The Intractable Marginality of the Activist Left

There was, to be sure, an upswing during 2011-12, which saw important outbreaks of Indigenous protest (INM, pipeline and fracking struggles, etc.), the Occupy movement, and the Quebec student strike, but this partial revival of large-scale popular protest proved to be short-lived. And there are still, as always, ongoing forms of low-intensity resistance, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of popular defiance and rebellion. Overall, however, the aggregate level of oppositional social struggle in recent decades has been disastrously low.

Since participation in social-movement struggles is basically the only setting (other than a few university courses and a few tiny and isolated leftist groups and collectives) where people have the opportunity to learn about leftist ideas and strategies, the radical Left is trapped in a position of intractable marginality, lacking any plausible path to “mainstream” relevance, i.e., any capacity to secure a meaningful role in shaping the ideas of large numbers of people or wielding any substantive influence. In this sense, there has been a deep and broad collapse of what Marx called popular “self-activity” (“Selbsttätigkeit”) — a terrifying lack of self-organized struggles of broad masses of people for social and environmental justice. We lack, therefore, the expansive pool of social antagonisms and conflicts upon which the Left could in former decades rely for infusions of enthusiasm, critical insights about the nature of the systems we oppose and how to defeat them, and what Rosa Luxemburg called “the forward-storming combative energy” of broad popular movements.

First of all, this collapse of self-activity has to be acknowledged as an accomplished fact. Blaming the activist Left for its own marginality is like blaming the dead fish when a pond dries up after years of catastrophic drought. The pathologies of the Left — chronic sectarianism, exaggerated levels of self-doubt (self-hatred?) about the utility of leftist politics, incapacity to engage with a broad public outside of leftist subcultures, the near total shift of focus from organizing against systemic racism and sexism to obsessing about racist or sexist utterances by celebrities or public figures as these are debated on social media, and so on — these are all symptoms, not underlying causes, of the fact that the levels of social struggle are so low that the Left has no context, no “habitat” (so to speak) in which to operate on a healthy basis. Inevitably, it shrivels up and loses its former vitality and dynamism. It is cut off from everything that once nourished its growth and vigour. To be sure, we can offer the usual self-critiques. But let’s not allow our thinking to be unduly clouded by naive hopes for a tiny and isolated, yet healthy and dynamic activist Left. This is a deeply incoherent expectation.

Second of all, we really should try to develop a healthy respect for our own utter dependence, as radical leftists, on events that remain almost entirely beyond our control. By its very nature, the radical Left can only play a constructive role if there are broad-based popular struggles with which it can engage, and by which it can be transformed. But it can never — and certainly not now — manufacture such struggles by force of will or by sheer organizing prowess. It has to wait, more or less helplessly, for relevance to be thrust upon it by events (even if it is condemned to be incapable of admitting to itself how limited its capacities really are — after all, who likes to admit to being helpless?).

But this respect for our dependence on levels of popular self-activity that we cannot effectively generate by our own devices also entails some guidelines about how to think about the challenges we face. The struggles on which alone the Left can base its regeneration will not come from the radical Left itself. But the Left itself has to cultivate a capacity to recognize them when they do appear. This was something we learned during the emergence of the Occupy movement. It took weeks for some ‘old school’ leftists, and months for others, to recognize it as an important social struggle. (Many still doubt this.) One recalls the reaction of 1950s leftists to the emergence of Students for a Democratic Society and, a few years later, the Black Panther Party. Many leftists of the previous generation did not even recognize these as key opportunities for the Left to secure a new importance and relevance for radical politics, which it largely lost during the 1950s. Instead, they insisted that these upstart organizing initiatives were “doing it wrong,” i.e., too distant from the the way the Left looked in earlier decades. When a healthy Left re-appears in the context of future broad-based movements, it will be because it puts into practice the old Boshevik slogan: “Study the old, create the new.”

And yet, even the Occupy movement remained far too small in scale, compared to the levels of popular self-activity that would be needed to offer the radical Left a new viability for its project of destroying racism, sexism, colonialism, and capitalism. So our eyes have to be fixed on any signs of broad-based popular mobilization, especially when it reaches beyond the ranks of radical “scenes” and “subcultures,” whether these be anarchists punks, marxist grad students, or loose networks of ‘social justice’ advocates on twitter or tumblr. That, however, is the scary part of all this. This idea that the Left has to wait for something (1) that doesn’t now exist, (2) that the Left can’t create by its own efforts, and (3) that seems only likely to emerge from struggles of a sort that happen less and less often, and seemingly on an ever smaller scale. It’s terrifying, of course. But it’s the only reality we have, and we have to begin by acknowledging it.

Ideally, we will draw the crucial lesson from these developments: that struggles are precious, and that broad-based struggles that draw in hundreds of thousands of people from outside the ranks of our activist scenes and subcultures, are especially precious. Only these can save us. On the other hand, our very predicament — our intractable marginality — makes it perhaps more likely that we’ll draw the opposite conclusion: that most people are ‘sheep,’ or that they are ‘not the real proletariat,’ but a privileged elite that stands in our way, etc. Our marginality, in short, makes it likely that we will remain largely oblivious to our need to be rescued by a hoped-for resurgence of broad-based mobilizations reaching, and indeed orginating, well beyond our own ranks. The actually existing radical-activist Left tends to respond to adversity by digging in its heels, insisting all the more confidently that it already has all the answers it could ever need, if only people would listen.

Still, looking on the bright side, the irrelevance of the activist Left limits the damage that its pathologies can do. When large-scale, sustained, and broad-based popular mobilization returns — as surely it must, eventually, albeit not necessarily soon enough to avert catastrophe — the scenes and subcultures of today’s activist Left will be swept away and replaced in the same way that those of the 1950s Left were swept away and replaced in the 1960s. But what can we do, today, that will leave something useful behind for those who will one day cast aside our present-day fixations as they build something that we remain unable to foresee?


This article is republished from the author’s blog Public Autonomy.