Herding Cats -The Search For “Left Unity”

What does the Left fight for? What does it stand for? What are the basic, fundamental truths that gives the Left its fire, its strength, and its passion?

Is it equality? The idea that no person or group of people is worth any less than another? The notion that there is no difference between us – not ethnicity, national origin, physical ability, mental acuity, gender, education, nothing – that makes a person less valuable, less valid, than another? The belief that nobody is less deserving of life, and of the things that life necessitates, than anybody else?

Is it ecological defense? The understanding that we live on a finite planet with finite resources, and that our system of over-production for profit is destroying our home? The realization that our short time on this watery, grassy, overheating rock is growing ever shorter with every barrel of oil pulled from the ground, every acre of forest destroyed for grazing cattle, every natural habitat destroyed for real estate developers to build luxury condos and golf courses?

Maybe it’s the idea of liberation – that Holy Grail of ideas that every person feels to their core, no matter what their political tendencies might be. Even the staunchest Republican conservatives believe that they support “Freedom”, even if that somehow translates to also mean that only “the Great ‘Murikkkan Way” can supply that freedom. Is this what gives the Left its fire? Knowing that we are all of us yet still slaves to the Ruling Class, despite the different forms that such a slavery takes in the modern era – the borders, the prisons, the Police State, the anti-union laws, the theft of labor, the tools of Capital – the slavery of Capital itself?

It’s all of these things, and more. And, more than any single idea, it’s our understanding of the intersectionality of them, that they are inseparable from each other. It’s the understanding that these things support and reinforce each other, both in the systems that we oppose and in the solutions that we offer.

Every comrade I’ve spoken with will agree with each one of the points above. These are the fundamentals of all Leftist ideologies, across the board and in all tendencies.

Why, then, is the very concept of “Left Unity” such a wholly alien and seemingly unattainable idea?

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I’m waaaaay more Socialister than you are!”

It’s a phenomenon that is far more prevalent in online spaces than in any real world interactions, but it certainly exists outside of the digital plane of existence too. And any of us that have spent any amount of time on Twitter or Facebook have experienced it. We’ve most likely been a party to it as well.

Anarchists and Marxist-Leninists insult each other, admonishing one another to go read some century old text and “then come back to me when you’ve done some self-crit, you fucking liberal!”

Revolutionaries who want to seize the State, or smash the State, or both, scream in all caps at DSA members because participating in Bourgeois Electoral Politics means “all you are doing is reinforcing the power of the State, voting doesn’t work, give up!”

Comrades who show up to every protest and demonstration, all in black and masked up, carrying banners of propaganda and trading injuries with the fash, look down at those who are “wasting time arguing about the same shit we’ve been arguing about for a hundred and fifty years, why don’t you get out in the streets with us and actually DO something!”

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And the people on each side of any of these arguments can give a hundred and one reasons as to why their particular viewpoint or ideology is valid. But with their defenses up against the attacks of their opposition, those arguments are inherently framed in the attempted invalidation of the other viewpoint.

The arguments often result in two or more people, once considering each other comrades, blocking or unfriending each other, or altogether cutting off ties with them and further hindering the opportunities for organizing in the real world. The effects don’t end with just those people either. Sides are taken by people not even involved in the argument, and ultimatums of “if you follow them, unfollow me” are declared.

Now we have a split amongst like-minded groups. To make matters worse, now each side won’t even communicate with people of a slightly different ideology, much less actually work with them.

Yet, in every argument like these that I’ve witnessed or been engaged in, none of the attacks or defenses have actually been against any of those fundamental truths that the entire Left agrees on. The disagreements on those points was not whether those ideas were the aim, but on the means to attaining those ends.

If we all agree on the fundamentals of our politics, why are there so many divides? And why are they so hard to overlook?

I had some interesting discussions, and they gave me a lot to think about.

One point that kept coming up – and the biggest and toughest to address, in my humble opinion – was the historical context of what has occurred time and again when the leaders of one ideology come into power after a revolution. And, to be fair, it’s a valid criticism. When those who seek to seize State power, even in the name of the Proletariat, turn on the anti-authoritarian comrades who shed rivers of blood alongside them as they fought the Ruling Class, such betrayals can be hard to overlook. And I don’t really have a solution for that.

At the same time, however, I would be remiss not to point out that so long as a State apparatus exists – and let’s not be so idealistic as to propose that it would disappear overnight, or even in the matter of a few months – if revolutionaries do not seize that State power, the reactionaries will. Then there is the question of what to do with counter-revolutionaries. There is the question of defense of the revolution against outside aggression.

If I were to offer a potential solution to this divide, it would be that we evolve our ideology and methods, and learn from the shortcomings and downfalls of the previous revolutionary actions that have come before us. I contend that this is the major flaw and downfall with any Socialist revolutions throughout history – they strayed from the foundations of Marxism and decided to keep the State intact. Lenin dissolved worker’s councils, for example, and implemented State control over all industry and State ownership of the means of production – i.e. not Socialism.

