Wednesday, May 11, 2016

How should we think? How do we understand the Sanders movement?---Part 7

We are winding this series down on thinking and thought processes, but we're not quite done. In the first post in this series we made an argument for critical thinking and critical thinking skills and then we tried to show why critical thinking, by itself, only takes us so far. We tried to make a case for thinking as an art and as a science; something we do and improve upon constantly because it enriches our lives and helps us change reality. We then shifted gears and focused on dialectical materialism and on the work of Alexander Spirkin and some other philosophers because Spirkin and the others are most accessible to modern readers in a hurry.

I want to avoid anything here that sounds transactional---the idea that thinking and correct ideas are only there to accomplish pragmatic ends and that if one can only "think right" then only good will follow. Two lines from Mao come to mind here. In A Letter To The Red Guards Of Tsinghua University Middle School (1966) Mao said, "Marx said: the proletariat must emancipate not only itself but all mankind. If it cannot emancipate all mankind, then the proletariat itself will not be able to achieve final emancipation." and Mao is said to have said in this period that "Marxism comprises many principles, but in the final analysis they can all be brought back to a single sentence: it is right to rebel." Gil Scott-Heron took it further and said, "You see, revolution sounds like something that happens, like turning on the light switch, but actually it's moving a large obstacle, and a lot of folks' efforts to push it in one direction or the other have to combine." Our point here is that the projects of change, revolution and liberation are imperfect and that correct thinking or correct actions, taken by themselves, don't guarantee outcomes since human beings are involved at every step of the way. We can't somehow design and redesign reality in order to satisfy our desires. Instead, we take Marx at his word when he wrote "Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice...The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself...The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice...All social life is essentially practical...The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity."

So today I'm going to focus on why the processes and logic that I have tried to spell out in the last 6 posts on this topic take us to a point of supporting the Sanders movement. The point here is to apply our method and logic, however imperfectly, and get us to a point where we can see how dialectical materialism is used in taking up a current political question. This is not an easy matter to take up on the left these days and I want to reach back to a post going into some detail about these matters which frames some of what we're talking about here.

I'm going to take Mao's On Practice as a point of departure. Mao says, "Above all, Marxists regard man's activity in production as the most fundamental practical activity, the determinant of all his other activities. Man's knowledge depends mainly on his activity in material production, through which he comes gradually to understand the phenomena, the properties and the laws of nature, and the relations between himself and nature; and through his activity in production he also gradually comes to understand, in varying degrees, certain relations that exist between man and man. None of this knowledge can be acquired apart from activity in production...Man's social practice is not confined to activity in production, but takes many other forms--class struggle, political life, scientific and artistic pursuits; in short, as a social being, man participates in all spheres of the practical life of society. Thus man, in varying degrees, comes to know the different relations between man and man, not only through his material life but also through his political and cultural life (both of which are intimately bound up with material life). Of these other types of social practice, class struggle in particular, in all its various forms, exerts a profound influence on the development of man's knowledge. In class society everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class." This obligates us to look at the class make-up of the Sanders movement and the other political campaigns underway.

Evidence seems to indicate that the Sanders movement draws primarily from the working-class and what is referred to as "the lower middle-class" and the youth. We know that the dominant concerns among these classes and groups are precariousness, education and debt and the fabric of democracy. We also know that precariousness is less a matter of being in a particular social class, a "precariat," and more a matter of working class life. And we know that the working class, the "lower middle-class" and the youth are some of the core social forces in the US, the people best situated to make change and reconstruct society.

The Clinton campaign draws on a different class base. The appeal here is to the so-called "middle-classes," certain industries and economic institutions and the bureaucracies which manage social crises---the non-governmental organizations, the Democratic party establishment, the union leaderships, the public-private partnerships and sections of academia. These are wavering social forces; they can fall in any direction, but they do not represent or actualize the most reactionary social forces. Clinton's political base in the Democratic party necessarily forces her to respond to the core social forces who remain in the Democratic party---women, people of color, union leaderships---and to be a mediating force between those core forces and the capitalist forces also present in her party. When someone says that Clinton "can get things done" they are describing this mediating role. One peculiarity of US politics is that people at the grassroots are often forced to ally with people at the top in order to win reforms through coalitions, almost guaranteeing a conservative movement at the base for periods of time. On the other hand, we are talking about discreet periods of time which hold in them all of the contradictions present in capitalist society.  

We need to be careful to distinguish here between the forces at work and do this in a way which is consistent with the logic we laid out in our previous 6 posts. The tensions we are describing here reflect shifting forces and balances of power, attempts to find equilibrium while some part of the core forces are also trying to make a spontaneous break or leap, relations between existing forces. The Sanders movement represents working-class and "lower-middle-class" interests based on real fears and a democratic hope, while the Clinton campaign represents a particular wing of capitalism and has within it a contradictory relationship between core social forces and these capitalist institutions. The two forces, the Sanders movement and the Clinton campaign, exist is relationship to one another because the economic forces underlying them exist in relationship to one another. These relationships have deep and contradictory aspects to them. For instance, another peculiarity of our politics is that the shift in economic and political relations in the US has meant a shift in the role of the military-industrial complex so that Clinton can correctly position herself as a hawk and a leading figure in the military can speak openly about the military opposing Trump. The quantitative and qualitative features of bourgeois (capitalist) rule are also shifting in relation to one another and in relation to peoples' struggles.

