[Marxism] Troubled times

Joaquin Bustelo jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Fri Nov 24 13:43:36 MST 2006

Nick Fredman writes:

"I think Joaquin, like many before, is asking important questions but
exaggerating the extent to which classical Marxism is inadequate in
addressing them, and also simplifying and confusing the question of
determination in Marxism...."

"In general Joaquin seems to be adopting the structuralist outlook of Louis
Althusser, in which the course of history is overdetermined, that is has
many separate determinations. This is outlined in his 1962 essay
'Contradiction and Overdetermination'..."

Nick gives me much more credit than I deserve.  He says I follow Althusser's
ideas. I wish! 

Never read him, nor Lukacs nor a whole bunch of other folks. 

I have read (or listened) to a lot of Fidel and Che and Malcolm X and Corky
Gonzalez and Ho and Hugo Chavez and others in this vein. I did read, and
still do, M&E and Lenin, but not so much Trotsky any more. But nowadays I'm
trying to focus on reading some feminist writers.

However, I think Nick misunderstands what I'm driving at. He says, "While it
may be neat and tidy to chop the world into separate class/race/gender axes,
and certainly necessary to take proper account of the to some extent
separate development of different structures, such an approach can be both
very reductionist and lacking in any sense of determination."

I don't know about the "determination" issue: I don't understand what that's

But my point has been that the way a traditional Marxist thinks of class as
THE fundamental category does precisely what Nick objects to, and I don't
think you CAN chop up the world into *separate* axis; I think these things
present TOGETHER. In the case of the U.S. working class, there is no class
for itself movement not because Anglo American male workers aren't really
workers, but because they really are white and male: that is the source of
their privileged position, which is not just a question of dollars and cents
(although it includes that certainly) but also a question of social

That layer, in their own mind, are not "just workers" like Blacks or
immigrants, and they don't WANT to be "just workers." They view themselves
as *better,* as *superior* and they are largely committed to keeping things
that way. And this also goes in terms of their attitude towards the rest of
the world. And they're not even conscious of it, this is, to them, just the
natural order of the world.

So this is precisely what I'm against: abstracting their "workerness," from
their "whiteness" and "maleness," and saying their "workerness" will somehow
in the last analysis and perhaps any day now overcome the reality that their
social and economic material conditions are a world away from an
indigenous-descended Mexican woman in a Tijuana maquiladora.

Louis is having a good time making fun of a phrase I used offhandedly that
"race and gender trumps class" or something like that. But I'm not trying to
come up with some great historical principle, some immutable law, just
trying to describe what the situation actually IS and HAS BEEN in the United

I can't imagine how it is possible to deny that there is not now nor has
there been for a very long time a working class movement worthy of the name
in the United States (a "class-for-itself" movement). Does anyone disagree?
Does someone want to correct me on the half-century long decline in union
membership, the decline in the number of strike-days, etc.? Does someone
want to let me know about the thousands of Anglo workers who organized their
workplaces to walk out last May Day in solidarity with Latino and immigrant

That white male workers would try to decert their union because they don't
want to be in the same collective as Blacks and Latinos, doesn't that tell
you something? That's going on right now, TODAY in my area. And things like
that have been going on day after day, week after week, month after month,
year after year, decade after decade for a VERY long time in the United
States. ("Things like that" = white Anglo male workers identifying their
interests with those of their nationality, gender and ruling class instead
of with their class. But this isn't an exclusively white, male thing. You
will find varying degrees and sorts of privilege --male privilege, "legal"
privilege, "citizen" privilege, age privilege-- among women, Blacks,
Latinos, and so on, where it also tends to have a corrupting influence but
that is a much more complicated discussion.)

This is not "a period of reaction," this isn't "the downturn after a
defeat," nor "a lull during a prolonged prosperity," nor anything else like

You cannot explain the state of the U.S. working class movement by pointing
to economic cycles or things like specific punctual or exceptional
circumstances, even ones lasting many years. It wasn't the post-WWII boom,
because that ended three and a half decades ago. It wasn't the cold war,
that's been dead and buried for a decade and a half. Try to think of the
reasons why this situation has come to be.

It seems blatant and obvious that there has to be a more deeply rooted
cause. That cause is what has come to be called imperialist privilege, white
privilege, male privilege.

