On the Battle of Ideas: Responding to the New World of COVID-19, Economic Crisis, and Anti-Racist Uprisings

Kevin B. Anderson

Summary: Adapted from a presentation to the July 2020 Interim Convention of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization — Editors

This spring, as some countries began to reopen after months of COVID-19 lockdowns, youthful rebellions broke out inside the two most powerful states in the world, the USA and China. The Black youth of Minneapolis, their allies, and countless others across the USA expressed their anger on the streets over yet another police murder, which was one too many. During the same days, the youth of Hong Kong renewed their protests against new anti-democratic moves by the Chinese government. The US protests, which grew into a massive nationwide Black Lives Matter uprising, also had a major international impact. In both cases, the USA and China, the youth did not flinch in the face of brutal police repression, inspiring their elders and many others around the world. These youth face a world of mass unemployment, precipitous economic inequality, and growing racial oppression fueled by rightwing populism, all of it worsened by COVID-19 and the economic meltdown. This is a world they did not make and that they refuse to inhabit as passive objects. What are the roots of the situation facing us in the year 2020? And what is the way out? In the ensuing discussion, I will begin with the underlying systemic, i.e., capitalist, social structures, before moving to the subjective responses of live human beings, both in revolutionary action and in theoretical preparation for such action.

 

Going Beneath Appearance: COVID-19 and the Essence of Capitalism

The abject failure of almost all governments around the world to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic is above all a crisis of capitalism, with the chaotic response of Trump’s America its most repellent phenomenal form. But too narrow a focus on Trump obscures how this abject failure illustrates the essential nature of capitalism, its “normal” macabre workings, which are now revealed more openly. Capitalism’s quest for limitless value creation — and profit — has itself been compared to a virus afflicting humanity. This is because capitalism puts everything else aside, exists for the moment, and destroys even the possibility of the reproduction of its own means of production — including its labor force — in the long run. This is the underlying explanation for the lack of medical supplies, of tests, of masks, let alone a real public health infrastructure ready to save humanity from the pandemics that are becoming more and more frequent.

From its earliest days, the capitalist system has been beset by chaotic production relations. In one sense, this leads to a total instability in workers lives, as they are thrown from overwork during boom times into mass unemployment during those crises that are endemic to the system. Even physical survival is always in question, as the unemployed can actually face starvation. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels intone in the Communist Manifesto (1848) in an attack on the industrial bourgeoisie, the main wing of the ruling class under capitalism: “It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery” (Marx and Engels, Collected Works [MECW] 6: 495). This is a unique feature of capitalism, even compared to earlier forms of class society. In these precapitalist class societies, tiny minorities already dominated the working people and extracted from them a surplus product, which kept the ruling class wealthy and underpinned a state to protect them. But at the same time, some precapitalist societies tried to allow the working people a minimum material existence, despite the low development of the productive forces at the time.

As Rosa Luxemburg noted more than a century ago with regard to British rule in India, imperialism under capitalism is unique in that it actually drains society dry, failing even to put enough of its profits into preserving its very means of exploitation:

Finally, the specifically capitalist method of colonization finds expression in the following striking circumstance. The British were the first conquerors of India to show a gross indifference toward the works of civilization that formed its public utilities and economic infrastructure. Arabs, Afghans and Mongols alike had initiated and maintained magnificent works of canalization, they provided the country a network of roads, built bridges across rivers and sunk wells…. ‘The Company that ruled India until 1858 (the East India Company — R.L.) did not make one spring accessible, did not sink a single well, nor build a bridge for the benefit of the Indians.’ (Accumulation of Capital, Verso edition: 270)

While wages and living conditions — then and now — might be better in Western Europe or North America than in India, the basic framework is the same, that of capitalist exploitation, even to the point of draining life itself from the working people. And under capitalist slavery, Black people were literally worked to death, which led Marx to write that, even compared to Roman times, slavery reached “its most hateful form … in a situation of capitalist production” (MECW30: 197).

