US Marxism -- An Impressionist, Sketchy Assessment

Julio Huato juliohuato at SPAMhotmail.com
Thu May 24 13:05:59 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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