The Left. Too theoretical


Presented below are excerpts from two pieces from leftist writers and blogs that I respect. They are eloquent and care deeply about what they’re doing. But as I read them, I realize what’s been bugging me about the left. It’s way too theoretical. Too much discussion of what the proper goals should be, but not enough roadmaps on how to get there.

Part of the problem is the left is burdened down by its own history. Lenin started a revolution. Unions were hugely powerful in the 1930’s in the US. Yup, all that happened. But it means zilch now. Yet the left too often seems compelled to study those dusty old socialist texts as if they and only they have the key to the future. They should heed what Rabbi Hillel said,”tradition should have a vote, not a veto.”

Capitalism doesn’t make that mistake. It’ll reinvent itself overnight if need be. Cheefully too. The left and socialism don’t seem to be able to do that. Or at least haven’t done so yet.

Anyway, onward to the excerpts. Like I said, they are written by smart people with good insights. But they seems, well, inward-looking. Yeah, they are writing mostly for the flock. But shouldn’t the left be writing to the middle class instead? Because that’s where the political power is.

From Climate and Capitalism

Ecology and Socialism: Inseparable revolutions. A book review of The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet, by John Bellamy Foster.

The entire thrust of The Ecological Revolution is that “the transition to socialism and the transition to an ecological society are one.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has advanced what he calls an “elementary triangle of socialism” to explain the goals of 21st century socialism. These are: 1) social ownership; 2) social production organized by workers; and 3) the satisfaction of communal needs.

Fosters says an “elementary triangle of ecology” must also lie at the root of this revolutionary outlook. He summarizes these as: 1) social use, not private ownership, of nature; 2) democratic and rational regulation of the metabolism between nature and human beings; and 3) the satisfaction of communal needs – of present and future generations.

From Carl Davidson

Socialism and the Emerging Progressive Majority: Report on the 6th CCDS Convention

I elaborated by describing the problem of “last paragraph socialism,” i.e. the practice of writing an article or giving a speech about one or another outrage or abuse of capitalism, and then tacking on a sentence or two at the end, proclaiming that we needed socialism. Our socialist tasks required more serious intellectual work to rescue socialism from its crisis in the last century and bring it into the present as a renewed force. This meant engaging the most advanced fighters in a process of revolutionary education and study groups, to intimately connect this work with a practice learned from working class struggle. It also meant think tanks to develop serious policy proposals on a range of structural reforms that could both engage the crisis and serve as bridges pointing to a socialist future. Finally, these tasks were not for us alone, but required collaboration with other socialist and left organizations.

For genuine change to come to America, the middle class must be engaged and part of the process. The above, no matter how well-meaning and well-thought-out, is not going to inspire the broad masses to join and work for change. First off, it posits that its ideas are the worthy ones with the implication that the task then becomes to convince the middle class of the validity of the ideas. Well, maybe a better way is to ask the middle class what’s on its mind. Then act accordingly. Chances are you’d hear lots about jobs, foreclosures, the economy, and the banksters. And virtually nothing about Palestine, Chavez, LGBT rights, or socialism. Yet those are the issues the left often leads with. Seems self-defeating to me.

Then too, maybe the left could re-examine and redefine socialist terms and dogma in terms of today, in our 21st century of instant communications and neeoliberalism. The worlds Marx and Lenin lived in are long gone. Things have changed. Class structures, especially in the States, are malleable and fluid now. So, forget about the term “working class.” Hardly anyone in the US knows what a socialist means by that anyway. Use “middle class” instead. Because then people will understand you. And that’s who will need to be on your side for real change to come. It changes the focus, something the left needs to do.


  1. Get a grip, Bob. The first piece is a book review from a person who also writes for the Australian weekly newspaper, Green Left Weekly (which I write for) about a highly skilled American Marxist economist, John Bellamy Foster . Foster is extremely accessible writer and lecturer — yes even when talking about Marxist economics — a very dense and complicated topic.

    To consider this topic further you can check out more from Simon Butler and John Bellamy Foster, et al here in LINKS.

    The second piece is a report about a conference laid in in some detail. Neither item have one iota to do with inspiring ” the broad masses to join and work for change.” That’s not their intention and it’s a straw man game to suggest it is. At issue here are debates in the way that any focused area of activity and study would have a written exchange.

    But anyone who is interested in popular journalism dealing with the environment crisis from a socialist perspective, (and a long way away from Bob’s ruling) can check out much more environment coverage in GLW.

    • We’re living through the biggest crisis of capitalism in decades. But it’s been libertarian-types like Zero Hedge and blogs like them that have genuinely forced the issue of control by the elites into the mainstream media and into the Halls of Congress. And the protesters in the streets in the US that are getting all the media now are right wingers.

      Where’s the Left? Mostly absent, far as I can tell.

  2. “The entire thrust of The Ecological Revolution is that “the transition to socialism and the transition to an ecological society are one.””

    There’s a big problem right there: Herman Daly, who debunks the growth model of economics in mathmatical terms, also debunks this myth. Both socialism and environmentalism are opposed to the growth model of caqpitalist economics– but that doesn’t mean they seek the same goal. In fact, although what they each seek to maximize is different than what the growth model seeks to maximize, they don’t seek to maximize the same alternate component.

    This has been my complaint about various approaches, from state socialism to Catholic right-to-work theory to Buddhist economics: the math has to work for it to be implementable in the real world. Otherwise it’s just rhetoric. And if you read Daly, it’s clear that the math CAN work– but too many people (left and right, religious and non) focus on doctrine and ignore the math completely.

    “Too much discussion of what the proper goals should be, but not enough roadmaps on how to get there.”

    The groups I’ve worked with on the New Left take the opposite approach: they have a roadmap, but let the communities themselves define the goals. I don’t believe you empower people by telling them what their goals should be. That’s like “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

    It does work. The best example I saw was a pair of villages of “untouchable” caste in Sri Lanka: one had adopted the tools offered by the organization and had been practicing them for 50 years; they had a school, small block houses, clean water, sealed pit latrines, and they made their living doing handicrafts. The other had not adopted these tools; they begged for a living, lived in tiny palm-leaf tents, and had no sanitation, clean water, or schools. I saw other examples in India and Thailand, and it has now spread into Nepal. There are small groups doing this in the U.S. with varying rates of success. Our biggest problem here is, as a nation we’re spoiled rotten and we really don’t want to change.

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