(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.