There is plenty to debate there, and there is plenty of room to debate it, both online and in the real world. Yes, the USSR was arguably the closest and most successful example of Socialism on a large scale that the world has ever seen, but in my experience only the hardline Stalinists can’t admit that there were a lot of flaws, that it actually wasn’t Socialism, and that Stalin and Lenin actually did do some things wrong.

Regardless, if we were to attempt to bridge this divide between Marxist-Leninists/Maoists and Anarchists, I would suggest that perhaps exiling and murdering Anarchists for opposing State power would not help create the ideal conditions for that. I would also suggest, in the present day when neither of those factions holds any sway over the other, that the edgelord online jokes in support of such policies do far more harm to the possibility of forming a Leftist Popular Front than is justifiable by anyone’s desire to “rustle some Anarchist jimmies”.

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Other than this, my discussions really didn’t find anything that would keep Leftists of various ideological tendencies from organizing into a broad coalition of a Leftist Anti-Capitalist Popular Front. Mostly it was a question of how those tendencies viewed the State – or, to be more precise, what to do with the State.

In my admittedly under-informed understanding (well, less informed than I would like to be), Anarchists want to do away with all power structures and unjust hierarchies, thereby abolishing Capitalism, surplus value, and any potential of exploitation, whereas Marxist-Leninists and the like would rather seize power structures, particularly the means of production but also existing State apparatuses, and to use them (and surplus value) to achieve Socialism, thereby transitioning to Communism via dismantling the State and hierarchies. This seems to be the major ideological difference – i.e. it’s basically a question of what to do with the State (with a whole lot more nuance than that, of course).

But that question isn’t something that should stop the Left from forming a broad-base Popular Front. It’s an important question, to be certain, and it might pose some ideological problems a little further down the road – but we are not there yet. It deserves consideration and debate, but unless and until we have the base to actually confront that power, none of our debating and arguing is going to matter in the least.

This is particularly evident when viewing the historical debate as it pertains to modern-day sectarianism. As one AnCom put it (who asked for anonymity), “I think it comes back to the Anarchist analysis of power structures vs Marxism-Leninism being very dogmatically based on class and means of production, albeit less so now. So by putting forward any type of identity as important, we’re being reactionary at best and counter-revolutionary at worst.” (emphasis is my own)

And, while I again will admit that all of these question deserve debate, I still believe that these questions should not hinder the Left from unifying – especially in the face of the more immediate problems that we are facing today.

Strategic Unity vs Ideological Unity

The divisions on the Left are really just divisions over ideas. Even the fundamental truths we agree on are certainly still just ideas, but they are the grounds that we have in common. They are the foundation that we all stand on. The rest of it are just the walls that we use to build our schools of thought.

It’s theory. That’s all it is. Even those things that we have historical context for have no actual material base in our modern reality, in our current conditions. Even they are just theory. And theory is important, but theory alone is meaningless.

When we do nothing but fight with each other over theory, over ideas, it can only lead to inaction. And that, more than anything, is the biggest problem that the Left faces.

Thought without practice is empty; and action without thought is blind.

– Kwame Nkrumah

What is Praxis? Roughly speaking, it is action with theory, and theory with action. One can certainly exist without the other, but each is largely meaningless unless they exist together.

If we go by historical context, one thing we’ll never find is an Ideological Left Unity. With the arguments and infighting that I personally have witnessed (and, yes, been party to), I have no doubts that this is extremely unlikely to change, at least not in the foreseeable future. Not that this is an utter impossibility, but the undeniable fact is that the Left will never reach critical mass without some sort of unity.

Reaching critical mass – the point where there are enough of us to set revolutionary action in motion – requires outreach. And there is something to be said for using propaganda and debate as a form of outreach, especially in digital spaces. Debating theory is not completely devoid of value. My own radicalization came as a result of information passed to me and ideas posed to me by online Leftists, and those who even only slightly lean to the Left have the potential of being converted. I am a living example of this.

But in real life spaces, debating and arguing over the finer points of theory is… well, to most people, it’s fucking boring, frankly. In real life spaces, Praxis is the most effective outreach that we have. It’s the way that we build our base – winning the hearts and minds of the Proletariat through ground-level action informed by theory.

Take the recent efforts of Mutual Aid Disaster Relief in the Carolinas following Hurricane Florence. In a disaster situation which saw police officers waiting for rescue on top of their transport van while the women held in chains in the back drowned in rising floodwaters, MADR was organizing and literally flying in planes loaded down with tons of supplies for people in those areas.

Their efforts not only fill a void left by a State that cares so little for the Working Class that they even refused to evacuate prisons in the face of catastrophic storms like Florence, the relief provided by these heroes actually replace the State in many instances. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last year, the US government blatantly ignored the conditions on the island, resulting in – no, causing – more deaths than 9/11. But MADR was on the ground, helping to rebuild essential infrastructure and delivering aid to the survivors.

THIS is the kind of Praxis that creates revolutionary actions. When the public sees the efforts of organizations like Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, it poses the question of “Why pay fealty to a State that consistently shits on the most vulnerable of us?”

