Conversations on the Left: What is to be done?

Bhaskar Sunkara, James Turley, & Ben Blumberg

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

On April 18th, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a conversation at New York University between Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin, James Turley of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and Ben Blumberg of Platypus, to discuss the differences and similarities between their organizations. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Tri Logos

Bhaskar Sunkara: It is impossible to deny that the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) Weekly Worker is an important publication. It is a publication that is right about many things, without a doubt more right than their peers on the British left, and their ideas deserve more engagement, so I am very pleased that Platypus has us together on this panel. There is no regular party publication on the American left that comes close to the Weekly Worker’s competence, especially considering the small size and resources of the CPGB. They have been consistently against the perversion of democratic centralism and lack of accountability by the leadership in groups like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). I have been reading it for a couple of years and I think they have a really nuanced view of Trotskyism’s legacy. They also have a solid critique of Eurocommunism and other coalition politics. What I like most of all is their openness about their small size and their limited influence as an organization. For someone like me, who has been around the Left and its posturing, we at Jacobin think the Weekly Worker is far more refreshing and useful than organs that herald the coming of every new socialist movement as if it is going to resurrect the Left. Platypus’s approach is also sometimes useful on this point. Jacobin doesn’t share the same politics, but only because we are operating in different contexts. We aim to reach a different audience. Jacobin, as a political project, is a publication that cannot substitute for the role of a political organization or the role of a party. It also cannot have the uncompromising and coherent vision and perspective of a propaganda group. And it is subject to lots of different pressures and forces — such as the market and the petty-bourgeois culture of writing and publishing.

Our different orientations affect whom we are trying to reach. Jacobin was always two projects. It is something of an intra-left project: emphasizing a Marxist perspective towards organization building. But our main project has been an outwardly directed one: engaging with American liberalism. We have always been geared towards the general public. We are liberals articulating radical ideas and we do so in a way that is clear and accessible. If we have any measure of mainstream success, it is intentional. We have sought to be a terrain for deep theoretical debates. It has been said that we are visible reminders of a long-forgotten socialist tradition, which would define us politically somewhere in between Leninism and the Democratic Socialists of America. One result of this is that the level of politicization of Jacobin’s readership is not quite the same as the level of politicization of our editors, and you could probably say there is a lot more political parity between the readership and the editors of the Weekly Worker and the Platypus Review.

James Turley: The CPGB is not a party. It doesn’t exist; it is a name. The name comes from the older official communist party that has since wound up. The name represents an ideal that we look towards. The far left is divided into small propaganda circles and some of them deny that they do propaganda. The SWP would be a good example; the International Socialist Organization (ISO) is another. They think they are talking to the masses, but it is bad propaganda reaching a mass audience. The CPGB identifies openly as a propaganda group and so probably would the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) or the Spartacist League. So there is a very similar landscape out of which the CPGB of the 1920s was formed. The original CPGB was formed from one wing of the Socialist Labour Party, which was a kind of syndicalist sect, and the large majority of the British Socialist Party. At that time, it was a far-left Marxist sect rather than the mass party form that existed in continental Europe. Along with the South Wales committee, their forces together totaled about four to five thousand. If you add up the people in Britain today committed to some form of socialist revolution, you get a ballot figure of about five thousand. After 70–90 intervening years we are, in a sense, back where we started. That says something about the 20th century.

But in the 1920s there were sharp tactical polemics between leftists who were, nevertheless, able to come together and vote on issues like whether affiliations would be sold to the Labour Party. They were able to make such decisions without watering down their overall political orientation, and that is fundamentally what we seek today. We argue for the unity of Marxists around a Marxist program even though the result would be something small and socially insignificant. Nonetheless, we would be in a far better position to grow rapidly and to spread socialist and communist ideas throughout society.

