Marx and the Movement

Over the past weekend, we had the annual Gaspee Days fair, which I have made a film about previously due to the role of slavery in that story. It led me to a set of thoughts that I think are worth sharing.

First, I want to be sure that I say I am certainly not in the same camp as Michael Eric Dyson, who has derided Marxism as Eurocentric so to scuttle the project of historical materialism. Yet the fact is that the historiography of the Left is Eurocentric and should not be.

The Marx and Bakunin I read did not think they were creating new movements, instead they thought they were trying to add something to a pre-existing movement that, during their lifetimes, was called alternatively the radical abolitionist movement, the Irish independence movement, and the feminist movement. They both admired the anti-slavery struggle and sought to extend its horizons to include all men and women held within the grip of wage slavery, something we are all beholden to.

When one understands them as thinkers within a movement as opposed to creators of new movements, we begin to radically transform the historiography of the Left. With the exception of a seven decade period of reverence for centralized organization and certain state powers, be it the USSR, China, or another Communist bloc country, this movement has always existed as a fundamentally horizontally-integrated and diverse collection of sub-movements that, at their core, hold as basic principles a striving for democracy and equality, two things that cannot exist within the capitalist system.

Marx at least looked African, hence his nickname Moor. He had a great level of respect for Toussaint L’Ouverture, John Brown, and other anti-slavery activists. He also understood, unlike many of our contemporary “Marxists” (in reality Euro-centric Manicheans), that politics involves compromise, hence why he was so enthusiastic about Abraham Lincoln (I wonder if his opponents rebuked him for being part of the “Lincoln-ite Left”?)

In this ontology, the origins of capitalism begin on the shores of Africa at the slave ports. There had been market relations between various civilizations and even empires for centuries beforehand. But slavery was the first time that these market relations took on a globalized form, reaching farther on the map than Rome or China ever had up unto that point. It was wholly different in scope, breadth, and especially brutality than any other slave system in human history.

It also brought with it certain innovations and developments that Marx and Engels recognize and give credit to in their Manifesto. From the use of rum, molasses, and sugarcane as a substitute for currency on the slave market that would host upwards of five different slave-holding empires to the invention of the cotton gin and unto today with the transfer of our industrial production centers into the work-release programs of the prison system, capitalism has always been centered on the Global South as a target of exploitation, both in terms of natural resources and human capital.

Electoral politics is merely one of many tools for radicalization. While there have been a good deal of issues to be discussed with the Sanders bonanza, he has served a useful purpose. On May 21, I attended the Rhode Island Green Party meeting where they voted to nominate Jill Stein at the forthcoming convention. It featured in attendance several key players in the local Bernie campaign who are not interested in voting for Clinton, a good thing in my view.

There is now a key demographic that can be added to the Green voting rolls. My thinking is that they should embrace Sam Husseini’s Vote Pact strategy. Then, each state Green and Libertarian Party should objectively analyze primary vote returns and use the 2016 ballot as a kind of state administered survey to see what sort of returns are possible for their parties in each district. This will properly prepare both parties for a united front strategy to use in gaining municipal and state offices in 2018, which could be the first year that breaks the duopoly. If Trump is denied the GOP nomination, something I think is still likely considering how they keep rolling out old guard GOP doofuses like Mitt Romney and John McCain, that entire voting demographic could be convinced to go for the Libertarian ticket. In 1922, the Comintern wrote in their Theses on Comintern Tactics:

The united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie. Every action, for even the most trivial everyday demand, can lead to revolutionary awareness and revolutionary education; it is the experience of struggle that will convince workers of the inevitability of revolution and the historic importance of Communism. It is particularly important when using the united front tactic to achieve not just agitational but also organisational results. Every opportunity must be used to establish organisational footholds among the working masses themselves… The main aim of the united front tactic is to unify the working masses through agitation and organisation. The real success of the united front tactic depends on a movement “from below”, from the rank-and-file of the working masses. Nevertheless, there are circumstances in which Communists must not refuse to have talks with the leaders of the hostile workers’ parties, providing the masses are always kept fully informed of the course of these talks. During negotiations with these leaders the independence of the Communist Party and its agitation must not be circumscribed.

From the populist upsurge in support of Sanders and Trump, one can see the stuff of such a united front from below in the making. The Greens are the obvious social democrats in the United States while the Libertarians are the liberals. The fact the Communist Party USA is not tuned into this and instead has said “While she’s more hawkish on foreign policy, however, Clinton is no neo-con” only demonstrates to me that they are totally out to lunch and no longer are with the movement.

After the electoral extravaganza is over, a day that cannot come too soon, I think this united front could have some real lasting power. First these folks could engage in a boycott of Wal-Mart until they allow an NLRB union vote, almost every labor activist loathes that big box’s union busting and every small business owner loathes how they flood the market with cheap goods that effectively run them out of business. Another opportunity could come from the elements of the Evangelical, Protestant and Catholic Churches that embrace a responsible stewardship doctrine about environmental matters, the Greens in Rhode Island are leading a great anti-fracked gas protest that has garnered interest from many. Still another could be an anti-austerity movement that includes Catholics and Marxists who take lead from this recent story on the Transform! Website:

The election of Pope Francis obviously created a new climate for the relations between the Church and the European Left. At the meeting in September 2014 between the Pope, Alexis Tsipras and Walter Baier, the principle was adopted of beginning a new process of dialogue between Catholics and Marxists. The first such experience took place from 31 March to 1 April 2016, at the Sophia University Institute, near Florence, Italy. The organizers were the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, the Focolare Movement and transform! Europe.

This may sound rather far fetched, but is it really? Recall, for instance, that everyone from the 2012 Ron Paul campaign to your friendly neighborhood anarchists came out of the woodwork for the first iteration of this united front, the Occupy Wall Street carnival where everyone got a souvenir. The movement, whether we like it or not, is with Sanders now as it was with Occupy then.

The reality of this ontology is that the bourgeoisie is in one class and the proletariat another. That means a kind of universalism that is able to embrace even Trump supporters. Certainly a great deal of political re-education is required, and by this I certainly do not mean the kind of re-education my Columban missionary uncle was subjected to by the Chinese Communists, but a party of working class must be the entire working class.

This requires leaving one’s comfort zone and also a good deal of self-introspection. Yet we also must remember the old Arab saying, “when you point one finger, three point back at yourself”. For if we fail to do so, it will be not just to our detriment but to our own doom caused by the ecological catastrophe we face.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.