the praxis of settling for less
In class society, everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class.Mao Zedong, “On Practice”
The Mao quote above is often referenced within Marxist circles to remind us that our class position – whether (lumpen-)proletariat, (petit-)bourgeois, or otherwise – fundamentally affects the way that we think about the world, whether we act on our ideas at all, and how we act should we do so. For example, a member of the bourgeoisie is less likely to grasp and act upon the stuff of revolution than a member of the working class, provided both have access the tools they need to get organized, because the latter has a material incentive to change the world that exploits them while the former has a material incentive to maintain the world of exploitation from which they directly or indirectly benefit.
This lesson is important, but it does not help us think on the level of the collective. After all, revolutionary ideas do not just spring out of the heads of lofty individuals – they are cultivated through collective practice.
Instead, to consider the problems of “Left Unity”, I would like to highlight a complementary interpretation: Not only are our ideas as individuals mediated by class positions, but our collective ability to think cannot stray too far away from the terms of engagement set forth by class society, and in our conditions, specifically capitalism and imperialism. After all, the overwhelming majority of us are educated in institutions created by the bourgeoisie to reproduce their ideas. We cannot find entertainment unencumbered by the messages of bourgeois media, let alone news that allows us to make sense of our conditions. Even the languages that we speak echo the alienating effects of class society.
Given the ubiquity of capitalist hegemonic influence, it stands to reason that the ideas, tactics, and strategies that we employ as activists are subject to the same imprinting of class as all other ideas germinated within class societies. Our professed fidelity to the cause of liberation does not shield us from the corrupting forces of capitalist ideology – if it did, we would have made a million revolutions by now. While its pacifying effects devastate movements if left unchecked, we can resist capitalist ideas by sharpening our theoretical and practical tools through ruthless criticism: laying out our ideas in plain terms, separating the good elements of each idea from the bad, and developing stronger ideas to test in practice.
It is from this standpoint that I present my case against the notion of Left Unity that has so long festered among socialists, communists, anarchists, and progressives. By “Left Unity,” I refer to the doctrine stating that communists, socialists, social-democrats, progressives, anarchists, and anybody else whose politics could land them within the purview of the “Left” should temporarily suspend our ideological differences in order to work toward commonly-shared objectives. Proponents of Left Unity often apply this logic in areas where the interests of all aforementioned ideological groups supposedly overlap: charity work, harm reduction, anti-fascist work, and the like. Sounds great, doesn’t it? After all, anyone with a Twitter account can tell you that far too many whose ideas about the world land them into the fold of the Left waste their time prattling over spectacular non-issues. Why can’t we all just get along, especially when we could be using the time spent infighting to serve the people?
The crux of my criticism is simple: “The Left” needs to have more good arguments and fewer bad arguments, but the primary purpose of Left Unity is rarely to quell bad arguments but rather to stifle good ones. Left Unity tells us to put away our theoretical differences, no matter how significant, and to resolve our contradictions by committing to an objective that can only be as well-defined as our differences allow. Like so many activist ideas before it and undoubtedly like many after, Left Unity is stamped with an impulse of class-collaboration that has long served as, from the Marxist perspective, the single most effective ideological force of counter-insurgency. It is a wolf in red clothing.
Before I continue, I must acknowledge that I am far from the first to criticize the program of Left Unity, but the overwhelming majority of critiques have been produced by anarchist thinkers and activists. These works are of varying quality; some are petulant rants against “red fash” while others present strong arguments rooted in vast knowledge that I have come to expect from good anarchist theory. I intend to offer a Marxist perspective on the issue, so my areas of focus and theoretical application will differ from these existing critiques.
Who is the Left Anyway?
Who belongs within the fold of Left Unity, and who does not? This is the most obvious problem with Left Unity because the doctrine is, by design, incapable of answering this question. The point of Left Unity is to offer a radically-inclusive political identity in order to stave off argument. However, in stipulating that the unity must be among the Left and thus exclusive of those who fall outside the Left, it faces a contradiction. Naturally, individuals who grapple with Left Unity will all try to resolve this contradiction, but the way that they do so depends on – you guessed it! – their political beliefs. For instance, libertarian-socialist content creator Vaush, once an outspoken proponent of Left Unity, recently flipped his position due to his opposition to the notion of uniting with Marxist-Leninists. His disdain toward Internet tankies outweighed his desire for unity, and so he opted to introduce exclusion and shatter his fantasy of a radically-inclusive Left.
From my perspective, the most sophisticated attempt to reconcile this contradiction from the sympathetic perspective comes from Marius Ostrowski, author of Left Unity: Manifesto for a Progressive Alliance. He directs the titular call of his book toward
anyone who subscribes to two fundamental views: (1) That the world is characterised by binaries, or spectrums, of advantage/disadvantage, or privilege/underprivilege; (2) That the most logical, or useful, or necessary, or desirable course of action is to fight for ‘those without’ such advantage/privilege and fight against ‘those with’ it who use it to harm ‘those without’.Fay Niker, “Left Unity: An Interview with Marius Ostrowski“
The problem with this definition of Left, however, is that it collapses the primary point of tension between the myriad political ideologies trapped within the spider-web of Left Unity: We cannot seem to agree on what it means to fight. When it comes down to the dirty details of resource allocation, establishment of political objectives, building power, and defending what we’ve won, the lofty call to those who believe it’s good to abstractly “fight” crumbles. For the “Left” to get a social democrat elected to Congress, for example, costs an unparalleled amount of time, energy, and money. Those of us who do not believe this to be an effective way to fight are not keen to waste so many resources and will undoubtedly reintroduce the contradiction. Clearly, establishing belonging within the Left based on one’s theoretical opposition toward oppression will lead to unity in name, not in practice.
In addition, most Marxists would take issue with the notion that we should fight solely against “‘those with’ [privilege] who use it to harm ‘those without’.” We do not exclusively fight against people who choose to use the privilege that class society affords them; we fight to end exploitation, and indeed class society entirely. This is why we are not entertained by reforms to the system that punish bad, exploitative bosses while letting the “good” bosses off the hook. We understand the whole system of production to be the culprit, not those who take the most advantage of their power to exploit. As Ostrowski puts it, the program of Left Unity sounds more like a call to unite under a more socially-conscious version of capitalism.
It is no coincidence that the siren call of Leftism so easily capitulates to reformism. The political identity of the Left is rooted in the inception of modern bourgeois ideology: the French Revolution. In 1789, the National Assembly of the Third Estate, a revolutionary governing body composed primarily of the embryonic French bourgeoisie, divided itself into supporters of the King and supporters of the Revolution. The former sat on the right side of the chamber while the latter sat on the left.1 The spatial distinction stuck: By the establishment of the Legislative Assembly in 1791, the Girondins sat on the right, radical Jacobins on the left, and moderates in the middle – and this metaphor continued in France and eventually spilled into the rest of the Western world. In other words, the very basis of the Left-Right spectrum upon which proponents of Left Unity base the coherence of their idea is an artifact of bourgeois revolutionary unity against monarchism. This unity, shall we be reminded, eventually capitulated to the Thermidorian Reaction that resulted in the eventual re-establishment of the monarchy and the expulsion of the Left from the legislature. When given an inch, reaction always takes a mile.
While Left belonging may have offered a new, radical way of thinking about political identity for the French bourgeoisie, it is obsolete in our conditions because the primary cause for concern is not whether we should fight (or the first point of Ostrowski’s call) but how we should fight (the question begged by the second point). Leftism measures one’s progressive opposition to the political center, but it nullifies the political importance of disagreements regarding how one should enact that opposition. To call oneself a leftist is to brand one’s ideology as a reaction to the centrality of capitalism, not as a meaningful political project in and of itself. From this vantage point, it is clear to see why the ideological category of “Left” has had such a resounding ability to nullify the meaningful differences between the various political imaginations that it captures within its purview.
