Friday, July 19, 2013

On Left Unity

A guest post by John Wolfe. 

One of the most fraught topics on the Marxist left is the ideal of “left unity.” We have all heard it called for more than once, and most hope for it in some form or other. However, it again and again fails to materialize. The factionalism of the left remains fodder for bitter jokes within and amusement from without. Further, we all know whose fault it is—those other people. “Sectarian,” like “hipster,” is a label that is never self-applied. This problem is so endemic it is worth analyzing in some detail, and here I will take a feeble stab at beginning such an analysis.

Once, in the not-so-distant past, there was a country known as the USSR heading up a block of nations experimenting with socialism in one form or another. Sometimes, as with much of what went on in the Twentieth Century, it is hard to believe that this actually happened, that a worker's revolution ushered in a situation where half the world was busily engaged in trying to build an alternative to capitalism. These experiments had mixed results to be sure, but at least they were happening, and happening on a grand scale. 

When the USSR existed, one's choice of party was truly significant. To join an official communist party was to literally ally oneself with Moscow and follow their dictates. It was to take a definite side in a war that was far from cold. Even as Eurocommunism and like developments made this relationship slightly more distant, the connection with Moscow remained essential. To join a Trotskyist party, on the other hand, was to take a stand against the USSR, to join a conspiracy to either undermine or radically transform (depending on how one looks at it) the state socialist counties. To join one of the “Marxist-Leninist” parties that blossomed in the US In the Seventies was to side with neither Moscow nor its would-be saviors, but rather to side with a China that was still recognizably anti-capitalist.

In Republic of Silence Sartre famously states that “We were never more free than under the German occupation.” This superficially odd statement simply indicates that substantial freedom requires that one's choices be recognized as meaningful, that they have real consequences. Under Nazi occupation the choice to support the resistance or become a collaborator carried with it life or death consequences for oneself, one's family, and one's associates. This is the ultimate validation of political activity.

Before 1991, a leftist's choice of party had such significance. It represented a substantive commitment to one or another international movement and, in many times and places, carried with it a real risk of imprisonment, death, loss of employment, or any number of bad consequences. Things were very real indeed.

The situation now, twenty some years after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, is unrecognizable by comparison. Despite the recent popular insurrections throughout Europe, despite the continued existence of many, largely stalled, guerrilla movements, and despite even the stunningly vibrant and heartening activities of the Bolivarians, a harsh neoliberal capitalism reigns throughout the world. The power of labor is in retreat, and what victories we win are largely Pyrrhic. In this situation, our activities and theoretical positions have been robbed of consequences and significance. These days, a communist can't even get arrested.

In this depressing situation, in developed nations like the US, leftism becomes more of a lifestyle than anything else. It is a posture one adopts, of little more meaning than becoming a goth, listening to dubstep, or shopping at Whole Foods. Despite one's best intentions, choosing a side in sectarian debate becomes little more than a way of carving out a personal identity. For, let's face it, whatever your opinion on the NEP, the particular historical situation that gave rise to it is not going to repeat itself, and nothing remotely like that situation will arise, until we are well into a revolutionary process. Until then, all activists on the Marxist left are engaged in nearly identical objectively reformist issue advocacy and labor organization efforts.

At this point, sectarian “enemies” come to the rescue. They keep the left alive by convincing its members that their choices are significant. Without that vocal sectarian opponent attacking everything you hold dear, you would have to face the harsh fact that no one gives a damn what you think of the Kronstadt rebellion, and frankly that it does not matter. However, deep down, we need that—and this is the problem. Just as Marcuse observed that modern society sustains itself by creating false needs, I would maintain the left sustains itself by creating false disputes. We need a way forward that minimizes this. I hope we can find this way, but all I have seen so far indicates that that this hope has little foundation.

Sectarian disputes then are both a pernicious phenomenon self-cannabalizing the left and stunting its effectiveness and a vital means by which the left sustains itself and avoids absorption into liberalism. We cannot hope to overcome petty squabbling until such time as we begin to score real victories. Until then, the best solution is to realize that there is little harm in embracing a diversity of tactics, gritting our teeth, and enduring the unstable mutually-sustaining antagonism we now have.