Groupuscule politics: Can the old left become the new left?

Dave Riley has a worthwhile think piece about the self-marginalization of far left groups and the disastrous mistake (in my view) many of them make, that if they have the “correct” Marxist line, then surely the working class will follow.

Many of these groups do enormous amounts of organizing, sometimes with notable results. But by demanding, for example, that anyone who shares the podium with them at an antiwar rally must follow their line completely, they in reality ignore the masses they claim to want to lead.

Besides, it’s so self-limiting, spinning around in itty-bitty Leftie hyperspace about who is the real heir to the revolutionary platform so you can attract three more adherents (to make up for the seven who just broke away and formed a splinter group.)

There’s this chronic schematism that simply by repeating often enough that you are revolutionary and by inserting the correct POV into any exchange then you really and truly must be what you say you are.

That’s the far left’s curse because in one way it’s a sort of substitutionism. Sort of “INSERT PROPAGANDA HERE” approach.

This is in part due to their self-marginalization that means they only appeal to the fringe and also because, as Riley points out, they really aren’t doing much else.

This is why you can have groups in Australia who number less than 20 members and all of these few think they rather than someone else are the true Marxists.

Thus, they hardly ever join with any other group to accomplish common goals.

I admit that I am torn myself between the thrill of political discovery and inquiry, of debating out conflicting points of view in order to arrive at a ‘correct’ position — and the often mundane business of , I guess, networking, rooting for and negotiating alliances with people who in the main don’t give a fig for the theory.

The former seems so safe and cosy in comparison to the free form of the latter. Where’s the friggin rules!? Where’s Marx supposed to sit?

Alan Watts once said about Christianity that perhaps Bible should not be read for a few hundred years so people could then look at it with a new perspective. Maybe the same hold true for the far Left and the writings of Marx and Lenin. Then they could reexamine and reinvent some of the core concepts. What is class? In the US, which is mainly a service economy with malleable classes, class is very different from what Marx saw with the clearly delineated factory workers and factory owners in 1848. Yet US Marxists often insist on believing that class is what Marx said it was. It’s not.

Quoting from Peter Camejo:

The idea that a group of a few hundred people who are not in the leadership of any mass movement, much less integrally involved in leading the working class as a social force, can be referred to as a Leninist party and having a “correct program” would never have crossed Lenin’s mind. In 1918 Lenin would refer to such an idea as clowning.

By the 1940s, however, within the Trotskyist movement a conception had taken root that no matter how small or disconnected from the workers movement a group might be, if it had the “correct” program and a cadre, it was a Leninist Party and would eventually “win”.

This of course is fantasy and delusion, you can’t appeal to the masses by deliberately excluding them, then hope for some magical Deus Ex Machina to emerge, at which time they will then flock to you.

The general trend has been to fight tooth and nail against the tide toward broader, more user friendly party formations for the 21st Century’s version of socialism.

The problem may be that if this stand off is persevered with, given time, the far left could be more marginal than it is now.

What with the current recession and globalization, capitalism has been reinventing itself lately. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of books on how businesses should reinvent themselves and their processes. The far left needs to do the same. Question core concepts. Reinvent the good ones. Figure out who their audience is then deliberately appeal to it. And forget the dusty ideas and arguments about how many Marxists can dance on the head of a pin.


  1. I’ve promised Bob a piece on the Socialist Alliance experience here in Australia but I haven’t written it yet.

    Soon, Bob, soon….

    My argument nonetheless isn’t about the far left per se, but the far left in the context of forging other tactical approaches to the line of march we’d subscribe to.

    My impression of the US left is that no sector has risen to the challenge at the moment and, in a very real sense, the debate is undeveloped there and what I’m reading are complaints about the already existing organisations as though that alone will do.

    I disagree totally. In itself it isn’t very productive.

    US politics is littered with many left regroupment projects that went some way in the direction of aggregating a broader left outside the clutches of the Democrats. Those that I recall and am a little familiar with are: The Guardian newspaper,The Committees of Correspondance, the Rainbow Coalition. Peter Camejo was active in many of these initiatives for instance.

    My point is that complaining amounts to not much at all. What anyone needs is a real project that even if it fails is still a stepping stone to something else. Maybe that initiative lies outside the organised far left? Maybe it rests in the fallout from the fracas in the Green Party?

    I don’t know. But complaining is easy. Doing is the hard part.

    That’s the story anywhere where there’s attempts at that new politics are persevered with. It is a very hard road to travel thwart with conflicts, splits and polemic. But I do know that there aint any formulas and each route has to be indigenous.

    But the key element, the starting point has to be a commitment to transcend the Democrat hold on the left of US politics and to some degree that suggests an electoral element. However the US electoral system isn’t very kind to third parties as the Greens know. So ‘electoral’ isn’t enough.

    even if you get a couple more Bernie Sanders…what then?

    In the sixties and seventies there were projects like the Black Panthers and the La Rasa Unida Party and there were electoral coalitions built around identities like Gore Vidal and Dr Benjamin Spock–just as today, maybe Cindy Sheehan is an option..

    My argument is also that the considered and active support of far left organisations is a key element in strengthening projects like this and even giving them wings.

