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ISSUE 5

Workers of the World Unite: The Struggle Against Imperialism is the Key to Marxism's Reconstruction
by Eric Mann

I. THESIS

In the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, the centers of world imperialism, anti-imperialism must be the central defining character of a reconstruction of revolutionary Marxism in the 21st century. An explicitly theorized anti-imperialist, anti-racist strategy for Marxism in the oppressor (G7) nations involves a frontal challenge to empire in all of its present economic, military, and ideological manifestations. Today, after decades of revolutionary struggle to win formal independence, many Third World nations have now been re-colonized under brutal economic relationships of domination. Thus, anti-imperialist struggles of the working class in the dominant capitalist nations require: 1) opposing IMF and World Bank "structural adjustment" programs that violate the sovereignty and ecological viability of Third World Nations, and demanding a cancellation of Third World debt; 2) opposing military and political intervention in the internal affairs of oppressed nations, e.g. blockades against Iraq and Cuba, and demanding the end of military aid to client states, e.g. Mexico, Indonesia, that are slaughtering indigenous liberation movements. Within the national boundaries of oppressor nations, this strategy prioritizes working class movements against national chauvinism, anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and neo-fascism.

II. THE ESSENTIAL ALLIANCE OF THE WORKING CLASS IN OPPRESSOR AND OPPRESSED NATIONS

In the age of imperialism, characterized by the division of the world into oppressor and oppressed nations dominated by the monopoly capitalist powers, revolutionary strategy begins with a re-understanding of the complementary, but different, tactical emphases of socialists in the imperialist nations and in the developing nations. For the working class in the oppressor nations the central class question is the explicit opposition to empire and national chauvinism, and full support for self-determination of any oppressed and dependent nations. For the working class in the colonies and dependent nations, the central class question is to fight for full, not just formal, national liberation, to oppose narrow nationalism, to challenge the leadership of the comprador and national bourgeoisie, and to lead a multi-class united front against imperialism and for socialism--seeking an alliance with the working class of the imperialist nations. Given the unequal power in these relationships, the anti-imperialist challenge to Marxists in the oppressor nations exists independent of the progress or lack thereof by anti-imperialist or socialist movements in the oppressed nations. Proletarian internationalism in the West is not a hollow sentiment, but the essential component of a socialist politics. Otherwise, there is the grave risk that the U.S., European, and Japanese working classes will continue their strong tendencies towards conservative, racist, and potentially pro-fascist politics.

This challenge, daunting to be sure, cannot be avoided by theoretical sleights of hand, such as renaming imperialism as "globalism" or by creating a false "equality" between oppressor and oppressed nations in the name of an "internationalism," in which each working class fights "equally" against its "own" capitalist class.

On the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, even the most progressive sectors of the U.S. working class are either dismissive of or hostile to Marxism. Any re-fusion of Marxism with the working class, especially the low-income, Latino, black, Asian, significantly female, significantly immigrant working class, has to begin with a revolutionary challenge to the historical tendency towards chauvinism, racism, male supremacy, and pro-imperialism of Western Marxism, and an identification with communism's most significant anti-imperialist achievements.

The hegemony of social democratic and reformist ideology in the U.S. and European working class, and even their communist parties, is rooted in a ruling class strategy of pacifying the working classes and enlisting them as active agents of imperialism. Engels argued that "A nation that oppresses other nations cannot be free." By the 1870s, he lamented the transformation of the British working class into a "bourgeois working class" and its support for a timid Fabianism, as a direct result of its active participation in the benefits of empire. The primary victories of Marxism worldwide have been in Third World and semi-feudal, semi-colonial nations--the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cuba, where Marxism was explicitly anti-imperialist. Marxism's greatest failures have been in the West, the heart of imperialism. The failure of revolutionary will of the working classes in the West is not primarily because of apprehensions about the Soviet and Chinese experience of building actually-existing socialism, but rather, because of their profound ambivalence towards the fight for their own model of socialism, and their tendency towards a pro-imperialist politics of class collaboration.

The historical split between communism and social democracy first became clear in the crucible of events the led to the Russian revolution. Lenin, along with Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and other dissidents at the time, challenged socialists in the oppressor nations to organize a more aggressive challenge to capital and to provide direct support for the liberation of the colonies. The Bolsheviks came to power with the revolutionary promise of "bread, peace, and land" and, keeping their promise, risked the revolution and much of Russia in their principled decision to unilaterally withdraw from World War I. Meanwhile the European social democrats led by Karl Kautsky took the Western working class into the bloody imperialist war in defense of their own capitalist class. The profound impact of national chauvinism on the U.S. and European working class continued throughout the century--reflected in the strong support for fascism among significant elements of the German, French, and Italian working class, the weak stand that the French CP and working class took on the liberation of Algeria, the collusion of the British working class in the suppression of Irish self-determination, and the initial enthusiastic support of the U.S. working class for the war in Vietnam.

