The War for Quadrant Two

Quadrant two will prove to be the quadrant of victory for the proletariat

Archive for July, 2014

► Which Way Forward? – [WQ2.14.07.08]

Posted by Ben Seattle on July 8, 2014

The Text is underneath the images below.  The PDF formated version (much easier to read) is here:

https://warforquadranttwo.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/2014-07-08_which_way_forward.pdf

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Which Way Forward? On our feet—or on our knees?

A Movement Deserving of the Respect of Millions Cannot Be Built On a Foundation of Sand

Our movement will not be deserving of the respect of the working class until we have the ability to clearly explain why we reject the path of social democracy (and its inevitable dependence on the corrupt trade union bureaucracy, the so-called “progressive” press and the non-profit industrial complex) and work instead to mobilize millions for the overthrow of the class rule of the bourgeoisie.

We Need to Talk

Hi folks,

We need to talk about Kshama Sawant and the $15/hour campaign.  We need to understand what happened, what is happening, and what will be happening in the years ahead.  We need to understand these things NOT in order to know what we need to do today, but so that we can understand what we will need to be doing over the next 10 to 20 years, as the class struggle in the U.S. intensifies (as appears likely).

I intend to write this post with humility and with respect.  And it is not my desire to be a scold.  That being said, we must recognize that the dust does not clean itself where the broom fails to sweep.  There is a lot of bullshit circulating in our movement (ie: bad ideas being believed and circulated by good people) which we need to openly confront.  I intend to do this.  A lot of people are not going to like it.

Not My Problem

So I need to start with a clear warning: those readers who are easily offended or pissed off by criticism—you might as well stop reading nowClick on something else if you are reading this on facebook;  throw this away if you are reading it on paper.  You are not going to like this, and you are not going to like me.  And (at the risk of alienating many of my few readers) I will add that I do not care.  I do not care if I am not popular.  I am here to fight.  I write for those activists who have made up their minds that they are not going to wilt like hothouse flowers when things get intense and there is pain.  These activists—whether I know who they are or not—are my comrades.  They are the people who will pull our movement forward.  I intend to earn their respect by telling them the simple truth.

Social Democracy: A permanent strategic opponent as well as an occasional, temporary and vacillating tactical ally

I am going to talk about something called social democracy.  Many activists are not familiar with the term “social democracy”.  We need to change that.  The recent concessions that the local section of our ruling class has made in the form of a higher minimum wage (subject, at a moment’s notice, to cancellation at the whim of the Seattle City Council) may be small and temporary—but they are an indication that, in the face of deepening austerity, our ruling class understands that it cannot rule through the stick alone.  Sometimes they need to combine the carrot with the stick.

It is not an exaggeration, imho, to say that, as a movement, understanding social democracy will be the difference between (1) begging on our knees for mercy from our class enemy, and (2) standing on our feet and mobilizing millions for the great class battles ahead.

This means that, as a serious social movement determined to become conscious, we must understand what social democracy is—how it works—and what our necessary attitude (and tactics) toward social democracy must be.

Cast Away Illusions

As an example of the wishful thinking I believe we must confront, I am going to write about a post by a well-known Oakland activist.  John is, in many respects, a better reporter and a better writer than am I.  But there is something in his posts which we must look at soberly, in the light of day:

Socialist Alternative made an important contribution to the workers movement and to  the cause of socialism when they got Kshama Sawant elected.

Seattle’s Minimum Wage Ordinance: What Does It Mean? – June 13, 2014 [1]

John has earned the respect of many activists for his decades of dedication and sacrifice in many struggles, including a wildcat strike of many thousands of workers in 1999, which challenged the class collaborationist “business unionism” of the trade union bureaucrats in the construction industry.  John was also in the heart of the Occupy movement in Oakland.  I have respect for John and, because I have respect, I am going to tell him the simple truth: the view of the world which he presents on his blog (http://OaklandSocialist.WordPress.com) is deeply mistaken and is based on illusions.  I have a strong dislike for illusions.  If we believe in illusions—we will end up begging on our knees.  I believe we must stand and fight.

The first thing we must understand about Kshama Sawant and the Socialist Alternative group is that they represent the political trend of social democracy.

We can think of social democrats as people or groups which combine radical words (or even words about class struggle) with a perspective that is limited to the struggles and methods which are acceptable to the ruling bourgeoisie.

