[Marxism] re: Response to M. Junaid Alam

M. Junaid Alam mjunaidalam at msalam.net
Thu Mar 31 07:30:02 MST 2005

I had expected that at least one ISO member would respond to my post. 
This only makes sense since a decent number of American socialists are 
in the ISO, though surprisingly few are on this list. I had also 
expected the post would reflect the genuine strengths and limitations of 
their outlook. I have to say in this case it also reflects a certain 
tendency to at times ascribe ideas to  someone when there is no basis 
for doing so, but that kind of thing is almost inevitable in this format.

First of all my analysis is not ISO or even socialist-group centric. 
There are three broad points I made: one, the political-organizational 
structure and dynamic of socialist groups prevents mass growth; two, the 
general malaise of the broader left feeds into and reinforces 
fragmentation and isolation; three, there are general ideological and 
material American conditions which themselves act as barriers to change. 
Nothing here is particularly new or insightful, but then again politics 
does not consist of reinventing the wheel but of ways to make the wheel 
get moving again.

As far as the ISO is specifically concerned, first of all, I already 
know they do a lot of good work. I know because I work with ISO people 
and talk to ISO people and read ISR all the time. I have also spent a 
fair amount of time combating stupidities of certain sectarians who 
whine about the ISO being involved in something as an excuse for them to 
be doing nothing at all. So this is not abstract. I say what I say with 
all that understood.

Moving to specifics:

"1. First off, you are mostly correct if you are talking about radical 
organizations for the last fifty years. The twin evils of Stalinism and 
McCarthyism have distorted (destroyed if you will) the organization and 
politics of revolutionary socialism."

These are not the only factors. These are ideological factors, but there 
are material factors. American prosperity, an absolute increase in 
living standards and luxuries, a massive improvement compared to past 
conditions, a significant increase in the level and array of productive 
forces - this is the material basis underpinning more than 50 years of 
failure to create a large radical party or labor party or militant union 
umbrella. No amount of hemming and hawing on this question really 
changes ground reality - no American or Western Marxist thinkers in the 
last 50 years failed to note this fact: indeed, they spent all their 
time trying to explain it or what to do in light of it or predict how 
long it would last. If they did not simply drop their radicalism 
altogether, that is.

You can say that for certain sectors in the last quarter century there 
has ben stagnation of wages and decrease in benefits, and you would be 
right, but you don't get decreases and erosions in privileges unless you 
first have the privileges in the first place, and you don't get radical 
politics when your privileges start slipping away if the entire 
intellectual and political climate is dominated by the ideas and culture 
that was cemented and locked in to place during better times. You get 
instead what you have: right-wing populism and "backlash" blame politics 
against foreign sectors of capital and non-white sectors of labor. And 
this will continue as long as there is not a strong enough 
counter-hegemonic force on the level of both ideas and action. This is 
where breaking with Democrats is decisive in my opinion, though that is 
of course only the first step.

"Obviously the Bolsheviks pop to mind as a good example of how a 
Leninist party doesn't have an "absolutely line on everything".

Yes but we are not talking about the Bolsheviks in the American context 
- at the worst end of the spectrum, there are 50 different grouplets 
pathetically imitating the Bolsheviks in the most caricatured fashion. 
There is not one ounce of the actual methodology in these groups that 
really compares with how the Bolsheviks operated. The 2 or 3 groups that 
are generally healthier, like the ISO, are hardly succeeding because of 
any Bolshevik-ness. The ISO is where it is because it based itself on 
college campuses and avoided dunking itself into "turn to industry" 
proletarian heroism, the kind of dogmatic refusal to understand the 
specific contours of actual American class conditions, which destroyed 
other socialist groups or turned them into tiny sectoids. It is in any 
case very strange to base an organizational model on some party from 
1900 in semi-feudal conditions. That in itself limits your ability to be 
flexible in concrete conditions of today.

