Dead Generations and Unknown Continents: Reflections on Left Unity

by Salar Mohandesi, Viewpoint Magazine on June 14, 2013

First published by Viewpoint Magazine.

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In 1881, just two years before his death, the ailing Karl Marx received a letter from a young socialist, Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, asking for his opinion about the call to rebuild the International Workingmen’s Association, the most advanced experiment in Left Unity up to that date. Marx, who had been involved with such parties as the Communist League and the German Social Democratic Party, was no enemy of organization. But his response was blunt:

“It is my conviction that the critical juncture for a new International Workingmen’s Association has not yet arrived and for this reason I regard all workers’ congresses, particularly socialist congresses, in so far as they are not related to the immediate given conditions in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but harmful. They will always fade away in innumerable stale generalised banalities.”

When not explicitly tied to the concrete struggles of a real historical conjuncture, the question of Left Unity can be nothing other than the “statement of a phantom problem to which the only answer can be – the criticism of the question itself.”

Dead Generations

In his programmatic piece in Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara describes the shape of contemporary Left Unity: “the convergence of American socialists committed to non-sectarian organization under the auspices of an overarching democratic structure.”

It would be glib to just dismiss this out of hand – alongside increased exposure of the Left in the mainstream media, such a structure could be a good sign. But the way this strategy is being pursued leaves many fundamental questions unanswered.

There are several dominant positions on Left Unity in the United States today. Mark Solomon, whose position paper served as the basis for the much-publicized “Conversation on Left Unity” in New York, has advanced perhaps the most prominent proposal. Observing that radicals have always played “essential roles in influencing, guiding and consolidating broad currents for social change,” he argues that a strong socialist presence has never been more needed than today. And with general interest in socialism on the rise in recent years, it’s time to put aside our differences and come together, preferably in an entirely new organization.

Jacobin’s position on Left Unity is close to Solomon’s. Sunkara, in fact, admitted at the New York conversation that he found himself “in almost entire agreement” with Solomon’s proposal for Left Unity. Echoing Solomon, the Jacobin manifesto has called for the “unification of the many socialist organizations with similar political orientations into one larger body.” A few things set Jacobin apart. There’s a greater emphasis on educating the broader public, a more explicit commitment to radicalizing youth, and the beginnings of real analyses into the struggles of previously overlooked sectors of the American working class. What remains most distinctive about Jacobin’s stance on Left Unity, however, is its general sense of urgency: not only is this project possible, Jacobin assures its readers, but it can be realized now.

But this program has also been inserted into the familiar post-Occupy polemics against “anarchism.” Although Jodi Dean has expressed interest in “a radical left coalition, something like SYRIZA,” her hopes lie mainly, like Solomon and Sunkara, in an entirely new organization. Unlike these more astute politicians, however, she bluntly calls this the Party. Her stance is far closer to that tradition which advocates firm leadership, centralization, strict discipline, programs, and rules – characteristics that rightfully make many uneasy. She regards the failures of Occupy as proof of the continued indispensability of precisely this kind of organization: “Maintaining the political opening Occupy created won’t be easy, but it will be possible if and as the movement shapes itself as a new communist party.” For Dean, it’s time for a revamped vanguard party.

Beneath their differences, however, lies a common and disavowed point of reference. Although all three of these positions call for an entirely new party fit for our unique historical conditions, they all repeat the terms of a past historical experience: the Popular Front in the 1930s.

Of course, this continuity is visible for those who can read between the lines. Solomon, a professional historian, has written approvingly of the Popular Front strategy, and it’s clear that it implicitly grounds the arguments made in his call for Left Unity. And when pressed to concretize her heroic vision of the new party, even Jodi Dean can only offer the rather prosaic example of “the CPUSA in the 1930s, but less centralized (or, a more dynamic and responsive relation between cells and centers).”

Jacobin has been perhaps the most vocal in its insistence that the slogan of Left Unity isn’t just about the formation of a new socialist party in this country, but a call for a broad alliance between all the forces of the wider Left, including social democrats, left-liberals, and other proponents of the welfare state – the core principle of the historical Popular Front. It has actually fused, in theory and in practice, the two projects into one: building a new socialist party becomes the meansto building a new “New Deal Coalition,” and perhaps vice versa. The primary objective of any new socialist party, according to Jacobin, will be to ally itself with elements of the Democratic Party known as “welfare liberals,” and strengthen the American welfare state. And Sunkara has already begun making overtures to liberals – even though the socialists he represents have no party to speak of.

What accounts for this active forgetting? Perhaps explicit references to the period have been avoided because of its bad reputation. After all, the moderate Left has a longstanding obsession with proclaiming its anti-Stalinism at every turn; and since the Popular Front has long been criticized not only as Stalinist, but also as a reformist betrayal, explicit references could make for bad publicity. Or perhaps the memory of the Popular Front is disavowed because of the ultimate failure of its stated objectives: the Left was obliterated in Spain, fascism emerged triumphant in Europe, and coalition partners turned on each other everywhere. For whatever reason, the dominant positions on Left Unity today have been forged independently of an explicit analysis of the historical conjuncture that has most powerfully defined them.

