Marx, Marxism, and U.S. Electoral Politics*



How are Marxists to approach electoral politics in the United States? This is a hot question for us to ponder in the aftermath of Obama’s reelection. I would like to pose it in the most general way.  But, before I get to it, let me explain more precisely what I regard as the specific essence of Marxism, so I make myself clear.

In my view, the distinctive essence of Marxism as a worldview is not some fixed set of propositions about how the world (society in particular) evolves, or some method of thought — as Lukács (1920, History of Class Consciousness) argued.  Indeed, there are some general theses that historical experience and theoretical work have validated amply, theses that — a number of Marxists would agree — summarize the heuristic core of the Marxist worldview.  However, as firmly established as they may appear to us, these theses do not — in my view — constitute the true essence of Marxism as a worldview.

I believe that the ultimate essence of Marxism lies in a specific human attitude, which the young Marx (1844, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) ranked as a categoric imperative, namely the steadfast, unyielding opposition to the existing social conditions, insofar as these conditions debase us, fragment us, impoverish us, and — therefore — dehumanize us.

This spirit of indomitable opposition to the status quo, of relentless resistance and fight, is not an attribute unique to socialists.  To degrees that vary with time and circumstance, this is a trait inherent to all humans qua producers, it is lodged at the heart of the purposeful activity of transformation, of the world and of self, that we call labor.  Communism or — as Engels later called it — modern or scientific socialism (i.e. “reality-based” socialism, to use a currently fashionable expression) is this attitude, except that it seeks to be increasingly conscious, continuously improving upon itself and incorporating the top achievements of human culture and science.

As Marx noted (1867, Capital), it is not in us to accept passively what nature or history hands us.  We engage the world in a conscious or purposeful manner, we use the world as the material means to embody our designs.  This is what distinguishes us from the rest of nature.  We problematize the world.  We face the world as is and find it to be lacking.  We contrast it with the world as it needs to be for us.  Our problem, the uniquely human problem, is then how to go from the world as is to the world as it needs to be for us.

This requires that we start by recognizing the world as it exists.  And what is the most salient and comprehensive trait of the world as it exists?  How can we encapsulate in one phrase the character of the existing social conditions?  Evidently, the main trait of our social structures — economic, legal, political, etc.; from families, to markets, to states, to virtually any other existing social institution — is that as a rule they are not truly ours: of the producers, by the producers, and for the producers.  The social structures we create through our interactions are not responsive to our needs.  They appear to us as out-of-control powers, hostile forces that pit us against one another and crush us.  In sum, our society, although the product of our interactions, is fundamentally alien to us.  The chief characteristic of the existing social order is its alienation.

By stating the problem, the solution insinuates itself.   If the problem is alienation, the solution is its polar opposite: appropriation.  If when we produce, we are moved to appropriate and transform the world in accordance to our designs, then the drive to appropriate will necessarily extend beyond the immediate premises and results of our production and to our very social structures.  Again, socialism is the increasingly conscious historical form that this human compulsion takes in our times.

Socialism is this reaction against social conditions that are alien to us, this drive to take over a world that eludes us, but a drive that is increasingly conscious.  So, what I am really saying is that the essence of Marxism is socialism viewed as a movement.  It is conscious movement in the sense that it recognizes and grasps the world as it exists, without sugarcoating it or denying it, and then proceeds in a manner as deliberate, systematic, and organized as possible to transform it, from its foundations if need be.

I believe that a great deal of the historical experience of the socialism under Marx’s influence, when considered broadly, confirms these views.  Also, I believe, almost two centuries of heroic and also tragic social experimentation, from the Paris Commune to the Soviet Union, to Eastern Europe, to the People’s Republic of China, to revolutionary Cuba, to Venezuela, etc., validates the description or prescription in the Manifesto (1848) about the role that socialists play in the historical development of this movement.  This role, let us remember, is not the creation of sects, parallel organizations, separate and apart from those that the working class itself forms, groups whose membership is based on ideological criteria and devoted to propaganda and/or (in extreme cases) to putschism.

