Reflections on some political and ideological questions today

The president doesn't simply register and reflect the balance of power; he influences it as well; no other person has as much power as the president. To identify him as a centrist Democrat akin to Clinton or Carter or Kennedy conceals more than it reveals; it's too neat. It doesn't help us understand him as a political actor and his place in the broader struggle for progressive change. And it can quickly lead to narrow tactics and a wrong-headed strategic policy.

Some say, for example, that the strategic role of the left is to criticize the president, to push him from left. But is that a good point of departure strategically? Doesn't it elevate a tactical question to a strategic one?

Criticizing the president (especially in the internet age) takes little imagination or effort, far less than activating the various forces that elected him last year. To do the latter takes a strategic sense, flexible tactics, creative thinking, and hard work. The president's report card, it could easily be argued, is better than the coalition that elected him. He doesn't get an A, but neither do we.

There are no prohibitions against criticism of the president, but it should be done in a unifying and constructive way. The success or failure of the Obama presidency will resonate for years. A deep imprint on class and racial relations will be part of his legacy. It is hard to imagine how a successful struggle for reforms can happen without the president or how anyone other than the extreme right and sections of the ruling class would benefit if his presidency fails.

Attitude towards reform

A very different political and ideological issue that has a bearing on practical politics is the assertion that capitalism has no solutions to the present crisis and can't be reformed.

If this means that the endemic crises of capitalism (for example, cyclical and structural unemployment, regular crises, overproduction, over accumulation, etc.) will persist as long as the profit motive is the singular determinant of economic activity, we would agree.

But if this means that anything short of a system wide change is of little importance, or that the underlying dynamics and laws of motion can't be modified, we would disagree.

We should avoid counterposing the bankruptcy of capitalism against the struggle for reforms under capitalism. Such juxtaposition is unnecessary and counterproductive. If we don't struggle for the latter (reforms), what we say about the former (systemic nature of problems) will carry little weight nor will we get to where we want to go - socialism.

Capitalism is more elastic than some believe. It changes on its own (its internal laws motion - what Marx studied in "Capital") and is modified by the class struggle. Look at its historical development if you don't believe so.

Role of the working class

Still another ideological question is the role of the working class in general and the labor movement in particular. The right wing and mass media (not just Fox) either heap abuse on the labor movement or make it invisible. They are well aware of the new developments in organized labor, and recoil at the prospect of a revitalizing labor movement. None of this is a surprise.

What is surprising is that many progressive and left people either have a blind spot when it comes to the labor movement, or see it as just another participant, or refuse to see - even dismiss out of hand - the new developments within it.

Leading up to the AFL-CIO convention, we heard more than once that labor should be "a social movement," that it should "take on capital," etc. But, unless you are the hostage of "pure" forms of the class struggle, isn't that what labor is doing - in the elections last year and on issues like health care, war, racism, immigration, climate change, international solidarity, and so forth?

Granted it's not across the board, there are still backwaters, the old style of leadership hasn't completely disappeared, and rank-and-file participation is not where it should be.

But isn't that an old movie? Is going over in righteous indignation the litany of sins of the labor movement the most productive thing that we can do? Doesn't it make far more sense to note the new development and directions, the new thinking, and the new composition of labor's leadership? Do we think that the transition from the legacy of the Cold War and the so-called Golden Age of capitalism can happen in a day, in a month, in a decade? Change is hard, but when sprouts of change come to the light of day we should nurture them.

Our understanding of Marxism reveals that in the process of exploitation, not only surplus value, but also oppositional tendencies arise - albeit uneven and full of contradictions and inconsistencies - but arise nonetheless to challenge corporate prerogatives and class rule.

An under appreciation of the new developments in labor can only weaken the broader movement for change.

Marxism

Finally, Marxism is an open-ended, integrated, and comprehensive set of ideas to conceptualize and change the world - a world outlook. It brings to the light the existing and developing regularities and laws of social development of societies, and especially capitalist society.

