Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 14, 2016

Did the Democratic Party ever really represent the working class? (part one)

Filed under: two-party system,workers — louisproyect @ 11:22 pm

Not long after Trump’s election, a number of liberal commentators wrote essentially the same article that called for the Democrats to return to their blue-collar roots. Michael Moore, who is haunted by the memory of the good old days in Flint when workers had well-paying jobs, got a jump on fellow liberals by predicting a Trump victory made possible by the defection of “Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room.”

Also ahead of the curve was Thomas Frank who wrote on March 7th: “The working people that the party used to care about, Democrats figured, had nowhere else to go, in the famous Clinton-era expression. The party just didn’t need to listen to them any longer.”

Catching up with Moore and Frank, Robert Reich wrote on November 13th: “The Democratic Party once represented the working class. But over the last three decades the party stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class – failing to reform labor laws to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violate them, or help workers form unions with simple up-or-down votes.”

One might ask Reich when exactly did the Democratic Party represent the working class. For most on the left, that would mean FDR’s New Deal and perhaps LBJ’s Great Society that was seen as building on the New Deal.

Essentially, Moore, Frank and Reich urge the Democrats to go back to its roots if it wants to win elections in the future. Bernie Sanders embodies these hopes with many rebuking the party leadership for torpedoing his candidacy. They insist that Sanders would have cleaned Trump’s clock or words to that effect.

This begs the question of how painful losing an election was to someone like Hillary Clinton who along with her husband is worth $110 million. The last Democrat before her to lose an election to a rightwing monster was John Kerry–the richest Democrat ever to run for president and worth twice as much as the Clintons. Despite losing the election, he remained a powerful player in Washington politics. By the time you become the Democratic Party candidate for president, economic insecurity would have ceased to be a problem long ago. That was why so many people laughed at Hillary Clinton’s claim that she and her husband were “dead broke” when he left the White House.

I would argue that when you have fortunes in the hundreds of millions of dollars like these people, it tends to determine your ideology. If capitalism worked so well for them, why can’t it work so well for everybody else? If that is true for the candidates, it is a thousand times true for major donors like George Soros who has convened a powwow of rich bastards like himself to consider changes to the Democratic Party that will help it become a winner once again. I always get a laugh out of Soros’s duplicity. He has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Working America, the vote corralling organization launched by the AFL-CIO, at the same time his currency manipulation has ruined entire nations. This is not to speak of his warnings about climate change that don’t seem to preclude investing in coal and fracking.

As a Marxist, I have often been described as unrealistic but is there anything more unrealistic than expecting the Democratic Party to be taken over by Bernie Sanders and those CP’ers and DSA’ers who are carrying out deep entry tactics in the party? I often wonder if these comrades have really thought much about the Democratic Party’s history.

While having such knowledge probably wouldn’t make much difference to those who see voting for Democrats as a tactical question, I thought it might be useful to write about the Democratic Party using the tools of historical materialism and to hone in on the question of its relationship to working people. Although I mostly regret the time I spent in the Trotskyist movement, I did benefit from the Marxist education I received there and particularly the analysis of American history from George Novack, who despite his leaden prose and a certain amount of reductionism bordering on vulgar Marxism, was most astute at debunking the hagiography around FDR.

I am not sure how many posts I will be writing about the DP and the working class, but these three will surely be included:

  1. From Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson: I will be starting with this today. Although some might question what bearing Jackson has on today’s DP, I will argue that many on the left still labor under the illusion that he was the working man’s best friend.
  2. FDR: Obviously the icon of the liberal left and the president people like Moore and Reich consider the model for pro-working class governance.
  3. Post-FDR: a look at JFK, the first “New Democrat” and those that followed in his footsteps.

Andrew Jackson

If FDR is Michael Moore’s poster child for the Democratic Party,, at least one left historian hearkens back to the very first Democrat who called the White House his home. In 2005 Wilentz wrote a biography that was meant to refurbish Jackson’s reputation in more or less the same manner that Ron Chernow tried to do with his Alexander Hamilton biography, a friend of the rich who for some ungodly reason is now being celebrated on Broadway as proof that immigrants can make it in the USA.

For Wilentz, this meant repeating arguments made originally on Jackson’s behalf by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who regarded the architect of Cherokee removal and defender of slavery as pro-labor. While it is true that the Democrats were more partial to the early labor movement’s opposition to the eleven-hour workday and the expansion of voting rights, Jackson’s party was hardly one to serve as model for progressive change.

In 1946, Harry Braverman wrote an article (as Harry Frankel) for the Trotskyist press titled “The Jackson Period in American History” that put the pro-labor orientation of Andrew Jackson into context.

