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

 

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Reform or revolution, pt. 1: “What’s Left?” June 2020 (MRR #445)

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

—Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution

 

I talk a good game.

Popularize and politicize social discontent. Encourage bottom up insurrection. Communize everything.

I’m switching out my usual Marxist jargon for the postmodern lingo the kids these days are into. But you get my drift. Communism now, communism tomorrow, communism forever.

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret.

I’m OK with anybody but Trump. Even a candidate offering the most incremental ruling class difference will do. Sanders ended his campaign and endorsed Biden. I’m nothing if not pragmatic so I’ll even settle for Joe Biden.

But maybe I’m not being practical, just a pushover. This is little more than the classic either/or contradiction between reform versus revolution posed by Rosa Luxemburg and so often debated in Leftist circles. Let me state my case for why radical social change (aka revolution) is a good thing.

Capitalism is a killer. It’s an economic system that is in endless crisis and that fosters deadly social crises. Capitalism generates vast inequalities of wealth and power that, in turn, foments antagonistic social divisions. It is a system that undermines democracy, freedom and autonomy through exploitation, imperialism and oppression. Based on maximizing profits and economic growth above all else, capitalism fosters alienation, perpetuates violence and destroys the planet. We need to destroy capitalism in order for us, our communities, our world to survive.

Postmodernism is the “incredulity towards metanarratives” that proposes a piecemeal “resistance of everyday life.” Meanwhile, capitalism is an actually totalizing system that permeates to the furthest corners of the globe and the deepest reaches of the human psyche. The Vietnamese defeat of the powerful US military in asymmetrical “David vs Goliath” warfare belies that the VietCong were backed by the North Vietnamese Army and a highly centralized Communist Party. A totalizing capitalism needs to be overthrown by a total social revolution.

The genius of capitalism as a totalizing system based on human labor power and the sale of that labor power is to convince us that the basis for that system is as universal and natural as the air we breath, and thus invisible. That our working class agency doesn’t exist and that our true identities reside in anything but our class, in a multitude of postmodern cultural identities reduced to impotence by that very same capitalism. Our task once again is to reconstitute our agency by transforming our “class in itself” into a “class for itself.”

At best, voting is harm reduction. At worst, it obfuscates where our real power comes from. Our power doesn’t come from electoral politics, but from the self-activity and self-organization of working people. Our power doesn’t end with nor is it contained by our class. Nor is our power limited to collectively withholding our labor. From daily collective resistance through disrupting business-as-usual to creating alternative networks of dual power; our options are myriad. Ours is not state power, but a true social power that arises from class self-emancipation.

Maoists were fond of opining “dare to struggle, dare to win.” But to Mao’s “if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall,” libertarian socialists counter “if it doesn’t fall, you didn’t hit it hard enough.” It goes without saying that you can’t win if you don’t play the game. We must build workers’ movements with teeth, those with the power to force the hands of those in power. The odds are stacked heavily against us, and our timeframe must be measured in generations, if not centuries. Our choice remains a Luxemburgian one between socialism or barbarism, even if our chances for socialism are slim.

This strident screed is almost pure left communism. But the older I get the less I feel the need for any kind of purity—theoretical, practical or otherwise. I’ll be the first to admit that my default “class über alles” politics doesn’t work well dealing with those ur-divisions—sex and race—that preceded the rise of capitalism by millennia. I don’t propound the thesis that “race/sex is a social construct” so much as I ignore contradictions based on race and sex altogether. The Old Left and the New Left did a far better job grappling with and integrating a class-based analysis with concerns over racism and sexism. And that’s not my only political contradiction.

I’ve downplayed my involvement in electoral politics by contending that voting minimizes harm. US politics has allowed me, as a California resident, to claim that I voted for “far left” Bernie Sanders while conveniently ignoring that the Democratic party candidate is likely to be “reactionary scum” Joe Biden. Thus I can claim the moral high ground by saying I voted my conscience while sidestepping the fact that my vote was essentially wasted. Which is just one step shy of arguing that all voting is a waste, bringing us back to the reform versus revolution debate.

