The Truth About Cuban Socialism

Cuba is often painted as an authoritarian dictatorship whose people live in fear and poverty all their lives. As is usually the case, these statements are backed not by credible research, but by capitalist propaganda. In this article, I want to dispel some of these myths and argue that Cuba is a shining example of socialism that should be studied and defended.

The best place to begin, I think, is with Cuba prior to the revolution. When we place modern Cuba in this context, we will see very clearly the power of socialism to uplift the oppressed and exploited. Before 1959, the country was lead by the fascist dictator Batista, supported by the United States. Batista regularly assassinated labor activists and lived in a sprawling palace, while the majority of Cuban citizens were in deep poverty. Castro and other rebels looked upon these horrible conditions and decided to put an end to them. To quote Christopher Mercer in “The Cuban Revolution,”

“On the morning of July 26, 1953, Castro made his move. For a revolution to succeed, he needed weapons, and he selected the isolated Moncada barracks as his target. 138 men attacked the compound at dawn: it was hoped that the element of surprise would make up for the rebels’ lack of numbers and arms. The attack was a fiasco almost from the start and the rebels were routed after a firefight that lasted a few hours. Many were captured. Nineteen federal soldiers were killed, and the remaining ones took out their anger on captured rebels and most of them were shot. Fidel and Raul Castro escaped, but were captured later.

The Castros and surviving rebels were put on public trial. Fidel, a trained lawyer, turned the tables on the Batista dictatorship by making the trial about the power grab. Basically, his argument was that as a loyal Cuban, he had taken up arms against the dictatorship because it was his civic duty. He made long speeches and the government belatedly tried to shut him up by claiming he was too ill to attend his own trial. His most famous quote from the trial was “History will absolve me.” He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but had become a nationally recognized figure and a hero to many poor Cubans.

In May of 1955 the Batista government, bending to international pressure to reform, released many political prisoners, including those who had taken part in the Moncada assault. Fidel and Raul Castro went to Mexico to regroup and plan the next step in the revolution. There they met up with many disaffected Cuban exiles who joined the new “26th of July Movement,” named after the date of the Moncada assault. Among the new recruits were charismatic Cuban exile Camilo Cienfuegos and Argentine doctor Ernesto “Ché” Guevara. In November, 1956, 82 men crowded onto the tiny yacht Granma and set sail for Cuba and revolution.

Batista’s men had learned of the returning rebels and ambushed them: Fidel and Raul made it into the wooded central highlands with only a handful of survivors from Mexico; Cienfuegos and Guevara were among them. In the impenetrable highlands the rebels regrouped, attracting new members, collecting weapons and staging guerrilla attacks on military targets. Try as he might, Batista could not root them out. The leaders of the revolution permitted foreign journalists to visit and interviews with them were published around the world.

As the July 26th movement gained power in the mountains, other rebel groups took up the fight as well. In the cities, rebel groups loosely allied with Castro carried out hit-and-run attacks and nearly succeeded in assassinating Batista. Batista decided on a bold move: he sent a large portion of his army into the highlands in the summer of 1958 to try and flush out Castro once and for all. The move backfired: the nimble rebels carried out guerrilla attacks on the soldiers, many of whom switched sides or deserted. By the end of 1958 Castro was ready to deliver the knockout punch” [1].

Although the rebels were both outnumbered and outgunned, they managed to put up a fight and deal a death blow to fascism and imperialism. This is a testament not only to the power of Leninist organization, but also the popular character of the revolution. It would have been impossible to overthrow Batista if the Cuban people had not thrown their weight behind the rebels. The revolution was an expression of the popular will of the masses, it cannot be otherwise.

So, what is the state of Cuba now? First, it has established high-quality universal healthcare, even in the face of an economic blockade that cost the country well over one hundred billion dollars. Life expectancy is an impressive 79. Infant mortality is 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared (better than the US figure of 6.0, and incomparably better than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is around 27 deaths per 1,000 live births) [2]. Cuba has the lowest HIV prevalence rate in the Americas [3]. There is one doctor for every 220 people in Cuba, a higher ratio than even England [4].

These doctors often volunteer overseas in crisis situations, in places such as Venezuela and Ecuador [5]. The country offered to send personnel to aid the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, but they were declined [6]. Unlike the US ruling class, which would rather let innocent people die than accept help from leftist forces, Cuba understands that it is our duty as people to aid one another as best we can. There is none of the greed and selfishness that is found under capitalism. The medical internationalism of Cuba stems directly from the socialist belief that the global working class should be united in its struggle for a better world. Contrast this with the completely self-serving “internationalism” of the Clinton family or Bill Gates.  As historian Greg Grandin argued  in an article in The Nation, the impacts of Clinton’s policies in Latin America of ramping up free trade, border militarization, and the war on drugs have played a part in worsening insecurity and human rights conditions in several countries. “Beyond any one country or policy, these policies fed off of each other,” Grandin wrote, noting links between privatization, displacement, and violence [7]. These billionaires do not care about the welfare of the people. Any supposed philanthropy they engage in is meant only to extend their influence abroad. Only socialism, with its aforementioned emphasis on human needs over profit, can actually benefit the poor and exploited over the long term.

Cuba has relatedly made huge strides in medicine. Currently, their lung cancer vaccine Climax is in trials in Peru [8]. According to UNICEF, they have eliminated child malnutrition and tuberculosis, a feat not even the US can manage [9].

Similarly, Cuba has an incredible education system. An article by Nina Lakhani in the Independent gives a helpful overview. In it, she says,

“Education at every level is free, and standards are high… The primary-school curriculum includes dance and gardening, lessons on health and hygiene, and, naturally, revolutionary history. Children are expected to help each other so that no one in the class lags too far behind. And parents must work closely with teachers as part of every child’s education and social development… There is a strict maximum of 25 children per primary-school class, many of which have as few as 20. Secondary schools are striving towards only 15 pupils per class – less than half the UK norm.

“School meals and uniforms are free… ‘Mobile teachers’ are deployed to homes if children are unable to come to school because of sickness or disability… Adult education at all levels, from Open University-type degrees to English- and French-language classes on TV, is free and popular” [10].

The quality of Cuba’s education is recognized at the top international levels. For example, Cuba is ranked at number sixteen in UNESCO’s Education For All Development Index, higher than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean (and higher than the US, which is ranked at number 25) [11]. It has the highest literacy rate in the world, at ninety-nine percent [12].

This is evidence of the power of socialism. Rather than putting the profits of a few above the needs of the majority, Cuba has used its resources to promote the health of the entire world. When the masses are in power, as is the case in Cuba, humanity is allowed to flourish. The socialist theory that the masses make history is what has led to the funding of cheap and high-quality education. Education in the capitalist United States, on the other hand, is but a means to create an obedient workforce. Education under socialism is about reaching the full potential of the people. This can be seen in Cuba.

Further, the legacy of racism is being wiped out. Pre-revolutionary Cuba was, in effect, an apartheid society. There was widespread segregation and discrimination. Afro-Cubans were restricted to the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst education. They suffered from differential access to parks, restaurants and beaches. The revolution quickly started attacking racism at its roots, vowing to “straighten out what history has twisted” [13]. In March 1959, just a couple of months after the capture of power, Fidel discussed the complexity of racism in several speeches at mass rallies, saying, “In all fairness, I must say that it is not only the aristocracy who practice discrimination. There are very humble people who also discriminate. There are workers who hold the same prejudices as any wealthy person, and this is what is most absurd and sad … and should compel people to meditate on the problem. Why do we not tackle this problem radically and with love, not in a spirit of division and hate? Why not educate and destroy the prejudice of centuries, the prejudice handed down to us from such an odious institution as slavery?” [14].

The commitment to defeating racism has brought about tremendous gains in equality and racial integration. Isaac Saney writes, “It can be argued that Cuba has done more than any other country to dismantle institutionalized racism and generate racial harmony” [15].

Of course, deeply ingrained prejudices and inequalities cannot be eliminated overnight, and problems remain, especially as a result of the ‘special period’ in which Cuba has had to open itself up to tourism and some limited foreign investment. Racism thrives on inequality. However, Cuba remains a shining light in terms of its commitment to racial equality.

Assata Shakur, the famous exiled Black Panther who has lived in Cuba for several decades, puts it well when she says, “Revolution is a process, so I was not that shocked to find sexism had not totally disappeared in Cuba, nor had racism, but that although they had not totally disappeared, the revolution was totally committed to struggling against racism and sexism in all their forms. That was and continues to be very important to me. It would be pure fantasy to think that all the ills, such as racism, classism or sexism, could be dealt with in 30 years. But what is realistic is that it is much easier and much more possible to struggle against those ills in a country which is dedicated to social justice and to eliminating injustice” [16].

Isaac Saney cites a very moving and revealing anecdote recounted by an elderly black man in Cuba. “I was traveling on a very crowded bus. At a bus stop, where many people got off, a black man got a seat. A middle aged woman said in a very loud and irritated voice: ‘And it had to be a black who gets the seat.’ The response of the people on the bus was incredible. People began to criticize the woman, telling her that a revolution was fought to get rid of those stupid ideas; that the black man should be viewed as having the same rights as she had – including a seat on a crowded bus. The discussion and criticism became loud and animated. The bus driver was asked to stop the bus because the people engaging in the criticism had decided that the woman expressing racist attitudes must get off the bus. For the rest of my trip, the people apologized to the black comrade and talked about where such racist attitudes come from and what must be done to get rid of them” [17]. Who can imagine such a scene occurring on a bus in London, Paris or New York?

Along the same lines, Cuba has an excellent record in terms of building gender equality. Its commitment to a non-sexist society is reflected in the fact that 43% of parliament members are female (ranking fourth in the world after Rwanda, Sweden and South Africa). 64% of university places are occupied by women. “Cuban women comprise 66% of all technicians and professionals in the country’s middle and higher levels,” according to an AAWU report [18]. Women are given 18 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay, with extended leave at 60% pay until the child is one year old [19].

A recent report by the US-based Center for Democracy in the Americas (by no means a non-critical source) noted that, “By several measures, Cuba has achieved a high standard of gender equality, despite the country’s reputation for machismo, a Latin American variant of sexism. Save the Children ranks Cuba first among developing countries for the wellbeing of mothers and children, the report points out. The World Economic Forum places Cuba 20th out of 153 countries in health, literacy, economic status and political participation of women – ahead of all countries in Latin America except Trinidad and Tobago” [20]. I doubt that anyone outside Cuba could make similar claims.

There is also a huge amount of community spirit. Modern capitalism breaks down communities. Consumerism and individualism create isolation and depression. Poverty creates stress and family tension. Inequality leads to crime, which leads to a culture of fear antagonistic to the project developing a sense of community and togetherness. Anyone who has experienced life in a modern western city will understand this only too well.

Cuba provides a very different example. It is an exceptionally safe country, with very little in the way of violent crime. With a high level of participation in local administration, social stability, social welfare, low unemployment and a media that promotes unity rather than disunity, Cuba’s sense of community is something that visitors quickly notice.

Assata Shakur mentions this, and contrasts it with the US:

“My experience in the United States was living in a society that was very much at war with itself, that was very alienated. People felt not part of a community, but like isolated units that were afraid of interaction, of contact, that were lonely. People didn’t build that sense of community that I found is so rich here [in Cuba]. One of the things that I was able to take from this experience was just how lovely it is to live with a sense of community. To live where you can drop in the street and a million people will come and help you. That is to me a wealth that you can’t find, you can’t buy, you have to build. You have to build it within yourself to be capable of having that attitude about your neighbors, about how you want to live on this planet” [21].

And as another Cuban commentator notes in an article for Monthly Review, in Cuba there are,”no street kids, no malnourished faces, and people walking the streets at night with almost no fear” [22]. This cannot be said of any other country in the region.

Although there is certainly poverty, the blame for this can be placed squarely on the blockade and the loss of trading partners like the Soviet Union, rather than on the defects of socialism. The Cuban blockade has cost the country one trillion dollars, according to a CBS report [23]. The UN has admitted that the embargo has interfered with the country’s ability to contribute to AIDS research and other humanitarian causes. What this means is that Cuba would doubtless have the ability to drastically eliminate poverty were it not for the blockade. It is important to note the difference between poverty in Cuba and poverty in the United States. In the US, the resources to alleviate poverty already exist. The only reason they have not been utilized in this way is because it would not be profitable for the capitalist class. In Cuba, however, the resources to alleviate poverty have been denied to the people. If they were put back in the rightful hands of the Cuban people, poverty would be massively reduced. In short, poverty in Cuba is not the result of socialism, but capitalism.

It is also important to note that poor individuals in Cuba have access to benefits that many poor people in other countries do not have, such as the aforementioned healthcare and education. Housing is also leaps ahead of other societies in Cuba. Although housing is not free in Cuba, the government does take steps to keep the cost of housing low. That leads to a high rate of homeownership—around 85%. By way of comparison, the Census Bureau says the rate of homeownership in the United States was 66.9% in 2010 [24]. This, again, can be attributed to socialism. Marxist theory holds that the State is always controlled by a particular class, and is used to protect the interests of that class. In Cuba, the state is controlled by the workers, who make up the vast majority of the population (as they do in any society). As such, the state has an incentive to guarantee basic necessities (like housing) to its people.

Worker’s rights in Cuba are leaps and bounds ahead of the United States. According to both the CIA World Factbook and the World Health Organization, unemployment is just under three percent, compared with five percent in the US. Workers have recently been granted a large degree of power within their workplaces, a feature characteristic of socialism, as well as having achieved sustainable development. In “Redefining Socialism in Cuba,” Gary Leech writes that, “In order to find alternatives to large-scale industrial farming and to stimulate production the government broke-up many large state-owned farms and turned them over to the farmers as smaller worker-owned cooperatives. The new cooperatives…increased production….” [25].

