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How the Left Thinks (Or Doesn't) By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, July 22, 2002

As any regular reader of FrontPage will know, most of the American Left disingenuously pretends moderation while pursuing a radical agenda. Fortunately for us, however, some of them are so proud of their extremist ideas that they openly parade them now and then, giving us a chance to see inside the leftist mind. Below is the text, annotated, of an address delivered by Immanuel Wallerstein to the Socialist Scholars Conference, New York City, April 13, 2001. It was entitled A Left Politics for an Age of Transition. Mr. Wallerstein is a professor at Yale.

"Two years ago, in 1999, I gave a talk at the Caucus for a New Political Science"

Note the innocuous-sounding name of the organization. Nothing suggests radicalism.

"on left politics today. In that talk, I summarized the situation of the world left at present in the following way: (1) after five hundred years of existence, the world capitalist system is, for the first time, in true systemic crisis,"

Marxists believe that world communism will come after a great crisis in which capitalism collapses. Therefore they are always looking for signs of economic trouble. They thought their economic messiah had come in 1929. Some thought this in 1968. Some even thought so during the stock market crash of 1987. My favorite quote on this score is from Gus Hall, head of the Communist Party USA. He said, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that communism was still around the corner, it’s just that there may be more corners than we thought. But they never seem to notice that capitalist economies come out of recessions as reliably as they go into them.

"and we find ourselves in an age of transition;"

Here we have a classic trick of the leftist intellectual: take an ordinary truism, an idea that one doesn’t have to be a leftist to believe, and try to persuade people that if you recognize the truth of this idea, you must recognize leftism as true. The logic here is: we are in an age of transition, therefore we must be transforming capitalism, therefore we must be transforming it into something else.

"(2) the outcome is intrinsically uncertain,"

Just a Marxist trying to sound reasonable. No Marxist is ever uncertain about the outcome of the capitalist crisis, because Marx has infallibly predicted it, based on his scientific laws of dialectical materialism. (Ask me to explain that last phrase some time when you’re really bored.)

"but nonetheless, and also for the first time in these five hundred years, there is a real perspective of fundamental change,"

So we’ve been through the end of feudalism, the discovery of America, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of democracy, the end of colonialism, and the birth of genetic engineering, and none of these things count as fundamental changes?

"which might be progressive but will not necessarily be so;"

OK, maybe this guy isn’t a Marxist after all. But at least there’s a ray of hope here for us, given that "progressive" here means leftist. But if he doesn’t believe in the inevitable victory of his side, he shouldn’t use the term "progressive," because this term derives from the assumption that humanity has a natural forward progress, and that this is by nature to the left.

"(3) the principal problem for the world Left at this juncture is that the strategy for the transformation of the world which it had evolved in the nineteenth century is in tatters,"

Gee! We’ve just entered the 21st century, and he’s figured out that the 19th is over! The world of Karl Marx was the world of peasants and steam engines and capitalists in black top hats. It was the world of Masterpiece Theatre, for Christ’s sake! Marx was alive during the Civil War! It never fails to amaze me that people still think of Marxism as avant-garde. Still, it’s nice to know Wallerstein’s admitting that the old religion is finished.

"and it is consequently acting thus far with uncertainty, weakness, and in a generalized mild state of depression."

Sounds like a reason for Prozac, not revolution. But as the sly Jamie Glazov has written, being a leftist basically requires that one go through life in a black funk.

"I would like to take these three points as assumptions, which I cannot argue here but have done so elsewhere at length, and ask what these assumptions imply for a left strategy over the next ten to twenty years."

Now this is one thing I envy the Left: their habit of thinking in large blocs of time and in terms of large historical processes. When we try to do this, we get Newt Gingrich and his flaky Toffler pals. Reagan was the only Republican in recent times who was any good at this, and he was a gifted intuitive, not an intellectual. If we don’t try to play the big game, we won’t win the big game.

"The first thing it implies is that we have in no way been defeated globally."

