Friday, March 20, 2009

The Dialectical Path of Cognition and Revolutionizing Practice (excerpt)

Excerpt from "The Dialectical Path of Cognition and Revolutionizing
Practice" (March 2004)

In the last decade the International Committee has been embarked on its own version of a policy of “regroupment”. Lest I be misunderstood, I want to clearly state that there are definite limits to this analogy with the regroupment policy carried out by the SWP in the period 1957-1959. The International Committee has not indulged in the kind of wholesale abandonment of revolutionary perspectives that characterized the SWP in the period leading up to the reunification with the Pabloites. Nevertheless, a tendency has clearly emerged within the International Committee characterized by an abstentionist practice in relation to the working class. This has been accompanied by an orientation in the United States toward disaffected liberals who feel betrayed by the Democratic Party and the mass media. Given the extraordinary turn of political events in the United during the Clinton Administration, this change in orientation was understandable. The combination of the Republican Party having been captured by extreme right wing forces and the extraordinary degree of capitulation to these forces on the part of mainstream liberal leaders left millions of working and middle class people politically disenfranchised. It was correct to attempt a dialogue with these forces, particularly under circumstances where the trade union movement no longer represented any kind of credible political alternative, even from a reformist perspective. It was also correct to expose the anti-democratic right wing conspiracy behind the Clinton impeachment drive, as well as the theft of the 2000 elections in the face of a reactionary “plague on both houses” attitude on the part of practically all the radical groups. However it is essential as part of a dialogue with disenchanted liberals and former liberals, to pose clearly our alternative program for revolutionary socialism. Instead, on crucial occasions, the International Committee has blurred the distinction between liberalism and revolutionary socialism. I believe this political confusion is announced in a statement issued by the Socialist Equality Party launching the Presidential election campaign. There one reads that,

“The necessity for a scientific and socially-motivated utilization of mankind’s productive forces and technology – the absence of which threatens the very physical survival of human civilization – poses the historic task of consciously subordinating the profit motive to the principle of humane, democratic and intelligent social planning – that is, replacing capitalism with socialism.” (htttp://

Rather than characterizing socialism as it has been historically conceived within the Marxist movement as the new society of associated producers standing on the foundations thrown up by the overthrow of the law of value, this formulation portrays socialism as “subordinating the profit motive”. In other words, socialism is seen as a kind of capitalism whose excesses have been reigned in, i.e. “subordinated”, to “the principle of humane, democratic and intelligent social planning.” If any statement ever expressed a theoretical and political muddle, surely this one qualifies.

By way of comparison take the following sharp and clear formulations presented in the Transitional Program, wherein liberal and Social Democratic conceptions of “planning” are characterized.

“Liberal capitalism, based upon competition and free trade, has completely receded into the past. Its successor, monopolistic capitalism, not only does not mitigate the anarchy of the market but on the contrary imparts to it a particularly convulsive character. The necessity of ‘controlling’ economy, of placing state ‘guidance’ over industry of ‘planning’ is today recognized – at least in words – by almost all current bourgeois and petty bourgeois-tendencies...The Social Democrats prepare to drain the ocean of anarchy with spoonfuls of bureaucratic ‘planning.’ Engineers and professors write articles about ‘technocracy’. In their cowardly experiments in ‘regulation’, democratic governments run head-on into the invincible sabotage of big capital.”

In contrast to the bureaucratized versions of planning that were then current in liberal circles during the era of the New Deal, the Transitional Program stressed the necessity for workers control, a phrase that does not even appear in the 2004 election manifesto:

“The working out of even the most elementary economic plan – from the point of view of the exploited, not the exploiters – is impossible without workers’ control, that is without the penetration of the workers’ eye into all open and concealed springs of capitalist economy. Committees representing individual business enterprises should meet at conferences to choose corresponding committees of trusts, whole branches of industry, economic regions and finally, of national industry as a whole. Thus, workers’ control becomes a school for planned economy. On the basis of the experience of control, the proletariat will prepare itself for direct management of nationalized industry when the hour for that eventuality strikes.”

Finally, the Transitional Programme, rather than characterizing socialism as a system “subordinating the profit motive”, spells out that socialism rests on the abolition of the profit motive.

“The socialist programme of expropriation, i.e. of political overthrow of the bourgeoisie and liquidation of its economic domination, should in no case during the present transitional period hinder us from advancing, when the occasion warrants, the demand for the expropriation of several key branches of industry vital for national existence or of the most parasitic group of the bourgeoisie.”

Of course one can argue that during the New Deal liberalism and social democracy were still advancing reformist proposals for social planning whereas today a senile liberalism has abandoned even the mildest reformist proposal and poses no alternative to the right wing policies of retrenchment of even the most elementary forms of public facilities. This observation would be correct, but it fails to alter the fact that the distinction between socialism and liberalism has been blurred. At best such an objection could point to the fact that that in the discussion of socialism found on the WSWS, there is drawn a distinction between socialism and a senile and cowardly liberalism. But it fails to draw much of a distinction between socialism and a renewed or invigorated liberalism, one that came into prominence during the New Deal. What this indicates is that there has been a blind spot in the critique of liberalism.

Until the intervention of the Socialist Equality Party into the California election, any consistent campaign revolving around programmatic demands had been notable by its absence from the pages of the World Socialist Web Site. Instead, article after article on the World Socialist Web Site tacked on a bit of “holiday speechifying” about the need for a “world party of socialist revolution.” A typical example of this methodology is the article on Howard Dean that appeared on Dec 20th. The article provided an analysis of the Dean campaign and how the leadership of the Democratic Party had tried to marginalize Dean. The article concludes with the following remarks,

“In the end, the many millions of people opposed to the Bush administration’s policies of militarism abroad and social reaction at home will find no real alternative in Dean or in any other Democratic candidate. Such an alternative is possible only through a break with the two-party system and the emergence of an independent, mass political party of the working class.”

It is certainly the case the case that millions opposed to the Bush administration will find no real alternative in Dean, but nothing in the previous paragraphs of commentary had prepared the reader for this conclusion. In the terms of the transitional program, there is no bridge between the present consciousness of the working class and the objective requirements of the situation. The last line, that this alternative “is possible only through a break with the two-party system and the emergence of an independent, mass political party of the working class”, not only comes out of nowhere, but is devoid of any real content. Just how is this “mass political party of the working class” to emerge? What kind of organization in the working class will be necessary to bring about this mass political party, and what is the Socialist Equality Party doing to prepare it? What program will this party adopt? What will be its relationship to the traditional organizations of the working class, most importantly the trade unions? Finally, just what concrete action is the SEP proposing that its readership take to encourage the formation of this party? These are just some of the questions that come to mind if one considers the demand for a “mass political party of the working class” as part of a serious strategy aimed at mobilizing the working class.

With the SEP’s participation in the California recall campaign last fall and the entry into the 2004 Presidential race, the importance of programmatic issues has been rediscovered. However, I believe that just as the initial turn away from a struggle on programmatic issues was rooted in a turn away from theoretical issues, the return to programmatic issues is largely a pragmatic reaction to current exigencies. While I think this is still a positive turn, unless it is accompanied by a return to theoretical issues, the danger exists that it will serve only to further disorient the movement.

The statement launching the California election campaign contained the first systematic list of programmatic demands within the movement since 1996. However, as I have already indicated, the nature of the program put forward was excruciatingly timid and failed in some respects to differentiate itself from a program of radical reforms. Let us examine the programmatic demands more closely. The California recall campaign contains the following statement - and there is a similar one advertising the 2004 Presidential campaign:

“A socialist program does not mean the nationalization of everything, or the abolition of small or medium-sized businesses, which are themselves continually victimized by giant corporations and banks. Establishing a planned economy will give such businesses ready access to credit and more stable market conditions, so long as they provide decent wages and working conditions.”

If one considers that a huge percentage of all goods and services produced in the United States still come from small and medium-sized businesses, how can these enterprises co-exist with a socialist planned economy? Of course it is silly to talk of nationalization of the mom and pop corner grocery, but do we really want to take responsibility for providing credit to firms that may employ and exploit dozens and even hundreds of workers i.e. medium-sized businesses? The experience of the Soviet Union during the period of the NEP showed clearly that once pockets of “free enterprise” are allowed to coexist within a workers state, these enterprises inevitably seek to free themselves from the confines of the planned economy and come into headlong opposition with the working class. If such was the case with the modest class of relatively better of peasants and NEP-men in the Soviet Union, one can only imagine how much greater pressure would be exerted for a free hand in the market place by the owners of “medium-sized business” in the United States.

Perhaps this demand was included in the belief that it is necessary for the working class to present itself as the ally and saviour of the petit bourgeoisie. That is certainly a necessary element of a program of transitional demands. However, the petite bourgeoisie that can be enlisted as allies of the working class are most certainly not the owners of medium-sized businesses. It is from these strata that some of the most reactionary elements of American society have emerged. Rather, the real potential allies of the working class are the many millions of self-employed professionals whose jobs and circumstances of life have largely become indistinguishable from the working class in recent years. I am thinking of such professional groups as doctors that have to toil with the vagaries of HMO’s, lawyers who have to work for poverty wages at a non-profit institutions, computer consultants who are forced to search for work in a volatile market that is constantly threatened with outsourcing to cheaper intellectual labor abroad, and the second class citizens that comprise the bulk of university faculty today, adjunct teachers and graduate assistants.

There is yet another plank in the list of demands from the California recall campaign that bears some comment.

“ In the case of the most vital and critical industries—the utilities, the oil companies, the banks, the giant multinational corporations—what is required is their transformation into public utilities, under public ownership and democratic control. If California proves anything, it is the intrinsic anarchy and chaos of capitalism. The claim that the “market makes the right choices” is a self-serving lie, peddled by those whose decisions frequently determine the movement of the market—e.g., the corporate CEOs who award themselves eight- and nine-figure incomes and then proclaim that this plundering of their own companies is the result of impersonal market forces.”

The demand for the transformation of the giant oil companies and banks into “public utilities” is put forward here in the context not of workers control, as is called for in the transitional program, but the vague slogan of “democratic control”. Contrast this feeble statement with the following discussion from the transitional program:

“The struggle against unemployment is not to be considered without the calling for a broad and bold organization of public works. But public works can have a continuous and progressive significance for society, as for the unemployed themselves, only when they are made part of a general plan worked out to cover a considerable number of years. Within the framework of this plan, the workers would demand resumption, as public utilities, of work in private businesses closed as a result of the crisis. Workers’ control in such case: would be replaced by direct workers’ management.”

Although the call for ‘public works’ in the transitional program must be understood in the context of the make-work projects initiated during the Great Depression and is therefore of a different character than the current situation of California public utilities, the issue of workers control retains its significance. In the transitional program, the call for public works was coupled with a call for workers control to be exercised through structures created out of the working class itself and completely independent of any government agency. In the programmatic statement for the California election campaign, there is nothing mentioned about workers control nor any call for autonomous organizations of the working class to begin to exercise the prerogatives of management. Without the latter, the call for public works, or nationalization of industries is indistinguishable from a program advocated by certain left wing reformists who dream of achieving the type of welfare state that Britain had in the immediate postwar period when the coal mines were nationalized.

If as I am maintaining, the Socialist Equality Party has been paring down its revolutionary perspective, how has this manifested itself in the work of the movement against imperialism? It is true that there have been many excellent commentaries as well as important historical investigations as part of the campaign against the US imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, what has been missing is an active intervention within the anti-war movement to forge an alternative leadership and advance our own program for ending imperialist war. Our opposition to imperialism therefore remains on the level of propaganda. We participated in the mass anti-war marches that took place last in April of 2002, and in February and March of 2003. However, we did not march under our own banners with our own slogans. We did give out flyers at these demonstrations but the material we handed out did not propose any active program for workers and youth other than reading our Web Site. We did not call a single meeting of our own at either of the large anti-war rallies of the past 2 years. Finally, when the U.S. aggression in Afghanistan first broke out, it took the Socialist Equality Party nearly a year to organize a public meeting denouncing this act of American imperialism. The war against Afghanistan broke out in November 2001, yet we did not convene a public meeting on the issue in the U.S. until October 4, 2002 when we sponsored an event in Ann Arbor. The first and only meeting in New York took place on Dec 15, 2002. I cannot think of a similar situation in the past 65 years wherein the Trotskyist movement failed to promptly call a public meeting to rally support against imperialist war.

In themselves, these actions, or lack of action may not be very significant. But taken as a whole, they spell out a very disquieting message. The overall practice of the movement is primarily of a contemplative nature in which we are adapting ourselves to a milieu that is distant from if not alien to the working class, whether it be the radical anti-war movement or to liberals angry that they have been politically disenfranchised by the collapse of the Democratic Party. While there is nothing wrong in itself with engaging these forces in a dialogue, this has been bought at the price of abstention from the struggle to build an alternative leadership in the working class. The danger is, and I have just listed a few of the symptoms, that we will adapt our politics to the illusions congenial to these social forces.

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