Chrysalis: The Post-Apocalyptic Left

by Ben Campbell on July 22, 2012

Occupy Wall Street awoke me from my political disenchantment and turned me to Karl Marx. While I may document this transformation in a subsequent post, I imagine it was quite unusual. While many are certainly being radicalized by the historic crisis of capitalism and the fledgling opposition movements from Spain to Chile, anarchism seems to be the order of the day. This is understandable since, after decades of defeat, few of today’s dysfunctional Marxists appear to bear much resemblance to Marx. It’s almost as if capitalism was waiting just long enough to see its great opponent vanquished before kicking the bucket itself.

By the New Year, the combination of my new worldview and Occupy Wall Street direct actions was exhilarating. Marx makes you both simultaneously empowered yet aware of your own impotence – he is full of such contradictions. For me, the limitations of the Occupy structure (or lack thereof) had long since become obvious. Thus, I set out on an ill-advised journey to explore the organized left, which I would soon recognize as a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape resemblant of The Chrysalids.

Visions of socialism from a post-apocalyptic wasteland

The first stop on my expedition was the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who conveniently were holding a conference in nearby Brooklyn. Since I support both democracy and socialism, I decided to attend. While it was a little awkward being slightly older than the undergraduates in attendance, it was still exciting to walk into a room with so many self-proclaimed socialists. As Marx told us, the socialists disdain to conceal their views and aims!

Actually, Marx said “communists”, but who’s keeping track? Well these people seemed to be. “I’m pink, not red”, Cornel West insisted. The impression I got was that there had long since passed some sort of Tribulation, and speaker after speaker was very careful to distance themselves from the mutant freaks from The Fringes. At one point I began talking to a lone young member of some other three-lettered group. After some preliminary small talk about how terrible capitalism was, the conversation continued:

Would you like to buy a copy of our newspaper for a dollar?
Uh… do you have a website where I can read it?
We don’t post all our stuff online
… okay…

As we awkwardly exchanged a dollar bill, I felt used. Was she only complimenting my Marxist analysis to try to sell me a newspaper? Later that evening, a very informative graduate student saw the aforementioned newspaper and warned me that those people are to be avoided. I thanked him for his roadmap to the organized left since, as much as I support socialists and workers, I am not particularly interested in joining a cult.

Trotsky: “To think of what I could have bought with that dollar…”

Going from Occupy Wall Street to the DSA was kind of like returning from spring break to realize you still lived with your parents. At Occupy seemingly anything went, even if it was insane. DSA’s credo, on the other hand, was more like “be reasonable”. The extent of their political ambition seemed limited to some sort of “new New Deal” and a student debt freeze. Their message was thus little different than that of Paul Krugman or the other pseudo-Keynesian hacks of mainstream discourse, or the numerous “progressive” groups that I had abandoned after realizing the extent of their disingenuous apologism for a truly horrific presidency. I am honestly still trying to understand what a group like DSA does that isn’t done better by Democratic front groups like Van Jones’ Rebuild the Dream, and all the “netroots” initiatives that serve to funnel the growing discontent back towards the capitalist shills who run the Democratic Party. In fact, I got the sense that I had stumbled across the DailyKos reading group of Capital.

The poverty of thinking I encountered in the DSA can be seen in this recent article by DSA member Phillip Logan, a self-proclaimed member of the “radical Left”. To summarize, it consists of a perfect trifecta of (1) dishonest Democratic apologism, (2) caricature of all other socialists as basement Bolsheviks, and (3) the presentation of no clear plan other than repeating the same failed Mike Harrington strategy ad infinitum.

Einstein is often quoted as saying the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I’m not terribly fond of this quote, as context can change and rare events do occur. Yet, it would be nice if those socialists who support continually funneling socialist energies into the Democratic Party would explain how and why this time will be different. Without such an explanation then, yes, this seems a fairly insane proposition. At the very least, since there are so few of us “socialists” that our support is fairly meaningless, it isn’t worth giving to an ultra-capitalist party in exchange for a complete loss of all credibility in the eyes of the vast multitude who wisely loath both parties.

