Organizational Materialism: Considerations on Contemporary Leftism

by Jean Allen

The wake of Occupy Wall Street brought with it a series of new Leftist parties and politicians aiming to turn anti-capitalist sentiment into electoral victories.  These politicians have been, in turn, opposed and supported by a variety of journals and activist groups, in many cases regardless of the stated ideology of the groups and of the politicians.  This brings to light a rarely discussed lens of analysis, an ‘organizational materialism’ which places the conflicts between different forms of organizing front and center, ahead of theoretical and ideological differences.   In this paper I will discuss this position by comparing the current rise of ‘left populism’ to the institutional realities of two periods where the left was on the rise: the ‘classical period’ of the 2nd International and the ‘Communist period’ from the 40s to the 60s, ending with an analysis of the contemporary Left and a warning that the constellation of organizations which currently exist in the Left is not sustainable.

“We face a crisis” has been the header of a multitude of think pieces, journal entries, blog posts and Facebook statuses in the last three years.  And it is true: in the last eight years, we have seen an economic recession used to justify worldwide austerity, the continued destruction of public spaces and public goods alongside a massive increase in homelessness, a continued erosion of people’s food security, and now a worldwide sweep of nationalist leaders who promise to build walls and destroy the Other inhabiting their respective ‘nations’.  To live now is to live in the shadow of a counter-revolution which has likely lasted your whole life, to fear that you will never make ends meet, to be aware that the world is being destroyed, and to know that your descendants will suffer a similar ‘life’, if not a worse one.

But these contradictions have existed as long as capitalism has existed, and as long as capitalism has existed, there have been people who have organized to oppose it, to reform it, to ameliorate its effects.  It is these, the intrinsic, structural contradictions of the society we live in, and all its various inequalities, that inevitably produce a movement of those who are forced by their very position to fight, for their embetterment, for the abolition of their oppression.  

That is how the story goes, at least.  But not all oppositions are created equal.  What Marx and Engels said is true: communism is the real movement which abolishes the present state of things1, but this statement has been twisted from an incisive statement to a truism.  Instead of looking at the way that radical organizations and individuals interact, we often merely see an analysis of conditions, with the assumption that some force, some group which we never have to interact with, will do the work of abolition.   By abstracting the real movement, we create a pair of points connected only theoretically.  Revolution becomes a rhetorical conclusion, an inevitability, which does not have to involve us or anyone we know, but will happen, as surely as a pot boils.   

This teleology, this ‘straight line’ that links the counter-revolutionary present to the revolutionary future, has always been an incomplete analysis.  Regardless of how rigorous the analysis of the present is, how complete the schematic of the revolution is, a state can be in immiserated poverty and not face a revolution, and a movement which is a perfect microcosm for its perfect society can fall apart under the boot of the state.  All too often, the only concept which is slotted into this vast wasteland is the call to Organize! This call is rarely complicated by an in depth analysis of what it means to organize, what our organizational landscape looks like, how to organize, or what to organize for, what it means to be organized. In these times of mass deportations and massive privatizations, of a new reaction which seeks to peel away the kindly veneer of welfare capitalism, of militarist goons and alt right bureaucrats, we can no longer justify this lack of focus.  It is long past due for a hard look at the Real Movement.

A rough sketch of the methodology I use here: general trends in the base create effects but they do so through pre-existing groups

Theoretical considerations

My aim in this essay is to create the framework which can be used to create a materialist history of the Left, and to show how this framework would ‘work’ in analyzing a set of periods of Leftist history.  I will do this by focusing on the way different radical organizations have acted and interacted throughout history.  For the sake of clarity, I shall make a number of assumptions.

There are four major propositions I make within this paper:

  1. While the contradictions of capitalism are determinant in the long term, inevitably creating new struggles and new fights, in the time that human beings experience, the history of all hitherto existing class conflict is the history of organizational struggles.2
  2. The material reality of these organizations are in a constant process of creation and reproduction based on what the organization practically does
  3. This leads to organizations creating thought and theory which justify their actions, which leads over time to limiting and cooptive tendencies as these groups solidify and self justify.  
  4. While individuals and subgroups can attempt to resist these tendencies, alone they will slowly be overcome.  These tendencies cannot be stopped from within. They can only be prevented on the whole through the existence of an ecology of differing organizations.

These are not iron-clad assumptions; I am not aiming to produce The Materialism which strides over all areas of thought and all struggles.  The goal is not to create a transcendental materialism which only appears as it is communicated3, but to help push towards the beginnings of a theorization of the ‘middle layer’ that exists between different objects of study.  Organizations mediate causes into effects, transform theory into practice, and connect single individuals to broader masses. Without an analysis about how these different focuses of study relate to each other, we will be stuck in a constant battle of abstract viewpoints, between elevating ‘theory’ as opposed to ‘practice’ or ‘lived experience’ as opposed to ‘systemic analysis’.  These things are only opposed to each other in so far as they are conceived as separate objects related only through an opposition. Organizational Materialism aims to disband this opposition while providing a lens of analysis which can be used by both analyst and activist alike to get a better grasp of their immediate organizational surroundings.

The 2nd International and Classical Leftism

The long counter-revolution from the 1810s to the 1870s led to the transformation of old ‘corporate entities’ (essentially special interest groups constituted under the conditions of feudalism) into modern political organizations aimed at resolving the political and economic inequalities of the state they existed in.  In Europe this came in the form of a repression of liberties once enjoyed during the Revolutionary Wars. Over Restoration the reinstitution of censorship and a variety of laws against free speech brought radical intellectuals back to the forefront. The destruction of localized welfare through the narrowing of religious charities and the weakening of local social programs led to a necessity for help which led to the creation of thousands of mutual aid organizations, groups which aimed to disperse social goods under an ideology of solidarity4.  Lastly, the attempts to undo the power of the guilds in order to establish a laissez-faire economic regime led to labor conflicts across all of Europe, but especially in Great Britain and France, where attempts by the proletariat to sabotage the machines which were  replacing them, and the riots that followed, led to hundreds of arrests and millions in property damage5.  The existence of multiple organizations acting on a multitude of different vectors seemed to be building a momentum which, for a time, seemed like it could not be stopped.