The original home of this political art was in the Northern wing of the planters’ Democratic Party – an auxiliary in enemy territory. It fought the bourgeoisie through sections of the urban petty-bourgeois and proletarian masses, who were mobilized by means of democratic and even anti-capitalist slogans. The planting class, resting on unorganized, unrepresented, almost unmentioned slave labor, could afford to countenance reforms which struck against the Northern bourgeoisie. The ten-hour day for workers, extension of the vote to the proletariat, attacks upon the factory system and other such agitations, typical of the Jackson period, represented no direct economic threat to the planters. During the Jackson period the planters put on their best democratic garb … in the North. But during that very same time, barbarous slave legislation multiplied on the statute books in the South. The concessions in the North were part of the slaveholder system of maintaining national power. John Randolph, the erratic phrasemaker of the planter bloc in Congress, gave clear expression to this strategy. “Northern gentlemen,” he taunted, “think to govern us by our black slaves, but let me tell them, we intend to govern them by their white slaves!”

As the needs of the “planting class” grew stronger, the Democratic Party became the political instrument of slavery and utterly indifferent to the needs of Northern workers who had by the 1850s become partial to the abolitionist cause. Despite the earlier plutocratic tendencies of the Whigs, it was a faction of the party led by Abraham Lincoln that launched the Republican Party whose record on labor struggles was mixed at best according to Mark Lause. Andrew Johnson was a perfect example of the Democratic Party of that time. Despite being Lincoln’s vice president, he was ready to retreat on Reconstruction while Lincoln’s corpse was still warm.

Grover Cleveland

Like Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland was a forerunner of the shitty centrist politics that is responsible for Republican Party victories today. As is the case today, this was a candidate who defiantly defended the class interests of the big bourgeoisie.

A two-term president from 1885 through 1897, Cleveland was a labor-hating shithook. He was aligned with the so-called Bourbon Democrats who were the Democratic Leadership Council of their day. These were politicians firmly wedded to free market economics of the sort that we call neoliberalism today except back them there was nothing “neo” about them back then. Like Thomas Friedman or Paul Krugman, the Bourbons were opposed to Trump-style protectionism. Despite the 130 years that separate us, it seems that the same issues keep cropping up.

In 1894 Cleveland intervened in the Pullman workers strike that for the time was as pivotal a confrontation as Reagan’s with the airline controllers. The workers were organized in the American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs. When George Pullman refused to recognize the union, Debs called for a boycott of Pullman cars that was very effective, costing the company $80 million. This led to Cleveland ordering the army to break the strike and then charging Debs with violating the injunction against the strikers. Debs served a six-month prison term for defying the government. At the time of his arrest, Debs was not a socialist but during his time in prison, he read the works of Karl Marx. After his release in 1895, he became America’s best-known socialist and as such ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket. Any resemblance between him and Rich Trumka is purely coincidental.

Upon being sentenced, Debs issued a proclamation to the ARU that should remind you of what labor radicalism once sounded like. The fact that Bernie Sanders can keep a picture of Eugene V. Debs on his wall is enough to make you sick to your stomach. From the proclamation:

I need not remind you, comrades of the American Railway Union, that our order in the pursuit of the right was confronted with a storm of opposition such as never beat upon a labor organization in all time. Its brilliant victory on the Great Northern and its gallant championship of the unorganized employees of the Union Pacific had aroused the opposition of every railroad corporation in the land.

To crush the American Railway Union was the one tie that united them all in the bonds of vengeance; it solidified the enemies of labor into one great association, one organization which, by its fabulous wealth, enabled it to bring into action resources aggregating billions of money and every appliance that money could purchase. But in this supreme hour the American Railway Union, undaunted, put forth its efforts to rescue Pullman’s famine-cursed wage slaves from the grasp of an employer as heartless as a stone, as remorseless as a savage and as unpitying as an incarnate fiend. The battle fought in the interest of starving men, women and children stands forth in the history of Labor’s struggles as the great “Pullman Strike.’ It was a battle on the part of the American Railway Union fought for a cause as holy as ever aroused the courage of brave men; it was a battle in which upon one side were men thrice armed because their cause was just, but they fought against the combined power of corporations which by the use of money could debauch justice, and, by playing the part of incendiary, bring to their aid the military power of the government, and this solidified mass of venality, venom and vengeance constituted the foe against which the American Railway Union fought Labor’s greatest battle for humanity.

Woodrow Wilson

Like Cleveland, Wilson was a two-term president from 1913-1921. Best known as a “progressive” and an internationalist (ie. imperialist), Wilson’s relationship to the working class is a bit of a blur to most people, including me before writing this article. Under the influence of the Progressive movement, Wilson did support a much more enlightened policy than Cleveland. In 1912 the Democrat Party’s draft campaign program called for all federal employees to be provided a minimum wage, an eight-hour day and six-day workweek, and health and safety measures. It also called for the prohibition of child labor, safeguards for female workers and a retirement program.

