Monthly Archives: February 2010
(Originally published Feb. 19, 2010)
In the first post of this series, I proposed that eight social movements are candidates for a new reformulation of radical left politics, in the aftermath of the 60s and the New Left. Of course, this isn’t an entirely new idea.
I first came up with a version of this idea around 1989. At that time, I had begun to incorporate the core agendas of pacifism, feminism, environmentalism, progressive religion, and socialism. There were hybrid social movement theories in play as well, such as socialist-feminism. I discovered somewhat later one of the more stable attempts at the synthesis I desired in the book Liberating Theory, (hereafter referenced as ‘LT’) published by South End Press (from which would come Z Magazine, a leading publication of the the left, in the lineage of Noam Chomsky’s libertarian socialism, yet another hybrid, but from the Old Left).
This book formulated a fairly rudimentary proposal of combining feminism (which it broadened to call kinship), anarchism (broadened to politics), Marxism (broadened to economy), and Black nationalism (broadened to community) into a single new theory, thus taking Libertarian Socialism (or Anarcho-Syndicalism, a synonym), in a new direction.
My own modification of this model was to “split off” four additional social movements from the four proposed by LT. From Marxism’s economic theory, I distinguished two domains of economy, the ecological and industrial; Two domains of kinship, gender and sexuality; two domains of community, race/ethnicity and religion/irreligion; and two domains of politics, legal/governance and martial.
This elaboration raised the question of whether LT’s four “spheres” were adequate. I had concluded that ecology could not be subsumed under economy, and came to see that Murray Bookchin’s proposal that radical theory be renamed “social ecology” was in many ways an advance over all previous theories. However, I couldn’t simply dilute economic struggle into a subset of ecological realities.
From Marxism I had gleaned the principle that social struggles are always concrete, not abstract and require a collective mass base. In other words, a movement capable of changing the world needed to have the interests of a substantial percentage of that world at its core. While ecology ideally was “everybody’s” interest, it seemed to me that subordinating economic struggles – as well as all the other domains I’d distinguished – to an overarching ecological paradigm left something to be desired. That ‘something’ was a unifying radicalizing potential within the mass of humanity. My eight-fold revolution – and even LT’s four-fold agenda – seemed to lack a coherent social base.
It was the coherent social base of Marxism in the early 1900s that propelled it into national and international power. Focusing its principled militancy on the working masses of the industrialized world, Marxism began to advance beyond the more modest gains of its chief rivals on the left, namely, liberalism and anarchism. Liberalism was committed to the interests of the educated middle-classes, while anarchism was committed to interests of a variety of sectors of society, especially workers, peasants, and artisans.
Marxism was committed to creating a revolutionary force exclusively devoted to industrial workers. Since industry of this sort controlled a major portion of the wealth of society, Marxism succeeded where Anarchism failed because it understood how capitalism really worked. Of course, Marxists then proceeded to create societies that were more authoritarian and class-exploiting than liberal Democracies. It is not an accident that the Cold War was won by liberal Democracy against Stalinism and Marxism.
Can a class-based mass struggle perspective as championed by Marxism be combined with Anarchism? This has been tried repeatedly in history with mixed results. The Industrial Workers of the World are explicitly committed to Anarcho-Syndicalism to this day after almost 100 years. However, it seems to me that just as the mass of humanity hates economic exploitation and authoritarian government, they nevertheless embrace the ideals of a democratic state and an economy that upholds individual freedom, as well as cooperation and justice.
While I am a passionate champion of workers, I find that the Marxist idea of abolishing capitalism using the State and the Anarchist idea of abolishing the State in order to abolish capitalism both fail. The State isn’t going away and, for a long time to come, neither will capitalism. Radical politics today has to build itself on the real potential of the broad mass of humanity.
The path of abolishing capitalism and authoritarianism that seems most hopeful to me involves primarily a renewed struggle at the level of the State for a new program of economic and political reforms and programs. I do not know if these will succeed, and if they fail in my lifetime, a later generation will have to rethink this strategy from the ground up.
