As a fellow traveller since late 2011, I was heartened to see Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara’s common sense call for a regrouped socialist left that is not only self-conscious enough to avoid embarrassing itself on the subway but begin to make a difference in the class struggle in the U.S. The responses by Socialist Worker’s Joe Allen to Sunkara’s call dwelled not on the pros and cons of Sunkara’s core points but on the sins of Michael Harrington, a striking confirmation that Sunkara was right – political onanism on the far left is a real problem.
One step forward, two steps back.
By contrast, the response by Occupy cadre Chepe Martín engaged the politics of Jacobin generally while Arran James reacted critically and specifically to Sunkara’s prescriptive vision of “a larger, more centralized organization” with paid staffers. Ideologically, I am much closer to Martín than Sunkara and closer to James on the organization question, but regardless of our precise positions, the four of us are on common ground in wanting to see an effective anti-capitalist left develop.
The key questions are how do we get there and who else is a fellow traveller at this stage of our journey?
Sunkara’s points about the overall dynamics of the self-defeating circular firing squad we call the U.S. socialist left are unassailable. 2008-2009 created an ideological crisis of the first order for capitalism out of which Occupy emerged (setting the stage for unionization fights by low-wage workers at Wal Mart, McDonald’s, and Guitar Center), over 30% of Americans say they have a positive image of socialism, a revolutionary Marxist can get 20,000 votes in a race for state legislature, a socialist ecology conference is attended by 200 people when organizers expected only 100 – where has this red groundswell left America’s socialist organizations? Struggling might and main to recruit and retain new members by the ones and twos.
The difficulty with calls for left regroupment in the U.S. is that the precise path to a large, united, diverse, pluralistic, and powerful mass left organization is not even remotely close to being self-evident in part because we are dealing with two and a half lefts. Sunkara’s “Fellow Travelers” reflects this difficulty: he begins by describing the uninspiring state of the far left in the U.S., ends by outlining a reasonable-yet-grand vision of “a larger, more centralized organization” with paid staffers and the right to form factions, and provides nothing substantive connecting our present moment to our glorious future.
This yawning gap between points A and F is not Sunkara’s failing but the far left’s – it is ours collectively rather than his individually.
So regroupment, left convergence, or a common organization populated by common sense radicals is much easier said than done. On top of that, there are few successes and many failures to learn from.
Pointing to SYRIZA in Greece as a positive example is well and good but only if we begin by acknowledging that the class war there is more two than one-sided, that SYRIZA did not emerge simply because Maoists, Trotskyists, and Eurocommunists decided to bury the hatchet and work more closely together, that the country has a long history of civil wars and general strikes, that their working class has not just one but two, three, many political parties, and that they operate in a parliamentary rather than a winner-take-all system. So opponents of regroupment efforts in the U.S. are not wrong when they point these obvious differences out, but they are wrong when they use these differences to defend the status quo on our left and as an excuse to keep on keepin’ on when plainly this is getting us nowhere fast.
The socialist alternative to capitalism’s rat race cannot be a hamster wheel.
A more useful and relevant example for us to learn from is the experience of the United Left Alliance (ULA) in Ireland. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it makes sense to form a left-of-Labour party when the existing Labour party is still going strong, the ULA was hobbled from birth until its untimely demise by the less than half-hearted commitment of its two largest organized components, the Socialist Party (SP; affiliate of the Committee for a Workers’ International) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP; satellite of the defunct British Socialist Workers Party), to the growth and success of the ULA. From the outset, ULA was not controlled by its membership because it was not initially a membership organization but rather an umbrella held up by the hands of the SP and SWP. In practice, this meant that the independents – people not in pre-existing far left organizations – were at a severe disadvantage because they had no constitutional rights, no ability to mobilize their supporters to turn up at meetings, and no access to money, newspapers, and other resources to balance the SP and the SWP who had all of the above.
Based on this experience, we can safely say that a small united left formation cannot hope to succeed without the full and selfless dedication of its organized components, especially at the beginning stages when such a project is extremely fragile.
