[Marxism] The Latino immigrant rights movement and the revolutionary left

Joaquín Bustelo jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Wed Apr 12 04:29:36 MDT 2006

It's very interesting seeing that comrades who often seem to have all the
answers for Latinos everywhere else in this continent have so little of
substance to say in analyzing the biggest mass movement in many decades when
it explodes onto the political stage of their home turf. 

I say the biggest in many decades, but just by demonstration size alone,
you'd have to say the biggest mass movement the United States has seen.

When was there ever a demonstration of a million people in Los Angeles? One
of half a million in Dallas? Of nearly 100,000 in Atlanta? When was there
ever a series of scores of protests in one month like we have seen since
mid-March when Chicago broke the dam?

One would have hoped that it would have provoked a more thoughtful response
than whipping up leaflets calling for a $15 minimum wage that one of the
non-Latino sectarians on the Marxism list proudly boasted about having
distributed at a Los Angeles demonstration. (That's what I love about
ultralefts: millions of immigrants stage marches for dignity and these
comrades immediately reduce things to bourgeois economist trade-unionism,
imagining that by adding one or two zeros to be bureaucracy's
nickel-and-dime demands, that have somehow taken it to a higher level and
imbued it with revolutionary content). 

Because the situation cries out for applying the tools of Marxist analysis
to orient ourselves. And this is what I believe flows from such an analysis:

There is no task more urgent than drawing together WITHIN the Latino
movement a militant, uncompromising, legalization for all left wing. And on
the terms of the issues posed by this movement itself, not with demands
parachuted in via ultraleft leafletters, whether of the $15/hour minimum
wage or the "drive out the Bush regime" variety, which I saw here in Atlanta
huddled at the edge of the Monday rally intensely discussing whether or not
they should hand out their leaflets and circulate their petitions, because a
couple of the younger women comrades were telling an older male that they
just didn't feel comfortable doing that there. 

Trying to recruit to overwhelmingly white, or even strongly multinational
left groups can easily become a  DIVERSION from and an obstacle to the
immediate, urgent task of cohering a left wing within this movement. It is a
secondary priority that should take a back seat, and if you're unsure on
just how to do it right, wait. Because seeing a movement like this develop
and immediately trying to recruit out of it, without being able to offer
those you seem to attract any real analysis, understanding or perspective
for this concrete struggle is, in my view, opportunism.

And even the groups that have tried to engage with the movement on its own
terms seem unable to really understand even fairly basic things. For
example, I saw at one of the protests on TV that there were quite a few
printed placards calling for "Amnesty" signed by, if I remember right,

Amnesty is not a word much of the movement is putting forward, it hasn't
caught on, and for a very simple reason. Amnesty implies you've done
something wrong. And Latino immigrants don't feel they've done anything
wrong. It isn't something that's been a big discussion in the movement, it's
just a word that hasn't caught on because it doesn't express the sentiments
people have. It doesn't "feel" quite right. Legalization, full rights,
that's the sort of way people in the movement tend to speak about this.

The enemies of the immigrant rights movement have tried to frame the issue
in terms of "amnesty," and if for no other reason it is sometimes also used.
But for them, it is a part of their very conscious campaign to frame the
issue in terms of what to do with these millions of "criminals," these

So while I appreciate the sentiments of the radical group that put out the
amnesty placards, I would urge them to stop. I suspect they don't understand
the character of the movement or the feelings of its participants.

Why is "Sí se puede" the most commonly heard chant on these demonstrations?
It isn't a demand, and on its face, it could mean anything. Yet it obviously
means something very important to the MILLIONS that have now awakened to
political life and struggle. Try to *understand* the actual movement just as
it is.

Then there's the Troops Out Now Coalition, which appears to have
unilaterally issued a call for a May 1 rally in Union Square in New York. If
that is the case, then this must be rejected as rank opportunism. This is
the sort of arrogance that has had such disastrous results in the antiwar
movement. And when dealing with a Latino movement, this idea that a
non-Latino group should be calling rallies and controlling the stage
undermines the very core character of the movement itself. Whatever the
intentions, it is a direct attack and challenge to the integrity of the

I'm sure there are all sorts of problems in the Latino immigrant rights
movement in New York. We have them here in Atlanta, despite having had a
better start in cohering a genuine left wing of the movement than many other
areas. Mostly white or even strongly multinational left groups should get it
out of their heads that they can somehow "intervene" and solve the problems
of leadership of this movement. They can't. And their trying to do so will
only complicate things further. The movement as a whole, and especially its
radical wing, needs solid reliable allies, not attempts by outside forces to
substitute themselves for the leadership that must emerge from within the
community. All such attempts are not only doomed to fail, but run the risk
of undercutting the process of the formation of a leadership from within the
movement itself.

