Some left intellectuals fall short on strategy and tactics




The left is blessed with a plethora of astute writers and powerful voices against capitalism and its predatory policies.

Their articles get wide circulation and they occasionally pop up on television. Last year they spoke regularly at the Occupy protests.

Like many others in left and progressive circles I look forward to their interventions. They offer both insight and inspiration.

But as good social analysts as they are, some of them - Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges come to mind - come up short at the political level. By that I mean that, other than insisting that people on the left resist the predatory actions of capitalism, they offer little in the way of strategic and tactical thinking on how to build an enduring mass movement.

Or to put it differently, while their critique of capitalism and insistence on resistance to its dehumanizing values and practices are on point, what is missing from their articles, speeches, and interviews is a sense of how to proceed, that is, how to fight in concrete conditions.

They don't inform their audience about which change agents are critical to the success of any social struggle or to the durability of any social movement.

Nor do they suggest which alliances among which social groups are crucial to political advance.

The reader/listener gets no insight as to what the main political obstacle to social progress, including getting rid of capitalism, is at this moment.

And besides the need to resist capitalism's outrages, you get no inkling as to what the main political task is at this moment - certainly not the coming elections.

If organized labor enters into their analysis, it is never as a prime-time player whose role is of overriding importance to prospects of any social movement's durability, advance and victory. In fact, too often labor either comes in for criticism or as an afterthought or as just one among many other agents of change.

Few of these analysts emphatically say that the nation's working people - the multi-racial working class and its organized sector - have to be in the forefront of the democratic and revolutionary movement for it to succeed.

Much the same could be said about their attitude towards people of color and the struggle against racism. Yes, they vigorously oppose racism, appreciate the struggle role of people of color, and appeal for unity, but one doesn't get the impression that the participation of people of color is considered strategic to advancing the democratic and class struggle or that the fight against racism is at the center of the struggle for all-people's unity and victory.

Nor does one get the impression that these writers see women as a strategic force.

As far as divisions in the ruling class, little is mentioned. In fact, the tendency among these commentators is to treat the ruling class (including its two parties) as one undifferentiated mass - quite a different approach than that taken by the prophetic leader Martin Luther King, who was very conscious of splits in the top layers of society and between and within the two parties.

Perhaps more fundamentally, an appreciation of the balance of class and social forces at any given moment doesn't figure much in their political calculus nor do the mass moods of the overall population - all of which can lead to a sense that either everything is possible or nothing is possible but individual resistance.

What they put a lot of stock in - I would say even go overboard about - is expressions of resistance on the part of radicalized young people. A decade or so ago it was the youth in Seattle who were getting rave reviews from this grouping of left intellectuals and more recently the Occupy movement was at the top of their agenda.

Certainly both these manifestations of youthful upsurge justifiably generated excitement on the left and beyond. Both contributed mightily to recasting the conversation in the country. But neither one constituted by itself a fundamental political challenge to the existing power relations and arrangements nor replaced the main social forces of change.

Now don't get me wrong. Young people play an absolutely important and necessary role in any social movement. And in many cases their actions set off wider struggles in society. But to note their necessary and catalytic role in any broader social advance is not the same as turning them into a people's - oops I dare say the word - vanguard.

To be fair, no one on the left has come up with a compelling enough strategic and tactical visualization that reaches and excites millions and moves the country forward in a democratic and socialist direction.

I would like to think the Communist Party's strategic and tactical policy (which corresponds with the outlook of broad social forces in many ways) merits closer attention. But that is not my decision. In the end, life will decide whose strategic and tactical vision will capture the hopes of tens of millions.

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  • The absence of a political compass grounded in the material conditions of society might explain the perplexing phenomenon of the ongoing fascination on the part of some progressives and Leftists with the recent presidential candidacy of quasi-Ayn Randist congressman Ron Paul. What those activists fail to understand is that because some in the right-wing establishment and media dismiss Ron Paul for their own reasons does not mean that the Left should embrace him. On the contrary, Ron Paul represents the same basic capitalist interests as do the other bourgeois candidates, notwithstanding his occasional rhetorical and policy differences. That said, if Ron Paul can inadvertently sow discord within the right-wing, fine. But there is a qualitative difference between a Leftist passively accepting that and actively endorsing such a politician. As for Noam Chomsky, for all his value especially in pointing out some of the glaring hypocrisies of the practice of imperialism (under the rubric of "security" and "globalization") vis-a-vis its stated ("democratic") aims, he has also described himself as an anarchist, not a Marxist, and does not even refer to the prevailing political-economic system here as capitalism, preferring to call it "corporate mercantilism." But his political shortcomings and acknowledged ignorance of and indifference to fundamental Marxism and its actual development may not be readily apparent to the casual observer unfamiliar with his particular anarchistic anticommunist bias, notwithstanding his progressive stand on certain issues whatever his way of reasoning.

