The present left is becoming more self-conscious as a left.
Occupy changed the terrain of struggle, making opposition appear in class terms in a way that had been repressed in the US for decades. Multiple lefts came together in occupation, not only sharing a project but also struggling over its meaning. In Europe, the deadly impact of austerity measures and growing opposition to them (not to mention the ongoing effects of the financial crisis of 2008), has made capitalism visible as a problem again (most explicit indication: polls reporting that the majority of Americans think the division between rich and poor is the most fundamental division in the country). For over thirty years, the preoccupation of a left that has been practically and theoretically active in a variety of specific movements and causes, as well as in multiple groups and locations, opposition to capitalism is growing, covered now in the mainstream media and a matter of governmental concern. That concern is generally exhibited via quick repression and aggressive policing (surveillance, intimidation, arrests, out-numbering, tasers, teargas, etc).
The growing self-consciousness is at the same time, and necessarily, a time of division. As we emerge, we fight over who we are, over our name and names, over our principles and tactics, over whether we can even be said to exist. At the very least, our infighting lets us know we are here.
There are fights and there are fights. Some we shouldn't have to fight. We shouldn't have to fight over whether rape is wrong, over whether rape should be covered up. We shouldn't have to fight over whether the genocide of Native Americans was wrong, over whether Palestinians should be able to live and work and flourish. Fighting those fights, even though it remains necessary, doesn't strengthen us. We are already know what the answers are. Having to fight for them again and again doesn't let us advance theoretically or practically. It mires us in defensive maneuvers.
There are also useful fights, the kinds that sharpen thinking, clarify stakes. In the thick of things, it can be hard to know which kind of fight one is in. Which ideas are innovations? Which tactical repetitions further the struggle and which are but tributaries into circuits of drive (whether as media stunt, fetishized process, or perpetual self-criticism)?
This is a particularly tough challenge for communists insofar as the very opportunity presented by the collapse of socialism (the dissolution of the USSR and the Chinese capitalist turn) ushers in a generative chaos such that previously clear and distinct tendencies engage one another once again. An advantage is that ideas suppressed by the too tight link between communism and Stalinism, intransigence of Trotskyist parties, and reduction of debates into pointless repetitions of Marx and Bakunin have room to breathe. A disadvantage is the absence of learning or advancement (old lessons in a new time, one step forward and two steps back), lack of clarity about the stakes of debate insofar as the repetition of old themes in a new context can displace attention from present issues, and the undeniable fact of increasing inequality and immiseration in the wake of 1989.
Contemporary communist theoretical engagements draw on differing textual traditions and histories of struggle. They also unfold in the context of ongoing movement and protest. Absent a common language or common commitments, discerning what is at stake in any disagreement, beyond, say, the performance of a revolutionary identity insistent on the purity of its difference, at times seems impossible. Which views are anarchist, libertarian communist, autonomist, communist, or socialist? What is the difference between the ultra left and the anti-left? Where are the points of alliance that are useful and to what end?
Labels distort. But the critique of labels, the rejection of 'isms', leads to the cultivation of specificities that hinder debate and prevent thinking. Rather than building a common analysis and movement, we are pushed into esoteric analyses of multiple, specific, texts. Rather than debating what to do, we argue over what did so-and-so mean, which texts matter and why. Do these arguments derail the very possibilities that the current chaos opens up? Do they lead it to dead ends when they could insight new questions and approaches?
There's an irony, though, in these questions insofar as all they do is reiterate the split. Those who oppose organizing in common would likely take this reiteration as affirmation of their point that the Party is impossible now. I take it as an indication that it's necessary because disconnected and multiple loci of opposition is the form of our current defeat.
There are, though, points of convergence, ideas irreducible to generic anti-capitalism.
1. Today the working class is not revolutionary.
2. Our modes of opposition strengthen and reproduce what they attempt to destroy or overthow.
There are various explanations for the first point, including the insight into the role of unions in facilitating compromise with and acquiescence to capitalist demands, the decline of unions, the limit of proletarian identity as an identity within capitalism, the fragmentation of the working class in the wake of the rise of identity politics, the technological changes associated with digitalization, the outsourcing and off-shoring of industrial production from the US, EU, and UK to China, South Korea, and the Philippines, and the decline of confidence in metanarratives assigning historical purpose to specific agents (no big Other of history). How the fact of the absence of a revolutionary working class is explained and interpreted affects the conclusions that are drawn. Should efforts be made to raise class consciousness? strengthen unions? Or, alternatively, find another revolutionary agent, whether that is a different social group or capitalism's own crisis tendencies?
The explanation one find most convincing has repercussions. My approach is to emphasize the people as the rest of us and the process of proletarianization as fundamental to capitalism. An effect of this emphasis is that politics matters -- the people are divided, differentiated, dissagreeable. Even as capitalism involves never ending crisis (whether structural or local), creating another world requires work and organization. Communism doesn't just flow out of capitalism's self-destruction -- there are more potentials here (pick your favorite post-apocalyptic scenario: climate disaster, nuclear disaster, global pandemic, peak oil, enclaved super rich funding aggressive police state to oppress the increasingly immiserated ... oh, wait, we have that one already).
The second point also admits of variation. The critique of reformism points out that parliamentary efforts to build socialism prevent it, strengthening instead bourgeois capitalism institutions. The ultra left critique of bolshevism, premised on viewing the USSR as a capitalist state (which I find a point too crude to be useful, basically a variant of the notion of totalitarianism), argues that it strengthened the proletariat instead of dissolving it. A psychoanalytically inflected critique of some forms of direct action (particularly those that emphasize getting arrested) observes that demonstrations (like terrorism) call out and enhance state power. And, my own account of communicative capitalism criticizes media oriented activism --particularly but not exclusively in networked social emdia-- for intensifying communicative capitalism, providing media content to be circulated, adding to noise and hindering action, displacing focus from creating organizations with duration and commitment, and affirming liberal democracy's claims to legitimacy.
In my view, the only way to address to address the problem is via an analysis of the present (which is what I've tried to do in my communicative capitalism research). When we look at the present in terms of what is missing--and in terms of what everyone acknowledges is missing--it's an organized left, a Party, an alliance to which we have a degree of commitment.
We have riots, insurrections, demonstrations, gardens, chickens, blogs, NGOs, networks, newspapers, lectures, fora, conventions, meetings, assemblies. But we do not have them in common. We do not associate them under a common idea. This was part of the event of Occupy -- that for a time, at least, the left was visible to itself as a common struggle. And, we knew it even as we knew that we disagreed, that some of us wanted to spend our time talking about how to arrange our everyday life, others wanted to draft banking legislation, others wanted to block the ports, and others wanted to bring down the stock exchange. What was remarkable with Occupy is that these different actions, in different places, happened under the same name. They were consciously part of one struggle.
Notice as well: in this struggle, the 99% were not acting as a class. But they were acting like a class insofar as they were opposed to another class. Their affirmation of themselves declared the incompatibility between capitalism and the people, entirely circumventing the problem addressed in some ultra left theory in terms of the dilemma of proletarian affirmation (for example: 'The central theoretical question thus becomes: how can the proletariat, acting strictly as a class of this mode of production, in its contradiction with capital within the capitalist mode of production, abolish classes, and therefore itself, that is to say: produce communism?') Of course, this in no way means that Occupy produced or prefigured communism. It's contribution was more modest: breaking a hole in our setting, making the gap between capitalism and the people (in other words, class struggle) apparent as a gap. And more: Occupy made real and new the challenges of mobilizing, organizing, and enduring. Against the fantasy of an immediate communism (as compelling as it might be for a quick fix generation), it posed the ongoing and unavoidable questions of infrastructure, self-governance, problem-solving, provisioning, and mutual care that are themselves inseparable from communism as a self conscious mode of emancipatory egalitarian production and reproduction.