Take a Hard Left

by Chepe Martín on April 29, 2013

It had been unduly hard to discern where the emerging and sexier trends in Marxism have placed themselves, veiled as they are in ultra-left aesthetics and memes. Sure, plenty of cues are present, but those might’ve been incidental and only indicative of a desire to suggest a broad selection of socialist thought.

jacobin_1_310The need to investigate has ended. Jacobin has staked themselves as pink when what we need is a nice maroon. Bhaskar Sunkara has written a piece  for In These Times that has planted his revisionist flag down for democratic socialism, a turf that seems to be populated by a lot of groups and editorial boards including The New Inquiry.

It isn’t that democratic socialism is altogether a sad derivation from Marxism. In fact, the energy these people are bringing to the table is welcome, and I, for one, hope their project of growing the democratic socialist left is successful, particularly if it finds a strong tendency toward feminism, ecology, and decolonizing politics. If anything, I would see their project stronger. The historicity of the contemporary moment in social programs that Sunkara finely lays out is also severely incomplete with its disregard for gender, questions of self-determination, and the significant impact of anarchism and even more so autonomism on today’s active radical left. He is right as well that progressive (re: liberal but social democratic) reform is a welcome alternative to the “things must get worse before they get better” strategic thinking that comes out of the ultra-left and insurrectionary corners.

But what I will say is that Sunkara’s vision is not the best that Marxism can offer, and it is not the breath of fresh air I hoped to see. What we need most is a Marxism that takes all of the lessons of the 20th century including decolonization, feminism, and the recognition of the failures of the Soviet model, and what it appears we are getting is a re-tread of the revisionist politics that Lenin and Luxemburg fought against. It is a socialism that in the end didn’t challenge empire, held workers back from fighting for power, and devolved into what was termed economism — that is, the fight of socialists for immediate economic gains in lieu of a synthesis between economic struggle and the struggle for political and social power. It is a socialism that pulled back on the insurrections in 1919 in Europe or in France in 1968 rather than having faith in workers, students, and oppressed groups to experiment with the seizure power for themselves.

What we need is a new communism and what we are getting is a new Keynesianism.

My own communism (which I understand to be within the wider realm of socialist thought) has taken lessons that Sunkara seems to have ignored from anarchism. The anarchists, many not realizing that much of their style is derived from autonomous Marxists in Europe and Latin America (as well as feminists and environmentalists closer to home), including mass-scale direct actions and shut-downs, bring a sense of rebellion into the post-Soviet era that has offered the vast majority of the participation and training in direct and participatory democracy this side of the non-profit industrial complex. Corporate-esque as they are, the non-profits and unions have done some of this groundwork to rebuild a civil society, but the autonomism and horizontality in the environmentalist, counter-globalization, and Occupy movements, as well as in a myriad of other movements, should not be dismissed nor dismantled. Just as progressivism and what Sunkara calls the labor-liberals should be pulled into a pink socialist camp, the far left needs a Marxism that takes on the tremendous advances in thought and practice paved by those in autonomist circles as well as the radical agents who are correctly using identity-based tools to combat intersectional oppressions without dispensing with the wealth of thought provided by Lenin and decolonization struggles in the last century.

Take, for example, the question of social programs, one that I recently laid some thoughts on, and the recognition of a profiteering non-profit industrial complex that itself is an amalgam of caring leftists trying to be useful and poverty pimp careerists who couldn’t give a damn about questions of agency or self-determination in the hood, the barrio, or the workplace. These operations have strings that trace back to their financiers or state funding and to a politics of conciliation and sometimes even abandonment of poor people when they decide organizing resources are need to go elsewhere.

While a greater entanglement with overt socialists would be invaluable, the mutual aid and direct action efforts of the farther left (which themselves are far from co-optation retardant where non-profits are concerned) offer alternative methods of organizing on the ground that many communities have found more effective and less top-down. From school occupations to Copwatch to wildcat strikes, they have offered methods of organizing that cannot be halted by the Congressional sequester or a nervous donor. While the autonomists get stuck in dogmas around self-management, sometimes they offer valid lessons to projects for self-determination and direction in poor communities and workplaces.