    The French NPA example is totally dependent on the continuing commitment of the LCR — the Communist League. In Scotland the SSP was created through the active work of members of the English Socialist Party/Militant Tendency / CWI. In Australia the Alliance’s main input comes from the Democratic Socialist Perspective. In Germany Die Linke is a growth from the old Communist Party from the East — the PDS — merging with left formations from West Germany. In Portugal and Spain theres’ a conscious coming together of left parties. In the Netherlands the Socialist Party was formed by Maoist grouping in the eighties. In New Zealand, the latest aggregation — The Residents Action Movement — is backed and co- led by the Socialist Worker group….

    So go figure. You’re on your own and the world is your oyster…

  2. But by demanding, for example, that anyone who shares the podium with them at an antiwar rally must follow their line completely

    I don’t know what actions and protests you’ve been attending, but I have yet to attend a single one in which every speaker was “following the same line completely.”

  3. Then I guess those organizing meetings I was at where potential speakers weren’t chosen because their view of Cuba didn’t jibe with that of the organizers must have been a fluke.

    An inclusive antiwar movement that wanted to reach the masses would have had speakers like the right-wing patriotic ex-Marine Scott Ritter as well as all the regular lefties. But they hardly ever did. Why is that?

    The right-wing came out of total defeat in the 60’s to create a coalition that eventually controlled too much of this country for too long. Maybe we could learn from what they did. (And I’m convinced some of their early organizers learned much from Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals” even though he was on the left. Let’s complete the circle)

    They did so by reinventing what their core beliefs were, then deliberately using that to appeal to the mainstream. That’s what the left needs to do too.

  4. What you do not take in to account is that “to appeal to the mainstream” is to appeal to a social construct.

    IE – the “mainstream” is a product of the corporate media and bourgeois socialisation through the education system.

    Even the main left groups in this country are imports of overseas factions with the possible exception of the CPA (ML) who put forward an analysis based on Australia achieving socialism through an anti-imperialist independence struggle –

    and the Trotskyist Platform who campaign against the imperialist bourgeoisie of this country.

  5. But by demanding, for example, that anyone who shares the podium with them at an antiwar rally must follow their line completely

    That’s not standard at all. It maybe is in the US with one very sectarianly proscribed wing of the antiwar movement — ANSWER is it? — but that’s hardly de rigueur across the board.

    One of the problems on the left is that the far left groups are forced to wear the consequences of the actions of one or two. That’s because the reality is that no one else can work out what separates group ‘A’ from group ‘B’. So it’s a plague on all your houses kind of thing.

    This is why debates in the far left milieu are so esoteric and never fall far from the tree. What unites them politically is much larger than their shibboleths — but a discourse in shibboleths is what you get.

    In the case of the antiwar movement, the US SWP, now a sectarian rump, was a key instrument in building and opening up the anti Vietnam War movement — a task that Peter Camejo played a big role in when he was in the SWP. The book about it by Fred Halsted, Out Now, is a text book on how to build a movement.

    Along with talks by Peter Camejo we still study that book here .

    Our advantage & disadvantage here in Australia is that we have looked to both the UK and the USA for political inspiration. So the various groups here are cognizant of the left histories in both countries — just as mother parties in those countries run toy franchises in Australia.

    So we do get a lot of London or New York sneezes leading to cold catching among the ordained locals here. But our advantage in the DSP is that we can look outward and take on board samples from across the planet.

    Inasmuch as we can judge, it has taken the DSP a long hard road to step away from the mindset and begin to pursue a regroupment agenda. That process more or less took off 25 years ago and it has taken the DSP until quite recently that a project began to coalesce.

    If you think a day in politics is a long time, consider what a quarter of a century is like…The DSP has had fusion clenches with every one on the far left in Australia. We almost pulled off quite a few of these unity moves too.

    Historically the DSP helped set up the Green Party here in Australia but the Greens leadership (who owned the party registration name) undemocratically imposed a proscription clause. And before that was a key motivator in the Nuclear Disarmanent Party (1984) that secured independent left candidates federal election for the first time.

    Even today with the Socialist Alliance project the DSP had to weather a bitter split earlier this year for the sake of preserving even the limited unity gains of that project so far.

    So this ain’t a game for those who will lose their nerve easily. But en route the DSP has picked up a lot of experience and savvy in the area of regroupment politics and paid a price for that orientation.

    One thing I haven’t touched on is the various unity projects in Asia — projects that we have cordial relations with. All of these are very inspirational especially Pakistan and Malaysia at the moment. We also have excellent relations with the Salvadoran FMLN — and that party too is a beckon for regroupment politics. A few comrades are over there now for the elections….

    A DSP comrade was at the French LCR party school this year so we try to keep up with the way the New Anti-Capitalist Party unfolds in France — so we can learn from others.

    Humility, you see, has its rewards….

  6. Funny thing about old/new left is this: in the Communist Manifesto the “secret” lies for the old left to be forever renewed. A revolutionary party must do two things simultaneously. It must form alliances with all reform minded groups – when a country is ruled by autocrats such as Emirs or fascist dictators even bourgois capitalists can be considered reform minded. The party must promote its revolutionary agenda showing that a mere adjustment to the existing system though preferable to nothing, is less than adequate and a total systemic shift is required. Revolutionary groups must be fully prepared to encounter trouble from those with an interest in maintaining the status quo.

  7. “In the sixties and seventies there were projects like the Black Panthers…”

    One of the survivors is a founding member of the Common Society Movement– a community-focused movement that calls not for centralized change, but for grassroots local change. The Revolution moves on.

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