After the results of the U.S. midterms rolled in, the Democratic Party collectively breathed a sigh of relief. The predicted Republican “red wave” turned into a trickle as Democrats won key races across the country, retaining their Senate majority and losing the House by a smaller-than-expected margin.
Democrats’ elation is understandable. But something curious is also happening: some on the Left are claiming that there wasa different kind of red wave — of socialism, that is. Jacobinproclaimed that “the elections were one of the best the Left has had in memory,” and DSA claimed the organization — and the progressive movement — had “racked up wins.”
To be sure, progressive ideas and ballot measures found support across the country, and it’s clear that many sectors of the U.S. electorate are further to the left than the two parties. But to claim that November 8 was a victory for the Left is a distortion of reality, and an attempt to bolster the failed strategy of building working-class power in a capitalist party.
Victories for “Leftist” Candidates?
Writing in Jacobin, Branko Marcetic claims, “Centrists were wrong: Left-Wing candidates won.” Accompanying the article was a picture of John Fetterman, the candidate from Pennsylvania who beat out Dr. Oz for a Senate seat.
Fetterman may hold progressive views on certain issues, like cannabis legalization, but let’s be clear: he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a leftist, and he moved right throughout his campaign. He chauvinistically said he will be “tough on China,” boasting that he was the only Senate candidate from Pennsylvania who hadn’t done business in or praised the country. He has emphasized his support for police and said the movement to defund them was “always absurd.” And his support for fracking shows his allegiances lie with fossil capital, not with people or the planet.
Even on issues where Fetterman is not just a middle-of-the-road Democrat, the leftist bar is on the floor. Marcetic writes that Fetterman is “moving toward universal healthcare” and cites the politician’s support for a $15 minimum wage as a leftist credential. But Fetterman has moved away from supporting Medicare for All, the previous litmus test for progressives, and even politicians like Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer support a $15 wage — an unacceptably low goal amid historic inflation.
Fetterman is not alone in being forcefully shoehorned into leftism in order to fit in Jacobin’s success narrative. Jacobin also praises Pennsylvania’s pro-cop governor-elect, Josh Shapiro, as well as incoming Vermont senator Peter Welch who traded healthcare stocks while fighting to pass a bill favorable to these same companies. Branko Marcetic even claims that Tim Ryan, who increasingly moved to the right (and lost) in his race against Republican JD Vance in Ohio, “borrowed somewhat from the Left’s playbook.”
These politicians are not leftists, and the 2022 midterms were not a leftist wave, but don’t take our word for it — just read the bourgeois press, which is touting November 8 as a victory for centrism. A New York Times article states that, “In battleground states and swing districts across the country, voters voiced their support for moderation.” The same publication muses about how the Democratic Party can build “John Fetterman 2.0” to secure more victories in Pennsylvania and beyond. An article in The Atlantic titled “How Moderates Won the Midterms” emphasizes the winning strategy of “Democrats who focused on the economy, eschewed the party’s progressive wing, and reached out to traditional Republican voters.”
Clearly, neither the politicians themselves nor the Democratic Party see the midterms as a win for leftism. So why are some on the Left, like Jacobin and DSA, pushing this narrative?
These leftist sectors’ strategy hinges on supporting candidates in the Democratic Party and trying to move these politicians leftward. Whether pushing for a “dirty break” with the Democrats or for a realignment of the Party, success is measured by the electoral wins of nominally progressive candidates running on the Democratic Party line. By their logic, socialism can be won through the ballot box if politicians merely adopt enough progressive policy positions.
Framing John Fetterman, Josh Shapiro, and others as victories for the Left helps vindicate Jacobin and DSA’s strategy. But as history has shown, time and time again, this strategy is a losing bet — even when it comes to more progressive candidates like members of the “Squad” in the House.
More Squad = More Socialism?
Centrist candidates aside, it’s true that the Squad expanded its ranks. Maxwell Frost — Congress’s first Generation Z lawmaker — won his race in Florida, and will be joined in the House by Texas’s Greg Casar, Illinois’s Delia Ramirez, and Summer Lee, Pennsylvania’s first Black female congressperson. These individuals espouse progressive positions on many issues, and their election shows that progressive ideas are gaining steam. But do more Squad members mean that congress can be turned into a vehicle for leftist change?
The records of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and other Squad members show that when push comes to shove, these representatives almost always fall in line behind the capitalist establishment. They repeatedly vote for big military budgets and even for increasing police budgets, and support imperialist intervention abroad. Jamaal Bowman is a staunch ally of Israel and, together with AOC, voted to give more military aid to the apartheid regime. And as their unanimous vote to renominate Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker shows, they will never fundamentally oppose the pillars of U.S. capitalism. Meanwhile, progressives’ policy goals, when they are not defeated outright, are increasingly watered down to make them palatable to the defenders of the status quo on both sides of the aisle.
Nonetheless, many on the Left believe that every new member of the Squad, and even the addition of one or two slightly more progressive senators, means we’re one step closer to winning progressive victories in areas like climate change, healthcare, and poverty. The argument goes something like this: if we only had more “democratic socialist” votes in Congress, we would finally be able to pass legislation like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
As Tempest highlighted after the 2020 election, this idea that the Left is gradually winning stems from “an electoralist perspective that equates winning elections with ‘building power’ and that uses electoral victories as a gauge of strength.”
But this strategy misses a key point: these politicians are funneling progressive energy into a racist, imperialist, capitalist party. Once in power, they provide left cover for the Democratic Party’s politics and rightward shifts, and end up upholding the very systems they speak out against.
We’ve seen how the Democrats de-fanged and co-opted the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, with politicians who two years ago wore kente cloth and decried George Floyd’s death now positioning themselves as pro-cop and “tough on crime” after the biggest social uprising in the country’s history. Democrats are doing the same with reproductive rights, using abortion as a pawn to win elections. On imperialism and the economy, Democrats hardly diverge from Republicans at all beyond supporting more state-interventionist approaches to social spending. And yet Congress’s “democratic socialists” have repeatedly worked tirelessly to get out the vote for these politicians, like AOC hitting the campaign trail with New York governor Kathy Hochul.
Elections Can be a Socialist Tactic
November 8 was less of a victory for Democrats and progressives than it was a repudiation of the extreme Right and GOP, and the records of progressives in Congress show that running as Democrats does not guarantee progressive wins — these candidates water down their program and betray the working class at every turn.
History has shown, time and time again, that the reformist Left’s project of building socialism within the Democratic Party is failing. As a result, sectors like Jacobin have to revise their goals downwards, shifting to the right alongside the party they claim they can to reform, to the point that they claim that even politicians who are pro-police, support fracking, and trade healthcare stocks are victories for the Left.
This does not mean, however, that leftists should reject the electoral arena: elections are a powerful tool in leftists’ arsenal, but not through the Democratic Party.
Socialists need to organize independently of capitalist parties, and run for elections as part of our own party with an openly socialist program. Running in elections allows us to popularize our ideas, denounce capitalist oppression and exploitation, and indict capitalist democracy. A presence on the political stage helps us engage with those who are looking for alternatives to this wretched system that has nothing to offer the working class and oppressed.
The 2022 midterms were not a “red wave” of socialism, and it sets back our struggle to pretend that they were. We don’t win by shoehorning patently un-leftist politicians into a leftist mold. We don’t win by voting for these politicians, and, above all, we don’t win by working inside a party that’s inherently opposed to our class interests. We win by fighting independently of the two parties of capital, with our own revolutionary party, uncompromising on issues of exploitation, oppression, and imperialism.
On Tuesday, three years after the start of the October 2019 rebellion that shook not only Chile but all of South America, President Gabriel Boric delivered a speech that attacked the participants of the revolt. The speech represents a continuation of the policies of his Apruebo Dignidad (I Approve Dignity) coalition that criminalize the protesters and guarantee the impunity of the Carabineros (the Chilean federal police) after the massive human rights violations these forces carried out.
In his speech, Boric stated that, “The social uprising was fertile ground for the expansion of destructive violent behavior, which has left victims and aftereffects. We must say this unequivocally no matter our political leanings.” He also points out that “the violence turned against the very causes of the uprising by producing a growing wave of rejection in society”.
These statements could easily have come from the right wing but today are voiced by the government of the Frente Amplio (the Broad Front) and Communist Party, and the resuscitated center-left Concertación coalition parties.
Boric and his coalition, which claims to be progressive, no longer disguise their contempt for the October revolt, nor do they even argue that it was a case of violence on both sides. Instead, three years after the rebellion, Boric is repeating the same arguments used by the right wing, criminalizing the demonstrators.
“This type of violence is not innocent; it causes harm, encourages hatred, promotes criminality and ends up promoting a return to an anti-democratic past”, Boric noted, trying to blame the protestors for the repressive policies of the State, which he now leads and which is carrying out a violent campaign against migrants and the indigenous Mapuche people.
While proclaiming himself as part of the “Left,” he puts forward what’s clearly a right-wing policy: “We on the Left denounce more categorically than anyone these behaviors. We must confront them without hesitation, denounce them and punish them”.
“Social protest cannot be synonymous with violence. It cannot excuse or justify violence, because violence goes against its principles and objectives and runs counter to the will of the majority,” insisted Boric. Conspicuously absent from his statement was any reference to former President Sebastian Piñera or his responsibility for the repression of the October revolt.
Faced with popular discontent, Boric cynically declared that “we cannot build a fairer country by burning the buses in which people travel, or leaving people without traffic lights to cross the street, or business owners and workers without their source of income. It is simply not acceptable.”
He continued: “neither is it acceptable to attack police officers, who are, after all, State officials who are performing a service entrusted to them by the democratic system,” as if the police were just like healthcare workers or teachers, and not the armed wing of the State, created precisely to quell popular discontent.
As the icing on the cake, the president declared that “human rights violations, such as injuring eyes, sexual aggressions, even deaths, are not acceptable. At the same time, however, the Carabineros have all our support to fight crime and ensure public order within the framework of the law …. There is no contradiction between these positions and we will defend both.”
It was another regrettable speech by Boric that demonstrates, once again, that the coalition he heads is now guided by the agenda of the right-wing. In the face of an inflationary and cost-of-living crisis affecting Chile and the entire world, Boric’s government can only offer such programs to protect big business and not the discontent of the great majority, who are now labeled as criminals for taking to the streets in protest.
First published in Spanish on October 18 in La Izquierda Diario. Translation by Molly Rosenzweig
Detroit Resident Taura Brown is being threatened with eviction by her nonprofit landlord, Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), a major nonprofit with a $7 million dollar operating budget. A participant in CCSS’ rent-to-own Tiny Homes program, Ms. Brown is being evicted in retaliation for speaking out about exploitation within the program and advocating on behalf of her neighbors, tenants in the Tiny Homes and CCSS’ homeless shelter. Her situation highlights the effects of the housing crisis and real estate speculation, and the exploitation of nonprofits.
When Ms. Brown first enrolled in the Tiny Homes program, she lacked secure housing and was practically homeless. Ms. Brown was herself a former property manager but was unable to work due to a medical diagnosis that placed her on dialysis and in need of a replacement kidney. For Ms. Brown, the Tiny Homes rent-to-own “homeownership” program represented a chance to get her life on track and secure financial stability for herself and her son.
Excited to enter the program, Ms. Brown initially had no issues with the program or its director, Rev. Faith Fowler. Yet rent-to-own programs in Detroit have a troubled history. As tenants progress through the program, property owners often move the goalposts and rely on technicalities to prevent tenants from ever making it to homeownership. Ms. Brown sensed that these programs had problems based on the fact that it was hard to get details about them, and approached the Tiny Homes program with attentiveness to detail. When she started asking questions and spoke out against exploitative practices, program inconsistencies, mandatory volunteer hours, and an attempt to evict her neighbor, her relationship with Rev. Fowler soured. Rather than respond to the concerns raised by her advocacy, CCSS moved to evict Ms. Brown.
Ms. Brown attempted to fight the eviction in court, but recently lost her appeal. She and her supporters now seek to defend her home by any means necessary. On Saturday, Oct. 8, a rally in support of Ms. Brown and others being evicted in Detroit will take place at her house. The court system is not designed or intended to support tenants – it swings in favor of tenants in direct proportion to the strength of the movement in the streets and the ability of the tenants and their community to self-organize. The success of the home defense against CCSS rests on the strength of the community defense.
Detroit, and most of the nation, are in the midst of another housing crisis. In Detroit, rent and evictions are increasing rapidly coupled with a serious shortage of accessible rental units, homes, and public housing. The crisis has had an outsized impact of Black working class Detroiters, easily observed in the large-scale displacement, segregation, and gentrification that has occurred over the last 20 years. Detroit, the State of Michigan, and community groups have sought to address the problem, in part, by promoting nonprofit housing schemes such as rent-to-own programs, church-run developments, and community land trusts. These programs fail to address the underlying causes of the housing crisis.