There is also the matter of what we inherit from the 20th century. The old CPGB was effectively a left-Stalinist party under the influence of the Turkish Communist Party. So our heritage is a kind of hard Marxism-Leninism, but we take distance from the Soviet Union and the rest of the Stalinist bloc. In that sense, there was a certain formal similarity to the Spartacus League or Workers’ World Party (WWP), with the harder defenses of Trotskyism. Obviously, this is not our political orientation today; we have not become Trotskyists. We see that Trotskyism was a profoundly positive thing in that it rejected the notion of socialism in one country. It also rejected the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. Trotskyists of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s were broadly on the correct side of certain struggles. On the other hand, we see Trotsky’s Transitional Program as inadequate and economist. It creates two lines on the spontaneous development of consciousness, leading either to reformism or a kind of strange ultimate-ist, sect-like obsession with this text from the 1930s.

We are often categorized as Neo-Kautskyists. For us, Karl Kautsky was a highly important figure, effectively the chief historian of the Second International and also an intellectual hit man for August Bebel. He wrote the most sustained defenses of mainstream strategy of the Second International that we are trying to save from historical oblivion. Today’s self-identified Leninist groups have come to see a severe break between Lenin and the Second International. But the Leninist rejection of this whole tradition is misconceived. Lenin was a key figure in the mainstream faction of the Second International, the center faction led by Kautsky, and if there is anything distinctive about him and his faction of Bolsheviks, it is that they were the most politically muscular defenders of what was, quite simply, orthodoxy. Lars Lih characterizes Lenin as “aggressively unoriginal.” We are trying to recover that unoriginality, because it was part of an overall strategy of the emergence of genuinely mass parties committed to socialist revolution. I feel like we are winning that particular historical battle. It is hard to tell at this point because there are still relatively substantial revolutionary groups that are committed to bearing a kind of hard Leninism. But very few new groups are being formed, and when splits happen, they tend to produce further, ever smaller, Trotskyist combat organizations. That produces a tendency for an equal yet opposite misinterpretation of Lenin, which is that he built a broad organization that everyone could come into. We like to call that the “politics of the swamp”: everyone can come in and paddle their feet in the swamp. But this strategy runs into its own contradictions and the whole thing falls apart. In fact, the Bolsheviks, like the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), were programmatically defined in an extremely sharp way — in ways that were designed to cause divisions. The Erfurt Programme of the SPD, the Program of the Parti Ouvrier in France, and the Bolshevik plan were written in ways to exclude anarchists and cause splits.

On the Weekly Worker, our flagship: The original CPGB paper, the Daily Worker, was nicknamed the “Daily Miracle,” in the sense of the improbability of its publication. I tend to call our paper the “Weekly Miracle.” It is run on a shoestring budget by a small, dedicated volunteer staff. It carries forward the type of culture that we want: a culture of open polemics. There is a reason why we start off with two pages of letters. We do not want to present a show of everyone agreeing with us. That would be ridiculous. On the other hand, that doesn’t come at the cost of us having a clear editorial line. We will absolutely concede our political hardness in the way that Lenin and his comrades would have done. We are not afraid to ruffle a few feathers and bruise a few egos. I haven’t gone into a lot of the meat of the dispute between ourselves and Platypus, which focuses on rather more obscure questions like the relationship between philosophy and history. But we don’t have an official party philosophy or an official party philosopher and we don’t think there should be one. That doesn’t mean we are indifferent to such matters, but we are more focused on history as a kind of empirical record, or a record of projects that have attempted to transform society. It is safe to say that they have all failed eventually but, as Samuel Beckett may have put it, some failed better than others.

Ben Blumberg: What distinguishes Platypus is the question of history. This means something different for Platypus than it does for the CPGB, although in both cases, it is a question of historical consciousness. I am not including Jacobin, not because I think history is inessential for them, but because Jacobin is probably less likely to be accused of being an antiquarian society in the way that Platypus and the CPGB are.

The idea that history is an empirical record that serves as a balance sheet on the attempts by leftists of the past to overcome capitalism, displays a lack of awareness about the break in continuity between past and present. In some of the exchanges between Platypus and the IBT, a distinction was made between historical continuity projects, such as theirs, in contrast to Platypus’s idea of historical memory. Granted, once one begins to move from the former to the latter, we get into a terrain that is less concrete and more philosophical, or, as one of our recent detractors has described it, “obscurantist idealism.” But historical memory for Platypus has to do with the way our moment is conditioned by what was possible at an earlier time: namely, emancipation from capitalism. This once present possibility has today become interred under a century or more of historical failure.

