Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 9, 2015

Why does ‘the left’ suck so badly?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

This week a person I have had some contact with as a result of my participation in Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism website posed this question to me: “Why does ‘the left’ suck so badly?”

He went on to say:

Saying right off the bat that “the left,” “progressives,” “liberals”, along with the Greens and the Sanders people and some of #BlackLives matter seem to be such a gigantic mish-mash that “the left” doesn’t even seem like a good name, like maybe there shouldn’t even BE a name. And that’s before we get to other kinds of organizers for the unions and the environment, and then the Marxist groupuscles, and the anarchists, and the co-op people… Anyhow, I’ll use “the left” as a shorthand for the seething mish mash.

I’m asking because of the ridiculousness of the comments we had on Greece; you saw them. So many pom pom wavers, so few analysts, and even fewer people who took action. (I mean, any sort of action at all, like organizing a small relief effort.) So many people saying “it’s easy,” if only we — by which they mean others — had the will! (Granted, I’m not a doer either, but I am an excellent blogger, and I am doing what I am good at.)

It’s the same deal with the Greens, who given a golden opportunity to sit outside every Sanders rally with a sign-up table and leaflets, seem to have collectively decided that the ticket to winning is saying how evil Democrats are (true, but irrelevant) and how inferior Sanders is (also true, also irrelevant). Then again, Sanders saw the ball, picked it up, and ran with it… And they did not. So perhaps that is the problem for them. Anyhow, they’re still smarting over Nader in 2000. 15 years ago. Not kidding!

This is an ancien regime, fin de siecle moment if ever I saw one, and virtually nobody on “the left” seems prepared to take advantage of it. Of course, there are powerful forces arrayed against “the left,” but then there always are, aren’t they? Until there aren’t…

Is it that so many on “the left” are academics, and the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so small? Or that too many of them have hostages to fortune, as families and possessions they think twice about losing? Is it that TINA applies in the world of ideology, as well? That (for example) we don’t think of — and we saw this in Greece — of the ATM machine as a tool of political domination, or even as a tool at all? (More like a natural resource or a mechanical device.) Is it that identity politics divides many, many people who ought — on “class” (wage vs. owner) interests — to be united? Could it be medical, in that we are literally too fat and too depressed and fucked up because of our horrible diet? Successful corruption, in that the elites still have the power and the money to co-opt the leaders? All of the above? What, what?

And then of course we look to Europe, where if “the left” was a thing in Europe, Syriza would had some assistance.

I can’t think of a historical precedent for things being this fucked with no alternative presented….

Like I said, I can’t formulate the question properly….

Thanks for any analytical tools you have to offer!

It probably makes sense for me to limit my answer to the part of the left I am most familiar with, namely the socialist left that I have been connected with organizationally or ideologically for nearly a half-century.

If you look at the broad historical record, you will see a steady decline from the early 1900s when Eugene V. Debs received six percent of the vote in 1912. Back then there was obviously no such thing as a Communist movement since the Russian Revolution had not taken place. But within five years, the Communist movement would supplant the Debs-type parties that existed everywhere. If you’ve never seen Warren Beatty in “Reds”, I recommend the film for its pretty accurate description of what happened in the 1920s as “Leninist” type parties sprouted up everywhere.

In my view, despite all the good that these parties did in fighting for much needed reforms such as the right to form trade unions and opposing Jim Crow, they undermined the authority of the left by functioning as cheerleaders for Joseph Stalin. In the late 1930s the CPUSA had close to a hundred thousand members and was a powerful presence in the trade unions, civil rights movement, and even elected member Benjamin Davis to the NY City Council. But after the Khrushchev revelations, the party lost the bulk of its members. Of course this mass exodus was facilitated by the McCarthyite witch-hunt that made membership in the CP a risk to your livelihood if not your freedom.

When I came around the left in 1967, the CP was a hollowed out shell with an aging membership. For young people like myself, the party was not an option. Some of us became Trotskyists and others joined Maoist groups since their militancy seemed appropriate to the period, which was one marked by massive opposition to the Vietnam War and ghetto rebellions. It was fairly easy to believe back then that the USA would have had a revolution long before 2015.

What we had not properly analyzed, however, was the sea change that had taken place since the heyday of Debs’s party and the dominance of the Communist Party in the 1930s. Workers in basic industry such as auto, steel and rail were enjoying a high standard of living and job security. There was almost no reason for them to become revolutionary, even those who were most oppressed like the Black and Latinos. For workers, the overwhelming need was to get a good union contract that kept pace with inflation, not to join a tiny group that had as its goal a repeat of 1917. The deeper the identification with 1917 of such groups, the more difficult it was to grow. Those that have relative success today tend to avoid the mumbo-jumbo. Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative group, got elected to City Council in Seattle not by pledging to organize a Soviet but by promising to fight for a $15 minimum wage.