This was important because organizations are the medium through which abstract goals such as the end of capitalism, the creation of a truly democratic society, or equality between the sexes and races are transformed into concrete programs.  A party which seeks to gain control over the government in order to institute socialism will see its struggle and the steps to that struggle as substantively different from a mutual aid organization which seeks to build socialism itself, an activist group which seeks to expand this or that action into a full fledge insurrection, and so on.  The 19th century was not just a time of rapidly expanding parties or the golden age of anarchism, it was a time when different groups were creating their own forms of socialism and radicalism, creating substantively different leftisms. Such a variety would not have been feasible in radical field dominated by but a few organizations.

Although the general momentum of 19th century leftism was towards massive organizations, the period from the 1840s to the 1880s saw a major degree of splintering as interpersonal rivalries, state coercion, and differences over tactics and politics led to numerous splits and confrontations.  In France, for instance, unions were broken up into four different political groupings, and numerous cases occurred where smaller unions would break up because out of 15 members, seven would be aligned with the left wing of the right tendency, and the other eight would be aligned with the right wing of the left tendency6. This issue prevailed for decades, and would likely have continued had the unions not combined with other groups, most notably the mutual aid organization.

Mutual aid organizations, while generally more stable internally, were  often co-opted and moderated in order to expand and reach a wealthier audience.  This was often the case in the United States, where thousands of mutual aid organizations existed with the aim of alleviating poverty and providing necessary  social services. This constant confrontation with the great poverty which existed directly alongside great wealth led to number of mutual aid organizations adopting radical politics7.  However, the search for rich patrons and the expansion their support could create led to any older groups becoming co-opted, as was the case with the Salvation Army, who moved from a radical Christian organization opposed to other major charities such as the Charity Organization Society  to a mainstream actor, focused more on managing the poor instead of serving them while attempting to abolish their poverty8.

Looking at the longer history of the Left, this trend towards co-optation seems to be the trend in intra-organizational matters.  Assimilation, defined as the moderation or giving up of one’s original goals in favor of co-operating within the system created by capitalism and the state, has happened to nearly every major leftist institution which has lasted long enough to count its history on a generational scale.  There are numerous theories as to why this occurs: theoretical mistakes leading to mistaken actions, a corrupt leadership selling out its rank and file, the desire to retain control against threatening forces, the feeling that more good could be done if one jettisoned one’s radical politics.  Numerous groups have attempted to sideline cooptation, through use of internal democratic measures, by remaining nonhierarchical, by remaining small, or through some new model of decisionmaking. Regardless of this, the historical record seems to suggest that the destiny of any leftist group at its inception is either to die out in obscurity or to accept the very system the group was created to destroy, or, as is generally  the case, both.

What is unique about the 2nd International was that during its existence not a single one of these groups could achieve dominance, and that, when the socialist parties appeared, they did so in an environment which had already seen two to three generations of organizational shifts. In many countries the rise of syndicalism–which one could view, especially in Europe, as an organic ideology created through an alliance between the unions and mutual aid organizations– concurred with the rise of parliamentary socialism.  Only in Germany was the Social Democratic Party able to wrest some kind of power/influence over its peers, although even then one can see numerous conflicts between the trade unions and the party.

With the inability of the Socialist parties to bring their competing organizations to heel, the fifty years from the 1870s to the 1920s saw a mass of groups acting on different vectors and holding completely different kinds of organizational politics.  This variety led to a robust and constant discussion of strategy during this period. Indeed, much of what Perry Anderson approvingly calls ‘classical Marxism’ was produced by the need to justify social democracy to a broad array of differing factions. Unfortunately, due to the following period leading to the consolidation of many of these organizations under one aegis, the theoretical history of radical labor unions and mutual aid organizations remains desperately underexamined, despite the existence of a tradition of nuanced strategic analysis within the radical unions9.  France–where the unions and mutual aid organizations were joined at the hip–saw one of the fullest expressions of a theory which combined the struggles of union militants with the optimism and longer-term perspectives of mutual aid organizations. These perspectives led to a natural distrust of the state, and the belief that welfare could be provided at an equitable basis outside of state programs, leading to further suspicion of attempts by the state to take over the roles of mutual aid groups10.

Thus, while these organizations rarely posed a direct threat to their sister groups–a growth in union leadership or in providing mutual aid had no direct interaction with whether one would vote–these groups often acted as rivals, which leads to the most important aspect of the 2nd International: that this consistent conflict between organizations acting along completely different organizational lines meant that while co-optations and failures of any one organization was still inevitable, the people as a whole still had a wide range of alternatives.   For instance, in France after the Millerand disaster11, when the first socialist to participate in a bourgeois government immediately supported the suppression of a strike by force.  There is evidence that this was followed shortly thereafter with a major growth in the CGT. This move from one kind of organization to another was far from universal, however: in other countries where a full range of leftist organizations were not present or where differing conditions predominated, socialist or labor parties were formed to meet the inability of bourgeois parties to deliver reform (as with the Labor party or the variety of American socialist parties), or alternatively, radical unions would be created due to frustrations with the direction their unions were being taken in (as was the case with the IWW).

This mix of groups maintained a seemingly overwhelming momentum through the early 20th century, with radical unions gaining hundreds of thousands of members in a short period of time and revolutionary socialist parties coming closer and closer towards winning elections outright.  This period would have continued if it were not for the calamity of the First World War, which came alongside the greatest betrayal in the history of the Left.

