The role of perspectives (Unredacted)

[Unredacted as of 12 February 2014; see our revised publication policy.]

The recent debates in and around the ISO have brought to light a core question: What is the role of perspectives and how should such perspectives be set?

What has become clear to us is a tendency in the ISO wherein our perspectives focus on “next steps” and “immediate opportunities” and emphasize the possibilities inherent in every political moment while downplaying the real challenges. The goal seems to be to keep the membership activated and (ultimately) trained, so that when the big struggles break out, comrades will be tested and steeled and able to act decisively.

The ISO’s perspectives, then, are structurally biased against having an accurate reading of the world and a strategy that flows from that. Rather, the perspectives are set so as to see within the world only the possibilities, successes and positives and keeping the membership focused on activity—even if that activity does not have clear political goals in the long-term.

In the first instance, this manifests in an emphasis only on short-term prospects.  This much is laid out in the Preconvention Bulletin #1:

The goal of perspectives is to take account of what we do know to position the ISO to work on immediate opportunities–but also to be prepared to respond effectively, shifting gears if necessary, to unanticipated developments….

Perspectives can–and must–be adjusted, based on ongoing assessments. But there’s no way to assess unless we’ve fully tried out the perspectives–unless the organization has committed itself to taking the “next step” we decide on. In this sense, it’s better to have made a concrete judgment about the organization’s next steps (rather than vague, conclusion-less generalizations) and find out they’re lacking in some way and have to adjust. That means the organization will be trained to be forward-thinking and confident in a situation where our hopes for rising struggles do play out. [Emphasis added]

This articulation of the role of perspectives seems to directly contradict another (and much better) description of perspectives made in the Socialist Worker article “The challenges facing socialists today”, published on November 20:

A socialist analysis of the world and perspectives for action shouldn’t pick and choose what to consider, nor bob up and down with the different waves of the struggle, but present a full picture of what we are encountering, an understanding of how to participate in the struggles and political openings that do exist, and a strategy for building up our organization’s experience, maturity and influence to go forward in a stronger position.

Yet this formulation is almost immediately rejected in the same piece where the dangers that are emphasized in achieving this balance only caution against the negative.

Our job as revolutionaries is to remember, for ourselves and others, that something did happen–and to utilize both the inspiration of the struggle at its high point and the lessons of its setbacks to try to make future upheavals less episodic and more sustained. That can only be done if we recognize the potential of a struggle like the Wisconsin uprising to advance and win. [emphasis added]

To focus one-sidedly on the limitations of any struggle is to passively bow to what exists–rather than to figure out what can lead the struggle forward, and attempt, within our limited capacities, to act on that basis.

There is no similar counter warning about “focusing one-sidedly on the possibilities of any struggle.” Isn’t it equally or more politically passive to focus one-sidedly on the potential of any particular struggle or protest? To do so risks turning our participation into the equivalent of cheerleading for this or that struggle; or as Lenin puts the case against the Economists, to bow down before the spontaneity of the masses and to cede the ground of the class struggle to bourgeois ideology.

Most telling in this article, the authors admit: “We confess that we don’t understand how any activist can organize on the basis of predicting the defeat of the struggle ahead of time.” This is a straw-man argument, plain and simple: no one is arguing that we “predict the failure of the movement ahead of time,” but rather that we “make a sober assessment of the challenges we are facing,” so that the best strategy for the movement can be adduced.

Furthermore, why is it impossible to organize and also know that one is unlikely to win in a particular struggle? If one has a view on the long-term prospects of a particular movement or building the struggle for socialism more generally, the question of whether to engage in an immediate campaign shouldn’t just be based solely on the prospects of success of that campaign. In fact, this doesn’t seem to be consistent with our actual practice; on the contrary, the norm in recent years has been to engage in struggles with slight (or no) prospects for victory in the short term (e.g. the antiwar movement, Occupy, etc.).

The trouble with perspectives becomes even more serious when comrades start quoting Gramsci’s dictum about the necessity of “optimism of the will” and “pessimism of the intellect.” The original quote, “Sono pessimista con l’intelligenza, ma ottimista per la volontà,” implies intelligence rather than intellect; moreover, it seems that our “optimism” should apply to the prospects for a socialist future, while our “intelligence” should apply to the situation we face at the immediate moment. Gramsci himself seems to say precisely this with the following sentence: “Penso, in ogni circostanza, alla ipotesi peggiore, per mettere in movimento tutte le riserve di volontà ed essere in grado di abbattere l’ostacolo.” (“I think, in every circumstance, of the worst-case scenario, in order to put into motion all the reserves of my will and to be able to break down the obstacle.”)

