Tag Archives: class

US Marxist-Leninist electoralism in the ’70s and ’80s

I recently read two good things on US Marxist-Leninist groups in the ’70s and ’80s: Out of Oakland: Black Panther Party Internationalism During the Cold War (2017), and “Lessons From One Left to the Next: Revolution in the Air Revisited”.  The first is a book on the Black Panther Party (BPP) and its international organizing efforts, and the second is a book review on the New Communist Movement.

It is extremely interesting to see how the BPP, as it started to fall apart after 1971, started to very rapidly turn toward electoral politics.  And this turn didn’t even try to maintain much of a veneer of revolutionary communism.  In 1973, the BPP more or less fully pivoted away from revolutionary struggle and focused on electing Bobby Seale as Mayor of Oakland, and Elaine Brown to the Oakland city council.  Their leaflets urged voters to “Elect Two Democrats”; they advocated for the economic benefits of having police officers live within city limits; and they proposed a “Multi-Ethnic International Trade and Cultural Center” on the grounds that it would help trade and cultural exchange with developing countries and help grow local businesses and tourism.  By the end of the decade, the BPP was basically nothing more than an appendage of the Democratic Party; Elaine Brown attended the 1976 Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign.  (Malloy 217-9).

What the hell happened?  The book doesn’t go into much detail, since its much more about the way BPP’s politics and philosophy on internationalism changed over time, than about the internal dynamics of the party domestically.  My own hypothesis, as argued here, is that the BPP was materially dependent on social bases outside of its lumpen-proletarian core membership, namely elite white liberals and black businessmen.  For a short while, these groups were willing to support the BPP in its radical program.  But as the Vietnam War winded down and the US government opened up space for the emergence of a black middle class, these groups became increasingly moderate, and the BPP was forced to follow this moderating trend.

Of course, the BPP wasn’t the only revolutionary group operating during this time period, even if it was the biggest and most visible.  The New Communist Movement saw a number of radical left groups organizing explicitly around Marxist-Leninist lines in the ’70s and ’80s, in the aftermath of the New Left movements of the ’60s.  Unfortunately this area of organizing seems rather understudied comparatively to the ’60s movements, which is why resources like Paul Saba’s bare-bones website, part of the Marxists Internet Archive, are so useful.  The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which is now a creepy cult around its leader Bob Avakian, is one relic from this era.  Another large and relatively well-organized group was the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), which was founded in 1977 and collapsed in 1982 — perhaps for the better, given that the party opposed gay liberation, supported the Khmer Rogue, and called on the US to arm mujaheddin fighters in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in ’79.  This report, written by a leading member who resigned in 1980, seems like very interesting and insightful reading on the trials and tribulations of the CP(ML).

Around the same time, another very interesting group formed, the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), which unlike the CP(ML) was largely composed of people of color organizing around national liberation movements.  The LRS was a merger of I Wor Kuen (made up of Chinese Americans), and the August 29th Movement (made up of Chicanos).  It soon merged with the East Wind Collective (made up of Japanese Americans), Seize the Time (made up of Blacks and Chicanos), and Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Communist League.

Sounds super cool, right?  Except, skimming through the documents, the most active campaigns that the LRS seems to have engaged in was…campaigning for Jesse Jackson in the Democratic Party primaries in 1984 and 1988.

What is it with Marxism-Leninism and milquetoast electoralism???

But snark aside, the post-’68 movements are extremely interesting, not to mention important, given that they were attempting to organize and (supposedly) trying to stir up revolutionary struggle at precisely the time when capitalism was restructuring into its modern neoliberal form.  Taking a closer look at the activities and internal debates of the New Communist Movement groups could tell us a lot about how to deal with such a terrain of struggle, give us a better understanding of US radical organizing that is more recent than the ’60s, and of course give us valuable lessons for today at a time when the debate within the radical left around democratic socialism, revolutionary struggle, and the Democratic Party is heating up.

Notes on Endnotes on class decomposition and technical labor

As summarized in my last post, the main essay series of Endnotes Issue 4, “A History of Separation”, is all about dismantling orthodox Marxist mythology around the importance of the industrial worker as the main protagonist of overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism.

A key part of this argument, which I didn’t touch on in the summary, is relationship between technology, class, knowledge, and political identity.  Back in the earlier stages of industrial production and industrial labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when revolutionary workers’ movements were blossoming, it was very easy for a worker to see themselves as part of a class that was the actual force that built and maintained society.  Workers sweated and toiled alongside each other in massive centralized plants, stitching clothes, building cars, refining oil, chopping trees, etc.  Workers were key to the production process, and they understood the process just as well as, if not better than, the capitalists who pocketed the profits.

However, as development and industrialization proceeded (under both capitalist and Marxist-Leninist regimes), worker knowledge of the means of production diminished.  The industrial use of technology fragmented the labor process, separated the supply chain across entire regions and countries, and made work repetitive and dull, and in general, destroyed the old basis for a common, positive identity around being an industrial worker.  From “The Strange Victory of the Workers’ Movement”:

In spite of the development of the productive forces, labour, it was insisted, remained the source of all wealth, its latent power and knowledge reflected precisely in that development. That turned out not to be true: knowledge of the production process was no longer located in the place of the collective worker, but rather (if anywhere), in the place of the collective technician. That was a key point because — while it upended the foundation-stone of the workers’ movement — it also finally confirmed Marx’s perspective in the “fragment on machines” (reproduced more soberly in Capital).

…It was increasingly the case that human labour was no longer the main productive force; science — often applied to the worst ends of industrial “development”— took labour’s place. That profoundly affected workers’ self-understanding, their experience of what they did and their place in the world: workers could no longer see themselves as building the world in the name of modernity or a better, more rational way of living. On the contrary, that world was already built, and it was entirely out of their hands. Modernity presented itself as this imposing thing, which workers’ confronted, not as subject, but rather, as an object to be regulated and controlled.

…Society is no longer just the means of production, a set of factories that can be taken over and self-managed by the workers who run them…The bases of social power are now much more dispersed. They are located not just in the repressive apparatuses of the police, the jails and the armed forces and the so-called “ideological” apparatuses of schools, churches, and television. They include also power stations, water-treatment plants, gas stations, hospitals, sanitation, airports, ports, and so on. Just like the factories themselves, all of this infrastructure relies on a legion of engineers and technicians, who keep the whole things running from minute to minute. These technicians possess no collective workers’ identity, nor were they ever included in the programmes of the workers’ movements.

The comments on the rise of science, and the importance of technical labor, stuck out since of course it connects with what I’ve been musing about regarding the current politicization and radicalization of workers in the tech industry in the US.

To me, what’s key here is the fact that the workers’ movement did not adapt or evolve in step with the evolution of class as it was restructured by capitalism, to acknowledge the growing importance of scientific and engineering labor in the increasingly complicated complex of production, distribution, and circulation.  Some groups did this, but had to split from the old vanguard in order to do so.  Two examples that I’ve taken a closer look at: 1) the Students for a Democratic Society’s “Port Authority” statement looking at the new class composition of the US, that included skilled technical workers, and 2) debates among French Marxists in various parties over the nature of the new classes in light of the post-1968 period.

The latter is particularly interesting in the context of the comments by Endnotes because it precisely shows how class recomposition provoked crisis and splits in Marxism and the workers’ movement.  The French Communist Party (PCF) stuck with the industrial workers as their social base, but bizarrely tried to build a reformist coalition with the new middle classes who they saw as non-revolutionary and more conservative.  This was presumably a reaction to the fact that parts of this middle class, particularly the skilled technicians, played a key role in the upheavals of 1968, even as the PCF was playing a backseat counter-revolutionary role (which begs the question why they continued to see these classes as less radical than themselves).  Meanwhile, theorists like Serge Mallet of the  an Alain Touraine adapted the old logic of the workers’ movement to uphold the skilled technical workforce as the new vanguard of technologically advanced and automated capitalism, as the only fraction of the working class which could grasp the complexity of post-industrial society.

However, at this point in time, it certainly doesn’t seem like any identity around a “collective technician” has emerged, let alone one that is revolutionary and anti-capitalist (yet!).  Nonetheless, its very worthwhile to go back and look at these older debates around the class nature of technicians and engineers and scientists, to help us in the present figure out how to go about composing a revolutionary proletarian composition that is dynamic and cohesive across an increasingly fractured landscape.

Moving beyond Marx’s fetishization of science and technology

One of the starting points of my attempts at arguing the importance of analyzing and organizing techno-scientific workers has been a perceived shortcoming in existing Marxist theory on the matter.  McKenzie Wark, in the in introduction to General Intellects: Twenty-One Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century (2017) has some excellent comments on this shortcoming, starting from the arguments of Karl Marx himself.

