It’s a big subject, but we need an open discussion about it as we build our 21st century, popular, pro-justice movement.
It’s also a real contradiction: on the one hand, many of the most dedicated, hard-working and committed activists down through history and today are members of communist, socialist or some variety of Marxist organization. On the other hand, some of the methods of operation of these groups, speaking historically, have a lot to do with the weakness of the Left in the U.S. today.
At the risk of over-generalization, let me list and define some of those methods of operation as I’ve personally experienced them:
1) vanguardism: the arrogant belief that study of Marxism and an intellectual and/or practical commitment to improving the condition of workers and the poor automatically confers the right to try to assume leadership within virtually all situations and organized efforts;
2) externalization of leadership: drawing not just inspiration (justified) from the successes of revolutionaries in other countries (Russia, China, Cuba, etc.) but uncritically and mechanically attempting to use similar strategies, tactics and organizational forms in our country, even though our political/social/ economic/cultural realities are very different. In some cases this has gone a step further: being totally uncritical of those other countries and their efforts to transform their societies, even when there is a body of evidence that serious mistakes, or even crimes, are being committed;
3) subjectivism: the substitution of subjective wishes and desires for a sober, realistic, “scientific,” if you will, assessment of what is possible when it comes to strategy and tactics of struggle;
4) rhetoricism: liberal use of the lingo and rhetoric of “revolution,” apparently in the belief that this will somehow speed the revolutionary process, as distinct from talking about progressive or revolutionary ideas in ways which are understandable and clear, if challenging, to “ordinary” people; and,
5) cultural weaknesses: replication of the system’s practices as far as how groups function both internally and externally: competitiveness, racism, sexism, elitism and similar cultural backwardness in thought and practice
Let me be clear: these are generalizations. I do not want to imply that all ideologically-based groups function in all these ways, or that some of them are not aware of these weaknesses and are in the process of changing. Some have definitely made important strides forward in one or more than one of these areas.
Indeed, I am trying to pinpoint these weaknesses because I know from experience that the dedication, commitment and organization of these groups can be a critical component of a broader movement.
How do individuals “keep the faith” to hang in there for the long haul and not succumb to the cooptive lures of the system? How do we keep from becoming couch potatoes, watching TV, pursuing individual interests that contribute little to the process of social change?
For some people the development of a spiritual foundation to one’s life is key part of the answer. For others, it comes from a conscious and regular connection to Nature, to Mother Earth, to the Source of All Life. Others immerse themselves in intentional communities, consciously building an alternative “base of operations” to help maintain the right values and spirit in going about the work of organizing in the wider world.
And some join organizations that engage in serious study and reflection on past efforts to fundamentally change society as a basis for discussion about and practical activity to do the same in the present.
Some do more than one, including all, of these things.
It seems to me that, on the surface, it’s a very logical, common sense thing for individuals who have become conscious, who feel deeply and strongly about injustice and oppression, to join a group which studies past efforts at overcoming oppression as an inspiration and a guide to doing the same thing today.
It also seems to me that, if the group is really serious about this objective, part of that study should be an examination of these historically destructive methods of operation in the U.S. that have kept the Left so weak and divided. If these were studied as seriously as some of the other topics traditionally discussed, maybe, over time, we’d have the kind of ideologically-based organization that could really make a major contribution to the pro-justice cause.
I’d love to be part of an organization like that myself.