If slavery was the most brutal form of exploitation under capitalism, in Capital Marx also writes of the slow death of the working class in industrialized Britain. He compares the rule of capital to the domination of a Juggernaut, a vehicle that crushes spectators beneath it in a religious festival, in what amounts to a human sacrifice:

Within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought into effect at the cost of the individual laborer; that all means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a human being [Teilmenschen], they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, …subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. (Capital, Fowkes trans.: 799)

How true that rings at a time when US workers — mainly superexploited Latinx immigrants — are being forced back to work in meatpacking plants that are rife with COVID-19. Not only that. White rightwing mobs also applaud, guns in hand, the idea of going back to work, literally calling for human sacrifices on the altar of capital, all in order to “get the economy moving again.”

 

Going Beyond Essence 1: Imagining an Alternative to Capitalism

At best, most radical analysis stops here, at exposing the underlying essence of capitalism, but it is important to go beyond essence to subject, to the possibility of revolutionary change. It is so hard to imagine an alternative to capitalism that it is sometimes helpful, as Marx also does in Capital, to refer to “other forms of production” (169). But here I would like to go beyond the text of Capital to one of Marx’s very last writings, the Ethnological Notebooks. In these 1880-82 notes on a variety of non-European societies, he records a description of an Indigenous communist society in the Americas that operates exactly the opposite of capitalism, producing a surplus product that is not surplus value and that is geared not to the reproduction of capital or the riches of a ruling class, but rather to the security and reproduction of life:

Rev. Sam. Gorman, missionary with the Laguna Pueblo Indians, in address to the Historical Society of New Mexico says: ‘The right of property belongs to the female part of the family, and descends in that line from mother to daughter. Their land is held in common, but after a person cultivates a lot he has personal claim to it, which he can sell to one of the community… Their women, generally, have control of the granary, are more provident than their Spanish neighbors about the future. Ordinarily they try to have a year’s provision on hand. It is only when two years of scarcity succeed each other, that Pueblos, as a community, suffer hunger.’ (118)

Note that in this communistic Indigenous society women retain significant social power, not only over the land, but also over the social reproduction of food. As a result, this technologically underdeveloped society was “more provident than its Spanish neighbors,” let alone 21st century capitalism, which can’t even prepare for the epidemics its own scientists predict.

Similarly, in the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx theorizes a first phase of communism, where workers would not receive the “full proceeds” of their labor because of the need for “common funds” to sustain the community:

He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the societal supply of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost.

This is from our new translation (by Karel Ludenhoff and me), which I am proud to report will appear as a book with PM Press next year, with Peter Hudis’s introduction. That modern kind of communism Marx was theorizing would also, as in his description of the achievements of the Paris Commune of 1871, get “rid of the standing army and the police, the physical force elements of the old Government” (“Civil War in France,” MECW 22: 331).

Marx also suggests that more traditional and more modern kinds of communist organization of social life — here mentioning the longstanding communism of the Russian village community and the kind of modern communism he theorized in Critique of the Gotha Program and that the Western European proletariat yearned for — could link up as part of a revolutionary process. This is seen in his last published writing, the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto: “If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development” (Shanin, ed., Late Marx and the Russian Road: 139). That, ultimately, is the solution to the kind of social crisis brought on by COVID-19.

 

COVID-19, Racism, and Modern State-Capitalism

As discussed above, the COVID-19 pandemic is a capitalist crisis because capitalism is a form of society that does very little to secure the lives and health of the working people in its ruthless, limitless, and utterly impersonal drive for value creation.

But the pandemic is a capitalist crisis in a second sense. The actual destruction of human existence as a possibility is a product of the third and hopefully final stage of global capitalism, state-capitalism, which followed the competitive and then the monopoly stage, with the latter self-destructing during the Great Depression of the 1930s. First, we have seen how the Great Depression and the transformation into opposite of the Russian revolution created the basis for two forms of totalitarian state-capitalism, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, each of which killed tens of millions of people in their concentration camps, mainly workers and peasants. Hitler’s death camps gave the world a new, horrific word to describe his eliminationist anti-Semitism, “genocide.” That genocide has repeated itself, most tragically in Rwanda, Central Africa in the 1990s. Second, we have seen how state-capitalism — here in the form of the somewhat progressive Roosevelt administration during World War 2 — created the nuclear weapons that still threaten the existence of most forms of life on the planet. Third, we have seen how, as levels of ecological destruction escalate, state-capitalism threatens utterly to destroy human and many other forms of life on the planet.

