Adam Turl responds to Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Left in Purgatory” , the lead editorial in the recent print issue of Jacobin, No. 44, Winter 2022.
The primary journal/website of social-democratic reformism in the U.S. has published an article by its founder and editor, Bhaskar Sunkara, that takes us through Purgatory as an (overly) extended metaphor for the current state of the left.1
The argument appears to be that the electoral Left’s progress — best represented in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — has been interrupted, at least in part, by something called “hyper-politics.” In order to correct this mistake we need to admit our sins and slog through purgatory toward either incremental advance or slow decline.
To be sure the new socialist movement is not in good shape. The organized socialist Left — reformist and revolutionary — failed to coherently organize around COVID-19, ceding ground to increasingly fascist elements. Similarly, the organized Left failed to mobilize fully around Black Lives Matter (BLM). The new socialist movement — at a national level — has failed to organize or push for direct action and protest for even modest reform.
I am certainly not against metaphor and being poetical. But in Sunkara’s article this serves to conceal rather than reveal. Sunkara conceals the Left’s failure to translate the growth of DSA— and the generational embrace of socialism (lower case “s”) among millions— into a militant movement that fights not just at the polls, but at workplaces, in our schools, and in the streets.
What should we do in the face of our failures? In response to the ongoing disasters facing the exploited and oppressed? Jacobin, borrowing from Dante, counsels penance: “Reader, I would not have you fall away from good intentions when you hear the way God wills the debt be paid … Failure to confront your sins involves a more eternal damnation.”2
Let the Jacobin editor without sin throw the first stone. Jacobin has not only ignored certain social movements, and quite a few labor struggles, it has counseled against organizing in many of them. In doing so the journal may be the co-author of its own purgatory.
A poverty of history
Sunkara provides a micro-history of U.S. socialism. This micro-history helps explain a wider failure of imagination. Left out is the sacrifice of the Haymarket Martyrs, the great general strikes in St. Louis and Seattle, the socialists who helped organize the Union Army against the Confederacy. Also left out is the legacy of the Communist Party in the 1930s, the radical organizing of the 1960s New Left, the Black revolutionaries of DRUM and the Black Panther Party. Racism, the Achilles’ heel of socialist and working-class organizing in the U.S.—a nation founded on slavery and settler-colonialism—is only very quickly mentioned. The great Stonewall rebellion? The mass immigrant rights marches of the 2000s? All these things are mostly absent. Except perhaps in the negative, in the negative space of so-called “hyper-politics.” What is hyper-politics? At least in this article, it could easily be read as another way to hush queer and other oppressed folks, or to decry politics that happen outside the electoral sphere.
The crises facing the exploited and oppressed
Oddly, in an article that assesses the state of the left, and positions universal class demands and interests against so-called hyper-politics, Sunkara seems to ignore the condition of the present-day working-class and the class struggle proper.
There is no mention of the “great resignation,” the economic crises facing the working class (the scissors of a tight labor market and inflation), the looming threat of central bank action that could discipline and further immiserate the class, “Striketober” (the mini-strike wave in the fall), the hundreds of upcoming union contracts, the union organizing at Amazon and Starbucks, etc.
This article is not simply class reductionist. It is electorally reductionist. The most cursory look at the state of the class struggle contradicts Sunkara’s prognosis of slow decline vs. incremental advance. What Sunkara does not seem to understand is that institutions, economies, political norms, and entire industries can decline very quickly, even collapse under the weight of their contradictions. It is also possible for seemingly passive populations to “spontaneously”3 move into action, as they did during the BLM uprisings in 2020.
We do not have to look to capitalism’s wrought history for examples, although there are many. Over the past few months, schools, hospitals, the logistics system, universities, fast-food restaurants, have faltered if not collapsed, piecemeal, into chaos. Millions of workers have quit their jobs in disgust. Many are unable to find child-care. Many have told their boss to “shove it” with a burgeoning class-consciousness. Many have quit for need of better pay and conditions. The “antiwork” subreddit has over a million subscribers.