There is nothing I'm saying here now that is any different from tons of
things I and lots of other folks have said over the years (including and
perhaps especially Louis, BTW). 

What IS different in what I am saying NOW is that this sort of analysis of
privilege and its impact can only be held for so long in the category of a
unique or exceptional circumstance. To continue like this over many decades
(and in reality well over a century if you take it back to Britain), and to
have this sort of effect, my gut tells me, it's got to be very deeply woven
into the very structure of the system as it actually functions.

And on the national question side of things, the revisionism doesn't come at
all from me, it comes from Lenin, and the only thing I am doing is pointing
out that it's been eight and a half decades since the second congress of the
Comintern and what Lenin said there about the division of the world between
a handful of imperialist states and a big majority of subjugated peoples and
the character of the national revolutionary movements has been confirmed,
despite the shift to neocolonialism (as opposed to direct colonialism)
following WWII, whereas expectations of revolution in the West proved to be
not well founded, at least thus far.

Lenin actually pointed to what we call privilege (in his 1916 article
"Imperialism and the split in socialism") but of course we now know much
more about its effects, especially over many decades.

Do we find an analysis of gendered and national/racial oppression as key
parts of the system in Marx and Engels? No, actually we find the opposite, a
description of a tendency that the entire working class will be increasingly
homogenized by capital, reducing the significance of those factors. That's
what the Communist Manifesto says, that is what its call for working-class
unity is predicated on, and that is PRECISELY what we DO NOT observe as
happening in the United States.

I was saying that this isn't really very different from what I and any
number of others and actually a fair number of groups have said, except that
up until now, we have been putting that "on top" as it were of the Marxist
orthodoxy, that class and class alone is the fundamental category, from
which other forms of oppression and mechanisms of exploitation arise, which
"divide the working class" and "hamper the development of class
consciousness" but which, in the last analysis, will be trumped by class.

I actually believe that about the last analysis BTW. But I also believe that
long before THAT last analysis I am very likely to be dead, and I would like
to do something useful and sensible while I am alive.

However, we should note that the idea that class is the fundamental category
is wrong historically. The gendered division of labor arose first, and when
it became hierarchical, it became the paradigm for all other hierarchical
arrangements throughout prehistory and history.

But there is also a broader methodological problem with it. Even granting
that, for example, racial/national oppression arises from class, that does
not of itself make class more fundamental in any meaningful political sense,
or at least not in the senses which have been ascribed to it, and from which
derive policies like "colonization" and "industrial concentration," "the
turn to industry" and so on. 

Every well-educated Marxist has known for more than a century that actually,
class arises from the gendered division of labor. But not that many Marxists
have argued that class is reducible to gender, or that gender and gender
alone is the fundamental category. But when it comes to class, the
methodology changes. Noting that race/nationality are social constructs
produced by capitalism, all of a sudden it's "Black and white, unite and

But you will say, "my group doesn't do that," we support affirmative action
and self determination and all the rest of it. But I would respond that to
the extent a group has a strategic orientation to "the working class" as
such, it does *precisely* that. 

*  *  *

Charles Brown made a comment that struck me as very insightful. He said that
by making their slogan "Workers of all countries, unite!" Marx and Engels
had "already placed the national question at the center of the
class question." 

I think it is true that they were very conscious of this difficulty with
their outlook.

But their analysis told him these other issues of nationality and gender
were becoming less important. That is right there in the Manifesto, you
don't need to go digging about in the Grundrisse or Marx's mathematical
writings to find it. First, on the family/household, which is at the center
of the oppression of women:

"On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On
capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family
exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its
complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians....

"The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed
co-relation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more,
by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians
are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of
commerce and instruments of labour."

And in nationality...

"National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more
vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of
commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and
in the conditions of life corresponding thereto."

The Marxist movement hasn't really been defending these positions for many
decades, because they fly in the face of reality. As I have pointed out in
various posts, Lenin's positions on the national and colonial question broke
decisively with this general outlook, which the Bolsheviks had held until
August 1914.

