The Future of the Status Quo

by Ben Campbell on December 7, 2012

Last night I had the pleasure of partaking in an engaging conversation about the future of left politics, hosted by Platypus. My opening remarks are included below. I tried to combine an optimism in the potential of the present with a sharply critical take on the wreckage of the existing left that presently stifles such a left renewal. While I spoke only for myself, I consider this combined optimism for a potential left and pessimism about the existing left characteristic of The North Star project. The second half of this equation is, of course, also characteristic of the event’s organizers (as indicated in my initial remarks) and I imagine that this affinity explains their interest in hearing my thoughts. Platypus members did press me on the vagueness of my positive political vision, and such criticism is well-taken. My intention was not really to present my own What is to be done? but merely to start a conversation about what types of action could break us out of these failed strategies to best influence the course of the developing left. In this I am not sure I succeeded, but will write more in the coming days.

The panel also featured Chris Maisano and Bhaskar Sunkara, both of Jacobin magazine and the Democratic Socialists of America, and Annie Day of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). This was my first significant interaction with the RCP, and while I tried to avoid preconceptions, I did find it difficult to engage with the RCP members present on specific issues, as their arguments seemed to consistently lead back to authoritative references written by Bob Avakian. In the face of such “revolutionary” opposition, I probably came across as more skeptical of an eventual revolutionary socialist project than I actually am. I agree with those like Jodi Dean who stress the need for the left to regain its vision of “The Communist Horizon”. Nevertheless, it remains the task of the left to dialectically bridge the gap between the present and that horizon, to neither remain mired in the present nor jump immediately ahead to a hoped-for revolution.

As for Maisano and Sunkara, both continue to hold many reasonable positions, (see for instance Maisano’s contribution to The North Star’s party-building roundtable), and Jacobin continues to be one of the more encouraging developments in left discourse. Nevertheless, both appear to remain in a no man’s land when it comes to electoral politics, apparently recognizing the complete inadequacy of the Democratic Party, expressing no real hope that such a party can be redeemed, and yet are unwilling to break with the Democrats by supporting any left alternative, except perhaps in the distant future (after the rest of us build it, I suppose). They are, of course, correct to point out that present left alternatives are significantly lacking, such as the Greens, yet they seem to see this weakness as some sort of immutable fact of nature, rather than something that can and must be changed if the left is to witness any significant revival in the present.

Below are my prepared remarks, and the audio/video of the panel should be available shortly here, so I encourage you to check out the other panelists. Update: Here’s the video; audio available here


BC: I would like to center my remarks around two aspects of this panel. The first is that it has been organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society, whose slogan includes the claim that “The Left is Dead.” I have been told that this slogan annoys or provokes some on the left, likely because it is self-evidently true, or at least it was self-evidently true. In order to compare the left to four years ago I will quote Chris Cutrone of Platypus on this panel in 2008: “we need to admit that today there is no left. We need to consider and explore the conditions of possibility for a left coming into existence at all at some time in the foreseeable future, which will perhaps occur under Obama, but maybe not.”

If we take this as an accurate portrayal of 2008, and I see no reason not to, then we must note that the last four years have given rise to something that appears to be a developing left. From Spain to Greece, the student movements from Quebec to Chile, and the Occupy movement, there has been a greater upsurge of leftism in the last couple of years than at any previous point in the neoliberal era. Or, perhaps more accurately we could periodize the neoliberal era, of the 35 years preceding the recent economic crash, as the era in which “the left was dead”, and the post-2008 upsurge of activity represents a new era in which the left appears to be coming into existence. The left can no longer be said to be dead, but nor can it be said to yet be a living vital force. Rather it is in an early stage of development, and as development is a time of sensitivity to initial conditions, so the present moment is one in which our actions or lack thereof could and will play a determining role in whether this nascent left develops into a powerful force, or whether it arrives stillborn.

