Portside Readers Respond - Whither the Socialist Left -- 2
- "What's the problem, anyway?" Comments on Mark Solomon's Portside essay "Whither the Socialist Left" Round 2 (Duncan McFarland)
- Becoming More Than the Sum of Our Parts (Ethan Young)
[responses to Whither the Socialist Left - 2, published by Portside, June 26, 2014.]
By Duncan McFarland
Mark Solomon's Round 2 of "Whither the Socialist Left" is an informative and valuable report on developments in the year since the left unity forum sponsored in June 2013 by the Left Labor Project in New York City. Needed next is analysis of the reasons for lack of movement towards building a unified socialist left and then discussion the next steps to improve the situation.
Solomon notes a number of positive and encouraging developments, from Moral Monday to raising the minimum wage, from the election of a progressive mayor in New York City to Thomas Piketty's bestseller on inequality, and so forth. While perhaps not adding up to a leftward shift in the general US political environment, certainly there is plenty of energy, coalition building and convergence in the left-center, with working class issues often coming to the fore.
Concerning the socialist organizations at the left unity forum, however, efforts towards cooperation resulted in uninspired responses yielding little or no movement to build a unified and cohesive socialist left. If Marx is correct that capitalism is replaced by socialism, with the working class playing a key historic role, then Solomon is right to call for a "strong, unified left/socialist voice" providing compelling vision, effective leadership and ideas and values to help illuminate the road to transformative change. Solomon points to Bill Fletcher's work on the need for a national left organization, worldview and assessment of allies and enemies, and directions towards victories. Not only Fletcher, but many others cite a similar need, such as Left Roots and Jacobin magazine.
So with a lot of consensus that greater cooperation and effectiveness is necessary, what's the problem? Why are we still largely stuck in a situation of fragmentation? First, let's consider the possibility that maybe it's not a problem after all. The modern day "anarcho-liberal" (a phrase from Jacobin magazine) might argue that greater coherence is not needed. They might cite the dangers of hierarchy and advocate for radical horizontalism. However, most people seem to agree that movements such as Occupy would have greater sustaining power with more organization. So let's proceed with the assumption that more coherent organization is desirable.
Why isn't it happening? Solomon refers to "lack of political will" -- surely the proximate cause. But what are the reasons for that? Solomon's challenge to the socialist left a year ago tested the waters and the disappointing results are in; we need to learn why it didn't work so that we can take the next step. This is a very difficult problem, if easy, it would have been solved a long time ago. But we can start by making a list of possible reasons for lack of success in building stronger socialist/left unity, which is the beginning of an analysis.
1) Effectiveness of the system of repression. This is certainly the case but not satisfying as a complete answer. There are many historic examples of remarkable socialist accomplishments in spite of repression.
2) Lack of shared perspective. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the end of a shared concept of socialism (for or against) and created a situation of innumerable different ideas of what socialism or the new society might look like, or for many activists, no clear idea at all. This has contributed to difficulty in communication and a feeling on the part of many of isolation. Again, lack of shared perspective is certainly the case, but there is also much agreement on what needs to be done in the face of the current crises. Why not build on the points of agreement?
3) Influence of petty-bourgeois individualism within the movement. There are strong tendencies among some activists to prioritize building their own organization, in effect counterposing their self interest to the good of the movement as a whole. While justified in certain cases of communities fighting for their survival, often "movement building" is given lip service as a good idea and promptly put on the back burner. Bourgeois individualism may also take the form of competitiveness, egotism and opportunism. Given the overwhelming degree of individualism in the majority culture, heavily influenced by the Protestant and Puritan ethic, such tendencies are not surprising.
Left Roots in its Ear to the Ground pamphlet identified concerns among many activists about negative behaviors and harmful practices being carried over from the mainstream culture to movement organizing. They targeted the need for both personal and social transformation going hand in hand. The document calls for the revival of a vibrant and respectful movement culture, and takes reflection and self-criticism seriously.
4) Related may be persistent patterns of structural racism. For example, in the struggle to stop the war against Iraq in 2002-2003, there were comradely but sharp criticisms from African Americans about structural racism in the peace movement. While the individual peace activists all supported equal rights, the organizing dynamics reproduced the pattern of the larger society: mostly white leadership organizing mostly white protest demonstrations. Why did this happen given the large antiwar sentiment among people of color? Are there also dynamics of male dominance? Are these dynamics to be found in other parts of the movement?
If the organizations at the 2013 Left Unity forum had miraculously merged, would the resulting composition tilted towards whites or white males? Perhaps it is premature to call for unity and the task is to build a more diverse socialist left with deeper roots in working class and oppressed communities. But it also may be asked, why can't both happen at the same time?
