New Socialist Movement: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?” April 2021

Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy
—Polish proverb

It wasn’t my scene.

I attended Stuart Shuffman’s book release party for Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco sometime in November, 2007. Stuart initially xeroxed his zine at Kinko’s and personally distributed it to stores and shops around the city. His handmade publication was about to become a conventional paperback travel guide produced by a now-defunct independent publishing company that would offer a New York City edition the next year. His Guide to Living Cheaply combined two of my favorite things—zines and cheap eats—under the imprimatur “you are young, broke and beautiful” but the raucous release event wasn’t for me.

The party was held at the Rickshaw Stop, a funky alternative music venue near the SF Civic Center with high ceilings, giant red drapes and an overlooking balcony. Stuart spared no expense. Live bands, DJs, alcoholic beverages and prepared foods. The shindig was actually more of a rave. Those who attended were much younger, had funny haircuts and wore bright day-glo neo-psychedelic clothing. There were light shows, dancing and glow sticks. There were tubs filled with bottled water. And there was a bowl of special punch appropriately labeled with a coded Ecstasy warning. I’d been part of two countercultures and I’d never been inadvertently dosed during my hippie days. Nor did I ever dose anyone without their consent, something that punks never much indulged in. But I stuck with bottled beer just the same.

I didn’t know more than a handful of people and didn’t care for the music. So I thanked Stuart for his zine, congratulated him on his success, then left the party early. I’d been made acutely aware by his celebration of the difference between being on the inside versus on the outside of a scene. At any hippie or punk concert I could have easily pointed out where groups following different kinds of music, bands and social milieus hung out. As a hippie at a 70s concert the psych-rock kids were here, the bikers there, and the Deadheads yonder. As a punk at an 80s concert the hardcore kids were here, the skinheads there, and the Suicidals yonder. But to anxious parents unfamiliar with either scene, everyone looked alike. The subtle clues of hair, clothing, symbols worn and music enjoyed were lost on the uninitiated. To an outsider everything looked and sounded the same.

Now consider the current debate over the “new socialist movement.”

rankandfileSometimes I consider myself a Leftist and a socialist. But sometimes I get cantankerous and call myself an “anti-state communist influenced by the left communist tradition, Italian workerism/Autonomia, insurrectionary anarchism and communization theory.” That’s part of a different dynamic of insiders deliberately rejecting their own or fellow insiders’ status for various reasons. The San Francisco Diggers didn’t identify as hippies because “flowers die too easily.” And much of hardcore punk rejected Krishna Consciousness’s crude infiltration of the hardcore scene because krishnacore was a pathetic “subculture of a subculture of a subculture.” These are insider squabbles.

Someone who is an outsider to left-of-center politics and doesn’t see the differences between the Left, socialism, communism, anarchism and the like needs to realize two things. First, there are a myriad different schools, tendencies, factions and sects that identify with the Left, broadly speaking. I often use the terms “the Left” and “socialism” as generic categories to encompass liberalism, progressivism, social democracy, democratic socialism, Marxism, Leninism, syndicalism, anarchism, left communism, et al. Second, the only common element to this bewildering variety on the Left is collective ownership of land, labor and capital (“the means of production”). Such collective ownership might be termed public ownership, state ownership, nationalization, socialization or communization depending on the degree and type of organization of the collectivization in question. So even this common factor is complex and complicated. But when I talk about the Left or socialism—the idea, the movement, the society—I’m talking at base about collective ownership of the means of production.

Everything else is up for grabs.

