Becoming the Enemy They Deserve: Organizational Questions for a New “New Left”

We are living in a moment of paradox. Prospects for rebuilding the radical left in North America seem as tentative as ever. At the same time, the face of our enemy has never been clearer. Capitalist class rule makes little attempt to hide its deprivation and hypocrisy. Imperialist wars of aggression continue in Afghanistan and Iraq. The war drums beat for an assault on Iran as democratic rights continue to be eroded in the name of the War on Terror. The spectre of ecological crisis stares us in the face. It’s a mess that leaves us wondering: if the enemy and the stakes in our struggle are clear like never before, why isn’t the radical left getting organized? Why, with some notable and inspiring exceptions, are so few anti-capitalist collectives and leftist organizations stepping forward to match our opponent blow for blow?

In order to come to terms with this paradox, we need to develop a clear understanding of both the ongoing failure of the radical left to provide a credible pole of attraction for widespread discontent and the immense potential of this discontent to fuel our political imagination. As a contribution to this much-needed discussion, we offer the following thoughts on the question of political organization. More provocation than proposal, we hope these comments will encourage others to think in bold ways about the challenges we face. Thinking about it, though necessary, is in and of itself not enough. Neither is it any longer sufficient to simply “do something.” If we do not act deliberately, we should not be surprised when we lose.

The history of revolutionary politics is a history of debates concerning the question of organization. Despite a rich and documented tradition, contemporary activist discussions about organization are often based either on gross generalizations or caricatures. And while these reflexes tell us of the deep passions that the organization question can provoke, it is by now clear that passion is not enough. So it is important that we situate contemporary debates within their historical context. From this standpoint, the question cannot be whether or not organization itself is necessary, as is implied by some pundits of a “new” politics.

Any honest look at social history shows that there is no relation that is not organized, whether people are conscious of it or not. The tendency to confuse the experiences of alienation that arise within the bureaucratic clutches of late capitalism with the essence of organization itself has led some contemporary activists to reject organization as a liberating premise. But even something as basic as Adam Smith’s account of the division of labour shows that if it were not for forms of social organization – both simple and complex – we would each have to spend thousands of hours making a single needle before we could even sew a patch onto the tattered fabric of resistance. Since this is the case, the proper questions become: what are the tasks confronting those who recognize the need for fundamental social transformation and what kinds of organization – what kinds of deliberately coordinated social activity – will facilitate this work?

Since the 17th century, the history of radical organizing against capitalism in Europe and North America has been marked by a gradual transition in forms. Despite novel variations that make any straightforward typology impossible, this transition can generally be plotted along a trajectory leading from the conspiratorial (closed and secretive) group to the advent of mass organizations during the mid to late 19th and early 20th centuries. For most of the 20th century the mass organization remained hegemonic, but by the 1960s this hegemony began to wane. During this period, the emphasis of “organization” – both for capitalists and their adversaries – began to shift from the vertical to the horizontal plane. Organizational features associated with the mass moment devolved into a multiplicity of forms, including anti-mass organizing, networks, and what have sometimes been called “vectors of contagion.” These last forms have commonly been associated with the transition toward more “flexible” and “mobile” forms of capital accumulation in the late 20th century.

The link between modes of capital accumulation and developments in organizational logic suggests a rough causality. But a closer look shows that organizational forms cannot be so easily periodized. “Conspiracy” did not disappear with the advent of mass organizations and continues to exist today. And the horizontal forms associated with movements born of the spirit of ‘68 had coherent antecedents deep in the past. But despite the inexact nature of the link between features of capital accumulation, state form, and the norms of organization adopted by resistance movements, it seems plausible that we are currently living through a moment in which the certainties of the mass organization – enshrined in trade unions and working class parties – are increasingly being called into question. Whether we turn to Subcommandante Marcos in Chiapas or Judy Rebick in Toronto, “network” has become the watchword for a new organizational sensibility and a proposed “new politics.” Some go so far as to suggest that communication technologies, interactive networking, and ad hoc coalitions have made any kind of centrally organized structures irrelevant in sustaining movement affinities. But before considering what this new sensibility implies in practical terms, it is first necessary to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the “old politics.”

