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What to do as a leftist intellectual

by Jean Allen

In “Against Think Tank Socialism,” I argued that the project of ‘left populism’ is ultimately about viewing the left as an intellectual project, and that this might ‘work’ in a broader left but is ultimately a deeply narrow project to build a left around.  But even writing this, I could hear myself saying “that’s all well and fine, but if I am an intellectual, what am I to do?”

This problem is less rare that it would seem.  The left, after all, does contain a large segment of what has, elsewhere, been called “declasse wonks,” people who wanted to integrate into the governmental-analysis industrial complex but either flunked out or left out of a weak stomach for the justifications needed for such work.  These are both equally valid reasons, but upon leaving these career paths and defecting to the Reds, many of these individuals act with a perhaps unearned sense of importance. “After all,” one may think, “I was not able to work for the military or the Sauds, but my CV spends just as well on the left, and all of the work I have done to earn my credentials must surely mean something now that I am a socialist/communist/anarchist/whatever.”  I feel that a good deal of the focus around intellectual projects comes from a need to rationalize this desire more than any practical element of it. The assumed need for unproblematic Atlantic magazines, unproblematic American Enterprise Institutes, comes from a desire to do essentially the same work but without the pangs of one’s conscience.

But the left is a different body than mainstream politics, working towards different goals, and while we can, yes, continue to create ever new journals, ever new online-only magazines (many of which are good for their own reasons and which I personally like), there are other elements of the socialist project which are woefully under-done, perhaps because they require some technical skill or because they are not as prestigious as having your very own opinion column (opposed, of course, to what I am doing, which is saying the things that are Right and Good).  These tasks are more support roles but they make the fun Analysis and Strategy more useful and replicable. And in a left with a large infusion of People Who Like To Write, I feel like these tasks and roles are important if you still want to use your skills and passion but in a way that promotes a Left broader than the walls of a think tank.

The Writing of After-Action-Reports.

There is a problem in the left of mixing up analysis and agitation.  We always must present ourselves as winners, as strong, or as weak victims, but whichever we are, we are eternally that, which is why you yes YOU must get involved in the struggle! These calls to action can be useful towards one goal but, if you want to say something about where the left is going, these agitational calls do not really give a good idea of what is happening in other cities where one doesn’t have the hyper granular knowledge to know anything that is actually happening.  The left does not talk about its failures, which can be fine, until we need to know why these failures happened, or indeed why our successes happened.

Without the knowledge of the inner workings of campaigns, protests, mutual aid work, community work, &c, we are left with a black box which people tend to read their own experiences and ideologies into.  Efforts like Build are massively important not just because they present the possibility of generalizing best practices but because an actual knowledge of how a campaign worked is the first step towards building an analysis of the left that doesn’t arise from first principles, intuition, or received wisdom from the last century.

Archival work

This same thing can be said of the knowledge of past movements, which were far more fragmented than the left of today was.  I would go further into the necessity for this but instead I will just repeat myself in my review of Direct Action:

When I said that the Left was starting from zero, that was only halfway right: we are now starting from less than zero compared to the Bush years.  While we are, I believe, in a different period of activism from that contained within the era Direct Action covers, we are still working with the tactics inherited from the period.  But unlike the period from the 90s to the 00s, we are recycling these tactics without knowing the history of them.

Just as we have lack analysis of current work, we do not have the granular kinds of knowledge to start analyzing the past in any systematic way.  We need to have this backing before we can start to say, with any confidence, what worked and did not work about these groups.

Local Journalism

In my introduction I spoke about a specific drop-out of the Wonkosphere, but there is unquestionably another kind of Fallen Public Intellectual one might find on the left: the journalist. Journalism has essentially died on the local level, especially at the nitty gritty level of looking at local politics and movements.  If your town is lucky, you have a newspaper which talks about local art with the occasional activism article. If you are immensely lucky your town has two! But outside of the New Yorks and Bay Areas of the United States, local news essentially means anchor news delivered by untrustworthy news conglomerates, or–in a situation similar to the way the left often works from first principles lacking the knowledge in campaigns–through a comments style opinion section which has spanned over the whole fucking planet.

I have heard a friend say that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the revival of local journalism.  But we are now essentially in a situation similar to that of news media in the 1800s. Yellow journalism and the mouthpieces of the rich are everywhere, and everywhere they are essentially ignored in favor of more interesting sources of news-ter-tainment (or whatever other insufferable term it’s called nowadays). Historically the thing which turned journalism into an actual field was the development of muckraking newspapers, which were usually staffed with radicals who did the hard journalism required to reveal corrupt deals or the fecklessness of bosses.  Creating a structure for national level funding towards local journalism is more feasible now than ever and could be done through an organization like the DSA or Marxist Center.

Political Education

On the other end of this, ‘proper theory’ is still important for a variety of reasons.  But again, there is a less prestigious and fun but all the more necessary field which has been under-worked.  To a new socialist, the quest of developing better understandings and practices can seem all but insurmountable. Even with the development of nationwide socialist political organizations, political education is still often a self-driven job of palming through the darkness, with few publications writing to a modern audience in a way that doesn’t require reading a century’s worth of backing literature.  The only real exception is Jacobin magazine, which has a series of advantages.  Its writing often comes to journalistic standards, requiring a comparatively small background to be read and delivered in an easy problem-wrong solution-actual solution format.

