Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Armchair or the Walker: Responding to Thomas Riggins

by Lawrence Albright

While I agree with many of the points made by Thomas Riggins in his post "How The Ultra-Left Helps McCain," I cannot help but feel that the use of the term "ultra-left" as a pejorative is deserving of avoidance, if not actual retirement.

In the interests of full disclosure, I admit a certain subjectivity in the sense that my personal tolerance with labels is virtually nil. So the fact that the use of the "ultra-left" appellation may be objectively true using the yardstick of literature from the Leninist canon matters rather less to me than the fact that it represents an insular language of value to far fewer persons than we would perhaps care to admit.

The use of labels in politics has a lengthy traditon throughout the world, not just in the United States. But all too often on the left, name calling has substituted for polemics. In this sense, my unease with Tom's posting is more a matter of style than substance.

Where I disagree strongly with Tom is his contention that the efforts of "ultra-left" groups somehow helps the McCain campaign. Tom's heart is in the right place, and I agree that disseminating a message that the elections next month mean nothing is politically misguided.

But to say that such politics "helps" the McCain campaign is a break with reality only slightly less onerous than that ascribed to the "ultra-left."

The left in the United States, and to a lesser extent internationally, is in disarray if not precisely in crisis. We can perhaps be forgiven for having a greater awareness of what groups like the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Green Party, PSL, etc. are doing because, broadly speaking and despite real and significant differences, they're part of our milieu. But to define them as a "danger" and a threat in that they will "help McCain" is at best an overstatement of their impact and influence.

I haven't tested the notion but guess that if you asked ten people on the street whom the Socialist Party (or Greens, PSL, SWP....) were running for President, you would be lucky to find one person who would could give you correct answers. And these organizations are not on the ballot in a sufficient number of states to "help" McCain in any case. When the restrictive ballot access laws are taken on and defeated nationally, an effort that has been pursued before and made little in the way of progress, this would be a different matter.

It is not comforting to remember that the "heyday" of the so-called "old left" was in the 1930's and 1940's and the so-called "new left" had its apex in the 1960's. While the left is not without its successes, and these are far too numerous to mention in this piece, objectively the greatest impact of the left domestically and internationally comes from the neo-conservative movement which had its origins in the "anti-Stalinist left" in the 1930's and 1940's, and kept moving to the right to the extent they organized for Nixon against McGovern in 1972 to become the architects of the "Reagan Revolution." They also held key positions of influence in the executive councils of the AFL-CIO.

One of the things most intriguing to me is the gains made by the Communist Party in the past eight years. Certainly, the reasons for this go beyond a greater openness and the increased visibility provided by the Internet. In particular, there has been to my mind an evolving understanding that a reliance on jargon and styles of the past promote myopia rather than vision. The ability of understand, analyze, and participate in the day-to-day struggles is something that separates the CPUSA from the "ultra-left."

I feel we must leave behind labels like "ultra-left," "sectarian," and the like. They contribute little to understanding and, in the final analysis, force us to relate to the old and insular world of an isolated left. Let the Trotskysists fight the old battles of whether Trotsky or Stalin was the rightful heir to Lenin; these organizations split more often than a pair of old pants in worn by a middle-aged man whose waistline has grown at a rate unmatched by his common sense -- and the membership of many of these groups can fit comfortably in an average sized living room.

In like manner, there is still a tendency among many on the left, "ultra" and otherwise, to treat Marxism as a kind of sacred and inviolable creed rather than a social science. Others have written on this topic, and in this forum, in better ways than me. It strikes me as a paradox that some Marxists, who would describe themselves as non-religious, in their zeal to "defend" Marxism more closely resemble catechumens than revolutionaries.

There is much in the words of Marx and Lenin (who died within six years of the revolution while still in his 50's) that is of value. There is a place for the defense of Marxism and Leninism, and a good segment of the left has been so engaged to greater or lesser extents for decades. When such an effort by well intended people has been raised to the level of primacy, as has been the case from time to time in any number of groups, the result has been to reduce politics to the armchair or the walker.

What lessons can be drawn from the fact that an organization can be "right" on virtually every issue and not have that translate to greater relevance or influence? I believe it is this type of phenomenon that makes an organization look inward, or at best to other left tendencies and currents with which it perceives itself to be in competition.

I agree wholeheartely with CPUSA National Chair Sam Webb when he wrote that it wasn't enough to be right, you have to be right in the right way.

Yes, there is an "ultra-left" by most standards, Marxist and otherwise. There was yesterday, and there will be tomorrow. I don't see taking to task the strategy or tactics of such groups as having any measure of importance or priority. What I do see as having priority is restoring the lustre to socialism -- to the advocacy and articulation of a socialism that owes its advantages not to past models or shibboleths but lives as an attainable vision of a vastly more democratic, humane and equitable society.