Although conspiratorial organizations have existed throughout history, their most significant manifestations – when considered from the standpoint of the history of struggle in the west – arose between the 17th and 19th centuries during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Starting as early as 1602 when Etienne de la Boetie published his Discours sur la servitude volontaire, the conspiratorial organization was marked by an ambiguous social situation wherein the world was torn between a waning “folk” and a not yet realized “mass.” During this period, peasants and ex-peasants used conspiracy not only to challenge those who held power but also to inspire new attitudes among the people. In his account of the Irish “Whiteboys” – celebrated fighters at the forefront of the struggle against enclosure – James Connolly reports that around the year 1762, they “posted their notices on conspicuous places in the country districts… threatening vengeance against such persons as had incurred their displeasure as graziers, evicting landlords, etc. These proclamations were signed by an imaginary female, sometimes called ‘Sive Oultagh,’ sometimes ‘Queen Sive and her subjects.’” Although the Whiteboys occasionally killed those who had “incurred their displeasure,” the threat of vengeance itself was propagandistic. Through this process, the conspiratorial organization was made to seem larger than life, while it also expressed a new logic of political representation. In turning to propagandistic acts, the conspiratorial organization claimed to act on behalf of the “the people.”

Conspiratorial organizations fell into decline with the ascendance of industrial capitalism. As workers became concentrated in new factory settings, conspiracy was displaced by the rise of mass forms of organization. But it never disappeared entirely. The Molly Macguires, who engaged in widespread assassinations and sabotage in 19th century proto-union mining towns in the Southern US, remind us that forms of conspiracy continued even in the context of attempts to build unions and socialist parties. Even today, the conspiratorial reflex can still be seen (albeit in distorted form) in the accounts of state officials responding to the militant wing of the anti-capitalist movement. John Timoney, the police chief responsible for overseeing the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 2000, was quoted in an interview as lamenting how “there’s a cadre, if you will, of criminal conspirators who are going about the business of planning conspiracies to go in and cause mayhem and property damage and violence in major American cities.”

From the standpoint of organization, the benefits of the conspiratorial form came largely from its social homogeneity and ability to produce and maintain internal coherence and discipline. So it’s not surprising that, even in the context of the move toward mass forms of organization, Lenin recognized these benefits when he argued that the Bolshevik party needed to be closed so as to avoid infiltration and sabotage. Operating under conditions of intense surveillance during the twilight of Russian Czarism, Lenin’s organizational perspective for the nascent Bolshevik party had an important (if unlikely) precursor in Sergei Nechayev’s “Catechism of a Revolutionist” – an anarchist manual for the formation and coordination of secret cells committed to the destruction of bourgeois society. While Lenin opposed the kinds of terrorist acts proposed by Nechayev, and saw the relationship between the organization and the mass in a completely opposed way, he still shared with Nechayev the belief in organization as a means to coordinate coherent instrumental action in a context where power refused to recognize the claims of political contenders.

As with the conspiracy, mass organization has a history that predates the rise of capitalism (think of the massive armies assembled by warring factions throughout the planet’s tumultuous 10,000 year agrarian history). But it was only with the capitalist revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries that the mass organization acquired the resources needed to become a radical political form. The liberal and bourgeois concepts of elected representation, division of powers, and formal equality of citizens (a category from which many – until this very day – remain excluded) provided the raw material for the modern radical mass organization.

With the rise of industrial capitalism, the mass organization became an obvious resource for growing working class movements. The concentration of capital brought about by industrial production tended to gather the working class into larger workplaces, industrial districts, and densely crowded neighborhoods and ghettos. In this context, the mass organization became a means for workers’ movements to coordinate the energies of a broad social base. A striking illustration of how extensive and entrenched mass organization had become can be found in the German socialist party (SPD) at the time of the Second International. Along with its affiliated trade unions, the SPD practically constituted itself as a “state within a state.” Politically, the call for “Social Democracy” often proceeded by appropriating the bourgeois democratic inheritance and pointing out its hypocritical limitations.

In response to the threat posed by the mass, the ruling class devised means of diffusing it. At one end of the spectrum, these means took the form of attempts to impose new forms of respectability to discipline the conduct of the component elements of the mass and to divide them through a process of bourgeois individuation (think of consumerism, religious associations, temperance leagues, and the advent of “public health”). At the other end of the response spectrum, the mass organizations of the workers’ movements were destroyed by authoritarian and fascist regimes and by the upheavals of world war.

But it was only through diffusion and reorganization that capital developed the necessary means to decompose the mass it had itself conjured into existence. Through this process, mass organizations, where they were not destroyed outright, were gradually undermined. By the middle of the 20th century, with the post-war “accord” largely reducing social democracy and the mainstream labour movement to electoralist and economistic “left wings of capital,” and with advanced capitalist countries moving toward new forms of accumulation, mass organizations began to look like ghosts of their former selves. In North America, the ruthless purge of communists from trade unions and the political persecution of those cast under suspicion by Cold War McCarthyism made the post-war situation particularly stark.

