February 5, 2017, Insurgent Notes Meeting Summary

Well, we did it! With about six weeks of notice, we pulled together a meeting of at least 100 individuals who responded to our call.

The fact of the matter is that a lot more people came than we were prepared for. As of the day before the meeting, we were expecting about 50 people total. When more and more people came, we were forced to improvise on our schedule, on the arrangement of tables and chairs in our meeting room at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and our plans for lunch. With the great help of some participants and the cooperation of all, we managed to pull it off.

To make a long story short, the day mostly went off as planned. One big exception to that was that Loren Goldner, an Insurgent Notes editor and a scheduled speaker for the first session, was unable to attend because of health problems. In the time since the meeting, he has posted an article that summarizes what he would have said.

We believe that the audio recordings proverbially speak for themselves and we encourage people to listen to the presentations and discussions and to respond. We would like to emphasize again that we had no expectation that the conversations on February 5 would lead to political agreements or decisions. We were opening up the needed discussions, not ending them.

In that context, we need to note that the small Insurgent Notes Collective has not yet arrived at political agreements on any number of the most pressing issues that were raised at the meeting and that we are currently involved in intensive, and hopefully productive, discussions about them.

We would like to thank all of those who presented. We know full well that when you put your ideas “out there” that there are going to be reactions. In our judgment, the presentations did what we wanted them to do—to challenge people to think and to imagine acting in new ways.

So, what now? We don’t know. Along with this summary, we have posted audio recordings of the main sessions of the meeting. We invite and look forward to receiving comments. We’re in touch with people who attended the meeting to find out what they might want to do in the future. Towards that end, we invite people who were not with us on February 5 to get in touch.

Lest we be mistaken—we are not only about interpreting the world, we are about changing it. We are especially interested in hearing from others who agree.


10 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Alexander Selkirk,

    This was originally written in response to an account of the recent Insurgent Notes conference in New York City by a probable one-man Trotskyist group on the U.S. Mid-Atlantic seaboard:

    I moved away from anarchism and began calling myself a left communist in the early 1980’s. I did not attend the ‘Insurgent Notes’ conference. Based on past experience I didn’t have to put fresh batteries in my crystal ball to get that this conference would be as you describe. Discussions by U.S. ultra-left Marxists of real world efforts to assert what they claim to be about outside of their ideological echo chamber must always be brief ones.

    In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 2001 attacks, one of the main people currently behind ‘Insurgent Notes’ initiated an ongoing series of meetings of ultra-lefts in Berkeley. I took part. My understanding was that we would move fast, come up with an analysis of the Sept. 11 events, and attempt to get this analysis out in some highly visible way. Sept. 11, 2001 was the first major battle of the 21st century, it was the first time that U.S. government-style mass civilian casualty attacks were perpetrated against civilians in the U.S., and it was blowback from Carter and Reagan’s foreign policy antics in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was a unique historical moment. A provocative perspective on this, presented in an aggressive highly public matter, could have been a foot in the door for making a sophisticated anti-capitalist perspective widely known.

    The group met and talked. We met and talked. In compulsively inadequate ultra-left Marxist style we met and talked some more. Nothing happened. Grad student pedantry and incapacity were in a neck and neck race here. There was vague talk of forming a ‘Capital’ reading group by the time I stopped attending the meetings; apparently those who can, do, and those who can’t form ‘Capital’ reading groups. Even this insular and inwardly-directed proposal went nowhere and soon the group folded. This is consistent with all experiences I have ever had with people who call themselves ultra-left Marxists in the U.S. going back to the beginning of the Reagan eighties.

    The person who initiated this group is sometimes described as “the leading left communist in the United States.” In my encounter with him I was struck less by his voluminous extremely abstract erudition than I was by his total lack of any hint of the practical political smarts that we develop if we repeatedly assert unusual ideas in the larger world outside of our comfort zone. He has been an ostensible left communist for almost 40 years and all he has to show for this is a collection of documents he’s written that are equally unreadable in seven languages on a web page. In the decade and a half since our 9/11 group’s belly-button fingering sessions he has continued dabbling in his hobby in the form of ‘Insurgent Notes,’ whose identity with a nebulous “revolutionary left,” vague clarion calls for working class revolt and paucity of accounts of sustained, credible, real world action add up to a politics of lite-rock Trotskyism.

