Friday, April 27, 2012

Striking the Ultra Left Generally

Dinosaurs with lasers are calling for it. Black cats in ties are demanding it. Unicorns and rainbows are wishing for it. But what is really behind the call for General Strikes…

There are frayed threads running throughout the fabric of Occupy. Taking form mostly to call for “FTP” marches, General Strikes, and unanimous consensus in the movement- except when it comes to the autonomy of diverse tactics. These threads take on many, or proactively “no” label, but can be identified as ultra-left. The theories and debates of these threads, once pulled in a practical motion, begin to unravel. What follows is another humble tug[1].

The term ‘ultra left’ carries with it a certain historical weight that must be taken into consideration. The goal here is not to resurrect past debates nor shadow box old enemies, or to cast contemporaries into the mold of contenders for past movements. An honest question must be posed and an equally responsible answer given. Can activists within the Occupy movement be accurately represented as ultra-left? Or more artfully, do tendencies within Occupy bear the historical mantel of Ultra-leftism both in content as well as in form. Is the answer yes or no, both or either?

Historically, the Ultra Left can be traced back to the onset of the modern era. In the French Revolution, the ultra left were known as the Les Enrages[2]. Les Enragés were a loose amalgam of radicals active during the French Revolution. Politically they stood to the left of the Jacobins, and believed that liberty for all meant more than just constitutional rights. The demands of the Enragés included: price controls on grain, repression of counterrevolutionary activity, progressive income tax to be immediately implemented. In the 19th Century the revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui[3] typified the perspectives of an elite clique of revolutionaries that called for general insurrections in the abstract hope that the masses were to follow them.

In the early twentieth century, the ultra left perspective was contextualized by the hegemonic positions of the Bolshevik parties on the revolutionary left in general, placing ‘Ultras’ on the extreme left flank of the Marxist tradition. These tendencies favored the autonomy and spontaneous self-organization of the working class, argued for abstention from national electoral politics, eschewed trade union activity outside of revolutionary unionism, and called for no collusion with the bourgeois state. The articulation and practical application of these perspectives set ultra-leftists in opposition to both Bolshevism and reformism typified by Leninism[4] and social democracy respectively.

These ultra-left tendencies bore strong affinities toward anarchist politics. The conquest of political power by the Russian proletariat in 1917 sent such reverberations through the world that authentic revolutionaries were drawn into the orbit of the Bolsheviks. The Belgian anarchist Victor Serge became one of the finest historians of the Russian Revolutionary experience. In the United States, such outstanding figures of the Syndicalist left as Bill Big Haywood and James Cannon became founding members of the American communist movement.  Emma Goldman likewise, for a time, lent critical support to the Bolsheviks. 

Anarchists played an important role in support for the Soviet government as well as in the propagation of communistic principles throughout the world. Some, like Serge freely supported the Bolshevik program until his death at a date well beyond the Stalinist disfiguration of the Russian Revolution. Others such as Goldman pivoted quickly from support to outrage at state repression within Soviet Russia. Still others joined left-communist tendencies propagated by figures such as the Dutch Marxist Anton Pannoekek, and the Italian communist Amadeo Bordiga, posturing the hard left stances enumerated above.

In answer to the question “Does the Ultra Left today carry the mantel of yesterday,” let us argue in the affirmative. Though many activists have traded Bordiga for Bakunin, they bear witness to the tradition in practice of the Ultra Left, especially in regards to the trade union question.

Today the ultra-left perspective occupies much of the same position as it did nearly a century ago, though ultra-left tendencies now fall under the general arc of contemporary Anarchism rather than Marxist communism. Just as ultra-left hostility toward Bolshevism and reformism remains intact, so too does a tactical penchant for political abstentionism, no compromises with the capitalist state, and no collusion with reformist trade unions. The terrain upon which the tendency rests has changed, but not its position upon it.

The significant differences between then and now are questions of political terrain and climate. Nowhere today does the proletariat hold state power, nor likewise are mass revolutionary political parties contending for state power, nor are there tendencies within these parties vying for the allegiance of millions of workers.  The congealing effect of the Occupy movement has, however, brought many disparate tendencies back together under one roof and has re-sparked many of the past debates. Similarly, the spike in struggle in other areas of the world has ignited new arguments about fight back in a world of turmoil.

Today the hegemony of the Marxist tradition over the revolutionary left has been broken and the left generally has been beaten back and atomized. The failure of the Bolshevik revolution to spark a world revolution and the distortion of Bolshevism by Stalinism were the first cracks in the Marxist edifice. The disrepute of Stalinism to the world was ensued by the collapse of the Eastern Block and the creation of Chinese Communist billionaires. Activists serious about changing the world began leaving the official Communist parties in the 1920’s and never looked back.

