Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 9, 2007

De jure discrimination and the capitalist system

Filed under: feminism,racism,workers — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

Last Sunday MRZine editor Yoshie Furuhashi posted an article titled “Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham” on her Critical Montages blog that has led to a heated debate on Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk mailing list. Basically Furuhashi argues that the abolition of de jure discrimination brings the spirit of capitalism closer to the pure spirit of “Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham” that Karl Marx referred to in Chapter six of Volume One of Capital:

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will.

While the abolition of Jim Crow laws might have removed barriers to the commodification of labor, Marxists don’t view this as some kind of capitalist plot. It is in the interest of workers to remove all legal/political barriers to their full right to sell their labor power, even if this brings them closer to some kind of 19th century liberal economic ideal. After all, Jeremy Bentham advocated the elimination of slavery for his own reasons. On the other hand, radical abolitionists in Great Britain saw emancipation from slavery as related to the general emancipation of the working class. We must not recoil from emancipation because Jeremy Bentham favored it, should we?

The same thing was true in the US in the 1970s. Bourgeois women wanted to move ahead in the corporate world, while working class women wanted the right to work in construction jobs, etc. that they had been formerly excluded from. Marxists would have supported the ERA even if it benefited both rich women seeking better-paying corporate jobs and working class women trying to break into the construction trades. We are for a united working class, even if the measures that promote such unity also allow some women to enter the ruling class. Concealed beneath Furuhashi’s ultraleft rhetoric is utter indifference to the need for working class unity.

Furuhashi links to another article of hers titled “Winning the Culture War, Losing the Class Struggle” that initially appeared on dissidentvoice.com. We learn that “our social and cultural victories have been made to serve an economic agenda that is against our class interests.” When women fought for equality with men in the 1970s, little did they suspect that they were preparing the ground for the assault on Aid for Dependent Children:

The partial victory of the women’s movement made new assumptions dominant: the assumptions that able-bodied women ought to work for wages rather than bear and raise children as the primary duty of women, and that mothers and fathers should bear equal financial responsibilities for their children, so fathers should pay child support instead of making mothers depend on the government. The assumptions are not so much feminist assumptions per se as liberal petit-bourgeois feminist assumptions in particular. In any case, the Clinton administration effectively exploited the newly dominant assumptions and abolished AFDC: poor women should work and make the fathers of their children pay and become economically independent of the government (or so went the ideology).

There are so many false premises packed into this paragraph that one hardly knows where to start. The idea that women ought to work for wages rather than bear and raise children is utterly disconnected from a movement that emphasized choice. In other words, women must have the same options as men. Furthermore, when Clinton went on the attack against AFDC, “liberal petit-bourgeois feminists” hardly joined in. On the very day that Clinton signed this racist bill, he was protested by these very people that the ultraleftist Furuhashi stigmatizes:

Attending to the accusation that he was severing his party’s New Deal taproot, the President declared, “The typical family on welfare today is very different from the one that welfare was designed to deal with 60 years ago.” In contrast to needy Depression-era Americans, he said, modern Americans who get aid “are trapped on welfare for a very long time, exiling them from the entire community of work that gives structure to our lives.”

As he signed the measure, a long line of protesters stretched along the block north of the White House, out of sight of the Rose Garden, in a rally organized by the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority. “We intend to fix the political climate that makes the President and Congress think they can get away with writing off the poor,” declared Patricia Ireland, president of NOW.

NY Times, August 23, 1996

Of course, in Furuhashi’s mind the Patricia Irelands of the world are secretly backing Clinton’s attack while pretending to be sympathetic to his victims. Ireland is like those dastardly leftists who say that they oppose war with Iran, but give Bush the excuse he needs to start bombing when they call attention to the lack of democratic rights in Iran. People who love peace should understand that it is best to keep quiet when Iranian cops haul International Women’s Day demonstrators off to jail.

