Talk to enough people who call themselves communists, and you’ll hear someone suggest unity among the left. The argument typically goes that any move towards the left is helpful, and that united action by the entire left will facilitate the rise of communism. They’ll say stuff like, “If we could just stop fighting with each other for a minute, and unite against capitalism, we would succeed.” This argument doesn’t really add up, but it’s surprisingly popular.
There’s always someone singing the praises of left unity. They’re usually terribly confused about politics. Either that, or they just have terrible politics. And while there’s nothing wrong with unity, there’s quite a bit wrong with the left.
That might seem like a strange thing for a communist to say. Aren’t communists part of the left? No? Then what is the left? Specifically, what is it “the left” of?
In politics, “left” originally referred to the supporters of the French Revolution in the National Assembly. They sat together on the left side of the president, while the monarchists sat on the right side. So, at that time, the left consisted of liberals and their allies in the government. They wanted to change government policy to stop unduly favoring the most wealthy and powerful members of society. In this way, it has remained much the same.
The left-right spectrum in politics still describes the same sort of policy differences. The left wants more government intervention in the economy, aimed at making capitalism more palatable for poor and downtrodden people. This usually takes the form of various state-run social programs. Sometimes, it includes state ownership of certain industries. Other times, leftists want the government to facilitate worker ownership of businesses. In any case, the left wants the state to help the lower classes of society get a fair shake.
The right, on the other hand, wants the state to enable the ruling class to better consolidate wealth and power. This is generally done by decreasing the government’s intervention in the economy. So, fewer social programs, fewer regulations on business, lower taxes, etc.
Communists don’t share either set of goals. The right wants to make the state better for business. The left wants to make the state nicer to the common people. Communists want to smash the state into a million pieces. And not just one state, but all of them, to allow for the establishment of a global, stateless, classless society.
Proponents of left unity don’t always say what exactly it would consist of. Presumably, they want us all to work toward the same goal, even when we have theoretical disagreements. But this leads to the first problem: we don’t have the same goal. We want to abolish capitalism. They want to make it nicer. There’s no compatibility there. One goal contradicts the other. And our strategies for reaching those goals differ accordingly.
Now, at this point, someone invariably points out that there are times when our short-term goals overlap in some way. Maybe we’re both supporting the same group of striking workers. Or maybe we both oppose the same imperialist war. But if that’s supposed to justify unifying with the left, then what happens when our short-term goals overlap with someone on the right?
After all, conservative trade unions exist. They support striking workers in some cases. Should we unite with the right when that sort of thing happens? If not, then why unite with the left just because there’s some overlap with them? There isn’t anything special about the left. If there’s a fire about to engulf the room, I could “unite” with damn near anybody to douse the flames. But left unity is supposed to be based on some special affinity between communists and leftists. The trouble is, there isn’t any.
So, if we aren’t even trying to reach the same goal, and we aren’t using the same strategies, how do we unite? Unity of action presupposes some degree of theoretical unity. Unless we can do two things that are mutually exclusive, we have to pick one goal, and a strategy that could lead us to it.
And it’s not like moving state policy to the left makes it any easier to achieve communism. Leftists have proven willing and able to crush socialist revolutions, just as much as the right. One of the most striking examples of this was the suppression of the Spartacist Uprising.
In Berlin, in 1919, a government run by self-avowed democratic socialists was faced with an attempt at socialist revolution. Instead of helping it succeed, they drowned it in blood. Anyone who’s serious about revolution should remember that strengthening your enemies is not a good strategy. And the left is absolutely an enemy of communism.
When someone asks for left unity, it’s usually because they want you to work toward their goal, use their strategy, even though you disagree with it. They obviously don’t want to work toward your goal at the expense of their own.
But that raises a pretty important question: Why would you want to do that for them? There’s no good reason to subordinate your goal to their goal. Not if you actually want to achieve your goal, anyway.
Of course, if you point this out, leftists will throw a fit. They’ll accuse you of “purity politics”, “sectarianism”, or some other bullshit term for having principles. Criticizing others for theoretical purism is a time honored tradition on the left. And while I don’t approve of that tactic, I’ll admit that some people get a lot of mileage out of it. It’s actually a very shrewd move if your own theory is full of holes.
So, who should we be uniting with, if not the left? For the answer, it helps to look at the main distinctions between communists and leftists. We take the position that, since capitalism became decadent, the bourgeoisie has been reactionary to its core. The working class has nothing to gain by siding with any bourgeois faction.
No politician can fix our problems. Nor can any innovative business run by some trendy CEO. Capitalist states, however far left or right, are enemies of workers.
There are people who share that position, but they aren’t part of the left. Or the right, for that matter. They’re working class people who never vote, if only because of an intuitive sense that whoever is elected will just end up screwing them over anyway.
Politically, they are our closest kin and our greatest hope. They are more numerous, more powerful, and more principled than leftists. And unlike leftists, we don’t have to convince them that the new “progressive” flavor-of-the-week politician’s harebrained scheme won’t work. They already think it’s a load of shit. And they’re right.
Leftists often take positions on various issues that have some superficial similarity to ours. But we have to remember what side they’re on. We have to resist the temptation to direct our energies toward winning over leftists. Our main focus should be on organizing those workers who already accept the principle that distinguishes us from the left: that the bourgeoisie, in all its forms, is an intractable opponent of workers, and should be treated as such without exception.
The ideal condition for socialist revolution is not when the left is united. It’s when the left has been reduced to smoldering ruins. Unfortunately, that might take a while to happen. But in the meantime, we should at least avoid strengthening our enemies. And we should be building strength by organizing people who understand who the enemy is.