Left for dead

A defiant communist faces the firing squad in Munich, 1919

In this piece @Aut_Omnia discusses the death of "the left" and the potential for the rebirth of the real movement.

The left is fucked. It has no present, no future and no hope. Despite this, it remains incapable of engaging with the majority of the population, whose lives are defined by the same three realities.1 The peculiar imagined community around which the left is built coheres with all the tenacity of a spinning lie. The great combined forces of labour and the academy are bound together merely by the stories they weave and the delusions they perpetuate. The closeness is claustrophobic, but instead of breaking for air they huddle ever closer, crushing themselves together out of fear for the dark around them.

We are approaching true dystopia. As the last remnants of the welfare state burn to warm the bourgeoisie, people freeze to death on streets of empty houses. Work is given for free, education for a fee and tax breaks for a kitchen supper. And should the people take to the streets? Well the ambush is well set. The batons that beat them down will be the same ones their taxes provided, the poison pens that libel them the same they paid with the morning paper. In fact, the ambush has already been sprung. They won’t let you find a place to work or a place to sleep.2 They will shake the trust you put in those you organise with, live with, love.3 You are no longer a subversive, you are a domestic extremist.4

And where is the left? It cowers in half-filled assembly rooms, ossifying to the cracked voices of Labour hacks, petrifying in the flickering light of films of ‘forty-five. In the twilight it may venture out to push a paper at the alienated masses, shout mock defiance at unheeding stone, then march away to wallow once more in existential despair.

And still the left cannot understand the people’s indifference. It has handed out so many papers, held so many conferences, filled a thousand columns with a million words, worn tracks in the paving slabs of London squares. Its petitions could wind around the nation, smother the bourgeoisie in the terrible order of names and addresses. “John Holmes of Milton Keynes”, thanks for aiding the revolution.

Into the rich archives of its failure the left may add the notion of “Left Unity”. Why if only our piteous strength was united, then we could really smash capitalism! Think of the insurrection we could bring with a UKIP of the left!5 To Parliament, comrades, for I have always wished to sit on one of those green seats!

The left is fucked.

“The Left” is a construct of the 18th century.6 As the King of France struggled to protect divine autocracy, the Constituent Assembly of 1789-91 split; the radicals moved to sit together on the president’s left whilst the reactionaries coalesced on his right.7 Over time spatial and ideological positions became interwoven, ideas of an elected legislature, a broad franchise and progressive taxation became the politics of “the left”.8 It is worth noting that even in its nascent form the left was overtly reformist. Time since has seen the ceaseless agglomeration of ideas to the original core. If the identity was ever cohesive and intelligible, it certainly is not now. When anyone from Bakunin to Blair can look into the same amalgam and draw out their inspiration, the absurdity of describing a human weltanschauung through this concoction is clear. Blair wished to embrace the State and Capital, Bakunin wished to smash both, yet the two of them can fairly be termed to of “the left”, for the only thing the term has rejected from its ever-widening embrace is any real meaning.

The desire to protect or perpetuate such a clear absurdity is perplexing.9 It destroys attempts at understanding, and instead means that intelligent and pleasant human beings are neatly categorised alongside Stalin, Mao and Harriet Harman. This is clearly insufferable. The USSR was left wing, as are both China and Cuba. If that sentence incensed you, good. Direct your fury at the terminology, not its critic. Under the hopelessly nebulous definitions of the left, all three nations fit into the category; they all pursued a vision of society where the means of production were altered in order to advance a (however deluded) idea of democracy. These are state-capitalist, authoritarian basket cases, but they are also of the left.

These are the bones of the left’s skeleton, an osteological form steadfast in its refusal to be returned to the cupboard. Of course the past is not merely an embarrassment for the left, its obscurity offers refuge too. A leftist can look behind themselves and see Diggers, Luddites, Chartists, Communards, Suffragettes, Black Panthers, Stonewallers, Zapatistas, Pussy Rioters, Occupiers, or the countless millions who were too busy fighting to think of a name. It is an insult, however, to take these human lives, rich in suffering and costly victories, and lump them with some of the very people they were struggling against.