We have already explored how the theory of Left Unity facilitates reformism, but this section will offer a more pragmatic glimpse into the mechanism through which Left Unity facilitates co-option: class-collaboration. By class-collaboration, I mean the call to work in unison with one’s class enemies in order to achieve an immediate objective. While it may sound harsh to refer to some among the “Left” as class enemies, it is a Marxist fact: Given that every idea is stamped by class and that the call for Left Unity inevitably includes uniting with those who peddle bourgeois ideas, to reconcile our ideas with those is a function of collaboration both figuratively, as we attempt to reconcile bourgeois ways of thinking with revolutionary ones, and literally, as we are often asked to do so in the name of making organizing spaces more hospitable to primarily bourgeois and petit-bourgeois tendencies. While we should be agitating against these bad ideas and hoping to win their peddlers over to a better political line, the call for Left Unity opportunistically silences these debates in favor of a strategy of “strength in numbers,” thus paving the way for the re-establishment of capitalist hegemonic influence within activist organizations.
Who is most likely to seize this opportunity? As anarchist critiques of Left Unity are quick to point out, the call to unify is often sounded by well-funded Party formations that consider themselves to be the vanguards of socialist construction. Whether coming from the aptly-named Vanguard newspaper of the CPGB in the 60’s, Corbynites beckoning the wayward British Left back to the fold of the Labour Party, or the DSA’s “Left Unity” caucus touting its electoral victories, Left Unity has come to mean “unity… by joining us!” Or, more precisely, unity by subordinating your ideological goals to ours. They may offer lip service to “diversity of tactics” or “ideological pluralism,” but these calls cannot stray too far from the goal of unifying under a banner of power hoisted by the very organization calling for unity in the first place.
False vanguards thrive on this form of unity because, if it actually succeeds in persuading other organizers to put aside their differences and work under their leadership, it serves to confirm their sense of false vanguardism. On the other hand, if it does not succeed because the recipients of the call refuse, the faux-vanguardists can easily dismiss other activists as childish ultras and claim the moral high ground. Never are the masses, those to whom a revolutionary vanguard is actually responsible, consulted.
What’s so bad about unifying under the biggest Left organization in one’s country, and what does collaboration have to do with it? There is no clearer example for this dynamic than America’s own “Communist” Party USA. During his tenure as General Secretary of the Party in the 1930’s, Earl Browder introduced a number of ideological and political shifts that veered toward class-collaboration, all in the name of unity against the rising threat of fascism. He proclaimed that “Communism is 20th Century Americanism,” alienating the Black and Indigenous comrades whose blood was spilled in the name of establishing America in favor of inviting the white labor aristocracy into the fold of Communism. To establish a Popular Anti-Fascist Front, Browder sought to bring in all manner of bourgeois elements from the reactionary trade unions that rejected the Party’s revolutionary tactics of the 1920’s in favor of chasing narrow, economistic gains.
This mindset festered within the Party for decades; for instance, in the 1970’s the Party proposed a “left center coalition” with right-wing trade unionists, comprising anybody who wanted to “bring about basic reform.” Again no word on how this reform is to be brought about! The language of coalition-building continues in their 21st-century iterations in the name of “defeating the ultra-right”, including via endorsing parasitic, racist politicians like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden as bona-fide anti-fascist candidates.2
For CPUSA, Left Unity has contributed to the watering-down of their nominally “Marxist-Leninist” line; now the Party is nothing more than a cadre of Democrats who like the color red. By choosing peaceful coexistence with bourgeois ideas and organizations, the Party lost its militant edge and, for its century of existence, has little to show except for some well-designed propaganda. This is the danger of class-collaboration, the essence of revisionism. As V.I. Lenin reminds us,
The experience of alliances, agreements and blocs with the social-reform liberals in the West and with the liberal reformists (Cadets) in the Russian revolution, has convincingly shown that these agreements only blunt the consciousness of the masses, that they do not enhance but weaken the actual significance of their struggle, by linking fighters with elements who are least capable of fighting and most vacillating and treacherous.Lenin, “Marxism and Revisionism” (emphasis mine)
Lenin expresses concern that strategic unity with revisionists, even when such unity is actually called for by the conditions that revolutionaries face (as it temporarily was in Russia), always has the side-effect of dulling the sharpness of the Marxist political line. To ascribe to Left Unity as an unflinching basis of our organizing is to entirely submit to this blunting. Regardless of the anti-capitalist intentions that the social-democrats who call for unity project, the historical reality is that unity is a form of ideological capture.
With a better understanding of the real risks associated with proclaiming unity, let’s sketch out what it would mean to develop a principled understanding of unity among anti-capitalists.
