Reflections on some political and ideological questions today
by: Sam Webb
December 21 2009
The president doesn’t simply register and reflect the balance of power; he influences it as well; no other person has as much power as the president. To identify him as a centrist Democrat akin to Clinton or Carter or Kennedy conceals more than it reveals; it’s too neat. It doesn’t help us understand him as a political actor and his place in the broader struggle for progressive change. And it can quickly lead to narrow tactics and a wrong-headed strategic policy.
Some say, for example, that the strategic role of the left is to criticize the president, to push him from left. But is that a good point of departure strategically? Doesn’t it elevate a tactical question to a strategic one?
Criticizing the president (especially in the internet age) takes little imagination or effort, far less than activating the various forces that elected him last year. To do the latter takes a strategic sense, flexible tactics, creative thinking, and hard work. The president’s report card, it could easily be argued, is better than the coalition that elected him. He doesn’t get an A, but neither do we.
There are no prohibitions against criticism of the president, but it should be done in a unifying and constructive way. The success or failure of the Obama presidency will resonate for years. A deep imprint on class and racial relations will be part of his legacy. It is hard to imagine how a successful struggle for reforms can happen without the president or how anyone other than the extreme right and sections of the ruling class would benefit if his presidency fails.
Attitude towards reform
A very different political and ideological issue that has a bearing on practical politics is the assertion that capitalism has no solutions to the present crisis and can’t be reformed.
If this means that the endemic crises of capitalism (for example, cyclical and structural unemployment, regular crises, overproduction, over accumulation, etc.) will persist as long as the profit motive is the singular determinant of economic activity, we would agree.
But if this means that anything short of a system wide change is of little importance, or that the underlying dynamics and laws of motion can’t be modified, we would disagree.
We should avoid counterposing the bankruptcy of capitalism against the struggle for reforms under capitalism. Such juxtaposition is unnecessary and counterproductive. If we don’t struggle for the latter (reforms), what we say about the former (systemic nature of problems) will carry little weight nor will we get to where we want to go – socialism.
Capitalism is more elastic than some believe. It changes on its own (its internal laws motion – what Marx studied in “Capital”) and is modified by the class struggle. Look at its historical development if you don’t believe so.
Role of the working class
Still another ideological question is the role of the working class in general and the labor movement in particular. The right wing and mass media (not just Fox) either heap abuse on the labor movement or make it invisible. They are well aware of the new developments in organized labor, and recoil at the prospect of a revitalizing labor movement. None of this is a surprise.
What is surprising is that many progressive and left people either have a blind spot when it comes to the labor movement, or see it as just another participant, or refuse to see – even dismiss out of hand – the new developments within it.
Leading up to the AFL-CIO convention, we heard more than once that labor should be “a social movement,” that it should “take on capital,” etc. But, unless you are the hostage of “pure” forms of the class struggle, isn’t that what labor is doing – in the elections last year and on issues like health care, war, racism, immigration, climate change, international solidarity, and so forth?
Granted it’s not across the board, there are still backwaters, the old style of leadership hasn’t completely disappeared, and rank-and-file participation is not where it should be.
But isn’t that an old movie? Is going over in righteous indignation the litany of sins of the labor movement the most productive thing that we can do? Doesn’t it make far more sense to note the new development and directions, the new thinking, and the new composition of labor’s leadership? Do we think that the transition from the legacy of the Cold War and the so-called Golden Age of capitalism can happen in a day, in a month, in a decade? Change is hard, but when sprouts of change come to the light of day we should nurture them.
Our understanding of Marxism reveals that in the process of exploitation, not only surplus value, but also oppositional tendencies arise – albeit uneven and full of contradictions and inconsistencies – but arise nonetheless to challenge corporate prerogatives and class rule.
An under appreciation of the new developments in labor can only weaken the broader movement for change.
Finally, Marxism is an open-ended, integrated, and comprehensive set of ideas to conceptualize and change the world – a world outlook. It brings to the light the existing and developing regularities and laws of social development of societies, and especially capitalist society.
Thus, continually deepening our understanding of Marxism’s basic theoretical constructions is of crucial importance to us – not to mention the movement as a whole.
At the same time, Marxism is not simply a science (understood in a general sense) and worldview, but it is also a methodology.
Marxist methodology absorbs and metabolizes new experience; it gives special weight to new phenomena.
It isn’t about timeless abstractions, pure forms, ideal types, categorical imperatives unsullied by inconvenient facts, unexpected turns and anomalies; it doesn’t turn partial demands, reformist forces, inconsistent democrats, liberals, social democratic labor leaders, even blue dog democrats, into a contagious flu to be avoided at all costs.
Marxist methodology insists on a concrete presentation of a question and an exact estimate of the balance of forces at any given moment.
As a method of analysis, Marxism emphasizes fluidity, reexamining old and new questions, process, dialectics, and movement; it’s about allowing space for individuals and organizations to change.
We should deepen our understanding of Marxism as a science and methodology. And we should not give too much attention to those who take issue with us from the left. When we do, it cuts down on our ability to think creatively and respond practically to new opportunities and developments.
In the era of the Internet, everyone’s voice is amplified. If some try to turn Marxism into a sacred canon much like the strict constitutional jurists and biblical literalists do with the Constitution and Bible, so be it; if they want to spend all their time looking for examples of right deviations, to the point where they themselves are simply self-satisfied observers of struggle and too busy to build the people’s movement or, in the case of those who are in our party, build our organization and press, so be it.
We will go our own way, focusing our energy and talents on building the working-class movement and our party and press, and be much the wiser for it.