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The Development of Capitalism in the United States
This area addresses questions pertaining to the development of capitalism in the United States and the formation of the US working class. We are specifically interested in exploring issues relating to obstacles to class-consciousness and the manifold history of resistance to the variety of oppressions people experience. We are also interested in identifying the specific features of US development--cultural, political, ideological--within world development and how our roots as a colonial settler and slave society, the subsequent cycles of immigration, and the ascendancy of the US as the hegemonic world capitalist power are expressed in contemporary society. Throughout we are concerned with the need to develop a self-conscious left that is rooted in an understanding of our cultural, economic, social, political formation so that we can advance our movement building activity and be an effective pole of attraction within our society.
Within all the rich and dynamic history of the US no sustained anti-capitalist/socialist organization or political formation or party with significant ties to the working class has arisen. Ideologically, most of us would probably agree that the powers that be are overwhelming seen as legitimate and the American way. And although our history is fraught with militancy at the shop level and social movements have consistently challenged injustices and limitations to civil rights, these movements and resistances have not given rise to an national oppositional political culture or party that is reproduced over generations. And for the most part the working class has supported US intervention abroad. If the left is to become a real force within US culture and politics we, at the Brecht Forum/New York Marxist School, believe that we have got to steep ourselves in an understanding of our particular history within world developments and come to terms with why the working class in all its variety has predominantly allied itself ideologically and politically with the ruling class, if we are ever to effectively organize and become a real oppositional force within society and seen as such by significant sectors of the working and oppressed classes. We have identified three thematic areas with specific questions pertaining to each area following by your closing thoughts on why the left needs history.
I. Class Consciousness and the Formation of the US Working Class
Marx predicted that as capitalism developed, working classes would become larger, more concentrated and centralized. These developments would enhance their ability to become conscious of themselves as a class with distinct interests from the ruling capitalist class. Yet, the largest, most concentrated and centralized working class in the world, the US working class, has not emerged as a class for itself that sees the need to defend its rights as a political force in its own name, whether socialist or not. Questions we need to address include:
1. What are defining features of US development that can help us understand our social and political culture? (colonial settler state, slavery, formation of a republic, bourgeois individualism, American democracy, immigration, etc.) How are these at once particular to the US and expressions of the general world capitalist developments?
2. What role has our colonial settler roots had in determining our cultural formation (exploitation of the land and resources and indigenous population, individualism, man against the elements, expansionism, etc.)? What myths and realities has this legacy left us? (Joel Kovel in one work argues that our colonial beginnings is a key to understanding the deep-seatedness of anti-communism in our culture.) How have later waves of immigration impacted the early foundations of American life and culture?
3. What was the relation of slavery to the development of capitalist production nationally and internationally and the formation of regionalism in the US? How has this legacy affected subsequent developments? How have the forms of racism and opposition to racism changed over time? W. E. B. Du Bois said that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of color line? Now as we enter the 21st, is this not still the case? How do we understand the legacy of slavery on U.S. society in general and working class consciousness in particular?
4. If all ideologies which endure have some basis in reality what are the truths and distortions behind such prevailing myths and explanations of American life and development as the promise of realizing the "American Dream," westward expansion, the melting pot, and the possibilities of class mobility?
5. How do we understand "working class" in a country like ours where there are so many divisions and sectors (race, ethnicity, gender, occupation, generational, immigrant, etc.), and such great stratification and layers of relative privilege? Do we have "one big class" and if not, can we and is it important to build class unity? How might we go about this ideologically and organizationally?
6. The US labor movement has a rich and diverse and problematic history. Organized labor has both advanced the interests of the working class and been an obstacle to labor's capacity to become a political force on its on terms. How do we get a handle on this reality? What are the most significant features of our trade union movement? What role has the labor aristocracy played? What sectors/strata of the working class have been in the vanguard and what is developing today? Have these been the sectors identified by the left, who often equate the most oppressed with the vanguard? Has this been historically the case? There seems to be a co-existence in American history of workplace militancy (and anti-bossism) and a politics organized around non-ideological parties appealing to broad coalitions, rather than the interests of a particular class. There seems to be an apparent disjuncture between militancy, at times fierce (wild cat strikes, sabotage), among the working classes and a lack of class-consciousness. What role has and can the left/socialists play in the labor movement?
7. What is the impact of changing technologies, a feature throughout capitalist development, but particularly intensive at present, on the changing character and composition of the working class? What significant changes in the labor process are underway and how do they advance or impede the ability of workers to act on their behalf, collectively challenge the priorities of capital, and develop class- consciousness? How do immigrant workers fit into this picture, many of whom have no citizenship and political rights?
II. Class Consciousness and American Democracy
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels put forward the importance of "winning" the battle of democracy. They also noted that real democracy would require socialism. Yet the legitimacy of the United States has been anchored in its claim to be the world's leading democratic country. This has usually been narrowly construed to mean an electoral system of government and, in recent years this "American "Democracy" has been equated with "the market" and, of course, capitalism. Unlike the other major capitalist powers, the United States was founded and has developed entirely within the capitalist epoch. It could be said that we are the "most capitalist" of countries in which feudal and pre-capitalist social structures and traditions have a lesser impact than in many other countries. A key example is the lack of feudal hereditary class positions, rejected by our founders, which has lent credence to the myth of being a classless society. Many if not most Americans take pride in living in this "heartland of democracy." Yet they take competition rather than cooperation for granted and can't conceive of equality in such basic areas as universal access to quality education or health care. The majority doesn't vote and have no way of thinking about the wide gap between the rich and the poor or the rapidly growing prison population.
