Dead Generations and Unknown Continents: Reflections on Left Unity

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In 1881, just two years before his death, the ailing Karl Marx received a letter from a young socialist, Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, asking for his opinion about the call to rebuild the International Workingmen’s Association, the most advanced experiment in Left Unity up to that date. Marx, who had been involved with such parties as the Communist League and the German Social Democratic Party, was no enemy of organization. But his response was blunt: “It is my conviction that the critical juncture for a new International Workingmen’s Association has not yet arrived and for this reason I regard all workers’ congresses, particularly socialist congresses, in so far as they are not related to the immediate given conditions in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but harmful. They will always fade away in innumerable stale generalised banalities.” When not explicitly tied to the concrete struggles of a real historical conjuncture, the question of Left Unity can be nothing other than the “statement of a phantom problem to which the only answer can be – the criticism of the question itself.”

Dead generations

In his programmatic piece in Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara describes the shape of contemporary Left Unity: “the convergence of American socialists committed to non-sectarian organization under the auspices of an overarching democratic structure.” It would be glib to just dismiss this out of hand – alongside increased exposure of the Left in the mainstream media, such a structure could be a good sign. But the way this strategy is being pursued leaves many fundamental questions unanswered.

There are several dominant positions on Left Unity in the United States today. Mark Solomon, whose position paper served as the basis for the much-publicized “Conversation on Left Unity” in New York, has advanced perhaps the most prominent proposal. Observing that radicals have always played “essential roles in influencing, guiding and consolidating broad currents for social change,” he argues that a strong socialist presence has never been more needed than today. And with general interest in socialism on the rise in recent years, it’s time to put aside our differences and come together, preferably in an entirely new organization.

Jacobin’s position on Left Unity is close to Solomon’s. Sunkara, in fact, admitted at the New York conversation that he found himself “in almost entire agreement” with Solomon’s proposal for Left Unity. Echoing Solomon, the Jacobin manifesto has called for the “unification of the many socialist organizations with similar political orientations into one larger body.” A few things set Jacobin apart. There’s a greater emphasis on educating the broader public, a more explicit commitment to radicalizing youth, and the beginnings of real analyses into the struggles of previously overlooked sectors of the American working class. What remains most distinctive about Jacobin’s stance on Left Unity, however, is its general sense of urgency: not only is this project possible, Jacobin assures its readers, but it can be realized now.

But this program has also been inserted into the familiar post-Occupy polemics against “anarchism.” Although Jodi Dean has expressed interest in “a radical left coalition, something like SYRIZA,” her hopes lie mainly, like Solomon and Sunkara, in an entirely new organization. Unlike these more astute politicians, however, she bluntly calls this the Party. Her stance is far closer to that tradition which advocates firm leadership, centralization, strict discipline, programs, and rules – characteristics that rightfully make many uneasy. She regards the failures of Occupy as proof of the continued indispensability of precisely this kind of organization: “Maintaining the political opening Occupy created won’t be easy, but it will be possible if and as the movement shapes itself as a new communist party.” For Dean, it’s time for a revamped vanguard party.

Beneath their differences, however, lies a common and disavowed point of reference. Although all three of these positions call for an entirely new party fit for our unique historical conditions, they all repeat the terms of a past historical experience: the Popular Front in the 1930s.

Of course, this continuity is visible for those who can read between the lines. Solomon, a professional historian, has written approvingly of the Popular Front strategy, and it’s clear that it implicitly grounds the arguments made in his call for Left Unity. And when pressed to concretize her heroic vision of the new party, even Jodi Dean can only offer the rather prosaic example of “the CPUSA in the 1930s, but less centralized (or, a more dynamic and responsive relation between cells and centers).”

Jacobin has been perhaps the most vocal in its insistence that the slogan of Left Unity isn’t just about the formation of a new socialist party in this country, but a call for a broad alliance between all the forces of the wider Left, including social democrats, left-liberals, and other proponents of the welfare state – the core principle of the historical Popular Front. It has actually fused, in theory and in practice, the two projects into one: building a new socialist party becomes the means to building a new “New Deal Coalition,” and perhaps vice versa. The primary objective of any new socialist party, according to Jacobin, will be to ally itself with elements of the Democratic Party known as “welfare liberals,” and strengthen the American welfare state. And Sunkara has already begun making overtures to liberals – even though the socialists he represents have no party to speak of.

What accounts for this active forgetting? Perhaps explicit references to the period have been avoided because of its bad reputation. After all, the moderate Left has a longstanding obsession with proclaiming its anti-Stalinism at every turn; and since the Popular Front has long been criticized not only as Stalinist, but also as a reformist betrayal, explicit references could make for bad publicity. Or perhaps the memory of the Popular Front is disavowed because of the ultimate failure of its stated objectives: the Left was obliterated in Spain, fascism emerged triumphant in Europe, and coalition partners turned on each other everywhere. For whatever reason, the dominant positions on Left Unity today have been forged independently of an explicit analysis of the historical conjuncture that has most powerfully defined them.

Back to the Popular Front

Whatever the political ambiguities of the historical Popular Front – a period marked both by major victories won by mass uprisings, and their suppression by bureaucratic reformists – the new proposals for Left Unity invert its historical and logical sequence. The Popular Front was originally a political strategy pursued by Communist Parties in the 1930s. From around 1928 to 1935 the Communist International had convinced itself that world history had entered a “Third Period” marked by crisis, instability, and proletarian insurgency. Compelled to reckon with the worsening depression, massive unemployment, and the resurgence of the Right, communists attempted to change their strategy, which had hitherto been rigidly anchored to workplace organization, in accordance with the changes in the working class. This led to genuinely creative organizing: sharecropper’s unions and tenant’s movements in the United States, sexual health clinics in Germany, and unemployed movements everywhere. But it also called for militant agitation, condemnation of all reformist initiatives, and preparation for the imminent revolution: alliances were broken, unions were split, and other Leftists denounced as “social fascists.” After a series of terrible setbacks – the rise of Hitler in January 1933, a coup in Austria the following year – the Comintern eventually concluded that Third Period Tactics had actually worsened, rather than reversed, the general decline of the communist movement as whole.

A new strategy was officially adopted in 1935. The communists would join with other “forces of labor,” like socialists and social democrats, to form a United Front. This would then form the nucleus of a Popular Front that was to include the Center-Left and perhaps even the Center. The goal was to check the Right, win significant gains for the working class, and improve the standing of the Communist Parties in a world where communism appeared to be on the wane. Communist Parties were instructed to reverse their previous policies; the new watchword was Left Unity.

Popular Fronts were attempted in most countries that still had some kind of Communist Party, like the United States, but Comintern had its eyes on France. After 1933, when Hitler obliterated the most vigorous labor movement in Europe, the French Communist Party (PCF) became the largest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union. Moreover, France was a country with a profound, though very diverse, revolutionary tradition, which might be amenable to such a call for Left Unity. Lastly, as historian Julian Jackson has shown, even before this official shift in policy was taken, the French working class had already begun, on its own, to push for just such a united struggle against fascism. For these reasons, contemporaries came to see France as a significant test case for this new strategy. While proponents of Left Unity today are right to focus on the US and its unique conditions, we should also consider other experiences, since the broader project of Left Unity has always been international, like socialism itself.

A couple years after the formal adoption of the Popular Front – after the election of a socialist president, a strike wave, and a series of unprecedented reforms – the strategy was hailed as a tremendous victory, for both the French working class and for the PCF. Workers won paid vacations, a forty-hour work week, wage increases, and better conditions. As for the PCF, which had been by far the smallest partner in the coalition, it swelled in membership, emerging, for perhaps the first time, as a prevailing force in French political life.

In many ways, the Popular Front temporarily saved the far left in France, as it did in a number of countries, including the US. But one of the main reasons why the call for Left Unity proved effective was because the PCF could be taken seriously as a coalition partner. The party was admittedly quite small in early 1935, having been battered and marginalized by Third Period tactics, but it still had a vibrant tradition of radicalism, deep roots in proletarian communities, and a real presence on the shop floor. It had helped organize some of the most dynamic struggles of the time. The PCF, in short, had something to contribute to a coalition.

Today, on the other hand, socialists have no constituency to offer social democrats, left-liberals, or others on the broader Left. The memory of communists organizing marches, strikes, and factory occupations as part of broader Leftist initiatives is a powerful one, but no longer a reality. Trying to convince “welfare liberals” to ditch their own party to work with some disorganized socialists with no organic connection to the working class isn’t likely to generate much progress.

An unknown continent

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However one might judge the Popular Front, no one can deny that it was fundamentally grounded in mass proletarian mobilizations. The connections today’s radical Left has with the broader working class in this country pales in comparison. The Republican Party probably has deeper ties to this class than many of the organizations clamoring for Left Unity.

It’s surprising, then, that existing calls for Left Unity have little to say about creating a mass working-class base. Those who are enthusiastic about Left Unity would probably agree that it is pointless to build an organization without lasting organic connections to the diverse sectors of the working class. Surely they must recognize that a mass working-class base is the condition of possibility for any viable organization today. So I’m puzzled that some of the most fervent proponents of Left Unity have chosen, as their starting point, to have a conversation between different parties that have almost no real link to the American working class. What, for example, did the CPUSA have to do with the occupation of the window factory in Goose Island in 2008, the Oakland port shutdown in 2011, or the string of fast food strikes exploding across cities in recent months? If the groups hosting this ongoing conversation have no such connections to the struggles of the present, what is the likelihood that a party formed out of their meetings will?

One assumption is that Left Unity will itself start the process of winning such a base. Mark Solomon writes: “The simple declaration of unity and amalgamation by old ideological foes will stir an energized, hopeful response on the left.” But it takes a vivid imagination to picture the news of Left Unity generating mass interest for socialist meetings in New York. If you want to build an organization with genuine mass support, you don’t start by amalgamating the fragments of a Left inherited from the past, but by trying to understand the needs of a working class struggling in the present.

If some organizations, like the PCF during the Popular Front, once had that kind of mass support, it is precisely because they were historically appropriate – they resonated, at least in some notable instances, with the composition of a historical class. But that conjuncture has passed, the working class has changed, and that political horizon is no longer recognizable. So we are left to lament, as the young Engels did a century and half ago: “The bourgeoisie talk politics and go to church; what the proletariat does we know not and indeed could hardly know.”

But Engels had already begun to change the situation, by initiating an inquiry into the factories of Manchester, and this new and unfamiliar phenomenon: the industrial working class. His discoveries, along with his new connections to proletarian struggles, would turn out to be an indispensable precondition for the formation a new political party just a few years later. In the spring of 1847 he was asked, along with Karl Marx, to join the clandestine League of the Just at a time when it was entering a serious crisis. Convinced by his investigations that the “condition of the working-class is the real basis and point of departure of all social movements of the present,” Marx and Engels took it upon themselves to replace “the obsolete League organization by one in keeping with the new times and aims.” They persuaded the existing members to drop their old conspiratorial ways, ground themselves in the struggles of this newly emerging working class, and adopt a new political project based on those struggles. The party was reborn as the Communist League. The old humanist motto “All Men are Brothers” was replaced with “Working Men of All Countries, Unite!” And a new Manifesto was drafted – heavily indebted to Engels’ concrete discoveries, published in The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Today this fundamental move towards investigation should be repeated. Before anything else, we have to forget what we think we know, and figure out what the working class actually is – and it is quite different from the factory workers of Manchester or Billancourt. Inquiry will mean generating a map that includes manufacturing workers and unionized public sector workers alongside low-wage retail workers, domestic caregivers, subcontracted truck drivers, migrant farmworkers, and waitresses with student debt. How is this class divided? Where is it found? What does it do? How is it exploited? How does it struggle? What does it want?

Building a base

Inquiry is not just a form of investigation – it is also the process of building political relations, the precondition for a mass base. Alongside the absence of independent and active organizations appropriate to our conjuncture, the fact that existing organizations float in the ether, without a mass base, entails a real risk of being absorbed, bypassed, or totally marginalized by diving right into a Popular Front. The greatest danger, as every proponent of the Popular Front strategy knows, is that of being reduced to “junior partners” of the liberals. This danger will become a near certainty if an immature party, lacking its own separate identity, or its own history, is thrust into a coalition upon its foundation.

The example of the Popular Front in France is again instructive here. Not only did the PCF actually retain its autonomy, but by May of 1936 it became the largest member of the coalition. And this wasn’t from winning over the previously unpoliticized, since the Popular Front never actually increased the total size of the broader Left; it was by absorbing members from other groups in the coalition. Radicals migrated to the Socialists, and the Socialists joined the Communists. This internal leftward shift was possible precisely because the PCF had its own autonomous identity, and distinct reputation for dynamism, shop-floor organizing, and daring actions.

But it is also because the mass base surpassed the party itself in militancy, which became evident when workers came into conflict with the conservatism of the party bureaucracy. Even in its glory days, the Popular Front had to explicitly table what is ostensibly the core project of a communist party: the abolition of the capitalist mode of production. Socialism slowly became nationalist, revolution was sidelined in favor of reformism, deep class tensions were papered over in order to keep the parliamentary coalition alive, and working-class militancy was constantly curbed by its alleged representatives. As soon as the coalition won significant parliamentary victories, it predictably assumed a conservative stance, unwilling to go any further. So workers took matters into their own hands: they called a general strike, demanded the forty-hour work week, occupied their factories, and in a few cases even managed production themselves.

Faced with this largely autonomous militancy, the PCF, the most dynamic element in the alliance, found itself internally fractured. While the secretary general, Maurice Thorez, disingenuously declared that “one must know how to stop a strike,” communist factory cells pushed for even more aggressive actions. In the end, the working class had to struggle against its own representatives to push the Front in a more radical direction. The Popular Front’s greatest victories were won only because it unexpectedly created a kind of revolution within reformism. But the moment the working class was pushed back to work, Left Unity began to crumble: the coalition fell apart, the Radicals turned against the PCF, and reforms like the forty-hour work week were lost.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the Popular Front, it is that even reformism can only arrive when it rides the wave of working-class self activity. When we remember this principle, we’ll have to learn to abandon the debates that twenty-first century socialists seem to enjoy so much. Centralization or decentralization, verticality or horizontality, localism or globalism – none of this can be resolved through internet polemics, meetings, or detached theorization. Weighing the abstract values of one shibboleth over the other is simply a waste of time. The answers to such questions can only be found by taking a hard look at what the working class is already doing and what political forms it will need to deepen those struggles.

Author of the article

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a postdoctoral fellow in History at Bowdoin College.