The Era of the Mass Party

This grouping of organizations was crushed in a very short time during and after WW1.  Whether from internal mistakes or state violence, the failure of revolutionary activities through all of Western & Central Europe and in the United States was also partially the fault of systemic failures in the constellation of leftist organizations that existed at the time.  Certainly Leftist organizations were not (in most cases) directly responsible for the horrors of the First World War and the repression that occurred during and after, but the rank failure of revolutionaries in the United States and in Western Europe deserves our attention, as it gives us a deeply urgent view into the ‘blind spots’ of these organizations.

While the social democratic turn towards nationalism during the First World War was in no way the worst atrocity that occurred over the war, it is difficult to think of a worse betrayal in the history of the Left.  No matter how many enunciations of internationalism the parties gave, no matter how theoretically inclined the party leaders were towards each other, the fact of the matter is that with very few exceptions, the ‘socialist’ movements of the 19th century collaborated or even cooperated with their given states in administering the largest war the world had yet seen, and then shortly after the war largely supported actions to crush their respective revolutionary movements.  The question of ‘why’, why a series of nominally emancipatory movements turned into the supporters of mass murder, is still a burning one, and in our current political situation, is perhaps the most important question that faces radicals.

The betrayal of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) during the Spartacist uprising has generally been treated either as a purely personal one, purely the product of the horrid actions of the traitor Ebert, or as a set of theoretical mistakes.  As if counter-revolutionary or revolutionary action takes place primarily in cafes, in classes, or within books. The fact is that while some other leader of the SPD might have taken a different approach to the Spartacists, the SPD, an organization focusing on taking and holding state power in order to create reform, would not have produced a leader willing to give up said power in the name of an abstract possibility of revolution (and even if a single leader accepted such a position, it is highly doubtful that the whole party would unilaterally abdicate in the name of radicalism).  The German counter-revolution did not take place within a book but in real life, and it was the product not of theoretical mistakes but of flaws inherent in the structure of political parties.

A political party exists as an institution within the nation-state: it aims to get votes within the state, to take power within the state, and most of the interactions that the party leadership will have will be with bureaucrats, lobbyists and other politicians who similarly worked within the state.  It would be more appropriate, then, to say that the actions of the social democratic parties were not so much a betrayal of the party of the people, as much as it was the showing of their true colors. It is no coincidence that the parties which supported the war–the German Social Democratic Party, the French Section of the Internationale, the Labor Party, the Socialist Party of America–were all parties which had succeeded the most in parliamentary affairs, which had become or aimed to become ‘parties of government’.  

The First World War did not just showcase the failings intrinsic to reformist political parties.  The late 1910s also marked a series of defeats to the syndicalist trade unions so immense that they never recovered as an independent force.  General strikes were defeated in Great Britain, France, and Italy, . The General Strike, long viewed as the ultimate weapon in the unions’ pocket, had been analyzed a great deal by the CGT, as a way of dealing with the problems posed by partial strikes and as a means of bringing about social revolution and bringing political power into the hands of the proletariat.12  It was even thought by many that such a partial strike could be brought about relatively nonviolently, due to the immensity of the economic violence such an action would reap upon the state.13  Following this, a new economy would be created focused on the activities of the Bourses, French Mutual Aid Organizations. This economy would be organized rationally and towards the common good of the working man, managed by workers councils which existed within the workplace.

Such a strategic vision was both profoundly utopian and the perfect culmination of the institutional realities of unions and mutual aid societies.  The mutual aid societies, which had provided the backbone to the syndicalist organizations, had supported a number of strikes successfully, and while the state had resorted to violence throughout the course of the 1890s, there was the hope that this could be countered by organizing in the military, and that, while some sections of the military would fight the people, a nationwide strike would be impossible to stop militarily.  In fact, through the late 1890s and into the 1910s, the idea that the military would be mobilized against such a general strike was brushed off, with the idea that organizing among the military would provide a good enough defense14.  The utopian bent of the syndicalists was tested against artillery strikes in Turin, and failed brutally.15

This discussion of violence brings up the last of the types of organization which have existed within the Left: that of the terrorist clique or the activist group, in short, the militant organization.  I do not mention these together purely because activists often fancy themselves guerillas, sometimes embarrassingly so. I mention them together because the organizational reality of the two groups are so similar, to the point that they create similar modes of thinking, centered around the justification of their actions.  The activist view that correct understanding of any given situation is enough to alchemically transform the power of a dozen or so militants into that of an army has been the undercurrent of activist organizing in almost every era.16  Oriented around actions, the militant views these actions in world-historical terms. That is, they organize towards these tremendous events, enact them, and disappear without a trace. Due to this focus, the militant sees discipline in creating an appropriate action as being absolutely tantamount, to an even larger degree than a party organization does.  

Regardless of this criticism, militant organizations have played an important role in the history of the Left, and paramilitary organizations acting in concert with Communist parties played a major role in the Russian and Chinese revolutions.  Furthermore, due to the authoritarian conditions of China and Russia, many revolutionary parties, including the activist and parliamentarian forms, played a role in the Bolshevik focus on the power of the ‘active minority’, and such a combination would foreshadow the direction that the Communist Party would take over the course of the 20th century.17

The rank failure of the socialist parties and of the syndicalist organizations created a massive gap in the Left which was swiftly filled by the Communist Parties.  These parties were different in form from their predecessors, in that in the Interwar period (and especially after the Second World War), these groups became almost all-encompassing within Western Europe.  The Party was a social meeting place, it was the center of activism, a field for intellectual sparring, and, last but not least, it was the jumping off point for political and economic reforms. This, as much as its membership, is what qualified the Communist Party as a ‘mass party’: it served nearly every social function and was at the center of nearly all activities.

