The current (December) issue of Political Affairs magazine contains two interesting articles dealing with problems in Marxism. The first is “Last Exit To Utopia” by David Cavendish and the second is “Managing Markets And The Socialist State: An Overview” by David Pena. The articles have not yet been posted on the PA website, so please subscribe to the magazine, read the articles and then read the following response to them. This is a comradely attempt by a trade union activist to debate a few questions now current on the left—your response is most welcome.
1. The formulation that “socialism will be the next era of human history” repeats or disguises the old dogma that socialism is inevitable. It is alternately undeservedly optimistic or diminishes human agency. It discounts the possibilities that socialism may either appear in human history under another guise or label (e.g., democracy or autonomous society) or that human history itself may be at near-end due to ecological or environmental catastrophe.
2. It is an understanding of the basic concepts of class struggle and dialectical materialism that gives us reason to reject a “stages theory of history” and to instead understand that in any period of human development reflections of the past and images of the future are present and that there are not a predetermined or limited number of options available. The questions of how and where our struggles advance are essentially political questions and require, out of necessity, that different influences and possibilities mix to create dynamic movement by human beings. A negotiation over the terms of struggle takes place constantly between human beings and it is this that determines the course of daily events. This same understanding forces us to move forward from where we are here and now; expressing our program in terms of extending or building upon the gains made under Roosevelt’s New Deal diminishes the progressive gains made since the 1930s and 1940s and ties us to a social democratic or corporatist model. Advances in technology, the creative use of bioregionalism, public-private partnerships with significant community and labor control, the creation of public authorities, the need to think green and redevelop with environmental priorities and the progressive use of pension funds to support working class priorities offers different transitional models.
3. It cannot be logically or scientifically held that we are three steps from socialism and it cannot be yet known if the 2008 elections will have the same determining historical weight as other events. This is not to downplay the need for focused political struggle in the current moment. The importance of the 2008 elections rests in the relationship between the elections and the political struggles now taking place and other events; the elections do not stand alone and by themselves, divorced from the generalized capitalist world crises. Our left organizing--as distinct from what unions and Democrats and liberal social movements do--should rest on a set of key values, human and egalitarian relationships and a generalized vision of the future which is something more than a reaction to present-day crises.
4. We must abandon the use of the word “complex” as a way of avoiding analysis and work. A previous generation of leftists often spoke of “the dialectic” as a way of avoiding needed work and analysis and as a way of overlooking the fatal shortcomings of then-existing socialism. We run the same risk when we take refuge in the use of “complex.”
5. The fightback against the Bush policies and the ultra-right must logically anticipate and comprehend criticism of the Democrats on class-struggle issues and their muzzling of social movements. This criticism must be advanced in ways which encourage Democrats and the rank-and-file of the social movements to grow and to turn leftwards. Left leadership, by its very nature, must lead rather than follow in these moments.
6. Organized labor may indeed be a “centerpiece” of the people’s movements, but we do not hold this position exclusively or without contradiction and we do not lead the social movements. Organized labor is not the vanguard and the political parties of the working class have no historically grounded right to cede their vanguard roles to other social forces, even if we must constantly work for that role and win it through honest participation in social struggles. The crisis of shrinking union membership, the practical end of pattern bargaining and its replacement by concession-driven bargaining, the absence of a needed upsurge by workers rebuilding unionism at the base, our inability to maintain or win healthcare benefits for more union workers and the absence of direct union democracy in unions are inter-related. Unions fighting for their own survival have, generally speaking, been forced into battles around immediate issues. The sheer costs of organizing and maintaining unions also prevents unions from leading on larger social issues and even encourages retreat from struggles by union leadership. Unions run from crisis to crisis; organizing by the left should instead be relational and analytical, making the study-act-reflect process dialectical. The left will have to reinvent our relationship to organized labor under these circumstances and will have to project a vision of democratic and militant unionism linked to other social movements if unionism is to survive and hold a progressive leadership or centerpiece position. Trade unionism in the future will not appear or function as it has in the past.
7. In addition to the valuable reforms Cavendish mentions, we will also have to take seriously getting people out of the active workforce earlier and/or for longer periods of time as well as shortening the work day or work week. Our long-held core value prizing industrial labor will have to give way to a broadened understanding of class and class relations which accepts that class is relational and political (as well as categorical) and redefines productive work. We will have to politicize and prioritize struggling with many questions now considered personal--drug use, alcoholism, obesity and anti-social behaviors--in holistic ways. These are also essential tasks of a people’s democratic revolution.
8. We cannot logically forecast or predict that a socialist revolution in the US will be aimed at, or will actually provide, more for everyone. In redistributing wealth and in redesigning how wealth is produced in the US it is likely that many industries will disappear out of necessity. The concept “live simply so that others may simply live” may very well be transformed into a guiding principle of social solidarity in the US as a revolution progresses here, implying a massive cultural shift in the US with global implications. Talk of increasing productive capacity and using markets to build or further the socialist project in the US must take into account the need for green economies of scale and national and global divisions of labor.
9. Talk of increasing productive capacity under conditions of revolutionary centralization in the US is talk abstracted from the historical experience of the US. It may well be that the revolutionary project in the US will have to reinvent local or family farming, eliminate at least some large-scale industrial production and spend a great deal of time finding the legal and democratic means to prioritize socialized and collectivized property over privately held property and markets while making the most out of privately held production and distribution and market mechanisms.
10. Before we can agree or disagree on the issues relating to economic competition between China and the imperialist bourgeoisie—and chief among these questions are to what extent and in what ways this competition provokes capitalist crises and builds working class internationalism—we will need to know what mechanisms are in place to guarantee working class hegemony and proletarian democracy simultaneously with the creative use of market mechanisms in China.