Marx’s Materialism and the Possibility of Science

Obviously there’s been a drop-off in posting lately, and its because I’ve had to get some outstanding obligations out of the way and doing so is consuming most of my free time. I’ll be back to posting regularly soon, and I have a lot of great stuff planned.In the mean time, I have a guest post over at Speculative Heresy as part of the Science and Metaphysics event organized by Nick, Pete Wolfendale, and myself. It’s called “Marx’s Materialism and the Possibility of Science”, and should be of interest to any readers of this blog.

Posted in Links, Theory | 2 Comments

Class War

There is a class war, and it is unilaterally waged by the rich against the poor. The working class and their advocates are not initiating class war, but defending themselves in a fight brought to their doorsteps. And when they finally overthrow the bourgeoisie, they will merely have begun to defend humanity itself against those that have none.

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Leninism or Luxemburgism?

First, I just want to clarify something. In a previous post, I made some critical comments on the will to sectarianism that has so thoroughly fragmented the radical left. Yet doesn’t this blog explicitly align itself with a particular splinter-group, one based upon Luxemburg’s interpretation of Marxism? When I use the term ‘Luxemburgist’, however, the intention is not to mark myself as committed to a specific theoretico-political position and opposed to other incompatible positions. As I’ve said before, what I find compelling in Luxemburg’s ideas is the way they seem to draw together the best elements of the various splinters of libertarian socialism, and therefore have the potential to support a decidedly counter-sectarian impulse. I need to do a lot of work to defend this position, and doing so is one of the principle tasks of this blog. (I also need to defend my use of the term “libertarian socialism”, usually taken as synonymous with “social anarchism”, to characterize various forms of Marxism as well, going so far as to say that there are recoverable libertarian elements within Leninism and other paradigmatically authoritarian positions.)

Second, I want to bring up some critical comments by Ross Wolfe of The Charnel-House. Ross says,

The so-called “split” between Lenin and Luxemburg over party organization has been historically exaggerated from Paul Levi down to the New Left and continues to survive into our own time, despite numerous interventions to correct it. Luxemburg, while she undoubtedly had problems with the Bolshevik doctrine of vanguardism at first, later came to see its appropriateness to Russia’s situation at the time. This is according to Clara Zetkin and all of her closest confidants, and is corroborated by her later writings before her death that are clearly supportive of the October Revolution. Please see Lukacs’ excellent 1921 essay “Critical Observations on Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Critique of the Russian Revolution’” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/ch07.htm) or Max Shachtman’s 1938 piece “Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg” (http://www.cddc.vt.edu/marxists/archive/shachtma/1938/05/len-lux.htm).

As far as the applicability of either Lenin’s or Luxemburg’s political interpretation of Marx to the present time is concerned, I’d say we’re fairly far removed from any position in which their slogans or tactics or even analyses of capitalism would be relevant. Both combated revisionism in their own time, and recognized an unprecedented opportunity for the realization of a postcapitalist, emancipated society. But our own historical situation has regressed significantly from the political consciousness and international leftist movement that existed in their day, and so I’d be reticent to look to either one’s specific prescriptions. If anything, I would say they are exemplary in their diagnosis of their own time, even if the project of world revolution they attempted ultimately proved a failure.

Ross makes two major points here: 1) the sharp distinction between Luxemburgism and Leninism is based less on real theoretical and strategic incompatibilities than on a revisionist exaggeration of their divergences; and 2) both Leninism and Luxemburgism were appropriate responses to their specific historical and contextual circumstances, but have limited applicability in our very different present circumstances.

With regards to 1: I agree with Ross that the terms of the distinction between Leninism and Luxemburgism have been drawn in specious ways, but this doesn’t mean we ought to collapse the distinction altogether. Basically, the distinction has been drawn from two sides: by Stalinists, who portray Luxemburg as a centrist or Menshevik traitor; and by opponents of Bolshevism who portray her as providing a critical-theoretical basis for their position. The latter position, according to Lukacs, was reinforced by Paul Levi’s publication of an unfinished set of Luxemburg’s reflections on the Russian Revolution, in which she set out criticisms on which she would later renege.

