The Communist parties failed because, once they had dominated the political field, the flaws inherent in their structure became a general problem for the Left. We now face a similar problem: in our immediate past, the western Left has been dominated by activist organizations and intellectual groups, and the faults inherent in these kinds of practices are the immediate issues of any who seek to reform the left . In order to understand why these forms are so prevalent, we need to look to their origins, or rather the origins of their dominance. Because radical intellectuals and activist organizations have existed through the whole history of radicalism. They are unquestionably the easiest kinds of organizations to form: as opposed to the massive amount of capital and man-hours required to create a successful party, union, or mutual aid organization, getting a few people together for a specific end seems amazingly easy. It is even easier, in this digital age, to write and analyze for a mass audience. In a period marked by the collapse of other forms of leftist organizing, that these two forms would predominate is not surprising.
This brings up another misconception: that the growth of activism is due to some post-modernist intellectual trend. This tendency takes the symptom as the cause and treats the activist organizations of the 80s and 90s as if they simply came out of the aether, as if the end of the mass party was caused by Foucault . That such analysis comes from supposedly ‘materialist’ Marxists makes this line of argument all the more farcical. Intellectuals, even the most abstract of philosophers, have existed on the Left since its inception, and during no period since the Paris Commune have they been so predominant. Acting as if this situation would be remedied if each intellectual read more of the Grundrisse is foolhardy to the extreme, and does nothing more than position oneself as a True Leftist fighting against the falsities of post-modernism. The real question, if we agree that the predominance of intellectual groups is a problem on the Left, is not to whine about them, but to ask why these kinds of radicalism are so predominant, and this question leads straight to the answer: because there was nothing left.
That so much of this intellectual work seems devoted to media criticism and abstract philosophy is another charged levied against contemporary leftism, and this again is not as new as it seems. With the slight exception of Gramsci, every single major Western Marxist concerned themselves at least partially with matters of aesthetics and artistic criticism. Even earlier than this, Voltaire’s and Rousseau’s political writings were bookended by works on music, on poetry, and a number of purely aesthetic novels. That Leftist bloggers should devote so much attention to analyzing television, film, or novels is not a surprise. It’s a natural product of the profession. Someone who chooses to join the academy is choosing to spend their life analyzing words, analyzing texts, differing mediums, and the analysis of other analysts. That they would consider this work important, even perhaps more important than the work others do, makes absolute sense. Similarly, on the internet communities are created around images, around ideas, around milieus. Thus the focus on words, on media, on discourses, in online circles is not a moral failing of those groups. It is, simply put, in the nature of groups based around words to give words undue importance. As such, it is understandable that Leftists who came to the left through academic work would engage with it as academic work: these are passionate people expressing their passions, who see few ways to pursue their passions outside of academia. Furthermore, there have been a great many cases where even the most ‘abstract’ work has brought forth lines of inquiry which can be used for practical ends. The oft trodden line between ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ is an overdetermined one: each is informed by the other. At the same time, however, it is understandable how much ink has been spilled attacking the power that academics have in the Left.
The real issue is that, given the half century long predominance of academics within the Left, and due to the relatively small size of the Left, our stories have been re-viewed and rewritten around intellectual histories, have been reconstrued so all conflicts, all developments, in the Left seem to emerge from discourse. Other narratives, other ways of thinking, are subtly placed by the side or even ignored. This creates a line of thinking which presents the history of the left as merely an intellectual history, where the only contributions made were made by those intellectuals we deign to remember. Under this view of history, theory and practice becomes a one way relationship, and the masses only exist as the vessels of whatever some intellectual thinks up for them. That this view casts itself as radical for focusing on radical intellectuals is wrongheaded, it is a deeply elitist view of history, and ignores what made thinkers like Marx or Lenin radical. Marx was inspired by Hegel, yes, but he was just as inspired by the working class, and without the 1848 revolution or the Paris Commune he would have been a very different thinker. This connects to a trend within Leftist intellectual work, a tendency to position oneself as the administrative class of radicalism, a leader for a nonexistent army of followers, imbued with the sole right to criticize movements they have nothing to do with. This trend should not be viewed as some sort of mass spell of arrogance, or some product of the inherently petite bourgeois position of students. Again, academics have written self centered histories for centuries. The problem is the predominance, not the existence, of intellectual work as a vector for leftist practice. In this position they were only challenged by activist groups.
In light of the criticism consistently levied at the activities of activists, there is something that needs to be kept in mind. While we can hold individual groups accountable to strategic and tactical failures (as well as their successes), it becomes far too easy, stuck as we are in the horrid present, to over-determine these failures, to say, if you’d done this, if you’d said that, you would have succeeded, and we would have a revolution now. It becomes too easy to imbue emotional narratives into these events, to call them betrayals, to assume that the leadership is, in their heart of hearts, reformist, or evil, and that had I been in charge, things would have been different. This certainly is true, different tactical decisions will be made by different people, and will lead to different conclusions. But while engaging in these arguments may garner many likes and a great deal of hurrahs from your side of whatever ideology you subscribe to, there is the danger of ignoring the context in which these actions take place. Much of this kind of analysis either ignores the reasons why certain leaders move to the top, or consigns them to aetherial factors. Furthermore, these kinds of analysis often abstract away larger factors. Just as the Turin revolt’s failure wasn’t due to the writings of Georges Sorel, Occupy Wall Street did not fail from an overabundance of Foucault. They both broke against the fist of state action, and in over-focusing on this or that strategic mistake, this or that doctrinal disagreement, we mistake the embarrassing drum circles for the water cannons of the NYPD, and give up materialist analysis in order to over-examine tactical mistakes.1
The failures of individuals can and must be examined, but what we must realize about the contemporary Left is we are all acting in desperate circumstances. The scant material resources available to the Left, the lack of any sort of larger organizing force, and the destruction of the social security net and erection of a debtor economy onto the country’s poor means that we are less able than ever to drop everything and devote ourselves to any organization. Thus, while we should absolutely laud the tactical and theoretical advances made by activist groups and intellectuals in the last 30 years, we also need to understand that many of their failures (and indeed, many of their successes) are a product of limitations inherent in these forms of organization, on top of an already poor situation.