You can say that again. The Left is like the liquid metal man in the movie Terminator 2: every time it gets destroyed, it just reconstitutes itself in a new form. The only constants are the rage for equality that Tocqueville predicted would be the disease of American democracy, and the urge to undermine the structures of civilized society, be they economic, cultural, religious, or other. It’s the politics of the termite.

"The collapse of the Soviet Union was not a disaster for the world Left."

This reminds me of that line from the movie Spinal Tap about a rock band whose popularity is declining: "No, I would not say their popularity is declining; I would say their appeal has become more selective."

"I am not sure I would even call it a setback. It not only liberated us collectively from the albatross of a no longer useful Leninist strategy and rhetoric, but it also imposed an enormous burden on the world liberal center, removing the structural support they in fact received from the Leninist movements, which had held in check popular radicalism for a long time by their guarantees of "shining tomorrows" via faith in a Leninist developmentalist present."

Now I’m actually starting to worry. This guy does have an interesting point that for years, ambitious leftists were committed to a communist strategy that was doomed to fail, giving us on the Right a nice fat dumb target. Can you imagine how much harder it would have been to defeat the Soviet Union if it hadn’t hobbled its economy with communism? And how hard was it to sell liberals on anti-communism when communists were exterminating people by the millions? He also has an interesting point in the idea that the collapse of communism has weakened liberalism, which he considers the center and doesn’t like, thereby increasing the probability of a political outcome at one of the extremes (hopefully his). He has a third point in the idea that Leninism bottled up popular radicalism, but he’s been disingenuous to call it "developmentalist," or dedicated to delivering leftist goals by a drawn-out process of social and economic development. Lenin thought communism would come out of a sudden capitalist crisis. It’s Stalin who gave up on the idea that the world capitalist crisis was upon them and committed the communists to "building socialism in one country." But nice Marxists don’t like to talk about Stalin in polite company.

"Nor do I think the global offensive of neoliberalism and so-called globalization has strangled our possibilities. For one thing, a lot of it is hype which will not survive the coming deflation."

As most historically-aware economic analysts who are not jagged up on the intellectual Prozac being produced in Washington are aware, deflation is indeed a possibility in the next few years. We inflated a lot of things during the 90’s boom, and a lot of them are going to have to come down again. But all the dead dot-coms in San Francisco won’t undo the fundamental economic rationality of free markets ("neoliberalism" to most of the world) or world trade. Free markets will continue to work better than central planning. Trading with the best customer in the world, not just the best in your own nation-state, will continue to be the most profitable course.

"For another thing, it will breed, it has bred, its countertoxin."

On average, economic growth has reduced leftism. What it exacerbates is bored teenagers like those who protested at the Seattle summit. If this is the countertoxin, the patient is not in danger.

"For a third thing, world capitalism is actually in bad shape structurally, rather than enjoying a ‘new economy.’ "

I have written before that there is not, and never was, a new economy. Others said so long before me, and they were generally not leftists, just crusty old Wall Street analysts who looked at the numbers and didn’t see one. But capitalism doesn’t need a new economy to flourish.

"Here again, let me summarize my position without arguing it, for lack of time and space.' In addition to the political difficulties caused by the collapse of Leninism and the end of the Cold War, capital is running into three structural asymptotes which are cramping irremediably its ability to accumulate capital:"

His point here is to vindicate the Marxist prophesy that the great capitalist crisis is preceded by decline in the rate of profit, or the ability of capital to accumulate more of itself.

"(1) the de-ruralization of the world, ending its ability to check the rising share of expenditure on laborpower as a percentage of world total value created;"

Clumsily expressed, but I think his point here is that there’s a declining supply of cheap peasant labor migrating to urban industry. For a start, I’ll believe this when the supply of Mexicans to the US dries up. For a second, he misses the fact that this means that many of the Chinese peasants who supported Mao’s revolution now own cell phones and live in Shanghai. This is hardly undermining capitalism.

"(2) the ecological limits of toxification and non-renewal of resources, limiting the ability of capital to reduce costs of inputs by continued externalization of these costs;"

Yeah, but we’re learning to cope. Pollution control is just another cost of doing business. Plus, any socialist system will face exactly the same constraints.