Beyond the matter of the economic forces at work stand matters of race, class and gender which increasingly appear as antagonistic contradictions among the peoples' forces. Our take-away point here is that Clinton's capitalist backers do not represent the most reactionary segments of capital, they do not come from the monopolies and trusts which are now threatened by crisis and by imperialist crises. This will certainly change, but for now Clinton represents other interests. 

Not so for Trump. We can say that Trump draws from a "middle-class" who feel that they are in sharp decline and that he represents the most reactionary segments of capitalism---the trusts, the monopolies, the forces negatively affected by imperialist crises, finance capital. We can also say and demonstrate that these are the forces which most benefit from racism and sexism and most easily glom onto the reactionary religious values as an ideology. These forces are "reactionary" in the full sense of the word: they are reacting to the historic values of the Enlightenment and science, but they are also reacting to the peoples' struggles as expressed in Occupy, the trade unions and the fight for higher minimum wages, anti-racism and Black Lives Matter, the fight for immigrant rights, the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights and so on. It is not only that the Trump forces oppose us on these specific political questions, but also that they represent economic forces which are directly threatened by these forces. In the context of the elections, the Trump campaign is the opposite of the Sanders movement in theory, practice and structure because they each represent contending forces. The Clinton campaign represents a middling force because it represents economic and political forces in crisis who are both scared of social change and who are presently excluded from the ranks of the most reactionary capitalist forces.

If the forces represented by Trump are truly ascendant that our job is to change the balance of forces and the relationship between these forces. We do this by changing the quantitative aspects of the forces at work---bringing more people from the working-class and "lower-middle-class" into the struggle, for instance----and then by changing the qualitative nature of the struggle by agitating, educating and taking the dare to struggle and win. I think of this as a kind of planetary map, but one in which we get to move the planets around and affect the pull of gravity in each one. If Sanders loses the nomination or loses the election we will need a different order of "planets" in place and different pulls of gravity---a united front, if you will, against the black hole that is Trump's incipient fascism or the "dark flow" of a Clinton administration vacillating and then sucking the life out of the momentum we are building on the left with the Sanders movement. And if he is somehow elected, we need to consolidate forces immediately and be able to push for a people-before-profits social and political agenda. In any case, we are forced to confront and try to change reality. "If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the structure and properties of the atom, you must make physical and chemical experiments to change the state of the atom. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience," says Mao.

This united front, this change in the order of "planets" and "gravity,"cannot logically be based on a "Sanders-only" approach to the elections. Neither can it be based on a surrender to conservative forces or, for that matter, to spontaneity. We are talking here about a principled or scientific change in relations between contradictory class forces in order to "negate a negation." In this case it may be a matter of us (workers) joining forces with others to "negate" or oppose Trump's incipient fascism and the most "negative" or reactionary sections of the capitalist ruling class and the means of production, distribution and administration which they own and control. Or it may mean a temporary class alliance driven by necessity and the need to elect and then push a President Clinton on every key issue. In either case, we are talking about negation and continuity, not progress. Spirkin says, "Development is not a straight line and not motion in a circle, but a spiral with an infinite series of turns. Forward motion is thus intricately combined with circular motion. If all processes in the world developed only successively, without repeating themselves, such things as life, animal and human behaviour, and the life of society could never have arisen; mental activity, consciousness, material and spiritual culture could never have come into being. The process of development also involves a kind of return to previous stages, when certain features of obsolete and replaced forms are repeated in new forms. The process of cognition on a new basis often repeats cycles that have already taken place."

We take this position with our main concern being with moving from negation to progress, and with some anger at those forces on the left who blocked the left from consolidating and protesting under the Obama administration and those who want to dissolve socialist organizations. This failure to consolidate, organize and fight under Obama is not something to repeat.

In the past, and in other countries, the kind of social-democratic forces represented by Sanders were given some ability to manage social crises when there was an economic downturn. They could ally with the trade union leaderships and enforce austerity in limited ways and as junior partners. Prior to that the social democrats derived much of their power from functioning as a bulwark against the USSR and the committed left. Now there is no USSR, the US organized left is especially weak, the trade union leaderships in the US do not represent more than 12 per cent of the workers and the economy is temporarily in relatively good shape. So it is that we now have a different set of circumstances than we have had in the past and, as a result, new possibilities emerge.  

In line with this thought we will wrap up this post with a summarizing quote from Mao. He said, "It often happens, however, that thinking lags behind reality; this is because man's cognition is limited by numerous social conditions. We are opposed to die-herds in the revolutionary ranks whose thinking fails to advance with changing objective circumstances and has manifested itself historically as Right opportunism. These people fail to see that the struggle of opposites has already pushed the objective process forward while their knowledge has stopped at the old stage. This is characteristic of the thinking of all die-herds. Their thinking is divorced from social practice, and they cannot march ahead to guide the chariot of society; they simply trail behind, grumbling that it goes too fast and trying to drag it back or turn it in the opposite direction...We are also opposed to 'Left' phrase-mongering. The thinking of 'Leftists' outstrips a given stage of development of the objective process; some regard their fantasies as truth, while others strain to realize in the present an ideal which can only be realized in the future. They alienate themselves from the current practice of the majority of the people and from the realities of the day, and show themselves adventurist in their actions."

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