To these we can now add a fourth form of state-capitalism’s death grip on humanity, global pandemics that threaten human existence. As shown by science journalist Sonia Shah in her in her 2016 book, Pandemic, more frequent, more virulent, and more deadly epidemics have been predicted by scientists for decades. Modern state-capitalism destroys the habitat of many animals, bringing them and the diseases they carry into closer contact with humans. Modern state-capitalism also engages in the capture, trade, and global transport of a wide variety of “exotic” animals, bringing all kinds of species into close contact with each other and with human beings for the first time, allowing diseases to spring from species to species, acquiring greater virulence. At a more general level, modern state-capitalism is the most globalized form of capitalism ever, thus facilitating its wide and rapid spread. While each of these forms of destruction threaten to wipe out much of humanity, they also have a class and racist basis, in that the poorest and most oppressed are the most vulnerable.

 

The Current Economic Crisis

The pandemic is a crisis of capitalism in a third major sense, in that it has touched off the greatest economic downturn since the 1930s. Capitalist ideologues of all stripes are working feverishly to perpetuate the fiction that the current economic crisis is only temporary (rightwingers), or that it will be more permanent (liberals and progressives), but that in either case the it is caused by COVID-19. This is a remarkably narrow notion of causality. For example, while the Minneapolis uprising was sparked by the racist police murder of George Floyd, even the liberal mayor referred in his speech both to longstanding issues of brutality and racism in the police department and to 400 years of slavery and oppression of Black people in the USA.

Why is it so hard to see something like this with the economic crisis sparked by COVID-19? And for those on the left who see these capitalist roots, why do they so often limit their critique to neoliberalism rather than capitalism as such? (See, for example, Alfredo Saad-Filho, “From Covid-19 to the End of Neoliberalism,” Critical Sociology, 2020). Our Convention Call details the underlying stagnation of the US and the global economy: GDP growth in the US has been tepid, only 2.3% in 2019, and as we also wrote, “The economic growth that occurred prior to COVID-19 clearly was insufficient to reverse growing social inequality” (“Where to Begin? Growing Seeds of Liberation in a World Torn Asunder,” The International Marxist-Humanist, April 10, 2020 https://imhojournal.org/articles/where-to-begin-growing-seeds-of-liberation-in-a-world-torn-asunder/ Despite the ballyhooed decrease in the official unemployment rate in the past couple of years in the U.S., this number does not count those too discouraged to seek work.

Another statistic that counts better those discouraged workers is the civilian labor force participation rate, i.e., the percentage of adults employed or actively seeking work. It has steadily declined over the past two decades in the USA. In April 2000 it stood at 67.3% of the working age population, but plunged to 64.6% by September 2013, in the wake of the Great Recession. Had the U.S. recovered from that recession in the way it was touted by Trump and the media, the labor force participation rate would have gone back up toward 2000 levels by 2020. It did not. Instead, on the eve of the pandemic in February 2020 it had actually declined slightly from 2013, to 63.4%, another clear indication of economic stagnation in the midst of supposed nearly full employment. Now, of course, it is in free fall. (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate, June 4, 2020). Thus, the economic crisis touched off by the pandemic — and based in part on longterm economic stagnation — is just that, a real economic crisis from which no quick recovery can be expected. As our Call also states, “In a word, stagnation rules the day. This did not result from the coronavirus; that was instead its proximate cause. Capitalism has been producing a lot of rotten fruit that was just waiting to fall.”

Thus, the current situation of pandemic and economic collapse is the product of capitalist social relations in three major ways: (1) It reveals capitalism’s pursuit of surplus value at any cost, with a reckless disregard for the safety of the working people it exploits, rather than just the failings of neoliberalism. (2) Global pandemics like COVID-19 will occur more frequently under the most advanced form of capitalism, state-capitalism, which has also produced genocide, nuclear weapons, and unprecedented ecological destruction. (3) The pandemic was only the immediate cause of the economic depression, in a world economy already ripe for a crisis even deeper than the Great Recession of 2008.

