Newsletter #87: National Conservatism Versus Popular Anti-Imperialism, with Richard Seymour

By Ben Mabie

In the winter of 1936, black workers, writers, artists, socialists, and communists gathered at Washington, DC’s Howard University for the inaugural meeting of the National Negro Congress (NNC). The NNC was a mass-movement organization launched by the Communist Party, a broad front that aimed to focus anti-racist organizing and enhance coordination with a resurgent labor movement through the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The NNC named the editor and union organizer A. Philip Randolph its first president. Addressing its founding meeting in absentia, he surveyed a deepening organic crisis of “worldwide storm and stress, of social confusion, economic chaos, political disorder and intellectual uncertainty”: 

Social institutions, from the church to the family, evince change and instability. Unemployment falls like a deadening pall upon every great power and machine nation. Democracies and dictatorships vie for supremacy. Witness the march of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany along their imperialistic paths of manifest destiny. Note their utter and flagrant abolition of democratic institutions, claiming that democracy is not only futile, but a menace to progress.

Observe, too, tendencies toward Fascist growth and development in existing countries with democratic governments, such as America, France and England. These are signs of grave and sinister portent to the world of workers, lovers of liberty and minority groups.

1936 was also a triumphant year for the Popular Front in America, but Randolph’s address was without a positive reference to Roosevelt. He disparaged the “false remedies” of a New Deal regime that was neither “an insurance against the coming fascism” or a challenge to the dictates of private property. Randolph had an alternate program for a counter-revolutionary right, for the depression and imperialism. It was neither policy nor party: it was a practical orientation to building fighting, democratic, and anti-racist unions. 

“At the top of the list of remedies I wish to suggest the struggle of the workers against exploitation of the employers,” he said. “Next, the struggle of the workers against Fascism and for the invention of democratic institutions, the arena in which alone their economic power may be built.” This was a program that spoke of politics in the first person — that said self-organization in everyday life was the answer to authoritarianism and world war. 

Forces on the political right have been cohering their own illiberal responses to the crises of our decade. One frightening example is “National Conservatism.” “Cast in the mold of religious Zionism,” as Suzanne Schneider has noted in Jewish Currents, but drawing the attention of politicians like Ron DeSantis and Viktor Orbán, their program connects McCarthyism in higher education to a more vicious deportation regime, and panics about “gender ideology” with more robust financial incentives for (heterosexual) childrearing. It’s a project that braids the political with the existential, querying about the conditions of possibility for whole polities to “live like good conservatives.” The maxim, as Schneider puts it, is “embrace strict gender norms, marry early, have many children, join a congregation, and fight to preserve the nation-state.” Although these politicians driving this project are not foreign to government, the promise of their politics is not exclusively or even primarily about the law. 

One of the key framing insights in Richard Seymour’s roaming discussion of “Global Palestinian Politics” centered precisely on this “muscular national capitalism” championed by the likes of Trump, Modi, and Bolsonaro. What these national conservatisms offer, Seymour explains, are “the consolations of making violence, of hate, of a witch hunt.” Seymour likens this to what Corey Robin describes as “shared mastery,” the conservative alternative to democracy and collective decision-making. In its place, reactionaries offer “a Roman holiday,” or the compensatory structure of experiencing “petty sovereignty” and its exercise of violence and cruelty. It rhymes with Alberto Toscano’s theorization of fascism, which shifts our image of fascism as a form of government that concentrates sovereign power in the hands of a personalist dictator, to fascism as a diffusion of powers — of delegating authority back to the patriarchal head of the family, the boss supervising employees, or the cop over a crowd. 

In deputizing parts of the population to aggressively and personally shore up existing hierarchies, this mode of politics provides a material and psychic cash-out for a popular conservatism. In promising power over others in a limited domain, you can imagine how it is a compelling resolution to an atmosphere of crisis, conspiracism, and disempowerment, even if it’s available to only a small minority of people. 

When Randolph and the Congress he helmed looked to confront their moment, they did not do so from the vantage point of an organic national or racial community. Instead, they worked from an understanding that the fight for national liberation and anti-racism would be most effectively pursued through multinational organization. Industrial unions were the most elemental of these organizations, and although they were still struggling to bring black workers in mass industries to the forefront of the CIO, Randolph argued that they were singularly capable of breaking the color line. The CIO could secure popular unity against division and become “an instrumentality for action” locally and internationally. It offered another version of co-determination in the face of powerlessness born of crisis and dislocation. 