Who has agency, who benefits, and who rules under socialism? (Workers and the working class, peasants and the peasantry, oppressed and Third World peoples, the people or the masses, the multitude, the 99%?) How do they rule? (From below versus from above, direct decentralized democracy, democratic confederalism, federalism, democratic centralism, republicanism, class dictatorship, party dictatorship?) By what instruments do they rule? (The state, political party, trade or industrial unions, the four c’s—communes, councils, collectives, cooperatives?) How do they achieve power? (General or mass strike, spontaneous mass insurrection, social revolution, electoral party victory, vanguard party revolution, socialist revolution?) What is the scope of socialism? (Local, municipal, regional, bioregional, national, international?) What other elements are necessary for a socialist movement or society? (Extra-electoral politics, social movements, alternative institutions, mutual aid networks, radical economics?) This list of questions and multiple choice options is by no means exhaustive. So why is it when we talk about a “new socialist movement” we are focused solely on the role of the political party?

The discussion of a “new socialist movement” arose from Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It has been preoccupied with how and whether to move the Democratic party to the Left versus building an independent democratic socialist or social democratic labor party. Other voices have entered the debate with calls for an orthodox vanguard party, an interventionist party, even a “party of a new type.” But the political party is not the be-all and end-all to socialism. The party may not even be necessary for socialism to advance, win, hold power or thrive.

Saying party building is “not my scene” isn’t strong enough. I prefer the Polish proverb “not my circus, not my monkeys.” I reject the emphasis on the political party because it actually hinders the cause of socialism.  I have my personal configuration for a “new socialist movement” but discussing my preferences would amount to a laundry list of wishful thinking. Instead, I’ll target two elements I think of as absolutely crucial to minimizing the role of the state and party and maximizing the social aspects of socialism. When we talk politics, we talk in terms of good or bad, useful or useless, revolutionary or reactionary. Electoral politics, by and large, are boring, ugly and nearly always business-as-usual by being tied to the corporate two-party political system. Contrast this with the unruly, disruptive extra-electoral politics of antifa, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, the Dreamers and other such movements that are “small-d democratic citizen activism bypassing political institutions beholden to narrow, moneyed interests” according to Tony Karon in “Why Bernie Sanders’ movement is much larger than this election” who continues: “Those movements are based outside the Democratic party […] but through grassroots activism they have forced their issues on to the party’s agenda.”

Extra-electoral politics dovetail nicely into the importance of social movements in building popular power generally. Social movements reside both inside and outside electoral politics but represent efforts at affecting social change from below. They are multi-issue, often cross-class and frequently polycentric organizational strategies and movements that attempt to build social power in oppressed populations to take on the powers-that-be through mass mobilizations. The Civil Rights, Black Power, Chicano, Women’s, and Gay Liberation movements—along with scores of other social movements from the 60s onward—built power from the base of society. I consider one of the most important social movements to encompass is the labor movement. And by the labor movement, I don’t mean only the official labor movement of organized unions, federations and internationals, but also wildcat labor, undocumented labor, precarious labor, the whole gamut of working class strategies and movements that strive toward self-activity and self-organization. Karl Marx argued that the working class must move from a “class in itself” as defined by its relation to the means of the production in order to become a “class for itself” and constitute the proletariat actively organized in pursuit of its own interests. As such, workers have the capacity to seize power and realize socialism, or alternatively, to be a decisive element in a self-managed, self-emancipated socialist society even without a political party.

Fixating on the self-perpetuating political party is what’s problematic here. At the risk of being accused of the “false and misleading counter-positioning of mass politics and movement work,” I see a contradiction between emphasizing “the importance of our party as a base of militant organizing within the class” and the claim that “electoral work must be subordinated to, and flow from, that organizing” of mass politics and movement work (“A Party of Our Own” by Turl and Sepehri). Wishing party work to be subordinate to socialist organizing doesn’t make it so, especially given the party-über-alles stance of most of those engaged in the “new socialist movement” debate. That’s like hoping your square parents understand the weird music you listen to when all they know is easy listening. They just don’t get it.