These sorts of issues highlight the importance of having a solid, grounded
class analysis and Marxist understanding of what is going on. An
understanding especially of the *national* character of the movement and the
*nationalist* sentiments that drive it is essential --and there seems to be
a fair bit of NOT even seeing this going around--, but that is not enough.
You have to understand the actual social forces, class forces that find
expression in and through this upsurge in the community and how they
interact with broader forces.

The absolutely all-encompassing character of this movement in the Latino
communities is the result of a confluence of class forces that is not likely
to last.

You have the overall neoliberal drive for world domination, redoubled with a
vengeance after 9/11, which breeds and emboldens white supremacist forces;
and from that, the aggressiveness and inroads and victories scored by the
nativist wing of the Republican Party, the offensiveness of racist
hatemongers like CNN's Lou Dobbs and so on.

But you also have the divisions within the Republicans between the more
mainstream corporatists (Bush-Cheney) and right wing demagogues
(Sensenbrenner-Dobbs-Tancredo), the pusillanimous continuous caving in by
the "liberal" democrats and the stampede for cover from the "mainstream" DLC
Democrats (with honorable exceptions, and more from the Congressional Black
Caucus than the "Hispanic" Caucus, it must be admitted); and within it all
the ACTUAL ruling class expressing its class interests by hiring and
sheltering undocumented workers by the MILLIONS.

And you have this mass of Latino immigrants, both documented and un-, but
especially the undocumented, pushed out of their own countries by the same
neoliberal offensive that is attacking them here, who for years have been
beat up and denigrated as "illegals," as job-stealing, welfare-cheating,
diseased-carrying, school-budget-busting, terrorist sub-humans. Who are
hired to build roads and then denied the right to have drivers licenses. Who
prepare the food served on airplane but are not allowed to board them. 

But within the Latino community, you have something else, you have
middle-class and even some small capitalist layers. Usually subservient to
their master's voice, THIS layer has moved, partly as a result from their
own status as Latinos --including having been undocumented (in Atlanta we
have a couple of ex-"illegal" millionaires), partly from the pressure from
below, from their own workers, friends, and family, but also and very
importantly from their own *class* interests. 

Stalin says in the famous 1913 Bolshevik pamphlet on the national question
that the heart and soul of the nationalism of the bourgeoisie is their home
market. That is the same here, even though it manifests in ways which the
Bolsheviks couldn't have imagined (and even though I disagree with the
Bolshevik 1913 position of reducing the national question to just the
interests of the bourgeois forces).

What has made this a MASS movement is the media, and most of all the radio.
And what made it possible for all these DJ's and radio personalities to go
all-out for the movement is that despite their middle class status, they are
also, almost to a person, immigrants, and immigrants who came here as adults
(very few people can work in Spanish-language media at a professional level,
just from a language point of view, unless they were educated in Latin
America: otherwise their Spanish is too "foreign," too corrupted by
English). But also, because their bosses did NOT tell them to lay off, on
the contrary, they egged them on. And their advertisers ALSO didn't
complain, but said "right on" to the brothers. (And overwhelmingly they are
"brothers" -- there are very few women DJ's).

Frankly, what Nativo Lopez of MAPA told Lou Dobbs is the God's honest truth:
if you had to name one person who was responsible for uniting the Latino
community, that would be Sensenbrenner. The vicious, racist "Latinos have no
rights the white man is bound to respect" bill he pushed through the House
in December convinced bourgeois Latinos and middle layers that their trust
in the fundamental capitalist rationality of U.S. politics was misplaced in
this case. And if you look at the bill, it is simply the legal framework for
a pogrom. 

In desperation, these traditionally "moderate" forces have turned to the
Latino working class, and to the tactics associated historically with the
working class movement, marches and rallies, economic boycotts and --in
essence-- strikes. 

And in doing so they have unleashed a proletariat worthy of the name. One
that realizes that it must not "permit itself to be treated as rabble," one
that instinctively feels that it "needs its courage, its self-confidence,
its pride and its sense of independence even more than its bread." One that
calls its events marches for dignity, not marches for amnesty.

The interactions of this Latino proletariat with the other social classes
isn't as straightforward as people might think. This is not exactly "class
against class," it is much more *complicated.*

One of the untold stories --there must be thousands of them by now
nationwide-- of the Latino movement here in Atlanta is that when we held the
day without immigrants protest here on March 24, a lot of the union members
at a big commercial laundry walked out from the plant and crippled
production. I know the head of that plant's local. She is undocumented, a
mother who is supporting children she left with their grandparents back in
Mexico that she hasn't seen for years because the border crossing has become
too dangerous and she can't risk her job. 