As Marxists, we are well aware of the importance — in fact, the historical necessity — of leadership, which arises as a consequence of the division of labor in the most basic sense.  And we do well in emphasizing it, especially in our times when this importance is often minimized or denied.  But we are also well aware of its limits and of the perils involved, which the history of socialism has highlighted tragically.  We cannot fetishize its role or, worse, justify its authoritarian corruption.   Over the long haul, the role of socialists in the movement of the producers to appropriate our social conditions is self effacing.  Even in the most immediate sense, the basic role of socialists, as the conscious caucus of the working class, is to assist — not to supplant nor to substitute for — the existing organizations of the workers, their movements, in their myriad forms, as they have developed them for their self-defense and for the improvement of their living and working conditions, regardless of how limited or deficient these organizations may appear.  The role of socialists is to help them see the bigger picture by promoting within them the longer-run and broader interests of the class, by encouraging the wider unity of the workers beyond all types of divisions and differences.

Should these workers’ organizations prove ineffective (not to the socialists, but to the workers themselves), then it will be incumbent upon the workers to refit them or discard them and replace them as need be.  Only the producers can liberate themselves (1871, General Rules of the International).  This obviously does not mean that socialists, the self-appointed enlightened subset of the producers, must be passive, lack initiative, or trail behind the mass.  The socialists aspire to be the most active and resolute subset of the working class, its leading force.  But their initiatives cannot be arbitrary.  These initiatives should always be calibrated to the concrete needs and resources, the tempo, the collective state of mind, and even the mood of the bulk of the producers involved, because it is ultimately in and through their struggles that they will develop themselves as the agents, constructors and owners of a new society.

Although I was asked to speak about “Marx, Marxism, and Electoral Politics,” I have avoided extensive quotations or arguments to authority in my discussion so far.  However, with regards to electoral politics, let me use Marx’s latest battle in the International against Bakunin and followers as the canonical illustration of the proper general approach to the political struggle, a struggle the anarchists shunned.  The anarchists shared with Marx and others in the International the general goals of liberation and communist construction by the workers.  Like Marx, the anarchists viewed the economic institutions of capitalism as intolerable: they had to be overthrown.  Also, there was coincidence that the state was an oppressive Frankenstein that had to be taken apart.

Marx’s differences with the anarchists were in emphasis and approach.  The anarchists emphasized the state as the representative form of social alienation, somewhat neglecting or slighting  the fact that the political, legal, and bureaucratic apparatus of the state was erected upon alienated economic conditions: social inequality, markets, the social division of labor.  The anarchists took an uncompromising stance against the state.  Like today’s anarchists, they believed that by addressing the state with their demands, or by engaging in the political arena, they would be recognizing and thereby reinforcing the state, rather than dismantling it.

The idea of struggling to generalize universal suffrage or to conquer political power a la Paris Commune, which attempted to take over and reorganize the state to serve the needs of the workers, temporarily at least, was anathema to the anarchists.  The state could not be recognized; it had to be abolished immediately.  In a similar vein, the workers were not supposed to form unions or go on strikes or seek immediate economic improvement in their working or living conditions, because all that entailed a de-facto recognition of social structures that could not be accepted as legitimate and had to be overthrown.

Marx argued strongly against this approach, since in practice it amounted to denying the workers — I quote — “any real means of struggle,” because the arms with which workers can fight are always “drawn from society as it is” (1873, Political Indifferentism).  The struggle for economic gains, for political freedoms and rights, for expanding the influence of workers on legal codes and on the apportioning of public resources, which the anarchists viewed with suspicion, methods that would corrupt the soul of the workers and lead them to conformity or turn them into active accomplices of the status quo, were — in Marx’s view — absolutely necessary for the workers to transform themselves into a combative and independent political force, capable of self emancipation.