This form proved remarkably flexible, to the degree that the Communist party was generally able to move from guerrilla actions against the Nazis to electoral actions after the war while remaining relatively intact.  Furthermore, the variety of roles which existed within the Parties of the time allowed these organizations to retain a policy of disciplined opposition for nearly a whole generation while being a major party with hundreds of thousands of members.  This is unique in history, and many actions within the Communist parties of the time were commendable. Their view of local rule, as being both a training ground for party membership to understand how government works and as a tool of social betterment, led to a massive provisioning of social services throughout France and Italy.  Over the 1940s and 50s, the Mass Party represented a legitimately hopeful future: of an organized galaxy of functions, discourses, and people, all acting and interacting towards productive ends all under one roof.

But there were faults.  These numerous organizations were all held under a form of discipline which demanded unity not only with the positions of the party leadership, but with the positions of the Soviet Union. This separation of revolutionary organizations from their revolutionary object led, allowed for a disjointed politics where deepening normalization was justified by ever more militant verbosity.  The golden age of Western Marxism, where the newly translated works of the Young Marx were integrated in an infinite number of variations with existentialism, absurdism, and linguistic structuralism, was much criticized in its time for creating a vaguely marxist academia more interested in producing philosophical texts than in revolution.  But as much as Western Marxism was a product of the discovery of Marx’s earlier, more philosophical works, it was just as much a product of the the situation which Communists found themselves in during the Mass Party period:

“Either the theorist could enroll in a Communist Party and accept the rigor of the discipline…retain[ing] a certain nominal level of contact with the life of the national working class (to which despite everything the party was inevitably bound)…the price of this proximity, however relative, to the realities of daily working class struggle was silence about its actual conduct.  No intellectual within a mass Communist Party of this period…could make the smallest independent pronouncement on major political issues, except in the most oracular form…The consequences of this impasse was to be the studied silence of Western Marxism in those areas most central to the classical traditions of historical materialism: scrutiny of the economic laws of motion…analysis of the political machinery of the bourgeois state, strategy of the class struggle necessary to overthrow it…all discussion [of these topics] was strictly reserved for the bureaucratic apex of these organizations, itself conditioned by overall allegiance to official Soviet positions.”18

This situation applied to nearly all radicals through the 1950s and early 60s.  The realities of the Cold War meant that, to the Communist Parties, the revolutionary subject was displaced from the hands of the workers into the machinations of a foreign power.  This displacement, mediated by the Communist parties, pushed for a gradual normalization of Communist practices under increasingly moderated Communist political parties. By the time that the parties broke from this model in the 70s and 80s, this central displacement was continued, with Eurocommunism being basically a rehash of social democratic ideas of a democratic road to socialism paved with campaign money.

Although it took the parties thirty years to jettison this orthodoxy, for those outside the position became increasingly untenable over the 50s and 60s. The direct link of Communist Parties to the foreign and domestic policies of the Soviet Union meant that, when de-Stalinization occurred in the USSR, all levels of each Communist party had to suddenly change tune as if they had not been defending Stalin in the weeks and months earlier.  Then followed a series of repressive acts by the Soviet Union which were met by similar apologia rhetoric. This constant fawning of some of the top intellectuals of the era over every decision made in Moscow was just the most public example of this displacement: if the Soviet Union was the revolutionary subject, then anything it did must be excusable.  This led to a gradual disconnect between the parties and their radical base as the Parties accepted a role of administering welfare capitalism while denying the possibility of revolution while various radicals proposed the potential for a revolution in Western Europe.

This brings us to 1968 and the early 70s, which marked the turning point after which the Communist Parties could no longer claim the title of sole representative of revolution.  The hierarchical nature of the party and its practical limitations led to a group of dissenters leaving the party in the 50s. As the 50s turned to the 60s, these dissenting Communisms were taken up by a new generation who had grown up in the period after the Second World War and never experienced the Communist party as the party of the Resistance.  Broadly, these new ideologies formed four trends which amounted to the declaration of independence of different kinds of organizations from Party dominance. Autonomism/Operaismo/Workerism denied the legitimacy of the party as the representative of the people, and returned to a kind of ultra-economist analysis which the Syndicalists were once accused of19.  On another line was the development of activist ideologies which by and large took Maoism as its influence.  This included a seemingly infinite number of groups who were nominally political parties such as the Gauche Proletarienne or the Dutch Communist Unity Movement, but who rarely attained more than a single seat.  These groups opposed both the parliamentary realpolitiking of the Communist Parties and the bureaucratism of their unions, and after the failure of the rallies and marches of the late 60s, these groups would increasingly turn to insurrectionary and terrorist tactics like the Red Army Faction. Further still were the intellectual movements, who took aim at ideological structures which they viewed as the major blocking point to revolutionary activity, to be deconstructed by literary and media analysis20.  Lastly and most influentially were the number of ideologies which percolated in colleges around the world, which increasingly turned against the possibility of Communism having any relevance to the ‘new movements’.  In place of the still dominant focus on white male workers as the key demographic and the Communist parties as their sole representative, these movements proposed other, intersecting, identities as the revolutionary subject.

While each of these dissenting radicalisms had their flaws, they were popular precisely because they believed that a revolution could be worked towards with no reference to international realpolitik, that, like the leftist ideologies of old, oppression and revolution are both everyday things that the average person has an experience of and a stake in.  These dissenting radicalisms came together during the wave of protests in 1968, which led to reverberations through the whole of Leftism. In many cases, as in Italy21, or in Czechoslovakia, the Communist parties turned against the students, supporting police actions against protesters and fundamentally disconnecting themselves from a generation of Leftists.  In other cases, as in France, the Communist Party and the unions took opportunistic actions in support of the students, gaining major victories in terms of reforms regarding the working day and pensions.  In still other cases candidates ran for office in an attempt to channel the events occurring around them, as in the case of Robert F Kennedy’s and McGovern’s runs for the presidency22.  But regardless of whether leftist parties attempted to curtail, use, or channel the events of 1968, the years afterwards led inexorably towards a new constellation, with the Communist parties on the wane and the ‘New Left’ on the rise.