"and (3) the spreading democratization of the world, evidenced by ever-expanding popular pressures for expenditures on health, education, and lifetime income guarantees, which have created a steady upward pressure of taxes as a share of world value created."

Finally he’s got something. It’s true that democracy implies that voters will vote themselves handouts, i.e. a welfare state, but it’s also true that they will eventually learn that there’s a limit to how much they can afford to give themselves before economic stagnation sets in. Therefore this process has a natural limit. That’s what the conservative revival of the 1980’s was about.

"To be sure, capital seeks to reduce these structural pressures all the time. This is what the neoliberal offensive of the last twenty years has been about. But the long-term curve looks like an upward ratchet. They succeed regularly in reducing these pressures but always to a lesser degree than the next upward bump augments them."

A conservative could have written that paragraph.

"In order to fight against this, they preach TINA (there is no alternative), in the attempt to reduce counter-political will. This is also nothing new. Gareth Stedman Jones, seeking to explain relative political stability in late nineteenth-century Great Britain, attributed it to the "apparent inevitability of capitalism" and its "apparent invulnerability."' The First World War undid such sentiments, at least for a long while. They are being resuscitated now, or at least the right is attempting to resuscitate them."

Sure there’s an alternative; I’ll admit that. But if you try it, you’ll go broke. Suit yourself. Lots of nations have tried.

"If we are to look at a left strategy for the twenty-first century, we must first remind ourselves what the left strategy has been. The left strategy developed in the second half of the nineteenth century, and more or less rejected in the last third of the twentieth century (symbolically 1848-1968), was a very clear one. It was the so-called strategy of two steps: first, gain state power; second, transform the world."

Notice that power always comes first. That’s the key to understanding these people.

"Three things should be noted about this strategy: (1) it was probably the only one possible at the time, since movements with any other kind of strategy could be simply crushed by the use of state power; (2) it was adopted by all the major movements: both branches of the world socialist movement, the social democrats and the Communists, as well as the national liberation movements; (3) the strategy failed because it succeeded. All three kinds of movements came to power almost everywhere in the period 1945-1970, and none of them were able to change the world, which led to the profound disillusionment that presently exists with this strategy, and the serious anti-statism that has been its socio-psychological result."

Oh, you were perfectly able to "change the world," it’s just that you produced disasters or disappointments in all the corners of the world you changed. Wallerstein is fundamentally claiming the old saw about communism: "it has never been tried."

"In the period since 1968, there has been an enormous amount of testing of alternative strategies by different movements, old and new, and there has been in addition a rather healthy shift in the relations of anti-systemic movements to each other in the sense that the murderous mutual denunciations and vicious struggles of yesteryear have considerably abated, a positive development we have been underestimating. I would like to suggest some lines along which we could develop further the idea of an alternative strategy."

This is the good bit, the bit 004 died to smuggle out of the Politburo: their future plans.

"(1) Expand the spirit of Porto Alegre. What is this spirit? I would define it as follows. It is the coming together in a non-hierarchical fashion of the world family of anti-systemic movements"

Porto Alegre was a major socialist conference held in a socialist-run town in Brazil in 2001. The next sentence implies that everyone on the Left is supposed to act together, but somehow... independently. The interesting word is the penultimate one. In the end, these people don’t have a positive agenda, an agenda of building anything, any more. All they have is the name of that noisy rock band, Rage Against the Machine. We can call this monkey-wrench politics. In practical terms, it just means disruption for disruption’s sake, which is they real reason the far Left is so pleased with 9/11, which was perpetrated by Islamo-fascists who despise everything they stand for and would gouge their eyes out.

"to push for (a) intellectual clarity;"

This we can agree on. At least it rules out Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and the rest of the deconstructionists, whom I have written about before.

"(b) militant actions based on popular mobilization that can be seen as immediately useful in people's lives;"

I.e. vast popular protests against... what?

"and (c) attempts to argue for longer-run, more fundamental changes."

Here you have the basic leftist strategy that we are going to face: get the public’s attention by finding some genuinely pressing social problem, use it to disrupt society, and then use the opening this gives you to slip in your genuinely radical ideas. In sales, they call this bait-and-switch.

