Lessons of Party and Class from the Russian Revolution

What are the fundamental lessons regarding the relationship between party and class to be learned from the Russian Revolution? Is “All Power to the Soviets” a real alternative to the rule of political parties? 

In one of their recent correspondences, the ICC asked me to explained what in my views were the fundamental lessons to be learned about the relationship between party and class from the October Revolution. This is an extremely complex topic of course, not one that can simply be answered without a total historical dissection of the revolution and its outcomes. One could accuse this of just another old debate about “old dead russian men” that is not relevant, but if you ask the average person on the street in the USA if they have questions about communism usually “old dead russian men” like Lenin and Stalin come up. The October revolution also is not ancient history; it was almost 100 years ago when the Red Guards seized the Winter Palace and the Revolutionary Military Committee announced the overthrow of Kerensky’s government, putting in motion a chain reaction of events that are essentially the reason “communism” is even a household name.

Of course, there are many lessons to learn from the successes and failures of the Russian Revolution, and one of course can’t explain the failure of the revolution to produce communism with a single simple reason. The questions of geo-politics, productive forces, the peasantry, gender, national oppression and alienation all have roles to play. Why the Bolshevik seizure of power led to Stalinism is a question that must be answered with a variety of factors in mind. So to say that the failure of the Russian Revolution in the long term was due to a mistaken conception of the party in relation to the class is historically lazy. The Bolshevik’s conception of the party was not the same as it was after “War Communism” as it was before. I would argue that essentially the Bolsheviks had a correct interpretation of the party (a mass party of the working class and its allies committed to revolution). However the experience of it becoming a party for mobilizing peasants in the Russian Civil War and losing urban working class support in the course of the war created the notion of a militarized “vanguard party” where the Comintern was the “general staff” of the world revolution. What is understood to be Bolshevik forms of organization are moreso Comintern forms of organizations.

So what exactly are the lessons to learn then? “Substitutionism”, where a minority party rules in the name of the working class, was not the ideology of the Bolsheviks who came to power through mass support, not a coup. They also came to power in a whole alliance of the revolutionary left, which included the Left wing of the Social-Revolutionsts and various anarchists and dissident Mensheviks. It was not the Bolsheviks who came into power in October but the Revolutionary Military Committee. The Bolshevik’s aim was for an alliance of socialist parties to rule cooperatively  through the system of soviets. However after the concessions of Brest-Litovsk, which some Bolsheviks themselves opposed, the Left Social-Revolutionaries  began a terrorism campaign against the Bolsheviks, leaving them the only party to rule in the Soviets. (See Alexander Rabinowtich’s Bolsheviks Come to Power and Bolsheviks In Power for a historically in-depth look at these events). Rather than the dangers of “subsitutionism” being the lessons of October, I would argue the following lessons make more sense:

1. The dictatorship of the proletariat essentially takes the form of the Communist Party(ies) ruling through a commune-state.

This is a tough pill to swallow for some, who would counterpose “all power to the soviets” to this vision. However, this is based on a misunderstanding of the soviets and the reason “all power to the soviets” was a Bolshevik slogan. The Soviets of 1917 were formed by right wing Mensheviks who supported the war. Before the Soviets could be revolutionary, revolutionary parties had to win them over. The Bolsheviks would never have argued “all power to the soviets” if the Soviets were dominated by right-wing parties; it was when the majority in the Soviets supported the overthrow of the Provisional Government that the Bolsheviks used this slogan. And correctly so. Soviet rule is still a form of party rule, just mediated through radical political democracy. Workers in the organs of the new workers state will belong to political parties and factions of them, and policy will come from these various parties. The only alternative would be to ban political parties altogether, which would just mean that people would be voting for personalities rather than programmes.

The idea of Soviets ruling with a small vanguard party merely “advising” the correct path is a way to let the right-wing labor bureaucracy, which is hegemonic, take power and then restore capitalism. “All Power to the Soviets” does not answer the question of power, because ultimately a political party with a programme and mass support is needed to keep revolutionary councils or communes from becoming tools of reactionaries and reformists. The aim of a party is not to act as the holy carriers of wisdom to guide the class, but to represent the class and politically train the class to run society.

By Commune-state, I mean simply a workers republic that has the basic radical democratic features of the Paris Commune: representation through directly elected delegation, short term limits, immediate recall of reps, merging of executive and legislative branches, and general free political association. The early Soviet Republic established in October aimed to carry on many of these political principles.

2. A party must have mass support from the politically active working class to take power; otherwise revolution is not possible.

This is related to the question of soviet rule as counter-posed to party rule mentioned above. Mass support and legitimacy do matter, and communist revolutionaries need to build up institutions with legitimacy as a real alternative for rule. This means that the party must rule with some form of democratic mandate, not as a coup imposed upon the people. The Bolsheviks were able to do this with their years of building support from workers in factories and other industries, as well as their role in fighting against the despotism of czarism. Therefore when crisis did create a power vacuum, they were able to win enough support from the working class to overthrow the provisional government and form a workers state. If the party regime doesn’t have enough mass support to legitimately rule it will have to make assaults on democracy to stay in power, as demonstrated by the Bolsheviks in their retreat from soviet democracy.

3. A political regime is only as democratic as the ruling party or parties.

The loss of democracy within the Bolshevik party, with the ban on factions, was ultimately the end of the Russian Revolution that sealed the rise of Stalinism. This means mass membership based political parties where there is open debate amongst the membership and decision-making distributed to the membership. This is a general rule for political regimes of all types, but since the working class needs democracy like oxygen it must control its own parties and keep them accountable to the class at large.

In the United States, full suffrage means little when one’s choices are limited to political parties that are just fundraising machines for different factions of capital to win campaigns to stay in power. Rather than ruling parties that operate like this, we need parties where the membership develops and hold representatives accountable to a real program.

This means free discussion and debate in the revolutionary press as well. The Bolshevik Party in its heroic period (before the Russian Civil War)  was as radically democratic as possible, especially considering the repressive conditions it worked under. To quote veteran Bolshevik Vladimir Nevsky, it was a party where “Free discussion, a lively exchange of opinions, consideration not only of local, but also of all-Russian issues, an unusually lively interest in current issues, an absolutely universal participation in discussing and deciding these issues, the absence of any bureaucratic attitude to getting things done – in a word, the active participation of emphatically all members in the affairs of the organisation – were the distinctive features of our cells and committees.” We need a party which embodies this same spirit of democracy, both outside and in power.

4. The party doesn’t die, it betrays

The Bolshevik party over the course of 10 years had become an oppressor of the working class rather their champions. By the 1940s none of the old Bolsheviks except Stalin and select few of his cronies remained. The SPD, which was also at one point a heroic revolutionary party, would transform into a party that sought to manage capitalism rather than overthrow it. The party and class are different from each other, and the class-party can become a “party of order” due to its own internal dynamics.

The problem is that mass political parties require bureaucracy, or paid officials with decision-making authority. Eventually the scale of organization and activity require bureaucrats, yet these bureaucrats are essentially petty-bourgeois because of their position of control over information and authority in the party. Therefore this petty-bourgeois bureaucratic strata must be kept under the democratic rule of the working class, as they will develop class interested opposed to the rest of party and lead toward a growing conservative and opportunism. This growing conservatism due to antagonistic class interests within organizations is the cause of “betrayal.” So therefore the proletariat must not only struggle against the bosses, but also the bureaucracy in their own organizations.

Communization: Poor and Blank

Communization theory has parallels with Maoism and therefore some of the same theoretical flaws, argues Anton Johannsen. 

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Riding the wave of revolutionary will.

 

Communization theory is caught in a kind of trap, unwittingly pitting the forces and relations of production against one another.  Endnotes argue that they ultimately emphasize the need to move immediately to communist relations of production as the condition for ensuring the revolution is not rolled back. One way they reject the role of the forces of production is by reducing its role to that of ‘proletarianization of humanity’ through economic development. This is a task they see as largely finished, at least in developed nations. This is an illusion which results from communizers’ emphasis on the immediate overthrow of the capitalist relations of production and the just-so narrative of the Second International being uniformly uncritical of the need for ‘universal proletarianization’. This undergirds their rejection of program politics and as such requires a retreat into spontaneity and a rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Endnotes present this opposition between form and content as councilist self-management as ‘form’ and the Italian left’s total rejection of capitalist society and formal indifference on the other.

There is an abstract proposition of a contradiction between the ‘liberation of work’ and its abolition. Certainly this is brought up by many ultraleftists and post-anarchists like Bob Black who ‘boldly’ reject work. But it’s unclear how this escapes – ever – the Bohemian heritage it “nervously looks back on”, from Surrealism, through the Beatniks (close to the IWW, one might add, through the vehicle of the Dill Pickle Club and The College of the Complexes, as well as other alt-art spaces in the 20s and after). It’s clearly not a program for revolution, though that’s another category dumped by the communisation milieu. Endnotes argues that the spontaneous rejection of work is a new trend in the workers movement. However, this is likely just a result of the *prior* weakening of the defensive organizations of the class – the unions and communist parties – and the economic outmaneuvering through international competition and capital flight. Indeed, the Beatnik movement exists as a result of the decades of organizing done by the IWW and other left parties. The College of the Complexes in Chicago was infrastructurally dependent on a handful of wobblies, not to mention the IWW being pioneers of the ‘abolition of work’ slogan. But why let economics and history interfere with ‘creating a situation’?

Perhaps most damningly, this distinction was never made by the socialists of the Russian Revolution or Second International. While Endnotes points out the problem of relegating the maximum program, i.e. communism, to the status of a Sunday sermon was a problem in the Second International, it was a problem of the right-wing. Lenin and Kautsky critiqued this argument, the latter up to around 1908/9. Further, it was understood in general that the abolition of work was contingent on a general development of the means and technique of production; that it wasn’t simply a matter of choice, but a matter of time, education, social reorganization and so on.

