Sunday, May 29, 2016

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.

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