Re: rebuilding the left
Source Tom Walker
Date 00/11/23/00:47

Just for the heck of it, I'm forwarding to Pen-l a copy of the following
message that I sent earlier today to a Vancouver discussion list on
"rebuilding the left". People in a hurry can skip to the set of four
questions at the end.


As a preliminary, I would like to state that I want to live in a different
society -- a post-capitalist society. At the very least I don't want to
leave behind for my children this malignant stage of late capitalism in all
its gruesome metastasis. I make that point to distance my interest in
"rebuilding the left" from any yearning for what I will call a "vibrant
oppositional culture".

A quick scan of the conference presentations on the rebuilding the left web
site ( yields the following
fragments that I will take the rude liberty of yanking out of context:

1. "we need to develop . . . a short explanation of what we mean by an
anti-capitalist movement . . ." -- Sam Gindin

2. "When the right tells us that there is no alternative, it may very
well be that at a certain level they are right - a humane alternative
within the present system may in fact not be possible." -- Sam Gindin

I agree with Sam Gindin that we need to explain what we mean by an
anti-capitalist movement. I suspect that what most of us think of when we
think of capitalism is a system of private property -- particularly private
ownership of the means of production -- and market exchange. Such a
formulation presents a ready-made reply to the question of "what we mean by
an anti-capitalist
movement". Presumably, we would mean a movement to establish a more just
structure for distributing the social product. The preceding is the stance
taken by what Moishe Postone referred to as "traditional Marxism", a
position whose prospects Postone characterized as follows:

"Its weaknesses not only have been revealed by its difficulties with
'actually existing socialism' and with the needs and dissatisfactions
expressed by new social movements; more fundamentally, it has become
clear that the theoretical paradigm does not provide a satisfactory
conception of the nature of capitalism itself, one that grounds an adequate
analysis of the changing conditions of capitalism, and grasps its
fundamental structures in a way that points to the possibility of their
historical transformation. The transformation implied by traditional
Marxism is no longer plausible as a solution to the ills of modern
society." (Time, Labor and Social Domination, 14)

When the right claims "there is no alternative", they are referring not only
to the absence of a humane alternative within the present system, as Gindin
allows, but more fundamentally to the failure of traditional Marxism to
point the way to a plausible transformation of society. The right may indeed
be right with regard to *traditional* Marxism and that is why it is well
worth considering the distinctions Postone draws between what he labels
"traditional Marxism" and the very dynamic and radically different position
he interprets as the mature thought of Karl Marx.

In other words, there IS an alternative. Not only is it an alternative to
the present system but it is an alternative to the past ways the left has
tried -- and failed -- to overthrow capitalism.

3. " . . . I see the trade union movement as the primary vehicle for social
change. . . " -- Deborah Bourque

Up until a few weeks ago I would have agreed in principle with Deborah
Bourque but wondered fiercely about how one could possibly bridge the
difference between actually existing organized labour and the kind of
radical workers' movement that would have to exist for it to become the
primary vehicle for social change. I think attending a TURB forum on the
dispute between the CLC and the CAW finally shook loose my hallucination
that had persisted in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

At best, trade unions represent their members only and they represent them
as workers only. In addition, there are practical and legal constraints that
further inhibit unions even from FULLY representing their members in their
capacity as workers. At the TURB forum, the more politically engaged
position presented by CAW amounted to more democratically and responsibly
representing their membership as workers. Of course, unions contribute
financial support to progressive causes, but the definition of progressive
cause and the priorities for funding clearly reflect the interests of union
members as workers. This is not meant as a criticism of trade unions, only
as a critique of the notion that the trade union movement could be the
"primary vehicle" for the transformation of society.

If the trade union movement (even a more perfect one) can't be the primary
vehicle for social transformation, who or what can? Perhaps there simply is
no primary vehicle for social change and we will all have to get out and
walk . . . and thereby make the road by walking. By eschewing the chimerical
notion of a "revolutionary subject", we would at least be spared the
indignity of repeating the farce of substitutionism -- i.e., the party for
the class, the central committee for the party and the leader for the
central committee (so much for the little red book of "Chairman Buzz
Thought", eh? ;-).

Besides, I think this notion of the revolutionary subject leads directly to
the "yearning for a vital oppositional culture" I mentioned earlier. "At
least if we can't have fundamental social change," so the yearning goes, "we
can have a designated group (a God term?, a substitute parent figure?) who
affirms our desires." I suspect that ultimately for some people this
consolaton prize becomes THE prize and for others (particularly those folks
who have 'second thoughts' about their political commitments, veer to the
right and then tell us 'there is no alternative') it becomes a source of
derision and contempt.

4. "An anti-oppression agenda needs to be our agenda, not an afterthought.
We can start this process by dismantling systems of dominance within our own
organizing." - Kheya Bag

It's embarrassing to have to come right out in favour of oppression, but it
seems to me worthwhile to distinguish between oppression and capitalism. For
one thing, capitalism has not been and is not now one-dimensionally
oppressive. For another, forms of oppression can and do exist outside of
capitalism. I've spent a lot of time recently with young people who have
been thoroughly steeped in the catechism of "anti-sexism, racism and
homophobia" and I have noticed an unhealthy superstition regarding the
inherent righteousness of designated oppressed groups -- exactly the kind of
thing that a Tom Wolfe would satirize to such devastating effect.

One problem with jumbling all this oppression and dominance shit together in
one big lumpy stew is that it all tends to get reduced to questions of
"behaviour" and "attitude" -- a magical analysis that invites magical
solutions. Another problem is that it fosters that yearning for vibrant
oppositional culture where oppressed people are affirmed -- who needs a
social transformation when you can achieve status gratification NOW in a
small group?

Sure oppression sucks, but capitalism has a dynamic that can transform
endemic antagonisms into cataclysm. It also has a contradictory dynamic that
may point to a way out of capitalism and hence enable a sustained
dismantling of oppression.

That's enough of what I think, now for a few questions:

-- Is "re-building the left" about changing society or is it about
resuscitating a "vibrant oppositional culture"?

-- Is the "crisis of Marxism" based on an inherent limitations in
traditional left strategies and analyses? If so, would a fully-developed
critique of those limitations lead struggle down a more fruitful path?

-- Do we want simply to enjoy more of the fruits of our labour or do we
want more fundamentally to labour less compulsively and live and work more

-- Can we as associated individuals take responsibility for changing
society or must we identify and identify with a transcendental "vehicle for
change" or "revolutionary subject"?

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