With an unparalleled, multi-faceted crisis only beginning in the US, one would expect that our deeper thinkers would rise to the occasion and offer bold, creative answers. With a popular revulsion against racism; a raging, death-wielding virus; a two-party electoral catastrophe; and only the first wave of a likely unprecedented economic disaster, one would hope that radical solutions would come forward to meet equally radical challenges.
Instead, many of the US Left’s most influential thinkers are offering weak tea-- a tepid, shopworn, unimaginative crazy quilt of answers. Since the stultifying anti-Communist purges of the 1950s in the US, labor, peace, racial and women’s equality, and economic justice movements have been shackled to anarchist, liberal and social democratic ideas. As a result, anti-Communist Western “Marxism” only enters the conversation shorn of a commitment to socialism. And socialism is only discussed apart from the basic ideas of Marx and Lenin.
Perhaps the most popular “Marxist” in the US is Professor Richard D. Wolff. Throughout his career, he has done much to popularize Marx and Marxism. He is the go-to individual whenever the media needs a facile and well-spoken “Marxist.” Unfortunately, popularity and facility are not always a guarantee of clarity or audacity of vision.
Professor Wolff correctly sees this moment, this bizarre combination of biological, economic, social, and political catastrophe, as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for change. In a recent article (How Workers Can Win the Class War Waged Against Them, Counterpunch, 6-19-2020), Wolff gives a brief, but competent recounting of the key events leading to this moment and the importance of the working class in advancing beyond it.
He answers the crisis with three points: “What then is to be done? First, we need to recognize the class war that is underway and commit to fighting it. On that basis, we must organize a mass base to put real political force behind social democratic policies, parties, and politicians. We need something like the New Deal coalition.”
A revitalized New Deal coalition? While hardly a new idea, that would require a sea-change in the Democratic Party, a party that demonstrated emphatically in the 2016 and 2020 primary elections that it would thwart social democratic ideas encroaching on its thoroughly corporate capitalist turf. Moreover, the Roosevelt coalition brought together Northern progressives and Southern racists in a last-ditch effort to save capitalism. After capitalism regained strength through the war economy, the corporate, reactionary wings of the coalition slammed the brakes on progressive politics with the Red Inquisition. Wolff knows this. He acknowledges this in his second point:
“Second, we must face a major obstacle. Since 1945, capitalists and their supporters developed arguments and institutions to undo the New Deal and its leftist legacies... Those positions gave capitalists the financial resources and power—politically, economically, and culturally—repeatedly to outmaneuver and repress labor and the left.” True enough.
“Third, to newly organized versions of a New Deal coalition or of social democracy, we must add a new element...The new element is thus the demand to change enterprises producing goods and services. From hierarchical, capitalist organizations (where owners, boards of directors, etc., occupy the employer position) we need to transition to the altogether different democratic, worker co-op organizations.”
And there you have Wolff’s answer. With a rebuilt New Deal coalition that should magically spring up because the professor wills it, a “demand” for worker cooperatives should be advanced (against whom?) and a transition engineered (how?) to a New Jerusalem. Of course this is a modern iteration of the Fourier, Owen, Cabet utopianism that Marx sarcastically described in the Communist Manifesto:
Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful ends, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for a new social gospel...They still dream of experimental realization of their social utopias…--pocket editions of the New Jerusalem-- and to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois.
Marx understood that, as an anti-capitalist tactic in his time, cooperative experiments ultimately would have to be financed by capitalists in order to compete against giant enterprises. Imagine how they would need to be capitalized to compete against monopoly transnational corporations in our time! Perhaps Goldman Sachs would fund them?
Lenin believed that cooperatives could help the working class struggle, but not replace socialism as the goal. As his party affirmed in 1910:
[T]he improvements that can be achieved with the help of the consumers’ societies [cooperatives] can only be very inconsiderable as long as the means of production remain in the hands of the class without whose expropriation socialism cannot be attained… consumers’ societies are not organisations for direct struggle against capital and exist alongside similar bodies organised by other classes, which could give rise to the illusion that these organisations are a means by which the social question may be solved without class struggle and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie.
Clearly Lenin (and Marx and Engels) did not see cooperatives as anything but an illusive challenge to capitalism. They saw the cooperative movement as, at best, a helpful companion to the fight for socialism, at worst, a distraction.
In a curious turn, Wolff argues that “[w]e could describe the transition from capitalist to worker co-op enterprise organizations as a revolution. That would resolve the old debate of reform versus revolution.” So by verbal legislation, the cooperatives become revolutionary and not reformist. And the fight for socialism (unmentioned by Wolff) is removed from the historical stage. Wolff serves “Marxism” without socialism at a time when there is an unprecedented interest in socialism and an unprecedented need for a replacement for capitalism.
David Harvey is another celebrity “Marxist.” In truth, he has written several insightful, thought-provoking books in the Western Marxist tradition (an academic tradition bereft of praxis). Like Wolff, he is an able expositor, bringing a nourishing taste of Marx (especially political economy) to hungry readers. But like Wolff, his disconnect from popular movements, his self-imposed distance from 20th century Marxism (Communism), cripples his answers to the pending 21st century catastrophe.