But as presented by Endnotes’ survey, the communizers reject the necessity of a transition period on the basis that it is a mirage which serves to ‘bring the working class to power’ which is itself another form of capitalism. The logic here is that people only become ‘workers’ under capitalist social relations, and even if they’re in power, they must still be in capitalist social relations to be ‘workers’. This, as with the above, is predicated on a grave misreading and oversimplification of the Russian Revolution, which sees it as one of the primary failures of the ‘old workers movement’ expressing the ‘liberation of work’ as opposed to its abolition.  

The subsequent historical confusion has been to counterpose the ‘true forms of the dictatorship’ (councils) to the emerging Bolshevik bureaucracy on the one hand (Dutch-German), or to hold up the ‘true content of communism’ to keep it from being tainted by the horrors of the USSR, on the other (Italian Left). But where did this bureaucracy and ‘degeneration’ of the Bolshevik party come from? The Endnotes line echoes the liberal bourgeois historian’s line through the 20th century; something in Lenin and the Bolsheviks ideology was errant. For liberals or some anarchists, the whole idea of ‘state led revolution’ is a mirage. For Endnotes, this line is implied in their rejection of ‘bringing the workers to power’ as another way to keep capitalism alive, since it’s only under capitalism that people become ‘workers’.

In reality, the Bolsheviks came to power in a country where most of the population were self-sufficient peasant producers. The Bolshevik party had almost no influence among the peasants in any positive fashion. They had very little means to regularly communicate their ideas with the peasantry, let alone a robust peasant membership which would propose and support effective bolshevik policy in the countryside.

The alternative was war communism. Peasants have a material interest in capitalism, or at least in the liberal concept of private property which allows for petty proprietorship. They want their own land as the only rational, down-to-earth basis for the exploitation and maintenence of their families and other communal institutions. It’s a straightforwardly material interest. Because they had access to land, and had long hated the Tsarist imposition of taxes and requisitions, any Bolshevik policy to tax the countryside and use grain exports to raise money for capital goods was resisted as it undercut the livelihood of the peasantry. This was a real bind. During the civil war the Bolsheviks resorted to requisitioning grain via a military apparatus, which transformed the nature of their party and rule.

The reason for my taking this explanatory detour is to show that the subordination of the lofty socialist aims of the Russian revolution to the more practical need of economic development was not simply ideological; it was material as well. Perhaps fundamentally material.

Was there a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in the Russian Revolution? It’s arguable. The proletariat rose up in historically groundbreaking ways and went extremely far in places toward establishing its dictatorship; but, as betrayed by Lenin’s formulation for the ‘people’s revolution’ it was at its best a ‘democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants’. The hope of successfully subduing the peasant aspect of this, or the working class leading the peasantry, was wholly based on being able to offer them a buy-in to socialism, something an isolated and impoverished Russia could never do.

In any case, communization looks at the calamity of the Russian Revolution, and subsequent struggles and reacts by rejecting the dictatorship of the proletariat and posing in it’s place:

a conception of revolution as the immediate destruction of capitalist relations of production, or “communisation”.

As we shall see, the understanding of communization differed between different groups, but it essentially meant the application of communist measures within the revolution — as the condition of its survival and its principal weapon against capital. Any “period of transition” was seen as inherently counter-revolutionary, not just in so far as it entailed an alternative power structure which would resist “withering away” (c.f. anarchist critiques of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”), nor simply because it always seemed to leave unchallenged fundamental aspects of the relations of production, but because the very basis of workers’ power on which such a transition was to be erected was now seen to be fundamentally alien to the struggles themselves.”


The key here is the concept of the ‘immediate destruction of capitalist relations of production’ as the alternative to the ‘alien’ nature of power in the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is rejected along with the ‘old workers movement’ as a ploy by confused, cynical, or unreconstructed left-nationalists, pursuing economic development. Enter Mao’s version of the theory of permanent revolution:

“In the Maoist view, the process of modern economic development begins with the seizure of state power, is followed by the transformation of social relationships and the latter in turn opens the way for the development of the productive forces.”

And:

“What is affirmed is that changes in the ‘superstructure’ – in social relationships, political forms, and ideological consciousness – must be accomplished as quickly as possible, ‘one after another,’ if the goals of the revolution are to be achieved.”

Sound familiar? Noteworthy here is that China was more backward than Russia. It was less developed and more dominated by the peasantry. Where in Russia, socialist aims were subordinated to the necessity of national economic development, in China economic development had been the call from day one. Wherein Russia the struggle was between competing ideas about developing the forces of production (with Stalin’s war on the peasantry winning out), in China the question, at least posed by Mao, was how to change social relations of production in order to continue and accelerate the development of the level of technology. What’s more, it was manifestly a compromise with capitalism, in spite of Mao’s pretensions to the contrary, best summarized in the theory of the Bloc of Four Classes.

The Great Leap forward sought to industrialize the country, in a bid to overtake Britain’s industrial capacity, relying primarily on the given level of technology and the revolutionary consciousness of the peasants, and their disastrous reorganization into ‘communes’:

“[The Great Leap] conveyed the expectation of a qualitative transformation of social relationships, as well as the expectation of a ‘leap’ in economic development. In the Maoist mentality, the pursuit of communist social and ideological goals was inextricably intertwined with the goal of rapidly developing the material forces of production – and the former was seen as the precondition for the proper development of the latter.”

But the immediate centralization of millions of peasants coupled with utopian leaps into cottage heavy and light industry, lead to severe complications and exacerbated famine conditions that came the following years.

This core component of classical Marxism, that capitalism is what develops the means of production as a precondition for socialism, is jettisoned here, and partly also by communization. The fundamental Marxian theory is that a given level of technological and social development corresponds with a particular mode of production. There is of course pliability between the forces and relations of production in a given epoch, and in any national context a close analysis of the level of technology and the nature of production and distribution would have to be made. But what’s important is a recognition that they condition and shape each other, and drastic measures in one field without action and awareness in the other guarantees disaster.

The irony here is that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the method by which humanity can overcome the conflict between relations and forces of production. It is this key which the communizers reject at their peril.

On it’s own goal with the issue, Endnotes’ write:

In publishing such “historical” texts we have no wish to encourage an interest in history per se, nor to revive an interest in the history of revolutions or of the workers’ movement. We hope that in considering the content of the struggles of the last century we will help to undermine the illusion that this is somehow “our” past, something to be protected or preserved. Marx’s dictum reminds us of the need to shed the dead weight of tradition. We would go so far as to say that with the exception of the recognition of the historical break that separates us from them, that we have nothing to learn from the failures of past revolutions — no need to replay them to discover their “errors” or distil their “truths” — for it would in any case be impossible to repeat them. In drawing the balance of this history, in taking it to be over, we are drawing a line that foregrounds the struggles of our own time.”

Endnotes points out communization’s ecstasy in line with this thinking, at the collapse of the ‘old workers’ movement’:

“Yet for many the crisis of the institutions of the workers’ movement in the 1970s showed that this purely capitalist function was itself coming into crisis, and workers would be able to shed the burden of this history. For Mouvement Communiste, Négation, Intervention Communiste, and others the breakdown of the old workers’ movement was something to be celebrated, not because the corrupt leadership of the workers’ organisations would no longer be able to restrain the autonomy of the masses, but because such a shift represented a transcendence of the historical function of the workers’ movement, a transcendence that would mark the reemergence of the communist movement, the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things”.”

This praise for the ‘spontaneous action’ of the working class free of ‘old workers’ movement ideology’ is actually close to Mao’s slogan ‘Poor and Blank’:

“Apart from their other characteristics, China’s 600 million people have two remarkable peculiarities; they are, first of all, poor, and secondly blank. That may seem like a bad thing, but it is really a good thing. Poor people want change, want to do things, want revolution. A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.”

This is crystallized in the ‘communism as the real movement’ sloganeering which inverts the purpose of the phrase in the original passage:

“Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism. Moreover, the mass of propertyless workers – the utterly precarious position of labour – power on a mass scale cut off from capital or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely temporarily deprived of work itself as a secure source of life – presupposes the world market through competition. The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a “world-historical” existence. World-historical existence of individuals means existence of individuals which is directly linked up with world history.
Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

This ‘real movement’ is only possible at a given level of development of the productive forces and world intercourse. It’s the real movement of the world-historical proletariat, conscious of it’s purpose and aims. And what form does this take? Marx was not too far off from discovery; in 1852 in a much cited letter to Joseph Weydemeyer:

“… And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic activity of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production (historische Entwicklungsphasen der Production), (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat,[1] (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

But if we’re not to simply bow to Marx’s authority, we can quickly run through the logic.
First, classes are bound up with the level of production. The technical means of organization by which humanity reproduces itself physically, correspond with social forms of organization – the antique, feudal/absolutist, and bourgeois states correspond with the slave, feudal, and capitalist modes of production. This is typically uncontroversial, so I’ll not go into the argument.

Second, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Here is murky territory. Just what is this dictatorship? For Marx and Engels it was inseparable from an extreme form of democracy for the working classes, that simultaneously excluded the bourgeoisie from power. Reflecting on the 1848 revolutions, and the older bourgeois revolutions, it’s clear that each mode of production, and especially each revolution, is characterized by a ‘party-state’ form of rule – where a class dominates the state power and excludes competing classes from power. The French revolution’s systematic reign of terror against the nobility on behalf of the bourgeoisie (and partly the artisanal proletariat) and perhaps the semi-dictatorship of the (bourgeois) Republicans in a civil war against the remaining slave-aristocracy in the U.S. south provide classic examples.

The communizers see in the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ the literal dictatorship of workers as workers, and then extend this to the continued existence of capitalism:

“Workers’ power was just the other side of the power of capital, the power of reproducing workers as workers; henceforth the only available revolutionary perspective would be the abolition of this reciprocal relation.”

To this we have an answer in the Paris Commune and I quote at length:

“The direct antithesis to the empire was the Commune. The cry of “social republic,” with which the February Revolution was ushered in by the Paris proletariat, did but express a vague aspiration after a republic that was not only to supercede the monarchical form of class rule, but class rule itself. The Commune was the positive form of that republic.

….
The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.

Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.”

The state power, that is the governing initiative of society, was placed in the hands of the working class via extreme republican democracy. And it is this general organization of the proletariat which is capable of taking hold of the means of production, when acting globally, in order to begin the historical era of human self-governance through the working out of the reorganization of the production process on that scale.