Obviously, Marx was aware of the perils the anarchists warned against.  However, passivity, defeatism, conformity to the status quo, tolerance of the existing conditions, and all sorts of diversions of the workers’ energy away from the struggle, in a word internalized alienation, was the default condition of the working class.  While external help could speed up the learning process, the combative spirit against the existing social order could not be imbued into the workers’ consciousness from the outside.  In fact, such spirit was already in them, dormant, and it could only be awaken and developed further by the workers’ own engagement.  Again, socialists could help accelerate the learning process, but they could not bypass it or dictate its pace, forms, and ultimate outcome.  Self defense as well as efforts, however narrow or limited, to improve their living and working conditions were the only starting point on which any further political development could be built upon.

So, Marx’s approach, far from shunning the struggles, organizations, movements of the workers as they existed, fully embraced them.  These struggles, organizations, or movements were viewed as the necessary embryo of more advanced struggles, organizations, and movements, and — hence — of any workable future society.  Again: How else could workers fight and transform themselves into a revolutionary force if not by resisting and struggling, and — being that their condition was that of an alienated, fragmented mass — resisting and struggling with whatever ideas, instruments, or organizations were at hand?   Again, in the Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels explicitly warned against the formation by socialists of small sects intent on steering the workers away from their existing organizations and struggles.

It is only through their immediate struggles that workers will find when and if a given existing political instrument (idea, practice, or organization) is inadequate to a given struggle, and is through that collective learning process that they will set out to transform the given instrument — or discard it and forge an entirely new one.  But the decision will be made, effectively, by the workers themselves, after — if history is guide — extensive trouble-shooting of the instrument at hand.

Trouble-shooting is the most apt analogy I can think of to illustrate the materialist, Marxist approach to the political struggle, including the electoral struggle.  This analogy may seem trivial to address such a serious question as the involvement of U.S. workers in electoral politics, and — to be more specific — to address the way in which such involvement relates to the Democratic Party, but I argue that it is most apt.

Consider the way David and Tibby deal with the problems that frequently arise with the computer at the S&S’s office.  Whenever a glitch makes their work difficult, Tibby and David trouble-shoot.  They start by wondering whether it is something they are doing wrong.  If they decide it is not, then they expand the scope of their investigation.  But it is always along the Occam’s razor‘s edge.  Perhaps it is the software application they are using, or the operating system needs to be upgraded, or — God forbid — the hardware.  If the problem is the hardware, they will agonize on whether to upgrade it, expand its RAM memory or hard-drive memory, etc. or — only as their last thought — replace the damn computer altogether.  I’ve been with S&S for several years, and I’ve seen them struggle with that computer for all these years, and they are still clinging to it!

I have given them my expert (but perhaps premature) advice that they need to buy a new one.  Basically, they have ignored my wisdom.  I suppose that a big factor is that every computer system entails a learning curve, adaptation, etc.  They have already invested much time and energy in this system, and they don’t want to discard all that sunk effort along with the old computer unless they are convinced it is absolutely necessary.  I do not do the day-to-day office work.  So, my perspective is that of an outsider.  The emancipation of Tibby and David from that alien computer monster that is causing them terrible headaches and frustrations can only be achieved (“conquered”) by Tibby and David themselves.  They will decide if and when it is time to dump the clunker.

Perhaps, if I were more convinced that they are wasting precious time with the old computer, I could take a more materialist, less sectarian approach to help them meet their needs.  That would require a greater engagement on my part with the work they do on the computer.  It’d require a very patient cooperation in their struggle to make the computer perform the tasks assigned to it.  And only through that engagement, by accompanying them in their frustrations and successes along the way, they would perhaps come around to realizing that I was always right or — worst case scenario — we would all realize that our initial views were partial and one-sided, and arrive then at a more comprehensive well-consensed synthesis or shared conclusion.

