Letter to the City Council of Tampa

This speech was delivered to Tampa City Council in the morning of Thursday February 23rd under the unanimous approval of CLT regarding the concrete needs of the houseless proletariat. 

Dear Council members,

Every morning, our neighbors wake up sore and fatigued on the sidewalk. Among them are perfectly able workers: plumbers, builders, electricians, teachers, and more who cannot find work due to bogus felony convictions and lack of permanent address. Also among them are the disabled, the elderly, the children, and those bearing children. We have more empty houses than houseless people, and yet our neighbors still sleep on the street. Not plagued enough by the hardships of poverty and houselessness, these folks are hounded and harassed daily by the Mayor’s thugs in the Tampa Police Department. Despite the fact that Tampa remains a haven for human trafficking with a violent crime rate higher than almost 70% of the nation, TPD chooses to bully our most vulnerable neighbors for holding signs and carrying open bottles.

To address the crushing weight of all these problems facing the houseless community, you in the City Council have proposed a new program akin to slapping a bandaid on a gunshot wound. It would provide a few hours’ work for meagre pay, one meal, and a place to sleep for a night. For those who cannot work due to disability and other factors, it would provide nothing. This is the typical bureaucratic response to life-and-death matters: offer the minimum relief necessary to placate the public.

The only acceptable solution to our neighbors’ suffering is a housing-first initiative of Panelák quantity and modern quality. There is no excuse for prioritizing the profits of absentee landlords over the lives of our houseless brothers, sisters, and siblings. While we in the Communist League have no confidence that the City Council will do what is morally just or materially efficient, we will be happy to build an alternative.

Know that with each passing day, you give validity to our assertion the working-class must organize independently from the bourgeoisie and its puppets in the state machinery. We look forward to building power with our houseless comrades, and pledge our solidarity in the struggle against City Council-legislated, police-enforced poverty.

Signed,

Cliff Connolly, Donald Parkinson, Wilhelm Reich, Sarah Rose, Lukas Goldsmith, Blake Nemo, Jake Verso, Shallah Baso, Anton Johannsen, Ferris Rocker, and Clarin Mayor, the Communist League of Tampa. 

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The Recuperation of Authentic Outrage

By Ian Hinson and Aydin Jang. Originally posted here

The victory of the Trump campaign, and the catapultic rise of the alt-right movement from the shadows of the internet into the mainstream political paradigm, has stimulated a mobilization of opposition, and an immediate call to action. However, the specter of performative activism and pseudo-outrage continues to blur the lines between genuine action and specious placation.

As noted in Internationale Situationniste #9, the S.I. appropriately identified the neutralization of revolutionary strategies, concepts, and images, for the purpose of emptying them of their subversive content, thus making them compatible with mainstream, bourgeois culture. They formulated this process under the concept of recuperation. Media culture absorbs and diffuses radical ideas as a way to create a homogeneous plane of discourse, in which even the most mutinous of societal critiques are brought under the dominant space of acceptable discussion. In doing so, not only are the proponents of these revolutionary concepts forced to struggle for control over their own definitions, but the revolutionaries themselves are effectively dragged into the realm of their own repurposed concepts, in an attempt to retain coherency and an ideological relation to the general public. The S.I. go on to point out a few notable examples of this process of recuperation:

From Khrushchev to the priests, socialism as a concept has been given the richest variety of contradictory meanings ever consolidated in one single word. Unions have undergone such transformations that at this point the most effective strikes are those organized by the members of the privileged classes, as evidenced by the Belgian doctors this year. Not even anarchy has been spared, as one can tell from the “anarchist opinions” of the pro-Chinese Mr Siné and, even more so, by the anarchist opinions of Le Monde libertaire

Acting in accordance with capital’s need to exert its dominion over nature, it also extends its domination over the domain of language, and over the realm of acceptable expressions of outrage. One needn’t look any further than the outpouring of protests and demonstrations which have materialized over the past few weeks for an example of this subsumption of the limits of radical outrage, with millions participating across the globe in a show of solidarity to those affronted over the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Multiple sources have stated that the “Women’s March” in particular, was the largest demonstration in Washington DC’s history, and while the ability to organize such a massive gathering of bodies is quite impressive, one must ask how effective this demonstration actually was at conveying its message. Moreover, what exactly is the praxis of these types of demonstrations, and why were the small glimpses of authentic outrage so universally condemned by the media, and similarly by the liberal stratum who made up the majority of the protest’s population? To put it simply, liberal activism can be described as that of an empty signifier, that is to say, it acts as an imitation of the radical activism in which it seeks to replace. It creates a stage for the general public to try on the mask of the political radical, while at the same time allowing for the members of the privileged classes to direct this performance by redefining what radical action actually looks like.The political radical in the sphere of mainstream discourse is no longer the black bloc creating a cacophony of kindled police mobiles and broken windows. The political radical has been recodified as the football star who kneels during the national anthem, or the movie star who gives an apathetic, detached speech during an awards show. The political radical no longer sees action as an instrument to realize systematic change, action is reduced down to means with no end, where the demonstration is a statement and nothing more.