But the real danger of the use of this quote from Gramsci is that it has the ring of a call to voluntarism. If we simply will it, the class struggle will happen. Build it, and they will come. What happens, then, when we are building year-in and year-out, repeating the same routines without a long-term strategy…and they don’t come? The continual focus on “optimism” without intelligence, without a realistic assessment of the conditions of the class struggle, must inevitably lead to exhaustion and demoralization—all avoidable, provided we chose a correct, materialist method for setting perspectives.

Before we move on, we note that the roots of this voluntarism lie partially in fact that organization is not rooted in any significant way in the working class. Even when certain comrades are rooted in a workplace or movement, they generally do not have the time to do more than report on their immediate experience; and they likely do not have the confidence to draw out for the whole organization a broad generalization about the direction of the class struggle. For the rest of the organization that does not find itself rooted for the long-term, the emphasis in political work is on propaganda. A realistic assessment of low levels of class struggle by comrades engaged primarily in propaganda work does not lead to exciting, energizing propaganda; hence, the fear of many comrades that “pessimism” will lead to isolation from our audience.

Materialism and Idealism

One of the external critiques—that from the former Bay Area comrades—criticized the ISO for its idealism. Their critique was confusing and incorrect in its attempt to paint all of Trotskyism as tainted with idealism, and we agree with Todd C. and Ragina J.’s response to that portion of their critique.  But we think Todd and Ragina miss the boat on the more concrete portion of the Bay Area critique, namely that class consciousness in the Marxist sense of the term is indeed a product, and not an antecedent, of class struggle—and that the ISO has tended to invert this relationship. Todd and Ragina put it this way:

Their specific criticism of the ISO is that, over the last 20 years, we have argued that “anger builds, consciousness develops, and it is out of that consciousness that people act.” They want to argue the opposite, relying on Marx’s well-known dictum in The German Ideology that “being determines consciousness.” The authors insist that workers first act and their consciousness develops afterward, or in the process of taking action. In other words, they want to rewrite Marx to say that “action determines consciousness.”

 This is a bizarre inversion of Marxism. Socialists all look forward to a higher level of working-class struggle at the point of production, which has been sorely missing in the U.S., and we expect this will have a profound impact on consciousness. But why can’t “being” also include the experience of racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia and the everyday “bullying” of being a worker?

Let’s go back to the classic statement of Marxist materialism.  In the German Ideology, Marx says the following:

The premises from which we start are not arbitrary; they are no dogmas but rather actual premises from which abstraction can be made only in imagination. They are the real individuals, their actions, and their material conditions of life, those which they find existing as well as those which they produce through their actions. These premises can be substantiated in a purely empirical way.

 [T]o arrive at man in the flesh, one does not set out from what men say, imagine, or conceive, nor from man as he is described, thought about, imagined, or conceived. Rather one sets out from real, active men and their actual life-process and demonstrates the development of ideological reflexes and echoes of that process.”

 [M]en who develop their material production and their material relationships alter their thinking and the products of their thinking along with their real existence. Consciousness does not determine life, but life determines consciousness.  [emphasis added]

The point is that for Marxists, it is not simply that consciousness arises from the situation in which people find themselves, but rather that human consciousness is transformed through the process of engaging actively with the world. We learn by doing—that is, we do first, then extrapolate the lesson. In that sense, Marx really is saying, “action determines consciousness”.  The term takes on more specific meaning when Marx makes the distinction between the “class-in-itself”, i.e. the objective fact of the existence of a group of individual wage laborers under capitalism, as opposed to the “class-for-itself”, the conscious collective of proletarians who, transformed by their struggle, have differentiated themselves from the ruling class by means of independent class organizations—most significantly, independent working-class political parties.

Of course, on a daily basis, the “action” of the vast majority of workers is simply to feed their families and get through the work day.  This sort of action is highly unlikely to lead people to a heightened consciousness of themselves as members of the working class, with broad interests separate from and opposed to their bosses.  If there is not already an independent working-class political party, they are highly unlikely to form one themselves.  It takes an experience out of the ordinary, a dramatic change in their material conditions, to change their understanding of and relationship to society—hence, the importance of engaging in struggle, an all-too-unfamiliar experience for workers today.