Ms. Brown’s eviction highlights how a nonprofit landlord is still a landlord. Privatization of housing via public-private partnerships and nonprofits only shifts the labels, not the underlying dynamics of housing. Nonprofits, including CCSS – which has an annual budget of $7 million – are dependent on philanthropy and government grants to exist. In line with broader neoliberal politics of austerity, nonprofits are kept in a precarious position, balanced on the edge of closing, and never receive enough funding to serve their community, pay employees, and keep the lights on. As a result, nonprofits must bend towards the funding priorities of wealthy, corporate, and government donors rather than designing programs around the real needs of their constituents. Further, due to the instability of grant-based funding, nonprofits are also under great pressure to find other revenue streams. For nonprofit landlords, like CCSS, that includes collecting rent from properties such as the Tiny Homes project. CCSS is incentivised not to follow through on its promise to transition Ms. Brown and the other residents to homeownership in no small part because the Tiny Homes are a valuable asset and a revenue source.
These structural pressures pit CCSS against its own constituents, leading them to prioritize control over the well-being of their constituents. This can be seen in the extraordinary efforts CCSS has taken to evict Ms. Brown, going so far as to hire a high-profile attorney and file a defamation lawsuit, which has been dismissed. Indeed, CCSS offered Ms. Brown an initial payout of $2,500 then increased it to $10,000 to leave rather than give her the opportunity to complete the program and own her home.
As part of the neoliberal approach of replacing governmental functions and services with public-private partnerships, large nonprofits such as CCSS function as an extension of the state. They often operate in tight coordination with government entities and funding agencies, but lack the accountability of elected (and recallable) leaders. In this way, nonprofit organizations can still be highly exploitative.
The current housing crisis is not the first one, nor will it be the last, while real estate remains a tool of speculation and capital accumulation. Instead of speculation, what we need is public housing controlled directly by the community. That means the elimination of real estate as a tool of financial investment and speculation. Instead, apartment buildings and housing collections like the Tiny Homes must be controlled and operated by the people that work and live in them.
The proposed Chilean constitution was rejected by a surprisingly large margin. Why?
To understand why it was rejected, it is necessary to go back to 2019, to the peace agreement and the constituent assembly. On November 12 of that year, we had the most important national strike in 40 years. Millions marched against the Chilean neoliberal system and there were important strikes of several sectors of workers. The political system was brought to its knees. Even analysts, traditional politicians, and journalists suggested that if the November 12 strike call were extended any longer, President Sebastián Piñera would fall, and yes, the political caste would fall with him.
Three days later, the traditional parties, including sectors of Frente Amplio1Frente Amplio, or “Broad Front,” is a coalition of several organizations, ranging from left-wing groups to the Liberal Party, which had officials serving in Piñera’s first government. It was launched by the main leaders of the 2011 student movement, Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric, who back then also diverted the mobilizations to the traditional institutions and the ballot box. and then-Deputy Gabriel Boric, signed the “Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution.” This pact guaranteed impunity for Piñera, who was responsible for systematic violations of human rights. It also delivered a constituent process subordinated to the institutional powers and to the rules of the game of the powerful. The process left in place all the main pillars of the neoliberal regime, and gave veto power to the neoliberal sectors. Thus the regime as a whole, including Boric, rejuvenated the right wing and a government that was about to fall.
How was it that just six months after the Left won the presidential elections, the draft constitution could be rejected so decisively?
Three years after the initial uprisings, Boric came to power with high expectations, which were quickly deflated. He integrated the former Concertación — the Chilean social democracy — into the cabinet. He militarized the Mapuche lands with a state of emergency. Boric’s right-wing politics boosted the Right. Meanwhile, the constituent assembly did not provide solutions to the most urgent demands of the people; the demands for pensions, healthcare, and free education have not been resolved. The political cycle is not closed.
Did the rejected draft of the constitution meet these demands?
The draft constitution did not touch the pillars of the big capitalists in Chile. It did not touch the AFP, the privatized pensions. What’s more, analysts said that the new constitution could “raise new business possibilities.” The new constitution only talked about the freedom to choose between public and private health care, which also works with public subsidies. The government gave guarantees to private companies that their businesses would continue to function. And the constitution did not solve the problem of education in Chile, which is one of the most expensive in the world. Now, we can see a new student movement mobilizing for a better education.
Was the vote a rejection of the leftist ideas of a minority of the population?
That is the interpretation that the Right is pushing, and that has even been taken up not only by the former Concertación but also by the government itself. But the truth is that the demands for education, free public health care, decent pensions, no more AFP, and the challenge to the dictatorship’s legacy are still open in a certain way. What really failed was the line that by playing by the rules of the powerful, accepting the Peace Accord, and taking the institutional route, we could put an end to Pinochet’s legacy and achieve a deep, lasting political transformation. But we must fight for another way.
In this context, Boric’s government accepted the right wing’s framing, and is strengthening this path of a new pact from above among the traditional parties for a new constituent process proposal. This process will be even more antidemocratic, supervised by a committee of “experts” and under stronger control by the parties that represent the interests of business.
Many people view this recent defeat at the polls as a historic defeat that is setting the left back decades. What do you think?
The sectors of the Left that were under the illusion that the new constitution could put an end to neoliberalism are very demoralized. For me, this is not a defeat of the Left, but a defeat of the illusion that the struggle against the legacy of the dictatorship can be taken from the streets to parliament. To break with this legacy, it is necessary to confront the interests of big capital in Chile, which neither the Boric government nor the constituent assembly were willing to do. The Left can be strengthened if it draws lessons from this process for the next struggles, which will come sooner rather than later. That is the perspective that we fight for — a Left of class struggle that is revolutionary, internationalist, and socialist.
Frente Amplio, or “Broad Front,” is a coalition of several organizations, ranging from left-wing groups to the Liberal Party, which had officials serving in Piñera’s first government. It was launched by the main leaders of the 2011 student movement, Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric, who back then also diverted the mobilizations to the traditional institutions and the ballot box.
Upon check-in at the almost $200 per night Hilton hotel, the convention displayed in the lobby beautifully painted “protest signs” that read “My Body, My Choice,” “El lugar de la mujer es en la resistencia (women’s place is in the resistance)” and “The whole damn system is wrong.” Images highlighted Black and Latinx women in particular, with radical imagery invoking the Black Panthers and indigenous women in struggle.
The conference was sponsored by the usual suspects — including the Women’s March, the National Organization of Women, and Planned Parenthood, as well as Emily’s List, Vote Run and Lead, Black Feminist Future, and more. It was also co-sponsored by corporations like Ben and Jerry’s, The Body Shop, and Mara Hoffman.
The Women’s March Convention was named “Summer of Rage,” which didn’t really fit. Yes, participants are furious at the stripping of our basic right to an abortion. But on one hand, the summer is basically over, and the Women’s March has organized essentially nothing all summer. On the other hand, the rage expressed by participants was being funneled to the most tepid solution: vote for the Democrats. It is a “solution” that has been tried over and over, and failed to protect reproductive rights over and over — so much so that Roe v. Wade was overturned while the Democrats held both the Congress and the Presidency.
The Women’s March Conference was a lot like the fancy Hilton Hotel we stayed at — the “radical” protest signs thinly veiled the real class content of the event. This was an event that served the capitalists and the Democratic Party.
The Political Context
It is important to situate this conference in its political context. A few months ago, it seemed nearly certain the Democrats would be trounced in the midterms. Inflation is at a 40-year high. Biden has broken nearly all of his election promises. And the Democrats have done absolutely nothing to protect abortion rights. Faith in institutions plummeted after the Supreme Court decision, and it seemed the whole system was headed for a crisis.
The Women’s March, Planned Parenthood, and the like refused to use their millions of dollars to build a real movement or even a major national protest for reproductive rights.
The referendum in Kansas, where nearly two thirds of voters supported keeping abortion legal, showed the path forward for the Democrats towards the midterms. They would use abortion, once again, to mobilize people to the polls. This maneuver comes while they are very literally spending millions of dollars to promote the most vile anti-abortion, anti-queer, anti-woman Republicans, giving them a platform and airtime and allowing them to promote their vile ideas, in hopes of gaining an easy 2022 Democratic victory.
It is in this context that the Women’s March held their conference — a conference that helps serve as a political tool for the Democratic Party.
Power to the Polls
Participants came from all over the country, mostly driven by anger and horror at the overthrowing of Roe and a fear of the far right. Participants who were isolated in small, right wing towns talked about being afraid of losing their jobs due to their political views. They also talked about moments of bravery — putting a rainbow flag up in a classroom, or on their porch, despite fear of the stigma. People talked about organizing protests against the overturning of Roe, even in very small towns, which put them in contact with the Women’s March. The will to fight in the folks who attended the Women’s March Conference was palpable; mentions of anger and rage got huge cheers from the audience. These are folks with whom we want to be in dialogue, in struggle, and in the streets.
The problem with the conference was with the political solutions being put forward by the leaders, not with the participants.
Long-time Democratic Party politician Sheila Jackson Lee, known for helping making Juneteenth a national holiday, as well as being the lead sponsor of the 2021 Violence Against Women Act, spoke at the conference and was lauded by the Women’s March. However, Lee is far from a leftist. In fact, she is in favor of more border security and against even a guest worker program. Yet, in her speech she spoke about the need to stand for “all women,” including immigrant women.
Throughout the conference, radical rhetoric thinly veiled the lack of radical solutions. At one panel, the speakers explained “Poor people are going to get poorer [as a result of the overturning of Roe]. We gotta start at race, class and gender and move from there.”
But on that very same panel, a panelist said, “The worst thing we got out there against us is not our opposition. It’s people who are with us and are starting to feel apathetic or like there is nothing they can do within this system.” Yes… the real problem are those of us who want nothing to do with this system that has denied us our basic rights over and over again.
Panelists went on to say, “We have a strong story of victory that is bigger and bolder than our story of loss. Y’all almost forgot that in 2018, we took back the U.S. House. Y’all almost forgot that a Black South Asian woman took the White House in 2020… Y’all almost forgot that Katanji Brown Jackson is on the Supreme Court.” The fact that Black women are in the highest posts of society, including the undemocratic Supreme Court and the Vice Presidency, is the direct result of the Black Lives Matter movement and of the ongoing struggle fo Black Lives. But having Black faces in high places has done nothing to protect abortion rights, for instance, and It has done nothing to address the exorbitantly high maternal mortality rate among Black women in particular.
The panel ended with participants being asked to make a vow: “I will volunteer for reproductive justice candidates this November.”
Even the decorations and swag highlighted voting as a strategy.
Without a doubt, newly activated people were at this conference. But the message to them was clear: you want to fight for your rights, you’d better head to the polls. There is no alternative. In fact, if you don’t get on board, you are part of the problem.
The Women’s March will be organizing a weekend of protest on October 7-9. But those protests are nothing but “get out the vote” rallies, which take place the weekend before voter registration ends. They aren’t mobilizations to build our power and strength in the streets; they are mobilizations to move people to the polls.
This is no surprise. After all, that was the slogan of the 2018 Women’s March — taking the millions of people who mobilized against Trump and funneling that rage into the midterms. And although the Democrats took the House, and even though the Democrats hold the House, the Senate, and the Presidency today, the right to an abortion was still taken away. This feminist movement has tried voting, and it clearly doesn’t work.
Liberal Intersectionality of the Non Profit Industrial Complex
The form of “intersectionality” promoted by non-profits conveniently forgets that we live in a capitalist system that profits from all forms of oppression. While rhetorically they claim to unite our struggles, in reality they’ve kept these struggles separate in the streets; the unity of our struggles is manifested for them at the polls and in the Democratic Party.
A feminism that wants to grasp our problems at the root should understand that all systems of oppression are currently inscribed within capitalism — and capitalism is a system that profits from all of our oppression. It’s a system that can only run due to the exploitation of workers — with the most exploited sectors being workers who are Black, brown, and from the global South — for the profit of the very few. Working class women, especially working class women of color, are especially oppressed and especially exploited in this system: the Black women who work in UPS warehouses without air conditioning, the Mexican maquila workers, and the domestic workers who send money to their children back home every month.