Wark focuses on Marx’s Fragment on Machines, a set of notes that speculate that technological development is the transferring of skills and knowledge of workers into machines in a process mediated by and for the interests of capital.  However, there is a gap here in terms of the actual process of how this information is turned into machines in the first place.

For Marx, science will appear to the laborer as something alien to him.  Science appears in the form capital dictates.  Science is a productive force: “all the sciences have been pressed into the service of capital”.  But who makes science?  “Invention has become a business,” says Marx, but who does the inventing?…

…The problem is that as actual organized social activities, science and technology do not fit so neatly into the schema of labor and capital.  Hence in Marx they simply come from without as a reified thing called “science” which then becomes part of the machine system as fixed capital. (8-9)

In order to move past this fetishized understanding of science and technology, Wark offers analysis by both J.D. Bernal and himself.  In Bernal’s Science in History series, he argues that contemporary techno-scientific labor (as of the 1950s) was a fusion of high-skill technical labor and the bourgeoisie “gentlemanly culture” of leisurely philosophical-scientific inquiry.  Thus, the new scientific workers who make the science and do the inventing constitute a new class with hybrid origins.  Wark, in A Hacker Manifesto (2004), similarly argues that there is a new techno-scientific class of workers that he dubs “the hacker class”, who today mainly labor with information and are dealing directly with capital’s commodification and enclosing of information and knowledge.  (It would be interesting to compare the arguments of Bernal and Wark with those in “The Californian Ideology”, which seems to take a much more pessimistic view of the new techno-scientific classes).  All of this echoes other efforts at a class analysis of techno-scientific workers, such as analysis by student leftists in the US in the 1960s, debates among French Marxists in the 1970s, and of course recent writings on the new “Tech Left”.

Wark’s comments on this can be summed up in this paragraph that ties the above comments to the project of the book overall:

One task for general intellects might be to imagine a kind of common hacker class interest among those whose efforts end up being commodified as some sort of intellectual property: artists, scientists, engineers, even humanist and social science academics.  We could imagine all of them as belonging to the same class from the point of view of the commodification of information.  We all process information that is part of a complex natural-technical-social-cultural metabolism.  But nearly all of us get to see a ruling class of a rather unprecedented kind extract most of the value from the combined efforts of hackers and workers worldwide.  As general intellects, maybe we should stick our heads above our little cubicles, look around, and figure out how to cooperate with others who understand different parts of the labor process. (11)

The “triple selection” of Indian America

Caravan Magazine recently published an excellent review/essay of two books on the history of South Asian immigration to the United States: The Other One Percent: Indians in America (2016), and Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans (2016).  It seems that a key theme of both books is to examine and unpack differences with respect to the South Asian diaspora in the US, specifically around the issue of the “model minority” stereotype.  Indian Americans today appear to be the single most socio-economically successful ethnic group in the country.  Why?

The authors of The Other One Percent argue that Indian America is largely shaped by processes of a “triple selection”, that has created a population that “does not resemble any other population anywhere: not the Indian population in India, nor the native population in the United States, nor any other immigrant group from any other nation.”  This “triple selection” consists of 1) the caste system selecting upper-caste men for education, 2) limited access to higher education selecting for an elite strata within the first group, and 3) the post-1965 US immigration system, designed around importing skilled techno-scientific workers, selecting the cream of the second group.

What really caught my eye, however, was the commentary around the nature of education systems in post-Independence India, which echoes what I’ve been attempting to study and write about, about the relationship between Asian America, mid-century anti-imperialist politics, and the production of skilled technical workers:

The Indian government had invested heavily in English-medium public higher education in science and technology—in places such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, which were mostly fed by urban English-medium private schools—even while grossly neglecting public primary education. This system soon produced tens and later hundreds of thousands of engineers amid a sea of functionally illiterate people. This talent pool was composed almost wholly of men from elite castes and classes, who were only too eager to escape from a country that could not offer them enough opportunity to apply their skills. And so the demands of the US labour market were met with a ready supply.

This gets at the central irony of the efforts of postcolonial nation-states, that they attempted to modernize a supposedly free and independent country, but did so in a manner that was easily and rapidly recuperated by global capitalism.

So what then are today’s organizing opportunities in Indian America?  I still think there is a lot of potential in merging efforts around radical tech worker organizing with parallel efforts in India America, given the disproportionate number of Indian techno-scientific workers.  Between upholding and spreading radical philosophies and histories around science and technology, organizing against contemporary racial oppression, and merging these efforts into class struggles, there are good avenues to stoke rebelliousness among workers who may otherwise happily continue petite-bourgeoisie and yuppie lifestyles.

Analysis of class composition, high-tech workers, and education by US student leftists in the 1960s

In 1967, a group of militants within the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) wrote an essay called Toward a Theory of Social Change: The ‘Port Authority’ Statement, which put forward a Marxist analysis of classes in the US, and what radical left strategy ought to look like in light of ongoing changes.  Its method of class analysis was very similar to the framework of class composition that was developed by Marxists in Italy in the same time period, which analyzed the way the restructuring of capitalism (typically driven by technological change) also restructures the nature of the working class.

Like some of the more innovative class analysis happening in Western countries at the time, the Port Authority statement hypothesized about the potential radicalism of a “new working class” being created from technological advancements.  This new sub-class was divided into three more categories: technicians & engineers, skilled industrial workers, and social service workers.  What united these categories was the fact that they were at the heart of contemporary capitalism: technicians, engineers, and skilled industrial workers were at the center of production, the economic core of capitalist society, while social service workers were at the center of a growing welfare state that was necessary for capital as a stabilizing force against militant dissent.  An important unifying trend was that these workers in these categories typically passed through college campuses, where they could potentially undergo a process of radicalization.

The essay also made comments about the relationship between technology and class consciousness.  It was thought that since the “new working class” was relatively educated and skilled and at the center of production, but also lacked any real control over the overall system, they would be more prone to radicalization than other segments of the working class.  This idea was supported by the fact that at the same time, the SDS was observing such radical currents emerging among technicians, engineers, and skilled industrial workers in the United Kingdom, France, and West Germany (the fact that such radical currents weren’t observed in the US were attributed to the weakness of local student leftists).  Indeed, the subsequent decade saw vigorous debates among French Marxists about the class position of engineers, which echoed the SDS faction’s ideas, albeit in a much more developed and contested way.

The observed connection between universities and the “new working class” was also taken up in another essay written shortly after, called The Multiversity: Crucible of the New Working Class.  The essay focused on the alienation felt by students in American universities and how this alienation was linked with how capitalism turned universities into “knowledge factories”, which produced workers with the necessary education and skill to labor in an increasingly technological economy.  More interestingly, the essay put forward the idea that the optimal strategy for student leftists was to reach out to people studying science, engineering, and education (instead of, say, art), and to organize on community college and technical college campuses instead of the elite Ivies.

One proposed tactic to reach these students was to connect the criminal actions of certain corporations, like Dow Chemical’s production of napalm for use in South-East Asia, with the fact that engineers and scientists who work for such companies have no power over choosing the direction and content of their work.  This, of course, tied back to the arguments in Toward a Theory of Social Change, about how the “new working class” was prone to radicalization because of the contradiction between their high level of education and skill, and their lack of real control in their positions as workers subordinated to the hierarchies of state and capital.

And today, it may be time to recover these lines of analysis and figure out how to update and apply them to today.  Software is at the center of contemporary capitalism.  Those segments of the working class who are required to run the sprawling infrastructure of information technologies, data analytics, and artificial intelligence, are not only becoming increasingly politicized, but are becoming outright radical and asserting their class position as workers.  The old observation from the ’60s on the role of universities as “factories” for skilled workers echoes what we are arguably seeing today, where education at all levels has been undergoing a steady and seemingly inexorable recomposition in order to produce workers who are more in-tune with the software-heavy modern economy.  Radical leftists, particularly those of us who ourselves work as programmers and engineers, could have a big impact if we can recover and build off previous efforts to analyze high-tech industries and organize techno-scientific workers.

The shiny gloss of liberal tolerance, coating a violently racist global system

Nike recently announced a new line of athletic hijabs, making them the first multinational fashion/clothing company to do so.  How progressive!  And yes, they do have their “swoosh” corporate logo on the side.

Liberals will likely laud this move, and conservatives will likely get irritated, but I’d prefer to get away from America’s culture wars and ponder what the supply chain for manufacturing these hijbas will look like.  As of 2014, most of Nike’s clothing was manufactured in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Malaysia.  Any guesses as to what conditions might be like for the Muslim women working in the Indonesian, Pakistani, and Malaysian sweatshops that will be making Nike’s hijabs?  I’m a bit surprised that Bangladesh isn’t on that list, but looks like Nike has slowly backed out of the country since the series of garment factory collapses in 2013, most notably the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,000 workers.

Point being, mainstream culture wars in the West around race, religion, etc. tend to completely ignore the way discrimination functions in global capitalism — especially when the focus of discussion is on the aesthetic nature of commodities, and are driven by the public-relations strategies of powerful multinational corporations.  And it isn’t like people don’t understand the inherently superficial nature of corporate liberalism (after all, “college diversity brochure” is a constant punchline all by itself), but it still feels like this kind of cringey pandering is the dominant trend of anti-racist theory and practice in the US.

The juxtaposition between mainstream corporate liberalism against the racialized and violent nature of global capitalism is captured beautifully in the introduction of this recent essay on race and the 2016 election:

Back in the day, two knucklehead members of my old union local at a Union Carbide plant in New Jersey fashioned KKK hoods out of chemical filtration paper and paraded through the lunchroom on Halloween. The corporate HR executive sent to investigate summarily terminated both workers within hours of arriving at the plant. She loudly proclaimed the company’s “zero tolerance” to racial harassment.

Now this was very interesting considering that her employer was the prime suspect in the unpunished industrial murder of 764 mostly African American workers on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in the 1930’s and its current corporate chairman, Warren Anderson, was a fugitive from justice wanted by the Indian government in connection with the 1984 criminal manslaughter of at least 15,000 Indians in Bhopal. Over the next 15 years, the same HR exec who showed Phil and John the door was the point person in the shutdown of all three unionized Union Carbide plants in New Jersey, leaving behind a series of toxic waste sites contaminating communities throughout the state and 2,000 black, white and Hispanic workers, many suffering from uncompensated industrial diseases.

This episode comes to mind while contemplating the detritus of the Republican and Democratic conventions and the growing trope that the rage of the white (male) working class has propelled both the Trump campaign and the critique of the Clinton campaign from the left. The politics of race and gender often obscure much more than they reveal. It is true that individual white workers can be horribly racist and misogynist. But it is also true that the worship of “diversity” often serves as a cover for gross hypocrisy and ruthless class rule.

Obviously, the take-away here should not be that individual acts of racism, bigotry, prejudice, etc. should be tolerated.  On the contrary, these people should (and do) get their ass kicked.  But casting individual prejudice as 100% the source of racism and bigotry, as many mainstream liberal commentators seem to argue, ignores the larger systematic ways in which racialization is an inherent tendency of an unequal and hierarchical capitalist world, and in fact can often be manipulated to justify the power and privilege of the ruling class.  Nike hijabs will do very little to either fight Islamophobia in the US or raise the status of working-class Muslim women globally.  But expropriating and collectivizing Nike’s Asian factories, on the other hand…

Who are Trumpeteers, really? A reappraisal

I (like everybody) have been looking through all the post-election analysis in order to get a better understanding of the voters who have brought Trump into the White House. I had a post about a month ago on this topic, where I argued that the analysis showed that Trump supporters weren’t really doing that badly economically, and were more motivated by outright racism and xenophobia than by any sort of desperation stemming from financial struggles. I’m now backtracking from this analysis — the big story from the election upset seems to be about 1) a rural-urban divide, and 2) the growing separation of white Midwestern blue-collar workers and the Democratic Party, both of which suggest the economic roots of a critical portion of Trump supporters and the influence of globalization and deindustrialization.

This is not to say that race isn’t a factor. On the contrary, a major takeaway here should be how large swathes of the rural white working class have been successfully fed narratives about how the reason for economic stagnation in their communities is because minorities and immigrants are taking all the money and jobs and benefits and whatever. And since leftists and progressive liberals have increasingly abandoned these areas over the last few decades, the politics of white nationalism have filled the vacuum to become the dominant voice speaking to the material interests of these areas.  This year, this trend came to head as a previously reliable bloc of voters for the Democratic Party defected to Trump.

There is reason for optimism here, I think. Much of the data, both before and after the election, indicates that Trump support and rates of racial resentment are correlated with racial isolation. Before, I took this to mean that these people were ideologically committed to white supremacy independent of their economic condition; but with the new data, it seems that perhaps its more likely that many of these people — in the rustbelt in particular — are indeed suffering economically, and it is precisely their segregation from people of color and immigrants that they’ve bought into racist and xenophobic narratives about local economic stagnation. Thus, the radical left could intervene here in a powerful way by building up multiracial working-class organizations that reach out to these isolated and segregated white workers, and pull them away from white nationalism.