The second feature of the panel that I will draw attention to is that it is taking place at New York University roughly four or five years into an historic economic crisis. For it was here, at NYU, four or five years into the last crisis of this magnitude, that arguably the first important theoretical contribution to American Marxism was published. In ‘Towards an Understanding of Karl Marx’, the young Sidney Hook explored the disintegration of the left at an earlier historical juncture in his own attempts to forge an independent socialist movement in America. Hook recounts the disintegration of Marxism after Marx into (1) an ineffectual orthodoxy, (2) a revisionism, and (3) an emotive but blind syndicalism. Hook contrasted these ineffectual forms with the towering figures of Lenin and Luxemburg who offered a dialectical synthesis of the fraying strands. Despite the fact that this previous generation all failed in their project, or perhaps because of it, today’s left faces a similar deterioration, and a similar need for a dialectical synthesis to revitalize it as a force for understanding, and hence changing, the world today. Indeed, our need is even greater, as the vestigial elements of the present left are not worthy of comparison to those of this earlier generation, yet alone Lenin and Luxemburg. Echoing Sidney Hook, I will categorize three elements of the present left.

The first element of the present degeneration is “Leninism” itself, or “Marxism-Leninism”. We must use quotations around these terms, to indicate the lack of resemblance of these elements of the present left to the historical Marx, and the historical Lenin. These leftists, generally grouped in micro-parties, turn to an orthodoxy of Marxism, Leninism, or other isms, for transhistorical truths, thus providing a powerful (or perhaps not so powerful) denial of the left’s inability to grasp the present state of the world and its own position in it. I do not want to spend too much time on these various Marxisms. The failure of these various orthodoxies has been proven empirically by their decades of dwindling numbers and their inability to revitalize their projects despite the material conditions of the present crisis – the one they have been waiting for for seventy years.

The second element of this degeneration is the social democratic project, which represents a compromise with the interests of capital, both practically, but perhaps more importantly, ideologically. Social democrats may retain certain utopian aspirations (indeed, this is the only thing that still marks them as leftists), but radical change is relegated to the distant future, to Star Trek-like fantasies, and in practice their politics reduce to left-liberalism. These leftists are at least to be commended for not pretending that the present left presents any serious alternative, and under certain conditions, such “capitalist realism” is eminently practical, social democrats having historically extracted concessions from capital when the left could not reasonably hope for any more. Yet the crisis of 2008 represented a phase transition in economic, and hence political, reality. As the inflated asset bubbles burst, so too did social democracy go in an instant from being reasonable to incoherent, and from being a progressive force to apologism for the status quo, presently serving to deradicalize the growing numbers of discontented, by maintaining certain illusions about the present. Without the same level of surplus to redistribute to the masses, social democrats have been either unable or unwilling to reorient their politics into a more direct confrontation with capital – from redistributing surplus to expropriating capital. Thus, they can often be found denying the severity of the current crisis of capitalism, suggesting that perhaps it’s not all that bad, that capitalism can still afford its meager welfare states, and that piling amounts of debt and deficits are merely right-wing scare tactics. Thus their politics have presently reduced to an atavistic utopianism of mere resistance to economic reality, useful to a leftist project, but indistinguishable from the more numerous liberal and progressive organizations that do the same without reducing Marx to what Sidney Hook called “a liberal philosophy of social reform.”

Continuing now, the third element of this splintering is the reemergence of a specific form of “anarchism”, that which David Graeber called “the New Anarchism”, and which others have accordingly called Graeberism. This form of anarchism, having developed during the neoliberal “End of History”, is similar to social democracy in offering only a politics of resistance, lip service to a utopian horizon, but no clear sense of how to actually “crack capitalism”. It is characterized by an increased emphasis on individual subjectivity, and a consequent reification of participatory processes and action, like the syndicalists spoken of by Hook.

It is because of this emphasis on subjectivity and action that the anarchists have been the most inspired political actors on the left in our post-2008 time of political indeterminism. They served as the architects and catalysts for the Occupy movement, the largest resurgence in leftish activism in several decades, which would likely not have been started without their impetus. But at the same time the very forms of anarchism that gave rise to Occupy limited and choked its growth. The commitment to changing the world through direct action, led to the channeling of all energies into “concrete actions”, ultimately leading to ineffectual utopian schemes, blurring the lines between liberal charity and radical politics.

