Valences of the united front (II): Discourse on method

September 27, 2013 1 comment

In the first installment of this essay, I introduced the topics of discussion and proceeded to an assessment of the recent March on Washington and the International Socialist Organization’s (ISO) intervention in it. For this installment, which covers “the (ir)relevance of the united front tactic or ‘method’ in the present day,” I will assume that you have read the introduction, but not the subsequent material, since it has no bearing on the present matter at hand.

Which is interesting, isn’t it? How did my August 6 letter on the March, which never mentioned the united front, somehow–more than two weeks later and largely after the March was over–spur a theoretical debate on the united front? The point of departure is Paul D’Amato’s article on the united front, published on August 13. This article is almost entirely historical, save for a very brief concluding note on the ongoing relevance of the “methodology outlined by Trotsky.” But its real impact was brilliantly laid bare by MB’s letter of August 21:

I wonder if Paul intended the article to be a part of the recent debate about the ISO’s role in the March on Washington…. I initially read it that way, as I imagine many readers did, given the debate that has been taking place in and in other places online, and because International Socialist Organization training and analysis would lead most members to say that we should participate in the March as part of a united front strategy.

If this is the case, I would like to suggest that it would be more productive to explicitly reference the March on Washington. Otherwise, the article has the feel of weighing in without actually addressing comrades’ concerns about the March. The article risks stifling a still-forming debate by invoking a core political idea–with all the authority that such an idea carries in the organization–without digging into the particular arguments and analysis that comrades have brought up in this particular debate.

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Valences of the united front (I): The parse on Washington

September 16, 2013 6 comments has in the last several days hosted one of its most remarkable exchanges in recent–or even distant–memory on a series of issues related to the theory and practice of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Although I am, regrettably, no longer a member of the ISO, I am rather “implicated” in the debate, so some comrades may be interested in what I think about it; and in any event, it behooves all revolutionaries to take an interest in what the ISO is interested in.

If you have not been following the discussion, here is a “cheat list” of articles and letters, in chronological order:

More is hopefully forthcoming, but this set of writings will inform my response here. Each piece is relatively lengthy, and each raises a complex set of issues that are not fully addressed in any subsequent piece. In this sense the whole sequence may strike one as frustrating or abstract, but I think it repays sympathetic attention, since comrades are clearly “pulling the threads” of the discussion with unusual boldness, and saying things that have been on their minds for some time.

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We interrupt our regular programming

September 3, 2013 4 comments

This blog is not intended to discuss my personal situation, but since it may influence what I write about and how comrades want to approach it, I suppose I should tell you that I resigned from the International Socialist Organization (ISO) on August 29. I had been a member since the first week of September 1998, putting me just several days short of my 15-year silver pin. (Note to sectarians: there is no such pin.)

I remain a supporter of the ISO’s political tradition and agree with most of its positions on present-day politics, especially its rejection of US imperialism and the Democratic Party. I wish the best for the group, which I continue to believe is the finest socialist organization in the US today, whatever problems it may (ie, does) have.

Unfortunately my position as a member in the Boston district/branch became impossible. Since I have deliberately avoided introducing local issues into broad public discussion, I do not intend to discuss the circumstances of my resignation here or in other public venues (although my Facebook friends can easily look up the background material). Of course if such things are made public by others, I may be compelled to respond publicly.

I will continue to write and to be active locally, only now as an independent (sigh) socialist.

Our regular programming will resume shortly.

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The horse we rode in on

August 26, 2013 9 comments

On July 5, I wrote the following to an old antiwar movement friend about events in Egypt:

Well, the military was badly burned by its experience of direct rule and happy to retreat into the background, provided they could preserve all their power and privilege–which the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] was happy to go along with so long as they could clamber into office. Morsi, the army, and the US had worked out a modus vivendi, but the MB fucked up, combining incompetence, lack of reform, and offensive power grabs. The felool (old regime supporters) conspired against Morsi from the beginning, but the Tamarod movement obviously struck a deep chord–the June 30 protests were truly gigantic. So I don’t think the military had this planned from the day one of the Morsi administration (although they obviously knew what was going to happen in advance, as evidenced by how smoothly they’ve staged things).

That said, I do think this is a coup–albeit one with popular support–and if the army has any brains, they will seize the opportunity to suppress not just the MB, but the society as a whole. (This is why they’re allowing violence to go on the boil, to intervene later as the “saviors of society.”) I suspect that the revolutionaries in Egypt made a very serious mistake in agitating for the overthrow of Morsi–not because he didn’t deserve to fall, but because only the army had the power to oust him and take control of the process. The revolutionaries either openly relied on the military and/or didn’t think things through, fooling themselves with the mythologies of “anti-power” and the notion that people can just keep overthrowing governments until a “good one” comes up. It’s Occupy politics taken to its most extreme and dangerous conclusions. The left should have formed a militant opposition, developed a program of deep reforms (a “transitional program” in the Trotskyist argot), and worked on building its institutional bases (political parties, intellectual/cultural centers, trade unions, etc). The left needed a long-term revolutionary strategy rather than a campaign to topple a government that would, if successful, inevitably result in military rule.

