphasis on our differences, and instead turn toward the collaborative work of popularizing basic socialist ideas to the masses who are eager to learn them. Perhaps we may even pursue different tactics as we undertake this common work, but let’s get real for a second. Should we all be paying the same amount of rent for a meeting space five different times because we are in five different groups? Wouldn’t it be more effective to just pay it once or twice, and somehow share?
- We overcome sectarianism by placing the construction of a broad mass party as a higher priority than constructing our own sectional faction.
- However we shouldn’t abandon the lessons we learned about democracy or whatever critiques we developed, and we should not feel compelled to abandon our specific political traditions.
- Insofar as you desire to build something more specific, though, it ought to be a component of the broad mass party or the effort to create one rather than a stand-alone group (if you wish to avoid sectarianism and needless division).
- Furthermore, our little post-tendency projects – the components willing to challenge the status quo – don’t even have any hopes of existing as stand-alone groups if they retain their specificity. Their only chance of being anything more than microscopic ephemera is in building the broad mass party (now not later) and acting as a voice or faction within the movement to build it. Otherwise they are hyper-specific to the point of irrelevance even more than the sects we came from, and lack a bridge to mass relevance (which participation in the broad party fulfils).
- Therefore, the only way to shift the culture of the Left away from the issues we had with our predecessors is not to build new stand-alone sects, nor focus on the groups we came from, but to carry what we learned from our experiences into a formation which is broad enough to unleash the untapped potential of the radicalizing masses. The problems of sectarianism and the problems with the old groups therefore have the same solution.
There are various definitions of “sect” and “sectarianism.” I don’t care for Talmudic pissing contests of “whose definition is more authoritative according to the ancient authors,” so I will simply state my definition: sectarianism is organizing as a stand-alone organization when you could be a faction, caucus, or in/formal network within something bigger. In the absence of the “something bigger” to be a part of, sectarianism is continuing to build yourself with greater emphasis than building the bigger thing.
Why? I’ve heard elsewhere that sectarianism is abstention from the class struggle. I might furthermore extend that sectarianism is anything which places unnecessary barriers between yourself and the masses. If the dividing lines of your organization are over dead Communist leaders, then you have removed yourself from relevance to the masses of the USA.
Another way to erect unnecessary barriers between yourself and the masses is by having forty different groups. The masses want one group. They want maximum combined force against the system. They like things which are big enough to actually have a chance at winning; they don’t waste their time with long shots or underdogs. In the event that they’ve ruled out the two-party system, they want a unified third party, not a smattering of tiny competing groups.
Are the differences completely insignificant? No, we shouldn’t repress them. But we might give them less emphasis. And we should definitely re-examine whether they are appropriate to split or exist separately over in the contemporary context.
It’s not entirely the case that all the existing Left infrastructure will transition smoothly into part of being a larger, broader party. In most cases, that infrastructure was built precisely to continue expanding itself sectionally, not to plug into something greater. That is a punch we will have to roll with as it comes.
A MODEST PROPOSAL
As for me, I place no emphasis on building the “faction inside the future party” whatsoever. I figure the right people will find each other once the thing exists; the trick is that it has to exist. And no one else is paying attention to laying infrastructure for a party, so we should correct that imbalance.
Myself and some collaborators seek to build an active, participatory coalition of socialists who support or partake in socialist electoral campaigns. We have been building support for this kind of thing for some time (about a year). We seem to have a geographic dispersion, scale of interest, and mix of group members that the conversation can be called “national,” at least in a provisional sense.
And we mainly seek to have just that – a conversation. Is this a Party? Not really, it’s more of a coalition, but we hope it helps build a Party which most Left forces can get in on. We also want a way for all the lonely little socialists scattered across the country to be connected to the places where the action is going on, so they can get some ideas about how to run, and most importantly, contract some of the contagious enthusiasm and confidence.
Socialist Alternative has made calls for people to run hundreds of independent candidates. It’s a good vision. They themselves did not pursue implementing this vision, and I cannot blame them. Serious runs in major cities take resources, and they have other things to do like $15Now. However, our hope is to build the infrastructure that makes such a dream practically possible. Furthermore, now may be the time to “open the gates of the party” and encourage ordinary, inexperienced socialists to learn electoral politics by experience, becoming that wave of candidates, themselves.
On August 6th we will have our first national videoconference, featuring Jorge Mújica running for Chicago city council, and Angela Walker running for sheriff of Milwaukee. Some of our videoconferences will revolve around some such guest speakers. Others may be more focused on a conversation between the participants in a well-managed, moderated forum.
Everyone sympathetic to the project is invited. Trolls can fuck off (and will be disconnected anyway).
This is our contribution. Others less inclined toward electoral action may find some other party-building project, perhaps based on anti-austerity, or connecting politics with providing services directly. There are many facets to building a party, though the electoral avenue is badly neglected in our context.
Either way, we’ve wandered long enough. This is not the kind of world where “no effort is wasted.” It is completely possible to go in circles for nothing, and we should all live in constant dread of wasting our lives. (Those whose political lives have revolved for the past few years mainly around publishing criticisms and reading philosophy, this means you.)
May the long, weary journey of we various deviants, dissidents, freaks, free-rangers, critics, expel-ees, and independents finally culminate in a project where our negative experiences and ruthless criticisms can become positive construction. May those who have suffered decades of sect-life breathe the open air of a mass party’s direct relevance soon enough.
And without a doubt above all else, may this Left finally get somewhere.