On Conservative Leftism: A Conversation between Daphne Lawless and Gregory W

Reprinted from the Communist Rupture blog.

Gregory W.: In the article, Against Conservative Leftism, you suggested that “21st century revolutionary classes will not look like those of the 1840s or even the 1980s,” and that “the left should seek to build on the new social forces and ways of living that neoliberal globalisation has thrown up, to create a post-neoliberal, post-capitalist future.”

This part of the article jumped out at me as being particularly important. It seems that the article is peppered with references to new or emerging revolutionary subjects. But I would like for you to elaborate on this point and maybe give some examples that are shaping your thinking.


Daphne Lawless: Right. During the changes of the last 40 years – the neoliberal/globalization era, or the “post-Fordist production” era, whatever you want to call it – traditional working-class communities and institutions in the advanced capitalist countries have atrophied and dissolved. The social-democratic parties have become hollow shells and the labor unions have become increasingly “professionalized”, run along the same lines as NGOs by full-time organisers. BUT: if you still find the Marxian critique of political economy useful, this does not mean there is no more proletariat in the Western countries.

You have a disorganized proletariat of service workers, or what’s sometimes called “the precariat”; and then you have a more privileged layer of workers in technology-based industries. Neither of these are going to behave or see the world in the same way as a unionised auto worker of the 1950s. But by Marxist definition they are still proletarian, or in the process of being proletarianised. And you can see emerging radical and reactionary tendencies in both of these groups.

To take the tech workers for example, the “open-source” communities were one prefiguration of how communist labor relations might work. Then you had the brief flowering of Anonymous as a “meme”, an idea, a method of organising among technological workers, which took off at more or less the same time as the Arab Spring, Occupy, etc. Of course after the defeat of those radical movements you had the swing to the reactionary sides of those movements – the neo-reactionaries, alt-right, 4chan /pol/ kind of thing.

But one hallmark of what I would call the “conservative left” is the assumption that the radical workers’ movements of the 21st century will look like those of the past. You have this tendency towards LARPing, to try to recreate forms from the past. It simply won’t work. New forms of capitalist exploitation and oppression require new forms of organisation, and a Left which doesn’t keep up with the actual formations crystallising RIGHT NOW is an irrelevant circle-jerk.

Gregory W.: I find this whole aspect of your analysis very compelling.

I’m reminded of the speculative science question, “if we were confronted with alien life, would we recognize it when we see it?” It seems like there’s something similar going on when it comes to recognizing radical political breakthroughs because we’re expecting things to look a certain way.

There has been some promising stuff in the U.S. in recent years with service industry workers organizing and going on strike. That in itself is an example of working class movement, or even of a proletarian subset, which doesn’t fit the conventional mold. Still, it’s on a spectrum with labor struggles that we’re apt to recognize.

But there’s stuff that’s even more alien. We may rightly bemoan the fact that there hasn’t been a general strike in the U.S. in a long time (and it’s not even clear what that indicates, given that France has them pretty often and yet things aren’t going so well over there). But in 2016 we had a historic, nation-wide prison strike with solidarity actions in some prisons internationally. What does that mean?

The prison system is a huge part of the neoliberal economy in the U.S., arising with the war on drugs and the rollbacks on social guarantees. The vast majority of prisoners were workers in the outside world. In prison, many continue to do low-wage work and on top of that, they are generating value just by being housed, to the benefit of a whole web of corporate and state bureaucracies.

What does it mean that prisoners were able to coordinate such a strike? And you also have to think about the fact that most prisoners will eventually be released, and will likely be employed at low-wage jobs, and/or work in the informal economy. What does it mean if someone who was involved in a nation-wide prison strike now works at Wal-Mart? What insights and skills could that person bring to organizing outside of prison? If I were developing a revolutionary cadre organization, I might want to recruit some of these people, or else connect up with them in some way – talk to them, work in a coalition with them, or whatever.

     Inmate labor at Louisiana State Penitentiary. Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP
Daphne Lawless: Oh, certainly. Of course the prison-industrial complex in the US is reasonably unique, so I’m loathe to try to talk about it in any detail, but there are similarities in New Zealand – whereas 50% of the prison population in the US is African-American, so 50% of the prison population in NZ is Māori. But from what I gather prison labor is far more widely used in the US – though I don’t know in what areas of the economy it is important. The paradox is the more important prison labor becomes, the more potentially powerful labor organising in prisons becomes.

I know that some people from the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist tradition have made organising among prisoners a top priority. I don’t know how close you are to that.

As to the service industry workers, yes, we’ve had great strides forward in this country in that. Basically, the UNITE union was founded by social-democratic political veterans who had been excluded from the neoliberalized Labour Party and their compliant trade-union apparatuses, and started with the goals of (a) rebuilding a base for social democracy; (b) bringing Seattle-era social-movement methods of organisation to unionism. They also scored a coup by recruiting organizers from young communist groups – people motivated from ideology will work harder and sometimes for less pay!

So by those means, UNITE have been effectively able to organise workers at many fast food chains, and other overlooked workers such as security guards, casino staff etc. However, the price for this is a certain institutionalisation, rapprochement with the older unions/Labour Party etc. And the problem with giving committed revolutionaries a “day job” doing labour organising is that you risk turning into an NGO-model, where it becomes all about the young educated radicals (who by virtue of being union organisers are inherently middle-class from a Marxist point of view) as the protagonists rather than the low-paid precarious workers they’re organising [Ben P from UNITE writes: This contains important falsehoods which I think should be clarified: It implies that Unite is built purely around young radicals, rather than members of the class. This is untrue. Of the 14 current organisation staff at Unite, 9 started off their political involvement as shop-floor members of the union. A third are Māori, another third are from migrant/Pacific backgrounds. 10 are women. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe less than 6 of them have a tertiary degree or higher. The article implies that the organisers are middle class highly educated types at a distance to our members. This doesn’t correlate to the actual demographics of our organisation. All organisations face political problems as they develop, grow and evolve, and Unite is not immune to these problems. But Unite’s problem at present is not that we are overloaded with over-entitled campus Marxists.]

So to some degree, as long as the basic economic structure remain the same, it’s “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”  – attempts to REPLACE the old reformist labor structures will lead to becoming SIMILAR structures. You can see this with what happened in Greece – the radical SYRIZA replaced the neoliberal PASOK, at the price of becoming neoliberal themselves. These are the limits of working for reforms within the system – you will get reforms and nothing but.

Gregory W.: First off, I am interested in learning more about organizers who are prioritizing things like prison work (also, immigration as a fault-line)…You bring up a lot of good points. It is interesting to hear about the differences and similarities between New Zealand and the U.S. What you’ve said underscores my overall feeling that we are still in a very difficult period in terms of devising radical strategy, with so many of our previous verdicts turning up short. At the same time, masses of people are on the move and we need to be in the midst of it, learning from these developing struggles.

Earlier we talked about new and emerging revolutionary classes and how that relates to your analysis of conservative leftism. The basic idea is that capitalism is a dynamic system. It changes. The advanced neoliberal capitalism we face today—with global markets and no actually-existing socialist blocs—is very different from what movements faced over the course of the 20th century. As you said, a defining characteristic of the conservative left is to assume that today’s radical working class struggles will look like those of the past. You suggest that this is not an adequate orientation, and is in fact doomed to fail.

We discussed some examples of emerging forces that break with previous patterns. We discussed recent attempts to organize service industry workers in both New Zealand and the U.S., and how the dynamics of that differ from the organization of 20th C. industrial workers in the advanced capitalist countries (e.g., unionized auto workers). We also discussed the significance of prisoners organizing in the U.S., as the prison industrial complex is a key feature of contemporary U.S. capitalism, arguably having a much greater weight than it would have at any time in previous decades.

That being said, your critique of conservative leftism seems to cover multiple levels. I’m not sure how you would want to characterize the “level” I summarized. It has to do with our forces on the ground, radical organization, and the like.

Another level we might call geopolitics. Is that fair? You discuss how the left orients itself to changing global configurations—for example, how the left positions itself in relation to the Syrian civil war. I personally find this whole piece of the analysis more difficult to grapple with. My hope is that you could provide a sketch here of some of the broad problems, tackling the question of why we are finding the current geopolitical situation so disorienting, and how we might position ourselves in a way that’s forward-looking and effective.

Daphne Lawless: Right. I think what you’re getting at is what I categorize as “campism”. This is when the Left replaces the class struggle with a geopolitical struggle as the centrepiece of its analysis – that the fight is between “good” and “bad” nation-states. There were historically two Left-wing versions of this: the Stalinist version where what was good for the USSR/Eastern Bloc was good for the workers of the world; and the Maoist version where what was good for China and its “non-aligned” allies was best for the oppressed peoples of the world. The former had Leftists cheering as Soviet tanks went into Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan; the latter had Leftists supporting the rapprochement with Nixon, supporting counter-revolutionaries in Angola, the Shah of Iran, or even Khmer Rouge.

Simply put, it’s a left-wing gloss on Nixon’s apocryphal comment about Somoza – “he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”. I wrote about this in an article before the concept of conservative leftism coalesced – https://fightback.org.nz/2015/11/05/against-campism-what-makes-some-leftists-support-putin/

In the first Conservative Leftism article I mentioned “Cleek’s Law” – that modern conservativism is simply the opposite of whatever liberals want. Given that, Conservative Leftism is simply the opposite of everything neoliberalism wants. Similarly, “campism” means reflex opposition to whatever one geopolitical “camp” wants. Up until the Trump era, for most of the Left, this of course meant a simplistic attitude of “US imperialism bad, every target of US imperialism good”. That might be more difficult to intellectually justify that Trump is trying to build an alliance between US imperialism and its Russian counterpart, its historic opponent.

The high point of the current incarnation of the global Left was 2002-3; the opposition to Bush/Blair’s wars of conquest in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, the thing was that this brought together several different strands of opinion on the same side. Liberals objected to an “illegal war” fought on a humanitarian pretext. Old-school socialists opposed US/UK imperialist power in general. Conservative “realists” objected to the “destabilisation” of the Middle East by removing the dictator Hussein. Conservative “isolationists” objected to the US getting involved in overseas interventions of any shape and form. Worst of all, fascists supported the “national sovereignty” of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and ranted about the evil Islamic hordes which were being held back by his “secular” dictatorship.

The problem came when the Left – due to the poverty of its own analysis – started internalising Right-wing arguments (realist, isolationist or fascist) as its own. The isolationist or fascist arguments also coincided with the old Cold War campism which assumed that everything which the neoliberal global order was attacking must be a good thing. Soon after the Iraq debacle, the theory of “colour revolutions” started gathering adherents on the Left.

According to this, apparent democratic movements in countries which were being stubborn in the face of neoliberal global orders were actually puppets of the CIA, or possibly George Soros, seeking not freedom but to destroy national sovereignty and surrender to neoliberalism. This flattened out the difference between countries attempting a Left opposition to globalisation (Venezuela, Cuba) and shitty kleptocratic dictatorships – such as Zimbabwe, Turkmenistan, or of course, most of the Arab countries.

This meant when the Arab Spring hit, much of the Left turned its back on democratic movements struggling against dictatorships on the streets as agents of neoliberalism and sided with their dictators – Qadhafi, Assad, recently al-Sisi. The logic ran: “neoliberalism doesn’t like this shitty dictator; therefore this shitty dictator must be supported; therefore the demonstrators are enemies of the people”. To this, in the Arab context in particular, was added a huge dollop of Islamophobia uncriticially inhaled from the fascist-Right, the idea that secular dictators were preferable to democratic forces where men wore beards and might say Allahu Akbar occasionally. Here’s a message a comrade of mine sent recently:

“spent my saturday night fighting with a tanky for hours
and holy shit i was trying to channel your good self, but to limited effect but the underlying theme was that US imperialism was wrong, therefore anything they attack/undermine was right.
fucking mad binary
Gadaffi was a good guy
super good guy
even when shelling his citizens in the city he was a great guy, best guy”

Simply put, then: the campism which leads to apparent Leftists supporting Syria’s regime bombing and gassing its own people, and the horrible regimes of Iran and Russia giving it their full support, is the exact analogy of conservative leftism, in that it simply assumes that any shitty dictatorship which stands up against the neoliberal global order is to be supported – that is, it can no longer tell the difference between socialism and fascism. This uncritical embrace of nationalism is echoed in Europe by the fascist and conservative-Left alliance pushing for the breakup of the European Union.

It is fundamental to my analysis that – just like capitalism as a whole – neoliberalism is CONTRADICTORY, that it has a progressive tendency as well as an oppressive tendency, and that socialism for the 21st century will build on that progressive tendency (globalisation, the breakdown of the nuclear family, networked rather than hierarchical forms of power) rather than try to turn the clock back to the era of nation-state autarky. To do otherwise is opening the door to fascism.

So basically I want to revive that good old slogan of Third Camp revolutionaries: “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_camp

Gregory W.: If we wanted to put this in a formal-theoretical way, we might say that class struggle and geopolitics are relatively independent of one another. There is a disjunction between the two, or a gap between two levels of activity (and therefore two levels of analysis). We have to be able to think through the ways that these two levels intersect and condition one another, but it can’t be in an automatic or unchanging way.

And building on what you’ve said, I would also like to emphasize the importance of epochal shifts. One thing that’s clear is that, after the Russian revolution and the consolidation of the Soviet state, the gravity of world revolution shifted to the anti-colonial struggle or movements for national liberation. There were all kinds of forces interacting in this context on multiple continents: socialists, communists, liberal modernizationists, kleptocratic opportunists, billions of people with countless hopes…everything from the Bandung forces to guerrilla insurgencies were caught up in this huge wave. Communist revolution tended to combine with this anti-colonial struggle. And within a couple decades, classical colonialism was defeated almost everywhere.

As you’ve pointed out (here and in the article on campism) there were shifting international alliances, the two main revolutionary poles being those of the USSR and China. Both countries absolutely did back revolutionary and progressive movements all over the world – so there is a real basis for some of the strategy of this era – and both backed reactionary regimes and movements at different times. My concern would not be to go through every realpolitik decision that these regimes and movements made, saying yea or nay. I just want to emphasize that there was an epochal context for these decisions, and that the context is now over.

The 20th century form of anti-colonial struggle is over and both the Russian and Chinese revolutions have been defeated. It is odd to see some on the left discuss the foreign policy of these countries as if they were still socialist and backing world revolution.

I want to bring up the book, The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity, by the Chinese “new left” thinker, Wang Hui. In that book he discusses the post-Mao reform era in China, and how “the old socialist stance of internationalism gradually faded from the scene.” He says that, “there is nothing that demonstrates this problem better than the 1999 NATO (American) bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia: in the extraordinary meeting of the United Nations discussing the bombing, not only did the Western alliance stand together, but the traditionally sympathetic Third World alliance was unwilling to voice support for China.” This was almost 20 years ago and the whole thing had already fallen apart.

Daphne Lawless: “the gravity of world revolution shifted to the anti-colonial struggle or movements for national liberation.” – well, you know, I might argue with that. You can say that was part of the process, in that there was a shift away from the struggle of the organised industrial working class in the advanced capitalist countries. BUT the advanced capitalist countries also saw an eruption of struggle from youth, women, oppressed ethnicities/races, and the queer communities. And that has had pretty earth-shattering effects, we have to admit.

Part of conservative leftism is running down these movements, suggesting that – for example – gay marriage, limited recognition of indigenous peoples, even women being allowed to get credit cards in their own name means nothing alongside the neoliberal demolition of traditional working-class organisation. But the hard thing to recognize is precisely that traditional working-class organisations were complicit in the oppressive features of the post-war social democratic consensus. Let’s give all credit to the pro-Soviet CP in the US who were the only white people seriously pushing for desegregation in the 1930s. But the mainstream workers’ movement (in NZ as in the US) was no more woman- or queer-friendly or less dominated by (unacknowledged) white supremacy until the social movements forced them in that direction from the 60s onwards.

I strongly argue that neoliberalism would have had a tougher time destroying the Western workers movements if they had worked WITH the social movements, rather than against them, using the familiar “but muh white working class” rhetoric you still hear from conservative leftism today. That the neoliberals were smart enough to eventually co-opt indigenous, feminist, queer, even trans struggles just shows that they were smarter than the traditional workers movement, not that there was anything inherently neoliberal about those struggles. So we need a better mass workers movement today.

Anyway, back to the rest of what you were saying…!

Gregory W.: What you just said is a good argument against theoretical overstatement, which you see in the programs and agitational material of many groups (e.g., “U.S. imperialism is the main enemy in the world today”). We should be more careful.

I do agree with your analysis above. I definitely had in mind eruptions like the Algerian war, which are such a big part of the post WWII story. But it should also be borne in mind that sweeping radicalization in the western countries happened at the same time. These are interrelated at every level. And I think it is wrong to say, for example, that the western ‘68 wasn’t revolutionary. The things you mention are a big deal. And maybe that’s even more apparent now than it has been in some time, precisely because so many gains are under attack. And we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be blackmailed into a class vs. “identity politics” dead end.

Daphne Lawless: Hah, that particular overstatement leads you directly into supporting Assad, Putin, Mugabe, Qadhafi, Kim Jong-Un, any sleazy exploitative dictator.

Of course “identity politics” can’t be separated from class politics. What proportion of the working class are actually white, cis-het, male, able-bodied, speaking the dominant language, etc? Well less than 25%, I’d wager. Class struggle has to be intersectional or it’s simply social-chauvinism.

“It is odd to see some on the left discuss the foreign policy of (Russia and China) as if they were still socialist and backing world revolution.” – precisely. It’s debilitating nostalgia, even LARPing (live action role-playing). The ability to analyse the world as it is has been replaced by a dogmatic adherence to categories from the past. This is how you build a religion or a sect, not how you build a global movement. One is reminded of the Byzantine Empire in its last days, whose poetry described the encroaching Turks as “Persians”, referencing a war from 2000 years previously that the Greek-speakers won. It will never be 1917 or 1949 or even 1975 again. We need a new internationalism for the globalised era.

Gregory W.: Indeed and without that new internationalism, we get new Strasserism. “Sad,” as Trump would say.




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