Portland is in the midst of a surge of reactionary violent activity. Escalating in the last few months from local internet-poisoned fascists holding “it’s OK to be white” signs to death threats being sent to a Black City Councilor to outright Nazis parading through the Old Port, these demonstrations appear to be part of a trend playing out nationally and in other parts of the world. After simmering and regrouping in polite conservative company for fifty years, neo-fascists, racists, homophobes, and those who merely wish to see others squeal under their boot are growing more emboldened every day, buoyed by increasingly vitriolic and hateful legislation being passed by their colleagues in state governments across the nation. Building on the rise of Trump, Orbán, and Bolsonaro, the far-right has gone mask off.
Locally, the Maine chapter of Democratic Socialists of America has often found itself in the middle of these rising tensions. As the largest hub for coordinating socialist activity in southern Maine, the chapter has confronted both corporate establishment centrists who wish to keep the oppressive status quo, and the growing far-right threat trying to pry open Maine’s doors. This has created an environment where engaged members need to react quickly and discuss innovative ideas regarding a number of projects and campaigns. After all, the terrain today’s socialists fight on is much different from the past terrains of yesteryear, and it demands fresh perspectives. This has sometimes led to new tactics and strategies being proposed as leftists face rapidly changing circumstances on the local level. As the 21st Century takes shape, many other DSA chapters and socialist organizations are going through similar experiences, realizing that modern conditions sometimes demand approaches that may or may not follow strategies discussed by popular theorists from history.
As the broader left rebuilds from the devastating neo-liberal campaign against it over the last half-century, it looks to put together a new toolset for battling the new faces of fascism, but there is a well-entrenched tendency to defer to theories, strategies, and personalities of the past. The 20th Century is chock full of relevant chapters: the Russian Revolution, the New Deal, the growth of unions, anti-fascism, anti-colonialism, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the anti-war movement, and so on. The lessons are so rich it’s easy to look to them as the definitive playbook for the struggle.
This becomes a liability, however, when we start to eschew creative, forward-looking tactics or strategies simply because they haven’t been used before. The past holds lessons, yes, it is connected by relational strands to our current conditions, but it is also a story of events, times, and places that no longer exist in the same context as we do. Hell, even people now are not exactly as people were then, with the different impacts of quickly changing cultures and technology on our behavior, expectations, and the means through which we interact. All of these combine to paint vastly different terrains than those people from just fifty years ago struggled on.
To be sure, all new ideas need to be built upon a foundation, but if one is merely regurgitating an old idea because it worked in the 1920’s, ‘40s, or ‘60s, or because it is part of some sectarian line that hasn’t quite fizzled out yet, then you might as well toss it in with the kindling. That is what I would call a dangerous dependence on the past. At best it leads to an inaccurate analysis of current conditions, at worst it leads to purity tests that eventually kill off any well-meaning efforts.
In an attempt to connect with those socialists sorely dependent on the past, let me highlight an instance where a favorite son and often quoted theorist urges leftists to look forward. Lenin was by no means a free-spirited Marxist when it came to theory. He spent his exiled years in constant debates with other socialists, defending what he saw as the orthodox Marxist line. But for him, that line meant being able to creatively adapt to changing terrain and material circumstances. It meant pivoting when necessary, changing the structures of an organization when need be, and not letting one’s Marxism become too dogmatic. It was a science after all, which included elements of hypothesis, experiment, and adjustment. All of this required looking forward, not backward. In his work, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Lenin heaps criticism on his target, German socialist Karl Kautsky, for being stuck in the past. “Kautsky, like a schoolmaster who has become as dry as dust from quoting the same old textbooks on history, persistently turns his back on the twentieth century and his face to the eighteenth century, and for the hundredth time, in a number of paragraphs, in an incredibly tedious fashion chews the old cud over the relation of bourgeois democracy to absolutism and medievalism!” In Lenin’s view, Kautsky wasn’t looking at the world before him, relying too heavily on past texts and ideas. For Lenin, myopically focusing on the past, as though it were a presumed road map for the present, was one of the worst things a socialist could do.
This all goes straight to the question of agency. Leftists and socialists today need to be mindful and proud of their active role as innovative agents of change. For too long, for a multitude of reasons, American leftists have been lulled into a dormant belief that if we just hang in there, things will slowly get better. For progressive liberals it has meant that if they just vote the right way and say the right words, change will come. For some socialists it has meant that if they just follow the correct political line handed down to them, change will come. Now, as we face a rise in far-right activity and a dying planet, it’s clear that we cannot take such a passive role, and we are forced to forge our own path forward. Keeping our heads buried in the sand and finding comfort in merely reading old theories and ruminating on past campaigns is not an option. Now is the time to encourage action and innovation. To use history, yes, but only as a means to an end, material goals that we can achieve together here and now. And, in the process, we will see change not only in our society, but in our own abilities and confidence.
Forging new, untested tools can be daunting, but it is the only way forward, and to do so we need to engage on the battle lines as they are currently drawn. Becoming active on the ground floor is the first step to developing new strategies. Once we throw ourselves into a political project or campaign, we start to see the material conditions around us more clearly, learning how they operate and formulating creative ideas in order to address them. It’s when we get together and map out the current obstacles and centers of power having a negative effect on peoples’ lives, that we can actually start to create new strategies and theories in order to get around them or, better yet, defeat them. But, all of this requires accepting that we are active agents in the world, not the passive pawns of recurring history we can sometimes be made to feel like. That we should not be afraid to propose new ideas that might not perfectly align with socialist theories from 50 or 100 years ago. To be sure, history and past theories have an important place, but until we get creative and dip our hands into the sand around us, the current systems of oppression will continue to evolve past us, and the far-right threat banging at our gates will only grow louder.