Given the worsening economic conditions in the USA that weigh most heavily on Blacks and Latinos, there are signs of motion—the large crowds for Bernie Sanders among them. Unfortunately, the Sanders campaign—even though he made a record of Debs’s speeches in 1979—is tied by an umbilical cord to the Democratic Party. The burning need is for a third political party to the left of the Democrats that can bring together everybody who feels the need for fundamental change even if they are by no means convinced that a socialist revolution is necessary. That is why I have argued for the need for something like Syriza or Podemos in the USA even though Syriza is widely seen as a failure today, especially by those living as if it were still 1917. In essence, you have to be able to make a distinction between the decisions the leaderships of such parties make in the heat of battle, especially when they are facing much more powerful enemies such as the ECB and the IMF, and how they are organized.

Organizationally, a group like Syriza had the advantage over the “1917” left because it did not impose an ideological straightjacket on its membership. The same thing is true of Podemos whose leader Pablo Iglesias urged the left to engage with people on their own terms:

When the 15-M movement [the anti-austerity movement in Spain] first started, at the Puerta del Sol, some students from my department, the department of political science, very political students — they had read Marx, they had read Lenin — they participated for the first time in their lives with normal people.

They despaired: “They don’t understand anything! We tell them, you are a worker, even if you don’t know it!” People would look at them as if they were from another planet. And the students went home very depressed, saying, “They don’t understand anything.”

[I’d reply to them], “Can’t you see that the problem is you? That politics has nothing to do with being right, that politics is about succeeding?” One can have the best analysis, understand the keys to political developments since the sixteenth century, know that historical materialism is the key to understanding social processes. And what are you going to do — scream that to people? “You are workers and you don’t even know it!”

The enemy wants nothing more than to laugh at you. You can wear a T-shirt with the hammer and sickle. You can even carry a huge flag, and then go back home with your flag, all while the enemy laughs at you. Because the people, the workers, they prefer the enemy to you. They believe him. They understand him when he speaks. They don’t understand you. And maybe you are right! Maybe you can ask your children to write that on your tombstone: “He was always right — but no one ever knew.”

In your query you mention the Green Party. They are certainly not without their problems but I don’t think it would be fair to say that they “suck”. I think that they are running very principled and effective campaigns that relate to the concerns of the average person such as the right to drink clean water and be spared the horrors of global warming. In some ways they are a throwback to the Debs campaigns of the early 20th century.

The weakness of the Greens and the left in general is not exclusively their own fault. We are living in a period that is hostile to social change. The difficulties in finding a job—the conditions that face the “precariat” or contingent labor force—does not translate into class solidarity since people tend to seek individual solutions. If you’ve ever seen Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me”, you’ll remember that laid off workers in Flint were not thinking in terms of mass action to reopen the plants under workers control. One man told Moore that he was moving to Texas where supposedly there were more jobs while a jobless woman raised rabbits for sale as meat. The only recent sign that people were ready to move collectively was Occupy Wall Street, which lost momentum after public spaces were finally cleared of youthful protesters. So you can say that there are contradictory tendencies today, one propitious for the left and one that breeds indifference and retreating into personal salvation.

You can expect this state of affairs to continue for some time to come. But when it begins to change, it can take place rapidly. In 1929, an economic disaster led millions to move collectively to change society. In 1965, the war in Vietnam and ghetto rebellions transformed the lives of many thousands of young people, including me. I doubt that there is anything that will happen on that scale until after I am dead and gone. But when it does, the pace of events can often find the left desperately trying to catch up. In 1909 Karl Kautsky, the leader of the Socialist Party in Germany, described how the tempo cam change almost overnight:

But the rate of progress increases with a leap when the revolutionary spirit is abroad. It is almost inconceivable with what rapidity the mass of the people reach a clear consciousness of their class interests at such a time. Not alone their courage and their belligerency but their political interest as well, is spurred on in the highest degree through the consciousness that the hour has at last come for them to burst out of the darkness of night into the glory of the full glare of the sun. Even the laziest becomes industrious, even the most cowardly becomes brave, and even the most narrow gains a wider view. In such times a single year will accomplish an education of the masses that would otherwise have required a generation.

My only purpose today is to convince young people today on the left to avoid the mistakes of the past, which ultimately boil down to mechanically applying the “lessons of 1917” to the USA or any other revolution for that matter. We have to learn to speak in the language of American society and relate to the deepest felt needs of the average person. Frankly, it might be more useful to study the sermons of the new Pope than V.I. Lenin.

From 1954 to 1959 a group led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braveman put out a magazine called the American Socialist that I am trying to emulate in my own modest way. Bert and Harry (not to be mistaken with the Piels brothers) were a bit ahead of their time in advocating a similar approach. The fact that they dissolved the group in 1959 is not an indictment of their approach, any more than Alexis Tsipras buckling under to the German bankers. Conditions often favor the rich and the powerful after all.