"There are three crucial elements to the spirit of Porto Alegre. It is a loose structure, more or less approximating what was called by Jesse Jackson ‘the rainbow alliance.’"

That’s Rainbow Coalition, as even I know, but the more historically precise term for it would be the Popular Front strategy, an invention of the communists in the 1930’s to unite all left-of-center people under movements with covert communist goals. We’re wise to this.

"It is a structure which has brought together on a world scale movements from the South and the North, and on more than a merely token basis. It is militant, both intellectually (it is not in search of a global consensus with the spirit of Davos)"

Well, conservatives don’t like the spirit of Davos, which is the spirit of globalism, either. But we don’t reject capitalism as such, and we certainly don’t want to replace Davos with a warmed-over version of Moscow. Or even Berkeley, California.

"and politically (in the sense that the movements of 1968 were militant)."

60’s radicalism didn’t produce socialism in this country. And you’ve shot that bolt already: there’s not much social structure left to subvert. You can only have a sexual revolution once.

"Of course, we shall have to see whether a loosely-structured world movement can hold together in any meaningful sense, and by what means it can develop the tactics of the struggle. But its very looseness makes it difficult to suppress and encourages the hesitant neutrality of centrist forces."

This we know. But the Internet has destroyed the ability to conceal who you are and what you are doing that a liberal press used to give you. And the Right is learning the art of decentralized resistance with every new child who is home schooled, with every American who buys a gun.

"(2) Use defensive electoral tactics. If the world left engages in loosely-structured, extra-parliamentary militant tactics, this immediately raises the question of our attitude towards electoral processes."

Of course it does, because it reveals that you don’t really believe in democracy.

"Scylla and Charybdis are thinking they're crucial and thinking they're irrelevant. Electoral victories will not transform the world;"

Translation: healthy democratic societies don’t pursue radical leftist policies, because they have no need for them.

"but they cannot be neglected. They are an essential mechanism of protecting the immediate needs of the world's populations against incursions to achieved benefits. They must be fought in order to minimize the damage that can be inflicted by the world right via control of the world's governments. This makes, however, electoral tactics a purely pragmatic matter."

Nice to know you’re on the defensive at last.

"Once we don't think of obtaining state power as a mode of transforming the world, they are always a matter of the lesser evil, and the decision of what is the lesser evil has to be made case-by-case and moment-by-moment. They depend in part on what is the electoral system. A system with winner-takes-all must be manipulated differently than a system with two rounds or a system with proportional representation."

Notice the use of the word "manipulate," with all the dishonesty and contempt for democracy this implies.

"But the general guiding rule has to be the "plural left," the current slogan in France, which in Latin America has been called the frente amplio. There are many different party and sub-party traditions amongst the world left. Most of these traditions are relics of another era, but many people still vote according to them. Since state elections are a pragmatic matter, it is crucial to create alliances that respect these traditions, aiming for the 51 percent that counts pragmatically. But no dancing in the streets, when we win! Victory is merely a defensive tactic."

If a plural Left means your throwing away your votes on Ralph Nader, I’m all for it.

"(3) Push democratization unceasingly. The most popular demand on the states everywhere is "more"-more education, more health, more guaranteed lifetime income. This is not only popular, it is immediately useful in people's lives."

Leftists like Big Government. This we knew.

"And it tightens the squeeze on the possibilities of the endless accumulation of capital."

As I already said, you’ll find out that if you squeeze capital too hard, you kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

"These demands should be pushed loudly, continuously, and everywhere. There cannot be too much. To be sure, expanding all these "welfare state" functions always raises questions of efficiency of expenditures, of corruption, of creating overpowerful and unresponsive bureaucracies. These are all questions we should be ready to address, but they should never lessen the basic demand of more, much more."


"Popular movements should not spare the left-of-center governments they have elected from these demands. Just because it is a friendlier government than an outright right government does not mean that we should pull our punches. Pressing friendly governments pushes rightwing opposition forces to the center-left. Not pushing them pushes center-left governments to the center-right."