Social democracy is a large and quite broad trend—extending from the periphery of the left wing of the Democratic Party—all the way to a series of cargo-cult groups which call themselves “socialist”, “communist” or “revolutionary”.  So it is important to understand that, while all social democrats share certain key features in their methods, outlook and ideology—they are certainly not all alike: some have a short leash while others have a much longer leash.

In the case of Kshama Sawant and SA—they are social democrats because they are not genuinely independent (as they claim to be) but are essentially controlled by the trade union bureacrats, the Stranger, and other people and institutions that are part of the Democratic Party machine.

The Imagination Machine

John does not want to recognize that the SA is a textbook example of social democracy in action and instead, in numerous places in the same post, asks readers to imagine all the wonderful things that would be possible if only Kshama Sawant and SA were not what they are:

For decades, union activists have worked to organize opposition caucuses inside different unions (including the UFCW). This has faced tough going because the great majority of members are pretty demoralized. However, with a high profile figure like Sawant, it might have been possible to break through this mood. Imagine if 15 Now (Socialist Alternative) had campaigned among grocery workers as advocated here. Imagine if they, with Sawant at the lead, had organized little mini-rallies inside low wage work places from the grocery stores to McDonalds to Starbucks. True, they would have antagonized almost every single union official in Seattle and beyond, but who cares? Who knows what might have come from this? It can’t be ruled out that they could have brought into activity a whole new layer of low wage workers.

John’s entire post is saturated with this kind of obsession with a world that is not the one in which we live and fight.  The problem with John’s reasoning is that it ignores the obvious: if Sawant and the SA were the least bit inclined to be disobedient—the trade union bureaucrats and the Stranger would never have given the green light to her campaign in the first place.  Our ruling class is not a bunch of idiots: they have historical memory and the sophistication of a class with centuries of experience.  The entire basis of the support that Sawant and the SA got from the institutions of our ruling class—is that her organization could be trusted to respect the limits of its leash.  And we have seen at least parts of this leash in recent months, as articles in the Stranger and the Seattle Times have warned the SA not to play with “class warfare” if it wanted to maintain “public support”.

The absurdity, futility and backwardness of John’s flights of fantasy can be seen if we substitute Obama’s name for that of Sawant:

For decades, activists have worked in various struggles. This has faced tough going because so many activists are demoralized. However, with a high profile figure like Obama, it might have been possible to break through this mood. Imagine if Obama had carried out work similar to what many expected during his 2008 campaign.  Imagine if activists, with Obama at the lead, had organized struggles of all sorts.  True, they would have antagonized almost every single member of our ruling class, but who cares? Who knows what might have come from this? It can’t be ruled out that they could have brought into activity a whole new layer of wage workers.

And, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

When we are reduced to wishing that the world was different than it is—rather than fighting in a realistic way to make it what we want and need—then we are reduced to praying for a cure from the gods of plague.

Why Nourish Illusions?

Part of the problem with John’s analysis, in my opinion, is that he is attempting to appeal to activists who are inside or around the SA and who nourish illusions that the SA can (somehow) be magically transformed into an organization based on the class struggle instead of being what it is: the first out of the gate in the race to win the franchise of being the “radical wing” of bourgeois politics.  It is always the case that activists must struggle with illusions.  But we owe activists the simple (if sometimes bitter) truth.  David Schmader was more honest (“Last Days“, Stranger, June 18) when he advised some religious activists to give up on liberalizing the Mormon church:

“… there comes a time to stop negotiating with your abusive boyfriend and get the hell out.  You can do better.”

I am not, however, advising activists around the SA to give up on their efforts to transform it.  On the contrary, I think something good will come from this struggle: the recognition that what they are attempting to do is not possible.  Often the quickest way to find this out—is to give it a try.

A more sober analysis

Contrast John’s retreat into fantasy with the (slightly flawed, but far more sober) assessment of the 15 Now campaign I found on the World Socialist Web Site:

From the beginning, the 15 Now campaign has been the political vehicle through which Sawant’s pseudo-left organization has cultivated close ties with a section of the trade union bureaucracy and the Democratic Party. SA has essentially argued that the interests of the trade union executives and other sections of the upper middle class can be better served by pressuring the Democratic Party ostensibly from the outside rather than from within. Whatever their supposed “opposition” to the Democrats, however, this group functions as a “left” flank of the political establishment. Its main aim is to reassert the authority of corporate-controlled political parties, and their trade union allies, and block the development of a genuinely independent political movement of the working class.

—What are the political forces behind Seattle’s minimum wage proposal? — May 12, 2014 [2]

One of the flaws, by the way, in the WSWS analysis, is how it throws around a term like “pseudo-left ” instead of recognizing that there is no shortcut to helping serious activists understand the nature of social democracy (which is very much part of the “left” as this term is used by almost everybody).  The rest of the analysis, on the other hand, appears to me to be better.  The activists in the SA may see themselves as independent, and their campaign for a higher minimum wage is certainly deserving of support—but the context of these events, as will become clear with time—is that the SA leadership is positioning itself to be “the left flank of the political establishment”.

The Crisis of Theory

The emergence of social democracy as a nominally independent trend in the United States (whether this turns out to be a temporary phenomenon, or a long-lasting one—such as in Europe where major social democratic trends have existed for a century and often held power) has led to confusion between the terms “socialism” and “social democracy”.  This confusion serves to highlight the crisis of theory that has paralyzed our movement and it helps us to understand that our movement cannot make a major advance until a critical mass of activists understand where it is that we need to go—and how we are going to get there.

If we are serious about cleaning up the existing mess—than a good place to start may be with the word “socialism”—which, in the movement, means at least three different things:

(1) A feudal-style police state—rule by a single party—such as in the Soviet Union, China or North Korea.

(2) Social democracy—such as the “socialist” party in France, the “Labour Party” in Britain or the “Workers Party” in Brazil.

(3) A better world—in a way that everyone can feel good about—but no one can actually explain.

So—on the one hand—the word “socialism” is often used to refer to some kind of vague “better world” that is not ruled by the capitalists or the market and—on the other hand—the exact same word is often used to refer to a political trend that is on a bourgeois leash and which will never do more than lobby the capitalists for “more carrot and less stick”.

Language and thought

Newer activists are in the movement today who are considering devoting their life to the struggle for a world which is not ruled by capital.  It is not right to be feeding these young men and women shit.  So, as a movement, we must become more serious about the language that we use and, for starters, not use the same word to refer to both:

(1) the supposed goal of our movement and

(2) the politics of being on a bourgeois leash.

If an activist like John wants to describe Sawant or the SA as “socialist”—that is his right—but then, if he wants to be taken seriously and be regarded as being accountable to the movement—he should also explain what (if any) distinction he believes exists between “socialism” and social democracy.  Otherwise we should regard his posts as being full of wishful thinking and pious dreams.

I had one activist write me (privately) that we should call Sawant and the SA “socialists” because that is what everyone else calls her—from the New York Times to the Stranger to the SA itself.  I think that is a fine argument—if we are content to allow the New York Times and the Stranger and the SA to do our thinking for us.  But if we are serious about creating a movement that is deserving of the respect of the working class and which intends to mobilize millions for the overthrow of the class rule of the bourgeoisie—then don’t we need to begin by thinking for ourselves?

Building An Independent Pole

I need to wrap this up, so I will say here that the contradiction in our movement between what I call the “blue” (ie: inclined toward social democracy) and the “red” (ie: determined to remain independent of social democracy) is more important than all the other contradictions put together.  Activists, in the years ahead, will learn that their real comrades are those who work for an independent movement.  All other questions (including questions of political-religious ideology) are minor in comparison to the division between the blue and the red.

Our primary political task, in the years ahead, is to build a pole in the movement that is independent of social democracy.  One of the reasons that activists are so often drawn into the orbit of social democratic groupings and/or sectarian cargo-cults is that there is little else out there.  A polite way of describing this would be to say that the independent section of our movement is made up of scattered, confused and disorganized activists who, quite often, are only marginally capable of talking to one another or carrying out any kind of organized activity.

The independent pole that we must build will, by its nature, be democratic and open to all activists.  And no group of people or cargo-cult will be able to “own” the kind of serious revolutionary organization our movement needs and which will eventually emerge.  Such a real organization will be based on the principle of political transparency in which every activist (whether a member of the organization or not) will have the right to democratic communication and knowledge of the political contradictions which determine its development.

My comrade Art and I meet in the Black Coffee on many weekends and anyone who has read all the way to the last page of this rant—is certainly welcome to join us [3].

Notes

[1] http://oaklandsocialist.com/2014/06/13/seattles-minimum-wage-ordinance-what-does-it-mean/

[2] http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/05/12/seat-m12.html

[3] Art’s blog is: http://StruggleForUnifiedTheory.wordpress.com

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