All analogies have flaws, of course.  But if it has taken years for Tibby and David to discard a computer that years ago was already old, imagine the kind of leap that would be required to have the U.S. workers challenge frontally the direction of the existing political system or, more specifically, the direction of the Democratic Party — let alone to break up with it in mass.  The fact is that, in the United States, there is no meaningful national political organization of the workers, by the workers, and for the workers.  The process of political differentiation of the working people in the U.S. is still in its infancy, for a host of historical reasons that I cannot discuss now.  That process of political differentiation will eventually lead to political independence, but — as far as I can anticipate it — such leap will result only after a prolonged period during which they will be trying stubbornly to steer the Democratic Party and the policies of the state in their favor.

It is not true, as many of us may feel, that such struggle will prove sterile, that the attempt to alter the direction of the Democratic Party by working people in motion is inevitably doomed to fail.  We do not know this.  The outcome of any and all class struggles is contingent and can only be resolved by the class struggles themselves.  What socialists believe they know may or may not turn out to be correct.

Let me clarify at this point that there are all sorts of organizations and movements that advance the workers’ interest in various ways, not only trade unions, but women rights, undocumented immigrant, civil rights, environmental, health-care advocacy, or other single- or multiple-issue organizations, many of them connected to churches and other religious institutions.  These organizations, and their individual members, may or may not share the outlook of Marxist socialists.  These are the workers’ organizations that exist.  What does not exist, and I repeat, is a national political organization with the apparatus and resources required to give workers any fighting chance in the struggle for pro-worker legislation and policies, let alone to frontally challenge the political power of the capitalists or (an even more remote goal) to build socialism in the United States. This, of course, is things as they stand today, and we all know that things change, sometimes rapidly.  But, as materialists, we know that overnight changes are always prepared by  a gradual accumulation of not always visible small changes.  And it is to these gradual accumulation of small changes, which often go unnoticed under the surface of events, that I would like to call your attention.

Up to the present, historically, the main de-facto political vehicle for the advancement of the workers’ interest has been the Democratic Party.  It is not only that a significant number of individual workers vote for the Democratic Party, support their candidates and, to some extent, contribute to it financially and support its policies and share its ideology.  Also, and perhaps most importantly, organized workers, unions and other organizations that promote their causes, i.e. the workers that until now have effectively demonstrated to be most willing and ready to fight, have felt forced to cooperate with the Democratic Party, and to rely on that cooperation as their only viable political vehicle.

It is often argued that the unions and other workers’ organizations are making a fatal mistake by investing their resources and placing their hopes in the Democratic Party.  The argument is that, by so doing, they are perpetuating the workers’ political dependence and subordination to the capitalists.  Surely, in series or in parallel with their effort to conquer organized political independence, the workers will have to reorganize their unions and their other organizations as well, if they want them to sharpen them.  But we have to see the rational kernel in the argument made by the unions and the other organizations that cooperate with the Democratic Party, namely that there is no other political instrument in sight, and that unions and other organizations, out of their need to survive, are obligated to defend and advance the interest of their members with whatever resource may be available to them.  This is not a trivial argument, and we should resist the temptation to dismiss it offhand as a mere rationalization of opportunistic tendencies.  It can be such rationalization (most everything can be), but it need not be.

Unions (let me single them out), to justify their existence, are forced to be involved in shaping up legislation, in influencing the implementation of laws and policies as well as their adjudication, when litigated through the court system.  They simply cannot afford to ignore the political process — legislative, administrative, or judicial.  Or they can ignore it at their peril.  However — the contrary argument goes — is it not true that unions often avoid or neglect the use of methods such as strikes, mass demonstrations, “direct actions” in general, presumably because they have become bureaucratized, gotten too cozy with the political establishment and the bosses?  And is it not true that mobilization outside of the electoral system is, ultimately, their only reliable instrument?  I believe that there is significant truth to this claim.  However, we have to accept that mobilization outside the electoral system alone is also one-sided and insufficient.  Furthermore, direct mobilization has its own limitations, if not other than the finite disposition of workers to mobilize. Economic gains that can only be conquered and maintained politically, through electoral influence and legislative clout, provide conditions that expand the workers breathing space and thus (other things constant) increase their willingness to mobilize.  Remember that workers, even in the U.S., are hard-pressed under the weight of their most immediate needs, and their unwillingness to sustain mobilization cannot be simply the result of the timidity (real or alleged) of socialists.  Mass mobilization outside of the electoral or political system in general should not be fetishized.