But the narrative failures on the Marxist left during the Twentieth Century only partially explains the state of the left today. We must also take into account the activity of the world ruling class, its wars and interventions, its Red Scares, and its ability to stay thus far in power in the face of economic disasters and mass discontent.

Today’s left was rendered defeated, disparate and sect ridden. The activist left suffering blow after blow from the employer’s offensive; the academic left floundering within identity politics and privilege theory; neither of these bodies collaborating much with one another to prove the other false. So an honest assessment of the sincere left today is much needed. This assessment reveals that the dominant political trend is some variant of Anarchism. That is not to say that Anarchism is hegemonic, which implies a certain level of like-mindedness that is missing from the anarchist movement of today. But the lack of a cohesive organizational line to come out of the left for the past 30 years has broken fertile ground for an upsurge in anarchist groupings that require little more than a hostility toward Capitalism and the conviction to do something about it.

Ultra-left tendencies bring with them obstacle ridden debate into growing movements. This is rooted in the tendency’s principles and practice to push against growth, and to emphasize a culling of the movement for the sake of political purity. There is impotence in this so-called purity. Why? Because it disempowers, it removes struggle from the realm of mass collective activity and it sequesters it to the corners of the “most militant” the “most radical.” Nonsense! The most radical thing to do is help push an existing struggle to victory and learn a thing or two from the workers fighting alongside you! Their struggle marginalization is conservatism in action. They react with anxiety toward liberal groups or individuals within the movement. Their actions are cast as romantic revolutionary struggles, which they intend to serve as a “wake up call” to the masses. The cascading brick, the smashed window; clouds of tear gas spreading thick across an urban landscape. This is the currency of the Ultra Left today.  

In the Occupy movement, it has been these groupings that have contextualized much of the movement’s outlook and action. Anarchism and Ultra-Leftism have now become synonymous terms. Horizontalism and consensus are evident expressions of anarchist methodology within Occupy. It is these groups on the left that are fueling perspectives on diversity of tactics, and calls for general strikes.

Horizontalism is an organizing model that advocates the creation, development and maintenance of structures for the equitable distribution of management power. These structures and relationships function as a result of dynamic self-management, involving continuous participation and exchange between individuals to achieve the larger desired outcomes of the collective. This sounds like a progressive egalitarian model, except in practice it is far from it.  Under this model, a body of leadership that could be seen as above the movement is abandoned for a clique within the movement. Far from horizontal, the method is elitist to the core. While propagating a model that seems egalitarian is creates a space for unaccountable, non-elected leadership that operates as an unofficial cliquish apparatus that doesn’t have to answer to the movement as a whole. This creates an inherently elitist grouping that calls for the respect of diverse tactics while remaining aloof from the main current of the movement. It’s groupings like these that consistently champion the consensus decision making model as well.

Consensus in practice is just as stodgy and potentially dangerous to decision making as Horizontalism is to leading. Consensus is defined by first, general agreement, and second, group solidarity of belief or sentiment. It is used to describe both the decision and the process of reaching a decision- requiring a unanimous vote to proceed on the matter in question. Without unanimous consent an issue is tabled, or dies. It also can manifest a tyranny of the minority, where a small clique of individuals can prevent certain issues from moving forward- this sort of voting bloc lends itself to infiltrators or fringe political line.

In practice, these perspectives force debate and discussion outside of the movement. Not only does consensus establish a functional base for a minority of activists to block the will of the majority, it also critically hinders the decision-making bodies of the movement.  In Occupy, when faced with the prospect of hours long debates in the General Assemblies, many activists opted to work in smaller committees or specialized working groups in order to accomplish a given task. Debates were therefore taken out of the General Assemblies because consensus model made them too unwieldy.

Horizontalism and consensus practically put brakes on a movement. A practical remedy put forward by the ultra left is ‘diversity of tactics.’ Here again with perhaps little more than a nod for approval toward the General Assemblies, debate is taken away from the mass participatory engines of the movement and placed within the purview of a handful of activists. Lost in this process is any general discussion about strategy or movement perspectives as a whole. Under the guise of acceptance and respect for different tendencies within the movement, the movement itself is atomized into semi-random ‘one off actions,’ again narrowing the field of active participation for most members of the movement.

The culmination of these perspectives is the opening for a clique of likeminded activists to act in the name of the movement and yet operate with wonton independence. These are the activists who with improvised shields engaged the police in a violent square off in Oakland last winter and then broke into and vandalized City Hall. Our criticism is relative to the content of these actions which by their nature reduce the number of activists who can and will participate in them, and also that these actions where planned and initiated outside of the decision making bodies of Occupy Oakland.

Let’s examine diversity of tactics in practice. By necessity fewer people can participate. This narrows the goal of galvanizing people to call for action. If you need smaller insurgent groups to instigate an action, your goal is not to outreach to communities, campuses, churches, unions etc. The object of an insurrectionary campaign in our current political climate doesn’t resonate with everyday people who are presently rediscovering that their voice and participation in direct action matters. The object doesn’t allow everyday people to lead the struggle; it can actually keep them from participating in a movement where they feel directly threatened from forces within.

