Left communist Cajo Brendel looks back on the failing of the revolutionary left.
About 58 years ago the French writer Georges Sorel stated that "the historiographers and the actors in the historical drama are unable to see what is much later understood as the essence of what happened." (1) If this is true in general it is particularly true of the (revolutionary) left. Like those who in the middle ages marched with the "Bundschuh" (2) to bring the Kingdom of God on earth, although indeed they were the political opposition against feudal society, many revolutionary leftists of the 19th and 20th centuries have had false ideas about the real meaning of their own purpose and acts. Absolutely convinced that they were the champions of a proletarian revolution, the revolution for which they strove has achieved nothing more than the transformation of private capitalism into state capitalism.
Recently it has been stated that "with the collapse of the real socialism... the left has been fundamentally shocked." (3) Nobody will deny the reality of this shock. However, one has to add immediately that what has collapsed cannot be defined as real socialism. As far as the shock is concerned, it has at last forced the traditional left to give up its illusions.
However, the end of illusions has not yet brought a reorganization; at the most it can only be seen as one of its preconditions. This is so because the traditional left can also be characterized not only by its socio-political illusions but also by its forms of organization and its pretensions. Perhaps, for special historical reasons, this left enters the public scene as a party or a political group which presents itself as the "vanguard of the working class" and in one way or another considers its task to be stimulating as what it defines as "class consciousness" of the workers. This task is considered urgent because the left regards the working class as "the agent of the revolution that it envisions."
In fact it is, of course, the other way around: the proletarian revolution is the definitive result of the daily struggle of the workers. To the traditional left the starting point is not the class struggle but the revolution. Its principle is the Leninist thesis that "without a revolutionary theory, there doesn't exist a revolutionary practice" - that is to say, revolutionary practice as it is understood by the left.
Whether the traditional left will believe it or not, it is characterized by its mistaken belief that if one replaces false ideas by correct ones, the existing reality will collapse. Admittedly it is a wrong idea that can be explained by the fact that, although the left knows precisely that not an interpretation is important but a transformation, it regards this transformation not as an act of the working class but as the act of a vanguard. That is to say resulting from its own action.
However, as Marx knew: "It is not a matter of what this or that proletarian or even the proletariat as a whole present as its goal. It is a matter of what the proletariat is in actuality and what in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do." (4) Completely contrary Marx the traditional left thinks that the working class has to learn that workers have to struggle to overcome capitalist society, and that the vanguard is teaching them! In this way, it separates itself as an intellectual stratum superior to this class. And this has been so right from the beginning.
At first sight the pretension of the traditional left seems to have a certain basis in reality, it is only at first sight! As soon as this left is explaining its point of view and its position in relation with the so-called "idleness of the workers left to themselves" it becomes clear that the practice of the working class is far from being the practice that this left believes it should be, that is to say this practice is not as it should be according to it. Reality then doesn't accord with what the traditional left has in mind. In other words, this left has it upside down.
It is not true that without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary practice. It is not true that certain opinions and ideas, that a certain quantity of consciousness are the absolute precondition to struggle. It is the other way round! Many times, it has been stated that the "theory becomes a material force as soon as it takes possession of the masses." However, a theory is never more than a recapitulation of the experiences of the past and of its consequences. Not because of a certain theory does one have new experiences of the struggle, but new experiences that arise from the struggle give birth to new theory. This is a continuous process. It is not a process in the heads of the workers. They don't draw theoretical but practical consequences. They don't struggle to realize any form of a theory, they struggle for their interests. Their practice isn't the result of a certain theory, instead their practice has consequences for theory. When the circumstances which lead to struggle don't exist, the voice of the left, which thinks theory is the precondition of the struggle, remains the voice of a preacher in the desert. The fact remains this reality now - and not since the latest few years - is clearer than ever before is the essence of the crisis.
What are the possibilities for the so-called "revolutionary left" to overcome this crisis? The discussion of its reorganization involves saying clearly to the workers that the transformation of private capitalism into state capitalism doesn't change their class position. However, this also is no contribution to overcoming the crisis. It is all the same when "leftists" say that the liberation of the working class is by no means a political act, but a social one. And when they say that a change in productive relations - that is to say the abolition of wage labour - can't be realized by a party or vanguard. This demands autonomous struggle, so that workers have to create their own organizations completely different from the traditional ones. All this has nothing to do with overcoming the struggle.
The downfall of what is falsely called "real socialism" seems to be the cause of a deepening crisis, but certainly it is not so. Instead it has to do with the fact that the old traditional labour movement with those leaders saying that they are acting on behalf of the workers and taking decisions in their name, has become an anachronism. Our time is one in which one can see an ever widening gap between those who call themselves the leaders on one side and the workers on the other side, who are prevented by the leaders from acting for themselves and making their own destiny.
If the so-called "revolutionary left" believes that its reorganization means that it has to present other slogans and that with other slogans and principles and other perspectives - even with a different form of organization - yet still acting as a vanguard, still believing that it has to teach the workers something - they will be trying to sell new wine in old bottles. However in doing so, they are just acting according to the law that is dominating their own form of organization.
Reality dictates that revolutionaries learn from workers rather than teach them, not trying to realize their own ideas but concluding the meaning of what the workers are doing from what is going on before their eyes. If the left are doing this, it wouldn't be a vanguard any longer and this would interfere with the intentions of the reorganization.
The author defines himself as Marxist. Still? What is meant by this "still?" If, somewhere other theories or ideologies have collapsed, Marxism has not. The author wants to stress that what he is understanding here by "the revolutionary left" is the traditional left, existing from the beginning of the labour movement and what has experienced a crisis today by the fact that new forms of class struggle arise not corresponding with the old traditions.[note by author]
1 Georges Sorel, "Reflexions sur la violence."
2 The "bundschuh" was painted on the banners of the revolting farmer. It was a shoe very different from the beautiful shoes of the knights. So, there couldn't be any mistake about what sort of people were behind those banners.
3 The German magazine "Spezial" July- August 93, p. 24)
4 Marx / Engles "The Holy Family.
This article has been archived on libcom.org from the Red and Black Notes website.