How about the argument that the Democratic Party is an instrument of the capitalist class?  There is no question about it: The Democratic Party is, in its organizational structure and ideology (insofar as one can impute to it some sort of coherent ideology), a political formation of, by, and for the capitalists.  The Democratic Party is not, as it exists, an organization of the workers.  It is true that workers’ organizations provide a substantial amount of financial support and muscle for vote mobilization, but they do not have the power or resources to dictate terms in the legislation or in the administrative implementation of the laws.  It will not be easy for workers’ organizations to develop these capabilities.  It is the duty of Marxists to make this fact known and not to sugarcoat it.  This willingness to ruthlessly expose the class nature of the Democratic Party, by reference to its concrete political behavior, is a key trait that separates Marxist socialists from liberals and non-radical progressives.

A frequent contrarian argument is that there exists a well-tested principle of the class struggle that workers should never cooperate with the organizations of the capitalist class, that only candidates postulated by political parties with explicit pro-worker programs should be supported.  This is simply nonsensical.  The historical cases alluded to prop up this argument presuppose conditions that do not necessarily exist in the United States today.  Countless cases and references can be found in the works of the Marxist classics and — much more importantly — in the history of socialism to prove that this is simply not true, that workers and their organizations, including political organizations led by socialists, have been, are, and will be forced by circumstances and tactical necessity to cooperate with the organizations of the capitalist class on a regular basis.  But, much more importantly than any reference to the workers or the personal experiences of Marx and his followers is the fact that this proposition is absurd in its face.  It is impossible for working people immersed and crushed in a capitalist society to refuse any and all cooperation with the capitalist class, be it in the workplace or outside of it.  The question is not whether to cooperate or not with the capitalists, as that cooperation (coerced, both extra-economically and economically, but cooperation nonetheless) is the default mode of existence of the working class (including socialists) under capitalism, but how to extract from such cooperation advantages over and above those the class enemy extracts from it.

For the time being, it is simply not viable for socialists to demand that the workers’ organizations that provide electoral support to the Democratic Party pull the plug.  This, again, cannot exclude propaganda exposing the nature of the Democratic Party, which should be a constant effort by the socialists, but it is neither tactically nor strategically viable or even advisable for socialists to ask workers to abstain from electoral participation, or to join third-party campaigns insofar as they are not propelled by the workers in mass motion.  Things would, of course, be very different if the workers themselves, discontent with the Democratic Party, were to stage a political insurrection against its existing apparatus.  In that case, we would want to actively encourage their pursuit of other ways of struggle.  The historical experience shows that the most significant and lasting advances in pro-worker legislation resulted from mass insurrections against the status quo that show the rulers the disposition of working people to turn things around; the most radical these insurrections have appeared, the more significant and lasting their effects.

Although the main impetus of the Occupy Wall Street movement was not directed at the Democratic Party, but at the financial system and, only indirectly, at an unresponsive, bipartisan political establishment in its entirety,  the eruption of this movement in 2011, following up closely on the Wisconsin uprising, raised the abstract hope — at least during its peak — of such an insurrection against the Democratic Party apparatus, but the hope did not grow enough to become a concrete possibility on time to change the course of the 2012 presidential elections.  This is something that I came to admit reluctantly, as things unfolded.  In any case, the impact on the electoral process was significant.  On the other hand, third-party initiatives (and, worse, abstentionism) were doomed to be a diversion of meager political forces.

I must emphasize here that mass insurrections of this type, disrupting politics-as-usual, especially in times of crisis, should never be ruled out as a possibility.   We should not deny either that, often in history, all these insurrections need to be triggered is a small but audacious kick in the pants by a small group of individuals, and that — in such junctures — the role of radical socialists becomes decisive.  This is the kernel of truth lodged in the ultra-leftist rejection of electoral politics, rejection that is the most strident the furthest removed these groups are from the mass of workers and from their existing organizations.  Often, ultra-left groups and individuals direct their agitation almost solely against the Democratic Party, and like the proverbial broken clock, they are bound to be correct on occasion.

Let me here point out a related phenomenon.  We have recently witnessed the impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement on the union movement — one among its many positive repercussions.  It is difficult to conceive of two approaches to the struggle with more contrasting backgrounds than unionism and OWS activism, the latter being heavily influenced by modern anarchism.  It is a development of historical significance that a  number of unions have maintained active cooperation with OWS activists in the organization of joint direct actions, mass protests, etc.  This is a clear indication that the unions are not as immune to change as we often assume, that there exists in them serious potential for self transformation or that — in any case — the decision to reorganize the unions or discard them (as I tried to establish above) is better left to the incumbent workers themselves.  Where this ongoing cooperation between Occupy and the unions may lead is, of course, a matter of historical contingency.  The role of Marxist socialists is to encourage and assist both sides and promote this kind of unity in action.

Let me say at this point that, very clearly, Obama’s reelection was — to a very significant extent — a byproduct of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Without the social eruption unchained by the actions of the Occupiers of Liberty Plaza, the focus of the public (and of the media, and then of wider and wider segments of the public) would have not turned to the ills of the financial and economic system and the government, as well as to the gaping social inequality that underlies it all, and the Wall-Street creeps and their minions in the media would not have been put on the defensive, and the ideological climate of the nation would have continued to shift further to the right.  A financial and economic crisis, even as deep and widespread as the ongoing one, is no guarantee that working people are going to move in the proper direction.  History is full of cases in which economic dislocation led to the demoralization, further fragmentation, and exploitation of the working class.  The Obama victory, which required him to position his political marketing slightly to the left of the core consensus in the political and media establishment, was a clear collateral effect of Occupy Wall Street.

I argue that this is a fact that workers and socialists should take to heart and use it to encourage all efforts and initiatives in the direction of popular mobilization, self organization, and self education.  This is aside from the fact that a significant number of the people who participate in Occupy Wall Street (or view themselves as part of the 99% in action) actually helped Obama’s campaign concretely, registering people to vote, knocking on doors, making phone calls, etc. There is no doubt that many of those directly involved in Obama’s campaign claim to be active part of Occupy Wall Street, even if the movement as a whole chose to remain critical and apart from the electoral process.

But let me get back to the relation of the workers’ movement to the Democratic Party: Whether it conforms to our preconceptions and wishes or not, a significant, massive group of workers, including organized workers with active political agendas, are already relying on the Democratic Party as a political vehicle for their struggles.  Whether the workers are extracting significant advantage from this is another (yet very important) issue.  Of course, as I just said, we want the workers to extract the maximum amount of benefit from this engagement that, whether we like it or not, is ongoing and — rules overnight dramatic changes — will continue for the time being.

Furthermore, the sheer logic of this engagement entails the existence of a movement within the Democratic Party aimed at changing its course, at wresting the control of its apparatus and placing it in the hands of people with a demonstrated commitment to the goals of these workers’ organizations.  This motion within the Democratic Party is not necessarily at the brink of a qualitative rupture, one way or the other.  It seems to still be at an early stage of gradual accumulation of molecular changes.  But one can expect that, at some point, the mounting tensions between the pro-worker wing and the pro-status quo wing of the Democratic Party will come to a head.  There is significant evidence indicating that the recent electoral outcome improved the standing of the progressive, left-leaning wing of the Democratic Party.

Let me stress the fact that I am only registering facts that can be observed.

