Marxist theory

Marxists must recognize a changed situation: We are not a religion.

Marxism is so marginalized that it is just a drop in the ocean of the wider working class. Because of this, we tend all too often to just think only of ourselves in figuring out what to say about events. There couldn’t be a bigger mistake. Instead, we should start by thinking of some co-worker or neighbor – some serious worker who isn’t necessarily even a socialist but sees the desperate situation into which capitalism has led us. What would we say to that person?

The response of the sectarian left to Biden’s covid relief plan is telling, as is the response to the mere fact of Biden’s election. It shows that that is not what many Marxists are trying to do.

One such writer referred to the election and said we need to be “nearly indifferent to the particular capitalists in power,” In other words to the fact that Trump was not reelected is unimportant. How does that comrade think a worker would respond to that? As far as Biden’s present plans, including his $1.9 trillion relief plan, almost all of which is slated to go to workers and the poor, another said, “nothing new to see here”. What does that comrade think would be the response of some worker who is thinking about getting a $1400 check plus an additional $100 per week in unemployment pay? Or to the impoverished single mother who may be getting additional food money? Or the city worker whose job may be saved if Biden’s proposal of hundreds of billions in aid to cities goes through?

Friedrich Engels
He wrote about German Marxist refugees in the US at that time: “”The Germans do not know how to use their theory as a lever to set the American masses in motion; most of them do not understand the theory themselves and treat it in a doctrinaire and dogmatic way as something that has got to be learned by heart and which will then satisfy all requirements without more ado. To them, it is a credo and not a guide to action.”

It seems that far too many are thinking of proving their revolutionary credentials to other Marxists rather than thinking of the rest of the working class.

This problem goes back to the issue of having voted for Biden. After fifty years of refusing to vote for any Democrat as an alternative to the Republicans, I voted for Biden. I made that fact public, knowing that I would be attacked for it. One comrade, an individual I deeply respect, denounced this because I called for voting for “the imperialist party,” as if that were some sort of moral issue.

But think about it: The British Labour Party has a long, long history of supporting British imperialism. Yet Lenin advised his supporters in Britain to join that party. And keep in mind that joining it necessarily means voting for it.

Take another example: the Russian Revolution. At the time that the workers councils – the Soviets – were controlled by the Mensheviks, Marxists in that revolution (the Bolsheviks) called for “all power to the soviets”. As Trotsky explained, that amounted to calling on the Mensheviks to take power through the soviets and promising support for them doing so. Yet the Mensheviks were in support of the imperialist World War I that was raging at that time. They, too, were an imperialist party.

Here is why I decided to vote for Biden, as opposed to my previous position:

For all of my adult life, electing a Democrat would often slightly lessen the disadvantages of having a Republican in office. That difference, however, is completely overwhelmed by the role of the union leadership in doing everything in its power to prevent even the first small steps being taken in the direction of the US working class taking its political independence. I am referring to the building of a mass working class party, of course. Doing everything we can to fight against this role of the union leadership was the most important thing by far.

What one did in the voting place was and remains secondary, but it has to complement the main task – what one does on a daily basis. So, in that situation, refusing to accept the choice the union leadership forced down the throats of the US working class was by far the most important. It meant, in effect, insisting on the independent role of the working class within capitalist democracy.

In other words, voting for the Democrats meant accepting the role of the union leadership overall.

Then we come to the 2020 elections. Here is a situation where not only has an out-of-control president done everything he can to stir up the embers of bigotry and division; not only done everything he can to encourage the most hysterical factual denialism; he has also moved to overturn capitalist democracy itself. He has done so by trying to completely take over all wings of the federal government. This has been resisted by the majority of even top level federal bureaucrats as well as mid level and below. (See this article.) In October of last year, Trump attempted to take another step in that direction by trying to make tens of thousands of federal civil service workers under his immediate control. He tried to make them subject to being fired by him. This was part and parcel of his plan to overturn November’s election if necessary and to overturn capitalist democracy itself.

Let’s be clear: We should have no illusions in capitalist democracy. Under this rule Jim Crow, including lynchings, was the rule for over 100 years. To this day, police are allowed to brutalize and shoot down black people – and others too – with impunity. Women’s rights are routinely trampled on, as are the rights of LGBTQ people and others. Immigrant children are locked up in cages. Workers’ democratic right to organize a union is subverted in a thousand different ways as is the right to strike effectively. Not only that, but free speech is curtailed because the capitalist class not only controls the media; it also controls the meeting halls and other places where workers might meet and discuss. The same goes for our “democratic” elections themselves.

There is just one thing: One person capitalist rule – also known as Bonapartism – is even worse. Far worse. It is far harder for workers to organize under that form of capitalist rule. Yet that is where Trump was really headed, and even with a dose of fascism thrown in.

It’s true that all sorts of radical demagogues, as well as liberals, have screamed “fascist” about every Republican president from Reagan on down. But while “fascist” doesn’t exactly fit the bill for a continued Trump rule, Bonapartist does. All too many Marxists refused to recognize where Trump was headed. They continued to insist that he really wasn’t that different from previous presidents. They couldn’t have been more mistaken.

In other words, the situation had changed. The issue was the continued existence of capitalist democracy vs. Bonapartism. In that situation, while not forgetting the longer term task of working class independence (and socialism itself), the main task was getting Trump out. That was clearly the view of black workers, for example those in Georgia, who mobilized twice: The first time to shock the nation by swinging that state to Biden and then even a second time, by providing an even greater shock and electing a black and a Jewish Democrat as US Senators. And while Marxists don’t necessarily agree with what even the most determined and serious workers say, we cannot ignore them.

Seeing that as the immediate task did not mean ignoring the longer term one of building working class independence. On the contrary: It coincided with it. Oaklandsocialist explained that the best way to get Trump out was for a working class mobilization against his attacks and the attacks of capitalism itself – to build the movement in the streets. As we explained, that would no only build working class independence, it would also transform the mood so that Trump and the forces he represents would become almost irrelevant.

Ironically, many of these very same Marxists who clamor against the Democrats at every step fail to seriously oppose the very forces that bring the Democrats into the working class: The union leadership and the NGO’s.

Unfortunately, the same method of unwillingness to recognize the transformed situation of the last four years is now being applied to today. The very fact that what Biden is proposing is more than double the rescue package that Obama proposed, and the fact that the money will go to workers rather than big corporations and banks – all too many Marxists deny the significance of this. The same for Biden’s unexpected cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline. We will have to see, but this seems to show mounting concern by the capitalist class. Concern over two things:

First, I think they were really shaken by the January 6 invasion of the Capitol. It brought front and center the serious threat to the capitalist class’s rule through capitalist democracy. It is not that they are committed to “democratic” norms in principle, but they have ruled through this method for over 150 years and they won’t abandon it so easily. In the future that will change, but I think that is their consensus position for now. They also understand that a large part of the basis for this destabilizing threat is the economic disaster that tens of millions of workers and small business people face. So the more serious of them, as represented by Biden, know that some help from the federal government is necessary.

As for the Keystone XL pipeline: At some point major wings of the US capitalist class will have to be seriously concerned over how global climate change threatens their own society. They cannot and never will do what is necessary to reverse this course, but they are capable of taking some serious steps. We will have to see if that is what this step means, but we should not close the door to that possibility.

Rather than that, one comrade simply labels the act as one more example of “the Democrats pandering to social movements to gain legitimacy.” What social movement? The protests against the pipeline ended a long time ago. And let’s face it: those protests were defeated.

The more thinking and courageous sectors of the US working class are conscious of the shifts in the capitalist class. They know we have to adapt to those shifts, not pretend they don’t exist. To have a generally correct view without also understanding how to adapt that view to such shifts makes a mockery of that view. It makes something formally “correct” to be a blunder at best. It makes “Marxism” little but a doctrinaire religion.

Marxists will only win even the very slightest beginnings of being relevant in the overall scheme of things by winning some small sector of the working class to our ideas and methods. To accomplish that, yes explaining our general ideas is necessary. But that will only receive a hearing if we can relate those ideas to each shift, each new objective development, each change in tactics and even strategy of the different wings of the capitalist class. We cannot afford the luxury of being so terrified of appearing to be opportunist to other Marxists that we refuse to recognize and adapt to those changes.

4 replies »

  1. Excellent article John. The left forgets that it is NOT the working class and doesn’t speak for it either. And that it could not be more isolated from the working class, especially since other than organized labor the working class has little visible presence at the current time in the US. This isolation as you point out leads to all kinds of confusion and arrogant blindness really. Listening to what other people think does not equate setting aside your own position. It is such an obvious first step towards getting a deeper idea of what is happening in society and then finding a way to speak to that. But so many on the Left are so used to just speaking to each other that they’ve completely lost sight of that necessary ability if we are ever to help build any kind of independent workers movement in this country.

    • Right, Cheryl. It’s like thinking we can iron our our differences without listening to the other person, without keeping in mind and responding to what they are actually experiencing and thinking.

  2. Merci de nous éclairer un tant soi peu sur la situation politique aux États Unis. Je suis d’accord avec le fait que les marxistes que nous sommes devons concentrer nos actions vers l’expression indépendante de la classe ouvrière sans oublier que cela passe parfois par l’utilisation du vote dans les élections “démocratiques” bourgeoises afin de virer un potentiel danger comme celui de Trump. Bravo pour cette analyse.
    Thranslation: Thank you for enlightening us a little bit about the political situation in the United States. I agree with the fact that we Marxists must concentrate our actions on the independent expression of the working class without forgetting that this sometimes involves the use of the vote in bourgeois “democratic” elections in order to turn a potential danger like Trump’s. Well done for this analysis.

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