Pressing friendly governments to the far left pushes them out of office. You knew this with Bill Clinton, so you gave him a pass, and that’s the situation you’re going to be in for the foreseeable future, friend.

"While there may be occasional special circumstances to obviate these truisms, the general rule on democratization is more, much more. (4) Make the liberal center fulfil its theoretical preferences. This is otherwise known as forcing the pace of liberalism. The liberal center notably seldom means what it says, or practices what it preaches."

Thank God, is all I can say. As I have written, this is the positive side of BoBos.

"Take some obvious themes, say, liberty. The liberal center used to denounce the USSR regularly because it didn't permit free emigration. But of course the other side of free emigration is free immigration. There's no value in being allowed to leave a country unless you can get in somewhere else. We should push for open frontiers."

I have written before on the Marxist origins of the demand for open borders. (And no, it isn’t illogical to say that countries should let anybody leave but shouldn’t have to let anybody enter. The right to break off relationships doesn’t imply the right to demand that other people form them with you.)

"The liberal center regularly calls for freer trade, freer enterprise, keeping the government out of decision-making by entrepreneurs. The other side of that is that entrepreneurs who fail in the market should not be salvaged. They take the profits when they succeed; they should take the losses when they fail."

This I can agree with. As I’ve said, corporatism is the welfare state for capitalists. It must go.

"It is often argued that saving the companies is saving jobs. But there are far cheaper ways of saving jobs -pay for unemployment insurance, retraining, and even starting job opportunities. But none of this needs to involve salvaging the debts of the failing entrepreneur."

The key way to save jobs is to create jobs by having a good business climate.

"The liberal center regularly insists that monopoly is a bad thing. But the other side of that is abolishing or grossly limiting patents."

Who will finance technological advance then?

"The other side of that is not involving the government in protecting industries against foreign competition. Will this hurt the working classes in the core zones? Well, not if money and energy is spent on trying to achieve greater convergence of world wage rates."

Like you have some strategy to save $25/hr American workers from $25/week workers in China? Let’s hear it.

"The details of the proposition are complex and need to be discussed. The point however is not to let the liberal center get away with its rhetoric and reaping the rewards of that, while not paying the costs of its proposals. Furthermore, the true political mode of neutralizing centrist opinion is to appeal to its ideals, not its interests, and calling the claims on the rhetoric is a way of appealing to the ideals rather than the interests of the centrist elements."

Translation: liberals are leftists until mugged by reality.

"Finally, we should always bear in mind that a good deal of the benefits of democratization are not available to the poorest strata, or not available to the same degree, because of the difficulties they have in navigating the bureaucratic hurdles. Here I return to the thirty-year-old proposition of Richard A. Cloward and Francis Fox Piven that one should "explode the rolls," that is, mobilize in the poorest communities so that they take full advantage of their legal rights"

Thank you for confessing your goal: to put as many people as possible on welfare.

"(5) Make anti-racism the defining measure of democracy. Democracy is about treating all people equally-in terms of power, in terms of distribution, in terms of opportunity for personal fulfillment. Racism is the primary mode of distinguishing between those who have rights (or more rights) and the others who have no rights or less rights. Racism both defines the groups and simultaneously offers a specious justification for the practice. Racism is not a secondary issue, either on a national or a world scale. It is the mode by which the liberal center's promise of universalistic criteria is systematically, deliberately, and constantly undermined. Racism is pervasive throughout the existing world-system. No corner of the globe is without it as a central feature of local, national, and world politics."

Everywhere leftists look, they see racism. The fact that the average black American has a higher standard of living than the average white person in Europe? Means nothing.

"In her speech to the Mexican National Assembly on March 29, 2001, Commandant Esther of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation said: ‘The whites (ladinos) and the rich people make fun of us indigenous women for our clothing, for our speech, for our language, for our way of praying and healing, and for our color, which is the color of the earth that we work.’ She went on to plead in favor of the law that would guarantee autonomy to the indigenous peoples, saying: ‘When the rights and the culture of the indigenous peoples are recognized, ...the law will begin to bring together its hour and the hour of the indigenous peoples....And if today we are indigenous women, tomorrow we will be the others, men and women, who are dead, persecuted, or imprisoned because of their difference.’ "

I knew the picturesque Zapatistas would come up eventually. But are they really a valid model for politics in this country, let alone the entire world? Sounds like a 13th-century peasant revolt with a web site to me.

