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Behind All Of This, Opportunism Again

Earlier this month, I complained about the default opportunism that plagues the left at the centres of imperialism.  If anything, the reaction from certain quarters to my previous two posts confirmed my complaint that "[o]pportunism is the default consciousness of the left at the centres of imperialism, and has remained the default consciousness for a long time."  Most specifically, the aforementioned reaction demonstrated that any attempt to critique this consciousness "that often leads to reformist projects dressed up in revolutionary clothing will be met with hostility."

To be clear, I'm far less interested in my original subject material––and was already less interested by the last post––than by the ideological meaning behind the reaction to my position.  In my last post I was trying to interrogate the meaning behind that reaction but, due to the general lack of focus inherent in these posts (and also perhaps due to an unwillingness to read criticism honestly on behalf of those offended), that post was still directly tied to my original and controversial complaint: why are self-proclaimed socialists engaged in the hagiography of a member of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.  But let's forget that complaint––that is far less important, in my opinion, than my motivation for making this complaint: another manifestation of the opportunism that plagues us leftists at the centres of capitalism.

More specifically, I find it interesting (and disheartening) that many people who see themselves as socialists––some even as communists––seem to be completely unaware of the historical danger of what used to be called "revisionism" or "opportunism."  Or if they are aware, do not apply the lessons learned from the Second International onwards to their own concrete circumstances.  Thus, the subject matter of the last two posts represents a very dismal, and possibly rather banal, manifestation of this unwillingness to understand, or at least apply an understanding of, the history of opportunism and revisionism amongst the left.

I wouldn't be surprised if the terms "opportunism" and "revisionism" would cause blank stares when spoken in front of the majority of the self-proclaimed left.  For one thing, it is chic in the activist movementist culture to reject clunky theoretical terms with the same dogmatism that this culture ascribes to those who use these terms in the first place––I've discussed this anti-intellectualism elsewhere.  For another, this movementist flight from theoretical coherence isn't helped by (while at the same time giving ground to) the extremely sectarian/purist left's mindlessly dogmatic use of this language.  If my first introduction to the words "opportunism" and "revisionism" were from some Spart missionary shoving "Workers Vanguard" in my face and yelling at me that the entire demonstration I helped organize was "opportunist" because his prophet Trotsky spoke through space and time and told him so, I would also have a visceral reaction to historically salient revolutionary terminology.  At the very least, I would find said terminology as antiquated as the Spart who looked like he stepped out of the early twentieth century.

But this terminology, or at least the historical and political meaning behind this terminology, is extremely important.  For even if someone was to argue that the words "revolution" and "socialism" were antiquated, that would not make the concepts any less important for anti-capitalists––unless, of course, we are opportunists and revisionists.

Opportunism, to put it very crudely, is when revolutionary politics are watered-down to adapt the revolutionary classes to the interests of their class enemies.  Revisionism is a form of opportunism (other forms, for example, are dogmatism and sectarianism – see my comments about the marxist missionaries above) that revises revolutionary theory by removing the revolutionary content and then argues that the new and watered-down theory is somehow "socialist" and "communist" even though the need for class revolution (and sometimes anti-imperialism) is rejected.  Eduard Bernstein was the paradigmatic opportunist/revisionist of the Second International (followed by Kautsky) who argued that there was no point in revolution but that communism could accomplish its aims through parliamentarianism.  (We even get the old lefty slur "social democrat" from this instance of opportunism since the former communist party of Germany, the Social Democrat Party, under Bernstein and then Kautsky went uber-revisionist.)

The reason this is important is because the opportunism that creeped into the Social Democratic Party under Bernstein and then Kautsky (and Kautsky used to be, in the words of a good friend, that period's "high pope of marxism"), rightly critiqued by Rosa Luxemburg, led to the defeat of communism in Germany and the rise of fascism.  Apparently it's considered bad form to make this point these days, but I think it's very important to remind ourselves that the social democrats in Germany (who were far more left than the social democratic parties in North America) not only suppressed a workers uprising, but handed Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht over to the Freikorps––the nascent seeds of the Nazi Party––to be executed.

Other opportunisms/revisionisms have led to other disasters and so here, in the centres of capitalism where an opportunistic consciousness is prevalent, the left is always flirting with its own disaster and, because of this flirtation, might be incapable to deal with the current rise of the right.  In fact, during the elections boycott campaign, one of the criticisms we received was that, by indulging in boycotting, we were "arming the right."  But our argument was that by not engaging in an actual revolutionary agenda, the left was actually arming the right by placing so much energy and emotion into parliamentarianism.  This is not to say that we should have dogmatically dismissed all of the arguments made against our position––some of those who were sympathetic but critical only argued that participation in parliamentarianism was pragmatic and not a revolutionary option.  But so many others, especially judged by the reactions to my previous two posts, imagined that the parliamentary context meant something else entirely and that some of its liberal icons were somehow "socialist."

But I want our icons to be the Luxemburgs and Liebknechts, not liberal politicians, and so I find the left's hagiographies for these liberal politicians a troublesome reminder that opportunism is prevalent.

Again, my interest is in how the subject matter of my previous two posts is a seemingly harmless manifestation of this broader opportunistic consciousness.  For example, when a friend of mine wrote a very small and critical comment on his facebook account, he was lambasted and shamed.  One commentator, and this is important, told him that his critique was paradigmatic of why the left continues to fail.  But my point is that the left's most tragic failures have most often come from the opposite problem: the rejection of a revolutionary position, the surrender to opportunism, is what has blunted the edge of the left, turned them into an ineffectual force and intellectual club without a mass-line, and caused them to agitate for reform instead of revolution––and the grounds of the former keep getting narrower and shifted to the right.

Conversely, the danger of revisionism causes some small splinter sects to engage in the most morbid communist puritanism.  Also lacking a mass-line, these tiny left groupings turn themselves into cabalistic echo chambers where their ideology atrophies, even though they can always pat themselves on the back for having produced pure and angelic slogans.

And yet I can understand why some people vanish into these sad little communist cults when they live in a culture that promotes such a disdain for actually speaking about revolution.  (But, on the other hand, I understand why this overall culture persists when faced with puritan dogmatism––the two opposing positions, I think, are dialectically unified in a general opportunism.)  I know friends who have been insulted for taking principled positions, for refusing to accept that social democracy is the foundational method of organizing, and for even trying to organize teach-ins about revolutionary theory.  Why this fear of speaking about revolution?  Why this desire to keep accepting the social democratic option as "the best"?  Why this disdain for theory borne from the crucible of revolution?

If the right wants us to disarm, to give up the weapons of theory and concrete experience earned through centuries of struggle and so much bloodshed, we should not capitulate.


  1. "Why this desire to keep accepting the social democratic option as "the best"? Why this disdain for theory borne from the crucible of revolution?"

    When an activist leaves the social democratic path they operate outside of what the North American states consider acceptable political action. That carries the possibility of retribution, and that scares people. Also, organizing beyond social democracy might actually lead to revolutionary results, and that's scary too. It's easier to say you want a new society than it is to risk your social position, or even your life, trying to build it.

  2. The mainstream Left often sounds a lot like the mainstream Right in insisting that there is no alternative: "So you want to create new organizations of working classes and students, because the ones that exist are bureaucratic, opportunistic, demobilizing behemoths? You want to restructure ones that exist? You can't! Because there is no alternative! And if you're not with us, then you're against us, and with the right-wingers!"


    I once heard an academic refer to certain kinds of anti-imperialism as senile disorders, for they end up supporting authoritarianism instead (I think this applies well to Iran and Libya).

    But the term senile disorder actually applies quite well to these moribund and decadent social democrats. They are not offering any solutions, but keep rejecting revolution.


  3. Angrykarl: I agree that fear/risk probably has something to do with the willingness to accept social democracy over a more radical option, but I think that it's also become so normative that it's even eclipsed the radical position in the minds of many who *would* risk themselves in clashes with the state. I know a lot of people who aren't scared to go to jail, but what they're going to jail for is often incoherent movementist politics. So maybe your second point about fear/risk is more precise - a fear of losing privilege and individual "autonomy" (hence the ludicrous charges of "thought policing") under a revolutionary society?

    Red Traveller: the point about how the mainstream Left often mimics the mainstream Right's insistence that there is no alternative is very apt. It's strange (well not really, I suppose, because of ideological hegemony) how a certain discourse about no alternative (i.e. like "the end of history" thesis) has become common sense for the left as well. *Senile disorder* is a good way to put it.

  4. why are self-proclaimed socialists engaged in the hagiography of a member of the dictatorship of the proletariat - in graph 2

    should be "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie", right? Sorry.... ;) - Good post as always, Josh....

    Yesterday, an old friend of mine who I hadn't seen in about ten years, but spent probably a total of two solid years on the roadwith - the Neal Cassady of my youthful circles, comitted suicide, unable to beat back a longterm opiate habit, and I'm genuinely in mourning. I mentioned this to someone mourning Layton and they genuinely couldn't see the difference...Its not only opportunism, but also Stockholm syndrome...

  5. Sorry to hear about your friend, Jordachev, and thanks for the proof-reading comment - I dont know how I made that mistake (well probably because I usually don't proof-read before I hit "post").


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