Back to the Popular Front

Whatever the political ambiguities of the historical Popular Front – a period marked both by major victories won by mass uprisings, and their suppression by bureaucratic reformists – the new proposals for Left Unity invert its historical and logical sequence. The Popular Front was originally a political strategy pursued by Communist Parties in the 1930s. From around 1928 to 1935 the Communist International had convinced itself that world history had entered a “Third Period” marked by crisis, instability, and proletarian insurgency. Compelled to reckon with the worsening depression, massive unemployment, and the resurgence of the Right, communists attempted to change their strategy, which had hitherto been rigidly anchored to workplace organization, in accordance with the changes in the working class. This led to genuinely creative organizing: sharecropper’s unions and tenant’s movements in the United States, sexual health clinics in Germany, and unemployed movements everywhere. But it also called for militant agitation, condemnation of all reformist initiatives, and preparation for the imminent revolution: alliances were broken, unions were split, and other Leftists denounced as “social fascists.” After a series of terrible setbacks – the rise of Hitler in January 1933, a coup in Austria the following year – the Comintern eventually concluded that Third Period Tactics had actually worsened, rather than reversed, the general decline of the communist movement as whole.

A new strategy was officially adopted in 1935. The communists would join with other “forces of labor,” like socialists and social democrats, to form a United Front. This would then form the nucleus of a Popular Front that was to include the Center-Left and perhaps even the Center. The goal was to check the Right, win significant gains for the working class, and improve the standing of the Communist Parties in a world where communism appeared to be on the wane. Communist Parties were instructed to reverse their previous policies; the new watchword was Left Unity.

Popular Fronts were attempted in most countries that still had some kind of Communist Party, like the United States, but Comintern had its eyes on France. After 1933, when Hitler obliterated the most vigorous labor movement in Europe, the French Communist Party (PCF) became the largest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union. Moreover, France was a country with a profound, though very diverse, revolutionary tradition, which might be amenable to such a call for Left Unity. Lastly, as historian Julian Jackson has shown, even before this official shift in policy was taken, the French working class had already begun, on its own, to push for just such a united struggle against fascism. For these reasons, contemporaries came to see France as a significant test case for this new strategy. While proponents of Left Unity today are right to focus on the US and its unique conditions, we should also consider other experiences, since the broader project of Left Unity has always been international, like socialism itself.

A couple years after the formal adoption of the Popular Front – after the election of a socialist president, a strike wave, and a series of unprecedented reforms – the strategy was hailed as a tremendous victory, for both the French working class and for the PCF. Workers won paid vacations, a forty-hour work week, wage increases, and better conditions. As for the PCF, which had been by far the smallest partner in the coalition, it swelled in membership, emerging, for perhaps the first time, as a prevailing force in French political life.

In many ways, the Popular Front temporarily saved the far left in France, as it did in a number of countries, including the US. But one of the main reasons why the call for Left Unity proved effective was because the PCF could be taken seriously as a coalition partner. The party was admittedly quite small in early 1935, having been battered and marginalized by Third Period tactics, but it still had a vibrant tradition of radicalism, deep roots in proletarian communities, and a real presence on the shop floor. It had helped organize some of the most dynamic struggles of the time. The PCF, in short, had something to contribute to a coalition.

Today, on the other hand, socialists have no constituency to offer social democrats, left-liberals, or others on the broader Left. The memory of communists organizing marches, strikes, and factory occupations as part of broader Leftist initiatives is a powerful one, but no longer a reality. Trying to convince “welfare liberals” to ditch their own party to work with some disorganized socialists with no organic connection to the working class isn’t likely to generate much progress.

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An Unknown Continent

However one might judge the Popular Front, no one can deny that it was fundamentally grounded in mass proletarian mobilizations. The connections today’s radical Left has with the broader working class in this country pales in comparison. The Republican Party probably has deeper ties to this class than many of the organizations clamoring for Left Unity.

It’s surprising, then, that existing calls for Left Unity have little to say about creating a mass working-class base. Those who are enthusiastic about Left Unity would probably agree that it is pointless to build an organization without lasting organic connections to the diverse sectors of the working class. Surely they must recognize that a mass working-class base is the condition of possibility for any viable organization today. So I’m puzzled that some of the most fervent proponents of Left Unity have chosen, as their starting point, to have a conversation between different parties that have almost no real link to the American working class. What, for example, did the CPUSA have to do with the occupation of the window factory in Goose Island in 2008, the Oakland port shutdown in 2011, or the string of fast food strikes exploding across cities in recent months? If the groups hosting this ongoing conversation have no such connections to the struggles of the present, what is the likelihood that a party formed out of their meetings will?

One assumption is that Left Unity will itself start the process of winning such a base. Mark Solomon writes: “The simple declaration of unity and amalgamation by old ideological foes will stir an energized, hopeful response on the left.” But it takes a vivid imagination to picture the news of Left Unity generating mass interest for socialist meetings in New York. If you want to build an organization with genuine mass support, you don’t start by amalgamating the fragments of a Left inherited from the past, but by trying to understand the needs of a working class struggling in the present.

If some organizations, like the PCF during the Popular Front, once had that kind of mass support, it is precisely because they were historically appropriate – they resonated, at least in some notable instances, with the composition of a historical class. But that conjuncture has passed, the working class has changed, and that political horizon is no longer recognizable. So we are left to lament, as the young Engels did a century and half ago: “The bourgeoisie talk politics and go to church; what the proletariat does we know not and indeed could hardly know.”

