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.

A Reply to BAMF’s Eradication “Strategy”

Trigger Warning: Discussion of Sexual Assault/Predators

BAMF has published a “strategy” to eradicate sexual predators from the left. This strategy consists of forming an anonymous and unimpeachable committee of “listkeepers” to track sexual predators and rape apologists, and to organize supporters in a series of escalating direct actions against their participation in the activist scene. While recognizing the need to turn predators out of left organizations, BAMF’s strategy fails to effectively deal with the question of sexual predation, and dangerously proposes to put survivors and left groups at the mercy of a secret clique.

The key issue is who should have the power to determine how to deal with sexual predators in the Left. BAMF writes:

The State shall not determine for the Left who is a sexual predator, which groups harbor rapists, or who is a rape apologist. Listkeepers shall determine that based on a solid combination of experience, knowledge, documentation, and sound judgment. No applications will be accepted to join the Listkeepers. Membership will be determined by express invitation only.”

Modern capitalist states are still dependent on patriarchal family structures to reproduce their labor force, and the state is therefore deeply invested in upholding said anachronistic structures. BAMF rightly distrusts the state’s intent or even capacity to deal with the problem of sexual predators. However, in place of the state they prop up an explicitly self-nominated, anonymous-to-the-public group of people to secretly decide not only who are sexual predators and rape apologists but what sexual harassment and rape apology consists of.  Communist groups, and more importantly survivors, must submit themselves to the obscured whims of the secretive “list-keepers” or face disruption and ostracization.

What are the benefits of the secret committee of list-keepers? To protect survivors, BAMF argues. But how? The most important element to protecting survivors is limiting the ability of the accused to contact or further harass the victim. This is often addressed by charges processes and safe space policies, though constrained by lack of resources. Like a charges process, the strategy only deals with sexual predation after it has occurred. All that the central committee of list-keepers offers is anonymity, contingent on the “solemn vow” of the anonymous list-keepers. In other words, the same trust we’d expect in a charges process, yet now without any form of accountability.

Unaccountability and a lack of transparency in the context of generalized sexist social relations is a recipe for abusive disaster. Groups that foster this sort of behavior, like FRSO with which BAMF is very familiar, use secrecy to hide their crimes. Comintern-inspired Leftist Organizations often depend on secrecy to hide the actions of the leadership and activists from the rest of the membership. Secrecy is a weapon wielded by bureaucracies, private or public. It robs the membership of their agency and denies that they are capable of making this or that decision themselves. Unless extremely repressive conditions make it necessary, secrecy should have no place in the Left.

Unlike an elected committee, the strategy does not serve to spread the skills necessary for dealing with these situations or generalize the knowledge and experiences that may result in the active prevention of sexual predation.  A complaints committee elected by the general membership, and subject to its veto and recall would include the whole group in the general process if not in every particular case. The result is that the entire group learns from the horrors of sexual predation; many members would have the skills necessary for dealing with sexual predators, which at least increases the chance that predators will be dealt with. “The strategy” offers none of these benefits.

Instead BAMF seeks to forcefully compartmentalize the membership by levels of participation, depriving the general membership from experiences which would have helped the group deal with sexual predation and may even have resulted in its prevention. Instead, communist and left groups must bear fully the costs of dangerously “eradicating” sexual predators with force. This is an invitation for violent retribution and legal costs for any organization involved.

Not only does “the strategy” advocate bureaucratic control over victims, and depriving the Left of processes that would generalize experience dealing with sexual predators, but they threaten individuals and groups who do not comply with their strategy with public denouncement as rape apologists:

“We will hold self­proclaimed Leftist organizations and individuals to the highest standard.****** All Communist groups, formations, parties, and organizations must commit to Level 4 or face ruthless, relentless denunciation as enemies of the working class until they begin actively aiding the implementation of the Strategy of their own impetus, with their own resources, effective immediately.”

Thus by implementing their strategy, BAMF argues that they ought to have veto power over the political activities of any organizations on the left, as well as the desires of survivors. This threatens not only to affect those groups misguided enough to subject themselves to a shadowy, self-selected inquisition, but the whole left should this strategy gain much traction. Most importantly, it subjects survivors’ needs in organizational life to the whims of an unelected and unaccountable central committee, running the risk in the long run of being captured by the kinds of predators and abusers it aims to eradicate.

There is no real advantage in the strategy. Instead there are only a slew of potential problems related to the lack of information and accountability. Sexual assault has to be handled in left organizations, and we wouldn’t presume to have all the answers. Some critical problems for left groups include enforcing expulsions or terms of immediate relief and ensuring the process is speedy, both of which require considerable resources. However we should keep in mind core principles of accountability, democracy, and transparency, if we’re to find methods which work.