This combined response percolated in the 1970s into Eurocommunism, which can be seen as the parliamentary response to the same issues which led to the New Left movements.  Eurocommunism was centered around two major premises: the rejection of Soviet control over the workings of the political party, and the focus on a ‘democratic road to socialism’, which opened the possibility of a revolution occurring in Europe without reference to international politics.  This trend presented itself as a radical break from the orthodoxy of parliamentary Marxism-Leninism, when in fact it was just the fullest expression of the issues already present in western communist parties.  Although the Soviet Union was no longer positioned as an external revolutionary subject, the logic of the party as the sole mediator of the revolution remained. Indeed, the Eurocommunist idea of “revolution” increasingly fell into the background, to quote Wood, “this objective seems no longer to illuminate the whole process of revolutionary change. Instead, the process is coloured by the immediate needs of political strategy and the attainment of political office.”23  This culminated in the post-Marxist theory of the late 80s and early 90s, which completely ended the focus on revolution and focused entirely on “establishing a ground for alliances within and between classes as they are here and now. for the purpose of attaining political power, or, more precisely, public office.”24 That is, Eurocommunism affected the last steps of normalization in the western communist parties.  

The transformation of the Communist Party into a ‘normal’ political party did not save them.  The sidelining of the working class in communist electoral practice occurred just as other forces emerged on the Left.  The center-left parties, who did not have to carry the burden of either contemporary communist workerism or the taboo of the Soviet Union, were better able to capitalize on the rise of the new movements, leaving, for instance, the French communist party not being so much a party ‘of the proletariat’ as it was a party of declining industrial regions2526.   By the late 80s, the only thing which differentiated Western Marxism from their social democratic ‘rivals’ was support for the USSR and in the wake of the war in Afghanistan this support was an albatross over the Left’s neck.  And so, when 1989 came and the Soviet Union fell, these parties did what they had been doing for decades: they moderated, one last time, into the grave.27

Digital Leftisms, or, the Modern Era

The Communist parties failed because, once they had dominated the political field, the flaws inherent in their structure became a general problem for the Left.  We now face a similar problem: in our immediate past, the western Left has been dominated by activist organizations and intellectual groups, and the faults inherent in these kinds of practices are the immediate issues of any who seek to reform the left .  In order to understand why these forms are so prevalent, we need to look to their origins, or rather the origins of their dominance. Because radical intellectuals and activist organizations have existed through the whole history of radicalism. They are unquestionably the easiest kinds of organizations to form: as opposed to the massive amount of capital and man-hours required to create a successful party, union, or mutual aid organization, getting a few people together for a specific end seems amazingly easy.  It is even easier, in this digital age, to write and analyze for a mass audience. In a period marked by the collapse of other forms of leftist organizing, that these two forms would predominate is not surprising.

This brings up another misconception: that the growth of activism is due to some post-modernist intellectual trend.  This tendency takes the symptom as the cause and treats the activist organizations of the 80s and 90s as if they simply came out of the aether, as if the end of the mass party was caused by Foucault .  That such analysis comes from supposedly ‘materialist’ Marxists makes this line of argument all the more farcical. Intellectuals, even the most abstract of philosophers, have existed on the Left since its inception, and during no period since the Paris Commune have they been so predominant.  Acting as if this situation would be remedied if each intellectual read more of the Grundrisse is foolhardy to the extreme, and does nothing more than position oneself as a True Leftist fighting against the falsities of post-modernism. The real question, if we agree that the predominance of intellectual groups is a problem on the Left, is not to whine about them, but to ask why these kinds of radicalism are so predominant, and this question leads straight to the answer: because there was nothing left.

That so much of this intellectual work seems devoted to media criticism and abstract philosophy is another charged levied against contemporary leftism, and this again is not as new as it seems. With the slight exception of Gramsci, every single major Western Marxist concerned themselves at least partially with matters of aesthetics and artistic criticism.  Even earlier than this, Voltaire’s and Rousseau’s political writings were bookended by works on music, on poetry, and a number of purely aesthetic novels. That Leftist bloggers should devote so much attention to analyzing television, film, or novels is not a surprise. It’s a natural product of the profession. Someone who chooses to join the academy is choosing to spend their life analyzing words, analyzing texts, differing mediums, and the analysis of other analysts.  That they would consider this work important, even perhaps more important than the work others do, makes absolute sense. Similarly, on the internet communities are created around images, around ideas, around milieus. Thus the focus on words, on media, on discourses, in online circles is not a moral failing of those groups. It is, simply put, in the nature of groups based around words to give words undue importance. As such, it is understandable that Leftists who came to the left through academic work would engage with it as academic work: these are passionate people expressing their passions, who see few ways to pursue their passions outside of academia.  Furthermore, there have been a great many cases where even the most ‘abstract’ work has brought forth lines of inquiry which can be used for practical ends. The oft trodden line between ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ is an overdetermined one: each is informed by the other. At the same time, however, it is understandable how much ink has been spilled attacking the power that academics have in the Left.

