From LABOR-L@YORKU.CA Fri Mar 2 06:03:44 2001
Re: Epitaphs for WFTU and Communism
By Haines Brown, 1 March 2001
I quite agree with Leo Casey that there is little point in a tedious debate of the issues he mentions. But it seems to me his questions may evade the real issue. So let me reflect on the political implications of his choice of questions.
> 1. The Cold War is over. One side -- the West -- won; the
An academic point over which I might quibble. But even if true and accurate, were I engaged in working-class revolutionary struggle today, what would be its significance for me? A comparable question from a working-class position might be:
1. In terms of both theory and practice, is the present global dominance of capitalism so complete that revolutionary struggle is pointless in the forseeable future?
Notice that my alternative question is focused on action in the present, not on an interpretation of the past, and it implicitly engages the modern working class in that action. This perspective seems missing in all of Leo's questions. If the points he brings up are indeed irrelevant, why then does he not tell us what is relevant. As we will suggest, he sort of does so at the end, but in a way that merely substitutes vague sloganeering for irrelevant academic argumentation.
Leo reject the issues as too academic to draw our attention, but nevertheless does not hesitate to draw inferences from them! For example, were I to object that the terms "East" and "West" are merely artifacts of capitalist ideology without any historical foundation, he'd understandably refuse to get into a academic debate over the issue. But that does not stop him from inferring from the supposed victory of the so-called "West" (identified without any justification with capitalism), that communism was a failure.
> 2. The East lost because "actually existing socialism"
Again, an academic question. A working-class political alternative might be:
2. The history of communist revolutions suggests that the success of socialist states in a capitalist world has been at best limited. With the rapid development of imperialist globalization and possible associated decline of the bourgeois state instition, is a more appropriate political arena of class struggle now at the supra-national level? If so, what institutional forms might it take?
Again, the alternative question shifts the emphasis to action, rather than an interpretation of the past, and it implies action by the working class. True, at the end Leo does arrived at this very point (which makes me wonder why he raised the questions in the first place), but in terms that seems to imply merely a reform of the capitalist system by turning back the clock of history to recover some idealized past.
> 3. The manner and pace of the collapse of the East made it crystal
One difference between communism and capitalism is that the former requires, not just the "support" or acquiescence of citizens, but the active participation of the mass of people. Neither the conservative nor the liberal versions of capitalist political democracy necessarily require direct popular participation beyond whatever accountability is won in the voting booth to keep the ruling class on its toes. History shows that capitalist regimes can do well without much popular participation, but it also shows that socialist or communist regimes are vitiated without it (as Leo himself insists). So in light of this, the question might be:
3. The world offers limited examples of participatory democracy (for example, Cuba at the political level, labor unions within the scope of their competence). But is there any alternative to participatory democracy that simultaneously develops and draws upon human potentials? Isn't capitalism, where "he who has the gold rules" incompatible with mass democracy except as an empty formalism ("parliamentary cretanism," Marx called it). Is it possible to reconcile revolutionary strugle with democracy in any way but through the democratic centralism of a communist movement?
Or, another question: In light of the global decline in democracy (declining voter participation; growing irrationalism of political life; monopolization and manipulation of information sources; etc.), isn't the only way to recover democracy and reject capitalist exploitation through communist revolution?
> 4. The moral and political corruption of these regimes was
OK, let's not quibble and for the sake of argument let's admit the world's first working-class government was a failure. If so, one might infer from the fact a) that working-class power is a pointless chimera, or b) that conditions in the world were unfavorable to working-class rule in the USSR, or that c) the leaders simply went in the wrong direction. Are there other possbilities? Otherwise, the first position is obviously that of a capitalist; the second that of the working class, and the third is only of academic interest. If we are of the working class and concerned about action, our question therefore might be:
4. What are the conditions necessary for working-class revolution? In other words, what strategy might give hope to the world's discontented majority for positive change resting, not on an exploitation or domination by one people of another, but of a shared and democratic participation in the struggle for progress?
This may sound like a vague and superficial question, but it actually entails enormous complexities. For example, child abuse is way up in Japan. My impression is that people in Japan are aware of the problem and dismayed by it. Arguably the phenomenon is an effect of capitalist development, and so the problem becomes, how does participatory democracy (based on the working-class majority) affect the sense of empowerment and the social culture of individuals so that they will no longer abuse their children?
> Maybe some other folks, perhaps even Peter, want to spend time
Leo, the issues you infer tend to be academic, and so you rightly leave it to those with a stomach for it pursue them. And I agree that we should get on with more practical concerns. But your description of where we should be headed is surely vague.
The phrase "mass democratic left" leaves me wondering. After all, the domination of local "notables" in the US was replaced by mass democratic politics by the Republican Party (learned, incidentally, from the immigrant German social democrats) around the time of the Civil War. Because mass politics have been in existence here for well over a century, I assume (again, presuming a US context) you are not about to invent something new, but instead want to move the two capitalist parties to the left ("reconstruct," as you put it, some condition that existed in the past). That is perhaps a worthy endeavor, but you can understand why most people are not sanguine. It also seems remote from working-class needs, for the past was based on the exploitation of the working class.
I won't want to cruel, but your phrase seems to represent a vague idealized vision of what capitalism ought to be, not what it actually is. It seems entirely irrelevant to the working class unless you specify just what the verbal eyewash, "mass democratic left," means. I suspect that were you to develop the notion completely, you would to begin to look like a rabid communist to most folks.
Also, what you do mean "ashes of communism." Let's for the sake of argument assume that "communism" means the wedding of the only ideology specific to the working class - Marxism, to a revolutionary agenda based on dictatorship of the proletariat and democratic centralism. Yes, I know what you are thinking: The USSR was a poor simulacrum of all of the above. So to what then does "ashes" refer?
If the USSR was really communist, then are you saying you reject Marxism, democratic centralism and dictatorship of the proletariat? If so, present your case without academic historical argumentation, and then explain why your position does not make you a capitalist. If, on the other hand, the USSR was not really communist, it ends up, as you insist, of only academic interest, and we can get on to the more serious evaluation of what communism really entails, not its particular Soviet manifestation.
It is always hazardous to argue general principles in terms of one or more specific cases. Is "communism" something that is necessarily associated with the USSR? If so, let's find some other word that joins together Marxism, democratic centralism, and dictatorship of the proletariat, and get on with it. If it is not necessarily bound to the USSR, let's not judge it solely by this particular manifestation, for the USSR is a favorite capitalist red herring designed to suck us into interminable academic debates so that we loose sight of the real matter at hand.
And, besides, I would insist that we can never base action today simply on what happened in the past. We need to look at the present world order and decide whether or not to support it based on whether it represents progress in most aspects of life for the great majority of the world's population. If the existing order instead seems an abomination, then we must decide if we are responsible to change it. We also need to ask if the mechanism of historical change is necessarily based on class conflict and whether our class position is one that contradicts the dominant capitalist order. Leo is perhaps right to put academic questions to the side, but the challenge then is to pose questions that are tied to action in the present by labor. I wonder if he would then accept my alternative questions. If not, what questions would he prefer?