[Marxism] The absence of real forces [was: The low point]

Joaquin Bustelo jbustelo at gmail.com
Fri Aug 3 12:30:18 MDT 2007


"My argument is that we need to take the antiwar  movement into the trade
union disputes and trade union disputes into the antiwar  movement - in
order to provide an analysis which identifies the common  denominator that
underpins both struggles, namely the prerogatives of the free  market.
"As Malcolm X once said: 'You can't understand what's going on in
Mississippi unless you understand what's going on in the Congo.' Conversely,
though, you can't understand what's going on in the Congo until you
understand  what's going on in Mississippi. 


OK on the t-u disputes, but you missed Malcolm X's point. Both the struggle
in Mississippi and in the Congo were struggles by oppressed nations or
nationalities of Black people against imperialism to free themselves. He was
talking to Black folks in the movement, and others who identified with their
struggle, about not lining up behind the imperialists as "Americans." 


"The fact that people do not perceive the link does not in any way diminish
the fact that the link does exist and that our task is to attempt to draw
that link and help them perceive it. Yes, here in the UK too, most working
class people lack consciousness. What of it? Twas ever thus.
"False divisions set up by the ruling class on the lines of race, ethnicity,
religion, gender, etc., are nothing new. But just because the task is
difficult doesn't mean we don't set out to achieve it. There is a subjective
factor in all this."


The fact that people don't perceive the links, though, makes it hard to use
the links as a lever for mobilization, which is what Jscotlive was
advocating in the previous email. And I was noting that experience has not
yet produced a successful model of this being done on a truly mass scale.

I'm not sure what he means by "false divisions" -- the division along
national (racial) and gender lines are a social reality. If the argument is
that we have to ignore those "divisions" and focus on what all sectors share
as part of the working people in order to overcome the divisions, I
disagree. This sort of class reductionism has been a plague on the left.


>From this it appears you're living in a parallel universe. Perhaps a
of the working class are doing okay, a result of the easy availability  of 
consumer credit, etc., but what about the millions of immigrants, documented

and undocumented, those who came out in such huge numbers in recent years
demonstrate? What about the poor blacks who continue to occupy the bottom
of the economic ladder? What about catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina,  
which demonstrated emphatically without need for Marxist tracts the social
economic injustice which underpins US society? What about the over  2
currently incarcerated in US prisons, a full quarter of the entire  world's 
prison population? What about the 30 million living in poverty in the  US?


This was in response to my (accurately) noting that percapita household
incomes in the United States have been gradually rising over past decades.
Jscotlive says we are living in parallel universes, and while I'm not sure
this is the most apt cliché, it is true that there is a radical disconnect
between the way he focuses on reality and the way I do.

I am searching for an explanation for WHY there is no working class movement
worthy of the name in the United States. Jscotlive comes up with all sorts
of reasons why there OUGHT TO BE such a movement, the basic message being
this makes my question moot -- how can I be searching for the reason it
doesn't exist when it is quite obvious to him that it SHOULD exist?

I'm saying "should" because I don't want to impute to Jscotlive the view
that such a class-political movement does in fact exist. 

(In reality, a lot of Marxists seem to operate without this concept of the
"class for itself" and so on, even though if you read the Manifesto, you'll
see the entire thing hinges around this: "The immediate aim of the
Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation
of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy,
conquest of political power by the proletariat." That "formation of the
proletariat into a class" is precisely what I observe with some alarm does
not happen and hasn't been happening in the U.S. at least for some six
decades. Instead we see something different.

Take his example of the immigrant rights movement. Anyone who participated
or observed this upsurge a little more than a year ago SHOULD know the
truth. This was NOT NOT NOT an upsurge of "immigrant workers" as such. It
was, instead, an upsurge of the Latino community organized and publicized by
institutional (bourgeois) expressions of this community, and especially the
Spanish-language media, around the issue of the rights of immigrant workers.

For example, a survey done by Latino College students at the Chicago May
Day, 2006, demonstration  indicates 70% of those present were CITIZENS,
i.e., juridically at least, not in the category of immigrants at all, and
most of those were born in the United States. It was a Latino community
mobilization in defense of the most downtrodden sector of the community.

