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Always historicize!

The proper way for radicals to conceive of their activism is in terms of the speeding up of current historical trends, not their interruption or reversal.

Solidarity, 1917. Wikimedia Commons/Ralph Chaplin. Some rights reserved. Solidarity, 1917. Wikimedia Commons/Ralph Chaplin. Some rights reserved.The Left has always been prone to self-flagellation: what’s wrong with us? Why can’t we get our act together? Why can’t we convince the masses to join us? Such self-criticisms are understandable and, to some extent, justified. The history of the Left and the labour movement in the United States is nauseatingly full of the leadership's cowardice, opportunism, bureaucratism, and cooptation by the corporatist state. There is much to criticize.

But many activists seem genuinely puzzled by the Left's relative impotence. Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, laments that as one surveys the Left in America, "one looks in vain across this vast landscape of despair for even the dimmest flickers of real rebellion and popular mutiny, as if surveying a nation of somnambulists. We remain strangely impassive in the face of our own extinction." 

All of this demands subtle and strategic answers. Clearly many past strategies and tactics have failed, and new ones are necessary. It's likely, for instance, that more confrontational, though nonviolent, tactics are called for, since they often seem to work better than top-down, bureaucratic, concessionary approaches.

More fundamentally, it has never been a mystery as to why the Left is not in great shape: it lacks financial and material resources. The organized Left has always been pitifully undercapitalized. This is completely predictable on the basis of materialist common sense, for, class power and wealth being distributed as they are in a capitalist society, it would be astonishing if the Left had substantial success more than a fraction of the time. One needs resources to get things done. 

That is the ‘historical logic’ behind the Left's perennial underdog status.

Marxists, in particular, should have understood from the beginning, on the strength of their own ideas, that success in their ultimate revolutionary ends was historically unlikely. For ‘the working class’ to rise up as one, on an international scale, when the dominant classes had exponentially greater power to divide and mislead workers according to nation, race, ethnicity, sex, religion, occupation, and skill-level, was always a utopian hope at best.

Marx was right, therefore, that there is a logic, virtually a teleo-logic, to the development of particular societies. And this logic is essentially determined by economic dynamics, because institutions at the top of the class structure, which have the greatest access to resources, will obviously have the greatest power over the directions in which history proceeds. This ‘economic determinist’ core of Marxism ought to be seen as a mere truism, not a controversial theory requiring endless academic debate. But intellectuals need something to do, so maybe we shouldn't begrudge them their production of mountains of verbiage.

Given this ‘logic’ of history, what have we to look forward to and what lessons can we learn from the past? One lesson, I think, pertains to how activists should conceptualize their activism. There is a tendency, common among every group from centrist liberals through to Leninists and anarchists, to interpret activism in very un-Marxian and unsophisticated ‘voluntaristic’ terms. Supposedly radical social change is a matter mainly of will and competence, of forming strong political coalitions and pushing back against reactionary institutions so as, hopefully, to reverse systemic trends. But this hope is historically naive. Systemic tendencies cannot be stopped or reversed (though they can be mitigated), because the resources of the democratic resistance are not remotely comparable to those of the oligarchs.

For example, it is hopelessly benighted to think that an international revival of the centralized welfare state (even in an 'updated' form) and of twentieth-century social democracy is possible. Those social formations were appropriate to a time of industrial unionism and limited international mobility of capital, very different from the present. They have been dying for 40 years (starting in the US and UK), and no such magical incantation as “We propose a new anti-austerity coalition” can call them back to life. Coalitions of that sort are desperately needed, and their targets should be at every level of government, but their outcome will not be a new and improved manifestation of twentieth-century social democracy.

The proper way for radicals to conceive of their activism, on a broad scale, is in terms of the speeding up of current historical trends, not their interruption or reversal. This is one of the many useful lessons of Marxism. Radicals can mitigate destructive trends and hasten constructive ones, but that's the extent of the systemic ‘agency’ they can exhibit. Accordingly, they can have a lucid and correct interpretation of their activism only by understanding the historical context of their society, and the significance of its dominant tendencies.

The question, then, is this: what are the main historical tendencies we are witnessing now, and how can they be finessed for the benefit of the global population? The answer is clear. We are in the early stages of the very protracted collapse of corporate capitalism and the nation-state system itself. We know that ‘climate change’ is going to constitute a global cataclysm; we know that, under the impact of neoliberal policies, the world's social fabric is being torn apart; and even the business press recognizes that economic trends of underconsumption and overproduction portend catastrophe.

Ironically enough – but ‘dialectically’ predictable – neoliberalism is, therefore, going to precipitate the demise of the very system whose consummation it is, namely the capitalist nation-state system of privatization, marketization, rapacious environmental exploitation, endless economic growth and savage imperialism. All of this is becoming unsustainable, and a titanic global backlash is inevitable.

What radicals are doing now, in short, and should be doing, is to contribute to the undermining – the self-undermining – of corporate capitalism and the construction of an alternative. These are the historically most significant tendencies of the present.

But they will not play out in the short run. As the failure of old Marxist and anarchist revolutionary dreams from the 1870s to the 1940s showed, history prefers to progress slowly, not by means of sudden, willed insurrections that overthrow the old order and sweepingly usher in a new one. We are in for a century or two of gradual change, partly ‘interstitial’, as a new society is slowly built up within the decaying shell of the old. Glimmers of the possible new world are already appearing, some of them in the work of Gar Alperovitz and the journalism of Yes! Magazine.

If allied with social and political movements, the solidarity economy in some form may represent the future. And it is humanity's best hope. The long-term alternative is something like a Hobbesian state of nature.

Amidst the horrific tragedies, one may take comfort in the knowledge that at least it is not permanent. In fact, myopic anti-social politics is undermining the ruling class and its economy, by destroying the conditions for its long-term survival. It may destroy most life on earth in the process, or it may not; but the Left should recognize, in any case, that the coming crises in every country of the world will not mean the extinguishing of hope. Nor will they signify the death, or even the shameful defeat, of the Left. For the phenomenon of leftists' continual setbacks is largely a necessary result of the distribution of class power in our economic system.

More importantly, though, what happened in the Americas in the 1930s will happen globally this time: social semi-collapse will impel the downtrodden and the cast-off to fight together for their very survival, and to invent new forms of social and economic organization, and to build a new Left, a less centralized and bureaucratic one than in the heyday of the centralized and bureaucratic nation-state.

These facts follow straight from the logic of contemporary history, a ‘dialectical’ logic worth studying and excavating.

About the author

Chris Wright is a doctoral candidate in US labour history, and the author of Notes of an Underground Humanist and Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States

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