5) Possibly the problem is not being correctly or completely posed. Gramsci talks of rule by force and rule by consent. In the US, force may be a primary tool in some minority communities, and consent primary in the white majority. Solomon put his 2013 challenge in compelling political terms, but perhaps the cooperation and unity he seeks will require other dimensions targeting consent, such as an artistic and cultural component which can reach many people where political arguments don't. Importance of the arts is very visible in youth and people of color organizing. Popular education and study about the history of the struggle and the nature of the system may be another essential.
6) International dimension -- many of the calls for greater cooperation and unity are almost exclusively focused on US politics. However, given the US is the world stronghold of capitalism/imperialism, social transformation in the US would have tremendous global impact. Thus international solidarity and connections may be an essential ingredient.
7) A powerful, left-led, democratically functioning organized labor movement would solve a lot of problems. It is not currently existing but there is hopeful movement in that direction.
There are undoubtedly other ways to look at the problem and creating a list of reasons for the lack of movement towards socialist/left unity does not offer a solution. This could, however, facilitate ongoing discussions to work toward answers. If such a discussion is desirable, how would it take place? Could the Portside discussion be continued on the theme, what is the problem? Perhaps other organizing efforts should be supported, or a new venue needed. How do we take the next step?
By Ethan Young
On the subject of elusive left unity, Duncan McFarland does a good job of picking up where Mark Solomon leaves off. I'd like to try the same for him.
In my experience working on several efforts at corralling what I considered to be the pluralist, professed anti-sectarian left, since the CP split of 1992, I've encountered a constant problem Duncan doesn't discuss. When DSA, Freedom Road, the CP and CCDS spoke together at the NYC forum, they did so in an honest spirit of comradeship and an interest in unity. But they might as well have been giving reports from alternate universes.
What keeps these groups apart is what keeps them intact individually. They each seek to keep a legacy alive - a small token of political history from the last century. At the forum, each group expressed a political view, without controversy - or convergence. They weren't really that far apart. What was missing was any real interest in finding a common path beyond each doing their separate bit to build the broader movement.
Instead, the styles and orientations of the presenters reflected the distinct evolution of each group. And rightly so. That's why they exist. The CP carries on, still hoping to restore their leading position in their long-ago heyday. CCDS still hopes to make something important out of its early 90s break from Gus Hall's dynasty, 13 years after Hall's death and a simmering down of old hostilities. DSA is trying to make something new out of its rad-lib Harrington roots, but the anticommunist aspects of that tradition make them uncomfortable in this company. Freedom Road, on the other hand, is still trying to square the circle of pluralism and vanguardism. They have learned that vanguardism can make you crazy, but they're not ready to cut the cord.
This has been going on for quite some time. Are they stuck? In fact, each group is making a contribution to various social movements, including offering political ed for new radicals. That's better than arguing with rival groups around lit tables, and sending recruits out to push unreadable newspapers at demos.
The problem is the existential obsession with keeping their little collective lights shining. In each case they exercise some pluralism internally, and know enough not to demand deference in the old fashion. But I hope that sooner, not later, they will realize that the importance of each group's legacy is fading, and with that, any rational argument against throwing their energy into combining forces. It doesn't have to mean a wholesale merger, or public mea culpas. Nobody really thinks that it matters anymore that Comrade A's grandfather beat up Comrade B's great uncle at Webster Hall in 1936. The only things that stands in the way of real, ongoing sit-downs to coordinate efforts, share resources and discuss political differences like adults, are (1) the fear that "our" group will be swallowed or undermined by the others, and (2) the belief that eventually, the other groups will disappear or join "our" group.
This has been the Catch-22 of left unity since 1919.
The language and style barriers are real, and of course mistrust doesn't really evaporate. But the necessary step of real convergence is one that requires a level of political maturity. These groups actually have it. They can take this step without fear of casting shame on their forebears, and they've been around the block enough to keep it together when in close contact with formerly unthinkable partners.
I base this assertion on several years' experience with two groups, Left Labor Project in NYC and Portside, in which members or former members of different political left groups and tendencies not only work together, but work well.
It's a challenge. Keeping pace with demands of social movements emerging from the current political maelstrom is an even bigger challenge, which requires more than the political left can provide in its current state of fragmentation.
Existing social movements are stirring, but are politically incoherent. They don't need a vanguard. They need politics that speak to the strategy and tactics of moving against a powerful and ruthless ruling class. When those politics emerge out of work and experience, actively linking up activists personally, and movements locally and nationally, they give form and direction to organized leadership. Political left groups that respect that process have a lot to offer, but starting now, and pardon the expression, we have to get over ourselves.