The Rich Trumka of his day, AFL president Samuel Gompers (there was no CIO yet), developed close ties to the White House. Like LBJ, Wilson campaigned as someone who would keep the USA out of war. But when Wilson betrayed the voters by entering WWI, Gompers agreed to serve on the Labor Advisory Board and supported a no-strike pledge just as the Communist Party did during WWII. Despite inflation eating away at workers’ wages, the AFL stayed true to the Democratic Party.

This was not the case for the IWW, the SP or the Communists who were hounded by the FBI for practicing sedition. Not relying exclusively on Gompers’s class collaborationism, Wilson established a Committee on Public Information (CPI) that promoted WWI to the American public through newspapers, radio, movies and other forms of communication. It recruited 75,000 “Four Minute Men” who volunteered to speak at social gatherings on behalf of the inter-imperialist rivalry that cost millions of lives.

Perhaps you have heard of Edward Bernays, who directed the CPI’s Latin American bureau. Bernays is widely regarded as the founder of modern public relations. In 1928 Bernays wrote a book titled “Propaganda” that has probably been studied by the likes of both Republican and Democratic campaign managers, State Department officials and other paid lackeys of the ruling class for the better part of 90 years. Bernays wrote:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

In my next post, I will have a whack at FDR.


January 29, 2013

Is Zinovievism finished?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 4:04 pm

(The article is unsigned but presumably from an SWP member.)

Jan 29

Is Zinovievism finished? A reply to Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos’ article on the crisis in the SWP purports to be a defence of Leninism in the face of a ‘flood of attacks’ – by which Alex means the crisis that has engulfed the party over the mishandled investigation of allegations of rape and sexual harassment against a Central Committee member.

The piece does nothing of the sort, but is rather an encapsulation of the flaws that have brought us to this pass. It is clearly intended as an opening salvo in the CC’s response to the growing opposition within the party. In particular it draws on the long tradition of dealing with dissent over particular issues by means of the absurd implication that that dissent is an attack on the heritage of the October revolution, accompanied by an airy dismissal of the actual facts. This maneouvre assumes the following equivalences: that ‘revolutionary party’ means the model of democratic centralism adopted by the SWP in the 1970s, that this model replicates that of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the decisions of the current leadership therefore embody the legitimacy of that revolution, which we can expect to be replicated in the conditions of the UK in the 21st century. This is pure substitutionalism – and on its own measure of providing ‘strong interventionist leadership’ is a complete failure.

First of all, take note that this is the first public intervention by a CC member, with the exception of the re-posting of an internal Party Notes statement. Alex’s article is clearly similarly aimed at an internal audience: no one could use these arguments in their workplace to defend the SWP, for which the ‘strong interventionist’ leadership is supposed to provide the means.  If members doubt this, they might test it in practice.  When asked about allegations of a rape cover up in the SWP, by a workmate or fellow student or union activist, give Alex Callinicos’s answer: euphemise about a ‘difficult disciplinary case’ and then mention that Owen Jones is a Labour supporter.  See if that works.  See if the Party still has their respect next time it launches an initiative.  Then consider that the CC, having brought about this situation by their decisions, expect you to do what they will not, which is defend it in public.

Of course, it may be possible that your activist or trade unionist comrade has simply been misled by the gossip and half-truths of the ‘dark side of the internet’. Incidentally, this blimpish insult is a disgrace: it implies that comrades concerned about the treatment of an allegation of rape and sexual harassment within the SWP are equivalent to child pornographers and 401 scammers. Alex brushes aside the offline ‘real world’ motions calling for an emergency conference passed (at the time of writing) at  8 SWP branches, the motions critical of the CC passed at a further 8 and the statements of opposition issued by 13 SWSS groups. But what are the internet lies and half-truths? Alex does not tell us, but instead attempts to introduce into circulation an evasive euphemism by referring only to a ‘disciplinary case’. Everyone knows this is an allegation of rape and sexual harassment. What are the ‘lies’ circulating about it? Are they:

1) That a complaint was made in July 2010 against comrade Delta? Alex may rely on the bureaucratic claim that no formal complaint was made to the Disputes Commission: this contradicts basic common sense as well as the introduction given by the DC member who opened the 2013 conference session, who referred to an  ‘informal complaint’ in July 2010 and mentioned ‘how the complaint was handled in 2010.’

2) That the nature of this complaint was obfuscated and the impression given that it was merely a case of unhappiness in a failed relationship? If so, why did the CC use conference time on a personal matter?