I have already noted some of the issues inherent in activist organizing, namely that their focus on actions leads to a voluntarist attitude and an over-focus on the discipline and makeup of singular groups. While these tendencies are still markedly present in activist organizations2, the activist organizations of the present day are markedly different from the kinds which predominated in the 1910s or even the 1960s. The groups of today are markedly smaller and more decentralized, and this exacerbates many of the faults inherent in activist organizing.
Because activist organizations are, necessarily, focused around individual actions, their broader social presence is ephemeral. Like a shoddy relative, an activist’s action will be aggressively present for perhaps a day, perhaps a week, perhaps a month. But then it will be gone, perhaps forever. This is reinforced by the natural personal politics that come with the combination of a small group placed under enormous strain. Unless intensive measures are taken, a degree of exclusion will predominate at any activist group. That said, an activist group’s structure does not naturally coincide with the possibility of an ‘everyday’ interaction with their community, which brings the threat of a further narrowing of the group’s interests and an unhealthy intermixing of friend groups and activist politics. But even in a group unafflicted by these tendencies, the prospect of day-in, day-out participation in an activist planning committee seems like some obscure circle of hell designed for people who never brought food to potlucks.
While the internet has become indispensable for activist organizing, it has also posed the danger of accentuating their worst problems. Among these is the constant illusion of protesting for the press, of making one’s constituency not the people immediately involved to the action but to the public, mediated through the press and the internet. This was already criticized in the 90s, but has if anything gotten worse. Focusing on a mediated constituency, especially in a time of short media cycles, is always going to bring at most ephemeral gains. The continued suffering of Flint showcases the issues inherent in this media centric strategy.
This brings up the main failing of activist groups. Despite the tactics used, despite the militancy of its members, or the format of the group, an activist organization contains no mechanism within itself to solve most of the problems it broaches. This, of course, depends on the problem: Antifa actions have proven successful at disrupting organizing attempts by fascists. Even then, there have been numerous discussions of the need to go beyond ‘tactical’ antifascism towards a broader anti-fascism which confronts fascism on broader fronts and stems the ideology off at the root3. This strategy necessarily draws analogies to the United Front between the German Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party during the Weimar period, arguing that the Left needs to create a broad popular front with, perhaps, liberals and parties in government, to stem the tide of a resurgent fascism.
This conclusion points at the precise problem of activist organizations: while they are suited to street level battles and sometimes even a massive series of street level battles occurring across a whole country, they are organizationally incapable of winning the war. This is even easier to see when we look at issues outside of fascism, for instance the activities of Occupy Wall Street. An activist organization which attempts to change the economic direction of a country is, quite simply, not able to do it within itself, and no action it pursues is necessarily going to achieve these goals. In earlier periods, activists organized with mutual aid groups, both as a way to support themselves through an action and as a different economic model to aim towards. But now that the role of mutual aid organizations have been by and large overtaken by the state, nearly all activist organizations are at the very least indirectly aimed at petitioning the state to change its policies. This is apparent to the degree that even the often embarrassingly militant Crimethinc’s piece “Why we don’t make demands” creates a reformist argument:
“Even if your intention is simply to negotiate, you put yourself in a weaker bargaining position by spelling out from the beginning the least it would take to appease you. No shrewd negotiator begins by making concessions. It’s smarter to appear implacable: So you want to come to terms? Make us an offer. In the meantime, we’ll be here blocking the freeway and setting things on fire.”4
Why reject demands of the government? Why, to better make demands of the government! Why riot, destroying infrastructure and property? Why, to make sure that the government hears our voice!
I am not judging the adoption of violent tactics here, and in fact I think that the whole “violence vs. nonviolence” discourse has made remarkable strides in the last few years. The adoption of violent tactics is often a response to desperate situations on the ground, so a mere argument against violent tactics is going to do little to change people’s minds. But this thread of reformism is why there is such a tendency, in ‘professional’ activists, to move towards parliamentary politics. After all, if one is rioting, fighting with the police, constantly under threat of murder or arrest, merely to petition the government, then what is the point in not running in the Democratic party? If an alliance with parliamentary parties is necessary to stop fascism, then why not avoid all this hardship, and merely become a GOTV worker?
- A particular example of this is the oft repeated viewpoint that had the Occupiers read more Marx or been more hierarchical they could somehow have ‘won’, whatever this means. That such a viewpoint comes from the mouths of self professedly materialistic Marxists is absurd to say the least.
- The entire argument regarding consensus is a prime example of this: the search for a perfect organizational format overshot a discussion of the specific cultural/organizational atmosphere that consensus flourished in.
- West & Richardson, “The Dover debate: in defense of mass anti-fascism”
- Crimethinc, “Why We Don’t Make Demands”