There is a fundamental distinction between our notion of historical failure and the CPGB’s understanding of the same phenomenon. For us, the problem is not that past actors had the wrong politics, as the CPGB would argue. Instead, the problem is one of consciousness: What undergirds the attempts at emancipation? What is the consciousness that gives rise to the workers’ movement? This is why we emphasize the critique of Marxism. What has been most fundamental to the history of Marxism is the attempt at deepening the consciousness generated by the misfortunes and maladies of bourgeois society. For Marxists — and this is very clearly enunciated in the figures that we treat as foundational: Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky — historical defeats are only damning for the movement if we do not learn from them. Luxemburg, for example, explicitly said that the collapse of the Second International in 1914 would only be a loss if no lessons were extracted from it.

To bring it around to the idea of historical discontinuity, Platypus contends that these lessons have not been learned. We want to hold at bay the Chomskyan approach to the history of Marxism, where it is simply a matter of telling people what they don’t know. Because we haven’t learned from our failures, historical conditions have changed, particularly in terms of the possibility for consciousness. Like the CPGB, we are not a political party, but for different reasons. James probably wouldn’t characterize our historical moment as “pre-political” in the way that we would.

So we characterize our project in this negative sense. It is not a matter of telling people that this is what historical consciousness looked like back then, and we need to aspire to its reproduction in the present. Rather, we teach Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky to make visible the contours of what is missing. And that is why we consider ourselves a “pre-political” project. We think that there needs to be recognition of what is absent in our historical moment. We are in a “pre-political moment” because of the absence of consciousness that once existed.


BS: My perspective is more empirical. History is fact, and I think useful history is grounded in social history. I would agree that the history of the Left is the history of failure, but I think that it is a combination of bad objective social and economic conditions with poor political responses to these conditions. One of the key differences is that I think there is room for actual politics today. I can somewhat understand Platypus’s objection to that. There is a lot of noise and “movementism,” and the Left is an echo chamber. But there are relevant, operative politics for us to engage in, even if the Left today is in a worse position than it has been in the past. Still: Trade union activity is politics. Anti-austerity work is politics. The anti-war movement is politics.

JT: I don’t think that the current moment is “pre-political.” That strikes me as difficult to reconcile with the fact that there is simply, in obvious ways, politics going on. In Britain, the trade union movement is at its absolute historical weakest. We are back to almost the beginning of mass trade unionism in terms of union density, but we still have mass demonstrations organized by the unions and the left of the unions. Sometimes, arguing with Platypus, it feels like this discontinuity stance is their dinosaur Marx, as if a comet landed and all the dinosaurs died or became birds, as if everybody was wiped out by an incomprehensible natural catastrophe. But what happened was a serious development. It seems like an impossible situation, like a chicken-and-egg scenario, in which we can’t have mass organizations because we don’t have the historical consciousness that mass organization brings into being. There is no other way to solve the problem than to work through the concrete history, through an intellectual frame that would be less abstractly philosophical. I wouldn’t conceive of the task in terms of critique, but rather in terms of science, which I would consider an objective, critical form of knowledge.

BB: The question of science, I think, is one of the main tripping points for the Left. Certainly Platypus, both externally and internally, finds itself embroiled in these questions about “scientific socialism” and Marx’s concepts in relation to the natural sciences. Is Marxism a science? Did Marx advance science itself, or is this category a lot of bunk? Platypus maintains that the question of science for Marx and Marxism is derived from a different meaning of the word than is used in the natural sciences. It is implied in the particular way in which historical research is conducted; what characterizes the “scientific” in Marxism is the self-conscious reflecting on the conditions of its own possibility.

