(We intend that this be used as an accessible guide for activists navigating among the ‘ultra lefts’ of today’s movements)
We’ll admit it: figuring out an approach to this article proved more difficult than anticipated. While the short-lived autonomist movement has been better dealt with in numerous Marxist journals—from its workerist origins to the postmodernist swamp—this new breed of self-indentified ultra-lefts have chosen to resurrect the ghosts of 68 after their dilettantism in anarchism and postmodernism led them nowhere. These autonomists would think of themselves as being strictly principled, but their principles are strictly autonomous from each other. Therefore, they can at once insist on playing their roles as the dutiful contrarians in the emerging California budget cuts struggle by calling for “occupation, not democracy,” while simultaneously criticizing the 10/24 conference as “undemocratic.” Their selected literature is a maze of abstractions—a clever way of disguising their lack of ideas (“Demands are meaningless” “You can never destroy utopias”). These comrades would have been more useful as poets than as radical theorists.
Nevertheless, we do have a clutter of disparate philosophies to deal with that can only be approached separately, hence the organization of this essay. However, what appears to be a reoccurring feature of the so-called “new Marxism” is a retreat to old ideas. The Italian workerist/autonomist tradition was a theoretical step backward in its justified reaction to Stalinism. It looked to the “left communists” of the Third International who never had anything to offer the socialist movement but crude and naïve doctrinarism. In its adoption of postmodern idealism, the autonomists deracinated materialist conceptions inherently central to Marxism such as class and power. Here we’ll look at some trends today’s ultra-lefts pluck from.
“Workerism” is a political perspective that applies to swaths of revolutionary theories. It shares a very crude understanding of the class struggle and a deep antipathy to politics. Lenin’s original theoretical break from the Russian Social Democratic party was over the matter of ‘economism.’ Economists argued the task for revolutionaries was to assist and inevitably tail the economic demands of the working class, leaving the political struggle to the bourgeoisie. It believed class-consciousness would develop gradually based on the accumulation of economic struggles alone. The much maligned emphasis on the need for revolutionaries to bring politics “from without,” translates to without or outside the factory. To truly be revolutionary, one must understand and respond to all forms of oppression. Economism stemmed from an unapologetic reformist outlook, but at least in rhetoric, workerism was not always reformist (though one can argue the denial of state power offers in practice, nothing but reformism). Syndicalism too, argued against participation in the political struggle, though their revolutionary credentials have never been questioned. Their abstentionism was an anarchist impulse that saw any activity within the State as political quicksand—the more you struggle, the deeper you sink. Syndicalism in practice will be dealt with later in the article.
Today’s ultra-lefts can be traced to those traditions. Sharing a rejection of Lenin’s formulation of politics and the party, workerists would rather flatter the proletariat than take it seriously. Content to cheerlead instead of challenge, the “anti-authoritarian” left is in fact the most elitist. Dense theory for them, and platitudes and praise for the workers.
Currently in fashion is the Italian workerists, or Operaismo. Italy’s 1969 “Hot Autumn” is known for delivering the exclamation point on what was the last significant international upsurge. Operaismo developed as a challenge to the Stalinist PCI, returning to the fundamental tenant of revolutionary socialism—that the “self-emancipation of the working class would be the act of the working class itself.” At best, the Italian workerists restated a concept long lost to Stalinism, but as for something new its theorists offered nothing but academic flash based on imaginative interpretations of Marx’s Capital and Grundrisse. They argued that the struggles of the working class trigger a restructuring of capitalism, where it adapts and strengthens itself. At bottom, it was essentially a fancy denunciation of any type of reform. It began as a reaction to the particular conditions of Italy’s class struggle, where there was a tradition of elevating “professionalism” (skilled workers) over the non-skilled. Rather than seeing it as an ideological obstacle to overcome, Operaismo expanded a historically specific trend to the entire capitalist system. The large scale introduction of Taylorism signaled a new era of capitalist restructuring. On one hand they were right, this was the beginning of neoliberailsm. On the other hand it was meaningless—the restructuring of capitalism has always led to dramatic shifts in working class composition, but never the dissolution of the working class or its centrality.
Workerism without the workers
All this theorizing would inevitably put itself into the camp of the “post Marxist” Frankfurt School and Louis Althusser. Thoroughly demoralized by Stalinism, left academics began their retreat. To break with historical materialism, they first had to falsify it. Claiming Marx had an insufficient take on the role of ideology, they turned him into a mechanical Pavlovian figure, and then wouldn’t stop theorizing. While Marxism saw itself in the arc of modernism— a trend of social progress aided by scientific and technological advance, the “post Marxists” led the way for postmodernism. Postmodernism is actually the absence of a system of thought. It rejected any theory that attempted to explain events with certainty. It questioned the validity of history, of science, because of their strange suspicion of words. Uncomfortable with how “subjective” the written word could be might explain why their texts read like ridiculous ciphers.
This school of “thought” deeply shaped the evolution of Operaismo’s central theorists. You saw the germ in their thinking when the “mass worker” (deskilled) was replaced by the “social worker” which included everyone. Key themes which ran through Operaismo was the idea that factory organization had spread to every sphere of working class life and that workers’ struggles, not the need to accumulate, compelled capitalism to innovate. Therefore, revolution would take place, not in the point of production, but anywhere outside of it (home, neighborhood, “community”).
Today’s ultra-lefts get into serious discussions on “communization theory.” Essentially applying the “social factory” concept to deduce a not-so-novel idea that workers must fight outside of their relationship to capital—rejecting the fundamental antagonism Marx identified. For there is no space in this “critical theory” for “privileging” the working class in a postmodern, ‘postindustrial’ world. Instead, students, housewives, the unemployed, dogs, cats, must organize to take over their communities and create autonomous spaces that will eventually outmaneuver the State. Paul D’Amato exposes this empty concept:
No doubt it would be far more pleasant not to have to “deal with capital on capital’s own terms,” but sadly, this is impossible. In the end, the capitalist system must be reckoned with by the working class collectively and as a whole, not by piecemeal experiments–in short, in a revolutionary “event”…utopian experiments–such as “autonomous zones” or worker-owned cooperatives–are forced to “engage with capital on capital’s own terms,” that is, are forced to reckon with the pressures of the market or disappear in failure. Capitalism is not in the least threatened by them.
Not a term to take pride in, yet ultra-lefts wear it like a badge of stupidity. The term was popularized by a debate between Lenin and the “left communists” of the Third International. The ‘left communists’ opposed working within unions or political parties, and rejected the United Front tactic. The United Front is where socialists seek tactical agreements with reformists for a definite and specific defensive goal. Stalin, during what is known as the “Third Period,” also took an ultra left stance to the United Front in regard to the rise of Nazism. While Trotsky was in exile, pleading to the German communists that, “should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a tank,” Stalin was of the opinion that the liberal reformists were no better. They were “social fascists.” Such a principled stance worked wonders for the German communist party. After Hitler came to power, the social democrats (reformists) and the communists finally united, as Tariq Ali aptly put it, it was “unity in the graveyard.”
Misunderstanding the role of trade unions and abstention from politics doesn’t win more “leftism points”, but it disarms workers against the forces of capitalism. We will cite here an ultra-left argument against trade unions by Aufheben (UK):
While leftists generally support trade unions as at the very least defensive working class organizations (while criticising their bureaucracy), ultra-leftists typically reject unions for incorporating the working class into capital and instead emphasize the workers’ need to break from them and act independently.
We can point out two problems with the ultra-left position. First, they are arguing against the organization of workers on a level that protects them from the immediate assault of the capitalist class (ie, attacks on workers’ wages, working hours and conditions). Trade union struggles are inherently limited to negotiating the terms of exploitation, not abolishing them. The ultra-lefts confuse the character of the unions and act surprised when its bureaucracy collaborates with the bosses. To see how this argument played out in practice, we reference the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early 20th century. The idea of building dual unions meant that rather than retaining some of the best militant workers for waging a struggle within the AFL, the abstentionism of the IWW left America’s largest federation of unions under the opportunism of Samuel Gompers. Secondly, we would like to point out that when Aufheben (UK) states “ultra-leftists typically reject unions for incorporating the working class into capital” they are revealing to us that they do not understand the fact that the working class gets its power within capitalism precisely because it is incorporated with capital. That is fundamental dialectics, comrades.
We will continue with Aufheben’s argument:
while leftism generally calls for participation in parliamentary elections in the form of ‘critical support’ for reformist working class parties or perhaps to support a strategy of so called ‘revolutionary parliamentarianism’, ultra-leftism rejects such methods as a promotion of illusions.
At most times, bourgeois elections ideologically ensnare the majority of the working class. And at these times, ultra-lefts show themselves as impotent sectarians. The class must be emancipated from such ideology; to ignore it is to gift-wrap unchallenged political power to the bourgeoisie. Here again, we will cite another historical reference that hits home for these autonomists. Following the 2001 economic crash in Argentina, thousands of workers took over their workplaces rather than allow their bosses to throw them out and threw the ruling class into a political crisis. Yet, the 2003 presidential election of Nestor Kirchner—which had designed itself around peronista populism—allowed the ruling class to defuse further rebellion. There are still self-managed factories in operation which are winning legal recognition from the Argentine government, proving that as long as the state remains unchallenged, it can tolerate autonomous collectives which must incorporate themselves with the colossus of the international capitalist economy. The most important historical lesson is, however, that had there been a political challenge from the working class, the bourgeoisie would not have had a free hand to utilize one of its strongest weapons, ideology.
The current student rebellion is a significant development and it makes perfect sense why activists are looking to the last intelligible gasp of the student movement, but it’s important to remember that anti-Stalinism is not anti-Marxism. Marxism continues to provide the necessary tools for reinvigorating that one great “lost cause.” We agree that the failure of the student movements in the late 60s was a tragedy, but we don’t want to make today’s a farce.