1. What is the character of American democracy--myths and realities? What is important about our democratic heritage? What have been key struggles in our history around democratic rights and practices and how have these expressed the class struggle? What challenges to our democratic institutions do you think are taking place currently that the left should be addressing?
2. What is the relationship of our democratic processes to class rule--how does this get played out and legitimize ruling class power and hegemony? (Most, if not all elected politicians come from the ruling class or at least do not come from the working class.)
3. During the controversy around the recent presidential elections for a brief moment there was a discussion about the fact that we have a republican and not a democratic form of government. What does this mean and is it important? What does the left need to understand about our form of government, what kind of democracy we have and how could/should these relate to our educational and organizing activities?
4. Both a vibrant civil society and strong state characterize the US and clearly, the state is seen as legitimate and representative to most Americans. Even during the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement, the American people elected Nixon to the presidency. Do you think the left has adequately understood the nature of our state and its relationship to civil society and popular consciousness in developing our analyses and programs of action?
5. What does it mean to be an American? Why, unlike in any other country, is it un-American to be a communist? How does the myth and reality of the "melting pot", on the one hand, and "identity politics," on the other, challenge and/or sustain our understanding of ourselves as "American" and our form of democracy? Is it legitimate to say that in both of these conceptions about ourselves we are demanding to be accepted as equals within American society as Americans with or without our differences? What are the strengths and weaknesses of identity politics in advancing anti-capitalist or working class consciousness?
6. A dominant ideological construction in both academia and popular consciousness is that the US is composed of interest groups not classes, each contending for their share of the pie. The myth that America is a "class-less" society prevails. Not borne out of feudalism that includes inherited class positions, our home-grown American republicanism emphasizes individual self-interest and promises a degree of flexibility or elasticity between the different classes. If there are "different classes" they do not exist in opposition to one another- there are no class enemies. In almost any political campaign, we're told of "special interest groups," not classes. The working class, and its organizational expression in trade unions, is seen as just another special interest group. Why does this ideological construct hold such sway, even today when the most blatant features of capitalist exploitation are obvious to so many people? Why do most working people resist the idea that they are members of a working class? What about at the other end of the pole--the capitalist class, among whom there is a high level of class awareness and interest?
III. Class Consciousness, US Hegemony and Globalization
Marx and Engels predicted in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 that the United States would rise to capitalist ascendancy and that this would have world historical effects and their claim has without a doubt been proven true. They also observed that it is in the colonial situation that the barbarity of capitalism is laid bare. While it is true that most people in the U.S. support U.S. interventions abroad, some of the strongest left movements of the last century were in opposition to the U.S. role abroad-the Vietnam War, Central America, South Africa, etc. Many U.S. activists gained experience of revolutionary activity by working in solidarity with what were often more developed left movements in other countries.
1. The U.S. has been the dominant world power since at least the beginning of the 20th century. What is different about how the U.S. exercises its hegemony in the current period, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union? In your estimate is this hegemony being strengthened or weakened today and what are the geo-political or economic/financial forces underlying these dynamics?
2. Globalization is not a new phenomenon. (Janet Abu-Lughod, Crisis of European Hegemony, dates the process of 'globalization' beginning in the 12 century.) Nevertheless, we can't ignore the events and the processes that have unfolded in the few decades. Global developments have sped up in the sense that the effects between the "metropolitans" and the "peripheries" are felt almost immediately. And the U.S. has emerged as the vanguard of neo-liberal globalization. Some people have argued, quite persuasively, that we have to let go of national boundaries in our thinking about social change, regarding immigration issues, labor issues, human rights, etc. A number of people maintain that states are becoming less relevant as centers of power and therefore progressive forces should not focus their organizing efforts at the as part of a viable body politic in order to effectively shape an agenda for a more humane world that respects the rights of all people. How do we theoretically and practically integrate localism and globalism in our organizing, research and educational work?
3. How has US global economic/financial, military and political hegemony advanced or impeded revolutionary/socialist developments? Historically the US working class has relatively benefited from the exploitation of people and resources from around the world and as a whole the class has allied itself with US foreign policies. How has our higher standard of living affected the labor movement and class-consciousness? Is imperialism turning inward and if so, what prospects and challenges might be on the agenda? Is there an opening to advance genuine working class solidarity internally within the US and across borders?
4. What challenges within society to US hegemony (and capitalism more generally) are being made (such as the WTO demos) or in your assessment of the current situation need to be made? Do you see signs of any meaningful or strategic counter-offensives/defensives by the working class and oppressed peoples that could allow people to reexamine the possibility of other ways of doing things, like the socialist project? Are there openings to challenge the dominant ideology of today that asserts that market society, i.e. capitalism, is the best of all possible worlds and there really is no other alternative?
Thoughts on Movement Building, Historians and the Left
1. Why does the left need to root its organizing and educational work on an understanding of our history? Too often we have developed political lines which are not based on an appreciation of our history and culture and have substituted this analysis with attempts to come up with the slogan of the day. Why has there been such a lack of historical consciousness within our movements and the understanding that we need concrete analysis of the concrete situation to form relevant strategies and programs?
2. What are existing projects, such as participatory research projects, that combine the efforts of activists and intellectuals in researching our history? Have there been precedents in American history where intellectuals and activists worked together that we can learn from? In what ways can historians and radicals could work together, form common research agendas, come up with working questions that need to be addressed to help in strengthening our movement building activities?