For instance, not too long ago I participated in a lengthy discussion with eighty or so OWS activists about the future of the movement, and what we wanted to see from it. At one point, somebody voiced this absurd prospect of supporting Obama, “the lesser evil”. The suggestion was greeted by the most furious round of “down-twinkles”, and outright jeering. Granted, there were some sampling effects as the conversation took place in a jail cell, yet I believe it is indicative of just how badly the Democratic apologists have misread the politics of the moment.

Part of the problem is that many of these socialists seem to use a definition of socialism that befits their Socialist International brethren like the U.K. Labour Party or Greece’s PASOK. Repeatedly I asked senior DSA members to explain how exactly they planned to move beyond a European welfare state to actually defeat capitalism. Time and time again, the response was the same – well, i’ll be more than happy if we get to a European-style welfare state in my lifetime! It’s almost as if these people haven’t noticed that capitalism is dismantling all the European-style welfare states as it simultaneously destroys the entire planet.

Sadly, the analysis of DSA (and many of the other “realistic” socialists) seems mired in a problematic attempt to reconcile the dysfunctional marriage of Marx and Keynes, leading to a longing for the glory days of the U.S. welfare state, based on a strange understanding of the Great Depression that overemphasizes the role played by the New Deal and underemphasizes the role played by the massive World War that destroyed everything.

There are certain times when the most “reasonable” action is not in fact the most moderate. For instance, when you are on a ship that has just hit a gigantic iceberg and is rapidly sinking.

Of course, it’s important not to be too hard on the sectarians of the center, for many reasonable socialists appear to be seeking refuge in DSA despite their terrible leadership, as The Fringes are so very real, and so very terrifying. Here, one finds numerous bands who have survived the apocalypse by mutating into strange forms. Cast out from good society, they have arranged themselves into insular tribes and/or apocalyptic cults, complete with their own saints, prophets and mythical stories of Pre-Tribulation glory.

Foremost among these is St. Lenin, with contentious issues in these tribes often resolved by asking “What would Lenin do?” and consulting century-old tomes for present-day strategy. Lenin was thus the original cult figure – and as Marx prophesized, history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. What Marx forgot to add is that history does this recursively, such that the farces themselves repeat, becoming ever more farcical. Expressed more formally:

while (capitalism) {

When I have inquired as to why they revere Lenin so dearly, I have generally been told some variation of the fact that Lenin led the first successful socialist revolution while everyone else sat around talking about it.

To me this seems strange as, for one, the Bolshevik revolution seems far from successful – in fact from my uneducated perspective it appears to have been a disaster that set back socialism a century. But then again, I have not yet studied the collected works of St. Trotsky. Perhaps I ought to divorce myself from reality a little longer to engage in a summer-long “pre-political” discussion of the intracacies of Trotskyism to determine how to best engage in the ongoing assault on the masses by capital.

More importantly, these “Leninists” now use Lenin the mythic man of action to justify their own static inaction and failure. In fact, these “Marxist-Leninists” bear little resemblance to Lenin, and it goes without saying that their static thinking bears little resemblance to Marx. They appear to be quite similar to the real-life basement Bolsheviks that Phillip Logan and his DSA comrades are so quick to mock in an attempt to create false dichotomies.

The problem with “Leninism” appears to be its centralized structure – or “democratic centralism” as it is called. This strangely anachronistic strategy inherited from Tsarist Russia rests on a fundamental distinction between internal debate and the external face presented by “the party”. The idea of a large international socialist project holding “private” debate in the age of vast communication networks like the internet seems fairly absurd. As a result of these outmoded organizational structures, these groups do not know how to communicate effectively, and still stand around at rallies peddling newspapers (Lenin didn’t have a laptop). Those that do have decent propaganda outlets treat them as one-way conversations. Then, after such public displays of groupthink, purging member after member, and dividing over and over again to separate themselves from those who don’t think correctly, these “Marxists” wonder why everyone else considers them as micro-prefigurations of horrific authoritarian states.