Just as Sunkara’s democratic socialism (with markers that ring of eurocommunism to me) is needed to challenge and pull the liberal left, the autonomist and communist lefts need to be the radical projects that occasionally collaborate with democratic socialism from the left while building up our own institutions, intellectual and street-level. The dream of the young democratic socialists I’ve met in recent years cannot be an effort that pulls back on the reins of the far more radical attainments made in the most spectacular elements of the left, themselves greatly influenced by social struggles in regions like Chiapas, Argentina, Venezuela, and Greece, where the erosion of state control (or the governance of the Bolivarian left) has opened space for the creation of popular power in factory occupations and neighborhood assemblies.

What the radical left needs is a break from its puritanical fetishization of tropes, a respect for the need to collaborate with other lefts, and most of all, a healthy, engaging series of projects in theory that The New Inquiry, Jacobin, and others are affording to the soft left ideal. The left in the United States does not need a new praxis in the sense that Jacobin is bringing it, but one that coalesces around the models and methods of lefts old and new, something we perhaps get to watch social movements do in places like Venezuela and Greece. We are neither of those countries, but it is not enough to fall back to a social-democratic movement that in the past centered around poor method and led to capitulation to war, exploitation, and sell-out politicians and institutions.

Those of us who have spent most of our political lives in the streets need to engage more with theory, and we need to do so with the most open and critical minds we can muster. We need to bring our experiences and reflections to the minds of all of the newly radicalizing or older but reinvigorated radicals for a project centering around popular power, and foster a healthy environment of critical thought that creates a space for feminism to Bolivarianism and Pan-Africanism, while figuring out how to pull liberalism out of these frameworks. And we need to grapple with the dialectic of spontaneity and organization, figuring out how far left movements that have become incredibly decentralized and autonomous can find an interplay with modes of organization that allow the far left to be effective, expanding, and long term rather than falling into sectarian dogmas that lose relevancy that is created in fits and starts.

If both Occupy and the counter-globalization movements (along with anti-prison, immigrants rights, environmentalist, and anti-imperialist movements) have shown anything, it is that we can actually build institutions outside of the conservative ones present in neo-liberal society, and ones that are not stuck in the bitter nostalgia of wishing for past methods of organization (e.g., Leninist parties and syndicalist unions) could just be done better. Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of revisionist Marxism was not to say that communists (and anarchists) don’t appreciate and participate in fights for social reforms, but that they do not confuse the means with the ends, and in that place they also don’t shy away from direct confrontation. We can march for reforms, but not in place of engaging in militant work to erode police power in brown communities or to building community-controlled institutions of mutual aid and struggle. Taken alone, Sunkara’s path can offer the strengthening of the imperial republicanism, of a bourgeois power that is actively killing our brothers and sisters in our streets and around the world. The militant left need not only be an alternative to an emerging democratic socialist left, but a complement to it.

I wish Jacobin well, then, and hope it achieves something of the goals laid out by Sunkara. I hope he also takes these criticisms in the spirit of camaraderie as he might not have in the past. We can, nay, must have our alliances. We can collaborate. In the end, though, they can have their soft left, but in the radical left we go hard.

Chepe Martín is a long-time militant, with experience in many of the above-described movements and others. He is a worker-owner at the OccuCopy cooperative printshop, a Know Your Rights trainer, and a writer. Find him @Sabokitty on twitter.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Louis Proyect April 29, 2013 at 1:53 pm

What a great article. I think that Jacobin performs a useful function but this needed to be said.


Tim Horras April 29, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Great piece! The author takes a principled stance of justifiably praising Jacobin, while simultaneously pointing out the need for more radical analysis and practice. I appreciate the idea of promoting a decisively Left politics which can attract autonomists and anarchists from the left, along with social democrats and labor liberals on the right. A tough task, to be sure, but something we absolutely must do in the context of the U.S.


