Touchstones for the Struggle Against Capitalism

Andres Magon-Marmol

Summary: Based on presentation to the March 18 conference on our new edition of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program — Editors

To take up Peter Hudis’s question—Is there a role for the ORGANIZER in the Marxist cosmos? How will the current working class, and the marginalized groups within it, come to understand not only the need to overthrow this current socio-economic regime AND somehow articulate a vision of what could replace it? What Marx referred to as “the future body politic of communist society.”

Does this consciousness come innately or as Peter says “immanently”? Is it the case that professional Marxists must step in from outside of our subaltern class position and, applying certain pedagogical methods, enlighten us working class dumbshits? I’m being slightly facetious here.

I’d like to recount an episode I witnessed as a teenager. I come from working class background and was in a Chicano activist neighborhood group. The university students would come down…at the time Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” was all the fad…and they would tell us what to do, how to run our organization. One day, one of our members, an ex-Vietnam paratrooper, grabbed one of these fellows, saying to him,” we’re sick and tired of you coming down here and telling us what to do!” I recall him grabbing him by the collar, the student’s flannel shirt ripping as he took him outside and punched him, for a while. I stand in between those two polarities, given that I’m sort of an autodidact. But I think this is where we are at this point. Given how “the class” is now, how is it reached?

If I could now take a different tangent. In an earlier more well-known writing, the famous opening quote from the manifesto about the bourgeoisie of his time, Marx spoke of a “spectre haunting Europe”. There is a spirit, a notion, guiding Marx’s thought, a history that perhaps informs his views about the pre-capitalist, pre-feudal past and which prefigures the future: the commons, the world as it was before enclosure.

My limited studies suggest to me a matchup of anti-colonial narratives with anti-bourgeois/anti-alienation struggles within the developed nations. What I’m citing might be a commonplace. What helped me understand this—before I ever met the man—was Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins; it was helpful in making the linkages between metropole struggles and the so-called “peripheries”.

There are north American Indigenous antecedents, counterparts to European antihierarchical struggles: one that comes to mind was the 1680 Pueblo Revolt that took place in what’s now New Mexico, when 32 tribal communities successfully united in a planned upheaval and drove out their Spanish conquerors. One of their many leaders was a man named Pope, and thanks to that revolt there was a 12-year reprieve. The Spanish returned but it was under completely different terms. Natives would no longer have their hands or feet amputated for worshipping the way they had in the past.

There’s the Iroquois confederacy, the Hapa Sapa of the Lakota/Dakota plains people, the Comanches. A quote from a white military general at that time, “We have to kill the buffalo”—and there were millions of buffalo herds—”we have to kill these animals in order to eliminate the commissary for these savages”.

There is Turtle Island or North America—mentioned in Linebaugh’s Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance narrative—and Abya Yala, what is now Latin America. Without romanticizing or idealizing them, we know what they were. From what we’ve gleaned, from what was left of their histories, they led communal ways-of-life, different from what we’ve been saddled with now.

A couple of speakers have alluded to the fact that today is 18 March, which commemorates the beginning of the Paris Commune, when the Parisian working class took over that city. Marx highlighted the Commune as being a model for the future. His “Critique of the Gotha Program” was written in the wake of this major event.

Marx, in The Civil War in France (1871), written during the Commune, praised its achievements, described it as the prototype for a revolutionary government of the future, “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.”

“Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators, history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all of the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”

And Engels wrote: “Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

We know that in private, Marx expressed a different, more critical view of the Commune. In 1881, he wrote: “The Commune was simply the rebellion of a city in exceptional circumstances, and furthermore, the majority of the Commune was in no way socialist, and could not have been. With a little bit of good sense, they might, however, have obtained a compromise with Versailles favorable to the mass of the people, which was in fact the only real possibility.”

I’m citing this because in the 19th century, the Commune was the clearest expression, of what Marx was aiming to describe in the Critique.

A question that I’ve raised at other gatherings: is it only dire circumstances, immiseration, exploitation, hardship, famine, war… that are the setting, the grounding, the basis, for upsurge and revolt? In 1871 Paris, with the Prussian army attacks on the populace, and famine—the zoo animals were all devoured, people were hunting rats—did it take these conditions to prompt a desperate grab for popular power? Is it system collapse, breakdown, economic strife, war conditions, massive dislocation, duress that force the question?

These realities describe reality in the postcolonial world—Asia, Latin America, Africa—but will it take extreme duress of this type to lead to transformative struggles?