But Engels had already begun to change the situation, by initiating an inquiry into the factories of Manchester, and this new and unfamiliar phenomenon: the industrial working class. His discoveries, along with his new connections to proletarian struggles, would turn out to be an indispensable precondition for the formation a new political party just a few years later. In the spring of 1847 he was asked, along with Karl Marx, to join the clandestine League of the Just at a time when it was entering a serious crisis. Convinced by his investigations that the “condition of the working-class is the real basis and point of departure of all social movements of the present,” Marx and Engels took it upon themselves to replace “the obsolete League organization by one in keeping with the new times and aims.” They persuaded the existing members to drop their old conspiratorial ways, ground themselves in the struggles of this newly emerging working class, and adopt a new political project based on those struggles. The party was reborn as the Communist League. The old humanist motto “All Men are Brothers” was replaced with “Working Men of All Countries, Unite!” And a new Manifesto was drafted – heavily indebted to Engels’ concrete discoveries, published in The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Today this fundamental move towards investigation should be repeated. Before anything else, we have to forget what we think we know, and figure out what the working class actually is – and it is quite different from the factory workers of Manchester or Billancourt. Inquiry will mean generating a map that includes manufacturing workers and unionized public sector workers alongside low-wage retail workers, domestic caregivers, subcontracted truck drivers, migrant farmworkers, and waitresses with student debt. How is this class divided? Where is it found? What does it do? How is it exploited? How does it struggle? What does it want?

Building a base

Inquiry is not just a form of investigation – it is also the process of building political relations, the precondition for a mass base. Alongside the absence of independent and active organizations appropriate to our conjuncture, the fact that existing organizations float in the ether, without a mass base, entails a real risk of being absorbed, bypassed, or totally marginalized by diving right into a Popular Front. The greatest danger, as every proponent of the Popular Front strategy knows, is that of being reduced to “junior partners” of the liberals. This danger will become a near certainty if an immature party, lacking its own separate identity, or its own history, is thrust into a coalition upon its foundation.

The example of the Popular Front in France is again instructive here. Not only did the PCF actually retain its autonomy, but by May of 1936 it became the largest member of the coalition. And this wasn’t from winning over the previously unpoliticized, since the Popular Front never actually increased the total size of the broader Left; it was by absorbing members from other groups in the coalition. Radicals migrated to the Socialists, and the Socialists joined the Communists. This internal leftward shift was possible precisely because the PCF had its own autonomous identity, and distinct reputation for dynamism, shop-floor organizing, and daring actions.

But it is also because the mass base surpassed the party itself in militancy, which became evident when workers came into conflict with the conservatism of the party bureaucracy. Even in its glory days, the Popular Front had to explicitly table what is ostensibly the core project of a communist party: the abolition of the capitalist mode of production. Socialism slowly became nationalist, revolution was sidelined in favor of reformism, deep class tensions were papered over in order to keep the parliamentary coalition alive, and working-class militancy was constantly curbed by its alleged representatives. As soon as the coalition won significant parliamentary victories, it predictably assumed a conservative stance, unwilling to go any further. So workers took matters into their own hands: they called a general strike, demanded the forty-hour work week, occupied their factories, and in a few cases even managed production themselves.

Faced with this largely autonomous militancy, the PCF, the most dynamic element in the alliance, found itself internally fractured. While the secretary general, Maurice Thorez, disingenuously declared that “one must know how to stop a strike,” communist factory cells pushed for even more aggressive actions. In the end, the working class had to struggle against its own representatives to push the Front in a more radical direction. The Popular Front’s greatest victories were won only because it unexpectedly created a kind of revolution within reformism. But the moment the working class was pushed back to work, Left Unity began to crumble: the coalition fell apart, the Radicals turned against the PCF, and reforms like the forty-hour work week were lost.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the Popular Front, it is that even reformism can only arrive when it rides the wave of working-class self activity. When we remember this principle, we’ll have to learn to abandon the debates that twenty-first century socialists seem to enjoy so much. Centralization or decentralization, verticality or horizontality, localism or globalism – none of this can be resolved through internet polemics, meetings, or detached theorization. Weighing the abstract values of one shibboleth over the other is simply a waste of time. The answers to such questions can only be found by taking a hard look at what the working class is already doing and what political forms it will need to deepen those struggles.

{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Hoch June 14, 2013 at 2:57 pm

So this was really dry and academic, so I mostly skimmed it, but the author seems REALLY concerned that a non-sectarian left group would either be:

1. really small and uninfluential
2. co-opted by reformists

Assuming either of these turned out to be true, how would the resulting situation be any different than the left is now, by which I mean how could it possibly be worse? A non-sectarian left is worth a try, no? Let’s stop dilly-dallying and just do it.

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Luke Elliott June 14, 2013 at 6:19 pm

I actually see this piece as extremely useful. It raises some questions that I think are important. Given that we agree on the need for new, independent left formations to create new theories, design fresh strategies and revive creative tactics, the question to me is: which step comes first? The author is, I think, wondering whether bringing together several small, relatively inconsequential organizations is the right use of our limited energy.