The real issue is that, given the half century long predominance of academics within the Left, and due to the relatively small size of the Left, our stories have been re-viewed and rewritten around intellectual histories, have been reconstrued so all conflicts, all developments, in the Left seem to emerge from discourse.  Other narratives, other ways of thinking, are subtly placed by the side or even ignored. This creates a line of thinking which presents the history of the left as merely an intellectual history, where the only contributions made were made by those intellectuals we deign to remember. Under this view of history, theory and practice becomes a one way relationship, and the masses only exist as the vessels of whatever some intellectual thinks up for them.  That this view casts itself as radical for focusing on radical intellectuals is wrongheaded, it is a deeply elitist view of history, and ignores what made thinkers like Marx or Lenin radical. Marx was inspired by Hegel, yes, but he was just as inspired by the working class, and without the 1848 revolution or the Paris Commune he would have been a very different thinker. This connects to a trend within Leftist intellectual work, a tendency to position oneself as the administrative class of radicalism, a leader for a nonexistent army of followers, imbued with the sole right to criticize movements they have nothing to do with.  This trend should not be viewed as some sort of mass spell of arrogance, or some product of the inherently petite bourgeois position of students. Again, academics have written self centered histories for centuries. The problem is the predominance, not the existence, of intellectual work as a vector for leftist practice. In this position they were only challenged by activist groups.

In light of the criticism consistently levied at the activities of activists, there is something that needs to be kept in mind.  While we can hold individual groups accountable to strategic and tactical failures (as well as their successes), it becomes far too easy, stuck as we are in the horrid present, to over-determine these failures, to say, if you’d done this, if you’d said that, you would have succeeded, and we would have a revolution now.  It becomes too easy to imbue emotional narratives into these events, to call them betrayals, to assume that the leadership is, in their heart of hearts, reformist, or evil, and that had I been in charge, things would have been different.  This certainly is true, different tactical decisions will be made by different people, and will lead to different conclusions.  But while engaging in these arguments may garner many likes and a great deal of hurrahs from your side of whatever ideology you subscribe to, there is the danger of ignoring the context in which these actions take place.  Much of this kind of analysis either ignores the reasons why certain leaders move to the top, or consigns them to aetherial factors.  Furthermore, these kinds of analysis often abstract away larger factors. Just as the Turin revolt’s failure wasn’t due to the writings of Georges Sorel, Occupy Wall Street did not fail from an overabundance of Foucault.  They both broke against the fist of state action, and in over-focusing on this or that strategic mistake, this or that doctrinal disagreement, we mistake the embarrassing drum circles for the water cannons of the NYPD, and give up materialist analysis in order to over-examine tactical mistakes.28

The failures of individuals can and must be examined, but what we must realize about the contemporary Left is we are all acting in desperate circumstances.  The scant material resources available to the Left, the lack of any sort of larger organizing force, and the destruction of the social security net and erection of a debtor economy onto the country’s poor means that we are less able than ever to drop everything and devote ourselves to any organization.  Thus, while we should absolutely laud the tactical and theoretical advances made by activist groups and intellectuals in the last 30 years, we also need to understand that many of their failures (and indeed, many of their successes) are a product of limitations inherent in these forms of organization, on top of an already poor situation.

I have already noted some of the issues inherent in activist organizing, namely that their focus on actions leads to a voluntarist attitude and an over-focus on the discipline and makeup of singular groups.  While these tendencies are still markedly present in activist organizations29, the activist organizations of the present day are markedly different from the kinds which predominated in the 1910s or even the 1960s.  The groups of today are markedly smaller and more decentralized, and this exacerbates many of the faults inherent in activist organizing.

Because activist organizations are, necessarily, focused around individual actions, their broader social presence is ephemeral.  Like a shoddy relative, an activist’s action will be aggressively present for perhaps a day, perhaps a week, perhaps a month. But then it will be gone, perhaps forever.  This is reinforced by the natural personal politics that come with the combination of a small group placed under enormous strain. Unless intensive measures are taken, a degree of exclusion will predominate at any activist group.  That said, an activist group’s structure does not naturally coincide with the possibility of an ‘everyday’ interaction with their community, which brings the threat of a further narrowing of the group’s interests and an unhealthy intermixing of friend groups and activist politics. But even in a group unafflicted by these tendencies, the prospect of day-in, day-out participation in an activist planning committee seems like some obscure circle of hell designed for people who never brought food to potlucks.

While the internet has become indispensable for activist organizing, it has also posed the danger of accentuating their worst problems.  Among these is the constant illusion of protesting for the press, of making one’s constituency not the people immediately involved to the action but to the public, mediated through the press and the internet.  This was already criticized in the 90s, but has if anything gotten worse. Focusing on a mediated constituency, especially in a time of short media cycles, is always going to bring at most ephemeral gains. The continued suffering of Flint showcases the issues inherent in this media centric strategy.

This brings up the main failing of activist groups.  Despite the tactics used, despite the militancy of its members, or the format of the group, an activist organization contains no mechanism within itself to solve most of the problems it broaches.  This, of course, depends on the problem: Antifa actions have proven successful at disrupting organizing attempts by fascists. Even then, there have been numerous discussions of the need to go beyond ‘tactical’ antifascism towards a broader anti-fascism which confronts fascism on broader fronts and stems the ideology off at the root30.  This strategy necessarily draws analogies to the United Front between the German Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party during the Weimar period, arguing that the Left needs to create a broad popular front with, perhaps, liberals and parties in government, to stem the tide of a resurgent fascism.