The left today is splintered, yet resistant to disunity. The idea that those who apologise rape for the SWP, torture for the WRP or statism for the SP are part of the same movement which unceasingly criticises them is deluded.10 The party form upon which the SWP, WRP, SP and all of the other muddles of sovietised letters depends is based on an oxymoron. “Democratic centralism” is a contradiction dressed up an ideology, an impossibility arrogant enough to wear its dissonance as a name.11 The idea that a narrow party can blossom into a mass movement, then bear fruit as a government for the masses is pure fantasy. The structures of the bureaucratised tyrant lie sleeping within the smallest cadre.

Even in the party stage the organisation of top-down governance is the midwife to authoritarianism. The SWP’s reaction to the rape of one if its members by a high ranking party official exemplifies this truth. The central committee carried out its own investigations, and delivered the inevitable verdict; “innocent”.12 When faced with criticism from within the party, the committee laid down its zero-tolerance attitude to dissent, which presented an opportunity to compare it to their exceedingly liberal attitude to sexual assault. Comrades were purged for offences as serious as discussing the leadership on Facebook, or forming factions fully endorsed by party rules.13 The subsequent deterioration of the party is depressing in that those who left in disgust represent a minority. That a section of the left is willing to forget rape in pursuit of party discipline is testament to the necessity of never letting these people come close to power.

Currently the left seeks to reanimate itself though the pursuit of unity. The social democratic wing will continue its deification of the people’s assembly, whilst the revolutionary left experiments with left unity. Though both warrant a full examination, in passing one can remark on the delusions inherent in both. The people’s assembly is formed around a base of Labourites, Greens and Trade Unionists. These groups have relatively little interest in the people, and presumably use the term “assembly” in the primary school, rather than radically political sense. The revolutionary left meanwhile seeks unity. One needs to only look back at previous Trotskyist unity experiments to predict the result.

We need an alternative to “The Alternative”. Unity is a false idol, the desire for “one” in the left is that of the principle of negation;

“the negation of all singularities, of all singularities, of all pluralities. One is an empty abstraction… One is the enemy.”14

The pursuit of unity is to desperately chase our own nemesis. Fuck that. There are not seven classes, only two.15 One is our enemy, and one is us. What more unity do we need? We need solidarity, we need people organising within the struggle rather than trying to organise it into one cohesive whole. The struggle shall be disparate, amorphous, discursive. It will intersect more times than the threads of a spiders web, and find the infinite strength that brings, it will ensnare any and all and care for them despite it. We don’t need parties, we need bodies. We need people willing to stand on picket lines, protect occupations, block evictions but we also need those who can explain why the evictions will continue, why the occupations and picket lines are not actions atomised in history. There can be no struggle without education, but not the teaching of the school room. It is essential we have education as mutual aid, the exchange and sharing of learning without recognising any hierarchy.

“Let a thousand machines of life, art, solidarity and action sweep away the stupid and sclerotic arrogance of the old organisations”.16

To progress in the pursuit of the total emancipation of humanity, the left must liberate itself from itself. It is time to free ourselves from the tyranny of obscurity and go forth either unlabelled or more truthfully described. Before the 1780s, “the left” did not exist, yet the world was not one of unquestioning obedience to authority and unchallenged oppression. The old forms which typify the established left will not help us, the war for the future must be fought against hierarchies, not from within them. We must atomise to unionise, divide to multiply, break apart to discover form with true potential. Friends, let us smash the left, from its rubble we can build barricades.

Originally posted on http://automnia.tumblr.com

Posted By

Automnia
Oct 7 2013 08:44

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  • The old forms which typify the established left will not help us, the war for the future must be fought against hierarchies, not from within them. We must atomise to unionise, divide to multiply, break apart to discover form with true potential.

