Economic crisis and government action to stabilize the economy are drawing the American people into politics. When the government began to insert itself openly and directly into the management of the economy, the whole country was pulled into political discourse — “leave it to the market,” “bailout those corporations that are too large to fail,” “nationalize” – with journalists and students, laid-off and debt-laden workers, homeowners and homeless all asking, “Where’s my bailout?”
The national public discourse is on. It is not only the academics, leftists, progressives, and news spinners, but, today mainstream America is awakening to politics beyond elections. For the first time in many generations, we see a public discourse that opens the door to political struggle over class interests.
Whether revolutionaries can seize this historical moment to add depth, vision, and class partisanship to the intensifying debate depends both on political strategy and on an approach to work that politicizes from within this broad awakening.
Where history is going
Revolutionaries are not free to simply politicize and “revolutionize” at will. We can do so under definite economic and historical conditions. When those conditions are ripe, it is critical that we understand those conditions and seize the time.
The financial crisis spotlights society at a critical juncture. The ruling class cannot protect its property nor stabilize the economy without the government inserting itself into management of the economy and instituting nationalization in some form – partial or temporary.
At the same time, unless the government takes responsibility for the public welfare, larger and larger sections of the population will go without the basic necessaries of life. Unless the Federal government guarantees health care for all, millions will suffer and die for lack of money to see a doctor. Unless the government ensures everyone’s access to the necessaries of life, like education and clean running water, private industry will buy up ever broader components of the public infrastructure in cities and towns across the country and run them for the profit of the corporations.
This objective necessity of nationalization opens the decisive battlefield over whose interests the government will serve. Will the public demand nationalization in the interests of the common good? Will the class that works until its labor is no longer needed struggle for its interests to be served and protected? Or will nationalization continue to serve the interests of private corporate investors, the class that accumulates wealth based on others’ toil and their growing debt? On this historical battleground over whose interests nationalization will serve, our class can be formed politically – with the consciousness and capacity to fight in its own class interests.
This battle is already conjuring up forms that are rooted in American history. At critical turning points, when the populace had to pay for the disruptions in the economy, it aimed its anger at “the banks” or “Wall Street.” In controversies over the Bank of the United States in the early 1800s, over the gold standard in the late 1800s, and over financial regulation during the early days of the New Deal, American politics was about finance.
The current crisis is resurrecting the American anger at the financial elite. Unfortunately, along with that anger comes the danger of racial and anti-immigrant agitation reminiscent of other turning points in American history.
New ideology and political direction will not spring forth spontaneously out of layoffs, loss of health and retirement benefits, or foreclosures. But this time, there is no way forward for private property except to protect and expand the power of those who accumulate wealth off of financial speculation and the expanding debt of the working class. This time, the anger at the financial elite can also be a channel through which American politics gets infused with a sense of class interests and how to fight for them politically.
Political strategy aims at achieving or maintaining political power. It operates within the subjective side of the movement – the conscious side of the developing movement. Key to strategy is identifying your enemy’s weak points. Even this nascent stage of the process reveals a critical point of ideological vulnerability.
Today’s crisis and government action are pulling people from all walks of life into motion. But one section holds the potential to pull all others forward. The stably employed, mid-American workers have been the targets of appeals by political campaigns. They have played the pivotal role in decisive ideological shifts in the history of the country.
Appealed to as a “middle class,” this sector has been the key to the capitalists’ political strength. Although the capitalist class is less than one percent of the population, it has been able to control the entire population by controlling 30 to 50 percent through good jobs, benefits, and privilege.
With jobs and benefits already lost to technology and mobile capital, the middle-income section of the population is diminishing. The financial crisis drastically speeds up this process. Educated and organized workers are being forced out of the system and into antagonism to capital. This rude awakening from the American Dream turns what used to be a political strength for the capitalists into their potential political vulnerability.
This section is not only tied to the capitalists economically, they are also attached to the capitalists culturally and psychologically. Rapidly shaken from their secure situation, these workers can be agitated for fascism. Or their awakening can become the catalyst for the development of a class thinking and fighting in its own interests.
Previously entitled, newly dispossessed, this section of the population can be politicized rapidly to set the tone of the national political discourse. Direction depends on consciousness.
Political approach to work
Only by developing an approach that politicizes and educates from within this awakening can revolutionaries carry out their responsibility to develop that consciousness.
Telling a hungry man that his problem is that he has no food doesn’t do him any good. Revolutionaries today cannot stand outside the process and simply proclaim that the problem is capitalism. Any newscaster or economist can tell you the system is broken or how many people are losing their jobs, health care, and ability to feed their families.
The question before the movement is, what is to be done? Real questions call for real answers. This means politicizing every step of the way. It means propagandizing from within the actual struggle – as scattered and disoriented as it is – to push that struggle forward from within, through all its stages, toward its actual conclusion.
Pushing the movement forward from within is not an arbitrary question. It depends on where it is and where it needs to go. The struggle over how to stabilize the economy sets the terms of the debate for each scattered battle. Bailout laid-off workers and debt-ridden college students? Or, bailout the banks? Nationalize in the interests of private property? Or, in the interests of the people?