Thus, continually deepening our understanding of Marxism's basic theoretical constructions is of crucial importance to us - not to mention the movement as a whole.

At the same time, Marxism is not simply a science (understood in a general sense) and worldview, but it is also a methodology.

Marxist methodology absorbs and metabolizes new experience; it gives special weight to new phenomena.

It isn't about timeless abstractions, pure forms, ideal types, categorical imperatives unsullied by inconvenient facts, unexpected turns and anomalies; it doesn't turn partial demands, reformist forces, inconsistent democrats, liberals, social democratic labor leaders, even blue dog democrats, into a contagious flu to be avoided at all costs.

Marxist methodology insists on a concrete presentation of a question and an exact estimate of the balance of forces at any given moment.

As a method of analysis, Marxism emphasizes fluidity, reexamining old and new questions, process, dialectics, and movement; it's about allowing space for individuals and organizations to change.

We should deepen our understanding of Marxism as a science and methodology. And we should not give too much attention to those who take issue with us from the left. When we do, it cuts down on our ability to think creatively and respond practically to new opportunities and developments.

In the era of the Internet, everyone's voice is amplified. If some try to turn Marxism into a sacred canon much like the strict constitutional jurists and biblical literalists do with the Constitution and Bible, so be it; if they want to spend all their time looking for examples of right deviations, to the point where they themselves are simply self-satisfied observers of struggle and too busy to build the people's movement or, in the case of those who are in our party, build our organization and press, so be it.

We will go our own way, focusing our energy and talents on building the working-class movement and our party and press, and be much the wiser for it.

 

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  • Looks like nursing home workers in the Twin Cities can count on as much support and solidarity from the Webb crowd as workers at the Ford plant received if Mike speaks for the Communist Party.

    Mike, I live in St. Paul. It is my understanding the CPUSA is supporting a candidate for governor who organized the bashing of heads at the Republican National Convention. Is there any truth to this rumor? If not, what candidate for governor is the CPUSA supporting in Minnesota? Any candidate who is supporting nursing home workers trying to organize IN ST. PAUL NURSING HOMES? Since I am one of the organizers I should know.

    Mike, would you mind explaining what you have done trying to help nursing home workers in Minnesota organize since you are so interested?

    Only already organized workers count for anything, right?

    Posted by Robert, 12/23/2009 2:55pm (5 years ago)

  • Mike,

    Better check again. And check to see what the USW is doing around St. Paul in nursing homes. Needless to say you don't know anything.

    Barb

    Posted by Barb, 12/23/2009 2:38pm (5 years ago)

  • I think Sam Webb's article shows a much better understanding of what Marxism is about than any of those criticizing him for his supposed revisionism, reformism, etc. His comments about how some treat Marxism as a "sacred canon" are right on, as evidenced by a few of the comments below.

    I think the CP will all the better for charting its own path that takes into account the current situation of the U.S. while also relying on the best traditions of Marxism. It may indeed be time to "go our own way".

    Posted by C.J., 12/23/2009 12:10pm (5 years ago)

  • How can we make a better and more just world? The way humans do everything else, thru science. And that's what Marxism is - working class science. I'm glad we're talking about Marxism as a science and less as a religion. Science is hard. There aren't easy answers. I want to change the world, not just comment on it. This is the way to go.

    Posted by Bobbie, 12/23/2009 11:53am (5 years ago)

  • Barb,

    You work for a nursing home in St. Paul, but are also a member of USW? That's strange. While the USW is the union in a couple of nursing homes around Minnesota, none of them are anywhere near St. Paul. Hmmm.... it just strikes me as kind of strange all these posts, all written in the same style, but supposedly written by different people, each with all these claims to working class "authenticity" and all singing praises to Alan Maki. Just a little suspicious...

    Posted by Mike, 12/23/2009 11:40am (5 years ago)

  • On our break today we are reading Sam Webb's article and discussing it after our rank and file committee received an email from Alan Maki.

    Everyone in the break room agrees with Alan Maki.

    Most of us campaigned and voted for Obama and now we regret our decision. We see nothing progressive coming from Obama or the Democrats. We have worked hard for single payer universal healthcare here in Minnesota and we feel betrayed by Obama and our union leaders.

    Barb has raised many questions we would like to see answered by Sam Webb.

    Posted by Frank, 12/23/2009 11:07am (5 years ago)

  • Sam Webb must think we are all very stupid. I am a member of the USW. I work in a nursing home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Webb writes:

    "Leading up to the AFL-CIO convention, we heard more than once that labor should be "a social movement," that it should "take on capital," etc. But, unless you are the hostage of "pure" forms of the class struggle, isn't that what labor is doing - in the elections last year and on issues like health care, war, racism, immigration, climate change, international solidarity, and so forth?

    Granted it's not across the board, there are still backwaters, the old style of leadership hasn't completely disappeared, and rank-and-file participation is not where it should be."

    I wonder if Webb has ever been an active union member because this "leadership" Webb talks about is actively preventing rank and file participation in our unions. Workers have to fight the union leadership before they can fight management.

    Alan Maki in his comment below is right that Obama and the labor leadership backing him are on the wrong side of every issue that Webb lists above. Here are those issues:

    "...in the elections last year and on issues like health care, war, racism, immigration, climate change, international solidarity, and so forth"

    We need Webb to state exactly where labor has stood on these issues. It wouldn't hurt for Webb to explain the CPUSA's position on these issues too.

    Labor leaders backing Obama was wrong.

    Labor leaders have refused to condemn Obama's escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

    Labor leaders have refused to support affirmative action.

    On immigration labor leaders have been silent since Obama was elected.

    On climate change Obama and this labor leadership have refused to recognize the huge carbon footprint of the U.S. military-industrial-complex.

    As for international solidarity, aside from an occassional statement or letter, it is non-existent. I didn't even know about Leo Gerard's home local 6500 being engaged in a bitter strike in Sudbury until I read about it on Alan Maki's blog. I don't even find any coverage of this important strike on the pages of the People's World.

    For a working person like me Webb has nothing to contribute and I find this very weird coming from a Communist who I expect to be able to count on to tell me the truth and explain things.

    Posted by Barb Potter, 12/23/2009 10:51am (5 years ago)

  • Continuing my response from earlier...

    "It isn't about timeless abstractions, pure forms, ideal types, categorical imperatives unsullied by inconvenient facts, unexpected turns and anomalies; it doesn't turn partial demands, reformist forces, inconsistent democrats, liberals, social democratic labor leaders, even blue dog democrats, into a contagious flu to be avoided at all costs."

    Throughout the debate on healthcare, it has become evident that Sam Webb doesn't understand what a "partial demand" is. For Communists - whose goal is a socialist revolution - a single payer healthcare system IS a partial demand. It's something that has been implemented in numerous capitalist countries and has not harmed capitalism in the offing. The table scraps of "reform" offered by the Democrats, tied as they are to a mandate that hits the working class hardest and several reactionary anti-abortion measures, are not a partial demand of the progressive forces that had supported Obama in 2008. They are Obama's own plan, a gift to the insurance industry.

    Marxism-Leninism does not bar Communists from working with any of the forces Webb lists. However, Lenin didn't share Webb's reluctance to criticize forces from the Left even when working with them. In his famous pamphlet "'Left-Wing' Communism: an Infantile Disorder" Lenin tells the British workers that they ought to support the Labour Party in a way as to expose its true nature. Sam Webb wants to support the Democratic Party in the opposite way: to promote it and obscure its real class roots and goals. As I noted before, his stool has one leg. You can't very well sit on a one-legged stool.

    The worst statement Webb gives is this one.

    "And we should not give too much attention to those who take issue with us from the left. When we do, it cuts down on our ability to think creatively and respond practically to new opportunities and developments."