 

Beyond Essence 2: Movements of Opposition and Liberation in the Year 2020

(An earlier version of this section was published in my June 12 article, “Notes on the Black Lives Matter Uprising in Historical and Global Context,” International Marxist-Humanist (June 12) here https://imhojournal.org/articles/notes-on-the-black-lives-matter-uprising-in-historical-and-global-context/ )

Where does all this leave those striving for a world free of impoverishment and exploitation, of alienation and dehumanization, and of war, racism, sexism, heterosexism and environmental destruction? In one sense, we have been reeling over the past few months, locked down at home or forced to work in dangerous situations. During the lockdown, the world economy plummeted, throwing billions out of work. In India, low-wage workers have faced starvation. Some three billion people around the world lack access to water for the kind of handwashing public health officials deem necessary to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Even in one of the richest cities in the world, Geneva, Switzerland, people lined up for a mile to receive a food donation toward the end of May.

Nonetheless, working people and youth have fought back in major ways during COVID-19 and the economic crisis. From the beginning, workers resisted attempts by capital and the state to keep production going, endangering their very lives. Here, the Italian workers, with their long militant tradition, led the way, with mass strike actions. In March, according to a report from CGIL, the main union federation,

From the Dalmine steel mills of Bergamo to those of Brescia, from the Fiat-Chrysler plants of Pomigliano in Naples to the Ilva steel plant in Genoa, from the Electrolux factory of Susegana in Treviso to many small and medium-sized companies in Veneto and Emilia Romagna, from the Amazon warehouses in the provinces of Piacenza and Rieti, to the poultry and meat processing companies in the Po Valley, there were thousands of striking workers who came out into the squares and streets, strictly at a safe distance of one meter apart from each other, as prescribed by the government decree.” (Leopoldo Tartaglia, “Dispatch from Italy: Class Struggle in the Time of Coronavirus, Labor Notes, March 20, 2020 https://labornotes.org/2020/03/dispatch-italy-class-struggle-time-coronavirus?fbclid=IwAR39RmRqc54k8akyYwNGcD2gI1u8pL6fX5Tp7mZ_qIzn1vNfZI5DisKIPHM)

This forced the state and capital to concede, leading to better safety measures and for workers to be paid during safety-related work stoppages.

These measures, aimed at unionized workers, did not affect the most precarious and marginalized workers, many of them immigrants. It was from this kind of milieu in the USA, the oppressed Black communities of Houston and Minneapolis, that George Floyd, murdered by four Minneapolis police, emerged. Like so many Black working class women and men, Floyd was semi-unemployed due to COVID-19 at the time that police choked him to death in slow motion, in broad daylight as witnesses from the Black community looked on and pleaded for mercy. Floyd’s unconcscionable death has been seen as a form of lynching, but it also recalls the torture and executions carried out for centuries inside US slave plantations, where the audience was other enslaved people, and the purpose was to create dread by “making an example” of someone.

As many have also pointed out, the strangulation of George Floyd needs to be seen in the context of 400 years of slavery and the obdurate objective structures of racial oppression in the USA, from outright slavery, to Jim Crow, to today’s mass incarceration. The poison of racism oozes through the sectors of employment, housing, education, healthcare, and policing, among others. Racialized capitalism in the US actually began under British colonialism as part of their widely-used policy of “divide and rule,” from Ireland, to the Indian subcontinent, to Virginia. That strategy favored one sector of the populace against another, in order to prevent class unity against the rulers. In seventeenth-century Virginia, this meant arming poor but formally free whites and giving them police power over all Black people, the vast majority of them enslaved, in order to prevent another outbreak uniting white and Black labor, as had occurred in Bacon’s rebellion in 1676. Today’s police forces originate in part in the white militias that received rewards for capturing fugitive slaves.

But the racial history of the USA needs to be understood subjectively as much as objectively, in short, dialectically, if we are fully to grasp the current juncture. For today’s rebellion on the streets can also trace itself to that uprising in early Virginia. In this sense, US history needs to be grasped as one of constant revolt and resistance in the face of racial and capitalist oppression. Here, one could mention (1) the slave revolts led by Denmark Vesey (1822) and Nat Turner (1831), (2) the whole period of Abolitionism, Civil War, and Reconstruction from the 1830s to the 1870s, (3) the southern rural Black Populists and their white allies in the 1890s, (4) the massive and socially progressive Black nationalist Garvey Movement after World War 1, (5) the mass interracial labor and Civil Rights movements of the 1930s, (6) the Civil Rights and Black liberation movements of the 1950s throughout the 1970s, and (7) the current period exemplified by the Sanders campaign against economic inequality and the development of Black Lives Matter, which preceded even the 2016 Sanders campaign, into a mass movement this spring that has drawn hundreds of thousands into the streets.