At the same time, the multi-racial and multi-gender working class is in a unique position to shut down the economy in service of our demands as workers and oppressed people because we make everything run. This may be a limit of intersectionality as a framework: even its left iterations focus on the sources of oppression and miss the strategic position of the working class in capitalism. But this conference was not a leftist iteration of intersectionality: it was liberalism that brushes over the existence of capitalism and glorifies exploitative bosses. There is no such thing as liberatory capitalism. It’s impossible to even imagine our liberation within a system of private property and exploitation, in which the bosses profit from the unpaid labor in the home overwhelmingly done by women and profit from our low wage labor in the workplace.
A feminism that grasps our problem at the root understands that corporations have no place in our movement — including “progressive” corporations like Ben and Jerry’s that actually union bust, whose CEO makes over 17 times what a worker makes and supports the Zionist state of Israel.
But it’s not just corporations that are exploiters; nonprofits are a pillar of the exploitative capitalist system. At the conference, I met a young Black woman who was fired in a process of attempting to unionize her workplace, a non-profit that co-sponsored the event. “I know how much the CEO makes… and it’s a lot,” she said to me, “Everyone who was trying to unionize has left. We’ve been pushed out.” In the end, the liberal intersectionality of the Women’s March, as well as the countless non-profits who spoke and co-sponsored the conference, is merely a cover for the oppressive capitalist system.
I met another young person who put her finger on the problem: “If the higher-ups at these nonprofits make bank from addressing our oppression, it’s not really in their interest to solve the problem, is it?”
And this is the crux of the issue. The radical movements for women’s liberation and queer liberation of the 60’s and 70’s have been moved into non-profits and defanged. While progressive rhetoric and discussions of liberation remain, these same non-profits play an essential role in maintaining the movement entirely subservient to the capitalists — in the Democratic Party, but also in “progressive” corporations.
The Way Forward
While the Women’s March conference was supposed to be about “empowering women,” the message being peddled was exactly the opposite. These people pretend to be the champions of women, but they do not trust women to fight for their own interests. The message is that the power is not with us — it’s with politicians that do not represent or support us.
The Women’s March wants to take a whole generation of new activists from all over the country to the polls, fostering illusions in the Democratic Party and in a system that has been created to exploit workers, where Black and brown workers are the most hyper-exploited. They use the imagery and the language of transgressive movements of the 60’s and 70’s, movements that were defanged by the non-profit industrial complex and the Democratic Party in the neoliberal era.
We needed a summer of rage. But we didn’t get that. Planned Parenthood, Women’s March, and the other groups that co-sponsored the meeting had no interest in organizing one. They were interested in all that rage being bottled up and directed at the right moment.
Now they want that rage to be directed to the polls to vote for the Democrats. And that was what the Women’s March conference was primarily about.
There will be protests on the weekend of October 7 called by the Women’s March. And despite the serious limitations of the Women’s March, we as socialists should participate.
We want people to be in the streets. We want to be in dialogue with all of those folks who want to fight back– all those thousands of But we should be clear that we have very different goals from the Women’s March. While they try to push our power to the polls, we want to build an independent power; we want to build power in the streets and in our workplaces.
On July 27, Kshama Sawant and Eric Blanc sat down for a debate on the relevance of the Russian Revolution today. Sawant, a Trotskyist on Seattle’s city council, and Blanc, a former Trotskyist who has become something of a thought leader for modern social democracy, were hashing out the old debate about reform or revolution. Sawant is a member of Socialist Alternative and is well known as one of the few independent socialists in the United States to win an election. Blanc, in contrast, believes that socialists should be part of the Democratic Party. This was no mere historical debate: Blanc might well be the primary theoretician of the country’s largest socialist organization, the DSA.
The online event was to promote Blanc’s book Revolutionary Social Democracy, which has just appeared in paperback. In it, he attempts to give a historical justification for his strategy of a parliamentary road to socialism. He puts a specific emphasis on the Finnish Revolution of 1918–19, in which the working class took power despite their social democratic leadership. Even though social democratic policies led to a bloody counterrevolution, Blanc sees this as a model to follow.
This article is not meant to summarize the debate. Suffice it to say that Sawant and Bryan Koulouris of Socialist Alternative provided clear historical evidence that the parliamentary road to socialism is an illusion. Manyauthorshave corrected Blanc’s distortions of the Finnish Revolution, demonstrating that a reformist strategy led to a catastrophe . Socialist Alternative also highlighted the examples of Chile under Allende and Greece under Syriza to show that socialism can never be won via elections. They correctly argued that unions and socialists need to break with the Democratic Party and build a working-class, socialist party.
There is no doubt that Blanc has done extensive research, but his conclusions are wrong. He resorts to anti-communist tropes, such as that Leninism is undemocratic and dogmatic, and that Leninists apply the same recipe for every situation in every country. At the same time, Socialist Alternative found themselves in quite a contradiction, since they have long supported Bernie Sanders and registered people to vote in the Democratic Party, while here they tried to argue the opposite position.
Blanc’s central claim is that there are limits to using the Russian Revolution as an example because organizing in an autocracy, like czarist Russia, is different from organizing in a bourgeois democracy. And Blanc is right about that. But it’s not like this is some kind of theoretical breakthrough.
Blanc, using a simple model of “autocracy” vs. “democracy,” ignores a century of Marxist discussions about revolutionary strategy in “the East” and “the West.” The conclusions he draws are the opposite of what most Marxists have observed. Blanc assumes that a ruling class like the U.S. bourgeoisie, highly skilled at controlling civil society, would simply allow the workers to take power via elections. In reality, of course, a bourgeois “democracy” offers much stronger tools for controlling the working class. Socialist Alternative, however, did not seem to consider these different conditions at all. Let’s dig into the arguments.
Democracy Is the Best Possible Shell for Capitalism
Blanc is correct that most workers tend to hope that they can improve their situation via elections. But he fails to answer the question: Is such hope justified? Can capitalism be overcome at the ballot box?
Blanc even claims that parliamentary democracy is not a tool of the bourgeoisie. Instead, he sees the U.S. Congress as a neutral arena where different classes can slug it out. Rosa Luxemburg refutes this argument better than we ever could:
What parliamentarism expresses here is capitalist society, that is to say, a society in which capitalist interests predominate. In this society, the representative institutions, democratic in form, are in content the instruments of the interests of the ruling class. This manifests itself in a tangible fashion in the fact that as soon as democracy shows the tendency to negate its class character and become transformed into an instrument of the real interests of the population, the democratic forms are sacrificed by the bourgeoisie, and by its State representatives.
In other words, democracy in the capitalist state is just a shell for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Workers can pick which representative of the capitalist class “represents” them — but there is no way to vote the bourgeoisie as a class out of office.
In the rare cases that a left-wing candidate wins an election, the bourgeoisie has plenty of options to maintain their control. From threats and corruption, like with Syriza in Greece, to military coups, such as in Chile under Allende.
In the United States, there are countless mechanisms to keep elections within the narrowest scope. It’s why there are so many voting restrictions and anti-democratic institutions, from the Electoral College to the Senate to the Supreme Court. In his new book Breaking the Impasse, Kim Moody lays out all these anti-democratic instruments in great detail, such as the exorbitant resources required to take place in elections. Even by the standards of capitalist democracy, the U.S. is extraordinarily undemocratic, and increasingly so. Both the Democrats and Republicans uphold these undemocratic mechanisms.
Listening to Blanc, you would assume that capitalist democracy in the United States was functioning perfectly. Has he really forgotten about all the undemocratic tricks used to block his favorite candidate, Bernie Sanders? These manipulations by the media and the Democratic Party establishment were used to stop a candidate advocating nothing more than New Deal liberalism. What would the capitalist regime do to stop a real socialist?
Blanc also seems not to have noticed that capitalist democracies are in crisis. In the United States, over half of Republicans don’t believe that Biden won the last elections. There is an unprecedented lack of trust in supposedly “democratic” institutions. That, of course, does not mean that the majority of people are ready to set off on the path of socialist revolution. But more people than ever are questioning the limits of bourgeois democracy. This is an absurd time for socialists to claim that parliaments are the best way to transform society, as Blanc did throughout the debate.
Yet it is also true that working-class people continue to have illusions in bourgeois democracy, and that creates a particular set of challenges for socialists. We must defend the right to vote — but we must also push for a massive expansion of democracy, in two ways: On the one hand, we should raise radical democratic demands that expose the limits of bourgeois democracy. This includes basic (nonsocialist) demands like abolishing the Senate or making politicians recallable.
On the other hand, we should fight for democratic self-organization by the working class. This means that socialists should promote self-organization in unions, workplaces, and social movements. These are the seeds of real workers’ democracy. Historically, this has taken the form of the soviets in the Russian Revolution or the workers’ councils in the German Revolution. These are the beginnings of the institutions of dual power that are necessary to overthrow the capitalist system. For different reasons, neither Blanc nor Socialist Alternative advocate these policies.
Radical Democratic Demands
While our goal is to overcome bourgeois democracy, we fight to defend and expand democratic rights. As Trotsky explained,
We are thus firm partisans of a Workers’ and Peasants’ State, which will take the power from the exploiters. To win the majority of our working-class allies to this program is our primary aim. Meanwhile, as long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie.
In France’s bourgeois democracy in 1934, Trotsky therefore called for the abolition of the Senate and the presidency and the creation of “a single assembly,” which
must combine the legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years, by universal suffrage at eighteen years of age, with no discrimination of sex or nationality. Deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker.
While Blanc argued that socialists should fight for a majority within bourgeois parliament, at no point did he say that socialists should challenge the undemocratic mechanisms of the capitalist state. He says that socialists need to support the Democratic Party because undemocratic laws make it very difficult for “third parties” in the United States. But why should socialist strategy be based on accepting such laws?
Blanc argues that there are considerable differences between Russia in 1917 and the United States today. Well, obviously. But Blanc seems to believe that Lenin, Trotsky, and other communists failed to notice this. But in 1934, Leon Trotsky wrote about France:
The example of the October Revolution, of Soviet Russia, helps us. However, in France we can do better than our Russian brothers and avoid some of their mistakes. France’s economic level is higher, and we intend to act in conformity with the actual conditions of our country.
The Communist International debated extensively on the particularities of fighting for revolution in “the West,” where bourgeois democracy is much stronger than in “the East.” In these debates, the terms “West” and “East” did not refer to geography but to more and less developed capitalist societies.
In the last hundred years, bourgeois democracies have expanded, and “consensus-making” institutions have grown enormously. This includes the union bureaucracies that control the workers’ movement and the NGO bureaucracies that have a similar role in social movements — powerful apparatuses whose job is to contain protests and rein in radical demands. The communist Antonio Gramsci referred to this as the “integral state.” This means that the state is not just the “armed men” that Engels described. The bourgeois state in “the West” stretches its tentacles into the institutions of civil society in order to manufacture consent. The strategic implications of this are enormous. The integral state has vast resources to contain and channel class struggle. This is why socialists today must consistently struggle against every form of bureaucracy.
Self-Organization and Soviet Democracy
Blanc’s definition of democracy is limited to parliamentary democracy. In the debate with Sawant, Blanc made the absurd claim that parliamentary democracy is more democratic than the institutions of workers’ democracy, such as soviets. He attempted to paint Lenin and Trotsky as undemocratic because they argued that socialists can and should take power without first winning a majority in bourgeois elections. Blanc thus perpetuates liberal myths that equate socialism with authoritarianism. In truth, socialists fight for the most expansive democracy that has ever existed.
Workers’ democracy means that workers and oppressed people govern themselves, in both a political and economic sense. As C. L. R. James put it, paraphrasing Lenin, “Every cook can govern.” Our goal is a society in which the vast majority of people run their workplaces, their neighborhoods, and society as a whole, without a privileged bureaucracy or professional politicians.
This is not an idea invented by Lenin or Trotsky. Karl Marx, in writing about the Paris Commune, drew attention to the limits of parliamentary democracy and the advantages of the workers’ government: “Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes.” The Paris Commune, it goes without saying, was not installed by winning elections to a bourgeois parliament. Blanc’s positions reject not just Lenin and Trotsky’s legacy, but that of Marx and Engels as well. (There have been some unserious attempts to claim that the Paris Commune was more democratic than Soviet Russia, but Trotsky explained in detail that both workers’ governments came to power with very similar mandates.)
Recently, Chilean Starbucks workers attended the Labor Notes conference and spoke about their fight for union democracy. The president of the Starbucks union, a member of the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR), talked about how every Starbucks has delegates that are sent to the union assembly. Decisions are discussed and voted by these delegate assemblies, and the leadership is accountable to them. This kind of rank-and-file democracy is essential for building a combative labor movement, but it also contains the seeds of workers’ democracy.