This conclusion points at the precise problem of activist organizations: while they are suited to street level battles and sometimes even a massive series of street level battles occurring across a whole country, they are organizationally incapable of winning the war.  This is even easier to see when we look at issues outside of fascism, for instance the activities of Occupy Wall Street. An activist organization which attempts to change the economic direction of a country is, quite simply, not able to do it within itself, and no action it pursues is necessarily going to achieve these goals.  In earlier periods, activists organized with mutual aid groups, both as a way to support themselves through an action and as a different economic model to aim towards. But now that the role of mutual aid organizations have been by and large overtaken by the state, nearly all activist organizations are at the very least indirectly aimed at petitioning the state to change its policies.  This is apparent to the degree that even the often embarrassingly militant Crimethinc’s piece “Why we don’t make demands” creates a reformist argument:

“Even if your intention is simply to negotiate, you put yourself in a weaker bargaining position by spelling out from the beginning the least it would take to appease you. No shrewd negotiator begins by making concessions. It’s smarter to appear implacable: So you want to come to terms? Make us an offer. In the meantime, we’ll be here blocking the freeway and setting things on fire.”31

Why reject demands of the government?  Why, to better make demands of the government! Why riot, destroying infrastructure and property?  Why, to make sure that the government hears our voice!

I am not judging the adoption of violent tactics here, and in fact I think that the whole “violence vs. nonviolence” discourse has made remarkable strides in the last few years.  The adoption of violent tactics is often a response to desperate situations on the ground, so a mere argument against violent tactics is going to do little to change people’s minds.  But this thread of reformism is why there is such a tendency, in ‘professional’ activists, to move towards parliamentary politics. After all, if one is rioting, fighting with the police, constantly under threat of murder or arrest, merely to petition the government, then what is the point in not running in the Democratic party?  If an alliance with parliamentary parties is necessary to stop fascism, then why not avoid all this hardship, and merely become a GOTV worker?

Considerations on Contemporary Leftism

The move by many of the Left’s intellectuals towards party building, or party cooption, makes perfect sense in this light.  The wall that activist movements have continually hit upon is the fact that no matter how good their tactics, no matter how perfect their organizational chart is, no matter how immaculate their strategies, they are pushing for a change in government policy which relies on actions within the government.  It is a natural progression to move from focusing on influencing the state to focusing on participating in the state. And, in an environment so dominated by the petty discourses of intellectuals and the ephemerality of activist groups, party-builders see themselves as the harbingers of a return to a period when the Left was taken seriously.

In doings so the party builders have attempted to create centralized edifices in order to better adopt the tactics the leadership views as necessary. These moves have been, or at least were, supported within some sections of the Leftist press:

“For many of its critical voices the possibility of shaping a party in the image of the 15-M, and of its radically democratic spirit, were sacrificed at the altar of Errejón’s vaunted “electoral war machine.” For sympathizers of the leadership line, and indeed the members who overwhelmingly supported Iglesias’s quasi-Leninist plea for centralism and efficacy, the sacrifice was worth it.”32

The issue with this model is not the Laclauan style ‘populist’ terms it justifies itself on–after all, these new theoretical groundings are necessary in a world where the Marxist ‘brand’ is seen as a limitation to succeeding in politics.  But these justifications are secondary to practices; a party can use the most revolutionary and innovative rhetoric out and still be a run of the mill social democratic party. This is the case with the new wave of leftist parties, who are not organizationally or strategically revolutionary, but who hide their status as normalized political parties behind a veneer of leftist rhetoric.  

Yes, the new leftist parties have large voting rolls, and sometimes win elections.  But it takes more than a large membership base to be a mass party. The Communist parties of the mid 20th century were not radical purely due to their contributions to magazines and journals, were not mass parties purely due to their size.  The new Leftist parties are not social spaces and are not centers for activist or intellectual activity: they are places where social activity is consumed under the altar of electoralism. Looking at their actions rather than their words shows parties which attempt to gobble up the activist groups they came from, which sideline organizational democracy in order to better commit to realpolitik, which have ignored the day to day organizing of their members in favor of a year to year organizing of their constituents.  To be a member of Podemos, Syriza, the Fronte de Gauche, means little more than an expression of political opinions, means little more than pulling a lever every couple of years. Organizing should mean more than this.

The rise of these new Leftist currents has not been limited to continental Europe.  The Anglosphere, long dominated by ‘soft’ left parties, have seen a wave of excitement about attempts to ‘take the Labour/Democratic Party back’.  The problem is not merely that there has never really been a ‘radical’ Labour/Democratic party to take back. The problem is that such a large segment of the organized Left has been engaged in these efforts.  2016 has not only brought out a new passion for social democracy à la mode, it has brought a moderation of dozens of major Leftist organizations across Great Britain and the United States in an attempt to capture the wave of left populism.

This is not some mass failure of ideology, not some collective inability to read the right quotations of Lenin.  It is the temptation of achieving some semblance of state power balanced against nothing. In a Leftist ecology dominated by parties, activist groups, and intellectuals, the balancing system which existed in the late 19th-early 20th century is trampled under a gallop towards the state.  The logic of most activist groups naturally inclines them to promote ‘one of their own’ towards the seat of power in order to better influence policy and public opinion, and intellectual journals, under the pressure to get yet more clicks, have shown a flexibility which would make the greatest gymnast blush at the self contorting justifications we are confronted with daily.

To criticize these tendencies on the level of intellectual debate is to miss the point, because these issues do not arise from personal failings but from the tendencies imbued in their practices.  So long as activism is viewed as a petition to the government there will be a push towards reformism, and so long as the movements are unable to solve the problems they present activism will be viewed as a petition to the government.   This is not an issue of understanding, and correct theory cannot prevent this tendency towards reformism no more than a poem can stop a fire. So long as taking government power is seen as the real objective of radical politics, all the journal entries and articles in the world will not be able to stop the march towards the Democratic party and the project for a new labor/social democratic party.  The creation of mutual aid societies, not aimed at supplying the events of the milieu but at providing the social services which people need in their daily lives, is a way not only of creating a solid alternative to the push towards collaboration, but is desperately necessary in these dark times.


