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April 2013

Suppose they formed a Party and everyone came? (and other fantasies)

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.)

Student Power in San Jose: Here's how you can join us at NN13

This year's Netroots Nation in San Jose will be a meeting point not just for the larger progressive community, but student activists and organizers from all across the country, too. Here's how you can swing a free registration and a free hotel room, thanks to the Democracy For America scholarship program. They want students to apply. I want students to apply. So apply already!

Here's DFA's own Alex Showerman with the details:

This will be my first Netroots Nation and I could not be more excited to go! Before I made the progressive movement my career and was a passionate activist in my free time, I had always wanted to go to Netroots Nation. I was drawn by the chance to attend the panels, see the big name speakers, attend the trainings, and most importantly meet fellow activists to take my involvement to the next level. Unfortunately, as a broke college student and young professional, I simply didn’t have the extra cash to go.

Here at DFA, we believe that progressive activists should not be discouraged from attending Netroots Nation because of cost, just as I was. That’s why as a major sponsor of Netroots Nation DFA will foot the bill for rising stars in the progressive movement to join us in San Jose. Developing the next generation of the progressive activists has always been a core value of DFA, and we view attending Netroots Nation as your launch pad!

Past scholars include folks who have successfully run for state office, prominent gun violence prevention activists, radio personalities, and well-known bloggers. This could be your chance to attend Netroots Nation and make the connections you need to take your activism to the next level. Here’s what you do right now:

    • Apply! If you have always wanted to go to Netroots, but don’t have the spare cash, this could be your opportunity!

    • Nominate somebody who you think deserves to go, they’ll be flattered.

    • Most of all, vote for the activists you think are most deserving.


Good luck and we look forward to seeing you in San Jose!

Alex Showerman, New Media Manager 
Alex joined Democracy for America in the summer of 2012, after serving as the Deputy Director of Digital Media for the Tim Kaine Campaign in Virginia. Previously, he worked in Chicago as an organizer for Congresswoman Schakowsky’s campaign and found inspiration in the influence of grassroots organizing on elections. After the congresswoman’s win, he moved to Washington, DC where he spent a year and a half on Capitol Hill running the constituent correspondence program and conducting legislative research.