Friday, September 10, 2004

Toward Re-founding the Left

I've been reading Detroit Lives (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1994), an oral history of Detroit organizers compiled and edited by Robert H. Mast. It's a wonderful book. Here's what Rick Feldman -- "the co-editor, with Michael Betzold, of End of the Line (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), an oral history of Detroit autoworkers, and an officer of UAW Local 900" (264) -- says in his testimony in the book: "[T]he organizational form of a Marxist-Leninist cadre-type organization in the '70s and '80s was not one that facilitated transformation. It facilitated getting things done. We didn't know how to break out of that. When the organization dissolved, the question of what kind of organizational form helps people to develop as well as relate to grassroots activities and cadre development was not resolved. These are still important questions" (269).

The remaining "Marxist-Leninist cadre-type organizations" -- the Communist Party, the Workers World Party, the International Socialist Organization, the Socialist Workers Party, the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Socialist Equality Party, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, for instance -- still get some things done, such as maintaining presses (e.g., International Publishers, Haymarket Books, Pathfinder Press), publications (e.g., the International Socialist Review,, and bookstores (e.g., Revolution Books); organizing demonstrations, holding educational forums, etc. on their own or through groups they sponsor (e.g., International ANSWER, Refuse & Resist!) or through coalitions (e.g., Not In Our Name, United for Peace and Justice) of which they are members; providing staffers, organizers, and activists for various groups, coalitions, and campaigns (e.g., the Nader/Camejo campaign). So do socialist organizations that are much more loosely structured than "Marxist-Leninist cadre-type organizations," like the Committee for Correspondence, Democratic Socialists of America, Left Turn, Solidarity, etc. In addition, both types of organizations help young activists acquire organizing skills and experiences that they may find useful (in anti-war organizing, labor organizing, community organizing, third-party organizing, etc.) even after leaving the organizations.

The work done by diverse socialist organizations, as well as their former members, is far from insignificant, but what Feldman said remains true: we don't know how to break out of that. Or more precisely, we don't have social and political conditions that would allow us to break out of that.

In my opinion, hundreds of thousands of decent organizers and intellectuals exist among current and former members of both types of socialist organizations, as well as other leftists who have worked with them. Old ideological divides like "the Russian Question" are no longer relevant. It would be good to create a lateral network of organizers and intellectuals who come from socialist milieux, regardless of their current and former organizational affiliations, to discuss politics, develop shared understanding, and work on some concrete projects together. That would be a modest step toward re-founding the left.


Graham B said...

Interesting observation, echoing the old joke about ex-members of the Communist Party of Great Britain also constituting the largest political party here. (Recently the joke has changed to be the Cliffite Socialist Workers Party, but the point stands.) What it poitns up is the way that the problems were often more political than organisational; despite some administrative coherence, the organisations in question were often sidetracked by events they struggled to comprehend, never mind influence. In turn, this corroded the organisational coherence too.

Anonymous said...

Here's a relevant document you should know about (if you don't already):

Meeting the Challenge of Crisis and Opportunity: Left Refoundation and Party Building by the Party-Building Commission of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization

-Eric Odell