Even before this shift to more direct forms of workplace democracy, Cuban workers had a significant degree of autonomy in the state-owned workplaces. As far back as 1961, writes Helen Yaffe in her book Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, “the Production Assemblies involve[d] all the workers of the factory who meet democratically and put their viewpoints about the progress of industry and the plan. The Production Assembly represents a kind of legislative chamber….” [26]. Democratic institutions extended to the workplace. Workers were not subordinated to the will of the bosses, as is the case in capitalist nations like the United States. The transformation of the workplace into a people-centered institution rather than a profit-centered one is a tremendous step forward.

Trade unions took the form of democratic structures rather than bureaucratic ones, as they do in capitalist countries. According to the 1989 Cuba Annual Report, “the union’s role as a worker-run body that…seeks to protect worker’s needs continues to be stressed” [27].

This emerging worker democracy through cooperatives not only existed in agricultural production, it also occurred in the selling of products. A group of community members in Belén formed the Belén Agricultural Market as a cooperative to sell produce that they purchased from a farming cooperative situated on the outskirts of the city. Communities such as Belén now enjoy an abundance of inexpensive organic fruits, vegetables and meats [28].

According to Cuban permaculturist Roberto Pérez, Cuba established the foundation for a more ecologically sustainable society more than fifty years ago “when the revolution gained sovereignty over the resources of the country, especially the land and the minerals, this was the base for sustainability. You cannot think about sustainability if your resources are in the hands of a foreign country or in private hands. Even without knowing, we were creating the basis for sustainability” [29].

Cuba has been on the front lines of the fight against climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. Marxism, which sees humans and nature as inextricably bound up with one another in a dialectical relationship, demands that this be the case. Cuba has risen to the challenge, showing that socialism is the only way out of the impending environmental disaster. According to an article from Reuters on the subject of organic beekeeping,

Bee keepers in the United States, Canada and other regions have long complained that pesticides are responsible for killing their bees and hurting the honey industry more broadly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a study in January indicating that a widely-used insecticide used on cotton plants and citrus groves can harm bee populations.

“I don’t think there are any doubts that populations of honey bees (in the United States and Europe) have declined… since the Second World War,” Norman Carreck, science director of the U.K.-based International Bee Research Association told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Climate change, fewer places for wild bees to nest, shifts in land use, diseases and pesticides are blamed for the decline, he said.

Because it is pesticide free, Cuba’s organic bee industry could act as protection from the problems hitting other honey exporters, said the FAO’s Friedrich, and could be a growing income stream for the island’s farmers.

“The overall use of pesticides is fairly controlled, he said. “Cuba has been immune to the bee die-offs (hitting other regions)” [30].

It is commonly claimed that Cuba is an authoritarian dictatorship under the iron rule of Castro. In fact, Cuba is far more democratic than Britain or the US. The process of decision-making is far more open to grassroots participation, and is in no way connected with wealth. One cannot expect to be successful in politics in the capitalist countries without a good deal of money behind them; political success is therefore determined largely by the whim of wealthy businessmen. Cuba, on the other hand, crafts policy based on the will of the masses.

Despite popular belief, elections do take place in Cuba, and are vastly more democratic than those in the United States. In the United States, elections are predicated on the financial backing of the wealthy, who expect return on their investment. Political representation in Cuba is nothing like this. Representatives are elected by the people, and are expected to serve the people [31].

The elections take place every five years and there have been turnouts of over 95% in every election since 1976. Anybody can be nominated to be a candidate for election. Neither money nor political parties or orators have a place in the nomination process. Instead, individuals directly nominate those who they think should be candidates. It is not a requirement that one be a member of the Communist party of Cuba to be elected to any position. The party does not propose, support, or elect candidates. As a result, the Cuban Parliament has representatives from across society, including an exceptionally high proportion of women [32].

Beyond representative democracy, Cuba also has a meaningful direct democracy. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) were formed in the early years in order to organize the population to defend the revolution. Membership is voluntary and open to all residents over the age of 14 years. Nationally 88% of Cuban people are in the CDRs. They meet a minimum of once every three months to plan the running of the community; including the organization of public health campaigns to promote good health and prevent disease; the upkeep of the area in terms of waste and recycling; the running of voluntary work brigades and providing the adequate support to members of the community who are in need of help (for example in the case of domestic disputes etc). The CDRs discuss nationwide issues and legislation and crucially, feed back their proposals to the National Assembly and other organs of popular democracy [33].

Looking at the Cuban system of democracy, you begin to understand the painfully shallow nature of western-style parliamentarism, where ‘democracy’ means nothing more than “the oppressed [being] allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament,” as Karl Marx put it [34].

Also contrary to popular belief, Cuban’s prisons are not barbaric institutions, and you don’t get thrown in them for insulting Che Guevara. Political prisoners are defined as those accused or convicted of crimes committed to achieve political objectives. In other words, they have broken the law. Such offenders are not “prisoners of conscience,” which are people engaged in non-violent activities that have been imprisoned solely for their political views. According to Amnesty International’s latest report, there are currently no prisoners of conscience in Cuba. The Ladies In White protests weekly in Havana in support of so-called political prisoners in Cuba. The US media highlighted the fact that the Ladies in White protesters were rounded up by police during a demonstration on the day Obama arrived in Havana. These arrests have been repeatedly pointed to by the media and pundits as a graphic example of how Cuba violates the human rights of peaceful political protesters. As such, it would appear that arrested members of the Ladies in White constitute prisoners of conscience. But these analysts have conspicuously ignored an important component of Amnesty International’s definition of “prisoner of conscience,” which states, “We also exclude those people who have conspired with a foreign government to overthrow their own”  [35]. It is clear that Cuba does not imprison political dissidents, as is often claimed. Those who are in prison have attempted to overthrow the Cuban state. Any reasonable person would assert that they belong in jail.

Relatedly, Cuba has a very progressive prison system. As Soffiyah Elija, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, said in an interview with Guernica Magazine,

“Back in the late 1980s, I took a trip to Cuba with the National Lawyers Guild. I had never had an interest in going to Cuba. But on that first trip I had an opportunity to visit a men’s prison, and I was really struck by everything that was so very different from my experiences as a criminal defense lawyer in the United States visiting clients in prison.

When we drove up to the facility, I kept looking for what I was used to here: high stone walls, lots of barbed wire, guard towers, guards with assault weapons. And I didn’t see any of that. We pulled up to a building that looked similar to a large elementary school, and when we entered the building, there was no metal detector, which was something else I wasn’t used to. And no one was checking my bag to look for weapons or contraband, and there was no sign-in book; none of the things that I was used to experiencing when I entered a prison in the United States.

And then our guide announced that we would have, say, maybe two or three hours at the facility, and we could take a tour with him but we were not restricted to staying on the guided tour. So I wandered off with a couple of other people from the Guild, and we just went around the prison and sat in people’s rooms on their bunk beds and talked with them and literally went wherever we wanted, and that was totally different from any experience that I have had in the United States. Even as the executive director of the Correctional Association now, with legislative authority to monitor prison conditions and go inside the facilities in New York, we don’t take unguided tours of any facility. It’s very scripted where we go, and we are always accompanied by prison staff for the entire visit….You don’t have this demonization and stereotyping that we have here, where incarcerated people are so ostracized they’re like the untouchables” [36].

That last sentence is of particular interest to us. In capitalist societies, crime is seen as an  individual phenomenon. Theft, for example, is treated as though it has no systemic causes. People do not steal because they are poor, but because they are “morally deficient.” Thus, punishment is seen as more important than rehabilitation. That is why solitary confinement, exploitation, and abuse are so prevalent in American prisons: inmates are seen as less than human. Marxism, by contrast, is a materialist philosophy. It regards social phenomena such as crime as having causes external to the people who commit them. Crime is not caused by the moral character of perpetrators, but rather by the material conditions of society. As such, prisoners are regarded as victims of circumstances who should be aided rather than demons who ought to be shunned.

Cuba, as we have seen, is not a hellish nightmare. It is rather a socialist state that is thriving even as Western imperialism attempts to undermine it at every turn. It is the duty of every communist to uphold its achievements and defend it against attacks from the imperialist war machine.

  1. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/castro/peopleevents/e_moncada.html
  2. p.org/redirect.php?file=/publications/pmtdocuments/-Asian%20Development%20Outlook%202013%20Update:%20Governance%20and%20Public%20Service%20Delivery-2013Asian-Development-Outlook
  3. https://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-around-world/latin-america/overview
  4. http://www.socialmedicine.org/2012/07/30/about/cuba-leads-the-world-in-lowest-patient-per-doctor-ratio-how-do-they-do-it/
  5. Foreign Affairs, July/August 2010. page 69
  6. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/9311876/ns/us_news-katrina_the_long_road_back/t/katrina-aid-cuba-no-thanks-says-us/#.WMmVCZArLrc
  7. https://www.thenation.com/article/a-voters-guide-to-hillary-clintons-policies-in-latin-america/
  8. http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/02/health/lung-cancer-vaccine-cuba/
  9. https://youthandeldersja.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/unicef-cuba-has-0-child-malnutrition/
  10. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/latin-lessons-what-can-we-learn-from-the-worldrsquos-most-ambitious-literacy-campaign-2124433.html
  11. http://en.unesco.org/gem-report/sites/gem-report/files/178428e.pdf
  12. Ibid.
  13. Claudia Lightfoot Havana: A Cultural and LIterary Comparison. 2006. p. 113
  14. Pedro Perez Sarduy AfroCuba. Center for Cuban Studies, 1993. p. 102.
  15. http://www.shunp
  16. iking.org/bhs2007/0402-BHS2-IS-readingcuba.htm
  17. http://www.revolutionarycommunist.org/culture/3821-assata-autobiography
  18. http://www.shunpiking.org/bhs2007/0402-BHS2-IS-readingcuba.htm Op. Cit.
  19. http://www.aauw.org/files/2013/01/Cuba_whitepaper.pdf
  20. http://democracyinamericas.org/pdfs/Womens_Work_Executive_Summary.pdf
  21. https://wibailoutpeople.org/page/405/?archives-list=1
  22. https://monthlyreview.org/2010/04/01/how-to-visit-a-socialist-country
  23. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/cuba-us-embargo-causes-1-trillion-in-losses/
  24. https://fresnoalliance.com/homeless-in-cuba-not-likely/
  25. http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/18/redefining-socialism-in-cuba/
  26. Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution. Palgrave MacMillan 2009. p. 146
  27.  Cuba Annual Report 1989. p. 200
  28. http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/18/redefining-socialism-in-cuba/ Op. Cit.
  29. Ibid.
  30. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-cuba-farming-honey-idUSKCN0VI172
  31. Roman 2003, pp. 103–104.
  32. http://cuba-solidarity.org.uk/resources/DemocracyinCuba.pdf
  33. http://www.ratb.org.uk/130-news/ratb-writes/253-cubademocracy-community
  34. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch05.htm
  35. See Garry Leech, Op. Cit.
  36. https://www.guernicamag.com/hyatt-bass-lessons-from-cubas-incarceration-model/

Mao’s China: A Counter-History

As nearly everyone knows, Mao Zedong was a leader of the Chinese Revolution and chairman of the Chinese Communist party. Like Stalin, he is often portrayed as a power-mad dictator who deliberately murdered and repressed millions of his own people. A quick look at evidence outside of mainstream academia (That is, bourgeois propaganda), reveal these claims to be either exaggerated or completely falsified.

First, there is the question of the Great Leap Forward, which many have dubbed the biggest famine in history. It is also claimed to be a deliberate result of Mao’s policies. The typical number is somewhere around 45  million, though estimates vary greatly [1]. This is a blatant lie. Firstly, much of the evidence, such as that found in The Chinese Quarterly edited by Roderick McFarquhar, comes from sources that received funding from the CIA [2]. Given that this is an imperialist agency with a strong incentive to undermine communist movements, it is safe to say that we can discard it. The CIA has spent billions of dollars attempting to undermine leftist governments all over the world. Trusting them to report on socialism in an unbiased way is ludicrous.

More objective studies reach very different conclusions than those funded by imperialists. As Chinese scholar Carl Riskin states, “In general, it appears that the indications of hunger and hardship did not approach the kind of qualitative evidence of mass famine that have accompanied other famines of comparable (If not equal) scale, including earlier famines in China” [3]. This is corroborated by the writing of Felix Greene. He traveled through areas of China in 1960 and wrote about it in the book China: A Curtain of Ignorance. He says that food rationing was very tight but that he did not witness mass starvation, nor did any of the eyewitnesses that he spoke to there [4].

Further, many of the sources cited by Joseph Becker in his famous book Hungry Ghosts did not appear until the 1990s. The stories of cannibalism and starvation contained therein rely heavily on an unofficial collection of Mao’s speeches and a document smuggled out of the country by a dissident called Thirty Years in the Countryside. Becker makes no attempt to explain why these sources ought to be trusted and even discusses the possibility that the papers might be forgeries. Many of his eyewitness accounts, collected in the 1990s came from peasants who he admits were coached by the Deng Xioping government (which has denounced Mao) [5]. He also cites journals that were released by the U.S. State Department in 1966 regarding the famine. As the British newspaper Telegraph states, “They have been in American hands for some time, although nobody will disclose how they were acquired” [6]. No anticommunist historian has been able to cite any evidence that appeared at the actual time of the Great Leap Forward. All of this should lead one to conclude that while famine certainly occurred, it was largely due to natural causes and was not as horrible as we have been lead to believe.

It is also worth noting that famines were common in China prior to the communist seizure of power. John Leighton Stuart, the US ambassador to China from 1946-49 claimed that roughly seven million people starved to death in China per year during his tenure. Famines were a fixture in China prior to the Great Leap Forward, so there is nothing about communism that makes famines more likely. In fact, there was never a famine in China after the Great Leap Forward. This is a testament to the power of socialist economic policy [7].