A higher up in her union went to bat for the workers, and got them all off
with a verbal warning. They were also negotiating significant participation
by workers from that plant in the Monday protest, although I don't know the
outcome of that. 

You would think the reaction of the plant management would have been to
immediately fire everyone involved in what was in essence a wildcat but you
would be wrong. The plant management and company involved have been more
lenient because, of course it's in their interests not just to keep their
workers relatively happy, but more fundamentally, because it's in their
interests to keep their workers period. And what the laundry capitalists see
as their right to exploit this labor is under attack, and from their point
of view the action of these workers in defending their staying in this
country is a defense also of the right of the laundry bosses to exploit

I suspect the compañeras who led and took part this action did not
necessarily think this through in such explicit terms to figure out whether
they could get away with it. They acted on instinct but mostly driven by the
attacks against them from the politicians, which as they see it, leave them
no choice but to fight back, and now that the opportunity to do so has
presented itself, they are willing to take risks to do so.

It is important to *understand* the various class forces and interests in
play to orient yourself in this movement. There is on the organized
socialist left very little understanding, and in what's being reported,
there is quite a bit of arrogance.

*  *  *

The movement that has erupted is clearly and beyond any possible confusion a
*national* movement, a multi-class movement by oppressed people against
their oppression as a people. Very significantly, it is a NEW movement.
There has never been a generically Latino movement before. This is a product
of the evolution of the last 30 or 40 years, the huge continuing immigration
and the development of a "national" (meaning Latino, as opposed to
nationwide) media in Spanish. I went over some of the factors leading to the
development of a generically "Latino" (as distinct from a specifically
Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican or Chicano) national identity several months
ago in a paper I think I posted to this list (as well as others) and can
send to anyone who is interested.

But this "Latino" movement is also an expression of the national movement of
Latin America as a whole, of the collection of Balkanized nations that are
slowly waking up to the reality that they must become a single nation
because that is the only way to deal with the problem they all share, U.S.

I don't mean to imply by this that there hasn't also been a rise in
specifically Chicano (or Mexican, or Mexican-American) nationalist sentiment
as a result. Quite the contrary, the signs are everywhere of a big upsurge
in nationalist sentiment of the main immigrant nationality groupings. But as
comrade Evo Morales and the Bolivian indigenous movement teaches, the
nationalism of the oppressed is fundamentally *different* from the
nationalism of the oppressor in this regard. "No es excluyente" -- it
doesn't exclude. You can be indigenous, and Guatemalan, and Mesoamerican,
and Latin American, and a part of the Third World, a person of color. 

Being white (Anglo) in the "American" sense is completely different. That is
an exclusive identity, that's the whole point to whiteness, white supremacy.
As Malcolm X put it, in the United States "white means boss."

And because it IS a national movement, the right approach is to support the
national-revolutionary forces, the coalescence of a left wing in the
movement that can become over time a proletarian wing of the movement,
especially as it vies for leadership with bourgeois and reformist forces.

Now, in a direct sense this is NOT a job for Anglo comrades, except insofar
as it affects their general political stance in terms of propaganda and
alliances. Comrades from other oppressed nationalities can perhaps play more
of a role, but even then, overwhelmingly, this can only really be done by
Latino militants and activists. That is the real challenge, to cohere the
left wing that ALREADY exists as scattered activists in this movement, and
especially the fresh forces coming forward.

It is a pressing, urgent task. The conditions of this upsurge cannot last
for a long time. The *class* interests of the Latino proletariat and other
forces coincide only in part, and most strongly in the negative: against
criminalization of immigrants, against the Sensenbrenner bill. 

But when it comes to what people are for, or at least willing to settle for,
it is a different matter.

All sorts of forces were willing to support the phony "compromise" cooked up
by that gusano Mel Martinez a week ago and accepted by Kennedy and the
Democrats that would have divided the undocumented between those who could
PROVE they'd been here more than five years and the rest that couldn't and
had to go back to Mexico and get "legally" readmitted.

This is the most important dividing line between the emerging
revolutionary-national forces, proletarian in all but name, and the
bourgeois forces: legalization for all or for some. 

Another very important issue intimately tied up with this is the guest
worker program. The revolutionary national forces are all for letting "guest
workers" into the United States -- provided they get the same rights
everyone else gets when they move here, specifically, permanent residency
and U.S. citizenship under the same conditions and timetables as, say, a
Rupert Murdoch. 