My basic economic and political agenda owe a great deal to classical social democracy. I support massive public funding for healthcare, education, childcare, and workers’ organizations. Unions are at a crisis point and have been for decades. Whether we can rebuild the existing unions to previous levels of influence, and moreover to surpass previous achievements is an open question, but I can see no alternative to attempting such a rebuilding of organized labor.
In terms of the State, we must also continue to press for electoral and political reform. The unbridled control of political offices and legislative priorities by the wealthy classes must be confronted by principled and militant opposition. In fact, from Anarchism and the advance in our society of greater independence of thought, we can propose that the time has come for profound changes in the nature of our political institutions. Public funding of all elections and multi-party proportional representation seem absolutely critical to advancing beyond the stale two-party system.
As I look back over the previous half-century of struggles since 1955, I am struck by two overwhelming developments, 1) the continued rise of a militant, rapacious capitalism and 2) the parallel rise of a new authoritarianism that closes off public space for political reform and advance in authentic democracy while waging wars abroad, preaching dogmatism domestically, and without any genuine love for either freedom or human community. In the face of dogmatism, militarism, authoritarianism, and capitalism, a new radical politics must call for freedom, economic justice, constructive international relations, and a libertarian socialism.
(Originally published Feb. 3, 2010)
Preliminary: This essay rethinks some earlier attempts at a comprehensive understanding of social change, most notably in a 2005 essay, In Search of Religious Radicalism, and my former blog Utopian Longings.
The period from 1955-1975, broadly called the “60s,” marks the most recent era of rapid sociopolitical change in modern societies, including the U.S.A. and Europe. Although it may not have been revolutionary by strict definition, future progressive change will be defined to a substantial degree by that era.
Prior to the 1960s, radical politics were dominated by two competing theories, anarchism and Marxism. Anarchism reached its zenith in the Spanish Revolution of 1936, with significant anarchist movements in many countries in that era. Marxism’s most famous victory was the Russian Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, eventually forming the world’s second most powerful political force in the aftermath of World War 2.
The 1960s saw the emergence of what have been called the “new social movements” which redefined radical politics. Whereas Marxism focused on opposing capitalism, and anarchism focused its opposition on the State, the new social movements identified different systems of social domination and oppression such as male domination, racism, militarism, and ecological exploitation.
Anarchism and Marxism each claimed that their distinct radical struggle was the central and universal struggle that defined human emancipation. Similarly, the new social movements would elevate their own struggles to central position. The result in the long run was the collapse of any organizational coherence and longevity, as well as a largely unrealized revolutionary potential. In other words, without a unifying social vision, no true revolution was achieved by the 1960s, despite the powerful forces that were mobilized during this era.
Several attempts have been made since the 60s to unify, theoretically, the diverse social movements, with the hope that this will aid the aborted fulfillment of the radical promise of the 1960s. The approach taken here to this quest for unification will be two-fold. First, to identify the primary social movements which should be unified within a new radical paradigm. Second, to explore the foundational coherence of the primary social movements, that is, to identify what it is, if anything, that unites them.
From the list given so far it can be suggested that at least six social movements are candidates for the new radical paradigm, namely, Marxism, anarchism, feminism, anti-racism, pacifism, and environmentalism. Since Marxism and anarchism are defined as exclusive theories that have unifying claims that will be evaluated during the second part of this essay, it is their more generic definitions – anti-capitalism and radical democracy, respectively – that will be considered.
Although six social movement candidates seems more than adequate, arguments can be made that the list is still incomplete. Especially prominent since the 60s have been the sexual identity movements, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, polyamory, and queer movements. A further candidate to consider is usually identified with the Right, namely religious social movements. Including religious movements in this exploration seems justified from the history of anti-racist and anti-war movements which both have strong ties to organized religion. The specific form of religious movement to be examined here can be termed “progressive religion.”
The next step will be to consider these candidates for primary social movements – anti-capitalism, radical democracy, feminism, anti-racism, pacifism, environmentalism, sexual identity, and progressive religion – and propose their unification by either merging them into larger wholes or even a single unified whole.