BAMF’s Original Piece

Toward a communist electoral strategy

While the working class can’t vote away capitalism, electoral politics are nonetheless an essential tool in the class struggle.

Participation in electoral politics, and therefore an electoral strategy, are essential if communists are going to gain public legitimacy as a serious political force. Election cycles are of course endlessly nauseating, particularly this years in the USA with the obnoxious Trump vs. the neo-liberal imperialist Clinton. It is indeed sad that the majority of the public only seems somewhat politically active once every 4 years. Dominated by bourgeois parties that are neither democratic nor republican in the true meaning of those words, electoral politics becomes more and more cynical and corrupt. Yet it would be mistaken to believe that if a communist party simply played the field it would catch this disease.

At one point it was essentially leftist common sense that socialists would take on the electoral realm (excepting anarchists). For the Marxist left, the general view on elections differed little from his classic 1850 Address to the Communist League:

“Even when there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces, and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is indefinitely more important than the disadvantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”

After the fracture of Social-Democracy in 1914 and then the October Revolution in Russia this would change. Theorists such as Anton Pannekoek (associated with the German KAPD) and Otto Ruhle (also associated with the KAPD) would take the betrayal of social democracy as a sign that it was necessary to abandon parliament and even the party form itself. Amadeo Bordiga, though forced to reconcile his view to remain within the Comintern, would argue for a stance of abstention toward all bourgeois elections. The early Communist Party in the USA also had a majority that rejected elections and argued for illegal work. While Lenin would chastise these political tendencies as infantile and a regression in marxist strategy, the New Left would rediscover these along with anarchist critiques of electoralism to argue for a left purely based on direct action that held no stance toward the electoral sphere. To this day these arguments influence large sections of the left. Yet these arguments have appeal for a reason; the bourgeois state presents itself as a leviathan of sorts, and anything that touches it is therefore doomed.

The ‘leviathan’ nature of the state is due to its level of subsumption to the needs of capital accumulation. While having pre-capitalist roots in class society itself, the state must be outfitted to meet the needs of a capitalist class, and thus will act in the end to assure the reproduction of a society based on class domination. While it may balance the needs of various classes, the state is the protection racket of the ruling class because it is committed to the rule of law, the rule of property, and therefore the rule of the propertied. It is clear that the bourgeois state must be crushed, its armies and police disbanded and new systems of governance established that allow for the rule of the proletariat.

Yet the question of whether we must smash the state and whether we participate in elections are two different questions. The bourgeois state can be smashed, yet we can still participate within its institutions with the purpose of propagandizing and politically training the working class. Election campaigns, even when lost, serve the purpose of forcing Communists to engage the public at large and argue their positions. However what if Communists actually win elections? Would we not just be managing the bourgeois state?

The first clarification to make is that we would not come to power unless we had the mandate to operate our full minimum program and essentially smash the bourgeois state and create the dictatorship of the proletariat. The party would be a party in opposition and would not form coalition governments with bourgeois parties. Unlike other organizations like Syriza, who act as if they cannot accomplish anything until they are in power, a properly Marxist party would remain in opposition and not form a government until conditions for revolution are ripe.

Another clarification is that we are not going to aim for executive powers we can’t realistically win. The extent to which communists are responsible for managing the state is the extent to which they will be forced to make compromises with bourgeois legality. Rather than running for offices like governor or president, we should aim for offices in the legislative branch such as the federal House Representatives, but also state Houses and Assemblies. In these positions we can vote for and against legislation (as well as abstain) and establish our party as a “tribune of the people” that uses its seat of power to propagandize against the bourgeois state and capitalism. By voting against reactionary laws, even if we are outnumbered by the Democrats and Republicans, we can demonstrate that our party stands firmly against the interests of the bourgeois state and develop mass legitimacy for radical positions.

Many would object to even this level of participation. One argument is the idea is that party representatives will develop interests independent from the working class. There of course is merit to this criticism, the German Social-Democrats voting for war credits in WWI being the most infamous example. The issue of why the SPD went social-chauvinist is another question, one I plan to address in depth elsewhere. However the phenomenon that electoral representatives will tend to develop class interests antagonistic to the proletariat can be addressed without having to abstain from electoral activities. For example, electoral reps can be required to donate a certain percentage of their salary to the party and be subject to recall by a popular vote. Electoral reps can also be given party-imposed term limits more strident that those enforced by the bourgeois state.

Another argument against electoral participation as such is that it’s a waste of time and diverts from the real type of struggle; direct action, which is what supposedly really makes history. Usually what this translates to is that energy is better spent engaging in the labor movement – that we should be building our capacity to wage mass strikes for example. This argument makes a false distinction between direct action and voting, the ballot or the bullet. A mass party will have to engage large amounts of workers through “extra-parliamentary” means before it will even stand a chance winning in an electoral campaign. Building class unions, solidarity networks, unemployed councils, mutual aid societies, gun clubs, sports teams, etc. is not to be rejected in favor of electoral action. A critique one could make of Bebel and Kautsky is that they did focus on the parliamentary movement to exclusion of mass actions and strikes.

Gains in the electoral sphere can also translate to “on the ground” victories through a feedback loop of sorts. Getting anti-worker and anti-democratic laws revoked can help the mass movement in the streets organize more effectively. It puts elected representatives in a position where they may be forced to defend the extra-legal and sometimes violent mass actions of the proletariat, thereby exposing to a mass audience revolutionary arguments.

Elections as a tactic have benefits, as does direct action. Today the left acts as if one must pick and choose between the two, yet this was not the case for Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, and Lenin. All saw the need for both the ballot and the bullet to win power. Yet at the same time no true Marxist would think one could abolish waged labor through passing a law. No one would deny that a social revolution involving the participation of mass of proletarians reorganizing the fabric of social life is required to transcend the capitalist system and achieve communism. Civil War will have to be waged against the forces of reaction in some instances. To deny these things is to be either deceptive or foolish.

While it is true aspects of 2nd international Marxism incorrectly comprehended the capitalist state and perhaps overemphasized the importance of electoral action, one could say the opposite plagues the current left which mostly fetishizes direct action. It is only “action in the streets” that vitalizes and gives consciousness to the working class; when it participates in electoral campaigns it is inert and doesn’t recognize the sham nature of the elections. When the left does break with this, it is in presidential election cycles. Most far leftists either don’t vote, vote for the most left-wing candidate on the ballot (Greens?) or vote for their sect’s marginal candidate. Worse, some talk a radical game but end up succumbing to the pragmatic lesser-evilism of the Democrats. The truth is that until we can build a mass party that has a successful electoral strategy, bourgeois politics will dominate the political discourse. This fact is not some “inevitable logic of capital” but a product of the general weakness of the left and the working class. Without a mass working class party, politics will remain the business of the two bourgeois cartels, each selling its brand of ‘rule-of-law’ constitutionalism. This weakens the direct action-oriented left as well, as the general level of militancy the masses is determined by how legitimate they see the state’s authority. A powerful communist party undermining business as usual within the state not only challenges the authority of the state but it expands what the public overall think is politically possible.

In order to take power and enact the full minimum program without launching a coup or delusional military adventure, the party needs to have enough of the politically active working class on their side as possible. If there is not adequate support, the regime will either be overthrown or suppress revolutionary democracy to stay in power. Bourgeois elections are of course not a reliable means of determining legitimacy, but they can give the party an idea of where and how much it garners popular support. So elections can not only serve as way to win support, but also to measure it. For Engels, measuring support alone was enough to utilize the benefits of suffrage:

“And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly established, unexpectedly rapid rise in the number of votes it increased in equal measure the workers’ certainty of victory and the dismay of their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it accurately informed us concerning our own strength and that of all hostile parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion for our actions second to none, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardiness—if this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, then it would still have been more than enough. But it has done much more than this. In election agitation it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the mass of the people, where they still stand aloof from us; of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our attacks before all the people; and, further, it opened to our representatives in the Reichstag a platform from which they could speak to their opponents in Parliament and to the masses without, with quite other authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings. Of what avail to the government and the bourgeoisie was their Anti-Socialist Law when election agitation and socialist speeches in the Reichstag continually broke through it?” (1895 intro to Class Struggle in France).

So what do we make of these conclusions? First of all, CLT won’t be running any candidates anytime soon, as we are a small sect with little support and limited resources. Our energy right now is being put into making ourselves a more effective organization and helping get a General Membership Branch of the IWW started. We are obviously not saying communists should just run for office hoping it will kickstart a revolutionary movement. But in the long-term, if we are committed to building a world-wide party of the proletariat, the question of electoral strategy must be taken seriously. If we abstain from elections, it should be done on the basis of what is tactically best for the situation, not on the basis of anti-electoralism as an eternal principle.