A friendly reply to Saturn’s “Friendly rebuttal”

First of all, let me say that I enjoyed reading Saturn’s “Friendly rebuttal to ‘Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO’” for the simple fact that, after having been subjected to untold numbers of unfriendly critiques directed at the ISO opposition during the recent factional struggle, I found the article’s “spirit of comradeship” to be a refreshing change of pace. [1] Truly, this is the type of document that begs for someone to reply in kind.

For this reason, I wanted to take the time to respond to Saturn’s article. I’ll begin my reply by first outlining the content of the argument that Saturn’s piece seeks to critique. Following this, I’ll then detail Saturn’s own argument. Finally, I’ll conclude by expounding upon my own opinions on the matter.

Assessing the “ideological radicalization” thesis

Saturn’s document, of course, is intended as a response to the November CounterPunch article, “Theory and Practice of Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO,” written by the SF6 comrades – a group of six ex-ISO members from the Bay Area. [2] Notably, Saturn’s article deals with one of SF6’s arguments that’s also shared by a number of other recent ISO burnouts, including the ISO Renewal Faction and the Socialist Outpost comrades. To summarize in brief, this argument deals with the ISO’s bogus current perspectives analysis, which holds that the United States is currently undergoing a period of “ideological radicalization” as a result of rising rates exploitation and oppression set in motion by the outbreak of the Great Recession in 2008. As the SF6 comrades have argued, this thesis is based on “a mistaken, non-materialist understanding of the relationship between class struggle, organization, and consciousness.”

Traditionally, the SF6 comrades note, Marxists have sought to measure class consciousness by evaluating the current strength of working-class organization in the form of trade union density, analyzing the statistics for strikes and work stoppages, and – finally – appraising the “character of those strikes (economic or political).” Measured in these terms, it’s clear that the United States has, over the past three decades, witnessed a precipitous decline in working-class struggle, organization, and – by connection – consciousness. Problematically, the ISO seems to have jettisoned this traditional Marxist method for assessing the current state of class consciousness. Instead, they’ve become reliant on “polls, election results, and sporadic demonstrations, which can be used to paint a picture of a working class on the move and on the cusp of an ‘upturn.’”

As already noted, the problem with this approach is that it confuses Marx’s epistemological understanding of the relationship between working-class struggle and working-class consciousness. Rather than diagramming this out in detail, I’d like to summarize this point by quoting directly from another document I’ve written — my “Response to Bekah W.’s ‘Critique of the ISO Renewal Faction,’” published in the ISO’s Pre-convention Bulletin #11 on January 21:

[T]he development of class consciousness requires workers to come to the conclusion that it is in their interest to fight back as a group. In order for this to happen, groups of workers tend to have to go through the experience of engaging in collective struggles – in particular, collective struggles that are successful in bringing about real-world gains. What’s more, in order for such advances in consciousness to be sustainable, they have to be consolidated in the form of class organization. (It goes without saying that the fundamental form of working-class organization is the trade union.) Crucially, increased class organization allows for greater latitude in terms of working-class action and working-class consciousness. Through this process, workers can come to realize their interests as a class. The key thing to understand here is that the act of engaging in class struggle necessarily precedes the growth of class-conscious ideas – at least on a mass level. This conforms with Marx’s understanding of epistemology. As summarized by the Renewal Faction, “We learn by doing – that is, we do first, then extrapolate the lesson.” On this basis, only through the process of advancing their interests through struggle will workers develop “clear consciousness of [themselves] as a member of the working class, in opposition to the ruling class, and the need for collective class action against the rulers.” [3]

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In his reply to the SF6 comrades, Saturn asserts that – while he shares many of the group’s criticisms of the ISO – he disagrees with their characterization of the ISO’s “ideological radicalization” thesis. As Saturn puts it, “I think the ISO is dead-on accurate about that particular issue.” He adds, “if someone can’t see that society is going through a tremendously noticeable leftward ideological shift, they don’t have a very good nose for sensing the politics of the masses.”