After generations of red-baiting and the narrowed scope of union activity, this sort of formula may seem far-fetched, but it was hardly Randolph’s idea alone. His contemporary, the Communist labor leader William Z. Foster, also called industrial unionism “socialism in its work clothes.” In their eyes, the exercise of collective power on the shop floor could speak directly to the outstanding issues of inequality and immiseration, or to popular chauvinism and racism. It could flex economic muscle in order to change the direction of state policy, even while gesturing to its alternative. 

Nearly a century on from his address and facing a series of interlocking crises of our own, what’s our version of Randolph’s formula — or the hegemonic aspirations of the far right? Our boldest outlines can probably be found in the protest movement of the last few weeks. Jewish anti-Zionism has offered a vision for collective safety not anchored by ethno-states or patrolled by repressive apparatuses but secured through solidarity, direct action, and ongoing social mobilization. Palestinian resistance offers a stubborn alternative of what it means to make a home, to live unbowed beside your neighbors, beyond the toxic rhetoric of blood and soil.

But the old slogan of unionism may not be so anachronistic either. Although the limits of existing unions are still acute and their contradictions paramount, signs of a political — and organizational — recomposition of the labor movement are still numerous. The Chicago Teachers Union has called for a ceasefire. They were followed by the national UAW, who have rallied behind the call in Washington and begun discussing a just transition out of industries that reinforce the ethno-state’s grip on Palestine. National Nurses United and 1199SEIU joined that call weeks later. Other unions, like the Oakland Educators Association, have mobilized their members for actions and pressured city-council to take a public stand. Academic workers have defended their rights to speech and association on campus, and are organizing to refuse Department of Defense contracts that reproduce the occupation. 

The example of the West Coast longshoremen, the ILWU, might be our most promising resource. Although the international office of the ILWU isn’t perfect, their history and even recent past demonstrates that politics can go beyond statements for a ceasefire and exceed local settings. In Gabriel Winant’s recollection, the longshoremen successfully institutionalized the defiant elan of rank-and-file dockworkers while embodying profound anti-racist and syndicalist principles. They have exercised power at the point of production, not only for their own economic interests but for the purposes of solidarity with social movements at home and abroad. Under the influence of the old Wobbly idea, these are not distinct areas of concern so much as basic expressions of their internationalist, highly participationist, and egalitarian mode. 

In recent years, internationalist political practice on the Left has often taken the shape of diplomacy. While peer-to-peer connections between comrade groupings around the world are important, as is a common analysis of anti-imperialism in our movements, an effective internationalism must center practicable solidarities and concrete action by broad ranks of working-class people, particularly when considering the weak connection the Left has to an extreme minority of elected politicians. Therein lies the potential for a sustained movement against US imperialism at a mass scale. The grassroots cosmopolitanism of our unions point to how that might be done: inside plants, warehouses, and job sites where the ordinary struggle against conditions of work connects to large-scale political developments.

Unions, of course, don’t speak only to the exigency of genocide. In the “troublemaker” variety, at least, they signal real remedies to flagging democracy. They provide an effective rebuff to the cost-of-living crisis and runaway rent burdens, and suggest a pathway out of the climate crisis.  As Melinda Cooper has it, they offer a means through which “the reins of fiscal and monetary power might be seized from below,” even in places where the Left itself is far from state power. 

Most importantly, our unions are an equipment for living. Democratic class-struggle organizations powered by self-activity are an antidote to what Kay Gabriel calls “the conspiracist structure of feeling” underwriting our rightward political drift; class-struggle unions demonstrate how mass direct action, collective safety in solidarity across difference, and exercising power over where we live and work can be a starting point in formulating a response to the crises of our time. On the socialist left, we have grown rightly skeptical of the workaday Kulturkampf of the partisan mainstream. But that shouldn’t obscure the existential dimensions of politics, questions about how we live, or what we do outside of government. It is in these living socio-political alternatives, rather than the blueprints for some ministry in waiting, that another vision for tomorrow might be glimpsed.