Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Helpful Response From A Comrade Regarding Our "Problems & Prospects" Post And A Response

We are always happy to hear from friends with analysis to share and with criticisms. In fact, we really do want to hear from more people and have more in-depth discussions. A comrade has sent in the following note regarding my post regarding the problems and prospects of building a radical movement in our Mid-Willamette Valley region:

I had some thoughts about your 'Problems and Prospects' post that I wanted to share.

1. The '$72,000 median income' figure comes from data collected during the primary election, not the general election. Furthermore, on closer scrutiny, it isn't entirely clear how Nate Silver, the statistician who did the original analysis, arrived at this particular value; Silver neglects to satisfactorily explain his analysis, vaguely alluding to somehow combining the imprecise income exit poll data with the more precise census data for the corresponding area. Silver's reticence as regards his methods is emblematic of the sloppy thinking and lack of rigor in virtually all political analysis in the US, left and right. There can be no correct analysis without correct data.

2. The contradiction between identity and class politics is a false one, however, the contradiction between bourgeois identity politics and proletarian identity politics is not. It is the latter contradiction that inflames some left commentators against 'liberal identity politics,' whether consciously or not. Bourgeois identity politics wants to see a 'multicultural' ruling class with CEOs of every color and creed. Proletarian identity politics analyzes how racism serves to justify and perpetuate the exploitative relationships in capitalist society and finds the path toward ending those relationships and transforming society. If some left writers are annoyed by the vacuous 'media criticism' that passes for feminist or anti-racist analysis, who can blame them? They are upset at a valid target, but for the wrong reasons. This is merely a symptom of the generally low level of theoretical understanding in the US.

3. Invoking the united front is not appropriate to the historical conditions in which we find ourselves. The united front strategy was developed in response to the specific conditions in Europe in the 1930s. These conditions included a strong left that was able to assert itself and mobilize mass numbers of people. The conditions we face are less like 1930s than they are the pre-WWI period of imperialist consolidation. We are weak to the point of irrelevancy; the average US voter thinks of the 'left' as Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. We are in no position to present a credible united front with anybody, and to attempt to do so would constitute ‘rushing ahead’ of the sort that the ultra-leftists and Greens advocate with their talk of sweeping aside the Democratic Party in the space of a few months. Our task involves the much more difficult work of reconnecting with the masses, careful, critical analysis of current historical conditions and the way forward, and presentation of said analysis in an accessible way.

My response:

1. We do not say it enough, or clearly enough, but the analysis of class as some quantitative, as a noun, has real drawbacks and sometimes takes us away from understanding class in its full Marxist sense. "Class" is a historically-occurring relationship between people, it is a verb in the sense that classes have no meaning by themselves but find meaning in relationships with other classes. Between the working-class and the capitalists this relationship is one of struggle, sometimes open and sometimes quite hidden but always present. Data, whatever it seems to show, is fundamentally a measure of struggle.

2. We agree that "The contradiction between identity and class politics is a false one..." I am less inclined to agree that "liberal identity politics" is always a stumbling block. For instance, feminist and anti-racist analysis which makes us aware of privilege and intersectionality or takes up democratic demands or gives these demands life---I am thinking here especially of the demands for equal pay for equal work, the analysis of emotional labor, the hard look feminism has given the (re)creation of surplus value and The Movement For Black Lives Platform---have given, or are giving, a proletarian movement an added democratic and inclusive dimension without this analysis and these demands fastening yet on on a specific class identity. They drive our struggles even deeper and lead to more and better demands and actions which have the potential to win victories and involve more people. They become our school and give us the much-needed practice of democracy, indispensible to revolutionary working-class politics. We working-class leftists could in turn become the school for all of the other radicalized classes and groups in society once we fully grasp democratic struggle and can teach both its possibilities and limitations. The path to that runs parallel to or through "liberal identity politics" for many people.  

3. I am not sure that "Bourgeois identity politics wants to see a 'multicultural' ruling class with CEOs of every color and creed" or that a movement in that direction gets very far, or will get far under Trump. But, still, I am also not sure that a movement headed in that direction is entirely negative. After all, people come to taking direct action and building socialism out of a sense of necessity and after other avenues and possibilities have been tried and found lacking. And in areas where there is no capitalist class or middle-class fully present and where employment is low and social conditions are particularly dismal, a middle-class or capitalist class might for a time be driven by something like "identity politics" and fill for a time a progressive and necessary social role.

4. The fact "on the ground" is that we often find ourselves allied with middle-class and small-capitalist forces against particularly reactionary capitalists and their policies. These are learning opportunities for us and give us the means to advance if we organize correctly and on a principled basis.

5. The relationship of classes mentioned above has functioned in the U.S. in ways which have appeared to join the interests of workers to other classes. This has both false and real dimensions to it. We have to work out the politics of class formation and class struggle as we engage in a broader effort around all democratic demands, consciously pushing the system as far as it will go and understanding and distinguishing between temporary alliances and more permanent formations. And in both cases we will have to build from points of intersectionality.

6. It is exactly right that "The united front strategy was developed in response to the specific conditions in Europe in the 1930s. These conditions included a strong left that was able to assert itself and mobilize mass numbers of people" and I want to thank our friend for pointing this out as I have neglected to do so. That said, I do not think that the united front idea loses its importance or relevancy because the left appears weak or because some voters are confused about who and what the left is. Perhaps I should have said that the structure and purpose of the united front are different now than they were in the 1930s---our immediate goal should be to engage in principled "coalition politics" and infuse these coalitions with a more radical spirit, winning over workers and working-class people at the base to our politics. This is a fundamental point and I appreciate the push to clarify.  

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