Of course, none of these groups actually qualifies as “large”. Yet their meager numbers do not stop them from being paranoid about diluting their purity and “liquidating” their grand designs, even though there is remarkably little to dilute or liquidate. These groups appear to have witnessed little growth in their numbers even after the epic and historic crisis of capitalism began – the one they have been waiting for for seventy years.


Thus far, I have discussed the tale of two lefts, which we can expand to three by including anarchism. All three are symptoms of the left’s failure and disintegration over the neoliberal period of 1973-2008. As capital was able to expand seemingly endlessly via the equivalent of a giant Ponzi scheme, these years were not exactly conducive to significant left advance, yet alone any meaningful challenge to capitalism.

As a result, the first and largest group was content to defensively fight the neoliberal assault, usually by attempting to influence the Democratic Party, increasingly unsuccessfully. Here you have DSA along with many other defeated radicals who integrated into the Democratic Party directly or otherwise gave up on the project of radical change.

What David Graeber called “The New Anarchists” are in some ways similar, although they actually fought the advances of the neoliberal state in the material world, rather than through the dead-end of the Democratic Party. Indeed, as Bhaskar Sunkara has noted, many “anarchists” are really anarcho-liberals. Regardless, neither group appeared to have any clear vision of how to actually replace capitalism, but it didn’t really matter, as pre-2008 was still The End of History.

The third group, the orthodox “Marxists”, have deteriorated to a point of caricature already discussed. They are, of course, quick to criticize the anarchists for having no clear strategy for actually defeating capitalism. They like to mock the idea of creating a fully-fledged material post-capitalist society in the belly of the old. However, they are in some ways the idealist equivalent of the anarchists, as they insist on creating fully-fledged post-capitalist consciousness in the midst of capitalism. Thus, they tend to not engage with people who have not attained perfect consciousness (which, of course, includes other grouplets), just as anarchists tend to not engage on fronts that haven’t fully severed themselves from the real world. Naturally, when one considers Marx v. Proudhon, it is quite ironic to note the strange inversion.

This brief summary is merely a neophyte’s observations and is, of course, grossly oversimplified. There have been admirable efforts to break free from these respective dead-ends.

However the key point is that post-2008 is a new stage in capitalist history – one of global debt crisis, continual economic precarity, and overt class struggle. It is not the type of holding situation for which the previous groups evolved, and it is one for which they have found themselves remarkably ill-equipped, and unable or unwilling to adapt. The Marxist groupings have been entirely irrelevant, while those who have committed to the Democratic Party have been entirely marginalized within it by capital. The anarchists have been much more successful, although the disintegration of Occupy has made clear their own limits.

We are now several years into the economic crisis, and the left has still not meaningfully adapted in any way that might help it respond to the next economic crisis – which, given the Viking-style pillaging of global financial markets, could be any moment. The unpreparedness of the left for the economic crisis of 2008 was a tragedy. Another such failure?

The North Star was founded in the belief that another left is possible, and in fact necessary. While I will defer more specific thoughts to a subsequent post (in 2015, after I have finished reading the complete works of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky), it is clear that it must synthesize the most promising elements of the various trends while attempting to leave behind some of its remarkable baggage. Such a synthesis must be anti-capital and class conscious, while at the same time willing to engage, work with, and radicalize those who do not yet see the necessity for overhauling the entire capitalist system. It will require united engagement in the streets, in the workplace, and in the electoral arena – more generally, anywhere the class struggle is taking place.



