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Sunday, July 24, 2011

What It Takes to Make It Better

On July 2, as people in the US began their Independence Day festivities, Associated Press writer, Paul Wiseman, offered a remarkable article for our fellow citizens to ponder. In The Economic Recovery Turns 2: Feel Better Yet?, Wiseman gives a summary of the meaning of “recovery” for ordinary folks.

Wiseman observes: “[ In this recovery], …ordinary Americans are struggling with job insecurity, too much debt and pay raises that haven’t kept up with prices at the grocery store and gas station. The economy’s meager gains are going mostly to the wealthiest.”

True enough.

But Wiseman goes on to demonstrate his claim in a way never seen in the mainstream media. He points out that workers’ wages (with skyrocketing executive pay included!) account now for 57.5% of GDP, down from 64% before the first throes of the crisis. Moreover, profits are up by nearly 50% since the “recovery” began in June of 2009. Much of this, I might add, “achieved” during the tenure of a laughably pro-worker government led by the Democrats.

Wiseman notes that “Unemployment has never been so high – 9.1 percent [now 9.2%!] – this long after any recession since World War II… Average worker’s hourly wages, after accounting for inflation, were 1.6 percent lower in May than a year earlier…[And] Higher paying jobs in the private sector, the one’s that pay roughly $19 to $31 an hour, made up 40 percent of the jobs lost from January 2008 to February 2010, but only 27% of the jobs created since then.”

Wiseman’s bleak picture of US workers’ plight dispels any notion, constantly floated by politicos and their lap dog media, of shared sacrifice. Instead, the “recovery” has been decidedly one-sided: the wealthy and the corporations have enjoyed substantial gains, while working people have sunk further economically.

On the heels of the long July 4 weekend, pundits and forecasters sought to conjure better news by projecting a drop in the unemployment rate. Euphoria set in when the ADP data suggested strong job growth, sending the stock market soaring.

But as is often the case, the ADP report proved to be fool’s gold and the forecasts baseless, with the June unemployment rate notching up to 9.2%. A mere 18,000 jobs were added in June, the fewest since September of 2010. And May’s meager numbers were also revised dramatically downward. It has been over a year since fewer private sector jobs were added to the workforce. Temporary jobs – the new “growth” area – were down by 12,000.

In addition, wages were lower in June and workers worked fewer hours. If Wiseman had waited a week, he could have painted an even bleaker picture.

Amazingly, news of this import – news that directly and severely affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and indirectly millions more – gets little more than a shrug from a media obsessed with bizarre crimes and celebrity missteps.

At the same time, the politicians who owe their offices to these millions sidestep the question by expressing canned condolences prepared for random acts of nature, or – worst of all – linking the solution to unemployment to the need to rein in the debt, a cynical insult to the unemployed. The Commander-in-Chief offered an empty platitude – “The American people need us to do everything we can to strengthen the economy and make sure that we are producing more jobs.” – while working hand-in-glove with Republicans to cut government spending and guarantee the loss of more jobs.

This is surely a shameful performance all around.

To be sure, the continuing crisis of capitalism demonstrates the bankruptcy of the ideologies that supposedly triumphed over Marxism, over Communism. With those ideologies enjoying well over thirty years of ascendancy and domination over policy, the net result is an economic collapse of catastrophic proportions. If this putrid mix of corrupted bourgeois politics and economic alchemy were held to honest account, millions of our fellow citizens would be rushing to embrace an alternative, including socialism.

But those who rule and hoard the wealth have many mechanisms to restrain any such movement: fear, war-mongering, xenophobia, racism, anti-Communism, consumerism, and a host of other tools designed to derail any movement away from accepting the despair brought forth by capitalism.

Fending off these ugly, divisive influences has never been easy; perhaps it is even harder today, but it is essential for uniting and unleashing the popular forces that could challenge a world view that has been tried, but failed.

Yet, fighting consumerism, racism, anti-Communism and the other sordid road blocks to unity is not enough. We cannot unify without something to unify around. We cannot take an exit from this road designated by misleaders and well-paid flacks by simply removing blinders. We must also offer a new route, based on careful analysis and historical experience, that promises an escape from the carnage of global economic crisis.

A vague commitment to anti-capitalism is not enough, either. While it makes a nice slogan, a nice balm for the soul, it offers no solution, no road forward.
The road forward begins with a vision of a society shorn of all-powerful corporations, corrupted politicians, the pillaging of nature, exploitative social relations, and self-centeredness. For sure, it’s not a new idea. Elements of that society are found in all religions; they emerge more fully in utopians like Thomas More, Fourier, Saint-Simon and Robert Owen who painted a social landscape of fraternity and cooperation.

Industrial society coalesced this thinking into the idea of socialism and the recognition that the market economy and private ownership of productive assets stood in the way of the new vision. The clearest and most reasoned, though certainly not the final, expression of this vision was conveyed in the works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

Since their time, no other alternative to capitalism, no rival vision, has emerged to effectively challenge capitalism, except socialism. No alternative has captured the allegiance of working people world-wide, across borders, in factories and villages, like socialism.

With the Bolshevik revolution in Czarist Russia, the vision became a reality. Like all visions that come to life, the Russian experience inspired and warranted study. And the touchstone of that inspiration and study was the work and thought of the Bolshevik leader, V. I. Lenin. Throughout the twentieth century, millions drew upon that experience to spark and shape their struggle for a better life. As Bertolt Brecht wrote:

Comrade Lenin has been honored
often and plentifully. There are busts and statues.
Cities and children have been named after him.
Speeches have been given in many languages,
meetings held, and demonstrations
from Shanghai to Chicago in honor of Lenin.

Again, Lenin was not the last word, but his program and its successes marked a step further from vision to reality. It was no accident that Leninism, as an anti-capitalist program inspired by Marxism, marked a point of departure for anyone serious about moving beyond the grip of capitalism. And to date, no alternative to Leninism has succeeded in fully breaking the shackles of exploitation and the dictatorship of profit.

Assuredly, political movements of a different cloth and their leaders have successfully championed anti-imperialism and national independence. Some have even raised the banner of “socialism” over profound changes in the balance of forces between the owners of capital and working people. They have even privileged working people, to some extent, over the bosses, using electoral leverage to achieve great gains. But they have yet to eliminate exploitation or erase private profit as the economic engine. Nor do they have a coherent idea of how to do it. I am thinking today, of course, of the revolutionary movements that inspire us in Latin America. While they inspire us, they inspire us as visionaries, remaining caught in the web of utopianism, as were Robert Owen and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon before them.

Of course much has changed since the time of Lenin. Still, Leninism remains the touchstone for crafting a revolutionary strategy. Advocating anti-capitalism, while dismissing Leninism, failing to heed its lessons, is like starting a journey without knowing where you are and where you are going. Marxism-Leninism boldly offers a full account of both where we are and where we should be going.

The failure to seriously engage Marxism-Leninism is a transparent failing of the left, especially in the US, but also in many other parts of the world. It is not a theological failure, a failure to memorize the classic texts or mechanically apply them, but a failure to grasp the powerful tools resting in the Marxist-Leninist tool chest – the analytical devices of class, profit and exploitation and the strategic notions of vanguard party and dictatorship of the proletariat. That is not to say that these tools must be accepted as they are or applied in the old ways, but they remain available, particularly at a time when so few viable alternatives to capitalism have emerged.

One sees the absence of class analysis and revolutionary tactics in the popular movements in the US, much of Europe, and the upheaval in many Arab countries. While the sentiment is there – anger, frustration, and despair – it fails to channel toward a program of fundamental change. While we must admire the determination and dedication of active masses, that action is too often dissipated or redirected by self-styled leaders or “democratic” illusions. Rather than shaking the foundations of capitalism, these movements demonstrate against the personalities and character of those in power. But these rulers are disposable, to be easily and quickly replaced by others of their ilk. A deeper understanding of the structures and institutions that reproduce the model bourgeois politician and minister is lacking. Marxism-Leninism offers that understanding.

The capitalist media showers us with pictures of thousands of “indignants” determined to give voice and physical commitment to their anger. Missing from these pictures are the slogans or banners that reflect an alternative program either challenging capitalism or wresting power from the capitalist rulers and their parliamentary lackeys. In short, they constitute no “specter” haunting those in power.

For Marxist-Leninists, spontaneity is seldom a reliable road to change.

In the US, the political arena is further complicated by leftist ideologues who have no mass base and mass leaders who have no ideology.

With no mass base, the best known ideologues command an audience, but their words are shorn of tactical constraints or organizational commitment. As such, they speak “freely” and “independently,” but with little concern for the political impact or the context of their statements. Noam Chomsky’s recent sharp, public criticism of a single alleged policy of the popular, progressive Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela is a case in point. As perhaps the leading light of the broad left, Chomsky, with his interview in the UK Guardian, provided raw meat to a pack of media carnivores ready to pounce upon the Bolivarian Revolution. This attack came at a time of great vulnerability brought on by malicious speculation about Chavez’s health. No doubt Chomsky acted from sincere individual conscience, but dissociated from any organization and without any responsibility to a movement –and no internationalist obligation to the interests of the majority of the Venezuelan people. As a result, he evades responsibility for the consequences of his words.

And our mass leaders, especially most labor leaders, often rail against the inequities and injustices wrought by capitalism, but without any over-riding, systematic understanding of how it produces and reproduces these results. Mired in the immediacy of policies dictated by others – corporate bosses, two-party politicians, and other hostile social forces – they only react with indignation and without a strategic plan to shift to the offensive. Without an ideology, without a class-based stance, they fulminate without inspiring, posture without leading. All of the mass anger and fighting spirit is funneled into the electoral arena and barely qualified support for the Democratic Party.

The Wisconsin uprising demonstrates well the ideological vacuum and strategic chains limiting the labor movement. Acclaimed by all as a major escalation of working class militancy, the mass actions threatened to grow in scope and fervor, but were soon sapped by “leaders” promising to convert the struggle into a grueling legalistic campaign for electoral recall. Instead of mobilizing tens of thousands of workers nationwide who are equally threatened by draconian cuts in wages and benefits, instead of calling for strikes and other expressions of solidarity, US labor leaders opted to divert the struggle to a mere political contest between Republicans and Democrats. Their fear of mass initiative and their ideological immaturity smothered a rare opportunity for US workers to achieve a level of effectiveness on a par with many struggles in Europe and the Arab world, a chance to stand up to ruling class power.

These weaknesses point again to the need for a Marxist-Leninist political organization, an organization committed to bringing a vital, energizing ideology to working people. Whether that organization comes in the US from a change in direction of the now nearly empty shell of the Communist Party USA, or one of the few, small organizations that have emerged to fill the ideological void abandoned by the CPUSA, or from some new formation is yet to be settled. The process is a difficult one requiring a clearing of all of the ideological underbrush accumulated since the fall of the Soviet Union and the shedding of all of the disillusionment generated by that fall. That process will only develop from offering Communist leadership to mass action and diligent and aggressive action in the war of ideas.

Such an organization will not arrive spontaneously, but we should be confident it can be delivered.

Zoltan Zigedy


Carl Davidson said...

ZZ, this is just silly. First, since when do we back away from something because it's hard? The recall effort to take out several GOP legislators is a very good one, and is helping build some grassroots organization.

You know as well as I do that only 12% of the working class, including Wisconsin, are in unions, and the wave of protests were at their peak, and starting to ebb. A shift in tactics was called for, to pull the net in, before casting it out again in the next upsurge.

Your argument here has little to do with the flexibility required of MLs, but more to do with the blind worship of spontaneity of anarchists and Trotskyists. There are plenty of them calling for a general strike, but it's not happening or going to happen with the degree of organization we have now. Pandering to it is just opportunism on your part, and trashing those doing the very necessary recall work.

john said...

Well said.

Vaentin Zorin said...

Two things.

1. Some time ago I started a new column in "Ordinary Americans Speak." It is based on readers' comments to relevant articles on and similar sites. Very soon it became clear to me that even with the important range of opinions voiced by the working -class Americans about the crisis there are certain nodal ideological points that must be addressed by us constantly. One example of this ideological fog is the almost general conviction that people are born to world in order to compete with one another rather than to cooperate. I feel that this is specifically North American trait of bourgeois ideology that has deeply sunk into the minds of the wage slaves. What we need is a permanent campaign of enlightenment in relation to this and similar foundational, even existential, questions. Just forget about the middle-class good-for-nothing Left. All meager resources that we have must be thrown to clarifying things for the masses.

2. This includes not only getting rid of words like Leninism,or rather moving this vocabulary to the periphery, to some special discussions withing Marxist circles, but also resurrecting the words and hopefully the tradition that have been suppressed by the Leninist and other strains within communism, namely the Soviets, i.e. the power of producers rather than of the party. We have to ask ourselves: What vision will touch the political imagination of American workers stronger? That of their country led by some American Lenin, who do not exist in the first place, or that of their country run by themselves, American workers, who do exist and who are already ORGANIZED by the very system of production?

zoltan zigedy said...

Thanks, John.

zoltan zigedy said...


I always appreciate your thoughtful comments.

1. Radical individualism and its companion, competitiveness, are not new or unique to the US. They began with the rise of the bourgeoisie and its ideology. They are more developed in the US than anywhere else.

Clarifying is indeed our job, but we face a media lockout of these ideas and must skirt the lockout as best we can. The current crisis helps clarify, creating skepticism and a search for new roads. But it is a long and arduous process to win people to our ideas.

2. We cannot avoid Cold War stereotypes by changing or avoiding words. Many have and are trying with little success. It is ideas that are crucial regardless of how they are dressed, of how they are sugar-coated.

Lenin emerged not as a gift from God but from the crucible of struggle. With our or without an "American Lenin" US workers need leadership to exit the swamp of individualism that you describe well. It won't spring from spontaneity or inevitability.

zoltan zigedy said...


While I appreciate your frequent comments, I think your train ran off the tracks when you drank the elixir of Obama-mania years ago. I'm sure you remember our exchanges when I tried to cool your ardor over what proved to be just another corporate Democratic President.

Apparently you believe it would be too hard to continue the mass street actions and pursue the recall tactic as well. You speak of "ebbing" protests. I hadn't heard of that, but when did that ever stand in the way of continuing and building an activist movement? Did the leaders of the 1930's CIO organizing drive "pull in their nets" when support grew shaky? Did Civil Rights workers "pull in their nets" when difficulties arose? Yes, tactics can shift, but not at the expense of militancy and independence.

Ironically, you cite union density numbers without bothering to explain how those numbers have declined with the decline in union militancy and action. Shouldn't we try to reverse this process? Or are you satisfied to watch it shrink? How did the once powerful UAW reach a point where entry-level workers are paid what suburban McDonald's workers make?

Your allusion to spontaneity, anarchists, and Trotskyites is a nasty little piece of pettifoggery. There is no call for a general strike in the article, but a call for acts of solidarity, sympathy strikes, etc. Don't you believe that US workers are capable of such acts? Do you think they are too backward? How about a 2011 Solidarity Day? Is that such a reach? Lane Kirkland could pull it off thirty years ago, but it is apparently beyond the reach of Trumka and other leaders because it might disturb Obama's re-election campaign.

Give me a break...