The Left Needs Organizational Democracy

The New Left rightly struggled against bureaucracy and conservatism, but it failed to organize popular dissent into a new democratic mass party. That remains the key challenge for the Left.

Rudi Dutschke, leader of the Socialist German Students' Union (SDS), speaks to several hundred demonstrators during an anti–Vietnam War demonstration. (Bettmann via Getty Images)

Terence Renaud’s New Lefts: The Making of a Radical Tradition has received a great deal of attention since its publication. Impressively wide-ranging in its research and scope, the book attempts to trace the political and intellectual lineage of a dissident radical tradition from the interwar period through the 1960s New Left. Against the bureaucratic sclerosis of both official communist parties and mainstream social democrats, this dissident radicalism emphasized organizational democracy and antiauthoritarianism.

The argument of New Lefts is ambitious, and Renaud struggles not to let his conclusions run ahead of the evidence he musters from his source material. At the same time, despite Renaud’s historical sweep, he takes what amounts to a narrow approach to what’s really an enormous question: the role and determinants of organizational democracy in the political struggles of the Left. Insofar as it answers that question by focusing on the groups at the margins of the workers’ movement, it offers an analysis that is ultimately unsatisfying.

Renaud frames his work as an intellectual and political history of twentieth-century New Lefts. The analytical distinction between the Old and New Lefts draws from a long line of Marxist scholars. Perry Anderson, for instance, uses it in Considerations on Western Marxism to distinguish between the “classical Marxist” tradition, associated with the likes of Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky, and the philosophical and theoretical innovations developed by Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, and Galvano Della Volpe. For Renaud, the contrast is between the leading socialist and communist currents on the Left and a set of dissident intellectual and political circles united by their radical antiauthoritarian disposition. These neoleftists were neither the first nor the only groups to highlight the pitfalls of bureaucratic leadership in mass membership organizations.

Since as far back as Robert Michels’s 1911 opus Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, the Left has confronted the problem of bureaucracy in one form or another. It influenced debates within the Second International parties of the pre–World War I socialist left and then again around the time of the Russian Revolution, when questions of internal organizational democracy became intertwined with the issue of what form a postrevolutionary socialist state might take. For Renaud, however, the key cleavage in all these debates is between a nascent collection of antiauthoritarians committed to spontaneity and organizational freedom and a far more rigidly top-down Old Left.1

The core of New Lefts is a detailed history of a small current of German socialists that came together during the interwar period under the banner Neu Beginnen (New Beginning). Eventually named after a 1933 pamphlet penned by founder Walter Loewenheim, Neu Beginnen was active in the anti-Nazi underground and survived fascist repression, exile, and war to play a part in the reconstituted German left after World War II. For Renaud, the significance of this group goes beyond its immediate impact on anti-fascist organizing or socialism in Germany. Instead, Neu Beginnen embodied a much broader trend in twentieth-century left politics. At a global level, Renaud writes, it “belonged to a cohort of small groups on the fringes of mainstream labor organizations.” Focused on “organizational problems,” these groups rejected “hierarchical party and union structures” and “experimented with alternative forms” of political power, such as “councils, assemblies, action committees, discussion circles, networks, and . . . militias.”2

Bringing together activists from the communist and social democratic movements, the group mirrored many of the common features that marked the broader German left, both demographically (where it was young, male, and Jewish) and politically (in terms of the difficulties it faced and its interpretation of the overall political situation). The importance of these “neoleftists,” Renaud argues, centered on the ways they “disrupted the monopoly over progressive politics exercised by the Social Democratic and Communist old left.”3

Renaud’s story traces Neu Beginnen’s fortunes during the various phases of its life. During the 1930s, the group encountered the common problems of internal conflict and external repression faced by the whole German — and, for the most part, European — left in these years. Targeted for arrest by the Nazis, it was forced into exile, where it joined with other small neoleftist groups and focused on organizing support for Spain’s Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) in the Spanish Civil War. The defeat of the “Spanish Experiment” and the onset of World War II changed Neu Beginnen’s outlook. As it drifted back into the orbit of postwar social democracy, the period after the war was characterized by “deradicalization.”