Today, as with the greatest of those previous movements, the Black masses have taken a vanguard role, but a wider movement has emerged involving youth of all races. As so many times before, the rulers and their representatives have tried to distinguish between “good” protestors and “illegal,” “violent,” and “outside” ones. Thus, after the mass rebellion against police brutality in 1965 in the Black ghetto of Watts, Los Angeles, some tried to blame “Cuban agents,” but even the official McCone Commission led by a former head of the CIA could find none. Similarly, today’s far-right Trump administration blames leftwing agitators from the Antifa movement, although they can show no concrete examples. What is true is that hundreds of thousands came onto the streets all across the country under the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” that a police station was burned to the ground in Minneapolis, and that luxury shops in the Los Angeles area were attacked by protestors who scrawled slogans like “eat the rich” on walls. After over a week of rebellious actions across the land, all four Minneapolis police murderers were finally arrested, but this came after no less than 13,000 protestors had been detained.

The protests deepened and persisted in a way not seen since the 1960s. The Black Lives Matter Uprising has already developed into a nodal point, with facts on the ground demanding that any serious revolutionary analysis take these events as its starting point, as the beginning of a new revolutionary era with global dimensions.

Demonstrators were cruelly gassed and clubbed near the White House by direct presidential command, in order for Trump to show “toughness” at a photo op after it had been reported he was cowering in the basement. Even Trump’s threat to use the regular army on the streets did not deter the demonstrators, but it did cause dissension within the military leadership, especially after it was reported that officials had used the term “dominating the battle space.” As even retired General Martin Dempsey noted in protest, the law and military tradition restrict the use of such tactics to foreign enemies. But it is equally true that two decades of endless war abroad, of occupation and torture of civilians in Iraq and elsewhere, is blowing back into the USA itself, with police forces that are militarized as never before. Another form of blowback can be seen in how Minneapolis police have received training from the US-funded occupation police force of one of the most reactionary powers in the world, Netanyahu’s Israel, where chokeholds and other “physical pressure,” i.e., torture, of Palestinian detainees is totally legal. These facts show that moves in the USA toward an authoritarian state are not limited to the Trump administration, but can also be found in liberal Minneapolis. It also underlines the need to amend our Statement of Principles in the Constitution, to include this stronger language in support of Palestine: “We have always opposed Israel’s oppressive policies against the Palestinians and strongly support their right to an independent and territorially viable state. At the same time, we oppose all forms of anti-Semitism and support the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.”

Less noticed but also extremely significant has been the resurgence of the youth movement in Hong Kong against Chinese government attempts to extinguish all democratic rights in that semi-autonomous city. As the threat of COVID-19 lifted a bit, the youth of Hong Kong were the first anywhere in the world to reassert their pre-COVID movement on a truly mass scale. Inside China, quieter dissent exists amid deepening repression, especially in Wuhan, where the regime covered up the full extent of COVID-19 for weeks, thus extending the suffering in China and the world. On June 4, the 31st anniversary of the crushing of the China-wide student and worker uprising of 1989, tens of thousands of Hong Kong youth gathered for the annual commemoration, despite the event having been banned due to COVID-19. Thwarted by popular protest in their attempts to get a series of repressive measures through the Hong Kong legislature, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has decided to act directly, an extremely ominous turn. It should also be noted that the Hong Kong protests have never been only about political issues, as residents also face a precipitous increase in economic inequality, as investment capital from the rest of China has led to skyrocketing rents and other forms of heightened capitalist oppression. For its part, while some governments have issued verbal protests, unelected global capital is solidly backing Xi’s repressive measures, with all due cynicism: “There will be some unhappy people for some time,” said John L. Thornton, a former president of Goldman Sachs who has close ties with the Chinese regime, “But the drum rolls, the dogs bark and the caravan moves on. That’s the political judgment” (quoted in Alexandra Stevenson and Vivian Wang, “Why China May Call the World’s Bluff on Hong Kong,” New York Times, June 4, 2020). Thornton’s racist comparison of the Chinese people to dogs should also be noted.