Just as Sunkara ignores the economic condition of the class, he ignores its epidemiological condition. The hundreds of thousands of working-class dead?4 They don’t muster even a footnote. The recent insurance industry report that there was a 40 percent increase in the deaths of working-age persons in the U.S. (in the third and fourth quarter of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic data)?5 It doesn’t matter. Repent. The latest racist police murder? Repent. The organizing drives at Starbucks? Repent!
Is this a social democratic politics of despair? Is its slogan “Join the socialists and trudge through purgatory?”
Hyper-politics or Nagleism 2.0?
You will get no argument from me that much online and social-media discourse is counter-productive and alienating. The code of social media is shaped by capital’s need for immediate profits as well as capitalist ideology more generally. The frenetic way we are conditioned to approach things in social media mirrors the frenetic pace we experience at work.
But that isn’t what Sunkara is really talking about. Hyper-politics seems to be a rebranding of the “normie socialism” that Angela Nagle attempted—and failed—to promote around her book, Kill All Normies in 2017. Nagle’s approach included a rejection of queer, immigrant, and other concerns, in favor of a narrow (and false) conception of social class.
One of the problems with criticizing the notion that “everything is seen as political” is that most things are, in fact, political. How to approach that reality requires a sense of political principle, scale, and strategy. How do comrades act as a tribune of the oppressed and organizers of the exploited overall? Neither can be sacrificed. Sometimes, a racist needs to be punched in the face. Sometimes, a working-class sibling has said something bigoted and we must patiently (but firmly) explain their error. Being able to tell the difference is not always easy. However, they both require action. And both require collaboration with all members of the class. Both require the insights of comrades of varied backgrounds and identities.
Moreover, what politics—beyond bugaboos about safety razors—do the comrades at Jacobin want us to jettison in the interests of “class alignment?” Would they have us betray our trans siblings? Women’s rights? Abortion rights? Immigrant rights? Where do they draw the line between universal class demands and “unnecessary” hyper-politics? Given that many of us are queer, or persons of color, or women, would they have us betray our own selves?
There can be no universal class demands without specific demands against oppression. A universal politics that leaves out Black workers struggling against racism, queer workers fighting bigotry, women fighting sexism, partisans fighting U.S. imperialism, is not universal. It is specific. It is white. It is cis. It is straight. It is male. It is “American.” It will leave out most of the working-class.
No wonder the mass protests during the 2020 BLM marches and uprisings go unmentioned in Jacobin’s purgatorial missive. That collective experience is ignored. Instead, it is argued that there was an “undeniably collective” experience in the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns. To be sure, the dynamic around those campaigns—especially in 2016—was more complex than some of our revolutionary comrades understood. But time moves on. People opening the “Overton Window” on Monday slam it shut on Wednesday. Sunkara does not consider that Bernie Sanders’ capitulation to President Joe-“Nothing Will Change”-Biden might explain some current left malaise.
What does Sunkara mean by “common sense solidarity?” For the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, “common sense” was how capitalist ideology came to be experienced as natural and organic in everyday life. Does “common sense” mean avoiding solidarity with some of our working-class siblings? What is “common-sense” in this racist, bigoted, heterosexist society? What is common sense in a culture that still thinks it is okay to ridicule trans people and mock poor white workers as “trailer trash?”
A Memo To the The General Staff of U.S. Reformism
Perhaps this article is actually a memo to the general staff of nascent U.S. reformism. The project of gradual reform appears to have crashed on the rocks of crisis, betrayal, and immiseration. Reformist electoral victories, Jacobin subscriptions, web-clicks, DSA membership cards. Maybe the numbers aren’t going up anymore.6 It was only a couple years ago that Jacobin was running articles arguing the “left was winning.” But now we are in purgatory? Certainly Jacobin’s strategic approach couldn’t have been wrong! It must have been something else.
The right-wing of our movement seems to be saying: The problem is all this hyper-politics getting in the way of “class alignment.” We. Are. Not. To. Blame. We will heroically trudge through purgatory until the next election cycle.
More importantly, if the perspective sketched here is adopted by the new socialist movement, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy of socialist irrelevance and despair. The working-class is in a vise. And it is just beginning to fight here and there in a more concerted manner. The class does not need a moralistic appeal to more suffering. The most class-conscious workers want an end to suffering. They want a way out.
