A question arose recently, asking, very simply, what was going to motivate people to learn about Marxism or Anarchism. One of the problems with left theory, supposedly, is the high requirements it places on those who subscribe to it. The argument goes that most people simply do not care about economics or philosophy enough to educate themselves. Consequently, attempts to persuade people away from reformism will fall flat. The answer to this question is as old as the left itself: the militant.
Contrary to what some might believe, factory workers in the 19th century or even the early 20th century did not, by and large, read Marx. Part of the reason may have been the relative scarcity of what is now considered one of the classics of radical literature: the Communist Manifesto. Eric Hobsbawm, in his introduction to Verso’s ‘modern’ edition of the Manifesto, states “there was no strong correlation between the size and power of social-democratic and labour parties and the circulation of the Manifesto.” (p.8) He asserts that the “average member” of such a mass party “was not expected to pass examinations in theory.” Before the Russian Revolution of 1917, at least, readers of the Manifesto were those “with a special interest” in Marxism’s theoretical foundations. At the time of writing, 1997, he wagered this was “still the case.” (p.9)
Yet the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD), for example, had “hundreds of thousands of members and millions of voters”. (p.8) What could explain the attraction of those who simply did not understand the theoretical foundations of their political views? With hindsight, it could be asserted the failures and horrors to come had simply not occurred; it could be reduced to simple optimism, even naiveté. Some would argue that there was a kind of mass ‘class consciousness’ simply not possible today in the aftermath of the Cold War. The answer, however, could well be simple: with mass parties there were militants – thousands of them.
Working people fought two gory and largely pointless world wars last century. The world wars signaled the end of a great era known as the Belle Époque, 1870-1914, which coincided with the rapid theoretical and popular development of radical movements drawing upon Marxist and Anarchist literature. In its wake, Europe was emptied of tens of millions of passionate, intelligent people. Only in Russia did something of a renewal take place, but not for long. In the United States, the only great power largely untouched by the carnage, a campaign of ruthless incarceration, lynching, and state execution of leftists took place. It only worsened with the onset of the Cold War. The result was the decimation of the mass socialist movement in the West and the repression of anarchists. The entirety of the Cold War was a left rear-guard action, suffering crises, sectarianism, and finally, skepticism.
The obvious result of this, if difficult to prove empirically, was the decline of the militant. This is not to argue that there were no militants whatsoever. The Black Panther Party comes to mind, as well as smaller examples like the Delano grape strike. Significant union and militant activity continued well into the neoliberal era, 1970s onwards, until the powers of the state were marshaled to break their influence legislatively and through well worn methods of repression and media delegitimization. Co-option into the establishment cannot be overlooked either. In recent times, according to a more orthodox view, the left has seen a series of betrayals by parties like SYRIZA, and, of course, the election campaign of US Democrat Bernard Sanders. The socialist militant can quickly become the activist or the representative; the anarchist militant can be reduced to the punk.
In earlier times, those people who did bother to read theory were organizing, agitating, speaking publicly, being arrested, and even shot. In short, serving as examples to everyone else. We remember people like James Conolly, Rosa Luxemburg, or Eugene Debs, but there were thousands more like them who, while being obscure or nameless, were still critical to the health of the movement. Not giants, but knowledgeable militants who kept the movement alive and strong. The mass movement died with the murder, incarceration, and suppression of its theoretical leadership. It was strangled over decades in the US, while in Germany the SPD betrayed their supporters, sent them to war, and used the Freikorps to suppress the Spartacist uprising. Any possible renewal has been aggressively combated by the Western pedagogical establishment. It has done everything in its power to discredit and censor socialist and anarchist theory outside of non-political areas that are safe for tenured “radicals”, teaching Marx alongside post-modern and post-structuralist theorists as a means of critique, not agitation.
Critique is important; more important is struggle. To paraphrase Cicero, the sinews of radicalism are its militants. Theory is the backbone, the masses are the muscle, but both are limp without militancy. Any thrust forward is guided by them. An unapologetic and uncompromising opposition towards contemporary social relations defines them. Bruno Bosteels, English translator of Alain Badiou’s La relation énigmatique entre philosophie et politique [The Enigmatic Relationship between Philosophy and Politics], argues that “a militant, simply put, is somebody who not only talks the talk but also walks the walk”. (p.xix) Many on the left are satisfied with critique. It takes courage to become a militant. More so when the repressive powers of the state seem to increase year by year, waging multiple wars on abstractions that only seem concrete when a SWAT team is kicking down your door. One can also expect to be lumped into another abstraction: an enemy of the state, such as when the current President of the United States declares that “communists” will “always fail”.
Nonetheless, militants are necessary. What is happening now is frankly exciting compared to the last decade or more. The recent Global Financial Crisis has spurred interest in contemporary social relations, to the extent that Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st Century, a solid 700-page book, became a bestseller. Examining Google Trends reveals there was an intense spike of interest in “socialism” in particular at the apex of the GFC in October 2008. There was also a recent spike of interest in both “communism” and “socialism”, possibly due to the election campaigns in the US. Newspapers are reporting that “socialism” is increasingly attractive to youth in Britain and the US, while popular contemporary theorists like Richard Wolff (and perhaps Slavoj Žižek) claim to be in high demand. This may a new beginning – a rejuvenation of the left militant – what drove the movement a century ago.
At this time, however, it remains only a probability. The barriers remain significant: pedagogical and institutional oppression; the possibility of violent repression or co-option; and simple self-interest. The life of a militant is unlikely to be sacrifice-free. But it is the militant which connects theory to action and relates the masses to the theory. The more people read left theory, the more militants are likely to appear. Popular betrayal or repression may push people into more radical positions rather than demoralize them, especially as the much-awaited economic recovery remains elusive. So the militant will not necessarily need to motivate people to read radical theory – those who are interested are reading it regardless. What the militant has the potential to accomplish is articulating the interests of the masses to the theoretical possibilities and conclusions of socialism and anarchism through action and agitation. The time for critique as praxis is ending. There is a world to win.