Plank #2 of the Communist Manifesto, “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.”
Last night Mike Ely of the Kasama Project gave an interesting and impassioned talk at the Brecht Forum that urged the left to embrace the Occupy Wall Street movement, something I strongly agree with. It was time for the left to supersede the sectarian debates of the past and focus on unity around the pressing needs of the mass movement, again something I have supported since 1980 when I began working with Peter Camejo to build the North Star Network.
Ely stated that unity should not paper over real differences, however. He gave an example of one question that he thought should constitute a line of demarcation, namely the “tax the rich” slogan that is strongly identified with liberals like the MSNBC hosts, the Nation Magazine, et al. He warned, however, that this demand amounts to a kind of Trojan horse of the big bourgeoisie since by helping to “level the playing field”, it opens up the door for wholesale attacks on Social Security, Medicare and other gains won by the working class. He stated that once the taxes on the rich are raised, Obama will have a green light to intensify the attacks on the 99 percent saying something like “everybody will have to sacrifice now.”
Yesterday I heard an argument along the same lines from Dan K., a Marxmail subscriber in France who can be described as an anarcho-Marxist:
As Marxist revolutionaries, students of Marx’s materialist analysis, we are not be fooled.
Demanding an end to income disparity (we are the 99%) is laudable, and will in fact benefit the working class. For a time that is.
I mean, seriously. If a government clamps down on big business by wrenching a part of their profits off them and redistributing it to the people, big business is going to … pay their workers more in the progressive state, and immediately outsource production to countries where they can extract more profit from an unskilled workforce. If they are obliged to pay more taxes in a given, industrialized, nation, they will be forced to comply, they will moan and eventually cough up… and they will promptly fire half the workforce and blame the government for the ensuing social crisis. “Told you so ! there ain’t such a thing as a free lunch folks !” That’s what their spokespersons will say.
I have to admit that I have almost a knee-jerk reaction against such arguments since the first time I heard them was in the Militant newspaper, the voice of the moribund and terminally insane SWP of the United States.
In the June 6, 2011 edition Steve Clark, an odious hit man assigned to degrade party members in the pages of the newspaper, took the Los Angeles branch to task for issuing a leaflet that called for raising the taxes on the rich. He said that “communists” are not for such measures since they foster illusions in the system and are an impediment to achieving the dictatorship of the proletariat. (Never in a million years would I have imagined back in 1967 that my party would end up sounding like the Socialist Labor Party:
There is no way for workers to tax our way to the expropriation of the capitalist exploiters. That can only be done as the product of a victorious revolutionary struggle to end the dictatorship of capital and establish a workers and farmers government—a government that helps advance struggles by working people against exploitation, racism, the second-class status of women, imperialist war, devastation of the earth’s air, soil, and waters, and every form of oppression and brutality produced and reproduced by capitalist social relations.
The most recent Militant connected the “tax the rich” slogan to the Occupy Wall Street movement and warned that it could be its undoing:
The problem is not “greedy” bankers or “fat cats.” It cannot be touched by raising taxes on the wealthy, revenue extracted from the capitalists’ surplus to be used by their government to balance their budgets, pay the bondholders—including themselves—fight their wars, and whatever else they decide.
Pointing blame at greedy banks with demagogic appeals to “tax the rich” serves to obfuscate the real problem and the class enemy. It is advanced today by supporters of the Democratic Party, aimed at bringing into office the very same politicians who are advancing an assault on working people on a scale not seen for many decades.
My first response to Dan K.’s post on Marxmail was to raise the following concern:
Put yourself in the position of a socialist member of the NY State Assembly (yes, I know, it is hard to do but use your imagination). How would you vote on extending the “millionaire’s tax”, something the atrocious Gov. Andrew Cuomo opposed? What would working people think if you voted along with Cuomo? Something to think about…
Not long after posting this to the list, I began to do some research on socialism and taxation, going naturally to the indispensable Marxist Internet Archive. A search there on “taxation” revealed some interesting contributions from a variety of sources.
Harry Quelch, born in 1858 and one of Britain’s first Marxists, wrote an article in 1909 titled “Socialism and Taxation” that admitted “Hitherto it has been a sound axiom among Socialists that the incidence of taxation was a matter which did not greatly concern the working-class.” But considering the fact that the tax system is just one of many means to fleece the working class, it was incumbent on the revolutionary movement to support a policy that was in its interests, one in which “all taxes should be levied upon incomes over a fixed minimum, so as to ensure that those who drew the largest revenues should contribute the largest share towards the cost of their own government.” That “largest share” was just another way of describing a steeply progressive income tax.
Albert Weisbord, a member of the American SWP in the 1930s who is best known for getting pilloried by James P. Cannon as an ultraleftist but who deserves better (especially for his writings on the Spanish Civil War), wrote an article titled “A Brief Explanation of Taxes for the Working Class” that is undated but appears to emanate from the 1960s since it refers to the GATT. Weisbord, who nobody in their right mind would ever accuse of reformist illusions, supported taxing the rich:
The income tax should be a progressive tax, that is, it should tax only those with income more than sufficient for an average comfortable life, with rates increasing rapidly to the point where the wealthy support their own State to the tune of 100%. This is very far from the actual situation. The progression of the tax is very low, large numbers of wealthy pay nothing and others much less than they should. The main burden is on the working and middle income classes. Many workers, for example, pay 20% to 30% of their wages in income taxes (when we add sales and other forms of consumer taxes it may run to as high as 40%, to which interest payments on their debts must be added). Here is a primary method of reducing the real wages of the workers while seemingly giving them increased nominal wages. In the end, as the statistics of the aged show, the great mass of workers are poverty stricken and destitute during their older years and must be supported.
T.N. Vance was a leading member of Max Shactman’s organization who wrote a book titled “The Permanent War Economy” in 1951 that is archived in the Trotskyist section of MIA. Part VI, titled “Taxation and the Class Struggle”, is an eye-opening refutation of the idea that the tax structure of the Eisenhower era was “egalitarian”, a claim made by liberals in their ongoing fight with Republicans along the lines of “If Ike did it, why can’t Obama?”
Thus, after a decade of the Permanent War Economy, taxes took about one-fourth of total personal income, with Federal taxes now accounting for more than three-fourths of the total tax yield. Nevertheless, the completely regressive nature of state and local taxes still combines with such regressive features of Federal taxes as excise taxes and corporation taxes to produce a situation where the lowest income group still pays a higher percentage of its income in taxes than all except the 5.3 per cent of the spending units in the $7,500 and over category. If there were a finer income breakdown in the higher income groups, the beginnings of a progressive tax structure would become apparent at a somewhat lower figure than in 1938-39, but there has been no fundamental change in the incidence of taxation nor in the character of the American tax structure.
Now I know what some of you are saying. Who the hell are Quelch, Weisbord and Vance? Sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it? They may have been for soaking the rich but give me the name of someone with a little bit of clout, not these obscure figures from the musty past. Would V.I. Lenin do? Sure, why not.
We see that the demand put forward by the Social-Democrats—the complete abolition of all indirect taxes and their replacement by a real progressive income tax and not one that merely plays at it—is fully realisable. Such a measure would, without affecting the foundations of capitalism, give tremendous immediate relief to nine-tenths of the population; and, secondly, it would serve as a gigantic impetus to the development of the productive forces of society by expanding the home market and liberating the state from the nonsensical hindrances to economic life that have been introduced for the purpose of levying indirect taxes.
The capitalists’ advocates usually point to the difficulty of assessing big incomes. Actually, with banks, savings societies, etc., at their present level of development, this is a purely imaginary difficulty. The one difficulty is the class-avarice of the capitalists and the existence of undemocratic institutions in the political structure of bourgeois states.
That’s from the 1913 article titled “Capitalism and Taxation” that was written in response to articles in the Russian liberal press about the American income tax. The article was peppered with Lenin’s observations about the unfairness of the tax code that discriminated against working people and that likely would have earned the wrath of Steve Clark:
Half a million capitalist families receive an income that is greater than that of almost 9,000,000 workers’ families. What, might we ask, is the role of indirect taxation and of the planned income tax?
I should mention, however, that Clark would have also denounced the author of this item as well:
Tax the rich, not working people
In the midst of all the hoopla about the tax cut proposed by President George Bush, and countermeasures by the Democratic Party, workers and farmers can raise one demand: Tax the rich, not working people! From its earliest days the modern working-class movement has fought for a steeply graduated income tax–up to 100 percent–on the wealthiest individuals. Working people, who create all wealth and who face a capitalist government that does not represent them, should not pay one penny of any kind of tax whatsoever.
Bush promotes his tax cut as one that will “add up to significant help” for working-class families, while downplaying the huge windfall it will give the superwealthy bourgeois class that lives off the labor of workers.
Recent figures from the Internal Revenue Service indicate that the wealthiest U.S. citizens are paying a shrinking amount of income tax, even as they amass more wealth, and the gap continues to grow between the rich and the vast majority of the population. The IRS data also shows that the income of the top 1 percent of taxpayers grew eight times as fast as the bottom 90 percent over the 10-year period between 1989 and 1998. And as if all that were not enough, the president’s budget plan ensures that the rich get the lion’s share of the new tax breaks.
That’s an editorial from the Militant newspaper dated March 12, 2001 when the SWP still had one pinky finger clinging to the planet Earth.