Now I don’t know to what extent Luxemburg changed the views expressed in that work, but as Lukacs says, it is ultimately unimportant when assessing the validity of the explicit claims. Lukacs goes on to challenge many of her criticisms of Bolshevik policies for being based on inadequate or incorrect information of the actual situation in Russia. Where Luxemburg criticizes various actions taken by the Bolsheviks as playing into the hands of counter-revolutionary forces, Lukacs claims that such actions were taken out of desperate necessity and not by free choice. What Lukacs doesn’t mention is that Luxemburg’s criticisms account for this possibility. Both in the aforementioned essay and in an earlier pre-revolutionary assessment of Lenin, she is very explicit in recognizing that the particular context of the Russian situation will likely force them to make non-ideal decisions, and she goes so far as to laud to courage required to risk the socialist cause on such desperate measures.

Doubtless the Bolsheviks would have proceeded in this very way were it not that they suffered under the frightful compulsion of the world war, the German occupation and all the abnormal difficulties connected therewith, things which were inevitably bound to distort any socialist policy, however imbued it might be with the best intentions and the finest principles. […]

It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t get Lenin off the hook, for there is a great danger in misrecognizing the character of strategy undertaken by necessity:

The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics. When they get in there own light in this way, and hide their genuine, unquestionable historical service under the bushel of false steps forced on them by necessity, they render a poor service to international socialism for the sake of which they have fought and suffered; for they want to place in its storehouse as new discoveries all the distortions prescribed in Russia by necessity and compulsion – in the last analysis only by-products of the bankruptcy of international socialism in the present world war.

Such a theoretical hypostatization is something which Luxemburg recognized Lenin as being prone to as early as 1904. Now again, I am uncertain as to the precise nature of Luxemburg’s shift vis a vis the Bolsheviks, but I doubt it goes further than affirming the same sentiments expressed above. If she would go so far as to side with Lenin on the necessarily centralistic character of proletarian dictatorship, it would amount to a renunciation of her most original and important contributions to Marxist political philosophy, and hence would amount to an error compared to the earlier positions with which it broke.

Lukacs’s criticism is not limited to accusing Luxemburg of misunderstanding the context of Bolshevik policies; he goes on to condemn her argument as lacking in dialectical rigor, especially where it offers an alternative to the Leninist conception of socialist transformation. (I don’t mean to conflate Ross’s criticisms with Lukacs’s, but Ross leaves his interpretation of the relation between Lenin and Luxemburg unspecified for the most part. Lukacs seems to want to argue that the arguments by which Luxemburg explicitly distances herself from Leninism are based on either factual or logical errors, the correction of which would considerably narrow the gap between them. Whether or not Ross wants to follow this reasoning, I think it is important to clarify Luxemburg’s criticisms and positive alternatives to Leninism, to show how they better exemplify materialist dialectics than Leninism and its Lukacsian defense, and thus to show that there is a real, non-spurious distinction between the two positions. This is not to characterize them as abstractly opposed; Luxemburgism should be understood as the determinate negation of Leninism, making explicit the inconsistencies and errors in Lenin’s political reasoning and insodoing producing a more consistent iteration of its core virtues.)

Lukacs’s main argument is that Luxemburg forgoes her characteristic dialectal rigor while criticizing Lenin in favor of a problematic “organicism” or “spontaneiesm” about revolutionary change. In the dialectical view, the revolutionary movement can only proceed by confronting a series of contradictions, recognizing the manner in which these contradictions necessarily arise from its own premises, and overcoming these contradictions by progressively reconstituting its practical and theoretical bases. Organicism, on the other hand, would entail that progressive change is a natural necessity, and the only obligation of active revolutionaries is to prevent interference that would delay or stunt this progress. The Leninist party is deemed the necessary correlate of a properly dialectical revolutionary strategy, as only a centralized authority over the movement is capable of carrying out transformations of that movement obliged by accumulating contradictions. Luxemburg, in Lukacs’s view, wants to reduce the role of such a centralist organization to safeguarding the natural and spontaneous progress of the workers’ revolution from external interference and contamination.