Some subscribers to LBO-Talk want to give Furuhashi the benefit of a doubt. They interpret her article as a call to combine the fights against de jure and de facto discrimination. Her most ardent defender has been Richard Seymour, better known as the “Lenin’s Tomb” blogger. He argues:

I suspect that Yoshie is arguing for what marxists sometimes call a ‘dialectical’ understanding of patriarchy and racism. In fact, the upshot is quite the contrary to what you suggest. It is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism should be subordinated to class struggle, but that these struggles are contiguous, and the attempt to separate them has been fatal, allowing the preservation of the worst forms of class rule, and patriarchy, and racism, while also stripping away the defensive aspects of traditional units of organisation, reducing people to atomised and practically defenseless agents in the face of a ruling class onslaught. It doesn’t mean we embrace patriarchy or defer the struggle against it, for example: it means we take it up as part of the class struggle.

If Seymour “suspects” a meaning that is not immediately obvious from Furuhashi’s words, he is not alone. Like a symbolist poem scrutinized by William Empson in “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” her article has led to multiple interpretations. In response to Doug Henwood’s criticisms, LBO-Talk subscriber Jim Farmelant wrote, “I am not at all sure that’s what Yoshie is saying. I think her point is that the struggle against de jure discrimination is insufficient for ending oppression.”

My advice to anybody involved in Marxist polemics, including Comrade Yoshie, is to strive for clarity. While academia, especially the postmodernist wing, encourages writing that invites multiple interpretations, the working class movement needs its writers to be direct and to the point. When the future of humanity rests on the outcome of our debates, it subverts our greater purpose to write murky prose.

This is the common failing of our “uniters”: they cannot give a clear answer to questions of the day; they do not themselves know what they want.

One thing is clear from their writings: they want to save the liquidators, and must therefore avoid clarity and precision in the formulation and solution of problems.

To the liquidators clarity and precision are the most dangerous things at the present time. Other articles in Yedinstvo bring this home to us still more forcibly.

But the workers want clarity, and they will get it, for they want to build up the unity of their organisation, not on the basis of diplomacy and equivocation, but on the basis of a precise appraisal of the political significance of the different “trends”. People who have two or even more opinions on this question are, poor counsellors.

V.I. Lenin, “Clarity First and Foremost!

Since Furuhashi’s musings have a somewhat detached, Platonic quality, one wonders whether she has actually bothered to check whether or not her thesis is backed up by the historical record. One gets the impression from her that the most far-sighted liberal ruling class figures seek to break the resistance of more reactionary figures who can’t understand the benefits of making Black and white workers equal before the law. If this was the case, we might expect the Kennedy White House to have been bent on smashing Jim Crow. This is not the case, however, as I discovered in my research on JFK:

Kennedy saw the Justice Department as the main instrument of his civil rights agenda, not the Civil Rights Commission that had been established in 1957 under Eisenhower as part of the Civil Rights Act. Several degrees to the left of Kennedy, the Commission was seen as something akin to Reconstruction and, therefore, unwelcome. In his best-selling “Profiles in Courage,” Kennedy referred to Reconstruction as a “black nightmare…nourished by Federal bayonets.” When the Civil Rights Commission announced its attention to investigate racist violence in Mississippi, Robert F. Kennedy likened it to HUAC “investigating Communism.”

Not only were the Kennedys hostile to the Civil Rights Commission; they appointed 5 segregationist judges to the federal bench, including Harold Cox, who had referred to blacks as “niggers” and “chimpanzees.” Robert F. Kennedy preferred Cox to Thurgood Marshall whom he described as “basically second-rate.” Kennedy frequently turned to Mississippi Senator James Eastland for advice on appointments. According to long-time activist Virginia Durr, Eastland would “invite people over for the weekend and tell them to ‘pick out a nigger girl and a horse!’ That was his way of showing hospitality.”

Even in their selection of voter registration as the least confrontational tactic in the South, the Kennedys were loath to put the power of the federal government behind it. When the KKK targeted civil rights workers trying to register black voters, Robert F. Kennedy bent over backwards to appear conciliatory toward the racists. He said, “We abandoned the solution, really, of trying to give people protection.” This indifference was one of the main reasons the racists felt free to kill activists in the Deep South.

