It’s an old adage of city life: commute home to masturbate, but don’t masturbate during the commute. Such are the reasonable burdens of living in a society.
Last week I was reminded that this sentiment isn’t universally shared. On a Euclid Avenue-bound C train, I sat across from someone getting to know himself through his Sunday best. It was jarring, but not nearly jarring enough. In a strange way, years on the radical left had prepared me for such an encounter.
You see, subway masturbators don’t care that everyone else is trying to get away from them; they don’t care about being a nuisance. They care about jacking off. Not unlike a certain variety of American socialist: enthusiasts of sectarian minutia, reenactors of old battles, collectors of decontextualized quotes. Leftists have a lot to say. What they don’t always have is the social literacy to speak to a broader audience, a literacy that comes with a grounding in practical politics. They lack self-awareness about the timing or propriety of their actions, and they don’t see why that’s a problem.
Of course, the C train masturbator likely suffered from afflictions more serious than a lack of tact. But the Left is not mentally ill. It’s insular and inconsequential. Thankfully, many do want to see a change in its internal culture, but usually this sentiment takes the form of vague “can’t we all get along and talk about how much we hate drones” platitudes. That attitude isn’t quite right either.
The choice facing us isn’t between the blind worship of our particular pantheon of dead white men or Daily Kos-style ecumenicism. After all, the problem with the Left isn’t that it’s too austere and serious; it’s that it doesn’t take itself seriously enough to make the changes necessary for political practice. We can be rigorous and ideological — without being afraid of being heard outside our own circles. Mass exposure wouldn’t spell the end of a vibrant socialist critique.
But to get to the root of the problem will take an organizational revolution, not just a cultural one. We’re weird, because we’re not accountable to any mass constituency, not because we didn’t watch enough cable growing up.
Okay, maybe that too.
But it’s impossible to deny that institutionally the socialist left is in disarray, fragmented into a million different groupings, many of them with essentially the same politics. It’s an environment that breeds the narcissism of small differences. In a powerless movement, the stakes aren’t high enough to make people work together and the structures aren’t in place to facilitate substantive debate.
The prospect for left regroupment was one of my main motivations for founding Jacobin. Yet the watchwords of this project have seldom appeared in our pages. It’s finally time to make a call for joint action on the Left with an eye towards the unification of the many socialist organizations with similar political orientations into one larger body. This idea has been trotted out for generations, but new agents and desperate necessity can finally make it a reality.
If it comes to fruition we’d see the convergence of American socialists committed to non-sectarian organizing under the auspices of an overarching democratic structure. This in itself may not seem like a significant undertaking — we’re only talking about a few groups and a few thousand people — but we shouldn’t let those humble beginnings obscure the potential that a fresh start for the organized left holds.
For one, a larger, more centralized organization would offer a powerful pole of attraction for both the newly politicized and those who have spent years on the Left’s margins. By allowing open factions, such an outlet could incorporate activists from different strands of the socialist tradition and foster a pluralistic culture in which comradely debate and open disagreement, far from crippling action, helps build a political program.
There would be less glamorous benefits, too. A well-run administrative apparatus could consist of dozens of paid staffers and organizers committed to work across the nation. New technology will connect activists who live close to each other and immediately put them to work in local struggles, as well as educational and cultural outreach, all under the same banner.
The strength of the Left is in organization — with it, we could one day contend for power. Without it, Left Forum might as well be Comic Con. An internal restart seems like the only good starting point for radicals looking to making an impact on American political life. I hope to contribute to that process more substantively in time. For now, the quality of our young activists should leave us confident about the future.
We can also take comfort in the memory that small groups of organized militants have made a difference before, paving the way for mass action and sweeping structural change. In the short-term, a new organization would focus on anti-austerity and work hand-in-hand with liberal allies who want to see the welfare state rebuilt. But socialists will not merely be anonymous members of a future liberal-left coalition; they’ll seek to push those struggles beyond liberalism’s limits. This means identifying capitalism as a social system that benefits a minority, and openly organizing in civil society to challenge it. It means building its own institutions and organs of class power and presenting real alternatives.
Before long, the subway masturbators among us will be drowned out by a generation free of decades of ill-will — organized and confident enough to make a difference. Until then, try not to stare.