The demise of Crossroads
CrossRoads Magazine, which was devoted to "contemporary political analysis and left dialogue" published its last issue in August 1996. Included in the issue are extended "reflections on CrossRoads journey." I would like to reflect on these reflections.
CrossRoads was one of two magazines that grew out of "regroupment" efforts in the 1980s. One magazine called "Against the Current" was associated with Solidarity, a network of ex-Trotskyists and "state capitalists" who had come to the conclusion that "vanguard" politics leads to sectarianism and cultishness. The people behind CrossRoads came to somewhat identical conclusions. This group included ex- Trotskyists as well but also those whose political tradition was in the CPUSA or Maoism.
The following paragraphs accurately describe the new attitudes and forces that shaped CrossRoads:
"The new magazine had all the usual start-up problems, but overall the first year saw considerable progress. The Editors collective developed a harmonious style of work and produced the magazine on-deadline every time. The installation of a new Board of Directors for the Institute for Social and Economic Studies (ISES, the non-profit entity that published CrossRoads) was a big boost: decision-making responsibility for the project was now assumed by a diverse set of activists within which no single tendency wielded a controlling majority. On the ISES Board, members of the Communist Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and smaller groups from the Maoist and Trotskyist traditions worked alongside 'independents' and former members of Line of March and North Star--not in a tactical, single- issue coalition or in organizing a one-shot conference, but on a common, ongoing socialist project. This was almost unprecedented on the U.S. left, and was decisive in institutionalizing CrossRoads non- sectarian character. Even further, the interaction between once- warring activists proved to be substantive, democratic and exciting. People found it politically and intellectually stimulating to get to know one another and tear down previously insurmountable barriers.
This dynamic within CrossRoads both mirrored and contributed to a much broader process underway on the left. Dialogue seemed to be breaking out all over and there was widespread hope that discussion would soon translate into organization-building initiatives. The early 90s saw a series of conferences around the country where ideas were exchanged with a degree of mutual respect that could not have been imagined even five years earlier. Activists affiliated with CrossRoads played central roles in two of these gatherings: 'Socialist Upheaval and the U.S. Left,' drawing 800 participants in Berkeley July 7, 1990, and 'Toward a New Majority for Justice and Peace: A Conference for Activists of Color,' which drew 300 also in the Bay Area April 26-28, 1991. (CrossRoads published the main presentations from the Socialist Upheaval conference in a widely distributed pamphlet, and devoted a special issue--No.11/June 1991-- to the Activists of Color gathering.) Simultaneously, new forms for interaction were springing up on the local level. A Socialist Dialogue group came together in New York, and 'Progressive Unity Councils' were formed in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other cities.
We also drew inspiration from left renewal efforts around the world. Though we did not have any 'model' in mind of what a revitalized socialist movement would look like, we were enthusiastic about approaches that did not fit neatly into either the classical communist or social democratic mold. We identified with attempts to unite diverse strands of the left in a single organization--such as the Brazil Workers Party or Germany's Party of Democratic Socialism--and with groups that challenged orthodoxies of varieties--such as the South African Communist Party and the Zapatistas. The strategies and organizational methods such organizations were experimenting with received extensive coverage in CrossRoads. We were also excited about ties being built between diverse forces internationally, for example the Latin America/Caribbean dialogue launched at the 1990 Foro Sao Paulo.
CrossRoads also interacted extensively with the most ambitious U.S. regroupment initiative of this period, the formation of the Committees of Correspondence. The Committees were launched by several hundred activists who left the CPUSA after efforts to democratize and renew the CP were stymied by the central leadership at the party's December 1991 Convention. Inviting other socialists to join with them in creating a new, pluralist organization, the Committees' first national conference (July 17-19, 1992 in Berkeley) mobilized 1,300 activists to discuss 'Perspectives for Democracy and Socialism in the '90s.' The first major split in the CPUSA in decades, followed by the breakaway group reaching out to one-time opponents, aroused intense interest. CrossRoads offered unique in-depth coverage of these developments. Several CrossRoads Editors, Contributing Editors and Board members joined the Committees. Though there was no official affiliation between the two institutions, it was widely recognized that they both were manifestations of the impulse toward renewal within the Marxist left, and shared many goals and perspectives."
All this seems so promising. Why then did the magazine fold? A closely related question is why the 1996 convention of the Committees of Correspondence drew only 300 people. The two event are symptomatic of the same process, and that process is the exhaustion of "regroupment". While regroupment was necessary, it could not by itself fuel a new revivified left. In CrossRoads' view, the warning signs had been apparent for some time:
"Less tangible but more important were the limits that soon became evident in the broader left dialogue process. The interaction between activists from different traditions produced a certain energy by its very novelty, and many harmful stereotypes were laid to rest. But soon the excitement of getting-to-know-each-other sessions passed. Beyond consensus on a few generalities--democracy, non-sectarianism, etc.-- little was produced in the way of strategic unity or theoretical insight into a new model of socialism. Better ties between activists were built, but the 'socialist regroupment' current was unable to generate sufficient momentum to conduct large-scale campaigns or undertake any major cross-tendency realignment. A noticeable 'generation gap'-- few under-30 activists were attracted to socialist renewal efforts-- began to registered as a serious problem."
