What is the modern left in the USA? How can we escape the world of sects? Moving beyond both defeatism and activism will require an approach that’s aware of our historical limitations as well as opportunities.
Today the existing left in America is largely composed of leftovers from the New Left student movements of the 60’s and 70’s, anti-globalization populism and a labor bureaucracy in decay. Left discourse today primarily focuses its critiques on neo-liberalism, which is identified with finance capital and a corrupt power elite, and cultural expressions of oppression and alienation. Class struggle as a unifying factor in the left is largely missing. Rather there is skepticism not only of movements centered around class but around any kind of universal project of human emancipation. For to posit such a project would mean to put forward a “grand narrative” where universalism is asserted, something forbidden in post-structuralist influenced leftist discourse. Rather than individual struggles being part of a greater project aiming to abolish capitalist relations worldwide we are presented with individual activist campaigns against given evils of the world. Fragmentation and individual subjectivity are more important than unity in a common project of emancipation, with mere allyship with individuals in struggles against subjective oppressions being celebrated as an alternative to solidarity.
Otherwise popular leftist discourse focuses on a surface critique of existing conditions, refusing to truly delve into the root of things. Anything but communism itself is suggested as a solution to the continuing crisis of capitalism, as the Thatcherite credo of TINA (There Is No Alternative) is essentially absorbed by the left. This is reflected in everything from Jacobin magazine’s endorsement of market socialism to enthusiasm for co-ops and universal basic income. Finance capitalism is presented as the real enemy, in counterposition to productive capitalism that is unionized and domestic and therefore preferable. Instead of capitalism itself, which requires a global solution, movements uphold “Neo-liberalism” or “globalization” as the problem, upholding the sovereignty of the nation over the international scope of the world market. Social movements expressing this ideology are not class based, but instead a broad front of liberals, far left participants and even aspects of the right.
The ostensibly Marxist left in the United States, who unlike much of the left do play lip service to class, is primarily composed of “soft-Trots” like the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity and Socialist Alternative who offer bureaucratic organizations and actual politics on slightly to the left of the democrats despite proclaiming allegiance to Bolshevism. On the other hand are the Maoists and Stalinists of groups like Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL), Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and Workers World Party (WWP) who are essentially leftovers from the various splits of groups from the New Left generation. These groups offer antiquated cold-war era politics to a mostly student audience, often basing much of their identity on support for various third world dictators.
Truth is that the world of the organized radical left still exists in the shadow of the New Left. The existing official leadership of these groups for the most part are old-timers from the social movements of the 60’s, 70s and 80s. This is true for RCP, FRSO, WWP, International Socialist Organization (ISO), and the Spartacus League, as well as left-communist groups such as International Communist Tendency (ICT) and International Communist Current (ICC). Essentially the “world of sects” is under control of a gerontocracy of leftists who grew up with different movements and different conditions. It’s the decaying remains of an old generation of social movements. They are able to attract revolving door membership amongst youth, meaning that only the most committed recruits stay for long while most quickly get bored or disillusioned and leave. Very few groups amongst the marxist left have a central leadership comprised of younger militants who didn’t get their political education from the New Left.
The “world of sects” is also a world full of splits, many quite mundane. Look at PSL, FRSO-ML and WWP. These three groups have essentially identical politics, as dreadful and incorrect as they are. There’s no real reason for them to not be one larger group with minor internal disagreements. It’s a similar case for ISO and Socialist Alternative. These “soft-Trot” groups have little different about them at the political level. So why so many splits? These people go on and on about the necessity of centralism yet see no real reason to centralize around their actual politics. Part of the problem is that organizations don’t aim for programmatic unity through the broader organization but instead have a political and theoretical line imposed by the leadership. Splits are often over theoretical disagreements rather than political disagreements where real issues are at stake. Rather than having complete theoretical unity an organization should aim for unity in basic political questions – programmatic unity. Another problem is the notion of vanguardism taken from an ahistorical reading of Lenin that sees splits as a mean to purge potential rightist bureaucracy and maintain revolutionary purity. Splitting is often justified, but as a tool for achieving purity it accomplishes little. Yet is the fractured, sect-like nature of the left really a reason to embrace some vague project of broad left-unity?
What left unity really offers today when groups don’t have any real political weight is very unclear, and “left” is such an ambiguous term these days it is bound to mean capitulation to awful politics. Most of these groups are not only isolated from any mass movements of the working class but are also quite toxic in their behavior, with rape scandals, silencing of opposition and opportunism at large. Yet it would also be a mistake to consider them “The main enemy” with our primarily goal as an organization to prevent them from having influence over workers (as the Nihilist Communism writers suggest).