On the notion of discontinuity: The possibility of praxis today is largely assumed, whereas we would put it in the form of a question. Is it really the case that an exploitative system that is raised by mendacious politics leads to social discontent, and that is just the natural way of politics? One of the reasons I think that idea can be rejected is that exploitation is not new to our historical epoch. Yet the question of emancipatory politics is historically specific to the era of the bourgeoisie. For Platypus, the question of discontinuity rests on the perplexity that one has to face when one begins to integrate the conditions of possibility and praxis today. We approach those conditions as something that can only be glimpsed when one delves into how they were understood historically. To paraphrase Trotsky, you can stand at the side of a river, but the water doesn’t stop flowing: The history of the objective conditions has changed. It is common to hear strange assertions and questions about the nature of the social order today, such as “is it really even mediated by the wage-laborer?” This points to just how opaque society has become.

I don’t think Platypus would exist if we just thought that politics was absolutely impossible. In fact, we do what we do precisely because we think it is possible. The question is: What is it going to take to get from here to there?

JT: The “scientificity” of Marxism would be scientific socialism based on the materialist conception of history, which, to me, is a kind of minimal point in itself: It is the idea that history is something that we can apprehend and thus actually transform. There is obviously an element of reflection on the conditions of existence, but the consciousness of the past is not inaccessible. In a sense, we have had the experience of 80 years of mulching it over and trying to work out what the hell happened. Now we can come to a better understanding. It is very clear there are differences between what we call the social sciences and the natural sciences. You could almost call history the laboratory of a mad scientist who doesn’t have a very coherent idea for organizing his or her experiments. We are just left with the results, which we have to mulch over. All that “science” amounts to, in this case, is the claim that we can have a cumulative project of understanding history.

I don’t think that it is true that emancipatory politics is a product of the bourgeois era. The pre-bourgeois era is littered with various strange, mostly religious, utopian sects attempting, in the Christian sense, to go back to the early church. What has changed with bourgeois society — and I would rather call it capitalism — is that the socialbasis is laid such that these attempts to change the world can actually amount to more than ephemeral communes.

Back in 1920, we had five thousand people committed, in some sense, to running around urging everybody to be a Marxist. Now we have five thousand people committed to running around and pretending that they are good, old-fashioned Labour social democrats. That is a serious change. Our project is a long-term one. We don’t think we are going to turn this around in five years or ten years. Just as if we wanted to institute bourgeois state regimes, as in the 17th century or the 18th century, we would have needed to deal with the disaster of the Italian city states in the 15th and 16th century. As an aside: A large part of Shakespeare’s work is propagandizing how terrible these societies were. That is what was going on in the Merchant of VeniceTwo Gentlemen of Verona,and Romeo and Juliet. Look at the terrible bloody warfare! Wouldn’t it be better if they had a proper king? And this is similar to 19th century British propaganda about the French Revolution.

As they say, if you kick a dog, it will probably bite you. The mistake is spontaneitist and anarchist trends, which expect that these reflexes will solve everything, which of course they don’t. But there will always be opportunities — little cracks that you can wedge politics into. This doesn’t mean going back to rethinking the basic terms of what emancipation could mean in a particular historical circumstance, but attempting to produce a politics that makes a difference, thinking about it not in terms of the possibilities in the next five years, but the next fifty years.

BS: I think there is an opportunity for a formation like the left party in Germany — which I am sure neither of you has much faith in — but which would present an opening for the radical left, which historically has been symbiotic or parasitic on broader, reformist workers’ movements. I think these developments can open up new political possibilities. In America, we’ve never developed to the point of having a Social-Democratic or workers’ movement. In Britain, where they have a bourgeois workers’party, their best achievement is social liberalism.

Even with American liberalism today, we can identify two different camps: We can see liberals committed to this New Deal coalition and we have liberals who are technocratic or deep into “third-way” politics. The technocratic liberals are, in a sense, more sophisticated, in that they actually saw the crisis of the American welfare state in the 1970s and saw the crisis of the broader center-left. They actually adapted their program to this crisis. This gap between these main factions of what used to be the American center-left presents political opportunities that might not even come close to emancipatory politics in our generation, but could still provide the terrain in which the Left can regroup, build itself institutionally, and become a leading element in a broader, center-left anti-austerity movement, thus opening up possibilities for politics in the future.