J. Richardson April 29, 2013 at 2:44 pm

I think this critique misses the mark. I don’t agree with all of Sunkara’s / Jacobin’s politics but they’re not represented here. From Facebook, his comments:

“From a skim i think the point that’s missed is that this is an intervention oriented towards one particular audience. i’m all for grassroots building in civil society, that’s the point of organization, that’s the point of what the early German SPD did, that’s the point of a left. I think the broader politics were quite a bit misinterpreted.

A closer reading of Jacobin and my work would’ve probably criticisms from you, but they would be different criticisms than the ones presented. This isn’t really a serious grappling with the political orientation we’re offering.”

I think that’s a fair assessment.


Pham Binh April 29, 2013 at 7:15 pm

I agree with this piece except for the claim that Sunkara is a Bernstein-ite or Kautsky-ist. Bernstein’s heresy was to call for the separation of the socialist and worker movements while Kautsky’s crime was his failure to live up to his own political line, a sin Lenin never forgave him for. Sunkara is definitely not in favor of keeping our two movements separate nor does he want the worker-socialist movement to create its own party to run against the two bourgeois parties, so technically he’s to the right of Kautsky.

For a more thorough Marxist, hard left critique of Jacobin and its orientation, check out Ben Campbell’s two pieces:


John Drinkwater May 4, 2013 at 12:14 pm

My impression is that he’s not even Marxist but much more like a Fabian socialist.


Pham Binh May 4, 2013 at 12:50 pm

What makes you say that?


Darwin26 April 30, 2013 at 3:12 am

i really don’t know how to interpret the article in light of where i live ~ where this state is 2nd in amount of ppl who have to work 2 jobs to survive and number 1 in those that work 3 jobs to survive.
Good article or not it all seems like a chess tournament for the ‘intelligencia’ while the Working Class still gets its consumerist minutia at Wal-mart and the Capitalists/Politicians gain/acquire/Steal everything else IE Fascism.
i support this platform: http://www.newprogs.org/


Richard Estes April 30, 2013 at 12:38 pm

The NPA platform is, in the US context, analogous to what SYRIZA has emphasized in Greece. From a glance at the website, a worthwhile effort.


Deran April 30, 2013 at 2:48 pm

It’s unclear to me if the NPA are politically independent, or Democrats? A great many of the advocacy groups that support the NPA progressivist platform are groups that participate in Democratic politics (Move To Amend coems to mind). And the “Green Party of Washington State” is really no longer an active organization, there are a fw active locals in WA State, but the state party is pretty much moribund.

It also seems pretty dubious to suggest that the NPA’s progressivist platform is even close to SYRIZA?


Pham Binh April 30, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I’m wary of program-mongering. What makes SYRIZA a radical threat to the 1% is its mass base and hard line on beginning to reverse austerity, not its analysis of capitalism or the radical-ness of its platform/demands.

A successful third party in the U.S. would most likely be something along the lines of, “more democratic than the Democratic Party.” A long time ago in a context far, far away German social democracy gained support in part because it fought for things liberals theoretically stood for but were unwilling to wage pitched battles over.


Richard Estes April 30, 2013 at 3:12 pm

I based my comparison with a SYRIZA platform that Louis Proyect linked in May 2012:


Of course, the SYRIZA one is more radical, because the situation in Greece has been more radicalized, which is why I said that, within a US context, they were analogous. Both emphasize everyday life issues of survival (admittedly, the SYRIZA one, more so), with the NPA one highlighting full employment (something OWS couldn’t do), Medicare for All, more social support and demilitarization.

It is indeed progressive, and it would, if implemented to any significant degree, improve the lives of millions of people in the US. It might even open the door to more radical possibilities.