3) That the disputes commission into the complaint issued in September 2012 contained 5 close colleagues and associates of comrade Delta, and 2 members of the Central Committee on which he sat?

4) That one member of the DC found that it was likely that Comrade Delta had committed sexual harassment and that the rest found the case ‘not proven’ not  that Delta was exonerated as a ‘member in good standing’? The DC ruled ‘not guilty’ on the charge of rape: they therefore distinguished between ‘not guilty’ and ‘not proven’. This implies that the CC believe that a member whom the DC consider may be a sexual harasser – to a degree significant enough not to be given the protection of a ‘not guilty’ decision – is still ‘in good standing.’

5) That the complainant was denied the right to put her side of the case to conference in 2013?

6) That a second woman, having complained of sexual harassment by Delta, did not have confidence in the DC to deal with her complaint because of the way in which it had dealt with the first case?

7) That the women involved were asked questions about their drinking and relationship habits? They claim to have been: if Alex denies this, he is saying they are liars, not the internet.

Which of these are lies? If they are not lies, how on earth are comrades meant to defend these points to the class? Perhaps we are to rely on the notion that SWP members possess a ‘political morality’ that ensures they adjudicate correctly whether their comrades have raped someone. Try that also –there is no way it would be accepted by anyone outside the SWP, and hopefully not by many within it. Would you accept that argument of any other organization? It cannot withstand scrutiny from our own comrades in the (avowedly Leninist) sister organisations of the International Socialist Tendency, leading members of which are now participating in a boycott of SWP events and publications – let alone the wider layers of the class and its organisations which we formerly called ‘our periphery’ but to which Alex now refers as ‘Owen Jones and his like’.

What has this to do with the defence of Leninism? It is linked, although not in the way that Alex imagines: that because the conference voted for (by a handful of votes and not a majority of the delegates) the DC report, the matter is now closed.  Alex simply makes a banal statement about majority votes being binding (as they are in Trade Unions, rugby clubs, Parliament, corporate AGMs…) without specifying the actual debate that is currently going on. It is the current model of party organization in the SWP that leads to the disconnection from reality behind the defence of Comrade Delta and the paralytic response to the crisis it has engendered. Alex suggests that this model bears the legitimacy of the October revolution and that those who depart from it have abandoned the project of working-class revolution. Let us state clearly: this claim is false. The Bolshevik leadership of 1917 was elected individually. There was no ban on factions. On the eve of the October Revolution, Zinoviev and Kamenev publicly opposed the insurrection in Maxim Gorky’s newspaper (the ‘dark side’ of the printing press, perhaps) and resigned from the Bolshevik Central Committee. They were not expelled from the Party.

The model operated currently by the SWP is not that of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a version of the Zinovievite model adopted during the period of “Bolshevisation” in the mid-1920s and then honed by ever smaller and more marginal groups. When Alex implies that somehow we have developed a ‘distilled’ version of Bolshevik democratic centralism he is not holding to the tradition of October: it is asking us to choose the model that has led to three of the most serious crises in the SWP’s history in quick succession over the model that actually did lead the October revolution.

Alex concedes in passing that there are different models of democratic centralism, but ends by effectively arguing that there is really only one: the model which currently exists in the SWP. But merely invoking the term “democratic centralism” does not tell you anything about which level of decision get made by which people, how frequently decisions are made or what mechanisms should exist for review, let alone how to elect a Central Committee or of whom it should be consist. Two examples will show how our current model is weighted towards centralism at the expense of democracy.

The first is in relation to decision making. According to the theory, conference discusses and decides (democracy) and then comrades, including those who opposed the agreed position, carry out the decisions (centralism). Fine: but what does conference actually decide? It is presented with a series of general perspective documents which are usually so bland and platitudinous that it is virtually impossible to disagree with them: the economic crisis is not going to be resolved, times are hard but there are also opportunities, we must not be complacent over the threat of fascism, and so on. To agree with this kind of statement is not to make a decision over strategy or tactics, or anything specific enough for the CC to be held to account. The real decisions about actual policy – to establish united fronts, to join electoral coalitions – are almost always made by the CC itself between conferences, with conference asked to ratify them after the event.

The second is in relation to the composition of the CC. The CC self-selects: it has an agreed political perspective; when someone dies or resigns it chooses as replacements comrades who agree – or who are thought to agree – with that perspective; at no point is the chain ever broken by open political debate. And if the perspective is wrong? The problems extend to the membership of the CC. What are the requirements of a potential CC member? There are apparently two: that they should live in or around London and that – with a handful of exceptions – they are full-time employees of the party. So – the comrades who are eligible for membership of the CC are those who until their selection have been paid to carry out the decisions of the previous CC and who, because they tend to have been students beforehand, rarely have any direct experience of the class struggle. How can a leadership this narrow be capable of forming an accurate perspective?

To deal with one diversionary objection: to complain about the composition of the CC is not to demand that ‘federalist’ structure. We do not want a CC in which its members represent trade unionists, or community activists or students – but we do want a CC which embodies the actual experience of these groups. Some roles on the CC can only ever be carried out by full-timers, notably the editor of Socialist Worker and the national Secretary, but the balance should always be towards those for whom the experience of the “real world” is inescapable.

After the catastrophes of the last five years a measure of humility would also be welcome. Alex is part of the ‘strong, interventionist’ leadership that has presided over this disaster with no effective response, following on from a period of near permanent crisis that began with the failure of the Respect adventure – for which Alex surely also bears some collective responsibility, as a member of the CC at the time. When will this strong, interventionist leadership ever hold itself responsible for what happens on its watch? What do they think has gone wrong? If they can’t manage this, how will they cope in a revolution?

We agree with Alex that the SWP is the best hope for developing a revolutionary party in in Britain. It has at least two great historic achievements to its credit in the Anti-Nazi League and its successors, and the Stop the War Coalition – movements which actually helped to change aspects of British society for the better, particularly in relation to racism. They are among the reasons why have remained members in spite of the obstacles which successive leaderships have thrown up to democracy in the party. But if the SWP is ever to achieve its full potential the current situation cannot be allowed to continue.

Alex reiterates that if the SWP did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. We agree – and that for the party to continue to exist, it is necessary to reinvent it. This is not alien to our tradition: perhaps it is best to leave the last word to one of its brightest lights, David Widgery in his review of the third volume of Cliff’s biography of Lenin:

“The blossoming-blighting process which Cliff documents froze over Leninism and only mass revolutionary working-class action is able to melt it from its icy limbo. Lenin is therefore trapped in his moment, surrounded by a thicket and awaiting political rescue: ‘An old communist conceives an embryo of longing’. One day, his Modern Prince will come. Until he is woken with the proletarian kiss, the problem is not that Leninism has failed, but that it has not been tried.”

The time for Leninism to be tried is now long overdue.

September 4, 2009

A critique of Walter Benn Michaels

Filed under: african-american — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

Professor Walter Benn Michaels

Yesterday somebody posted a query on my blog:

I’m wondering if you’ve read Walter Benn Michaels’s recent article on race and class in the LRB? Here it is: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n16/mich02_.html. I’d love to read your take on it, and I’m sure that other loyal readers would as well!

In answering this, I should mention first of all that the always brilliant Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb fame has taken up Michaels’s article

I should also mention that Michaels has written another provocative article on race, gender and class in the New Left Review. Titled “Against Diversity”, the NLR article can best be summarized as an old-fashioned defense of class trumping race and gender. Although this has associations with the kind of dogmatic Marxism that allowed the CPUSA to stigmatize Malcolm X as a Black fascist and attack the Equal Rights Amendment, it is really a widespread tendency and has a long history as we shall see.

For example, shock jock Don Imus could be heard in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina explaining the neglect of Black New Orleans residents as a “class” issue rather one of “race”. I don’t believe that NLR invited Don Imus to write something on these questions, however.

Written during the 2008 primaries, Michaels was trying to debunk the notion that the Obama and Clinton bids marked a triumph over racism and sexism. Some points are unexceptionable:

In 1947—seven years before the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, sixteen years before the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—the top fifth of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of the money earned in the US. Today that same quintile gets 50.5 per cent. In 1947, the bottom fifth of wage-earners got 5 per cent of total income; today it gets 3.4 per cent. After half a century of anti-racism and feminism, the US today is a less equal society than was the racist, sexist society of Jim Crow.

Unfortunately, Michaels goes overboard and blames the struggle against race and gender discrimination for a growing class divide:

Furthermore, virtually all the growth in inequality has taken place since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965—which means not only that the successes of the struggle against discrimination have failed to alleviate inequality, but that they have been compatible with a radical expansion of it. Indeed, they have helped to enable the increasing gulf between rich and poor.

Capitalism is thus represented as the best hope for those suffering from past injustices:

In fact, one of the great discoveries of neoliberalism is that they are not very efficient sorting devices, economically speaking. If, for example, you are looking to promote someone as Head of Sales in your company and you are choosing between a straight white male and a black lesbian, and the latter is in fact a better salesperson than the former, racism, sexism and homophobia may tell you to choose the straight white male but capitalism tells you to go with the black lesbian. Which is to say that, even though some capitalists may be racist, sexist and homophobic, capitalism itself is not.

The London Review article is a review of a book titled “Who Cares About the White Working Class?” edited by Kjartan Páll Sveinsson that repeats the same kinds of points made in the NLR article and which originated in Michaels’s 2007 book “The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality”. The guy is obviously on some kind of crusade.

The article is filled with anxiety about how whites are being treated:

White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those are in the bottom quintile. Progress in fighting racism hasn’t done them any good; it hasn’t even been designed to do them any good. More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality. A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.

Furthermore, he insists that the “left” must be distinguished from movements against racism and sexism:

My point is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things. It is rather that they currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics, and that, insofar as they function as a substitute for it, can be a bad thing. American universities are exemplary here: they are less racist and sexist than they were 40 years ago and at the same time more elitist.

The basic flaw in Michaels’s thesis is that he fails to distinguish between the gains made by some Blacks and women who have broken into the corporate board rooms and the fate of the overwhelming majority. This can only result from a cherry-picking of the data, all designed to make it appear that they have never had it so good. In other words, he is repeating ruling class propaganda. One would think that a contributor to New Left Review would be able to understand that the selection of a Black CEO or cabinet member, or even a broader social development that enabled a privileged layer reflected by Barack Obama himself to emerge, is much less important than what is happening at the grass roots level.

For example, minority admissions to law schools, a traditional portal into the upper middle class, have been dropping in the past few years. A study published by the Columbia University Law School, a place that can certainly be described as “elitist”, paints a discouraging picture:

Web Site Shows Drop in Minority Enrollment at US Law Schools

December 28, 2007 (NEW YORK) – A new Web site created by Columbia Law School documents a disturbing drop in enrollment by African-American and Mexican-American students in America’s law schools. Even though African-American and Mexican-American students have applied to law schools in relatively constant numbers over the past 15 years, their representation in law schools has fallen.

Access the data on the new Web site by clicking http://www2.law.columbia.edu/civilrights.

Even more worrisome is the fact that during the same period, African-American and Mexican-American applicants are doing better than ever on leading indicators used by law schools to determine admissibility – undergraduate grade point average and LSAT scores. In addition, the size of law school classes and the total number of law schools have increased – making room for nearly 4,000 more students.

But even if enrollments were on the upswing, the real question is whether capitalism is a system that promotes racial equality. The worst thing about Michaels’s pseudo-Marxist theorizing is that it lends credence to the discredited “Black capitalism” promoted by the Nixon administration, as if the workings of the marketplace can reduce inequality between white worker and Black.

This misplaced faith in capitalism as a battering ram against racial inequality (and implicitly gender inequality as well) receives a thorough investigation in David Roediger’s recently published “Are We In a Post-Racial America?”, which I reviewed for Swans a while back.

In a Counterpunch article prompted—like Michaels’s NLR piece—by the Obama candidacy, Roediger draws the opposite conclusion. Instead of obsessing about the likelihood that we are entering a New Age in which a black Lesbian can become Head of Sales, Roediger looks at the men and woman at the bottom, the overwhelming majority:

Indeed in stark contrast to pleasant narratives of progress, white family wealth in the U.S. is nine times that of African American family wealth and black young men are seven times as likely as whites to be incarcerated. The diseases of the poor in the U.S. are the diseases of poor people of color. 75 percent of all active tuberculosis cases afflict them. In Obama’s home state of Illinois, a majority of HIV-AIDS cases occur among African Americans. Three in ten black and Latino children live in poverty, triple the white child poverty rate.

In trying to understand how Michaels could have come up with such a boneheaded perspective, it is important to recognize that he is simply the latest in a long line of self-described Marxist or leftist thinkers who believe that anti-racist or anti-sexist struggles divide the working class. Indeed, they have been around since the days of the First International when Marx was alive and kicking.

I first discovered the existence of such a workerist dogmatism in a very fine book by Timothy Messer-Kruse titled “The Yankee International: 1848-1876”. My review, written about 10 years ago, appears below. Sadly, it appears that Marxism still has many of the same hang-ups that existed in Marx’s day that were even reflected by the founding father of revolutionary socialism himself:

Marx, Woodhull and Sorge

Dogmatic Marxism’s hostility toward “non-class” demands has been around for a very long time, judging from the evidence of Timothy Messer-Kruse’s “The Yankee International: 1848-1876.” (U. of North Carolina, 1998) Furthermore, you are left with the disturbing conclusion that this problem existed at the very highest levels of the first Communist International, and included Marx himself.

The people who launched a section of the Communist International in the USA were veteran radicals, who had fought against slavery and for women’s rights for many years. They saw the emerging anti-capitalist struggles in Europe, most especially the Paris Commune of 1871, as consistent with their own. They saw revolutionary socialism as the best way to guarantee the success of the broader democratic movement. What European Marxism would think of them is an entirely different matter.