From my view, the more important task is to connect to the organizers and rank and filers who are in base-building organizations, but have a (perhaps latent) orientation toward the left. Of course this begs the question: who will do this work? I’m not sure I have the best answer, but I think a loose network of independent leftists connected through websites like this one, could make those connections in their own cities; everyone in the network is say responsible for engaging 5-10 rank and and file or staff organizers who are skilled and left leaning. A network of 5-10 initial leftists could spawn a formation of 50 folks pretty quickly. But not just any folks – people who are connected to base-building organizations, who know how to fight and win, who have friends and networks that they could also bring on board.

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Jon Hoch June 14, 2013 at 6:39 pm

I think we need to just stop debating how cold the water is, or what kind of dive we want to perform, and just jump in the fricking pool. Start an organization of explicitly non-sectarian socialists. Call it the North Star Socialists or something. It doesn’t have to be perfect. We will merge with other groups and figure out the details later. Just get this snowball rolling! (lol, how many metaphors am I mixing now)

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PatrickSMcNally June 14, 2013 at 6:57 pm

It certainly is meaningless, counter-productive and futile to seek to “bring together” the menagerie of diverse groups that are broadly characterized as “Leftist.” What would be more meaningful is if certain groups which already really do follow the same basic political line were to merge their efforts together. For example, the US Marxist-Leninist Organization of bygone days had a lot in common with Sam Marcy’s Workers World Party. But for some reason they didn’t merge together when they could have done so conveniently. That just is a waste of energy and resources. When two such parties obviously have so much in common, even if everyone else considers them to be meaningless sects, it still is more productive to merge together. That is true whether we are talking about Social Democratic parties which seek to lobby the Democratic Party, or divergent cults devoted to Enver Hoxha or Kim Il Sung. The effect is always better when such like-minded politics is combined.

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Jon Hoch June 14, 2013 at 7:39 pm

I think the point of unity should be simple: do you support a publicly owned economy? If you do, then join us. That would bring together anarchists, socialists, communists, blah, blah, blah. Right? Or no?

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Jon Hoch June 14, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Is there a reason my comments are moderated even when they contain no swearing? If I’m posting too much or too unsubstantively or something just let me know.

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Jon Hoch June 14, 2013 at 7:49 pm

And, maybe the situation is different in Europe where you folks already take stuff like public healthcare for granted, but if we were to get some social democrats elected to office in the United States I think it would be a tremendous step forward. I think the demonization of social democrats by the far left in these really conservative times is just silly. Aren’t we really, really far away from the point where we would need to part ways with social democrats? I mean aren’t we, as Richard Seymour said, reformists in practice whether we like it or not?

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PatrickSMcNally June 14, 2013 at 8:10 pm

I don’t know if anyone who has ever visited this board is located in Europe, but maybe some are. In any event, in Europe the Social Democrats, like the plain Democrats here in the USA, are acting as a force for rolling back the many social welfare gains which were granted to the working classes after World War II when Soviet troops occupied half of Europe and Communist parties in western Europe had built up a significant following. Today Social Democrats in western Europe act out their own version of “ending welfare as we know it” as Bill Clinton put it here.

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Jon Hoch June 14, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Look, I’m pretty ignorant. I was under the impression that even conservative folks in Europe were generally to the left of the US Democratic party on economic issues. I’m wrong about facts all the time though, so it wouldn’t surprise me if I was in this case, haha.

But who then are these ultra-militant-revolutionaries (who seem to never actually do anything) railing against, with strangely perhaps more angry fervor than they talk about Republicans, when they rant about “social democrats?” Cornel West or Naomi Klein? If we had a Cornel West or Naomi Klein in every office in the land do you have any idea what kind of step forward that would be? I mean come on. We’re so far away from the point when we need to part ways with these folks.

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PatrickSMcNally June 14, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Because the social gains won by labor in western Europe after 1945 generally did go much further than anything that was ever legally enacted here in the USA, it actually is true that one can find conservatives in Europe who can sound to the Left of the Democrats in the USA. That is not the same thing, however, as saying that either conservatives or social democrats in western Europe are actually fighting the push for austerity and privatization. On certain statements, Barack Obama today could sound like he was to the Right of Ronald Reagan. Reagan knew that he had to be cautious about attacking Social Security too openly, even when that was on the agenda. Most politicians in Europe today are still bound by such precautions, but that doesn’t mean that any of them represent a party which could be rallied to as a means of fighting the austerity drive.

Your other statements are just too vague to be able to respond to. If the “ultra-militant revolutionaries” you have in mind are the Spartacist League then, well, they regard everything which happens around them as a replaying of the great battles of the 1930s when Leon Trotsky fought against the Comintern’s betrayal of Marxism to the People’s Front. But you haven’t identified anyone specific, so it’s impossible to respond to anything concrete.

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Luke Elliott June 14, 2013 at 9:35 pm

:)

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PatrickSMcNally June 15, 2013 at 9:53 am

By the way, have I missed hearing about something where Cornel West & Naomi Klein are running for office somewhere? I know that West had supported Obama in 2008. By 2012 he was doing some general ranting against Obama, but I can’t recall anything where he suggested endorsing an alternate candidate or running himself. He made some vague statements about looking for a Bernie Sanders-type figure, but that was about it.

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Jon Hoch June 15, 2013 at 11:26 am

Are you trying to pick a fight? Obviously Naomi Klein and Cornel West aren’t running for office (at least as far as I know). They’re intellectuals, not politicians. My point was that if we’re serious about non-sectarianism there’s no need to demonize folks who probably share 90% of our platform for the immediate future.