Sixty-five years after the Commune— the 20th century parallel example—were the Anarchist collectives of Barcelona/Catalonia/Aragon, led by the CNT (Confederacion Nacional de Trabajadores) and the FAI (Federacion Anarquista Iberica) in the countryside and factories, municipalities, and provinces. This was modern day incarnation or approximation of the “dictatorship of the proles”.

George Orwell, a first-hand observer, volunteer soldier in the Lenin Division of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista), allied to the CNT, wrote in “Homage to Catalonia”:

“I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it.

“There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. – had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master.”

To me these are touchstones. Jumping ahead to the May 1968 Paris occupations, which saw a moment of mass urban struggles against alienation. From the “Committee for the Maintenance of the Occupations, May 30, 1968”:

“At the present moment, with the power they hold and with the parties and unions being what they are, the workers have no choice but to organize themselves in unitary rank & file committees directly seizing all aspects of the reconstitution of social life… By taking this path they will become the sole real power in the country, the power of the workers councils.

Otherwise, the proletariat… will again become a passive object. It will go back to watching television.”

So, there we have it. To bring about the supersession of abstract labor, the abolition of value production, of onerous “socially necessary labor time”… the end of producing for the sake of augmenting monetary wealth… to see the free association of producers, we must think in terms of commissions, workers councils, collectives, self-management, consejos obreros, what were known in the in Chile’s Allende period as “cordones industriales”. This is what it will take.

And the insurrections of the industrialized north (now deindustrializing) and the underdeveloped south (now the principal producer of goods for the north) call to each other in their search for a new path away from bourgeois or colonial relations of production.

I confess that in the current 21st century moment I’m a bit of an agnostic on the dialectic. If in the past conditions under the capitalist order had created its own gravediggers, the ones who would hang the last bourgeois with the rope it had sold them, now it is less clear who will be the agents of the needed social change.

Circling back to Peter Hudis’ comments regarding “the organizer”, as of late I’ve been considering a “falling tree” metaphor: when a homeowner has an old tree that’s about to fall, they hire a landscaper. The landscapers must plot out where they’re gonna drop the tree. They have to be strategic, because if they pull it this way it’ll smash into the house or if they tug it too far that way it’ll crash down on a parked vehicle. Their job is to make sure that the dead tree’s trunk or branches cause minimal damage.

So, in the process of global climate disasters, market collapse, economic cataclysm, or system breakdown is our role to guide the “falling limbs” so that our communities are not crushed or destroyed further…to ensure that we get people to go in a certain direction so that we can reach the best possible outcome?

In closing, ON A PERSONAL NOTE, many in the community I come from have combined working class and lumpen family units, with generations going back of superexploited wage workers and non-compliant incarcerated. The ongoing conditions they live are such that these deeply distressed communities fill the Sunday morning Christian-evangelical supply dens that peddle the opiate of the masses.

At best our leaders have had a trade-union consciousness—my direct mentor when I was a young adult was Dolores Huerta, a powerful leader and cofounder of the UFW and a progressive liberal—but not many of our community organizers articulated maximalist aims. I mean like what we’re talking about here today, the non-alienated communal forms that Marx stakes out in the Critique of the Gotha Program.

How to adapt a relevant course of study for the diverse populations that make up our world?

Yet many of us have ancestral roots informed by cultural antecedents that include attempts at establishing peasant and worker power—albeit failed attempts. The borderlands saw Magonismo and Villista insurrections, the enormous impact of the 1910-20 Mexican revolution which left its mark on border popular consciousness.

Enrique & Ricardo Magon were anarcho-syndicalists, international revolutionary organizers, who came up with the slogan, “The land belongs to those who work it” and which Emiliano Zapata adopted for his southern peasant movement.

Justin Akers Chacon—Radicals in the Barrio; Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican-American Working Class and Kelly Lytle Hernandez—Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire & revolution in the borderlands evoke these influencers in their histories.

An old school movie from 1993, very popular in Chicano culture, BLOOD IN BLOOD OUT/BOUND BY HONOR, is a drama about Brown and Black California prison inmates trying to put aside their beefs and unify against a common oppression. There’s a moment in the story where Montana, the leader of the Chicano inmates, is reading a book; glance away from the screen for a second and you miss that he’s thumbing Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. With a little more time I would have gone into the impact that a visionary like him had on our community, along with Marx:

“So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe?… That same Europe where they were never done talking of humanity, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the welfare of humanity: today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind… Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe.”


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