A Working-Class Socialist Party for 2022
Blanc claims to be following the ideas of Karl Kautsky, who tried to chart a path between reform and revolution in the Social Democratic Party of Germany before 1914. Kautsky’s own life showed that this parliamentary road to socialism is a dead end. This has been confirmed by countless other defeats since then.
But Blanc’s politics are actually far to the right of Kautsky’s, since he argues that a parliamentary road to socialism can be accomplished within a capitalist, imperialist party. At least Kautsky or the Finnish social democrats had their own party! Blanc argues that running progressive candidates within the Democratic Party is the route to building an independent workers’ party some time in the distant future. In reality, however, the progressive Democrats supported by the DSA have no intention of breaking with their party — not only that, but they don’t actually support socialist policies. While socialists say “not one cent” for militarism, “progressive” Democrats like Sanders and AOC consistently vote to fund U.S. imperialism’s war machine. We don’t have to wait until a world war to see a chauvinist capitulation, as the SPD did in 1914 — we already know what side these “socialists” are on.
While the theory that Blanc espoused in the debate was entirely in line with his political practice, the same cannot be said for Socialist Alternative. The comrades argued powerfully against the parliamentary road to socialism. Sawant and Koulouris asserted that we need to build a revolutionary working-class party and prepare to overthrow the capitalist state. They explained that the DSA is giving left cover to progressive Democrats who in turn back the Biden administration. We couldn’t agree more.
But we couldn’t help but see contradictions between their statements at the event and Socialist Alternative’s politics recently. By endorsing and campaigning for Sanders in 2016 and again in 2020, weren’t the comrades also supporting the illusion that the Democratic Party, or at least part of it, could be a vehicle for socialism? While Sawant argued for unions to break with the Democratic Party, Socialist Alternative was registering people for that very party only a few years ago.
Socialist Alternative might answer that they were calling on Bernie to break with the Democrats. But we all knew that Bernie would not break with the party he has been part of for decades. Instead, he did what he always said he would: mobilize his supporters to vote for Clinton and Biden. And even if Bernie did form his own party, his social democratic politics would still be far from the working-class party that Socialist Alternative says we need. Sanders’s foreign policy is nothing but imperialist, and his domestic agenda is nothing but New Deal liberalism. In the Biden era, he is nothing but a Biden Democrat.
Supporting a hypothetical party with Sanders at the helm would just be sowing illusions in yet another reformist project doomed to failure. As Robert Belano wrote in Left Voice, “The point is not simply that we need a party independent of the two mainstream parties, but that we need a party independent of the entire capitalist class.” He continued,
Instead of modeling our party after the failed European reformist projects, let us look to the revolutionary experience of the Bolsheviks — an independent working class party that seized power, ended Russia’s involvement in the imperialist war, wrested control of industry from the capitalists, and began to build a new society based not on oppression and exploitation but on mutual aid and solidarity.
What the Bolsheviks had was a revolutionary program, developed through ideological debates and experiences in class struggle. The Bolsheviks overthrew capitalism — something no reformist party has ever done. This kind of revolutionary program is essential for socialists today as the foundation of a political party.
In that sense, the Russian Revolution does indeed provide key lessons for socialists today. But, Lenin, Trotsky, and other leaders of the Russian Revolution never claimed that revolution in other countries would follow the exact same model. On the contrary, the Communist International debated the question of how the struggle for socialism in “the West” would differ from the struggle in Russia. Blanc seems to believe that the struggle in the United States will be infinitely easier: socialists can rely on the institutions created by the ruling class, carefully following all the rules and avoiding an actual revolution.
In truth, however, revolutionary struggle in “the West” has always been more difficult. Russia’s czar had to rely on the police to defend his power. U.S. capitalists, in contrast, have a militarized police force, as well as countless bureaucracies to control the workers and the oppressed. Under czarism, socialists were imprisoned — under modern capitalism, socialist leaders are corrupted, as shown by just about every candidate Blanc has ever supported. In the U.S. the “integral state” wraps itself in the language of social justice only to keep working-class people confined to the regime’s limits. During the Black Lives Matter uprising, we saw how the Democratic Party and associated NGO bureaucracies led the movement back into institutional channels.
While they made some good points, the comrades of Socialist Alternative did not draw all the necessary conclusions. While they argued, in the abstract, for political independence from bourgeois parties, they seem to underestimate the need for the working class to fight for independence of all the institutions of the capitalists’ “integral state.”
Socialists today need a radical anti-bureaucratic program that fights for self-organization and independence from reformist politicians, union bureaucrats, and NGO professionals who serve the interests of capital. The comrades of Socialist Alternative, with their permanent hope that socialists can benefit from riding the coattails of Sanders, Syriza, Podemos, etc., have only drawn very partial lessons from the last century of class struggle.
“Postcolonial,” “decolonial,” and “coloniality of power” — these are some of the terms that flooded debates in academia and on the Left in the decades of the neoliberal boom. After the shock of the capitalist crisis of 2008, and with the return of some debates regarding global capitalism and imperialism, criticisms of postcolonial thinking have been reactivated.1See, for example, Enrique de la Garza Toledo (ed.), Crítica de la razón neocolonial [Critique of Neocolonial Reason] (Buenos Aires: CLACSO/CEIL CONICET/Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana/Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, 2021). The book is a collection of interesting critical essays on decoloniality, particularly its Latin American variant. This article addresses some of them, especially Vivek Chibber’s book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capitalism — both its strengths and its limitations.2Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2013). A Spanish edition of the book was published in 2021. See Vivek Chibber, La teoría postcolonial y el espectro del capital, translated by José Maria Amoroto Salido (Tres Canto, Spain: Akal, 2021).
First, though, we must explore what “postcolonial” means and why it has become such a “unique way of thinking” among many intellectuals of the so-called “Global South.” Is it a unified theory or a set of heterogeneous critical perspectives? And what should we make of its onslaught against Marxism?
Postcolonial, as the word’s prefix indicates, is a specific variant of the rise of post- in academia. Terry Eagleton once noted that postcolonialism was the foreign relations department of postmodernism.3Terry Eagleton, “Capitalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism,” New Left Review I/152, July/August 1985.Postcolonial studies, which has grown in influence since its beginnings in the 1980s and 1990s, has drawn on authors such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida as its proponents have intervened on the intellectual terrain. It is a poststructuralist matrix for thinking about the relationship between center and peripheries, as well as between capitalism and racism/colonialism.
Genesis of Postcolonial Criticism
The origins of postcolonialism can be traced to the emergence of the Subaltern Studies Group of Indian intellectuals, and the series Subaltern Studies published annually since 1982. Combining a culturalist reading of Antonio Gramsci with notions of Foucaultian and Derridean textualist deconstruction, they set out to intervene in Indian historiography. However, it would be wrong to attribute to this current alone the more pluralistic beginnings of postcolonialism. In those same years, intellectuals of color from the Asian, African, and Caribbean diaspora were engaged in a prolific ideological production in the English-speaking world, especially in literature departments.
As an antecedent, Stuart Hall carried out his own Gramscian reading oriented towards post-Marxism, which had several points of contact with Ernesto Laclau’s work.4See Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies 1983 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); it is a compilation of Hall’s lectures that year on Althusser, Gramsci, and poststructuralism. See also Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 2001); it was originally published in 1985. The notions of articulation and hegemony found in Hall’s work, together with those of hybridity and diaspora, are a precedent for what became the idea of postcolonialism (although Hall remained more anchored in a certain cultural Marxism).
Then there are the works of so-called “Black Marxism” or Black radicalism, which advanced further with a more general critique of Marxism — as in the work of Cedric Robinson, with his definition of “racial capitalism” and call to “decolonize Marxism.”5Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London, UK: Zed Press, 1983).
Finally, in Latin America, what is known as decolonization was imposed, especially since the 1990s with the formation of the “modernity/coloniality” group, composed of several Latin American intellectuals who taught in the United States.6Aníbal Quijano, Ramón Grosfoguel, and Walter Mignolo are among the best known. Aníbal Quijano’s concept of coloniality of power is characteristic of this trend, which from the beginning had markedly postmodern features. Some authors emphasize the differences between postcolonial and decolonial, while others present them as nuanced variants of the same logic.
Postcolonial or decolonial feminism developed its own concepts and has extended in important ways all the way to the present, with the work of Chicana, Latin American, Indigenous, Asian, and African authors who took aim against what they defined as white, Eurocentric feminism. They include María Lugones, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
It should be noted that the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 stands as a fundamental antecedent to all these currents.7Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Concepts of the Orient (New York: Pantheon, 1978). His sharp critiques of Eurocentrism, tracing the construction of the Oriental “other” in the great classics of Western literature and philosophy, was paradigmatic for the new postcolonial thought. Said included Marxism in his critiques of Eurocentrism, something that was also taken up by later currents.
More broadly, postcolonial theories converged on certain common conceptions, themes related to the periphery (and peripheries), and reflections on racism and gender in postcolonial societies.8Here the term “postcolonial” does not allude to the theoretical current, but to the historical and social process of “decolonization” from India’s independence in 1947 to the processes of national independence on the African continent in the decades that followed. In the case of postcolonial studies in Latin America, however, the chronological references emphasize the schism of the conquest of America and colonialism-coloniality from 1492 onwards. It constitutes a general critique of “Western reason” and a questioning of Marxism for its “blindness” to the colonial or racial question.9This is a topic on which I have written more extensively elsewhere. See Josefína L. Martinez, “Racism, Capitalism, and Class Struggle,” Left Voice, June 9, 2020. These affinities required a set of theoretical shifts as part of taking the “cultural turn”: the focus on cultural and ideological phenomena, and the abandonment of the centrality of class, in the face of the emergence of the “subaltern” or new social movements. More generally, it substituted an intellectual practice of deconstructing the “Western and Eurocentric episteme” for the anti-imperialist critique (to which I return later).
In this article, beyond the more general elements about postcoloniality, the focus is on the production of the Subaltern Studies group. This allows for addressing the shift from Marxist categories toward a postcolonial reading and dealing with some specific criticisms that this current has raised.
Gramsci in Bengal
The Subaltern Studies group in India was formed around Ranajit Guha, who emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1959.10Various authors have written that Guha and the group of young intellectuals had been influenced by the Maoist-inspired Naxalite peasant rebellion and later by the openly repressive course of Indira Gandhi’s government and the Congress Party beginning in the mid-1970s. Other well-known intellectuals in the group include Dipesh Chakrabarty and Gyan Prakash. Postcolonial feminist philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak remained very close to them, although without adhering to all their assumptions.
Guha was key to the appropriation of Gramsci, reconfiguring the concepts of “subaltern classes” and “hegemony” for a new reading of Indian history. It was not a reflection on the hegemonic capacity of the working class in alliance with the peasantry — something at the very core of Gramscian concern — but an analysis of the self-activity of subaltern subjects, especially the peasantry. It was a reflection that could be maintained within the terms of a more classical populism or Maoism, which considers the peasantry to be the basis for “popular” or “national” movements of a populist-front type.11Guha had been a member of the Communist Party, breaking with it after the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Later, before his post-Marxist drift, he had affinity with Maoism, although he was not a militant in an organization. Guha, however, went even further, toward a sort of post-Maoism. His reflection on peasant rebellions led him to formulate the existence of an autonomous peasant consciousness, irreducible to Western categories and to the “universal” tendencies of capital. It was then that subaltern studies took a step towards postcolonialism.
Guha argued against the idea that the peasants had deployed a “pre-political” or “purely spontaneous” activity,12The polemic is directed centrally at Eric Hobsbawm’s conceptions. although he recognizes that these rebellions often failed to overcome “localism, sectarianism, and ethnic divisions.” The initial objective of subaltern studies was to “rehabilitate” the peasant “subject” forgotten by liberal and nationalist historiography.13Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1983). Guha sets out to read the sources (official documents, colonial reports, etc.) against their grain in order to find evidence of this rebellious consciousness. To do so, “we must take the peasant-rebel’s awareness of his own world and his will to change it as our point of departure.”
For his part, Dipesh Chakrabarty focuses not so much on subaltern subjects, but on “subaltern pasts.” 14Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). These subaltern pasts “break historicization” because there the spiritual, sacred, ethnic, and caste relations take place, which populate a world that becomes incommensurable from the logic of Western reason. For Chakrabarty:
This is another time that, theoretically, could be entirely immeasurable in terms of the godless, spiritless time of what we call “history,” an idea already assumed in the secular concepts of “capital” and “abstract labor.”15Ibid., 93.
So the subaltern, in subaltern studies, is a notion that differs from both nationalist and liberal historiographies, as well as from Marxism.
