Refounding the Left: Taking Our Past Into Our Future

Posted July 21, 2008


forceful renewal of the socialist left is not entirely a matter of our will alone. It ultimately depends on developments of a more massive scale both here and around the world that in one way or another pose a significant challenge to the capitalist agenda from a left direction. These developments provide the proverbial “tests” that are supposed to prove out the necessity for diverse revolutionary organization. Here, in the United States, we are no where near them. At this stage, most existing revolutionary organizations feel their fragility and place a question mark over their possibility for survival in any meaningful sense. The era of competition and triumphalism has pretty much ended.

Does this mean that we circle the wagons, soldier on and wait? Solidarity rejects this approach. Even as a body at rest, an organization will change – and inevitably not for the better. The risk runs the gambit from membership drift-out to downright cultification.

The process of socialist renewal has to begin now, and should have begun at least a decade ago. Working together at varying levels, the social movement left and the organized left together can produce a modest pole that would be more attractive to those who do not belong to any socialist organization. It would have a remoralizing effect on all our respective members and networks. What forms could this working together take?

  • Dialogue and study. Each organization feels the obligation to enunciate the basic lessons of 20th century revolution, examine its past as an organization, and relocate itself in the current realities of capitalism. It is pointedly wasteful of our scant resources to be doing this separately. A far richer and educational process, as well as a healthier internal environment, could be generated by finding spaces to conduct this discussion together. The same hold true for analyzing the movements and world relations of forces of today. The forces of the social movement left needs to figure out where and how they’d be interested in participating in this discussion.

For example, too often the left’s “model” tends to drift back to a one-sided application of “Leninism” as people imagine this concept was implemented in czarist Russia nearly a century ago. Is this appropriate today — under conditions of formal democracy and with new methods of communication, not to mention lessons from the 20th century experience on the transition to socialism and the durability of capital? What organizational forms and modes of operation can be most effective in bringing about the renewal we seek? Today’s activists must be full-fledged participants in such a dialogue, bringing their questions, expectations and experiences as well as their commitment to the intersection of class, race and gender.

Starting in the 1960s, significant challenges have successfully altered the standards of internal practice and culture in revolutionary organizations. The changes that have been brought about are profoundly political, and address a concept of democracy that goes beyond the requisite and anonymous formality of one person, one vote. Solidarity’s organizational practice has been influenced by people of color, women, and LGBT liberation movements. The changes include the institutional existence of caucuses within our organizations based on those oppressed because of race, gender and sexuality. These caucuses play a role not only in guiding our external relationships to movements of the oppressed, but also act as an internal corrective. They help our organizations to be inclusive and capable of acting with a collective understanding of how oppression manifests itself even among revolutionaries, who are not immune to the pressures of the broader society.

The stereotype of the ‘70s revolutionary organizations as being dominated by (charismatic) males, with a heavy polemical, defeat-your-opponent factionalism is – or should be – dead and buried. To whatever extent it was practiced, it was an exclusive, self-defeating model based on a caricature of the early 20th century movement. Today’s revolutionaries are striving for what some call “feminist functioning” – a respectful, egalitarian and uplifting internal environment grounded in democratic functioning and pooling of the strengths from all the members.

The ‘70s model tended to see “the party” as a thing onto itself; floating above the members with some kind of existence of its own (often defined by these same white males). In our organizations today, this reification has to be combated. The “party” is the human beings who come together to act together. They are the locus of ownership. Solidarity has been mocked by other revolutionary groups because our members sometimes voted for different proposals at movement meetings. We have attempted to build consensus positions around our founding principles and encourage members to express judgments based on their experiences. Sometimes this has meant differences that we have not attempted to shut those down in the name of a “line,” requiring members to vote against their real convictions at the loss of their integrity.

Imagine how much richer it would be to discuss – or even build — a 21st Century internal revolutionary culture together, instead of in small groups that are grappling with the same basic need to make deep structural-democratic changes. Together, we could make a more coherent contribution that could enter the arsenal of models of revolutionary organization and theory.

For example, developments of defiance of the imperialist world market diktat in Latin America – highlighted by political developments in Venezuela and Bolivia, and before that Brazil and Argentina – have to be assessed based on the current world relationship of forces, which is qualitatively different from the global reality for most of the 20th century. We should be taking inspiration from, and carefully examining, today’s processes of struggle as they unfold, offering them our solidarity. Approaching this as a broader collective will give us an opportunity to expand our common experience and analysis.

The socialist left in Europe has experienced a similar stagnation, yet has managed to maintain a more vibrant existence, in good measure due to greater levels of residual class consciousness. Many organizations are engaged in building new forms of organizations that have something to teach us about the possibilities – and in some cases the limits or obstacles – for unity or united action among previously competing revolutionary organizations. These include the Red Green Alliance in Denmark, the Left Bloque in Portugal, attempts to build Respect in Britain and the evolution of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire of France has decided to dissolve and form an entirely new left socialist organization that would be more of an appropriate refoundational home for thousands of activists not currently in any socialist organization. Though we do not have the means to duplicate these efforts here – they require a level of social weight we don’t presently enjoy – we should be watching and discussing these efforts at left foundation together.

  • Acting together. We should be sharing where we think things stand and what should be done. How strange the case that we often don’t even speak to one another while engaged in the same coalition, the same fight. That relic of the past has to stop. We should help mobilize our respective memberships for greater focus on a flashpoint struggle. Example: we often have members in the same trade union, even the same local, carrying on various fights for democracy, against concessions, etc. These energies should be pooled, and the tactical arguments should be had comrade-to-comrade.

For its part, Solidarity believes that agreement around a broad set of principles, and not agreement around historical questions, is the root base for organized renewal of the socialist movement. We believe that the left has yet to perfect the art of “agreeing to disagree” – while still finding ways to act together in a coherent fashion — once basic agreement of this type has been achieved. (Solidarity is not an exception to this statement.) The notion of “homogeneity” in an organization as the 20th century left perceived it did not serve well at all; it ended in sectarianism and irrelevance.

We believe that unity in action does not require unity of thought. Solidarity is thus, in the broad sense, a proudly multi-tendency group. However, there is an important proviso to this: unity in action may not require unity of thought, but it most certainly requires thought – not just individual thought, but collective thought.

That is, we do not believe that “democratic centralism” is an appropriate mechanism through which such a diverse group of revolutionaries can function effectively. Yes, there needs to be a set of key principles around which membership is constructed. Within that framework it will be necessary to listen to the ideas and experiences of all comrades, and to move forward with the understanding that there will be differing assessments and therefore decisions will be revisited. Diversity can be the source of an organization’s strength because it allows for a pluralism from which a more nuanced assessment may be possible. Additionally, we believe that tactical decisions are just that, tactical.

Marxism should be a method and not a set of formulas we have learned from the past. We also see that the insights from other philosophies of liberation and the living movements they spring from must renew and revitalize Marxism.

Solidarity remains hopeful that today’s socialist left is capable of taking some or all of the steps can lead off the process of renewal. Though recent modest initiatives, we are attempting to bring about a frank discussion with other organizations as well as local collective/study groups and national networks of the social movement left on how – or whether – they see a process of left renewal taking root.