[Marxism] Troubled times

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Mon Nov 20 15:14:21 MST 2006

This is a very thoughtful post, which likely will generate good discussion.

However, consider that in the slogan "Workers of all _countries_ , unite ! "
Marx and Engels already placed the national question at the center of the
class question. For Marxism, the national question was _never_ a secondary
question to the class question.


Joaquin Bustelo 

Les writes: "listening to Joaquin lately makes me think this list is in for
some troubled times. now we are squabbling over who likes what music?"

I agree with Les that this list, which is to a significant extent an
expression of the left in the United States, is headed for "troubled times,"
but it isn't because people have nothing better to do than squabbling about

That is merely the form that it is taking on this list for this one moment
given Louis's drift away from politics, at least "naked" politics. The issue
is really what should be your political focus or center. 

Differences on that wouldn't necessarily imply much upheaval, but I think it
does at this juncture. Those of us who say focus on Latin America, on
immigrant rights, on the third world, on the iraqi resistance, on the
oppressed nationalities, etc. etc. etc. (and there are many variants) I
think are heading towards an inevitable break with Marxism as it has stood
for 160 years.

"Pathetic" discussions about music or culture have got nothing to do with
it. In the imperialist countries, our generations --those of the
fifty-somethings, sixty-somethings and above-- if we are to be any use at
all to the younger activists & most of all those who are coming of age
politically in the 21st Century, need to figure out WHAT WENT WRONG.

Perhaps it was a mistake on my part to try to reintroduce this subject by
pointing out that Louis's retreat into the world of European culture and
movies on this POLITICAL list is a move AWAY from confronting that subject:

But confront it we must, and it begins by being honest with and about
ourselves, and especially about our younger selves. 

None of us expected to live in the world we now live in, without a
"socialist camp" nor a labor movement (no matter how primitive or
bureaucratized) worthy of the name in the United States. This is not only
NOT how things were supposed to work out, if you had told any of us 20, 30
or 40 years ago that they might work out this way, we would have told you
all the reasons why, more than just unlikely, this was flat-out impossible,
utterly excluded. 

This means that our understanding of the world was wrong. It was an
understanding that had class as its central category, with gender and
race/nationality, at best, as plug-ins. 

That understanding can't explain this world, at least, I can't make it work.
And not only doesn't it explain today's world, it doesn't explain the
history, how we got here, the central role of national movements of
oppressed peoples in the actual struggle against capitalism, the absence of
pure/mainly workers' revolutions, and not just *succesful* ones but even
unsuccesful revolts, and, increasingly the withering away of the workers
movement, of a self-conscious class movement, in the imperialist countries.

For many of us May 68 was the future. But as it turned out, the French May
was not a combination of the youth radicalization/student rebellion of the
60's and of the future revolt of the workers, but rather an atavistic
throwback, a combination of the 60's with the 30's and 40's. 

The history of the post-WWII period especially makes the thesis of the
centrality of class to which race/nationality and gender are *subordinated*
untenable in my view. The lived experience is that gender and
race/nationality trumps class at least in the United States, in ways that it
ought not to be able to do, not for generations, otherwise what good is our
theory, if our entire lived experience is an "exception" to the overall
tendency. At some point after a few decades you'vew got to be honest and
say, these aren't exceptional circumstances, these are the normal
circumstances, and this can't be just  "an exception to the rule" but rather
something that has got to be incorporated into the rule.

And its not just the United States. My impression of developments in other
imperialist countries is that they parallel those of the U.S. to a very
significant degree. And the lived experience is that class finds expression
in the third world in and through national movements, and it is only WITHIN
the framework of advanced conquests of the national movement that the class
movement itself can find fuller expression.

My belief is that gender and nation/race [colonialism/imperialism] are just
as fundamental bedrock pillars of this system as "class." That we face not
just exploiting CLASSES but exploiting NATIONS. That the system of relations
of nation-states are relations of exploitation, i.e., mechanisms for the
transfer of value. That women are not just oppressed but EXPLOITED and that
labor inside the family/household needs to be reintegrated into economic
theory as a source of value.

This CHANGES things. Workers of oppressor nations and oppressed
nationalities, even in a given geographic area or even workplace, do not
THINK and ACT as if they were part of a common class. The subjective "we"
essential to a class for itself movement is not there; if it ever was, it
has disappeared. But even when there is class consciousness, do the white or
other cominan nation male factory workers see themselves in the same
category as the poor housewife, the minority nationality street vendor or
market stall women? If class consciousness *ought to* and can (under certain
circumstances) cross nationality/race/ethnicity lines shouldn't "popular"
consciousness --consciousness that we're all part of the people in the Latin
American sense-- cross what are thought of as "class" lines between the
"proletariat" and the "petite bourgeoisie"? 

Irony of ironies. Just as I was writing this a cde. from Solidarity who is
part of the reform leadership of a large union local in the South called me
about some translations I'm doing for them (leaflets against an attempt to
decertify the union in a waste-haulers bargaining unit). So I ask the cde.
who is pushing the decertification,  and the cde. says, a group of white
workers, who oppose the union because it means being equal to everybody
else, to the Blacks and Latinos. These are the workers who before the
worklace was organized a couple of years back had received the best jobs and
the bigger raises. 

What I am raising is not just a slight deviation from traditional Marxism,
amending it here, adjusting it there, touching it up and fine tuning it. 

IT IS A DIRECT AND FRONTAL CHALLENGE to the central theoretical postulate of
Marxism, namely, that the history of all societies (past a certain stage of
development -- Engels's amendment) is the history of class struggles. I
don't know about ancient or medieval history, but I no longer believe that
is true of the last 500 years in terms of race/nationality, and I suspect it
was never true in relation to gender.

And of necessity, then it is a challenge also to the thesis of the working
class as a whole, as such, the "modern proletariat," is the central
protagonist in the liberation of humanity from class society. Perhaps in
some world historic sense over many decades or generations that's still a
meaningful statement, but I believe it is not useful for orienting
politically in a country like the U.S. today.

I don't claim to have all the answers, in fact, I'm not sure I have ANY
answers, but I think it is now desesperately important that we try to
collectively figure out AT LEAST what the questions are. 


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