Rather than an enemy to be actively battled, these shitty left groups can for the most part be dismissed as “Live Action Roleplayers” or “LARPers”. Stuck in the past, the radical left of today often tries to roleplay the movements of old in search of a way to maintain permanent activity with an inflated sense of importance. We can see this in the various Maoist/Stalinist groups looking to relive the student activism of the 60s or certain sections of the IWW who think that recreating the good old fashioned industrial unionism of the early 20th century is possible today. LARPing is an expression of the cult of activism – a phenomena which goes back to Lasalle’s notion of the “permanent campaign”. Activism doesn’t mean activity as such; rather it means refusing to make an appraisal of what limitations are generated by the current historical conjecture, to pretend as if one’s group must merely try harder to generate a movement when no real movement exists. Activism damns those who sit back during a quiet period to focus on theory and make a discerning judgement on what is realistic. Instead the need to take action takes priority above all else. Out of organization, agitation and education the cult of activism leaves us only with agitation.
With regards to the ultra-left (where we would situate ourselves, Marxist tendencies to the left of Trotskyism and Maoism) there is little in terms of formalized organization in the United States beyond scattered members of the ICT, ICC, certain sections of the IWW, online cliques and heavily theoretical journals. Amongst the “ultra-left” is a heavy element of defeatism and anti-organizationalism. Many mistake a justified critique of activism with a way to legitimate complete political quietism, falling in line with the dominant neo-liberal discourse about “The end of history”. Others maintain hope in revolution, but first announcing the end of “proletarian subjectivity” in favor of immediately establishing communist relations without the mediations of politics, creating a vision of revolution so idealistic it might as well be impossible. Amongst this eclectic milieu of “communizers” any kind of associational organization on a programmatic basis is frowned upon with many instead placing hope in the spontaneous riots as a path forward.
There is of course much to take from the analysis coming from groups such as Endnotes and Theorie Communiste who take up the mantle of communization, and we in many ways are sympathetic to their project of creating a fresh analysis of current conditions. De-industrialization in core economies, fragmentation of workforces, increases in the reserve army of labor and a decrease in the power of unions are very real phenomena that pose real challenges to the formation of the proletariat as a class. It would be a mistake to think we can bring back the old workers movement, that old school left-communist politics can be applied today untouched from their original form without taking new conditions into consideration. But questioning orthodoxy doesn’t mean that all orthodoxies need be abandoned and are necessarily wrong.
Much of the skepticism of modern ultra-lefts towards organization is with good reason. Fear of falling into the misery of the LARP-form and degenerating into the cult of activism as well as experiences of being burned previously by various leftists groups often deters individuals from being politically active. Yet by refusing to build a movement and engage with the greater public we merely cede ground to the politics of liberals, reactionaries and the left-wing-of-capital. A “real movement” isn’t going to fall out of nowhere without a pre-existing era of organization by conscious radicals. There is no historical precedent to believe otherwise. The question should not be “organization – yes or no?” Rather, it should be “how can a formalized organization be self-aware of its own historical limitations?”
Those who have completely given up and declared “There is no alternative” only empower the dominant ideology. There is no reason to think that capitalism will have a future of peaceful and balanced growth where crisis tendencies and class conflict are liquidated, nor is there strong evidence to believe that mass political mobilizations are now historically obsolete. Given these two claims there is reason to think that communist politics can have potential relevance in the coming years. However moving forward will require fresh perspectives and organizations, organizations not under the leadership of left-overs from the New Left but rather a new generation of communists that are in tune with current realities.
Is it possible to avoid being a sect in todays era? At this point, probably not. But what groups can do is 1) be self-aware of their actual importance and limitations and 2) fight against the various symptoms that are expressed in sects. One way of doing this is to form organizations that are based on unity in politics, programmatic unity, as opposed to unity through a totalizing theoretical interpretation of Marxism. An example of the latter would be International Communist Current, which is unified around a certain interpretation of “decadence theory”, or the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which is unified around a specific theory of state-capitalism regarding the USSR. Ultimately these theoretical issues should be up for debate and discussion in a group, not a basis for unity. What should instead be a basis for unity is basic political positions, which can often be arrived at through differing theoretical paths. To take the example of the SWP and state capitalism, what matters is ones basic political position on whether the USSR was a positive example of working class rule rather than ones theory on what specific mode of production existed there. To fight the symptoms of the “sect-dom” means an organization must tolerate factions and internal dissension rather than senselessly purging opposition. Rather than every disagreement being a sign of a need for splitting, groups must develop a culture that can tolerate internal disagreement and debate. Centralism that is imposed rather than achieved through collective debate and political struggle is usually a form of bureaucratic consolidation, not a centralism based on real unity within the group. While these basic suggestions are no guarantee against pointless splits and the clique-like dynamics of sects they do provide some ideas for trying to tackle the problem.