Throughout his essay, Lukacs plainly mischaracterizes the role of “spontaneity” in Luxemburg’s thought, disregarding its properly dialectical relation to organization. He understands the former as referring to a process that people to do not intentionally plan and initiate, but as an unintentional byproduct. “[S]he regards the form of organisation itself as something which grows and not as something ‘made’.” Yet this is a bad faith reading of Luxemburg’s actual claims if there ever was one. It is not Luxemburg, but Lukacs who forces the alternative between “growing” and “making”. For Luxemburg, the distinction is not between a spontaneous genesis that is not consciously orchestrated by people and a conscious organization that supervenes on and constrains this natural process. “Spontaneity” rather refers to political and social activity that are not strictly coordinated by an explicit strategic plan, but which constitutes the practical premises of explicit strategic coordination. This is not to say that the “unorganized” masses cannot err, nor that the role of organizations is to simply safeguard the naturally revolutionary activity of the working class. Rather, without explicit organization, the masses will generate all kinds of confusions, inconsistencies, and conflicts amongst themselves; these are settled, and the revolutionary tendencies of the masses become more explicit and directed, when they produces organizational forms of mediation and thereby overcome their internal strife. Organizations are to be understood as instruments of the working class movement, not the other way around.

Lukacs indicts Luxemburg of an inchoate organicism even in her most exemplary dialectical moments:

In the debate with Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg has incisively demonstrated that the idea of an organic ‘growth’ into socialism is untenable. She showed convincingly that history advances dialectically and that the internal contradictions of the capitalist system are constantly intensified; and this is so not merely in the sphere of pure economics but also in the relations between economics and politics. Thus at one point we find clearly stated: “The relations of production of capitalist society become increasingly socialist but its political and legal arrangements erect an ever loftier wall between capitalist and socialist society.” This implies the necessity of a violent, revolutionary break with prevailing social trends. Admittedly we can already see here the seeds of a belief that the Revolution was needed only to remove the ‘political’ obstacles from the path of economic developments. But such a glaring light is thrown upon the dialectical contradictions in capitalist production that it is hardly possible to justify such a conclusion in this context. Moreover, Rosa Luxemburg does not deny the necessity of violence in connection with the Russian Revolution. She declares: “Socialism presupposes a series of acts of violence — against property, etc.” And later, in the Spartacus Programme it is recognised that “the violence of the bourgeois counter-revolution must be opposed by the revolutionary violence of the proletariat”.

However, this recognition of the role of violence refers only to the negative aspect, to the sweeping away of obstacles; it has no relevance to social construction. This cannot be “imposed or introduced by ukase”. “The socialist system of society,” Rosa Luxemburg claims, “should only be and can only be a historical product, born of the school of its own experiences; and — just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part — has the fine habit of always producing, along with any real social need, the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution.”

I shall not pause to dwell on the singularly undialectical nature of this line of thought on the part of an otherwise great dialectician. It is enough to note in passing that the rigid contrast, the mechanical separation of the ‘positive’ and the ‘negative’, of ‘tearing down’ and ‘building up’ directly contradicts the actuality of the Revolution. For in the revolutionary measures taken by the proletarian state, especially those taken directly after the seizing of power, the ‘positive’ cannot be separated from the ‘negative’ even conceptually, let alone in practice. The process of struggling against the bourgeoisie, of seizing from its hands the instruments of power in economic conflict coincides — especially at the beginning of the revolution — with the first steps towards organising the economy.

Yet the one-sidedness of the relation between negative and positive aspects of revolutionary change is not native to Luxemburg’s argument, which only takes on this appearance due to Lukacs’s glaring omission of its essential claims:

[S]ocialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Luxemburg does not criticize Leninist party centralism because it stunts the natural, spontaneous emergence of revolutionary organization, but because the this party, far from being the sole agent capable of guiding the movement beyond contradictions, seeks to subordinate the whole of the movement to its unitary programme, thereby preventing the emergence of contradictions internal to the movement. Explicit forms of organization must arise and change in response to such internal contradictions, rather than preceding, anticipating, and preemptively suppressing these contradictions. The point isn’t simply that reformists should be given a free voice within the movement for freedom’s sake, but that the problems with the reformist tendency must be explicitly demonstrated and overcome in practice. It is only by developing and actively overcoming its theoretical and practical contradictions that the movement will make any progress. This is quite far from spontanenism.