There is a need for a revolution of strategy within western Marxism. The Manifesto called on the working class to emerge as an independent political force to lead all other classes in society, based on an internationalist strategy. Today, this requires a reorientation, in which trade union struggles against the employer and the state must be situated in a more explicitly transformational class politics in which the multiracial working class, led by its most oppressed sectors, mounts an internationalist challenge to the ideological, economic, and military domination of transnational capitalism. This cannot be achieved without direct working relationships on common campaigns with movement leaders in Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Hong Kong, and Cuba, demonstrating that internationalism is essential to strategy, not just an obligation.

III. THE CHALLENGE TO THE U.S. AND WESTERN LEFT--A U.S.-SPECIFIC ANALYSIS WITH BROADER STRATEGIC APPLICATIONS

The United States has always been a rough terrain for revolutionary thought, socialism and communism. U.S. political culture is shaped from its inception by conquest and genocide against Native peoples, the centrality of black slavery, conquest of the Mexican nation, and the exploitation of low-wage Asian immigrant labor--while justifying oppression and super-exploitation with grotesque, racist ideology. The most privileged sectors of the working class--the white, primarily male, workers--have evolved for centuries separated and segregated from workers of color and as a group have been incorporated into the institutional arrangements to perpetuate white chauvinism, racist practices, and imperialist wars--which they perceive to be in their racially-defined class interest. While the ruling classes were the primary initiators and beneficiaries of racist ideology, the at times ultra-voluntary participation of white workers in racist actions--lynchings, beatings, exclusion of black, Latino, Asian workers--reflects the powerful overdetermined role of racist ideology and "white skin privilege" that has shaped the dominant culture of white workers.

Those in the U.S. who seek to forge a genuine "working class unity" must understand the role of national oppression and racism in shaping the divisions among many distinct, nationally-constituted working classes. The U.S. working class cannot be "re-unified" because white "free" labor and black slave labor were never unified in the first place. Left strategies to create greater unity of action of the working class will require a complex reconstruction of class, race, and gender categories, in which the most oppressed sectors--low-wage workers, women, people of color, immigrants--must seize the strategic initiative. Conversely, the higher paid, primarily white, workers must be won over to reject chauvinism and privileged caste interests in favor of a broader and more internationalist class politics.

During the 1960s and 1970s the civil rights movement made major breakthroughs in the hiring of black and Latino workers in basic industry--auto, steel, rubber--only for those workers to lose many of those jobs during the mass layoffs and plant shut-downs of the 1980s and 1990s. Today, in many prominent industries in major regional centers such as New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles--garment, restaurant, hotels, electronics, retail sales--Latino and Asian immigrant workers, majority female, along with blacks, comprise the majority of the working class. The national question--both inside and outside the borders of the U.S. assumes even greater prominence today in the new multi-ethnic terrain of building class unity.

Marx and Engels understood the construction of a counterhegemonic working class ideology and the dismantling of bourgeois ideology in the working class as a critical terrain of the class struggle. In fact, the Manifesto was a conscious effort to shape the ideology of the leaders of the newly expanding working class, to convince them to organize themselves as communists. But, any communist, socialist, or progressive who has tried to organize in a working class community of any ethnic composition--a hospital, or an auto assembly plant--confronts the powerful, disorganizing role of bourgeois ideology within the working class . The divisions that begin between oppressor and oppressed nation cascade into infinite competitions--employed and unemployed, full-time and part-time, skilled and unskilled, older and younger, high seniority, low seniority, day shift, night shift, higher paid, lower paid. The ruling classes, exercising unchallenged control of the corporate and state apparatus, are able to govern through an impressive orchestration of competitions between individuals, groups, genders, races, classes, and nations. At one time it was hoped that the working class in basic industry, organized through left trade unions with strong ties to left parties, would provide leadership to the entire class by placing the interests of the most oppressed nations and sectors at the center of the class struggle. Instead, too often, the trade unions as the best organized sector of the working class have made deals with government, the Democratic party, and the employer in their own narrow group interest, often at the expense of the unorganized, the lower-paid workers, the unemployed, the immigrants, the colonies--cementing their subordination to and collusion with capital. Unless socialist politics can effectively confront selfishness, chauvinism, racism, male supremacy, narrow nationalism and every other form of subjugation among the oppressed--what Mao called "the correct handling of contradictions among the people"--and offer a strategic generosity of spirit to the working class, there is really no hope for unified working class politics beyond the most narrow and temporal group self-interest.

IV. CAN YOU BUILD AN ANTI-IMPERIALIST LEFT IN AN OPPRESSOR NATION?

Can the left in England win the working class to independence for Ireland? Can the German working class fight to protect the rights of the Kurds, the Turks, and other oppressed groups. Can communists, socialists, anti-imperialists, anyone convince the U.S. working class to oppose the bombing of Iraqi civilians and the blockade of Cuba? Can a movement of workers in the U.S. and Europe demand international funds from our own governments to support a progressive model of development in South Africa based on environmental priority, high wages, an expanded social welfare state, racial equality, and national sovereignty? These are the political challenges to Marxism in the West.