Addressing the material conditions of a community goes miles beyond ideological debate or propagandizing. Finding out what people need and acting on it, rather than appealing to any imagined authority for help, builds trust and an observable value in the groups that are actually on the ground filling these needs. And, as an added bonus, it doesn’t require adherence to any particular ideology.

None of the people that need help give a single fuck about any ideological purity or flawless theory, or how many 600 page books we’ve read, or how many Twitter followers or retweets we get. It’s the ACTION that matters to them. From there we can work to create an enlightened and revolutionary Proletariat, not by injecting the spider webs of nuance into our actions, but by instilling the fundamental values that we all agree on – equality, ecological justice, and liberation from the slavery of Capital.

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When we base our praxis on those core ideas, does it really matter if someone adheres to the exact same ideology as you when you’re side by side slogging through waist-deep floodwaters with 200 pounds of supplies on your backs? Are we going from home to home asking desperate people if they prefer Mao or Bookchin? Is their need dependent on their own Class Consciousness or how deeply they understand their own material conditions?

Of course not, and our ability to work together or support direct action on the ground level shouldn’t be dependent on those things either. This is Strategic Left Unity, and unlike Ideological Left Unity, it’s actually attainable. This isn’t theory, this is already being demonstrated.

Building a base for a mass coalition on the Left, a People’s Front, a dual-power in the face of the systemic failures of the State and Capitalism, requires action, not just theory. And, yes, that action must informed by theory, but again, theory without action is completely useless to people in need.

Base-Building Towards Critical Mass

Building a Leftist base towards a broad coalition doesn’t require any centralized organization that we all have to answer to or seek approval from. It means that many individuals and organizations, of many different tendencies, can support each other, in all manner of actions to address the needs of many different communities all at once. It means that we can reach out for assistance with actions in one area without diminishing the effectiveness of our actions in another.

A small, isolated group of individuals that wants to focus on multiple issues can’t do so effectively without increasing their numbers. And in a lot of places, especially in rural or conservative areas, that’s a very tough task. The group will be spread too thin, both in physical ability and in any funding or material support that they might be able to offer.

If the group realizes this and decides to focus on one issue in particular, disagreements on where to direct their efforts can lead to infighting and an internal struggle for “leadership”, even in horizontally organized groups. This can lead to splintering into even smaller groups that are even more ineffective at addressing the material needs of a community, and now we aren’t any damn good for anything, except maybe some conceited feeling of imagined ideological purity and a hollow sense of self-righteousness.

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On the other hand, a mass coalition can effectively focus on many different issues at once, and in many different areas. An individual within a group who wants to focus on something other than what the group wants to focus on can find avenues to help without having to fight for it internally. They can say “Hey, y’all, I’ll be happy to help with this Feed-The-People program in Detroit, but I’m also going to help this other group build a community education center in Flint.”

There is less internal struggle. Folks can freely associate with other individuals or groups addressing the needs of people in other regions, or different needs in the same region. The ability of a broad-base coalition of Leftists to better address multiple needs in multiple communities will help build the public’s trust in the Left, and help us to break through the decades of Capitalist propaganda that people, especially in the US, have been fed their whole lives about us dirty, evil, godless Commies. Building this base creates dual power structures that can exponentially increase our effectiveness in filling the voids left by the State.

Theory is very important, and it absolutely must inform our actions and organizing efforts. Ideological debate is necessary in developing a course of action leading up to, during, and immediately after any revolutionary movement. But without base-building and creating dual power structures to fill the needs of communities, supported by the public as a whole, all of the ideological debate in the world isn’t going to make those ideas amount to anything worthwhile.

There are a few groups that are working toward this today. The Marxist Center is one, and probably the farthest reaching organization that I am aware of. There is going to be a conference in Colorado where they will be discussing these exact ideas. There is also Horizontal Stateline and the Nebraska Left Coalition that coordinated recently put together the Midwest Left Assembly, a camping retreat for Leftists of all stripes to meet new comrades and discuss theory, as well as holding action and organizing workshops. Another retreat is already in the planning stages for next year.

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There is also the Socialist Rifle Association, the Left-wing answer to the ultra-conservative NRA. Unlike their counterpart, however, the SRA seeks to help connect Leftists for training in firearm safety and proficiency as well as emergency aid and disaster relief. Chapters are springing up all across the US.

There are a few others, and they are all doing amazing work in areas that have been overlooked by the majority of the Left for far too long. But the truth is that we need more of these events and organizations. There simply are not enough. We need more efforts like these, and we need more comrades getting involved with them. We need Strategic Left Unity. We can deal with ideological differences later. Our time is growing short.

Instead of arguing online, burning bridges with other groups or organizations, or within those groups and organizations, we need to focus on ACTION – making a difference in the material realities of the people who need it the most, getting involved in our communities, organizing workplaces, and coordinating with other people who hold dear those same fundamental truths that we do. Actually taking action in the real world is the only way that the Left will ever be able to step into the power that is waiting for us, and to liberate the Working Class from our slavery.

In solidarity.

William Forbin.

One thought on “Herding Cats -The Search For “Left Unity”

  1. Pingback: The Left and Electoral Politics: Part III, Turning the System Inside-Out – my term papers for anyone who wants to read them

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