US Marxism -- An Impressionist, Sketchy Assessment

Julio Huato juliohuato at hotmail.com
Thu May 24 13:18:39 MDT 2001


At leisure, I've been typing this.  I think it connects with some of the 
issues we're debating.

+++

If I were to assess the state of Marxism in the US, the main criterion of 
evaluation would have to be the fundamental ambition of Marxism to emerge 
and evolve as the world view of modern direct producers in their 
emancipatory effort.  I cannot produce such assessment without a more 
detailed knowledge of the history of US and international Marxism than I 
have now.  But I'll try to provide here a rough, impressionistic first 
approximation.

This is the current status of Marxism in the US workers' movement as it 
appears to me.  I can only refer to a few fundamental ideas of classical 
Marxism and to broadly known events in the history of international 
communism.   Obviously, lacking the historical substance necessary for a 
rigorous appraisal, these notes are at best a  very rough, preliminary view. 
  The motivation of my notes comes from my experience corresponding at 
www.marxmail.com.  Evidently, the views I criticize are not exclusive of the 
Marxist Left in the US.  They seem to be widely shared in other countries.  
But, given the hegemonic status of the US society in the world, I'd like to 
focus on this country.

The Left in the US is diverse in its origins and evolution.  I know little 
about this.  But the part of it associated with Marx's revolutionary 
tradition, appears politically insignificant and isolated.  Its situation is 
cause and effect of its inability to further communism in the conditions 
currently existing in the US.  Let us remember that, to Marx, communism was 
"not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which 
reality will have to adjust itself." Instead, communism was "the real 
movement that abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this 
movement result from the premises now in existence."

Marx's fundamental idea that the current conditions, as they unfold driven 
by the development of capitalist production, tend to generate the premises 
for communism has been completely abandoned.  My impression is that Marxists 
in the US believe that the only possible interpretation of Marx's idea is 
fatalistic, mechanical.  The notion of the necessity of communism under 
capitalism has been dropped.  In their views, this idea has been refuted by 
the course of history from the late 19th century through the early 21st 
century.  In practice, Marxists have reverted to views that back in Marx's 
times were peculiar of anarchism and utopian socialism.  Again, the notion 
that capitalist production tends to establish by necessity the conditions 
that lead to its own abolition and the conditions for the emergence of 
communism has been deemed outdated.

But out of this very notion, which IMO distils Marx's theory of history, 
emerges a clear grand strategy for the historical transformation facing 
human society in modern times.  Marx's attitude towards the possibility of 
political revolutions in areas of the world where capitalist production was 
still underdeveloped vis-à-vis the challenges of proletarian socialism in 
rich capitalist societies is highly illustrative.  While revolutions in the 
poor world were to be encouraged and supported to the extent that they 
cleared the way for more advanced social relations and contributed to 
strengthen the hand of the workers' movement in the richer countries, their 
historical possibilities were strictly limited by the prevailing conditions.

Moreover, the chance of turning these revolutions into more fruitful 
historical events, and even having them converge into socialism without 
undergoing the calamities of capitalism, depended vitally on the advances of 
communism in the richer and more productive capitalist societies.  The main 
and persistent focus of activity of proletarian socialism was on the 
capitalistically developed countries.  Strategically speaking, it was the 
proletariat in rich capitalist countries who were in a position to help the 
underdeveloped societies advance - not the other way around.

Gramsci called the Bolshevik revolution a revolution 'against' Marx's 
Capital, thinking that the Bolshevik program and practice amounted to a 
radical revision of the grand strategy implicit in Marx's Capital.  In the 
face of the political collapse of the 2nd International and on the basis of 
Lenin's theory of imperialist parasitism (with a workers' aristocracy fed by 
monopolistic super-profits), revolutionary socialists became convinced that 
rich capitalism was highly conducive to political opportunism.  The 
treacherous attitude of the leaders of the European social-democracy towards 
the war confirmed the worst suspicions.  As the counter-party of this, in 
the style of Russian populism, the backward economic and social conditions 
in which producers in poor countries had to live, work, and struggle were 
understood as a sort of implicit guarantee of ideological and political 
purity.  Thus, Marx and Engels' strategy was turned completely upside down.