On a theoretical level, Saturn argues that SF6’s critique of the ISO’s “ideological radicalization” thesis is grounded in a deterministic conception of Marxism. As Saturn implies, SF6’s theoretical formulation essentially denies the existence of a “mutually-influencing relationship between base and superstructure.” From here, Saturn goes on to make the case that consciousness inevitably influences the development of  material reality. As he puts it, “the ideas in people’s heads matter, and they become all the more important as those ideas take on a mass character, or as they become an idea shared in common at a large scale. Mass consciousness, like any other consciousness, is material.”

By connection, Saturn goes on to argue that the SF6 comrades (and others) are wrong in disregarding the significance of opinion polls. Since consciousness has the ability to shape material reality, Saturn implies, disregarding changes in popular opinion means ignoring an important factor in the material development of society. At the same time, Saturn also asserts that SF6 and others put too much emphasis in relying on statistics pertaining to working-class action to determine the level of class consciousness. As Saturn implies, it’s shortsighted to measure consciousness solely in terms of “things that people do, like in belonging to unions, or striking.” This overlooks the ways that consciousness can be altered through the passive experience of working-class life. After all, regardless of whether or not working-class people are fighting back, class struggle is still a daily feature in our lives. Often times, though, this takes the form of “the savage one-sided class war where we all get our asses handed to us by the rich.” As Saturn further summarizes,

We learn through doing, not just in the sense of learning by fighting, but also learning through the struggle for survival. And beyond merely learning by doing is learning from material experience, which may seem more passive, but is nonetheless a real material factor on consciousness, which often poses a radical alternative to capitalist mis-education.

Connected to this argument is Saturn’s assumption that the passive experience of working-class people over the past several years has set in motion a process of radicalization. In this way, Saturn points out that, currently, “class anger… is everywhere.” The practical aspects of Saturn’s argument flow from this perspective. In this regard, Saturn implies that the current rise in class anger has created an opening for Marxists to make significant gains in terms of political organizing. By this he appears to be thinking specifically about the prospects for building socialist electoral alliances and running socialist candidates for office. Thus, Saturn asserts that Marxists “may have to channel people’s radicalization through other outlets, such as solidarity networks or militant electoral campaigns.” Elsewhere, Saturn points out that that currently many working people “are very willing to take political action in arenas where they believe they can win.” This contrasts with workers’ general reticence to engage in workplace struggle, which – Saturn rightly asserts – is currently being held in check by “the excruciating vulnerabilities of being at the mercy of a boss.”

My opinion on the matter

There are a number of useful insights advanced by Saturn in this document. I’ll plan on taking up some of these points shortly, but I want to begin my assessment by pointing out what I believe are the core flaws of Saturn’s argument. Let me start by looking at the practical aspect of Saturn’s argument, which deals with the potential for socialists to run “militant electoral campaigns” aimed at channeling increased levels of working-class anger into political struggle.

I agree with Saturn that – as it stands today – there is something of an opening for socialists to begin building independent, Left-wing electoral alliances and running candidates for office. This opportunity is most clearly evidenced by the recent election of Kshama Sawant in Seattle. Nonetheless, I think it’s imperative to note that, currently, there is little chance that local socialist electoral campaigns will have the ability to galvanize some sort of mass political struggle. The reason for this relates, quite simply, to the fact that the strength of a working-class political movement is contingent on the strength of working-class power at the point of production. And since working-class economic struggle and union density are at historically low levels, then – inevitably – the development of a major political class struggle is somewhat limited.

On face, this argument might appear to be somewhat deterministic. I disagree. I’d argue that — while working-class economic power and working class political power exist in dialectical relation — the development of a strong trade union movement is an unavoidable prerequisite for the development of an independent working-class party. The opposite is not, however, equally true. The reason for this is simple. In order for a working-class or socialist political party to be deserving of the name, then it must derive its roots from the working class itself. The party must be an organized political expression of the political needs of the working class. And in order for this to happen, it must be based upon existing working-class organizations – namely, trade unions. To put this another way, the only conceivable constituency that’s capable of sustaining a socialist electoral party is an organized, mobilized working class. In this regard, there’s absolutely no substitute for trade union power. After all, what other group besides unions has the capacity to provide a mass base of campaigners and voters needed to fuel a viable socialist electoral campaign? What other group besides unions has the potential to provide the type of funds needed for such a campaign? And most importantly, what other group besides unions has the class interest to support socialist politics and provide the socialist movement with its immediate political agenda?