Long after they were gone, their words remain relevant. In trying to create a movement of the left that was rooted in the American experience, they were the continuators of Eugene V. Debs and Karl Marx for that matter who was immersed in the reality of working class life. In 1955 Bert Cochran gave a speech introducing the American Socialist magazine. They still ring true:

I AM convinced, in the light of this reading of the American scene, that there is a real need for genuine American radicalism. By that I mean a movement that understands this country, that is sensitive to the feelings and aspirations of its people, that knows how to establish communication with them and how to make itself heard, that has the ability to come up with drastic structural solutions which recommend themselves to significant bodies of people as meaningful and realistic. I don’t mean by radicalism, the pettifogging, the quotation-mongering, the pseudo-Marxian profundities, the dogmatics, the circle bickerings and soul-destroying factionalism which have distinguished, I am afraid, all of us on the Left for the past years, and which carry a heavy onus of the responsibility for our ineffectiveness and disintegration. I know that a new important radicalism will arise in this country in response to the needs that exist and are due to become more pressing as time goes on. Whether the existing radical circles will play any role in this coming development is another question.

The past year hasn’t shown any progress but there has been a lot of churning and soul-searching. That’s a good sign. It shows there is still some life in the old carcass. When the time comes that you don’t even react to disaster, than you know that rigor mortis has set in. I don’t see that the discussion has produced a comprehensive meeting of the minds as yet, or that any new key ideas have been produced, and some have shown themselves to be remarkably impervious to floods, fires, famines and earthquakes. But there has definitely been, so far as I can observe, a sorting-out process, and, for many, a limited consensus of thought established.

If I may be permitted to draw my own design of the consensus that I believe has been achieved, I would state as the first proposition that the day of organizing a radical movement in this country as a branch office of the Russian concern—is over; and thank God! And that is true whether it is a branch office that gets its instructions from Stalin or Khrushchev or Lenin or Trotsky. This country is too big, too diversified, too self-sufficient and self-confident, it has too many people, it has too powerful a tradition of its own to tolerate a radicalism whose source of inspiration or whose hidden allegiances reside abroad. We can be friends of socialist achievements wherever they take place, and we can practice international labor solidarity on behalf of a common cause without surrendering the dignity of our independence and without losing our bearings that socialism in this country, as in all major countries, will only be won as a manifestation of its own national will.


  1. I was very interested to read your contribution to an ancient issue of the SWP’s internal discussion bulletin a polemic aimed at the Cochranites: I’d provide the link but I’d have to wade through a ton of material and I just wanted to let you know it’s online. It would be equally interesting to read a commentary by you on your old self, as revealed in that yellowing document. (The SWP’s internal discussion bulletins are posted on the same site as the speech you link to in this post).

    Comment by Justin Raimondo — August 9, 2015 @ 7:23 pm

  2. Thanks for reminding me of that. I had planned to write something on it and will do so this week.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 9, 2015 @ 7:27 pm

  3. I believe the so-called “Left” is afraid of the working class…as it is. It is not the working class of the 30s. Most workers don’t work in big factories…they don’t even look like the burly workers in the old Militant cartoons. I doubt if most of the “Left” can talk to workers about basketball scores. And most radical newspapers are unreadable i.e. “Workers Vanguard.”

    Comment by Earl Gilman — August 10, 2015 @ 3:32 am

  4. Didn’t know you were do converant on the minutiae of the history of the sectarian left there Justin. Nonetheless your article on antiwar.com, I think it was The Liberals March to War was an excellent take down of Cruise Missle Liberals and their fake psuedo marxist apologists like Pham Binh. Best Wishes.

    Comment by Tom Cod — August 10, 2015 @ 3:56 am

  5. I thought this was funny.

    Comment by godoggo — August 10, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

  6. One other point about the Greens is that we are very small, and its activists are stretched to the max. There are not enough people to do everything that needs to be done.

    There are likely more Democrats in Baltimore City alone than Greens nationwide. It is very easy to say, “the Greens should do this” and “the Greens should do that” and point out shortcomings of an org from behind one’s computer. Armchair quarterbacking is easy; this is why so many do it and there are so few available to table outside of the Sanders rallies.

