Fellow Travelers

by Bhaskar Sunkara (Democratic Socialists of America) on April 28, 2013

First published by Jacobin. Republished with author’s permission.

It’s an old adage of city life: commute home to masturbate, but don’t masturbate during the commute. Such are the reasonable burdens of living in a society.

Last week I was reminded that this sentiment isn’t universally shared. On a Euclid Avenue-bound C train, I sat across from someone getting to know himself through his Sunday best. It was jarring, but not nearly jarring enough. In a strange way, years on the radical left had prepared me for such an encounter.

You see, subway masturbators don’t care that everyone else is trying to get away from them; they don’t care about being a nuisance. They care about jacking off. Not unlike a certain variety of American socialist: enthusiasts of sectarian minutia, reenactors of old battles, collectors of decontextualized quotes. Leftists have a lot to say. What they don’t always have is the social literacy to speak to a broader audience, a literacy that comes with a grounding in practical politics. They lack self-awareness about the timing or propriety of their actions, and they don’t see why that’s a problem.

Of course, the C train masturbator likely suffered from afflictions more serious than a lack of tact. But the Left is not mentally ill. It’s insular and inconsequential. Thankfully, many do want to see a change in its internal culture, but usually this sentiment takes the form of vague “can’t we all get along and talk about how much we hate drones” platitudes. That attitude isn’t quite right either.

The choice facing us isn’t between the blind worship of our particular pantheon of dead white men or Daily Kos-style ecumenicism. After all, the problem with the Left isn’t that it’s too austere and serious; it’s that it doesn’t take itself seriously enough to make the changes necessary for political practice. We can be rigorous and ideological — without being afraid of being heard outside our own circles. Mass exposure wouldn’t spell the end of a vibrant socialist critique.

But to get to the root of the problem will take an organizational revolution, not just a cultural one. We’re weird, because we’re not accountable to any mass constituency, not because we didn’t watch enough cable growing up.

Okay, maybe that too.

But it’s impossible to deny that institutionally the socialist left is in disarray, fragmented into a million different groupings, many of them with essentially the same politics. It’s an environment that breeds the narcissism of small differences. In a powerless movement, the stakes aren’t high enough to make people work together and the structures aren’t in place to facilitate substantive debate.

The prospect for left regroupment was one of my main motivations for founding Jacobin. Yet the watchwords of this project have seldom appeared in our pages. It’s finally time to make a call for joint action on the Left with an eye towards the unification of the many socialist organizations with similar political orientations into one larger body. This idea has been trotted out for generations, but new agents and desperate necessity can finally make it a reality.

If it comes to fruition we’d see the convergence of American socialists committed to non-sectarian organizing under the auspices of an overarching democratic structure. This in itself may not seem like a significant undertaking — we’re only talking about a few groups and a few thousand people — but we shouldn’t let those humble beginnings obscure the potential that a fresh start for the organized left holds.

For one, a larger, more centralized organization would offer a powerful pole of attraction for both the newly politicized and those who have spent years on the Left’s margins. By allowing open factions, such an outlet could incorporate activists from different strands of the socialist tradition and foster a pluralistic culture in which comradely debate and open disagreement, far from crippling action, helps build a political program.

There would be less glamorous benefits, too. A well-run administrative apparatus could consist of dozens of paid staffers and organizers committed to work across the nation. New technology will connect activists who live close to each other and immediately put them to work in local struggles, as well as educational and cultural outreach, all under the same banner.

The strength of the Left is in organization — with it, we could one day contend for power. Without it, Left Forum might as well be Comic Con. An internal restart seems like the only good starting point for radicals looking to making an impact on American political life. I hope to contribute to that process more substantively in time. For now, the quality of our young activists should leave us confident about the future.

We can also take comfort in the memory that small groups of organized militants have made a difference before, paving the way for mass action and sweeping structural change. In the short-term, a new organization would focus on anti-austerity and work hand-in-hand with liberal allies who want to see the welfare state rebuilt. But socialists will not merely be anonymous members of a future liberal-left coalition; they’ll seek to push those struggles beyond liberalism’s limits. This means identifying capitalism as a social system that benefits a minority, and openly organizing in civil society to challenge it. It means building its own institutions and organs of class power and presenting real alternatives.

Before long, the subway masturbators among us will be drowned out by a generation free of decades of ill-will — organized and confident enough to make a difference. Until then, try not to stare.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

David Berger (RED DAVE) April 28, 2013 at 1:45 pm

So let me give you what, as far as I’m concerned, is the litmus test of whether or not someone has the right to call themselves a socialist. Are you in favor, as part of your program of left unity, supporting candidates in the Democratic Party?