I am not arguing that Marxists should call working people to join the Democratic Party in mass, or that they should ask workers currently not in the Democratic Party to join it.  I’m not saying they should, but neither am I saying  saying they shouldn’t.  What I have affirmed, and I reaffirm it, is that socialists cannot expect workers to abandon the Democratic Party in mass for the time being.  The decision to join or not to join the Democratic Party has to be based on a very concrete calculus of political benefits and costs, on the specific struggles in question, balance of forces, resources and needs, etc.

I have not referred to local and state electoral politics, a field that is grossly neglected by the radical left focused on propaganda.   Developments in this field are a necessary precondition for any serious mass insurrection against the political status quo.  So the following remarks may apply more properly to local and state electoral politics than to federal elections.

For some working people or workers’ organizations and movements, affiliation with the Democratic Party, the development of a “progressive” wing within the Democratic Party, will appear as the handy alternative.  Indeed, the struggle within the Democratic Party will at some point face hard limits and run into serious self contradictions.  No wonder: Any and all approaches to the struggle, when pushed beyond some threshold, entail limits and self contradictions.  But, again, it is easy to see why the “entryist” approach may appear as viable to particular segments of the working class.  I don’t think one can predict the outcome of this struggle, but Marxists are clearly obligated to support it resolutely.  I repeat that it doesn’t matter if we believe this to be a futile struggle, doomed to fail.  It is not up to us to decide the tempo of the decision of the workers and workers’ organizations in the Democratic Party to abandon their attempts and set up a separate tent.  I can be more specific:

Consider the struggles of Latino, undocumented workers, workers who lack the most basics rights of citizenship in U.S. society.  I cannot stress sufficiently how important their struggle is for the unity of the U.S. working class.  The conquest of full rights to immigrant workers ought to be at the top of the political agenda of the U.S. workers.  The “actually-existing” organizations of immigrant workers called to support Obama in the presidential elections.  These are the organizations that prepared the wave of demonstrations in 2006, organizations that constantly criticized Obama for the increase of deportations during his administration.  Yet it is not hard to see why they may view their electoral support of Obama and of the Democratic Party as an unavoidable compromise in their struggles.  They do not have much political leverage other than their own number, capacity to mobilize, organize, vote, etc., but that capacity is limited in contrast with the formidable political obstacles ahead of them.  One cannot reproach them for choosing such a path.

Consider, also, the case of disenfranchised, oppressed Black communities in the South (and not only there), who are continuously threatened with denial of their voting rights, discrimination, and outright harassment by racist individuals, businesses, organizations, and local and state governments.  Helping them to have their voice heard, to exercise their rights is a top priority if we want to seriously encourage the unity of the class.  The working class will never be a class for itself without prioritizing its most vulnerable segments and individuals.  These cases are clear cut.  It is the obligation of Marxists to support these struggles, even if they entail a de-facto support of Obama and the Democratic Party, regardless of any reservations anyone may have.

Now, working people in other particular settings may find it unnecessary to join the Democratic Party.  If such is the case, the inside and outside approaches must be viewed as complementary, rather than as mutually exclusive.  It is true that, under certain conditions, the logic of the two approaches may conflict.  But this does not have to be the case necessarily.  It seems to me that, under current conditions, both approaches are forced on working people by circumstances that cannot be altered overnight.  The point is not to deny their specificity, but rather to find ways to articulate them into a single coherent struggle.  There is very little else that can be said about it until the conditions mature sufficiently to counterpose these two approaches in practice.

I should wrap up my presentation by remarking the following:

It is a fact that, in the United States, electoral politics is already one important way in which working people are conducting their class struggles.  Working people are already trying to use the existing Democratic Party as a vehicle for their class struggles and, consequently, the real issue for Marxists is not whether it is “correct” or not for workers to do so, but rather how best to assist the engaged workers so that their results result in the political development and greater unity of the U.S. working class.