But there is a danger to letting your real analysis gets out of whack with
your overall theoretical outlook, because you wind up with an eclectic

And this brings me to the passage Nick quotes from the Grundrisse. Yes, Marx
admits the possibility of unequal exchange, even repeated unequal exchange.
But what we see here, in today's reality, I believe, is a world system
profoundly SHAPED by that unequal exchange. The whole system of
international economic and political relations is structured around it. It
permanently assigns a small group of nations to a privileged position and
the big majority to the doghouse. THIS system and the way it works is
DIFFERENT from the one that Marx anticipated where "national differences and
antagonisms ... are daily more and more vanishing" because capitalism
engenders "uniformity ... in the conditions of life" as it increasingly
penetrates one country after another.

A major feature missing from Marx is the description of a world political
and economic system that rests on the division of the world into a handful
of robber nations and a big majority of subjugated nations, where broad
layers of privileged workers of the imperialist countries have standards of
living that when quantified in terms of exchange value often are an order of
magnitude above those that prevail in the Third World. 

Imperialism is what we call this as a fully consolidated system, but did
this division of the world arise at the end of the 1800's? No it did not.
The looting of what we call today the third world or the global south arose
certainly no later than the 1500's as a major economic phenomenon. 

Marx and Engels were entirely and unambiguously clear about what they
expected the result of development to be: a REPLICATION of something akin to
the English/West European model THROUGHOUT the world. That is what underlies
the Manifesto's claim that "the workingmen have no country, we cannot take
from them what they have not got." 

And towards the end of his life, talking about the bourgeoisification of the
English working class, Engels talks about how this was understandable given
England's monopolization of the world market but that this was coming to an
end, and then things would go back to normal. But it did not happen the way
that Engels foresaw. Things never went back to normal in England and in the
post-WWII period we've seen a withering away of the class movement in the
U.S., and my impression is that the same process is at work in the other
imperialist countries.

*  *  *

Now there are two ways you could present a position generally along the
lines of the one I hold: one, as elaborations or refinements or extensions
or fine tunings of the theory, even partial amendments, but generally
coherent with Marx's theoretical outlook.

The other is in counterposition to Marx's outlook, at least starting at a
certain level. 

One reason I tend to favor the latter is that if we say, well this is just
an "exception" an "abnormality" in order to defend the integrity of the
original theory, what we have left then is a pretty useless theory, one that
applies everywhere save where we happen to be and at all times except our
own, and in reality we wind up with a Marxism that's pretty different from
Marx's Marxism but no real clarity about the incoherence, no real clarity on
what we accept and what we believe is outmoded or were limitations of Marx
and Engels themselves. 

But the real reason is that theory is a guide to action. If you say, adding
Lenin's and other insights on the national revolutionary movements and those
from the feminist movement, the theory holds, what flows from this
politically is that with, yes, fine tuning, corrections and so on, what the
Marxist movement has been doing politically makes sense.

But on the other hand, if you say, the starting point that capitalism rests
on the fundamental pillar of class exploitation is wrong; in reality it
rests on THREE inextricably intertwined structural supports of oppression
and exploitation: gender, race/nationality AND class, then the need for a
BREAK with our past praxis is self-evident. Yes, there will be much from the
past of value, but we would expect/anticipate revolutionary organization in
the future to conceive of itself and its tasks very differently from the

And actually, that's where this line of thinking comes from, in my
individual case and with the couple of other comrades I've been discussing
these issues with for several years and have come to similar conclusions. It
comes from the reality that the  organized Marxist socialist left in the
United States is at a dead end.

It was this judgment that led me to look at the broader theoretical
implications, not the other way around, 

There's been comments that what I'm talking about is related to a
generational transition and that's partly correct, but in a broader sense as
well as an individual sense.

Quite some time ago I came to a growing conviction that the organized left
in the United States was at a dead end. Long-time readers of this list will
remember from a few years back my impassioned polemics for revolutionary
socialist unity as the only possible road forward. And actually the comrades
from the Freedom Road Socialist Organization put that possibility to the
test, pushing strongly for what they called "left refoundation," which
involved a process of trying to draw together various groups into regular

That failed, and it failed for a pretty basic reason. None of the groups
actually WANT unity, at least not on a basis that would make it possible in
the here and now. (Every group, of course, is "for" unity on its own terms,
which is no more than the desire that all the other groups should vanish.)

That's why I say that this was a generational thing, but not just in terms
of individuals but also in terms of organizations. 