The inescapable importance of rebuilding and revivifying the trade union movement as a prerequisite to building Left-wing political power is pointed out in a recent article by Adoph Reed Jr. from this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine. The article – fittingly titled, “Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals” – is written as an exposition of the increasingly blatant pro-corporate, anti-labor nature of the Democratic Party. Reed concludes the document by emphasizing the importance of rebuilding the labor movement in order to provide the social base needed to fuel a Left-wing political resurgence:

The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one. This is a long-term effort, and one that requires grounding in a vibrant labor movement. Labor may be weak or in decline, but that means aiding in its rebuilding is the most serious task for the American left. Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless. There are no magical interventions, shortcuts, or technical fixes. We need to reject the fantasy that some spark will ignite the People to move as a mass. We must create a constituency for a left program – and that cannot occur via MSNBC or blog posts or the New York Times. [4]

From a historical perspective, the centrality of the labor movement in creating the social space and – in turn – the political demand for socialist politics has traditionally been a common-sense assumption among socialists. Just to provide a single historical example, at the start of the twentieth century, the founders of The Socialist Party of America, including the great Eugene Debs, viewed the party’s relationship to the trade union movement to be the core basis for its existence. As recounted by historian Philip S. Foner, during the Socialist Party’s founding convention in 1901, delegates unanimously adopted a resolution pledging “complete cooperation with all bodies representing organized labor.” As Foner summarizes, the document “asserted that the Socialists considered ‘the trade union movement and the Socialist movement as inseparable parts of the general labor movement, produced by the same goal,’ and that they deemed it ‘the duty of each of the two movements to extend its hearty co-operation and support to the other in its special sphere of activity.’” [5]

Obviously, Saturn does not reject the importance of rebuilding the labor movement. Nonetheless, some of the points in his document appear to indicate that, presently, the duty of the Left is to find a shortcut around building workplace power. Most notably, at one point, Saturn asserts that, “We need to figure out creative ways of getting to that halfway mark [to revolution] which may or may not rely on people’s ability to act in the workplace.” In response to this, I’d argue that there is no pathway forward for the Left that circumvents the need to build power at the point of production. As the quote from Reed put it, “There are no magical interventions, shortcuts, or technical fixes.” In sum, the prerequisite for a revived socialist politics is a revitalized trade union movement.

Significantly, the notion that socialists can bypass workplace struggle and power through building a socialist electoral alliance is linked to the idealistic theoretical assumptions that underpin the “ideological radicalization” thesis. The latter argument seems to assume that the level of working-class anger set in motion by the economic crisis is of sufficient strength and durability that it can be channeled into a veritable political movement through the intervention of a unified socialist Left. This assumption neglects just how ephemeral and malleable consciousness tends to be when it isn’t backed up by organizational power.  Indeed, without workers’ power at the point of production, the day-to-day grind of wage work inevitably tends to have a conservatizing impact on workers.

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With this critique out of the way, I’d like to move on to pinpointing some of what I believe to be the more useful points raised in Saturn’s article. To begin with, despite my emphasis on the inherent limitations of socialist electoral campaigns given the current state of the trade union movement, I’ll say that I’m actually quite sympathetic to the prospect of striving to build “solidarity networks or militant electoral campaigns” during the current period. In this regard, I think the recent focus on running socialist candidates for office by Socialist Alternative and others is a positive development. My optimism on this matter comes from my conviction that within the next several years it’s quite plausible that some substantial breakthroughs begin to take place within the U.S. trade union movement. And such a development would undoubtedly create an opening for the growth of a mass socialist political movement rooted in the working class. For this reason, I think that working to build socialist electoral alliances today has the potential to pay off in spades tomorrow if and when the class struggle begins to heat up. At very least, the efforts of Socialist Alternative and others to raise the specter of building a Left-of-the-Democrats electoral alternative has the potential to lay a propagandistic foundation that may be useful when and if the formation of an independent labor party becomes a viable prospect.