After my brief tour of the post-apocalyptic nightmare that is the left, it would be easy to give up on Marxism, and perhaps ally with the anarchists – at the very least, they’re much more enjoyable to be around. Marx is, of course, the most insightful political economist in history (although that’s not really saying much), but Marxism itself appears to have “metamorphosed from butterfly to a slug”. And yet, I can’t help but empathize with Peter Camejo, who recalls his first socialist meeting in his memoir The North Star:

I’d imagined that it would be in a huge hall with thousands of workers with red banners or something along those lines. As it turned out I was the first person to show up, so I sat and waited. Only about fifteen people came…. I couldn’t understand anything they were talking about but I could tell they supported the poor and were in favor of equality. The small size of the meeting didn’t turn me off. On the contrary, I thought, I need to find a way to help because the socialists are so outnumbered.

Email (at) if you would like to contribute to the discussions that are so badly needed if we are to rebuild the left.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel De França July 22, 2012 at 7:18 pm

I think that instead of arguing over strategic issues, we should all focus our minds to greedily desire the social and democratic control of the surplus in the same way the capitalists do now, in the form of accumulation of capital. How that would be achieved, is a case – by – case issue, just like the control over capital can create alliances over the most diverging capitalists pigs.


David Berger July 22, 2012 at 11:02 pm

Sigh, one more time I see a leftist ignoring the actions of actual leftists inside Occupy Wall Street, especially in New York. A small but vivid group of socialists both from several of the small groups and independents, are gathered around the Labor Alliance in OWS, trying to build a relationship between OWS and the organized and unorganized working class. Pham Binh refers to us as a “red ghetto,” but that just refers to his isolation from OWS. Rather than searching for the truth within the Old or New Testaments (or the works of MELT – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky), I suggest that you join us and get some practical experience doing strike support, organizing the unorganized and the slow and unglamorous but rewarding work of building a working class movement.


Ben Campbell July 22, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Hello David. I was actually aware of this, and you will note that I mentioned “admirable efforts to break free from these respective dead-ends”, by linking what may be your group (Solidarity?). I thought I was lamenting the lack of work like your’s. I believe by “red ghetto” Binh meant that the “socialists/leftists” had separated from the rest of Occupy, not that they weren’t doing valuable work (although he can address this himself). At any rate, I was fairly involved with OWS before it disintegrated, although not in your group. I only met 2-3 “socialists”, while meeting dozens and dozens of anarchists. Thus, if I sound annoyed, it is at the 95% of “Marxists” in NYC who did not did not get involved with OWS and sat around criticizing it from the sidelines – not the 5% who did.

Having said that, the left needs more viable organizational structures than whatever OWS working groups are still functional. People do need to have some serious conversations, given the failure of the non-anarchist left thus far. Last time you told Binh to either “put up or shut up”, i.e. get more involved before commenting so heavily. However, the current problem with the left is not that people are not doing enough things. There are actually incredible energies being expended, and often duplicated, triplicated, wasteful, or outright counterproductive. The question is how we connect these energies, and draw in new people who haven’t been able to contribute, so that something emerges that is greater than its individual parts.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp July 23, 2012 at 10:05 am

What I meant by “red ghetto” was the propensity of socialists to limit their activities (and therefore influence) to Occupy’s labor groups rather than participating in as many aspects of Occupy as possible — working groups, tablings, direct actions, kitchen (when we had one), and so on. By focusing all efforts on one or two working groups or areas of work we simply confine our influence to these narrow quarters instead of broadening and spreading it throughout Occupy which I view as a mistake.

The reality is there is more than one way to build Occupy’s relationship to the working class. The rent strike in Queens is a concrete example.


Aaron Slater July 23, 2012 at 10:52 am


I am Aaron Slater and I am a member of an independent socialist organization Philly Socialists. We have existed for just over one year and have worked to build membership up to roughly 80 people, including a contingent of 30-40 members active in our various programs that include Red Plenty (Food Distribution), ESL classes, and Free Socialist Internet (free integrated open Wifi networks). We share much of Mr. Campbell’s analysis of both the apologist left and the irrelevant left. Personally I have been following the discussions concerning mass party building that are ongoing on this website with great excitement because there is a growing realization of the need of an actual popular mass leftist party, whatever form that takes. In Philadelphia we are organizing the unorganized into a multi-tendency socialist party. We do not enforce adherence to any platform (we don’t even have a platform, rather we have a list of core beliefs), we encourage open debate and the development of factions which can hash out their conflicts in public and put it to a vote. Our goal is socialism, our means is the mass popular party. To achieve this goal we acknowledge it will take time, sacrifice, and dedicated organizing. We do not fool ourselves into thinking socialism will come easy or quickly. We are in it for the long haul. To achieve this we are creating a network of social and political programs to radicalize the people.