Counter-intuitive though it may seem, in practice these left anarchist tendencies are conservative and elitist. Conservative in that they hamper the movement’s growth and limit its participatory capacity, elitist in that they create cliques to carry out actions in the name of the movement that are not beholden to it. Let us instead have official, accountable, and recallable bodies based on a simple majority mandate.

The calls for General Strikes are the most forward articulation of ultra-leftism within Occupy. These calls revolve around the principle that the traditional mechanisms for mass working class mobilization have been compromised and weakened by the onslaught of capital in the late twentieth century. Unions therefore are circumvented in favor of “new and imaginative” methods of struggle--methods that don’t come with the mess of confronting union bureaucracies or mixed consciousness within the rank and file. Getting hands dirty was the old way of doing things. General Strike calls are meant to draw out the most advanced workers from among the unorganized (the so-called 89%) to expose them to the ‘idea’ of a strike, or to otherwise allow them the opportunity to participate in a mass action.

But calls for these general strikes are really propagations for the notion of a strike generally, or more succinctly a strike in the abstract. Since all the requisite processes for developing a truly general strike, in which a multiplicity of unions, support organizations, unemployment councils, etc. strike together in solidarity, are either bypassed for being non-existent, or otherwise shunned as conservatively unresponsive, bureaucratized apparatuses - a general strike, in the historical sense is not being called. And we are sorry, but no amount of cute, or ironic images using cats or unicorns is going to change this fact. I can haz historical conditions plz? LOL[5]

Such abstract strikes are taken up based on an analysis of the economic climate as well as impatience with the development of the workers’ struggle. The argument follows that the economic circumstances are ripe for a development in struggle, but the historical circumstances compel radicals to facilitate the ignition of that struggle from without. The guiding principle of an abstract strike is such that an action might ‘wake up’ critical sections of the working class and motivate them to carry the struggle forward. The existing historical hinge that connects workers with necessitated workplace organization isn’t being tightened- the door is being slammed in the face of workers. Doing this is to ignore the reality that the workplace is the fulcrum of struggle- and to impatiently bypass the door and walk bloody-nosed into a wall.

It’s timely to report that Occupy Oakland won’t be shutting down the ports this May Day, but rather the ILWU will be. A trade union with a history of radical protest, they have within their union coordinated and planned for a mass union walk out in honor of May Day. This is the kind of worker self-activity that should be supported and solidarity actions organized around.

In the current political climate fight back is a certainty, though the success of struggle certainly isn’t. The economic brew of wars, austerity, and the gap between rich and poor compel working people to resist. The form that resistance will take frankly has little to do with Occupy or the sincere left in general, outside of our ability to lay the ground work, agitate, and relate to struggles when and where they develop. The notion that radicals can call for a General Strike by bypassing all that goes into building for a it is tantamount to demanding that history bends to our will. History may come our way, but it will have little to do with our imperative. The role of revolutionaries is to actively work to raise consciousness while simultaneously bolstering actions called by workers waging a fight back.

The majority of the workforce in the United States is unorganized. Even so it is a certainty that spontaneous struggle will develop out of this circumstance. It is true that workers will build new and imaginative methods of organizing that may or may not develop along lines of previous trade union struggles, but will certainly be shaped by the existing unorganized character of the American working class. Calling these methods into existence from outside the workplace or self-activity of workers however, is like invoking a gathering storm to rain. It either will, or it won’t. Standing on the dry dirt of the American political economy, we are certainly in favor of rain, but even if we were not, rain would be just as likely.

Strikes are to an economic crisis what lightning is to a storm. In a storm you can expect lightning, but there is no point in predicting where it will strike. The best you can do is set up lighting rods in anticipation of lightning. Likewise, in a broken economy it makes most sense to orient around ‘lightning rods’ in workplace struggles that can channel militancy to broader layers of the working class. Workplaces that are already organized are the most advantageous positions to start from since the principle methods of organization already exist and the workers already have a modicum of protection. 

This raises the issue of a Wildcat strike. Ultra lefts argue that open participation in a “General Strike” may inspire Wildcat strikes within workplaces. Again let us say that the self-activity of the working class is an inevitability in an economy lashed by wars and austerity, but that calling for a Wildcat strike from without the workplace is just as foolish and misleading as the calls for General Strikes in the first place. Hypothetically, a successful Wildcat strike puts workers in a position where they will have to move toward unionization immediately to defend themselves against the boss’s retaliation and retain what they have earned in struggle. This instance further raises the question of striking workers entering existing unions, which ultra lefts criticize for their bureaucratic conservatism, or otherwise forming unions of their own. Neither of these are altogether undesirable outcomes. In the abstract sense, the left should support all kinds of workers’ organization and activity, but nothing guarantees these freedoms from the existing contradictions that plague the union movement today.

