Socialist Unity and the Zeitgeist

by Curtis Hansoni on July 5, 2015

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In the preface to the 1872 German edition of “The Communist Manifesto”, Marx and Engels noted that in the 25 years since the Manifesto was written, “although in principle still correct”, it was “antiquated, because the political situation has been entirely changed, and the progress of history has swept from off the earth the greater portion of the political parties there enumerated.”. They further note that due to the historical nature of the Manifesto even by 1872 they had no right to alter it. Engels updated this preface again in 1888, five years after the death of Marx, and noted that if it were written today it would be worded quite differently, noting for example the “gigantic strides of modern industry” as well as lessons from the Paris Commune. He also credits Bakunin with the Russian edition of the Manifesto.

Within 25 years of the Manifesto, Marx and Engels both were stating they would write it differently if they had a chance to write it fresh, although they considered the basic principles intact. Then Engels expands further on this point, 41 years after the Manifesto, suggesting a few areas in which it would read quite differently. This is worthy of pause, considering the rigid orthodoxy that grew up around Bolshevism and the Second and Third Internationals, and the circular-firing-squad factionalism that took root in the shattered (US)American Left after the two Red Scares.

If Marx and Engels understood Marxism as a “fluid social science” (as Adam Turl put it), and acknowledged the need for organic and contextual tactics and theory, why have we since turned Marxian thought into an ideology, a rigid orthodoxy based on unswerving doctrine, even, dare I say, approaching religious fundamentalist dogma? And what great success has it gained us? Socialism has in America until recently been all but extinct from public life and consciousness, due to the long dark night following McCarthyism but also due to the inflexibility of Socialist thinkers who fixated on figures like Lenin, Trotsky, or Mao and failed to react to the changing conditions of present reality. Leftists then turned upon one another, fighting about somewhat obsolete tactics and doctrine, while failing to deconstruct and confront actual Capital in revolutionary ways This paper will take a brief descriptive and also experimental approach to emergent Socialist Unity, specially within the American context.

Moral Imagination
Despair is typical of those who do not understand the causes of evil, see no way out, and are incapable of struggle. ― Vladimir Ilich Lenin
Let us consider the problem externally first. Socialism fails in the USA partly because of extremely effective indoctrination by Capital, from the earliest moments – the moral imagination is stunted. Capitalism is the natural state of being, we’re told. Material conditions also existed during westward expansion which created (largely white supremacy based) aspirations to and conflations with bourgeoisie interests – the Horatio Alger stories are part and parcel with this foundational mythology known as “The American Dream”. So, the American public when it begins at long last to doubt the viability or justice of Capital, simply cannot fathom a world where Socialist ideas truly take root and are practiced. Thus, the choices appear to be Capitalism or Nihilism – ironically considering the crass nihilism that Capital actually is, mask torn away.

Now, internally – within Socialist circles, do we have a failure of moral imagination, and if so, what root? American Socialists, far from the popular appeal from before the First Red Scare, split and split again, and again, into faction upon tendency upon party, on the basis of doctrinal purity. A personal axiom of mine is that principles are a good, but that it’s possible to stand upon principle – until you are standing alone in the room. This is what the American Socialist has done up through the Baby Boomer era well into Generation X – but a new star is rising, the Millennial generation, and all bets are off. Much has been written into the American meta-narrative about the great impact of Boomers on American cultural direction due to their large size – less has been passed into popular wisdom about Millennials already outnumbering Boomers.

As Millennials inherit the earth, the meta-narrative shifts generally and also within Socialist thought. Millennials, observationally, are unpartisan andcounter-factional by nature, and therefore unimpressed by the purity of the doctrinaire. Likewise, they trend communitarian and anti-authoritarian. As why shouldn’t they – as the first generation in the US to find themselves worse off than their parents, they know they are serfs of Capital from cradle to grave. No true social mobility extant, few job prospects save endless unpaid internships, almost unobtainably expensive higher education, a predatory housing market they may never qualify to enter, and little prospect of quality access to healthcare (ibid for all). The Millennial is a generation primed to reject investing in the status quo of Capital, based on the stark realization that it is a bankrupt and anti-human ideology.

Importantly, Millennials are primed to a particular imagination of Socialism – one where factions are less important than movements, and praxis is more important than theory. (Lenin rolls in his mausoleum.) Unlike previous binary iterations, multivalent Millenials observationally can be said to stand midway between Marx and Bakunin, learning from both and resulting in a kind of nascent Anarcho-Communism. The prefigurative, horizontalist direct democracy seen in the Occupy movement, as described by Colin Jenkins in this issue, illustrates this cultural trend. For instance, the stubborn refusal to associate with another movement other than itself, or to either associate with a party or identify as a party.

Millennials can imagine a Socialist, communitarian, less Statist approach to life because they find it a more natural approach to life by inclination, and so the nihilism of Capital falls on fairly deaf ears anthropologically speaking.