SOURCES
Personal recollections
The Poverty of Philosophy by Karl Marx
Ringolevio by Emmett Grogan
Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply by Stuart Shuffman
Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music edited by Eric James Abbey and Colin Helb
“Why Bernie Sanders’ movement is much larger than this election” by Tony Karon, The Guardian (4-18-16)
“A Party of Our Own” by Adam Turl and Saman Sepehri, Red Wedge (4-14-20)

Let's Party

 

Buy my book, 1% Free, here.

 

Excuses all the way down: “What’s Left?” April 2012, MRR #347

An apocryphal story has it that Bertrand Russell was giving a public lecture on astronomy in which he described how the earth revolved around the sun and how in turn the sun revolved around the center of a collection of stars known as the Milky Way galaxy. Concluding his talk, Russell asked the audience if there were any questions. An old woman at the back of the auditorium raised her hand, stood and spoke. “You know, young man, what you have told us is utter rubbish. The earth is actually a flat plate resting on the back of a giant turtle.”

Russell was startled by her remarks, but he recovered quickly and replied, “Well, madam, and what does the turtle stand on?”

“You think you’re so clever, young man, so very clever indeed,” she responded. “But its turtles all the way down.”

Stephen Hawking told a version of this tale in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time. I believe Hawking used the story to illustrate the problems of infinite regress and unmoved mover in the realm of cosmology. I understand the story to be one of how a belief system, any belief system, always has an explanation handy in case its followers are boxed into a corner, logically speaking. Religions are the most common example of this phenomenon, with perhaps the most aggravating instance being the Republican primaries in which Newt Gingrich, a serial adulterer, was able to successfully if only momentarily appeal to fundamentalist Christians in the party. All men are sinners, the Bible reminds these believers, and so all Newt had to do was claim that he had confessed his sins and thrown himself upon the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ seeking absolution in order to convince the Republican evangelical base to forgive him, and more importantly, to vote for him. The notion that all manner of horror in the world can be justified by three simple words—“It’s God’s Will”—is another such escape hatch for faithful Christians; a vindication of blind faith that has converted more than a few believers to atheism once they realized what an utter sadistic bastard God must be in order to “will” the wholesale maiming and murder of innocents.

Science, too, falls into this category of a belief system in need of explanatory escape hatches. Science owes its strength to its predictive powers, and contends that if a scientific observer knows everything about a particular physical process, the individual scientist can then make accurate predictions about that process. If the predictions fail, or are inaccurate? Well, that must mean that not everything was known about the phenomenon in question. Some knowledge was missing. Never mind that science has, time and again, demonstrated that complete knowledge is an impossibility. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that there are limits to what can be known about related pairs of physical properties of a subatomic particle; that to accurately know the position of a particle one cannot simultaneously know its momentum and vice versa. Using mathematics, the language of science, Godel formulated his famous incompleteness theorem, which demonstrated that, in any closed mathematical system, there are an infinite number of true theorems which, though contained in the original system, can not be deduced from it. Such qualifiers notwithstanding, most scientists are downright uncomfortable with the idea that their knowledge, of necessity, must be incomplete.

Politics is yet another domain rife with escape hatches. I’ll focus on what I know, having once been a left anarchist, and having just recently decided I’m not pure enough to consider myself a left communist any longer. Both political currents posit the notion that workers—in the case of left communism a strictly defined proletariat, and in the case of anarchism a more nebulous notion of working and oppressed people—will rise up and seize control over society. Marxists talk of the working class going from a class in itself to a class for itself, of the self-activity and self-organization of the proletariat leading to the self-emancipation of the working class as a class, of the working class consciously abolishing itself as a social class. And it is presumed that this process will be anti-capitalist, and can occur partly, or entirely without resorting to a political party or a political state. Dozens of examples are then trotted out (The Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02; etc.), all inspiring in their social self-government but all, without exception, short lived and unable to produce a fully realized, long lasting libertarian society.

So why did these many instances of bottom-up social revolution, of horizontal, non-representative, non-electoral decision making, of direct economic collectivization and communization fail, without exception? Enter a plethora of excuses.

