Sunday, May 29, 2016

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.

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