In a related argument, Guha puts forward the idea of the existence of two separate spheres, the subaltern and that of the politics of the nationalist elites — something that expresses “the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie to speak for the nation,”16Ranajit Guha, “On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India,” in Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism, ed. by Supriya Nair (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2005), 406. or the failure to integrate the subaltern strata into its hegemony. From his point of view, the central problem of the new Indian historiography is the “study of this historical failure of the nation to come to its own — a failure that he attributes to both the bourgeoisie and the working class.17Ibid., 407. Although it is not the focus of his argument, at one point Guha points out that “the working class was still not sufficiently mature in the objective conditions of its social being and in its consciousness as a class-for-itself, nor was it yet firmly allied to the peasantry.” Thus, “it could do nothing to take over and complete the mission which the bourgeoisie had failed to realize.” Guha points out that modernity in India showed that capital failed, historically, to realize its universalizing tendency under colonial conditions, which in turn led to its failure to crush native South Asian culture or completely assimilate it. He calls this phenomenon “dominance without hegemony,” a characteristic he finds in both the colonial period and the nationalist experience. Now, what would be the causes of this frustration?
Guha tackles the problem in Dominance without Hegemony.18Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. The book has very interesting chapters, such as the one devoted to British colonial rule in India. There he points out that the construction of the state, promoted from above by British colonialism together with the local elites, relied above all on coercion to maintain/impose forms of forced labor of a quasi-servile type and the crushing of all resistance. The native bourgeoisie was born subordinate to colonialism, and strongly hierarchical pre-capitalist social relations, such as caste and patriarchal relations, were preserved or reconfigured. Guha points to the historical engagement of the native bourgeoisie with the landlords and the “complicity with many forms of feudal oppression,”[Ibid., 132.]] as well as the fact that Indian industrialists identified workers’ mobilization (especially after the Russian Revolution) as a threat to their class interests. In the chapter on the nationalist movement, Guha points out that Gandhi set out to discipline the entire initiative of the peasant masses, to regiment and control them. To this end, he encouraged Congress Party militants to act as “people’s policemen”19Ibid., 145. and called for demobilization after each cycle of the movement’s rise.
These reflections regarding the historically subordinated role of the native bourgeoisie and the limits of the nationalist movement point to key elements for thinking about the problem. However, once raised, they neither become a continuous thread in the book nor more generally in the elaborations published in Subaltern Studies. Rather, they came to revolve around a different hypothesis: that the historical failure of Indian nationalism originated in the impossibility of the nationalist elites to incorporate subaltern subjectivity into a unified national project, within the frameworks of the rational categories of the West.
Chakrabarty, for his part, challenges the idea that “[Indian] capitalism or political modernity has remained ‘incomplete’” and points out that India’s “history of political modernity could not be written as a simple application of the analytics of capital and nationalism available in Western Marxism.”20Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 15. It would be a capitalism without hegemonic bourgeois relations, following Guha’s formulations. Chakrabarty’s proposal is to “provincialize” Europe so that European thought can “be renewed from and for the margins”21Ibid., 16. — recovering a thought “tied to places and to particular forms of life,”22Ibid., 18. necessarily fragmentary.23Chakrabarty states that his intention is to bring Marx and Heidegger into dialogue in the context of the study of modernity in India. This line of reflection on the marginal, the fragmentary. and the locally situated would mark the evolution of subaltern studies, in which textualist tendencies became increasingly strong.
One of Spivak’s first interventions in the debate on subalternity was her well-known text “Can the Subaltern Speak?” It opens with a polemic with Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. The author challenges both authors for not taking into account the relationship between power-knowledge structures and the constitution of Europe as a colonial power. The central thesis of her essay is that the subalterns are those who cannot “speak” for themselves and, therefore, their history cannot be written. In her words, “the subaltern is necessarily the absolute limit of the place where history is narrativized into logic.”24G.C. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Die Philosophin 14, no. 27 (1988). Here Spivak radicalizes the group’s initial approach, noting as “strategic essentialism” the claim to recover the consciousness of the subaltern. As a postcolonial feminist, Spivak notes further that subalternity is found more than anything else in the “paradigmatic victims” of the international division of labor, the women of the urban “subproletariat,” and in informal labor, as well as in those belonging to the unorganized layers of rural labor.
As a general trend, the subalternist group was, by the 1990s, acquiring a language and reflections increasingly akin to postmodernism, focusing on the reading of literary sources and other textual resources. But, as already indicated, this was only one of the strands of postcolonial reason. Let us now consider, on a more general level, some of the criticisms that have been made of postcoloniality.
Critiques of Postcolonial Reason
Postcolonialists share with other intellectuals the conviction that the emancipatory projects of the 20th century — the rebellions, uprisings, workers’ and peasants’ insurrections, and struggles for socialism — do not offer a strategic perspective for today. They question the “metanarratives of emancipation,” among which they include bourgeois nationalism and Marxism (although they do not question capitalist social relations with the same radicalism, even in the heyday of neoliberalism). This is what Aijaz Ahmad called the “‘post-’condition.”25Aijaz Ahmad, “ “Postcolonial Theory and the ‘Post’-Condition,” Socialist Register 33 (1997). It is an “intellectual style” marked by the rejection of “universalist” ideas such as emancipation, equality, freedom, socialism, and communism, since for postcolonialists, these are synonymous with Eurocentrism, colonialism, and totalitarianism. They also share with poststructuralists their fascination with the fragmentary, the episodic, and the difference, as well as the substitution of an anti-systemic political practice for a deconstructive textual practice.
Ahmad points out that the postcolonial dissolves the difference between literature and history, as well as between literature and philosophy, prioritizing rhetorical criticism. He also notes that the postcolonial “dissolve[s] all enduring questions of imperialism and anti-imperialism into an infinite play of heterogeneity and contingency.” The postcolonialists question Marxism for supposedly making use of abstract and totalizing categories that do not account for the particular and contingent. And they define “Western reason” in a way that abstracts it from all historical determination.
Several authors have criticized postcolonialism for affirming a “backwards essentialism” in which the spatial location of a thinker or the geographical origin of a current of thought would determine its “Eurocentric” and “colonialist” condition. It is a geographical and ethnicist determinism that also constructs the false idea of a unique “Western episteme,” denying the complex and multiple theoretical, cultural, and social disputes that have taken place within it in different periods.26Ariel Petruccelli, “Teoría y práctica decolonial: un examen crítico” [Decolonial Theory and Practice: A Critical Examination], Políticas de la Memoria (2020): 45–62.
On the one hand, these authors reject the “Western” categories of Marxism, such as working class, revolution, and socialism, because they do not allow them to account for the “incommensurability” of the colonial and postcolonial world. At the same time, they translate for their own purposes the highlights of French poststructuralism, as part of the idealist heritage of Western philosophy. The identification of secularism with colonialism or Eurocentrism is especially problematic, as if secular thought, science, and rationality had to be flatly rejected simply because they had emanated historically from Western European countries. The rejection en bloc of all the elements of modernity can lead only to variants of conservatism, in the precise sense of the word as that which seeks a return to millenarian or religious ways of thinking.
Finally, most postcolonialists counterpose modernity and coloniality with vindication for “other ways of being in the world” such as millenarian peasant communities. But they omit that in many of these pre-capitalist societies, there were also brutal forms of oppression of women, caste hierarchies, inter-ethnic violence, slavery, and other forms of social subjugation.
Critique of Postcoloniality: The Universal and the Particular
In his book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, Vivek Chibber takes up several of these critiques of postcoloniality, although he focuses his polemic on the work published in Subaltern Studies. The book provoked intense debate at the time of its publication, and it is worth dwelling a bit more extensively on his arguments.
Chibber points out what he considers to be the main theses of subalternist historiography: 1) the idea of a non-hegemonic bourgeoisie; 2) derailing the universalizing impulse of capital in the East; 3) the pluralization of power; 4) the idea of two separate spheres, the elites and the subalterns; 5) the failure of nationalism as a result of adhering to Western reasoning about modernization; and 6) the Eurocentrism of social theories, including Marxism. From this, he questions the emphasis placed on the difference between the West and the East by subalternists. He argues that they romanticize bourgeois revolutions, giving to past European bourgeoisies a “universalizing” role that they never really had precisely because the defense of their own class interests would always have been paramount. In this sense, Chibber argues against the idea that the bourgeoisie ever represented anything like the interests of the “nation as a whole.” In doing so, he takes aim at what appears to be an idealization of bourgeois revolutions and liberal democracies by postcolonialists.
At the same time, Chibber ends up undervaluing the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie against the old order in the French Revolution of 1789. He thus erases the differences between that historical moment and the one that opened up after 1848, when Marx drew conclusions about the German bourgeoisie’s defection from its own national cause. After Marx, this became key to considering the question of whether national bourgeoisies could lead bourgeois revolutions in “backward” countries or those with later capitalist development. It is a subject that came to be central in the works of Lenin, Trotsky, and Gramsci, no less.
Chibber also questions the differentiation between forms of domination with and without hegemony, as postulated by the subalternists. He points out that in the West there is also repression, violence, and forms of interpersonal domination, so there would be no reason to establish a fundamental difference. He rejects the subalternist thesis regarding hegemony, but at the same time seems to rule out the entirety of Gramsci’s reflections on the matter. The Italian Marxist’s elaborations on the differences between East and West in the relationship between state and civil society have no place in his book.27On Gramsci’s thought regarding hegemony, see Juan Dal Maso, El marxismo de Gramsci [The Marxism of Gramsci] (Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Pensamiento Socialista, 2016.
Finally, Chibber argues that the subalternists are wrong on the question of “the derailment of capital’s universalizing drive”28Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 36. in the East. The reason for their mistake, he says, is that they take as a measure of “universalization” the degree of implantation of liberal institutions. He challenges that this is necessary to prove the universalization of capital. Thus, we see that, according to Chibber, “The main thrust of Subaltern Studies is to stress difference.”29Ibid., 52, emphasis in original. This vast difference between the West and the East would imply that “we need to construct entirely new theoretical frameworks.”30Ibid., 290.
Chibber argues “that the claims for a fundamental differences with regard to capital, power, and agency are all irredeemably flawed.”31Ibid., 54. His conclusion is that, rather than being a radical theory, postcolonial studies is a “failure” as a critical theory because “its theorists cannot formulate a critique of globalizing capitalism if their theorization of its basic properties is mistaken.”[Ibid., 58.]]
I generally agree with this conclusion, in the sense that postcolonial studies do not pass the test as critical theory, and much less has it “surpassed” Marxism. Chibber’s arguments, though, have major problems. Whereas subalternists argue that there is an unbridgeable, incommensurable gap between East and West, Chibber challenges that idea in an entirely one-sided way. Where subalternists tend to see only vast differences, Chibber highlights structural commonalities. While he seeks to distance himself from the idea that Marxism homogenizes differences, he underestimates all the concrete differences in social formations and the unequal character of capitalist expansion on a global level. He even goes so far as to write, “No gulf separates the rise of the European bourgeoisie from that of its Indian descendants.”32Ibid., 222. It is an affirmation that greatly simplifies the historical process and does not allow him to see the particulars of uneven development, in relation to the capitalist totality in the epoch of imperialism. The word imperialism is, in fact, difficult to find in Chibber’s book, except in a secondary reference to Lenin’s work.
This is something into which we will delve deeper since it has important strategic consequences. First, though, let’s explore another of his arguments.
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is the one devoted to the question of abstract labor. There, Chibber notes, “Postcolonial theorists have fastened onto Marx’s concept of abstract labor as a prime example of the deficiencies of universalizing theories.”33Ibid., 264. He responds to this as follows:
Far from blinding us to the heterogeneity of the working class, or being unable to accommodate the persistence of caste-based, ethnic, or racial divisions within it, the concept of abstract labor powerfully illuminates these very phenomena.34Ibid.
Chibber correctly points out that postcolonial theory has equated the notion of “abstract labor” with the idea of “homogeneous labor,” as if Marx considered that the automatic movement of capital’s expansion was erasing all differentiation of gender, race, or other hierarchies of oppression. Chibber argues that attributing this to Marx is mistaken, since “capital can reproduce social hierarchies just as readily as it can dissolve them.”35Ibid., 288–89. And while, under certain conditions, it tends toward greater homogenization, in other cases “the [capitalist] system is equally capable of reproducing, and even solidifying, existing forms of social domination or differentiation.”36Ibid., 289. He completes this argument with the idea that there are two “universalizing” tendencies:
The first is the universalizing drive capital which has operated in the East as well as the West, albeit at different tempos and unevenly. The second is the universal interest of the subaltern classes to defend their wellbeing against capital’s domination, inasmuch as the need for physical wellbeing is not merely specific to a particular culture or region.37Ibid., 396, emphasis in original.