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Comments

Spikymike
Oct 7 2013 12:01

Can't disagree with this assessment of 'the Left' though I'm not sure who it is addressed to and I don't see much which actually addresses what or where ''the potential for a rebirth of the real movement'' might be (if any) and thought maybe slinging in a slight on old Bakunin was a bit unfair- was it meant as shorthand for a criticism of some anarchist leftism?

Written with a bit of flair it's perhaps though less concise than for instance this older short text which makes some similar points at a basic level:
http://libcom.org/library/revolutionary-alternative-left-wing-politics

Joseph Kay
Oct 7 2013 13:35

It's my understanding the author's coming from the student movement, and this blog reflects some of the frustration with the sort of left unity and uncritical defence of the university (as idealised 'education') that was/is a significant in those circles.

I obviously can't speak for their intentions, but that's my reading at least. It's probably true that this is as much a reprise of a previous line of criticism, but then, how much of anything any of us say is truly novel? Arguably, theory is always being rediscovered, remixed, ripped off, and the novelty lies in its emergence at a particular juncture.

In terms of the student movement, the 'full communism' meme (cheers DSG), and some of the analysis that emerged from within it, do seem to suggest a weakening of the trad left. I mean, Millbank was on an NUS-called demo, but after that, they fell by the wayside. NCAFC almost by accident found themselves with a massive facebook contact list, but they were only really riding the tiger, so to speak, and weren't able to sustain the movement. Now, apparently, they're looking to CLASSÉ in Quebec as a model rather than student left unity front iteration 57 (no idea how that's going though, as local student dynamics have been more to do with Occupy Sussex, i'm well out of the NCAFC loop).

Of course, the student movement was short-lived, and a failure. It's an open question whether it requires some kind of organisational infrastructure to sustain struggles at the level of intensity needed to extract concessions in the current climate, even if the struggle is expected to exceed and overflow that infrastructure at its peaks. The Quebec case makes me er on the side of some kind of combative-student unionist infrastructure combined with an assemblyist movement is a good model. Though the persistent problem with student organising is the inevitable high turnover, which makes building any kind of sustained organisation very difficult.

Anyway, I've strayed off the point somewhat. but I'm always heartened to see communist critiques re-emerging in contemporary movements, even if I've 'heard it all before', i think the context is part of the meaning/significance of the text.

Automnia
Oct 13 2013 18:38
Quote:
Spikymike
Oct 7 2013 13:01

Can't disagree with this assessment of 'the Left' though I'm not sure who it is addressed to and I don't see much which actually addresses what or where ''the potential for a rebirth of the real movement'' might be (if any) and thought maybe slinging in a slight on old Bakunin was a bit unfair- was it meant as shorthand for a criticism of some anarchist leftism?

Written with a bit of flair it's perhaps though less concise than for instance this older short text which makes some similar points at a basic level:
http://libcom.org/library/revolutionary-alternative-left-wing-politics

The people this is aimed are those who feel disenfranchised and betrayed by established "left-wing" political organisations and forms, be they inside or outside of such. I deliberately spend a lot more time on the problems rather than solutions (and apologise if this is not what you are hoping for), as it seems the lack of recognition of the former precludes the realising of the latter. I can solemnly attest no slight of Bakunin was intended, I was merely using him as an example of how loosely the term "left-wing" can be used.

The observation that this in an unoriginal critique is fair, though I would contest that is because the problem is unoriginal. When the criticised subject remains the same, there will remain a similarity in the critique.

A lot of these points were covered in my discussion with by strategy, available here;
http://automnia.tumblr.com/post/54287493842/a-response-to-whats-left
and here; http://automnia.tumblr.com/post/55126026869/a-second-reply-to-whats-left

Thanks for your comment.

AO.

