Introduction to Against Ultraleftism
This little cluster of essays represents an effort to begin thinking about the limitations of a left politics today in ways that involve something other than attacking leftists either in power or seeking to achieve power for being insufficiently radical. The brief essay by Lenin was written in the spring of 1922. It is an allegory of political progress and the ongoing effort to perfect Communism. Like “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920), it was directed against the purists he called “ultraleftists.” There is, Lenin says here, “nothing more dangerous than illusions.” “Those Communists are doomed who imagine that it is possible to finish such an epoch-making undertaking as completing the foundations of socialist economy…without making mistakes, without retreats, without numerous alterations to what is unfinished or wrongly done.” At times one has to “move at a snail’s pace,” to “move downwards” to get to the summit. And on the slow way up, it is a gift to the climber not to hear the “nauseating” voices of the purists below who await the fall to justify their inaction. Still today the climber has to drown out the omens of the fortune-tellers reading the tea-leaves for signs of impending catastrophe and enjoying the show that’s always-about-to-end.
According to Hanns Eisler, “Brecht’s favorite essay was Lenin’s ‘On Climbing High Mountains,’ which he thought was one of the great masterpieces of international literature.” Indeed, in 1935 Brecht wrote his final Lehrstücke on Lenin’s essay, called The Horatians and the Curiatians: A Play for Schools. Eisler had secured commission for the play by the Red Army. “This cleverness, this cunning, Lenin’s cunning…you can make progress through force, but also through cleverness, through adherence to principles and through tactical maneuverability. Yes, that’s what filled Brecht with tremendous enthusiasm,” Eisler wrote.
The other two essays included here—by William J. Mello and Altemar da Costa Muniz and Peter Dorman—are interested in understanding the tactics of the long climb to the summit, and may perhaps be useful as an alternative to the deafening prayers for failure coming from the Right and the Left.
Although neither one of them is in any way about the Sanders campaign, that campaign has also produced a series of clarifying responses with respect to what it would mean to have an actual left in power. On one side (the right), we have left (no contradiction) neoliberals, rushing, for example, to defend the market-based ACA against a supposedly unworkable single payer plan, or to insist that helping students repay their loans is better than introducing a system (free higher ed) whereby they don’t have to incur any. This Democratic rejection of social-democratic reform is, of course, embodied in its standard bearer, who having taken money for years from Goldman Sachs et al, now earns it by pointing to the real problem: “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism? Would that end sexism?” And she makes a good point; no one does diversity better than Goldman (http://www.goldmansachs.com/who-we-are/awards/diversity-awards.html). And Clinton’s militants—with declarations like “I reject the moral superiority of a coalition led by white men vs. the will of black, brown and female voters”—ingeniously turn ideology into identity and thus, even more ingeniously, retrofit race-baiting as red-baiting.
Our little group of papers, however, is more directed toward what it still makes sense to call the ultraleft: from those who think that Sanders should never have run as a Democrat to those who, disdaining electoral politics, don’t care who runs as what, from those who think that socialism is insufficiently attentive to the particularities of a universe of paramecially fissioning identities to those who sign up for TIDAL under the impression that corporate mass culture is revolutionary popular culture. Maybe the most impressive of all are the ones who spend their time analyzing Breaking Bad or Beyoncé videos while waiting for the rate of profit to finally bottom out; when it gets low enough, they hope, horizontal organizing—it’s the Mass Strike, Elizabeth!—will happen.
These tendencies stem partly from what Dorman in his contribution describes as the “profound defeat and demobilization on the left” that has been the baseline reality in the United States and other wealthy capitalist nations. This definitive defeat has encouraged the proliferation of freelance left critics who have lost, increasingly have never had, any sense of the messiness and complexities of a politics directed toward pursuing power. Indeed, this century has yielded an accommodation to defeat worthy of Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes: the pursuit of power is intrinsically corrupting and is to be denounced. As Chris Hedges recently declared, “power is always the problem, no matter who holds it.” This is the ultraleft tendency that has been quick to attack Corbyn’s insurgency in the British Labour Party, Sanders in the US, SYRIZA, the PT government in Brazil, the PSUV in Venezuela, Morales’s MAS in Bolivia and Correa’s PAIS in Ecuador, all as sellouts.
Selling out is not the problem. It isn’t even Hillary’s problem (her problem is that she actually believes in what she’s doing). The problem is that the mountain is hard to climb. And it’s even harder to climb when people who would be your allies are telling you that you shouldn’t even be trying. Or when neoliberalism has come to define the boundaries of left political imagination. Nowadays it takes more imagination not to see the solutions than to embrace some of them right in front of you.