Similar things could be said about Katrina and the response to it, and about
the American gulag -- whose direct victims in reality includes not just the
2 million plus in prison or jail on any given night, but millions more
caught in the snares of the criminal justice system. The majority of its
victims are Black and resentment against it and resistance to it are
centered in the Black communities.

All the things Jscotlive points to in his response are true, I mentioned
some additional ones in what I wrote. That only makes the question more
urgent: why, given all this, do the workers not cohere as workers in THEIR
OWN class political movement? Why is it that at least a significant advanced
layer of workers do not seem to have the same sense of identification and
belonging as workers, compared to, say Blacks as members of the Black
community, or Latinos in relation to their community. 

Why was it, for example, that in the big demonstrations a year ago, Latino
workers from a factory were much more likely to be marching alongside
petty-bourgeois and even small capitalists from the Latino community, rather
than their own class and even union brothers and sisters who happen to be
Anglo or Black and work in the very same factory, plant, hospital,
restaurant or whatever that the Latino workers come from? 

Why is it that the bonds of national (racial/ethnic) solidarity are so
strong, and capable of producing such massively powerful mobilizations, and
even in the midst of such an upsurge, the bonds of CLASS and even organized
UNION solidarity prove to be so weak that, from the very same workplaces and
union, the non-Latino workers did not join the protests?


"The organised working class cannot be our only focus. Millions, tens  of 
millions, of workers remain unorganised."


If you want to stick with a strictly orthodox Marxist class analysis, then I
think what you are obliged to say is not this, that tens of millions of
workers have yet to be brought into the organized workers movement, but
rather something quite different, that life has shown that the workers
movement is not the only expression of the class struggle, nor the only way
proletarian interests are projected/defended in the political arena.

What Jscotlive expresses with this formulation is not even orthodox
revolutionary Marxist politics, but the narrow economism and workerism of
syndicalists, an approach to politics which I'm not entirely unfamiliar
with, given my recent five-year sojourn through Solidarity (USA).

My tendency is to think that even the orthodox Marxist way of posing the
question is not right for today's world, that after six decades in which the
most prominent and advanced manifestations of a world revolutionary struggle
against capitalism have been the struggles of oppressed nations and peoples
against imperialism, that national/imperialist subjugation needs to be
recognized as a fundamental axis of oppression and exploitation of this


"Completely wrong. Voluntarism, no, an attempt to deepen consciousness, yes.

If I was interested in voluntarism I wouldn't be interested in reaching 
anybody, would I?"

This is in response to my saying that Jscotlive's position seems to me to be
an expression of the voluntarism that is very widespread in the socialist

It's very clear to me from Jscotlive's response that I must self-critically
recognize that I did not AT ALL succeed in communicating to him (and quite
likely many other comrades) what I was trying to say.

So let me try again. 

By "voluntarism" I mean a position that says that through sheer force of
will, or correct political tactics, or the right program, or the right
organization, or some combination thereof, a small essentially
propagandistic Marxist nucleus can make a significant difference in

This is true only in exceptional moments, and the precondition for it being
true is that the intervention of the revolutionary Marxist cadre take as its
starting point adhering to the actual movement, the actual manifestations at
a given place and a given point in time of the tendency of the proletarian
movement to go from isolated individual, then local or sectoral economic
struggles to become an open political class struggle, even if in its initial
manifestations this class struggle has a veiled character, i.e., what is in
reality the workers party in embryo appears in the fray not explicitly as
such, but as the extreme democratic or anti-imperialist party. And I use
"party" here in the looser/broader sense that Marx and Engels use, not
necessarily a formally organized self- and other-identified "party"
political organization, but a trend, current or side in a struggle. 

The cases in which it is true that even an extremely reduced Marxist cadre
can make a significant difference are those in which, for example, an
embryonic workers party (="side")  is in the process of emerging and
beginning to cohere. These are moments of political crisis and rapid
development and maturation of contending class forces.