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Luke Elliott April 30, 2013 at 2:05 pm

I don’t think that’s the best litmus test in the world, from a pragmatic perspective. My litmus test is: do your efforts build a strong, scaled, non-sectarian left-wing formation while at the same time winning tangible victories for oppressed folks, and minimizing reactionary effects that harm oppressed folks? Such a litmus test would suggest independent electoral action where victory is possible, and critical support for left-leaning Dems in order to hold back the forces of the right, where independent victory is not possible.

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David Berger (RED DAVE) April 30, 2013 at 4:13 pm

LUKE ELLIOT: I don’t think that’s the best litmus test in the world, from a pragmatic perspective.

DAVID BERGER: For openers, pragmatism is hardly a socialist methodology. It begs that question of the criterion for what “works.”

LUKE ELLIOT: My litmus test is: do your efforts build a strong, scaled, non-sectarian left-wing formation

DAVID BERGER: That is extremely vague. Can you give an example?

LUKE ELLIOT: while at the same time winning tangible victories for oppressed folks, and minimizing reactionary effects that harm oppressed folks?

DAVID BERGER: Why, as a socialist, do you avoid the use of the term “working class”?

LUKE ELLIOT: Such a litmus test would suggest independent electoral action where victory is possible

DAVID BERGER: So you see no value in electoral campaigns that don’t produce victory? How about the Allan Benson campaign of 1916, as opposed to those socialists who “pragmatically” supported Wilson? (“He kept us out of the War!”) Or those who in 1964 “pragmatically” supported Johnson?

LUKE ELLIOT: and critical support for left-leaning Dems in order to hold back the forces of the right, where independent victory is not possible.

DAVID BERGER: So you really believe there are “left-leaning Democrats. Could you give us an example of one of these precious figures around whom we socialists are supposed to unite?

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Luke Elliott April 30, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Thanks for the responses :)

– If socialism isn’t about what works, isn’t a force that really operates in and changes history, then it might as well be nothing at all.

– I suppose I’m intentionally vague since there hasn’t been an actual left in this country 80 years and even then it was less than you’d hope. So I have some agnosticism about what, exactly a US left will look like, if it ever comes to be. As for a contemporary model, I guess, like everyone else in the world, I’m salivating over Syriza these days. But Greece ain’t the US. We have different conditions and different horizons of possibility.

– Sometimes I use the term working class and sometimes I don’t. But the truth is that the term is class reductionist, and I believe in a socialsim (really, a communism) that is articulated with other and distinct forms of oppression. From a purely historical point of view and thus from a theoretical point of view, racism and patriarchy (to name just two other structural oppressions) pre-date capitalism by a good bit. In the two pieces that have been posted to north star, I’ve referred to ‘poor and working class people of all colors, genders and sexual orientations’. But such lists get cumbersome and their never comprehensive.

– At this point in history I see little value in the left engaging at the presidential level. I think ideology, culture etc are vital, but also my organizing training has taught me (perhaps to a fault?) that losing is rarely pretty. I really like to pick winnable fights. The socialist/sectarian left of the last bunch of decades is about 180 degrees away from this. It drives me nuts. Working class folk want to WIN power, not get ‘educated’ through ineffectual campaigns. Let’s do our ideological work in the midst of winnable campaigns!

– Left leaning isn’t left, that’s for sure. I’m not very tuned in to the deets of national politics in this country, to a fault. But I suppose I’m thinking of open-minded liberal/progressive state and city politicians who, with a force to their left, would actually move legislation that benefits and enables the deeper organization of poor folks.

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Arthur May 1, 2013 at 4:36 am

” I really like to pick winnable fights. The socialist/sectarian left of the last bunch of decades is about 180 degrees away from this. It drives me nuts. Working class folk want to WIN power, not get ‘educated’ through ineffectual campaigns. Let’s do our ideological work in the midst of winnable campaigns!”

This is key and applies far beyond electoral matters. The pseudoleft are losers and oriented towards losing and “educating” people that they can’t win through completely ineffectual futile activities. The fact that people overwhelmingway stay away from their “activity” and are repelled by it is not a sign of conservatism or apathy but an indication that when there is a genuine left actually trying to win again the pseudoleft sects will not be a major problem.

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Luke Elliott May 1, 2013 at 7:56 am

Arthur –

I don’t know who you are. But I couldn’t agree more. And yeah, elections are the least of it. Working class folks aren’t fools – they’re not gonna sign up with an organization that doesn’t know how to win. They’re too busy and too smart for that.

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David Berger (RED DAVE) May 1, 2013 at 8:17 am

LUKE ELLIOT: I don’t know who you are.

DAVID BERGER: Among other things, Luke, Arthur is a supporter of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Nice company.

LUKE ELLIOT: But I couldn’t agree more. And yeah, elections are the least of it. Working class folks aren’t fools – they’re not gonna sign up with an organization that doesn’t know how to win.