The names of some of the early recruits should give you an indication of the political character of the new movement. Included were abolitionists Horace Greely, Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner. Feminist Victoria Woodhull joined in and put her magazine “Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly” at its disposal. The weekly not only included communications from Karl Marx, but spiritualist musings from Woodhull. The native radical movement of the 1870s was a mixed bag. Socialism, anti-racism, feminism, pacifism and spiritualism co-existed comfortably. The Europeans were anxious to purify the movement of all these deviations from the very start. Unfortunately they put anti-racism, feminism and spiritualism on an equal footing.

Victoria Woodhull was unquestionably the biggest irritant, since she defended all these deviations while at the same time she spoke out forcefully for free love, the biggest deviation imaginable in the Victorian age:

The sexual relation, must be rescued from this insidious form of slavery. Women must rise from their position as ministers to the passions of men to be their equals. Their entire system of education must be changed. They must be trained to be like men, permanent and independent individualities, and not their mere appendages or adjuncts, with them forming but one member of society. They must be the companions of men from choice, never from necessity.

Marx decided to put an end to all this nonsense and threw his weight behind the German-American Frederic Sorge, who was assigned to clean house. Against the Yankee swamp, Sorge would ram through a “scientific socialism” that was true to the tenets of Marx and Engels. Furthermore, the orientation of the American section would not be to women and blacks, but only to the white workers and their embryonic trade unions. It seemed to matter little that Sorge understood next to nothing about American politics. His mastery of Marxist doctrine would produce the desired results: “Fellow-workman,” he proclaimed, “Keep our standard pure & our ranks clean! Never mind the small number! No great work was ever begun by a majority.” With sectarian nonsense like this, it should surprise nobody that Sorge’s group remained small in number. What does surprise us is that Sorge was Marx’s hand-picked leader.

The Yankees and the German-American “orthodox Marxists” split and began to carry out their respective orientations, which are instructive to compare. Although the Sorge group was formally in favor of racial equality, their actions often fell short of the verbal commitment. The simple explanation for this is that they adapted to the prejudices of the white workers whom they curried favor with.

Woodhull’s group made no such concessions, as their political traditions were rooted in the abolitionist movement. Indeed, when they called for a mass demonstration in New York City to commemorate the martyrs of the Paris Commune, the first rank in the parade went to a company of black soldiers known as the Skidmore Guard. The demonstration passed by a quarter million spectators and the sight of armed black men in the vanguard was electrifying. Sorge’s group complained that the demonstration was a distraction from working-class struggles, whose participants would lose a day’s pay by participating. He called for a boycott.

Black militias were an important fixture of northern urban politics in this period. When black men donned uniforms and marched in formation, they were making a statement not only about their full rights as citizens, but their determination to back these rights by any means necessary. The black Eighty-Fifth Regiment in NYC was one of the more radical and internationalist militias in the city. They had marched alongside Irish New Yorkers in honor of Fenian heroes and gave their units names like the “[Crispus] Attucks Guards” and “Free Soil Guards.” This regiment decided to name Tennessee Claflin, Victoria Woodhull’s sister, their commander and supplied her with a uniform. Woodhull had become the presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party in 1872 and her vice-presidential running mate was none other than Frederick Douglass. This combination symbolized the commitment of the Yankee Marxists to racial equality and woman’s liberation.

While the Sorge faction held the black struggle at arm’s length, they at least gave lip service to it. No such concessions were made to Chinese workers whom they treated as outright enemies of the white worker. Woodhull’s group took a strong stand against immigration bans, but the “orthodox” Marxists caved in completely to white prejudice. Unfortunately Karl Marx was little help in standing up to bigotry, since he regarded Asians as locked in “hereditary stupidity” and the unproductive Asiatic Mode of Production, an economic theory that had no basis in fact. Marx also warned about the importation of Chinese workers as “rabble” who could “depress wages.”

At the NYC branch of Sorge’s section, a San Francisco worker addressed his comrades:

The white working-men see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys…. They are in all branches of the manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon.

The Yankees refused to go along with the anti-Chinese xenophobia and viewed the Chinese as brothers and sisters in struggle. Woodhull wrote:

The population of the country is forty millions. If the Chinese should at the rate of five thousand a week, even that figure will nothing near equal the present ratio of the Irish and German immigration, and it would a hundred and fifty years to import forty millions. . . The economical idea of immigration is that every new comer is a producer; he directly contributes to the wealth of the community; he will not consume all that produces. . . As for any immediate influence of John Chinaman on the labor market and rate of wages that is an impossibility. The workingmen of New York protest against two or three hundred foreigners. What injury can accrue to them?