Q & A

This is a Western-focused audience, so when I keep hearing about “failure,” “addressing our history,” and looking for chances or ruptures, I wonder, in what contexts is this more negative position warranted? What about actually existing revolutions like the Bolivarian revolution?

BS: A Third World impulse has done the Left a great deal of harm. A lot of the problems of the New Left have to do with Third Worldism. As far as the Bolivarian revolution, I see positive aspects of it, but it is on the populist continuum. The best way forward for the American left is to help these other struggles by building an opposition movement in the U.S. I am not saying that there has to be revolution in the United States first, but if there were some weak link in European capitalism, it would greatly help the European struggle if there were a strong leftist party in the United States with 20,000–30,000 active members, who could immediately launch a propaganda war. I think, to some extent, that it is an unhealthy impulse on the Left to immediately look to relevant struggles overseas — whether in Cuba or the Maoists in Nepal. We can be in solidarity with these struggles, although, more often than not, we should be critical of a lot of them.

JT: The fundamental issue with Venezuela is that it is simply too historically specific. What lessons can we learn? That, in order to have a revolution, you need a charismatic leftist army officer in charge of a country with oil reserves? This is not a broad historical movement; it is a singularity. It would be false and patronizing to say that it is not a good thing to lift an enormous amount of people out of illiteracy and poverty on the basis of mobilization, but this is as vulnerable as the welfare state of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Left often ends up in a defensive position: it pushes to keep wages at their current state, or defends certain social rights like healthcare. Can we really call that politics, if the Left is wedged in a position where it is essentially defending the status quo?

BS: I agree that the response to austerity on the Left has been defensive, but I think it is tactically defensive. A defensive politics towards the welfare state, if it’s part of a broader program, can be useful. More political defeats now, in terms of greater austerity, will just put the Left and the working class in a tougher position to fight back in the future. So we can’t have offensive ends unless we win the defensive struggle now.

JT: I would argue something different. It is clear that anti-austerity politics ends up repeating old Keynesian debates. You get shock troops coming out saying “we want a million climate change jobs!” But they expect to be defeated so that they can be radicalized. I don’t think the problem is defensiveness. The emergence of a socialist workers movement is, as they used to put it in the Second International, the founding myth. The workers’ movement preexisted what we call socialism. It took the form of mass trade unions in England; they were defensive organizations. You obviously have people saying that we need more than just trade union rights, but that is about as far as it goes. What about cooperatives? That used to be thought of as a foundation. I am not saying cooperatives are a road to socialism. They are an occasional waiting post on the way to socialism, but they are all fundamentally part of the working class’s defense against economic attacks.

BB: The issue is not best characterized by the defensiveness of the Left in anti-austerity politics. However, I would make a distinction between the early socialist movement and the workers’ movement. If you characterize the workers’ movement as simply defensive or founded upon the workers’ need to defend themselves against the intensive exploitation that came around with industrialization, you capture only part of what was going on. How we characterize the organized working class as a constituent element in the developmental trajectory of society is important, because it wasn’t simply founded on defense. It was constituted, meaning that people who lived outside of society, in the shantytowns around Manchester, were taken and made actual constituents of society. To use some Platypus jargon, they were made into bourgeois subjects. By allowing them to participate in the sale of their labor on equal terms, they were given the rights that the bourgeoisie had already given itself. That was the foundation of bourgeois citizenry.

I think the context in which a reformist struggle occurs is essential and this is exactly the argument Rosa Luxemburg puts forth. She is often characterized, in an obnoxious way, as a revolutionary counterposing herself to reformists. From the very first paragraph of Reform or Revolution, she says the opposite, that it is the reformists who separate reform from revolution. The point is that reforms achieved in the context of advancing the socialist workers’ movement are very different from reforms achieved in the context of the unchallenged dominance of the status quo. We have to account for that distinction, even if you don’t want to go as far as Platypus and recognize the historical discontinuity. |P

Transcribed by Daniel Jacobs

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