Herbert Marcuse discusses the disarming of political action in his essay Repressive Tolerance:

Thus, within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game. To take a most controversial case: the exercise of political rights (such as voting, letter-writing to the press, to Senators, etc., protest-demonstrations with a priori renunciation of counter-violence) in a society of total administration serves to strengthen this administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness. In such a case, freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude.²

What Marcuse sets out to illuminate in this analysis is not only the ineffectiveness of bourgeois activism to actualize systemic change, but also how this type of activism is metamorphosed into action which exculpates the oppressive class for their exploitation. Opposition via political activity reconciles itself with the status quo through its own existence. It contains itself within the limitations of the very system it seems to resist. “It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.” It is thus apparent that the dominant forms of activism represent not a subversive expression of dissent, but as an implicit consent to be governed.

Engagement in activism constitutes an intervention within the space where politics and everyday life intersect. In this way it reflects the totalitarian nature of a democratic society, which controls the totality of life by appearing as the controlled object. In reality, of course, it is the individual whose life becomes co-opted by the machinery of the state through their own supposed participation in its process. This is the principal contradiction that the modern activist continuously and quixotically struggles to overcome. The politicization of human affairs is a component of the greater social phenomenon of alienation, as people act to strip themselves of autonomy through ritualized self-exploitation.

Politics function to a great extent on an abstract level, an intangible expression of the tangible violence of the state. It is a representational system, distorting images of the world by design. The public discourse that arises from this system is a reflection of a reflection, a second degree of non-reality. The rupture of this elaborate funhouse is seen through an act of physical violence, a refusal to engage in the maddening “dialogues” that form the basis of the mainstream consensus. With continued complacency, and an acceptance of this image of reality, that image becomes actualized. This series of relationships and social processes that constitute this spectacular construction becomes the manifestation of reality itself because it is understood that it is the totality of observable reality. The mystification of these spectacular aspects place them at the center of the social world. Guy Debord examined this phenomenon in his Society of the Spectacle:

The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.³

We can see that this mask obstructs a clear view of the reality of society. The “politeness” of modern governance works to produce a societal consensus, one which inverts the truth of objective conditions by presenting helplessness as autonomy, coercion as accord. The maintenance of this phenomenological project is one of the most pressing issues of late capitalist modernity, as the intensification of crisis creates fissures in the objectified worldview.

It is this consensus which the activist, consciously or unconsciously, seeks to reproduce and perpetuate. Activism, as a by-product of capitalist democracy, is the art of manufacturing appearances. What is more important is to display anger, to compress it into a viewable form, rather than to actually act upon it. In the age of social media, this spectacular method can be virtualized and magnified, further diluting whatever emotional message was originally embedded. Activism is both an asocial and social affair, generating crowds that perform mechanistic demonstrations of indignation, brought together by an empty non-message. The deception of such crowds is that they are not so much crowds, but collections of individuals who are more focused on transmitting expressions of false personal investment to each other. The protester does not march towards any specific goal, but to engage in the act of marching itself. Expressive activism (protest politics) is the realization of the theater-form within our social world.

Consider the broken window, universally condemned as a product of “senseless violence”. Destroying a window attacks an ideological barrier as well as a physical one. The normative discourse of our society is one of simulated inaction, concealing brutality within pacifistic rhetoric. To subvert this false language and reveal its true nature is to speak the more “primitive” tongue of physicality. The burning limo and the smashed shopfront are not de-rationalized because they accomplish nothing, in fact the very opposite is true. They symbolize a death of passivity, posing an existential threat to the political mindset. This is why the puppets of the old order must denounce them as acts of insanity.

The limits of rational activity within a sphere of society are set according to the dominant narrative at play. For this reason, riots are depicted as the wrong way to dissent, that is to say, actualized resistance is an improper form of resistance. Violence is not sophisticated, they proclaim, the-pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword and so on. Once again, this returns to the very simple contradiction of democratic governance, that of representation versus content. Such a system can only survive by embracing its own contradiction, pursuing violence with greater theatrical flair, the imposition of a terroristic peace. Activism is only an expression of helplessness in the face of this terrible force. The ideological constraints reproduced by the activist are a consequence of state power, and only reinforce it, despite appearances.. As such, political performance is an expression of the cyclical nature of society’s administration. The perpetuation of the democratic ideology allows exploitative relations to produce the conditions for such an ideology to take root.

To point out the danger explicit violence poses to this system is not to say that the fracturing of a sheet of glass is such a momentous occasion. Breaking a window does not blow away the millions of police and soldiers and all their guns. Such an act does not practically undermine the state any more than a peaceful march does. Political violence faces the same problem that political debate does. The attempt to exert pressure and to force demands onto such a powerful entity is like screaming into a deaf ear.

It is violence as a form of action, in its movement beyond structure and symbolism, that threatens the present order. It bypasses the activist’s struggle to overcome the contradiction of their own work, and lays bare the foundations of the capitalist state. Beyond the political, lies the potential for a reconstitution of the human, if only we can cease to reproduce the conditions of our own oppression. It is only when it tries to overcome the state, rather than shape it, that any sort of resistance transforms itself into revolution.

References

[1] “Words and Those Who Use Them” Situationist International Online. Web. 09 Feb. 2017.

[2] Marcuse, Herbert, and Wolff, Robert Paul. Repressive Tolerance. Berkeley, Callif.: Printed by the Berkeley Commune, 1968. Print.

[3] Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1977. Print.

Fight to Bring Socialism to The Labor Movement


Anton Johannsen argues that we need an independent marxist party in order to revitalize the labor movement, not the other way around. 

haywood-paterson-strike

William ‘Big Bill’ Haywood was an experienced union organizer and leader, as well as prominent member of the Socialist Party of America.

Jacobin recently published an issue completely devoted to exploring the history and future of socialist political organization in the United States. In a follow up article on January 28th, Editor Bhaskar Sunkara almost argues for working class political independence – for a working class political party separate from the Democrats. However, he stops short and supports a confused and muddled ‘fusion’ strategy set out by Seth Ackerman in the above mentioned issue.

Sunkara’s support for running socialists as Democrats cites Ackerman’s “Blueprint for a Party.” Ackerman looks at the attempt to form a U.S. Labor Party in the 1990’s and argues it’s reasons for failure were two: 1) the weakening of the labor movement overall, and 2) the failure to attract the support of major national unions. The reason that unions didn’t want to support a labor candidate is because they didn’t want to run Labor Party candidates against Democrats, and subsequently lose to Republicans. Ackerman also argues that the ruling class in the United States restricts ballot access of third parties to the point of making it too difficult to run third party candidates, but does offer that some alternatives of form might show a way forward. Primarily though, Ackerman’s argument is that we need a semi-independent socialist party formation which can either run socialist candidates as Democrats, or run against Democrats entirely when a completely undefined “critical mass” is reached. This is also reflected in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) strategy documents which obviate programmatic politics for pursuing election campaigns as means to win “reforms.”

In their response to Ackerman, Labor Party founding participants Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed Jr. fall into this same ‘critical mass’ trap that effectively inverts the question at hand. They do indicate that part of the problem of forming a viable socialist party might be the labor leadership, but appeal to the need for a ‘revitalized labor movement’ as the solution to this problem. Just about every socialist wants a revitalized labor movement, and has wanted one for the past sixty years. This line of thinking moves in circles; the labor leadership has wandered astray, and as a result, the unions are flagging. Revitalized unions could set the labor movement back on course, but how can we revitalize unions that are failing?

The reality is that the labor bureaucracy in the United States has relied, since before World War II, on a “transactional politics” both within their own unions and regarding the Democratic Party. Dudzic and Reed are correct on this score. However, this “transactional politics” is based on a self-serving and liberal political outlook: that bureaucratic collective bargaining equals industrial democracy and that union leaders are “labor statesmen” representing the interests of workers in the state. It is this political outlook, or better yet, program, which has set the labor movement on a disastrous course.

Reed, Dudzic, and Ackerman agree that a revitalization of the labor movement is a necessary precondition to the formation of a mass socialist party. I would like to argue that this is wrong. The party must come first in order to revitalize the labor movement. Sam Gindin has basically called for the necessity of forming a socialist party to revitalize flagging unions, but fails to articulate what kind of party. Marxists must unite in a political party around a minimum/maximum program. The minimum program must be aimed at revitalizing the labor movement (thereby expanding our base) as well as fighting for the kinds of democratic rights that bring the working class political and social power.

Restrictive Ballot Access?

Ackerman spends a considerable amount of time discussing the challenges of ballot access in the United States. Most of the restrictive legislation on ballot access he cites is from the 1920-1940’s. For example, a law from Florida in the 1930’s required candidates of a party to get 30% of the vote for two consecutive elections in order to get ballot access. Current Florida Statute 99.096 states:

“Minor political party candidates; names on ballot.—Each person seeking to qualify for election as a candidate of a minor political party shall file his or her qualifying papers with, and pay the qualifying fee and, if one has been levied, the party assessment, or qualify by the petition process pursuant to s. 99.095, with the officer and at the times and under the circumstances provided in s. 99.061.”

The cost, according to the Florida Department of State, for a state legislative candidate to get ballot access is $1,781.82. Is that enough of an excuse to not run our own candidates? To not put forward the idea of the politically independent working class? Ackerman cites the recent sabotage efforts of Arizona Republicans against the Libertarian party. Where before they needed 134 signatures to appear on their party’s primary ballot they now need 3,023. Make no mistake, these are brazen attempts by the ruling parties to protect their own dominance and are categorically anti-democratic. However, is 3,000 signatures really an insurmountable hurdle for aspiring mass political parties? Does this justify running our candidates under the same party banner as those who would engage in the same types of sabotage?

The Union Bureaucracy Problem

Ackerman argues that most third parties end up either embroiled in ballot access lawsuits or forced to acquire thousands of petitions as opposed to educating about their party or organizing constituents. These are all problems of tactic in response to what we ought to take as given; the ruling parties will try and sabotage our efforts. Fighting against this is the meat and potatoes of socialist electoral struggle.

In the 1990s, in spite of ballot access challenges, left political activists and union leaders attempted to form a Labor Party in the U.S. It failed. Ackerman cites some of those involved and concludes that it failed because not enough unions supported it. The reason not enough unions supported it?

“…the problem arose from the oldest dilemma of America’s two-party system: running candidates against Democrats risked electing anti-labor Republicans. For unions whose members had a lot to lose, that risk was considered too high.”

Ackerman fails to discuss why the unions don’t want to lose to the Republicans; business unions rely on Democrats for their power more than their own membership. He simply accepts that the failure of the Labor Party effort stems from union membership reliance on the Democratic party. The Labor Party attempt basically took unions as given – dominated by liberal bureaucrats routinely bargaining away strengths for palliatives.

The liberal tradition of union politics sees collective bargaining as the emancipation of the working class. It is assuredly not. Liberals see the workers’ freedom of association and democratic rights to combine as the consummation of Industrial Democracy; workers, free of restrictive court injunctions, government repression and hired guns, became free to join unions and have a voice in the workplace. Industrial Democracy was conquered thanks to the NLRA, and the last vestiges of feudal work relations were rooted out; law came to govern the workplace, so long as workers labored under a contract, as opposed to the unmitigated tyranny of the boss.

Collective bargaining became the favored terrain of the liberal bureaucrat. Over the past 80 or so years, socialists have been critiquing this trend. The main form of this critique has been that collective bargaining as such is inherently reformist and bureaucratic. Unions monopolize the skills of dealing with management in the hands of a professional staff and grievance procedures prioritize a smooth working day over workers rights, militancy, or organization. The standard line is that workers must get active and reclaim their own unions. This is partly true but it misses a crucial set of obstacles.

Most leftists treat bureaucracy as purely a problem of position. Even the most dedicated socialist and democrat becomes authoritarian by virtue of their position in an organization. This is false. Bureaucratic treachery is not merely a function of social position. The social position of the labor bureaucracy encourages a particular ideological outlook on the basis of waging day-to-day struggles for partial gains. In the old social democratic movement, this took the form of ‘Bernsteinism’. Eduard Bernstein was a socialist theorist who argued we could reform our way to socialism bit by bit. He famously said “the movement is everything; the goal is nothing.” Many credit the triumph of his ideas for the betrayal of the socialist parties during World War I.

But in order for the labor bureaucracy to take control they have to articulate and organize support for a set of political positions. This political outlook of the labor bureaucracy is as crucial to their success as their more concrete sources of power. The logical conclusion here is that there must be an organized force which both argues and organizes for democratic unions where the bureaucrats are thoroughly subordinated to the the membership.

Of course, as Daniel Gaido has pointed out, what actually drove the knife into the back of the Second International was the conservative labor bureaucracy. Kautsky, having defeated the ideological manifestation of labor-bureaucrat reformism within the Social Democratic Party of Germany, could not contend with it’s basis in society. As the German labor bureaucracy began courting American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers, committing itself to support for German colonialism, and in general professing an anti-revolutionary politics, the Center and Left of the SPD were outmaneuvered. The unions controlled vastly more money and members than the party on it’s own steam.

This parallels greatly the attempt by Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin, and other leftists to reform the Democratic Party in the 1960-1970’s. They were ultimately betrayed by the conservative union bureaucracy which could not stomach forgoing their personal positions, their strategy of back-room deals and negotiation politics via labor statesmen, and their commitment to supporting the narrow ‘interests’ of their members best exemplified by their support for the war in Vietnam.

Solutions on Offer

Many leftists and marxists agree on the diagnosis; The labor bureaucracy in the United States has long been wedded to a strategy that restricts membership activity, direct action, and quick solution of problems by workers themselves in favor of byzantine grievance procedures that emphasize uninterruption of the production process, staff heavy organizing drives rooted in media pressure and sub contracted PR games and in general giving up the basis of union power; the strike.

For some the solution is ‘social movement unionism.’ The SEIU’s “Fight For 15$” was executed in this vein. But it was not an organizing drive; it was a Democratic Party campaign plot and it failed. As they pull their organizers out of middle-sized cities across the U.S. South, workers will be left without contracts or institutions of self-defense on the job. The basis of power in these unions isn’t a well educated, organized and active membership ready to strike, but a relationship with the democratic party and the levers of the labor-regulation apparatus. Former I.W.W. member Erik Forman has advanced a similar critique; the bureaucrats result from the reality of the capitalist division of labor in society. But Forman proposes a sort of silver-bullet solution; we need more salts.

The I.W.W.’s problems with growth show why this isn’t a solution. The I.W.W. has member activists in droves. The solidarity-union organizing model of salt-led campaigns doesn’t work because it is molecular in a one-sided sense. The aim is to get supporters to salt into a few shops and build committees, and just continue to build that up in a linear fashion. While this is a necessary part of any union organizing campaign, it is hamstrung by a set of misconceptions.

The first is a belief in linear growth. While we need to apply the tactic of salts, we need to fit it into a broader strategy of growth that begins day one with our target in mind. We cannot simply continue to add salts to an existing campaign, we need to have a strategy in place to secure workers in their gains and coordinate across large groups. I.W.W. campaigns have been very small because they’ve relied on organizer-salts with free time rather than paying people to do the work. This is tied to the problem of bureaucracy and the division of labor in our society; workers need to work to eat. They may go above and beyond and volunteer, but that will always be severely limited.

The second and third problems are linked. The I.W.W. wants a union based on militant direct action and membership involvement, which is a fine goal. But the dominant critique of business unions in the I.W.W. is simplistically anti-bureaucratic; they link paying people for work and contract unionism as the source of bureaucracy. Their solution is to simply lop off the bureaucratic limb and be done with it, by eliminating virtually all paid staff and refusing to sign contracts.

This way of thinking is somewhat reactionary-utopian; it wants to wind back the clock of history to a point when the workplace wasn’t directly in the legal realm and remained the almost-feudal fiefdom of the employer. In reality the salt-organizers all get fired and everybody goes home with no lasting union, in large part because of a principled refusal to sign contracts. Whether a union signs a contract or not, it’s always engaged in some form of collective bargaining with employers. Workers enter into contracts everyday with their employers whether they have a union or not. Rather than try and bring back the wild west syndicalism of the the 1910’s, we need to ask ourselves; what workplace rights will put power into the hands of union members at work?

Social movement unionism doesn’t fare much better. As Sam Gindin has pointed out, ‘social movement’ unionism fails because it is incoherent and divided;

“Yet there are few (if any) mass social movements in North America, and their resource base pales in comparison to that which unions enjoy. Though movements raise the banner of participatory democracy, their institutional weaknesses often result in less-than-democratic internal procedures.

Where they focus on particular identities or single issues, their political outlook is often just as narrow (sometimes even narrower) than those of unions. Their anticapitalist élan often entails radical protest tactics, but they rarely consider what it would actually take to confront the capitalist state and overcome the inertial power, resiliency, and resoluteness of the capitalist class.”

Gindin argues correctly that we need a united socialist party to effectively pursue our aims in the labor movement, but defines both this party and these union reform aims somewhat vaguely.

Marxists understand that the basis for working class politics is the political independence of the working class. The working class can build its political power only on the firm basis of its political and social independence. Bureaucrat led unions ingratiate their employees to their employers, refuse to organize the unorganized, and link up with political parties that unite workers and capitalists. Workers become dependent on unions that pit their members against each other and support individual employers over unity among workers in the labor movement.

This is because the labor bureaucrats and their narrow vision have beaten back the socialists, who remain divided and working at cross purposes. This makes working with subsections of the petit-bourgeoisie seem inviting; perhaps we can work with some democrats. Perhaps we’ll have to compromise with some union bureaucrats in order to get our numbers up, attain an audience, or even just fight off attacks. What appear to be pragmatic compromises for the sake of growth are in reality compromises with building independent class power.

Party Problems

Ackerman argues that the Labor Party’s position to maintain an independent ballot line was a mistake. Dudzic agrees that the party “coalesced” too soon- that there wasn’t a “critical mass” present to ensure a victory over Republicans and Democrats. However, Ackerman’s blueprint, once he gets to it, has problems. He writes:

“[A socialist party] project probably wouldn’t have been feasible in the past, due to campaign-finance laws. For most of the last four decades, the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA), along with similar laws in many states, would have left any such organization with little alternative but to fundraise through a political action committee (PAC). That PAC would have been limited to giving a maximum of $5,000 (the current threshold) to each of its candidates per election, and barred from taking money from unions or collecting donations larger than $5,000 from individuals. That kind of fundraising could never support a national organization.

…All of these restrictions would be waived if, like the DNC or RNC, the group registered as a “party committee.” But there’s a catch: a group can only register as a party committee if it runs the ballot-access gauntlet at the state level (a requirement from which Democrats and Republicans are exempt), then wins a ballot line and runs its candidates on it. (Here we find one of the many reasons scholars have described the FECA as a “major-party protection act.”)”

As already stated, Ackerman thinks that ballot access for an aspiring mass party is too restrictive. His preferred option is the “Carey Model,” which has been vindicated in a post-citizens united court case. The idea here is to incorporate as a social welfare organization which does not have limits on spending in exchange for explicit support for political candidates and political education. However, these candidates still need ballot access and will ultimately face state repression if they succeed. Ackerman mentions in passing a key point – this organization would require self-imposed financial disclosures.

This model has some merit. It does clean up some of the funding restrictions, but the strategic problems remain – the old social democratic parties were eventually compromised by the labor bureaucracy’s monopolization on finances. We have to break the union bureaucracy’s control over their organizations and restrict their donations in such a way as to limit their de facto control of the party; party decisions need to be made democratically through party channels and party money needs to come from members, not large outside donations. We can’t wait for the labor movement to reform itself, we have to start the work of forming a party now.

We don’t just want working class political independence in the abstract. Marxists argue that the end goal of working class politics is putting the working class in political control of society. Thus, the party we need is a Marxist one, which recognizes that the fight for socialism requires bringing the working class to political power. This is reflected by the minimum/maximum idea of a program advanced by Engels and Marx and adopted at Erfurt. The minimum program outlines mostly economic and democratic reforms that taken together amount to the conquest of political power by the working class through extreme democracy while the maximum program is communism. Founding a Marxist party right now is crucial for us to have any coherent and revitalizing project in the labor movement. The demands of the minimum program must include democratic ones with respect to political power in society, especially with respect to the uneven realization of basic rights among gender and racial minorities. However, we also need to press for economic demands that guide our fight in the unions for building workers’ power at work.

With regard to the fear of splitting the liberals when we run our own candidates, what Marx argued in his 1850 Address to the Communist League is as true today as ever:

“Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”

It is to Jacobin and the DSA’s merit that they have a publication with such wide readership willing to discuss these pressing issues. It is also to their very severe deficit that they continue to waver on the need for an independent socialist party with a clear program. Perhaps at this point some DSA members could propose a Draft Program, to at least begin charting the discussion of uniting the Marxist left. I suspect there would be much to debate about the draft program, but it would put us on the path toward unification as opposed to wandering in the swamp of movementism dominated by the Democratic party and the current union bureaucracy.

We can see that on the one hand, socialists interested in building a political party chalk up their own limitations to a decaying labor movement; and argue for a vague and ill-defined revitalization. On the other hand, contemporary syndicalists and anti-party socialists argue for a similarly rudderless revitalization effort, though based on a mirage of linear growth and dedicated volunteer hyper activism. Often these positions intermingle, but rarely do they take the form of a systematic or programmatic approach to the U.S. labor movement. What’s needed is for socialists to agree on a program for organized labor in the United States, and pursue a united policy to implement it. That includes a strategy for labor movement revitalization on the basis of socialist principles.

Further Reading

Labor
Nelson Lichtenstein: Labor’s War At Home – Details the rise of the Labor Bureaucracy during WWII
Christopher Tomlins: The State and the Unions – Details the legal history of Unions in the U.S. in the 20th century.
Marty Glaberman: Wartime Strikes – Writings of a marxist worker-organizer on strikes during WWII and the post-war strike wave.
Stan Weir: Singlejack Solidarity – Similar to the above, marxist worker who recounts among other things, 1930’s strikes and the 1946 Oakland General Strike.
Melvyn Dubofsky: The State and Labor in Modern America – Argues that unions and workers benefited greatly at different points in history by having sympathetic figures in government positions.
Daniel Gaido: Marxism and the Union Bureaucracy: Karl Kautsky on Samuel Gompers and the German Free Trade Unions

I.W.W.
Anton Johannsen: On Paid Staff and Policy in the I.W.W. and The I.W.W. and Paid Staff
Mike ‘Pudd’nhead’: Wages So Low, You’ll Freak – Details the I.W.W. experience at Jimmy Johns

Jacobin 
Seth Ackerman: A Blueprint for a New Party 
Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed jr.: No Easy Solutions: A reply to Seth Ackerman
Bhaskar Sunkara: Our Alternative
Erik Forman: Let’s Get to Work
Sam Gindin: Beyond Social Movement Unionism
Paul Heideman: It’s Their Party 

Communism and the national question

Communists must move beyond the same old phrase mongering and critically look at the national question. 

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US imperialism must be defeated through global communist revolution for national oppression to be abolished.

The national question is one of the most controversial debates within the field of marxism. Whether one agrees with the Austro-Marxists, Kautsky and Lenin, or Bukharin and Luxemburg, it is undeniably a complex question. One could say that we need a better framework for understanding the national question in an era of decolonization of global US imperialism. In this piece I’ll attempt to sketch out an outline as to how to best approach the spectre of nationalism.

The national question refers to a series of arguments, all which generally seek to address the question: What is the best way to end the inequalities between nations? As Communists, we ultimately aim for the abolition of the nation-state in favor of a worldwide community of humanity, where the social conflicts that create national oppression have been eradicated. This is a vision that pretty much all actual communists accept. Yet the aspect of “how we get there” has often meant either making concessions to nationalism (like the Marxist-Leninists) or essentially ignoring the problem of national oppression completely as if communist revolution will make the political reality of national oppression take care of itself (various left communists).

The position I am arguing for is not going to base itself on the principle of “self-determination for nations”. While sometimes self-determination is appropriate to take up as a slogan, it entails that nations as such have an inherent right to a vague notion of self-determination. What defines a nation is a product of collectivities that are cross-class in nature, as national identities are socially constructed in a way that calls for a unity that transcends class conflict. In other words nations are bourgeois projects, and saying that they have an inherent right to self-determination (which can be defined in a way making it open to abuse) is not feasible to uphold as a principle if one wishes to do away with the bourgeois order.

This is not an argument that the revolutions of national liberation were not historically progressive and that the world wouldn’t be better without colonialism. Colonial oppression itself made proletarian organization very difficult with its attacks on democratic rights and enforced economic backwardness. While it is true that the national liberation revolutions were not proletarian movements that led to socialism of any kind, they did establish important democratic rights for many nationalities. However what resulted however was not an equality of nations, but what some have called “neo-colonialism”. I prefer to call it simple what it is, which is capitalist imperialism, based on the hegemonic military power of the USA and its allies in the world which allows it to regulate the rules of global capital to their benefit.

As long as the world is organized in a hierarchy of competing nation states where some are more powerful than others and able to dictate their interests upon weaker states through sanctions, trade deals, proxy wars, etc. there will be an inequality of nations. While many national liberation revolutionaries were aware of the problems of the the national bourgeoisie, they sought the Stalinist plan of “socialism in one country” as an answer to this problem. By existing as autarkies in the capitalist system nations could opt out and produce a system where the state “served the people”. Yet the promise of autarky can hardly live up to realities of the global imperialist system, especially after the collapse of the soviet bloc. Hence attempts at socialism in one country as a form of national liberation have been returning to market systems and cooperating with US imperialism (Cuba, China, Vietnam).

Therefore one cannot separate the problem of abolishing capitalism from the problem of abolishing the world system of nation-states. This entails going beyond the form of the nation state, which is not accomplished by national-liberation revolutions or socialism-in-one-country. We aim for the worldwide cooperative commonwealth, where all of the world’s people are able to fully flourish as individuals to the maximum capacity. This means ending the “war of all against all” that results from the competition for resources between humans, hence a central world government that can make economic and political decisions at the world level. We want a system where as much of humanity as possible is united in a common process of planning its social reproduction. Therefore it makes sense to prefer larger, centralized bodies as opposed to secession and balkanization. Continental, and then World, republics that unite as many nationalities as possible should be our aim. And of course we should build Communist Parties that prefigure this vision.

The “right to self-determination” essentially is promising something communists don’t actually want to ultimately deliver on, because our aim is not national independence but internationalist cooperation. Yet what if a national grouping, with a historic legacy of oppression from a state undergoing revolution, aims to secede from a broader socialist republic? Can they simply be invaded and annexed by the workers state?