    This is supremely undialectical thought. Polemics have always sharpened the theoretical tools of Marxism-Leninism; particularly Lenin, who wrote many polemical works. The works he was responding to are by and large forgotten, but his writings live on. Webb can only say this because he is in the process of discarding these tools. His writings reference Marx and Lenin a good deal, but his vision of socialism and how to get there have less in common with those two than with the German social democrats Edouard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, both traitors to socialism.

    After a lot of waffle on Marxism and dialectics, none of it actually concrete, Webb finishes here with:

    "We will go our own way, focusing our energy and talents on building the working-class movement and our party and press, and be much the wiser for it."

    But are they? The Communist Party's life has declined sharply under Sam Webb's watch. Club life has slacked off, and the Party has let organizers go. The print edition of Political Affairs was watered down from a theoretical journal to a popular magazine, and then cancelled. The People's Weekly World was renamed and now cancelled in favor of this website. The CPUSA has withdrawn from much of its visible movement work and is now organizing to support Democrats and their legislative efforts. Actions speak louder than words. The Webb leadership is liquidating the Communist Party, and at this rate it's unclear whether it will reach its 100th birthday.

    Posted by W.R., 12/22/2009 9:17pm (5 years ago)

  • Webbs politics are an island a mist the left and even so twisted that it is isolated from the center as well. He has no base other than the people he keeps on payroll. I agree that it is not about Obama it is about building a movement. And Webbs ideas do not contribute in any concrete way to that movement.

    Posted by Redone, 12/22/2009 6:06pm (5 years ago)

  • To begin a response to Webb's points...

    "Some say, for example, that the strategic role of the left is to criticize the president, to push him from left. But is that a good point of departure strategically? Doesn't it elevate a tactical question to a strategic one?"

    First, it is important to note that Sam doesn't address his polemic against actual people. Here he is arguing against "some." This is not a Marxist-Leninist method of polemic. He should argue against concrete positions, not generalities.

    As to the questions themselves. Yes, it is a good point of departure strategically. In Gus Hall's era the CPUSA talked about a "three legged stool." This consisted of support for progressive Democrats, for independent candidates, and running Communist candidates. Webb's stool is missing two legs. Although most progressives support the Democrats out of hard-nosed pragmatism (and I agree with the position), they also understand that you have to be critical of them. This is a strategic question. Progressive reforms, even in the New Deal and Great Society eras, were not won by working with Democrats but by demanding what was needed, desperately, by working people and African Americans. It is no different in the Obama era. The Democrats are bourgeois politicians, their party is of the ruling class. Just because Communists aren't dunderhead sectarians doesn't mean that this reality can be avoided.

    As far as elevating a tactical question to a strategic one, well, no. The strategy of support for progressive Democrats has to include pushing them leftward. This is a question of the dialectics that Webb loves to bandy about as a phrase without content. For a bourgeois party like the Democrats, there is a constant and unceasing right pressure. They can only move left if there is a more significant left pressure. This isn't a question of absolutes. There are billions of dollars spent to create and maintain this right pressure. That it's done in theatrical ways, such as where the whole Senate caves to one particular opportunist or another, is irrelevant. In the health care debate, the insurance companies have opened their coffers wide to the Democrats, including Obama, because they expect rewards in return. Any movement for progressive change has this deck stacked against it. Without pressure, and without the other two legs of the three legged stool - the threat of independent left candidates and Communist candidates - we have no way of moving the Democrats. In this particular case, where the left in general has ceded the initiative to the Democratic leadership, the right pressure has been the determining factor of the whole debate. If there had been a left force capable of producing some real motion on the ground - a force of which a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party is a necessary but not sufficient part - we would be in a very different place today on the debate. But up against a vacuum, the right force wins every time.

    It's ironic that Webb accuses his (unnamed) opponents of being undialectical, when it is precisely a dialectical analysis that he is incapable of.

    Posted by W.R., 12/22/2009 5:21pm (5 years ago)

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