In the U.S., Europe, and Japan there is a history of anti-imperialist socialist efforts--at times, of great impact; at other times, overwhelmed--that must be carefully summed up and drawn from in the present period. During the 1930s, the Communist Party USA had enormous influence because it brought an explicitly anti-racist, anti-imperialist socialist politics into the working class and U.S. society. The CPUSA was the driving force in a united front to build industrial unionism, but also was known as "the party of the Negro" for its aggressive fight for self-determination in the "black belt south" and its defense of the Scottsboro Boys. The CP tied the struggle of the industrial workers, mostly white, to the formation of the anti-fascist Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and built a multi-class, multiracial defense of sharecroppers, small farmers, and "the foreign born." Tragically, the CP's interpretation of the "united front against Fascism" led to a slavish defense of the Soviet Union and even worse, of U.S. liberal capitalism, leading the CP to abandon black civil rights struggles during World War II, to remain silent on the internment of Japanese Americans, to support piece work and no-strike clauses in the factories, and by 1945, to propose to liquidate itself in the name of peaceful co-existence between socialism and capitalism.

From 1955 to 1975, Marxism again played an influential role. Many of the leaders of the "civil rights" movement, suppressed by the Democratic party and the trade union bureaucracy, retheorized their struggle as a movement of self-determination for oppressed people of color within the U.S.--thus the emphasis on black, Chicano, and Puerto Rican liberation. Anti-Vietnam War organizers reframed the movement as one against U.S. imperialism. While European Marxism had very little influence on the black, white, Latino, and Asian New Left, the anti-imperialist Marxism of Lenin, Mao, Fidel, and Cabral shaped their politics. Contrary to chauvinist historical reconstructions of the U.S. New Left as petty-bourgeois, the black and Latino working class, in the communities, in the factories, even in the U.S. army, was a major force in the civil rights and anti-war movements--and in the latter years, small but significant support began to develop among white workers as well.

Marxism is the politics of international class struggle, whatever its level of development. It is precisely because the Manifesto was written as a tactic to intervene in the class struggle in Europe, and not as a gift to future generations, that it has had such resiliency and power. The argument about Marxism's relevance and lessons for today is best carried out in strategic debates about actual politics defined by time, place, and conditions.

At the Paris Encounter, based on this strategic overview, I want to elaborate my involvement in left projects and left-led mass campaigns in the U.S.

1) The Labor/Community Strategy Center as an experiment in left organizational forms, organizing multiracial, low-income working class movements with anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics, and evolving concrete interventions in direct opposition to U.S. imperialism.

2) The need for left organizing to explicitly challenge the power and politics of the labor bureaucracy. I worked in the United Auto Workers, as an assembly line worker, for 8 years, and have had some rich experience in building a base for socialist politics--battling the company, the labor bureaucracy, and some of the workers themselves. I will draw lessons from the UAW Campaign to Keep the General Motors Van Nuys Assembly Plant Open in Los Angeles (1982-1992)--an encouraging experiment in anti-racist, counterhegemonic organizing.

3) The critical role of environmental organizing for the left. The Strategy Center has initiated the Watchdog Environmental Organization, in which movements of low-income, working class people of color, challenge the management rights of corporations to produce toxic chemicals and confront international issues of ecological devastation, which involves a profound critique of both capitalist and state socialist models of development.

4) The anti-racist work of the Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles, a multi-racial movement led by low-income people of color to challenge the racism and the growing corporatization of the capitalist state, in this case in the civil rights struggle for public transportation and environmental quality for 350,000 low-income, 80% minority bus riders.

There is a need for explicit, transitional forms of Marxist organization in the U.S., with strong international ties, so that rebuilding a left party is not mechanically submerged into an uncertain future. I see the Paris Encounter as an important arena in which to "map" and hopefully ally with kindred forces based on a common anti-imperialist perspective and direct involvement in the class struggle, to frame essential questions of political line of march that can be debated, clarified, and carried out in practice.

My work in the UAW, the Watchdog, and the Bus Riders Union reflects a multifaceted experimental left practice in working class organizing--built with, and in some cases without, a Marxist form of organization--that cannot possibly answer the profound organizational challenges to reconstructing a socialist party in the U.S., but can inform this debate about anti-imperialist organizing in oppressor nations.

ERIC MANN
is the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles. Depuis 35 ans, il a agi en tant qu'organisateur pour le Congrès de l'égalité raciale, les Etudiants d'une société démocratique, la Ligue pour la lutte révolutionnaire et en tant qu'activiste pour les ouvriers d'usine à la chaîne faisant partie de l'Union des travailleurs automobiles. Es el autor de numeros libros, Taking on General Motors, Comrade George: An Investigation into the Life, Political Thought, and Assassination of George Jackson, y L.A.'s Lethal Air: New Strategies for Environmental Organizing.