Lukacs is also in bad faith in criticizing Luxemburg for rejecting the soviets as a weapon, in favor of returning to the Constituent Assembly. Luxemburg’s point is that the Bolsheviks falsely understood the failure of a particular instance of representative democracy as an indictment of representative democracy tout court, rather than recognizing the possibility of the latter becoming the vital terrain of contestation within the revolutionary movement, in which various contradictory positions can explicate their incompatibilities and determine a manner of overcoming them. Her criticism of the soviets is thus obviously not directed at them in principle, as democratic councils that emerge from working class organization, but the Bolshevik subordination of the power of the soviets to a hierarchical structure that makes them mere limbs of the Central Committee. The soviets must be autonomous sites in which distinct currents within the movement can articulate themselves, and the Constitutent Assembly could have served as the venue in which emergent antagonisms amongst these currents could be not only mediated but leveraged for the progressive development of the movement as a whole.

So I think there is good evidence for distinguishing between Luxemburgist and Leninist approaches to the political implications of Marxism, and that there are good reasons to prefer the former, even if this distinction has been drawn in spurious ways in the past.

Moving on to point 2: Ross seems to whitewashe Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin as arising from an inappropriate inattention to context, and dissolving once proper attention is paid. Yet while she does admit that in certain circumstances, relatively rigid and authoritarian forms of organization might be necessary to prevent the collapse of the revolutionary movement, she is very clear that it is inappropriate to treat these extraordinary measures as the norm which all revolutionary organizations should obey. On the contrary, in her view, the revolutionary movement can only make progress by continually reproducing itself out of a diverse and vibrant internal intercourse, and by infusing its bureaucratic and parliamentary organs with the enthusiastic critical engagement of its popular constituents. While she made many concrete strategic proposals that are not directly applicable to our particular historical and social circumstances, to collapse the entirety of her political thinking into such situation-specific strategy is an grave error, tantamount to abandoning historical materialism in favor of historical relativism. Against this temptation, it is essential to insist that Luxemburg’s work is supported by political principles that are not only still relevant today, but that will continue to be relevant as long as people are committed to living in a classless society.

Turning to Luxemburg, Lenin, or any other revolutionary thinkers today requires a keen appreciation of the historical specificity to which they were responding. Yet Ross goes so far as to imply that there is little if anything to be salvaged from their work for contemporary purposes. This is not an approach I can endorse, as it seems to imply a stark discontinuity between the economic and political circumstances of today and a century ago, something which I think is just plain wrong, and a lack of anything like truths expressed in the work of such thinkers that transcend their historical and contextual relevance. The latter is in my view, again, a grave error, as historical materialism is as much a doctrine of the historically-specific practical conditions in which certain theoretical paradigms become plausible as of the emergence within such paradigms of ideas that transcend their specific context and thus can become involved in the active transformation of that context.

Posted in Strategy, Theory | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Note on popular right ideology

The popular Right oppose increased taxation on the wealthy and big business because they are responsible for the creation of jobs. If they’re being taxed, they’ll have less capital to invest in their own or other businesses, and hence less jobs will be created; and potentially, they might leave the state or country altogether to exploit cheaper sources of labor and lack of taxation elsewhere, thereby causing even higher unemployment.

These are the same people who champion entrepreneurialism and small business as the emblem of American economic liberty. Yet due to discursive distortions, it is not clear how these two positions contradict each other. Raising taxes on the super-wealthy would allow for lower tax rates on the rest of the population and small business start ups. Moreover, big businesses aren’t the only source of employment — small businesses are as well. And I’d care to wager that oligopolistic corporate competition is one of the major factors in the failure of small businesses and the disincentivization of possible start-ups. Weakening big businesses should therefore lead to the freeing up of market-share for small businesses. This is a short-circuit in popular right ideology that must be exploited.

Posted in Politics, Strategy | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Hijacking the Tea Party Movement

[alt: “Capitalism is not freedom!”; “The more the boss makes the less we make! Cut profits and bonuses now!”]

American Stranger returns with a brilliant take on the ideological basis and political significance of right-wing populism in the US (the ‘tea party’ movement).

The phenomenon of the Tea Party, like other episodes of partisan hysteria, highlights a possible practical difference between America’s liberals and its vestigial left. Realizing that Beck is a tool of the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch is necessary for any effective response, but informing Tea Baggers of their real material interests doesn’t take place within a vacuum. For the liberal democrats, who are prohibited from acting on any knowledge gleaned from examining things more closely than their opposition, the key strategic controversy is whether to attack the Tea Party or ignore them (at the moment, the progressives do battle while the Democratic establishment concentrates on selling them out). For the left, the ideal thing to do would be to try to hijack their organization. This would undoubtedly require difficult ideological compromise, but unlike liberals, leftists are not structurally incapable of it, though they may be incapable of actually accomplishing the task (probably impossible if left to underfunded petty bourgeois media workers).

