Thoughts on Bhaskar Sunkara's "Fellow Travelers" in the latest Jacobin.
Roughly 50% of small businesses close shop in their first five years. While not attracting enough customers is a death sentence for a business, not attracting enough members sadly does not have the same effect on leftist parties. They shamble on, zombie-like, hollowed out yet still adorned with the ambitious banners that swaddled their birth. Or maybe they're better described as so much detritus on the forest floor, choking off the green sprouts of their successors, waiting for a cleansing brushfire that never comes. In any case, what doesn't describe them well is anything approaching "successful."
Which is why I was somewhat surprised to see Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara trod down this worn path so enthusiastically in his latest essay, "Fellow Travelers." Go read it if you haven't.
The allure of a kind of Grand Unified Theory for the left is as old as the left itself. Depending on your predilection, it might take the form of One Big Union, or the One True Worker's Party, or the One True Organization That Looks Like a Party But Totally Isn't, You Guys. Sunkara actually describes the problems of the sect-ridden left quite well:
But it’s impossible to deny that institutionally the socialist left is in disarray, fragmented into a million different groupings, many of them with essentially the same politics. It’s an environment that breeds the narcissism of small differences. In a powerless movement, the stakes aren’t high enough to make people work together and the structures aren’t in place to facilitate substantive debate.
It's a good point, and one that would cause most members of those million groupings to nod vigorously. Because, of course, everyone reading it assumes that their organization is the one that everyone else should come to their senses and join. He continues,
It’s finally time to make a call for joint action on the Left with an eye towards the unification of the many socialist organizations with similar political orientations into one larger body. This idea has been trotted out for generations, but new agents and desperate necessity can finally make it a reality.
Trotted out! I see what you did there, Bhaskar. Indeed, the ISO's Socialist Worker has published one variation or another of this theme in a fairly continuous stream since their first issue. But the biggest issue I have is that the last sentence in the above quote should really be what the entire essay is about. In what way is it finally time that's different from previous times? For those who already think we need one more go at it, this essay doesn't break new ground. For those who are skeptical, it doesn't offer any explanation why it might now play out any differently.
An additional wrinkle is that many existing socialist organizations don't seem the least bit amenable to the kind of "non-sectarian organizing under the auspices of an overarching democratic structure" that Sunkara hopes for. There is no compelling reason why socialists will suddenly stop splitting over irrelevant crap; the absence of the USSR has certainly helped in that regard, but that's nothing new.
I'm skeptical that socialist groupings will play well together — let alone merge — when their higher-ups can't even manage to do well by their own members. The UK's biggest revolutionary socialist group, the Socialist Worker's Party, has virtually imploded due to their (democratically centralized) leadership's utterly incompetent and disgusting reaction to charges of rape and sexual assault laid against one of the Party officials. The fact that the party's head, in the face of accusations of cronyism and unaccountability, pens a rebuttal titled "Is Leninism Finished?" speaks volumes.
Sunkara is dead on, however, when he critiques the left's insularity and lack of "social literacy to speak to a broader audience, a literacy that comes with a grounding in practical politics." Though the best innovations in approachable left outreach and framing don't ever seem to come from the usual socialist suspects. In the bubbling cauldron of improvisation that epitomized the best of Occupy Wall Street and its satellite movements, the best signs weren't the ones printed in all-caps, typeset in Impact and produced by the hundreds (I noticed that those were almost always the first to clog nearby garbage cans). The simplistic yet memorable class war slogans based on "We are the 99%" always drew more interest and attention than "Marx is Back!" or clumsy "do x, not y" formulations like "Jail Wall Street Bankers, not Jobless Youth" (often with a last-minute Free Mumia and/or Palestine addendum to round things out). Traditional socialist groupings were caught just as off-guard and flat-footed by the popularity of OWS as their Québécois counterparts were by the red felt festooned printemps érable.
Sunkara's bookend for this essay is a metaphor of leftist sectarian as subway masturbator. To put it lightly, there were better metaphors to pick from, ones that don't merit a trigger warning just to get one's point across. For example: here in Boston we get our share of itinerant preachers on the T, shouting the Good News. They annoy everyone, including those with the same faith, and thankfully they eventually move on to the next car after a few stops. That'd be a good metaphor for the sectarian left, brandishing not a bible but What is to Be Done, or Quotations from Chairman Mao. The vast majority of men who masturbate in public aren't modern day Lennie Smalls, mentally incapable simpletons over whom we can just look at each other and smile knowingly when they do something inappropriate. They're predators, and should be treated as such. They're people whom everyone, but especially the left, should aggressively oppose and confront. It may seem to some like a small quibble (if so, fuck you), but as I think Sunkara would agree, words matter.
(And by the way, a Left Forum even half the size, scope, and fun of Comic Con would be a huge win for the left, if only to see the inevitable Žižek cosplayers.)