 

Contradictions on the Road Toward Liberation: Stalinism and Maoism’s Betrayals of the Black Liberation Struggle

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of V.I. Lenin, one of history’s most important Marxists. Despite some serious flaws — the elitist vanguard party to lead and the single-party state he and Trotsky established after the revolution — Lenin propagated to the world the notion that without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This was of course in the spirit of Marx himself, who completed Capital at the height of one of his most active periods of engagement with the workers’ movement, that of the First International. But what does it mean to develop revolutionary theory today in the wake of the myriad crises — and opportunities — facing us in the year 2020?

Writing in the wake of the 1960s, our founder Raya Dunayevskaya wrote of the need for revolutionaries to become philosophers of revolution. Posed at such a general level, many diverse socialists and radicals would agree. But once one looks deeper, key differences with Marxist-Humanism become clearer. In Philosophy and Revolution (1973), Dunayevskaya writes of two pitfalls to avoid, here debating about the African Revolutions of the 1960s, not with reformists, but genuine revolutionaries:

We must, however, beware of falling into traps set by mechanical mate­rialists as well as voluntarists, by ideologues rooted in other ‘civilizations’ as well as free-lancers. Although they call themselves Marxists, the vulgar materialists attribute an iron mold to economic laws…: they ‘must’ be sucked into the world market. The seeming opposite of vulgar materialists, the voluntarists — Maoists or individualists, Existentialists or anarchists — have one thing in common with those who are overwhelmed by economic laws: they believe they can order the workers to make ‘one day equal twenty years.’ (pp. 218-19)

What Dunayevskaya is critiquing here are the two dominant forms of Marxist socialism of the twentieth century.

What does this mean for today, especially for those like us who talk of race, class, and revolution? The vulgar materialists, found among both Russian Stalinists and Western European social democrats, tended toward class and economic reductionism, which under Stalinism became tied to the interests of the Soviet Union as the supposed representative of the revolutionary class at a global level. This was the ultimate form of class reductionism, where the interests of the class were themselves reduced to those of the USSR. This led to the infamous example of the Popular Front during the Second World War, when the global Communist Parties basically dropped their anti-racist demands for what they called anti-fascist unity. Thus, when African Americans sought to march on Washington in 1943 to end segregation in the U.S. military, the Stalinist US Communist Party denounced it as a divisive weakening of the anti-fascist effort. (See our co-founder Charles Denby’s Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal; Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man, captures this period in fictionalized form.) Even in South Africa, nothing was supposed to be done against the white rulers. Since the Stalinists had long advocated Black liberation alongside the liberation of labor and had gained significant Black support, this betrayal struck deep, playing no small part in the disillusionment with all forms of Marxism after World War 2.

If the vulgar and rationalist materialism of the Stalinists and social democrats usually meant asking Blacks to wait for economic or political conditions to “mature,” the Maoist split from Stalinism was more voluntaristic and sometimes even irrationalist, stressing the revolutionary will, that U.S. imperialism was a “paper tiger,” etc. This stress on “daring” to struggle attracted many youths from the 1960s, including those around the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit. Mao attacked the USSR as in league with U.S. imperialism, and noted how the French Communist Party had helped save the state’s effort to blunt the near-revolution of 1968 by channeling it into reformist electoral politics. This also gained him intellectual followers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Michel Foucault. But Maoist opposition to this kind of reformism, and to Russia’s often opportunistic aid to Third World liberation movements, led to a politics that placed opposition to Russia over everything, including Black liberation. In so doing, Mao’s China cruelly betrayed African revolutionaries, especially in Southern Africa in the 1970s. For example, since Russia was giving some support to the main African liberation movement in Angola, China actually aligned itself with rightwing Angolan forces opposing that movement. These forces were in fact allied with apartheid South Africa, which sent in troops to aid them. In a surprise move that exposed and thwarted this betrayal, Russia flew tens of thousands of Cuban troops to Angola at the invitation of the new liberationist government. They drove the South African racists back home. This led to another great disillusionment with Marxism on the part of Black people, especially the many who had leaned toward Maoism in that period and had been sympathetic to groups like the Panthers or the League. This was felt in intellectual circles as well, as many Black intellectuals moved away from Marxism.