In terms of developing working class consciousness, what this means is that workers learn political lessons by first engaging in struggle and then figuring out what they think about that struggle.  The same holds true of anyone engaging in any struggle against exploitation or oppression.  But what it does not mean is that people radicalize in mass numbers and collectively, simply on the basis of the experience of racism or homophobia or bad bosses or speed-ups at work.  Indeed, under neoliberalism, the tendency has been for workers and the oppressed to become atomized, and thus the experiences of exploitation and oppression are interpreted as individual experiences.  Those experiences all put the individual in a position of passive object of the phenomenon.  A worker getting bullied by a boss, or a person of color being harassed by police, may develop a level of anger toward the boss or the police, but only in exceptional circumstances will this spark generalize into an clear consciousness of oneself as a member of the working class, in opposition to the ruling class, and the need for collective class action against the rulers—and even then, that individual as an individual is still presumably atomized and cut off from any possibility of collective action.

What does this mean on the collective level?  Only on the collective level can we discuss radicalization in any way that has meaning to a revolutionary organization.  Let’s take the example of teachers in the U.S. over the past five years, i.e. since the onset of the global capitalist crisis and also the beginning of the reign of Arne Duncan.

  • In the first instance, teachers collectively retreated, hoping to weather the dual storm of budget cuts and education reforms, a stance that lasted through 2010, even as the teachers in Central Falls, RI were fired.  Teacher unions were pushed back and defeated across the board, and conservatism—also known as “duck and cover”—reigned supreme among teachers.
  • In 2011, teachers in Madison, WI took the lead in the struggle against Scott Walker: given a nod from their leadership, their individual sick calls were transformed into a collective action that sparked the Wisconsin Uprising.  But rather than push the struggle forward, their union leadership channeled the struggle back into the Democratic Party.  In effect, Madison teachers lost the opportunity to raise their consciousness to the level of their actions; instead of continuing their actions and declaring themselves consciously as independent actors, they were led back into reliance on the Democrats.  Though their anger at the Republicans remained high, it was not transformed into an understanding of themselves as part of a class that was hostile to the capitalist class as a whole.
  • In 2012, teachers in Chicago followed the lead of a much more radical leadership that took on a Democratic mayor in the home city of the Democratic President running for re-election.  The heroic CTU strike was indeed a high-water mark in the development of class consciousness, as teachers through their action took on Mayor 1%.  But Emanuel’s retaliation after the strike—closing 50 schools in spring 2013—was a devastating blow to the teachers, whose consciousness as a powerful collective could not but retreat in response.  They could curtail Emanuel’s powers for a moment, but could not yet drive him out of office altogether.  As we understand it, there’s now a debate underway within the CTU about the possibility of posing an electoral alternative to Emanuel—though whether that alternative is through or independent of the Democratic Party is a big question.  The conscious intervention of organized revolutionary socialists has been an important part of this process—but it has not been sufficient to resolve the contradiction between the beginnings of organization on the ground, on one hand, and the bourgeois-dominated political structure on the other.  We should also note here that while the CTU strike was extremely significant for activist groups and activist teachers, its resonance among rank-and-file teachers outside the Chicago area was likely slight.  A successful teachers’ strike is something most teachers in this country cannot imagine themselves taking part in, even in their wildest dreams.
  • In 2013, teachers at Garfield HS in Seattle successfully boycotted their administration of the MAP test, which was to be used to evaluate them unfairly.  They built impressive support from parents and students, and gained excellent national media attention for their struggle.  The test boycott resonated greatly among rank-and-file teachers because it connected directly with their experience of the new evaluation systems being imposed on teachers everywhere as a result of Race to the Top.  And, it’s an action that teachers could imagine themselves engaging in.  However, without concrete organization on the ground to carry it out in other places—or even to generalize it to all other Seattle schools—the initiative was not able on its own to transform the action into a larger organizational form such as could crystallize and expand the gain made by the action.  Again, the role of organized socialists was quite notable—but not sufficient to advance the struggle to a higher overall level of organization that expressed the heightened consciousness resulting from the action.

Teachers have been on the front lines of the bosses’ assault in the era of neoliberal crisis, and arguably, have some of the most significant experiences in struggle.  But even here, those experiences have been sporadic, locally isolated, and thus far unable to move a significant section of the teaching force in the direction of a political break with the Democratic Party—a crucial step in the development of class consciousness in the Marxist sense.  This is not meant to deprecate the efforts of the teachers who have moved into struggle, nor of the comrades who’ve played a significant role in these struggles; it is simply meant to develop a clear, material assessment of the impact of those struggles and of what will actually be necessary to move the teachers’ struggle to the plane of a struggle of a class-for-itself, a class that understands itself as a class in opposition to the class of rulers.  There is a growing body of activist teachers who individually understand the role of the “venture philanthropists”; but until this layer can move mass numbers into action successfully and on more than a city-wide scale, talk of a “mass radicalization” is premature.