One such assassination took the life of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in the driveway of his home. In keeping with his accomodationist policies, Robert F. Kennedy told the media that the federal government had no authority to protect Evers or anybody else. Such responsibilities rested with the state of Mississippi!

The mass movement against racial discrimination continued unabated, without the support of the Kennedy White House. In 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama unleashed attacks by Police Commissioner Bull Connor who used nightsticks, police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses and mass arrests. JFK complained about the protests that they made the USA “look bad for us in the world.” His brother opined that 90 percent of the protestors had no idea what they were demonstrating about.

Now it is entirely possible that JFK had a secret agenda that went against his outward demeanor and words. He might have been like Patricia Ireland and those leftists who secretly yearn for war with Iran despite words to the contrary. Despite JFK’s laissez-faire attitude toward Southern racists, he might have had carefully concealed plans to hasten the end of de jure discrimination. You ask how? Here’s how: by cutting the KKK some slack, its outrages would increase public pressure to speed up civil rights legislation or something like that. Perhaps JFK had studied the history of the German Communist Party when he was at Harvard and sought to carry out an American version of “the worse, the better”. Bourgeois politicians can be very shifty, after all.

Speaking for myself, I ruled out this possibility after deliberating on it for 10 seconds or so. My reading of American history going back to the days of Reconstruction teaches me that support for de jure discrimination crossed party lines. The initiative to destroy Jim Crow did not come from some bourgeois politician who had been inspired by Jeremy Bentham but by Black workers who had participated in the CIO struggles of the 1930s, as should be obvious from this article that appeared in the April 1956 American Socialist magazine:

THE incident that touched off things happened simply and spontaneously. It was not a test case. On the night of December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a seamstress at a Montgomery department store, was returning home from work. She boarded the bus that would take her to the public-housing project where she lived. She was carrying a sack of groceries, bursitis racked her shoulders, and she was dead-tired. She sat near the front of the Negro section. After a few minutes she heard the driver order her to move to the back—where there were no seats vacant. She looked up and saw a white man waiting to claim her place. She didn’t move. The driver again called out. She still didn’t move. The driver then stopped the bus, announcing that he was going for the police. For thirty minutes the passengers remained in the halted vehicle. No one got out, no one—white or Negro—spoke to her. ‘It was the longest time of my life,’ Mrs. Parks recalls. The police came and she was booked for violating the segregation ordinance—although the law specifically states that the driver can only reassign passengers if there are other seats available.

E. D. Nixon, sleeping-car porter who is president of his union local, put up her bond. The following day he summoned the city’s Negro ministers and suggested organizing a mass protest. As former president of the Alabama NAACP and long-time fighter for the right to vote, Nixon had some claim on the consciences of the men of the cloth. And Mrs. Parks, too, was not unknown. For years she had been doing the drab secretarial and dues-collecting chores of keeping an NAACP chapter alive in Montgomery, without thanks or glory. Nixon suggested that Negroes stay off the buses on the day of her trial, scheduled for December 5. The proposal won the enthusiastic approval of the Rev. M. L. King, Jr., 27-year-old native of Atlanta and graduate of Boston University, and he persuaded the others. The following Sunday some twenty ministers passed the idea along to their congregations.

If you are at all familiar with the Montgomery bus boycott, you will know that Rosa Parks worked as a housekeeper and seamstress for a white couple, Clifford and Virginia Durr. The Durrs became her friends and encouraged Parks to attend—and eventually helped sponsor her—at the Highlander Folk School, a school formed by leftists in 1932 in order to train labor organizers. Furthermore E.D. Nixon’s union was one of the most militant trade unions in the 1930s and 40s whose leader A. Philip Randolph was ready to organize a March on Washington during WWII in order to protest discrimination against Blacks in the Defense Industry.

Of course, if FDR understood that such discrimination prevented the capitalist system from achieving it full Benthamite possibilities, I am sure that he would have organized buses to bring people to Washington.

Fundamentally, Furuhashi is unable to understand how the capitalist system operates. She is much more of an economic determinist in the Charles Beard sense. For people like Beard and what is sometimes called “vulgar Marxism”, politics has a direct and unmediated connection to the operations of the capitalist economy. The fight against de jure discrimination is understood in terms of Karl Marx’s discussion of labor as commodity in Volume One of Capital; the “culture wars” are an element of the capitalist system’s tendency to increase the rate of profit, etc. If politics could be derived from such simple formulas, the capitalist system would have ended long ago. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for complex, dialectical thought no matter the temptation to dumb down Marxism in accordance with the steadily deteriorating intellectual climate of the American empire as it lurches toward oblivion.


  1. Louis quotes Lenin on the issue of clarity. He might also be quoted on the issue of fighting all forms of discrimination and oppression, no matter what the class position of the immediate victims:

    “Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected – unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic point of view and no other. The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population. Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social-Democrats; for the self-knowledge of the working class is indissolubly bound up, not solely with a fully clear theoretical understanding – or rather, not so much with the theoretical, as with the practical, understanding – of the relationships between all the various classes of modern society, acquired through the experience of political life. For this reason the conception of the economic struggle as the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into the political movement, which our Economists preach, is so extremely harmful and reactionary in its practical significance. In order to become a Social-Democrat, the worker must have a clear picture in his mind of the economic nature and the social and political features of the landlord and the priest, the high state official and the peasant, the student and the vagabond; he must know their strong and weak points; he must grasp the meaning of all the catchwords and sophisms by which each class and each stratum camouflages its selfish strivings and its real “inner workings”; he must understand what interests are reflected by certain institutions and certain laws and how they are reflected. But this “clear picture” cannot be obtained from any book. It can be obtained only from living examples and from exposures that follow close upon what is going on about us at a given moment; upon what is being discussed, in whispers perhaps, by each one in his own way; upon what finds expression in such and such events, in such and such statistics, in such and such court sentences, etc., etc. These comprehensive political exposures are an essential and fundamental condition for training the masses in revolutionary activity.

    “Why do the Russian workers still manifest little revolutionary activity in response to the brutal treatment of the people by the police, the persecution of religious sects, the flogging of peasants, the outrageous censorship, the torture of soldiers, the persecution of the most innocent cultural undertakings, etc.? Is it because the “economic struggle” does not “stimulate” them to this, because such activity does not “promise palpable results”, because it produces little that is “positive”? To adopt such an opinion, we repeat, is merely to direct the charge where it does not belong, to blame the working masses for one’s own philistinism (or Bernsteinism). We must blame ourselves, our lagging behind the mass movement, for still being unable to organise sufficiently wide, striking, and rapid exposures of all the shameful outrages. When we do that (and we must and can do it), the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life. Feeling that, he himself will be filled with an irresistible desire to react, and he will know how to hoot the censors one day, on another day to demonstrate outside the house of a governor who has brutally suppressed a peasant uprising, on still another day to teach a lesson to the gendarmes in surplices who are doing the work of the Holy Inquisition, etc. As yet we have done very little, almost nothing, to bring before the working masses prompt exposures on all possible issues. Many of us as yet do not recognise this as our bounden duty but trail spontaneously in the wake of the “drab everyday struggle”, in the narrow confines of factory life. Under such circumstances to say that “Iskra displays a tendency to minimise the significance of the forward march of the drab everyday struggle in comparison with the propaganda of brilliant and complete ideas” (Martynov, op. cit., p. 61), means to drag the Party back, to defend and glorify our unpreparedness and backwardness.”

    What Is To Be Done, Ch.3

    Comment by Phil Gasper — October 9, 2007 @ 8:07 pm

  2. Her position is stated in the first paragraph of the article: The closer the spirit of capitalism gets to “Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham,” the more class power the bourgeoisie enjoys. The working class lose class struggle by winning culture wars . . . on capitalist terms.

    Which means that the tremendous gains of the 60s and 70s made by the Black power, women’s, and gay liberation movements all strengthened the American ruling class.

    Total bullshit!

    Comment by Binh — October 9, 2007 @ 8:51 pm

  3. —Which means that the tremendous gains of the 60s and 70s made by the Black power, women’s, and gay liberation movements all strengthened the American ruling class.

    Total bullshit!—

    Can you explain how it weakened the American ruling class or strengthened the working class? I would not go nearly as far a Yoshie but bringing people of color and women under the control of the labor market and out of the ‘primitive’ forms of domination neither hurt nor benifited the ruling class. It merely provided the ideological cover for de facto forms of discrimination and class domination.

    To Yoshie I would suggest a rereading of Polanyi. The double movement did infact help embed society into the ‘self-regulating’ market up to a point, then the internal contradictions became too great. The idea that capitalism can treat everyone equal is a complete liberal fantasy. Ending de jore racism/sexism may have hidden class domination behind the veil of civil rights but it did not end domination.

    Comment by brad — October 10, 2007 @ 3:29 pm

  4. brad: Can you explain how it weakened the American ruling class or strengthened the working class?

    Undermining racism, sexism, and homophobia within the working class, for starters. The ruling class was put on the defensive by these movements, which explains why they went to great lengths to murder the Black Panthers and subvert these movements.

    As Mr. Proyect argued, if the ruling class benefitted from these movements, they would have armed the BPP and funded movement organizations instead of infiltrating them with FBI agents to destroy them.

    Comment by Binh — October 10, 2007 @ 5:23 pm

  5. –Undermining racism, sexism, and homophobia within the working class, for starters.–

    That is a pretty big assertion and one that many would dispute (feminists in particular). The elimination of de jure oppression merely emmbedded the oppression in the class structure and lead to the working class self oppressing others by race, gender and sexual orientation. It also increased the size of the reserve army of labor and offered legitimacy coverage for liberal capitalism (see the problem is not capitalist utopias but self interested racists, sexists and homophobes).

    The ruling class is not monolithic nor is it aware of its best interests most of the time. Some fractions of the ruling class were probably aware of the benifits of making these forms of identity oppression de facto, others could not see how it would benifit them even though it would later, while other fractions it did not benifit initially, but they took advantage of it. To argue that because the ruling class at first opposed the action is simply not evidance of it hurting the ruling class. The ruling class opposes many things which later are of prime importance to the maintinance of its domination, that is the kernal of the problem; capitalisms dynamic capabilities to overcome the double movement, or to use it to further its domination.

    Comment by Brad — October 10, 2007 @ 7:51 pm

  6. That is a pretty big assertion and one that many would dispute (feminists in particular).

    Dispute it all you want but racism, sexism, and homophobia in the 70s-today have become a lot less socially acceptable than it was in the 1950s or even 1930s. You can google polls and do some research on your own if you don’t believe me.

    The elimination of de jure oppression merely emmbedded the oppression in the class structure and lead to the working class self oppressing others by race, gender and sexual orientation.

    Last time I checked, the working class is the oppressed class, not the oppressor. This is the problem with identity politics – no one can figure out who the enemy is (or conversely, who to ally with).

    Some fractions of the ruling class were probably aware of the benifits of making these forms of identity oppression de facto…

    Any names or concrete examples to back this assertion up? I doubt the Wall Street Journal or New York Times ever ran sympathetic articles on the Black Panthers…

    Comment by Binh — October 11, 2007 @ 1:14 pm

  7. […] Montages blog that has led to a heated debate on Doug Henwoods LBO-Talk mailing list source: De jure discrimination and the capitalist…, Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant […]

    Pingback by De jure discrimination and the capitalist… — Flowers,gardens.seeds — October 11, 2007 @ 2:16 pm

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