The rest of the time it is mostly a question of propaganda and cadre
development, trying to transmit to a small layer of activists the tools of
Marxist analysis so they can play a major role when the political expression
of the contradictions of the capitalist system ripen.

Not understanding this was the CONSTANT criticism of Marx and especially
Engels, who outlived Marx, in relation to their followers and especially in
the United States. They said their followers viewed Marxism as a doctrine
that they then dogmatically COUNTERPOSED to the actual development of the
movement, denouncing real social developments for deviating from the master
plan, rather than viewing Marxism as a way of analyzing things that would
allow them to participate in such a way as to influence the most advanced
elements of the actual movement and push them further.

*  *  *

A lot of the questions I have been raising in the past few years, and
especially sharply in the last year, revolve around this: what does it mean
to say what I have just said under conditions where the class-political
movement of the working class has fallen apart, where workers do not even
cohere as workers at the level of the collective economic struggle, the
trade union struggle, but instead tend to be running the clock backwards
even at that most primitive stage of the modern workers movement?

Jscotlive addresses this in his response to me:


"Also, and I say this again, everything we do anywhere must be tailored to  
what is in the interests of the international working class, not just a
or section of the class."


This is, I believe, revolutionary Marxism of the purest water -- insofar as
it goes. The problem is deciding what is in the interests of the
international working class, "and not just a segment or section of that

I believe what is in the STRATEGIC, LONG-TERM, HISTORICAL interest of the
working class and working people is to side with the grass-roots, from below
movement of the most oppressed and exploited against their oppressors, the
imperialists, and in reality the imperialist system. 

But I increasingly suspect that this orientation clashes with the immediate,
narrow, "economic" interests of the relatively more privileged sectors of
the class, and that this "labor aristocracy" --when viewed on an
INTERNATIONAL scale-- encompasses much or most of the working people,
especially in the United States, but also in the other major imperialist

The issue is not that, as workers, relatively privileged sections of the
class in the United States exploit, say, workers in Chile or Colombia, but
that the United States as a nation does economically exploit Chile, Colombia
and so on as nations. 

And for that reason there is a tremendous difference between being a worker
suffering class exploitation in Chile and being a worker suffering class
exploitation in the United States.

The Communist Manifesto says "The various interests and conditions of life
within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalised, in
proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly
everywhere reduces wages to the same low level." Does it take extraordinary
insight to realize that this DID NOT IN FACT happen?

And that this might have something to do with our predicament? 


"But what of your alternative. It seems you advocate passivity in the face
difficulties in making headway. Theory without practice is like a car
an engine. Our theory is and must be informed by practice."


Jscotlive is right, in that I don't have "an alternative." I don't have all
the answers. I don't even believe I have all the questions, just some, and
not necessarily even the most important or immediately relevant questions.

Worse, I don't even have answers to all the questions I do have. 

And even the answers I do have to some of the questions, I'm not necessarily
satisfied with them.

So sorry.

But what I ALSO have is the experience of having been involved in radical
politics, to a greater or lesser degree, for more than four decades. 

And on that basis I will say that the radical or revolutionary or Marxist
movement that we have in the U.S., and the social/protest movements that we
have, fall short, and in the case of the revolutionary or radical or Marxist
movement fall short by orders of magnitude, of even the most
sober/pessimistic expectations I would have had five, ten, twenty five or
forty years ago, for TODAY if I could have known fairly accurately at those
times the major political events and indicators of the last couple of years.

What would I have said if you had told me in the fall or 2002, that about to
enter the fall of 2007, there would be massive, continuing resistance by
thousands or tens of thousand of Iraqi fighters against a U.S. invasion,
that the WMD/Al Qaeda pretexts for invading Iraq had been demonstrated to be
complete fabrications, that most people in the U.S. would view the invasion
of Iraq as a mistake, the course being followed by Bush as wrong, and be in
favor of withdrawal at a time when the credibility/approval or the Bush
administration had fallen to levels only comparable to Nixon during the
depths of the Watergate political crisis? 

