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)

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“Democracy is so overrated:” “What’s Left?” September 2016, MRR #400

democracy-the-majority-against-the-minority
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

― Winston S. Churchill

If a majority voted for you to jump off a bridge—would you?

— CrimethInc., “From Democracy to Freedom”

I set the table by covering it with a dark cloth and placing a lit candelabra on it. I position my Ouija board and planchette on the table in front of the chair before I sit down. I’m ready to prognosticate.

As I write this column, it’s the first week of July and both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are happening later in the month. I predict Hillary will win the DNC and Trump the RNC. Neither party or electoral base is exactly keen on their respective nominees, but the “Bernie or Bust” or “Never Trump” crowds won’t prevail. Further, I predict that Hillary will win against Trump, but it will be a close election, uncomfortably so. My final and last prediction is that the surprising surge in votes for the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson will be to the Trump campaign what Ralph Nader was to Al Gore. Oh yeah, and there will be rioting in Cleveland in 2016 to rival Chicago 1968.

That’s four predictions, four pretty obvious political forecasts on which you as the reader can score me, starting with the August issue and running through the November elections. Also, there’s four months to fill commenting on the elections, tap dancing on air if you will. Because by the time my comments on what’s happening right now, at this moment, reach your eyes they’re already past their prime. Outdated. And as I’ve hinted at above, I’m not a soothsayer by any means.

One of my major annoyances with American politics is its unrelenting pettiness. Hardcore Republicans for instance purposefully call their opponents the Democrat Party, not the Democratic Party. Their rationale is that the Democratic Party is far from democratic in operation and intent, but it’s clear when Republicans use Democrat Party in partisan debates they’re really intending to needle and provoke their opponents. It’s such elementary schoolyard antics; the wannabe tough kid insisting on calling another kid surnamed Wankel “Wanker” all the time. Far from entertaining the rest of us with clever puns, this mean-spirited sparring is debasing our language and degrading our political discourse.

The deepening clusterfuck that is Brexit follows closely behind in terms of politically humbling experiences. Who would have thought that Britain’s two main political parties—the Tories and Labor—as well as the political geography encompassed by the names Great Britain and United Kingdom would be destroyed by a simple non-binding referendum of whether or not Britain should leave the European Union? As David Van Reybrouck commented in The Guardian: “Never before has such a drastic decision been taken through so primitive a procedure – a one-round referendum based on a simple majority. Never before has the fate of a country – of an entire continent, in fact – been changed by the single swing of such a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens.” (“Why Elections are Bad for Democracy,” 6-29-16) As the political edifice of the United Kingdom continues to crumble, threatening the EU in the process, the efficacy of elections and liberal democracy are in serious doubt.

Let’s start with the word democracy. The term comes from the ancient Athenian practice of the adult males of the city-state (the demos) gathering in assembly to directly vote on all civic matters and leadership. Right away we understand the qualified nature of the word because the right to vote did not apply to women, children or slaves, a limitation shared by that other classical political system from which the West draws its inspiration: the practice of the Roman republic. The complex property-based system in ancient Rome (collective voting for magistrates and tribunes) provided for an indirect, representative form of government where the franchise continued to expand as Rome itself grew, encompassing allies and conquered peoples, until the original republic mutated into an empire ruled by Caesars. The more geographically prescribed scope of Athenian democracy did not prevent that city-state from acquiring an empire however, nor from devolving into oligarchy under decades of war.

For America’s founding political elite steeped in Enlightenment liberalism, there was a sharp distinction between a democracy and a republic. Pure democracy always ran the risk of despotism and imperialism, of mob rule where “51% of the people could vote to take away the tooth brushes of the other 49%” as a John Bircher once told me. By contrast, republicanism intended to contain such problems with territorially small, constitutionally-limited, mixed representative government, which was a central principle of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison further argued in the Federalist Papers that the necessary limitations of a small constitutional republic could be transcended by the judicious application of legal checks-and-balances within a physically expanding domain of ever-multiplying, contending factions. Thanks to this political reformulation, the spread of the American republic across the continent and beyond was never in contradiction to or in conflict with oligarchy or empire.

But these political distinctions have been muddled and mongrelized to the point where we now think that democracy and republicanism are just the names of two different political parties, not two distinct political systems. We are told constantly “we live in a democracy,” we pledge allegiance “to the Republic for which it stands,” and we believe like Candide’s Professor Pangloss that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Rather than remain befuddled however, let’s simplify matters by saying that the West’s ideal is for representative democracy in the context of a national state.

“[I]n an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years.” David Van Reybrouck of The Guardian writes. “This system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past – when communication was slow and information was limited – but it is completely out of touch with the way citizens interact with each other today.” We tend to fetishize elections, according to Reybrouck, while demonizing the subject of that voting, resulting in an almost universal distrust of governments, political parties, and politicians while increasing calls for a strong leader “who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.” He concludes that “Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem.”

Oh, really?

Representative democracy, from Roman republicanism to Western liberalism, doesn’t seem to be the solution for nationalist extremism, capitalist exploitation, oligarchic despotism, colonial conquest, or imperialist appropriation. If we switch out the word nationalist for patriotic and capitalist for commercial this is true for direct democracy, from ancient Greece to the cantons of Switzerland. Ah, but what we need is more democracy; real democracy, radical democracy, participatory democracy. We need decentralized, participatory decision-making with easily recallable elected representatives, rights for minorities, rotating offices, ad hoc organizing, impermanent institutions, even consensus process.

“And how do you insure democratic control of industry?” Marvin Garson once asked rhetorically, spelling out a kind of radical democratic ultra-leftism called Council Communism. “Why, by setting up workers’ councils in each industry which operate with full respect for all the normal democratic procedures—especially the right to establish caucuses and factions, and the right to strike. The economy, in short, will be run the way a government is SUPPOSED to be run; it will be like a gigantic New Left convention—impeccably democratic and a stone drag.” (“Going Beyond Democracy,” 1968)

Such a tedious scenario is in no way enlivened by the absurdity of consensus process, which is nothing more than tyranny by the minority if not the individual, as CrimethInc well grasps as the myth of unanimous rule in its provocative essay “From Democracy to Freedom.” The group also understands that democracy is institutionalizing governance and state-production by its very nature. But CrimethInc’s attempt to substitute autonomy for democracy and to insist on the permanence of the revolutionary moment is pure sophistry. “Thousands of us flood into the streets, finding each other in new formations that offer an unfamiliar and exhilarating sense of agency. Suddenly everything intersects: words and deeds, ideas and sensations, personal stories and world events. Certainty—finally, we feel at home—and uncertainty: finally, an open horizon. Together, we discover ourselves capable of things we never imagined.” This is Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution on MDMA, and much like some fantasy of permanent orgasm this raises the question: what do we do after the revolution when we once again have to make mundane decisions. Do we make decisions by lottery or drawing straws, by rotating onerous tasks or making each individual boss-for-a-day, even by adapting Reybrouck’s concept of sortition in which a representative sampling of the population makes decisions for the whole? Let me return to Marvin Garson again.

“Every industry has its own inchoate underground of people who take pride in doing good work, who aren’t in it just for the money, who get angry when their employers make them sacrifice quality for the sake of profit. Let that underground get together and suddenly a real alternative to corporate capitalism will exist. […] Perhaps it’s impossible to run a steel mill or an electric power plant in a free and creative way. In that case, run it automatically.”

I’ve made the argument that, even at its best, democracy is a stone drag by quoting Garson before. By next column, I should have plenty to say about the dueling circuses of the RNC and DNC.