By David McNally
Sometimes the most profound thinking occurs when we are lost, when we do not know where we are, or how to get to where we want to go. This can be true in the life of an individual, in study of a scientific problem, or in the evolution of political movements. And the socialist Left the world over is essentially lost today, living through a period of intense political disorientation after 30 years of marauding neoliberalism. As a general trend – with important exceptions – unions have been in massive retreat for decades, while social movements, after a brief resurgence in the form of global justice struggles, have been on the decline since the clampdown after 9/11.
Periods of retreat are especially difficult for the radical Left. When people find it daunting to make even modest improvements in their lives, thoughts of a radical socialist transformation of society appear to be wildly utopian, the stuff of otherworldly dreamers. Movements for socialist liberation find themselves on the margins of political life.
Beyond Denial and Retreat
In times of disarray for the Left, the most scrupulous honesty is at a premium. So let us begin with a hard truth: the revolutionary socialist Left is today more marginal, more disconnected from the day to day experiences of working class people than at any time in the last 150 years. This reality has produced two main reactions within the left: retreat and denial.
Retreat is, of course, the most common response. People give up the struggle, sink into defeatism, embrace purely personal “solutions” to what ails the world. The end result is a decline in the organized presence of socialist politics. Denial is little better. It consists of sticking one’s head in the sand and pretending that no real dilemmas exist. Deniers urge that all is well, that history is moving forward, and that all we need to do is prepare to apply the “lessons of history” derived from a great historical event – be it the 1917 revolution in Russia, or the anarchist struggles of 1936 in Barcelona.
There is a sleight of hand in such arguments, however. It is true that history is rich with experiences from which socialists must try to extract all the practical wisdom they can. But history does not repeat itself; it incessantly generates new phenomena, new problems. All ostensible historical “lessons” are at best partial. They offer ways of thinking about and acting on the new challenges and struggles of our day. But they do not offer answers to the challenges that lie ahead.
To stay to the left while rejecting retreat and denial involves a politics of “sober senses,” to borrow a phrase from Marx. It means persisting with the struggle for a better world while reckoning with the terrible odds against us. It requires openly acknowledging that the whole socialist project has been thrown into question by events of the last quarter century.
And yet, the three vital sources of socialist opposition to capitalism persist: capital’s intense exploitation and oppression of the majority of the globe’s inhabitants; powerful and inspiring movements of resistance to these realities; dreams and struggles that point toward a radically different way of organizing human life.
Because of these realities, socialist politics will not disappear, however enfeebled they may become. And for groups which refuse to give up on the struggle for a truly better world, three interrelated tasks will continue to confront them, though on dramatically different scales and in quite different configurations depending on circumstances. First, socialist groups must figure out how to contribute to significant struggles of resistance, so as to nurture opposition and build people’s capacities to change the world. Secondly, they must develop ways of keeping the socialist imaginary – the radical vision of a democratic and egalitarian society – alive and relevant to people seeking alternatives. And, finally, they must seek out ways to organize themselves as democratic collectives based on practices of movement building activism and socialist education.
Thinking and Acting Historically
But to do these things effectively requires thinking and acting historically – with respect to the present and the future. To think historically about the present means honestly confronting our real possibilities and capacities in the here and now. A group of a hundred people in a period of retreat for the Left is very differently positioned from a small party of ten thousand in the midst of an upsurge of working-class struggle. As British socialist Duncan Hallas wrote nearly 40 years ago, “Organizations do not exist in a vacuum. They are composed of actual people in specific historical circumstances, attempting to solve real problems with a limited number of options open to them.” If groups delude themselves that they are on the verge of leading mass struggles, when nothing of the sort is probable, they will distort their own development, tending to blame some of those closest to them, be it in their own groups or other organizations of the left, for the recalcitrance of circumstances. Down that road lies asterile sectarianism.
So, part of thinking historically is reckoning with the actual tasks of the moment. Today in most of the Global North this means emphasizing interrelated processes of modest movement-building and socialist self-education. It means nurturing collectives of activist persuaders who are able to contribute to real resistance movements while also increasing the quantity and quality of organized socialist forces. Meaningful socialist groups must be able, therefore, to help strengthen anti-capitalist resistanceand make a compelling case for the continued relevance of socialist politics.
To do both of these things means to think and act historically toward the future. It means discerning elements of the future within the present and integrating them into a socialist politics that speaks to the next wave of mass struggles. It means developing an anticipatory politics that anticipates the direction of emerging struggles, rather than summarizing the “lessons” of past mobilizations.
If we think about the mass movements in France in May and early June 1968 we get some sense of what this means.
Thinking about 1968
The great struggles of May-June 1968 in France – huge social protests, student-occupied universities run by mass assemblies, a general strike of 10 million workers in which one to two million seized control of their workplaces – constitute one of the great moments of social insurgency in the period since the Second World War. And these events demonstrate how important small radical groups can be – both positively and negatively.