Here again, Chibber responds to the postcolonial critique with a simplifying schema: Does the “universal interest of the subaltern classes to defend their wellbeing” counteract, in and of itself, differences of caste, gender, or race? The argument brushes aside, with the stroke of a pen, the full complexity of this question, which is not only a “historical” problem but a key strategic question for the working class in today’s world. The reality is that the “universal interest of the subaltern classes” does not automatically transform itself into class unity, above the divisions imposed by capital, but rather that this is a political, strategic task.
Finally, Chibber argues that:
The core problem with which we have been grappling in this book is how the history of the non-West has been affected by the incursion of capitalism. Marxism is known for claiming that once capitalism becomes the organizing principle in a social formation, its historical development is centrally shaped by capitalist imperatives. The particulars of this argument may vary.38Ibid., 422.
To say that capitalist imperatives hold sway despite that “the particulars of this argument may vary” misses, again, some of the main strategic polemics in Marxism. The debates that occupied the famous exchange between Marx and Vera Zasulich concerning the Russian rural commune pass through here,39Translator’s note: Vera J. Zasulich (1851–1919) was, in 1883, one of the founders of the Emancipation of Labor group, the first Marxist organization in Russia. She also translated many of Marx’s works into Russian. The correspondence with Marx referenced here, from 1881, concerns social relations in Russia and especially the nature of the peasant commune. It was this exchange that convinced Zasulich to embrace Marxism. Later, Zasulich was a member of the editorial board of Iskra with Lenin and Plekhanov. She was with the Mensheviks after the split in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party and eventually became a social chauvinist during World War I, adopting a hostile attitude toward the Soviet government. as do the theoretical and strategic disputes of Russian Marxism. The “particulars of this argument” included profound differences over the character and dynamics of the revolution, the role of the bourgeoisie, the worker-peasant alliance, and so on — in addition to being a key issue in Lenin’s writings on imperialism and the differentiation between imperialist countries, dependent countries, colonies, and semi-colonies. More generally, the “particulars of this argument” mark Trotsky’s polemics with Stalinism about revolutionary dynamics in “backward” countries such as Russia and China, as well as the generalization of his theory of Permanent Revolution, against the stagist positions of class conciliation. All this seems alien to Chibber’s line of argument, but let’s return to that and see how far it takes him.
History 1, History 2, and Uneven Development
Chibber polemicizes with Chakrabarty and his concept of differentiating between a History 1 and multiple Histories 2 to account for the particular histories of non-Western pre-capitalist societies.40Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 50. Translator’s note: Chakrabarty uses labor to illustrate what he means by these two histories. His History 1 is “a past posited by capital itself” (63) as its precondition, whereas History 2 consists of “capital’s antecedent” that “does not contribute to the self-reproduction of capital” (63–64). For the subalternist author, History 2 hinders the totalizing thrust of capitalism. His critique of Marxism is that it fails to perceive the importance of History 2, which follows its course, and does not subsume itself in History 1 (he considers it a blindness to the particular). He also questions Marxism’s expectation, due to its historicism and Eurocentrism, that History 2 will repeat the steps of History 1. He considers History 2 to be only a development “backlog,” and that it should remain in the “waiting room” until modernization.
This is refuted by Chibber, who argues that the existence of History 2 does not mean that universalization is not completed, because this universalization does not mean that all political practices are subordinated to the “logic of capital.” He adds that the main source of destabilization of capital does not pass through History 2, but through the internal contradictions of History 1 (economic contradictions and class struggle). Here he reiterates the idea that if there is a challenge to the universalizing impulse of capital, it is to be found in the class struggle, “the equally universal struggle by subaltern classes to defend their basic humanity.”[Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 455.]
Chibber avoids nothing less than the question of imperialism and uneven and combined development.41The question of uneven and combined development does not appear in Chibber’s book. It is introduced only in the subsequent debate published as a book [Rosie Warren, ed., The Debate on Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (New York: Verso, 2016], a compilation of critiques of Chibber’s book by various postcolonial theorists, along with his responses. In the introduction, Indian intellectual Achin Vanaik raises the question of uneven and combined development and vindicates Trotsky’s work, reproaching the postcolonialists for never taking it into account. That is to say, he never accounts for the great question of the Indian bourgeoisie’s subordination to imperialist capital and the consequences of this not only in terms of capital accumulation, but also with respect to the particulars of political, social, and ideological forms.
In Provincializing Europe, Chakrabarty refers to the topic. He argues with Eric Hobsbawm’s historicism and calls it a variety of what Western Marxism has always cultivated. He posits that Western Marxist intellectuals have addressed the incompleteness of capitalist transformation in Europe and elsewhere while maintaining the view that there is an evolutionary and necessary path from backwardness to modernity. Here he includes “the old and now discredited evolutionist paradigms of the nineteenth century,” and then points out that the same model persists in the “variations on the theme of ‘uneven development’”42Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 12. first addressed by Marx and later by Lenin and Trotsky. He asserts that “whether they speak of ‘uneven development’ [or] ‘synchronicity of the non-synchronous’ or ‘structural causality,’ these strategies all retain elements of historicism in the direction of their thoughts. They all ascribe at least an underlying structural unity (if not an expressive totality) to historical process and time.”43Ibid.
Space precludes delving here into the important differences between the evolutionist paradigms of the 19th century and the positions of Lenin and Trotsky that led to the split between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, and later to the confrontation between social-chauvinists and internationalist revolutionaries during World War I. It is important to reaffirm, however, that there is no “evolutionism” in the theory of uneven and combined development, which precisely transformed the paradigm on this issue. From Trotsky’s point of view, the fact of considering that there is a totality (capitalist social relations that have an international character) implies neither any historical teleology nor an expectation of the repetition of stages — but rather the opposite.
On this issue, Trotsky’s thinking offers a superior alternative with which to analyze the relationship between the universalizing tendencies of capital and the persistence of difference and historical particulars, in its spatial and temporal dimensions in the imperialist epoch.44At the same time, other Marxists, such as José Carlos Mariátegui, also thought about this question and offered creative answers. See Juan Dal Maso, “Una guía para leer y releer a Mariátegui” (A Guide to Reading and Rereading Mariátegui, Contrapunto, August 30, 2020. And contrary to what Chakrabarty maintains, Trotsky pointed out — against all “evolutionist historicism” — that “a backward country assimilates the material and ideological conquests of the advanced countries. But this does not mean that it follows them slavishly, reproduces all the stages of their past.”
It prepares and in a certain sense realizes the universality and permanence of man’s development. By this a repetition of the forms of development by different nations is ruled out. Although compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order. The privilege of historic backwardness — and such a privilege exists — permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages.
For Trotsky, this leap over the intermediate stages is not absolute; rather, “its degree is determined in the long run by the economic and cultural capacities of the country.” It is worth quoting at length from the passage because it addresses in a concentrated way many issues that intersect the postcolonialist polemic with Marxism.
From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course, in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third or tenth cultural class.
To respond adequately to postcolonial critiques of Marxism, these polemics with the currents that held evolutionist and stagist positions in 19th- and 20th-century Marxism, from Social Democracy to Stalinism, cannot be ignored. Chibber does not give much importance to this question, so his answer is incomplete and abstract.
Finally, in his book’s conclusions, Chibber correctly notes that postcolonialists lack strategy. If one rejects the rules of logic, evidence, and rational deliberation, he points out, then one “rules out not just this or that strategy, but the very possibility of a strategy altogether.”45Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 533. This is a fact, and postcolonialists cannot go beyond discursive operations to destabilize or decenter colonialist narratives. The result is a practice powerless to end oppression and exploitation effectively, which go far beyond the discursive plane. But in Chibber’s case, there is a different problem. His refusal to consider the problem of workers’ hegemony in relation to the oppressed as a whole, his omission of the question of imperialism and of unequal and combined development, disarms him in the face of the strategic challenges posed in the 21st century.
Postcolonial Theory or the Theory of Permanent Revolution?
The idea of the historical failure of the Indian bourgeoisie to hegemonize the subaltern masses in a project of nationhood is at the origin of subaltern studies. These were born out of the deep disappointment of a group of leftist intellectuals with the experience of nationalism in India, as well as their frustration with the emancipatory project represented by Marxism, which they see only through the disfigured lens of Stalinism. In his introduction to The Debate on Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, Achin Vanaik asks why the subaltern intellectuals never took into account Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development to explain the relationship between the universal and the particular in Indian history. He points to the past Stalinist affinities of many of the founding members of the group to allow us to imagine the answer.
That allows us to go one step further. Trotsky not only championed the theory of uneven and combined development to explain the complexities of historical development in the imperialist epoch. It was also the foundation of his theory of Permanent Revolution. For India, the theory implied that the political mechanics of the revolution became, as Trotsky wrote in his 1930 The Revolution in India, “a struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie for the leadership of the peasant masses.” And to those who underestimated the revolutionary capacity of the Indian proletariat because it was numerically small in relation to the broad peasant movement, he replied that “the numerical weakness of the Russian proletariat compared to the American and English was no hindrance to the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia.”
In his writings of the 1930s, Trotsky polemicized against Stalinism’s popular-frontist positions for India, as well as against Gandhi’s nationalist strategy and his “passive resistance” that subordinated the peasantry to the liberal bourgeoisie. He also confronted the criminal campist strategy of Stalinism that renounced the anti-imperialist struggle in India in order to align itself with the “democratic” imperialisms against fascism. In India’s 20th-century history, there was no shortage of huge struggles, uprisings, and heroic peasant insurrections, or important working- class movements. But there was no strategy to fight for workers’ hegemony that could unite the peasant and subaltern masses. This balance is beyond the horizon of subaltern thinkers.
A double frustration thus becomes the basis of postcolonialist or subaltern theory, which is summed up in a school of resignation. The anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggle, as well as the class struggle, is replaced by the murky but infinitely limited practices of discursive deconstruction. This is an itinerary akin to most postcolonialist thinkers. Here the focus has been on subaltern studies, and on analyzing this displacement from categories taken from the Marxist heritage and applied to more post-structuralist positions. Later elaborations of decoloniality are already fully informed by this spirit.
Since the capitalist crisis of 2008, the narrative of capitalist triumphalism has entered into crisis. The working class has spread and diversified more than ever, reaffirming its hegemonic potential to unify all oppressed layers against capital. The pandemic, the climate crisis, and inflationary trends have made the brutal contradictions of capitalist accumulation more visible. The war in Ukraine and the militaristic rearmament of the major powers raises the urgency of strategically rethinking the question of imperialism. In turn, in successive waves of class struggle, with strikes, revolts, and upheavals, the subalterns show that they can also speak. Unlike postcolonial theories — which condemn us to the mere repetition of local resistance with no way out — the socialist strategy is a tool to eradicate this society based on the brutal plundering of the people by imperialism, multiple oppressions, and exploitation.
See, for example, Enrique de la Garza Toledo (ed.), Crítica de la razón neocolonial [Critique of Neocolonial Reason] (Buenos Aires: CLACSO/CEIL CONICET/Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana/Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, 2021). The book is a collection of interesting critical essays on decoloniality, particularly its Latin American variant.
Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2013). A Spanish edition of the book was published in 2021. See Vivek Chibber, La teoría postcolonial y el espectro del capital, translated by José Maria Amoroto Salido (Tres Canto, Spain: Akal, 2021).
See Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies 1983 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); it is a compilation of Hall’s lectures that year on Althusser, Gramsci, and poststructuralism. See also Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 2001); it was originally published in 1985.
Here the term “postcolonial” does not allude to the theoretical current, but to the historical and social process of “decolonization” from India’s independence in 1947 to the processes of national independence on the African continent in the decades that followed. In the case of postcolonial studies in Latin America, however, the chronological references emphasize the schism of the conquest of America and colonialism-coloniality from 1492 onwards.
Various authors have written that Guha and the group of young intellectuals had been influenced by the Maoist-inspired Naxalite peasant rebellion and later by the openly repressive course of Indira Gandhi’s government and the Congress Party beginning in the mid-1970s.
Guha had been a member of the Communist Party, breaking with it after the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Later, before his post-Marxist drift, he had affinity with Maoism, although he was not a militant in an organization.
Ibid., 407. Although it is not the focus of his argument, at one point Guha points out that “the working class was still not sufficiently mature in the objective conditions of its social being and in its consciousness as a class-for-itself, nor was it yet firmly allied to the peasantry.” Thus, “it could do nothing to take over and complete the mission which the bourgeoisie had failed to realize.”