My initial answer to this is no, as it would simply be a form of “red imperialism” where communists are complicit in furthering a historical legacy of national oppression. While some secessionist movements are clearly reactionary and should be ruthlessly crushed (like if white nationalists tried to form their own state in the Pacific Northwest) we have to deal with each movement according to its specific historical and immediate circumstances. For example, if revolution happened in the USA and Puerto Rico chose to secede, would invading the population be ok? As Communists we believe in basic republican equality – that no one group has an intrinsic right to rule over another group. Because of this we aim to destroy the world hierarchy of imperialist states and end all forms of national oppression, an action like annexing Puerto Rico would go against these basic principles. One does not need to believe in the “right to self-determination” as a principle to agree with this but simply the principle of national equality between peoples.

Yet if we do believe (like all marxists should) that class contradiction in the end will be more decisive than national antagonisms then it would expected that workers in a state seceding from a workers republic will eventually revolt against the national bourgeoisie. As Communists our job would be to aid these workers and agitate for international communism, essentially pursuing a “foreign policy” of promoting international revolution in the workers movement, arguing for class independence from the bourgeois nationalists and pushing for world-wide cooperation through communism as a solution to the problems of class society. This could go as far as arming and sending in international brigades to help workers overthrow a corrupt government, which would not be some equivalent to imperialist interventionism but an express of class solidarity beyond national borders.

To promote co-operation, Communists must recognize the democratic rights of oppressed nationalities and fight for them, for example the right to participate in civil society in your own language. We must prove that communism is not only economically superior, but also politically, that people will not lose their rights and culture if they are a part of the workers republic. While obviously this shouldn’t mean conceding any basic rights seen as universal, the historic oppression of national groups needs to be addressed in a way that doesn’t reproduce great-nation chauvinism like the Stalinist USSR.

Ultimately it will be through a process of cultural exchange that is unprecedented in history that a new world culture that whithers away nations will be developed by worldwide social revolution. Cultural exchange where all are equals in a human community that wouldn’t be tainted by xenophobia would would see a world where national distinctions become more and more irrelevant, a world without borders where humans do not own land but are ensured to have access to housing and basic needs. Communism can provide this; nationalism cannot except perhaps in undesirable forms of “barracks socialism” which have their own class distinctions. A world party, where communists of all nationalities coordinate the revolution, will act as a preparation for the kind of international cooperation needed for communism.

My aim here is not to find a one size fits all solution to the national question, but rather to provide an alternative way of thinking about national rights that does not rely on the notion of “right to self-determination” which is often simply means “the right for the bourgeois to rule”. Communists must push for class independence from nationalists of all kinds, first and foremost those of their own nation. As Karl Liebknecht said, “the main enemy is at home”. It is important to promote the notion that the workers movement in all parts of the world must pursue class independence from the national bourgeoisie and not get caught in promoting anti-imperialist fronts with various military dictators and bonapartists. Yet as revolutionaries in the USA, the main hegemon of imperialism, our primary aim is to promote the defeat and removal of US forces in all cases of intervention. We must uncompromisingly take this position, especially in an era where imperialist agendas are presented under a “humanitarian guise”. The historical track record shows US imperialism is not progressive in any way but rather contributes to the scale and deadliness of global conflicts. So even if the idea of “exporting democracy” were morally justifiable, it would fail regardless. Democracy today (the real kind that puts power in the hands of the proletariat as opposed to the liberal-constitutionalism of the US gov) can only come through the organization of the proletariat regardless of nationality.

Hopefully I have brought clarity to some of the issues at stake in the national question rather than just indulging in the same old phraseology common among marxists. The 20th Century showed the difficulties that nationalism of many varieties posed to the communist movement and the role they played in its failure. So addressing nationalism is no small task. My hope here is to spark some debate and polemic with comrades on the topic that can help us move into a more programmatic approach from the typical leftist phrase mongering and displays of moral righteousness.

Russia Obsession Shows the Democrats Refuse to Learn the Lesson of the last Election

Democrats’ inability to present a meaningful progressive alternative to the status quo and Trumpism doomed them to defeat and condemns them as a force for achieving even mild progressive reforms.

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The November election dealt the Democrats a crushing defeat, handing control of all three branches of the Federal government to the Republican Party. Additionally, the Republicans are one state legislature away from being able to pass constitutional amendments. This appears to have been a wave election, but unlike the wave of 2008, which swept Obama into office, this was not some inevitability. Indeed, well into election night the smart money was on Democrats pulling out a comfortable victory. This was not simply the normal beltway hubris. This election was the Democrat’s to lose; and they did.

 

The reasons for this shocking upset are many but the bulk of influential Democrats, after a period of self reflection as surprising as it was brief, seemed to land on the suspicious conclusion that it was Russian meddling that handed Trump the White House. The reason this conclusion seems suspicious is not only  the lack of any verifiable proof to back the allegations (as of this writing). It also conveniently shifts blame off the party leadership which bungled an election that could easily have been won. In doing so they redirected the justified anger of rank-and-file progressives and point it toward a traditional bugaboo of US politics.

 

Is it possible that Putin could have done something like what is being claimed? One would be a fool to put it past him. He is an authoritarian strongman who lacks even the pretense of commitment to democracy that most politicians have the good taste to feign. It must be understood that Putin is as much an enemy of freedom as is our own ruling class.

 

But was it Russia that prevented Hilary from campaigning even once in Wisconsin? Was it Putin that cleared the way for an unlikable candidate mired in scandal before the first primary? Did Russia force the Democrats to embrace neoliberal policies and trade deals that alienated previously reliable democratic voters in rust belt states, voters like the ones in Ohio and Pennsylvania that essentially handed Trump the win? Did Russian hackers make the Clinton Administration embrace policies like welfare reform and mass incarceration that might make black voters a little less likely to turn out on election day? Was it Russia Today that made Obama deport more immigrants than any other president? Of course not. Claims of Russian interference ought to be investigated, preferably by organizations more trustworthy than the CIA, an organization with its own tortured history of subverting democracy. But if the Democratic leadership wants to find the source of their woes they should look in the mirror, not across the Bering Strait.

 

But they won’t do that because any honest assessment of this disaster would demand that heads roll. The liberal technocrats that have dominated the Democratic Party since the rise of Bill Clinton would rather keep their heads and see their party drift into obscurity than lose them and see the party drift to the left. Thus they obsess over Russian hacking as a way of not dealing with the real reasons they lost.

 

This points toward two reasons establishment liberals were so hostile to Bernie and left wing alternatives generally. The first is careerism. Many of the people who controlled the democratic party were Clinton appointees or people connected in some way to the Clinton machine. They owe their positions to that machine and have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the its defeat. The second reason is that the Democratic establishment is just not that ideologically progressive. Theirs is the liberalism of the public private partnership not universal communal property, of John Locke and John Maynard Keynes rather than Karl Marx or Rosa Luxemburg. They may support curbing the worse behaviors of the ruling class and subsidies to prod the market into yielding marginally more humane results. However, when it comes to the role of the market, let alone the ideological assumptions undergirding capitalism, they have much more in common with Paul Ryan than Bernie Sanders.

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“I think it’s the wrong message to send to any group. There’s not anything free in America. We all have to pay for something. Education is not free. Health care is not free. Food is not free. Water is not free. I think it’s very misleading to say to the American people, we’re going to give you something free.” -Liberal lion John Lewis on Bernie’s proposal for free college tuition

 

If you call for universal access to health care they will fight you. Perhaps not in a racialized rhetoric of “moochers” and “takers vs makers” but they will come at you with arguments about feasibility, realism and perhaps most tellingly efficiency. (Doubt anyone that tells you universal healthcare isn’t “realistic” when other, poorer societies have “really” done it). Just last week Democrats voted against a Sanders bill to cheapen prescription drugs. The idea that the government should be able to negotiate the price of the drugs it buys is one of those patently obvious truisms that would be an easy sell to the general public but mainstream Democratic leaders can’t get behind it. This is partially because they’re bought off, but it’s also because they really don’t believe the government should have that kind of influence over the market. Thus they become Republican Light™. And if you like Republican Classic™ why would you pick Republican Light™? And if you don’t, why would you pick either one?

 

There’s an opportunity here for leftwing politics.

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This guy at a Kratom bar told me his tattoo of the Chinese symbol for crisis is also a tattoo of the Chinese symbol for opportunity.

Many progressives have for a long time admitted the fundamental shittyness of Democratic politics, at least behind closed doors. They stayed in its orbit in large part out of fear of Republicans being even worse, and out of a desperate hope of moving Democrats to the left. We’ve seen that the Democrats are likely structurally incapable of tacking left. But the strategy of Democrats as a bulwark against reaction now seems unworkable as well. The party that was too incompetent to be “The Winners” now seeks to cast themselves as “The Resistance.” One could be forgiven for not placing much faith in such a resistance, even as Republicans seem poised to ratchet up the reaction.

 

In my admittedly anecdotal experience it seems that progressives seem to be awakening to the need to build a politics that goes beyond or even breaks with the Democrats. This isn’t because our arguments suddenly became more convincing. Rather, now the Democrats appear not just ideologically bankrupt but also politically impotent. Some could get past the former but none should forgive the latter. Building radical alternatives is no longer just a nice idea; it’s a practical necessity. If there is a silver lining to the mess that Clintonism has left us this is it. IWW branches across the country report up ticks in interest. Every Communist League Tampa seems to have new faces at it. As people grasp for a way out of this, and as Democrats seem basically content to abandon white working class people to racist demagogues, it’s important that radicals point the way to an alternative.

 

Trumpism functions as its own kind of alternative to the existing order. This is the secret to it’s surprising appeal. It’s also the secret to Bernie’s unexpected traction. And it’s why professional, technocratic, steady-as-she-goes liberalism suffered such a defeat. When I say Bernie would have won it’s not to anger injured Clinton-istas. Well, not only that. It’s a recognition that only a superior alternative can defeat Trump and the ghouls that will inevitably swim in his wake. That is the lesson of 2016 but Democrats, even supposed Progressives like Keith Ellison, seem unwilling to learn it.

 

In 2016 we were once again presented with the choice of socialism or barbarism. Because the Democrats couldn’t countenance even Bernie’s tepid, mild socialism we ended up with orange barbarism. It’s clear now that we can’t rely on Democrats to save us. They can’t but they wouldn’t even if they could.

Lessons of Party and Class from the Russian Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The party doesn’t die, it betrays

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

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

Communization: Poor and Blank

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

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Riding the wave of revolutionary will.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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