Certainly some of the relations of production will be transformed as a condition for the dictatorship of the proletariat. In bringing itself to power, the proletariat abolishes some of the conditions of its proletarian status. But it cannot abolish capitalism in one stroke. Universal housing, food, and healthcare, and a reduction of the working week seem like fundamental changes which will allow the working class to increase its participation in politics and engagement in solving the problems of continuous socialist reorganization and development of the means of production and a global standardization of living conditions.

Instead, communization proposes that we dutifully scribble down the spontaneous rebellions of the ‘poor and blank’ as they riot and refuse their way out of the conundrums posed by an increasingly complex and interdependent system of production, charting the auguries of the fateful day when communization becomes immanent, without organization, without transition, without power. And do what? Entreat the masses to commit suicide by voluntarily retreating to the countryside in a rejection of the logistics and transportation infrastructure we have established? This varies from Mao or Pol Pot in policy in a typically anarchist way; our retreat will be voluntary, not the at-gun-point, party driven, authoritarian ploy of Pol Pot! Communization has no answer aside from this illusory ‘move to communist relations immediately’ echoing Mao’s Great Leap Forward disaster. It’s worse, because where Mao had the benefit of bureaucrats and a measure of respect for productive forces to hem in against his illusions, the communizers have nothing but a Jim Jones fantasy of spontaneous mass ‘rejection’ of capitalism. What happens when we block the supply chains? In a week or two, the hospitals shut down, the sick die, the water becomes undrinkable.

Surely, this is hyperbole you say. Is it? What is the unplanned, unprogrammatic rejection of bourgeois life for the elderly? What is it for the disabled? Or even the mass of employed working class? Chaos, anarchy, etc. The simple rejection of capitalist society is not enough. Poor and blank indeed.  


Works Cited: Endnotes “Bring Out Your Dead”
Maurice Meisner’s “Mao’s China and After”
Marx “The Civil War in France”
Marx’s Letter to Weydemeyer, 1852
Marx and Engels “The German Ideology”  

Armed self-defense: the socialist way of fighting the far-right

In a period where nationalism and racism are intensifying, workers and the oppressed can learn from the tactics of Civil Rights hero Robert F. Williams.

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The current era seems to be one where an impending pogrom is waiting to explode in a rise of racial violence in the name of defending a white supremacist order. Clickbait site Cracked recently put out an article arguing that a literal civil war is impending.Trump and his mass rallies implicitly pander to white identitarianism, while the “alt-right” subculture grows in the media spotlight despite how little on the ground impact it has. And of course there are right-wing militias, which are nothing new but have been on the rise over the years. The paranoid side of me does want to agree that we’re heading straight to civil war and are doomed for good. Yet one must keep to a sober analysis no matter how intense a topic may be.

Rather than a Second American Civil War, as the far-right Florida lawyer and failed libertarian senate candidate Augustus Sol Invictus calls for, we are far more likely to see a form of “Jim Crow 2.0,” a regression in a sense to pre-civil right movement racial attitudes and a generalized atmosphere of anti-black violence. While directly racist laws may not be taken up, law enforcement in general and court systems could become even more corrupt than they already are and essentially turn a blind eye to or even endorse lynchings and rapes of black Americans. Jim Crow, while based in legal inequalities, was also upheld by a whole culture of violence that went unchecked by bourgeois legal institutions. Paramilitary groups like the KKK enforced their “invisible empire” of racial subjugation while local politicians proudly celebrated the racist legacy of the Confederacy.

Systematic violence through the rape and murder of countless ordinary blacks was the order of the day in Jim Crow times, and even legal landmarks like Brown vs. Board of Education didn’t abolish this culture of regularized violence. To truly end Jim Crow, a Civil Rights movement that mobilized millions of blacks was necessary. Black resistance to Jim Crow began the day Jim Crow instated, but the ability to resist was greatly limited by the severity of repression from white reactionaries. These reactionaries were embedded in the local and state governments in the South. Local governments with reactionary local politicians promoted an ideology of decentralization to fortify their power in communities against progresses made in federal government, selling a whole mythos of the Confederacy as fighting in the name of self-determination and freedom rather than slavery. And to further reinforce the Jim Crow regime, a culture of patriarchal dominance expressed in fears of race mixing became the norm of the day.

Liberals, holding to a belief that American democracy is a story of moving towards perfection through trial and error, would never imagine that racism in the US could regress to Jim Crow levels. They assume that our democratic system has evolved enough to prevent this from happening. Sure, some liberals think Trump is throwing the USA into full fascism, but the general liberal narrative of history is one of linear progress. The claims that Trump is a full fledged brownshirt are not without motivation towards fear-mongering. Yet a more dynamic understanding of history admits the regressions are possible and that there is no natural tendency for society to evolve towards universal ideals. Rather, liberal capitalism produces its own underbelly of reaction, and a return to the day where racial pogroms like the Red Summer of 1919 can occur isn’t out of the question. This is not to be alarmist, but to accept the possibility and reject liberal narratives that “society has evolved past that”.

If US society does move into a state of generalized racial violence and pogroms, this “Jim Crow 2.0” will differ in key ways. One, it would no longer be a geographic phenomenon confined the south; the entire country of the USA would be a battleground that white identitarians would contest for. The Confederate flag is flown in the North, not just the South, and many white supremacists look to the Northwest US as the location of their future ethno-state (see Northwest Imperative). It would also be a racial order that dehumanizes blacks, latinos, and Muslims as outsiders to the “white race”.

The election of Trump is not a cause but merely a symptom of the general trend towards nationalism and therefore racism in the USA (and beyond). But the rise of Trump has created a sense of panic in the left, with voluntaristic calls for direct action with no organizational basis being made so that “Trump is stopped before he’s inaugurated”. One may then say we are being glib about the problems being posed to non-whites, when rather our position on how to fight racist violence is merely the same as it was before: armed self-defense. If people really want to fight against the racial violence of modern capitalism, getting a gun and being trained is a good first step. Communist Gun Clubs, where we could learn basic skills of using weapons and armed self-defense, could become a basis for future workers militias that will fight all forms of reactionaries, whether scabs, cops, religious fundamentalists or blackshirts. But beyond this we recognize the need for racially oppressed groups to form self-defense organizations to defend their lives and democratic rights. The historical figure of Robert F. Williams was a classic example of this tactic being put into action.

Robert F. Williams would become the leader of the Mabel, NC chapter of the NAACP and organized a black militia to fight against the Klan, much to the dislike of moderates in the Civil Rights movement. Williams was a WWII veteran and shared the skills he accumulated with his fellows to fight back against the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils. This was shown to have quite a high level of efficacy; by simply being armed black militias were able to scare Klansmen out of action. More working class in composition than other NAACP chapters, Williams’ chapter became controversial within the Civil Rights Movement. He butted heads with MLK himself, with Williams accusing Martin Luther King’s’ strategy of Civil Disobedience to be simply leading to the deaths of fighters for black rights.

Williams would get international attention through his involvement in the 1958 Kissing Case, where two black children below the age of ten were sentenced for sexual molestation because a white girl kissed them. The Monroe NAACP would take on this case in the courts and in the streets, organizing protests and even getting the international press involved. While the supposed criminals were pardoned because of popular pressure, Klan members sought to take the law into their own hands, burning crosses in front of their houses. Williams was able to organize self-defense militias to prevent violent reprisal, something the state could not be counted on doing.

Not easily pegged down as a political thinker by labels, Williams would form his own ideology from elements of black nationalism, marxism, and radical republicanism. He thought the idea of a separate black nation-state was a fool’s errand but also thought marxism made the mistake of putting class before race. Unimpressed with the rigid Marxism of the CPUSA, Williams did make a lasting friendship with the Trotskyist SWP who covered his activities in detail in their newspaper, The Militant.

Williams would eventually flee the USA, a “refugee of racial tyranny” in his own words (the entire story is well articulated by Williams in this interview). Falsely accused of kidnapping for attempting to protect a white couple from an angry mob, he went to Cuba who accepted him for political asylum. From Cuba he would broadcast a radio show for blacks in the south and publish a paper The Crusader but found that the Cuban government was limiting his work and was not as committed to anti-racism in deed as they were in word. He came to similar conclusions about Maoist China, where he also stayed in his years of political asylum. By 1975 Williams had returned to America to reunite with his wife who had returned in 1969, and was pardoned of his crimes in court. He spent the rest of his life mostly writing an unpublished autobiography.

Williams represented the tactical power of armed self-defense as a tool against reactionaries of all stripes. He was not the inventor of this tactic, which was rooted in traditions from the very beginning of the black freedom movement that sprung out of emancipation. Black militias were formed to fight against white reaction from the very beginning of Reconstruction, and in some cases unity with poor whites was achieved. As nationalism becomes more and more of a force in politics such militias may become necessary. As believers in the disbandment of the police and the military, we should support any such efforts that bring us closer to the formation of the people’s militia that will replace them.

This strategy, of forming defense militias and temporarily uniting with other working class forces for temporary battles is an application of the tactic of the united front from below. This is to be counterposed to the policy of bourgeois anti-fascism, the “people’s front”, where a coalition of liberals, leftists, and everyone else dedicated to constitutionalism form an alternative government to the rightists. Today’s equivalent to the advocates of the people’s front are leftists who believe we must unite with the democratic party to defeat Trump. Others believe in spontaneous revolt now, making empty calls for general strikes or insurrection. In contradiction to both approaches the question of “how to fight reaction” must be understood through the greater task of building working class political institutions with lasting power in the long term. The people’s front may have defeated fascism with the help of the Allies in WWII, but by then fascist regimes had extinguished the strong workers movements where they took power. We cannot let ourselves have faith in either liberal saviors or spontaneous revolt.

Building a movement purely on the basis of anti-fascism or opposition to the far-right or X elected demagogue is a strategic dead end. Rather we need to build a powerful class movement that will be forthright in defending itself and others from the far-right. The need for minorities to defend themselves has increased, and we point to the example of Robert F. Williams as an example of this in action. By becoming a threat to the capitalist order and defending the gains of the workers movement and democratic rights through force if necessary, we fight the far-right in a way that doesn’t assert loyalty to the liberal order.