Translator’s note: Vera J. Zasulich (1851–1919) was, in 1883, one of the founders of the Emancipation of Labor group, the first Marxist organization in Russia. She also translated many of Marx’s works into Russian. The correspondence with Marx referenced here, from 1881, concerns social relations in Russia and especially the nature of the peasant commune. It was this exchange that convinced Zasulich to embrace Marxism. Later, Zasulich was a member of the editorial board of Iskra with Lenin and Plekhanov. She was with the Mensheviks after the split in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party and eventually became a social chauvinist during World War I, adopting a hostile attitude toward the Soviet government.
Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 50. Translator’s note: Chakrabarty uses labor to illustrate what he means by these two histories. His History 1 is “a past posited by capital itself” (63) as its precondition, whereas History 2 consists of “capital’s antecedent” that “does not contribute to the self-reproduction of capital” (63–64).
The question of uneven and combined development does not appear in Chibber’s book. It is introduced only in the subsequent debate published as a book [Rosie Warren, ed., The Debate on Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (New York: Verso, 2016], a compilation of critiques of Chibber’s book by various postcolonial theorists, along with his responses. In the introduction, Indian intellectual Achin Vanaik raises the question of uneven and combined development and vindicates Trotsky’s work, reproaching the postcolonialists for never taking it into account.
At the same time, other Marxists, such as José Carlos Mariátegui, also thought about this question and offered creative answers. See Juan Dal Maso, “Una guía para leer y releer a Mariátegui” (A Guide to Reading and Rereading Mariátegui, Contrapunto, August 30, 2020.
Amid threats of a coup from Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, efforts are underway to channel all opposition to the president into voting for the Lula-Alckmin ticket1Translator’s note: The Broad Front ticket in the upcoming presidential elections includes Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, who was Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010 and is the leader of the Workers’ Party (PT). His running mate for vice president is Geraldo Alckmin of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), who is a former governor of São Paulo State. in the upcoming presidential election. In support of this, two manifestos “in defense of democracy” are slated to be issued on August 11. They involve a broad sector of the political regime, together with the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (FIESP), the Brazilian Federation of Banks (FEBRABAN), and many business executives — not Bolsonaro’s direct allies, but those who have supported his attacks, the 2016 institutional coup that opened up space for the Far Right, and all the reforms and economic attacks since then.2Translator’s note: In December 2015, a process began in Brazil to impeach the president, Dilma Rousseff, for “corruption.” The charges were based on Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash, so named because it was first “uncovered” at a car wash in Brasília, a criminal investigation into corruption by the Brazilian federal police that began in 2014 during Rousseff’s first term as president and initially centered on the Brazilian state oil company, Petrobras. It was later used to jail Lula — part of an effort, aided by U.S. imperialism, to keep the PT from winning the 2018 elections. At the end of August 2016, the Brazilian Senate voted to remove Dilma from office, finding her guilty of violating budget laws — and resulting in a bloodless coup employing the institutions of the state. In contrast to this reformist agenda, we need a plan of struggle, including strikes and demonstrations, to defeat these coup threats and reforms with the power of workers, women, Black people, Indigenous people, youth, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Bolsonaro’s July meeting with foreign diplomats was a high point of his coup threats this year. But the reaction from important sectors of the political regime, the U.S. government, and the press and business community was one of broad rejection. This was part of what compelled Bolsonaro, in his speech officially launching his reelection campaign, to omit any mention of the legitimacy of the elections and the polls — even with his most reactionary base present. It was an expression of the strong pressure he was under and the absence of a relationship of forces that would have made coup efforts effective. That is why, in his speech, he instead spoke demagogically to women, youth, and Northeasterners,3Translator’s note: In Brazil, people from the Northeast of the country have long faced significant racial and regional prejudice. in addition to announcing increased emergency aid in 2023. He was looking to reverse the unfavorable scenario of a possible defeat in the first round of the elections.
The recently announced “Letter to Brazilians in Defense of a Democratic State Based on the Rule of Law,” a manifesto that will be presented on August 11 at the University of São Paulo Law School, is one of the two major documents pretending to respond to Bolsonaro’s coup threats. The manifesto will be read by Celso de Mello, former minister of Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court (STF). It is part of an effort to situate the judiciary — a pillar of the institutional coup, the authoritarian political regime, the ongoing attacks, and the crisis in the country — as a great “defender of democracy” along with big capital, which is now opposed to Bolsonaro politically while praising his entire ultraliberal economic agenda. They require the continuation of that agenda by any government.
Signers of the manifesto include bankers such as Roberto Setubal, Pedro Moreira Salles, and Candido Bracher from Itaú Unibanco; Fabio Barbosa, former president of Santander and FEBRABAN; and José Olympio Pereira, the former president of Credit Suisse in Brazil. They include Horacio Lafer Piva, chair of paper giant Klabin and former president of FIESP. There are leading members of the bourgeoisie such as Guilherme Leal, the chair of Natura Cosmetico, and Suzano CEO Walter Schalka. Neoliberal rightists include economist Pedro Malan, the former minister of finance, and former Central Bank president Arminio Fraga. More than a dozen former ministers of the STF have signed on, as has Miguel Reale Júnior, the former minister of Justice who opened the impeachment process against Dilma Roussef. Aloysio Nunes Ferreira Filho, of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PDSB), is also a signer.
A second manifesto with the same objective will be launched at the same event on August 11. It has the signatures of institutions, and already has won the support of major sectors of the national bourgeoisie, including FIESP and FEBRABAN.
Broad sectors of the major coup-plotting media are also calling enthusiastically for the launching of the manifesto, including Folha de São Paulo and the historically reactionary Estadão. Increasingly, the Globo Network is indicating its support. In other words, this is a huge movement of the big bourgeoisie, the political regime, and its institutions.
After Bolsonaro’s meeting on July 27, not by chance, there was a statement from the U.S. Embassy. On the same day at the bilateral meeting of U.S. secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Brazilian minister of Defense General Paulo Sérgio Nogueira, sources report that Austin expressed that the United States expects fair and transparent elections. That U.S. imperialism and the Democratic Party — the orchestrators of Lava Jato4Translator’s note: See note 1, above, for an explanation of Lava Jato. and the institutional coup in Brazil, and who throughout history have supported military coups all over the world — and now want to pose “in defense of democracy” is the most absurd cynicism.
While we see that the manifesto has been assigned by some in the progressive sector, it is the signatures of these sectors from the bosses and bourgeoisie that sets the tone of the politics being defended. Behind the planned events of August 11 and the manifesto are no less than those responsible for the 2016 institutional coup, which opened space for the Bolsonaro government and the military to occupy enormous weight in the Brazilian political regime. They are the various political agents, the judiciary, and big capital who were responsible for applying all the economic attacks that have flowed from the institutional coup, including all the counter-reforms that have wreaked havoc for the Brazilian working class, which is suffering from unemployment, hunger, and a rising cost of living. The more a Lula-Alckmin victory is seen as a probability, the greater the movement of direct and indirect support for the ticket — all with the goal of taming the future government’s program even more than Lula has already promised. Those who now come to speak “in defense of democracy” are our tormentors, not our allies.
The manifesto is inspired by the “Letter to Brazilians” of 1977, during the military dictatorship, which was read aloud by then minister Goffredo da Silva Telles Júnior.5Translator’s note: In August 1977, a jurist and professor named Goffredo da Silva Telles Júnior famously read a letter denouncing the legitimacy of the military government and what was called the “state of exception” under which Brazilians were ruled. It called for reestablishing the rule of law and the convening of a National Constituent Assembly. The Brazilian bourgeoisie attributes the demise of the dictatorship to this act, ignoring any role of the masses. As we explain here, the reference is aimed at hiding the central role of the working class in the struggle against the dictatorship, as well as that of the student movement, to highlight the role of a “jurist,” “civil society,” and institutions of the regime. What they want is to control things to keep the power of the workers and youth from engaging in class struggle.
The Lula-Alckmin Electoral Campaign Is Behind the “Defense of Democracy” Campaign
Using “defense of democracy” as a cover, these sectors that have now become opponents of Bolsonaro are lending their support to the Lula-Alckmin ticket in a maneuver that is supposed to be “above partisanship.”
In his July 27 interview with Universo Online, Lula made it clear that after a long period without dialogue with the business community, they are now coming to him. This August 11 move is part of this. Lula also gave a nod to the Armed Forces, saying, “The military is more responsible than Bolsonaro.” He repeated that when he was president previously, his government funded the military. Now he is expressing his willingness to come to an agreement with the Armed Forces without challenging their role in the political regime or their enormous privileges.
The Workers’ Party (PT) and Lula continue with their line of channeling all questions and dissatisfactions into voting for the Lula-Alckmin ticket and the Broad Front slates in every state — a front with the traditional Right, including all sectors that led the 2016 institutional coup, that have an openly conservative program, and that are allied with big capital and various other sectors of the Right.
Thanks to its weight in the leaderships of the mass movement, especially the CUT trade union confederation, the PT has been building passivity with this goal for some time. Now, through the “Out with Bolsonaro Front,” it has decided to call August 11 as a “national and international day of united mobilization in defense of democracy, for free elections, and against political violence,” and has already said there will be further mobilizations on September 10 — an effort to forestall militant demonstrations against Bolsonaro from taking place in the streets on September 7.6Translator’s note: September 7 is Brazil’s Independence Day, and Bolsonaro has called on his supporters to take the streets on that day to back his claim that the elections are being rigged by the Electoral Court (TSE) to ensure a Lula-Alckmin victory. Traditionally, the PT holds demonstrations on that day, called Grito dos Excluídos (Cry of the Excluded), and it is those demonstrations it has postponed.
The goal is to make sure any actions are extremely well controlled, with the broadest Broad Front possible, and without raising any economic demands — because for them, the unity they seek is not that of the working class with the poor to fight for our demands. What they want is to reestablish the alliances that Lula made in his previous government with conservative sectors who are assured that their profits and privileges won’t be touched. The objective now, and even in a possible Lula government, is to have the workers continue to pay for the crisis.
For Working-Class Unity and a Plan of Struggle that Excludes the Bourgeoisie and Right
Many say that it is time for the broadest unity to fight the extreme Right, Bolsonaro, and the military. Some on the Left even try to defend some sort of “unity of action” with the bourgeoisie, trying to establish a Marxist basis for such an approach — which we have already debated here. But the only truly broad unity that can actually defeat Bolsonaro, the extreme Right, and any coup threat is the unity of the working class, youth, women, Black people, Indigenous people, and the LGBTQ+ community engaged in the class struggle. And that can happen only by combining the fight against the coup threats with the most deeply felt economic demands, and doing so in a way that is independent of the bourgeoisie and any sector of the bosses.
Lula has already said that his ticket is not of the Left, that it won’t repeal the reforms, and that he is not proposing any structural change in the authoritarian political regime that was degraded by the institutional coup. Lula and Alckmin are not going to open a path to resolving the demands of the working class and the poor, will not open the way to resolve the demands of the working class and the poor, even less so now that the country lacks the economic conditions for granting concessions as was the case in Lula’s second government. Instead, it will be like his first government, with attacks such as the pension reform and other neoliberal measures — as André Singer, a member of the PT, has already spelled out in a book.
It is essential that the Revolutionary Socialist Pole, together with the parties that stand to the Left of the PT and are running their own candidates such as the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) and Popular Unity (PU), do not fall into this trap of class conciliation and of a supposed “defense of democracy” — which in truth is a campaign of the Lula-Alckmin ticket.
We must join forces to demand from the majority leaderships of the mass movement — first and foremost from the CUT, the CTB trade union confederation, and the National Union of Students (UNE) — that they promote a real plan of struggle against the coup threats and for the revocation of all the counter-reforms and attacks, and that they call for a struggle for the economic demands of the working class against high prices and hunger. Let’s not accept electoral actions that are in step with the big bankers, industrialists, and leaders of the political regime, who will define the program of these actions according to their interests. This is not a “fight against a coup.” Class independence is imperative. We must impose on the bureaucratic leaderships an effective plan of struggle, organized from grassroots assemblies in the workplaces and schools, encouraging self-organization of the rank and file, and place the working class as an active subject on the political stage so that it can take control of the situation.
If we join forces in this political struggle, it is even possible to win over sectors of the vanguard of workers and youth — ones that are outside of organized parties — to this perspective of confronting Bolsonarism, the military, and the Right through class struggle. We are putting Esquerda Diário and all our resources at the service of the political, ideological, and theoretical battles of this moment.
The sectors that make up the Revolutionary Socialist Pole, calling for a vote for the ticket of Vera Lucia and Raquel Tremembé, must be on the front line of this battle. This includes the United Socialist Workers’ Party (PSTU), part of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) and various activists and organizations, such as us from the MRT.
We call on every activist and organization to wage this common political struggle, to fight a common battle in every union, student body, and with the organizations and parties of the Left.