    Comment by Brandy Baker — August 10, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

  7. I believe the so-called “Left” is afraid of the working class…. It is not the working class of the 30s.

    The keynote of capitalist society was and remains the consumption of planned-obsolescent mass-produced goods. These are sitll produced in factories by workers very much as they were in the 1930s and, in general, as has been the case since the inception of factory-based mass production. The main difference appears to be that the bulk of the industrial working class (perhaps) now labor outside the boundaries of the United States and (perhaps) also the other so-called “advanced” capitalist countries. (Actually, BTW, I don’t really know where to find statistics to justify that comment. Nearly all the discussions of this that I have seen take the facts as self-evident, which is undoubtedly an oversimplification even though it’s hard to miss the ubiquity of “made in China” etc,)

    While the curious reverse mercantilism of the US ruling class–the now-fading but still dominant Walmart-ization of consumption in the U.S. displacing domestic production in favor of cheap foreign goods–is an ingenious maneuver from the standpoint of the ruling classes and their hold on economic power in the wider world, it is clearly also de facto a strategem of class warfare in which industrial workers are pitted against the capitalist in classic fashion, only in a new international configuration that is the obvious stepchild of “classic” imperialism.

    Since the offer of cheap goods in Walmart depends in essence on cheap offshore industrial labor, it also seems that the illusion of continued Fordist prosperity this fosters is bound to fall apart sooner or later as the purchasing power of the increasingly marginalized U.S. worker continues to decline in real terms. This is hardly anything new–indeed the final phase of this may already have begun thirty-five years ago when Ronald Reagan became president, and we have probably been moving into a new phase at least since 2008.

    However you slice that up, “classical” class warfare remains very much at the heart of the picture–only just not in the United States (or the “advanced” capitalist world) alone. Factory production and factory work are still at the center of political economy–and the changes in these things, together with the absence of any obvious alternative, remain at the heart of the economic problem for the American worker and thus for the American left altogether.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — August 10, 2015 @ 5:52 pm

  8. To Tom Cod: Oh yes, I am a very close student of the sectarian left for the reason that all radical political movements face the same problem: how to get out of a sectarian rut and start talking to the American people in language they understand. The Marxists have paid attention to strategy and tactics like no other movement, and so their internal debates are fascinating, at least for me. And many thanks, Tom, for the compliment to my “Liberals March to War” piece, which I’ll have to go look up now. It seems however that I’ve written several different versions of that very same article over the years — for the very good reason that it seems the liberals are _always_ marching to war. LOL.

    Comment by Justin Raimondo — August 10, 2015 @ 11:52 pm

  9. Talking to the “American people in language they understand,” baldly stated, is a good thing, but one function of leadership is to offer new language that people understand better than the deliberately impoverished speech of the ruling ideology–all that convenient horseshit about “morality,” for example.

    Whether and to what extent intellectuals can provide this leadership, practically speaking, is another matter.

    Comment by Pete glosser — August 11, 2015 @ 3:09 pm

  10. Part of the problem is how people even see who is a worker. I’m always having discussions with people who label workers as ‘middle class’ just because they have an education, work in an office or somehow not involved in manual labour…….
    In actual fact, if you look at globally, there are more workers in the world than ever before. We are in workplaces that may be huge, like the ones in China here there may be over 100,000 in one complex, or work in desperate individual conditions like the rag pickers in countless countries.
    The issue is that we are losing, we have been de-organised, we have precarious lives and while the economy has globalised many of our trade union organisations are still hopelessly bound by local and national structures.
    Things will improve, that is certain, but it is going to be a long and hard road.

    Comment by Piergiorgio Moro — August 12, 2015 @ 10:41 pm

  11. Syriza won’t exist this time next year, it is already in collapse. Tsipras is going to expel the rebels, ie the Left Platform, and put in centrists for the next election. Also he is pushing for Varoufakis’ treason trial. All in all, Tsipras turned out to be quite the little Stalinist.

    So Syriza probably not the best model to be emulating.

    Comment by jeff — August 14, 2015 @ 7:43 am

  12. Parties without a semi coherent ideology cannot survive crisis. The Syriza model is a failure.

    http://tinyurl.com/oof3t2g “Ruling Party Set to Split…”

    Comment by jeff — August 14, 2015 @ 7:57 am

  13. @6 I was enthused about the Greens in 2004, but was disgusted by the shenanigans at the Convention that maneuvered David Cobb and his “safe states” strategy into a questionable win over Ralph Nader. The same people are still in charge and therefore I don’t trust them to be “independent.” On reflection there were also Euro Greens who have disgraced the name by voting for bombing campaigns on the Middle East and Africa.

    Maybe that is why you cannot find enough people to “table.”

    Comment by ralphiesmom — August 14, 2015 @ 11:33 pm

  14. Because the “left” has to be reasonable. I almost wish they’d spend time working on mainstream campaigns in local area. Input from ideologue-inclined can be very categorical when ppl are not categorical at all. Divisions start to blur between cops, not-cops, gun owners, not-gun owners, religious conservative and liberal. Not neccessary. Everyone wants their kids to have chance. Everyone understands healthcare problems and wants health care. That’s my experience. Don’t tell people what they want. Listen. And don’t use big words.
    Typing with two left hands. All apologies!

    Comment by Mui — August 16, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

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