There is a specter haunting the radical left, the specter of degeneration. Okay, that might sound a bit dramatic but the left today really is scared a great deal of something called various things to various people. Whether we call it reformism, opportunism, or revisionism, it mainly comes down to the violation of what the group and/or individuals in question consider as the core principles of their sub-ideology within the radical left. This phenomenon is a veritable obsession, and not a day goes by without the left bickering over it, leaving bitter factionalism and splits in its wake. Such is our obsession that many of the groups within the radical left point to the struggle against opportunism as one of their main tasks. But is it healthy to focus so strongly on fighting it? Or should we find other tasks to engage with? Surely the fight against ideas that deviate too much from our ideology’s basic principles is warranted? In this article we will consider the value of and the problems associated with this collective obsession.
The logic behind it mainly comes from a shared narrative that is relatively universal among the radical left. It goes something like this: the key to success in transforming our current capitalist society into a socialist one is ideas, and mainly the correct application of a set of ideas derived from a specific sub-ideology of the radical left, generally related to a particular socialist thinker and revolutionary experience. Failure on the other hand is again derived from ideas, and mainly the use of wrong ideas or the lapsing of a certain organization away from the previously mentioned correct ideas. To back this up, each of the sub-groups of the radical left generally have their own (long) list of revolutionary failures which are explained based upon a simple schema. It predictably goes something like this: in event A there was a possibility of socialism being accomplished, but this was sabotaged thanks to the application of the wrong ideas and/or the backstabbing of a rival radical leftist sub-ideology, who naturally adhere to wrong ideas.
Hence fighting against what your group regards as faulty ideas becomes absolutely crucial for any successful transition to socialism. Making the struggle against opportunism central to any left-wing project. Of course the accounts presented by radical leftists tend to be more complex than this, with ideas generally not being regarded as the only determinant for success. Yet I regard the image I just provided to be largely correct and, more importantly, to be upheld by most groups within the radical left. What is problematic about it is that it is overbearing and makes for an often vicious internal culture within the movement.
This vicious internal culture is quite unsurprising seeing that most of the radical left traces its lineage back to historical groups that were often themselves engaged in bitter disputes for most of their existence. The squabbles of bakunin and Marx, our own Cain and Abel of sorts (which one is Cain and which one is Abel I leave in the middle here), allow us to trace it back to the first international. The entire Leninist left even derives most of its ideas from a group named after a split (the bolsheviks literally meaning “the majority” after a dispute resulted in them splitting from the mensheviks). Which doesn’t even begin to explain the bloody history of dissent and its suppression among the bolsheviks. Progressing from slanderous polemics through banishment unto outright execution. That these groups and their main actors are often glorified as heroes and single minded sources of revolutionary truth can at times be somewhat worrying, not to disregard the often excellent theoretical contributions some of them made. Today, sectarian polemic also holds great potential for small groups who command little resources, as few are needed for the struggle against “opportunism” (basically a computer at this point). Thus making it somewhat rational for smaller groups to increasingly dedicate themselves to critique of other left-wing groups.
Now I do not claim that ideas or critique aren’t important, because they are. Yet our obsession with ideas and degeneration is hurting the left. The degeneration/betrayal “one size fits all” analysis that is peddled by most of the left is intellectually dishonest and self-serving, and quite frankly boring. It is not even successful in its own right, seeing as how many (read all) of our own narratives on revolutionary situations end in degeneration and betrayal. The complete lack of capacity to prevent degeneration is perhaps the biggest argument against this line of thinking, as it hasn’t prevented degeneration from taking place over and over again. Yet in the meantime the left is still stuck with being irrelevant in many countries, and having a rather unpleasant internal culture. An internal culture which can hardly be called democratic when its main goal is correcting perceived deviations. Instead the cultivation of a culture of vibrant internal discussion should be our priority. Something which of course is irrelevant when correct and incorrect ideas are already known, and with them the reasons for left-wing failure.
Paradoxically the more the radical left dedicates itself to critique the harder it becomes to develop a truly innovative culture of discussion and critique within it. As single-minded focus upon critique requires the organisation in question to put unwavering confidence in its own ideas, which are thus themselves put outside of possible critique, both from within the own organisation as from without. The establishment of a radical left with a truly democratic internal culture, thus requires transcending the boundaries put in place by small-group criticism. First and foremost by overcoming our fear of degeneration and by pointing to new perspectives on past revolutionary episodes. These should be based upon the structural considerations of each individual case, with economic conditions, the international situation, and the specific political culture of the left in that era being put in the foreground. In other words: looking at the structural underlying conditions that are not easily changed, instead of the ideas and actions of bickering leftist groups.
The left should overcome their endless narrative of betrayal and degeneration, by reconsidering many aspects of its internal culture and by daring to reanalyze historical events through different lenses. One of the basic tools for doing this is analysis based upon structural conditions, in essence a more determinist analysis. Afterwards we can look at how ideas and betrayal fit into this new picture. I hold no hope for converting the hard core of the small group left to this cause, as their practices are too heavily ingrained in their ideas and action. Yet rethinking our political culture is more relevant than ever today as we are seeing the rise of a revitalized radical left in many European countries, which is not at all perfect, but will hopefully provide openings for new militants to reconsider older forms of thinking and reshape our political culture into something more…pleasant, and hopefully productive.