So if Mao did not kill millions in the Great Leap Forward, what did he do? His policies were far from disastrous. They improved millions of lives and laid the groundwork necessary for China to become the superpower it is today. Even the anticommunist historian Nicholas Kristoff has to admit that Mao had some incredible successes. He writes, “Land reform in China…helped lay the groundwork for prosperity today….Mao’s assault on the old economic and social structure made it easier for China to emerge as the world’s new economic dragon” [8]. In spite of unprecedented loss from famines, China’s population never went down during the Great Leap Forward. In fact, it increased from 650 million in 1958 to 680 million five years later [9].

Prior to the revolution, life expectancy was around 35 years. By the time Mao died in 1976, it had almost doubled to 67 years [10]. Literacy followed a similar course. The pre-revolution literacy rate was around 20 percent, compared to 93 percent after Mao’s death [11]. Mao helped China’s population growth out of stagnation, with population reaching 900 million by the time he passed on [12]. Much of this is due to the fact that a high-quality universal healthcare system was instituted, and production of food increased due to cooperative farming and irrigation [13]. This healthcare system led to a medical remedy for malaria, a disease that decimated China prior to his rule [14]. Healthcare was not merely availible, but leauges better than it was prior to the revolution. In a very material sense, Mao improved the lives of the Chinese people.

Mao’s programs did not cause famines, but rather ended them. Agricultural production did decrease in five years between 1949-1978 due to “natural calamities and mistakes in the work,” as Mao himself admitted [15] However, he states that during 1949-1978 the per hectare yield of land sown with food crops increased by 145.9% and total food production rose 169.6%. During this period China’s population grew by 77.7%. On these figures, China’s per capita food production grew from 204 kilograms to 328 kilograms in the period in question [16].

Even according to figures released by the Deng Xiaoping government, industrial production increased by 11.2% per year from 1952-1976 (by 10% a year during the ‘catastrophe’ of the Cultural Revolution). In 1952 industry was 36% of gross value of national output in China. By 1975 industry was 72% and agriculture was 28%. It is quite obvious that Mao’s socialist economic policies were a great boon to the people of China. They paved the way for the rapid development of China after his death [18]. All of this was summed by Maurice Meisner, a vocal critic of Mao, when he said that Mao’s victory and subsequent socio-economic developments “Must be seen as one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century…few events have done more to better the lives of more people” [20].  William Hinton, in his book Away With All Pests, wrote that, “In China there is no inflation,” due to economic planning [21]. These unparalleled economic achievements are ignored in favor of outright lies regarding Mao. These will be further discussed below.

I would be remiss not to mention the Communes that sprung up thanks to Mao. One of the more salient examples is the Chengguan Commune. To quote Some Facts About China,

“That the collective economy of the entire Cheng Kuan commune is thriving can be seen in other aspects of its economy. The commune operates more than a dozen enterprises, including a plant for manufacturing and repairing farm machinery, a brickyard, a lime kiln, a nursery for mulberry saplings and a veterinary station. The brigades under the commune also have their own small and medium-sized enterprises. The Bright Star brigade to which Chiao Li belongs operates four electric irrigation and drainage stations, a shop for processing farm and sideline produce, a cultivation station equipped with three tractors and eight cable-operated plows, and a forest farm.

Each of the three levels—commune, brigade and team—manages and distributes its own income and enjoys the profit or bears the losses itself. While economic undertakings run by the commune and brigades are relatively few at present, these contribute much to developing the economy of the teams and improving the life of the commune members. Like the other production teams, Chiao Li manages its own land, livestock and the use of its small and medium farm tools in a unified way for collective production. The members’ main source of income is from the team.

The team has its own public accumulation fund which is used to cover expenditures that benefit its members collectively. They have, therefore, a direct interest in the proportion set aside for this fund.” These Communes organized schools, kitchens, farms, and factories. Many of these necessities were available on the basis of need. They worked so well that the Communist Party revised its plan to achieve communism. Mao originally planned the transition to take one hundred years, but many in the Party noticed the performance of the communes and wanted to change it to ten” [21].

The Communes were also very democratic. In Some Facts About China, the Maoist International Movement also writes,

“The people’s commune is run on the principle of democratic centralism. The representative assemblies of the production team, the production brigade and the commune are the organs of power at these levels. Representatives are elected after thorough discussions by the members. Every member has the right to vote and be elected. Between sessions of the representative assembles, work is carried out by a permanent body. (In the production team it is called a leading group and in the brigade and commune, a revolutionary committee.) These permanent leading bodies are also elected by the members.

Before the start of every production year, these leading groups at each level draw up production plans based on the targets set by the state, the actual conditions in each unit and the members’ needs. Unified planning gives due consideration to each of these at each level. The drafts are given to the members for full discussion, then revised according to suggestions and finalized. The figures on expenditures and distribution are made public each year. The join in discussions, approve plans and other matters, and criticize and supervise the way they are carried out, are the rights of all commune members. These rights are protected by law. In addition  to these democratic rights in the political and economic spheres, every commune member has the right to work, reset and education and to share in social welfare. Every member able to work has the right to take part in productive labor. Men and women get the same pay for the same work. When work is assigned, the special physical problems of women are given due consideration.

Time for work and rest are arranged according to local farming customs and vary with the seasons. Proper reset is guaranteed. Commune members give their first attention to fulfilling collective targets. In their spare time they can work at the small private plots allotted to them by the production team, raise a little poultry or a few head of stock, or do handicrafts. Members can do what they like with products from this labor” [22].

This system of democracy extended to China’s factories as well as the rural areas. According to an article published in 1965 in the Peking Review,

“The staff and workers’ representatives conference is an important means of broadening democracy and getting the masses of staff and workers to take part in management and to supervise the work of the administration. Comrade Teng Hsiao-ping has said: “The staff and workers’ representatives conference under the leadership of the Communist Party committee is a good means of broadening democracy in the enterprises, of recruiting workers and staff to take part in the management and of overcoming bureaucracy. It is an effective method of correctly handling contradictions among the people.” The conference helps integrate centralized leadership with the bringing into play of the initiative of the masses of staff and workers, thus simultaneously strengthening the centralized leadership from top to bottom and providing supervision by the masses from below. This results in continuously improving administrative work and ensuring the overall fulfilment of state plans.

In state-owned industrial enterprises, the staff and workers’ representatives conference is an important form through which the staff and workers all participate in management. The conference may hear and discuss the director’s report on the work of the enterprise, examine and discuss production, financial, technological and wage plans as well as major measures to realize them, check regularly on the implementation of these plans and put forward proposals. It may examine and discuss the use of the enterprise’s bonus, welfare, medical, labour protection and trade union funds as well as other funds allotted for the livelihood and welfare of the staff and workers. On condition that the directives and orders issued by higher authorities are not violated, the conference may adopt resolutions on the expenditure of the above funds and charge the administrative or other departments concerned to carry them out. It may criticize any of the leaders of the enterprise and, when necessary, make proposals to the higher administrative authorities for punishing or dismissing those leaders who seriously neglect their duties and behave badly. Should there be disagreement with the decisions of the higher administrative authorities, the conference may put forward its own proposals, but if the higher authorities insist on the original decisions after due study, it must carry them through accordingly.

This is why the staff and workers’ representatives conference is an important means of developing democracy and getting the masses of staff and workers to participate in management throughout the factory. Through this conference, the Party’s principles and policies can be better implemented among the masses, the relations between the interests of the state and those of the staff and workers of the enterprise in question can be correctly handled, those between the administration on the one hand and the trade union organization and the masses of the staff and workers on the other can be correctly adjusted; and at the same time the socialist consciousness of the staff and workers and their sense of responsibility as masters in their own house can be raised, the masses’ supervision over administrative work strengthened, and the improvement of management promoted.

The staff and workers’ representatives conference is convened regularly and presided over by the trade union. When the conference is not in session, its routine work is done by the trade union under the leadership of the enterprise’s Party committee and with the active support and coordination of the enterprise’s administration” [23].

It is obvious from this that worker’s rights under Mao were far more advanced than they were in the United States at the time, and poverty was on a minute level. The economic organization of Mao’s China was far more democratic than it is in capitalist countries. Corporations are in fact quite similar to what anticommunists believe Mao’s China was: a top-down system in which a small group of owners holds all the power. Socialism, on the other hand, is a system based on the collective rule of the working class. Workplaces are focused around meeting human needs and improving the lives of the masses rather than generating profit. Mao’s China is a superb example of this.

Mao also helped women make unprecedented strides towards social equality, according to the document Women in Mao’s China. Before he rose to power, women were expected to be completely subservient to their husbands, and arranged marriages were common. Families would often pay dowries, meaning that women were viewed as little more than commodities. Mao changed this. He refused to go through with his own arranged marriage in protest against this culture and encouraged women to take key position in the party. He also granted them the right to vote, having famously said that, “Women hold up half the heavens” [24].

Many Black Panthers and other civil rights activists supported the Chinese Revolution on the basis that it improved the lives of black people around the world. According to Robin D.G. Kelley, Black Panther leader Elaine Brown visited Beijing in 1970 and was “pleasantly surprised with the way the revolution improved people’s lives” [25]. China made numerous steps towards national and collective liberation, which was recognized by many American activists at the time. The achievements of China in the social arena cannot be understated.

China’s support of socialism around the world should also be mentioned. Mao’s theories of the People’s War helped influence and strengthen liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, Bolivia, and parts of Latin America. It is in part because of Mao that global imperialism is under such severe threat. Were it not for him, Western hegemony would be even greater than it currently is, and the repressive right-wing government of India would not be challenged by the Naxalites, a guerrilla group which also aids the poor [26].

Contrary to popular belief, Mao was not a totalitarian, in philosophy or in deed. He did not treat his ideas as infallible. He understood the need for creative problem solving and discussion in revolutionary activity. In Oppose Book Worship, he writes that,

“Unless you have investigated a problem, you will be deprived of the right to speak on it. Isn’t that too harsh? Not in the least. When you have not probed into a problem, into the present facts and its past history, and know nothing of its essentials, whatever you say about it will undoubtedly be nonsense. Talking nonsense solves no problems, as everyone knows, so why is it unjust to deprive you of the right to speak? Quite a few comrades always keep their eyes shut and talk nonsense, and for a Communist that is disgraceful… Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions. We need books, but we must overcome book worship” [27].

It is clear from this statement that he did not regard his writings-or anyone else’s-as infailiable. He did not object to critiscism, but rather encouraged it on the basis that it improved the practice of revolutionaries.

He was also vehemently anti-bureaucracy, writing that, “The task of combating bureaucracy…should arouse the attention of our leading bodies at all levels,” and, “the struggle against bureaucracy, corruption, and waste should be stressed as much as the struggle to suppress counterrevolutionaries” [28]. As Mobo Gabo (a peasant who grew up during the Cultural Revolution)  writes in Mao and the Cultural Revolution: The Battle for China’s Past, “There is documented evidence [that] it was Mao who called on the Chinese youth to rebel against the authorities, who provoked them not to be obedient and not to follow their leaders blindly” [29].  Criticism of Party leaders was encouraged, not suppressed. Dongping Han writes in The Unknown Cultural Revolution,

“During the Cultural Revolution, big character posters more than made up for the absence of a free press. Writers of the big character posters did not need to please any editors, and no reputation was required to put one out. This forum was tailored to the needs of ordinary farmers, workers, and others for participation in the political life of their units.”

“[M]ass associations debated with one another and with Party leaders-in public.”

Jiao Chuanfa, an ordinary worker…said that the ability to speak publicly was empowering” [30].

This, coupled with the aforementioned grassroots economic democracy, suggests that Mao was not in fact a totalitarian. Rather, he was a man of the people. Criticism of the leaders was open and direct, involving not just an elite body of elected representatives, but the people themselves. This represents a marked different from the United States or Europe, wherein only the press (themselves wealthy elites) are granted direct audience with officials.

Many would assert that Mao’s China could not have been democratic because all of Mao’s political opponents were executed. Like the propaganda around the Great Leap Forward, this is false. It is true that Mao took responsibility for 800,000 deaths, but he did not do so because these people crossed him personally. Rather, those who were executed came from bourgeois class backgrounds. They were landlords, nationalist generals, and so on. These were massively popular executions based on the will of the people. The executions followed people’s trials against the most hated landlords and pro-Japanese traitors who had terrorized the peasants during World War Two and its aftermath. 800,000 is indeed a large number of people, but it came after a hundred years of invasion, civil war, and occupation. During this period, 22 million people died of starvation [31]. In this context, executions are completely understandable and, I would contend, commendable.

In fact, Mao believed that the people went too far in exacting vengeance for decades of imperialist murder. He called for fewer executions going forward and explicitly ordered the Cultural Revolution to be nonviolent. Central Committee Party directives stated,”debates should be conducted by reasoning, not by coercion or force,” and “as regards scientists, technicians and ordinary members of the working staff, as long as they are patriotic, work energetically, are not against the Party and socialism and maintain no illicit relations with any foreign country, we should continue to apply the policy of unity-criticism-unity” [32]. Mao was not a bloodthirsty dictator. Rather, he viewed violence as an abhorrent but necessary consequence of revolution. Given the aforementioned civil war and the contradictory class interests of the landlords, this can only be described as correct.  Those who carried out illegal killings were dealt with harshly, as they would be in any society. Song Binbin, a non-party member who murdered her high school teacher (the first instance of this in Chinese history) was forced to flee the US. In sharp contrast to the fundamentally peaceful character of the Chinese socialist state, she was embraced as a political refugee by the United States [33]. With all of this in mind, it is unsurprising that the brunt of the violence in the Cultural Revolution came from people who were politically opposed to Mao [34].

Although there were executions, they were based on the popular will of the masses, rather than the whims of the elite. As such, the existence of violence in the Mao era is insufficient evidence to characterize it as undemocratic. It is also not a compelling reason to characterize Maoism or socialism as inherently violent.