The abject subordination of international communism to Moscow's diktat under 
Stalin turned any attempt to shift the revolutionary focus back on the rich 
capitalist world into a capital political sin.  Although the critique of the 
grand strategy implicit in Marx's Capital as euro-centric did not come 
directly from Stalin, it served him nicely.  Isaac Deutscher, in Stalin's 
biography, describes how Stalin in consolidating his power appealed to 
deep-rooted feelings of pan-Slavism, Russian isolationism, and chauvinism, 
thus touching the nerve of enduring populist prejudices rooted in the social 
psychology of the Russian people.

Lenin's theory of imperialism was used as a handy alibi for substantive 
political inaction, even if coupled sometimes with noisy but ineffective 
radical posturing.  Officially, even if not necessarily in practice, the 
main focus of international class struggle shifted to the 'weakest link' of 
the imperialist chain, i.e., the country where the political conflicts were 
most intense, regardless of the prevailing economic conditions.  In 
practice, this operated as an excuse for Marxists in rich capitalist 
countries to elude the responsibility of identifying concrete opportunities 
for advancement under their home conditions.

Again, as the bureaucratization of the Russian Communist Party and the 3rd 
International progressed, the official ideology of communism drastically 
underrated the specific interests of the bulk of workers in rich capitalist 
countries.  They, in return, distanced themselves further from the Marxist 
tradition and searched for expression to their political interests in other 
ideological traditions.  On top of this, the subordination of local 
communist parties to Moscow's directives turned them into ineffective, 
opportunistic, erratic political machines.  Depending on the different 
historical levels of prestige of Marxist socialism in each country, workers 
took shorter or longer to distance themselves from official communism.  The 
remnants of the European social-democratic parties, expelled from the 
Marxist ideological paradise under the 3rd International, entrenched 
themselves behind brands of reformism that utterly abandoned the 
fundamentals of Marxist communism.

In the US, the existing heterogeneity and individualistic mindset of most 
workers in the 20th century posed a formidable challenge to Marxists.  
Instead of facing this challenge head on, some US Marxists chose to focus on 
anti-imperialism.  But how effective has this anti-imperialism been?  With 
the exception of the movement against the Vietnam War, there's not much to 
show.  I have mentioned in other posting the reason why I believe the 
opposition to the Vietnam War had some degree of success.  As a rule, the 
anti-imperialist campaigns of Marxists have been ignored, if not rejected by 
the mass of US workers.  The fact is that the anti-imperialist program was 
essentially disconnected from the US workers' specific needs.

While the disconnection between Marxism as a world view and the workers' 
movement in rich capitalist countries and in the US is a complex phenomenon 
with deeper social roots (again, the racial and national heterogeneity of 
the working class in the US and the preeminence of pragmatism and 
individualism in the 'common sense' of US workers are factors that come to 
mind), this disconnection was broaden by the prevailing attitude of the US 
Marxists.

The Marxist tradition was supposed to bridge theoretically and practically 
the workers' immediate interests and struggles AND the strategic goal of 
communism.  Bereft of this connection, the US workers' movement was left to 
evolve separately from the Marxist tradition, connected to other ideologies 
and world views, trapped in organizational forms that hindered its progress. 
  Since US Marxists have a problem viewing the existing home conditions as 
pregnant of opportunities for the communist movement to advance on the class 
issue, their perception of the communist goal, as it should increasingly 
define itself by contrast against the existing social alienation, has not 
become clearer in their heads.  It has blurred instead.  Without a clearly 
defined goal and strategy, the movement itself was led astray.