Category one of excuses stresses the overwhelming power of the opposition these embryonic revolutions faced. The capitalist ruling class was too strong, its state too powerful, its police and army too brutal. The bourgeoisie resorted to fascism or merciless state terror to quell the uprising. A vicious counterrevolution and civil war obliterated the forces of revolution. However these social upheavals first succeeded, if they are unable to sustain their initial victories and successfully organize to defeat their enemies while maintaining the libertarian character of their new social order, then the revolutionary project is lost from the start. Short of social decay or political collapse, the powers-that-be undoubtedly will be stronger than the forces of revolution, all but insuring defeat.

Category two of excuses blames the revolution’s supposed allies for the revolution’s failure. The democrats, republicans, socialists, Leninists, Stalinists, nationalists, et al, that side with the revolution to begin with, or that the libertarian revolutionaries form alliances with in order to bring about or sustain the social revolution, are accused of double dealing, sabotaging, undermining, suppressing and, ultimately, betraying the true revolution and its libertarian instigators for their own interests and quest for power. This raises the question, why do anarchists and left communists never learn from history and form such dubious alliances to begin with? Or why are anarchists and left communists incapable of playing a strategic game, of using such allies to achieve their ends, then discarding them when necessary?

Excuses in the third category cite the mistakes made by the libertarian revolutionaries themselves. Bureaucratization, recreation of social hierarchy and political leadership, excessive utopianism, a willingness to join the government or recapitulate a state, an authoritarian use of violence against socially reactionary elements, the alienation of other social classes through economic expropriation; these are some of the principle mistakes detailed by critics and libertarians alike. To a failure to learn from history and an incapacity to have strategic game must be added an inability to be flexible, to realize errors immediately and to immediately correct them.

The excuses in category four refer to the failure of revolution due to undeveloped circumstances. Externally, the immature nature of historical and/or economic conditions is given for revolutionary defeat. While possibly correct, this is very difficult to prove, even in hindsight, and has the consequence of mandating forms of determinism and denying working class agency in making social revolutions. Internally, the lack of a sufficient class consciousness among workers is most often provided to explain why revolutions fail. Also hard to prove, class consciousness is a slippery concept that bears further analysis. Leninists contend that workers are only capable of trade union consciousness, and that the intervention of a party/cadre organization of professional revolutionaries is required to instill the proper revolutionary socialist consciousness within the proletariat, an inevitable recipe for substitutionism. Italian autonomous Marxism sidestepped the issue of class consciousness altogether by promoting the idea that what drives the revolutionary process forward is class composition. But working class composition has changed radically in the past four decades, what with the destruction of the industrial proletariat in the west and the rise of service workers and the so-called cognitariat, the expansion of underemployed and precarious workers, and the lumpenization of large sectors of the population. Without workplace unity and industrial discipline, is class consciousness even possible? In turn, this extreme recomposition of the working class in the west places the entire revolutionary project in jeopardy, as reflected in the Invisible Committee’s substitution of an impotent, riotous insurrection for thoroughgoing social revolution.

Not coincidentally, all four categories of excuses—the power of the police, the movement’s bureaucratization and reconstitution of secret leadership hierarchies, the manipulation of liberals, Leninists and decolonialists, ass-backwards substitutionism and insurrectionary vanguardism, insufficient working class content and consciousness—are bandied about in declaring the premature death of Occupy Oakland.

I’ve taken a different tack from making excuses. I’ve come to admit the possibility that the working class, historically in its industrial form or presently in its radically recomposed form, never possessed and does not now possess the capacity for self-emancipation as a class. I’ve added the inability of proletarian self-liberation to the non-existence of a World Turtle, of God, and of total scientific knowledge. I have closed off a slew of crucial escape hatches in the liberatory politics I once so fervently believed in by potentially denying the working class a capacity for self-emancipation. Thus I have renounced a cardinal principle of my former politics, one embodied in the Paris 1968 slogan “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”