By Jonathan Michael Feldman
April 28, 2016
Some parts of the Left or apparent Left have used the term “Fifth Column” to describe their activities. The term is used on a Facebook page to describe one such group. While social media may not have a large impact on mainstream society, it does inform the thinking of various activist networks (for better or worse). Therefore, some analysis of this term and the larger phenomena seems warranted.
At the outset it is worth considering the following propositions. The first proposition is that the choice today is between “socialism or barbarism.” These choices might be exemplified between the choice between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The second proposition is that capitalism is one step away from fascism. This choice is exemplified by the support which capitalists gave fascists, with companies like IBM a key reference point. The third proposition is that capitalism was promoted by revolutions that advanced the power of the “bourgeoisie” and democratic spaces, rights, and capacities. Which of these propositions makes sense?
The first proposition seems true enough, except if Sanders looses the election then the choice will not be between socialism and barbarism (like it or not). Thus, thinkers like Noam Chomsky suggest voting for Clinton in this scenario. One reason might be that a divided Left in pre-Nazi Germany led to the ascent of fascism. Of course, the Left may have better choices in Sanders, but opponents of Sanders and supporters have severely constrained their options given the way his campaign has been organized or those opposed to him have failed to organize.
The second proposition has elements of truth, but the main problem is that capitalism may be one step away from socialism or economic democracy. This is because capitalism contains within it the seeds of its own dissolution. The spaces exist in cooperatives, networks of consumers, and other ways in which networks come together and organize public goods or cooperative or public energy companies and the like.
The third proposition has value in that it represents the dual character of the contemporary moment, creating possibilities for progress and regression. The strategic problem, however, is the need to exploit the spaces suggested by the second proposition. This exploitation is not based on the language of espionage, secrecy and hidden subversion but rather the language of mass engagement, participation, and mobilizations tied to organizing.
Why Does the Left Adopt Slogans Used by Fascists?
The origins of the term “Fifth Column” are tied to a description of fascist supporters who were thought to undermine Republican Spain (the anti-fascists). Therefore, I don’t think progressives should use this term to describe their own activities. The idea that the Left is some clandestine group on the margins is also a very bad starting point. Notice how the campaign of Bernie Sanders does not take on this idea of self-inflicted marginality, clandestine cult and the like. Part of these sentiments may be linked to Third Worldism and the inspiration some on the Left take from insurrections there. This inspiration is very much based on a misinterpretation of reality. Frantz Fanon described media influences in a way in which “majorities” and not “minorities” were won over. Therefore, it is not sufficient to argue that Sanders is a tool of the “non-revolutionary” pseudo Left or other such reductionism to counter my main point. I would hardly describe Sanders in this way because he is opening up spaces for social change and–if the Left had its act together–could be pushed further to the Left. Fanon was decidely favoring the Algerian Revolution, which did not turn out so well given that Algeria is hardly emblematic for supporting cooperatives and progressive social experiments today. Today Algeria is authoritarian, so we must think also about what Fanon did not say.
I think the real Fifth Column today are the far right groups which are trying to undermine the aspects of democracy which are left in advanced capitalist states by floating and promoting racist and marginalizing ideas (in the United States and Europe). In other regions of the world, fundamentalists play a similar role. The idea of military or espionage like subversion as the key tool of social change lends itself to Bolshevik and Leninist type analysis which has long been criticized by critical Liberals and anarchists alike as well as Social Democrats. Leninist itself has been criticized by those on the Left like C. L. R. James, Arthur Rosenberg or Noam Chomsky. Parts of the Marxist left are unaware as well of the capacities for mass social change within the rules or spaces of the established system in part because they use bad theories, deploy bad designs and are bad (uncreative) organizers. The cult of being different and subversive tends to be reinforced by the self-marginalizing identity politics sponsored intellectually by branches of Neoliberalism and the liberal elites as a way to allow critical persons to let off steam without changing much.
An Alternative to Fifth Columnism
An elegant statement of an alternative view of politics comes from C. L. R. James in his essay, “Every Cook Can Govern.” Here he describes how spaces for democratic engagement can be a natural extension of the capacities that each human being has to be responsible, to think, and to contribute to society. Similar ideas appear in the work of Seymour Melman discussing cooperative economics or Gar Alperovitz explaining a variety of democratic openings in the contemporary United States. Similarly Lewis Mumford also addressed how various spaces for democracy compete with undemocratic spaces throughout contemporary society in advanced capitalist states like the United States. He makes this argument in the book, In the Name of Sanity. There, Mumford argues that democracy “is necessarily most visible in relatively small communities and groups, whose members meet frequently face to face, interact frequently, and are known to each other as persons.” In contrast to the idea that technocratic rationality and concentrated power forecloses most options under capitalism, Mumford writes: “even when paying tribute to the most oppressive authoritarian regimes, there yet remained within the workshop or the farmyard some degree of autonomy, selectivity, creativity.”
Political repression may convince some persons that the best path to system change is to take on the appearance of a secret agent or underground spy. Yet, counter-revolutions are most easily opposed by active, public, mass engagement. This opposition can be seen in the relative success of non-violent movements, although the fight against British colonizers or Nazis were not pacifist fights.