What is to Be Imagined – and Done?

TeleSur English, October 24 2014.

When told that the Pope thought he should stop repressing Catholics under his yoke, the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin famously asked, “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” A different version of the same put-down, typically issued in response to someone who says they are going to make you do something: “on yeah, you and what army?”

Both of these phrases pass through my mind whenever I contemplate the standard list of reform proposals U.S. left progressives tell you they support when asked V.I. Lenin’s famous question, the title of his first widely read pamphlet: What is to be Done? (1902). The list includes the public financing of elections; limiting and transforming corporate charters; the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources; single-payer national health insurance; steeply progressive taxation; giant jobs programs; the re-legalization of union organizing; a financial transaction tax; a carbon tax; the slashing of the Pentagon budget and conversion to a peacetime economy in which resources formerly dedicated to the military are directed to social need.

On the more radical wing of the U.S. progressive community, these proposals are typically combined with obligatory statements about the ultimate necessity and desirability of “socialism.”

Reading through that (abbreviated) list, I am reminded of one of my favorite lines from Noam Chomsky: “One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’”

The U.S. “left,” such as it is (more on that below) advances “solutions” all the time. Yes… “the left” and what army?

I have four leading problems how “the [U.S.] left” (if such a thing even exists) approaches “what is to be done.” First, it is remarkable how little attention that “left” gives to Lenin’s question compared to the incredible amount of energy it spends on detailing what’s wrong with the current order.

This is ironic. “Philosophers,” the top left icon Karl Marx once wrote, “have tried to understand history; the point is to change it” (of course, understanding history might be useful for those who want to change it).

Second, there’s the vision problem. “At this point,” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argued in their important book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009), “creating the political will to make society more equal is more important than pinning our colours to a particular set of policies to reduce inequality…Political will,” Wilkinson and Pickett added, “is dependent on the development of a vision of a better society which is both achievable and inspiring.”

As Wilkinson and Pickett might have added, it is hard to know why elites would agree to pass reforms unless activists with a mobilized mass constituency articulate a revolutionary vision that threatens those in power with genuinely radical change unless rulers concede smaller changes.

U.S. leftists have not done very well in the imagination department. As most serious U.S. leftists certainly know, reforms, while necessary, will not suffice.  For the last four decades, U.S. wealth, income, and power have been sharply concentrated upward, marking a New or Second Gilded Age of abject oligarchy, consistent with harsh underlying and socio-pathological nature of capitalism.  Along the way, U.S. and global capitalism have pushed the environment to the edge of a grave, possibly irreversible catastropheSo where, then, are the inspiring visions of an alternative society beyond capitalism (something considerably more elaborate than obligatory references to how it will take “socialism” to ever really fix things)?  There’s a few out there, some quite important and stirring, to be sure, but they are commonly dismissed as “off-the-shelf utopias” (U.S. radio personality and Marx fan Doug Henwood’s phrase in summarily dismissing  left-libertarian “participatory economics”) and other such wastes of time by “serious” U.S. left intellectuals who like to complain eloquently about contemporary outrages (of which there is an inexhaustible supply) and to quote Marx on how “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” and how “men make history, but they do not make it as they please.”

U.S. left progressives’ tendency to focus on reforms and criticisms of really existing capitalism at the expense of alternative societal vision sometimes makes me wonder how genuinely interested they are in radical and democratic transformation.

My concern on this score is deepened by a third problem with many left progressives’ reflections (and lack thereof) on “what is to be done”: a relative paucity of serious egalitarian thinking about how work (what Marxists have long called “the labor process”) is organized and who presides over the contemporary workplace. Jean Paul Sartre is supposed to have once commented that Marxists seemed to think that people didn’t really exist until they got their first paid jobs. I’ve often found that many Marxists seem to think that working people need to care about little more regarding work than the pay and benefits workers receive, the purchasing power of their wages, and the pace, length, and safety of the working day. Also, Marxists too commonly seem to think that the only real and relevant oppressors of the working class majority are the big holders of capital, the bourgeois owning and investing class, as if droves of critical and intermediate managerial and professional elites – those left-libertarian economists Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert designate the “coordinator class” – do not also rule and enjoy privilege. For traditional Marxism, the socialist transformation that is desired comes down basically to a top-down shift from private to public ownership of a nation’s means of production and investment.

In reality, however, most workers suffer not just from the private, profit-seeking capitalist ownership of the workplace but also from what Albert calls the “corporate division of labor” – a de-humanizing and hierarchical subdivision of tasks “in which a few workers have excellent conditions and empowering circumstances, many fall well below that, and most workers have essentially no power at all.”  This pecking order “marks the difference between being an all- purpose gopher, a custodian, an assembler, a foreman, a manager, an engineer, a vice president, or a CEO.” The core disparities between these jobs are not merely about money and benefits.  They also reflect vast differences in the autonomy and pleasure of work, along with differences in information, status, training, knowledge, confidence, and voice on the job.  Over time, Albert notes, corporate divisions of labor harden “into a broad and pervasive class division” whereby one class – roughly the top fifth of the workforce – “controls its own circumstances and the circumstances of others below,” while another (the rest, the working class super-majority) “obeys orders and gets what its members can eke out.” The “coordinator class…looks down on workers as instruments with which to get jobs done.  It engages workers paternally, seeing them as needing guidance and oversight and as lacking the finer human qualities that justify both autonomous input and also the higher incomes needed in order to support more expensive tastes.”

The problem is not limited to capitalism. A shift in ownership from private to public, while necessary, does not undo the problem of hierarchical “labor process[es]”and workplaces. In centrally planned state-socialist economies like that which prevailed in the old U.S.SR, this coordinator class ruled entirely without capitalists.  Members drawn from its elite ranks became the militantly undemocratic – indeed despotic – ruling class of “really existing socialist” nations. At the same time, coordinators reign without capitalists (though of course within the broader framework and rules of capitalism) in numerous public bureaucracies and large non-profit institutions in the U.S. today.

No meaningfully social and democratic vision of the changes required in the U.S. and elsewhere can ignore the need to confront the difficulties posed by corporate divisions of labor – difficulties that are intimately related but not merely reducible to the rule of capital.  We do not wish to replace the rule of capitalists and coordinators with the rule of coordinators alone.

Fourth and last but not least, there’s the “you and what army?” problem. Left reflections on “what is to be done” typically say remarkably little about organization. This is curious. The great left icon Lenin’s famous 1902 pamphlet said nothing either on reforms under capitalism (or under Russian Tsarist rule) or on what an alternative, post-capitalist society might look like. It was focused entirely on the question of revolutionary organization.

One does not have to be a Leninist to be disturbed by the silence of the “U.S. left” on movement institution-building. With all due respect for Wilkinson and Pickett’s point about the necessity of vision for egalitarian political will, I cannot escape the suspicion that the greatest barrier to such will is the lack of viable institutional Left with the capacity to act meaningfully on (abundantly developed) progressive policy proposals and genuinely alternative societal vision (far less abundantly developed). What’s missing above all and quite egregiously is durable popular and revolutionary organization and an entrenched Left cadre ready to spark and lead people’s struggles and to tie together struggles over disparate issues through thick and thin and over a long period of time. That’s why Chomsky rightly told David Barsamian four years ago that “there is no real left now” in the U.S..  “If you are just counting heads,” Chomsky elaborated, “there are probably more people involved than in the 1960s, but they…don’t coalesce into a movement that can really do things.”

A critical issue here is fragmentation – the dissipation and division of progressive and left efforts into too many over-separated issues, too many overblown sectarian affiliations, too many local struggles, too many identities, too many transitory projects, and too many separate efforts.  This longstanding left problem led Albert to issue a proposal and plea for strategic unity in “one big movement” last July:

“Suppose representatives from four diverse [Left] organizations, parties, and projects got together with the purpose of creating a Solidarity with Autonomy Movement (SAM) They hammer out the structural norms – a clear understanding of what allegiance implies, what dues there are, how resources are distributed back to affiliates and to overall projects, how SAM-sponsored campaigns and projects are determined, what SAM affiliates have to do vis-a-vis one another, etc.”

“Then they take this vision, which they are ready to participate in and to help build, to some other constituency groups, projects, and organizations, agreeable to each of the initial four. Perhaps they go to some media projects. Or perhaps they go to some ecology organizations, or to community groups, and so on. Slowly and steadily the growing structure could reach out to include national, regional, and even local organizing projects, periodicals, and movement organizations. It could even go international.”

“Would it be everyone who calls themselves progressive? I doubt it. But it certainly could be a very large and diverse formation, in one country, and then later across countries, able to have a huge impact on solidarity and on the ability of progressive and left elements to focus their efforts effectively.”

“Is this a pipe dream? One might put that question differently, I think; do we want to win?”

Good question. The greatest obstacle to the development of mass political spirit around progressive and radical ideas that are actually quite popular is the pervasive sense – drummed into millions of Americans by decades of top-down many-sided neoliberal assault – that we are all on our own and the intimately related idea that there’s no serious or viable alternative to, and nothing really that can be done about, the dominant order. This “no alternative” sense is the “mental slavery” of our time. It feeds most fundamentally on an absence of serious, sustained and unifying Left organization. Big alternative societal vision matters.  So do progressive measures for the improvement of life under the currently existing system. But neither revolutionary vision nor reform proposals are going to go very far without serious and durable organization. One need not share Lenin’s authoritarian mindset to get this basic point.

Do we seriously want to prevail? The stakes are rather high given the ecological catastrophe that capital and its coordinators (and other coordinators) are bringing to bear: the salvation not only of democracy and social justice but of life itself.  “The uncomfortable truth,” Istvan Meszaros rightly argued 13 years ago, “is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”

 Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy

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By | 2014-11-10T16:32:22+00:00 November 10th, 2014|Articles|