Maybe you hang out with different lefty crowds then I do, but at least from my brief time with the ISO and OWS and online at Libcom, ‘social democrat’ or ‘reformist’ is pretty much the worst insult you can call somebody. (this resonated with me: http://www.leninology.com/2013/06/in-practical-terms-we-are-all-reformists.html)

First of all, you’re wrong about West. Back in 2011, he called Obama a “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.” That’s pretty strong language.

My understanding from a brief Google search is that while he did make some moves signalling his interest in a third party candidate, he ended up casting a reluctant vote for Obama in 2012, which is disappointing and I guess undercuts my argument, haha. But I’m pretty sure that if there was a third party that was able to actually make a difference and win some battles, if only at the local level, he would throw his lot in with them. Maybe that’s naive on my part. But I guess that’s how I feel having read some of his writing and followed his participation in OWS.

And yeah, West said that the elected American politician he has the most respect for is Bernie Sanders. What’s wrong with that? America would have taken a huge leap forward if it elected a lot more folks like Sanders, no matter how much of a reformist you think he is. At the very least, if Sanders politics were the mainstream in America I imagine I wouldn’t have been hit with billy clubs and spent two days in an NYC jail during OWS! But I also think we’d have stuff like free public healthcare. Again, maybe that’s naive. I just think we should be on the side of these kind of folks right up until the point that they start saying “Whoa, there. That’s far enough for this revolution business.”

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PatrickSMcNally June 15, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Whoever said anything demonizing Naomi Klein? Nick Beams wrote up a fair assessment of her Keynesian ideology which she promoted in The Shock Doctrine:

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/02/kle1-f27.html

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/02/kle2-f28.html

One doesn’t need to demonize such people to realize that their main functional role is one of sustaining patience with the Democratic Party in a way which leads not to a West/Klein ticket but an Obama/Biden ticket.

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Luke Elliott June 14, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Jon, I largely agree. My question is: how do we get the ball rolling!?

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Jon Hoch June 14, 2013 at 8:37 pm

I don’t know man. I’m not a leader. I just like to criticize without any practical solutions of my own, haha!

Maybe influence makers on the left could start putting out the call….from Pham, to Noam Chomsky, to Lydia Sargent. Or maybe somebody could just start a group. Make it as broad as possible. Don’t even call it North Star Socialists even if you mean ‘socialist’ in the umbrella sense to include anarchists, etc.It will turn some folks off. Call it the Left Unity Organization or something. See who joins. I would. I think a lot of peeps are waiting for a band wagon to jump on. I know that’s how I feel. I can’t fully identify with OWS cause the movement’s dead. I can’t fully identify with the ISO cause I’m not a Leninist and want to talk about the Russian Revolution as little as possible. I can’t fully identify with the IWW because they aren’t big on any kind of electoral involvement. And I love all these groups. I just think we need something less sectarian and rigid.

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PatrickSMcNally June 15, 2013 at 10:20 am

“Don’t even call it North Star Socialists”

The problem with this is that once such a retreat from words starts it just keeps on rolling. The epithet of the “L-word” was used by Right-wingers for a long time as an insult, and Democrats responded by cringing and trying to assure everyone that they were not liberals except in the great tradition of Ronald Reagan, blah, blah, blah. If someone who honestly considered themselves “socialist” were to start a party where they avoid the word then very soon you would invite Glenn Beck to start waving Elizabeth Dilling & The Protocols of Zion around as an “exposure” of the sinister conspiracy which you are plotting. When that point comes it doesn’t help to try beating around the bush about words like “socialist” or “liberal.” It’s better to be open about it.

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Jon Hoch June 15, 2013 at 10:57 am

I think I’ve said it here before, that I think the word socialist has to be rehabilitated if the left is to have any chance. We’re already on that path with that new poll saying like 30 percent of folks have a positive view of “socialism.”

The reason I was saying we shouldn’t call it North Star Socialists is that the ‘s’ word might turn off anarchists and a lot of non-aligned ows folks UNLESS you made it really, really, really clear you meant ‘socialist’ in the umbrella sense.

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Jon Hoch June 15, 2013 at 12:23 pm

I have a brief reply to Patrick above that appears to be stuck in moderation purgatory. Can someone explain the moderation policy to me? It seems entirely arbitrarily. I don’t seem to have a blanket pre-post moderation applied to me as some of my posts go through without any wait. Meanwhile, others, such as the one of mine awaiting moderation, that have no swearing or anything else I can see that would be picked up in a filter, are forced to wait.

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Pham Binh June 15, 2013 at 12:54 pm

It’s because your IP address seems to change a lot.

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Jon Hoch June 15, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Oh, OK. That makes sense. Sometimes checking from the public library, where there are a variety of computers, and sometimes checking from my apartment, where internet is less reliable.

In other news, I STILL haven’t passed my background check. They just found my Occupy arrest and apparently that makes them start back at square one. I’ve never had this problem before. My previous employers since Occupy never cared during the hiring process. Since I have worked for the corporation I’m applying to before I know for a fact that they hire people with criminal records all the time. I don’t really understand what’s going on. Has anyone gone through something like this before?

