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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Who Needs the Left? (Reflections on Joining the Industrial Workers of the World)

Who Needs the Left? (Reflections on Joining the Industrial Workers of the World)

Joe Grim Feinberg

Platypus Review 2 | February 2008


In the spring of 2006, after years of activity on the Left, I joined the IWW. I joined because it cared little for Leftism. And because it began every meeting with a song.

After years of dodging the crossfire of competing claims to revolutionary truth, I breathed happily at last in meetings where no one tested my position on Cuba or the Green Party or state capitalism vs. deformed workers states. At last: an organization that, instead of building walls around itself, tried to tear down barriers and build “one big union” of all workers, believing that only when we struggle together can we end the system of wage slavery. No party programs, no denunciations of false revolutionaries, only one repeated call: to organize. Is it—can it be—enough?

I decided that the problem of the Left is much deeper than its endless quarreling over trifles. I realized: the Left is bad at organizing not only because it is so unpleasant that few people want to be a part of it, but more importantly because its entire structure of being leads it in other directions.

The state of affairs was different in earlier days of the left, when the “international workers movement” was almost synonymous with the movement for “socialism.” Socialism was widely identified as the set of ideas and practices that developed when workers organized and struggled for change. Intellectuals might synthesize and add nuance to these ideas or suggest changes in these practices, but socialism as a whole was integral to the organized activity of the working class.

A crucial change took place in the twentieth century, when Leftists began to argue that simple “trade union consciousness” was not enough for revolution, and that large social democratic parties could betray the working class even when most of the working class was organized within them. The change was first inspired by the Bolshevik interpretation of the Soviet and German Revolutions, but the new attitude soon spread among anarchists as well as Communists, and later among the young radicals of the New Left. The Left became a sphere of its own, where correct revolutionary ideas could develop and compete for ascendancy. It became a base where groups of conscious militants could gather to form competing parties or cells, to agitate and show their ideas to the people, to hurl propaganda of words and deeds at capitalism, in hope that the people would follow them when the smoke clears. The Left now acted for the people, but ‘the people’ was now clearly distinct from the Left.

But this in itself is not the trouble. The Left was quite right to recognize that its ideas are not simply those of the people. But just what is the relationship between the people and Left ideas? The Left has made itself into an almost-ethereal sphere that floats above and in front of society, casting down its aspersions and advice—and then swearing in exasperation when people refuse to listen. Maybe it's time that leftists began to think of ourselves as people.

It's time that we developed ideas not only of what should be done and what the world should be, but of how our ideas relate to the people we are, organized in the ways we are organized, relating to other people in the ways we really and potentially relate to them. It's time that we asked how people could participate in remaking our ideas and in changing the world with them. It's time, in short, that we took to heart the realization of Feuerbach that “even in thinking and in being a philosopher, I am a man among men.”

It is not just that Leftists should act humanely to other people, but that we should understand ourselves as a part of the people, in specific social relations that structure our actions and ideas. We should study our own sociality and transform it as we transform society around us. And we should organize as people who aim for a world governed not by the Left, but by us all.

And so I joined the IWW, a group of people dedicated to working together through our world and our ideas. Turning from Left to left, descending from rarefied heights, I lived through a minor Copernican revolution, learning to look at the world and its transformations “from below.” A Copernican revolution, because it was not simply a change in strategy, but a change in perspective. The task of the left now appeared to me anew: not to ignore the goal of revolution, but to see the goal constituted in a process of social organizing. Not to think up how (other) people should act to change the world, but to place ourselves and our ideas among people who might change the world, and to find the standpoint necessary for this change.

The IWW became, for me, such a point on which to stand. It is not the only possible standpoint, and it faces many problems. But what sets the IWW apart from most other organizations is that it organizes toward revolution. Beginning from the premise that not all “trade union consciousness” is the same, the IWW develops ways of organizing that can generate revolutionary consciousness: by organizing democratically and autonomously, we feel our collective power, and we come to understand the obstacles that lie ahead.

Democratically: because socialism will come not when Leftists take power, but when people, together, turn leftism into revolution.

And autonomously: because our organization enables us to control our own destiny, however slightly, in ways not fully determined by the structures of capital. Because it is not so much our Leftism that enables us to act democratically and autonomously, but our forms of organization that enable us to be leftists.

And with a song: because a song that brings people together is also an organization. In song, the Industrial Workers of the World develop together our ideas. We look together at the wage system. We build up our fellowship and our resolve. And we strike. |P