We *reject* a new Bracero program. Latino bourgeois forces especially are
basically okay with a new bracero program, which is essentially an attempt
at a continuation of what has been the real U.S. immigration policy
--letting immigrants in, but with second class status, as "illegals"-- in a
more controlled way and under a new name (what the Latino capitalists object
to in the whole drive by the ultrarightists is moving Latino undocumented
immigrants from second class status to no status whatsoever, and possibly
driving them out of the country. Latino bourgeois forces object because it
undercuts the markets many of them rely on as well as increases their legal
risks for exploiting this labor).

I should make clear here that when referring to Latino capitalists, I'm
referring mostly not to the odd individual like the Hispanic head of
microprocessor company AMD, but rather to those whose businesses revolve
around the community, at least to a large extent. This includes, in a sense,
even some large Anglo-owned businesses, who, for example, own community
media, but whose Latino executives in charge of a radio or newspaper have
been given sufficient autonomy to respond to this situation. And those
executives would be among those who I'm referring to).

Nor is this strictly speaking just small capitalists, it involves some
significant forces in the bourgeois world, such as the Mexican and
Venezuelan TV monopolies behind Univision. 

>From this it should be clear why grouping together a broad left current
within the immigrant rights movement around a few essential points is the
central strategic priority TODAY. Because the multi-class alliance with
these bourgeois forces is unlikely to last. There will either be a new
rotten compromise cooked up when Congress reconvenes in a couple of weeks,
OR the Democrats will decide this is a great club to beat the Republicans
over the head with, reject all compromises, and seek to divert the movement
into purely bourgeois electoralism, urging us to compromise our demands THAT
way, by subordinating them to getting "friends" elected.

That electoralist line is one that *excludes* the overwhelming majority of
participants in the movement, not just the undocumented but legal immigrants
also who don't have the right to vote. On average, it takes about two
decades for half of the immigrants admitted in a given year to become
citizens, and many never do. So it will be harder to divert this movement
into electoralism. But you could already see the effort being made,
especially in the speeches at the Washington, D.C. rally.

The left instead will want to keep the heat on for legalization for
everyone, and for expanded working class immigrants in the future being
treated the same as bourgeois immigrants, in other words, for Latino
immigrants being treated the same as white immigrants. 

There is a need for the most conscious working class Latino fighters to
IMMEDIATELY fuse with --not multinational revolutionary groups-- but the
most advanced and grass-roots-based and oriented wing of the ACTUAL movement
in their localities, and to start coordinating and building ties between
those forces in different localities.

Four points can serve as an initial platform or program for this left wing.

A) Legalization for all; a "road to citizenship" on the same conditions as
all other immigrants.

B) Yes to massively expanded normal immigration from Latin America on the
same conditions as all other immigrants; no to a new Bracero program; 

C) The Latino community and especially the immigrants must own and run this
movement; YES to support from Black and white and non-profit and trade union
and political party (even Republican) allies, NO to non-Latino control over
our destiny and our movement.

D) For continuing with the campaign of massive public protests.

In the medium term (in this case, months, not days or weeks) the
revolutionary left needs to do a lot of hard thinking. Historically, the
idea recruitment to left groups out of these sorts of movements has not
resulted in building strong revolutionary organizations in the United States
but rather to isolate and fragment the leadership of the social movements.
The kind of political movement that needs to be built is one that is more
like the MAS, that serves to bring together the leading militant of the
social movements rather than scattering them into a half dozen narrow sects.

There is a need for a new political space where leading activists can begin
to discuss and think through the strategic challenges that are posed as the
actual movements develop. There is no chance the currently existing
organized socialist groups can be that space, there is no room in them,
neither socially, culturally nor politically. The discussion (or lack of it)
within this list and I believe also within the organized groups shows that
the tendency of the socialist left is to have way too many answers and way
too few questions.

Of particular importance is that this new space make possible the REAL
leading participation of militants from the oppressed nationalities and
especially women. If you go to myspace.com, and look at the videos of the
student high school walkouts from all over the country that have been posted
there, the very strong impression you get is that the majority of the
leadership and participants in the movement are young women. And that is
certainly true of the overall immigrant rights movement in my area, where
women are the central core of leaders and activists.

The traditional Left has a very serious problem of reproducing the patterns
of power and privilege from broader society. The forms of the meetings, the
style of discourse and debate, the emphasis on the production of literature
accessible really only to a very few in a movement like this, all of that
needs to be re-examined in a self-critical spirit. And the practice of left
groups that are overwhelmingly not Latino coming into this movement with
their own sectarian leaflets and agendas with which to mold and shape the
actual movement needs to be self-critically examined from this angle also. 


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