Admitting that Tea Baggers have ‘real grievances’ is an honorable gesture, but without some attempt to establish solidarity the point is academic. What liberals find terrifying and the right finds exhilarating is not so much the content of the ideas (warmed-over libertarianism spiced up with a few paranoid fantasies and tolerance for bigotry), though these are easy for both sides to pontificate about, but the manner in which they are posed: anti-intellectual, contradictory, belligerent, self-pitying, enthusiastic, shameless. As a complete performance, it’s the antithesis of every dubious perk that goes along with liberal or progressive self-identification. [Emphasis mine]

To his list of “what liberals find terrifying and the right finds exhilarating”, I’d add the fact that the complaints of the tea party are the (distorted and misplaced) expression of class struggle politics. The problem would be working through the distortion to bring out the rational core. Unfortunately, doing so is impeded by another item on that list: anti-intellectualism. While this anti-intellectualism might be considered an asset in the sense that it runs directly counter to liberalism’s technocratic enshrinement of “expert opinion” (including that of the neoliberal economists; the interesting thing is that this populist anti-elitism might well be turned against the very economic dogma it currently parrots), this is problematically intertwined with the denial that political positions oblige rational justification in favor of the valorization of “common” opinions. At this point, they talk as if democracy means the denunciation of “elitist” elevation of certain opinions over those of others, such as those of scientists over those of religious people, etc. The problem is to how make clear that while proper discrimination between political positions (both ideals and projects) cannot be outsourced to a pseudo-scientific elite, it also cannot defer to common sense, but instead must involve a rational and inclusive collective discourse. Doing so will be difficult, but not impossible, considering that the tea-partiers tend to celebrate the “founding fathers”, who were themselves unambiguous proponents of the Enlightenment insistence on the value of reason.

Posted in Politics, Strategy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Mike Ely’s Three Tier Model of Communist Mobilization

Mike Ely of Kasama has a great post, “What a Communist Beginning Might Look Like”, describing his “three tier” model of communist organization. The model is based on three different “levels of projects” that, while relatively independent, would feed into and mutually support each other.

He calls the first level the “Iskra project”, after the pre-Soviet Russian socialist newspaper. The purpose of this project is to provide a forum for “conscious revolutionaries” to engage each other in theoretical and strategic discussion, to “clarify their levels of unity and their forms of organization”. It would furthermore serve as an attractive force for marginal and inchoate radicals, drawing them into explicit and relatively unified organizational activity.

He clarifies the way this would relate to existing leftist segmentarity in the comments:

A new revolutionary movement will not (cannot) emerge from some “unity of the existing left” project — for all kinds of reasons that are worth discussing. … I don’t think we are limited to two choices: a) try to unite the current existing trends into one mash, or b) stay divided up along the currently existing silos.

On the contrary, I think both of those approaches would be a deadend and a waste of time. And i think that most of the “raw material” for a new revolutionary movement is outside the existing left silos. And I think the form and functioning of those silos make it harder to connect with many people. …

The truly hard part is not reproducing the forms that have seem familiar and comfortable for us, i.e. for the “left activists.” Once you climb out of a once-attractive silo — there is a strong pull to re-form something quite like it. And many people joined organizations assuming that someone (somewhere?) had figured out what to do — and realizing that wasn’t so means assuming a great deal of new responsibility.

I find that a great many people have never really confronted what it means when you don’t yet have a revolutionary movement or an organized revolutionary core — because suddenly the initiation (and before that the preconception) is itself a difficult series of conceptual and collective tasks. No autopilot here.