Respectfully, We Are Not the Same
As I alluded to in the introductory remarks to this essay, the reason why Left Unity has been such a long-lasting, persuasive doctrine is that it seems to respond to a real problem that socialists, anarchists, progressives and the like face: We argue with each other a lot, and the infighting, splitting, and scandal that such arguments tend to produce end up deeply affecting our ability to do the work. The solution to this problem, however, is not to put aside our differences and unite for the sake of unity. Principled criticism and self-criticism are critical for improving the methods of work that we employ, understanding and adapting to changing conditions, and developing and refining our theory – regardless of one’s preferred theoretical paradigm. To silence that process in favor of chasing after some political objective in unison is tantamount to admitting defeat.
For example, one area where Left Unity is frequently invoked is in the area of “Mutual Aid,” service provisions, and charity work. “How could heartless, out-of-touch, armchair leftists possibly make a political argument out of the act of providing services to the people?” goes the narrative, usually spun by some big-wig in the DSA hoping to pass out Winter clothing and emblazoned pamphlets to the people. Especially at the height of the pandemic, contribution to various Mutual Aid programs was often painted as a responsibility for the Left. To some extent, this is true; those of us with something to give to the people should absolutely be held to the reasonable expectation of providing service. However, this moralistic unity belies a cacophony of contradiction that lingers underneath the distro table.
By painting Mutual Aid out to be a sacrosanct ritual immune to critique, we have done a great disservice to the people and to ourselves. Mutual Aid is bound up in a great deal of political questions that might be understood as a microcosm representing broader line struggles occurring between tendencies. For instance, as Gus Breslauer points out, Mutual Aid work invites very little risk to its activists and offers very little political power gained as a result, making it an ideal form of work for petit-bourgeois leftists who don’t want to get their hands too dirty. The way that most left organizations in the United States conduct Mutual Aid today promotes distance from the masses as the organizers can just set up their table, distribute food, and leave without interfacing with the masses and learning about the economic roots of their problems. This method of work falls in line with those whose objective is to reform the system because it maintains the “have-have not” boundary between the organization and the masses.
This method of work is anathema to Marxism. When I think of revolutionary forms of Mutual Aid, I think of the programs facilitated by the Black Panthers that taught the masses how to fight for themselves, not Zine Distros in the park or geriatric Trotskyites passing out food with their newspapers. Unfortunately, by relegating Mutual Aid to the adamantine realm of Left Unity where those of us without our hands on the reigns of organizational power are expected to show up, shut up, and distribute food, we end up with stale distros that promote a professional-managerial work ethic within our organizing. “Solidarity not Charity” loses all sense of solidarity when we are only permitted to understand Mutual Aid through the ethos of a Church soup kitchen.
This liberal trend is not exclusive to Mutual Aid work; I have observed similar patterns of thought and action within anti-fascist work, abolitionist work, and myriad other areas where Leftists are said to have so much “common ground” that we may as well unify. To further encumber this essay with more examples would be irresponsible – both of these named areas deserve articles on their own, and I hope to supply them in due time.
The point is this: By shutting down intra- and inter-ideological argument, Left Unity traps its adherents into old methods of work that, without the weapon of criticism, lapse into easy habits that reinforce capitalist ideology. Because every idea bears the mark of the class society into which it is beget, activists must be vigilant critics of our strategies and tactics, even (and especially!) if that means rocking the most powerful organizational boat in the scene.
Does this mean that activists of different tendencies can never find tactical or strategic unity? Of course not. Provided democratic discussion and debate has flourished between them, it is becoming easier than ever before to find points of unity as the contradictions inherent within capitalism intensify. In fact, nearly every recent Communist formation, in and out of the United States, has flourished in part due to finding unity through United Front organizations that tend to have lower ideological barriers of entry than Party organs. But Marxists should not prioritize the maintenance of eclectic unity over developing and following the correct political line. True unity does not fall out of the sky when activists settle for ineffective, hodge-podge tactics. Unity must be struggled for and won, not summoned from on high.
1 – Norberto Bobbio, Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction
2 – For more on why this line is defeatist nonsense, feel free to check out my thoughts on the subject.