I hope I’m wrong.

Unfortunately, I was right. I quote myself from six weeks ago not to claim any peculiar powers of political prognostication; actually I claim quite the opposite: if I foresaw the development of things, it is only because their development was actually very easy to foresee. (I have quoted my entire original message, without adding or subtracting anything save the two words in square brackets.) I was open about my views and shared them with many comrades even before June 30, but I regret not writing about them publicly. I knew that I should have, but I chose not to because I felt that I lacked the “standing” to publicly criticize the Egyptian comrades; I was also, frankly, shy of the fight that it would have inevitably set off. That is a shabby attitude unworthy of Marxism.

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The disarticulation of the US working class: The value chain

August 15, 2013 8 comments

The concept of the value chain

The concept of the value chain derives, per Wikipedia, from the “science” of business management; it was popularized by Harvard Business School poobah Michael Porter. That should be enough to make any thinking person suspicious; and indeed, the bourgeois theory of the value chain cannot possibly be well-founded, given that bourgeois economics has no credible theory of value. The broad notion, however, is intrinsically attractive to Marxists, who do have a scientific framework for understanding the creation, translation, and metamorphoses of value through the circuits of capital. There is a body of Marxist research on (global) value chains and “commodity studies,” with which I am sadly mostly unfamiliar. In any event, for the purposes of this piece, a very rudimentary instantiation of the concept will suffice.

Fix some commodity in your mind–a wool coat, say–and imagine all the stages in its production and circulation, from being worked up from raw materials, transported through different stages of production, warehoused, shipped, and finally sold to the consumer. The creation, augmentation, movement, and conversion of this value proceeds through a series of stages, easily visualized as the links in a chain; ie, the value chain. The chain metaphor is particularly useful since it is easy to think of distinct value chains “linking” to one another; the value chains for wool and buttons clearly link to the coat’s chain, for instance. Value chains have complex interconnections in any developed capitalist society, and when finance capital is introduced, the chains become even more entangled.

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The spirit that negates

August 8, 2013 1 comment

What is constructive criticism? If you came up sometime in the last 40-odd years, you probably think it means something like: criticism that doesn’t make you an asshole. In other words, all legitimate criticism is necessarily constructive criticism. But if that’s the case, why not just call it criticism–why add the clunky prefix? It’s as if someone were trying to convince you that vegan nachos are the only form of nachos. And, like with vegan nachos, you might wonder if the unmodified version were not more satisfying altogether.

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The disarticulation of the US working class: Introduction; Unions and strikes

August 2, 2013 Leave a comment


This post is the first in an occasional series on the disarticulation of the US working class during the neoliberal phase of capitalism. I have used (but certainly not invented) this term to describe a totality of social phenomena that have qualitatively altered the political landscape on which revolutionaries operate. The word “disarticulation” means “to become disjointed,” which is to my mind evocative of the state of the class; the word also suggests an inability to speak (articulate) one’s mind. At the same time, it doesn’t go far as to suggest the disappearance of the “class-in-itself” or its dissolution into a multitude, precariat, or whatever. What is disarticulated can be rearticulated; indeed, the latter is precisely the process to which this series aims to contribute in one way or another.

I am not a professional sociologist or historian, and hence unable to give full-time attention to this inquiry, so these writings will inevitably exhibit a certain amateurish quality. This is unfortunate, but I can at least hope to spur discussion among more qualified and/or informed comrades.

The series will be, by and large, critical and “negative.” This is primarily because the situation of the US working class is, objectively, very bad. It is secondarily because revolutionary Marxists in the US have, in their basically admirable quest to spread the “Good News” about socialism, rendered themselves fairly conservative–even defensive–in their theoretical and strategic thinking. (As an experiment, try telling one of us that Trotsky’s theory of the united front has basically fuck-all to do with contemporary American political conditions. You are bound to give offense, even though you would be manifestly correct.) This backward-looking defensiveness must be broken through; Marxists must again become capable of integrating the moments of truth in non- or anti-Marxist research, even if we reject the conclusions. We must reunite “pessimism of the intellect” with “optimism of the will.”

Comrades who demand of every critic or dissident to see their “positive alternative” right away have not, I think, really understood the dialectical method. Progress is achieved through negations, not via “side-by-side comparison” in some “marketplace of ideas.” So to those who would ask me, “Where would your analysis leave us?” I can only answer: “It would leave us where we already are; but at least we would know it.”

These ideas were initially presented in two documents for the 2013 National Convention of the International Socialist Organization. These were co-authored with another comrade; while I gratefully acknowledge his contributions, the opinions expressed in this series are entirely my responsibility.

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