The shipwreck of the singular: On the future of the Marxist Center

Red Braid members made two presentations at the Marxist Center’s 2021 Convention: on “basebuilding,” a unifying concept for Marxist Center, and on the future of Marxist Center. The Volcano is publishing these two presentations in order to share our perspectives on basic problems of terminology that, we believe, underlie many of the discussions related to the network. See more here.

A few weeks after I turned twelve years old, my Deda died. He was building a treehouse for my cousins who were younger than me and when he came down the ladder he felt faint and stumbled and fell. At the hospital they found his body was full of cancer. He only lived three more days in the hospital bed. 

And then the Soviet Union fell. My mom and uncles said that it was good that the old man died before he saw communism end because that would have killed him, and in greater misery. 

I found a copy of the Communist Manifesto while I was rooting around in his dusty basement. My parents were upstairs with my Baba in mourning and I was roaming. I still remember the first tremendous passages. What courage there was in the language. “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism!” And “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle!” 

These lines evaporated into the vapour of the unhappiness of my childhood home; the loneliness of my friendless school. The spirit of communism, I felt, dynamited the sour reek of my grandparents’ basement winery, and lifted me in a rush of air up and far above Canada, sweeping away the decibels of terrible, dull, time and the prison of particular space. 

Decades later I read the communist poet George Oppen and he expressed a similar feeling of liberation from the terrible isolation of existence, through communism. He wrote: 

Obsessed, bewildered 
 By the shipwreck
Of the singular 
 We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous 

I don’t think I have changed much since I was 12 years old. Thirty years later, I think I am actually more like I was then than I was at many intermediate moments in between. I am now, as then, invested in fleeing the shipwreck of the singular, before it pulls me under, and the only way out, I know, is to choose to be numerous. 

This weekend’s convention has exposed unities and divisions in Marxist Center. I want to talk not about the unities. 

I believe that Marxist Center is a numerous place. I believe that the best, most living, dynamic, pulsing, and potentially powerful essence of Marxist Center is that it is numerous

To be numerous is to hold tensions and differences…

To be numerous is difficult. To be numerous is to hold tensions and differences, and to refuse the old Eurocentric cultural drift to totalization. 

This weekend, the best glimpses we have gotten of our numerousness was in our plenaries where we did thinking work together. Members of Marxist Center have sparkling, critical, wonderful minds. 

As importantly, our convention also showcased the relations that Marxist Center has with the most vital, powerful movements in this part of the world – Indigenous land struggles that shut down major train lines, highways, and ports in Canada a year ago, and the Black freedom struggle that overwhelmed the bourgeois and colonial governing power of the US empire for months and months in 2020. 

The Covid moment is one of online panels that are often really smart. So, on the face of it, these discussions might be dismissed by cynics as more of the same. But I think our political discussions this weekend represent something qualitatively different from some university-organized panel because the class character of an institution is the fundamental of the politics that can grow up and out of that base. I maintain that building working class institutions is the most important and most difficult task of our historical moment. 

Red Braid joined Marxist Center because we are inspired by the struggles that member groups are leading in cities and on the land throughout the continent. We are inspired by Philly Socialists’ independent restaurant worker organizing; by Cooperation Northfield’s anti-Line 3 struggles; by the rent strike organized by at-large members in the Houston Tenants Union and members of Unity & Struggle. We are inspired by the thinking and synthesis work by comrades in CounterPower and Red Bloom

What we want from a future of Marxist Center is a future of being numerous together.

Red Braid is deeply embedded in our social base struggles – our basebuilding. These struggles are, of necessity, local and enveloping. That’s the great strength of basebuilding work, and which we’re totally committed to at this historic moment. For hundreds of years, Indigenous people have had their independent organizations and political activities criminalized and repressed. For decades, independent working class organizations have been attacked and eroded by government austerity, union bureaucrat corruption, and fundamental changes in the global organization of capitalist production that revolutionaries have strained to navigate. 

Basebuilding means throwing our shoulders to the wheel of historical development and rebuilding the independent institutions capital has stolen from us.

Basebuilding means throwing our shoulders to the wheel of historical development and rebuilding the independent institutions that capital has stolen from us. Basebuilding gives a necessary check to the isolated and sometimes fantastical political ambitions of revolutionary Marxists. It forces us to make our revolutionary analysis and strategies relevant to communities in life and death struggle. 

But this strength can also be a weakness. Around 2010, after I left a toxic sect, I dove into community organizing in the poorest neighbourhood in Vancouver. This Alinskyist project of community organizing was a perpetual motion machine of constant work and demand, and, while it was certainly good work, it consumed my energy and built no lasting institutions or autonomous power. I know that without relations that foster critique and thought with others involved in other geographies and other fractions of the class, there is a danger that Red Braid’s local basebuilding work will also consume us. 

We need the numerousness of the Marxist Center to form the particular that builds the insurgent universal. 

At risk of abusing your patience with me, I want to close with a poem that echoes my narrative arc in this talk. This poem from Mayakovsky, written for Lenin, also uses the journey from childhood to adulthood as a metaphor for revolutionary development. 

             grew out of childhood
                                     at length. 
              lost security
as the proletarian tide
                        gained momentum and strength. 
 In a matter
            of several years or so
            of gales
                        into tempests grow.
            break out
                        as the climax of wrath.
                        in their aftermath. 

We are in this period where uprisings break out as the climax of wrath, but for revolutions to come in their aftermath, we have work to do.

This work – numerous work – is the terrific responsibility and potential heavy future of Marxist Center. I am proud to shoulder that work alongside and with all of you – in our unities and especially in our differences.

Red Braid AllianceSocial Movement Strategies