The wake of Occupy Wall Street brought with it a series of new Leftist parties and politicians aiming to turn anti-capitalist sentiment into electoral victories. These politicians have been, in turn, opposed and supported by a variety of journals and activist groups, in many cases regardless of the stated ideology of the groups and of the politicians. This brings to light a rarely discussed lens of analysis, an ‘organizational materialism’ which places the conflicts between different forms of organizing front and center, ahead of theoretical and ideological differences. In this paper I will discuss this position by comparing the current rise of ‘left populism’ to the institutional realities of two periods where the left was on the rise: the ‘classical period’ of the 2nd International and the ‘Communist period’ from the 40s to the 60s, ending with an analysis of the contemporary Left and a warning that the constellation of organizations which currently exist in the Left is not sustainable.
“We face a crisis” has been the header of a multitude of think pieces, journal entries, blog posts and Facebook statuses in the last three years. And it is true: in the last eight years, we have seen an economic recession used to justify worldwide austerity, the continued destruction of public spaces and public goods alongside a massive increase in homelessness, a continued erosion of people’s food security, and now a worldwide sweep of nationalist leaders who promise to build walls and destroy the Other inhabiting their respective ‘nations’. To live now is to live in the shadow of a counter-revolution which has likely lasted your whole life, to fear that you will never make ends meet, to be aware that the world is being destroyed, and to know that your descendants will suffer a similar ‘life’, if not a worse one.
But these contradictions have existed as long as capitalism has existed, and as long as capitalism has existed, there have been people who have organized to oppose it, to reform it, to ameliorate its effects. It is these, the intrinsic, structural contradictions of the society we live in, and all its various inequalities, that inevitably produce a movement of those who are forced by their very position to fight, for their embetterment, for the abolition of their oppression.
That is how the story goes, at least. But not all oppositions are created equal. What Marx and Engels said is true: communism is the real movement which abolishes the present state of things1, but this statement has been twisted from an incisive statement to a truism. Instead of looking at the way that radical organizations and individuals interact, we often merely see an analysis of conditions, with the assumption that some force, some group which we never have to interact with, will do the work of abolition. By abstracting the real movement, we create a pair of points connected only theoretically. Revolution becomes a rhetorical conclusion, an inevitability, which does not have to involve us or anyone we know, but will happen, as surely as a pot boils.
This teleology, this ‘straight line’ that links the counter-revolutionary present to the revolutionary future, has always been an incomplete analysis. Regardless of how rigorous the analysis of the present is, how complete the schematic of the revolution is, a state can be in immiserated poverty and not face a revolution, and a movement which is a perfect microcosm for its perfect society can fall apart under the boot of the state. All too often, the only concept which is slotted into this vast wasteland is the call to Organize! This call is rarely complicated by an in depth analysis of what it means to organize, what our organizational landscape looks like, how to organize, or what to organize for, what it means to be organized. In these times of mass deportations and massive privatizations, of a new reaction which seeks to peel away the kindly veneer of welfare capitalism, of militarist goons and alt right bureaucrats, we can no longer justify this lack of focus. It is long past due for a hard look at the Real Movement.