This is a story familiar to much of the European left. In fact, it’s not entirely clear how much the narrative would change if Renaud had focused on, for example, the small currents of interwar European Trotskyism instead of the Neu Beginnen group and its allies. In a larger sense, Renaud argues, these neoleftists represented a link between different generations with the same basic concerns. While the story of Neu Beginnen is fascinating on its own terms, Renaud’s argument tends to become overextended when tracing the links between different intellectual and political currents across eras. Nowhere is that problem clearer than in his discussion of the intellectual prehistory of neoleftism.

Renaud traces the lineage of this tradition to Lukács’s early work. Renaud sees Lukács’s literary criticism and attempts to theorize the problem of political organization as a precursor not just to the later work of Frankfurt School theorists but also to mid-century dissident radicals like Neu Beginnen. The rediscovery of Lukács (and Karl Korsch) by the post-1968 New Left was emblematic of the cross-generational influence exerted by radicals facing the twin problems of bureaucratization and conservatism in the socialist and labor left.

Renaud writes that Lukács was “paradigmatic for the type of engaged intellectual who gravitated toward new lefts,” arguing that “his synthesis of radical aesthetics and politics provides a framework for understanding why later neoleftists would obsess over the formal problem of organization.”4 To support this argument, Renaud focuses on Lukács’s early criticism and its analysis of artistic form in the Russian novel. Renaud finds here an underlying conflict between old and new.

The struggle to overthrow the old cultural forms in favor of a new, revolutionary aesthetics became a central motif of Lukács’s political outlook, Renaud contends. Convinced that only a revolutionary transformation of society could lay the groundwork for the necessary cultural renewal, Lukács turned toward a romantic anti-capitalism. In the crucible of World War I, he became a key figure in the Hungarian revolutionary movement and a leading theorist of the radical ultraleft. The advent of the Hungarian Revolution and the spread of a system of workers and soldiers’ councils after the war gave practical expression to this political framework.

Renaud stresses that Lukács’s key role in the briefly lived Hungarian revolutionary government created a new impetus for his thinking on the problem of organization. The success of the Bolsheviks in Russia and the defeat of the postwar revolutionary wave elsewhere in Europe laid the groundwork for a confrontation over the party question within the Left. Lenin’s critique of Lukács’s writings on parliamentary strategy and his attack on the ultraleft wing of the socialist movement in Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder set the terms of the debate. Renaud examines the conflict between Lukács’s emphasis on new organizational forms, expressed in his embrace of the councils, and the Leninist concern with party organization and centralization. But his analysis struggles to deal with Lukács’s most famous postwar writings, the essay collection History and Class Consciousness (the “cursed book,” as Renaud calls it) and, especially, his short text on Lenin, both of which reflected a decidedly pro-Leninist shift in his thinking on the party question.5 Rather than treating these works as outliers, it would be helpful to contextualize them and examine them as part of a general turn toward “Leninist” forms of organization across the European — and global — socialist left after World War I.

Renaud describes his book as a “prehistory of the sixties New Left” in which interwar and postwar neoleftists act as a bridge between the socialist left of the past and the student revolt of the 1960s.6 Renaud’s discussion of the ’60s New Left thus focuses on the rise of an antiauthoritarian student movement, embodied by two key figures, German SDS leader Rudi Dutschke and French radical activist Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Through detailed biographies of two of Western Europe’s most prominent student militants, he traces the political and intellectual roots of the youth revolt that swept across the continent. In both cases, he argues, the student left represented a rejection of the stifling conformity of the political and intellectual left during the postwar era. In West Germany and France, the dehumanizing bureaucratic machinery of the state was matched by the narrowness and conservatism of intellectual life. Meanwhile, the institutional left, embodied in the parties of social democracy and official communism, sought to limit and control student radicals rather than express the critical spirit of the burgeoning youth revolt.

Thus, in France, where Cohn-Bendit emerged as a leading figure in the May 1968 movement (earning the nickname Danny the Red), students rebelled against the restrictive environment of the university system. The movement, touched off by protests at the suburban Paris campus of Nanterre University, where the administration had repressed student anti–Vietnam War activists, culminated in the spread of the popular action committees, embodying the New Left’s commitment to direct democracy and political struggle against the bureaucratic state, as well as the conservatism of traditional political parties and trade unions.

