Notes Toward a New American Marxism


When I first read Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, it was 1967 and I was doing my last book report for the nuns at Holy Family High.  I would graduate in June but not without making some kind of statement about how angry I was to have been forced to attend this school.  I was pissed.  Pissed at school, pissed at my family, and pissed at not going to vocational school, like I wanted.  I wasn’t going to the Prom, I was joining the Army.  I was making a statement about the time I wasted and the “shock value” of the Manifesto was that statement: “Workers of the World, Unite!”  It took me another three years and a trip to Nam before I realized what these words really meant to me.

When I returned from the Army and over the next ten or so years, I was very lucky to have the opportunities that I did to immerse myself in the trade unions of the New Bedford and Fall River, Massachusetts area and to study Marxism with an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) group called For The People (FTP).  I was smack dab in the middle of the “New Left” movement.  I read newspapers and magazines like the Daily Worker, the Guardian, the Progressive, and Monthly Review.  Our group, FTP, had Marxist study groups and courses in organizing and anti-capitalism.  With my relative proximity to Boston, I was exposed to all forms of leftism and theories from the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) to the Alinsky method of organizing.

Throughout all of this I was constantly updating my Marxism.  I grew from a dogmatist to a revisionist (revisionary, as I like to say).  I watched as Marxist and leftist thinkers politically corrected themselves into oblivion.  I waited for the talks to resume, maybe after some group would organize the South, or stop runaway shops in the North, but no one came forward.  That’s when I realized that in order to restart the discussion of Marxist theory and practice I needed to form a basic Marxist analysis of my own to begin this discussion.  What I’ve come to understand is that every successful Marxist party has its own, unique Marxist analysis of its country’s economy and the role the working class plays in it.  We need that very same unique, American Marxist analysis of our country and our class situation.  I have spent forty years engaged in the daily struggles of my own personal, working-class life as well as keeping an active awareness of the national labor movements, as best I could.  Now I am ready to begin my own Marxist analysis of these experiences and I feel this is a good place to make my contribution.

American trade unions have always been held up as a way for working people to exercise their power on the job and at the ballot box.  This is in theory true but the reality is entrenched local and international leadership that just keep rubber-stamping each other’s corruption.  When the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) kicked the bums out of office, what happened?  The government orchestrated their demise and reinstated the old “Machine.”  When the Boeing workers rejected a “sweetheart” contract from management, what happened?  The International and the Democrats came in and forced a questionable re-vote on workers.  The examples could go on and on.  How many times do you have to defeat another dues increase or stop a vote to send a bunch of bums to a convention in Las Vegas or Atlantic City?  We have no real democracy in our unions and we get no real representation by the Democrats, whom we keep voting for even though they keep making “Free Trade Agreements.”  It’s clearly a case of “taxation without representation.”  No, I am not a “Tea Party” member.  But I do want to point out the need for a political voice for working men and women that really respects what we want and need as members of a class, not a party that just offers us crumbs if we do what we’re told.

An American Marxist party must see that its goal is to fulfill that need in the American political landscape, which is to organize and educate its base among the working class and its vanguard.  We need to keep the focus of Marxist thinking on the main targets, the global economy, the “means of production,” and our relationship to them as we struggle to bring more socialist solutions to the bargaining table.  It should be the platform upon which we build our alliances.  It’s where the intelligentsia and the student movement meet the working-class leaders.

I believe that the failures of Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc. were in part because they shut out the bourgeoisie from the political process completely even when they needed each other to grow as a strong economy.  Their party structure was undemocratic, which eventually made corruption rule the day.  They were trying to force-feed socialism down people’s throats, and sooner or later their social experiments backfired.  Look at our own failed “social experiments” and how they all collapsed under our own ultra-left extremes.  Learning what is good and what is bad about our own history will be an important step for us to take towards forming a new Marxist party in America.

An American Marxist party should be a place to workers where the “dictatorship of the proletariat” means the party represents them and only them.  No liberal elements of the bourgeoisie can hold office or vote in the party’s sessions, only workers will run the party.  Only workers will vote on its platform and only workers will represent the party.  An American Marxist party must accept the fact that democracy and civil liberties are the hallmarks of our country’s way of life, and we must participate and protect them.  Our goal should be to defend the interest of labor and the working class at every level of government we can reach through our organizing.

Here, in America, the upper class and the middle class have entrenched positions at the political bargaining table.  We will be the third-party upstart trying to elbow our way into the bargaining sessions.  Informing the public and getting out the vote will be our strongest weapon against wealth, as long as we have democracy and our civil liberties, which we must protect against the Roberts Court’s attempts to dilute with unlimited donations.

The platform of the party should reflect its commitment to industrial democracy in the trade unions and aggressive representation of the interest of the working class in our democratic society.  An American working-class party needs to insist that all trade unions under the party’s influence will be run honestly and democratically.  The party must be a powerful voice for democracy, social progress as a class, and social justice that is fair to all.  All this can be undermined by corruption, so the party must defend basic democratic membership rights in all unions.  Its goal should be to defend and strengthen these democratic rights at the local, national, and federal levels of the political life of the working class.  Existing trade unions will only be allowed to join if they are democratic and their financial records are available for review.  It will also be the obligation of the party to recruit members by establishing area-wide organizing committees to assist rank-and-filers who want to organize or reform a union.

The party should also be ready to publish newspapers, flyers, and leaflets both on paper and electronically.  It should be organizing community-based organizing cells to discuss and promote its structure and ideology.  Building rank-and-file caucuses to reform unions and community-based organizing committees should be seen as important jobs that need to be done by this new party.  Helping the poor and unemployed will also be taken up with equal enthusiasm.  Education of the masses about our party’s platform and goals will also be done by these local committees.

Party membership should be open to any member of the working class, as defined by Marx, as well as low-income, unemployed, and people in need of assistance.  Marx’s idea of class as our “relationship to the means of production” is still relevant in our global economy.  You have those who own the means of production, and by “owners” I mean buyers and sellers of what the means of production have been reduced to, stocks and bonds.  Then you have the supervisors of the means of production such as the CEO, CFO, COO, and countless other titles and jobs that denote our burgeoning middle class.  And, finally, those of us who sell our labor and create the excess value that oils the wheels of capitalism: the working class.  It’s getting clearer and clearer who the rich are and who the poor are.  What isn’t clear is who represents these three class interests in a two-party democracy.  We have tried to hitch our wagon to the Democrats but we are getting less and less bang for our buck as they sell us out one trade deal after another.  The need for Big Money in politics has marginalized the influence of the AFL-CIO and their own corruption has speeded their decline.  This should be time for a real working-class party to rise up, but the American left is in disarray.  This leadership vacuum among the working class is drawing more and more of the right wing into the picture.  The rise of first the NRA (National Rifle Association) and now the Tea Party should be all the wakeup call we need to get our left-wing act together.  Now more than ever is the time for a new American Marxism.

Using some of Mao’s thinking on the American situation, when you look at the American economy through Marxist eyes you have to ask yourself: what is the main issue that will, when resolved, move the other issues forward with it?  I think that America’s main contradiction is a leadership vacuum and that the formation of a new American Marxism and a Labor Party is the solution.  A strong union movement is the best ally for progressive social and community activists and the majority of American families.  With the leadership of a Marxist party and the correct analysis on all the major issues, it could be the beacon for unity that the working class of America needs.

Danny Mitchell is a correspondent of Michael D. Yates.

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