Interestingly, SYRIZA has faced the same criticism that you make against the NPA one, that it is reformist, not radical and certainly not revolutionary. See Proyect’s most recent examination on this subject, at the end of this post about the Historical Materialism conference:


And an earlier, fuller exposition here:


Proyect has rightly defended SYRIZA against such criticisms, on both political and doctrinal grounds, and the NPA effort, if legitimate, should be defended in a similar manner.

I agree with your concern as to whether the NPA is politically independent or not. Some of the participants,. such as 350.org, are cause for concern. But the substance of the platform is a move in the right direction, focusing upon the economic distress faced by by some many Americans. If NPA doesn’t want to move forward with it, someone else should. It is implausible that any group can remain aligned with the Democrats and pursue anything like the NPA platform.


Danny April 30, 2013 at 11:48 am

I mostly agree with Darwin above: S

Sure we can dislike aspect’s of Jacobins politics….But really isn’t the whole point to leftist ideology to create a better world. And if we are constantly beating eachother up to try to find out who is actually the most radical, aren’t we just guilty of intellectual masturbation, like Sunkara implies.

I think the desire for a unified left is a noble one, and it is actually our only hope of ever creating a better world than the awful one we currently live in. So in this current political moment I think it is more important that the left tries to unify, than that it tries to stay ideologically pure.


Richard Estes April 30, 2013 at 12:50 pm

“So in this current political moment I think it is more important that the left tries to unify, than that it tries to stay ideologically pure.”

Well, it all depends upon who’s judging purity, doesn’t it? For me, the Sunkara piece reads like a call for yet another left group aligned with the Democratic Party (as if there aren’t enough already), with the implication that, if you are not down with it, you are responsible for the lack of unity on the left. If true, that’s pretty ideologically pure, and, of course, sectarian.

I find this article by Martin superior to Sunkara’s, because his tone and content, unlike those of Sunkara, acknowledge that the left needs to engage with the work and the concerns of people and activists as expressed in the last decade or so. Conversely, Sunkara’s carries the implication that these concerns are potential sources of disunity, much like the SWP in the UK maligns feminism. That may not be his intention, but it is an implication that can be read into his short article. For me, Martin’s approach is more likely to result in unity around a minimal, essential platform like the NPA one mentioned by Darwin, with a real commitment.


Danny April 30, 2013 at 1:42 pm

I might just not be as up-to-date on the whold Jacobin, Sunkara politics.

What is the politics of Sunkara and Jacobin that you find so unacceptable.


Richard Estes April 30, 2013 at 3:45 pm

please see my response to you below Darwin26


Darwin26 April 30, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Thanks to all who venture to see who/what New Progressive Alliance is. i wished it had a different name as ‘New’ and ‘Prog’ are soooooo filled with the DLC /demorat mantra;
However, WE are not aligned in anyway with the democrat party in anyway or any party. If a democrat candidate was running or Green or whatever and they clearly are in support of our platform then we’d likely endorse them.
It’s about the platform. Take a Gander at us: http://www.newprogs.org/
i was/am a proud supporter of Jill Stein for President who endorsed our platform (and instrumental in its development). i detest Party Politics but its always about that ~ either we play by the ballot box or by the ammo box… or just give in to serf/slavedom. (While feeding the Israeli monster.) .
No need to bicker over Leninist this or Marxist that the platform speaks for itself. Now is the time to Organize.
(i have look and see on the platform but i’d be in favor of the Post Office running the National (for all) Cyber-Internet communications… instead of purging it ~ meanwhile i must revitalize the Green Party in Montana… i hope to use BDS as a rally point for growth. Incedently i hosted Alison Weir of ‘If Americans Knew’ in her first of 6 speaking engagements in Montana concluding the 6 day tour tomorrow. We have a Stop the Blank Check in the middle of Billings, MT ~ other cities to follow.



Richard Estes April 30, 2013 at 3:44 pm

I don’t know enough about Jacobin and Sunkara to find them unacceptable. I based my remarks upon what I read in the two articles. Based upon that, I just believe that a greater openness is required and I thought that Martin expressed this.


Leave a Comment

{ 5 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: