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"Rebuilding the Left"?

Rebuilding the left: these three words generally fill me with a significant amount of revulsion.  Not because I don't think that the left in my social context needs to be "rebuilt" (or, more accurately, built in the first place), but because I find the discourse that this phrase has come to mean in Canada, the US, and Western Europe extremely dubious.  After all, what committed leftist wouldn't want to re/build the left?  The point is that these three words have come to mean something more than their apparent meaning.

Question: does the left leading revolutionary movements outside of the imperialist centres need to be "rebuilt"?

When people speak of "rebuilding the left" in my social context, they generally mean building some big-tent "socialism" where anyone who is even a hair's breadth left of liberal will be part of some glorious new left-wing project.  A popular front without a party, so to speak, which in my mind is tantamount to building a high-rise before digging any foundations: let's just get everyone together and decide on a minimum program and rebuild the left together!  Thus, every time that I've heard these words used this has been the result: a watered-down leftism with the minimal amount of theoretical and practical unity.  Even worse, they imagine they're doing something new when they're repeating what has always failed.  As I've complained before, this whole fetishism with reinventing the revolutionary wheel (and especially when it is proclaimed as "rebuilding the left") is becoming rather irksome.

What I find most interesting with this discourse, however, is that is generally unaware of those organic attempts in its own social context that are actually rebuilding the left.  Or, more accurately, its refusal to endorse these tempts… For those who champion this "rebuilding" discourse are usually aware that these other rebuilding movements exist, they are just too arrogant and caught up with their own way of seeing the world to accept that anything other than their comfortable big-tent socialism is the way to go.  

Then there are those who are indeed generally ignorant of what is happening amongst the left; this is because some of those who speak about this "rebuilding" are the kind of left-wing academics who do little more than hang out with other academics, go to the odd demonstration, and aren't even the least interested in what is happening in the outside world.  Of course they propose "rebuilding" the left: they don't even know what the left is really doing!  In their minds, most probably, the organized left is waiting for their call to be rebuilt…

In any case, here is how rebuilding the left generally looks like for those who keep proposing the discourse.  First of all get a bunch of leftwing academics, professors and students, together––it's best if they've already founded their own myriad projects and quasi-party formations amongst themselves and their other academic friends.  Next, pull in some more students who are drawn towards radical politics––especially if they come to your classes or are dependent on your academic sponsorship.  Then, extend the circle to the rest of the petty-bourgeoisie: trade-union bureaucrats, left-wing artists, individuals on the radical fringe of social democratic parties, etc.  Then maybe mix this up with a bunch of ideological parties/organizations that despise each other and are only there to poach members from everyone else.  Voila: this is what it means to rebuild the left and I've seen it happen more than once with the same sterile results.

Because what this sort of rebuilding the left is doing has nothing to do with "rebuilding" anything.  It is simply getting the already build left, along with already build quasi-left, together in one organization to hate each other and work towards some lowest-common-denominator goal that is always never anything more than reformism.  These attempts to rebuild, according to this discourse, are nothing more than juggling acts––a rearrangement of the already existant left, which in this context is not the proletariat but a petty-bourgeois rainbow coalition––that are neither building or rebuilding.  It's like redecorating a house and moving furniture from one room to another.

Moreover, those who are obsessed with this rebuilding discourse are most often those who are drawn to movementist strategies.  Create a popular front without a revolutionary party (and imagine that the sum of ideological parties/organizations, combined with trade unions and social democrats, will amount somehow to the seeds of a revolutionary party), disparage any ideological struggle as "sectarianism" rather than a conflict of principles, cater to reformism, and hope that things will work themselves out.  Better yet, pretend that the trade union bureaucrats you've convinced to join your primarily academic group are the representatives of the proletariat!  So there's no point in actually doing social investigation or agitating amongst the masses––the hope is that they'll show up when the time is right.

Forget about all of those who ask for us to rebuild the left in their books and academic articles.  None of them have organized a left in the social classes where a left needs to be organized.  Nor are any of them even paying attention to the left formations that are growing, under the banner of revolution, in their own social circumstances––because they aren't paying attention to what is happening or because they want a rebuilding that fits their own idealist fantasies.


  1. Hello again,

    I share your frustration with the kind of regroupment efforts that have gone on over the last handful of years. I've participated in some of them, and they do not seem to have worked out very well. But I am puzzled by your post. Don't you think the Left needs to be re-built? In the rich countries as well as in the poor?

    I assume you believe that it will go better for the movements of the oppressed nationalities and exploited peoples of Canada and the rest of the world if there was something for them to unite with among dissidents in the professions, the academy, the bureaucracy, the media apparatus, and the armed forces. Just as it will go better for radicals from the middle strata if there is a 'sea' amongst the people for them to swim in if and when the state gets tired of them and begins to resort to repression. The struggle should proceed according to what alliances can be made at the given stage in the struggle, right? Or am I wrong in thinking this?

    Is the problem really that there is no revolutionary party or nucleus willing to provide leadership to the movement? There seem to be a goodly number of these, but in my experience it is the leadership or aspirant leadership has been the most guilty of being a 'bourgeois headquarters,' not the soft liberal academics and social workers you seem to have so little respect for.