May ’68 was an explosion of radical democracy, street protest, workers’ power, mass mobilization – and revolutionary imagination. Wall posters and graffiti sprung up with slogans like the following:
Be realistic – demand the impossible
Revolution is the ecstasy of history
All power to the imagination!
Slogans such as these, which were widespread, transmit a sense of the revolutionary imaginary that informed much of the struggle of these amazing weeks. Yet, this sort of political imaginary had percolated for years in the orbit of small leftist groups which had demonstrated some capacity to anticipate what the next wave of struggles might look like. Two such groups in particular contributed mightily to the radical sensibility of 1968: Socialism or Barbarism and the Situationist International. What is remarkable is that both groups did this despite incredibly severe shortcomings.
Socialism or Barbarism (SB) had originated in the 1950s and was never more than a current of a few dozen people that published a journal. SB put a major stress on workers self-management of production (autogestion) and championed the Hungarian workers’ uprising of 1956 against Stalinism.
By the late 1960s, however, the group ceased functioning entirely. Nevertheless, many of SB’s political ideas had a major impact on youth radicals of 1968.
The Situationist International (SI) too was an extremely small group with a bizarre and unpleasant internal regime. The Situationists were less interested in workers’ experience on the job than was SB. But they developed a powerful critique of alienated existence in modern capitalism – a critique of everyday life – that was indebted to the Surrealist movement of the 1930s and ‘40s. They argued that workers in developed capitalist countries were still poor – in psychological, cultural and social terms – because their time at work and outside work was controlled by the alienating powers of capital and consumer culture. As student agitation grew throughout 1967, Situationist analyses became a major point of reference for radicalizing students. And in 1968, Situationist slogans could be found scrawled on walls or adorning posters throughout France.
Because each of these groups developed crucial radical ideas – self-management in the case of the SB and a sweeping critique of alienated life in late capitalism in the case of the SI – they were able to have a powerful influence on a major political upheaval, despite their small size. Many of their ideas with respect to self-management and their sharply anti-bureaucratic sentiments helped shape the assembly-style democracy practiced by students at occupied universities and the practices of self-management that influenced workers occupying their factories.
Ultimately, neither group was able to contribute to the building of large, sustained movements and organizations of a New Left, particularly in the aftermath of ‘68 – in significant measure because each failed to develop practices of democratic and collective movement-building activity.
Yet, notwithstanding these major failings, their work of anticipating the future politics of the left indicates one of the major tasks that confront small revolutionary socialist groups: the development of an imaginative socialist vision that captures some of the tendencies of the future and crystallizes them theoretically and practically for the next wave of political radicalization.
Of course, 1968 holds no more magical lessons than does 1917 or 1936. Recent struggles in France, for instance, have had a much more considerable presence of workers and youth of colour at their forefront than was the case in 1968. The purpose of looking at 1968 is twofold. First, it represents the last mass popular upheaval in a capitalistically developed society. And, second, it suggests some of the things (but by no means all) that small radical groups might do to prepare the freedom dreams that can inform and inspire new waves of revolutionary struggle. But what we learn in these regards will have to be remixed through the living currents of today’s struggles.
The Future in Today’s Present
Bolivia and Brazil are probably two of the key places today where we can catch glimpses of the next wave of mass struggle. In Bolivia, a cycle of revolt emerged in 2000 that has seen combined indigenous-worker-peasant uprisings that have toppled governments, blocked water privatization in one city, produced new mass popular organizations, and mobilized against multinationals in the oil and gas industries. A new Marxist-indigenous dialogue has emerged in which activists are addressing the interrelationships between struggles against capitalism and movements for indigenous self-determination.
In Brazil, over a somewhat longer period, one of the most significant social movements in the world, the Landless Workers Movement (or MST according to its Portuguese initials), has settled about half a million people on land seized through militant occupations. On their settlements, MST activist struggle to build cooperative social relations that challenge class and gender hierarchies and nurture an anti-capitalist worldview. Like movements in Bolivia, the MST is experimenting with forms of militant and democratic mass organizing.
A relevant socialism – a socialism for the 21st century as it has come to be known in Venezuela – will need to learn from the powerful, liberatory impulses that run through these Bolivian and Brazilian struggles. It will need to project a socialism that, much more thoroughly than in the past, genuinely integrates anti-racism and feminism into its class politics. It will need to champion sexual liberation, a revolution in everyday life, and a new ecosocialism.
Without such an emancipatory outlook, one that provides inspiration for the long haul while also informing strategies and tactics of resistance in the here-and-now, socialist politics are not likely to be vibrant and sustainable. Yes, socialist organizing is damned hard, persistent work much of the time. But it must also be uplifting and celebratory. It must inspire and build new solidarities. It must, in short, join hard-nosed realism to a lively utopian imagination.
In that direction lies hope, rather than retreat or denial.
Source: New Socialist (2008)