The political involvement of U.S. workers in electoral politics and, more specifically, in the Democratic Party has proved to be historically necessary, as a result of the pre-existing weakness and fragmentation of the U.S. working class.  It is not clear at this point whether the result of this involvement will reinforce the subordination of the U.S. workers to the capitalists or, contrariwise, the result will be the political strengthening of the U.S. working class. The outcome of these struggles is contingent.  The duty of Marxists is to support the workers and help them grow politically.

Thank you very much!

* Prepared remarks at the Annual Meeting of the Editorial Board of Science & Society on November 10, 2012.



  1. I received this comment as an email. I’d like to post it here, and reply to it, without giving the author’s name, as it may be of interest to the readers:

    “Dear Julio,
    ” I thoroughly enjoyed and substantially concur with your presentation on a Marxist perspective on U.S. politics at this moment. I would like to suggest, however, that you rethink the proposition that the essence of Marxism is based on a categorical imperative to oppose social injustice. Opposition to injustice is integral to all types of political radicalism, many of which predated Marxism, as well as the prophetic tradition of Judaism and the Social Gospel. Simply put, opposition to injustice ins not unique to Marxism. ”

    My reply:

    “You have a point: I should have been more specific — the essence of Marxism is opposition against *modern* social alienation, opposition that in its specific *modern* socialist form was only made possible by the development of European capitalism in the 19th century and onwards. I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that Marxist socialism is not an accident and that its agent is not the socialists, but the workers. This is not an entirely valid argument, since it is “functional” (Aristotle’s “final cause”), but the fact is that, if the workers do not have it latent in them, then no socialist propaganda will ever make them raise up.

    “Still, I resist making dialectics or the tenets of historical materialism or surplus value theory or the general law of capitalist accumulation or any other Marxist thesis, which must remain subject to continuous empirical validation and critical elaboration, the status of the essential piece in Marxism as a worldview.”

  2. My comments are brief and to the point, so bear with me.

    1. The working class cannot lead to correct strategy and political line all by itself. It needs revolutionary intellectuals to lead it forward, a la Lenin from the outside.

    2. The U.S. working class is different from its third world brothers and sisters because it enjoys subsidiaries from the capitalist class which super-exploits the the third world and allocates a tiny portion of profits to its own working class. As the third world working classes have struggled successfully against both the internal comprador bourgeoisie and the external master bourgeoisie, the working class in the U.S. will then have to fight thousand times harder against the capitalist class to maintain similar living standards, then and only then they will discard DP for good.

    3. The on-going financial crisis and great recession have forced it to leave the DP in droves. As the rightist forces are gaining upper hands politically, so will the DP. It will gradually give up the wishful thinking that the DP can help it in any meaningful way.

    4. Electoral bourgeois democracy as a means to struggle against capitalist class is self-dreaming at the best and self-defeating at the worst. Without an independent political force, the working class is doomed to failure in supporting the DP for class liberation.

    5. International struggles among all working classes in solidarity are one of the conditions for dislodging the DP. from the working class.

    6. Before the aforementioned conditions are realized, the attraction of the DP to the working class will prevail hence hinder its struggle. Regardless of whether unions support the DP or not, unions must be supported by the workers despite some unions are die-hard DP supporters.

    7. The progressive third parties are just as important as unions that the working class should always support regardless of their political radicalization.

  3. You might want to fix this sentence, Julio: “and it could only be awaken and develop further by the workers’ own engagement. ”

    I see what you mean; but I think socialists need to engage with the class struggle in more ways than you present. My position is essentially similar to Karl’s, although, when he spoke to directly workers in 1865, he said:

    “These few hints will suffice to show that the very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages, or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.

    “At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!”

    “After this very long and, I fear, tedious exposition, which I was obliged to enter into to do some justice to the subject matter, I shall conclude by proposing the following resolutions:

    “Firstly. A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall of the general rate of profit, but, broadly speaking, not affect the prices of commodities.

    “Secondly. The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages. (or allow them to remain stagnant in real terms a la the USA from the 70s till the present)

    “Thirdly. Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.

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