How to defeat the capitalist state in a place like North America, where the two biggest countries are benefactors of neo-colonial extraction? This part of the globe is the center of modern imperialism, as well as a place where the state and its capitalist rulers carry out internal imperialism via extraction from indigenous lands. Capital has so many ways to fortify itself here that it’s been able to build, as Parenti observed about the American bourgeois state, a seemingly perfect system of control; a system that can render dissent nonthreatening by providing enough of the people with enough material opportunities for the forces of opposition to be made marginalized. This has never meant that the state’s defeat by internal rebellion is impossible, though. It’s only meant that those who are genuinely committed to defeating the state have needed to resist being influenced by strong forces of (primarily) left-wing opportunism, which the empire cultivates within its own borders.
Left opportunism is able to undermine the class struggle by convincing developing radicals—even ones who’ve been able to grasp essential revolutionary ideas, like tactical training and support for existing socialism—that they can win while at the same time deliberately isolating themselves from the majority of the people. Gus Hall wrote of this in The Crisis of Petty-Bourgeois Radicalism:
The concepts, the ideas, motivating petty-bourgeois radicalism are not necessarily wrong in the abstract. Those who follow wrong concepts, in most cases, are dedicated and sincere individuals. The concepts are wrong when they do not reflect the specific reality of the moment. Therefore, the more determined such individuals are, the more damaging they can be. Good intentions and even good ideas are not enough. One of the key ingredients in a revolutionary struggle is people in mass. People do not respond to commands or to exhortations. They do not respond to ideas–even good ideas–if they do not see their self-interests involved in these ideas. The inner laws of capitalism, the laws of exploitation, the inherent drive for profit, the contradiction between the social nature of production and the private appropriation of its products are all factors that force the victims in mass more and more to see their self-interests related to the more basic and revolutionary ideas. Policies and tactics, to be successful, must be related to this objective process. A revolutionary force must take full advantage of each new situation presented by this process. Only then can it become a revolutionary force propelling events. Tactics must be synchronized to each stage of this development.
Petty-bourgeois radicalism—which can be advanced not just by actual petty capitalists, but also by working class people who are informed by theory sourced from non-proletarian perspectives—is fundamentally detached from the ideas that a workers revolution is predicated upon. Because it comes from thinkers who lack a material interest in workers victory, what comes from it is fetishism towards certain theories; theories which emerge from either liberal academia, or the insular “left” groups that are only interested in building a base within a niche.
Because conforming to these ideas is seen as essential for being compatible with these circles, any person or group that rejects them is seen as an enemy. As a consequence, when the adherents of petty-bourgeois radicalism encounter an opportunity for rallying the majority of the people towards a task which is essential for the state’s defeat, they interpret this mass project as not revolutionary at all, but rather inherently regressive.
We’re seeing this in how the PSL, and all the other major “left” groups, have rejected this year’s opportunity to join an anti-NATO coalition that includes formations other than left ones. Which means these left groups are isolating themselves from essentially the entire anti-NATO movement, and thereby any realistic avenue for building a relationship with those outside the activist niche. PSL isn’t doing this necessarily because it believes in the radical liberal theories, which many of its members and adjacent defenders sincerely believe in; its real concern is with maintaining a monopoly over organizing spaces. It merely sees the radical liberals as an element which is useful for it to weaponize. This is evident in how PSL’s ANSWER organizers have promoted arguments seeking to discredit the anti-NATO coalition, on the basis of this coalition supposedly being reactionary.
Such arguments, in addition to their relying upon unprincipled criticism and innuendos about the anti-NATO coalition’s members, are based in a more fundamental ideological error: the error of seeing the people as inherently reactionary. The error of interpreting the people as going in a hopelessly backward direction whenever they start actually acting revolutionary, and respond to ideas that involve their own material self-interest.
Even if the opportunists and radical liberals were to investigate the true nature of the political activists they attack, and find that their initial impressions were mistaken, the committed actors among them would still reject the coalition. This is because petty-bourgeois radicalism views any project which seeks to mobilize the popular masses as “reactionary,” regardless of how progressive or otherwise valuable the project’s contributors are shown to be. To them, the only people who are “revolutionary” are the ones they can control; the ones they can bring into their insular organizing projects. As soon as they see an element of the people fighting the system in a way other than their own prescribed model of operating, they label this element as “reactionary” without further investigation.
By joining a movement against NATO; and most importantly by doing so in a way that makes them fully independent from the Democratic Party; the workers who’ve been receptive towards the new antiwar coalition are asserting their self-interest. That many of these workers haven’t yet become highly learned in areas other than anti-imperialism, or so far have only begun to learn about anti-imperialism itself, doesn’t mean their actions haven’t advanced the class struggle. You don’t need to tail reactionary ideas to recognize this; that the anti-NATO coalition has brought about progress is an objective reality, regardless of whatever contradictions are in it.
2023 has turned into the best year for the antiwar movement in decades; antiwar events are a major factor in our cultural discourse again, an antiwar force has been established outside the control of the Democratic Party, and more than half of Americans now oppose Ukraine aid. All of these developments are at least partly attributable to this coalition, which is responsible for catalyzing a recent anti-imperialist trend within organizing spaces.
If the strategy of building anti-imperialist projects beyond the confines of the traditional “left” activist spaces has proven to be what can seriously threaten our liberal, pro-NATO cultural hegemony, then communists need to pursue this strategy. We need to nurture this anti-imperialist trend, helping further mobilize and educate the most conscious element of the workers. That being the workers who already grasp the need for combating U.S. hegemony.