It was in large part from the shortcoming of post-war mass organizations that the “new social movements” of the 1960s were born. Critical of the established trade unions and left political parties, these movements articulated the struggles of those left out of the post-war “consensus”: black and other racialized people, women, students, gays and lesbians, and young workers. The radical upsurge in struggle during the 1960s and early 1970s provided a catalyst for left-wing organizing. Often skeptical of the modus operandi of the “old left” (whether Communist or Social Democratic), the Canadian New Left of this period experimented with a variety of “anti-mass” and “anti-authoritarian” organizational forms. Collectives, communes, and affinity groups were the order of the day as young leftists adopted organizing structures appropriate to their work on campuses, in high schools, and within emerging feminist, queer, and other movements. This “anti-mass” moment became an important reference point for those who would repeat its premises at the end of the 20th century.

But this sensibility began to shift as the Sixties wore on. Opposition to the war in Vietnam, solidarity with anti-colonial insurgencies (including a burgeoning indigenous Red Power movement, as well as black liberation struggles in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax), and the mass political radicalization and working-class self-organization unleashed by the Quiet Revolution in Québec also pointed toward forms of political engagement that aimed to do more than refute the orthodoxies of the earlier generation.

In the United States, the late 1960s saw tens of thousands of university students radicalize in opposition to the war in Vietnam. The black liberation struggle profoundly challenged the status quo. Internationally, the successes of the Cuban revolution and the Vietnamese resistance seemed to provide eloquent proof of the effectiveness of more “orthodox” forms of revolutionary organization. Lacking in war materiel and industrial infrastructure, the Vietnamese relied upon disciplined and large-scale forms of political organization to stop their Goliath in its tracks. For many, although based in part on mythology, the Cuban revolution seemed to suggest that a relatively small group of professional revolutionaries ­– or guerilla “foco” – could instigate revolutionary change by taking decisive action.

The move toward more tightly organized left formations during the 1970s was influenced by the perceived successes of revolutionary groups internationally and by the particular conditions of struggle within the Canadian context. By the early 1970s, radical labor organizing showed growing promise with rising levels of working-class militancy and a wave of wildcat strikes. In this transitional moment, early New Left skepticism was tempered by a sense that revolutionary possibilities were around the corner if only the radical left was organized enough to seize them.

Debates about revolutionary organization became widespread in New Left circles. Many radicals advocated joining or creating more orthodox revolutionary parties. This push occurred for a number of reasons. First, the structure of a Leninist party seemed to offer an effective movement technology. With revolutionaries across the world leading prolonged insurgencies and seizing state power using the operational principles of the Leninist and mass organization (modified for local conditions), the argument for forming political parties was a powerful one. Although groups of Canadian activists, particularly those involved in the peace and feminist movements, continued to operate within small and looser collectives, the 1970s was for many radicals a period during which the turn to Marxist party-building appeared self-evident. Perhaps the most significant expression of this movement emerged in Québec. There, two Maoist political parties (En Lutte and the Parti communiste ouvrier) achieved significant growth and influence. A variety of different Trotskyist groups also emerged, primarily based in English Canada.

While the Leninist party seemed to answer many of the questions vexing the young forces of the New Left, and militants involved in the turn to party-building played important roles in a number of struggles, the various attempts to actually build Leninist organizations were beset by complications. Often, these new organizations were distorted by top-down leadership methods, failures to support the autonomous movements of oppressed people, and uncritical attachments to authoritarian socialist governments in other parts of the world. The new organizations were also commonly marked by self-righteousness and sectarianism. The number of groups multiplied through splits. Nevertheless, despite their generally miniscule size and detachment from any real social base, each group tended to believe that only they could be or become the vanguard of the revolution in Canada. Many managed to hold on to this delusion even as their overall individual and collective influence waned.

Alongside the myriad miniature Leninist parties that still cling to life, radical politics in North America since the 1980s have been characterized ­– with few exceptions – by a retreat to single-issue campaigns and local-level coalitions, and by the fragmentation of the movements of the oppressed which are now nearly everywhere on the defensive. It is here that we can locate the emergence and proliferation of non-profit or non-governmental organizations as a form of activism. By channeling social change into state-legitimized agencies, activists tended to become lobbyists and service-providers. While many NGOs had roots in radical movements, the state-sanctioned nature of their current activities suggests that many of these groups operate primarily (though perhaps inadvertently) to cushion the blows of neoliberalism as part of a “non-profit-industrial complex.” Some NGOs have even adopted business models and work to suppress grassroots activism in the communities they “represent.”