Translator’s note: The Broad Front ticket in the upcoming presidential elections includes Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, who was Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010 and is the leader of the Workers’ Party (PT). His running mate for vice president is Geraldo Alckmin of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), who is a former governor of São Paulo State.
Translator’s note: In December 2015, a process began in Brazil to impeach the president, Dilma Rousseff, for “corruption.” The charges were based on Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash, so named because it was first “uncovered” at a car wash in Brasília, a criminal investigation into corruption by the Brazilian federal police that began in 2014 during Rousseff’s first term as president and initially centered on the Brazilian state oil company, Petrobras. It was later used to jail Lula — part of an effort, aided by U.S. imperialism, to keep the PT from winning the 2018 elections. At the end of August 2016, the Brazilian Senate voted to remove Dilma from office, finding her guilty of violating budget laws — and resulting in a bloodless coup employing the institutions of the state.
Translator’s note: In August 1977, a jurist and professor named Goffredo da Silva Telles Júnior famously read a letter denouncing the legitimacy of the military government and what was called the “state of exception” under which Brazilians were ruled. It called for reestablishing the rule of law and the convening of a National Constituent Assembly. The Brazilian bourgeoisie attributes the demise of the dictatorship to this act, ignoring any role of the masses.
Translator’s note: September 7 is Brazil’s Independence Day, and Bolsonaro has called on his supporters to take the streets on that day to back his claim that the elections are being rigged by the Electoral Court (TSE) to ensure a Lula-Alckmin victory. Traditionally, the PT holds demonstrations on that day, called Grito dos Excluídos (Cry of the Excluded), and it is those demonstrations it has postponed.
The first thing on everyone’s mind at the conference was the sheer size of the thing. Four thousand people registered. It was a sold-out crowd, and the biggest ever at a Labor Notes conference. Almost every session I went to was overflowing: the chairs were all filled; the walls were lined with bodies; people crouched in all the aisles.
It’s a key point because Labor Notes is one of the ways the most committed, energized rank-and-file activists in the labor movement — representing a swathe of industries and unions across the country and the world — gather themselves and talk to each other.
The fact that this was the biggest Labor Notes conference means that that active, energized layer of activists — helping drive union struggle across the country — is growing.
Not only is it growing, it’s discussing how to fight in a militant, disruptive way.
Striking was a key topic. The Teamsters are preparing to negotiate a contract next year at UPS, and it seems like a UPS strike is on the horizon. Two members of the caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union gave a seminar on Saturday afternoon on how to prepare a strike, based on their own experience in 1997. The panel also explored how to strike during a contract too — something labor bureaucrats have been terrified of for decades.
Another panel explored how to strike without a contract. There, a panelist said labor law is not the source of power — and he’s right. Our power comes from how well we can organize and squeeze the profits we make for the bosses, he said — not waiting for the government to save us. In the same vein, Joe Burns — author of the new Class Struggle Unionism and part of the leadership of the AFA-CWA union — called for a “class struggle unionism” unafraid to break laws when it strikes.
These are all ideas reaching a growing layer of union activists now. And many of the labor activists hearing these ideas were young, and often queer — part of “generation U,” as I’ll say again later, who don’t have the huge weight of an old bureaucracy teaching them to be “careful,” to avoid strikes, to play it safe.
… and a Radical Layer
But it’s not just that the conference was huge or that it was throwing around militant ideas. It’s also that, again and again, it seemed like the huge audiences were far more radical, far more to the left, than many of the panelists themselves. Again and again, they drove the conversation in more radical directions.
For example, not a single official panel title or description on the Labor Notes conference program mentions socialism. But at every panel I saw, the audience brought up socialism and said (in one way or another) that socialism is the goal of our fight.
Another example. One panel said it would tackle how unions should relate to the problem of the murderous, racist police. On that panel sat a member of a nonprofit in Minneapolis. He stood up to talk about how to reduce the tensions between communities and the police. He said, “Well, we know, not all cops are bad, some are really good people.” The audience jeered him: “Fuck 12! Fuck the police!”
During the Q&A, one of my own Left Voice comrades — a rank-and-file activist from SEIU in Los Angeles — stood up. She pointed out that cops aren’t just the descendants of slave catchers. They’re strikebreakers, enemies of every real union. Cops have no place in the labor movement, and we need to kick them out of all our unions and federations to strengthen the movement, she said — to wide applause.
It was just after this that a Minneapolis activist — identifying themselves as queer and Black — stood up. They pointed out the ways that nonprofits worked overtime in the wake of the huge 2020 uprising to co-opt the struggle for racial justice, to rob the movement of its radical energy, and to channel it in safer directions — then led us in Assata Shakur’s chant: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” The crowd cheered them on.
All this seems like an important change from other kinds of LN meetings. In 2021 — just one year after the biggest social movement in history, which was a struggle against racist police — I went to Labor Notes’ “Troublemaker School” in Philly. It was nothing like this.
It was big. But by comparison, it was much tamer. The only session on racial justice and unions was like an HR session from my boss. It called for us (individually) to be anti-racist in our unions — surely a good message. But never did the speakers talk about our own unions’ role in fighting the murderous, racist cops. I raised the issue, but it fizzled.
In fact, the content of our discussions at this year’s conference was a major move to the left from Labor Notes as an organization. The pages of LN never, or almost never, hazard a mention of socialism. They don’t dare criticize the Democrats like even some of this year’s panelists did (I’ll mention them in a minute).
But this conference was a showcase for powerful contradictions in this layer of the labor movement — especially around politics.
People were grappling with the problem of the Democratic Party. At multiple sessions, activists raised major, and crucial, critiques of the Democrats — a party that has betrayed, constantly, the labor movement. The highest pitch of that critique came from Joe Burns, at a panel on his new book.
There, for example, Burns pointed out just how toothless and cynical the Democrat promises of the PRO Act are. Those promises face the combined power of U.S. judges who side with the ruling class, not workers. Even if that law could be passed — it almost certainly can’t be — judges are standing by ready to interpret it in the narrowest, most useless way possible. And the Democratic Party came up again in a workshop about organizing and bargaining around abortion rights. Several attendees brought up being let down for decades by the Democratic Party, and the need for a mass movement, led by the labor movement, to win abortion rights in the United States.
But there’s a deep reluctance at the top of our unions to take this logic to its natural end — calling for cutting our unions’ ties to the Democrats and building an independent party for the working class. At a panel that Sara Nelson facilitated, the room was again overflowing. People stood and crouched for lack of chairs in a massive space that could hold hundreds. At one point Nelson blasted the Democrats. She pointed out just how badly Democrats and Republicans both had betrayed labor.
So a comrade of mine in Left Voice put out the obvious point: If the Democrats are so awful to labor, let’s cut ties, let’s create our own, independent party! It was an idea that was met with mad clapping and shouts of agreement.
Nelson grabbed the mic — and waffled. “Workers don’t need their own party. If they have more power over production, the parties will come to them!”
But this is astonishing. It flies in the face of history. Even when unions were much bigger — in the 1950s and 1960s — Democrats worked overtime to co-opt, limit, restrict, and betray the movement. For just one example: Democrats and Republicans stood arm in arm in 1947 to pass the Taft-Hartley Act, which radically undercut and hemmed in the ways unions could legally strike.
We see the same contradiction in the fact that, at this meeting for labor rank-and-filers, the LN staff spent so much time and energy preparing for speeches by a Democrat — Bernie Sanders.
Bernie is definitely a reason many young people to socialist ideas. He surely has their ear. But that situation is full of contradictions, too. Despite all this, he serves a party that has refused to lift a finger for labor, that helped usher in the neoliberal revolution against labor, that champions the bombing and murder of working-class people around the globe. In 2020 his run for president helped gather these radical forces on the U.S. Left — but only to endorse Biden, who opposes key working-class struggles: for police abolition, to put up a real fight for abortion rights in the streets — and on and on. Whether he wants to or not, Bernie is helping keep this dynamic going, helping pull radicals into the the Democratic Party, the graveyard of social movements.
Surely that bureaucratic system has major contradictions of its own. Nelson isn’t the same kind of leader as the late Richard Trumka. In fact, it was Burns — in the leadership at AFA-CWA with Sara Nelson — who criticized most labor leaders during his panel (and in his book Class Struggle Unionism). But even though the idea of union democracy was much discussed — as it should be! — the critique of bureaucracy, what it is, how it exerts its power, how it tries to control the rank and file — was curiously muted in most of the sessions I went to, as it is on the pages of Labor Notes too.
But all this shows that something important is happening — symptoms of something much larger.
… and Powerful Possibilities
What’s most important in all this isn’t just the lack of imagination in even a stirring, brilliant speaker like Nelson, or the limits of Sanders.
What’s important is that people like Nelson and Burns, and Bernie too, are bellwethers — or canaries in coal mines, or tuning forks — registering something bigger than them, that doesn’t quite have its voice yet — something new, and possibly powerful, at work in a dark way inside labor itself.
It’s true that unions’ bureaucratic leaders have spent many decades in a love affair with Democrats. But this is true even of a more leftward union leader like Nelson, who endorsed Biden in 2020. Still, the fact that Nelson did not champion the Democrats at the conference is a kind of ripple, on the surface, of a force from below requiring her to shift. Labor Notes became — in many cases despite the official programming — a place to critique the Democrats and, at least here and there, tentatively, to think about alternatives.
And the same goes for Labor Notes as a whole. The big, roiling mass audience was constantly surging past the more restricted, narrower limits of Labor Notes as an organization. Here we see a hidden power struggling inside the most energized layers of unions.
Something is stirring inside labor. The goal now is for us to fight to help give it shape and expand its power: for a radical, militant force in the labor movement, breaking free from all capitalist political parties, struggling for radical, bottom-up control of unions — to build a labor movement that could really fight for the overthrow of this rotten system and the building of socialism.
The second round of France’s legislative elections on June 19 were destined to be a shock that would weaken President Emmanuel Macron, but the final results exceed the worst expectations — they are cataclysmic. The government has lost its absolute majority by a wide margin, winning only an estimated 238 of the 577 total seats. This will force Macron to govern as a minority, leaving him no choice but to rely on the Right. It opens a period of deep political instability.
The NUPES coalition (the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale, which includes La France Insoumise, the Greens, and remnants from the Socialist and Communist Parties) won enough seats to become the leading opposition force. But that result is a far cry from the demagogic electoral objectives of its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who just last Friday promised again, nonsensically, that he would be prime minister. (The strategy was to win a majority in the National Assembly with the belief that doing so would somehow force Macron to select the social-democratic populist leader as his prime minister).
As in the first round, the level of abstention — which reached 54 percent despite the campaign to mobilize voters that the NUPES has been waging since the presidential election in April — show just how difficult it was for Mélenchon’s coalition with bourgeois parties like the Socialists and the Greens to win over workers and youth. Nearly three-quarters of young people did not vote in the legislative elections.
In response to the NUPES, the Far Right is making breakthroughs and working to constitute itself as the second-largest opposition to the government. The National Rally (RN) party of Marine Le Pen may end up with another 10 deputies, following its historic result in the first round of the legislative elections. Le Pen’s party is capitalizing on the deep hatred of Macronism, but also on the inability of the NUPES to convince important sectors of the working classes that are seduced by the RN’s message.
These results point to an extremely unstable five-year period during which Macron’s capacity to govern will be severely tested. In the midst of a reactionary war in Ukraine and with the French presence in Africa in crisis, this situation will further weaken the position of French imperialism — a pillar of the European Union — on the international scene.
In a crisis speech, current prime minister Elisabeth Borne called for building a “majority of action,” betting on the possibility of agreements with the Right. These could be more difficult to forge than she thinks and, in what might be the best case, force Macron to govern more to the right than he wants.
The pandemic has temporarily put on hold what had been ongoing momentum toward uninterrupted class struggle between 2016 and 2020. This political instability, though, especially in an international context marked by sharpening geopolitical tensions, a deepening economic crisis, and recessionary tendencies, could quickly lead to major social explosions. In such a situation, the self-described “parliamentary guerrillas” advocated by the NUPES will be powerless. Further, the very sustainability of this coalition could be quickly put to the test — with Fabien Roussel of the French Communist Party already beginning to distance himself from it in remarks on Sunday evening.
The focus on winning reforms through elections remains at the heart of everything the institutional Left proposes. The urgent alternative is to prepare to fight on the terrain of the class struggle, seeking to seize the opportunities that will open up in the current political crisis. To do so, we need a revolutionary Left that goes on the offensive, and that can intervene in the coming struggles and build a front of resistance against Macron and the Far Right.