What has made the new socialist movement marginal over the past two years—at the national level—has largely been the passivity of its leadership. Passivity around the pandemic, around labor, around BLM. What marginalizes the new socialist movement is our elected comrades voting to increase police funding in city councils or helping the U.S. Congress fund apartheid in Israel. You don’t need Democratic Socialists for more of the same crap. You can get that with plain-old Democrats.
In The 18th Brumaire, Marx notes how the workers’ representatives deferred to the liberal petit-bourgeois, who deferred to the larger bourgeois, who deferred to the landlords, bankers, and monarchists, who ultimately deferred to the dictatorship of Napoleon III, nephew of the first Napoleon. If the second time is farce, what does tragedy become when it repeats ad infinitum?
Steal Fire from the Gods
If the new socialist movement is inadequate (as Jacobin argues) it is because of this passivity: because, it has accepted the logic of electoral power, because it entertains the false notion that we can govern the capitalist state—which, to be clear, in the absence of a social revolution means becoming the boss, becoming the administrators of capital itself.
The only reasonable thing to do is stop being reasonable. To be sure, there are criticisms to make of the revolutionary Left as well. Too often we have counseled “revolutionary patience.” Electoral patience, revolutionary patience. It is all the same to the 15,000+ workers who will die young this week (in the U.S. alone).
Karl Marx’s favorite mythological figure was Prometheus. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and was punished for all eternity. But his sacrifice allowed humanity to light our hearths, stay warm, and cook food. Obviously, Marx wouldn’t have picked Phobos—the mythological personification of fear and panic. But too many of our (erstwhile?) comrades seem to live in fear of doing anything beyond electing unaccountable politicians.
Marx identified the working-class as a revolutionary class because of its material interests and relationship to production. Workers are stirring. They are quitting their jobs. Organizing unions here and there. Scheming against their landlords. They share stories of telling off their shitty bosses. A significant part of a generation dreams of a world without alienated labor. The new socialist movement needs to turn to the class, not to win an election, not to win people to abstract theories about “Leninism”, but to help organize a union, a rent strike, a direct action, a protest against the racist police, to demand the prices be lowered at a local supermarket.
We don’t have time to wade through purgatory, kvetching about imaginary sins. It is time to start stealing fire from the gods. And to do that, we need everyone. So we will fight the fascists and the racists, we will oppose imperialist war and we will defend our trans siblings. We can’t leave anyone behind. The capitalists leave people behind. The socialists bring everyone to the future. If that contradicts “common sense,” common sense can go to hell. Or purgatory. Whatever.
1. I understand that this article is meant to be a preface to the print edition of Jacobin. Normally I would not criticize it without reading the entire issue. But as it was posted separately, and as I am not criticizing any of the comrades who I have not yet read in this issue, and because this article is getting something of a hearing, I have decided to criticize this article as a stand-alone piece. ↩
2. Also, I haven’t read it since high school, but Dante’s Purgatory, if I recall, is something of an allegory for the problems of the Italian aristocracy, not simply a meditation on stasis itself.↩
3. Spontaneity is in scare quotes because nothing is truly spontaneous. There are always folks organizing. But shifts in objective conditions can allow that organizing to become much wider at a rapid pace. ↩
4. In the U.S. alone. Globally it is millions of working-class dead.↩
5. Indeed, these deaths are part of the reason that people can’t find child-care and are quitting their jobs. Informal networks of social reproduction—among grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, etc.—have been disrupted due to COVID-19.↩
6. As Andy Sernatinger reported on the 2021 DSA Convention: ”Report by Maria Svart. States that we will need to face a ‘sobering reality’: new member growth has slowed to a trickle. No explanation of why this might be. Written convention report states that we are already operating at a deficit before any items have been voted on, and discourages voting up resolutions we cannot afford. Maria summons the memory of Karen Lewis to ask us not to be divisive. No other organization can compete with DSA.” See “2021 DSA Convention: Reports and Commentaries,” Tempest (August 11, 2021.)↩
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Adam Turl is co-organizer of the Born Again Labor Museum with their partner Tish Turl, and an editor at Locust Review. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by other editors at Locust. In fact they undoubtedly aren’t. And that is totally fine. Turl is also a member of the Tempest Collective.