I was thrilled to learn about Italian Autonomy in 1984. My politics were evolving from left anarchism to left communism as I studied more Marx. I devoured Autonomedia’s Semiotext(e) volume Autonomia and enshrined Sylvère Lotringer’s formulation of “Autonomy at the base” who wrote: “[p]olitical autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a ‘general line,’ to allow parts to co-exist side by side, in their singularity.I considered this an intriguing method to bridge the divide between anarchism and Marxism, a brilliant way to move forward politically, and a powerful tool for getting things done. Little did I know at the time that most Marxists, including many Autonomists, considered such a strategy not Autonomy’s singular strength but its profound weakness.

I’ve since realized that such a strategy rarely results in bridging ideological divides, moving forward politically, or successfully working together to accomplish things. As an anarchist-Marxist I thought it possible to synthesize differences from below and to develop a “general line” through shared direct action. Perhaps at the height of some revolutionary situation, but as a rule synthesis and unity are the exception when it comes to finding common theoretical ground through common political activity.

Autonomy’s flaccid approach conveniently evades the almost laughably Aristotelian logic of Luxemburgian “reform or revolution” while simultaneously threatening to devolve into grouplet politics. “Grouplet politics is not an embryo of revolutionary politics,” wrote Goren Therborn. “It is a substitute for it.” Paul Costello describes the history of the US Left over the past several decades—and my own “pure” politics by implication—as the epitome of “grouplet politics.” He cedes that capitalism “has once again proven its great stability, resilience and flexibility” and argues that “we can no longer afford the luxury of small sect politics, with the delusion that it is revolutionary politics in embryo.” Costello insists that we shift the “terrain out of the left ghetto and into the mainstream” and recommends the more nuanced, integrative Hegelian/Marxist dialectical logic of Antonio Gramsci. [Theoretical Review #31, 1983]

A Leninist, Gramsci was intent on forging the working class into a counter hegemony capable of revolutionary “wars of position” that simultaneously entailed a long march through the institutions of capital’s hegemonic apparatus. “[W]hile remaining faithful to the value of total transformation beyond capitalism,” Walter L. Adamson argues. “Gramscian revolution also offered a gradualist approach consistent with the cultural and political complexity of the West and devoid of the means-ends paradoxes which plagued classical Leninism.” [Theory and Society, v6 n3] Gramsci’s subtle Marxism, in particular his targeting of the cultural superstructure of Western capitalist societies, has lead him to be appropriated by both Eurocommunism and the neo-Fascist Nouvelle Droite. Philosopher André Gorz, a neo-Marxist schooled in Gramsci, developed the strategy of non-reformist reformism to bridge the divide between reform and revolution in Strategy for Labor:
[A] struggle for non-reformist reforms—for anti-capitalist reforms—is one which does not base its validity and its right to exist on capitalist needs, criteria, and rationales. A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be. And finally, it bases the possibility of attaining its objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic changes. The changes can be sudden, just as they can be gradual. But in any case they assume a modification of the relations of power; they assume that the workers will take over powers or assert a force (that is to say, a non-institutionalized force) strong enough to establish, maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serve to weaken capitalism and to shake its joints. They assume structural reforms.

I’ll revisit this soon. Next column: Traditionalism.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Social Reform or Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg
Autonomia: Post-Political Politics ed. by Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi
“Antonio Gramsci and the Recasting of Marxist Strategy” by Paul Costello
“Beyond ‘Reform or Revolution:’ Notes on Political Education in Gramsci, Habermas and Arendt” by Walter L. Adamson
Gramsci and Marxist Theory ed. by Mouffe
Where Have all the Fascists Gone? By Tamir Bar-on
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Reform and Revolution” by André Gorz
See also Nicos Poulantzas on Gramsci, revolution and structural reformism

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