Beyond this, Saturn’s makes a few astute claims regarding the importance of recent objective developments in the U.S. workforce that have — I believe — created new possibilities for the class struggle. For one thing, I agree that, in the years since 2008, the United States has witnessed the dramatic expansion of “a downwardly-mobile middle class,” as Saturn puts it. And as Saturn notes, this group undoubtedly formed much of the social base for the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. Funny enough, I’d go so far as to argue that the existence of this “downwardly-mobile middle class” has actually been a major factor in the ISO’s political development of late. In this regard, the ISO’s “ideological radicalization” thesis can be seen, in part, as a reflection of the consciousness of its membership – a large portion of which consists of would-be-middle-class former university students, many of whom have been forced into the ranks of the low-wage service economy as a result of recent structural changes in the U.S. workforce. [6] To make matters worse, much of this demographic group has also been shackled with obscene amounts of unpayable student-loan debt. This phenomenon has undoubtedly played a role in the emergence of the ISO’s inflated “ideological radicalization” line. And while this perspective is an inaccurate assessment of working-class consciousness as a whole, it is — in fact — somewhat reflective of the outlook of the segment of society from which the ISO tends to draw most of its new members.

No matter what, though, it is clear that the “the gradual descent of the middle class into proletarian status” – as one editorialist for Forbes magazine has termed this trend – has the potential to have a significant impact on the development of the class struggle in the United States. [7] As it stands today, there are untold numbers of impoverished service-sector wage slaves with years of collegiate education under their belts. Indeed, in restaurants across the country, there are busers, servers, hosts, line cooks, and dishwashers that have been trained as philosophers, historians, and sociologists. Such a state of affairs is a perfect recipe for the development of a large group of “organic intellectuals” and far-sighted union militants.

1. Saturn Concentric, “Friendly rebuttal to ‘Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO,’” Spread the Infection (blog), March 3, 2014.

2. Roger Dyer, Rachel Morgan, Adrienne Johnstone, Christine Darosa, Andy Libson, and Brian Belknap, “Theory and Practice of Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO,” CounterPunch, November 8, 2013.

3.  Ben S, “Response to Bekah W.’s ‘Critique of the Renewal Faction Documents,’” Pre-convention Bulletin #11, January 21, 2013. ISO Renewal Faction, “The role of perspectives,” External Bulletin, November 26, 2013.

4. Adolph Reed Jr., “Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals,” Harper’s Magazine, March 2014.

5. Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume II: From the Foundation of the American Federation of Labor to the Emergence of American Imperialism (New York: International Publishers, 1998), 402-403.

6.  See, Katherine Peralta, “College Grads Taking Low-Wage Jobs Displace Less Educated,” Bloomberg, March 7, 2014. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-03-06/college-grads-taking-low-wage-jobs-displace-less-educated.html

7. Joel Kotkin, “The U.S. Middle Class Is Turning Proletarian,” Forbes, February 16, 2014.


8 thoughts on “A friendly reply to Saturn’s “Friendly rebuttal”

  1. Years ago, there was a debate within the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation over what they termed “reproletarianized youth”. The idea really struck a chord with me when I first came across it in the early 2000s. Now I think it was downright prescient.

    • Prescient, indeed.

      In the late ’60s and early ’70s, many student radicals made the conscious decision to “proletarianize” or “industrialize”; they went out and found a blue-collar, industrial job so that they could agitate among industrial workers. In so doing, many of them chose to forgo starting a white-collar, middle-class career (at least temporarily).