Sorge’s group picked up a new recruit in 1872, an English immigrant and cigarmaker named Samuel Gompers. Gompers was impressed with the “working-class” and trade union tilt of the German-American followers of Marx, while regarding the Woodhull section as “dominated by a brilliant group of faddists, reformers, and sensation-loving spirits.” He was as repelled by them as some old leftists were repelled by the 1960s New Leftists. Gompers was tutored by Ferdinand Laurell, a fellow cigarmaker who he met at the Manhattan Lower East Side factory where both were employed. Laurell initiated him into the profound scientific socialism of the Communist Manifesto and placed special emphasis on the centrality of the trade unions. “Study your union card, Sam, Laurell said, “and if the idea doesn’t square with that, it ain’t true.”

What gradually happened is that Gompers let the revolutionary socialism fall by the wayside while allowing trade union fundamentalism to take charge, including the virulent racism of the time. As Gompers climbed the ladder into officialdom, he found that anti-Chinese racism gave him a foot up. He endorsed the labeling of cigar boxes as made by white men, to be “distinguished from those made by the Chinese.” After Gompers attained the AFL presidency, women, ethnic minorities, African Americans and those who did unskilled work found themselves without a friend in organized labor. The Bolshevik revolution inspired a new Communist movement in the US 50 years later, which began to remedy this injustice. The Cold War reversed this progress.

The Sorge section of the First International began to fall apart because its sectarian, workerist and essentially reactionary politics guaranteed this. The immediate heir of Sorge’s politics was a group called the Socialist Labor Party, founded by Daniel De Leon in 1877. This group also saw itself as the guardian of Marxist orthodoxy, but never even made the attempt to intervene in the trade union movement. It was content to issue racist broadsides from the sidelines like condemning the “importation of Coolies under contract.” It survives today as an embalmed purist sect-cult with zero influence in the labor or social movements, thank goodness.

Marxism as a revolutionary idea transcends the dogmatic mistakes of people such as Sorge and De Leon. What is even more confounding is that it transcends Marx’s own mistakes. Marx was wrong to back the workerist backwardness of Sorge. One of the great things about Marx is that he was capable of change, even when he was in the late stages of his career. After denouncing Russian populism for most of his adult life, he became persuaded that he did not understand the movement adequately and saw great possibilities for it. To maximize his understanding, he began to study the Russian language in his 60s.

The greatest obstacle to the development of Marxist thought has been the tendency of its adherents to not see contradictory aspects of society and politics dialectically. Clearly Sorge’s failure was to see the dialectical connection of the black struggle to the trade union movement. If anything, the naïve Yankee radicals understood the dialectical connection better than the “orthodox” Marxists.

Even though there is a tendency for small sectarian groups of today to search for a “revolutionary continuity” going back to Marx, it is better to understand Marxism as the product of deep internal tensions that can only be resolved through struggle. If the “workerism” of the First (and Second) International had not been confronted and defeated, then the Marxist movement would have not had the impact it has had in the 20th century. Although these very same sectarian groups see Lenin as the Pope who succeeded Pope Marx, in reality Lenin was more like a Protestant Reformation revolutionary who attacked old beliefs at their root. His articles were nailed to the door of institutionalized Marxism.

Lenin was the very first Marxist to synthesize the proletarian and non-proletarian elements of the revolution. Unlike Sorge, Lenin was eager to embrace every form of rebellion against the absolutist state and not question whether it was “orthodox” or not. His most radical departure was to support the demands of the Russian peasantry who had been regarded by orthodox Marxism as an alien and hostile class. Closely related was his support of self-determination for oppressed nationalities, which he understood as having an anti-capitalist dynamic. Even when the oppressed nationality was led by reactionary or clerical fakers, he still backed their demands.

Although all of our latter-day Bolsheviks pay lip-service to Lenin’s example, there is evidence everywhere that they have more in common with Frederic Sorge. When the black nationalist, feminist and gay revolts erupted in the 1960s, the Marxist-Leninists found every excuse they could to repudiate the new mass movements. These movements were petty-bourgeois “diversions” from the real class struggle based in the trade unions.

A true synthesis of class, race and gender won’t be found in books published by the University of Minnesota or Duke. It will be found in struggle. You get some sense of this in a film like “Salt of the Earth,” about Chicano miners and the women who found ways to express feminist demands in the course of a bitter strike, while convincing their husbands that these demands were just. It will be found in AMNLAE, the Sandinista woman’s rights government agency. Or the black caucuses of the UAW in the early 1970s, which eventually inspired white workers to follow their militant lead. Marxists should be looking for every opportunity to promote such class, race and gender alliances. If the early American Marxist movement screwed up, let’s at least study what they did wrong and avoid the same mistakes. A good place to start with is Messer-Kruse’s brilliant scholarly research.

Blog at WordPress.com.