"5. It is also disturbing to hear your characterization of America 
(especially since it came straight from the NY Times). It is strikingly 
similar to the Democrats theories about why they lost theelection. 
Basically, that socialist ideas can't connect people who live in the 
suburbs because they have x-box's and Krespy Kreme donuts. The democrats 
answer is to move right and find ways to "connect" with middle America's 
issues. You seem to be making the same mistake when it comes to 
socialism. Except, your answer is to give up on selling the paper, 
shouting slogans and building a revolutionary party."

This is where you end up with a pernicious combination of refusing to 
recognize realities in order to preserve comatose conclusions, and 
proceeding to put words in my mouth.

 First of all, how does the fact the article came from the NYT magazine 
vitiate its validity? Did you even read the article? When Marx sat down 
in that library in England, he did not break out the local socialist 
newspaper to conduct his analysis. He consulted the most authoritative 
bourgeois sources. He analyzed and studied them. What this particular 
article shows is a phenomenon in exurban communities - too far removed 
from cities to be suburbs but too populous and fast-growing to be 
considered isolated rural areas - in which totally white communities are 
being  Republicanized through a kind of commercialized religious wave. 
Damnation and stern warnings of hell are not the main part of the 
program. Xboxes and Krispy Kreme donuts and instructions on how to live 
a solid life are the preferred methods of inducement. The more poisonous 
stuff comes later on and slipped backdoor. Obviously what makes all this 
possible is the underlying fact that we are not dealing with 
impoverished teeming masses in the slums of Caracas here. Rather it is 
continuing capitalist growth and "development" driven by financial 
speculators and at the expense of the environment and immigrant Latino 

We have to analyze the realities on the ground by looking at them 
independently of pre-conceived conclusons. Just because this picture 
does not dovetail well with Engels 1844 observations of Manchester 
England, does not mean you shrink away from them and raise a hue and cry 
about what the Democrats or what anyone else thinks. I don't care what 
the Democrats think. Obviously if the world working class was all 
equalized and on the same clean plane of material conditions, without 
any national, racial factors, without combined and uneven development, 
without class collaboration, then the revolution would have happened a 
hell of a long time ago.  For me the lessons to be drawn here are really 
the same as you draw from any examination of how any political force 
wins people over - you learn. The radical left is going to need to 
develop ties and bonds with the most potentially progressive sectors in 
America with more than newspapers and meetings - it is going to need to 
have some institutional programs that give it a physical grounding and 
serve as an attracting force. Lessons could be drawn here from the M20 
Harlem march , for example.

"Xbox's are not holding us back but creating a large enough party that 
can actually reach those hundreds of thousands with ideas and actions is 
what is holding us back."

This is where the sales pitch becomes cyclical. How do you "create" or 
"build" a "large enough party" if there aren't enough people who are 
participating in it in the first place? You first have to have 
organization that it is capable of being large enough to make an impact 
on a broader movement, and you have to have a broader movement that is 
capable of being impacted by revolutionary politics. Right now I submit 
we have neither. I think we need to do a lot of prepatory work, a lot of 
critical thinking and concrete appraisal of social realities, applying 
the method of Marx and jettisoning the carcass of mechanical formulas, 
creating solid connections with the scattered forces who are genuinely 
interested in what can be broadly called anti-capitalist politics, 
humanist values, and economic justice along the way.

The Right has spent four decades preparing itself ideologically, 
politically, awaiting opportunities, to scale the heights it now 
occupies. It didn't happen overnight and it didn't even happen with 
total success. We need to learn from this. We need the confidence to 
commit mistakes, to recognize limitations on the ground, to proceed from 
these limitations with a broader strategic perspective and historical 
understanding, situating our tactics within a longer-term vision. There 
is no magical, tragic, or inexplicable force  preventing either the 
"unenlightened masses" from reaching socialist conclusions  nor is there 
one preventing the "muddleheaded socialists" from reaching the "heroic 
masses." The struggle will see much heroism, much obscurantism, much 
muddleheadedness and much brilliance - but it is going to be a struggle, 
not something solved overnight by party litmus tests, selling 
newspapers, or blanket calls to "build the party."

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