We are reliving some strange version of history where what was old is new again – and not in a good way. Far-right racist, misogynist, and homophobic views have found a voice again. In so many ways it is not a new voice, but the same voice that has echoed within previous generations – a voice many had thought could not possibly return.
What’s most concerning is that this language has even found its way into some union halls, the traditional spaces for working-class debate and education. At a recent labour conference, I witnessed a discussion on advancing constituency group rights devolve into polite sounding prejudiced and ignorant tirades against “those people”. It was interesting to see this New Reactionary’s use of postmodern, pseudo-scientific language of oppression as a shield against criticism. It seems the far-right have adopted much of the language of postmodern undergraduate lectures to help them distort the reality of what they are saying.
While the irony of the right-wing’s sardonic recycling of postmodern language is not lost on many of us on the materialist left, it has nonetheless successfully confused many labour militants into silence. Even left-wing spaces that have a history grounded in materialism have allowed a caricature of the left-liberal notion of free speech to push out the voices of the truly oppressed. “Identity” empowerment is now realized on such a purely individual level, everyone identifies as an oppressed minority group of one – even the three fascists in a room of hundreds.
In response to a recent display of open ignorance on a convention floor, a 30-year veteran of militant socialist labour organizing described it as the “Trump effect”: where what would have been a space for constructive dialogue and learning has been turned into a safe space for ignorant people to voice ignorant views. She compared it to the union halls of the 1970s; the difference was the lack of angry shouts from the audience and the mic pushing back against the hate.
The real disaster is the apparent inability of the left to respond to ignorance and hate with anything that looks like an organized and structured opposition. The activists, academic caste, and vanguard are supposed to organize these spaces to maximize the democratic process, raise consciousness, and provide room for constructive debate. After all, working class education happens best when stories of oppression are told in concrete ways by those experiencing that oppression at a union meeting. Alternatively, spaces that create room for ignorance silence those legitimate voices.
When the politics of our spaces are shifted like this, we have a serious question to consider: Is the movement’s leadership so ill-prepared to deal with even disorganized expressions of ignorance and regression? If the answer is yes, then it will not be long before we see organized hate.
This is not to say that all is lost. Many who express dismay have come to the same conclusion of what needs to be done. But, it is clear that skills have to be relearned and it might be that an entire generation does not understand what has been happening. Veterans of the movement, comrades, left-wing militants, and materialist socialists from the newer “identity politics” tendencies with the skills to organize in these spaces seem to be either much older or younger than the current leadership.
So, what is the answer?
All those who truly understand the current political reality need to start working together. That means actively breaking-down the language barriers that have plagued recent attempts at dialogue. Old and new styles of organizing and talking about these issues with members and the general public need to be deployed if the left is going to be effective at pushing back.
It is incumbent on all of us – from the old guard to the new recruits – to remember their socialist ideology, activist beginnings, and re-read some of our (very) old heroes that have dealt with all this before.
To start, we need to back away from the knee-jerk opposing generically labelled “identity politics”. For all our problems on the left, it is too easy a target and broad criticism resolves nothing. Also, it is anti-historical to believe that identity politics are that much more abundant today than they were 50 or 100 years ago.
For some context, just have a look at the recent dialogue around protest on campus that blames students and youth for getting it all wrong.
Correcting the misunderstanding in the media about the nature of protest on campus could fill the empty library shelves on those campuses. Many social commentators talk about students as if they are a single group. And when the general confusion between liberalism and “left-wing" is mixed in, you get idiotic “analysts” complaining that students’ demands are wrong or poorly constructed. It is as if these authors think students had simply hired the wrong political consultants and communications specialists.
People who protest on campus have usually never protested before. So, from the outside, it always looks a little ridiculous. Especially to those who have gone through it all before.
So too, there is nothing new about the general politics of “identity” of the broader protest movements of today.
For example, there is likely not very many protest movements in all history that were not predominantly liberal in its expression on campuses in North America. The anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the workers’ rights movements (like the sweatshop-free movement) were all lead by individualist liberal slogans on campus. All these movements had leftists involved in the leadership, but they almost never expressed their mass orientation in a Marxist or materialist way. The notable exceptions are some solid Canadian Federation of Students campaigns like Drop Fees, No Means No, and the Ethical Bulk Purchasing program.
The book Confrontation on Campus, written in 1969 about the ongoing Californian student mobilizations, shows this clearly. Apart from the specific references to the Vietnam War, the book could have been written about current campus political confrontations. Same debates, same calls.
We can go even farther back and see a similar pattern. The Young Generation by Lenin was about what he saw as the ridiculous orientation of youth and students in 1899. Lenin wrote about this again in 1918-19 while despairing over the almost singular focus of the socialist youth on gender, sex, and “destroying bourgeois notions” of love and family in newly liberated communities after the Russian Revolution. Much of this we would describe as “identity politics”. This did not stop that generation from building a global socialist program from a country that was mostly pre-industrial.
In 1918, even the Young Communist League was fighting for urban vegetable gardens and their journals obsessed over notions of “free love” and eliminating patriarchy. Not exactly the primary call of the older materialists.
The difference between Lenin’s writing and the writing that criticizes youth and students today is when he critiques the dominant liberal ideology within this group he does so in a non-condescending way.
Lenin writes, “We must be as patient as possible with their faults and strive to correct them gradually, mainly by persuasion, and not by fighting them. Frequently, the middle-aged and the aged do not know how to approach the youth in the proper way; for, necessarily, the youth must come to socialism in a different way, by other paths, in other forms, under other circumstances then their fathers [sic].”
We can all (re)learn from this orientation. As before, both older and younger generations must unite around a common analysis of history, understand our failings, and be strategic in the demands we make and tactics we use. Older generations should remember that they were similarly obsessed in their youth and that the younger generation can look to the past to see that their elders were once fighting similar fights.
When we see this, the chasm between a faulty analysis and a broader materialist struggle is not so vast and the fight against regressive, ignorant, and opportunist far-right ideologies is easier.