Re: [OPE-L] class struggle as a causal structure

From: Jerry Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Thu Jan 05 2006 - 11:02:29 EST


You repeatedly write that we should "defer"  to causal structures.
Does this simply mean that we should recognize causal structures
where they exist  and, to the extent that they have a bearing on our
praxis, take them into account, "in order to get our practice right"?

Well, in one sense, sure: we can not by wishful thinking or legislation
negate the operation of  (e.g.) the law of gravity.  There are, of course,
material constraints which affect our praxis (as an old Russian proverb
says "you can't get a chicken and an omelet from the same egg"). This
is another way of saying that we must take into account some material
realities in fashioning our practice.  While this might appear to be an
obvious point, it is one that hasn't always been recognized adequately
(e.g. look at the experience of the Great Leap Forward in the PRC).

Perhaps I should make clear that in being critical of some perspectives
on class struggle (not yours, some 'traditional' perspectives) I am
advancing more than an abstract critique: rather, that critique from my
perspective is rooted in what you called previously the "test of practice."
Traditional, what I might call 'mechanistic', perspectives on class struggle
have guided the practice of many radicals and Marxists since the mid-
19th Century so there are lots of  (uncontrolled) 'tests' of that
perspective that we can refer to.  For Marxists, history itself  is a 'test'
-- i.e. the perspectives and praxis of Marxists themselves are tested! --
and we need to look at the data and historical experience to evaluate the
meaning and lessons of those tests in order to determine how  radicals
using certain theoretical perspectives have influenced practice. In other
words,  while theory guides practice, practice should also guide theory:
we have to _learn_ from experience the limitations of viewing the world in
certain ways.

Consider the topic of capitalist crisis and its implications:

I don't think it is unfair to say that there has been a culture among many
Marxists which has welcomed, rejoiced, and often fantasized about
periods of capitalist economic crisis.   I'm sure you are familiar with many
variations on this theme.  This perspective is rooted in what I would call
a mechanistic understanding of the relation between crisis and class
struggle.  I.e. the reason some Marxists welcome economic crises is
because they believe that it (through some often unstated dynamic) will
radicalize workers and present revolutionary opportunities.

"Breakdown theory"  and catastrophism is one theoretical expression of
this perspective.  That theoretical perspective embodies within it a
particular perspective on class action and consciousness which, in my view,
is simplistic and erroneous.  It also produces, in my view, bad praxis.
It is easy enough for Marxian intellectuals who are often far removed from
the class struggle to celebrate crisis: workers, and more politically
sophisticated intellectuals, know that economic crisis imposes horrible
hardships on workers and their communities.  It is no cause for
celebration! ... yet even the _prospect_ of crisis has become a cause for
celebration by many Marxists.  This is very bad practice! To begin with,
it shows precious little real sympathy for the needs of workers -- it is
almost as if they are welcoming bad news for workers as if that will
somehow awaken those workers into revolutionary action.  This makes
for very bad praxis. While periodic capitalist economic crisis is routine,
there is precious little historical evidence that crisis itself leads to a
revolutionary upsurge: indeed, it often leads instead to working-class
demoralization and an environment in which reactionary perspectives
can gain mass support in the working-class (e.g. nationalist demands by
unions to control immigration).

The "test of practice"  which you refer to should tell us that we need
to understand class, struggle, and consciousness in  a more contradictory
and complex way than 'traditionally' understood by Marxists.  We
need this precisely because our  _theory and  practice_ needs to take
into account the tests of practice.

A couple of examples:

-- In the traditional perspective, crisis comes and workers eventually
realize (somehow) that they must cast off their chains, expropriate
the expropriators, and fulfill their historical mission of being
the gravediggers of capitalism.  There is often the foul whiff of
inevitability in the reasoning that is given for this.  Belief in
inevitability makes, imo, for very bad practice.  In that traditional
narrative of Crisis & Revolution, there is often no space for
'non-traditional' (allegedly 'non-essential')  struggles: e.g. often
the struggles of  national minorities, women, and other
communities in struggle against capital and the state are downplayed.
Sometimes this is taken to extremes and the struggles of
industrial workers 'at the point of production'  are privileged over
all other struggles.  This perspective -- despite the ostensive
claim that the goal is working-class unity -- can lead to increasing
divisions among the working-class.   Sometimes racial minorities,
women, and others are simply told (patronizingly) that they must
be patient,  put their demands on hold, and build unity ... with
the promise and expectation that ... eventually (after the
revolution?) ... those demands can be raised again "when the
time is right."    Bad practice.  Bad. Bad. Bad.  It is bad because
it fails to grasp the process of building solidarity and unity as a
complex  process. (I could go on, but this post is already getting
excessively long _and_ these are complex matters that can't be
adequately expressed in even lengthy missives.)

--  In the late 1970's and early 1980's, many groups on the left
had a simplified perspective which went something like the following:

a) capital is entering a period of economic crisis;

b) capital will be forced to attack the working class and unions
    more directly and sharply (i.e. the period of 'labor-
    management cooperation' has ended).

c) as a consequence of  b), capital will demand from unions
    concessions and givebacks.

(so far, not so bad, but ...)

d)  industrial unions will be most severely attacked;

e) in the class confrontations that follow, a period of
working-class radicalization will develop.

Some groups, on the basis of the above reasoning,
encouraged their membership to quit their jobs or to
drop out of school and get jobs in factories.  That would
be where those great class confrontations would happen,
after all.

It seems comical in retrospect (and indeed many thought
it was comical at the time).   In going from a-c to
d-e, they were applying some rather simplistic mechanistic
understandings of struggle such as believing that the workers
and unions who will be most under attack, will fight back and
become radicalized.    This was mechanistic in the extreme
since it forgot what should be rather obvious: namely, that
when attacked a group can fight back *or not*.

Also simplistic and erroneous is the implicit belief that movements
*as a result of defeats* are propelled forward.  Yet, those of
us who are politically active know from experience that
movements typically build upon success rather than defeat.
This has implications for grasping *when*  there are
radicalizations; it has huge implications for praxis. E.g.
rather than working-class struggles being entirely "defensive"
in nature brought about as a consequence of attack by
capital and the state, there can be "offensive" struggles as well
that express the desires and wants and re-formulated needs
of the working-class.  These struggles can intensify even
in periods when capital expands; struggles can emerge and
intensify in periods when there is not economic crisis.

I apologize again for the length of this post.

In solidarity, Jerry

PS: I'm not really keen on the idea of "deferring."  Authoritarian
structures, even on the Left, often send the message that members
should "defer" to the judgement of "the leadership" since they,
after all, supposedly have the most information and know what's
best for us.  Kind of creeps me out.

>  We defer to those structures
> in order to get our practice right.  So that's the critical thing.  The
> theoretical categories we develop in, for example, natural science reflect
> our effort to defer to nature.
> 2.    But does it apply to social life.  The question is whether this kind
> of approach can be extended to social life.  As your example illustrates,
> social structures, even if they are materially embedded, and class
> certainly  is, nonetheless are in some important sense mind dependent.
> So in what sense is deferring to them in fashioning our theories
> possible, meaningful,  or even appropriate?  Someone might argue:  if the
> structures themselves  depend on what we think of them, how does it
> make any sense to talk of  deferring to them to get our practice right?

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