In a recent video (Global Unrest, December 19, 2019) in his Anti-Capitalist Chronicles series, Harvey makes a startling claim: “Capitalism, right now, is too big to fail.” We must manage it, nourish its accumulation process, while tempering the inequality that it generates. In a bizarre, Malthus-like argument, he asserts that, unlike in Marx’s time, “70 or, maybe 80%” of the world would not survive if capitalism were brought down. His comments are worth quoting at length:
We cannot afford any sustained attack upon capital accumulation. So the kind of fantasy that you might have had-- socialist or communist, and so on, or might of had in 1850, which is that well, ok, we can destroy this capitalist system and we can build something entirely different-- that is an impossibility right now. We have to keep the circulation of capital in motion, we have to keep things moving, because if we don’t do that, we are actually stuck with a situation in which, as I’ve said, almost all of us will starve.
And this means, in general, that capital is too big to fail… We have to actually spend some time propping it up, trying to reorganize it, and maybe shift it around very slowly and over time to a different configuration. But a revolutionary overthrow of this capitalist economic system is not something that is conceivable at the present time. It will not happen, it cannot happen, and we must make sure that it does not happen…
“We must make sure that it does not happen…” In fairness, Professor Harvey may feel differently today, six months later, as capitalism is imploding under its own weight. I had to listen to the video three times before I could grasp that a student of Marx could cast such a dire shadow over the prospect of socialism.
Another paragon of the US left, Noam Chomsky, while professing a personal kind of libertarian-socialism, never embraced Marx. He, along with Edward S. Herman, exposed the deeply undemocratic role of the capitalist media and its commitment to “manufacturing consent,” that is, serving the ruling class by constructing a corporate-friendly shared narrative. In addition, his activism, his self-effacing solidarity has been an example for academic political authenticity, especially his willingness to criticize Israel. But the twists and turns of the late US empire have challenged his critical understanding.
In late October, Chomsky called for US troops to remain in Syria, a strange deviation from his long-standing opposition to US intervention in the affairs of foreign countries.
More recently, on June 25, Chomsky announced that Donald Trump “is the worst criminal in history, undeniably.” In an interview with Jacobin magazine, he elaborates: “There has never been a figure in political history who was so passionately dedicated to destroying the projects for organized human life on earth in the near future...That is not an exaggeration.”
But, of course, it is an exaggeration. It is one that diminishes the criminality of a Hitler or a Tojo. It trivializes the mindless slaughter and bombing of millions of Vietnamese under Johnson and Nixon, a crime that Chomsky himself opposed vigorously.
It stains the anti-Trump movement with an in-itself immature, gross magnification of the damage that Trump --this childish, swollen ego, prevaricator-- has perpetrated. It serves no purpose to overplay the real, existing case against Donald Trump. Most importantly, it muddies the important insight that Trump is the product of a long trajectory of rot in US politics.
Chomsky is adding little clarity to the task facing a left caught off guard by the severity and depth of the 2020 crisis. Instead, he leads people back to the two-party travesty.
It would be mean-spirited to not acknowledge that there are thousands of people motivated by and introduced to left activism by Wolff, Harvey, Chomsky, and a handful of other celebrated left pundits. Undoubtedly, they share a genuine interest in promoting change in the US. But their popular status depends upon their not exceeding the bounds established decades ago by the vile Red-hunters, the thought-police who protect the US people from a robust idea of socialism. There is no need to judge their anti-Communist sincerity. It doesn’t matter whether they believe the Cold War mythology that is foundational to the capitalist world view. The simple fact is that Wolff, Harvey, Chomsky, and others would not enjoy the notoriety they command if they deviated too far from those myths.
Because they are unable to break from these limitations, they are ill-suited to lead in the battle of ideas at this critical time. They cannot imagine a world without capitalism; they cannot envision politics outside of the dreary prospect of two-parties or two-and-a-half parties divided by contrived optics; they find no ideas worth considering in a hundred years of real existing socialism.
At a time when literally millions of young people are searching for a meaningful alternative to capitalism, when they accept that socialism may be the answer to poverty, inequality, and war, it is tragic that those enjoying their trust cannot give life to that vision.
Success in the coming period will depend on whether the labor movement, the broadly progressive movement, and young activists can remove the blinders forced on them by the ideological ‘iron curtain’ that denies them an understanding of the organizational and programmatic pre-conditions of capturing the capitalist state and replacing it with a peoples’ state. The Cold War fetters must be cast aside to allow the fight for a new world without commodities, market competition, and exploitation.
For most of the last century and a half, the fertile ideas of Marx, Engels, and Lenin have served as a guiding light for that program. Working people, certainly since the last years of the 19th century, found no better beacon. Nor were they afraid to pronounce socialism as the goal of their struggles.
Isn’t it time to recognize and return to that path?