 

For further reading on Williams, check out his own book Negros With Guns and Timothy Tyson’s biography Radio Free Dixie.

Indigenous Resistance Deserves Workers’ Solidarity

I originally wrote this piece for publication in the next issue of the Industrial Worker, the official magazine of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, an international labor union with a storied history in the North American workers’ movements), and I’m very grateful to hear that it’s been accepted. I’m very grateful to the friends, comrades, and colleagues that gave me feedback on this, as it was written in a huff after the AFL-CIO announced their support of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Given how intensely #NoDAPL is escalating, I felt it worth publishing now, with slight edits.
 
September 15th’s announcement that the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) supports the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) hardly came as a surprise to me, but it definitely didn’t lift my spirits about the present state of organized labor in the US. At a time when solidarity and support is needed for one of the most vibrant and powerful indigenous liberation movements of the decade, the federation asked itself “Which side are you on?”, and spoke its answer plainly: with business and its owners.
 
Any organization committed to an egalitarian society (or the general survival of the human species, for that matter) would condemn the pipeline company’s attacks on the water protectors. Any genuine and strong workers’ organization should call on the construction workers to withhold their labor, offer legal support to those that do, and provide what resources it could offer to supporting resistance to scabs and jail support for the water protectors.
 
But the AFL-CIO is not a genuine workers’ organization, nor has it ever committed itself to egalitarianism. It has a long history of excluding workers from its unions (people of color, women, communists, unskilled laborers, and immigrants), only removing these barriers when the culture surrounding and internal to it faced sufficient challenge from workers and the courts. In recent times the federation supported construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, another environmental catastrophe that would cut through not only swathes of indigenous land, but provide very few long-term jobs for construction workers.
 
The organization’s behavior seems to be driven by a political orientation to securing better day to day working conditions for its already existing union members, without regard for a broader, long-term, and liberatory social vision. “Social blindness” (IWW member Helen Keller’s phrase) to the devastation of both environment and persons is the only way AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka can conceivably justify backing the construction of a pipeline. Opposition to the construction of a climate bomb being built over the graves of the indigenous water protectors’ ancestors is characterized as “hold[ing] union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay”.
 
When the federation does release documents detailing a strategy or a vision, they read like Democratic Party talking points. The AFL-CIO has attached itself to and merged with the center of the Democratic Party, becoming an appendage of an ever rightward-shifting parliamentary politics, hoping that electoral action in the form of legislation (eliminating Taft-Hartley, securing anti-discrimination protections for joining a union) will somehow stop or alleviate unions’ declining membership and create a labor rebirth. Or they believe that politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will fight neoliberal cuts to public services and attacks on union rights, when their “opposition” mainly consists of an alternative public relations strategy for pursuing the policies that best serve business owners. This is more than a failed strategy for workers: it’s a reactionary one that abandons the workplace as a site of struggle and appeals to a more benevolent-sounding wing of the capitalist state.
 
In fact, the AFL-CIO is acting on the right wing of Obama: thanks to the pressure placed on the federal government to react to the indigenous coalition’s direct actions, the Obama administration has halted all construction on federal land (pending a review of environmental impacts), invited native leaders to formal talks to have a voice in modifying existing laws, and called on the pipeline company to pause construction. Federation President Richard Trumka is calling on the federal government to reverse that decision, and “allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”
 
In other words, the labor establishment wants to reject the state’s management strategy for public dissent, and instead opt for a more naked form of exploitation of dispossessed people and their environment. This is not “pushing politicians” to adopt policies more beneficial to workers – it’s abandoning any meaningful commitment to the idea that “an injury to one is an injury to all”, and doing the work of business owners for them. As my friend Nick Walter helpfully commented, “This is because at the end of the day the mainstream unions really do believe that the source of wealth is business and commerce rather than the labour of working people.”
 
The North American working class, particularly the embattled indigenous resistance in North Dakota, deserves better than the bureaucratic and conservative AFL-CIO. It deserves a labor movement inclusive of all workers and exclusive of capitalists and their state’s security forces, one led by the workers themselves and willing to fight for day-to-day changes on the job and to build long-term revolutionary changes in society at large. It deserves a class unionism across all ethnic, racial, gendered, and national lines, ultimately seeking to abolish class society itself.
 
The IWW joins with prominent labor organizations (National Nurses United, New York State Nurses Association, Communication Workers of America, Amalgamated Transit Union, United Electrical Workers, ILWU Local 19, Oregon Public Employees Union/SEIU Local 503, California Faculty Association, Labor Coalition for Community Action, and National Writers Association/UAW Local 1891) in supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s efforts to oppose the pipeline. As rank and file workers, we must reject any business, government, union, or labor federation that calls for collusion with the interests of business and action against dispossessed indigenous people.

The ICC Ideology

The politics of the ICC are a dead end for todays Communists, writes Donald Parkinson in response to their recent critiques.  For the most recent articles the ICC wrote on CLT, go here and here. For an idea of the ICC’s basic program look heredecadence_bechman_the_night

In their exchanges with my writings for the Communist League of Tampa (CLT), the International Communist Current (ICC) have of course summoned the classical historical argument that sits as the spinal cord of the ICC’s entire political outlook. In our exchanges over the necessity of building a mass political party and the question of elections the ICC has made it clear we don’t see eye to eye on these issues. The ICC argues that only small minority organizations of revolutionaries that keep the genealogy of revolutionary tradition alive are possible, and that any organization of the working class will inevitably become integrated into capitalism if it achieves any mass support and is able to win reforms for workers during an extended period of social peace. They also argue that any participation in elections is strictly off limits, as well as holding a strident anti-union line. All of these positions of course are contrary to Marx if one has any familiarity with his political writings. Yet the ICC claim him as their lineage, so what gives? Why hold positions so divergent from Marx while claiming to be part of the red thread that guides back to him? The argument is that Marx was writing in ascendant capitalism, where capitalism is still progressive and plays a positive role in developing the forces of production. Since the outbreak of WWI in 1914 and the betrayal of Social-Democracy, we have entered decadent capitalism where now the rules of the game have completely changed. Capitalism no longer plays a progressive role so it therefore must be overthrown, hence revolutionaries must no longer participate in elections or unions or attempt to form mass organizations. The small dedicated revolutionary minority must wait for the class to rise up in mass strikes that lead to strike committees that then become councils, where the minority can guide the class to communism with all power ultimately being within the councils. What I would like to do here is break apart some of the assumptions and see if they hold up under scrutiny.

If any of this is an inaccurate depiction of ICC’s politics then I apologize, and of course even if my description is accurate they would argue for more nuance. However it seems clear to me that the ICC strongly holds onto decadence theory, and the notion that the current periodization of capitalism is what makes their positions correct (and therefore backed by the science of historical materialism). Yet decadence theory is never really outlined by Marx, beyond saying that at some point productive forces will make the current relations of production outmoded. The comment by Marx that apparently proves the centrality of decadence is the following:

 

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.


This comment from Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is used by the ICC to justify a theoretical vision of history, where modes of production can be neatly divided into progressive ascendent phases and decadent phases of social decay. I am not sure where this is argued by Marx or Engels explicitly. Marx and Engels do not claim they are discussing the periodization of capitalism or a general tendency of capitalism itself, or the ultimate cause of proletarian revolution itself. Rather than simply looking at quotes from Marx, we need to look at his theory and practice as existing in a unity that inspired others who developed the theory and politics of Marxism.

It is more reminiscent of theories from Oswald Spengler that civilizations are organic entities with lifecycles of ascendence and decay. Really what decadence theory is is an organic metaphor for history, that simply describes a phenomenon (like the Fall of the Roman Empire) rather than explain it. Simply put, decadence theory is weak analysis that butchers the dynamism and complexity of history. It requires that its followers must, to a certain degree, romanticize a certain “progressive” phase of capitalism, ignoring that the development that capitalism provides has always been an uneven one, with progressive and regressive features existing simultaneously. Productive forces have developed since 1914 and industrialized nations outside the ‘core’ of Europe have seen developments in productive forces that resulted in increased standards of living. Yes, this was accompanied by financial crisis, destruction of social fabric and authoritarian government but when has capitalism not been this way? It is only communism that can provide an even development of society. These reasons alone should give considerable motivation to question any kind of strict adherence to decadence theory.

Decadence theory however allows the ICC to 1) justify a priori all of their political positions and 2) claim fidelity to Marx and Engels while holding political positions that are in stark contrast to them. For example, Marx and Engels stridently argued for running in bourgeois elections and for the importance of the union movement in organizing the working class. Yet decadence theory gives the ICC a seemingly deep theoretical reason for holding the exact opposite position, looking like this: in the time of Marx and Engels, capitalism was still ascendant and therefore it was justified to support running in bourgeois elections because capitalism was still developing and conquering feudalism. Yet the Marxist argument in the 19th Century for electoralism had nothing to do with needing to consolidate capitalism over feudalism; it was that the workers must engage in mass politics and become a force to be reckoned within mass politics.

The ICC also use decadence to justify their complete rejection of all unions, denial that any national liberation struggles and decolonization (the colonial world still existed after 1914) can have progressive content, and refusal of any kind of mass party in favor of minoritarian vanguards with this logic. Since the passage of 1914 and the rise of capitalist decadence, these positions are de facto correct regardless of circumstance even though Marx and Engels basically held the opposite positions. It’s not a stretch to say that with regards to the Marx and Bakunin split, when it comes down to actual political lines the ICC would side with Bakunin. Their only real retorts are that Bakunin was a nationalist anti-semite scumbag (which is mostly true) and that it was of course ascendant capitalism and not “Decadent” capitalism yet.

So behind all the ICC’s politics is a claim that 1) capitalism has been the same essentially since 1914 and is in a state of decline where immediate revolution is on the table and 2) the political positions of the ICC schematically derive from this. To question this is to question decadence, which is apparently a cornerstone of historical materialism. Decadence schematically implies the positions held on electoralism, mass parties and unions because under decadent capitalism it is not possible to build mass scale workers’ organizations, except in times of crisis, without these organizations becoming integrated into capitalism. So any attempts to build unions and build parties is going to be inherently bourgeois. Instead of doing these things, communist militants must organize as only small and pure minorities that hold true to the revolutionary faith, waiting for a the crisis to trigger a mass strike that will lead to the formation of workers councils.

The ICC see CLT as being in danger of falling into “leftism”. The left is an enemy according to ICC’s ideology, just as much as the capitalists themselves. They are for “partial struggles” and building mass scale workers orgs. The left is counterposed to the “proletarian milieu” which is basically the ICC and groups with positions it approves of. Apparently this milieu has nothing to do with the left, despite the fact that any normal person would agree that advocating for communism puts one on the left. By claiming to be “not leftist” the ICC just comes off as needlessly edgy and sectarian. Which of course they are, refusing any kind of engagement with the left at all because it is entirely bourgeois. Collaboration with leftists is as bad as fascists in the end, as both are simply factions of the capitalist class. So what results is a paranoid siege mentality about the left, where the left are always around the corner conspiring to calm the militancy of pure unmediated workers struggle. Rather than engaging with the left to try to win people over and influence them with their analysis the ICC sees this as a counter-revolutionary activity.

The ICC’s theory of leftism, while ridiculous, does contain a kernel of truth that the labor bureaucracy is capitalism’s last line of defense when worker militancy threatens its stability. The labor bureaucracy are not submitted to the democratic will of the rank and file and hence develops petty-bourgeois class interests since they are essentially small proprietors of intellectual property. Because the labor bureaucracy often plays this conservative role in class struggles a knee jerk response is to simply reject unions and the left as a whole. Yet this is ultimately a vulgar and simplistic answer to more complicated questions.

Yet these questions do not negate the fact that communists must build up a mass movement in times of social peace and become a force that can contest with the bourgeoisie for state power. The mere appearance of Soviets doesn’t prevent better organized social-democrats from ultimately winning their support, as the German Revolution of 1918-19 shows us. The claim that decadence makes building organizations under capitalism (except, of course, the most pure vanguard parties) means that success is ultimately reliant on spontaneity. It assumes the proletariat will follow the “vanguard” instead of other political forces once they are mobilized, and it is only when the masses are in motion and in struggle that they can be converted to communism. Against this line, which puts hope in soviet power and spontaneity to solve the question of mass political legitimacy, Communists must build institutions and win support from the working class before periods of crisis. For a workers republic to represent the proletariat it must maintain democratic norms. This means you must have mass support or else you must resort to rigging elections as the Soviets did because of fear of peasants being overrepresented. This political problem is a serious one, and cannot be left to faith in spontaneity. Rather it must be worked in the long term process of building mass communist party and other proletarian institutions over time in a strategy of patience. Developing revolutionary theory and a solid programme is important, but so is being active building the labor movement which is now in shambles and pushing for “class unions” as opposed to “corporatist unions” that act to stabilize capitalism. Communists must merge with the labor movement, which requires long term work of institution building and not simply showing up when mass strikes happen to push for the formation of soviets.

This is to say nothing of the inadequate gender and racial politics of the ICC. The ICC has been around since 1975 and their main insight on race is that “the bourgeoisie mobilizes the proletarian under anti-racist politics”. For a group that proclaims internationalism, the group suggests little in terms of actually combatting national oppression to unite a deeply divided working class. Class unity is assumed to arise naturally and trump all other questions, with struggles for democratic rights being “partial struggles” that simply increase the illusions the proletariat has about democracy. As far as I am aware, the ICC doesn’t allow womens or PoC caucuses in their org and rejects feminism as a whole as bourgeois. This shows not only that the ICC is stuck in the past, but that they don’t see the abolition of gender oppression as a task to be taken seriously.

This gets to a core issue that plagues not just the ICC but many ultra-left and left-communist circles: economism. The ICC doesn’t grasp that communists must not only support economic struggles of the proletariat, but struggles for greater democratic rights within capitalism, which allow the working class to have more strength organizationally. Democracy is the lifeblood of the proletariat, the means through which it is able to organize as a mass force within society. In capitalist societies or authoritarian regimes where the working class is denied political freedom, they are forced to organize underground and only become broader parties by emphasizing the fight for democratic freedoms (see the Bolsheviks under Czarism as depicted by Lars Lih in What Is To Be Done Reconsidered). The proletariat, through its struggles, must show itself as not being a class fighting for purely sectional interests, a higher slice of the pie, that a class that fights for broader social change. To “win the battle for democracy” is not a minor task in the class struggle.

Of course, the ICC would see this as superfluous, since the proletariat cannot build mass organizations in times of non-crisis, so democracy under capitalism is of no use to them. It is nothing more than a mirage, a way to mystify the true dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. This outlook ignores how it has been the proletariat (and petty-bourgeoisie under the process of proletarianization) that have typically pushed the hardest for democratic rights historically. It certainly wasn’t the merchant class but rather the plebian sans cullotes who pushed for the most radical forms of liberty in the French Revolution. The form of the state cannot simply be derived from the “law of value” but is something that is historically shaped by class struggle. Bordiga is just wrong that democracy is simply a political mirror image of capitalist logic, where the principle of “one man one vote” translates to the principle of “equivalence of exchange”. Things are much more complex; the bourgeois state was basically the absolutist state outfitted for the needs of enforcing capitalist relations, a rentier institution with its logic sometimes counter to that of capital accumulation, and a “”special body of armed men”  shaped by the balance of power in the class struggle as well as the needs of generalized social reproduction.  

Ultimately there is no reason to suppose capitalist rule naturally presupposes parliamentarism or any form of democracy. Parliament gives classes other than the propertied access to political influence in legislative bodies, which can theoretically allow the mass population to pass laws that would be a hindrance to capitalist accumulation. Why else would working class participation in suffrage have been so limited until the ascent of the workers movement? This is why in countries where there are parliamentary bodies, internal corruption of party regimes becomes more and more important for ensure that the needs of capital are met by the state. This is why the most ideologically zealous adherents to the pure abstraction of capital (Hans-Herman Hoppe for example) in the end apologize or advocate for monarchy or fascist dictatorship.

This isn’t to say Communists should fight for a democratic form of capitalism instead of a true transformation of the social order, nor that we should seek alliances with populist hacks who use democracy as a slogan. It’s obvious that democracy, in the sense understood by capitalism, is a powerful ideological tool of the capitalist class. Capitalist states have realized that they must project themselves as democratic, and use this as a way to promote a unity of citizens in a nationalist project. People in the USA vote because their candidate will do a better job at what is ultimately managing the hegemon state of global capitalist empire. Yet this is the current state of things – if a truly principled communist party engaged in electoral politics, the “rules of the game” may be disrupted and the idea of democracy as legitimating the nation-state could be questioned. For example, the campaign for Eugene Debs to many of his voters was seen as affirming internationalist principles. Workers in many cases in history have seen the ballot box as a weapon in the class struggle.

The positions of the ICC, if they were argued for without the vulgar historicism of decadence, would carry much more strength. Anarchists tend to provide a more convincing case of why communists should abstain from bourgeois elections. Decadence is a blinder in the end, that prevents communists from dropping a priori dogmas that prevent them from reconceptualizing a marxist theory and a communist practice that can function under current conditions. We of course must hold to certain basic principles, but to act if the answers to all the questions about unions, nationalism, elections, the left, and even sexual freedom were decided by the fate of 1914 prevents clear critical discussion that looks at current situations. What we need is open debate, experimentation with tactics and a Marxism that is more adept at explaining why things are the way they are than any other worldview. We also need to build political organizations that are built on programmatic unity, where members are bound to political rather than theoretical commitments like decadence theory. Otherwise an organization is doomed to political sectdom, internal authoritarianism, lack of debate, and separation from the world beyond purist left-communism. This will take years, but to give all hope to spontaneity means one might as well give up as a whole.

Revolutionary Strategy and the Politics of the Democratic Socialists of America

barricade_paris_1871_by_pierre-ambrose_richebourg

Jacobin recently put out a book, The ABCs of Socialism, which seeks to answer several questions commonly asked by people new to the idea of socialism. Thirteen authors each take on one such question, from “Will socialists take my Kenny Loggins record?” to “Why do socialists talk so much about workers?” I’ve actually been asked this second question by a friend who was curious about what socialists believe, so I was pleased to see it addressed. Each chapter in ABCs ends with a one-sentence summary of its answer.

Let me preface what follows by saying that I recognize the merit of the text. Notwithstanding the ridiculous physical appearance of the book–seriously, it’s shaped like the drink menu at TGI Friday’s–the content provides a decent introduction to some socialist political ideas. Of course, with brevity of introduction comes compromise on thoroughness. The book contains several ambiguities and insufficiencies.  The most striking such problem has to do with whether “the rich deserve to keep most of their money,” which was authored by the sociologist Michael A. McCarthy.

McCarthy situates the entire discussion in the realm of tax politics. He states that

“the socialist justification for taxes is grounded in a view – not often captured in opinion polls – about how capitalist wealth is actually created. To explore it, we first need to understand what taxes are and what non-socialists think about them”

McCarthy argues that three basic things under-gird the “socialist” understanding of taxation. First, everything produced in capitalist society, the total social product which is the target for appropriative taxation by the state, is socially created in part by rules and regulations the enforcement of which is already underwritten by taxation. The most direct form of this are police and courts, which enforce private property rights.

Second, “[t]he class inequality that results from making this social product is relational”. By this, McCarthy does not simply mean that workers are exploited, but instead that capitalists accumulate wealth only by depriving workers of it, and that most of the total social product goes over to the capitalists. “The condition for this relationship is, once again, political and maintained through tax revenue”.

Third, “redistribution through taxation is a means of extending individual freedom – not curtailing it”. McCarthy might be trying to avoid using old Marxist rhetoric about exploitation; the word doesn’t crop up once. But why?

Exploitation, Marxists believe, is at the heart of capitalism. The wealth that is “socially produced” is produced by the working class.  It might seem pedantic to mention this, but McCarthy combines his argument about wealth being “socially produced” with the claim that “[t]axation provides a partial remedy to that essential, structural inequality of capitalist society”.

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Tax policy can function in some respects as a counterweight to capitalist abuses, for capitalist corruption and subversion of democracy is exercised by the veto power of money.  And it is doubtless true that tax policy can serve to extend certain forms of individual freedom: providing workers with tax-funded health-care, unemployment insurance, retirement income, food assistance and more is a means to relieve the individual worker from spending all their time at work, taking care of kids and loved ones, being sick and tired. But there are a few problems here.

Why are tax-funded “redistributive” measures consistently under attack from the right? Why can’t the left or even liberals stop these attacks? Why are tax-funded social programs like single-payer healthcare political non-starters in the U.S.? What would a socialist strategy to change tax policy and spending on social welfare look like in the U.S.?

It is important to point out that Jacobin is essentially an organ for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). That group’s Strategy Document for 2016 provides scant clarification of these questions. For the most part, the document does not reckon with the historical failures of Marxist movements across the 20th century, nor even the recent failures of SYRIZA, the Bolivarian movement in South America, etc. It is this reticence, and the resultant vagueness of strategy and historical naivete, that undermines the coherence of the ABC’s of Socialism. And it serves the specific purpose of evading a full commitment to Marxist politics: it allows the DSA to reject the dictatorship of the proletariat and remain open to elements of coalition with the petit bourgeoisie, with a view to taking office at all costs rather than patiently building toward taking power. The latter objective is addressed directly in Revolutionary Strategy by Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Countering the argument that the left needs to win office at all costs, Macnair contends that socialists/communists ought to pursue a strategy which has bringing the working class to power as its ultimate aim. These two strategies are incompatible.

Take taxes as an example. Changing U.S. tax-revenue policy at the federal level requires influence within and control of both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. This raises immediately the problem of political struggle. The pattern adopted by SYRIZA, Podemos, and others, has been to exploit capitalist crises to form left-of-center coalitions to get office at any cost. This way they can potentially influence tax and spending policies and maybe fetch slightly better outcomes for the working class. But these have proven to be dead ends, because their strategy conflates getting office and forming a government in the bourgeois state with the working class seizing social power. Any reforms settled on at the level of the nation state, toward the end of national development, are largely reversible, given the international dictatorship of the capitalist class. Theirs is an approach to governance that is not based on the strategic assumption that workers must ultimately overthrow the constitutional order, but also generalize revolutionary conditions internationally. Instead, it leaves the veto power of the bourgeoisie essentially undisturbed, most often by limiting the terrain of struggle to the nation-state. Why so much of the left continues to pursue such strategies is a central question of Macnair’s book.

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Macnair states his thesis this way:

“To summarise the argument very much in outline, in the first place I argue that there are solid grounds to maintain the fundamentals of Marx and Engels’ political strategy: of the self-organisation of the working class; for independent political action, not just in trade unions and/or cooperatives; independent both of the capitalist parties and of the capitalist states; on both national and international scales. As between the strategic lines offered in the Second International, I argue that the ‘strategy of patience’ of the Kautskyan centre was and is preferable to either the strategy of cross-class ‘left’ coalition government favoured by the right, or the ‘mass strike strategy’ favoured by the left. What was wrong with the Kautskyans, and led in the end to them being subsumed in the right, was their nationalism and their refusal to fight for an alternative to the capitalist state form.”

It is the coalition politics of the right wing of Social Democracy that more or less characterizes most socialist politics today. This political orientation does not come in for criticism in The ABC’s of Socialism or in the strategic and programmatic documents of the DSA. As he mentions above, though he is supportive of the Kautskyan strategy of patient building of workers’ political forces, Macnair rejects Kautsky’s simplistic attitude toward the capitalist state. It is this simplistic attitude toward the capitalist state that is implied in both the DSA’s strategy documents and parts of ABC’s.

Similarly, though he agrees that the left was correct to split from the Second International, he argues that splits are not an altogether useful tactic, and that they do not by themselves “purify” parties or movements. The series of splits that took place within the left after World War I, tied to the Russian Revolution, form the contours of leftist politics the world over through the rest of the 20th century. We must acknowledge and confront this.

Strategy and the Russian Revolution 

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The Russian Revolution is the historical event upon which all students of socialism must cut their teeth. It is the subject of ferocious debate and acrimonious fallout.

The fundamental tragedy of the Russian Revolution was that it was a conscious gamble on the part of the Bolsheviks. In a bid on power for the working class, the Bolsheviks, in alliance with some Mensheviks, Left-SRs and Anarchists, overthrew the provisional government of Russia in late 1917 and worked to establish social rule through Soviets (neighborhood and city councils, run by workers). The tragedy arose out of the fact that the working class made up a very small portion of the population. Most of Russia was populated by peasants – poor farmers, often with restricted access to land as private property. The decades before the revolution saw some peasants gradually gaining more access to land, and more rights, but most remained poor and indentured. They were functionally, structurally independent economic units, however, inasmuch as they provided their own necessities through control of their labor process. They grew their food for their own consumption and for exchange (mostly grains). They did purchase some consumer goods, but did not use much modern technology. Some of their productive methods were arguably centuries old. Their central aim, as a class, was to acquire as much land as possible in order to support themselves and their families. They wanted private property.

The crux of the problem is this: the Bolsheviks could not rule in the name of the peasants and the workers at the same time. The same economic policies which benefited the workers hurt the peasants. Cheap food for workers requires paying low prices for grain. Low prices to for grain means low income for peasants. Additionally, technological development in agricultural production required a lot of capital investment in machinery.  It also necessitated breaking up the land holdings of small agricultural proprietors and reducing them to the status of propertyless ‘agricultural workers’). By the end of the Russian Civil War (in which Western-supported aristocratic and reactionary forces fought to regain power) the Bolsheviks found themselves in a bind.
Their gamble had been that the Revolution of 1917 would inspire revolution in the rest of Europe, and that with technologically advanced countries like Germany on board, developing agriculture and industry in Russia would be a lot less difficult. Instead, Russia came out of the civil war facing international isolation, famine, a recalcitrant peasantry, and hyperinflation. Already in 1918, in preparation for the Civil War, they destroyed many of the democratic elements within their own party organization. That process continued through the war and after.

Put simply, the Bolshevik party had to subordinate socialist revolution to economic development. Bolshevik power was a based on an unholy alliance between the working class and petty proprietors in the form of peasants. While the Bolsheviks had argued that a working class party requires democracy, toleration of factions, mass membership, and debate, the party had to commit itself to balancing the class interests of workers against peasants; city against countryside. This straddling of conflicting class interests spurred the development of an alien bureaucracy ‘above society’ seeking to regulate production in accordance with some development plan.Stalin’s simplistic but murderous solution, unparalleled in human history, would eventually win out.

And it is in this period where most of the left, aware or not, locates the origin of their politics. It might seem enough to reject the model of the Russian Revolution altogether, as MacNair appears to do:

“We can no longer treat the strategy of Bolshevism, as it was laid out in the documents of the early Comintern, as presumptively true; nor can we treat the several arguments made against the Bolsheviks’ course of action by Kautsky, Martov, and Luxemburg (among others) as presumptively false. I stress presumptively.”

Macnair doesn’t reject the necessity of smashing the bourgeois state however. Macnair is concerned with the institutional forms of working class rule and how they contrast with those requisite for bourgeois rule.

The war years vastly transformed the Bolshevik party, which was then subsequently held up as the model for revolutionaries the world over by the Comintern as the alternate form of authority in a revolutionary upheaval. Macnair argues that there were three core elements to the strategy proposed by the Comintern: Revolutionary defeatism, the 1914 split as a tactic to purify the workers movement, and the Bonapartist ‘Vanguard Party’ as the alternative authority to the capitalist state.

Defeatism and Splits

First, Macnair argues that defeatism was the correct line in WWI. But defeatism is not a purity test, or simply a moral imperative. Specifically, Lenin argued for defeatism in the context of conflict of imperialist nations, not for defeatism within, say, the anti-colonial movement. Most importantly Lenin pushed to adopt the specific strategy of agitation and organization in the military for trade union and political rights, as a means to disrupt the ordinary function of military discipline and instill practical resistance.

Nor does Lenin defend a defencist policy vis-a-vis colonies involved in anti-colonial struggle in a blanket sense. What is stressed here is practical unity between the working class in each country, not ‘critical support’ for bourgeois governments (or in the case of some leftists, political Islam in reprehensible but anti-colonial forms, or anti-Western ‘secular’ dictatorships). We ought to work against our own governments’ abilities to carry out imperialist wars; we should instead promote international working class unity, on both sides.

Macnair rejects the split as a ‘purifying’ gesture. Lenin and others argue that the 1914 split was necessary because:

A) the rightists and center were scabs.
B) the rightists were sections of capitalists, or were allied with them, and were issuing ultimatums to the working class, attempting to exercise a veto power over them by using the instruments of the capitalist media and state.
C) Some workers (‘aristocracy of labor’) had interests in common with imperialist capitalists because they were receiving a bigger slice of the pie, in the form of higher wages.
D) The split is a strategic means to purify the movement, and set it on a revolutionary instead of reformist course. It creates a ‘party of a new type’.

MacNair agrees with points A and B. However he is critical of the ‘imperialist aristocracy of labor’. Colonial countries have labor bureaucracies and opportunists as much as imperialist countries. Not only this, but imperialism is not simply one hegemon versus the world, but a hierarchy of states with different particular advantages over each other. Finally, skilled workers have served as both revolutionary and reactionary in any given epoch. Macnair writes:

“Working class support for one’s own capitalist nation-state is produced by dynamics inherent in the capitalist nation-state system and world market and there is no grouping within the working class which is presumptively free of it.”

Ironically, splitting contributes to more challenges for the working class, which requires wide agreement and action to achieve it’s ends. The split between communists and social democrats cannot be healed. Yet united political action of the working class is objectively necessary to win even modest reforms in capitalism. Thus, the split, rather than automatically purifying the workers’ movement, immediately poses the problem of unity.