Automnia
Oct 7 2013 19:15

Your reading is correct, the terrain with which I am familliar is the morass which is student politics, and hence my writing will be somewhat distorted by that environment. The death of the left is perhaps more rapid here with both the extinction of the SWP and other leftist groups and the total acceptance of the neccessity of horizontalism evident in organisations such as Occupy Sussex. There are more anarchists than trots on my campus, at the very least.

The state of the movement is a topic for another blog, however in passing IIl say that I have no faith whatsoever in NUS, NCAFC or the Students Assembly. As toxic as the careerism is the total lack of imagination.

By contrast I maintain great hope in the potential of the reformed Autonomous Student Network, (whose call-out is available here; http://sheffieldautonomousstudents.wordpress.com/2013/06/28/recreating-an-autonomous-student-network/) who it seems have by far the best grasp of the current situation, and the action needed to go beyond it.

orkhis
Oct 11 2013 07:54

> The people this is aimed are those who feel disenfranchised and betrayed by established "left-wing" political organisations and forms, be they inside or outside of such.

Right, but are those "outside political organisations and forms" (most of the working class) going to know what this means:

“the negation of all singularities, of all singularities, of all pluralities. One is an empty abstraction… One is the enemy.”

No, I'd suggest.

Serge Forward
Oct 11 2013 08:17

I've been inside of libertarian communist organisations and forms for over 30 years and I don't have a clue what that means embarrassed

By the way, that photo in the text is incredible but it should say 1919 not 1912.

Automnia
Oct 13 2013 18:37
Quote:
orkhis
Oct 11 2013 08:54

> The people this is aimed are those who feel disenfranchised and betrayed by established "left-wing" political organisations and forms, be they inside or outside of such.

Right, but are those "outside political organisations and forms" (most of the working class) going to know what this means:

“the negation of all singularities, of all singularities, of all pluralities. One is an empty abstraction… One is the enemy.”

No, I'd suggest.

I've had this criticism from various other people too, and I think it may well be justified. The piece probably is not accessible for some, and I regret that. However, I also think that most forms of discourse, be they radical or reactionary, attempt to talk to people at a level far beneath them. The almost fairy-tale simplicity of the writing you'll find in the Sun or the Socialist Worker is patronising and absurd. I dont think the radical movement should stop writing complex and possibly difficult pieces in favour of replicating the pitiful norm. If people dont understand everything Im not sure that is such a terrible thing, and I'd argue that though that quote may be somewhat academic, the vast majority of the piece is intelligible.

That said, I would be more than happy to cut out or change sections if people complain they are overly obtuse. Obviously the aim of all political writing should be to engage with the audience, and if the writing style or content prevents that, I sincerely apologise.

All the best,

A.O

Spikymike
Oct 11 2013 12:55

The style would certainly appeal to a certain section of to-days university educated radicals rather than the average worker but if the content is valid there is no harm in that even if some of us have to look up the odd word in our dictionaries!

cantdocartwheels
Oct 12 2013 17:00

what practical forms of action or even of alignment does this article suggest, I see pretty much none

its all well and good having a pop at the left (here given as a somewhat over generalised term) but if you don't offer anything practical whats the point?

Joseph Kay
Oct 12 2013 17:30

afaik this was written during occupy sussex, though that doesn't necessarily come across in the text. one of the positive things at sussex was the way the left didn't dominate, partly cos of the relative balance of forces (anarchists prob outnumber trots), and partly cos the SWSS took a principled stance over the SWP rape stuff and rebelled against, and subsequently quit the party. but maybe that could do with elaboration.

Automnia
Oct 13 2013 18:37
Quote:
cantdocartwheels
Oct 12 2013 18:00

"what practical forms of action or even of alignment does this article suggest, I see pretty much none

its all well and good having a pop at the left (here given as a somewhat over generalised term) but if you don't offer anything practical whats the point?"

The piece is not just "having a pop at the left", it seeks to challenge the very notion that it exists. It seems evident to me that retaining the concept of “the left" precludes real action. As I explain in the piece, "the left" is defined by its consistent rejection of heterodoxy and the reactionary desire to preserve its own structures. “The left” is worse than useless, it actively harms and operates in opposition to the real movement.

