“Eppur si muove” — Galileo’s alleged retort after he was forced to renounce his theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. It’s a delightful story, but the astronomer, in truth, prudently kept his mouth shut. The same could be said for many on the Left who drifted into political oblivion following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. In the face of a triumphant neoliberalism and intellectual barrages against the “metanarrative,” with the decline in working class militancy, how many radicals accepted defeat without truly renouncing a structural critique of capitalism?
The contradictions that punctuate class society haven’t gone anywhere. Nothing has been resolved since the retreat of the Left. With the upsurge of the past months this much has been obvious. Since we last published, the Arab world has erupted, driven not just by political oppression, but by unemployment, rising commodity prices, austerity, and the growing gap between the ruled and their rulers. Austerity has also sparked resistance in the Anglophone world. Facing cuts that threaten to lower the standard of living for a generation and rollback the gains won by working people throughout the last century, millions have been emboldened.
The response in Wisconsin has been especially inspiring and despite the setbacks of this past week, it does not seem likely that the mobilizations will peter out anytime soon. Indeed, as the resistance builds in Ohio and other states facing similar anti-union legislation and public service cuts, it seems possible that a revitalized labor movement is on the horizon. But what kind of labor movement will this be? The recent passing of a friend of Jacobin, labor journalist Bob Fitch, should cause us to reflect on the structural corruption he saw as endemic in American unionism. The model of unionism that Fitch critiqued has been in free-fall over the past forty years — a victim of capitalist assault, not of working class reform. The present uptick could augur its resurgence, result in another noble defeat, or the building of something radically different.
There is no need to say which of the three prospects seems more likely. Regardless, we must think clearly about what strategy can yield the best chance of victory. Though it is easy to cast cursory aspersions from afar, we can look at the United Kingdom where sectarianism has led the Left to fail to capitalize on anti-cuts resistance. Rather than unite politically in an open and democratic organization, seemingly every segment of the radical Left there has set up their own competing “right to work” front group. This is the kind political practice that the Left cannot afford at such a conjuncture.
The fierce urgency of now, however, should not dull us to the importance of political debate and theory. This issue of Jacobin is offered as another modest contribution in that direction. If the response to our project so far is any indication, there’s an audience for thoughtful left-wing commentary. That being said, there’s a far larger audience at the moment for Thomas Friedman’s aphorisms and Glenn Beck’s gold fetish than socialist agitprop of any type, which shouldn’t be as discouraging as it sounds. For the first time in many of their lives, a new mass of students and workers are actively engaged in class struggle. This is a good thing and they deserve engagement, not dicta or discouragement.
I try to avoid quoting dead Europeans twice in 600 words, but it’s worth remembering what Trotsky said about Lenin — he thought in terms of epochs and continents while Churchill thought of parliamentary fireworks and parlor gossip. There are no short-cuts or substitutes for patient organization and deliberate political practice. There are politics waiting for us beyond what is possible now.