Working class unity in a party or trade union is a conscious unity not an ‘organic unity’ like family or clan. It is a unity in diversity, an agreement ‘to unite for partial common ends, while recognizing diverse individual opinions and wills.’ Workers organizations require full-timers, because capitalists do not give workers enough time off to manage large organizations. The question then, is how to run the party organization.

Party of a New Type and United Front

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The “party of the new type”, mythologizes the Bolshevik party and projects it’s recent (1918-1921) militarization and Bonapartist centralization back onto the past:

“On the other hand, it (Comintern policy)  is also a theorisation of what the Bolsheviks had done to their party in 1918-21, both in militarising it and in setting it up as a minority dictatorship, a state authority against the working class. In this aspect the “new party concept” or, as it came to be called after Lenin’s death, “Leninism”, was a theory of the dictatorship of the bureaucracy, and one which was to animate endless bureaucratic sects.”

This “party of a new type” emphasized three organizational points, which undermined the ability of the membership to subordinate the bureaucracy. It was not a mass party, but a “vanguard party”, it was an activist party, and it was to be strictly centralized, banning factions, reducing greatly the autonomy of locals by giving the central committee of the party veto power over local decisions.

“Democratic Centralism” as this set of organizational policies came to be known, effectively eliminated any internal democracy within the organization. Further, it contributed to an obsession over theoretical over programmatic unity and the general repressive nature of left politics that has become a stereotype.

MacNair outlines two basic ways in which the ‘parties of a new type’ which came to dominate the left, approached the question of ‘united action’:

1. Refusal of unity for limited common interests on the basis of insufficient agreement on other questions
2. United action or diplomacy by means of over-generalized agreement or self-censorship

‘Unity’ often equals shutting up about those with which they unite. The basis for unity then is a suppression of criticism. Support is not ‘critical’ at all, and the movement is not able to choose between clear and diverging opinions.

Alternatively, there is an obsession with ‘militant action, moderate demands’ as a means to outperform the reformists and thus inspire/recruit workers to whichever left sect. ‘The workers break with the reformists in action not ideas!’ say these leftists, as they refuse to form formal political organizations. These ideas are visible in morphed form in the neo-Trotskyist syndicalism of Marty Glaberman and Stan Weir, and have found some purchase in the contemporary IWW.

The problem, argues MacNair, is that once workers ‘become politicized’, they look for a party:

“The underlying problem is that it is a variant of the sub-Bakuninist mass strike strategy discussed in chapter two. Once the masses, or even quite small layers of newly radicalising militants, actually begin to enter the political stage, they demand of the left not ‘good fighters’ on the particular struggle, but an alternative political authority. At once, this poses the question of a party in (at least) the Kautskyan sense. This requires addressing the full range of questions affecting the society as a whole.”

Fundamentally, the united front policy of the Comintern was meant to address the unity of the class around particular demands. If the 1914 split between coalitionist right and communists advocating for the international independence of the working class will not be healed, then the united front is necessary. Not in the form of ‘shutting up’ and toeing the line, and not, either, of dissolving our activity into being the militant wing only of the coalitionist right, but by developing our own political organization, and uniting around specific demands and fights, where necessary, with workers in coalitionist organizations. Ultimately, we will have to attempt to unite in a communist party, but not on the basis of confused united front strategies.

Both variants often find small leftist sects, piloting front groups into “coalitions to end x”. This is the ultimate “united front” strategy of the left today, and it’s logical conclusion is the SYRIZA government in Greece; a coalition to end the right-hand-of-capital’s monopoly on power for a few years.

Role of the Party in Revolution

Finally, on the point of social authority at the moment of revolution, Macnair puts forward a theory of the “party-state”. What is meant here is a rejection of the left communist and anarchist “all power to the soviets” on the one hand, and of Kautskyan seizure of the bourgeois state on the other.

Drawing on the history of various revolutions since the 17th century, MacNair points out that revolutionary class rule is exercised through the vehicle of parties, which exclude the parties of other classes from power at the point of seizure of power. Think of the domination of the Republicans of the legislature during the Civil War. The southern democrats were ‘excluded’ on the basis of the federal government refusing to expand slavery, the bedrock of the class rule of the Southern aristocrat, the marginalization of the Democratic party, and of course the prosecution of a war which entailed the wholesale destruction of their property. The Democrats’ re-integration into political life was notably contingent on oaths of loyalty.

But doesn’t party-rule imply totalitarianism, violence, genocide and all the rest of the bad stuff we hear about in high school history class? No, argues MacNair.

Put simply, party-rule does not equal bureaucratic dictatorship. That is derived from the the militarization of the Bolshevik party upon need for discipline in the civil war, the ban on factions to suppress splits in the party, and ultimately the desperate need to balance the class forces of the peasantry and the working class. Instead of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ the Bolsheviks had organized a bureaucratic, militaristic political rule necessary for economic development.

On this basis, Macnair argues for a core minimum program. Taking cue from Marx and Engels’ critique of the Gotha Program, their influence on the program of the Parti Ouvrier, and the SPD’s Erfurt Program, the minimum program describes the basis upon which workers would take power (not merely take office). In his own words:

“This understanding enables us to formulate a core political minimum platform for the participation of communists in a government. The key is to replace the illusory idea of ‘All power to the soviets’ and the empty one of ‘All power to the Communist Party’ (Comintern) with the original Marxist idea of the undiluted democratic republic, or ‘extreme democracy’, as the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The capitalist class would be excluded from rule, whether voluntarily or forcefully, by the ascendence of “undiluted democratic republicanism”. Here the ‘extreme democrats’, the workers, will necessarily exclude capitalists through the abrogation of their “rights” in the form of the rule of law, unaccountable judicial review, the executive, and the upper houses of the legislatures and so on.

What is in this minimum program? Some key points:

– Universal military training and service, with democratic and trade union rights in the military, including election and recallability of officers.
– Election and recallability of all public officials, who are to be put on a worker’s wage.
– Abolition of secrecy laws and copyright.
– Abolition of judicial review of the decisions of elected bodies.
– Abolition of constitutional guarantees of the rights of private property and freedom of trade.

Communists fight for this minimum program day-to-day in order to increase the functional organizing ability of the proletariat and expose the corruption of the capitalist political order. Some have accused Macnair of using the term ‘republican-democracy’ far too idiosyncratically. Let’s see:

“The only form through which the working class can take political power and lay collective hands on the means of production is the democratic republic. This does not mean ‘rule of law’ parliamentary constitutionalism, to which it is, in fact, opposed.”

For Macnair it means defending the democratic rights accomplished in ‘rule of law’ constitutional regimes, like freedom of speech and assembly, and extending democratic and republican rights; the right of recall applied to all public officials (republican) and the generalized principle of self-government (democracy). The task then is to fight for an opposition and not government office at all costs. This opposition must ‘commit itself unambiguously to self-emancipation of the working class through extreme democracy…’ and organize for majority support of both minimum and maximum program. There are no ‘insurrectionary’ or coalitionist short cuts. The minimum program is the basis for bringing the working class into power, and beginning to build communism (the maximum program).

In the final  chapters Macnair touches on the necessity of internationalism as a starting point and as the true horizon of working class rule, both of which are important but I will hold off on here.

Strategy Today

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In sum, Macanair’s is a strategy of patience where the working class develops mass, democratic organizations in the process of struggle against capital, and in opposition to the constitutional order. These alternative institutions demonstrate the ability of the working class to govern society, as well as serve as the means to fight for legal-constitutional reforms which increase the scope and ability of the working class to organize and eventually seize power. These reforms reflect the form necessary for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

When this occurs, it will be through the vehicle of a mass, democratic-republican party of workers which tolerates factions within itself, delimited only by the exclusion of capitalist forces.

In contrast, DSA’s Strategic Document is less clear:

“Rather, our strategy… …. consists of fighting on a number of interconnected fronts in the short-term, leveraging gains made in these struggles into more structural, offensively-oriented changes in the medium-term and ultimately employing the strength of a mass socialist party or coalition of leftist and progressive parties to win political power and begin the process of socialist transformation.”

The DSA boast of being the largest socialist organization in the United States. They have given support to Sanders’ candidacy in the Democratic Primaries as a means for generating support for ‘socialism’. Cornel West, a notable member involved in this effort, has been tapped by the Democratic party to help draft the near useless party platform, which appears to be Sanders’ main political activity after losing the nomination.
They also aim in the ‘medium to long term’ to run progressive candidates in the Democratic Party, and eventually form a socialist ‘coalition’. But this is vague. An electoral strategy in the U.S., as in any country, needs to be subordinated to the aim of bringing the working class to power.

Perhaps, as they indicate in their document, they feel it is too soon to lay out a true program. But they give hints toward what taking power would look like:

“Success across this spectrum of (short-term) struggles should lead to a period when we can talk seriously about the transition to democratic socialism through reforms that fundamentally undermine the power of the capitalist system (often referred to as “non-reformist reforms”), such as the nationalization of strategic industries (banking, auto, etc.) and the creation of worker-controlled investment funds (created by taxing corporate profits) that will buy out capitalist stakes in firms and set up worker-owned and -operated firms on a large scale.”

In their document Towards Freedom this coalition politics is explicit. Socialists must unite with petit-bourgeois professionals in demands for more “democratic consumption.” Side by side with this strategic aim, is the argument that Socialists, thanks to election rules in the U.S., are forced to work within the left of the Democratic Party, or remain irrelevant.

What are we to make of this? Combined with the expressed need to form coalitions above, the emphasis on putting tax policy in the hands of socialists as well as peaceful nationalisation schemes, we get a picture of the kind of politics that Macnair argues against, the coalitional politics of SYRIZA and others. Here, the task is to figure out how to get into office, and institute reforms, whether palliatives, or “non-reformist reforms” like nationalization.

But, nationalization is a reformist-reform. That is, it is transitory in the context of global capitalism. Look at Venezuela right now, or Greece’s struggles to deal with its international financial yoke. Coalition parties, even if socialist coalitions, coming to power in one country, cannot stop what Macnair calls the ‘ratchet to the right.’ Whatever the policies of Chavez, or Rouseff, Venezuela and Brazil now find themselves in the throes of the typical struggles of the international capitalist class to protect investment and profitability. Left-wing administrations are often followed by rightist ones which carry their politics even further away from the left.