While I agree that both unification and coalition of existing leftist factions are basically bankrupt strategies, I think he’s a bit too heavy-handed in his treatment of the faction-problem here (and to be fair, that may be out of haste). I absolutely agree that, for the most part, allying oneself with a faction defined by a hard-set theoretico-strategic core is a weak move, a way of avoiding the real burden of collectively negotiating strategy and revising theoretical attitudes in the process of revolutionary organization (what Kasama has referred to as the “reconceive as we regroup” strategy). If there is one non-negotiable commitment at the core of communist politics, one that I hope could be shared across libertarian-socialist spectrum, it is that the form of revolutionary organization can only be determined collectively by those involved in its emergence. (Even hardcore Leninists hold this commitment, be it in a qualified form.) The sectarian temptation is ultimately a betrayal of this core commitment, insofar as it discharges this burden by exempting certain commitments from collective evaluation, and thereby isolating those holding said commitments from a possible collective organization of the revolutionary movement at large. The foundation of the Iskra project must be, as Ely suggests, a forum in which a commitment to collective “unity” (although that word might be a bit strong) takes precedence over all other commitments. This certainly doesn’t mean that there cannot be disagreements about strategic and organizational matters, nor that such disagreements must be resolved either by democratic majority decision or by consensus-building.

Nonetheless, I think Ely is hasty when he says that “most of the “raw material” for a new revolutionary movement is outside the existing left silos.” I don’t think building a unified radical left based on more than a minimal common ground amongst different antagonistic sects must require the abandonment of sectarianized positions. Rather, there are compelling and potentially valuable ideas within almost all of these positions, ideas that should not be prejudicially dismissed but that should be tested, revised, and retested by a non-sectarian movement. Thus, while I agree with Ely that the alternative of either a new popular front or continuing sectarian division is a false choice, I don’t think his option of building a new movement outside these positions that can gradually draw people away from their sectarian commitments is quite right either. Rather, I think we need to encourage radicals to “weaken the walls” of their silos, to undermine the sectarian tendency while recovering potentially valuable elements of their position; and even to undermine their sectarianism on the basis of such elements, to discover non-sectarian commitments implicit in their positions. The Iskra forum should be a place in which leftists of different orientations can share the bases of their different commitments without needing to exempt these commitments from revision, and without fearing prejudicial rejection. It should resemble a front, but only insofar as the different positions it brings together undergo a gradual erosion of their divisive boundaries. (This is easier said than done, but that’s no reason not to try.)

Ely seems to lean in my direction to some extent in his description of Iskra, despite the ambiguity of his clarification:

The Iskra audience is conscious or aspiring revolutionaries. It provides a scaffolding alongside which organization can be developed. It starts as a process of discussions among revolutionaries — within which a communist pole can be seen and out of which distinct trends can develop — where radical views can be seen in engaged contradiction to each other, and where such clarifications can (hopefully) help a whole new generation of radicals develop their views and build  organized formations to implement and test those views.

Moving on, the second level is the “Pravda project”, also named after a Russian socialist newspaper. Yet whereas Iskra is concerned with intra-revolutionary theoretical and organizational concerns, Pravda’s purpose is to branch out beyond “conscious and aspiring revolutionaries” to those who are not committed to revolutionary change, but who ought to see such change as being in their interest.

we need to develop a popular way of delivering news and analysis to large numbers of people in a way that connects with them and helps bring them to an increasingly revolutionary understanding of the world and their own role.

Pravda aims to awaken and cultivate working class consciousness. Its goal is the dissemination of propaganda, or information whose intention is to influence the attitudes of its audience toward a particular position. Yet rather than relying on misinformation or the perpetuation of irrational, unjustified prejudices, Pravda’s propaganda should rely on strictly factual content presented so as to show how revolutionary change is in the rational interest* of working people (and ultimately, all people). The wager here is that while opinions are often irrational, that people can be persuaded to adopt rationally justified opinions.

Ely leaves the structure of Pravda even less determined than that of Iskra, stating only that we must determine how it will differ from more mainstream leftist media sources, as well as from those that “preach to the converted”, publications intended for those already committed to radical politics. He does stipulate, however, that a crucial task of initiating this Pravda project will be

[t]he discovery of a really-existing potential audience … you can’t start to apply the mass line on a broad scale without the accretion of a revolutionary people out of real cracks, pockets and radical divergences within the political landscape.

The third level would be composed of “a series of Faultline projects”,

in which communists and revolutionaries organize (and reorganize) themselves to deeply engage the struggles of oppressed people along key (objectively existing) faultlines of the society.

