Dividing the Left

It’s May Day, which means that it’s the perfect opportunity to discuss the state of the Left. For the past ten years, I’ve often sought to build bridges between disparate groups in order to encourage organization.

Here, however, I want defend dividing the left for the time being.

There are times and places to build united fronts, of course, but at the moment, we need to have the opportunity and space to continue discussing, debating, pinning down ideological points. With sweeping generalizations being made about every event – Syria, Brexit, Trump – it is the time now to swim in polemics.

Now is the time to divide.

I'm voting for the Communist block

In Germany in the 1990s and early 2000s, there were essentially three factions on the Left who were opposed to one another. There were the anti-nationalists, the anti-imperialists, and the anti-Germans.

The anti-nationalists focused, obviously, on nation-states and treated all of them with equal contempt. Anti-nationalists saw all states as equally repulsive, whether the U.S. or Senegal. Since all states are mere constructions in capitalism, then they should all be fought.

The anti-imperialists argued that imperialism is the dominant force in the world, which therefore meant that different states (or non-state actors) occupy different positions in relation to imperialism. Forces that encourage imperialism (mostly stemming from the United States and Europe) should be fought and forces resisting imperialism (whether nominally leftist or not) should receive at least critical support.

The anti-Germans took the position that Germany was the primary entity that ought to be opposed, as Germany was responsible for the most horrific crimes of the 20th century. Anti-Germans were against German reunification, against NATO bombing Serbia, and against EU economic policies, all the while offering uncritical support to Israel, as the Jews had been the primary victims of Germany’s past. After 9/11, Anti-Germans used Marx’s formulation of the economic stages (feudalism, capitalism, socialism, communism) to support the Amerikkkan invasion of of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Since all of these peoples were lumped into “anti-Semitic feudal Islamists”, then the U.S. was going to force the Middle East into capitalism, which would then open the world up for the next stages – socialism and communism.

As you can probably tell, I’m pretty anti-anti-German.

I’m far more sympathetic to the anti-nationalists and anti-imperialists.

In Germany today, the differences between these groups are disintegrating. One of my friends recently told me that he’s happy about this development, because he thinks it’s more important to build coalitions.

I am not so sure.

It seems to me that these distinctions were never made in the United States leftist scene. Ideologically speaking, it’s more difficult for anarchists and communists to come together than anti-nationalists and anti-imperialists, even if those anarchists and communists aren’t sure why.

The political constellations are different and, in my opinion, much more weakly defined.

As a prime example, the tendency in the United States is the endless question of “uniting the Left”. Personally, I’ve sat through countless brainstorming sessions that reached hair-brained solutions to the “factionalism” and “sectarianism” between leftists.

Differences shouldn’t be articulated and politicized, argue these saviors of leftist in-fighting.

But why not? Through polemics, we have leftist groups engaging one another. Communist parties and organizations vie for correct positions and anarchists clarify their positions as they adopt and adapt their adjectives: Anarcho-Syndicalist-Communist-Primitivists!

However, it’s clear that I’m in the minority. A lot of leftists crave “unity”, because they see that as a way of organizing and thereby succeeding. (Never mind the fact that “success” here means something entirely different to every grouping.)

The main point for them is openness.

This openness is the idea that brings us a magazine like Jacobin.

I should mention here that I often like articles on Jacobin and have cited them numerous times on this blog. However, Jacobin represents this tendency and there are plenty of articles on Jacobin that are absolute nonsense.

In the goal of “unity”, Jacobin, posturing as a broad-leftist, big-tent magazine, is careful not to talk too much about characters that are divisive: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao go almost totally unmentioned. Even Marx and Engels are barely cited.

The usual cast of characters of leftist debate are mostly left untouched, as this might cause division.

Jacobin articles are particularly philosophically empty.

Rather than offering a structured system of analysis in any way, Jacobin magazine leaves us to dwell in a post-modern, non-polemical space.

We are free to take up contradictory political positions based on feelings. Politics in this world are based on convenience. You can check your brain at the door, as long as you’ve brought your heart along.

stalin churchhill fdr

“I don’t know who to support here!”

The Soviet Union is gone, the PRC is totally capitalist, Castro is dead, we don’t have to defend anything icky!

Although in some ways we can see this ideological vacuity an asset, it seems to me rather often to result in the publishing of some rather absurdly silly arguments.

At the same time, because the differences between positions like anti-nationalism and anti-imperialism were never articulated on the American Left, there is no space for a proper discussion on these points between mainstream leftist tendencies.

But Jacobin still encourages its readers to take hard political positions.

A good example is this article, super critical of Hezbollah for not being “proletarian enough” and this other article that calls for general solidarity with the Rojava, while pointing out criticisms from a left-liberal human rights perspective.

So, we are told, we shouldn’t support Hezbollah, based on a Marxist analysis, and we should critically support Rojava, based on a liberal analysis.

Where does that leave us?

Why one and not the other?

Is the PKK/PYD seriously representative of the Kurdish proletariat? Obviously not.

Jacobin does us no favors here. Due to the lack of ideological clarity, we have a variety of positions on a variety of issues and they can range from left-liberal to Marxist, which, it should be noted, are competing and mutually-exclusive worldviews.

(This hypocritically coming from the Muslim communist.)

Without any ideological rigor and in the constant attempts to “unite the Left”, we’re offered almost nothing. All the “solutions” don’t give use anything concrete.

When we’re divided over polemics, we’re at least negotiating ideological space, when we’re “united”, we’re barely saying anything of substance to each other.

So on this May Day, 100 years after the Russian Revolution, I’d like to say to all my fellow leftists:

Let’s remain divided, at least for now.

Bill Oreilly