    I would offer as an explanation for our dismal state, instead of the lack of a revolutionary leadership, two things.

    First, a lack of a reasonably clear idea of what revolutionary change would look like in the rich countries and how to carry it out and how to explain this in plain language that people can relate to.

    Second, the lack of the basis for a common life, socially and symbolically, that would sustain people who are a part of this work into their adult lives and help them solve the problems that confront their lives as a result of capitalism and imperialism.

    To boil it down: 1. We are not clear in our own minds what are the things that need to be different about the world and how to change them, and 2. We have a very low capacity to reproduce ourselves socially and to provide the kind of community that could make a difference in people's concrete and immediate lives.

    Perhaps I am guilty of the movementism that you have identified as the weakness of lowest-common-denominator 'rebuilding.'

    You wrote

    "Nor are any of them even paying attention to the left formations that are growing, under the banner of revolution, in their own social circumstances--"

    I would be interested to know which organizations you meant in the above. And on what basis you think middle class radicals should unite with them.

    Thanks for your work here,

    Marq Dyeth

    1. First of all, to bring some sense to my addled and more-ranty-than-usual post, I actually do think the left needs to be rebuilt. What I was complaining about, however, is what is usually meant by the discourse "rebuilding the left", which I described in this article. And this discourse, in my opinion, will not rebuild or even build a left... what it will do, is simply, as I argued, rearrange the already built left instead of trying to build where the left *should* be building. Mainly, this was tweaked by a conversation with a good comrade who was talking about a book he was reading where the author kept going on about "rebuilding the left" meaning this precise discourse of pseudo-rebuilding.

      However, while I think that the mainstream left in general is unclear about what needs to be different and how to change the world, they also remain unclear based on their theory and practice. That is, they pursue that lowest-common-denominator politics, sticking mainly to their own left and semi-left circles and hoping others will just show up and radicalize themselves as if by magic, are wary of agitating amongst the masses or doing mass work, and don't even attempt to produce a significant social investigation.

      This leads to your question about organizations and I think you'd know my answer to that comment. The very reason I was drawn to the PCR-RCP was because it was pursuing a revolutionary line in a systematic manner, working to build a complete party (not just an ideological party or social democratic common front), in a way that has emerged organically from a theoretical assessment and social investigation of Canada. And this is why they are growing and becoming more vital every year. After all, they began with an assessment of what failed in the 70s and 80s when the ML groups in Canada were at a high tide only to collapse due to various contradictions, so their starting point was grounded in a history of the most recent phase of Canadian class struggle. So of course middle class radicals should unite with them and learn what it means to practice a mass line in this context, thus becoming able to be very aware of their petty bourgeois privilege and what it means to build a revolutionary organization.

      Nor would I claim that the PCR-RCP is the only organization in Canada that is trying to grow/build/rebuild outside of the context where the "rebuilding the left" discourse operates––in my opinion it is currently the most advanced, but this is my opinion (for reasons given in that whole series I did about them) and I am also aware that a time might come where this is not the case. Mass organizations such as Basics, for example, are another example of initiatives that are attempting to rebuild a left but not in the way that the discourse is commonly meant.

  2. You're right-- I should have known the answer to my question based on your writings on the PCR-RCP. I guess I'll have to wait for the book. Thanks for you answers as always.

    Marq Dyeth.

  3. You certainly make some good points here, Josh - and I won't rehearse my overall strategic difference except to make a small point that may be somewhat provocative.

    How is the PCR-RCP etc. (at least in Toronto) any different compositionally speaking than those groups that are attempting the process that you describe above? I mean, my experience has led me to more skepticism in/re "rebuilding" but I think that its strange to point out that one group that is primarily led by academics is more legitimate than another group primarily led by academics. I know you may say that the PCR-RCP in Montreal have a wider social base and composition but from my own admittedly limited observation, it seems that in Toronto, it attracts the usual suspects, albeit in a very original and productive fashion. This is not a slight at PCR-RCP, just a call for an end to the incessant critique of "academics dominate the Left". I believe Perry Anderson's book on Western Marxism, among other texts, is a good overall signpost for this. All the social investigations in the world won't take away from the fact that the Left in Anglophone countries has been strongly composed of academics or "cognitive labour" for half a century. My point is that the Left's dominance by academics - be it among the rebuilders or the academic theoreticians of the Maoist movement, is symptomatic of something broader and more disturbing than this or that practice...

    1. You're absolutely right that in Toronto those interested in the PCR-RCP come primarily from the same sector of the left, and this speaks to a problem of the Toronto left and how none of us have any real experience in proper organizing. But we are a public support group, mass org, of the PCR-RCP and not the base of the party. Those grouped around the party itself in Montreal are not, from my experience, at all academically based and in fact when we do receive friendly criticism from them, it's that we need to break out of the academic left. So your observation, since it is concentrated only on Toronto, is an observation of the current state of the Toronto left of which we're a part of. What we are doing, however, is trying to learn from the practice of those in Montreal and trying to break out of these boundaries. And because of this, we do have something of a different composition than other groups we've encountered and have pulled in some members, who admittedly cannot make it out to every event, who are not part of the academic left. In any case, just looking at the PCR-RCP's front groups is enough to explain why their social composition is different: the MRO which is heavily dominated by workers, and primarily not the trade-unionized kind; the Feminist Front which is pushing a proletarian feminism due to its members class position; the MER which concentrates primarily on proletarian highschools and CEGEPS. So let us be clear: they are involved in a process of revolutionary growth, and I've explained why elsewhere, so I'm not going to get into it here.

      I agree that the left at the centres of capitalism are dominated by academics but this does not necessarily have to be the case, and those parties that have grown into something significant are parties that have broken out of that mould. Take, for example, the RU, the precursor of the RCP-USA. At one point it was a mass party with real roots in proletarian communities across the US and not at all dominated by academics. Now, based on the shitty policies and practices of the RCP-USA it has declined and, in its decline, imagines that waging ideological struggle with academics is how it is going to reboot itself and, obviously, combined with their current cultishness, this isn't working very well. They were able to grow and become this sort of organization, before they declined, because they began with an attempt to map the class contradictions of their society and then embedded themselves in the masses. Clearly we aren't doing that here, but the PCR-RCP as a whole has been doing that which is why I've found them exciting.

    2. [cont.]

      I also agree that the left's dominance by academics––and not just academics––is symptomatic of something broader, but I have already sketched out what that broader thing is and I know you disagree (the labour aristocracy that emerges because of imperialism) so I'm not going to get into that. Furthermore, I feel that it is the duty of academics who call themselves leftists to actually engage with the masses and pursue revolutionary organizations rather than resting on their laurels and spending most of their time as academics––and I will continue to incessantly talk about this because I am an academic and, for me, this is part of a larger act of self-criticism. We have to critique where we are at, and the circumstances that determine our own consciousness, or our ideology is worthless.

      I am a bit confused, though, as to why you think there are any maoist academic theoreticians out there. Aside from myself, who is unpublished, and some other people in our friend circle, there really is no significant maoist influence in academia. And here I want to point out that "maoism" was not theorized until 1993, so don't look to pro-Chinese Leninists of the 70s and 80s to be an example of what Maoist organizations today mean by "Maoism". Really, the problem with Maoists is that they've often abdicated ideological struggle in the universities because they've concentrated on building amongst the masses; this is why the most revolutionary struggles of the 1990s to the 2000s have been Maoist-led. Trotskyists, however, have been very good at taking over academia: which is why they havent' led any struggles but have mountains of books and have set the tone for Marxist theory. (I was actually writing something on this recently, but I don't think I'll post it because it comes across as too sectarian.) Point being, where are these maoist theoreticians? I would like them to exist but they don't exist.

  4. I'm glad at the response...was merely asking - (and admit no knowledge of Montreal).

    You make a lot of sense, but I think that some of the time esp. from more Movementist circles, the root of the critique of academics within the Left is from self-deprecating movementist academics......But we're largely on the same page. (And I'm sorry for referring to you as a theoritician - was just being provocative) ;)

    I'm glad that I know the few academic Maoists out there ;) - I think folks like Badiou have made Mao less inappropriate in academia. I cited him in my comp and didn't get any weird comments or what not.
    And this is one case in which I do think the issue of labour aristocracy is not inappropriate (I am not opposed to the theory as such, I just think it was formulated in an historically specific sense and find myself compelled by Post et. al's critique - but not dismissal - of it)..How I would formulate it is historical, in the 20s and 30s, Marxism's "cultural turn" away from political economy, etc. - I won't recite Anderson's argument on Western Marxism chapter and verse - I think you know the gist of it. At the same time, I'd argue that its not that there are too many academics (Marx and many of the First International activists were at first rooted in academia) but not enough non-academics....

    1. My point about left wing academics needs to be balanced all the time with what I say about anti-intellectual leftists: I've written a lot about this as well. By the same token, I critique ortho-marxist dogmatism just as much as I critique movementism (and indeed my next post, which I wrote a couple days back but haven't posted, is about that). So every time you read something about my complaints about academics it is not merely done in a self-deprecating manner solely––it is about a larger problem––and should be considered in light of all the times I trash anti-academic marxist stupidity.

    2. Marx was an intellectual, but he was not "rooted in academia."

      No Herr Dr. Prof. Marx was he.

  5. And I do agree (and wouldn't mind seeing) with your final three sentences. Anderson wrote about this...entryism indeed ;)

  6. Finally - I also think one of the reasons that academics/cognitive or "creative" labour dominates the Left is that Left organizations - with some exceptions - and trade unions/traditional WC organizations - don't do political education except in a condescending ABC sort of way. So when we talk about the crisis or Marxism or what not, its as if we either dumb it down for the masses or talk in highly specialized positivist jargon.

    1. This is definitely a problem: a lot of groups haven't figured out a middle ground. On one hand they want to make Marxism palatable by dumbing it down to a useless level, which is talking down to people, or they don't know how to talk to people who aren't academics and just rely on jargon. There is a middle ground to this, however, it's just that it takes some work. (And I'll admit I'm not the best at it, lol.)


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