Today, little of this heritage appears before us directly, although there are exceptions like Angela Davis’s wrong-headed signature on a petition supporting the Iranian regime during the protests last fall. There is also a small resurgence of Maoism among today’s youthful revolutionaries. More generally, the philosophical legacies of Stalinism and Maoism — whether in class reductionism or in the voluntaristic politics of the revolutionary will — can be found in many political movements and tendencies of today, as seen in some forms of “democratic socialism,” of anarchism, or of Antifa.

 

The Future of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization: Toward the Dialectics of Organization

If we can recognize these problems and if we can instead espouse and continue to develop Marxist-Humanism, where does that leave us as an organization? Surely, we don’t want to be simply critics and gadflies and we want to the best of our abilities to participate in, learn from, and help give positive direction to movements for human liberation. To be sure, we can offer these movements a deeper and more humanist theoretical perspective than most of them can develop spontaneously.

But what about ourselves as IMHO, our structure and our practice of our Marxist-Humanist principles? Does membership mean merely intellectual adherence to Marxist-Humanist principles and then working inside other movements as individuals? If so, then our organization could take the form of study groups or study circles that might have some vague or indirect influence on the wider movement. That could preserve and develop Marxist-Humanist ideas somewhat, but would it be a real organization?

Here, Lenin can assist us, via Dunayevskaya, who appreciated Lenin’s concept of organizational membership as not just adhering to principles or paying your dues, but active participation in a group involving more than intellectuals in a study group. As Dunayevskaya writes in Marxism and Freedom (1958), much of Lenin’s 1902 book What Is to Be Done? was derived from Karl Kautsky’s notion that Marxist intellectuals were the real leaders of the working class, which could not arrive at socialist consciousness without them. Dunayevskaya meant this as a critique of Lenin. This is the elitist core of “vanguardism” and it needs to be critiqued strongly by us, as it has been.

But Dunayevskaya adds, crucially,

There was an element in Lenin’s theory on organization which was not borrowed from the German Social Democracy, which was specifically Leninist — the conception of what constitutes membership in a Russian Marxist group. Indeed, the definition did not merely rest on a ‘phrase’ — that only he is a member who puts himself ‘under the discipline of the local organization.’ The disciplining by the local was so crucial to Lenin’s conception that it held primacy over verbal adherence to Marxist theory, propagandizing Marxist views, and holding a membership card. (Marxism and Freedom: 180).

And that local, at least in Dunayevskaya’s eyes, would if possible be comprised of working people, not just intellectuals and students, would be citywide, etc.

This point bears on our efforts to become a real organization that is not based solely on theoretical discussions, as important as they are. I’m not suggesting that we go back to Lenin’s model, or even that of News and Letters Committees and its locals during Dunayevskaya’s lifetime, as we have a wider, international organization now. But the valid point Lenin makes should not be lost because of this. It is also elucidated in his 1904 critique of the circle spirit. In addition, it bears on our ongoing critique of CLR James and others who advocated decentralized forms of organization in place of the vanguard party, but thought that the Marxist group should simply support and record the creativity of the mass movements, or theorize from the sidelines. What was lacking here was an organization that would truly link theory to practice, something the world needs more than ever today.

As Dunayevskaya put it at the end of her life, in an addition to Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution:

This is the further challenge to the form of organization which we have worked out as the committee-form rather than the ‘party-to-lead.’ But, though committee-form and ‘party-to-lead’ are opposites, they are not absolute opposites. At the point when the theoretic-form reaches philosophy, the challenge demands that we synthesize not only the new relations of theory to practice, and all the forces of revolution, but philosophy’s ‘suffering, patience and labor of the negative,’ i.e., experiencing absolute negativity. (xxxvii)

Thus, we seek to transcend/sublate (Aufheben) this duality between vanguardism and more decentralized forms of organization. This, comrades, is one of main issues we need to grasp if we are to really develop as an organization rooted in the philosophy and principles of Marxist-Humanism. Doing so is not separate from developing ourselves theoretically, both individually and collectively, or from participating in, learning from, and grasping what is truly new in movements like the BLM Uprising. Rather, that process goes hand-in-hand with working out a new type of organization, one the world is crying out for but no one has developed, not even ourselves. However, we have at least posed the question.

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