To further this point, calling for a strike from outside of the workplace establishes the immediate obstacle of having called a strike and bypassed any functional apparatus to bring workers out of the workplace and into the strike. Propagandistic methods can be applied, but propaganda under these conditions functions practically as little more than an invitation and is open to a myriad of subjective interpretations. Propaganda for a strike is like trying to control the weather. I can’t be done. You might as well invite lighting to strike at an exact time and place.[6] The failure of propaganda in this circumstance may also result in moralist injunctions against those workers who do not come out because of a perceived inherent conservatism. Theories that breed hostility toward the last vestiges of the existing unions in this country make no attempts to reach out to the tens of thousands of sympathetic workers within them. This abstention characteristically leads to adventurous political acts based on a flat interpretation of the role unions play.

This perhaps is the most calamitous of all likely outcomes to calls for strikes in the abstract. These calls do not function in a vacuum but lay over the existing political terrain in our society, subject to all of its prejudices, anxieties and yes also the persistent hope for a better future. These attributes are not mutually exclusive. A worker invited to participate in an abstract strike is very likely to see this as a motive contrary to their betterment, if they perceive their betterment and their position at work as one in the same. Let us say that we believe that a future under capitalism is no future at all, and that all workers are at their best when they act according to their collective rather than individual interests. But let us also say, that activists unwilling to understand or engage with individually based motives, play a detrimental role in our movement.

Rather what should be argued for is the advancement of the movement. What activity will pull large numbers of people to it? Understanding the consciousness of the terrain is just as important as acting upon it. Activating passive layers of support comes most readily by meeting those people where they are at- regarding the struggles in every day life, not from showing off adventurous tactics without regard to effective strategy. We should stand firmly against the ultra-left currents and instead strategize over ways to win masses of workers organized and unorganized to the cause of our movement. Workers need to see themselves as apart of the movement not a part from it.

At all odds we should avoid a circumstance that cultivates a perspective that pits radicals against workers. Instead we should say that workers are radicals and radicals are workers. Rather than the ultra left perspective that in practice would see the working class follow the lead of the radicals by attending their General Strike and accommodating their activities, we as revolutionaries should take the lead from existing class struggles and help push them to victory. We want to prove again and again that workers can fight back and get something. We don’t want to propagate the abstract idea of a strike, but show in concrete practice that workers can organize, that workers can win, and that revolutionaries can contribute to the process. Let all the flowers bloom. Some will thrive; others will wilt and cast their seeds to the wind. Workers in struggle are the real radicals; the lead we take should be from them.

A General Strike, in the abstract, will be neither a strike, nor will it be general. Calling an abstract strike a General Strike is as dishonest and misleading as attempting to lead the workers struggle without engaging with the existing institutions of that struggle. Workers self-activity is a certainty just as calling for it is a redundancy. Struggles within the workplace are bound to rise in the wake of Occupy and it is on these struggles that our movement should pivot.

The mantra of the revolutionary today ought be- “we are not what we want to be, but we want to become it together,” bringing all the disparate elements of the workers’ struggle into a crescendos tide against Capitalism. The mantra of the Ultra-Left remains- “we are already what we want to be, and we want you to join us.” As Lenin said, "It is far more difficult--and far more useful to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist." Our collective work in Occupy has made a tremendous step toward open struggle, but revolutionary struggle does not yet exist in the United States. Let us engage ourselves in the more useful –and difficult task of joining with existing struggle and building from it the revolutionary tide.

[1] This will not be a repeat of the Chris Hedge’s “article.” Because seriously, fuck that guy.
[2] Literally translated to “The Enraged Ones.”
[3] Blanquism distinguishes itself from other socialist currents of the day in numerous ways. Contrary to Karl Marx, Blanqui did not believe in the preponderant role of the working class, nor in popular movements: he thought, on the contrary, that the revolution should be carried out by a small group, who would establish a temporary dictatorship by force. This period of transitional tyranny would permit the implementation of a new order, after which power would be handed to the people. In another respect, Blanqui was more concerned with the revolutionary process itself than with the future society that would result from it.
[4] In Marxist philosophy, Leninism is the political theory for the democratic organization of a revolutionary vanguard party, and the achievement of a direct-democracy dictatorship of the proletariat, as political prelude to the establishment of socialism. Championing democratic centralization and political education the vanguard party along with the militant layers of the working class lead revolutionary activity.
[5] Burn.

Jon K. & Jason N. also contributed to this article. 


  1. Great article! I wanted to ask about your reference to Chris Hedges...lately he has been rather over-the-top hysterical in his writings, which I'm not sure is very helpful. It seems like mostly rhetoric. Thoughts? This article comes to mind: