Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Who killed Brisenia Flores?


Seven years ago yesterday, on May 30th, 2009, Brisenia Flores and her father Raul Flores were murdered in Arizona by racist neo-nazi anti-migrant vigilantes. Her death was never talked about in mainstream media. 

"Brisenia Flores arrived in her rural Arivaca, AZ home with her parents, Raul Flores and Gina Gonzales, the evening of May 29th, 2009. The family had spent the day shopping for Brisenia’s new shoes about 60 miles northeast in Tucson. The 9-year-old girl had just finished the 3rd grade and needed the shoes for summer camp that was about to start.

Brisenia went to bed on a couch in the living room so she could sleep with her dog that wasn’t allowed in her room. She fell asleep watching television as her parents slept in their bedroom. A few hours later, she opened her eyes to the sight of her father, lying on the opposite couch. He had been shot in the chest and was choking on his own blood. Her mother was bleeding on the floor, a gunshot wound to her leg. The little girl was startled and cried out to intruders in her home, “Why did you shoot my mom?”


Read more here.

Oregon superdelegate explains why he'll vote for Bernie---and a link to the Democratic Party of Oregon Program

A statement from Larry Taylor passed on us by Michael Munk:

I am one of Oregon’s Democratic National Committee members and therefore one of the 13 unpledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention in July. The Democratic Party is fortunate to have two extraordinary presidential candidates from which to choose. I turned in my ballot two weeks ago, which was my personal vote. I do not believe that my vote as an unpledged delegate should invalidate thousands of votes cast by Oregon democrats in this primary. Therefore, to help insure that the Oregon delegation more closely reflects the preference of Oregon Democrats, tonight I pledge my vote to Senator Bernie Sanders. I especially want those who are voting for the first time to know that your vote is represented in this election. Earlier this year, we updated the platform of the Democratic Party of Oregon. If you read the document, you will find nearly complete alignment between Oregon Democrats and Senator Sanders. I have complete confidence that if Senator Sanders is the Democratic Nominee, he will stand firm on his progressive values as we head into the general election. I am honored to join Senator Jeff Merkley and my fellow DNC member Lupita Maurer in supporting Senator Sanders at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I hope everyone becomes active in their county and state Democratic Party Organizations. In the coming months, they all well be electing officers. The Democratic Party of Oregon will be electing Democratic National Committee members in November 2016, and will be electing officers in March of 2017. Become a delegate to the State Central Committee thru your county organization so you can vote and make the change you want happen! Thanks!

The program referred to above can be found here.

Bad trade deals aren't killing jobs and manufacturing and busting unions---the bosses are.

Kim Moody does his usual great work in Against The Current this month when he writes about what's new and what isn't for U.S. workers. His article takes up some of the questions about class and work which we have been struggling with here. It is understandable that we can get sucked into the trade debates, disagreements over precariousness and get carried away with talking about the gig economy given the amount of writing being done on these subjects, some of it quite good and from the left. But Kim Moody uses a statistics-driven and empirically-based method to get to the heart of economic matters and how they effect workers. His article gives a bit of a different picture then we have been projecting. Here is the part of his great essay which I most respond to:

A Changing Proletariat

An important change in the composition of the employed working class is the proportion of workers of color, which grew from about 15-16% of workers in production, transportation and material-moving occupations as well as in service occupations in 1981 to 40% of each of these broad occupational groups by 2010.

Immigration has played a major role in this increase. Along with African Americans and women, immigrant workers will fill many of the low-wage jobs projected by the BLS. Some will also join the labor movement. Reflecting this, 200,000 Latinos joined unions between 2011 and 2014, while 96,000 Asian and Pacific Islanders joined in one year between 2013 and 2014.

Probably most commented on, however, is the decline of manufacturing employment from 27% of private employees in 1980 to 11% in 2010. It is this change that most often leads to speculation about the declining significance and power of the working class. While manufacturing has been a declining source of employment for a long time, the dramatic loss of nearly five million manufacturing, production and nonsupervisory jobs since 1980 calls for an explanation.

Many, particularly in the labor movement, argue that the culprit was trade. Clearly some industries like basic steel, textiles, garments, etc. saw big losses to imports. But these losses account for only about 20% of the five million. Nor does “offshoring,” which grew over much of this period but recently slowed down, account for massive losses as domestic content in U.S. manufacturing still averages about 85-90%, well above the global average of 72%. As the United Nations observed, “Large economies, such as the United States or Japan, tend to have significant internal value chains and rely less on foreign imports.”

The problem with trade-based explanations is that manufacturing output hadn’t shown a decline, but had grown in real terms by 131% from 1982 to 2007 just before the Great Recession reduced output. At an annual average of 5% this is only slightly less than the 6% annual growth of the 1960s.

The mystery behind this massive loss of jobs lies in both the destruction of capital, on the one hand, and its increased application in the last 30 years, on the other. The disappearance of manufacturing jobs hasn’t followed the more or less steady upward trajectory of imports since the mid-1980s. Rather, massive job destruction has occurred during the four major recessions of this period as capital itself has been destroyed: in 1980-82 2.5 million manufacturing production jobs lost; 1990-92 725,000; 2000-03 about 678,000, and during the Great Recession another two million jobs gone.

Between the recessions of 1980-82 and 1990-92, and 2000-03 output increased by 6% a year, but employment remained flat due primarily to the large productivity gains, averaging over 3% a year achieved by capital through the application of new technology and lean production methods often supplemented or even supplanted by biometric and electronic monitoring, measuring and enforcing of labor standardization and intensification.

One measure of the intensification of labor over these years has been the decrease in break time from 13% of the work day in the 1980s to 8% in the 2000s for those in routine goods and service-producing jobs.

Both growing investment and work intensification are behind this rising productivity. Real private fixed assets in manufacturing doubled between 1979 and 2014, while manufacturing employment fell by over 40%. While fixed investment for the whole economy, like GDP, grew more slowly since the early 1980s than in U.S. capital’s heydays following World War II, the proportion of non-residential fixed investment in GDP has actually been larger than back then: 11-12% of GDP compared to 10% during the 1960s.

As a result, the capital-labor ratio for the economy as a whole, which was basically flat in the 1970s, rose in the 1980s and accelerated during the 1990s, increasing by almost two-thirds up to the Great Recession.

The increase in “service” employment, on the other hand, is explained by the shorter hours worked in many of these occupations, the statistical shift of outsourced services from the manufacturing column to services such as food services, accounting, data processing, security, etc, and above all huge increases in the commodified labor of social reproduction.

As millions of women entered the workforce from the 1950s onward, and their hours of work increased from 925 a year in 1979 to 1,664 in 2012, with those of women with children growing from 600 to 1560 over that period, capital stepped in and organized the commodification of many aspect of social reproduction formerly done in the home such as healthcare, elder care, food services, etc.

This trend created some eight million new service jobs from 1990 to 2010. Millions more were created to maintain capital’s expanding facilities and buildings and clean up its accumulating mess. Few of these jobs are “white collar,” most are physical, their pay is low, and many are filled by women, workers of color, and immigrants.    

Monday, May 30, 2016


Memorial Day in Salem: We learn some history and see how class and gender intersect




As in life, perhaps so in death.

Today two of us went out to Salem’s Pioneer Cemetery to find three graves, those of Olive England-Enright, Robert Ryan and Lucy Jellison. Our small adventure says much about the intersections of class and gender in Salem.

Olive England-Enright was the first woman to graduate from Willamette University’s law school and was the first woman to register to vote in Oregon. She graduated from WU late in life and was a leader of the local suffragette movement. She, or someone in her circle, used the telling phrase “gender-phobia” to refer to men who were resisting the push to gain the right of women to vote in Oregon in 1912. She apparently had the sympathy of Oregon’s governor.

Olive wrote and had published a remarkable book featuring poems which show a deep love for women and an interest in mystical Christianity. That book, Ceres, a harvest home festival, can still be found and has been translated into Russian. Her grave is at the back entrance to the cemetery.

Robert Ryan was a leader of Salem Local #4 of the Socialist Party in 1912. He was a farmer and lived just east of the downtown area. He had fought on the Union side during the Civil War. His grave marker has blackened with age and only records his army service.

Like us, past Salem socialists met on Sundays. They maintained an office or hall at the Commercial Hall. Unlike us, they could easily fill the armory when socialist speakers came to town. They maintained an active socialist organization rich with study and well-structured. In 1912 they were working on homelessness in Salem and were trying to get the authorities to use an easier hand in dealing with transient workers (“vagrants”).

Lucy Jellison and her children have no grave marker. She had had four marriages by 1912, all dissolved, and lived with four of her five children in a tent on North Liberty behind a house which she rented and subleased. She had a part-time job in a cafeteria. On March 1, 1912 Lucy poisoned four of her children and herself. A railroad worker was with Lucy until 2:00 AM on March 1 and then left to go to work. He reported that she seemed to be in good spirits when he departed. This tragedy stood at that time as an outstanding event in Salem’s history.

Lucy also had a teenage son who was not living at home at the time of the tragedy. He worked at Fitts, the fish company still in business on 12th Street, and made $6.00 a week. The local Progressive newspaper hinted that this was not a living wage and lightly censured Fitts for not paying higher wages. Reading between the lines, we see that Lucy’s situation was not good and that she was somewhat troubled and depressed. She and her children died with enough money on hand to pay for the cemetery plots but nothing more. Their tent may have been stolen. She wrote several apologetic notes before taking her life and the lives of her children and the newspaper ran these letters, a long letter from a friend of Lucy’s and the lengthy graveside sermon given by a kind Methodist preacher. It is notable that the minister and Lucy’s friend did not publicly condemn her.

In the wake of the Jellison deaths there was a bit of soul-searching in Salem. Salem then had just over 14,000 residents and had grown by about 230 percent over the preceding ten years. There was a feeling in the community that people weren’t talking to and checking in with their neighbors and an organization formed to ensure that people would talk and visit more with one another, a kind of predecessor to the do-nothing, why-can’t-we-all-get-along and its-all-about-communication Salem Leadership Foundation now working in Salem. Lucy’s tragedy and her transgressive actions quickly went on the back-burner. A wooden marker, now gone, and a grieving ex-husband and son were all that testified to the lives and tragedy that belonged to Lucy and her kids. Nothing now marks their graves.

Robert and Lucy are buried close to one another, Olive just a short walk away. Also close to the Jellison burial plot are the well-marked graves of the McGhilcrist family who owned the cafeteria where Lucy worked part-time. Walking from one grave to another you can see a special memorial for an Oregon governor and a founder of the Oregon Medical Society, but nothing tells you that Robert was a socialist, that Olive was a feminist and that Lucy was a despondent worker overcome by the pressures which come with the poverty still common to working people.

I wondered if the three of them ever met. They surely passed one another on the street. Perhaps they interacted in the cafeteria without knowing one another, without realizing what their contributions to the world would be and what those contributions would mean to people generations later. Robert would have had much to say to Lucy, I think. He might have told her about his dream of a cooperative commonwealth which wouldn’t consign the poor to tents and he might have tried to get her to join the Socialist Party and fight back. Olive might have impressed or awed Lucy with her manners and poems, might have tried to enlist her in the struggle to win democratic rights. Olive and Robert would have argued over class and gender politics. And Lucy might have grounded them both in her lived reality as a transgressive working-class woman.

As in life, perhaps so in death.

There are no markers here for our fallen working-class people, for the heroic and less-than-heroic who are our people, and no markers as well for the women of all classes who fought so hard for democratic rights.

Salem had at least 14 unions in 1912. Bartenders were fighting for a living wage of $18.00 a week and were trying to put two scab bars out of business. The Industrial Workers of the World was set to strike the construction companies building a complicated and far-reaching electric railroad line crisscrossing the Willamette Valley. Among their demands were special wage rates for the Greek and Bulgarian workers doing the hardest jobs. There was a socialist movement here. There was feminist movement here. There was a daily Progressive newspaper here which supported some of labor’s demands and winning the vote for women, had a decent position on immigration and reported with some sympathy on the situation of Native Americans. You didn’t learn any of this in school because there is no room for peoples’ history in the curriculum.

We have no place in the textbooks and there is barely room in the cemeteries for us. We are among the forgotten and discarded ones. We are among the wretched of the earth. 

The friendly woman managing Memorial Day at the cemetery gave us two brochures which provide an overview of the cemetery. Only one woman is highlighted as being a prominent person buried there, and there is space enough in one of the brochures to tell the story of a renowned alcoholic farmer buried there, but there is no space to tell of Olive, Robert and Lucy.

We will all die. We will all eventually be forgotten. People and time will move on until the world itself will roll like an empty walnut through space. Still, we go on because life has weight and, if you are engaged in changing the world, meaning.

Olive.

Robert.

Lucy.

As in life, perhaps so in death.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Why Marxism is important and why it should not be abandoned---Part Three


(This is our third and final entry in this series exploring why Marxism is important and why it should not be abandoned and examining some criticisms we have received. Please read the first two posts and come back to check on changes. We value your opinions and hope to hear from you.)

Let’s wrap up and make some concluding notes:

1.       “Class” is as much process as it is category. Classes exist only in relation to one another, and those relationships form across time and have meaning and consciousness attached to them. At a given moment, or as shorthand, we might describe a working-class by looking at statistics in the industrial, service and administrative sectors or by measuring the different forms of capital present and the appropriation of surplus value or by studying how labor power is reproduced and under what conditions. These studies tell us a great deal and give us a functional means of understanding our reality and proving certain points. They will most often show the terms of understanding between the classes and show likely paths to conflict. On the other hand, the cultural, political and social contexts of class are really best measured in struggle, and it is here that preconceptions must be abandoned in favor of a methodology which understands that it is people who “make their own history, but (that)they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selectedcircumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmittedfrom the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare onthe brains of the living.” The subaltern approach either dispenses with one definition of class or the other or misapplies both; in either case, a historically-grounded methodology is missing.

2.       An illustration of how tricky these questions are arises when we talk about baristas and so-called “unskilled” workers. Hanna Brooks Olsen recently wrote an interesting article entitled Service Work Is Skilled Work. Get Over It. She makes the case that many jobs which are considered unskilled require real and learned skills. I’m convinced by some of her arguments but not convinced by others. Industrial work and skilled trades have not disappeared so much as they have gone elsewhere, continuing automation presents a choice between impoverishment and economic crisis or building a socialistic and cooperative society, skilled work should not be equated with necessary work and there is no reason to believe that service work will not undergo the same kinds of changes that industrial work has undergone since Frederick Taylor was brought into the picture.

We have never doubted that service workers are workers and that they are among the most exploited workers. In Salem we have four main components in the working class: service workers, healthcare workers, government and social service agency workers and agriculture workers. Manufacturing and high tech are not strong features of the local economy here. These workers have particular needs and a class- or self-consciousness which is different than workers engaged in industrial production, and their levels of organization and their unions and our local politics and the region’s culture reflects this. In fact, we can break it down further and speak of “consciousnesses” since there is not yet a common class consciousness which cuts across the four sectors and work relations are mediated by gender, race, and ethnicity, matters of sexual preference and gender identity and age to a great degree.

But does this mean that baristas, say, will be the revolutionary subject and lead the revolution here? I don’t think so. The service workers and others are key social forces, most of these jobs are skilled or semi-skilled and, at least for now, essential. But these service sector and government jobs exist in large part because someone somewhere else is working in industrial production and creating the surplus value needed to make the service economy viable. Moreover, the point of radicalization for service workers can’t be that their jobs are different than others, but that they are strikingly and increasingly similar. The subaltern approach will focus on the differences while we focus on the evolution and consequent similarities of the work.

Where the subaltern approach does work is in its interest in the reproduction of labor power and its insistence that so much real work vital to capitalism is unpaid labor---homemaking, for instance. It is not that this work stands alone as distinct economic activity, but that it is joined to production, distribution and administration in hundreds of ways which we have not paid sufficient interest to and which are constantly under the scrutiny of capitalist managers seeking to automate that work and make it more productive.  

3.       A strong point for us remains that we live under conditions of monopoly capitalism. This is most often taken to mean that monopolies control production, distribution and administration in society, and that’s true enough. But what is also true is that “monopoly capital” means that the capitalists monopolize how production, distribution and administration are carried out---that they leave no room in society for alternate forms of production, distribution and administration. To the extent that this is true and realized, then, a problem specific to the workers and people prioritized in subaltern movements exists: they can’t organize and negotiate through the traditional trade unions, the social movements have limited power and influence and they can’t sustain alternate economies. Bitcoins, barter, service exchanges and the like don’t meet these needs. Subalternism then either leans towards a reformist strategy,surrendering its revolutionary content, or gives up entirely. I project, instead, that these workers constitute reserve and potentially radical forces and that they are a necessary part of a classwide battle for socialism as allies of waged workers.

People who want to study these questions in greater depth should start with this article by Adaner Usmani which appeared in Against The Current in July of 2013.

Why Marxism is important and why it should not be abandoned---Part Two


(This is the second in a three-part series on why Marxism is essential and where I think that some our most vocal critics get it wrong. Please read the first entry and then move on to this. I'm trying to keep these short and to the point and give readers the tools for research. Thanks!)

There has been a historic tendency or drift on the left towards syndicalism for more than a century now. Syndicalism generally looks at organizing workers at the point of production into unitary organizations and using militant tactics in the workplaces and in industry to overthrow capitalism. Syndicalism has not been entirely negative, even if it isn’t Marxism. A 1913 pamphlet by William Z. Foster and Earl C. Ford on syndicalism still has some relevancy.

Syndicalism errs in putting aside the political struggle, in not finding a balance between building working class political power and economic power, in minimizing the role of the state and what the state is capable of, in looking solely at the worker as a worker (and not, say, as a citizen or as a consumer or as a person driven to revolution through intersectionality) and in holding a misunderstanding of the working class as essentially homogeneous. The legacy of “tame” syndicalism is found in certain craft unions and is still seen in unions like SEIU, while revolutionary syndicalism in the US reached its highpoint in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). What has come down to us from these histories is a distorted image of who workers are and how they think. These distorted images feed the justifiable objections raised in subaltern studies in the US, and a destructive debate over “essentialism” is underway, with one side in the discussion holding that there is no essential force needed for revolution and socialism (or, perhaps, they argue that a number of forces or categories are needed) and another side struggling and dividing over how to define “class” and give it meaning in a world where global capital is on a global offensive and is intent on changing methods of work, distribution and administration.

The folks who favor the “subaltern approach” bend towards syndicalism and then go past it. Where the revolutionary syndicalism of the IWW (and certain unions in France and Spain and in Latin America) covered for and associated with anarchism, the people who we know who are into “subalternism” increasingly reject even the class bases of anarchism and syndicalism. They correctly argue that workers’ struggles are important and that both the economic crisis and the working class are now globalized, but they take this as a point of departure for saying that socialist revolutions don’t (or can’t) occur in advanced capitalist countries, that the left can’t or won’t grow under current conditions and that traditional labor movements, including the socialist and communist labor movements, are either failing or have completely failed. They buttress their arguments by saying that the left and the left-led labor movements are accommodating to neo-liberalism and that neo-liberalism is superseding the state, or diminishing the role of the state, and leaving movements which seek state power or political influence impotent and lost. They make the argument that workers are integrated into a system or culture of consumption and cannot be revolutionary so long as they have this relationship with consumption. There are justifiable peoples’ demands, they admit, but there is no place to take these demands, and workers' attempts to take and hold state power are doomed in the face of neo-liberalism. And they go still further by arguing that social movements cannot defeat capitalism and build socialism either. You can see how this gives way to despair. I think that “subalternism” is a kind of last-ditch attempt to have some hope for the future: the final hope for change here rests with slave rebellions, domestic workers organizing, resistance by sharecroppers, sex worker militancy, baristas and others who are being buried by conditions of modern precariousness and people who experience oppression outside of or on the edge of waged labor systems---almost anyone except industrial wage workers, in other words.         

For the record, we support these struggles as well, but we do so on different terms than the folks who take the subaltern approach. Different alliances or combinations become possible when so many different categories of workers are drawn into a global capitalist system and pushed to the point of resistance and we believe that it is up to the left to fully understand intersectionality and lead in the creation of new alliances. Supporters of the subaltern approach generally leave forming alliances or combinations up to spontaneous chance while we take a more deliberate approach. Something can be said for each side in this discussion, but I believe that if we use dialectical materialism as our guiding tool then we understand that there are primary and reserve forces which need to be brought into revolutionary situations in disciplined ways and that genuine workers’ parties functioning with the support of the people are responsible for that discipline.   

Let’s break it down a bit more by examining some of the objections raised by people who take the subaltern approach. I'll number the objections as I understand them and provide responses.

1.       Social movements can only express negative demands because globalization and neo-liberalism are weakening states or making states irrelevant.

I don’t think that the global situation has fully advanced to this point. But even if I am wrong, it is still logical to believe that capturing and transforming a state provides a base for revolution and creates a new battleground. The relative strengths of globalization and neo-liberalism certainly do not make the question of state power irrelevant and perhaps provide the means and necessity needed for international coordination. We also see that the example of democratic confederalism carried out in revolutionary Rojava forms a dialectical opposite of globalization and neo-liberalism and that the ideas of democratic confederalism and democratic self-management arose in the context of a struggle in a capitalist country (Turkey). The relative weaknesses of social movements and the “NGOization” of social movements argue for a more political approach, not a less political approach, and full global unity with workers’ movements.

2.       Workers’ rebellions and revolutions have only gone forward in places where capitalism has not fully developed.

This is certainly not for lack of effort on our part. It must be recognized that workers’ rebellions and revolutions in the most advanced capitalist countries were put down by bloody repression and not for a lack of critical proletarian support. The colonies and former colonies, the nations developing capitalist economies and the so-called “peripheries” which took (or tried to take) socialist models and methods were, or are, the strategically weakest links on the capitalist chain and so it is understandable that they will lead in rebellions and revolutions for a time and provide at least some of the core revolutionary proletarian forces in the industrialized imperialist nations.

We also have a problem of methodology in approaching this question. It may be better to think in terms of relative degrees of socialist progress in societies rather than to argue over whether a society is “truly socialist” or not. Vietnam, Cuba and China, for instance, all maintain some degree of socialist forward movement, but these are differing and relative degrees.

Another methodological problem presents itself when we consider the natures of the revolutions which took place in Eastern and southern Europe after the Second World War. I maintain---and those who take a subaltern approach will strongly disagree---that these were indeed revolutions and that they created forms of socialism out of the ruins of the wars. These were countries either approaching the conditions of mature capitalist development on the eve of the war or were essentially colonies and subject nations at that time. My point here is that revolutions can arrive in capitalist nations under many disguises.

Lenin’s The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination should be studied here. In the sixth section of this article he undertakes a brief analysis of the division of countries and describes a kind of Three Worlds Theory” which puts the matter of the so-called “peripheral nations” in the proper context.

A strategic and tactical problem also presents itself. Globalization and neo-liberalism are at odds with the interventionist states, and particularly with the social-democratic and welfare states. There is a real contradiction here. With the on-going global struggles to defend the gains and benefits made under the social-democratic and welfare states and the worldwide fight against austerity the matter of whether or not workers in the most advanced capitalist countries will rebel and carry out revolutions takes on a different content. Workers can certainly use, and are using, this contradiction to our collective advantage: look at Greece, Spain, Brazil, Portugal and France (and especially Portugal and France) to measure the staying power of revolutionary workers’ movements.

3.       Advanced capitalist relations have either heightened the identity of workers as consumers or have bought them off entirely. In any case, workers in the advanced capitalist countries have a material interest in defending capitalism and privilege, and so it falls to others to make revolution.

Consumerism is certainly a problem to the extent that it blocks or obfuscates class consciousness, but it is not properly an identity, and the working classes present in the advanced capitalist countries probably consume less of what is produced than other classes do. Our consumption is generally dictated by the conditions of having to reproduce labor power, and this gives working-class consumption unique characteristics not common to other classes. Moreover, workers in the advanced capitalist countries in certain industries receive higher wages than workers in other countries employed in the same industries because the rate and kinds of exploitation in those industries in the advanced capitalist nations is higher. This may not be true overall, but it is certainly true in certain industries. To the extent that the rates and kinds of exploitation are higher here, then, privilege is diminished. And on the ideological field, if nowhere else, we have a historic understanding in Marxism that the wage workers in the imperialist nations cannot be free unless and until the “unwaged” workers (like slaves) and workers in the colonized nations are free. If we think along these traditional Marxist lines then the matter of privilege is “relativized” and takes a different form.

4.       Workers in the advanced industrialized countries must experience immiseration and the collapse of their societies before they can be revolutionary.

I am wary of any philosophy which lays down laws or predictions of this order. This is not the same as saying “Workers of the world, unite---you have nothing to lose but your chains!” or forecasting the gradual ruin of artisans and workers under conditions of advancing capitalism and it is not the same as saying that revolutions occur when the past and present are untenable and a path to the future has been opened. My point is that it the working class and our allies who can save the world from collapse, which in any case is increasingly a matter of pending environmental disaster and less a matter of particular states failing. We have this role because we can construct new and revolutionary social relationships within the shell of the old society and construct or reconstruct a better world as no other class can precisely because of our class character and identity.

We cannot count on disasters moving people to the left, and no sane person wants to join the party that tells workers that they have to lose everything and face extreme social crises. In the hands of some people on the left in the US this mentality supports counter-cultural thinking, elitism and even racism. It is a formula based on negation and not on struggle.

5.       Workers are not the only forces producing surplus value in society; slaves also produce surplus value. Marx got this wrong.

The question of whether slaves produced actual value or were part of “fixed capital” in the past is largely an academic question. It matters to the extent that the definition of commodity production is at stake here: commodity production under capitalist conditions cannot be carried out where there is not at least legal equality between a worker and a capitalist and/or a functioning market economy. I will take the position that forms of “uneven development” take place in every society, that there is not a “pure form” of slave society or capitalism or socialism, and that chattel slavery does indeed reduce the legal definition of the slave to that of fixed capital. It is the conflict between two different modes of production (slave society and capitalist society) and the struggles of the slaves and their allies against slavery which determines which mode of production is maintained. A slave may indeed engage in productive activity which creates profits and commodities, but these circumstances will not last over the long haul and either slavery or capitalism will triumph in the end. I believe that Marx explained this correctly.

In this connection, then, the folks who attach themselves to subaltern thinking make two mistakes. One is arguing that slavery is untenable under capitalism because slaves cannot function as “free” consumers. I argue that slavery is abolished because slaves and their allies rebel and that changes in economic and political conditions enable the goals of these rebellions to be realized. The second mistake is this undue emphasis on consumption, which seems more about the appearance of present conditions than it does about principles of politics and economics. I also wonder if here if the people arguing for a subaltern approach are not engaging in a form of economism. The debate over slaves as constant or variable capital, the leasing or selling of human beings and labor power and how plantation economies really functioned will continue.

We also have yet to see---and we do not want to test this---what levels of production slave labor can reach today; it should be enough to acknowledge that slave labor can be quite productive and leave it at that. We can also project that slavery may indeed reach a point where slaves are enabled or allowed to be full or nearly full consumers; modern slavery certainly could allow for that. The possibilities that modern slavery might continue to reach high levels of production and allow for increased consumption tends to undercut subalternism because the slaves will then appear more as productive consumers and will no longer be marginal to capitalism.

There is a tendency to confuse or overstate the similarities between slave labor and wage labor and then to confuse the strategies and tactics needed to abolish both. Marx understood very well what the differences were and what the points of unity between slaves and waged workers might be. But, regardless of the differences and commonalities, both forms of production should have seen their day and it is the responsibility of the workers’ movements and the left to help lead the rebellions, help transform the rebellions into revolutions and to capture the state power and territory needed in order to make this happen. The matters of sorting out differences and commonalities and international solidarity are matters of building revolutionary parties and taking power.

For our purposes, our interest is in resisting the global push backwards and towards resurgent enslavement and turning the slave rebellions which are occurring into revolutions. There is certainly a moral imperative here and a question of abstract human rights, but there are also the points that the workers’ movements move forward best under conditions of relative democracy, that slavery sets a low floor which works against all forms of waged labor, that slavery is an increasing phenomenon taking place under neo-liberal and globalized production, and that the forces which are pushing us backwards are, by definition, destructive and fascistic. Holding to this approach affirms rather than rejects Marxism, but the people engaged in subaltern politics don’t acknowledge this.

Why Marxism is important and why it should not be abandoned---Part One


This is the first in a series of short articles on why Marxism is important and why some left critics of ours are mistaken in their assessments. Please follow the series and check back to see changes which may be made as we think these issues through. I'm sorry for the large number of links, but we want to make these posts accessible to more people and not assume specialization.  

There are times when I think that the left is bound to focus on self-destruction and that we are doing a pretty good job getting there, and then there are times when I rejoice in our ability to touch people’s lives and be touched by the people who matter most. I know some ultra-leftists who believe that Hilary Clinton is more dangerous than Trump and think that it is their job to convince everyone else of this. They take their line from people like John Pilger, a guy with a mixed political record and past, and mix in a bit of nihilism, a good deal of mansplaining and a terribly flawed class analysis. Nihilism has become a pressing problem for us even as Trump and his incipient fascism advance. On the other hand, young people are going into motion against racism and for Sanders, and on the local high school level this is led by some heroic Latino/a youth who have effectively become a new left even if they don’t know it yet. My union conducted a strong strike against Verizon and endorsed Sanders, gaining support from Sanders and joining two struggles in an almost unprecedented way. No one expected Sanders to go this far, last so long and so challenge the system. I’m seeing new and real interest in groups like Democratic Socialists of America, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, the Southern Workers Assembly and the Kentucky Workers League. The People’s Tribune, Monthly Review, Against The Current, Labor Notes and In These Times all have new life and energy to them. I’m seeing trans activists redefining social and linguistic boundaries and the environmental movements having a real impact. There is serious talk about new political formations among the people and on the left and some tentative steps are being taken in these areas. We are in a moment which births both despair and optimism.

One of the nagging problems for me is confronting why and how major sections of the left seem to be walking away from dialectical materialism, class analysis and the working class at a moment when the matters of understanding how to think, how to struggle and where to put energy and attention are so pressing. They are walking away from Marxism. I have approached some of the more contested subjects in previous posts and have written a couple of relatively mild critiques of the left as I have worked to think this through. We now have posts up on Marxism and morality, union struggles and union politics and local peoples’ activism, and an attempt has been made to base all of these on dialectical materialism. It’s not that I'm saying anything profound here, but so many readers come here with a desire to talk because so few people are publicly engaged in trying to work out the meaning of a living Marxism in the present moment.

We don’t want a sectarian and dry Marxism, we don’t want a tiny tent with a guard at the door and we don’t want enforced ideological conformity. I have argued here for approaches which serve the people, love the people and take a “dare to struggle, dare to win” approach. Our arguments draw a certain echo, but this comes more from the young people in motion than from anyone else. We can’t even count the recently-held Left Forum as fully part of the mix at this point given the lower numbers of people attending and the dominant sectarian lines given prominence there.

So what’s the problem if major sections of the left walk away from Marxism? Well, that leaves the left with a station wagon full of luggage on a dead-end street in the middle of the night while the engine overheats and the tires go flat. Abandoning Marxism means abandoning the tools needed to think logically through why and how things happen and it means walking away from class struggle and the struggles of oppressed peoples. Revolutionary theory and practice carried out with the workers and the people in struggle are the only bases that the left has or can have. It matters less if our ideas and actions are applied correctly or incorrectly and more if they exist and are applied at all.     

Alright, let’s break it down. There is a current fashionable idea that holds that “subaltern masses” are now the main revolutionary forces. The immediate question is---who are the subaltern masses? If we keep it at the levels discussed by the great Italian communist Antonio Gramsci then we are talking about workers and people dispossessed from the working class and oppressed on the basis of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion. We are also often talking about people in the former colonies, living under conditions of neo-colonialism or “postcolonialism.” The oppressive temptation is to regard these people as living in and being a kind of periphery, and the folks who champion the emphasis on the subaltern masses rightfully push back and assert that all oppression must be fought and that these oppressed people have a right to their autonomy and to our solidarity. We talking about “decolonizing” our thinking and practice and discovering the hidden histories of the oppressed under these influences. Good enough, I think.

But we begin to see some problems as we move along this path. Marxism has always correctly held that the workers are the revolutionary subject of history, and especially so when they ally with the nationally oppressed and others. “Revolutionary subject” here means the core force at the heart of capitalism, the ultimately dialectically opposing force to capitalism, capable of replacing capitalism with socialism. We have never said that only workers can do it or that they can do it alone, and we have never looked at workers as one-dimensional beings with no agency or free will. We have never claimed that all workers, or even most workers, are revolutionary or are inherently revolutionary. Still, we have maintained that it is the historic mission of the working class to overthrow capitalism in alliance with other revolutionary classes.

Well, to use full disclosure, there are Marxists and others on the left who are deterministic, dogmatic, “workerist” and given over to economism and sectarianism. That terribly dejected ultra-leftist who mansplains to you about why Sanders is no socialist and why Clinton is a bigger chump than Trump and why there is no hope unless people follow his party traveled this road.

“Revolutionary subject” also means for me being the subject and object of history. That is to say, a Marxist should believe that making a working-class-led revolution is about workers being the driving force and discovering their full power and potential as human beings within that revolutionary process, making history their own affair and not something external to themselves. This means that the workers have the joined responsibilities of abolishing capitalism and building socialism---negation and affirmation.

You can see a division of opinion forming between us and the folks digging into subaltern studies here. We say that the working class and our revolutionary allies are the subjects and objects capable of abolishing capitalism and building socialism, while they start to look elsewhere or express the line-up of forces differently than we do.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Thomas Wells on "The New Politics of Class"

The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders has given voice to a new class politics in the United States. What do I mean by this? By using the term “class politics,” I am referring to the self-identification by working people of all races and genders that their economic interests are in conflict with those who own and control concentrations of wealth and power in our society (Bernie’s billionaire class). This is often expressed by working people as class antagonisms against, or alienation from the corporate and political elite in society, and it can take many forms. To be sure, working people in the U.S. have always given expression to this economic politics of class, whether consciously or unconsciously. Any authentic socialist analysis should understand how deeply rooted these class antagonisms are in the capitalist system.

Most of us know for example, that in the 1930’s during the depression when there was widespread unemployment and poverty, mass movements of working people spontaneously formed to demand relief. In 1932 veterans of WWI marched en masse on Washington D.C. demanding bonus payments. Unemployment Councils were organized by the Communist Party, which led to mass demonstrations. We also know that the during this time, millions of workers organized labor unions to help secure their jobs, improve working conditions, provide benefits and increase wages. This was not only a protest against deplorable conditions, it must be understood as part of a class struggle for human dignity and equality. Marx might have described this as an example of the dialectic within capitalism.

Of course conditions are nothing like the depression era now. But working people are still faced with severe hardships. Roughly 46 million Americans live in poverty and many of these are employed. College students are deeply in debt even before they graduate. Many working adults in their 50s face the prospect of retirement in poverty. The growth of job openings masks the reality that most of the jobs are low wage, part time and devoid of benefits. This is the reality now faced by millions of working people of all races and genders.

But adding to this stew is the hard reality that the distress is not equally distributed among all working people. Racism, sexism and homophobia are both overt and covert in the structure and culture of U.S. society. Needless to say, this means there is a great deal of injustice and inequality.

However, what we are witnessing now thanks to Sanders, is a spontaneous, emerging mass movement of working people which has much in common with what occurred during the 1930s. Like then, people now are angry at the system. They feel betrayed and antagonistic toward the corporate power elite. This movement has drawn upon the political momentum created in part by the Occupy movement as well as the 15 Now movement. Sanders is also drawing in people who have felt so alienated that many have never been politically involved before. While this isn’t easy to diagnose, we can say that it is possible for alienation to run so deep that people will often experience a sense of powerlessness that results in them giving up. It is very exciting that the Sanders Campaign has caused many of these disillusioned to become engaged.

Read the entire article here

This article was taken from the Democratic Socialists of America website.

Salem, Oregon high school students march through downtown against Trump and for immigrant rights and Bernie---and I learn a lesson


Salem's streets came suddenly alive today when hundreds of high school students marched through town chanting anti-Trump and pro-immigrant and pro-Bernie slogans. The crowd of young people moved quickly and joyously through the downtown area shouting "Fuck Trump!" and "Vote Bernie!" and gave strong pro-immigrant and anti-racist messages. The signs were mostly homemade and the passion for social change was there. The police were caught off-guard and allowed the young people to block traffic, chant and march without incident.

I joined the march and was one of the few white people to participate, and I was certainly also the oldest person taking part. The average age of the marchers was probably sixteen. When I asked some young people who were marching who organized it they said, "Everyone!" My favorite sign was a homemade Mexican flag on cardboard with a message written over it that said "Roses are red, tacos are wonderful---don't blame a Mexican if you're unemployable!" A favorite moment for me was when a young man forced a very angry cop on a motorcycle into a selfie he was taking. The students closest to me came from McNary and were proud of it. There was lots of nervous talk about marching on West Salem and disturbing the wealthy people there. Some young people started to chant "The people united..." but didn't know all of the words or the rhythm.

The young people had no designated leadership, they didn't quite get the idea of everyone chanting in unison, there were no bullhorns or protest marshals. This was a largely spontaneous and self-driven march full of passion and hope. It comes right after the Woodburn walkout and after similar actions carried out by other high school students around Oregon. It was great to see young white people in the march and to see everyone getting along, but major credit has to go to the Latino/a students for doing this. The community and the families of these young people need to be proud and protective and we all need to give them our support.

I can't find any posted photos of the march. The Statesman Journal has one weak photo and a short article which doesn't say much or capture the numbers of people involved. This great movement of the youth is catching everyone by surprise. It was an emotional charge to march with the students and hear them chanting for Bernie---young people who are too young to vote, with many coming from families who can't vote, are carrying a message of hope and change. What's wrong with the rest of us?

Lenin is credited with having said that patience and irony are the virtues of a Bolshevik. I learned that again today. There I was stuck in traffic on my way to a racial justice activist meeting and with enough time built in to read a bit of Varoufakis' And the Weak Suffer What They Must before the meeting. There I was getting angry at the traffic bottleneck. And then I saw the march, that beautiful march led by young people browner and smarter and more engaged than I will ever be. And my heart melted. I cut across a lane of traffic, parked and ran to join the march. The kids were a little freaked out when I joined in and didn't really answer when I asked if my being there was okay. It was hard to run with them and to talk to them.

You can get ticked off about being stuck in traffic when you're on your way to an anti-racist meeting and when you want to read about the fight against austerity and neo-liberalism in Greece. And you can be surprised by an anti-racist demo blocking traffic and led by young people of color who are fighting neo-liberal policies and fighting for immigrant rights as if their lives depend on it---and, in fact, their lives do depend on it. Patience and irony become our virtues in these moments.

I returned to my car 45 minutes later to find a note on my windshield from the city. The note says that you can park downtown for shopping, but not for work, and that you will be ticketed if you're caught not consuming. Really? And what is the fine for parking while trying to change the world?    

Marxism and Morality---Part Three

(This will be an evolving series with short posts. If you're interested in this topic, please keep checking back to see how our views are evolving. Please see the first post in this series and then check out the second post.)

Readers will be excused if they're feeling a little dizzy. I'm deliberately mixing "morality" and "ethics" and importing them into Marxism in a kind of shorthand and I'm tying these to hoped-for revolutionary advances. It will take a bit of work for readers to see how morality and ethics relate directly to revolutionary political economy and to see how and why we use dialectical materialism to understand and move forward with both.

Let's cut to the closing points and list out what our morality consists of in concrete terms.

1. Our concern is with progress and building socialism, and so our morality prizes all that builds progress and rejects all that obstructs it.

2. Our morality is based on the "sciences" of dialectical materialism, class struggles, struggles against oppression and for human freedom and socialism. The "laws" of motion and change discovered through dialectical materialism and scientific methodology effectively chart the "sciences" of class struggle and the fight for human freedom.

3. Our morality prizes collectivism, collective work and mutual aid as necessary paths and as the means to human freedom and agency.

4. Our morality rests on mutual respect and rejects everything which undermines such respect---racism, sexism, ableism, chauvinism, ageism, prejudices---since these attempt to reduce the human being to something less than human and turn human relationships into transactional relationships.

5. Our morality prizes simplicity and modesty because in socialist hands these are the expressions of a healthy rhetoric of the whole person.

6. Our morality prizes honesty and insists that contradictions between people be solved in revolutionary ways, frankly recognizing differences and resolving them in ways which build the capacities needed to liberate the oppressed.

7. Our morality rejects the objectification of people as a reactionary mindset common to capitalism. We project a nuanced, historically-based and humanistic approach to understanding others.

8. Our morality is internationalist. We seek to take something from the progressive and working-class cultures of every people and integrate these into our world understanding because we know that no people and no nation have the corner on morality and ethics.

9. Our morality rejects nihilism and anarchism because we seek to raise human experience above the principle of negation. Negation has its necessary and scientific place in the real world, but it is one principle among many and is not a code of conduct.

10. Our morality prizes work and creativity as a the fundamental tasks of human beings and as the starting points of knowledge.

11. Our morality links education, the arts and physical and mental well-being and ethics to the development of full human beings. The segmented, compartmentalized, privatized and overly-specialized person belongs to a past which required an oppressive division of labor and matching social roles. These conditions came with capitalism and created people constantly tempted to do poor work, cut corners and break social solidarity or to live as victims.

12. Our morality does not accept the proposition that human nature is inherently bad or given to particular evils. We see instead an unfolding history of human development, progress and the growing realization that human beings perish when we do not live cooperatively with one another.

13. Our morality does not deny spirituality, but it takes this up by looking critically at the connections between consciousness, reality and the human capacity for making change and arguing that our necessary goal is to make humanity both the subject and object of human endeavor.

Some readers will object to these notes on the basis of religious or ideological prejudices handed down from capitalist institutions. We can argue our points based on logic, but perhaps the most fruitful work will be done with our coworkers and neighbors who are sincere believers or hard working people who experience class, race, gender or national oppression. We all have much to do together in the fight against oppression and for justice and peace, and it is in these fights that we prove the validity of our views. We note the overlap between some religious views and our own, and especially those of liberation theology, even if our starting points are necessarily different. This is the place where the common desire for a safe and human future draws everyone into one joint effort and so the willingness to engage must be fully respected. We should take a moment to review this famous quote from Marx:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.

Other readers will object that what has been written here is reformism, a bad distillation of Marxism, revisionism. We invite their criticism.

Marxism and Morality---Part Two

(This will be an evolving series with short posts. If you're interested in this topic, please keep checking back to see how our views are evolving. Please see the first post in this series.)

The point that we closed our first post with perhaps needs further development. I am saying that real historic development resting in the relative sophistication of the mode of production and the superstructure built over it determine social consciousness and ideology.

Okay, that's a mouthful and I'm trying to make things easier. Let's say that people in slave-holding or feudal societies thought about human beings flying or were reaching for an understanding of the cosmos which was scientific at its core. They could only go so far with their thinking and they could not translate their strivings into action. It took the advent of capitalism, the freeing up of the resources burned in slave-holding and feudal societies, the triumph of the ideas of the Enlightenment and similar revolutions which occurred in other parts of the world, the suppression of religious prejudices and the triumph of the scientific methods of inquiry and resolution and the marshalling of all of the knowledge and wealth that the slave-holding and feudal societies had in order to eventually put airplanes in the sky and begin mapping the cosmos. Much was lost in the passing of the old, much was gained in the advent of the new and new strivings were birthed which today come up against the cold and destructive reality of capitalism.

Within this oppressive capitalist reality we take sides as a matter of course, often without realizing that we do. There is a dominant and historic movement which favors progress, based in science and in the working class and in the peoples' social movements, and there is a reaction to progress by the capitalists and the leaders of the old institutions which are threatened by progress and science. We get it wrong if we look at this mechanically or with naive optimism: capitalism can play a progressive social role to a point, and not all workers are on the side of science and progress. We are talking here about general tendencies over time, and not what the guy next to you in the store thinks about Obama.