I concur with these observations and want to amplify on them, as well as draw out some other ideas on what the problem may be and what solutions are possible.
To begin with, it is a mistake to think that any single organization can be the vehicle for a new resurgence of the left. Not only does C. of C. suffer from this illusion, so does Solidarity. While neither, to their credit, sees themselves as a "nucleus of a vanguard", both have trouble seeing a new Marxist left emerging outside of their own framework.
In the case of the C. of C., there are obvious reasons for this. To a very large extent, the C. of C. exists as spin-off from the CPUSA. Much of the functioning and attitudes of key leaders is identical to what they picked up in decades of experience in the CPUSA. I attended one C. of C. meeting over a year ago and was struck by how "routine" things seemed. All of the behavior and discussion suggested to me that most of these people had known and worked with each other for decades. Alas, this was probably true. When one old-timer got up during a discussion period and suggested that the C. of C. follow the example of the CP of Japan, which had cleaned the streets of working-class neighborhoods, I knew we were in troubled waters.
The plain fact of the matter is that newly radicalizing youth are likely to be put off by a meeting with such a character. Why would you want to join an organization whose culture and internal life seem so rigid and one-dimensional?
When I brought a 26 year old friend to the last C. of C. convention, she was impressed with the experience and know-how of many of the speakers, but her remarks were telling. She thought that there was a lot of inertia that shaped the discussions and that people were saying things that they had been saying for years and years.
Moreover, most people in their twenties who are entering left politics for the first time are likely to be attracted to groups that seem militant and uncompromising. This, no doubt, is why Adam Rose's comrades in the US have been growing recently. Their anti-capitalist stance would be appealing to a young college student who is as appalled by Clinton as they are by Dole.
This leads to the next serious problem facing the C. of C. and Solidarity as well. While it is correct to reject sectarianism, it is not wise to subordinate deep political differences in the name of "unity". In the case of the C. of C., there are big differences over support to Clinton. People who were in the CPUSA for decades tend to find reasons to vote for him, while people like myself are appalled by the notion. (I should add that I decided not to renew my membership this year.)
Solidarity has the same sort of problem. They are not soft on the Democratic Party, but they are much too hospitable to intellectuals who frankly are nothing less than professional anti-Communists. Samuel Farber, for example, while not a member, is linked closely to the editorial board of their magazine. Farber's specialty is showing how evil Lenin and Castro are.
While it is correct to reject the dogma and sectarianism of "Marxist- Leninist" groups, it would be a big mistake to disown the political spirit which has shaped such groups. It is the spirit of rebellion that is personified by individuals like Debs, Trotsky, Guevara, Luxemburg or Mao. Our job is to shape a left that retains this willingness to confront authority, including its own self-imposed authority. It is not good to stand up to the ruling-class and then turn around and worship at the feet of cult leaders.
The most urgent task facing the left is to crystallize the Marxist left politically. This need can not be satisfied by a single organization. It must not be afraid to define itself politically around the major questions of the day, including the role of the Democratic Party.
In order to advance this task, the most pressing need is to establish a voice for the Marxist left. We need something like Iskra to connect Marxists across the United States. This newspaper should not have a "party line". It should simply act as a conduit for informed Marxists opinion. Differences over the nature of the Labor Party, such as the kind that exist between Adolph Reed and Alex Cockburn, would be aired out in its pages. The newspaper would act as a pole of attraction for a new left and would not require adherence to one group or another.
At the last C. of C. convention, Barry Shepherd told me that he thought that this was necessary. Barry was expelled from the SWP in the 1980s. He was a central leader and had been in the organization since the late 1950s. This is something I think is necessary also. I discussed this with Doug Henwood about a year ago and discovered that this was a project he had in mind as well.
The kind of newspaper we need should not resemble the stodgy newspapers of the old left. The editors would be well-advised to study the efforts of Michael Moore, whose anti GM movie "Roger and Me" is the biggest grossing documentary in American history. What is essential is a fresh attitude, a sense of humor and a willingness to speak in the language of regular people. This does not mean speaking down to people. It means *speaking to people.*
The prospects for the left are better than they have been for 20 years. The overflow audience at the AFL-CIO teach-in at Columbia University last week gives you a sense of what is going on. It would be a real shame if experienced Marxist activists can't figure out a way to relate to this new upsurge. This means taking chances and breaking with routine. Who would have it any other way?