    Revolutionary extremism is what it does; if it does nothing, it is nothing. It is a real world phenomena or it doesn’t exist. It has to be credible; it has to be visible in the larger society around us and be taken seriously by friend and foe alike. A few fiery ultra-left “positions” on unions, nationalism and the Bolsheviks after Brest-Litovsk don’t elevate ‘Insurgent Notes’ in its current form out of and away from the historically harmless left fringe of academia. These putative ultra-leftists don’t even appear to be decisively opposed to electoral politics, in the country that leads the industrialized world in the rate of mass abstention from voting and where mass abstention was in effect the number one vote-getter in the 2016 Presidential election.

    In the U.S., ultra-left Marxism is a hobby for people, almost all of them males, whose ability to relate to the world has been terminally deformed by their university experience and who like to talk about Marx a lot. Ultra-left Marxism is supposed to an uncompromising form of revolutionary analysis — and action — focused on class conflict in capitalist societies. Outside of the United States it often is this; the efforts of the ultra-left Marxist-influenced groups Wildcat and Kolinko in Germany and people associated with them in China, India and elsewhere are particularly admirable. In the US ultra-left Marxism only attracts college professors without a college who project their long-term paralytic inability to act onto the world at large.

    The consistent uselessness of ultra-left Marxists in the U.S. unintentionally highlights the superior qualities of many Marxist-Leninist and Trotskyist militants I have known, in particular the Trotskyists. Their politics are no good, but the long term personal commitment they demonstrate in fighting for their convictions is superb. Members of the ‘smash-ist-and-fascist,’ Stalinist group Progressive Labor and of various Trot organizations often get jobs in strategic sectors, as transit system operators, longshore or hospital employees, and spend years asserting their perspectives among co-workers. They often structure their lives around the fight for what they believe in — I do not know of a single ultra-left Marxist in the U.S. who does this. Far from being “alienated” this “militant attitude” is a wholly admirable and necessary thing.

    Ultra-left Marxism in the United States is a form of supposed revolutionary Marxism with no public existence — no public existence whatsoever in the thirty-plus-years that I have to some degree identified with ultra-left Marxism. The people — overwhelmingly middle aged and elderly males — who are attracted to ultra-left Marxism in the contemporary United States are inadequate to the task of asserting what they claim to be about in the larger world outside of their safe spaces. Many years of inaction and relentless pedantic self-indulgent junk shows this. They will hold a meeting, at which they will valiantly decide to hold another meeting, and if by that point they haven’t completely run out of energy they might mightily rise to the occasion and decide to hold another meeting. They and their passively held opinions add up to nothing.

    This caustic commentary about ultra-left Marxists as I’ve experienced them in the United States does not apply in any way to the dedicated and energetic ultra-left comrades I’ve met in Europe and Argentina — people who are 100% for real about their politics and who fight to assert their perspectives in contemporary working people’s real world social struggles.

    This is also not a concession to any form of Second International social democratic Marxism.

    Alexander Selkirk
    Medellin, Colombia

  2. Ezra,

    That ‘ultra-Marxism’ is a peculiar designation might be given a pass. Evidently other strains of communism are more active than left communism. As a result, left communists tend to be more distinguished when they aren’t involved in such actions and generally blending into such groups. Left communism is a quite particular tendency, so attacking it for inaction is an easy accusation. However, it is very easy for such criticisms to streamline with criticisms of them for not supporting anti-imperialist movements, Labour Parties and other ‘practical’ actions. As such, the criticism by itself tells us nothing – for most tendencies, left communism is defined by what actions it rejects.

    What you say about Stalinists and Trotskyists could also be said about fascists. Obviously fascist action is not something ‘admired.’ It would seem then that part of ‘left communism’ is eschewing certain forms of ‘action’ – which undermines the comparison. If this is not done, it would seem that all that is being suggested is that left communists get involved in the same things as Trotskyists, etc. It hence seems that this is a covert attempt to reconcile left communism with foreign forms of action.

    While this ‘caustic’ commentary reads like an average academic analysis of ‘Hamlet,’ it might simplify things to claim that left communist (or ‘ultra-left’) action should emulate other tendencies. It comes across as an attempt to get the ‘ultra-left’ in line with various Trot and Stalinoid activities that they tend to avoid. The USA has been remarkably resilient to revolutionary activity in the past, and evidently cannot be treated as equivalent to incredibly different countries (where the impact of left communism is still, usually, comparatively minor.) Personal attacks on left communists for not having a major impact seem cheap in a nation which has been a capitalist stronghold for years. Left communists are also people who are active, and the form they take in a given country is not without reason. If you wish to suggest things that no left communist in the USA has considered, before mocking them, then that would be an impressive novelty. Until then we will have to wait to see your ultra-left organisation organise a coup in the capitalist centre of the USA.

