A Self-Organization Strategy for Revitalizing the Left

[This is a revised version of a contribution to the Rabble.ca series, “Reinventing Democracy, Reclaiming the Commons.”]

What happened to the North American radical Left? Why is it that, even now, when capitalism seems so obviously unappealing, unsustainable and unfair, the far Left cannot mount a more serious challenge to the Right or its grim austerity agenda?

What became of the Left’s former ability to mobilize large numbers of people into powerful social movements, to inspire working-class people with appealing visions of post-capitalist alternatives, and to strike fear into the hearts of elites who once worried that the radical Left posed a credible threat to their power and privilege?

If we are serious about figuring all this out, and reversing the Left’s present trajectory of decline, we have to be willing to take some responsibility for our predicament. We can’t just blame the ‘propaganda’ circulated by the corporate media, the repressive role of the police and the courts, or the way electoral systems are stacked against our efforts to promote social and environmental justice and political and economic democracy. The news media, the police, and state institutions have always waged a determined struggle against the radical Left; but the Left used to be able to overcome these obstacles and make real gains, building powerful mass movements that sometimes racked up real victories. Above all, a range of avowedly anti-capitalist organizations were once able to claim the active allegiance of hundreds of thousands of people, and the passive sympathy of millions, but at least in North America this broad-based support for anti-capitalist politics has long since collapsed.

The Left’s Role in Its Own Decline

What has the Left done, or failed to do, that might have hastened or exacerbated its own decline, and what can we do today to help turn things around?

There is, of course, a conventional answer to these questions. Some people on the broad Left, and almost everyone on the Right, would say that the Left’s historic error was to articulate a political vision (‘socialism’) that strayed too far from capitalism. Its supposed aim to introduce democratic and egalitarian economic planning, they say, made socialism unable to handle the overwhelming demands of information-processing that arise in a complex modern society. Only markets, commodification, and profit-motivated investment decisions can handle these demands, according to this view.

But I would argue that the real story is almost the exact opposite of this more familiar one. The real-world experiments in ‘socialism’ during the 20th century did not fail because the distance that separated them from capitalism grew too great, making them unworkable. On the contrary, they failed because the proximity between those efforts and capitalism made these ‘socialisms’ – Stalinism and social democracy – too difficult to distinguish from the capitalist system that they were supposed to replace. These supposedly socialist political projects actually embraced most of capitalism’s worst features: its bureaucratic mode of governance, its technocratic approach to designing and implementing public policy, its hierarchical and authoritarian norms of workplace organization, its Realpolitik patterns of international relations, its cultural celebration of productivity and growth as ends in themselves, and its elitist understanding of who is best suited to exercise political power and spearhead social change.

At the heart of the problem was the Left’s often uncritical embrace of one of the most oppressive, disempowering and alienating institutions that most working-class people ever have the misfortune to interact with in their lives: the modern state. At some point, the Left dropped its former aim of encouraging the ‘self-emancipation’ of working people, and replaced it with an aim that to most people seems like its opposite: technocratic ‘public administration’ by state agencies.

Student assembly, Quebec, 2012

This shift, from the anti-statist ‘community-based socialism’ that dominated the early Marxist, Owenite, Guild-socialist, syndicalist and anarchist Left in the 19th and early-20th centuries, was replaced in the years after the First World War by the two most influential forms of ‘socialism’ in the 20th century: statist command planning, typified by the USSR, and Keynesian welfare state expansionism, typified by European social democracy.

In the course of this fateful shift, the Left gave up almost entirely on the emancipatory promise of liberation from alienation, exploitation and bureaucratic administration that had once been its stock in trade – a promise which had only a few decades earlier led European radicals to embrace the bold ‘smash the state’ ethos of the Paris Commune. In place of this earlier promise of sweeping social reconstruction based on popular self-organization from below, the post-WWI public-administration Left now promised two things: ‘development’ and ‘rising living standards.’ For a while, both Stalinism and social democracy seemed able to deliver on these promises. Later, notably during the structural crisis of Keynesian demand-management capitalism in the mid-1970s and the stagnation crisis in Eastern Europe during the 1980s, these promises began to ring hollow.

But the more fundamental problem wasn’t that the Left could no longer deliver on its promises. The problem was that it was making the wrong promises altogether. The ideal of a community-based, egalitarian and participatory economic democracy that had once inspired millions had been replaced with an unappealing vision of a regime of public administration and economic management – whether Stalinist or social-democratic – that delivered ‘benefits’ to a passive, alienated, but well-fed populace.

This ‘administrative’ vision of a post-capitalist world is not utopian or unattainable. But why would anyone be inspired to struggle for it? This, I believe, is the question that the Left must address if it is to revitalize its project and recapture the allegiance of people who have learned to associate the radical Left with government bureaucracy and alienating public administration.

A Left That No Longer Identifies With The State

Having made this fateful wrong turn so long ago, what can the Left do today to set a new course, to restore the viability and the appeal of its project?

What the Left needs above all is to rupture its identification with the capitalist state. Government is not an actual or potential ally of the Left against Big Business. In part this is because, especially in this neoliberal epoch, government is in fact already an arm of Big Business. But more importantly, it is because the bureaucratic structures of the capitalist state are incapable in principle of serving as a vehicle for the self-liberation of people who aspire not to be administered by a welfare-maximizing state apparatus, but to participate in the democratic self-organization of their own workplaces and communities. What is needed, in short, is a reassertion of the classical leftist ideal of a community-based socialism, a socialism of popular self-organization and horizontal democracy, not one of public sector maximalism.

In part, that means replacing the utilitarian and technocratic images of a post-capitalist social order with more appealing images of radically democratic forms of community-based egalitarian economic democracy. But, in more immediately practical terms, it means a strategic reorientation of the Left: a turn away from the habit of engaging primarily with state institutions (parliaments, regulatory agencies and the welfare state), toward engaging primarily with grassroots, community-based forms of popular self-organization.

A Self-organization Strategy

Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre.

The Left, in other words, must turn its attention back toward the community-based, self-organized domain of “civil society”: union locals, cooperatives, social movement organizations, mutual aid projects, popular assemblies, and other community associations. These expressions of grassroots democracy and popular self-organization – operating independently of both the market economy and the state – offer the Left the crucial benefit that they do not replicate the alienating and disempowering character of corporations and governments (although the Left is unfortunately overpopulated with bureaucratic and staff-led union and NGO apparatuses that today emulate the administrative systems of elite institutions). Instead, these grassroots organizations embody the ‘every cook can govern’ spirit of the classical (pre-WWI) Left.

When the Left does engage with the state, as it sometimes must, its default demand should be to transfer power from corporations and the state to grassroots, self-organized civil society. Such a self-organization strategy is arguably already implicit in the notion of a community-based socialism. For example, whereas a statist strategy would demand that the government’s budget adopt welfare-maximizing priorities, a self-organization strategy would demand that budgeting power be ceded to a grassroots participatory budgeting process, centrally involving open public assemblies. Whereas a statist strategy would demand ‘public housing’ owned and operated by the state, a self-organization strategy would demand that state funds be used to establish democratically self-governing non-profit housing cooperatives, collectively owned by their members. And whereas a statist strategy would demand ‘nationalizing’ banks as ‘public enterprises,’ a self-organization strategy would demand that banks be dismantled and reconstructed as genuinely democratic and member-controlled financial cooperatives (‘credit unions’), operating in the public interest. This transfer of power and control from corporations and governments to self-organized civil society associations should be seen as the main aim of the Left. From this point of view, ‘winning’ for the Left means replacing the power and prerogatives of corporations and governments with empowered, participatory, and self-governing forms of community-based self-organization.

How We Resist Neoliberalism

There is no doubt that a community-based self-organization strategy for the Left raises a number of difficult questions. Above all, it poses a very serious set of questions about how the radical Left should fight back against neoliberalism, notably in its contemporary guise of the ‘austerity’ agenda. Given that neoliberalism’s primary policy aspiration is to privatize public services, and to replace public administration (the ‘public sector’ economy) with commodification (the ‘private sector’ economy), shouldn’t the Left be defending the state (the public sector) against neoliberal privatization?

What the Left needs in addressing this question is nuance. We have to be able to distinguish between privatization and collectivization, both of which are alternatives to public administration. For example, transferring control of a public (state-owned and operated) housing complex to a profit-motivated private landlord, in pursuit of the corporate/neoliberal agenda, is properly understood as privatization. But transferring control of that same public housing complex to the residents themselves, under pressure from grassroots popular mobilization, to be run as a non-profit democratic cooperative, is not privatization but collectivization. If we refuse to make this distinction, either by celebrating privatization as a victory against the state or by vilifying cooperatives as ‘neo-liberal,’ mistaking collectivization for a type of privatization, we fall into one of two familiar traps: the temptation to see the state as the main enemy, letting corporations disastrously off the hook, or (more likely among leftists) the temptation to align ourselves politically with the ill-fated project of ‘public administration socialism,’ in which the Left plays the role of supporting the capitalist state as a bulwark against corporate power.

This kind of mistake is at the heart of the Left’s historic failure to champion public autonomy and community-based self-organization against not only their corporate enemies, but their bureaucratic-statist enemies, as well. Once taking this path, the Left quickly finds itself defending the state against the negative experience of it that so pervades the lives of poor and working-class people, even to the point of championing the increase of taxes on workers as ‘progressive’ because it supports the state.

The Left, or at least the radical Left, needs to remember that its project by definition demands sweeping social reorganization and reconstruction from below. In pursuit of this aim, the Left may often need to tactically defend public services, run on a non-profit basis by the state, against the immediate threat of profit-motivated privatization, which we rightly oppose as a step in the wrong direction altogether. But ultimately, the Left must aim higher than state-administration: the Left must aim to replace both the profit-motivated private sector economy and the bureaucratically administered public sector economy, in favor of a community-based, democratic and egalitarian post-capitalist economic democracy. This means that we must admit the obvious: that publicly owned enterprises and public services offered by the capitalist welfare state do not meet the standard of public autonomy by any stretch of the imagination. Our project demands a community-based self-organization strategy, not a statist one. What we fight for is not a bigger, more expansive state, but more democratic and egalitarian forms of grassroots popular self-organization: a more participatory and community-based set of economic and political institutions, controlled from below by working people themselves.

Today, more than ever, we need a Left that can inspire hope, not just for a more productive and well-administered society, but for a freer, more democratic, less alienating society, controlled directly by its members, as opposed to being controlled by administrators, supposedly acting in the public interest. This ideal of a ‘community-based socialism’ was a vision that once united the entire radical Left – Marxists and anarchists, guild socialists and Owenites, syndicalists and council communists. There is good reason to hope that it could some day do so again.

4 thoughts on “A Self-Organization Strategy for Revitalizing the Left”

  1. Unfortunately a lot of privatisation ventures appear in the guise of “community” initiatives, for example in New Zealand state housing is being replaced by “social housing” which may be owned/ run by a mix of private profit making companies, iwi (local Maori) run businesses ( part capitalist/ part socially orientated models but still run by an elite within that community) etc. And many welfare activities previously undertaken by the state are being contracted out to private providers, such as church run organisations as well as profit making. Although some are well- meaning, they function as an extension of coercive control over the lives of the people they supposedly help. Also these charities which were previously critical of oppressive govt policy fall silent when they get the funding to administer these projects. The de-centralisation of education has led to competition and adoption of business models; and now the introduction of “charter schools” -state funding for privately run schools- again has this mix of fundamentalist christion, profit makers, and (part profit/ part community orientated) Maori organisations applying for and getting the funding. So it is difficult to see how one could support any of these moves really. But I do take your point that funding genuine community co-operatives would be a good thing. But also, you are talking about the state funding these community organisations, which implies that you support the existance of a state. Or do you see it as a temporary measure? If there is no state- how can resources be pooled so that each region , whether rich or poor- can get a fair share?

  2. Did you notice what happened to Occupy? It started out focused on the banking system and how it fundamentally undermines our society, so the media said it had no central message until ‘the left’ jumped in and made it about everything except the banking system, and then the media let the ‘left’ be the official spokespeople despite the obvious fact that most of the people who were a part of Occupy didn’t support the leftists who ended up in control through Union funding and media support. In several cities the center leaning, even libertarian, elements that actually organized the camps were systematically slandered and harassed and driven out by ‘leftists’ who wouldn’t have anything to do with Occupy until they saw how big it was, then showed up and used the consensus process and their funding arrangments to dominate and neutralize it while trying to use it as a recruiting device for their pre-Occupy movement.
    There’s nothing more elitist and condescending and anti-solidarity than listening to a middle class university indoctrinated professional, of any race or gender, lecturing dishwashers, janitors and even straight out homeless people about how ‘privileged’ they are based on the myopic doctrines of ‘left’ identity politics.
    . A large part of it has to do with the people who control ‘the left’ today. If you’ve noticed, trying to get involved in any designated ‘left’ cause these days pretty much requires you to also support every other ‘left’ cause, and opposing one ‘left’ doctrine will get you blacklisted from every ‘left’ cause because the organizations are tightly controlled. The causes themselves are not popular. Yes, the main things like corporate corruption and health care and the environment and even gay rights, those are very popular, but anyone who starts getting involved in them beyond just showing up and holding a sign is put through an aggressive screening process that forces them to also promote a kind of feminism that most women want nothing to do with, a kind of ‘anti-racism’ that’s blatantly racist and not supported by most people of color, and a constantly changing doctrine of politically correct speech that’s designed to allow a trained activist to find something to label offensive in almost anything that can be said. So we don’t see large numbers coming out even though most people support the main issues because we’re not welcome if we don’t subscribe to every doctrine of ‘the movement’.

  3. Occupy didn’t fail because it was taken over by the “left” who were actually there the entire time. It “failed” in the traditional sense of the word, because it was directionless, a ship whose passengers deliberately disabled and then completely dismantled the rudder, because electing a leader to steer and be responsible for the correct course of the ship is apparently repulsively undemocratic. The outcome was predictable. Occupy was not a “movement” because it had no intention of moving anything. Instead it was content to remain in place, and debate all day about discursive goals of the GA. In other words, it was inward, self-focused, from the start. In that, we can’t really say that it failed: it accomplished precisely what it set out to do, which is focus on itself.

    That said, Daniel Johnson’s critiques of “the left” are partly on target, but partly unfair and clearly represent an alienation that he personally experienced. My experience with the left has apparently been much more widely varied. I have run into the PC folks and the purists. I still, myself, support a boycott of leftist support for Clinton because of her vote for the War which she refuses, to this day, to admit she was wrong on. And yet, there are a lot of pragmatic people on the left, who seek to build bridges rather than defend them. There are some who think that a radical coalition with libertarians, on things the left and the right agrees on (for example, foreign policy, prison reform and the war on drugs) while leaving the other stuff off for a later, and better situated date. Those types of people, I believe are in as great a number as the ideologues that Johnson refers to above.

    I don’t happen to agree that the left can revitalize itself by following the prescriptions in the article above. There are a few good ones, but I think that we have to be in a MUCH more progressive society than we live in today to even begin thinking about adopting this sort of “from below” reform. As it is right now, it is far too easily captured by organized forces on the right and turned into a weapon against the people. The people themselves have a very practical understanding of the things that are happening to them, but their votes demonstrate that they have no idea WHY those things are happening to them. Building things from the ground up in this socio-political environment is a mistake which will lead to regression.

    The left, if there is an organized body, should spend our days demonstrating conclusively how the system oppresses people and linking that to an explanation about WHY it is able to do that and get away with it. Because it is clear that Americans have no clue about the connection between their own suffering and capitalism- they still stupidly kill one another shopping for Christmas, allow themselves to be paid minimum wage or sometimes less than that, vote Republican, and attend TEA Party rallies. And they still put the fact that our country is going down the drain on the fact that our President is un-American, “socialist” “muslim” or “black.” Yes, janitors understand how hard it is to make ends meet, and they need no lecture on the topic. But it is equally clear that they, and millions like them have no idea what to do about it, to the point where they will blindly follow any demagogue who comes along and offers them an easy solution to a very complex problem. As leftists, our job should be to sucker ignorant people into supporting them, because we DO know why people’s experience with life is so terrible, and it really has zip to do with which capitalist party is in charge, except for the fact that ANY capitalist party is in charge.

    No, our job is not to lead anyone anywhere. It is to undermine capitalism and make it unacceptable in the population the same way the McCarthyites and the Birtchers have been able to demonize socialism in the general consciousness. Once we realize that as our mission, we have a shot at resuscitating our wing of the spectrum.

  4. Excuse me: Major typo here

    “As leftists, our job should be to sucker ignorant people into supporting them, because we DO know why people’s experience with life is so terrible, and it really has zip to do with which capitalist party is in charge, except for the fact that ANY capitalist party is in charge. ”


    “As leftists, our job should NOT be to sucker ignorant people into supporting us, ALTHOUGH we DO know why people’s experience with life is so terrible, and it really has zip to do with which capitalist party is in charge, except for the fact that ANY capitalist party is in charge.”

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