Therefore it seemed necessary to me to solidly reject “the left” before anything more positive could be explored, but I apologise if you were hoping for more detail on that. However I think the broad terms of "what next" are laid out in the piece, that being;
A. Solidarity with grass roots struggle (e.g Pop-Up union working with Occupy Sussex), instead of discussions of "unity".
B. Working together where we can, not caring when we cannot, and instead prioritising antagonistic action (e.g 6 month long Quebec students strike)
C. A renewed emphasis on communicating and re-imagining theory (e.g Novara media, and, of course, Libcom).

Hope that answers your question.

All the best,

A.O

Caiman del Barrio
Oct 18 2013 16:56
cantdocartwheels wrote:
what practical forms of action or even of alignment does this article suggest, I see pretty much none

its all well and good having a pop at the left (here given as a somewhat over generalised term) but if you don't offer anything practical whats the point?

I can understand why offering 'practical forms of action' is a priority, especially if you're critiquing an existent form of action as utterly inadequate, but can you see how this line of argument is problematic? All to often it's a canard lazily regurgitated by Jones et al to essentially discipline cadre into voting Labour, their TU candidate, etc.

Moreover, why shouldn't people criticise the left, if what they're saying is true? Is scepticism about left wing parties and the trade union movement a luxury that is to be restricted to (the vast majority of) 'the working clarse' (ie not 'politicos')? This seems odd to me.

More generally, where does this populist notion of having to feign ideological and practical alignment with the left come from (OK, I've answered my own question there but still wink )? What actual benefit is there to not talking about the serial rape scandal in the SWP, the domestic abuse whitewash in the SP, the paedophilia ring & Gaddafi bankrolling of the WRP, etc? Who in their right mind would join these organisations if they were aware of the baggage attached to them, and why should we be complicit in them joining under false pretenses?

Oh yeah, and a quick point about language. I think this is perhaps one of the most complicated areas of 'activist'/organiser activity and both sides of the debate around it are prone to caricature and - dare I say it - a certain amount of obstinate ignorance. The side who criticise the sort of language used in the OP as inaccessible to the "uneducated working class" certainly have a point to a certain extent, but this sort of populism risks not only patronising and reifying the working class (who wants to feel like they're being talked down to after all), but also risks entrenching people in the sorry, disenfranchised states that we - and they - supposedly wanna escape. Again, the point is to liberate people, which includes providing an environment where people feel confident to use a broader, more eloquent vocabulary to express concepts which perhaps are more complicated than tabloid lowest common denominators (what is the average class background of a Sun journo after all, and what is their motive in using this sort of language? And let's not get started on the BBC, an explicitly soft-left paternalistic project from the outset!).

On a further note, who says that the dry, moronic language of a bog standard leftist leaflet, full of exclamation marks, imperative commands and confrontational language, is necessarily more 'accessible' than an allegory, a metaphor, an illustration? There are certainly basic rules to follow in terms of sentence structure & length, vocabulary used, paragraphing, etc, but these are distinct to a more poetic, literary prose. Is the world's favourite book the Yellow Pages, or is it a dead heat between sacred texts packed full of parables and tales? wink

Anyway, I think this is a really massive issue which deserves proper analysis. My views on this are far from fixed.

Auld-bod
Sep 25 2019 09:59

Serge Forward

‘By the way, that photo in the text is incredible but it should say 1919 not 1912.’

I agree the photo is incredible, though in the sense that it cannot be believed.
To me it looks like a set up. Everyone arranged and in focus, the chap on the right looks as if he’ll dislocate his shoulder if he fires his rifle, officer posed as if to fire his pistol like a starting gun, and most amazing, the fellow about to be shot is allowed to fold his arms across his chest! I’d like to know the photo’s provenance before changing my opinion.