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PatrickSMcNally June 15, 2013 at 2:34 pm

If it’s any comfort, my messages are periodically tossed into moderation without much rhyme or reason. Sometimes two messages posted a minute apart will get different responses with one being placed in moderation and the other going through automatically, in no particular order either. These are all from the same laptop at home so there should be no variation in the IP as far as I know. It is kind of odd, but not really a big problem.

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Arthur June 16, 2013 at 12:23 am

Ditto. Always same location. Random holdups. ISPs do switch IP4 addresses around randomly.

I’ve noticed there may be some time of day dependence. Could it be different moderators coming on shift using different settings?

Also noticed that two or more links is a strong trigger for holdup. That’s a standard anti-spam measure that should obviously be turned off for regular known posters.

Suspect greater familiarity with Wordpress could improve the situation. Should be possible to configure so that posts from “approved” Name/E-mail combinations go through automatically (but still queued for moderators to remove) while only “new” combinations get held up. Moderators can switch people from unapproved to approved and back depending on proportions of manual approvals and manual removals.

As PSMcN said, it isn’t a big problem, but it can be disconverting until you get used to it so it is more of a problem for new participants who ought to be the least hassled.

Pham’s mention of IP addresses above suggests a simple configuration error- approving on IP address instead of on Name/E-mail combination. Latter does require that people use consistent Name and Email (which can of course be anything). But that shouldn’t be a problem as browser learns and fils in automatically. There may also be a setting that could allow through based on IP address OR Name/email combination (not AND).

Arthur June 15, 2013 at 12:26 am

“Before anything else, we have to forget what we think we know, and figure out what the working class actually is – and it is quite different from the factory workers of Manchester or Billancourt. Inquiry will mean generating a map that includes manufacturing workers and unionized public sector workers alongside low-wage retail workers, domestic caregivers, subcontracted truck drivers, migrant farmworkers, and waitresses with student debt. How is this class divided? Where is it found? What does it do? How is it exploited? How does it struggle? What does it want?”

Excellent! Many other questions too.

In an atheistic age, ecumenism is a natural response of the declining churches.

Even preliminary answers to the many questions we need to investigate will confirm that no future mass based revoutionary movement could possibly have much in common with the ideas and practices of what passes iself of as the left these days.

Essential starting point is a both an objective investigation of the world we actually live in and a break from the profoundly reactionary politics that actively opposes what most working people want..

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Dario Cankovic June 15, 2013 at 3:18 pm

While I appreciate Jon Hoch’s enthusiasm, I don’t think it is that simple of: “just start an organization!” Organizational form matters, that has to be worked out. Also if we are going to start an organization, or serve as a hub for discussion that will lead to people start an organization, we have to minimally have principles, and, better yet, a platform. Coming up with that isn’t going to happen overnight.

I also agree with what Arthus wrote above. There are many unanswered questions. We’re not going to lose anything by taking things slowly at first, by containing our enthusiasm, and reflecting on these before we get around to forming any organizations.

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Pham Binh June 15, 2013 at 8:17 pm

I don’t agree. There’s no reason to not start something, but what and with who depends on local conditions. Philly Socialists (correct me if I’m wrong comrades) set out to create a new, unaffiliated group of socialists and are now the biggest group in their area after two years of work. There’s also no reason we couldn’t have signed people up to a somewhat formal network (North Star Network maybe? Or maybe not.) coming out of the Left Forum.

Organizations usually don’t start out with platforms. That is a myth perpetuated by sects, including the CPGB which calls for uniting all Marxists around a basic program of Marxism, as if there is any agreement among Marxists as to what Marxism is and what is and is not basic. Platforms are adopted as the result of discussions and debates, and the prerequisite for those discussions and debates is some type of joint work that puts people in close proximity to each other on a regular basis.

As I understand, Jon is in a rural-ish area near a campus and without a local radical/socialist group. I suggest he start one, something loose and exploratory to test the waters. It sure beats trying to peddle some existing group’s tired old ideology and newspaper.

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Jon Hoch June 15, 2013 at 8:48 pm

That’s definitely an accurate description of where I’m at now. It’s kind of frustrating because the place I was living before had a number of college radical groups, and a radical book store where folks like Zinn, Chomsky and others had spoken. I just didn’t really reach out. I did try to get a hold of the local college groups by the end of my time there, but it was the end of the school term, so most folks weren’t really able to lend much help, besides writing some letters to the editor. I wish I had gotten in touch with them earlier, because they told me that their groups still had school funds left in their account that we could have used. (Which is definitely something college radicals should be taking advantage of! Any student group that doesn’t use up their budget is a waste of space.)

The problem with starting my own group is I’m just not an organizer by personality. We were talking about people with different skill sets and unfortunately inspiring leadership is not in my tool bag. I’m kind of a neurotic loner, unfortunately, haha. I mean, I think I’m capable of being a loyal foot soldier, but not much more. If you need someone to barrage the local paper with letters, or work through the intricacies of the NLRB system, or stand outside with a sign for half the day, I can do that. But gathering people around me in a group is not something I’m capable of.