I look forward to the continued debates and discussion on the future of socialism, methods towards it’s achievement, and the building of the popular mass party.


Ben Campbell July 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm


Looking at your website your initiative looks quite promising. It would be nice to hear more on the details of how you got started, your programs, how you think it might be spread and networked to other locales across the country, party-building etc. If you or someone else in the org wanted to write up a short overview of your work, that would likely really add to the discussion.


Aaron Slater July 25, 2012 at 10:34 am

Thanks for the encouragement. Pham emailed me and I sent him a brief overview. We are still a young organization (just over a year) and would love to add to the conversation. Up to this point we have avoided press or other leftist organizations because we would like to establish a firm foundation before we really put ourselves out there. If you would like to hear more about us feel free to email me and we can discuss.



Christian July 23, 2012 at 11:33 pm

Nice article, I wish you luck in navigating the existing organizations and helping them, as well as yourself, to find better ways to make things work.

I think the one thing that everyone needs more of, anarchists, and socialists of all stripes included, is humility. It’s okay to not know the right answer, or the right policy, or the right way to organize. We are all trying to figure that out. Instead of this, people latch onto a label they barely understand and feel they have to proclaim that it is always right, or avoid other people who might make them uncomfortable by pointing out problems in their declared philosophy.

For myself, I don’t know the way to build a new left organization, or how to move past demands for a strengthened welfare state or how to articulate a detailed plan for a post capitalist reality.

But I do know, that ordinary people working together, taking problems head on, talking about what affects them in common, if people can put their differences aside and do this, they can accomplish anything.

But what about getting people of different political persuasions together? That is something we know very little how to do. A problem faced by many revolutionary socialists, and many anarchists, is both of their philosophies are often very concerned with being “right”, and with making sure that everyone else knows it. With anarchism too, principles often get treated like they are more important than, say, group effectiveness. That is a problem. And I think a lot of it comes from the fact that many anarchists and socialists today learned their theories in academic settings. Academic settings are all about trying to be right and making sure everyone knows it.

Most people don’t really care about that though. They don’t care if you group uses consensus or hand signals or not. They don’t care about whether you like reading books about russian revolutionaries who have been dead for 70 years. They don’t care whether your group has a newspaper or not. They care about being tired and broke. They care about not being treated with any respect at their job. They care about their debt and the many jobs they have to work to keep their payments made and how stressed that makes them.

We’ve got to judge our effectiveness by other criteria than whether or not everyone else knows our group is right. Because first off, we don’t know what is right. We can only hope to be able to figure it out by talking with people, and not just other revolutionaries, but regular people too. We’ve got to judge our effectiveness on a broader level. Have we set anyone free? Have we resulted in less death occurring? Have we created smiles where there used to be frowns? Does someone now have dignity where they didn’t have it before? Is someone now proud of them self, when they used to feel afraid or ashamed?

Most people in the United States couldn’t tell you what the difference between an anarchist or a trotskyist is. Most of them don’t care. I don’t either. I think each come with their own advantages and disadvantages. They tend to be very complimentary, and each school of thought tends to overdo itself in its attempt to make up for the short comings of the other. And that is the greatest tragedy, I think, that people don’t always talk to each other.

Maybe there ought to be some kind of foreign- exchange program for radicals of different political affiliations.