The general notion is that communists fight here and now, under the existing 
conditions, to build at a world scale a direct participatory democracy of 
highly educated and advanced workers organizing production to meet the 
rational needs of society.  Even this general notion was abandoned in 
practice, deemed a utopia.   The profile of the future society, outlined in 
Capital and in the Critique of Gotha's Program, could be sketched by a mere 
contrast against the general trends of modern capitalist production.  Marx 
and Engels did their part.  They were not prophets, but revolutionaries and 
scientists.

As in any other historical undertaking, if the communist movement doesn't 
advance by sharpening its understanding of social alienation and gaining 
political strength and social influence, then its goal gets difuminated and 
the whole movement stagnates and reverses.   If it is to elicit the social 
energy required to overthrow capitalism and build communism, tendentially, 
the communist goal requires increasing definition, not as a mere academic 
exercise but as the result of a deeper understanding of social alienation, 
which can only result from struggling against it in all fronts.

In brief, if the communist society we wish to build doesn't get clear enough 
in our minds to be perceived as a goal proper by the workers, as a concrete 
blueprint, then the communist movement as such ceases to exist.  Again, 
defining this blueprint is not a straight path.  It is a process that 
coincides, at each point in time, with advancing the interests of direct 
producers, particularly direct producers whose working and living conditions 
best enable them to dissolve exploitation and alienation, and lead the 
communist construction.

In his Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin rejected the populist 
thesis that because industrial proletarians in Russia were a minority of the 
population, they had to restrict their historical role to follow the lead of 
the peasants (the majority of the population in Russia back then).  Lenin 
argued that their position in the Russian economic structure gave the 
industrial proletarians a larger specific weight in history than the one 
indicated by their sheer number.  It is not unusual for today's Marxists to 
feel embarrassed about this frank way of talking as if it were suggestive of 
racism, euro-centrism, social Darwinism, or some sort of West-knows-best 
kind of arrogance.  In fact, there are no such implications.  These 
judgments, to be compatible with Marx's humanism, are strictly based on the 
assessment of economic structures and historical opportunities.  Only by 
distorting Marx's view of history it is possible to find in these statements 
anything demeaning to the people who live under the social conditions in 
question.

While the first task is identifying the sectors of the direct producers in 
the US society whose working and living conditions enable them best to lead 
the transformation, the challenge is to have this mass of producers organize 
and educate themselves for communism.  US Marxists are yet to fight under 
their particular, historical circumstances to advance the interests of these 
direct producers.  The compass is what can be done and should be done under 
the existing conditions, using the opportunities available, to build 
Communism.  This clearly depends on the political and ideological state of 
the US workers.  But without identifying these sectors of the collective 
producer in the US, the bulk of the political and organizational energy of 
Marxists may be misallocated.

The allocation of political effort to the self-education and organization of 
direct producers in the anti-capitalist 'spirit' is NOT to be confused with 
a disregard for the interests and needs of the poorer and most vulnerable 
sectors of the working class (e.g., undocumented workers in the US, the 
so-called 'minorities', particularly women and children!!), or the interests 
and needs of producers in the Third World.  But the focus on the most 
enabled sectors of the working class (with all the challenges this strategy 
poses) is the most direct and economical way to address the interests of the 
least protected groups of workers and even the producers in the Third World.

In fact, US Marxists appear to have turned necessity into virtue.  Instead 
of connecting, engaging, debating, and educating regular workers just as 
they are (again, appealing particularly to those whose position in the 
social structure enable them best to transform the status quo), as they are 
caught in the ideological traps of capitalism (the 'American dream', 
individualism, racism, etc.), US Marxists disengage and build alternative 
lifestyles and niches where they feel comfortable, preaching at the 
converted.   From there, they sneer at mainstream culture and underestimate 
every small positive change because it doesn't measure up to their grand 
dreams.  Their arrogance towards small positive changes only reinforces 
their isolation and makes it harder to overcome it, since in their state of 
weakness it is precisely these small incremental changes which are needed 
the most.
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