And, oh yeah, a little more than a year ago there had been a series of mass
mobilizations for immigrant rights involving millions of Latinos from one
end of the country to the other, the most massive, sustained series of
protests the country had ever seen, including demos of nearly 100,000 in
Atlanta, a million or more in LA and Chicago, half a million in Dallas,
Latino high school blowouts from East LA to the Washington, D.C. suburbs,

I would have said that given this scenario, there would be multiplying
protests against the war and all sorts of other manifestations of rising
mass self-organization on an independent political basis, and probably a
surge in recruitment by socialist groups. 

What I am trying to say is that the evidence shows that politics does not
really work the way we imagine it does.

Now the response of many comrades, I daresay the overwhelming majority of
comrades, like Jscotlive, is to analyze how the dominant opportunist
(reformist) currents have managed to sidetrack the movement and frustrate
the emergence of a growing mass movement in the streets. 

>From the sorts of views he espouses, I'm probably going to disagree with
some of the criticisms of the reformists that Jscotlive would present, and
he with some of mine, but probably we'd have large areas of coincidence on
the central, core criticism, not just the two of us, but the overwhelming
majority of people on this list  -- electoralism and subordination to
bourgeois parties (including bourgeois "workers" parties, if there is anyone
so benighted as to still consider Britain's New Labour to be such).

But I am interested in a DIFFERENT question ALSO -- why did the opportunists
win -- I mean at a fundamental materialist analysis sort of level? Let me
put it this way --why don't working people understand that they would be
better of, that their standard of living would be higher, they would have
more "things," if the U.S. and Britain and their friends did not dominate
and exploit the entire world?

And the answer I keep coming back to, fundamentally, is that working people
don't realize they'd be materially better off were imperialist domination of
the Third World to disappear because it simply ain't so. Workers in
imperialist countries DO HAVE something more to lose than their chains --
they have the privileges that come from being part of an imperialist country
to loose. 

And this then gets to another whole level of discussions -- are you really
better off with more "things," stability/security versus the chance to have
more things, having hundreds more channels on TV and hundreds more lines of
resolution per channel versus having something worth watching for reasons
other than its technical wizardry, aren't we meant for something more and
better than a bulimic consumerism that is destroying the planet.

How do we build a movement around the promise of giving working people not
freedom from want, but freedom from *wanting*? Because I am convinced that
the per capita amount of material resources society is throwing at the
average or median person in the advanced imperialist countries long ago
passed the level of resources necessary for a richly fulfilling and
comfortable life. 

The tendency of most of the left is to IGNORE questions about WHY we aren't
successful when they go beyond the surface political manifestations of our
setbacks and defeats -- but the reality those sorts of questions seek to
understand does not ignore us!

Precisely because our theory must be informed by practice and our practice
illuminated by theory, we need to face up to the REALITY: Marxist socialism,
at least in the United States, but almost certainly throughout the
imperialist world, and quite likely on a world scale, is facing a crisis of
theory and practice because the theory, insofar as it has been codified and
generalized and popularized, is unable to explain the political reality we
face, and thus our practice is no longer illuminated by theory and our
theory no longer informed by that practice. 

Some are responding to the crisis by saying, at least we know we will need a
political instrument, however all these theoretical and praxis problems
shake out, so let us focus on that -- a discussion on the need to build a
revolutionary party. Of course, the hardest core sectarians don't even
discuss it -- they just build it, knowing for a fact that THE party (or
nucleus thereof) is the very political organization that just happens to
have the honor of having them among its several dozen or few hundred
members. And this, of course, has been the dominant answer -- the surefire
formula good for all places, moments and circumstance -- build the party!
Excuse me, I mean The Party.

Others in the U.S. say, let's focus on how to structure/create the
largest/most significant challenge to the 2-party system possible in 2008,
hoping that somehow/someway this will be a qualitative or at least
preparatory step in the direction of working people in the United States
constituting their own party. Still others say, let us promote the largest
and most significant possible mass mobilizations against the imperialist war
in Iraq, or the persecution of immigrants or whatever.

Soma variant or combination of this is what Jscotlive and most people on
this list are for. I'm not necessarily against all that, but if we are to
expect better results than the ones so far, shouldn't we ALSO try to figure
out why such things have not been working as we have expected them to?


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