As socialists we want a "morality" which comes with human progress, the idea that humanity can exist for and of itself, and not a "morality" which holds that our options are circumscribed by anything external to us. We want a morality which does not separate us from the rest of nature. We want a morality which understands us as struggling human beings who must cope with all of the contradictions basic to capitalism, find our ways through the real and the possible and create a socialistic or cooperative ethos and a system based on a redistribution of the wealth and power accumulated by a relatively small number of people under capitalism before the capitalists push us to extinction. Hear what else The Communist Manifesto has to say here:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

If human beings can summon our will and power and forge an entirely new social consciousness and social relations, then it stands to reason that we need a new or better morality. This could not be a morality of individualism, since individualism ultimately negates freedom and cannot be fully realized, and it cannot be a morality based on bourgeois prejudices or ancient myths, since the bourgeois prejudices have had their destructive day and the ancient myths can never be fully brought back to life in their "pure" form in a modern social order. To be sure, something of the past always remains in the present, and we have the ability to pick from the past the most beautiful of its progressive forms and give these forms new content and meaning, but they cannot dominate us if we are truly about progress and freedom. And since we prove what is true in the world by acting and evaluating and acting again, we need a morality or ethics which opens the door to human action and thought and keeps it open.

Action and thought done properly with others should give us power and agency, and morality and ethics need to anticipate this. Under these circumstances, then, we see human freedom as resting on the responsibility to do no harm and on the organization of society in such a way that it liberates all of us by organizing our capabilities and allowing our better cooperative natures to flourish. "Scientific" processes take us to these points of individual and collective freedom: the "sciences" of dialectical materialism, class struggle and socialism. If we must distinguish between values or morality on the one hand, and science, we do so here so that a future humanity can resolve the contradictions between the two and create a new human being, a person who more fully grasps a rhetoric of the whole person. We throw aside a "morality" which serves as propaganda and as a justification for oppression in favor of a morality and ethics which comprehends a full and empowered person functioning at her best in a cooperative society. When the limitations placed upon us by wage labor, commodity production and the extraction of surplus value under capitalist conditions are lifted, productive and social resources will be freed which will enable and encourage the birth of a new and whole person--a person for whom "morality" is not an external rule, but a subjective and ever-evolving means and end connecting her to others in healthy and productive ways. A new morality or ethics can arise as we are freed of hypocrisy, dualism and alienation.   

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Marxism and Morality---Part One

This will be an evolving series with short posts. If you're interested in this topic, please keep checking back to see how our views are evolving.

I recently posted a nine-part series on thinking, critical thinking and dialectical materialism on this blog. The intent was to cover in short posts some aspects of how socialists can understand the world and social movements by using dialectical materialism. The point was not to tell people how they must think; rather, the point was to open doors to dialectical materialism, whet appetites and contribute something to groups like ours who need to return to the Marxist basics. And because we cannot understand thinking and dialectical materialism and how to apply these in the world so easily, I relied on several authors, and particularly on Alexander Spirkin, for direction, and I provided links to their works. A reader might stumble over what I wrote, but she will find clarification by following the links and doing a little reading. In fact, many readers already understand these concepts but don't realize that they do. The careful reader will see that I left many important points out of my posts. If I sounded overly deterministic, or if I seemed to be saying that Marxism and dialectical materialism are ultimately predictive tools, then I was wrong.

Several readers have asked why we have not taken up the question of Marxism and morality. We followed the 9 posts on thinking with news of the Sanders movement, critiques of the left and commentaries on some of the struggles we are engaged in. We provided a short piece on Marxism and mental health and a song summary of basic arguments made in Marx's Capital. Why did we skip talking about morality?

Morality is a tough issue to take on and our arguments may sound half-baked or be misunderstood. Conventional arguments over morality focus on sexual relations and ethics or take religion as their starting point. The US left has a tendency to reduce the conversation to exposing bourgeois hypocrisy and leaving it there. Liberals and Trotskyites often turn the conversation towards ethics and stop there. Critical thinkers, humanists and secularists often take the conversation into the area of values, and abstract values at that. My generation is immediately turned off when morality is mentioned. I want a conversation on morality based on dialectical materialism, but I'm hard-pressed to find current writing on the subject which represents my political tradition.

Let's reach back, then, and attempt to frame what is at stake here. What are we to make of this passage in The Communist Manifesto?

When the ancient world was in its last throes, the ancient religions were overcome by Christianity. When Christian ideas succumbed in the 18th century to rationalist ideas, feudal society fought its death battle with the then revolutionary bourgeoisie. The ideas of religious liberty and freedom of conscience merely gave expression to the sway of free competition within the domain of knowledge.

“Undoubtedly,” it will be said, “religious, moral, philosophical, and juridical ideas have been modified in the course of historical development. But religion, morality, philosophy, political science, and law, constantly survived this change.”

“There are, besides, eternal truths, such as Freedom, Justice, etc., that are common to all states of society. But Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.”

What does this accusation reduce itself to? The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs.

But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms.

The Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involved the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.

Note that at this point in The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels have focused on arguing that history is a matter of class struggle, that there are an array of contradictory forces present in capitalist society and that the ruling class, or bourgeoisie, is squaring off against the working class and the communists. One of their central arguments is that alienation in a capitalist society creates not only a basic hypocrisy, but also a kind of duplication as well: it is as if we see all personal and social relationships in a fun-house mirror. The goods and services which we might produce as free human beings unencumbered by capitalist ownership and a wage system take on an entirely different, almost mystical, identity once they become commodities with price tags and once our labor power is also commodified and given a price tag in a system driven by a capitalist class making profits. That loss of identity and that substitution of a distinctly capitalist identity and rationale echoes through all that we do---it is inescapable. Everything which holds capitalist production back must be abolished or reconfigured: religion, personal relationships, love, our relationship to the environment, family, national identity, race, gender and our understandings of time and human ability all give way to a distinctly capitalist redefinition and morality. Marx and Engels are arguing against this alienation, this duplication, the "foreignness" or fun-house mirror image of human activity and morality. It is morality divorced from its real human substance that they are at war with.        

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A powerful message from Marisol Ceballos, Woodburn high school student, on today's anti-racist walkout

The Fight For $15 In Chicago Right Now



According to an e-mail just received, there are something like 10,000 people marching in Chicago right now at the McDonald's headquarters for the $15 wage demand after a strike took place at the Rock N Roll McDonalds. The live transmission on Facebook doesn't seem to be working just now, but the previous transmissions show a huge and growing crowd. 

Scenes from Woodburn, OR. high school students protesting racism