The second thing we can say is that an organization that is not controlled by its membership is usually under the control of other forces which can lead to behind-the-scenes sectarian maneuvering and all manner of underhanded, dishonest, and destructive realpolitik.
However, we do not need to look thousands of miles away to learn lessons from failed unity initiatives. Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Jamala Rogers wrote a lengthy but very worthwhile discussion of the experience of the Black Radical Congress’ successes and shortcomings; while it does not deal with socialist organizing per se, they grappled with many of the same difficult dilemmas – whether and how to create a membership organization, how decisions get made, and most difficult of all, fund-raising – that a new and improved regrouped left will face. Another example here at home is Revolutionary Work In Our Time (RWIOT), a multi-tendency effort by Freedom Road Socialist Organization, Solidarity, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, League of Revolutionaries for a New America, Left Turn Magazine, LA Coil, and the New York Study Group that grew out of U.S. Social Forums. Over the course of a few years RWIOT ran out of steam, foundering on the absence of a self-evident path forward and/or concrete activity and the impossible task of creating theoretical or “line” unity between “different traditions” in accordance with Lenin’s old dictum, “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”
Failing to assimilate and learn from these experiences would be criminal.
To return to the key questions: how do we get there and who else is a fellow traveller at this stage of our journey?
Political navigation is always relative and so Mapquest-style directions cannot be drawn up. Instead, working hypotheses such as “lean socialist” or “head north” must suffice when the priority is on changing fundamental direction rather than turning a particular corner at a particular angle in a particular city in a particular set of circumstances.
Fellow travelers are easy to identify: they are against the capitalist social order and recognize that we need a better left to fight it effectively. This definition excludes liberals and includes those who identify with anarchism, an important point that Sunkara does not consider and/or does not agree with since he is already dreaming of a future centralized party and an apparat of paid staffers. It is not wrong to dream of these things, but the party form in the 21st century needs a major re-think by pro-party Marxists because of the new horizontal organizing forms that have arisen on the basis of the new technology Sunkara mentions in passing. The old divisions (really a division of labor) between leaders and led, informed and uninformed, thinkers and doers, talkers and fighters have been radically transformed from a necessary verticalism to a more fluid horizontalism. We also must acknowledge that consensus was the modus operandi of Anonymous, Occupy, the free armies of Syria and Libya, and SYRIZA’s component parts rather than any variant of “democratic centralism” (whose past success stemmed from democratism rather than centralism).
This is not to say that the way our great grandparents organized political parties in the era before the telephone should be completely and utterly rejected but to affirm that the way we organize has to be based on modern conditions, on modern methods, and on what gets results now rather than on models that arose a long time ago in countries far, far away that truthfully we have little first-hand knowledge of or experience with.
Beginning this journey with fellow travelers today means being a bit like Occupy: open-minded, inclusive, and experimental, willing to take risks, make mistakes, and start all over again. It means being willing to re-think old positions and argue through old debates given new and different contexts in an open-ended conversation rather than starting “discussions” with fixed endpoints in mind like central committees, hammers and sickles, banners emblazoned with the busts of your favorite Marxists whether it’s Michael Harrington, Mao, or Peter Camejo, or clutching to your favorite shibboleth as a non-negotiable. It means networking and building political relationships with fellow travelers who hail from a wide range of ideological homelands that are durable enough to withstand fierce disagreements and angry polemics because we never lose sight of the fact that we are fighting against common enemies and for common ends. It means getting as many fellow travelers as possible into the same subway car without preconditions and litmus tests to begin hashing these issues out. It means taking direct action personally to help create the left you want to see by reaching across old boundaries and divides and collaborating practically with people and forces guilty of some world-historic deviation like taking a positive view of something you view dimly or vice-versa.
With these ends (really, beginnings) in mind, The North Star will be hosting a number of panels at the Left Forum in New York City on June 7-9 to facilitate the above processes. Come along. It would be a shame if the train left the station without you.