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Pham Binh June 15, 2013 at 9:21 pm

You don’t have to be Lenin or Malcolm X to start up a weekly lunch hour or evening coffee meeting. As a 19 year old know-it-all wannabe-Bolshie, I was not really cut out to start or lead the anti-war group in Geneseo (I’m sure Jesse Harasta has some horror stories about me he can share), but I managed. Listening, being humble, and real with people is all it takes to get people not to be repelled. Sad that a lot of the far left can’t even manage that on a good day — our comment threads being a prime example. :)

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Jon Hoch June 15, 2013 at 9:27 pm

I dunno. I get social anxiety at weird times. I’m fine with being front and center in print. But I’m a lot more comfortable being a guy in the crowd in person. But I’ll give it some thought.

I think you should start the North Star Network. I really think we need to stop just dipping our toes in the water and jump in the pool! (Can you tell I like this metaphor?) We could debate the perfect set-up until the end of time. As one of our corporate overlords, Nike, says, “Just do it.”

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David Berger (RED DAVE) June 15, 2013 at 9:06 pm

PHAM BINH: I don’t agree. There’s no reason to not start something, but what and with who depends on local conditions.

DAVID BERGER: Might it perhaps also depend on politics, local and otherwise?

PHAM BINH: Philly Socialists (correct me if I’m wrong comrades) set out to create a new, unaffiliated group of socialists and are now the biggest group in their area after two years of work.

DAVID BERGER: As to how big they actually are is an open question. What’s not a question is their politics. They seem to think that a food kitchen has something to do with socialism. That is, they confuse socialist and charity.

PHAM BINH: There’s also no reason we couldn’t have signed people up to a somewhat formal network (North Star Network maybe? Or maybe not.) coming out of the Left Forum.

DAVID BERGER: To do that, it might help to have a set of demonstrable politics, such as support for work in the Democratic Party and a call for the US to intervene in Syria.

PHAM BINH: Organizations usually don’t start out with platforms.

DAVID BERGER: No, but they do start out with some basis for political agreement, unless you’re planning on building an opportunist coalition.

PHAM BINH: That is a myth perpetuated by sects, including the CPGB which calls for uniting all Marxists around a basic program of Marxism, as if there is any agreement among Marxists as to what Marxism is and what is and is not basic.

DAVID BERGER: I would be careful if I were you characterizing all “sects.”

PHAM BINH: Platforms are adopted as the result of discussions and debates, and the prerequisite for those discussions and debates is some type of joint work that puts people in close proximity to each other on a regular basis.

DAVID BERGER: That’s more-or-less true. For example, a group of rather disparate leftists is currently collaborating within the milieu of labor-oriented groups in Occupy Wall Street.

PHAM BINH: As I understand, Jon is in a rural-ish area near a campus and without a local radical/socialist group. I suggest he start one, something loose and exploratory to test the waters. It sure beats trying to peddle some existing group’s tired old ideology and newspaper.

DAVID BERGER: And it certainly beats collaborating with the Democratic Party.

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Dario Cankovic June 16, 2013 at 12:56 am

«I don’t agree. There’s no reason to not start something, but what and with who depends on local conditions. […] Organizations usually don’t start out with platforms. […] Platforms are adopted as the result of discussions and debates, and the prerequisite for those discussions and debates is some type of joint work that puts people in close proximity to each other on a regular basis.”

I thought that is what we’re going for with the North Star as it is now, the “join work” being the publishing project — contributing to and participating in the discussions on this website. I don’t see how we can create an organization out of just that.

I don’t discourage people from starting things up locally. I think Philly Socialists is an excellent example and can even serve as a model of what can be done locally, but we’re a ways away from creating a mass party or organization.

But let us suppose we were to start up a “North Star Network.” What would it be like? What would our organizational structure be? What would its relation be to the publication? Would we have criteria for membership? What would the duties and rights of members be? Etc. I don’t ask these rhetorically, I’m seriously asking as I think eventually — once these questions are answered perhaps — we want to move towards creating an organization, or networking existing local organizations.

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Pham Binh June 17, 2013 at 5:15 pm

“I thought that is what we’re going for with the North Star as it is now, the ‘join[t] work’ being the publishing project — contributing to and participating in the discussions on this website. I don’t see how we can create an organization out of just that.”

A publication isn’t just about who writes for it. It’s also about who reads its, who it influences, who looks to it for ideas/guidance, and who spreads it around their respective milieus. Iskra is a good example of this, actually.

“But let us suppose we were to start up a ‘North Star Network.’ What would it be like? What would our organizational structure be? What would its relation be to the publication? Would we have criteria for membership? What would the duties and rights of members be? Etc. I don’t ask these rhetorically, I’m seriously asking as I think eventually — once these questions are answered perhaps — we want to move towards creating an organization, or networking existing local organizations.”

Loose networks don’t require the same type of define structure that parties or other organizations do. Marx in his day was involved with Committees of Correspondence, and before the RSDLP was constituted in 1898, worker-activists and intellectuals worked in loosely-knit circles (or affinity groups, as anarchists call them) in their localities. None of these had a defined structure, a formal relationship to a particular publication, nor membership rules or dues.

I recommend taking a look at Hal Draper’s stuff on political centers as an alternative to the party-line sect model:
http://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1971/alt/alt.htm

The idea here is to avoid falling into the trap of forming a sect that is opposed to sects while acknowledging the obvious reality that a class/mass-based party or political formation cannot simply be willed into being even if thousands of people want it (see Left Unity in Britain for an example). Loose networks can play this role and people work with each other over time and discover through local work who is and is not to be trusted, who is a sectarian and who is a revolutionary, who is a talker and who is a walker. There’s also the fact that there are probably hundreds or thousands of independent socialists/activists/radicals/anarchists who are looking to join something provided that that something is not a sect or someone’s vanity project.

I was hoping we could jump start this process a bit coming out of the Left Forum but my proposal was dismissed as premature and/or too much. There’s always next year. :)

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David Berger (RED DAVE) June 17, 2013 at 5:31 pm

The crucial question for any left-wing organization is: What kind of actions are you going to be engaged in? And the choice of these actions will be based on people’s politics. To call a group of people together to engage in a concrete action is not difficult. Participation in mass demonstrations or picket lines, confronting bourgeois candidates in a primary or an election election, public educational activities, etc., are all possible.

The reason I provided the above list is that all these activities are available now in New York and other places. If people in and around TNS are serious, why not call yourselves a meeting, plan to participate, maybe write a leaflet, and turn out.

I dare you. ;-)

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Jon Hoch June 17, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Next year? Are you kidding me? No offense. but why in god’s name would we wait that long? I know the internet isn’t the end all be all, but a lot of this organizing could be started on the web. Earlier today you sent me an Excel map of the US left. Obviously it required a LOT of work but it was just a start. It didn’t include a lot of groups like IWW branches, SDS chapters, etc we could ally with. Why couldn’t we set up your map as a group project, like a wiki? From there we could see which groups would be interested in joining a non-sectarian organization. If you could build some steam and get the endorsement of some folks whose appeal cuts across sectarian lines, like Noam Chomsky, in addition to the endorsement of the leaders of various tendencies, I bet this thing could be built fairly quickly with the help of social media. Even if it only had a few thousand people in the beginning spread across the country, it would still be one of the biggest far left organizations in the country, no?

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Jon Hoch June 17, 2013 at 6:06 pm

http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2399582,00.asp

I’m technologically illiterate and hopefully will pass this god d.amn background check. But many hands make light work, right?

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Jon Hoch June 17, 2013 at 6:26 pm

This site looks easier. http://www.wikia.com/Wikia

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Jon Hoch June 17, 2013 at 7:02 pm

It could be as simple as this. As you can see, I can tag the page to broader categories at the bottom, such as the national ISO.

http://map-of-the-us-anticapitalist-left.wikia.com/wiki/ISO_Burlington,_VT

For areas with no groups, we could make place-holder sites like this. That way, folks who are looking for particular search terms will have a place to congregate.

http://map-of-the-us-anticapitalist-left.wikia.com/wiki/Saratoga_Springs,_NY

If people think this would be a good thing to pursue, cool. If not, that’s fine too. If we were to pursue it I would be happy to help out, but I wouldn’t want to do most of the work or be in charge of the effort.

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David Ellis June 17, 2013 at 5:01 am

`I regard all workers’ congresses, particularly socialist congresses, in so far as they are not related to the immediate given conditions in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but harmful.’

Marx as usual spot on. Programless recreations of the kind of sectarian opportunism that is in such crisis at the moment as witnessed by the collapse of the SWP in the UK (the last of the Stalinised, centrist, Cold War sects of any note) can only end in ideological, apolotical banality acting as the `left’ face of the official bureaucracy or imploding at the expense of huge numbers of cadre. And yet the desire to recreate these pointless, self-serving, horse-trading, unprincipled swamps remains as is shown the the large number attracted to the Left Unity project in the UK that want nothing to do with anything programmatic and are happy to trade in the `generalised banalities’ that Marx describes.

Left Unity needs a programme for principled unity and for the transition to working class power and socialism or it is doomed to implode and/or become `harmful’.

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D_D June 23, 2013 at 12:50 pm

I left this comment where the article was originally published:

Like (the comment by Bennett). I think many if not most advocates in writing of left unity are aware of Trotsky’s critique of popular fronts and of the Popular Front government in France. And of the distinction between a united front (a broad and necessary alliance of forces for or against a limited or specific issue) and a popular front (a political bloc including capitalist parties which dulls the radicalism of the left and submerges a real alternative to capitalism). Those now campaigning for broad pluralist parties which would include revolutionaries, left social democrats, radical activists and grassroots leaders, do not usually include bourgeois forces in the scope of their new organisational proposals.

The cited correspondence of Marx referred to the prematurity of a new International rather than to new and relevant organisations “in this or that particular nation”, did it not?

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Sheldon June 23, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Seems most of the discussion here is missing the argument of the article in question. The point is not to worry about regrouping people who already consider themselves socialists, but to go and dig into the actual working class and its emerging movements, do a participant observation so to speak, to learn about what is moving them and where they want to move. Instead of coming in with a pre-fabricated socialist program to lead them. I think this a pretty important argument to consider.

Maybe this is relevant to this argument?:

http://libcom.org/library/seattle-solidarity-network-new-kind-working-class-social-movement

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Pham Binh June 23, 2013 at 5:46 pm

I like the SeaSol “model” and took to it after I began breaking with “Leninism.”

The closing paragraphs of this piece makes the same point you do (echoing Mohandesi): http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=8777

The only folks not in agreement with your basic point are the sects and their members.

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Pham Binh June 23, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Sheldon, this is a great read. Thank you for posting it!!

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