Politically speaking, I mean. I’ve been drawn to past moments a lot for a long while now, as part of my general political outlook. There are at least three ways or uses for which I’ve looked to aspects of the past. One is inspiration – big exciting moments, to keep alive a sense of possibility (France and Italy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for instance), another is reflection or analysis by analogy – similar circumstances to things I’ve been dealing with as a way to help think through present problems (dealing with steward positions and contracts in auto plants in the mid-20th century, for instance), and the third is reading past debates – whether about theory or political vision or organziational/movement direction – as a way to help me get a clearer grasp of things in the present (debates about feminism and marxism from the 1960s or debates about what communists ought to be doing from around the beginning of the 20th century).

I had a thought today that for at least some of the particular political problems I’m hung up on lately, the moments of large and impressive conflicts and successful working class offensives – the moments when things seemed to be really up for grabs – are really not what I need right now. I mean, they’re important for maintaining a sort of “this could happen!” sensibility, to avoid feeling like the present is frozen or something. But the present moment is not a parallel to those moments. It’s more parallel to the years before those conflicts, when things didn’t seem to be moving. For the IWW, for instance, the present moment is not the heady days of the McKees Rocks or Lawrences strikes, or of the founding of the organization in 1905. It’s more like the early days prior the founding of the WFM in the late 1800s. What I mean is that the historical analogs that I’m hungry for – both for a different sort of inspiration’s sake and for helping think through next steps in the present – are those moments when things didn’t appear to be happening, when the groundwork for the big impressive moments was laid. To use a biblical metaphor, I think what I want is neither stories of the exodus from Egypt nor of the arrival at the promised land but rather of the long period under Egyptian rule and of the long stretch of wandering in the wilderness.

While I do think the moment that seem ripe with historical possibility are important for inspiration’s sake, like I said, I think appeal or reference to those can also have a negative function. That is, they can serve to prop up spontaneism not simply as a means of keeping hope alive, but they can serve to inhibit serious consideration of preparing the groundwork for the future, that is, they can get in the way of needed conversation and reflection about strategies and tactics and organization.

This feels inadequate, but here’s the best I know how to put what I mean: I think we’re in a period of working class retreat or working class disorganization and corresponding capitalist offensive. What I want are historical examples of communist advance during periods of working class retreat. I don’t mean this in a substitutionist way, where the communists stand in for the class. What I mean is that I want examples set in periods of working class retreat and disorganization where communists moved ahead and did positive work which was not solely a rearguard action (seeking to minimize losses during the retreat).

(Note: I’ve said “the working class” and “communists” which may sound like I mean the whole class and all communists, what I really mean are certain sections and strata of the class and communists who were in those places. I’m not making an argument either way about the entirety of class relations under capitalism or of class relations in the United States or anything like that, I mean much more where I live and am tied into. It’s not so much that I have big conjunctural claims that I’m trying to make here so much as looking at what I’m involved in and what seems to be happening there.)

On a somewhat related note, this ties to my continual griping about post-operaismo and precarity and periodization and so on. It’s not that I’m anti-periodization as such or anti-claims about changes over time and past/present comparisons. It’s that I’m nervous over pitfalls or bad habits or exclusions etc negative stuff that can be freighted in below the surface of periodizing claims. This is basically the exact same thing I said a moment ago about appeals to big exciting moments in the past playing into an anti-organizational and counter-productive spontaneism in the present. In particular with regard to post-operaismo and operaismo proper, I find the whole conversation about a changing history of hegemonic class figures and the claims made about the relationship between those figures and the technical composition of the working class quite problematic. If anything, even if we had to stay within that framework, attention to the nonhegemonic (subaltern?) strata of the class in those moments might be equally instructive, and offer different lessons. To get back to what I started with, the sorts of moments in the past that I feel a need to know about lately, I think at least some of these other strata and how they operated – got by, didn’t get by, struggled – are at least as relevant to my experiences and location as stories from the hegemonic and explicitly combative (and, at least according to some, vanguard) strata.