    [Apologies, moderators, an error in this post was corrected.]

  3. S.Artesian,

    Look, forget Alexander’s harsh tone, and personal attacks. Go to the bottom line: IN calls a conference on “building a radical left in the age of Trump.” And in its summary evaluation of the conference, to the all-important question of ‘what next?’ IN says “we don’t know.” BUT…. “make no mistake, we’re about changing the world….”

    Anybody else see a problem? Really, I mean isn’t that apparent conflict more than just apparent? Isn’t it almost, if not actually, humorous?

    An uncharitable sort might provide a summary that says, “IN calls a conference on what to do. IN summarizes conference as a success; determines it doesn’t know what to do.”

  4. S.Artesian,

    Look, forget Alexander’s harsh tone, and personal attacks. Go to the bottom line: IN calls a conference on “building a radical left in the age of Trump.” And in its summary evaluation of the conference, to the all-important question of ‘what next?’ IN says “we don’t know.” BUT…. “make no mistake, we’re about changing the world….”

    Anybody else see a problem? Really, I mean isn’t that apparent conflict more than just apparent? Isn’t it almost, if not actually, humorous?

    An uncharitable sort might provide a summary that says, “IN calls a conference on what to do. IN summarizes conference as a success; determines it doesn’t know what to do.”

    • S.Artesian, you were there. What is your grand strategery? Of course, if you have one, it is still just words at the moment and your and Alexander’s critique would apply. That suggests to me that this whole line of criticism is silly. We’re trying to put together something that could have and perform a viable strategy for intervention.

  5. S.Artesian,

    The “whole line of criticism” is based on the stated intention of the IN meeting and IN’s own evaluation of the meeting as a success when IN itself does not provide the “deliverable” that it claims the conference was supposed to produce.

    I’m not the one proclaiming a grand strategy of “building a radical left in the age of Trump”– that was supposed to be the theme of IN’s conference

    IN claims the conference is successful but when it comes to the one question that really matters, “Now what are we gonna do?” we get “Don’t have a clue.” Kind of reminds me of the scene in Aliens, when the drop-ship crashes into atmospheric processor and Hudson (the late, great Bill Paxton) loses it “That’s some really pretty shit, man. Now what are we gonna do?” And Burke responds “Maybe we can build a fire. Sing a few songs. How about we try that?”

    IN said the conference was about a theme– that theme is supposed issue some direction for activity, no?

    You want direction for activity? OK, here’s some: 1) The “strategy” such that it is of the bourgeoisie has been to attack vulnerable sections of the working class hence we get and in the same states at the same time– right to work laws, and other union-busting attacks, voter suppression laws and actions, and attacks on immigrants. 2) what is an effective counter to that strategy– I don’t recall the IN speakers (and I did not hear all of them– specifically I know I missed Matthew’s presentation) dealing with any of the prongs of that strategy 3) so how can you build a “radical” anything without confronting voter suppression, right to work laws, and attacks on immigrants? You can’t.

    So a)you need to mobilize inside and outside unions, workplaces, schools against voter suppression; against right to work laws and govt. supported subsidized etc attacks on working conditions; and against any deportation proceedings.

    It’s as simple and complicated as that.

    IN doesn’t have to undertake the activity all by itself, or forsake its function as “theoretical journal.” But it does have to advocate some specific actions.

    Now the “radical left” has pretty much screwed the pooch when it comes to opposing voter suppression, leaving the field wide open to the Dems, but still there are opportunities– and better late than never.

    I don’t need or care to speak for Alexander, whom I do not know or even know of. My comment was not intended to emphasize that IN promised something and then didn’t deliver, but that it didn’t even acknowledge the promise.

  6. S.Artesian,

    I should make it clear that I think the “meta-critique” of “ultra-left” offered by A. Selkirk is not only immaterial, but baloney. It distinguishes “ultra-left” from the ‘non-ultra’ left, on the basis of impact. “Impact” is a social category. Selkirk offers not a shred of social evidence or historical basis for measuring social impact, preferring purely arbitrary and personal measures of so-called “commitment.”

  7. Curtis P.,

    I don;t agree with Alexander’s citation of specific individuals, although I think to be fair it is less ad hominem attacks than an attempt to concretely illustrate his larger points. But aside from this, he gives a devastatingly accurate assessment of the irrelevance and marginality of the U.S. ultra left.

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