Renaud’s argument hinges on the notion that neoleftism constitutes a distinct ideological movement driven by an abiding (or reoccurring) concern with the challenges of maintaining internal democracy and intellectual creativity, while effectively pushing for wider changes in the social order. But at times his emphasis on organizational politics as the thread that unites this current flattens out some important distinctions. The Left’s focus on organizational forms can refer both to the organization of political power in society at large — via councils or parliament — and to the internal organization of left parties and trade unions.

As Renaud is clearly aware, for the interwar left, a commitment to nonparliamentary state forms united the ultraleft with traditional Leninists (including official Communists and dissident currents like Trotskyism). And the commitment to organizational democracy and flexibility within left organizations wasn’t limited to neoleftists. There, too, questions raised by the groups Renaud looks at were posed by a much wider array of currents, including the leaders of mass parties and trade unions. What else, for instance, was the “Eurocommunist” movement of the 1960s and ’70s?

At times, Renaud’s narrative has the feeling of an intellectual history of a small section of European ultralefts from the mid-twentieth century told primarily through a series of biographical sketches of key figures. But that narrative also raises key questions that Renaud doesn’t satisfactorily answer. For one, how did any of the intellectual and political innovations he discusses resonate in the labor movement? And why didn’t the organizational concerns that animated the New Lefts succeed in breaking the grip of the mass parties of Communism and social democracy over the workers’ movement?

Here, some discussion of developments inside the trade unions might have been helpful. Absent from Renaud’s discussion of the 1960s New Left, for example, is an analysis of the industrial militancy that was the flip side of the student revolt. For much of this period, labor militancy proliferated inside official unions and spread through traditional manufacturing industries, as well as the expanding “postindustrial” service industries. The lack of discussion of the workplace revolt that gained steam after 1968 is unfortunate.

The growing labor radicalism that marked this period was characterized by the same kind of anti-bureaucratic and antiauthoritarian radicalism that Renaud sees as the touchstone of neoleftism. After 1968, for instance, influential trade unions like the German Metal Workers and the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT) adopted plans to democratize and “humanize” the workplace through measures to establish autogestion (workers’ self-management), reduce working hours, and extend social rights.

The rebellion inside labor also raises important questions about the limits of neoleftism. Above all, it was the entrance of labor onto the political stage that made events like the May 1968 movement in France so momentous. But the most militant of those workers, the leaders of factory occupations and sit-down strikes, were overwhelmingly part of the mainstream left parties and unions. Despite the conservative and often suspicious attitude of the French Communist Party to the May ’68 movement, for instance, the Communist-led CGT (Confédération générale du travail) remained the dominant organization among militant union activists in France.

One way to think about the abiding loyalty of labor activists to their traditional parties and unions is that, for most workers, the costs of abandoning the mass organizations of the Left were simply too great. Traditional parties and unions could actually secure material gains for labor in a way small groups of neoleftists could not. That is clearly a major reason these organizations could sustain such strong mass loyalty despite the “bureaucratic hardening” Renaud describes.

Renaud concludes with a telling discussion of the relevance of his analysis for contemporary movements. To suggest that neoleftist concerns remain pertinent, he points to the influence of “horizontalist” structures in anti-globalization organizing of the 1990s, movements like Occupy Wall Street, and especially Black Lives Matter (which he sees as a particularly successful example of bottom-up organizing). But he also writes that “while the history of new lefts may help make sense of today’s struggles, the specific forms of neoleftist organization from the 1930s to the 1960s may not offer good models to emulate.”7

Crucial is the fact that neoleftist “breakaway from the party form occurred in the context of a well-developed labor movement, socialist mass parties, and a high degree of organization on the old left.”8 What this means for socialists today is clear. The political question confronting them now is less about how to expand on the neoleft than it is about how to overcome its marginality — how to rebuild the kinds of mass parties that were at the center of left struggles.

About the Author

Jonah Birch teaches in New York City. He has a PhD in sociology from New York University and is a contributing editor at Jacobin.