But the waning moments of the 20th Century saw other actors make their entrance onto the historical stage, corresponding to the upsurge in anti-capitalist organizing undertaken by activists operating largely independently of any pre-established left formation. Here, there emerged an “anti-mass” sensibility even more pronounced than that espoused by its predecessor in the New Left, one that rejected the anonymous, impersonal nature of structures attributed to mass organizing and encouraged the activity of small, autonomous collectives in its place.

Radical forms of anti-mass organization can be viewed as involving a kind of historical telescoping. In many ways, the recent anti-mass moment represented an attempt to bring the strengths of the conspiracy into a waning mass setting that has lost its social coherence. This is perhaps most clearly articulated by CrimethInc’s ideas about open conspiracy and crowd psychology, where an atomized “mass” might be re-born through experiences of collective shock provoked by the committed few acting as if another world was already here. This is an anti-mass sensibility par excellence.

Nevertheless, despite the rhetoric of “anti-authoritarianism” that arose during the heyday of the anti-globalization movement, the strengths of the new “anti-mass” modes of organizing championed by the “new New Left” arose paradoxically from their extension of discipline – the extension of a logic of command whereby the threshold of responsibility for individual actions was lowered. For instance, by making affinity groups responsible for the means by which loose decisions made collectively at the level of spokescouncils would be practically enacted, the model encouraged a diffusion of risk and responsibility. And although it was heralded as a radical innovation, this organizational trajectory reflected the managerial norms and governmental forms of neoliberalism. It also tended to reproduce the logic of shifts in military strategy that have taken place since the Second World War, where tactical determinations in individual settings have come to be worked out more and more at the level of the platoon. To see the connection between some contemporary activist organizations and military strategy it is useful to consider Manuel De Landa’s description of the problem of military command structures. The “problem of centralization,” he notes:

is that instead of maximizing certainty at the top, it ends up increasing the overall amount of uncertainty: withdrawing all responsibility from individual soldiers involves defining every command in extreme detail and intensifies the need to check compliance with those commands. But augmenting the detail of commands (as well as monitoring compliance) increases the overall flow of information at the top.

Despite occasional insights and provocative implications, the anti-mass perspective seems to deny or bypass the problem of organization. The open conspiracy is assumed to spread organically rather then synthetically. And no one can “join” CrimethInc. But it is unclear how the logic of organic profusion can ever produce a situation in which constituent elements will add up to more than the sum of their parts. In a society dominated by a capitalist (and patriarchal) division of labour and the commodity form, all particular social struggles and individual lived experiences are inherently partial. Despite the failures of past efforts, we cannot ignore the fact that we need organizational forms that can synthetically weld together the particular oppositions, struggles, and perspectives of a decomposed mass in order to generate a coherent critique of – and credible alternative to – capitalism and all forms of oppression.

Given this requirement, it is not surprising that the widespread commitment to anti-organizational currents in the North American anti-capitalist movement is coming under increasing strain – a trend made evident by growing interest in debates about revolutionary organization. At the movement’s height (1999-2001), many people felt that the question of organization was unnecessary to ask. Movement debates were largely occupied by purely tactical deliberations. In the euphoria of the moment, many went so far as to claim that the Internet and the off-line “rhizomatic” connections that seemed to flow from it had made the old debates irrelevant. This optimistic (and, in retrospect, naive) assessment has been harder to maintain in the current period. With the ebb in the tide of mass mobilization, growing numbers of anti-capitalists – including many veterans of those heady days – are beginning to ask basic questions about how anti-capitalists should organize strategically on a long term basis.

In some ways, it almost seems as if we’ve returned to the crossroads reached by the New Left a generation ago. Today, as it becomes apparent that our efforts need to be synthesized into a broader movement against capitalism and all forms of oppression, the “new New Left” has been wrestling with similar questions. Taking this on becomes all the more pressing when we consider the extent to which our struggles can be incorporated as managerial strategies or watered down by reformist leaderships. Robin Isaacs and Dan Irving address this danger with respect to queer organizing and trans politics in their respective contributions to this issue.