The next step forward is from scattered defensive battles to unified political battles — with the demand rising from within each scattered battle that the government take over the private resources of the key corporations and run them in the interests of the many, not the few — for the public welfare, not for private gain.
As the crisis deepens and its effects spread, government action to protect private property is transforming scattered, issue-based battles into political battles over what the government does and whom it protects. We can already see how government intervention in the auto industry – including threats of bankruptcy that could invalidate union contracts – could put the government on collision course with the interests of the autoworkers.
The current stage of economic crisis has opened the historical battlefield of nationalization. Class interests can be fought out on this battlefield. Consciousness can be developed here. The direction of the outcome, however, is not guaranteed. Whether revolutionaries can accomplish the tasks of this moment depends on whether we connect with people’s thinking where they are reacting to their own catastrophes and fighting to solve their immediate problems – connect with them so we can sum up their needs and demands and put them back out in a way that points forward toward their actual solution.
In every current and corner of social life, the immediate needs of people in the cities and towns devastated by the economy opens the door to these battles. In every battle over real and immediate needs, people can become aware of their class interests, how to fight for them, and what it will take to achieve them.
Expressed unevenly at first, the common political edge is beginning to emerge within the social struggle of people for what they need. These times call on revolutionaries to drop their separate demands and to do the difficult intellectual work within the battle for the next political step ahead for the actual movement.
Revolutionaries’ approach to developing consciousness reflects what philosophy – and life itself – tells us. Growth and development cannot happen unless and until a process goes through all of its stages to reach its actual and ultimate conclusion. The first stage is well on its way. The financial and economic crisis is rapidly destroying the material basis that connected this decisive section of the working class to the capitalist class. The next steps: breaking loose from the politics and ideology of the class enemy, uniting the scattered defensive battles, and developing into a political force that can fight for its actual interests and aims.
Science, politics, art
This approach to revolutionaries’ work within this political moment, then, rests on the distinction between science and the art of politics – and embraces the importance of both.
A scientific understanding of society and social change is indispensable to revolutionaries’ work. It allows us to see what is new and how the foundation of society is changing. It gives us the view of the overall line of march of the revolution, the material conditions in which that is unfolding, and the actual and ultimate results of the objective movement.
Just as military battles are not won by convincing the combatants of the laws of physics, likewise it is not possible to "apply" science directly to the practical struggle. Science points to the political, strategic, and tactical considerations and conclusions that make it possible for revolutionaries to keep the struggle on course, moving step by step, to its actual conclusion. Political struggle depends on the art of politics.
The art of politics is to rely on the objective to accomplish the subjective – that is, to rely on the changes in material conditions to accomplish a stage of the consciousness. The current awakening and widening struggle present the opportunity to develop consciousness of class and political interests. Everything depends on thinking, creative revolutionaries.
New situation, new possibilities
The history of the American left has alternated between two equally unproductive approaches to work. One approach imitates the mass movement and makes specific demands into a question of principle. The other tries to win the reform movement to “revolutionary” – and usually ideological – positions or principles.
This flip-flop was understandable in the past because history was not yet going where revolutionaries wanted to take it. In the 1920s and 1930s, the country was still industrializing. Even during the Depression, the capitalist system was expanding. In the 1950s and 1960s, an expanded capitalist system with imperialist super-profits could grant civil rights and access into the system for women and ethnic minorities. The objective social motion was to become part of an expanding system.
That is not the motion today. Social motion today is shaped by the growing objective antagonism to capital, not the fight to reform and expand it. The capitalist system of exchange and entire economic system has broken down. An objectively revolutionary movement has begun. Bit by bit, it is being forced to direct its demands politically.
Revolutionaries in the U.S. have never really faced such a moment – the capitalist system in the process of destruction, a fundamental rupture of the system of exchange, the resulting discussions within the ruling class over how to stabilize the market and protect private property, all sections of society drawn into political discourse and activity, and a politically pivotal section of the working class whose actual interests are poised against the capitalist class and the government. No practical economic and social problem can be addressed except in the political battle over what the government will do and what class it serves.
The revolutionary process is also at a critical juncture. The government and corporations are inseparably intertwined and intermingled. They are poised to control a class whose struggle increasingly takes a political form. That class can go no further until it learns to fight politically in its own interests.
Thousands of well-connected, thinking, creative, and active revolutionaries are today grappling intellectually, politically, and practically with this question. They are experts on their fronts of struggles, skillful leaders in their organizations, and tireless teachers of their constituencies. They know that in order to coalesce the movement needs more than increased hardship and an ultimate general goal; it needs direction as to how to get from hardship to ultimate aim.
The challenge before revolutionaries today is a big one, and the stakes are high. Political struggle is beginning in this country. To step up to the tasks of the day, revolutionaries on all fronts need to talk with one another about science and analysis, strategy and politics – the meaning of this political moment and how to politicize this awakening and push the process ahead.
The anger and awakening are spreading rapidly – setting the objective basis for consciousness to catch up in waves and leaps. Revolutionaries need to unite their energies to accomplish their responsibilities and to answer the call of history.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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