Why are there so many small groups on the Left?
People coming into political motion often take a look at the field of activity on the Left and shake their heads. “Why are there so many small, disunited groups?” they ask. “Why can’t they get along and work together?”
Line differences within groups have come from practice, or responses to the practice of others. At certain points in history the line differences are worth splitting up over, because they lead to qualitatively different further practice. Sections of groups part ways because each believes their way is correct and the other way is going to lead to failure.
But most of the sects that exist today emerged out of a previous era of struggle, and their differences are rooted in the past. Many of the questions that were once crucial and defining, are irrelevant to people coming into political life today. They don’t want to (and shouldn’t have to) go through a long list of historical verdicts and ideological points that they have to agree with to join a group. It’s too hard – what if they agree on 60% or 80% but can’t come to agreement on the rest? Then they’d either have to suppress their differences and join anyway, or would have to form another sect with that minor difference as the distinction between them.
Instead, now people are seeking to organize new groups from the ground up, with people who generally agree on current issues and basic goals, and are willing to figure out the rest as needed.
This is why, I think, there are so many small collectives starting everywhere. People coming into political life for the first time, or getting back into it after a long break, or coming out of some of these sects, are figuring out what they think about our current conditions. They are putting aside the impulse to form verdicts on historical questions, and starting over.
This doesn’t mean they don’t learn from previous struggles. People are studying — not to just appropriate a finished system of thought in the abstract, but creatively, in order to see how others approached similar problems in different times and places, and to find solutions and methods that can help today. It’s great that they’re starting fresh, because when people define their own theories, ideologies and political lines, then they’re rooted in their own experiences, observations, and emotions. The ideas become an integral part of the people, who then become an integral part of a movement, in a way that can’t happen if they come in and rely solely on the previous work of others. The creative process of articulating beliefs and forming principles, incorporating what makes sense from past lessons, and testing what parts of the new mix works and what doesn’t, is part of the liveliness of an emerging movement.
The people coming into motion today don’t see the need to divide themselves along the same lines, or down to the same level of detail as those who have been around a long time — though divisions are still there based on very broad historical verdicts and deep scars. For example, in recent decades I haven’t noticed anyone refuse to work with someone who has a different opinion on Enver Hoxha’s break with Mao. Most people don’t know or care about it. On the other hand, many anarchists still feel betrayed by communists because of the Spanish Civil War and other blunders and won’t even consider working with them, or will only with extreme wariness and some expression of regret on the part of the reds.
Splits form along new lines: anarchists are splitting over being vegan or omnivore. Deep green environmentalists demarcate themselves from technotopians. Anti-war activists congeal into mutually frosty camps around whether or not to express support for the rulers of countries being attacked by the U.S.
So the splits and divides are more (not always, but much more) based on issues and events that are occurring and relevant today.
It’s like ecological succession. The groups that emerged from the 1960s are mature, solid, complex organisms. They’ve been through a lot and grown into big trees. The new collectives emerging everywhere are pioneer species, like the small plants that spring up on damaged ground, fast-growing and highly adaptive, but fragile and less formed. Some will be short-lived and not very well-defined. They’ll prepare the ground for stronger plants to take root and become established.
A revolutionary situation will require a lot of different kinds of forces working in tandem. Like in an ecosystem, there is strength in diversity, and a particular role for all of these types of groups in relation to the others. We should cooperate as much as possible. The elders of the movement have experience and wisdom. The new people have fresh views and energy. We should appreciate both, and all be learning from one another.