This is a recent situation presented to us by the process Hall described, in which capital’s contradictions compel the masses to do what they judge to be best for themselves. The anti-NATO movement which Biden’s Ukraine proxy war has produced shows that even in the core of imperialism, the workers are absolutely capable of recognizing anti-imperialism as one of these things which help them. Petty-bourgeois radicalism tells its adherents to deny this demonstrable value within the anti-NATO coalition, by denying that this coalition is even doing anything anti-imperialist. The radicals who have this mentality are able to continue viewing the majority of the American workers as labor aristocrats, or at least as fundamentally reactionary, by interpreting all independent anti-imperialist working class actions as “fascist.”
For some petty-bourgeois radicals, the reasoning behind this narrative has to do with how the Marxists within the anti-NATO coalition are pro-Russian, which is considered by ultra-leftists to be a necessarily right-wing stance. For others, the coalition is seen as reactionary simply because it includes tendencies like the libertarians, who these ultras view as being necessarily fascist regardless of which kinds of libertarians are actually involved in the project. The consistent pattern is that whenever the workers do something the liberal tailists haven’t sanctioned, these workers and their efforts are dismissed.
Petty-bourgeois radicals will always find reasons to reject the proof that the core’s workers are, in fact, acting against imperialism. With the most dogmatic of these radicals, this mentality reinforces their belief about the workers here being labor aristocrats. With the ones who don’t believe the workers are mostly labor aristocrats, this mentality keeps them in an endless cycle of expecting the workers to start acting revolutionary, then being manipulated to see any workers who actually do this as “reactionary.”
An anti-imperialist project not being pure enough is seen as sufficient reason to discard members of even the most conscious element of the workers; which, like with the idea that we shouldn’t support the Russian people’s anti-fascist war because these people are presently forced to live under a capitalist state, is a disregard for the difference between primary vs secondary contradictions. The practical reality of class struggle in the core is that we can’t have revolution, and rectify our domestic contradictions, until we’ve sufficiently combated the primary global contradiction which is U.S. hegemony. This hegemony is the thing our ruling class uses to keep their social control strong, to maintain the power of American capital and keep our organizing spaces influenced by pro-imperialist psyops. We can’t afford to neglect the anti-imperialist struggle.
If we want to connect with a majority of the workers, and mobilize them in a way that defeats the state, we need to stop applying these purity fetish standards to anti-imperialist efforts. We have to stop being scared that joining any project which is ideologically independent from the Democrats, and their anti-Russian orthodoxy, is going to mean we’ve abandoned solidarity with oppressed peoples. If somebody believes that, they’ve been successfully manipulated by the Democratic Party, which tries to keep control over well-intentioned people by telling them that disobeying its commands is a betrayal of the most oppressed. The Democrats, along with their tailists in the petty-bourgeois radical “left” groups, weaponize the struggles of these groups against their critics; it’s the only defense they truly have for perpetually choosing opportunism over authentic class struggle.
Of course there are going to be contradictions within the initial efforts of the workers to resist imperialism; contradictions, and the struggles they produce, are an essential part of class struggle itself. If the anti-NATO coalition has elements that are incorrect about domestic issues, as is to be expected in a multi-tendency coalition, then those with more correct ideas about these issues should enter into the coalition to build a more progressive flank within it. The Bolsheviks were able to win power after working in reactionary trade unions because they could participate in this collaboration effort while acting on an equal footing with the non-socialist elements; because they were willing to make themselves fully present in the trade unions. The Bolsheviks were able to gain the influence that could be accessed by working in reactionary trade unions; then, because they were revolutionary by nature rather than opportunistic, they used this influence to build a workers state.
If you know that you and your org are not opportunistic, you should have no problem with nurturing the anti-imperialist impulses of the workers, and entering into the anti-NATO coalition. Where you’re correct, and the coalition’s other members are incorrect, you’ll be able to ultimately win these arguments, as the Bolsheviks did against the non-socialist trade union members. In the areas where you’re right about social issues, Black and Native liberation, or capitalism, your side will be able to advance its ideas. And it will be able to do so better than if you were to isolate yourself from the rest of the anti-imperialist movement.
Consider also, though, that you may not at present be correct about everything. Nobody has all the answers, and it’s wise to always be willing to change your thinking when presented with better ideas. You can be correct about there being a need for tribal sovereignty, or trans rights, while adhering to dogmatic theories that you’ve unconsciously absorbed from anti-Marxist “left” academia. I’ve held parts of such mistaken ideas even up until recently, when I discovered that the “internal colony” theory about Black people in the USA is an anti-materialist Frankfurt School dogma. And there are no doubt still things I have yet to unlearn, or modify my thinking about.
We’re always less qualified to be authorities than we’d like to assume, and I’ve found that oftentimes, the members of the anti-imperialist coalition who aren’t part of its most left-wing flank can have things to teach us. Unless someone is truly incompatible with you, you can go through the process of having your ideas challenged by another person, being prompted to think critically about what you believe, then coming out of it with more nuance and substance to your beliefs. The same applies to the other person in the relationship.
All of these things are still besides my main point, which is that fighting U.S. hegemony is at present our most important task. At this stage in the struggle, the most impactful thing we can do is unite the majority of the American people who oppose the proxy war. We do this, and the class conflict is further escalated. At present, the primary factor keeping the class struggle ineffective is the Democratic Party’s influence over it. And the more we take away this influence, the freer the workers become to assert their interests.
By Rainer Shea
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