DAVID BERGER: And those Democrats, wow, they know how to win. They won in November; they won in Iraq; they’re winning in Afghanistan. Great winners.

LUKE ELLIOT: They’re too busy and too smart for that.

DAVID BERGER: Then why has the working class been systematically defeated for the past thirty years?

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David Berger (RED DAVE) April 30, 2013 at 11:06 pm

LUKE ELLIOT: – If socialism isn’t about what works, isn’t a force that really operates in and changes history, then it might as well be nothing at all.

DSAVID BERGER: Obviously, but that’s not the same as pragmatism.

UKE ELLIOT: – I suppose I’m intentionally vague since there hasn’t been an actual left in this country 80 years and even then it was less than you’d hope.

DAVID BERGER: If by “this country” you mean the USA, where were you in the 1960s. Or, if you weren’t born yet, I suggest that you read some history.

UKE ELLIOT: So I have some agnosticism about what, exactly a US left will look like, if it ever comes to be. As for a contemporary model, I guess, like everyone else in the world, I’m salivating over Syriza these days. But Greece ain’t the US. We have different conditions and different horizons of possibility.

DAVID BERGER: A study of the defeats and victories of Occupy Wall Street (tomorrow is May Day, in case no one around here has noticed) might give you some ideas.

LUKE ELLIOT: – Sometimes I use the term working class and sometimes I don’t. But the truth is that the term is class reductionist, and I believe in a socialsim (really, a communism) that is articulated with other and distinct forms of oppression.

DAVID BERGER: In other words, you reject the leading role of the working class in the establishment of socialism.

LUKE ELLIOT: From a purely historical point of view and thus from a theoretical point of view, racism and patriarchy (to name just two other structural oppressions) pre-date capitalism by a good bit.

DAVID BERGER: That’s true, but the particiular forms and uses to which capitalism put racism and patriarchy are qualitatively different from those of previous societies.

LUKE ELLIOT: In the two pieces that have been posted to north star, I’ve referred to ‘poor and working class people of all colors, genders and sexual orientations’. But such lists get cumbersome and their never comprehensive.

DAVID BERGER: It also liquidates the fundamental class nature of capitalist oppression.

LUKE ELLIOT: – At this point in history I see little value in the left engaging at the presidential level.

DAVID BERGER; I guess you refect something like that Nader campaigns.

LUKE ELLIOT: I think ideology, culture etc are vital, but also my organizing training has taught me (perhaps to a fault?) that losing is rarely pretty.

DAVID BERGER: Let me clue you in to something, Comrade. If you’re going to be a socialist you better get used to losing.

LUKE ELLIOT: I really like to pick winnable fights.

DAVID BERGER: So do most people, but, let me ask you, how do you deal with losing?

LUKE ELLIOT: The socialist/sectarian left of the last bunch of decades is about 180 degrees away from this. It drives me nuts.

DAVID BERGER: Considering that the working class, and the left, has suffered defeat after defeat for the last 30 years, what would you have us do? Vote for Democrats?

LUKE ELLIOT: Working class folk want to WIN power, not get ‘educated’ through ineffectual campaigns.

DAVID BERGER: And what, pray tell, do you do when winning is not possible?

LUKE ELLIOT: Let’s do our ideological work in the midst of winnable campaigns!

DAVID BERGER: Again, what do you do when such campaigns do not exist.

LUKE ELLIOT: – Left leaning isn’t left, that’s for sure. I’m not very tuned in to the deets of national politics in this country, to a fault.

DAVID BERGER: With all due respect, I suggest that if you’re going to write about American politics you should learn something about it.

LUKE ELLIOT: But I suppose I’m thinking of open-minded liberal/progressive state and city politicians who, with a force to their left, would actually move legislation that benefits and enables the deeper organization of poor folks.

DAVID BERGER: Guess what. They really don’t exist. If there is a “force to their left” that is that strong, such a force may as well run its own candidates and not fuck around with the lackeys of the ruling class.

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Luke Elliott May 1, 2013 at 8:18 am

Your formatting is crazy! :)

– I’m not sure what you mean by pragmatism (like, the 20th century school of philosophy?). Maybe I didn’t use it precisely enough. I just mean, in general, like being practical.

– Trying not to take offense to the suggestion that I should read history. I’m here, on this thread, discussing my take on the US left, given the information that I have from books and from experience. If you want to provide some details, please go for it. As far as my read on the 20th century, the New Left/New Communists were the beginning of the end of an arc in which the working class people had won significant gains, taken extreme hits (via especially McCarthyism) and were about to nose dive into the 80s. Not to say that great work didn’t happen (I’m but 30 years old), but a lot of the marxist left in the decades you mention was caught up in the same sectarianism we see today. Not that I’ve read every book there is to read my friend, but I’m trying. Oh, and for me the most interesting that happened in this country after the 1930s was the Civil Rights movement. Those folks knew how to organize.