Many of Mao’s own enemies survived being expelled from the Party. Both Deng Xiaoping and President Xi’s father survived re-education camps and continued serving their country. Xi Jinping himself admits that the level of violence during this period is exaggerated. He says,

“People who have little understanding of power, those who have been far away from it, tend to regard these things as mysterious and novel. But I look past these superficial things: the power and the flowers and the glory and the applause…I understand politics on a deeper level” [35].

Even the victims of Mao’s violence admit that it was necessary due to the exigences of the revolution. It was not carried out because Mao had a psychopathic lust for power, but rather because the people were attempting to build a new society. As we have seen, this new society was a good deal freer than the capitalist “democracies” detractors love to uphold.

 As further evidence that Mao was not a totalitarian or an elitist, we need only look at educational norms during the Cultural Revolution. Don Pinghan writes,

“Rebels questioned the Party’s authority and its educational policies and demanded fundamental changes in education.”

“The Cultural Revolution destroyed the supreme authority teachers had over students…Students…wrote big character posters to air their grievances against their teachers at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution”[36].

If Mao wanted to exercise absolute power over his people, why did he encourage critical thinking and rebellion among students? Why did he go out of his way to destroy systems that would have encouraged subservience to authority? The idea that he was an authoritarian elitist crumbles in light of this evidence. He made every effort to empower the people.

There is much ado about intellectuals and educated youth being “sent down to the countryside” to engage in hard labor. It is assumed that this was done because Mao hated intelligent people and wanted to see them suffer. In actuality, Pinghan writes,

Educated youth ‘suffered’ only from an urban perspective and to a large extent only from hindsight. From the perspectives of the rural residents, the educated youth had a good life. They did not have to work as hard as the local farmers and they had state and family subsidies. They would frequently go back to visit their parents in the cities (Leung 1994) and they had money to spend and wore fashionable clothes. They would bring food in tin cans that the rural people had never seen (Seybolt 1996). They had the privilege of being allowed to violate local rules and customs, and sometimes behaved waywardly by stealing fruit and vegetables and killing chickens raised by villagers for their own benefits. For most rural people, the educated youth were the envy of their life and were respected (Davies 2002). Finally, those educated youths whose family backgrounds were of ‘class enemies’ actually enjoyed a period of relief [during the Cultural Revolution] because the rural people respected them all without bothering about the class line [37].

We can see from this that sending the youth to the countryside served a specific purpose: it was meant to decrease the gap between urban and rural mentalities, thereby reducing the amount of necessary violent conflict. Mao did not reeducate the educated because he was violent, but because he was striving for peace.

Many academics hold the position that Mao was deeply concerned with the welfare of the people. Historian Lee Fangion describes Mao as “earthy,” meaning that he remained closely connected with the Chinese people and their struggle [38]. Australian historian Ross Teriel noted that Mao was a ‘son of the soil,’ and, “Unsophisticated in origins” [39]. While some have described Mao as ‘lazy,’ those who worked with him disputed the accuracy of this characterization [40]. Mobo Gao even proves that Mao stopped eating meat in solidarity with peasants during the Great Leap Forward, further identifying him as a hero of the people [41].

Mao improved the lives of many in China, granting them liberation from poverty, serfdom, and patriarchy. Why, then, are those in the West so intent on slandering Mao and minimizing his achievements? It is because he represented a credible alternative to capitalism, the system that allowed them to become rich off the backs of other’s labor. They have a direct economic incentive to misrepresent Mao. This is why it is important to defend him and the society he helped create, as I have done here. Doing so helps to strike a blow against capitalism and furthers the struggle for the emancipation of the working class.

    1. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/maos-great-leap-forward-killed-45-million-in-four-years-2081630.html
    2. https://www.prisoncensorship.info/archive/etext/faq/chinaquarterlycia.html
    3. C. Riskin. ‘Seven Questions About the Chinese Famine of 1959-61’ China Economic Review, vol 9, no.2. 1998, p121.
    4. Ibid.
    5. M. Meissner, The Deng Xiaoping Era. An Enquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994, Hill and Wray 1996, p189-191
    6. Daily Telegraph 06/08/63.
    7. http://china.org.cn/opinion/2013-05/23/content_28910164_2.htm
    8. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/23/books/review/mao-the-real-mao.html?_r=0
    9. http://www.chinatoday.com/data/china.population.htm
    10. http://www.indexmundi.com/facts/china/life-expectancy-at-birth
    11. http://www.indexmundi.com/facts/china/literacy-rate
    12. http://ablog.typepad.com/keytrendsinglobalisation/2012/02/chinas-achievement.html
    13. Ibid.
    14. Guo Shutian ‘China’s Food Supply and Demand Situation and International Trade’ in Can China Feed Itself? Chinese Scholars on China’s Food Issue. Beijing Foreign Languages Press 2004.
    15. Ibid.
    16. The Unkown Cultural Revolution
    17. see J. Eatwell, M. Milgate, P. Newman (eds) Problems of the Planned Economy, Macmillan Reference Books 1990
    18. M. Meissner, The Deng Xiaoping Era. An Enquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994, Hill and Wray 1996, p189-191. Op. Cit.
    19. http://www.massline.org/PolitEcon/China/Inflation-pamphlet.htm
    20. http://www.bannedthought.net/China/MaoEra/index.htm
    21. Ibid
    22. https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1965/PR1965-09k.htm
    23. http://www.popline.org/node/411809
    24. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/mar/27/arundhati-roy-india-tribal-maoists-1
    25. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ccbh/souls/vol1no4/vol1num4art1.pdf
    26. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/…6/mswv6_11.htm
    27. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-5/mswv5_24.htm
    28. www.strongwindpress.com/pdfs/ebook/The_Battle_for_Chinas_Past.pd
    29. Chairman Mao Talks to the People (NY: Pantheon, 1974) 77-8
    30. http://busin.biz/library/china/The%20Unknown%20Cultural%20Revolution%20-%20Dongping%20Han.pdf
    31. Associated Press,; Ann Arbor News, 10/1/89, B9.
    32. Chairman Mao Talks to the People (NY: Pantheon, 1974) 281
    33. http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/13/bowed-and-remorseful-former-red-guard-recalls-teachers-death/
    34. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=mAz_n6F7jJsC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=anti-mao+violence+cultural+revolution&ots=jCbN8dmSc9&sig=Pj50VuM2tkp8udf7Un_23sKch14#v=onepage&q=anti-mao%20violence%20cultural%20revolution&f=false
    35. Chinese Times, 2000
    36. http://busin.biz/library/china/The%20Unknown%20Cultural%20Revolution%20-%20Dongping%20Han.pdf Op. Cit.
    37. Ibid.
    38. Feigon, Lee (2002). Mao: A Reinterpretation. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 26
    39. Terrill, Ross (1980). Mao: A Biography. Simon and Schuster. 480
    40. DeBorja, Q.M. and Xu L. Dong, eds. (1996). Manufacturing History: Sex, Lies and Random House’s Memoirs of Mao’s Physician. New York: China Study Group. p. 48.
    41. http://www.strongwindpress.com/pdfs/ebook/The_Battle_for_Chinas_Past.pd Op. Cit.

 

 

 

On Socialist Criticism

On the left, there is an increasing tendency to disavow Stalin and the USSR. It is either claimed that these things do not deserve defending, or that it is more important to learn from the mistakes of past socialist experiences than it is to defend their gains. In this essay, I will take a different position. Socialists should make every effort to oppose bourgeois propaganda, defend actually-existing socialism, and only discuss mistakes privately, among comrades.

First, I would like to provide a framework through which we can understand past socialist experiences. Past socialisms were not utopias for workers, nor could they be. Past socialist experiences took place in countries ravaged by war and imperialism. The workers had to contend not only with the threat of their internal deposed bourgeoisie, but with the towering bourgeoisie of imperialist countries. They had to build socialism in countries that had been devastated by war, resulting in underdeveloped productive forces. We should judge these experiences based on this chaotic beginning, rather than on an ideal conception of socialism that exists only in our heads. Many leftists who want to critique actually-existing socialism fail to do this, which serves only to hold back our movement.

What these conditions mean is that socialist leaders were forced to, in many cases, make decisions that would seem counterintuitive to the establishment of working class rule. One example of this is Lenin’s choice to increase labor hours and crack down on strikes following World War One. (in a policy known as war communism). These measures were necessary in order to rebuild the shattered economy. Although they did lead to the temporary emmiseration of workers, they are not evidence of a lack of working class power.

To further illustrate this point, I want to turn to the United States. The USA is a capitalist country, yet this does not mean that the capitalist class gets its way every time. Indeed, labor often wins its individual disputes with capital. This is why we have an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage. No one would take this as evidence of socialism in America. By the same token, we should not zero in on individual moments in which workers were suppressed as evidence that the Soviet Union and other such countries were not socialist. Class rule does not mean class utopia. Building socialism in any context takes hard work. Failing to accept this fact in our analysis of past socialisms makes us less likely to accept them in our own efforts. If we are not prepared to make difficult choices, we will fail. Our criticism must reflect this.

My next point is that in many cases, “critique of past socialist experiences” is often nothing more than an excuse to parrot bourgeois propaganda. Those who wax poetic about the need to criticize Stalin are rarely doing so in good faith. They do not want to engage in rigorous analysis of the material conditions Stalin faced, or the inherent difficulty that comes with trying to build an entirely new kind of society. All they want to do is parrot lies about suppression of free speech and the like. Socialists who argue that Stalin must be criticized openly almost always want to argue that Stalin was an evil monster rather than a human being engaged in complex revolutionary work. The problem with this is that this narrative is one that the bourgeoisie has been pushing for decades. By airing these “criticisms” publicly, socialists only play into the hands of the bourgeoisie. This is because the bourgeoisie can use socialist denunciations of Stalin to bolster their own credibility. They can say, “we must be right. Even the Socialists agree with us.” This serves only to divide the movement and turn the public against us. It makes us seem as though we are fractured, chaotic, and unfit to lead. The worldwide socialist movement is still comparatively small. We are nowhere close to taking power, much less holding onto it. We must be vigilant in the struggle for power. We cannot allow exploitation of criticism to stop us in our tracks.

This is not just a hypothetical. Bourgeoise cooptation of socialist rhetoric has a long and storied history. One example of this can be found with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When it was clear that the Chinese socialist economy was successfully meeting the needs of its people, FDR and others took to calling them “radishes” because they were “red on the outside only,” meaning that they were communists in name only. To quote an article in All China Review,

Unable to come to terms with their blind ideology, FDR, Washington and the popular press simply could not bring themselves to say “communists”, so Mao and Co. were dubbed “the so-called communists”. Joseph Stalin helped shape this legerdemain of the tongue, by telling wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Roosevelt that the Chinese were “radishes”, red on the outside, but white below the surface – not real communists. Thus, the square peg of CPC reality was crammed into the round hole of Western denial. At least the occidental imperialists got one thing right. Not only did the CPC sweep Japan and the Western colonialists out of New China, but it chased the KMT all the way to Taiwan” [1].

We can see that left-socialist criticism has been used as a weapon by the imperialists in the past. FDR and Churchill used the label “So-called communist” to discredit China and turn the public against communism by disassociating it from the achievements of China. Left-socialists, by refusing to recognize China as communist, do the same. Whether or not they mean to, they serve the imperialist bourgeoisie by denouncing actually-existing socialism. Failure to uphold actually-existing socialism-and to abide by principles of unity and discipline-these do nothing but weaken our movement. It only makes us more vulnerable to bourgeois influences.

This can be seen today as well as in the past. Across the world, there has been an increase in the amount of anti-fascist groups that violently protest against reactionaries like Donald Trump and Charles Murray. Most of these groups are anarchist, and as such I have my critiques of them. However, their suppression of reactionaries is commendable and can only further the struggle for liberation. Reactionaries advocate violence on a much larger scale than the antifascists. Milo Yiannopoulos, who was scheduled to speak at Berkeley  University before anti-fascists shut him down, planned to out undocumented students and encourage his audience to “purge [their] local illegals” [2]. Milo and other reactionaries are themselves violent. Any violent action taken against them serves to prevent more violence, and as such can be seen as self-defense. All socialists should recognize this and support anti-fascist groups in their effort to combat reaction.

This is especially true in light of the coming crackdown on anti-fascist groups. These groups will assuredly be targeted by the state at some point, as has been the case at nearly every point in history. A surge in left activity has always been met with a surge in repressive right-wing activity. In an era where this is becoming increasingly likely, it is vital that all socialists stand against the capitalists in their support of anti-fascism. Only when we do this can we hope to defeat fascism once and for all.

The International Socialist Organization does not recognize the necessity of this. In an article for Socialist Worker, Mukund Rathi writes “They…shift [everyone’s] attention to the violence” [3]. Not only does this deny the violence perpetrated by reactionaries, it also gives the corporate media an excuse to defend these reactionaries. In an article for the Washington Times, Shawn Steel uses this condemnation to advocate for the violent suppression of “extreme radicals.” He calls for the the Justice Department to “get tough with black-clad rioters” [4]. Here, again, we see the cooptation of left-socialist critique by the bourgeois media. In this case, socialist critique has been used to call for the active crushing of our movement. This is a perfect example of my point: left socialism can often inadvertently serve the capitalists. It is important that we keep our critiques internal so that they are not used as weapons against us. Our movement, as I said above, is too small to afford any division.

Many left socialists would say that it is necessary to critique past and current socialist practice because they were authoritarian. These socialists, like those in the ISO, hold that it is undesirable and unnecessary to suppress speech, even violent speech. They hold that a willingness to criticize the authoritarian measures of Stalin, Mao, and the like is the only way to convince others to join our cause. If we do not repress free speech, according to them, the capitalists will be unable to tar us by invoking the “horrors of socialism.” This is an example of the highest idealism. Capitalists can never be “convinced into socialism” because socialism involves expropriating their property. It is contrary to the class interests of the capitalists to ever fight for socialism, even if this could be done peacefully. This is evidenced by the fact that capitalists are more than willing to spread propaganda about socialist atrocities now, even if there is no real evidence that these atrocities have ever taken place. Even if we are peaceful, even if we spill no blood, they will still slander us. No matter how nuanced our approach is, the capitalists will take every opportunity to split our movement and turn the public against us. We should absolutely highlight the mistakes made by socialists in order to learn from them. However, we must do this privately, so that they cannot easily be used to divide us or dissuade new leftists.

When socialists criticize Stalin and others for suppressing free speech, they are not only playing into the hands of the bourgeoisie, they are also denying history. It has always been necessary to suppress free speech in the name of revolution. According to Albert Szymanski, eight states formally banished tories following the American Revolution [5]. When ultra leftists criticize Stalin for repressing free speech, they make it impossible for us to win. It is in this way that their critique serves the bourgeoisie: it is not only a criticism of Stalin, it is a rejection of victory.

This does not mean that we can never critique socialists for going too far in their repression. When we do this, however, we should do it away from the prying eyes of the capitalists and their pawns. Further, we should uphold the goals of the socialists we are critiquing. A good example of such a critique is that which Mao gave of Stalin. Mao argued that Stalin went overboard in his suppression of counter-revolutionaries. What he did not argue was that Stalin did not want to build socialism, or that the repression of free speech is inherently immoral. On the contrary, he held the opposite views [6]. By accepting these premises, his critique acted against the interests of the bourgeoisie. It is possible to critique socialists without serving the bourgeoisie, and we must take great pains to determine who our critique actually serves.

As evidenced by Szymanski’s findings and the above-mentioned call for a crackdown on antifascists, the bourgeoisie has always been willing to repress free speech in service of its own goals. Therefore, when socialists criticize Stalin for repressing free speech, they are not arguing in favor of free speech absolutism. In agreeing with the bourgeoisie that suppressing free speech in the name of socialism is immoral, socialists are de facto agreeing that suppressing free speech in the name of capitalism is moral. This is how the bourgeoisie is framing the discussion, and it is more than willing to use socialists as tools in doing so. In effect, socialists who hold that Stalin is a monster (for many of the same reasons capitalists do, no less) they are accepting the hegemony of bourgeois narratives. Unless we counteract these narratives, we cannot win. Making our criticism public-and using bourgeois ideas to make it-only hinders our ability to construct a socialist counter-hegemony.

Before I conclude, I would like to address the argument that socialists should not spend time building this counter-hegemonic narrative. It is ostensibly more important to learn from the mistakes of past socialisms than it is to defend their gains. I do not disagree with the first part of that argument. It is vitally important that we should learn from past socialisms in order to improve our current practice. However, it is impossible for us to do this if the prevailing narrative is that these socialisms were hell on earth. If we begin with the assumption that Stalin was a heartless monster, what could we possibly learn from him? We cannot learn from the mistakes of socialists if we assume every action they took was a mistake. In order to seriously learn from socialism, we must clear away the cobwebs of famine and oppression. We should assume that the old socialist leaders wanted to improve the lives of the working class and were willing to do whatever it took to make this happen. Only by casting socialism in a generally positive light can we convince people that there is something to be learned from this experience. Doing this requires unified defense and the construction of an unflinching socialist counter-hegemony.

In order to create this hegemony, we must combat bourgeois critiques of socialism and only engage in our own critiques when we are safely among comrades. It is only under these conditions that we can build a movement capable of overthrowing capitalist-imperialism.

Deny the lies publicly, discuss mistakes privately!

Uphold actually-existing socialism!

 

References:

  1. http://www.allchinareview.com/so-called-communist-china/
  2. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/uc-berkely-protests-milo-yiannopoulos-publicly-name-undocumented-students-cancelled-talk-illegals-a7561321.html
  3. https://socialistworker.org/2017/02/06/thousands-confront-the-right-in-berkeley
  4. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/mar/1/liberal-left-employs-violence-to-accomplish-goals/
  5. Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union. Zed Books, 1984, p. 143
  6. http://www.massline.org/SingleSpark/Stalin/StalinMaoEval.htm

Trade Unions, Working Class Consciousness, and Neoliberalism

Marx and Lenin both held that the working class was the chief agent for radical social change in society. It was only this class that was compelled by its very existence to struggle against the ruling force in society, the power of capital. Workers were forced to struggle with their bosses for things like higher pay and better working conditions, and it was this struggle that molded them into a force capable of radically reconstituting society. In 1845, Engels argued, “[W]hat gives these Unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition. They imply the recognition of the fact that the supremacy of the bourgeoisie is based wholly upon the competition of the workers among themselves; i.e., upon their want of cohesion. And precisely because the Unions direct themselves against the vital nerve of the present social order, however one-sidedly, in however narrow a way, are they so dangerous to this social order” [1]. Unions helped to organize the working class into a class, making them conscious of the need to challenge their capitalist masters. The lessons they learned in union struggles laid a foundation upon which socialists could build a revolutionary, anti-capitalist worker’s movement.

However, the capitalist system has changed a great deal since Engels wrote that famous passage. In the mid-1970s particularly, US manufacturing began to lag behind its competitors in Germany and Japan. This led business leaders to adopt a strategy known as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism holds that the government, rather than being a potential solution to the problems of the market as in the earlier Keynesian formulations, was itself the problem. Neoliberalism is thus characterized by the weakening of central state’s’ influence over the economy, deregulation, and, crucially, union-busting. Although neoliberalism claims to detest government intervention in the economy, as I have just described, nothing could be further from the truth. While decision-making was pushed to the localities in many parts of the world (we will discuss this in more detail later), neoliberalism has actually been characterized by what many call “corporate welfare,” in which the government hands out billions of dollars in subsidies per year to industries such as banking and oil.  The bank bailouts of 2008’s Great Recession demonstrated this fact vividly: the federal government not only rescued the same Wall Street behemoths whose reckless greed caused the financial meltdown, but has since allowed these corporations to rake in billions of dollars of undisclosed profits [2]. The point here is that there is a wide gap between the professed ideology of neoliberalism and its actual practice.

Forming new organizations such as the Business Roundtable and resurrecting the viciously anti-union Chamber of Commerce, they forged a plan to drastically lower working-class living standards. As Business Week summarized at the time, “It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow—the idea of doing with less so that business can have more… Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept the new reality” [3]. This is the essence of neoliberalism: it is about stripping away the sparse gains made by the working class in the Keynesian era and building a society in which the capitalist class openly enriches itself on the backs of the workers. This was plain to see by the mid-1980s, in which corporations published texts which promised to “show you how to screw your employees (before they screw you) and how to keep them smiling on low pay—how to maneuver them into low-paying jobs they are afraid to walk away from — how to hire and fire so you always make money” [4]. Neoliberalism, therefore, is about the capitalist class enriching themselves by any means necessary, workers be damned.

Naturally, one of neoliberalism’s first orders of business was to attack unions. One crucial way in which it did this was to spread anti-union propaganda in the media. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, union manufacturing workers faced tremendous pay cuts, in accordance with neoliberal doctrine [5]. In order to justify this, the media spread a false image of the overpaid autoworker with so-called “gold-plated benefits.” This onslaught has continued to the present day. As recently as 2008,   the New York Times falsely claimed that United Auto Workers (UAW) members were earning an average of $70 per hour, including benefits [6]. When the Times made that claim, the starting wage of a newly-hired union auto worker was $14.50 an hour [7]. The media has engaged in a concentrated effort to turn the public against unions, even resorting to outright lies to accomplish their goals.

This tactic has not been as effective as the capitalists would like. According to a 2013 poll by Pew Research Center, “about half of Americans have a favorable view of unions” [8]. The relative failure of the ideological assault on unions has led the capitalist class to adopt more ruthless union-busting tactics, such as threatening to close shops if a union election succeeded. According to a working study produced by the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, nearly 50 percent of all serious allegations of union busting tactics, both legal and illegal, by employers happens after workers express initial interest in a union, but before an official petition has even been filed requesting a vote on union representation [9]. Employers have become emboldened by neoliberalism, carrying out anti-worker activities that blatantly ignore the gains made by labor struggles in previous eras. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin bill that stripped unions of their basic collective bargaining rights sparked protests that made international headlines [10]. What is not typically known, however, is that this proposed law was not an isolated event. It represented a concerted strategy to attack public workers simultaneously, state by state. This initiative was spearheaded by Republicans in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, but echoed in states dominated by Democrats, including Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York [11]. In 2017, similar bills are being considered all across the country. Kentucky house Republicans, to name one example, are currently under fire from union activists for proposing two bills that would prevent public sector workers from going on strike [12].  Neoliberalism’s anti-union strategies have continued to this day. They have also enjoyed bipartisan support, further evidence that neither major American party is grounded within the working class.

It is this climate that led to the labor movement, particularly in the United States, to being what it is now: fractured and impotent compared to the mass strikes of the 1930s. According to one study, “in 2013, there were 14.5 million members in the U.S., down from 17.7 million in 1983. The percentage of workers belonging to a union in the United States (or total labor union “density”) was 10.8%, compared to 20.1% in 1983” [13]. Union membership is in a dismal state in the United States, and strikes are even worse. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2016, there were only 15 work stoppages involving a thousand or more workers,, compared to 270 in 1947 [14].

This decline in union membership and strikes has the potential to lead many radicals away from the Marxist thesis that the working class is the primary (though by no means only) revolutionary agent in society. After all, that assertion is premised on the idea that the workers are driven to struggle in unions, and that they can become a revolutionary force on the basis of this struggle. It is within this struggle that workers learn of their true power in society: they are the ones that produce all the things we need to live. Thus, their best tactic in struggle is the strike. Strikes involve withholding labor power until demands are met. The economy will grind to a halt as a result of this, which will in turn lead the general population to accept this theory as well. As I have argued previously on this blog, workers still possess the objective ability to withhold their labor and achieve demands. But if they are not even aware of this, much less involved in organizations that would allow them to take advantage of this ability, what use is it? The decline of unionization under neoliberalism, so the argument goes, has resulted in an impotent working class that can never become conscious in a revolutionary way because they are not even conscious of their short-term interests against the bosses. There are elements of truth to this argument, but I would like to argue that it is false, premised on a misunderstanding of what Marx and Lenin meant by “trade-union consciousness.”

To explain what I mean by this, I’d like to return to the passage from Engels quoted above. The important thing about unions, he implies, is that they make workers conscious of their interests against capital, against their bosses. Lenin expanded upon this notion of trade-union consciousness, writing in What is to be Done,  “[Trade union struggles] marked the awakening antagonisms between workers and employers; but the workers, were not, and could not be, conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system, i.e., theirs was not yet Social-Democratic consciousness” [15]. By this, he meant that trade union struggles make workers aware of the fact that they need to struggle, but do not make them aware that they need to abolish capitalism as a whole. “Trade-union consciousness,” then, is merely a shorthand for ‘worker’s organization that is not yet revolutionary.’ The institution of the trade union was the predominant way in which workers attained this level of consciousness in the time of both Marx and Lenin, hence the name. This does not mean, however, that workers cannot come to the above-mentioned realizations in other ways. Put another way, the decline of unions does not necessarily mean a decline in working-class consciousness. As I will argue, neoliberalism has not eliminated this consciousness. It has merely changed the form it takes. In many cases, I think, neoliberalism has led the working class to become more conscious of the need to struggle within the system of capitalism. The working class remains, as Marx put it “a class as against capital” [16]. Thus, it remains a potential revolutionary agent.

To begin, I think it is important to remember that although unions have been weakened hugely under neoliberalism, they are still around. We should focus on the struggles that have occurred around union-busting efforts themselves. In Kentucky, for example, “Hundreds of union workers crammed the hallways of the legislative office building,” in an attempt to prevent the anti-union bill from being passed [17]. Similarly, protests erupted over anti-union bills in Michigan. This was despite the fact that the protestors faced fines and even jail time by doing so [18]. In Indiana, “[T]housands of union supporters that packed the Statehouse this morning and spilled out onto Downtown sidewalks hoped their show of solidarity would be enough to dilute legislative support of a proposed right to work bill” [19]. This is one key problem with the “decline of the working class” theory. Not only do unions still exist, they are active in the struggle against the bosses. There are many criticisms of unions to be made, especially from a Marxist perspective, but the fact remains that mass worker’s actions have sprung up around unions. Clearly, workers retain literal trade-union consciousness, albeit in a highly reduced form. It follows from this that there is still a foundation upon which socialists can build a revolutionary working class movement. The battle in Wisconsin, as well as elsewhere, demonstrated how capitalism could once again propel workers into struggle, opening the door to rebuilding the labor movement on the basis of collective struggle. There is much work to be done, since neoliberalism has so successfully forced workers to compete in a race to the bottom on a global scale over the last three decades. The potential, however, exists.

But, as I have argued, trade union consciousness can exist outside unions. In many cases, it can go beyond unions. Unions, as Engels remarked, are strictly economic organizations. They negotiate the terms of exploitation under capitalism and, as such, are focused purely on economic demands. This is evidenced by the fact that solidarity strikes are illegal in the United States. A solidarity strike is also called a sympathy strike, in which workers strike in support of an action by another enterprise. These strikes are helpful not only in achieving the demands of workers, but also in forging unity among different sections of the working class, a necessary precondition for revolution. Despite these benefits, workers cannot engage in these strikes with the support of unions [20]. While unions can help workers learn how to struggle, they also impose limits on that struggle. Marxists have always understood this to be the case, which is why they have urged activists to develop the working class movement beyond economic struggles.

Neoliberalism has seen the masses of workers breaking away from the restrictive union form in favor of more open, advanced organizations. None of these organizations have been capable of waging a revolution against the whole capitalist system, and many have not even been interested in doing so. As such, these non-union struggles do not invalidate the need for a strong socialist presence in the worker’s movement. Due to the pervasiveness of capitalist ideology, the working class cannot come to revolutionary consciousness through its day-to-day struggles with capital. This necessitates, as Lenin argued, a vanguard party, made up of socialists and the most advanced sections of the working class [21]. Non-union struggles under neoliberalism must therefore be thought of as a more advanced form of trade union consciousness, which I will call movement consciousness.  This movement consciousness takes the form of mass self-organization that is independent of the capitalists, though not free from their influence. This self-organization transforms the workers from a class against capital and into a class for itself. It is much easier for socialists to build on this kind of organization than it is to build on union organization. Movement consciousness leads to the creation of institutions that are more radical in content than unions, though often not by much. This is what I mean when I say that neoliberalism has made workers more conscious than previous stages of capitalism. Neoliberal restructuring and austerity push the working class closer to revolutionary tendencies within the existing system. Again, though, the working class cannot completely break free of bourgeois ideology without the concerted effort of socialists. This is because bourgeois ideology is targeted specifically on the working class. It is designed to trap them. (See my posts Lenin’s Theory of the Vanguard Party and Leninism and the Mass Line for more on this).

To better illustrate what I mean by movement consciousness, I would like to turn away from the United States. Proponents of the “declining working class” theory only ever seem to focus on America. Since I am attempting to lay out an alternative theory, it is only natural that I broaden my scope beyond this. Neoliberalism has not just been about the United States. The working class in the Americas has felt the lash of neoliberalism to a much greater degree.

I would like to spend the rest of this essay focusing on Bolivia. This a very small country in Latin America, but it is where some of the most extraordinary struggles against neoliberalism have taken place. Bolivia’s experience with neoliberalism began in the 1980s and it was brutal. The struggle against it, however, was equally as strident. It saw the birth of new social movements that taught workers how to struggle. These movements were then built upon by socialists, showing that they generate a similar form of consciousness to the trade union consciousness spoken of by Marx and Engels.

Like many countries in the Global South, Bolivia was very dependent on a small number of commodities for export. In Bolivia, the export of tin was crucial to the survival of the economy. In the 1980s, the price of tin collapsed. This was not the result of overproduction, but rather international speculation [21]. With the collapse of tin came the collapse of the Bolivian Peso. In 1985, the inflation on Bolivia’s currency ran at twenty thousand percent (20,000%) [22]. Clearly, drastic measures needed to be taken to revitalize the economy. Enter neoliberalism. The project of Bolivarian neoliberalism was initiated by the head of state, Estenssoro. He found allies in Gonzalo Sanchez, the owner of Bolivia’s biggest mine, and the University of Chicago economist Jeffrey Sachs. Economists pegged the peso to the US dollar in order to control inflation. Thirty-five thousand state workers were fired in an effort to cut government expenditures [23]. To put that in perspective, imagine if one million public sector workers had been laid off in the United States. Immediately after neoliberalism came to blight Bolivia, it accrued huge human costs.

The core of the Bolivarian worker’s movement prior to the advent of neoliberalism had been the tin miner’s union, which had an incredible thirty thousand members. Twenty-three thousand of them lost their jobs in one year. Twenty-five thousand rural teachers lost their jobs, and one hundred twenty factories closed after state subsidies were withdrawn [24]. By the end of the 1980s, there were one million Bolivarians who had fled to Argentina seeking work [25]. The total population of Bolivia at the time was about ten million. An astounding ten percent (10%) of the country was gone, and those who could still work were not organized. The State also played a part in smashing old unions. In 1985, 143 leaders who had led strikes against neoliberalism were placed into internal exile. They were dispersed to shantytowns in Cochabamba, El Alto, and elsewhere [26]. From good jobs in the mines, workers were reduced to harvesting cocoa in the fields. By the 1990s, income from cocoa producers supported around fifty thousand families. In a sense, cocoa had replaced tin as the central commodity in the Bolivarian economy [27].

The “decline of the working class” theory would hold that there was no hope for socialism in Bolivia. Workers, without trade unions, could not hope to organize themselves and resist neoliberalism. In the absence of such self-organization, socialists could never intervene and build a strong anti-capitalist movement. As we will see, nothing could have been farther from the truth.

Although the tin miners had been driven into the cocoa fields, they still had experience in organizing. The cocoa growers, many of them displaced tin miners, became neoliberalism’s biggest opponent. They formed a social movement (the Chiperi) rather than a union [28]. This movement eventually gave rise to a Party. By 2002, this had become the second-largest political party in the region [29]. This shows that workers can still organize without a union. They are driven to struggle under all forms of capitalism, and will always achieve some form of consciousness upon which socialists can build.

As I said above, a key component of neoliberalism involves weakening the central state so that it cannot interfere in the economy. In Bolivia, there was a massive push to decentralize and push decision making to the localities. The mass of the population was situated here. What’s more, they were indigenous, and had been excluded from the process of decision making for generations. The local mobilized indigenous communities took advantage of neoliberal industrialization to become (in many cases) heads of the municipal governments that were formed at the time. Campesino and indigenous representatives were elected to twenty-nine percent (29%) of seats in 200 municipalities [30]. One of these parties, which called itself the Assembly for Indigenous People’s Sovereignty served as the immediate precursor for the Mas, the movement towards socialism, of which Evo Morales is the most well-known figure [31]. Socialists in Bolivia have recognized the role of social movements in the development of working-class consciousness. The old center of popular resistance, the unions, had been weakened. A new one, made up of ex-miners, the unemployed, urban poor, and cocaleros, had emerged as an alternative. This was a deeply working class movement embedded in indigenous notions of community and rights. In which the working class became aware of itself as an agent for social change. They went on to seize political power on a scale that has never before been seen in America. This level of consciousness was only possible because of neoliberal restructuring. It led to a near-revolutionary situation throughout Bolivia. On October 7, a mass demonstration blocked the twin cities of La Paz and El Alto, leading to clashes with security forces. In the ensuing violence, fifteen people died [32]. By October 17, the police were siding with the demonstrators and the head of state had fled to the US [33]. There was nearly an insurrection in the country.

This marks a return-or rather a continuation-of working class self-organization. This was probably the most successful neoliberal attack in the Americas at the time, smashing the preexisting organizations of the working class. Over the next fifteen years, working class organizations remerged in new ways. There were no traditional trade unions, and yet the workers achieved extraordinary levels of consciousness and struggle. The unions were smashed, but the emergence of ex-miners working alongside rural laborers were able to threaten the whole political system of the country. Even though old labor was gone, labor was not. There were thousands of exploited people who found new ways of organizing, created new institutions. This was the key to victory. Far from declining as a force for social change, neoliberalism has caused the working class to become more militant than ever. The over-reliance of some socialists on the trade union form as the originator of consciousness has made them blind to this. The working class of Bolivia created myriad unemployed organizations, women’s organizations, and indigenous organizations, based on mass meetings of thousands of people. These, rather than trade unions, were what taught the working class to struggle. They generated a new form of preliminary consciousness among the workers. Nevertheless, it served the same function as the trade union consciousness of Marx and Lenin.

The experience of Bolivia shows us that the working class will always self-organize. Just because this organization does not take the form of the trade union does not mean it does not exist. If socialists broaden their definition of trade union consciousness, as I have argued, they will realize that there is always something to build upon. Trade union consciousness is not merely “that consciousness which is attained in trade unions.” Trade union consciousness is that which teaches the workers to struggle, and struggle effectively. It can exist outside of trade unions. In Bolivia and elsewhere under neoliberalism, this most often takes the form of social movements. Recognizing this is key if we want to win the fight for a better world.

  1.   Karl Marx, “Value, Price and Profit,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 20 (New York: International Publishers, 1985), 146.
  2. Jia Lynn Yang, ”Corporate profits hit record rate,” Washington Post, November 23, 2010.
  3. Quoted in Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein, Washington Babylon (New York: Verso, 1996), 11.
  4. Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 231.
  5. Andrew Ross Sorkin, “A bridge loan? U.S. should guide G.M. in a chapter 11,” New York Times, November 17, 2008.
  6. Ibid
  7. Art Levine, “Smart ways to a bailout—step 1: stop demonizing the UAW,” Huffington Post, November 24, 2008.
  8. Drew DeSilver “Job categories where union membership has fallen off most.” Pew Research Center, 27 Apr. 2015,
  9. Lila Shapiro “Union-Busting Tactics More Pervasive Than Previously Thought: Study.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 28 June 2011
  10. John Nichols, “Tens of Thousands Rally in Wisconsin to Declare: ‘This Fight is NOT Over!’” Nation, May 16, 2011.
  11. Danny Hakim and Tomas Kaplan, “Cuomo Urges Broad Limits to N.Y. Public Pensions,” New York Times, June 8, 2011.
  12. Adam Beam “2 bills targeting labor unions advance.” The Courier-Journal, 4 Jan. 2017.
  13. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union Membership Summary” Jan 24, 2014
  14. “Table 1. Work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, 1947-2016.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  15. Lenin, V.I. “Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?: The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats.” Marxists Internet Archive.
  16. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 211.
  17. CJ, Marty Pearl “Union workers protest ‘Anti-Union, anti-Worker’ legislation.” The Courier-Journal, 7 Jan. 2017.
  18. Ibid
  19. Ibid
  20. H Collins, KD Ewing and A McColgan, Labour Law (2012) 693
  21. Lenin, V.I. “Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?: The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats.” Marxists Internet Archive. Op. Cit.
  22. Monique Plesas, “The Effects of Neoliberalism and its Hegemony in Bolivia” Glendon Journal of International Studies, 2013
  23. Ibid
  24. Ibid
  25. Margolis, Mac (14 September 2016). “Latin America Has a Different Migration Problem”. Bloomberg.
  26. Benjamin Kohi and Linda C. Farthing, Impasse In Bolivia, Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (Zed Books, 1988) 72
  27. Peter D. Little, Living Under Contract (Wisconsin University Press, 2006) 75
  28. Benjamin Kohi and Linda C. Farthing, Impasse In Bolivia, Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (Zed Books, 1988) 81 Op. Cit.
  29. “Bolivia’s ‘communitarian socialism.'” Links.org.au.
  30. Sivak, Martín (2010). Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 35
  31. Ibid
  32. Benjamin Kohi and Linda C. Farthing, Impasse In Bolivia, Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (Zed Books, 1988), 90. Op. Cit.
  33. Ibid

Commie Dad: Marxism, Identity Politics, and Worker’s Power

This is an excellent critique of my piece, and the author is correct to say that I don’t disagree with much of it at all. In fact, this drives home the point that I was attempting to make. Divisions on the basis of race are not merely ideological, they are real in a material sense. Highly recommended reading, a necessary addition to my piece.

Old Relations Collapse

Commie Dad, a popular personality on communist Twitter, recently wrote a piece entitled Marxism, Identity Politics, and Worker’s Power, in which he set out to rebut the charges, common as Marxism reemerges as a recognised intellectual trend in the English-speaking world, that Marxism fails to account for anything except class. This is admirable and important work, and, for reasons aforementioned, part of a growing genre by Marxists of varying stripes to defend Marks Baba from charges of “brocialism”.

It should go without saying that I more or less endorse the contents of piece. Indeed, taken as a “universal” there is relatively little to criticise, but what little there is to criticise is much more important given its positioning within the particular context of the US left, which has been robbed of a sturdy theoretical backbone for some time.

Let us begin then with a point of agreement and…

View original post 1,108 more words

The Real Che Guevara

Many communists uphold the ideas and achievements of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Communists seek to follow his example in liberating the oppressed worldwide. The capitalist class has taken note of this. In response, they have propagated numerous lies about Che, in an effort to not only discredit the gains of the Cuban revolution, but also to sully the moral character of those communists who see him as an inspiration. In this essay, I want to counter two of these claims, and thereby restore the good name of Che and his supporters.

One of the most common claims is that Che was racist against black people. The only evidence of this ever cited comes from a section in Che’s book The Motorcycle Diaries, in which he writes about his experience in a Venezuelan slum. He writes that the black people he encountered there were ‘indolent and lazy.’ He also states that the black people in Caracas were racially inferior to the Portuguese [1]. These statements were written by Guevara in 1952 when he was 24 and encountered black people for basically the first time in his life, during his motorcycle trip around South America. This kind of culture shock would understandably produce an emotional reaction, though this is of course no excuse for bigotry. It is, however, important to provide this context.

Many scholars object to the characterization of Guevara as racist. These include Mark Sawyer, a UCLA political science professor, and New York University professor Jorge Castañeda, author of Compañero: The Life and Death of Ché Guevara [2]. Capitalists and their apologists attempt to pass off Che’s racism as an undisputed fact, but not even bourgeois academics are willing to concede this point.

This can also be said of those who knew Che. Che’s Congolese teenage Swahili interpreter for his African expedition,  Freddy Ilanga, lived in Cuba until 2006, and his dying wish was to erect a lighthouse memorial to Guevara in Africa. In 2005 he told the BBC that Che “showed the same respect to black people as he did to whites” [3]. (Emphasis mine)

The full context of this particular statement is addressed by biographer Jon Lee Anderson in Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, which is said to be Che’s most well-researched biography [4].  Anderson notes they were “stereotypical of white Argentine arrogance and condescension” [5]. These statements, while obviously indefensible, were by no means exclusive to Che himself. The fact that those who accuse Che of racism do so without also indicating the broader cultural issues of white Argentinians shows that they are being dishonest. They do not care about the well-being of black people, they are only interested in slandering communism and continuing the subjugation of oppressed working people the world over.

At the end of his continental trip, Guevara announced himself a transformed man and even denounced the racism he encountered while living in Miami for a month, awaiting his return to Argentina [6]. Essentially, the quote was from before he was “Che,” in both literal nickname and political beliefs.

While the statements regarding black people are certainly despicable, Che more than made up for them through the actions he took later in life. In August 1961, (nine years after his “indolent” remark), Guevara attacked the U.S. for discrimination against black people and the actions of the KKK [7]. This matched his declarations in 1964 before the United Nations (Twelve years after his “indolent” remark), where Guevara denounced the U.S. policy towards their black population [8]. Further, in 1953, while traveling through Bolivia with his friend Carlos “Calica” Ferrer, Guevara became indignant when he observed that all the dark-skinned indigenous Indians had to be sprayed with DDT (ostensibly to kill lice) before being allowed to enter the Ministry of Peasant Affairs [9].

In 1959, Che pushed for racially integrating the schools and universities in Cuba, years before they were racially integrated in the southern United States [10]. For context, the Alabama National Guard was needed to force Governor George Wallace aside at the University of Alabama in 1963 and forced school busing wasn’t enacted in the U.S. until 1971 [11]. These are just a few events that disprove the idea that Che was a racist. There are numerous others, such as Che leading all-black revolutionary group in the Congo [12].

Many prominent figures in the black liberation movement took note of these great deeds, praising Che as a friend and comrade. The black anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon proclaimed Che to be “the world symbol of the possibilities of one man” [13]. African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela also praised Che for his efforts in the struggle for liberation [14]. Stokely Carmichael followed suit [15]. In light of all this, we can say that the idea that Che was racist is at best intellectually dishonest and at worst totally false.

The other major lie is that Che was a mass murderer, killing thousands of innocent people in pursuit of personal power. This was also debunked succinctly in Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. In it, he says, “I have yet to find a single credible source pointing to a case where Che executed ‘an innocent.’ Those persons executed by Guevara or on his orders were condemned for the usual crimes punishable by death at times of war or in its aftermath: desertion, treason, or crimes such as rape, torture, or murder. I should add that my research spanned five years and included anti-Castro Cubans among the Cuban-American exile community in Miami and elsewhere”  [16]. Many of the people Che killed were former members of the Batista government, a fascist dictatorship put in place by the US to serve corporations [17]. There is certainly discussion to be had about whether it is morally correct to kill people for desertion during wartime, but it is incorrect to say that Che was a “mass murderer.” On the contrary, Che Guevara was a freedom fighter. All those who dream of a better world would do well to follow his example.

Briefly, I would like to address the claim that Che burned books and music. This, like the above claims, is completely false. This claim was popularized by Humberto Fontova, a Cuban exile, in his book Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him. This book has been exposed as false even by bourgeois academics.  Journalist and Buenos Aires bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires Michael Casey reviewed Exposing the Real Che Guevara in his 2009 book Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image. Casey described it as “an art form of mixing frustration with ridicule.” Casey said that Fontova’s prose was a marriage of Ann Coulter with the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, and that Fontova “basically yells at his readers, mixing a sarcastic wit with a touch of self-deprecation until it is overwhelmed by disdain for his opponents.” Lastly, Casey observed that Fontova often “lathers himself into a rage” when it comes to the issue of Che Guevara, noting that his barrage of hyperbole leads him to describe Guevara as an “assassin”, “sadist”, “bumbler”, “fool”, and “whimpering-sniveling-blubbering coward” who is “revered by millions of imbeciles.”Other descriptions by Fontova of Guevara, cited by Casey, were “shallow”, “boorish”, “epically stupid”, “a fraud”, a “murdering swine”, an “intellectual vacuum”, and an “insufferable Argentine jackass” [18].

The book is nothing more than propaganda, unsubstantiated and politically motivated. Even the former CIA officer Robert Chapman admits that Humberto exaggerates his claims [19] If even the imperialists are unwilling to support the author’s claims, then we can reasonably claim that the claims are false.

Anti-communists, as we have seen, are more than willing to perpetuate lies about Che Guevara. Many would be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, saying that they are merely unaware that they are making false claims. I am not so kind. Anti-communists are well aware that their statements about Guevara are lies. They deliberately perpetuate these myths. The reason for this is simple. Anti-Communists know that Che Guevara represents something for the working class. He is proof that the workers can liberate themselves from the oppression of capitalism and imperialism. This is why it is important to defend him: he is a symbol of what struggle can accomplish.

  1. Guevara, Che. The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey. Melbourne: Ocean, 2003. P. 62
  2. “Did Ché Guevara Write ‘extensively’ about the Superiority of White Europeans? Rubio Says Yes.” @politifact.
  3. Doyle, Mark. “BBC NEWS | Africa | DR Congo’s Rebel-turned-brain Surgeon.” BBC News. BBC, 2005.
  4. “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.” Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life Columbia University
  5. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Grove, 2010. P. 92
  6. Guevara, Che. “Economics Cannot Be Separated from Politics.” Economics Cannot Be Separated from Politics
  7. Babbitt, Susan E. José Martí, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and global development ethics: the battle for ideas. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
  8. Ibid
  9. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: a revolutionary life. New York: Grove Press, 1997 p. 101
  10. Pedro Pérez Sarduy, AfroCuba, Center for Cuban Studies, p. 88
  11. E. Culpepper Clark, The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation’s Last Stand at the University of Alabama Oxford University Press, 1995. P. 180
  12. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: a revolutionary life. New York: Grove Press, 1997, p. 769. Op. Cit.
  13. Winter, Mick. Cuba for the misinformed: facts from the forbidden island. Napa, CA: Westsong Publishing, 2013 p. 59
  14. Samuel Willard Crompton, Nelson Mandela: Ending Apartheid in South Africa Chelsea House Publishing. New York. 2006.  p. 45
  15. Winter, Mick. Cuba for the misinformed: facts from the forbidden island. Napa, CA: Westsong Publishing, 2013 p. 59 Op. Cit.
  16. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: a revolutionary life. New York: Grove Press, 1997, p. 92. Op. Cit.
  17. Timothy Alexander Guzman, “Cuba Pre-1959: the Rise and Fall of a U.S. Backed Dictator” Global Research July 26, 2015
  18. Casey, Michael (2009). Che’s afterlife: the legacy of an image. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 249–50.
  19. Chapman, Robert D. “Righting Cuban History”. International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. 27 (2): 421–4.

Marxism, Identity Politics, and Worker’s Power

Often, proponents of social justice and the liberation of oppressed people claim that Marxism is not relevant in their struggles. According to these critics, Marxism focuses too heavily on the working class and the economic sphere, to the exclusion of identity-based oppressions like race, sexuality, gender, or ability. Marxism, assert the critics, is class reductionist. This claim has led many well-intentioned activists to abandon Marxism in favor of atomized movements that struggle around one specific site of identity-based oppression. The introduction of intersectionality theory has alleviated this problem somewhat, but those of us who seriously seek to end oppression still have a ways to go. I will argue in this essay that Marxism is not incapable of addressing ‘non-economic’ identity-based oppressions. On the contrary, Marxism’s assertion that the working class is the true revolutionary agent makes it the ideal political strategy for countering all forms of oppression.

The charge of class reductionism is not a new one. Friedrich Engels, Marx’s close collaborator, had to deal with it himself. In a letter to J. Bloch in 1890, Engels shows that Marxism is not economically reductionist or deterministic. He writes,

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.” [1].

Marxism merely holds that the economic base of society is the first factor in determining what cultural, political, and social institutions that society will have. It does not pretend that these other institutions are irrelevant or ‘less real’ than economics. It is important to note that neither Marx nor Engels were infallible. Their rejection of the free love movement and their very low opinion of workers in India serve as examples of their own bigotry, which must be recognized and combated. The basic point, though, that their philosophy allows for an analysis of oppression, this remains true. It is also worth noting that the Marxist method has been used to critique the racism of Marx and Engels, most notably by Robert Biel in his book Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement.

In fact, an analysis of these other (‘non-economic’) institutions is key in understanding the nature of the working class as a whole. Proponents of identity politics often see the working class as exclusively white and male, but this is far from the case. Some forty percent of entry-level service jobs are occupied by Black and Latino workers, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics [2]. The unpaid labor of homemakers, who are mostly women, is a key part of  the continuation of capitalism, and something that Marxists have devoted considerable time to analyze. Engels makes a similar argument in his book The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State. Socialists have always held that the working class is typically made up of the most oppressed people. Issues of identity-based oppression are not separate from issues of worker’s power. On the contrary, they are integral to it. Racism is obviously more damaging for a minimum-wage black worker than it is for a CEO. Only the latter can afford a yacht to take their mind off of being jeered at by racists. The former, on the other hand, is subject to discriminatory housing policies and hiring practices from which they cannot possibly escape. Many workers of color are forced to deal with racism in the workplace, but they cannot alleviate this by finding another job. This is not to diminish the effects of racism on members of the capitalist class. Racism must be combated wherever it arises. My point here is that race and Class interact with one another dialectically. Each is affected by the other. Class is not separate from race, gender, or the like. In racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive societies, these things will play a role in determining class and will also exacerbate its effects. As J. Moufawad-Paul argues in his book Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain, “class is always clothed in the garments of oppression.” [3].

This is why socialists have a long history of fighting oppression. After the direct intervention of Lenin (who wrote extensively on anti colonialism and the right of nations to self-determination), the US Communist Party initiated a campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men who were falsely convicted of gang rape in an Alabama court and sentenced to death in 1931. Many black organizations shunned the case due to its sensitive subject matter. The NAACP did not provide a lawyer to the young men until after they had already been convicted. The CP, however, undertook an international campaign that gained wide support among African-Americans because of its principled defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Ahmed Shawki writes, “A May 16, 1931 protest that began with a March of several hundred Communists…ended with a mass rally involving more than three thousand black Harlemites. At the rally, the throng heard from one of the Scottsboro mothers and from Communist speakers….The Scottsboro Campaign carried on for years with events like this one, which succeeded in stopping the Scottsboro executions and ultimately freeing the men.” [4]. The CP’s black membership had grown from 200 in 1930 to 7,000 in 1938. This was at a time when segregation was still legal in the South (and legal in all but name in the North), and there were virtually no other integrated organizations in the United States. The Communist Party had many problems, but the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys shows that Marxism is not only capable of addressing identity-based oppressions, but that it can be successful.

The history of socialists fighting racial oppression goes back even further than this. Marx himself had an impressive history of doing so. Not only did he advocate for abolition, he was also the head of an organization that prevented the English from entering the Civil War on the side of the South [5]. Many German socialist organizations literally took up arms against the South in the Civil War [6]. Historically, Socialists have never shied away from fighting identity-based oppressions. Socialists of today should not and have not abandoned this.

Now that we have established that Marxism is not antithetical to the fight against identity-based oppressions, I would like to argue that Marxism represents the only coherent political strategy for ending oppression. This is not in spite of its focus on the working class. Far from it. It is only the working class that possesses both the interest and the ability to eradicate oppression. To prove this, I will focus primarily on the question of racism. This is not because I view other forms of oppression as less important than racism. It is simply that there seems to be a good deal more scholarly work on the origins of American racism than other oppressions.

It is certainly true that Marxists understand racism as a product of capitalism. This outlook does not translate, as the critics claim, to the position that class is more important than race. If this were the case, why would the most prolific black liberation movement in United States history adopt Marxism as an ideology and strategy? The BPP and other Marxists understood that locating the source of racial oppression is the first step in mapping out a political strategy to eradicate it [7]. In separating identity from class, liberals accept several fundamentally reactionary views about the nature of oppression. They implicitly assert that racism is a natural part of the human condition. They hold that racism has existed from time immemorial, or even that it is hardwired into us. This would, of course, mean that it is impossible to do away with racism. In refusing to examine the ways in which racism is bound up with capitalism, liberals bar themselves from taking any significant anti-racist action. Racism and other forms of oppression, on this view, cannot be eliminated, only mitigated or blunted. The oppressed can never be fully liberated within a liberal framework.

Before we can get into how racism perpetuates capitalism, and vice versa, we must have a basic understanding of what capitalism actually is. Capitalism does not mean markets, it is not based on an equal exchange between bosses and workers. Capitalism is a system based on exploitation. It is a system in which a small minority expropriates and controls the wealth produced by a laboring majority. These workers must sell their labor on the market in order to survive. The profit of capitalists is directly proportional to the amount of surplus value from the workers. The foundational relationship of capitalism is that between the bosses and the workers, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This relationship is essentially the same, whether the boss owns a factory or a restaurant, whether the worker produces car parts or flips burgers. At the end of the day, capitalists get more out of the exchange than workers do. That is why we have constant struggle over wages and why capitalists have become so adept at crushing organized labor.

This is also the reason that high levels of unemployment are to the advantage of the capitalists. It forces workers into competition with one another, allowing the capitalists to further exploit labor. It is worth noting that unemployment is particularly high for African-Americans, at 8.8% compared to 4.3% for whites [8]. Thus, capitalism forces workers to compete with one another over artificially scarce resources, not just jobs but housing and education as well. These last two examples are also disproportionately laid at the feet of workers of color. According to data published in Black Demographics, “The percentage of Black homeowners decreased between 2005 and 2012 from 46% to 42.5%. Much of these losses can be attributed to the housing crisis where so many Americans lost their houses to foreclosure. This also means more than half of all African Americans rent.” [9]. Education does not look much better. To quote US News,

More than 2 million black students attend schools where 90 percent of the student body is made up of minority students. Dozens of school districts have current desegregation orders. Minority students represent 57 percent of the population in “dropout factories” — schools where the senior class has 60 percent or fewer students who entered as freshmen — but only 30 percent of the population in all schools.

On average, schools serving more minority populations have less-experienced, lower-paid teachers who are less likely to be certified. A report from the Center for American Progress found that a 10 percentage point increase in students of color at a school is associated with a decrease in per-pupil spending of $75. Disparities in course offerings mean students of color have fewer opportunities to challenge themselves with more difficult courses — the type of courses needed to prepare for a four-year college degree or for a high-paying career in STEM. [10].

Capitalism, as a system that is based on competition, systematically leaves African-Americans behind. The precise reasons for this will hopefully become clear as we go on. It is this competition that lays the basis for divisions among workers. Capitalists as a class have a material interest in promoting bigoted ideas, which prevent the workers from seeing that their real enemy is not the other worker, who is also forced to sell their labor in order to survive, but the boss who exploits them both. A united working class, conscious of its collective power as the producers of wealth in society and held together by the conviction that an injury to one is an injury to all, that is the last thing that the bosses want to see. They will fight, and have fought, tooth and nail to prevent this from happening. This includes the use of not only physical force but also strict ideological indoctrination. This is what Marx meant when he said that “the ruling ideas are in every epoch the ideas of the ruling class” [11].

Given the particular history of the US as a settler-colonial state, the ruling class has learned that racism is the most important of these ideas. That history tells us that racism arose in the context of the African slave trade, without which capitalism could not have emerged. Marx wrote, “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as…machinery. Without slavery you have no cotton. Without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value” [12]. It is impossible for me to go through the entire four hundred year history of slavery here, but I will try to outline in very broad detail what I think is important for our purposes here.

To begin, it is estimated that as many as 12 million Africans were brought by force to South America, the Caribbean, and North America [13]. Somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen percent (15%) of these people died during the middle passage [14]. This amounts to a death toll of approximately 1.8 million from transport alone. These unwilling passengers were chained like stacks of firewood for fear of mutiny, unable to so much as change position for months at a time [15]. The conditions that awaited them in the colonies were not much better. The Atlantic Slave Trade is, to this day, the largest forced population transfer in history [16].

Looking back on slavery today, it is hard to imagine how such barbarity could have ever taken place. Because we live in a world so seeped in racist ideology, it is very tempting to say that what led to slavery in the first place was racism. But, as Trinidadian historian of slavery Eric Williams writes, “slavery was not borne of racism, rather racism is the consequence of slavery” [17]. The concept of race has not always existed. It had to be invented to justify how it was that in a land which proclaimed to be a bastion of freedom and equality, human beings were subjected to treatment far worse than animals. It is important to say here that race as a category has absolutely no bearing on biology. Alan R. Templeton, professor of biology in Arts and Sciences at Washington University, has analyzed DNA from global human populations that reveal the patterns of human evolution over the past one million years. He shows that while there is plenty of genetic variation in humans, most of the variation is individual variation. While between-population variation exists, it is either too small, which is a quantitative variation, or it is not the right qualitative type of variation. It does not mark historical sub lineages of humanity [18]. Race is just as made up, as Dr. Barbara-Jeanne Fields says, as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny [19].

Of course, Santa and the Easter Bunny are stories that children eventually grow out of. This is not so for ideologies. These are not simply handed down from generation to generation. They are perpetuated by material conditions in society. Racism emerged from, and continues to be reproduced by, political structures that were erected to satisfy a particular set of economic interests. Fields writes,

“probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations, as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy, rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery the ‘ultimate segregator.’ He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ultimate method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose when they could have achieved the same ends so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa….No one dreams of analyzing serfdom in Russia as a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate…superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists”   [20].

Fields is going after a circular argument that is present everywhere from racial justice movements to academia, which essentially says that racism is both the cause and product of slavery. In actuality, slavery was an economic institution that racism was created to serve. Racism serves a similar role in capitalism today.

The point here is not say that racism is ‘not real,’ or that is less important than economics. The point is also not to say that racism is merely an ideological issue, and that all we need to do to break racism is wage ideological struggle. On the contrary, racism has a strong material basis. In order to make one group feel superior to another group, you must give the first group more benefits than the second. In the time of slavery, this bribery took the form of land. Today, it manifests as housing, education, employment, and unionization [21]. Marxists would not be arguing that workers must be united if we did not think there was anything dividing them in the first place.

Slavery, which as we now know preceeded racism, was invaluable to the planter class. Their very existence as a class depended on it. Slavers and slave traders profited immensely from the slave trade. This is a lesson in the limitless barbarity that spawned capitalism. It can also help explain why modern capitalists know no bounds when it comes to securing their ability to make profits.

An important point is that racism has not always existed. It is an ideology that emerged out of a particular set of circumstances for a particular set of reasons. To see racism in this way is to assert that it can be done away with. If the circumstances that give rise to and perpetuate racism (competition among workers, exploitation, and economic inequality) are combatted, so too will racism begin to fade. What we have to is examine the material conditions from which it did emerge, as well as those that enable its continuation. Only Marxism is capable of examining, through its critique of capitalism, is capable of examining these institutions. Liberalism, focused on a narrow identity politics that separates identity from economics, can only mitigate racism. Because it does not explain how racism arose, it cannot concoct a political strategy to vanquish it. To pretend that racism is built into us is not only wrong, it actually disarms the activists who are trying to fight it. Only the materialist approach of Marxism can effectively liberate the oppressed.

The above analysis shows that to claim Marxism as class reductionist is to misconstrue the Marxist understanding of ideology. The victory of working class revolution hinges entirely on the ability of the working class as a whole to rid itself of all backwards ideas that prevent it from uniting against its common enemy, the capitalist class. Because of the aforementioned material base of racism in the United States, this necessitates a conscious struggle against white supremacy as well as capitalism. The two are intertwined, but distinct from one another. Marxism is not reductionist, but materialist.

Marxism must, therefore, fight racism and all other oppressions on their own terms. This is what Lenin meant when he said that the working class must become “the tribune of the oppressed” [22]. He wrote, “working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected” [23]. Marxists are not against the independent struggles of oppressed identities. They merely seek to unite these struggles into a socialist movement that can create a better world for all of us.

This unity cannot come at the expense of the oppressed. Working class unity does not mean that black workers should put aside their differences and organize with racists. Rather, it means that black workers should smash white supremacy in order to create a material basis for unity. This must be done on two levels. The first is by attacking the material basis of white supremacy, the privileges that white workers have over black workers. Without this material basis, the ideology of white supremacy becomes must harder to justify. However, the ideology will not disappear immediately after the material basis for it is smashed. It will linger, much in the same way that capitalist ideology remains under socialism-as a kind of “cultural stain.” Oppressed workers must attack oppression on both levels to ensure the victory of the revolution. In short. “working class unity” as a practical aim is not about forcing unity where none exists, it is about creating a material basis for unity. We can only do this by struggling against all forms of oppression. Only when the working class struggles against bigotry as a force in its own right can it hope to be united.

It is precisely the power of the working class-the power to withhold their labor at the point of production-that allows these movements to become united. The working class is the only social force that can become the tribune of the oppressed, it is the only social force that can end oppression once and for all. The remainder of this essay will be spent examining why this is the case.

Firstly, we have already determined that the working class is always made up of oppressed identities. They will obviously have an interest in ending oppression. Their status as workers gives them the ability to do this. By striking to demand a restitution of affirmative action, or an end to police brutality, workers are hitting the capitalists where it hurts most: their wallets. Whether or not strike demands are purely economic, workers still hold power over the entire system. They can use this power to strike blows at oppressive systems beyond exploitation. The very fact that solidarity strikes (the practice of striking for political rather than economic gains) are illegal in the US is enough evidence of this point [24]. Capitalists care only about their bottom line. The power of workers to affect that bottom line grants them immense influence over society, if only they can be made aware of it.

The ability of the working class to resist oppression extends to more than just its members who themselves belong to oppressed identities. Because of the concentrated and social character of capitalist production, workers of all identities are forced to struggle against their bosses together. In the course of this struggle, it becomes more and more difficult to accept the bigoted ideas workers have been fed their entire lives. It is precisely their position at the point of production, and their need to struggle collectively, that enables the working class to combat oppression.

As an example of this, we should look at the 1972 GM strikes in Flint and Cleveland. At first, black people were given work only when employers were trying to break a strike. This is further evidence that unemployment and competition among workers are integral parts of the capitalist system. Employers forced white workers and black workers to compete for the same job. This was during the Great Depression, when unemployment was already high and there was no union at the GM factory. In the 1950s, the company figured out that it could make more profit by letting black workers into the plant. They were initially given the worst jobs available, forced to slave for hours over sweltering foundries. A key reason for this was that it physically separated white and black workers, preventing them from developing a sense of unity. Even the capitalists are aware that the concentrated character of production gives workers a tremendous degree of power.

Yet the problems began even before black workers were admitted.  Most whites went on strike to protest the addition of black workers to the plant.  They had come to see black workers as having fundamentally different interests to them, because of the competition over jobs they had been forced into [25]. During the strikes, a contingent of black workers picketed outside the plant. The only black worker known to participate inside was Roscoe Vanzant. Nearly all of the workers he associated with were openly, vehemently racist. By the end of the six week strike, however, these same workers voted that Vanzant would be the one to lead the strikers on their victory march. This symbolic gesture is a testament to the bridges that working class struggle can build. It was through the struggle that many workers cast aside their prejudices. They understood that it was only in unifying that they could win. This led to an incredible transformation. Workers carried themselves with more confidence, they spoke up to people who had once been considered their superiors. Through struggle, they unlearned bigoted ideas. The worker became, as one socialist organizer put it, “an entirely different human being” [26].

This ability to unlearn is a key piece of Marxism. It is one of the reasons why we place such importance on the working class. As workers struggle side-by-side for the same thing, against the same enemy, it becomes more and more difficult to accept the bigoted lessons taught to them so persistently. Marx explains, “the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement” [27].

Another example of this practical movement can be found in the Russian Revolution, in which sexism was challenged on a scale never before seen. The idea that women naturally belong in the home raising children, or that they should defer to the authority of men, came to be seen as contrary to the interests of workers. One Bolshevik woman leader observed this effect at a meeting of revolutionary youth. She reported: “One of the items was that all members must learn to sew. Then one young fellow, a Bolshevik, asked: ‘Why should everyone learn to sew? Girls, of course, must be able to sew, otherwise, later on, they will not be able to sew buttons on their husbands’ trousers, but why should we all learn?’ These words raised a storm of indignation. Not only the girls, but everybody expressed indignation and jumped up and down from their seats. ‛The wife must sew buttons on trousers? What do you mean? Do you want to uphold the old slavery of women? The wife is her husband’s comrade, not his servant!’ The lad who proposed that only women learn to sew had to surrender.” Because the Bolsheviks were the political force most committed to workers taking power in 1917, they were also the organisation that devoted the greatest effort to organising women workers. They organised among laundresses and soldiers’ wives, two of the most downtrodden groups of women, and produced pamphlets and other literature addressing the specific conditions of women workers. The Bolsheviks recognized the link between the fate of workers’ power and women’s liberation [28].

In short, the working class is unique because it is the one class that actually has the material interest and ability to challenge all forms of oppression. Fighting racism, for a worker, is not a moral question. It is a question of what is best for them in the long term. It is in the working class’ position at the point of production that makes it the universal class: the one class capable of putting an end to oppression and restructuring society in the interests of the immense majority. All those who seek to create this kind of society should embrace Marxism.

It should be noted that socialist organizers played an important role in bringing out this tendency in workers during the Flint strikes. The story of Vanzant was not a chance situation. At the same time that he was being voted in as leader of the victory march, black picketers on the outside faced harassment from white strikers. How do we push one result and not the other? As I said above, we need to wage an all-out war against white supremacy, breaking the privilege of white workers and elevating black workers to their level wherever possible. Ideas and organization on the ground are critical in this regard. Socialists were active during the strike. Kermit Dahlinger, a socialist organizer, made sure that white workers received “a decent anti-racist education” [29]. This ‘education’ often involved violence against the racist strikers. Socialist organizers have historically understood the need to take drastic measures to create unity among the working class, as I mentioned above.

This experience shows that the development of an advanced section of the working class, a vanguard, is necessary. The workers with advanced consciousness can help bring out the innate desire of all workers to end oppression. Because of the pervasiveness of bourgeois ideology, this tendency is often suppressed. It is critical that revolutionaries do their part to bring it out into the open again. It is our job to ensure that the workers make use of their ability to end oppression.

The working class is the only group that has this ability, and Marxism is the only ideology that recognizes the centrality of this group. Marxism also understands oppression in a materialist way, meaning that Marxism is the only ideology which believes that oppression can and should be eradicated. It is for these reasons that all those who are interested in the well-being of oppressed people should embrace Marxism and organize for a socialist revolution.

  1. Historical Materialism (Marx, Engels, Lenin), p. 294 – 296; Progress Publishers, 1972
  2. “Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  3. J Moufawad-Paul, Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain John Hunt Publishing, 2016.
  4.  Ahmed Shawki, Black Liberation and Socialism p. 119 2006.
  5. Andrew Zimmerman, The Civil War Was a Victory for Marx and Working Class Radicals New York Times. July 2013.
  6. Donny Schraffenberger, Karl Marx and the American Civil War. International Socialist Review No. 8
  7. Maoist International Movement, The Black Panther. p.  14, April 27, 1969
  8. “Current Population Survey (CPS).” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  9. “HOUSING.” BlackDemographics.com.
  10. Lindsey Cook, “US Housing: Still Separate and Unequal” US News Jan. 28, 2015
  11. Karl Marx. “B. The Illusion of the Epoch.” The German Ideology. Karl Marx 1845.
  12. Karl Marx. “The Poverty of Philosophy – Chapter 2.1. Marxists Internet Archive
  13. “Facts about the Slave Trade and Slavery.” Facts about the Slave Trade and Slavery | The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. Eric Williams, “Slavery and Racism” Stratford.org
  18. Alan R. Templeton, Washington University, October 1998.
  19.  Barbara-Jeanne Fields, Slavery, Racism, and Ideology in the United States. New Left Review, May-June 1990
  20. Ibid
  21. J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat, PM Press 2014.
  22. Lenin, V.I. “Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?: Trade-Unionist Politics And Social-Democratic Politics.”
  23. Ibid
  24. Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit:  I do Mind Dying, Haymarket Books 1999
  25. Ibid
  26. Ibid
  27. Karl Marx. “B. The Illusion of the Epoch.” The German Ideology. Karl Marx 1845. Op. Cit.
  28. “Women in the Russian Revolution | Red Flag.” Women in the Russian Revolution | Red Flag
  29. Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit:  I do Mind Dying, Haymarket Books 1999. Op. Cit.