Such organization will depend on the internal strategic coherence produced by the Iskra, applying it to positive engagement with external concerns. The goal, moreover, is not to takeover struggles, insisting on the imposition of its own terms, but on providing assistance and encouraging the exacerbation of these struggles. Ely’s words here are perfect:

It is a matter of actually engaging, participating in, building, where necessary initiating and helping to transform the struggles against key crimes of this system — especially those that have the potential for actually drawing significant sections of the people into political life (in ways that collide with this system and its status quo). Revolution requires material force overthrowing material force — and revolutionaries need to actually organize material forces (prepare minds and organize forces) even in a non-revolutionary situation. Preparation for future crisis is not solely (or even mainly) a mental/theoretical preparation among revolutionaries — but also involves preparing networks, connections, alliances, core forces, as well as ideas that can bind millions under unforeseen new situations.

All in all, I think Ely’s strategic schema is immensely interesting and worthy of further development, discussion, and attempted implementation. While it isn’t perfect and needs modifications, I think this is more a result of its incompleteness than serious structural flaws. I hope to see some further developments.


* Rational interest is by no means equivalent to “rational self-interest”. It requires more philosophical justification than I can provide at the moment, but one of the wagers of my interpretation of Marx is that construing “rationality” in individualistic terms of utility maximization is an illegitimate distortion of the concept and its whole Enlightenment legacy. While self-interest is non-negligible, it ultimately supervenes on collective interest, which itself relies on the abstract scaffolding of the formal collectivity of all possible rational agents, or the “institution of rationality” in general. I’ve written a bit on this in the past, and hope to develop it in greater detail in my doctoral research. Nonetheless, I hope it suffices for the time being to insist that rationality is irreducible to individualist prejudices.

Posted in Politics, Strategy | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

A Bit of History for Labor Day

Via PBS:

Pullman, Illinois was a company town, founded in 1880 by George Pullman, president of the railroad sleeping car company. Pullman designed and built the town to stand as a utopian workers’ community insulated from the moral (and political) seductions of nearby Chicago.

The town was strictly, almost feudally, organized: row houses for the assembly and craft workers; modest Victorians for the managers; and a luxurious hotel where Pullman himself lived and where visiting customers, suppliers, and salesman would lodge while in town.

Its residents all worked for the Pullman company, their paychecks drawn from Pullman bank, and their rent, set by Pullman, deducted automatically from their weekly paychecks. The town, and the company, operated smoothly and successfully for more than a decade.

But in 1893, the Pullman company was caught in the nationwide economic depression. Orders for railroad sleeping cars declined, and George Pullman was forced to lay off hundreds of employees. Those who remained endured wage cuts, even while rents in Pullman remained consistent. Take-home paychecks plummeted.

And so the employees walked out, demanding lower rents and higher pay. The American Railway Union, led by a young Eugene V. Debs, came to the cause of the striking workers, and railroad workers across the nation boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars. Rioting, pillaging, and burning of railroad cars soon ensued; mobs of non-union workers joined in.

The strike instantly became a national issue. President Grover Cleveland, faced with nervous railroad executives and interrupted mail trains, declared the strike a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break the strike. Violence erupted, and two men were killed when U.S. deputy marshals fired on protesters in Kensington, near Chicago, but the strike was doomed.

On August 3, 1894, the strike was declared over. Debs went to prison, his ARU was disbanded, and Pullman employees henceforth signed a pledge that they would never again unionize. Aside from the already existing American Federation of Labor and the various railroad brotherhoods, industrial workers’ unions were effectively stamped out and remained so until the Great Depression.

It was not the last time Debs would find himself behind bars, either. Campaigning from his jail cell, Debs would later win almost a million votes for the Socialist ticket in the 1920 presidential race.

In an attempt to appease the nation’s workers, Labor Day is born

The movement for a national Labor Day had been growing for some time. In September 1892, union workers in New York City took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday. But now, protests against President Cleveland’s harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation’s workers a top political priority. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland’s desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike.

1894 was an election year. President Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation, and Labor Day was born. He was not reelected.

In 1898, Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, called it “the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed…that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.”

Celebrate this meager assuagement of a holiday by refusing to forget, as so many are wont to do, all those men and women who fought, struggled, and died so that someday working people would no longer have to.

If you’re looking for a phalanx to march in, consider helping out the Jimmy Johns Workers Union, who are striking today.

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment