In a response to a previous article, Robin Jones argues that applying the category “ultra-leftism” too broadly can lead us to make the opposite mistakes.
The reasons for the widespread popularity of Peter Camejo’s “Liberalism, Ultraleftism, or Mass Action” among socialists today are clear. It is a powerful and entertaining speech that popularizes Marxist ideas and makes complex concepts comprehensible. The speech is also relevant to the particular political context faced by YDSA chapters. It helped many of us express a critique of the climate of left-liberal activism so often present in campus organizing settings, while also pointing to certain limitations of the vaguely anarchist political outlook that was dominant on the US left prior to 2016. For these reasons, it has earned its status as a YDSA classic.
In its popularity, however, the speech has also become something of a magic bullet that is applied transhistorically, inhibiting our analysis of the concrete conditions that we face today. “Ultraleftism” has become a cudgel wielded in factional debates within DSA, a vague term of slander directed leftward, and a lazy shorthand applied overly broadly to a range of disparate phenomena. Much like “PMC” (professional-managerial class), the concept describes a real social phenomenon but is used with such imprecision that it has become little more than an invective.
On the misuses of “ultraleftism”
Historically, the term “ultraleftism” referred to particular tendencies of council communists and left-communists who staked out positions to the left of the official Communist parties after their ascendance in the 1920s. Later variants would emerge in relation to the French Communist Party’s lukewarm response to the May 1968 uprisings, as well as broader tensions over the relatively non-confrontational reformism of the European Communist parties in this era. Today there are no such parties to be “left of,” and the term tends to be used in US left discourse to refer to anyone critical of the strategy that is currently hegemonic within DSA: an electoral road to socialism via use of the Democratic Party ballot line and an eventual dirty break to form a working-class party.
The lack of specificity around the term today weakens our analysis. In terms of their perspectives and strategy, Jimmy Dore has very little in common with a Maoist sect, which in turn is extremely different from a journal like Endnotes. Only the latter exhibits any theoretical continuity with the historical ultraleft — a tradition that is worth studying even for its critics because of the thorny questions it raises about party, state, and strategy in Marxism. It’s fine to disagree with all of the actors listed above, and to hold that all are disconnected from mass politics, but using one term as a catch-all is inadequate when more specific concepts exist. For instance, though I do not share the position that socialists should only run candidates on a third-party ballot line in the US, “ultraleftism” is a poor descriptor for this tendency, since it involves party-building strategies and electoral tactics anathema to the actually-existing ultraleft. Equally, “adventurism” is a sharper category to refer to posturing about armed insurrection and proposing high-risk actions with a limited chance of success. Most importantly, we should avoid misusing the pejorative “ultraleft” to describe long standing and fundamental principles of Marxist theory, such as the need for the working class to abolish the existing capitalist state rather than simply seek to “wield it for its own purposes,” as Marx put it (this does not preclude contesting elections as a tactic for advancing class struggle).
Socialists and the masses
Lest my argument be misunderstood as merely a call for more accurate terminology, the political stakes of the debate around “ultraleftism” are quite serious. Since Trump’s 2016 electoral victory indicated that right-wing politics might extend downward economically from its petit-bourgeois base, the US left has been highly attuned to the difficulties that its own “activist” milieu faces in relating to the broader working class. This concern has found its worst expression in the “post-left,” an online clique of podcasters and bloggers who have essentially embraced a fusion of reactionary cultural politics and social democracy. If the “anti-ultra” position in Y/DSA stems from a far more legitimate critique of activist insularity, it also seems to reflect a softer concern that the “average worker” might find left politics and culture alienating (or worse, cringe). What if this concern gets it backward, missing the transgressive currents of working class life upon which a socialist politics might flourish?
The resonance of the Bernie campaigns and the Black Lives Matter uprisings demonstrate a widespread politicization ongoing since the 2008 financial crash. This has found its strongest expression among younger people, whose economic fortunes tend to be poorer than preceding generations. YDSA and DSA members are only the tip of the iceberg. We ought to be the most advanced element of this politicization, and in some cases we succeed at this task. Yet we risk relating to our broader milieu in a sectarian manner despite our professed anti-sectarianism, thus alienating our own recruiting ground and losing the support of the most politically advanced segments of the working class. Given DSA’s massive growth in the last few years, why is it that many young people are becoming politicized as leftists but not joining our organization or accepting the broad contours of our analysis? Are they simply wrong or does this point to areas where we might improve? Too often, the term “ultraleftism” is thrown around to dismiss actions outside of our direct purview as naive and unstrategic, rather than “interrogating what’s insightful and useful in their tactics and using them to correct the strategy” (to draw from a valuable article).
DSA and the BLM uprisings
To take a concrete example, a particular reading of Camejo’s argument enables certain socialists to distance themselves from the Black Lives Matter uprisings and posture as more-strategic-than-thou. Commendably, DSA as an organization has committed itself to supporting police abolition, and has made this demand coherent and tangible in the present moment through campaigns to defund the police and invest in working class communities. Most of the major caucuses and formations within DSA have also been supportive of the demonstrations, despite differences in analysis. Yet the uprisings have been met with ambivalence by a minority of members, for whom the variable political content of the movement’s demands and the spectre of corporate co-optation serve as excuses for a noncommittal attitude. Those whose analysis hinges on a critique of the “ultraleft” can tend to dismiss the more dynamic and militant elements of the uprisings as apolitical outbursts. The rhythm and internal logic of the protests is then substituted for that of more familiar electoral campaigns; the vision of sweeping societal transformation raised by the movement’s more radical wing is replaced by bread-and-butter economic reforms; and all supposedly in the name of “mass action.” This position fails to relate to the BLM movement on its own terms.
Revolutionary thinkers such as Gramsci refused such stances in their own contexts, arguing against “neglecting, or worse still despising, so-called ‘spontaneous’ movements, i.e. failing to give them a conscious leadership.” As indicated by this last clause, and as our own sensible strategists do not hesitate to point out, “spontaneous” demonstrations and riots will surely not be enough to bring about socialism on their own. Yet we must nevertheless support and participate in “every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things,” as Marx writes. For Lenin, who is often misinterpreted as simply hating “spontaneous” movements, organic increases in mass political activity demand that consciously organized political forces step up to the plate and advance their efforts to provide direction and structure. It is ultimately necessary for Y/DSA to rise to this task, even if we are currently in no position to provide political leadership to uprisings against police violence. In the present moment, the emphasis ought to be on what socialists can learn from the streets, rather than what we can teach them. At a time of increased militancy by the US working class — in particular those subject to racial oppression — overly broad critiques of the “ultraleft” do not help us relate to the uprisings, serving only to alienate us from the most advanced segment of a potential political base for socialist transformation.
What is citra-leftism?
In Ralph Miliband’s classic essay “The Coup in Chile,” he writes, “in part at least, ‘ultra-leftism’ is the product of ‘citra-leftism’” – citra-leftism referring to the opposite tendency toward caution and strategic conservatism on the left. In the context of tensions between the Allende government and its critics on the far-left, Miliband argued that the former could have done more to build the infrastructural framework required for mass mobilization to prevent Pinochet’s coup. I would argue that we have seen the emergence of a “citra-leftist” tendency in Y/DSA today – one that exists in a dialectical relationship with the so-called “ultra-left,” each dunking back and forth on the other on Twitter in a veritable cycle of clout-chasing centered on whether AOC is “really a socialist.”
To elaborate on this point, today’s “citra-left” is characterized by economism of the kind criticized by Lenin and Gramsci, which manifests itself in skepticism of so-called “activist demands” for fear that they might alienate a monolithic working class. It is also characterized by “parliamentary cretinism” as criticized by Marx, advancing a kind of left wing social democracy that does not adequately seek to transform the existing state or plan for moments of rupture with it. While I do not think that any major DSA caucus is fully “citra-left,” I am not convinced that hegemonic tendencies in DSA have entirely broken with these impulses either. In levelling this critique, I am aware that I risk mirroring the overly broad dismissals of the “ultraleft” which have become fashionable in Y/DSA circles. Miliband’s analysis points instead to the possibility of a more productive relationship between the far-left and the socialist mainstream. With its range of caucuses representing different ideological currents, Y/DSA can serve as an ideal location for such cross-pollination.
This support for a kind of broad unity should not be misinterpreted as minimizing my political differences from what I have termed the “citra-left.” If Camejo’s intervention is a reminder to engage in mass action, challenging an idealist conception of politics in which the radicalism of one’s beliefs or identity is what counts, the question remains: what kind of mass action? Mass action that uses the excuse of “meeting people where they are at” to justify concessions to the prevailing ideologies of common sense? Or mass action that pushes the masses further, toward a more advanced politics aimed at liberation?
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