The bar to entry for disillusioned potential Socialists has for too long been immersion in years of theory. Some attention to the simplest, even child-like, expressions of Socialism is a much needed counter-point (while theory will always have its place). If this is radical, then it should be acceptable to think radically about being radical. Purist horizonalism will not win the race but will inform a pragmatic multi-pronged tactical approach to movement. A viable Socialist Unity movement will eschew rigid doctrinal orthodoxy in favor of pragmatic, easily communicated communitarian forms of Socialism.

Intersectionality
The general trend of American Socialist thought (whether statist or anarchic) was long “We’ll get it in the Revolution”, as expressed by principally straight white males. Other intersectional identities (what Gramsci called Subaltern) are often dismissed – by white males – as “identity politics” that distract from the only particularity of moment – class. All intersectional identities are then expected to be subsumed into class identity, with the implied contract that other particular forms of justice will occur as a natural consequence of, and in tandem with, victorious class warfare on behalf of the working class. Ironically, this academic white bread approach to Marxism has long left unconvinced and alienated members of intersectional slices such as women, oppressed racial and ethnic minorities, non-cis gender identities/LGBTQIA identities.

The new generation of Socialists, more than mere beneficiaries of American “liberal” distillations of acceptance and diversity, have simply lived more diverse and accepting lives and tend to ally with movements that “get” that. It can be speculated that the post-Ferguson expression of Millennial thought is no longer passively but now militantly anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-misogynist. Any expectation of subsuming other particularities into class will be met by hostility by members of those particularities and their allies – in fact, doing so demonstrates rampant privilege blindness and effectively types of supremacy, normativity, and regurgitations of the injust status quo. A viable Socialist Unity movement will be a fully intersectional one that builds trust between intersectional particularities by hearing, believing, and respecting the lived experience of one another while recognizing the differing severities of the same ultimate plight under the grinding heel of Capital.

Iconoclasty
The (US) American Left (like many sectors of its international cousins) has long fetishized the intellectuals, slogans, theories, and aesthetic of the Bolsheviks, harking back to the Left hanging its hopes on the Russian Revolution (as noted by Upton Sinclair) in much the way American liberals hung their hope on Obama in 2008. Long after the Hammer and Sickle carry a Stalinist subtext for many an American, the Left continues to appeal to a bygone era and conditions that do not apply. Others hark back to other national expressions of Socialism, and endlessly debate the disagreements of long-dead worlds that have gone from us and shall never return.

Uniquely American expressions of Socialism are needed to inspire working people of all descriptions to rise up, join together, and throw off the chains of Capital. We can study and benefit from the lessons of all corners of international Socialism, while still emerging a Socialist aesthetic benefiting our aspirational and real culture. To note what is currently working well in other corners of the world in search of common themes, two points:

  1. The powerful anti-austerity Syriza movement of Greece is a broad coalition of Left groups, and uses an image of overlapping colored flags that represent in a clean, modern visual way, the diversity of groups that have nonetheless drawn together under the Syriza banner.
  2. The wildly successful new Podemos movement of Spain uses variations of a Venn diagram-like image that suggests groups or individuals, while unique, nonetheless share the vast majority of interests and ideas. These images and their tremendous success hark back to the point here under “moral imagination” – the most inspiring facets of Socialism are not deep theory, but rather simple images and ideas that are attractive to anyone who seeks justice and compassion. Socialism is what the honest and kind human heart longs for, by any other name.

A viable American Socialist Unity movement will acknowledge the contributions of all Socialists everywhere, while engaging the current culture in inspiring terms and images, and engaging American thought leaders.

Red Tide Rising, Black Moon Ascending
Drawing all together, an American Socialist Unity movement will cast off the factional infighting of the past, while not denying the particular concerns of each corner of the Left – yet we all overwhelmingly share the vision of a Marxist and communitarian society where greed is a vice, not a virtue. We will dethrone the petite-bourgeoisie illusions that pit industrial labor against office labor, medical labor against menial labor. We will march side by side in solidarity with Ferguson. We will march against the crass realities of racism, imperialism, misogyny, homophobia, and heteronormativity. In so doing we tap into the ebb and flow of the Zeitgeist and built class consciousness from the blocks of solidarity.

We will not forget the Socialisms of other nations, but we will draw primary inspiration from those who fought for Socialism and justice in our own context – rather than merely asking what Lenin or Trotsky might think, let us ask what Mark Twain or W.E.B DuBois did think. Emma Goldman and Helen Keller to Donna Haraway and Kshama Sawant – historic and contemporary American Socialists have often been fiercely and radically intersectional. We must engage the moral imagination of Socialists to see beyond theoretical differences to concrete camaraderie and shared dreams. The Zeitgeist nourishes a powerful, nay unstoppable Socialism striving to be born. It is our task to ready the nest and tap upon the shell of a better Emergent Socialism in America.  