– David, when you say things like “In other words, you reject the leading role of the working class in the establishment of socialism” its hard to explain just how you sound.

– racism has taken many forms over the centuries. But whatever century you’re in, it needs to be combatted on its own terms, not as a subset of what you narrowly view as a more fundamental oppression. If you don’t see this, then you’re caught up in dogma. I don’t know what else to say.

– re: learning about American politics. I’d love for you to help teach me. But it seems that what you have to offer is the (relatively obvious) analysis that Democrats are the ruling class. I’m much more interested in the analysis of folks like Carl Davidson who paint a nuanced picture that elucidates the fault lines in the DP such that they can be used by the left (if we ever build one).

– “Let me clue you in to something, Comrade. If you’re going to be a socialist you better get used to losing.” Gosh its hard to respond to this. Man if you’re a socialist in your head and you’ve never (or your organization has never) organized a campaign that won real power for working class folks…………… Pick fights you can win. There are always winnable campaigns. You and I both know that we won’t see full socialism tomorrow. But in the meanwhile, pick fights you can win (organize a single shop, a neighborhood, whatever), and do your education while you’re at it.

– the tone of these threads is always interesting to me. There’s a lot of hostility. I think more of that hostility should be directed toward the agents of capital and less toward someone, who, on the political spectrum is almost right next to you. The hostility is a big part of what makes the left sectarian. Lets find some core points of agreement, pick fights with *capitalists* and work out disagreements in midst of struggle.

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Danny May 1, 2013 at 10:38 am

Lets pick fights with capitalists not with eachother. Well said

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David Berger (RED DAVE) May 1, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Easy to say. Suppose you are on a May Day march today, and you see a bunch of so-called socialists with a banner that says WE SUPPORT THE US INVASION OF IRAQ.

What would your response be?

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Luke Elliott May 1, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Maybe I’m crazy, but I enjoy talking to ‘apolitical’ Christian fundamentalists :)

re: your senario: I’d say 1) find points of agreement, especially around worker rights since its a May Day rally and 2) make a case against the war and imperial behavior more broadly. 3) Do all of this in the spirit of building relationships and moving all of us (myself and included) to the left. Always to the left :)

What would YOU do David?

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PatrickSMcNally May 1, 2013 at 1:42 pm

If people were actuallu carrying a banner in support of the war, then it would be necessary to get them broken off away. That is not the same thing as saying that individuals are not permitted to hold certain opinions. During the 1950s there were many unionized workers who tacitly approved of Jim Crow. That did not mean that one should have refused to invite them to a labor rally. But if they brought along signs saying “We Support Jim Crow!” then of course you would not want them in the rally.

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Pham Binh May 1, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Not sure why anyone is even wondering about this problem. You need at least 2 people to hold a banner.

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David Berger (RED DAVE) May 1, 2013 at 3:06 pm

LUKE ELLIOT: re: your senario: I’d say 1) find points of agreement, especially around worker rights since its a May Day rally and 2) make a case against the war and imperial behavior more broadly. 3) Do all of this in the spirit of building relationships and moving all of us (myself and included) to the left. Always to the left :)

What would YOU do David?

DAVID BERGER: Try my damnedest to get them kicked out of the march. I don’t want swine like that around me.

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David Berger (RED DAVE) May 1, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Anyway:

HAPPY MAY DAY, COMRADES

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Richard Estes May 1, 2013 at 4:34 pm

“LUKE ELLIOT: re: your senario: I’d say 1) find points of agreement, especially around worker rights since its a May Day rally and 2) make a case against the war and imperial behavior more broadly. 3) Do all of this in the spirit of building relationships and moving all of us (myself and included) to the left. Always to the left :)”

This is how we ended up with the French and German socialist parties supporting imperialism and voting to finance World War I. Underlying it is an implicit assumption that the rights of workers in Europe and the US are more important than those abroad in the lesser developed world.

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Luke Elliott May 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Richard, David –

Happy May Day, indeed :)

Unfortunately I don’t know the details of the SPs in France and Germany during WW1. But I think ya’ll are confusing your contexts. The question was, how should one interact at a march with some left leaning workers who support a war? This is a minor (nearly insignificant) tactical question. If you want to talk about organizations (political parties, labor unions, identity formations, coalitions of community groups) and how their politics constrain or facilitate the military might of the US, that’s a WHOLE different question. To build such an organization or to meaningfully influence the politics of such an organization takes decades of careful work. It has nothing to do with trying to get a handful of workers to leave a march.

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