    Indeed, while many non-Marxist Left and progressive intellectuals in the U.S. may accurately identify the exploitive and oppressive manifestations of capitalism and may even correctly attribute them to capitalism itself, just as often many are unable to then, logically, comprehend why a transformation to a communist socioeconomic formation is the only way to resolve the social contradictions that lie at the heart of such exploitation and oppression in capitalist society, a society based on class antagonisms. Many also express strong support for social justice and even social equality, but without realizing that we can only truly have both social justice and social equality when combined with social progress. And that cannot happen under an obsolescent (capitalist) socioeconomic formation. But then the non-CP Left political formations (or, more specifically, the largely petty-bourgeois youth-oriented "New Left") that emerged in the wake of the devastation wrought by McCarthyism and the broader post-WWII "Red Scare" were historically weak on the working class in general and the trade-union movement in particular. And that continues to this day, so much so that Thomas Frank in his interesting 2004 book, "What's the Matter with Kansas?," complained that "the Left" had turned its back on the labor movement, when in fact the class-conscious Left in the U.S. is deeply concerned about the working-class movement and the decline of organized labor, with many serious Leftists actively involved in reversing that decline and rebuilding the movement. Now, if Frank were referring to the "New Left" and its descendants, he would have a point. But in the context of his book, Frank is actually speaking of social liberals, not Leftists. This is more a case of a progressive author such as Thomas Frank not clearly distinguishing between liberals and Leftists, for while their causes sometimes superficially overlap, particularly on matters of civil rights and civil liberties, and with the egregious excesses of the "normal" functioning of mature monopoly-finance capitalism becoming apparent even to some who are not consciously anti-capitalist, there is a fundamental difference between the two, with the social liberals basically favoring some form of capitalism, and the Left some form of socialism. It is important to understand and draw this distinction if we are to organize a more effective coalition to oppose the Right while building the Left in order to advance the interests of the working class -- a coalition which, at present, would likely include some self-identified Democrats. Without such an understanding, too many on the Left end up angry at the Democratic Party by misunderstanding its nature and expecting it to be what it is not, for while it may be a party of workers, it is not a working-class party and never has been. Nowhere is this more evident than with the repeated failure of the Federal government over the past few decades to pass crucial labor law reform even when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. Moreover, the rising influence of the Clintonites within the Democratic Party signaled an even further move away from organized labor -- to the detriment of the working class and even the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party. Indeed, at times, it appears as if the Democrats would rather lose an election than risk winning by explicitly raising the issue of class however much they are accused by the extreme right of doing just that. And this points up the problem of how much the Left can expect for the people from working with and for Democratic candidates knowing that there is every reason to believe that, once in office, they will by nature be inclined not to legislate or govern as they campaigned unless politically expedient to do so or unless forced by mass pressure to do so. Nevertheless, we know that the Democrats and the Republicans, while fundamentally committed to the capitalist state (notwithstanding the paranoiac rhetoric of "Tea Party" pseudo-populists and demagogic right-wing media personalities), are not an undifferentiated reactionary mass. And even though there is no reason to be believe that we on the Left can do with that party what the extreme Right has done with the Republicans (grafting a neo-Confederate limb onto a corporate stump but with national reach), the Democrats (particularly during an electoral campaign) can still be amenable to the legitimate demands of the people, if partly out of the interests of organizational survival as well as to co-opt some genuinely popular demands in order to prevent the rise of a truly Leftist mass movement that could effectively challenge the capitalists for political power. One of the main tasks, then, for the Left at present is to seek to limit the more collaborationist elements inside the Democratic Party while neutralizing the more reactionary and racist forces inside the Republican Party and its even more extreme "Tea Party" satellite, and at the same time seek to build a serious working-class-based Left organizationally independent of the Democratic Party. Organizational independence is key to prevent such a Left formation from being co-opted and reduced to little more than another fund- and vote-raising mechanism for the DNC, visible only during campaign season but devoid of any substantive policy influence. As part of this process, the Left has to build on significant struggles such as the Scott Walker recall movement and Occupy Wall Street -- both of which failed in their initial objectives but which remain valuable. Though OWS, for one, as yet lacks the programmatic principles of the CP as well as the kind of working-class base of the anti-Walker movement, it should not be summarily dismissed, as it still has the potential to represent a start -- if only a start -- of a mass progressive social and political movement, provided it does not get bogged down in lifestyle and ethno-centric politics, anarchist posturing and the kind of declassed ultra-democracy that tends to unscientifically regard all views as equally valid, or, like the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, it will fail to develop into a true mass people's movement.

    However, the willingness of OWS to identify Wall Street as the people's enemy and to bravely take a stand against the capitalists and what they represent is important. Now, if the Marxist Left can work to bring the more narrowly-located (but more proletarian) anti-Walker movement and the geographically-broader (but less concrete) OWS together into a meaningful coalition, that could be a significant development toward such a mass movement. And the ballot status of the union-oriented Working Families Party, here in New York and beyond, could play an important role as well, given a leadership skilled in the long view of the class struggle. But the steadily reactionary drift of an increasingly aggressive Republican Party shows that we cannot continue to fight defensive battles only. Simply because we may not yet be in a revolutionary situation does not mean we should indefinitely postpone putting socialism on the political agenda -- a chronically-exhausting mistake, as it allows the right-wing to continue to set the national agenda that we then must respond to. It isn't enough to perpetually mobilize to defeat one perennial right-wing candidate or another before trying to advance our program. We must try to do both and by whatever means -- new or old -- work. Flexible tactics and a flexible strategy to find the approach that finally compels the workers to act in their -- and society's -- true interests.

    Posted by Robert S., 09/14/2012 1:25am (6 years ago)

  • Is this article conflating social identity on par with class identity?

    Posted by yoyo, 08/25/2012 12:41pm (6 years ago)

  • Right on. I sometimes like to read the sentiments of armchair socialists, which are all over the web. But but the materialist analysis of communists, pointing toward immediate action, is generally lacking.
    --jim lane in Dallas

    Posted by jim lane, 08/20/2012 8:29am (6 years ago)

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