Curtis Hansoni contributes or edits for several radical journals.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Deran July 5, 2015 at 12:40 pm

It reads a great deal like something written during and abt the 1960s (I wasn’t there, but I’ve read a great deal abt what was said and done then). That’s not to discount the truths and analysis. And the lack of the infestion of Leninism is a positive imo. But I’d still suggest a rereading of Kirkpatrick Sale’s “SDS” for a good look at the pitfalls of “generational” focused politics.

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Carl Daidson July 5, 2015 at 1:00 pm

You best point is that of turning Marxism into an ideology, which would have made Marx wince. He only used the ter as a pejorative, ie, the ossified ideas of the old order, to which he counter-posed science, which is both open and growing.

One other point. While ‘class’ can be an ‘identity,’ like other identities, I rarely use it that way. Instead, it’s best seen as a relation to production. In that sense, it differe from other identities. That doesn’t make them unimportant, just different.

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Curtis Hansoni July 5, 2015 at 1:48 pm

I will say this kind of analysis is not the only tool in my toolbelt, but I do think it’s an analysis that is important to being well-positioned to take advantage of the zeitgeist, and for building cadre, as well as seeing beyond the established parties, when movements do much of the real moving and shaking. I suppose another piece could be written on the complex interaction, or lack of it in some cases, between old parties and emergent movements. Further, how to keep the movement approach on the big picture rather than degenerating into bickering single-issue politics.

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Illin_Spree July 6, 2015 at 2:29 pm

“rather than merely asking what Lenin or Trotsky might think, let us ask what Mark Twain or W.E.B DuBois did think. Emma Goldman and Helen Keller to Donna Haraway and Kshama Sawant – historic and contemporary American Socialists have often been fiercely and radically intersectional. ”

Right on. I think the hegemony of M-Lism in socialist culture has caused us to “forget” about the “homegrown” socialist tradition in the United States, from utopian socialism and anarchism to the Socialist and Socialist Labor Parties. It’s sad to think that many socialist intellectuals in the USA are entirely unaware of books like Hillquit’s “History of Socialism in the United States” and/or Ira Kipnis’ “The American Socialist Movement”. Consequently socialism is (wrongly) seen as something foreign to the USA and its libertarian traditions.

However cheesy this sounds, what we require is more utopian socialism. We need to foster a vision and for that we need radical imagination. When we recover that collective vision, we’ll have the basis for building a movement that is prepared to make sacrifices to attain that vision.

The Marxists of the 1900-1917 period, whether in the USA, in Germany, or in Russia, were organizing in a time where (utopian) socialism was far more popular, thanks in large part to anarchist, utopian socialist, and social democratic movements. These Marxists had to convince the utopians to take a more scientific approach as a prelude to more efficient organizing. But in our case, we don’t have that utopian socialist tradition to build on. So maybe utopian socialist idealism is what we need first, before there’s any hope of building up a mass Marxist party.

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Illin_Spree July 6, 2015 at 2:53 pm

To restate my case, I think we have to look harder at how socialist movements functioned prior to WWI and the hegemony of Leninism. One of the things we find is that members of the SDP (in germany) and the Socialist Party (in the usa) were often involved in affiliated mutual aid associations, whether related to their hobbies, to their spiritual/ethical needs, or to supplying goods and services. These associations served many of the same practical purposes that church and religious based associations served then and today. These socialist and anarchist associations, like religious associations, were based on a common ideology and/or vision among its participants, and more importantly they helped reproduce that vision for future generations.

My point is essentially that if we want to make an impact, then we have to find a way to revivify socialism as a kind of secular religion. Socialism as signifying a utopian end that we are, collectively, prepared to make sacrifices to achieve. This would be in contrast to self-defeating perspectives that are all-too-often coupled with Marxism, such as that we have to wait for capitalism to destroy itself, or we have to wait for some grand cataclysm, or that the level consciousness among the proletariat is not relevant to our goals.

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Curtis Hansoni July 8, 2015 at 1:36 pm

You’re making good points Illin. I do think in some senses we need to reclaim an earlier form of Marxism, in another sense we need to build a future eco-Marxism. Smoke-stake Bolshevik style industrial socialism would literally wipe out our species at this point, along with many others.

I hope my writing did come off as rah-rah, nationalistic, or sentimental towards the USA. That is not my intent or where I am. I envision a post-US future for us in fact. But that doesn’t mean we don’t reclaim the tradition of the struggle right here where we live today, our context. It doesn’t mean we discard the moral imagination of the past, even while we view all things through a critical lense and also an imaginative, freshly generative lens towards a different future.

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Deran July 9, 2015 at 2:12 pm

I also completely agree abt the usefulness of looking at the history of socialist thinking and actions in the US as a key part of our guidance re building a socialist movement in the US>

I’ve listened to Marta Harnecker’s A World To Build several times, and one of the things she comes back to again and again is how popular movements, and other events in Latin and Central America, are central to the development of socialist movements south of the US. And I think we can look in the US need to do the same. One central weakness of the “New Left” of the 1960s was the mindless obsession with Marxism-Leninism as defined a hundred years ago.

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