Brief Thoughts On Left Unity

Calls for left unity are prevalent among the radical left today. They are often framed as a critique of sectarianism, wherein those who assert the need for ideological unity in organizing are denounced on the basis of further dividing the left. Often, this criticism frames the issue as one of undermining the ability for the left to function. Proponents of left unity will often complain that amid our current political situation, it makes no sense to draw dividing lines within the left. After all, such divisions hinder the ability for the left to actually act, according to the supporters of left unity. We often hear calls for left unity appeal to a shared end goal as well.

The argument is usually framed something like this: “We all want communism, and we all want to destroy capitalism. Why can’t we work together to achieve that? We can hash out our differences once that is all said and done.”

There is an obvious and understandable appeal to this argument. We are all facing the same horrors of capitalism, and (at least in our rhetoric) we do all claim to share the same strategic goals. In light of this, it’s easy to fall back on “why can’t we all get along”-style appeals. The question that we have to ask, however, is whether or not this concept of left unity makes sense in a Marxist framework.

I think that in order to pose the question properly, we have to give an accurate assessment of what divides the radical left now, such that it might or might not need to be unified. The premise of left unity presumes a division, so we have to give an account of that division.

There are many factors which divide the radical left today. First, we can speak of ideological factors such as Marxist and Anarchist divergence on the issue of state, or Trotskyist and Marxist-Leninist divergence on permanent revolution and socialism in one country. These are usually the divisions that proponents of left unity want to transcend. On the one hand, there are real ideological distinctions which are at play here. For example, Marxists (excluding leftcomms) insist that the state cannot be conceived of as a transhistorical reality, and that given states have class characters which must be accounted for. Anarchists, on the other hand, assert that states are an embodiment of hierarchy, which operates as a somewhat transhistorical and abstract structure which must be combated. These divergences are arguably based on each tendency’s relationship to materialism, as Marxists operate with a materialist understanding of the state that rejects an abstract and transhistorical structure of hierarchy as an idealist understanding of the function of power. Underlying this divide, there are real fundamental philosophical divergences.

On the other hand, these same disagreements are often historical as much as they are ideological. Anarchists and Marxists endlessly redo debates about the Kronstadt rebellion or the Spanish civil war. In this sense, the division between leftists can often feel like the division between fans of different sports teams, wherein each tendency is simply rooting for a different faction in hypothetical historical re-hashing of events that preceded us. These divisions often feel profoundly inconsequential and might be understood as the sort of historical reenactment that a mostly powerless left engages in to cope. There are, however, real lessons to be learned from history and from previous revolutionary struggles, and these historical debates are often a means of debating the correct lessons to learn. In that sense, they can, despite their superficial silliness, still reflect fundamental ideological differences.

I will refer to both these historical and ideological differences as divisions of tendency. Again, it is these divisions of tendency that most left unity supporters hope for the radical left to transcend. If we were to stop only with consideration of these divisions, we would have an incomplete picture of the divisions among the radical left; there are other divisions which must be accounted for.

In On Contradiction, Mao asserts that divisions within the left, even within a single party, also occur as a reflection of the broader contradictions of class society. For the sake of simplicity, we might refer to these divisions as divisions of interest, because they reflect varying class interests and express the class contradictions of capitalist society. There are of course, factions within the radical left who do not actually push a revolutionary line, and who are not interested in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Opportunism has long plagued the left, with once-great revolutionaries like Kautsky eventually abandoning the revolutionary path in favor of reformism and class collaboration. In the contemporary American left, there are likewise those who follow a similar collaborationist path. The right wing of the DSA embodied in the Bread and Roses as well as the North Star caucus represent this more clearly, though this phenomena transcends far beyond the organizational bounds of the DSA. We must, if we are honest, admit that there are class divisions within the radical left.

The left is also divided on the basis of other contradictions, besides the contradiction between proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Mao also tells us that contradictions are universal to all things, and that in complex processes and things, there are many contradictions at play. Thus, within capitalist society, we also see contradictions on the basis of race and gender. This often expresses itself in the left in terms of chauvinism. American patriotism is often repurposed by certain segments of the left in order to appeal to a broader base, but this patriotism expresses a chauvinist view of North America which ultimately assumes the legitimacy of the American settler state. As such, this chuavinism expresses the interests of settlers and maintains the legitimacy of settler occupation on stolen land. In this sense, we can see that the contradiction created by settler colonialism influences the ideas and strategies which certain aspects of the left uphold. The radical left is thus divided upon basis of race, gender, settlerism, and other contradictions. When we see diverging ideological lines on questions of imperialism, national liberation, decolonization, and women’s liberation, what we are seeing is the relevant contradictions playing out within the radical left. Therefore, we cannot understand these divergences as merely differences of ideas and theories; rather, we must understand them to be expressions of diverging material interests.

Given this reality, we can see that on some level, the distinction between divisions of tendency and divisions of interest is a superficial one, as diverging interests can manifest as diverging tendencies. Mao explains this simply:

Every difference in men’s concepts should be regarded as reflecting an objective contradiction. Objective contradictions are reflected in subjective thinking, and this process constitutes the contradictory movement of concepts, pushes forward the development of thought, and ceaselessly solves problems in man’s thinking. Opposition and struggle between ideas of different kinds constantly occur within the Party; this is a reflection within the Party of contradictions between classes and between the new and the old in society. If there were no contradictions in the Party and no ideological struggles to resolve them, the Party’s life would come to an end.

Mao clearly explains that the disagreements within the party (we might extend this point to the broader radical left) are a reflection of broader social contradictions. The question then, is how this insight relates to the idea of left unity.

If left unity is a call for us to set aside our differences, stop arguing, refuse criticism, and stay steadfast in preconceived positions for the sake of superficial unity, then it is a sham. After all, a choice to refuse ideological struggle, to refuse engagement with one another for our mutual betterment (even when such engagement can be harsh and painful) does not create actual unity, it simply chooses to ignore the divisions already present within the left. More concretely, a choice to ignore chauvinist lines of decolonization and national liberation is a choice to allow a division between leftist from oppressed or indigenous nations and settler leftists. This division can only be worked past by settler leftists being willing to self criticize, abandon chauvinism, and support national liberation and decolonization within North America. Absent this, there is no real unity, because diverging interests are simply ignored instead of struggled through. This sense of left unity must be rejected on a Marxist basis.

If, on the other hand, we take left unity to mean a mutual commitment to struggle, to self criticize, and constantly reassess our own dogmatically held views, then we might have a more positive project. The divisions of the left today are not merely matters of opinion, and they are not merely differences in personality. They express real material interests, and they relate to larger social contradictions. Unity can only be achieved through a constant and intense struggle to come to the correct conclusions. We cannot embrace subjectivity or relativism in our pursuit of unity; materialism does not allow for this. At the same time, Mao reminds us that our knowledge can only attain its fullness in practice, in class struggle, and in taking the experiences we have, reflecting on them, and then applying our ideas to try to change the world. The correct conclusions will not be reached through rationalism and abstract theoretical arguments, and it will also not be reached through subjective appeals to personal experience. It can only be achieved through collective struggle. Thus, we might take left unity to mean an agreement to work together in mass work, to put our ideas into practice alongside each other, and then to learn from the results of our practice. This form of unity comes from collective participation in mass work, and requires all parties to be willing to reassess their ideas, their tendency, and their historical interpretations of events in light of the results of contemporary practice and mass work.

Unity cannot be achieved by ignoring divisions in favor or liberal notions of peaceful cooperation. It can only come through ideological struggle. As the contradictions within the radical left play themselves out, the aspects of the contradiction are transformed. Our ideas are sharpened, our understanding is made more useful, and we move to a more correct understanding of the world and how to change it. To pretend that our practice is a separate question from our ideology is a non-dialectical form of one-sidelines. Our practice transforms our ideology by sharpening it or showing its incorrectness, and our ideology informs the starting point for our practice. You cannot have one without the other.

Unity is a laudable goal only if it is real unity. This requires struggling around racism, settler colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the constant risk of capitalist restoration as these contradictions exist within our movement and pit comrades against each other. The defeat of chauvinism of all types is a precondition for real unity, and this defeat only can be achieved through struggle and criticism.

People often claim that criticism, is a gift, and there is a truth to this. Criticism and struggle are the gifts that allow unity to be possible at all. We must reject a liberal notion of unity and undertake the difficult task of collective practice in mass work, and constant self critical reflection. Only through this process can we ever be united.

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