  1. (back) Marx & Engels, The German Ideology, “Private Property & Communism”
  2. (back) While one might want to point to a spontaneous revolution as an ‘out’ to this thesis, a look at the period shortly after times of revolutionary struggle shows that organizations are, sadly, inescapable
  3. (back) That is, an ideology
  4. (back) French History & Civilization “Mutual Aid Societies in Eighteenth Century Paris” 2001
  5. (back) Horn 2006 124-125
  6. (back) Levine 2014 “The Labor Movement in France to the Commune 1789-1871”
  7. (back) Hussyen 2015 “The Limits of Private Philanthropy”
  8. (back) Ibid
  9. (back) Levine 2014 “The General Confederation of Labor from 1895-1902”
  10. (back) Ibid
  11. (back) Alexandre Millerand was the first socialist to ever enter government, who then shortly afterwards ordered the breaking of a strike with military force.
  12. (back) Levine 2014 “The Doctrine of Revolutionary Syndicalism”
  13. (back) Darlington 2013 287
  14. (back) Levine 2014 “The Doctrine of Revolutionary Syndicalism”
  15. (back) It would be remiss to not mention the failure of cooperation between parties and unions at this point; decades of rivalry between these organizations meant that there was a degree of hesitation when one asked for help, and this period of hesitation by the PSI was a part of the Italian government’s success at destroying the Turin striker’s force.
  16. (back) The Baffler 2016 “Against Activism”
  17. (back) And indeed, if one wanted to go all the way with my argument, much of the struggle between the Orthodox Marxists and the Bolsheviks was an argument between the realities of a parliamentary party who viewed things in a generally optimistic way, and who saw their job as merely to be the midwife of an inevitable revolution which had little to do with their particular actions, and a primarily activist organization which replaced the stagist conception of history with an almost voluntaristic one, wherein the actions of the party were the key to bringing revolution.
  18. (back) Anderson 1976, “The Advent of Western Marxism”
  19. (back) Keuchyan 2014 27
  20. (back) The Situationists were a major example of this
  21. (back) Jacobin Magazine, “Red Bologna Today”
  22. (back) While I have not remarked on the Democratic party’s function, I would argue that since the New Deal the Democratic party has served a similar role as most social democratic parties, excepting the obvious fact that the Democrats have no embarrassing revolutionary history to dispose of.
  23. (back) Wood 1986, 13-14
  24. (back) Ibid
  25. (back) Judt 2011 “The Elections of 1981 in Retrospect”
  26. (back) A comment, here, about the claim that ‘representing the working class’ is the sole metric of legitimacy of a party or group.  Representation is a whole bag of worms which would require a paper far longer than this one to unpack, but to state it shortly: it is incredibly easy to claim that one is the representative of some group.  It is far harder to live up to this claim.
  27. (back) Libcom, “Amadeo Bordiga and the Myth of Antonio Gramsci”
  28. (back) A particular example of this is the oft repeated viewpoint that had the Occupiers read more Marx or been more hierarchical they could somehow have ‘won’, whatever this means.  That such a viewpoint comes from the mouths of self professedly materialistic Marxists is absurd to say the least.
  29. (back) The entire argument regarding consensus is a prime example of this: the search for a perfect organizational format overshot a discussion of the specific cultural/organizational atmosphere that consensus flourished in.
  30. (back) West & Richardson, “The Dover debate: in defense of mass anti-fascism”
  31. (back) Crimethinc, “Why We Don’t Make Demands”
  32. (back) Jacobin Magazine, “Portrait of a Leader as a Young Theorist”


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Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas. “How the web distorts reality and impairs our judgement skills.” Media network blog. May 13, 2014. Accessed January 09, 2017.

Chiaradia, John. “Amadeo Bordiga and the myth of Antonio Gramsci – John Chiaradia.” Accessed January 09, 2017.

Clemoes, Charlie, and Jake Soule. “Red Bologna Today.” Jacobin Magazine. Accessed January 09, 2017.

Darlington, Ralph. Radical unionism: the rise and fall of revolutionary syndicalism. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2013.

Garrioch, David. “Mutual Aid Societies in Eighteenth-Century Paris.” French History & Civilization Volume 4 (January 2011): 22-33.

Hauser, Arnold. The social history of art. New York: Knopf, 1951.

Horn, Jeff. The path not taken: French industrialization in the age of revolution, 1750-1830. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Huyssen, David. Progressive inequality: rich and poor in New York, 1890-1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. Kindle Ebook.

Judt, Tony. Marxism and the French Left: studies in labour and politics in France, 1830-1981. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. Kindle Ebook.

Keucheyan, Razmig, and Gregory Elliott. Left hemisphere: mapping critical theory today. New York: Verso, 2013. Kindle Ebook.

Levine, Louis. Syndicalism in France. New York, 2014. Kindle Ebook.

Martel, Frédéric. The pink and the black: homosexuals in France since 1968. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. “The German Ideology.” The German Ideology. Accessed October 19, 2016.

Miliband, Ralph. Marxism and politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Rancière, Jacques. Althusser’s lesson. London: Continuum, 2011. Kindle Ebook.

Schulman, Jason. “Where Is Our Labor Party?” Jacobin Magazine. Accessed January 09, 2017.

Taylor, Astra. “Against Activism.” The Baffler. Accessed January 11, 2017.

Toscano, Alberto. “Portrait of the Leader as a Young Theorist.” Jacobin Magazine. December 19, 2015. Accessed January 09, 2017.

West, George, and Alex Richardson. “The Dover debate: in defense of mass anti-fascism.” ROAR Magazine. Accessed January 09, 2017.

Why We Don’t Make Demands.” CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective. Accessed January 09, 2017.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. The retreat from class: a new “true” socialism. London: Verso, 1986.


3 thoughts on “Organizational Materialism: Considerations on Contemporary Leftism

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