Idealism in the Perspectives

There are no shortcuts to workers becoming politically conscious in mass numbers. Revolutionaries obviously have an important role to play in the interpretation of the meaning of that struggle, but we cannot create the struggle itself.  Our role is to go through the material experience with workers, as simultaneous interpreters and actors in that struggle, interlocutors, fellow students. And though we have the advantage of having studied the lessons of socialist history and theory, we should not fool ourselves: we too have much to learn through the experience of the class struggles to come—even if we’re getting impatient for those struggles to erupt.

This is the first point at which the philosophical idealism inherent in the Perspectives document by Alan M. becomes evident: the “radicalization in working-class consciousness” that forms the central theme of the document is clearly defined in terms of a shift in ideas that has preceded and indeed occurred without a corresponding rise in actual class struggle.  “Radicalization” is defined in terms of how “working-class people see… the source of economic and social problems as connected to the structure and operations of the system”, as the document states. In other words, workers’ ideas are basically socialist ideas—they just haven’t broken through yet into the realm of practice.

The point is not simply an incidental mistake, but rather a recurrent error throughout the document. While the framework of the document is the generalized capitalist crisis that broke out in 2008, the dimension of that crisis most often referred to is precisely the ideological crisis.  So when the document notes that “the intensified neoliberal assault on the working class is only adding to a social pressure cooker”—this could be interpreted as peoples’ ideas about to break through into struggle, just as easily as it could be taken as a statement about the depth of class and wealth polarization.

The document’s account of the past few years is a litany of the most significant struggles that have taken place, but narrated as a history of the “ideas” of struggle.  So the document states that “Occupy galvanized the radicalization of working class consciousness resulting from the crisis, epitomized by the slogan of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent.”  But wasn’t it the actions of the Occupiers, their presence in almost every American city, that forced the public discourse onto the track of 99% vs. 1%?  Furthermore, it was the Occupiers who learned the most serious lessons about the role of the state, the role of liberal local politicians, etc.  But what has been the result, in concrete terms, of the learning of these lessons?  How have these lessons been concretized in organizations or individuals who have remained active since?  This is an open question that invites more assessment of the outcome of the Occupy movement—but that must be a concrete assessment, not simply an exhortation that “we must be ready for struggles to break out at any time in this volatile period”.

On the basis of just such a material assessment of the balance of class forces, we should start to construct a strategy for getting from where we are to where we want to go—a vision of the building of an actual working-class vanguard, the development of a real section of class-conscious workers, with socialists firmly rooted within this layer of the class.

Perspectives and Program

What’s missing from pitching perspectives this way is any sense of medium or long-term strategies. Looking for immediate next steps means consciously choosing to not do work that may not reap short-term dividends. It fosters an outlook for the group that’s not just lacking in strategy, but that is actively anti-strategic.  This aversion to strategic planning and implementation needs to be corrected.

The perspectives document starts with a fine quote from Cannon that talks about the necessity for any political group to have a clear program, and to understand “the tasks set for it by the conditions of the day”—what we call “perspectives”.  Cannon talks about the problems of setting too ambitious a perspective; though the document then turns this around to talk about not being ambitious enough.  But the biggest question posed by this quotation is: what is the ISO’s program?

In our view, it is time for the ISO to develop a program, that is, a strategy for getting from here to the revolution, starting with the next substantial step in the development of struggle and class consciousness as expressed in the self-organization of workers and the oppressed.  Trotsky emphasized the “transitional program” as a method of making a dialectical connection between what used to be referred to in Social Democracy as the “minimum” and “maximum” programs. It’s specific to a historical era, but also not changing with the winds—and not a series of “successive approximations” to some ideal truth, but a real plan of action, a real framework for answering that question of “what to do next”.

(Unlike the authors of the critique from the Bay Area, some of us think it would be well worth our time to go back and make a critical study of the Transitional Program.  We study Leninist methods; we study the “united front method”; why not also study the method Trotsky laid out to connect small groups of socialists and socialist ideas and goals with movements of larger groups of workers and the oppressed?)

The program should include a strategy to make the organization a material actor, steering its members toward implantation in key sectors, workplaces and movements, as well as concrete demands that can connect the immediate struggles of workers and the oppressed to our larger vision of socialist transformation.  Such a program is essential if we are to concretely counterpose ourselves to the liberal organizations, not by saying “we’re socialists and we know better”, but rather on the basis of what we call for on a range of questions, and how we act to realize those demands.  A program is not a necessity for a propaganda circle whose main aim is to introduce people to general Marxist ideas and analysis; but it’s indispensable for an organization that intends to make a difference in the class struggle.

9 thoughts on “The role of perspectives (Unredacted)

  1. Pingback: Announcement of the ISO Renewal Faction | External Bulletin

  2. “Be more pessimistic” is not a materialist position. Neither is the view hat says that consciousness is a mere product. Class struggle invovles conscious human beings acting in the world on the basis of intentions, beliefs, ends, etc they have. Class struggle therefore presupposes beliefs, etc in short, class struggle requires some degree of consciousness rover off the ground in the first place. Sometimes the greatest leaps in radical ozone consciousness are made in the course of struggle. But that doesn’t mean consciousness is a mere product, otherwise class struggle would have no rational, human cause. The arguments in this post are sloppy. If they were right, why engage with contacts? Why try to win people to our politics? Why educate ourselves and contacts? Why write at all? Indeed, if consciousness is the mere product of class struggle, we should just sit back and wait for it to happen. That seems to be Shaun J’s point: the period is far worse than we supposed and if there’s no struggle there’s little we can do—hence we should dispense with any enthusiasm for extant struggles or opportunities.

  3. Pingback: An assessment of the Atlanta branch in light of the Renewal Faction documents | External Bulletin

  4. Pingback: An assessment of the Atlanta branch in light of the Renewal Faction documents | Red Atlanta

  5. Pingback: On the organizational perspectives of the ISO leadership | External Bulletin

  6. Pingback: Response to “Critique of the Renewal Faction Documents” | Red Atlanta

  7. Pingback: A friendly reply to Saturn’s “Friendly rebuttal” | Red Atlanta

  8. I agree with the central points made by Red Atlanta in his friendly reply to Saturn’s friendly rebuttal regarding what he calls “ISO’s bogus current perspectives analysis, which holds that the United States is currently undergoing a period of “ideological radicalization”…….”

    As a non-ISO member who has worked closely with ISO members on antiwar issues, and without getting into theoretical issues about the nature of class consciousness, I have witnessed this phenomenon dating back almost a decade, to Hurricane Katrina, when it seemed as if the ISO thought that this event was going to contribute to a surge of left radicalization in the US, with cadres heading to New Orleans. Similarly, in 2006, when we saw mass protests in support of immigrant rights reform (motivated more by justified self-interest than by revolutionary fervor), this was viewed by the ISO as an encouraging sign of radicalization.

    According to ISO leaders, the election of Obama was going to contribute to a new consciousness of the millions of people “energized” by the election of the first African-American president (despite the fact that he had pledged to expand the war in Afghanistan and that his first major appointment was Rahm Emanuel). This Obama fantasy was widely promoted for a considerable period of time based on bogus and non-evidential armchair analysis. More recently, the Chicago teachers action in 2012, and the Trayvon Martin protests, have been over-hyped by the ISO as signs of radicalization.

    Anyone with a grip on political reality and political history in the US has to recognize that, far from any kind of “radicalization”, what we have seen for the last decade (actually for the last several decades) has been a steady decline in left organizations, left activity, and left consciousness in the US. Socialist groups have seen steady declines in membership, including the SP and the ISO, the antiwar movement in the US is virtually dead despite the steady growth of US imperialism, and even with the NSA scandals causing wide concern in the “polls”, we can’t organize worth a damn even on that issue!

    The only radicalization that is taking place in the US is the radicalization on the right, with the Tea Party and other right-wing groups driving the US toward nationalism. Obama has played into this rightwing surge by trying to appease the right, resulting in a steady drift rightward of his administration and of the Democratic party. Meanwhile, youth in the US have been totally sucked in by Facebook and other social media, leading to an almost solipsistic pre-occupation with selfies and mindless chit-chat instead of any kind of political consciousness or organizing. Left radicalization in the US? Only in our own universes!

  9. Pingback: Response to “Critique of the Renewal Faction Documents” (Reprint) | Red Atlanta

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