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The recent 'Insurgent Notes' conference in New York City
The people behind the ostensibly ultra-left Marxist web site 'Insurgent Notes' recently hosted a conference in New York City. The following was originally written in response to an account of this conference by a Trotskyist group on the U.S. Mid-Atlantic seaboard.
I moved away from anarchism and began calling myself a left communist in the early 1980’s. I did not attend the ‘Insurgent Notes’ conference. Based on past experience I didn’t have to put fresh batteries in my crystal ball to get that this conference would be as you describe. Discussions by U.S. ultra-left Marxists of real world efforts to assert what they claim to be about outside of their ideological echo chamber must always be brief ones.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 2001 attacks, one of the main people currently behind ‘Insurgent Notes’ initiated an ongoing series of meetings of ultra-lefts in Berkeley. I took part. My understanding was that we would move fast, come up with an analysis of the Sept. 11 events, and attempt to get this analysis out in some highly visible way. Sept. 11, 2001 was the first major battle of the 21st century, it was the first time that U.S. government-style mass civilian casualty attacks were perpetrated against civilians in the U.S., and it was blowback from Carter and Reagan’s foreign policy antics in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was a unique historical moment. A provocative perspective on this, presented in an aggressive highly public matter, could have been a foot in the door for making a sophisticated anti-capitalist perspective widely known.
The group met and talked. We met and talked. In compulsively inadequate ultra-left Marxist style we met and talked some more. Nothing happened. Grad student pedantry and incapacity were in a neck and neck race here. There was vague talk of forming a ‘Capital’ reading group by the time I stopped attending the meetings; apparently those who can, do, and those who can’t form ‘Capital’ reading groups. Even this insular and inwardly-directed proposal went nowhere and soon the group folded. This is consistent with all experiences I have ever had with people who call themselves ultra-left Marxists in the U.S. going back to the beginning of the Reagan eighties.
The person who initiated this group is sometimes described as “the leading left communist in the United States.” In my encounter with him I was struck less by his voluminous extremely abstract erudition than I was by his total lack of any hint of the practical political smarts that we develop if we repeatedly assert unusual ideas in the larger world outside of our comfort zone. He has been an ostensible left communist for almost 40 years and all he has to show for this is a collection of documents he’s written that are equally unreadable in seven languages on a web page. In the decade and a half since our 9/11 group’s belly-button fingering sessions he has continued dabbling in his hobby in the form of ‘Insurgent Notes,’ whose identity with a chimerical “revolutionary left,” clarion call for "Building a Radical Left in the Age of Trump" and paucity of accounts of sustained, credible, real world action add up to a politics of lite-rock Trotskyism.
Revolutionary extremism is what it does; if it does nothing, it is nothing. It is a real world phenomena or it doesn’t exist. It has to be credible; it has to be visible in the larger society around us and be taken seriously by friend and foe alike. A few fiery ultra-left “positions” on unions, nationalism and the Bolsheviks after Brest-Litovsk don’t elevate ‘Insurgent Notes’ in its current form out of and away from the historically harmless left fringe of academia. These putative ultra-leftists don’t even appear to be decisively opposed to electoral politics, in the country that leads the industrialized world in the rate of mass abstention from voting and where mass abstention was in effect the number one vote-getter in the 2016 Presidential election.
In the U.S., ultra-left Marxism is a hobby for self-important and easily intimidated individuals whose ability to relate to the world has been terminally deformed by their university experience and who like to talk about Marx a lot. Ultra-left Marxism is supposed to an uncompromising form of revolutionary analysis — and action — focused on class conflict in capitalist societies. Outside of the United States it often is this; the efforts of the ultra-left Marxist-influenced groups Wildcat and Kolinko in Germany and people associated with them in China, India and elsewhere are particularly admirable. In the US ultra-left Marxism only attracts college professors without a college who project their long-term paralytic inability to act onto the world at large. The consistent uselessness of ultra-left Marxists in the U.S. unintentionally highlights the superior qualities of many Marxist-Leninist and Trotskyist militants I have known, in particular the Trotskyists. Their politics are no good, but the long term personal commitment they demonstrate in fighting for their convictions is superb. Members of the ‘smash-ist-and-fascist,’ Stalinist group Progressive Labor and of various Trot organizations often get jobs in strategic sectors, as transit system operators, longshore or hospital employees, and spend years asserting their perspectives among co-workers. They often structure their lives around the fight for what they believe in — I do not know of a single ultra-left Marxist in the U.S. who does this. Far from being “alienated” this “militant attitude” is a wholly admirable and necessary thing.
Ultra-left Marxism in the United States is a form of supposed revolutionary Marxism with no public existence — no public existence whatsoever in the thirty-plus-years that I have to some degree identified with ultra-left Marxism. The people — overwhelmingly middle aged and elderly males — who are attracted to ultra-left Marxism in the contemporary United States are inadequate to the task of asserting what they claim to be about in the larger world outside of their safe spaces. Many years of inaction and relentless pedantic self-indulgent junk shows this. They will hold a meeting, at which they will valiantly decide to hold another meeting, and if by that point they haven’t completely run out of energy they might mightily rise to the occasion and decide to hold another meeting. They and their passively held opinions add up to nothing.
This caustic commentary about ultra-left Marxists as I’ve experienced them in the United States does not apply in any way to the dedicated and energetic ultra-left comrades I’ve met in Europe and Argentina — people who are 100% for real about their politics and who fight to assert their perspectives in contemporary working people’s real world social struggles. This is also not a concession to any form of Second International social democratic Marxism.