The failure of what we understood as "Leninism" and the growing
decomposition and then collapse of the regimes of "really existing"
(bureaucratic) socialism, led to various groups arising on the U.S. Left
that took a generally less sectarian or less orthodox stance than their
predecessors, the larger of them being Solidarity, from the Trotskyist
tradition; Freedom Road, from the New Communist Movement (socalled
"Maoists") and the Committees of Correspondence from the pro-Moscow CP

These organizations have failed in what I think was their historic role or
possibility of going beyond the old traditions, to serve as the core of some
sort of socialist alliance or even a new group that cut across the political
divisions inherited from the past. Those were, in the years heading into the
XXIst Century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the more prominent
promising developments on the U.S. left, but now six years into the new
Century, I think we need to say that, at least in this aspect, they blew it.
Well, either blew it or never had it in them to begin with.

What I am saying here will probably surprise some readers of this list in
Solidarity, the group I am in, but it should not. A year and a half ago,
seizing on the pretext of a discussion on our national Solidarity email list
about the New York branch suspending meetings for a while, I wrote a post
with the heading, "Ending Solidarity (and not just branch meetings)." (the
original thread had been "Ending Branch Meetings").

In it I said: 

I don't know the situation in New York enough to talk about what's led the
comrades to make the proposal to not hold traditional branch meetings. But I
think we should thank Fred for raising whether that doesn't really raise the
issue of the existence of Solidarity as such.

Because I believe one of the main things we should discuss leading up to our
next convention is whether Solidarity should exist, and if so, for what
purpose. If we cannot answer this question clearly and convincingly, then
we should admit it and dissolve.

There's no law that says there has to be a socialist group of this kind (or
the kinds we have in the United States). Marx and Engels functioned without
groups for most of their lives and in fact, when the two groups they did
join didn't have a clear purpose or didn't quite fit the tasks at hand, they
just dissolved them (the Communist League more than once). And they never
founded a group of their own....

Barbara Z. says that Solidarity's reason for being has to do with that "the
emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class
itself." Aye, and there's the rub. 

Those words were written as part of the founding of the International
Working Men's Association, which emerged as the organizational expression of
an actual movement. But an actual class movement in any direct, immediate
sense is what we haven't got, not in the political sphere, and not even in
the economic sphere. In terms of even the basic self-organization of working
people in unions, the clock is running backwards in the United States, and
arguably has been for a half century of more, i.e., the entire working
lifetime of everybody now in the labor force.

*  *  *

Thus far my May 17, 2005 post to the "Solid2" list. It is a long post so I
won't repost it all here. Soli members probably can still access it at this
&start=3299>, but that will not work if you weren't subbed to the list at
that time (we moved from Topica since then, but the old list still exists so
the archive would be preserved). 

I can send a copy of the post --whether Soli members or not-- to anyone who
is really interested.

The reaction in Soli wasn't all too different from what it's been here:
outrage from some, but mostly the whole thing going over people's heads,
especially as people dive into the trenches of orthodoxy to defend
themselves from whatever outrage it is that Joaquín is proposing.

I wrote my friend P. the other night, who is the one I have discussed all
these things the most with, my impression of the reaction to this and
similar posts:

*  *  *

I have the very clear impression people are *terrified* of this discussion.
It reminds me of WH Auden's poem about the beginning of WWII:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are, 
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

*  *  *

I think it is time we face reality squarely, and call things by their right
names. Even if it is true that "in the last analysis" or in the fullness of
time, there will be a revolutionary movement in the United States with class
at its cohering center, there is not TODAY, and as far as we can foresee
there will not be tomorrow, a social movement of the working class in this

Basing your activity on a non-existent movement is not possible. It does not
work, and it cannot possibly work. Evidence of this is the fragmentation and
multiplication of sects. Without the corrective of an actual class movement
to test different approaches in practice and impose its needs on those who
claim to represent this movement politically, all you can be is a sect

Is there a basis for revolutionary organization in the U.S. today? I believe
so, I guess mostly because I want it to be possible. But the basis for it
needs to be discovered. It cannot be the movement of the working class of
the U.S. as a whole, because that movement, much as we may wish it weren't
so, and hope that tomorrow it won't be so, does not exist. 


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