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Ideological Unity and a Politics of Affirmation

The belief that all of our disparate and radical struggles will one day add up to the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism has been a general dogma of the North American left-activist scene.  Although many of these struggles refuse to imagine anything truly concrete beyond business as usual, and reject as a matter of principle any attempt to examine the methods that need to be taken to end capitalism and imperialism, we still like to believe that our various movements as a whole are more significant than they often are.

In the year leading up to the G20, for example, the coalition of affinity groups involved in planning the demonstrations sometimes seemed like it was under the strange impression that it would WIN.  Indeed, on one of the organizational email strings, activists would often sign-off by claiming "we're winning."  But what could a weekend of heightened demonstrations win?  Clearly the overthrow of the state was not a feasible goal, nor could it be when those involved in the demonstrations lacked any ideological unity beyond being seen and heard.  They were not planning anything that could truly score a victory against imperialism––or even against the local authorities––no matter what the representatives of state repression want us to believe.

I am not arguing that demonstrations, like those of the G20 weekend, should not happen unless there is ideological unity; I'm not a sectarian purist who refuses to participate in a protest if it is not "properly revolutionary."  We know these jokers, these marxist missionaries, who show up at protests, demos, labour strikes––not to participate but to push their papers, yammer on about how they will not help because of some abstract and theoretical quibble that we would all understand, becoming enlightened, if we only bought their newspaper.  Then, when our friends and comrades are being dragged away by the pigs, or when the tear-gas is being fired, these revolutionary purists are nowhere to be found.  So I am not advocating some sort of dogmatic abdication of activist responsibility because this responsibility is the minimum requirement of a pro-people politics.

What I am arguing, however, is that we need to stop imagining that the normative mainstream left-activist strategy evident in today's North America is not a revolutionary strategy and we need to stop thinking that it is.  All of these disparate movements have not magically added up into some critical mass of revolution capable of overthrowing the state.  Nor can they when the only politics that all of these radical movements share is a politics of rejection rather than affirmation.  Only the latter can bring an ideological unity capable of linking everyone into a possible revolutionary, rather than a simply activist-protestor, force capable of confronting state power.  As the revolutionary protagonist Damien O'Donovan says in Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley before he is placed in front of a firing squad: "It's not enough to know what you're against; you have to know what you're for."

So what are we for?  What politics do we affirm?  Obviously every disparate group involved in these coalition exercises affirm their own politics; together, however, they only express the unity of being against (and sometimes for different reasons) capitalist-imperialist business as usual.  And there is often a fear of developing a truly revolutionary ideological unity: only coalitions and popular fronts are permissible––at the very most adherence to a "popular" social democratic ideological semi-unity––because some feel that anything else would threaten their coveted piece of the activist pie.  We have all been involved in the activist left long enough to have witnessed the idiot turf wars between people who should be comrades due to some bourgeois vanity sublimated in quasi-radical justification.

Then there is the problem that many popular left-activist groups express an abstract and ungrounded internationalism: that is, they are focused almost exclusively on what is happening over there often at the expense of what is happening here.  Moreover, these types of activist organizations, which are sometimes the most common and the most popular, often fail to properly link struggles by focusing solely on their own international concern (unless some other issue can be used solely to promote theirs).  This is pseudo-internationalism and the most banal form of anti-imperialism.

In any case, there is a general rejection of political unity in North America unless this unity is understood as nothing more than defensive electoral practice: vote for social democracy or at least the lesser evil.  This fear of revolutionary ideological unity perhaps and in part emerges from the post-marxist/post-structuralist malaise that has plagued social movements at the centres of capitalism for decades: to begin with a revolutionary conception of ideological unity is totalizing, we are told, because society supposedly lacks any totality.  Identity-based struggles veil anti-capitalism in vague culturalisms; post-modern notions of political praxis, developed by academics often disconnected from struggle, become vogue; and sometimes trade union struggles for better social democracy replace revolutionary struggle.  But as Mao Zedong, that terrible theorist of totalization, once warned:
"Only those who are subjective, one-sided and superficial in their approach to problems will smugly issue orders or directives the moment they arrive on the scene, without considering the circumstances, without viewing things in their totality (their history and their present state as a whole) and without getting to the essence of things (their nature and the internal relations between one thing and another).  Such people are bound to trip and fall." (Mao Zedong, On Practice)


  1. This is good criticism. Your reasons for why the left is fractured are IMHO correct. Unfortunately it may be that the only broadly shared ideology is "things suck." What would the process of developing better ideological unity look like concretely? A big conference? A shared platform? The liquidation of the post-left (I kid, I kid!)? Some of our ideological divides are pretty freaking deep, but it's true that those of us who are serious are all willing to do "the minimum requirement of a pro-people politics." Is that where we start from?

  2. I'm growing more and more convinced that people need to start organizing with people who share their ideology and organize with that ideology in mind: starting small and growing, but not being sectarian in how they participate with other groups - so still participating in that "minimum requirement" while still agitating for something more. This point was brought home to me at the 2nd Canadian Revolutionary Congress spear-headed by the RCP-PCR. And though I'm not a member of that organization, and appreciate other Canadian organizations as well, I think their attitude is both disciplined and non-sectarian. They pretty much say: this is what we stand for and we're not going to hide in the mass orgs we're involved with and that we've helped build, and we're going to agitate to build a party at the same time but if you don't want to join us you're still our political ally. They argue that if they're correct, and they demonstrate their principles in practice, then people will be drawn to them and they'll grow; if they don't grow they're wrong, and they conceive of all their working relationships as "line struggles" where the best political line will win out and, if it's not theirs, then they'll have to consider joining whoever has the most clear-sighted ideological and unified position.

  3. Another good post! you hit the nail right on the head with:....."not to participate but to push their papers," and ".....have witnessed the idiot turf wars between people who should be comrades due to some bourgeois vanity sublimated in quasi-radical justification." I WAS in a party who could easily unite with two other parties in the US seeing as there is no difference between their political line (all three are tankies.)but do not out of opportunism. I left because they refuse to organize through the party and want to use their front group that is full of liberal pacifist instead of advocate for socialism. Also it is hard for me as a Maoist to recite tankie bull shit

  4. The whole "front group" organizing thing is something that I've never politically understood, though I've seen it done time and time again over the past decade. It speaks to a bizarre Blanquism that we haven't shaken since the days of the Paris Commune!

    1. Isn't PRAC kind of a front group of the RCP though? What makes the relationship different than say, the relationship between United Jewish People's Order and the CPC? Or between fightback and the Toronto Young New Democrats. Both will deny its a front group, but a successful front group is more (and less) than the party it has the relationship to, it will have people in it who are for sure not part of the party and other people in it who totally are. And because the party people will be organized, they will have more of a voice in internal matters- you can have a 'front group' for multiple parties, which is what I see the worker's assembly as (although I think they see themselves as a 'multi-tendency organization'.) This is a serious question and not an accusation, I don't think there is necc. anything wrong with front groups if people are open about their individual relationships.

      On the other hand things can get ridiculous- I've been in a panel presentation where the other speakers were all members of CPC or IS front groups (i think) but they were framing everything in pretend pseudo liberal human rights speak, and when I mentioned the c word (communism) i got a round of applause- because not only were all the speakers communist but almost all the audience was communist as well, but no one was admitting it. That's obviously a little silly and shows the weakness of unprincipled front group strategy.

      But if you don't organize that way then how do you allow for democracy and agency for people who are contacts or who are allies but not 100% on the line of the organization? You can't have them just tailing around the organization indefinitely, you have to find a way to use their skills and develop them, and hopefully they will come around through praxis to having better politics.

    2. Actually, I generally agree with your points and I meant something else in that hasty reply to the HSS, based on what they wrote about a very specific North American practice of party fronting. That is, what I meant in my reply to HSS, but just short-handed (since he described the problem), was not that I'm against party fronts or mass organizations, but that I'm politically opposed to the style of front group organizing where the group denies its affiliation with a party and that party's politics, and the party hides itself within the group and secretly reveals itself to the members (the "blanquism" I mentioned).

      Point being: I agree completely with the points you make about front groups (which I would call mass orgs, or party fronts), but I disagree with the practice of "front grouping" which amounts to blanquism. I think it is more honest and politically useful for a group to admit its political affiliation while still maintaining its mass org autonomy (again for the useful reasons you suggest) for two reasons: a) you won't win over people within this organization to a more radical position if you're hiding this position; b) people don't like being lied to, and at one point do you say "hey, you know how we said this group wasn't *really* a front of [party name here], well guess what! surprise we're communists!"

      So yes, the PRAC is a front/mass org [though not yet mass, lol, but theoretically] of the PCR-RCP, but it doesn't practice the kind of party frontism where it hides this affiliation. Everyone involved know that it is connected to the PCR, and is fine with that, and even if they aren't totally into the PCR they like the general points of unity and are okay in that not 100% kind of way you mentioned. At no point have we denied the connection.

  5. I wonder how presently accessible political education is to people of color and/or working class folks outside of elite institutions like undergrad and grad studies.

    I agree that ideological unity is really desirable in developing community orgs that are fighting for something better, instead of just fighting against stuff that's fucked up. But what if the political education is mostly gained through elite institutions generally inaccessible to people of color and/or working class peoples?

    I dream of easily accessible popular education materials that could really help folks teach/learn political education. Maybe that, with the toppling of the nonprofit-industrial complex and ideological unity we could really see some changes.

    I liked the article and really nailed down the new direction the left needs to take to see some real changes. Kudos!

  6. I think that there are at least two different kinds of party fronts and each must exist but will arise out of a very specific set of conjunctures and unevenly. So you have: 1) the Party-led front which could include organizations like the student's front or women's front of a given party, this will of course fall under differing levels of party discipline and; 2) the independent front groups (the party must consciously decide not to stack this organization with its own membership, but can include individual militants in their activities). Unfortunately, I think too often communists use the latter in a Blanquist fashion as the former and this has failed in most cases.

  7. Good point Kevin C. In earlier posts I addressed some of those concerns. In any case, I'm not arguing that popular fronts and multiple orgs aren't necessary, only that they fail as an overall revolutionary strategy. Moreover, they also fail to provide the education you would suggest. I would think that an org devoted to building political unity can provide political education because it would possess an institutional memory - and education would have to be part of its program, obviously.

    And good points about the party fronts, BF. I was too quick in my earlier replies: you've provided the clarity I originally intended.

  8. Great post, Josh! I love the Damien O'Donovan reference!

  9. Great post, JMP. I also really like the part where you say "We have all been involved in the activist left long enough to have witnessed the idiot turf wars between people who should be comrades due to some bourgeois vanity sublimated in quasi-radical justification."

    In my experience, I have viewed this idiot turf war as a competition of male egos. I have especially noticed this in a relatively new organizing space that I won't name at the moment, though I'm sure you can imagine which one I am talking about. I find this usually plays out in the form of petty arguments about who is "right", but done in a way where people are not actually listening to each other and engaging in any meaningful way. I find it very frustrating generally. It makes me very crusty - which is good in some ways because it knocks out some of my idealism :)

  10. Well sometimes being correct is important if it's being correct for the correct reasons. [Too many corrects in that sentence.] Male egos are clearly and issue, but there are sometimes (at least in my experience) a lot of female egos as well - and this can get nasty, especially since these spaces are usually male dominated, because since there's not a lot of space for women then the women tend to push other women out.

    But again, if you're talking about the space I think you're talking about: although I agree with you in general, and on the surface level, there was also more than the male egoing going on there that connects to other issues and where certain political correctness is at stake: but some of that was just stupid.


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