Since we have been asked to speak of the election, the failure of all three of these elements can be seen in their electoral strategies. Social democrats, for the most part, continue in their apologism for the “lesser evil” party of capital, suggesting that just as capitalism can presently be reformed, so too can the Democrats. Anarchists, for the most part, straightforwardly abstain from electoral politics, while today’s so-called “Marxists” or “Leninists” are not technically abstentionists – as Marx and Lenin weren’t – but for the most part they apply revolutionary litmus tests that in practice amount to abstention from reality.

The failure of all three of these elements can also be seen in Occupy and its subsequent disintegration. The anarchist ideology that catalyzed the movement ultimately stifled its growth; while the vast majority of “Marxists” either criticized Occupy from afar, attempted to use it as a recruiting grounds for their own moribund efforts, or worked to redirect all energies into organized labor, in keeping with their dogma. Meanwhile, social democrats saw in Occupy an opportunity to press their demands for a “new New Deal”, drafting a 99% platform for Democratic electoral politics, exposing their lack of any vision different than, say, MoveOn.org or Van Jones’ “99% Spring”.

My remarks may seem critical, and indeed they are, but I speak of the need for a “dialectical” synthesis not as a Marxian rhetorical flourish, but as a recognition that each of these strands has something to offer, reflects some truth, and ultimately reflects the failings of the others. The present anarchists are to be commended for their emphasis on our subjectivity as actors and for their participatory inclusiveness. Social democrats wisely ground their politics in the world as it is, not as it should be, even if they fail to transcend that present. As for Marxists, they tend to be correct about most things theoretical, except for when it involves their own actions.

Nevertheless, these three inadequate strategies for the present represent ghosts from the past, and the tradition of these dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. So what would a synthesis look like, a left politics grounded in present reality? What the present moment calls for, and what the present moment can provide, is a mass movement diametrically opposed to the interests of capital, even if initially more anti-corporate than explicitly anti-capitalist. A movement building on the energy of Occupy, but a political movement, rather than a prefigurative movement. Thus perhaps the only question we should ask ourselves about our present actions and organization is “do they help to create a class-based mass movement” in the present, or do they hinder that goal?

My introduction to left politics, indeed radicalization, was via Occupy Wall Street, so I’ll end with a short reflection on that. Rarely before have so many shown up completely disillusioned by the ideology of capital, in search of a direction, in search of an understanding of the world, in search of the left. But it was demonstrated quite clearly, at least to me, that no left exists. It is the task at present to create a left that is worthy of the name. Thus the events of the last two years must be seen as signaling both the complete irrelevance of the existing left, as well as the possibility and necessity of its own rebirth.

  • Louis Proyect

    I wish I could kick myself in the ass for going to a press screening for Quentin Tarantino’s new movie “Django Unchained” rather than this event. I have my annual NYFCO awards meeting on Sunday and I am desperately trying to find 3 Hollywood movies from 2012 worthy of being nominated for best picture. I walked out of this stupid film after 15 minutes. Every line of dialog by a white person includes the word “nigger”. This has been one of the more unseemly aspects of Tarantino films in the past but this time he has gone completely overboard. Glad to see Ben’s talk reproduced here and am looking forward to reading Chris’s and Bhaskar’s as well. The RCP is another story…

    • http://www.rosswolfe.wordpress.com Ross Wolfe

      We should have both the audio and video up tonight, Louis. My apologies regarding the new Tarantino film, but you should have seen that coming!

    • Ben Campbell

      Too bad you couldn’t make it Louis; could have used you to balance out the RCP-heavy crowd. Can’t help you with the film noms, but yes, I’m not surprised to hear you hated the new Tarantino, given your past comments on his (and Cormac McCarthy’s) gratuitous racism.

      Audio/video of the event have now been added, thanks to Platypus tech folks for being so quick with that.