Nationalization of industry is essential to the minimum program as outlined by Macnair, and in the old Erfurt Program and Communist Manifesto. But it is only one bullet point on a list of crucial changes that bring the working class into power. That is, it is one thing that helps free the working class from the drudgery of work, in order to pursue the governing of society.

DSA’s thinking here and in the ABC’s gets it backwards; we must organize a party, take office, and change tax policy, in order to bring the working class to power thereby avoiding revolutionary upheaval, and sidestepping completely the dictatorship of the proletariat. Contra DSA, Macnair’s proposals put the working class in the driver’s seat, and begin to deal with the particulars of the institutional forms of working class rule requisite for seizing power. This “dictatorship of the proletariat” accomplished, tax policy would be largely superceded.

What gets policy to change is fear on the part of the capitalist class from the organized power of the working class, not teaming up with factions of business or the petit-bourgeoisie, appealing to their decency, respect for international law, or reliance on oil or other key exports.  

While The ABC’s serves as a useful introduction to socialist ideas, it is limited by Jacobin and the DSA’s unclear political strategy. The text would benefit from answers being linked to a general political program, beyond the coalition politics that currently plague the left. This is reflected in the line in DSA’s strategy document, as well as in the ABC’s. Hate or love Macnair, he sets his focus on the core problems which confronted the workers movement in the 20th century. His argument that the left has to set its organizing horizon beyond the nation-state, and its political strategy beyond office, and root it in the aim of bringing the working class to power is convincing. Revolutionary Strategy certainly merits serious engagement from U.S. communists, socialists, and anarchists.

Texts Cited:
Revolutionary Strategy by Mike Macnair
ABC’s of Socialism by Jacobin
Resistance Rising: Socialist Strategy in the Age of Political Revolution
Toward Freedom: Democratic Socialist Theory and Practice (This was authored in part by Jason Schulman, who’s also written a review of Macnair that a comrade pointed out to me shortly before publication: Current Relevancy of an Old Debate, though this doesn’t appear to have had a significant influence on the DSA’s political strategy)
A Brief History of the American Left

 

Drugs and Communism

 

The illegalization of kratom represents a blow from the capitalist state against individual freedom and a rational drug policy. The only sensible communist policy on drugs is full legalization and medical treatment for addiction. 

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It has recently been announced the recreational drug Kratom is going to be officially placed on schedule 1 of the controlled substances hierarchy of the DEA, right alongside heroin. Anyone familiar with Kratom knows that it isn’t hardcore stuff. While the drug does have addictive properties, it’s nothing compared to morphine and the like. Many opiate addicts use Kratom as a safe and legal substitute for opioids that’s easier to wean off of. Kratom doesn’t have the capacity to repress breaking like opioids do, so it is not a substance one can overdose on, much like marijuana. Yet as of September 30th, this plant is enough to get you a 5 year prison sentence just for possession. While the media panics about an opioid epidemic, a drug that is actually helping people quit opiates is being made illegal! The attitude of the the capitalist state is as paternalistic as ever: how dare you get high, how dare you use an over the counter painkiller that is effective.

The hypocrisy of the drug scheduling system established under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 warrants an article of it’s own. What is so galling about this system is the way it attempts to justify itself with scientific objectivity when it is in actuality blatantly unscientific. The act establishes 5 “schedules” or categories of drugs, with schedule 5 being the most benign and schedule 1 being the worst. The benchmarks for declaring a substance a schedule 1 drug are: high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, and lack of a safe way to use the drug even under medical supervision. Having thus established a superficially objective way to categorize these drugs the federal government immediately went about ignoring it, placing drugs on this list based on the needs of politicians and unelected bureaucrats. The fact that marijuana is a schedule 1 drug (cocaine is schedule 2) tells you all you need to know about the scientific objectivity of this system. A growing scientific consensus, along with basic common sense, is showing that marijuana certainly does have medical uses and is safer to use than even many over the counter drugs.

Moreover the federal government does not simply ignore science which does not suite it’s political narrative, it actively prevents research which may yield inconvenient results. Research into the potential medical uses of marijuana were stymied for decades. The potential therapeutic uses of LSD or MDMA remain a mystery because of the difficulty in carrying out objective research. Now the potential use of kratom in treating opioid addiction will likely remain a matter of speculation since research into the subject will likely be made much more difficult. When it does allow studies to move forward it often only allows ones designed to yield a desired result. Several years ago there was a study purporting to show rats overdosing on THC. When one actually looked into the study however it showed the rats were injected with pure THC until they died. Leaving aside the ridiculous method of ingestion (nobody injects pure THC), scaled up for human consumption the amount of THC one would have to consume to OD was the equivalent of smoking a joint the size of a telephone pole in a day. If anything this shows the safety of the drug, but that’s not the picture the headlines painted. By stopping or manipulating scientific research into the potential benefits and real harms of drugs the government is not just being shady, it is endangering public health.

The ideal communist position for drugs is simple: legalize them. ALL of them. If you are truly against the drug war you shouldn’t make exception even for drugs you wouldn’t personally use. This is simply because no one deserves to be incarcerated for experimenting with their brain chemistry. Most banning of drugs in the USA  has been associated with racialized moral panics. With opium and marijuana these substances were respectively associated with Chinese and Black Americans. Today moral panics about drugs are usually about “legal highs” like bath salts, drugs that would not be as popular if MDMA, methamphetamine and cocaine were legal.

Beyond moral panics, we should look at drugs rationally. Drugs no doubt have had bad effects on people’s lives, but this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In capitalist society we live in a world where we must act as commodities on the marketplace, atomized individuals competing for subsistence. This is a world where our lives become structured around the pursuit of the abstract and intangible thing called “value” where the consequence of failing can be death for some. Life is stressful and the human psych is warped, we suffer from alienation. To deal with this some people turn to drugs, and some abuse them.

For those that abuse drugs, making them illegal doesn’t actually reduce the harm associated with that abuse. There is much literature on this topic, and it’s a point that’s been made enough to not have to repeat. You don’t have to be a communist to realize it makes more sense to treat addiction as a mental problem, not a moral failing where one must get a beating from the state for their transgressions.

Not only does making drugs illegal not only make them more harmful, it is also generally an anti-freedom stance. Fears of drugs are largely a result of misunderstandings and not scientific inquiry. As communists we aim for an emancipatory society, one based on the flourishing of human freedom through reason. We know that god will not punish us for sexual acts, and we also know that unsafe sex can have bad (even deadly) consequences. Through rationality we can express our capacities for pleasure, and drugs should be no different. If one wants to explore the highs and lows of drugs, it should an option open to them and be as a safe as possible.

The left doesn’t exactly have a perfect track record on this issue; for example there was support for Prohibition for amongst Socialist Party Members and IWW members. An argument for prohibition was that it would make workers more disciplined and less prone to domestic violence. Instead prohibition created a whole lumpen subculture of Cartels that was exceptionally patriarchal. “Real Socialist” states have failed to legalize drugs, which of course simply allowed for black markets to flourish more. On the other end, many “zones of autonomy” from the near civil war Italy experienced in the 70s became drug dens. Drugs can and do pose real problems. But the solutions are not illegalization, but rather simply making drugs openly accessible yet regulated for safety needs while making deeper social changes.

People abuse drugs, to escape the alienation of everyday life and its traumas. They also use them purely hedonistically and harmlessly. Sometimes this hedonism is simply an expression of the truly empty pleasures capitalist society has on offer. Sometimes it’s good for its own sake. We are aren’t moral puritans of any kind. Moral ‘decadence’ is a scare-word of the bourgeoisie who want to keep society regimented and orderly. The search for some kind of moral “order” in the USA is a thread as old as the republic itself. And it has been an excuse to take away individual freedoms of the populace. There is no “public health crisis” created by kratom but rather a regressive step in drug policy which ultimately punishes the proletariat the most.

Some would say communists should have nothing to say on this issue, that struggles at the point of production should be the point of focus, that issues related to politics not directly connected to this are a distraction. Often this is in the context of avoiding “dividing” workers by being a political partisan, sometimes it is simply a product of theoretical views of certain tendencies in marxism. Either way this economism tries to silence the talk of any form of political oppression than isn’t directly related to the workers struggle. Yet this is counter to the Marxist approach. Marxists fight not merely for economic demands but democratic demands that give more rights to oppressed groups and allow for democracy and political freedom in society in general. Yet we fight for these demands as marxists, never failing to point out their class dimensions. As Lenin said:

“the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat”

Communists should speak out against and fight against all forms of oppression and authoritarianism when possible, because ultimately we envision a world not simply where workers own their factories but one absent of exploitation and oppression. Marx believed that the proletariat was the class that would fight for communism because it was the class that held the interests of all humanity. By showing that the interests of labor are the interests of humanity, the communist party can lead the struggle for the future of the species itself.

But what exactly can we do about kratom at this point? Sadly at this point the answer is nothing, unless one has much hope in petitioning bourgeois politicians. What we can do as Communists is fight for democratic rights (“win the battle of democracy as” Marx said) when possible or at least when possible show we care about issues such as drug legalization or free speech. Perhaps less people would turn to the libertarian right if leftists had a better record on these issues. Today the right portrays itself as a force fighting against the foes of democracy for free speech, a terrain that cannot be left to the right. If the political right are the mere defenders of democracy then we have lost the battle for democracy, and the image of Communism as Stalinism will be unchallenged.

While we (the Communist League of Tampa) have yet to write a programme (we are hardly at that stage yet) I believe the legalization and regulation of all drugs should be part of the minimum programme as well as immediate release of all drug offenders. Could these demands be won under capitalism? It is possible, but either way communists shouldn’t be silent on them and should fight for them when they have the capacity to. This often mean supporting a referendum to legalize marijuana or using electoral reps to challenge drug laws. While we are a far way off from being a party, as a propaganda group we should make crystal clear what the rational and communist position on drugs is.