      These days, you don’t have to be a radical or a revolutionary to be proletarianized after graduating from college. Over the past decade — and particularly since the economic crisis of 2008 — untold numbers of college graduates (myself definitely included) have been driven into the ranks of the low-wage service industry. Our college degrees have been essentially rendered worthless due to structural changes in the economy.

      We’ve been “proletarianized” — whether we asked for it or not.

  2. Good article, especially the part where it points out the importance of labor struggles at the workplace to any sort of upsurge in the far left.

    A far more realistic assessment than you get from the pollyannaish ISO, at least from where I sit.

    That said, I’d strongly disagree as to downwardly mobile (White – unspoken but, be honest,that’s who you’re talking about, right?) college educated youth in the service sector as being the potential point people for a revived labor movement.

    I’d be more inclined to think that the revival of labor will come from Latino (specifically Mexican) immigrant workers in fast food, the “back of the house” of restaurants, janitorial services, construction, warehousing, food processing and auto parts manufacturing and Blacks and US citizen Latinos in big city public sector employment.

    To be blunt if you’re White and have a degree, individual upward mobility is always a possibility and probably seems more realistic than collective class struggle (especially if “unions” are an unfamiliar and strange phenomenon – maybe you read a book about them in one of your classes back at school but you’ve never actually been a union member or had family in a union).

    On the flip side, if you’re Black or Latino – ESPECIALLY if you aren’t a citizen, individual upward mobility is not realistic, while collective class struggle is (especially if you were a union member back home like a LOT of the Mexicans were)

    Also, among workers in the US, workers in big city public employment, construction, janitorial services, food processing and automotive manufacturing are among the last groups of workers in the US who have a live experience of unionism – if they aren’t unionized themselves currently, they were at some point, or they know workers who are union.

    I would think those groups of workers would be far more likely to spearhead anew labor upsurge.

  3. This “downwardly mobile middleclass” didn’t just occur after 2008. This has been going on since the late 1970’s when the glut of college graduates in the Humanities begin to make itself felt in the U.S. The big change since 2008, was this glut is no longer confiend to those with just undergraduate degrees. Those with advanced degrees are now finding themselves driving cabs and working in call centers.

    Any fight back against inequality is not going to be iniated by the unions. They’ll get involved only after any movement gets off the ground, as was the case with the Civil Rights, and Anti Vietnam War movement. The main emphasis of the union leadership during the Occupy movement was to attempt to coopt the leading activists, into the Democratic party, over dinner and cocktails.

    There was a change of consciousness in the US working class after the 2008 meltdown. The problem was the Left was unable to provide any leadership. Part of the problem was that most of the Left treats economic deprivation as just one issue among many. This includes former ISO members who were part of the ISO opposition, such as it was.

    • While my opinion on this matter is not reflected in detail in this essay, I’ll say that I agree completely with the following observation from your comment:

      “Any fight back against inequality is not going to be initiated by the unions. They’ll get involved only after any movement gets off the ground, as was the case with the Civil Rights, and Anti Vietnam War movement.”

      Beyond this, I’ll add that I also agree that the Left failed utterly in its handling of the Occupy movement. In 2012, there was — in fact — a broad opening for the Left to build some sort of political movement (possibly an independent Left-wing electoral campaign) to channel the radicalization set in motion by the Occupy movement. As it was, the socialist Left relinquished its responsibility completely at that time.

      Finally, let me say that — contrary to your observation — I don’t regard the issue of “economic deprivation as just one issue among many.” As a service-sector worker myself, I’ll say that — on both a theoretical and a personal level — I understand this to be the single most important issue facing the Left and the working class today.

      In case you’re interested, a pair of labor history essays that I wrote earlier this year address this matter in detail (albeit in a somewhat indirect manner):

      1.) “Atlanta’s Untold Fast Food Strike History, Part 1 of 2: The 1972 strike/boycott at Church’s Chicken”

      2.) “Atlanta’s Untold Fast Food Strike History, Part 2 of 2: The demise of the 1979 strike/boycott at Church’s Chicken.”

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