"(6) Move towards decommodification. The crucial thing wrong with the capitalist system is not private ownership, which is simply a means,"

Wow! So private property isn’t so bad after all! This guy must have a vacation house.

"but commodification, which is the essential element in the accumulation of capital.".

By "commodification," I think he means the fact that life is basically material. Good luck challenging that. Monks have better luck than Marxists on this question, anyhow.

"Even today, the capitalist world-system is not entirely commodified, although there are efforts to make it so. But we could in fact move in the other direction. Instead of turning universities and hospitals (whether state owned or private) into profit-making institutions, we should be thinking of how we can transform steel factories into non-profit institutions,"

A non-profit steel mill?

"that is, self-sustaining structures that pay dividends to no one. This is the face of a more hopeful future, and in fact could start now. (7) Remember always that we are living in the era of transition from our existing world-system to something different. This means several things. We should not be taken in by the rhetoric of globalization or the inferences about TINA. Not only do alternatives exist, but the only alternative that doesn't exist is continuing with our present structures. There will be immense struggle over the successor system, which shall continue for twenty, thirty, fifty years, and whose outcome is intrinsically uncertain."

He said this above and I replied.

"History is on no one's side. It depends on what we do. On the other hand, this offers a great opportunity for creative action. During the normal life of an historical system, even great efforts at transformation (so-called "revolutions") have limited consequences since the system creates great pressures to return to its equilibrium. But in the chaotic ambiance of a structural transition, fluctuations become wild, and even small pushes can have great consequences in favoring one branch or the other of the bifurcation. If ever agency operates, this is the moment."

If one assumes there is a crisis necessitating a major change of system, et cetera et cetera.

"The key problem is not organization, however important that be. The key problem is lucidity. The forces who wish to change the system so that nothing changes, so that we have a different system that is equally or more hierarchical and polarizing, have money, energy, and intelligence at their disposal. They will dress up the fake changes in attractive clothing. And only careful analysis will keep us from falling into their many traps."

The Left is wary of us; why don’t we reciprocate?

"They will use slogans we cannot disagree with-say, human rights. But they will give it content which includes a few elements that are highly desirable with many others that perpetuate the "civilizing mission" of the powerful and privileged over the non-civilized others."

Sorry, my friend, but civilization is by nature hierarchical, and this does imply that the more civilized have a right to impose civilization on the less civilized. But conservatives also believe they have responsibilities, once known as noblesse oblige, and this makes the system just. If you don’t elevate the civilized, you by implication elevate the savage, which you Leftists reliably idealize, noble or not.

"We must carefully dissect their proposals and call their bluffs. If an international judicial procedure against genocide is desirable, then it is only desirable if it is applicable to everyone, not merely the weak."

Translation: American soldiers doing their duty overseas should be subject to arrest on the whim of anti-American crackpot judges in Europe.

"If nuclear armaments, or biological warfare, are dangerous, even barbaric, then there are no safe possessors of such weapons."

So America should do without nuclear deterrence? I though the Left had dropped that one. Thanks for reminding us of your unilateral surrender policy. Plus, we’ve had the bomb without using it for 57 years; does this mean nothing to you?

"In the inherent uncertainty of the world, at its moments of historic transformation, the only plausible strategy for the world left is one of intelligent, militant pursuit of its basic objective-the achievement of a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian world. Such a world is possible. It is by no means certain that it will come into being. But then it is by no means impossible."

Back to the nice softy-talk for a feel-good conclusion. Break for herbal tea and organic cookies.

Immanuel Wallerstein directs the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations, is editor of the socialist magazine The Monthly Review, and is a Senior Research Scholar at Yale. His books include The End of the World as We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century, and Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms.

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