An old comrade of mine died last spring. Around 25 years ago we were part of a team distributing “Revolutionary Worker” newspapers in Miami neighborhoods. After I left the RCP a few years later, we ceased working together but remained friends.
He left behind a box of pamphlets from the mid- to late-1970s issued by various New Left groups in the Bay Area, where much of his political development took place. I put them out on the porch and have been slowly going through them, curious about how the Left conceptualized revolutionary activity back then, and looking for clues as to why it largely abandoned class struggle in favor of social justice activism.
Judging by these pamphs, which were issued by at least half a dozen different communist organizations, it seems like the political scene in the Bay Area was pretty lively. Most of the texts are long, highly detailed polemics against rival communist groups, on questions ranging from the socialist character (or not) of China and Albania, to whether all forms of nationalism are reactionary (or not).
Personally, I’m interested in their attempts at participating in workers’ struggles and spreading revolutionary class consciousness among workers. Most, if not all, of them claimed to recognize the need for the working class (or some “most oppressed” section of it) to lead the struggle against capitalism/imperialism, but they seemed to have spent much of their energy attempting to be the leaders themselves, and going for each other’s throats in competitive attempts to become “The” Party.
I looked up the pamphlets online and in case you’re interested, many of them can actually be found in this vast archive of “anti-revisionist” struggle: https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/erol.htm
For someone unfamiliar with this history, these arguments between highly specialized groups can seem mind-boggling, with demarcations of line being pared down to what might seem an almost obsessive and insane narrowness. But keep in mind that it was a different time: social and political struggles were flaring up globally, including in the US, and as any movement matures, political differences translate into differences in approach and strategy that really do matter. So I’m not ridiculing the need for demarcations and polemics, which are always present whenever people try to do anything together (“Let’s watch Mistresses.” “Hell no, the acting has really gone downhill.”)
But it must be asked: where are they now? Did all that passionate quarreling make any difference at all, did it help advance working class power in the struggle against capitalism, or was it just a “tempest in a teapot”? Did it reflect an appropriate assessment of and response to the actual conditions that existed at the time?
There is a lot to learn from those old New Left texts for anyone currently involved in political initiatives, some positive and much negative, including about the dangers of dogmatism, arrogance, rigidity, competition, sectarianism, and an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Reading them today, I feel almost embarrassed for the grandiosity with which each sect declared itself the glorious leading vanguard of the working class revolution (which was right around the corner), especially since all of them also struggled painfully with their total inability to “fuse socialism with the working class,” which is the task they set for themselves to accomplish (while invoking many validating Lenin quotations).
They couldn’t do it. None of them could figure out how to make it work. No matter how valiantly they launched polemics against their revisionist rivals, none of them seems to have been able to turn many workers into communists, or convincingly turn communists into workers who could rally many of their mates beyond “economist and reformist bread-and-butter issues.”
A lot of what they did wrong is elaborated on in the critiques the groups made of each other. My favorite pair so far is: “I Wor Kuen’s Reactionary Line on May Day and the Workers’ Movement” by Wei Min Shé, and “Wei Min Shé’s Reactionary Line” by I Wor Kuen. Each made some pretty convincing points about how fucked up the other was, in the ways they each stirred up and interfered with and attempted to control and direct workplace struggles, and ultimately led workers into dead ends.
The biggest problem of all these organizations was their class make-up. Each of them hurled accusations at one another that they were comprised mainly of petit bourgeois “intellectuals,” and all of them were right. They were inherently unable to fight for working class interests for the simple reason that they weren’t workers – they could not directly confront capital with their hands on the means of production.
And that’s still a huge problem of the Left today. While polemicizing for revolution, we can reassure ourselves that we’re abandoning or “disrobing ourselves from” our class interests, but it’s not simply a matter of making a decision, taking a position, or revamping oneself ideologically.
Personally, I’m mired in the same tradition. Wei Min Shé and the Revolutionary Union morphed into the Revolutionary Communist Party, which recruited me in high school into the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade. Being trained in their tradition of sectarianism and dogmatism from a young age, while being intensively indoctrinated in outright bourgeois institutions (“educated” at a university), and being born into the petite bourgeoisie in the first place, are three major strikes against me – so I have to really watch myself for structurally inherent destructive habits and tendencies.
These class-based urges spring up constantly: to assert “what is to be done” (tell people what to do – and I’m about to do it again, damn it!), to predict and plan the course of struggle, to seek salvation by articulating the perfect theoretical or political formula, to convince and manage and control, to engage in fronting and wishful thinking, and to attempt to represent or stand in for the working class in their struggle against capital.
There are many like me. We dominate the “Left” political landscape everywhere. There’s a reason that capitalists in every nation work very hard and deliberately to enlarge the “middle classes” – while we are also dominated by capital and may suffer under it, we also act as mediators and buffers to mitigate the fundamental antagonism between themselves and the working class, in a thousand ways that we can’t even see.
Ok, so what are we supposed to do then? Is there any role for those of us who hate capitalism but are not workers?
Of course there is, but we need to get over ourselves. We need to identify the mistakes we make – have always made, throughout history – so we can at least stop fucking up the struggles of workers when they do erupt. First we need to stop asking workers to defer to and join the clawing basket of crabs that is the petit bourgeois Left. This Left isn’t going to lead the revolution (and if it does, it will be as bureaucrats riding on workers’ backs, and capitalism will never be uprooted). Only the working class, by emancipating themselves collectively from wage slavery, can break capitalism’s chokehold on humanity as a whole. Revolutionary workers will find their own ways to organize their own fights.
If the rest of us want to help that process along, we need to stop pontificating and start listening to workers and learning from them. We need to get out of our small circles. We need to stop believing we have all the answers and start practicing humility. We need to get out of our heads and do productive labor. We need to deeply grasp the material fact that knowledge originates in practice, in doing. We need to stop using our second-hand knowledge of history and concepts, which the petite bourgeoisie has abstracted from the deeds of workers (then kept from them, ripped them off), as personal social capital, and we must return it in ways that are useful to them. We must stop confusing petit bourgeois interests with working class interests. We must stick to the fundamental contradiction of labor vs. capital, address other social issues from that standpoint (too often we do it the other way around), and not try to shift the focus elsewhere.
Most of all, we have to accept leadership from class-conscious workers: the fight against capital is theirs to wage. How they fight is up to them, and how the rest of us can most productively participate and assist must be up to them.
Essay and Illustrations via Stephanie McMilla