Appearances and Illusions: commonality on the left

There are different orientations towards the political left one can take while doing revolutionary work. Broadly speaking we can break up the left based on how people organize themselves ideologically, or we can find divisions in terms of the role various left actors have in proletarian movements. Seeing these different orientations helps to sort through some of the apparent by illusory differences, and where the real divisions and unity lies.

Today in North America there are a million political tendencies, grouplets, factions, etc., like anywhere else. Unlike some, I do believe proletarian struggle is alive around us all the time here as well (though usually not under a radical heading). There is a stark division though between the struggle and political life. This division is so deep that the two rarely touch, except through the institutional left (unions, ngos, lobbyist groups, etc) which serve to recuperate and diffuse struggle. Broadly speaking, political activity is a seperate sphere of life. It is analogous to a subculture with its own selective demographic, language, social rituals (protests, internet forums, etc), and its seperation from society as a whole. This is not a critique so much as a statement of fact, and one that is natural. Others would say that in low times of struggle this always will be the case, the gap between revolutionary politics and the class widens. This is essentially right, but I don’t like the high/low concept as it obscures how struggle actually happens and makes it seem mystical as though our job is to sit and wait for the big battles.

Given this separation, it’s can be difficult for revolutionaries to cut their teeth doing mass work in struggle. Many revolutionaries don’t live or work in areas or industries/job classes where struggle is ready to participate in (and are unwilling/unable to make changes necessary to do so), and there are often no mentors to show you the ropes on how to build from scratch. The overwhelming majority of work that people do is external support work say for ngos and unions, protests and rallies, educational work, and organizing the left. All of this is necessary, but does not overcome the problem of grounding the left in concrete struggles which would give a firmer basis to ideology. I’m not making a value judgment, just pointing out the dynamics with a left divorced from the struggles of the class.

The last bit, the drive to re-organizing the left, is widespread and deeply problematic however.  The logic I’ve heard repeated is that we lack the material and human resources necessary to organize. Without those resources, we are doomed to failure in our struggles. Building revolutionaries out of struggle takes a long time (years). Instead we have to organize the existing progressives and revolutionaries in the broad left, gather enough support, and then strategize and build campaigns.

The problem with this is not so much the logic as the logic in the social context and in practice. The left is made up of people who essentially come to their ideas through their own personalities, people they know, ideological fashions, etc. There is little struggle to develop, reshape, and form ideology as the movement of thought and action together in dialogue. Given this, the left is made up of people whose thought is divorced from their practice. The existing divisions then will exist at that level. If we have nothing to offer beyond our arguments and our ideas, perhaps some may be moved, but the bulk will not. If our strategy is re-organize people on a theoretical basis based on some perceived unity of some broad left ideology, we lack the tools to truly move people since we’ve already closed ourselves off to struggle from the start. This becomes a viscious cycle with people arguing struggle is impossible, yet unable to meet the prerequisites of struggle without struggle, and so on. This is to set aside of course the problematic aspect of trying to recruit solely from the left, which is a very selective section of society with its own baggage and problems.

In struggle though we see how ideas and activity can be transformed through the clash of one’s world view with the new circumstances of collective struggle. In general, people are attracted to good work. Working together provides the basis to have harder conversations and exchanges about where we want to go, which otherwise people might blow each other off about. If you are working on good stuff, you can build relationships, and expand that work. Sometimes you’ll win people over to your positions, other times they’ll move you, or you both change. That process however is much more dynamic and a realistic model for how we build a movement, than the concept of trying to spread propaganda and make arguments to the left (a self-selected group within society united by ideological conceptions… I’ll come back to how we define the left later).

The requirements for struggle are much lower than some would have you think. Many of the campaigns I’ve been involved in began with one workplace contact, and one or two outside organizers doing it in their free time. Things will heat up, large campaigns take more people, and there’s serious limitations to such a set up. Yet still, I have seen again and again in workplace struggle that it is possible with a small group of workplace organizers to fight problems at work, to win, and to develop lifelong committed organizers out of those struggles and sometimes even revolutionaries. The reason is fairly simple, people care. When your job is making your life miserable and you’ve come to the point where you want to do something, you have a level of commitment. Struggle takes a social life which has a natural pendulum, and shakes it all up. That undermining of the standard rhythms which hurt us, opens space for reflection and reconsidering what is going on around us.

