[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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