  • http://phillysocialists.org Tim Horras

    Great piece, Ben! The “Three Traditions” approach is very useful (I picked it up from remarks by Howard Zinn and didn’t know about the linkage to Sidney Hook). I appreciate your honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of all three traditions present-day manifestations, and your emphasis on the need to synthesize elements from all of them into a new iteration of socialist ideology. On all these matters I’m in complete accord.

    • Ben Campbell

      Thanks Tim. Any attempt to categorize the present left is going to oversimplify, omit, and conflate somewhat; nevertheless I was struck by the similarities to the present in reading the young Sidney Hook. Hook was largely expanding on the work of Karl Korsch, whose lectures he attended when visiting Europe. As for Howard Zinn, I am not familiar with his work on the theme – any references?

  • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

    It’s funny how tired and pessimistic people on the panel sound when they insist on their own optimism about the short and medium-term prospects for the American left. Annie Day came across as committed and passionate, and at times over the top and moralistic, but she there’s no doubt in my mind that she connects with the fire that animates the most dedicated elements of Occupy and other activist initiatives while the comrades from Jacobin sounded beaten down despite (or maybe because of) their intellectualism. People who have been around the American left long enough tend to outgrow their revolutionary optimism and into a hardened cynicism. The panel reflected this divide, between optimism and cynicism, reason/intellect and emotion, submission and rebellion, and was sort of politically sterile as a result.

    One of the things that Ben I think glossed over in his opening remarks is the plain fact that Jacobin and Democratic Socialists of America are not social democrats, or more precisely, their practice is not consonant with the central axiom of classical social democracy, that working class needs a party of its own, apart from and in opposition to capitalist parties. Even Bernstein recognized this. The reform or revolution distinction/debate has zero meaning if you don’t have an instrument to win or push for either/both, and so exposing the shortcomings and inadequacies of reform-minded social democracy in the context of the 2008 crisis to me misses this basic point. They are more like Russia’s “legal Marxists”, tailing (bourgeois) liberals in practice than they are social democrats, as Ben has pointed out elsewhere, their bitter and one-sided attacks on anarchism, “Leninism,” and other forms of petty-bourgeois radicalism notwithstanding.

    What I dislike about Jacobin politically is that they seem to sort of be ashamed or abashed about the practical conclusions of their political views. You have to read Jason Schulman’s and Mike Hirsh’s “Beyond November” the way Russians had to read the Stalin-era Pravda to figure out that they supported voting for Obama in swing states with eyes open, without dropping their criticisms of his policies. Couching things in this way means it is all but impossible to have vigorous and above-board polemics, and without airing and exploring our differences we can’t come together and unite on a proper political basis either.

    • Ben Campbell

      I don’t know, I think the only person on the panel who sounded “tired and pessimistic” while “insisting on their optimism” was me. In my defense that was partially because I was sick. I do hope that I am not already outgrowing my optimism and turning into a hardened Marxist curmudgeon. I think it’s important, however, to distinguish between two types of pessimism. The first is at the existing left forms, and state of the left, which I expressed. The second is at the radical potential of the moment, about which others might express pessimism after decades of failure, but about which I am quite optimistic. Indeed, it is the great gap between the state of the existing left and the enormous potential of the moment that is what makes me optimistic about the present. If the left were actually organizing effectively right now and our current state was all we had to show for it,well then that would be cause for concern. Thankfully, however, the left is not yet anywhere near where it could be.

      • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

        I don’t agree. You sounded like you were reading a tightly written paper.

        I agree that the distinction between the two pessimisms is important; however, the two comrades from Jacobin are so pessimistic about the Greens and other existing initiatives that they cling to the Democratic Party as the only “realistic” alternative “for the time being” (going on three decades strong now if we start the stopwatch at Harrington). The inverse of this is Annie Day’s morally outraged near-voluntarism, something that is unsustainable for the 1-3 decades necessary to see small but appreciable progress. I just hope we don’t lose her to burn out, which is where a large minority of active “Leninists” end up.

  • Pingback: Ben Campbell’s Sidney Hook moment | The Charnel-House()

  • Pingback: Michael Kors Rose Gold Grayson Large Satchel()

Previous post:

Next post: