Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Left Forum

A post by manyfesto, reality check: American radicalism, offers a critique of what passes for the professional Left typified by the annual Left Forum in NYC. In doing so, she celebrates the lives of abolitionist John Brown and Fred Hampton cut short by the state in their refusal to take a less confrontational stance against injustice. There's much I'd agree with, some I'm not so crazy about, but Connor Kilpatrick, editor at Jacobin Magazine, tweeted this curious response:

"When ultraLeftists [ed. Jacobin: All the bullying rhetoric of Lenin with none of the political relevance!] cite 'John Brown' to disparage 'wimpy' socialists:
So I just read some silly ultra-Left critique about how folks going to Left Forum aren't *real* radicals because none of us are planning a raid on Harper's Ferry.
The dumb thing about evoking John Brown as a *real* radical and regular old American socialists/Marxists as wussies is that it ignores the decades of abolitionist and anti-slavery politics that came before it, including the development of three political parties, one of which actually had--you know--sitting congressmen, the third one being just a year away from winning the presidency..."

Leaving aside the snarky distortion of manyfesto's point (because surely advocating greater sacrifice and fewer insular $65 conferences - $20 poor people discount! - can only mean following precisely the example of taking over an armory), Kilpatrick's history is muddled at best, God awful at worst. Reading his account of the abolitionist movement, one would come away thinking it's only because of the steadfast work in the realm of electoral politics and slow build reformism that abolitionism succeeded in contrast to ultraLeftist idols like John Brown who benefited from a pro-abolitionist culture they created, which is a very comforting thought for publishers that trade on endlessly promoting party politics and shaming anyone who'd devote their efforts to anything outside this narrow strategy.

Most infuriating is Kilpatrick's reflexive attempt to put Harpers Ferry outside the context, as opposed to a culmination, of other abolitionist agitation, and does so without rationalization. Brown's personal organizing began as early as 1846, including both of the speeches and pamphlet distributing variety (and no one is saying there's anything wrong with this) and the direct action variety including assisting those coming through the Underground Railroad in helping set up their lives and protecting them by force if necessary (an important role distinguishing him from the many pacifists in the abolition movement).

More important than Brown's personal legacy is the broader abolition movement. Some 250 slave rebellions preceded the raid on Harpers Ferry and several decades of organized, nonpolitical agitation preceded any party platforms or legislation. Reasonable debates can happen around causality in writing about history (the effectiveness of Brown's raid in directly forcing a national confrontation on slavery, for example) but not chronology, and suggesting that political organizing preceded direct confrontation is entirely backwards, and the dynamics operate in the exact opposite direction Kilpatrick suggests. To put it another way, politics is the negotiations of reacting (or not reacting as the case may be) to populist confrontations and anyone interested in a political agenda ought to see the primacy of outside agitation. He should try reading Jacobin sometime:

"Slaves were not and could not be “given” their freedom because they had always had it: it had required a great deal of violent force and political work to keep them enslaved, and when that force was removed—as the South collapsed politically and militarily—they began to act like the human beings they always already were, organizing, moving, and seizing their destinies in their own hands. At this point, the game was up; just as the institution of slavery had always depended on substantial governmental enforcement and support, it would have taken a substantial amount of violent force to re-impose it, a concerted project to re-establish slavery that no one in the north had any particular stomach for. At the end of the Civil War, to put it simply, the North had a simple choice: re-imposing slavery by force or accept the new reality. They chose the latter."

As is often the case, celebrating the successes of electoral and party strategy is largely predicated on defining success as victories for electoral and party politics and not the actual implementation of policy goals. ("Huzzah! The state made a Proclamation to stop propping up the institution of slavery. Chalk up another win for the state!") The hard work of realizing abolition, as Aaron Bady put so well, existed predominantly outside of Washington and in the hands of people prepared to attack such institutions directly. If Kilpatrick wants to apply the lessons of the old abolitionist movement to a modern socialist movement then what he ought to be calling for is several decades of outside agitators building up the viability of confrontation until a craven political party can come along and finally acknowledge what by that time had become a foregone conclusion.

As something of a post script, Kilpatrick later tweeted a couple of silly passive aggressive remarks about William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist known for "anti-politics" approach:

Again, his history is just shit on abolitionists. Garrison and Phillips split on continuing the American Anti-Slavery Society (Garrison saw that their work on the single issue was done and Phillips wanting it to transition it into the broader civil rights movement), but it's flat out false to say Garrison retired from his work as a social reformer. He stayed extremely active in civil rights and the women's suffrage movement.

The run up to Left Forum-type events predictably lends itself to discourse between those on the speaking/book deal circuit and those agitating outside the building (to be fair these aren't always two distinct factions). What I didn't expect was digging up a couple 19th Century abolitionist corpses to wag a finger at their ideological purity. Best of luck to the Jacobin editors in their quest of radical party politics (sincerely, I'm all for multi-faceted strategy), but call me crazy, I don't think redebating the slavery issue is the path toward building a vibrant and relevant Left.