That relationship to struggle is fundamentally distinct from trying to get radical students to attend a debate about Venezuela. I think historically the North American left organizing the left has a poor track record with little to point to. I’m not sure to what extent mass organizing has been done in recent North American history. In the workplace the concentration was often in getting union staff or leadership positions or propagandizing workplace actions more than building an autonomous working class movement. There are some notable exceptions like STO, LRBW, etc., but they seem to be the slim exception.

This brings me back to what the left is and where the divisions lie. On the surface I think the left is divided along a number of ideological lines, and is distinct from other ideological currents by say internationalism, socialism, etc. At a deeper level though these divisions within the left essentially evaporate. I’m not sure distinctions between say social democrats, anarchists, and communists are very useful anymore when considered from the view not of ideas, but ideas combined with practices. 

Instead I want to propose some more useful groupings for how we orient to the left, and how we move forward. The strongest left current is essentially a form of populism and pragmatism. It’s base analysis is around poverty, oppression, and injustice (as opposed to class relations), and it’s activity centers around similarly populist institutions like unions and NGOs. The populists fight over their role in the NGOs and unions, relationships to the state/elections, etc, but share the drive to build, sustain, and sometimes integrate with the institutional left on a broadly pragmatic (do what works) basis.

There is a material (as well as ideological) contradiction between the desire to transcend these institutions or to take them past their integrative role in capitalism, and the practice of building and sustaining them. These contradictions are mired by the left feeding the bureaucratic jobs of these institutions, and not being able to see past them to autonomous combative proletarian movements. The gap arises from seeing oppression and poverty as the main problem, and alleviation to that suffering as part of our movement (in its truest essence populism). Yet poverty and oppression are only symptoms of the problem, and the proposed solution to those problems is integrated into the real problem (capital and state social relations).

Another current is the pure theorists. Their practice is essentially the dissemination of ideas, and likewise have no ideological unity. This movement comes from academia either directly or indirectly, and stays mostly on the sidelines of struggle, or participates only in an intellectual capacity with communiques and propaganda. 

The smallest current though are those that actively and legitimately are involved in direct struggles around proletarian demands in housing, workplaces, transit, communities, etc., and seek to build movements for transformation out of these struggles. This current is divided ideologically though as the practice is not unified or developed into coherent tendencies based on the limited experience and history it’s had.

I’m not arguing for the empirical truth of these ad hoc categories, so much as a clarification of our strategy in organizing related to divorce of practice from theory and theory from practice. These groupings allow us to see the problem with organizing the left, its inherent divisions, and the need to root our theory in practices. The most solid foundation will be built in the last group. Our tendency will be built not through merely trying to apply our theory, but rather through developing our ideas in struggle alongside others committed to the mass fight. In terms of resources, that is where we are most likely to have success, and that is where we are most likely to develop ourselves as well. 

It isn’t that we shouldn’t try to organize the left, but how we do it. Seeing the dynamics, material and ideological contradictions within the left and the lack of praxis, it is necessary that we fight that battle not within the logic that the left has itself in, but outside of it. We won’t overcome the populism of the left by fighting populism inside NGOs for more struggle-based NGOs, we’ll overcome populism through building fighting class organizations and struggles where those possibilites exist. Such struggles undermine the base of populism directly and give inspiration to the people who would become fodder for the institutional left.

It is like a workplace, we build relationships with everyone, we extend our hand, and make sure to do the work across the board, but we make strategic priorities to move as many people as possible, and to build the struggles that will transform our coworkers. We don’t focus on the progressive workers, because they often aren’t the ones who will move the struggle forward. That doesn’t mean we don’t organize them, but we see their role. Instead we focus say on the most respect workers, or the ones who stand to loose the most and who we need to support the struggle or our fight will fail, etc. In that process, all the categories of progressive, conservative, etc., get turned on their head. That is the process we need to be apart of.

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