[Marxism] Different periods, different politics

Marvin Gandall marvgandall at rogers.com
Mon Mar 8 13:31:04 MST 2004

I think we’ve reached an impasse in the discussion we’ve been having
over how to orient to the Democratic party militants – the trade
unionists and party members who belong to, and are often active, in the
various social movements. Some people want to turn this into a debate
about Karl Kautsky or Mao Tse Tung or the Paris Communards. Others think
it is about shilling for John Kerry. It’s not about any of these things,
and I don’t have much interest in pursuing those particular threads. If
I haven’t been able to make this clear by now – and I’ve certainly
tried –  it’s because I’m either a lousy communicator or people simply
don’t want to hear.

Obviously, I think it’s the latter. At bottom, it’s not possible to come
to a meeting of minds on an orientation to the Democratic party unless
there is an agreement that the period has changed, something I think a
lot of people on this list are not willing or able to do. They are still
living in 1871 Paris, 1917 Petrograd, 1933 Berlin, and 1949 China –
because that is what has given meaning and purpose to their life, and
the present reality is too difficult to face and to contemplate. I mean
no disrespect; I know the feeling.

Consider: There no longer is a Soviet Union or a socialist bloc of any
consequence –outside of tiny Cuba, which however heroic, is too marginal
in the scheme of things to serve as a powerful model and inspiration for
the world working class. Closer to home, there are no longer any workers
parties of any consequence which are still pledged to social ownership,
by tepid parliamentary means or otherwise. If there were, appeals to the
workers to abandon the bourgeois parties and join these mass workers
parties would have some relevance. The appeals and the programmes on
which they were based originated in a period when these socialist
institutions existed and offered the promise of continued growth and
inevitable power .

Now these appeals sound merely farcical – exhortations to the working
people to leave the Democratic party to join tiny organizations
predominatly composed of intellectuals and students and lacking any
capacity – inside and outside of the legislative arena – to defend their
most urgent interests. If you go back and study the history of the
workers parties, you will find  these organizations were created for
that purpose: to serve the immediate needs of the workers – in the first
instance, the right of unions to exist and bargain collectively; in the
second, legislated benefits giving all workers a modicum of protection
against old age, unemployment, and disease, and access to education and
other equalizing social measures.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and China, the changed composition of
the workforce from primarily industrial to mostly service and
professional workers, and the disappearance or transformation of the old
mass socialist and communist parties – these three developments have
been, without exaggeration, world historic and epoch-ending changes of
the highest order.

I have not followed the revolutionary left groups closely, so I don’t
really know how extensively they’ve  discussed these changes. My
impression in speaking with friends who have is – not very much. I’m not
surprised; these are not easy or happy things to understand or explain.
They were not the way things were supposed to turn out.

China and the USSR, despite their deformations, were supposed to be a
way station on the road to a better future, to socalism. It wasn’t at
all anticipated they would reverse direction and head back down the
tracks from whence they came. The workers parties were supposed to get
larger and more radical, not disappear altogether or become more
accomodating to capitalism. Capitalism itself wasn’t expected to have a
long shelf life, nor the workers to experience a steadily rising
standard of living which made them more conservative; they were supposed
to become progressively more immiserated and revolutionary until they
were compelled to overthrow the system.

You can see how how these inconvenient and unhappy facts run entirely
contrary to the analysis and hopes of those who are still living back in
the Paris Commune or revolutionary Petrograd, and why they wouldn’t want
to acknowledge or talk about them. As we have seen in several grandiose
posts in the past several days, they compare themselves to the
Communards and the Bolsheviks, and are prepared to die first in a losing
cause rather than surrender their principles, in order that they may
provide a heroic example to future generations – metaphorically speaking
from their easy chairs, of course.  Perhaps there has been a
wide-ranging examination of these issues in the past under Louis’
tutelage. But certainly since I began following the list, I’ve seen no
evidence that these historic changes have been registered and their
implications considered for purposes of political strategy.

Perhaps a simple example will help illustrate what this means in
practice.  Yesterday, I referred the list to an article from US News and
World Report, a conservative publication – an article which my wife,
Walker Jones, and I had earlier posted to our website. We did so because
we thought both the data showing the  system in more trouble than it has
been in a long time, as well as the evidence of rising working class
discontent, was obviously of importance. The fact that it was being
given prominence by a conservative publication was especially
noteworthy. What struck us most was the evident concern by the editors
that “populist politics” – a euphemism for class struggle  – “could
catch fire” if the Democrats moved to exploit working class discontent.

If I lived in the US and were active in the Democratic party, it was the
type of material I would promptly copy and make available to the party
activists in the local ward associations and campaign offices, both to
help set a direction and raise their morale. I would encourage them to
adapt and circulate the material in their neighbourhoods, as well as to
other local party organizations. It is only, in effect, by leveraging
the resources of a mass organization like the Democratic party that we
can have any realistic hope of significant access to the mass of the
population. The unions and social movements, acting in isolation one
from the other, can have nowhere this kind of impact.

I would also encourage them to go up the organizational ladder and press
their district, state, and national officials to focus on the themes
expressed in the article – but I would do so without illusions, so
please spare me the lecture. I’ve been in enough organizations to know
the higher up you go, the more conservative resistance you run into. But
so what? If you’re on the left, you take that for granted. You don’t run
away from it. You use it to build a grassroots opposition.

This would mean first seeking out the Dean and Kucinich forces, who are
now working half-heartedly for their party and distrustful of Kerry. But
they are militants who would be the first to understand the need to use
the party’s resources to stoke the “populist fires” and to popularize
and revise, where necessary, the Democratic planks on job loss, health
care, education, indebtedness, widening ineqality, corporate corruption,
and the pro-business bias of the Bush administration – the issues
itemized in the article. I would point out to them, and I’m confident
they’d agree, that pro-business bias is characteristic of the Democratic
leadership, as well, and that it would be necessary to put our own house
in order. Judging by my experience in the NDP and what I’m able to see
from across the border, I think they’re the kind of people who would
understand this as an ongoing process against against a formidable
apparatus, involving the requirement to constantly put the leadership’s
“feet to the fire”, so to speak. I’m almost prepared to bet they would
understand this better than many on this list, who appear overwhelmed by
that process and who want prior guarantees of certain success.

I also gave some thought to how Louis probably viewed the article – as
something for information only, and probably not very good information
at that, given its bourgeois provenance. He either filed it for
reference purposes, or more likely, deleted it. Then I saw him turning
back to his study of Lenin In Context and his polemics on marxmail and
other chat groups – that which Louis calls political activity;
“revolutionary” political activity, no less.

Louis is an extreme example. I’m aware most others do useful political
work outside their homes in the unions and the social movements. But
Louis said something else which was revealing in one of our many
exchanges: that he could engage “calmly” only with “like minded people”.
To which I recall replying that the purpose of the left was precisely to
engage calmly with “non like-minded people” I sometimes have the
impression that this penchant for primarily engaging with like-minded
people, usually fellow Marxists, keeps people away from the Democrats
and, up here, the NDP. There is a hint of elitism in this behaviour, as
in Mark Lause’s comment yesterday – not strictly true, incidentally –
“that those who put more thought into politics should probably not be
guided by those who put less thought into it.”

The biggest theoretical difficulty people appear to have with an
orientation to the Democrats is the fear of “crossing the class line”.
This was politically relevant when you had what could properly be
described as class parties pledged to socialism where the most
politically conscious workers were to be found. But what to do when
there are no longer any such parties – only workers-based
bourgeois-dominated parties bidding to administer the capitalist system
with a slight tilt towards the needs of their base?

My views on the equivalent character of the Blairite social-democratic
parties and the Democrats are known to those who have followed the
discussion. I don’t distinguish between an orientation to one or the
either; they’re both where the most politically-conscious workers are
today to be found, and you can only view participation in one and not
the other as “crossing the class line” if you still cling to the fiction
that the social democratic parties still have socialist programmes and
report to the trade union movement, which of course they no longer do.
Louis, unfortunately still appears to do so, as when he describes the
Second International (does the corpse still breathe?) as “socalist”, in
marked contrast to the Democratic party which he still apparently sees
as composed mainly of Southern slaveholders.

Something is clearly amiss when the kind of potential mass work with the
Democrat militants I described above is considered “crossing the class
line”, while Louis’ home studies in Marxist Scripture and socially
alienated computer behaviour is considered “revolutionary”.

Finally, I want to distinguish my position from an anyone-but-Bush line.
The well-intentioned liberals and radicals want to get rid of Bush
because they think he is personally repulsive and a crypto-fascist
politically, while they view Kerry and the other Democratic leaders as
more personally capable and politically progressive. Given the choice, I
’d sooner have lunch with Kerry, notwithstanding Louis’
characteristically restrained description of he, Clinton and Gore as
“scum, murderers, thieves and degenerates.” (I hate to keep picking on
poor Louis, but he leaves himself so wide open, and is such a good
example in extremis of what is wrong with some of the thinking on this
list). Defining your political orientation on the basis of personalities
as Louis and the ABB folks do is an error. Much as I grit my teeth
whenever I see Bush smirking, I’m aware that he and Kerry are both
equally constrained by the markets and the bipartisan consensus, and
have to govern within that framework. Thus, as I’ve written, it wouldn’t
surprise me if a second term Bush, chastened by Iraq, acted like a
Democratic multilateralist in foreign policy, while a first term Kerry,
faced with a soaring deficit, moved to slash social spending as
aggressively as any Republican, albeit without the ideological zeal.
This is not the ABB position.

 But I also quite agree with Fred Feldman, who said yesterday that it is
“always simplistic” to think the two parties are identical – at least,
for Fred, in foreign policy. I  expect he is not yet ready to take his
analysis to the base and to note the different social and political
composition of the respective parties, because that would take him into
the territory I have been exploring here where he perhaps does not want
to go. But the fact that the organized workers and social activists are
concentrated in the one party and not the other also has political
implications, as I’ve also noted previously, not least that it will make
it easier to  constrain a President Kerry and to mount a fightback
against program cuts, if it should come to that.

Marv Gandall

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