Our organizational dilemmas also have to do with the problem of scale. How can we confront ruling classes and the world market when they operate with considerable impunity on the national and world scale while our movements remain local and relatively disorganized? Many versions of network and anti-mass politics assume that nation states are declining in importance as strategic arenas for political action. But we need to acknowledge that the nation state remains the basic unit of the capitalist world economy – no longer as containers of coherent “national economies” but as strategic political condensations of capitalist and other social relations. The politics of class rule remain to a considerable degree “national” in character. States remain the fundamental links (whether strong or weak) in the global imperial hierarchy. Consequently, as is indicated by the most recent wave of protests and struggles in Latin America, states remain the strategic point for confronting the capitalist class. Revolutionary groups since the First International have struggled to build a global response to capitalism – and, in many ways, such internationalism is even more possible in the current period. But such a response does not absolve our responsibility to settle matters with our “own” ruling classes. As Carmelle Wolfson and Lesley Wood’s analyses of the World Social Forum in this issue suggest, “globalization from below” is a poor substitute for a genuine internationalism.

If, despite their occasional insights, these organizational forms prove to be inadequate, we are confronted with a series of important questions: How can we develop a new model of organization to operate in the context of neo-liberal intensification? How can we develop forms of leadership and accountability that actively counter and work to overcome patterns of oppression and enable the projection of the experiences and leadership of oppressed people? How can we make anti-capitalist organization a real “tribune of the oppressed” that makes the struggles of all oppressed people our own in reality and not simply rhetoric? How do we ensure that the forms of oppression exacerbated by capital get addressed as part of a revolutionary program? To us, answering these questions in practice would seem to require a considerable degree of conscious, structured, organizational mediation.

Revolutionary organization does raise all sorts of questions about the relationship between cohesive formations and broad movements. But broader social struggles are never free from the instigation and participation of groups, formal and informal. There is no reason to think that informal organization and intervention is necessarily more responsible or “democratic” than formal organization and intervention. And though there are inevitable challenges to be addressed, these problems are not the sole preserve of any one particular organizational model; they are inevitable in any consideration of the relationship between the social part and the social whole. There is no end run around these issues. They cannot be avoided by denying their existence or by hoping for an atomized movement context populated by individuals without either internal political agendas or external political commitments. They need to be confronted in the most open and responsible way possible.

Another shortcoming of “horizontalism” is that no matter how good these ideas sound on paper (and they do resonate) or appear to be working in other political contexts (here we might think of the Zapatistas in Mexico or the recuperated factories in Argentina – though we suspect that both are facing questions that cannot be easily resolved within the horizons of “horizontalism”), contemporary social struggles in the Canadian state do not seem to be manifesting the same dynamic. Indeed, it seems likely that as political struggles intensify in coming years we will once again see a turn toward party-building orthodoxy. And while this outcome cannot be evaluated in advance, if we don’t put some serious work into thinking about organization and building operational capacities, we may very well find ourselves facing a situation like the one that befell Students for a Democratic Society in the late 1960s. Failing, or refusing, to come up with satisfactory answers to organizational and political questions made SDS vulnerable to the disintegrating effects of micro-party competition. Since such a course of events would be making its second run on the world stage, it would be less tragedy than farce.

In Canada, too, the tragedy of the New Left was that “independent” radicals were never willing or able to found organizational alternatives to both miniature vanguard parties and a bankrupt social democracy. Reluctant to intervene in (or having been expelled from) the New Democratic Party, and unconvinced by the prospects of Leninist party-building, the independent left trickled back into the NDP in nominal opposition, or fragmented into movements that quickly lost ground when the neo-conservative counter-offensive began in earnest in the 1980s. This is the legacy inherited by the current generation of anti-capitalists, and the one we still have to overcome.

This editorial is not an attempt to win over those on the left who are entrenched in their positions. But it is an attempt to open a dialogue with those out there who, like ourselves, can’t stomach the prospect of either joining or forming an orthodox Leninist party but also remain profoundly dissatisfied with current forms of “anti-authoritarian” movement activism, those of us that recognize the merits of local issue-based organizing but feel an urgent need for something more, those of us, in other words, that want to engage in a dialogue about what that something is going to be. In engaging in this dialogue we would do well to avoid the rigid formulas of both party-building and movement-ism whose caricatured counterposition is too often self-serving and a barrier to moving forward.

It would be foolhardy to think that any existing or proposed small left formation is going to be the basis for some new mass radical left organization. Such a creature, if it is to see the light of day, must be forged in mass movements and shaped by transformative engagement with these movements. So the task is two-fold: to contribute to building mass movements while also connecting and regrouping anti-capitalist forces within them on the widest basis principle will allow.

The barriers facing such a project are great ­– witness the short-lived Rebuilding the Left initiative in Canada. There is no recipe for success, and the future promises more failures and false starts. But the fact that a growing number and variety of people are once again discussing these questions is a positive development, one that should be nurtured if we are going to be able to overcome the paradoxical impasse we face.