The left has been caught flatfooted by the gilets jaunes movement in France. While we debate whether it is a right wing, anti-tax protest or a left wing, anti-austerity movement, the protestors have mostly gotten on with it. In truth, it seems to be a mix of both. The left’s persistence in demanding ideological clarity and defined objectives first before expressing support for any movement has been our undoing for years. By waiting for a movement to arise that perfectly conforms to our preferred views, we have undermined any possibility of radical politics actually taking hold. Worse, we hand opportunities to move the conversation forward over to the right. The gilets jaunes are a perfect example of this as the movement was immediately co-opted in Canada by far right pro-oil, anti-immigration white nationalists. Weak as the left is, what we need more than anything is to establish meaningful solidarity and to enable the growth of radical networks that can offer hope and a place for the would-be leftists to direct their energy. Instead, we wring our hands about ideological purity whenever there is a glimmer of such possible movements and while we debate what we should do the police clear out the parks and arrest our comrades.
What we need to remember is that there is no such thing as ideological purity. No revolution has coherence in the moment. It is only after the fact that such defined objectives are grafted on to the revolution as a whole. The figures who achieve historical notoriety are left to speak for the revolution as a whole. Yet, if you read through the archives of the Bolsheviks, what stands out most is the constant disagreements. In the aftermath of the German Revolution of 1918-19, the Social Democratic Party leader Friedrich Ebert had the communists Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht killed (a bit of history conveniently forgotten by those who like to blame the Nazi’s rise to power on the Communist Party’s unwillingness to subjugate themselves to the SDP).
Instead of endless in-fights concerned more with establishing credibility within a chosen faction, at some point (desperately soon given the state of the world) we need to take action, even if doing so means sacrificing some of our ideological purity in the present. History is unlikely to remember us anyway. If we continue as we are, there might not be anyone left to do any remembering at all. Are the gilets jaunes good or bad? Right or left? A real revolutionary moment or a temporary flash-in-pan? I don’t know, but I do know that the far right will further seize the initiative if we do not act, and act decisively, soon.