Diana Barahona July 25, 2012 at 1:25 pm

In my discussions with people in the Occupy movement in Los Angeles, one thing that everybody (anarchists, antiwar activists, Iraq war veterans) understands is that the wars on Libya and Syria by the U.S./NATO/GCC are carried out on behalf of transnational corporations and those who hope to profit from them. Outside of Occupy, the Trotskyists are split on the issue, with the ISO on the side of imperialism, the Socialist Equality Party on the side of peace and international law, and Solidarity silent. That’s why it is so ironic that a Web site set up to promote these wars is also hosting discussions on bringing the left together. Is the idea that we should all come together for global capitalism and imperialism?


David Berger July 26, 2012 at 12:10 pm

(1) With all due respect, sister, the issue of Libya and Syria are not as simple as you are projecting.

(2) I will be replying to Ben and Pham on Labor and OWS ASAP.

David Berger


Arthur July 27, 2012 at 7:30 am

Thanks for the survey of post-apocalyptic “organized left”. Obvious summary is that these are just political sects with no possibility of connecting to any mass movement.

I agree that we are entering a new period since 2008.

Don’t agree with characterization of “neoliberal period of 1973-2008”:

“As capital was able to expand seemingly endlessly via the equivalent of a giant Ponzi scheme, these years were not exactly conducive to significant left advance, yet alone any meaningful challenge to capitalism.”

Actually the Western left disintegrated because most of the reforms that its (very small) mass base wanted were achieved. US imperialism was defeated in Vietnam. There was an overall retreat from that “global policeman” role. Rapid advance of modernization in Asia, Africa and Latin America, including replacement of the gorilla regimes with parliamentary democracies, end of Apartheid in South Africa etc. Internally there was a significant generational change from the repressive pre-1960s societies to a much more “open” society. People who turned to sharp struggle for power against the rulers in the 1960s felt that they could get much of what they wanted without that kind of political engagement in later decades. So the very small mass base became none at all and naturally only political sects remained organized when there was no mass movement to connect to. (Many of them, like DSA and various Trot groups simply continued exactly the same irrelevance that they had also been engaged in during the 1960s. The ebb and flow of the mass movement doesn’t affect groups that never had much to do with it).

Unlike the pseudo-left, everyone that was even mildly progressive, let alone “hard left” was delighted to see the East European police states collapse in the 1990s.

Its necessary to explicitly recognize that the mass base for a left declined because of real progress. The pseudo-left cannot acknowledge that capitalism was relatively successful and that this naturally led to a decline of the mass base for a left because only extravagent denunciation of capitalism enables them to pretend to be “left” at all. The worse they claim things have got under capitalism, the more “left” they sound, so they have no interest in accurate analysis.

The changed economic situation since 2008 does mean that eventually significant masses of people will be again interested in rebellion and struggle.

Although organization capable of leading that is obviously missing, its more important to recognize that an analysis that could lead to a serious political program is missing and not much can be done organizationally without that.

Specifically there never was much grasp of economics (Lenin remarked that none of the leaders at the turn of 20th century had understood Marx’s capital – and that certainly didn’t improve in the 1960s, let alone subsequently).

“Marx makes you both simultaneously empowered yet aware of your own impotence – he is full of such contradictions.” That sounds like a good start to some serious study!

We need to seriously study how capitalism works and how to transform it. That won’t be easy.


David Berger July 27, 2012 at 8:45 am

Arthur, you say: “We need to seriously study how capitalism works and how to transform it. That won’t be easy.”

If you believe this, I strongly suggest you start on the task. Keep us posted.

David Berger


patrickm July 27, 2012 at 11:08 am

Just to ‘keep you posted’; the following article is something to get us on the same page..

I think a current US version would be invaluable for any resurgent US left. Let us know what you think.



Arthur July 27, 2012 at 1:59 pm

I have started. Not much to report yet as it is indeed not easy.

For others studying marxist political economy I can report having found one (!) very old book on “The Capitalist Cycle” worth recommending:


jp July 27, 2012 at 4:11 pm

that quote about insanity is widely but wrongly attributed to einstein – just try sourcing it


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