That said, there are a variety of legitimate critiques that are made of Jacobin.  They are a part of the ‘left populist’ tradition which seeks to modernize and normalize the socialist project, and because of this there are a variety of ‘mistakes’ they consistently make, which indeed are not really mistakes.  They have allied themselves with the most reactionary social chauvinists of the DSA right, they have had a spotty at best record on imperialism and social reproduction, and they tend to reify a leftist practice which tries to build the leadership apparatus first.  But while these criticisms may be correct, for a long time they were made without either a suggestion or attempt at providing an alternative. Without a positive alternative these critiques have not had much of an effect, and even the best takedowns have faded into air.  

But even the “Jacobin killer’ projects have failed to replace Jacobin because they are not actually giving an alternative to Jacobin’s style or audience.  Instead what they offer is a ‘higher level’ of knowledge wrapped in cooler aesthetics and the attitude of a record collector who was into that when it wasn’t cool.  I should not have to say why this is no alternative to a project which, for all its faults, actually tries to speak to a broad (if college educated) audience.

I don’t think that ‘harder topics’ are in fact ‘harder’; they’re only made ‘harder’ by the aesthetics with which the left likes to talk about itself and the presumed audience of higher level topics. But it can be very difficult to find articles which give just a simple political education on a topic to a broad audience.  Instead, in my work with my political education group I often have to rely on building an implicit argument within the spaces of articles, presenting a variety of articles on a relatively similar topic and showing that they are connected during a session. While this can be satisfying, it can be frustrating to be in a left where seemingly everyone is writing and yet it is impossible to find an article which just presents an issue in an accessible way.

A useful project might be a national-level publishing house for authors who would be commissioned by education groups to write easy explanations, allowing us to give students writing which doesn’t have the awkward diction of a century old translation or a political project which we may not be in agreement with. This kind of project could actually be feasible now that there are national organizations with a demand for this kind of work.  And whether or not this project would be a ‘Jacobin killer’, it would be a far better use of our time than elevating literary disputes to the level of a program.

Counter-Recruitment

I have heard many ‘public intellectuals’ say that more than anything else, they want to provide an alternative to fascism for those failing youths who are prone to getting sucked into that horrifying political black hole.  This argument can seem more of less true depending on who’s saying it but it is, unquestionably, an important aspect of our outreach. The problematic over-focus on agitation in some circles of the left does not make it an unimportant form of outreach.

But “I’m doing outreach” or “I’m counter-recruiting against fascism” is a project, not an excuse.  The way that agitation gets made often reeks of self assuredness and self importance. We had years of memes which promoted an abstract insurrection against capital; it did not do anything, and indeed did not build the left.  That doesn’t mean we need years of memes promoting voting for politicians. But saying “burn it down” doesn’t promote socialist consciousness so much as it voices something most people vaguely think about in such a way that they will not move past vaguely thinking about it.  Agitation is not a goal or a project in and of itself but a project which, to be effective, has to be connected to a concrete organization and a concrete goal.  Vague assurances or statements can have their place, but we should be aware by now that this won’t work.

Counter-recruitment has a similar problem.  It’s easy to poke holes in the arguments of fascists because many of them are scarcely arguments but post-hoc justifications for power.  It is even relatively easy to give more in depth analyses of what precisely is wrong with a right wing thinker. This can be very helpful for removing the splinters one receives in one’s mind after reading a particularly obnoxious piece, but after reading or watching one of these takedowns, one can often feel the same absence one has after reading any particularly good criticism: “Good, what then?”

Similar to the problem of Jacobin, we don’t provide a real alternative to Joe Rogan or Jordan Peterson by pointing and saying they are bad, or creating systemic defeats of their thought.  That is merely the first, and, sadly, easiest step! What is needed if we are really to do counter-recruitment is to give a positive alternative to their worldview, connected (ideally!!) to a counter-practice, something that can be done instead of getting mad at video games online.

Theory

This isn’t to say that proper High Theory has no place in the left, or even that abstract theory has no place in the left.  But these projects need to come from a material base, and working without that means either working with extraordinarily poor tools or working entirely from first premises.  Ultimately the hard work of building a broader leftist intellectual project will make for better theory and strategy, but that cannot be their point.

To get to the root, the left needs theory, it needs poetry, it needs journals and performance art and think tanks and posting.  What makes these practices problematic, and what simultaneously makes these projects so prevalent, is that they come from this same desire, to do something that will crown them king once the revolution has occurred, which is why they have all met the same degree of success.  “Build the command apparatus and the party will come” has not worked, and hasn’t worked for 40 years; but it has been attempted again and again because it appeals to the worst natures of a type of person that is very common on the Left.

Lacking the capacity to do much with this type of person, the Left waged an infinity war against itself, criticising the dominance of intellectuals, grad students, the petty bourgeois. But such a figure was a purely negative one.  It was always someone else, another group, another tendency. This endless discourse, this constant, impotent, paranoid arguing, was the product of a deep powerlessness in the left. But now that there is the slightest element of a mass base, we need to start diversifying our work.  Because the things that I’ve listed here aren’t just important for us. They are things that only the socialist movement can truly do.

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