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February 14, 2011

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Michael McIntyre

A few thoughts:

(1) I don't think it's feasible to promote a confiscatory tax policy in a world where investment decisions are still in the hands of private capital and it is possible to move capital across borders. Changing the first is beyond the scope of this transitional program, and changing the second would be possible only if we could magically make offshore havens disappear tomorrow. One of the bloggers at Angry Bear (I'm not sure which one - and I may even have the blog wrong) has done some investigation into an optimal rate of marginal taxation from the point of view of economic growth, and it turns out to be far higher than it is today (62-63%, if I recall correctly). Why higher investment and higher growth with higher marginal tax rates? One possible explanation - because at those rates, there is less incentive to convert profit into personal income today, and therefore a higher incentive to reinvest profit. So I'd suggest that the transitional demand should be a top marginal tax rate in the 60-65% range.

(2) "We" can't start building the left around a set of demands without identifying who the "we" is that is going to do the building. And that means identifying existing organizations that (a) have a real commmitment to revolutionary socialism and (b) are sane (that is, are not "line" organizations and have members who change their thinking in response to changing reality). In the U.S., there are really only a handful of organizations that fit the bill, most notably Solidarity (which comes out of the Trotskyist tradition, but is no longer dogmatically Trotskyist) and Freedom Road Socialist Organization. (Point of clarification: there are really two FRSOs, conventionally termed "hard-shell" and "soft-shell". Hard-shell FRSO has retreated to a sectarian Maoist position, while soft-shell FRSO has a commitment to "left refoundation" that has moved it past this point). ISO might evolve in this direction, but isn't there yet. Committees of Correspondence and the left wing of the Socialist Party might also be included. Other organizations that I can think of in this category are more local in scope. [Disclaimer - I'm a member of Solidarity.] There have been repeated attempts to bring groups of this sort together, none of them successful. The current venue that brings together these folks is an occasional gathering that goes under the name "Revolutionary Work in our Time" (RWIOT). If we're serious about this, then there is no way to issue demands, pretend that the pitiful U.S. left with all of its dross does not exist, and simply convince an amorphous "left" with no history to unite under these demands. We have to start within the existing left and work through it, frustrating as that might be.

(3) I think Bourdieu has the best explanation of the impotence of the academic left. Radical academics try to leverage their political/intellectual commitments into careers in their fields. At the end of the day, the accumulation of cultural and symbolic capital within a field almost always trumps political commitment. Our locations within our fields (pre)dispose us to develop an appreciation for those radical theorists whose cachet will advance us within our fields, rather than those who will help us bring down capitalism. Not infrequently, radicals who are somehow associated with universities hold non-faculty positions: think of Hal Draper at Berkeley or even Lou Proyect at Columbia. (For that matter, the organizer of my local branch of Solidarity was the head archivist at a university library). At a certain point, Bourdieu went as far as to claim that there was no way out of this academic faux-radicalism, although later, when he had accumulated just about as much symbolic and cultural capital as it was possible to accumulate, he inaugurated far more overtly political interventions that seem to have been his way out of this iron cage. For us left academics, I think this means being acutely aware of how easily our radicalism can slide into self-serving careerism, and developing strategies and institutions that allow us either to slip out of the noose or negotiate its constraints more self-consciously.

That is, if we're serious.

Anon Ymous

You need a Position #5, and it should relate to health care: we demand single-payer, public health care for all citizens, funded via taxes and free at the point of access. We call for the elimination of private, for-profit insurance companies (which are superfluous and unnecessary to a functional health care system anyway) and declare it illegal to attempt to make personal profit off of health care.

http://www.stuffsickpeoplehavetoputupwith.tumblr.com

Alain

Michael, I apologize becasue I am not familiar with most of the organizations you mention (with the exception of the FRSO). But my question is whether new organizations might be better situated to reach out to a wider population? Most Americans are not going to know who Trotsky was and if they do, they will not want anything to do with an organization that was influenced by him. This is a fundamental problem organizing in the United States.

Michael McIntyre

But Alain, how are we going to unite the left if we start by deciding that everyone who bears the dross of today's pitiful, failed left is to be excluded? I'm not saying that Solidarity and FRSO (and add the rest of your groups here) are going to form the nucleus of some future mass revolutionary formation. (One of the strengths of these two organizations is that neither regards itself as the Vanguard Party {tm] or the nucleus or kernel of some future Vanguard Party. Both see themselves as interim formations.) But if we're to create a left that is actually revolutionary and not composed of sectarian crazies, then we have to start by asking who today is really trying to do that?

So, any "new" formation is not going to be entirely new. France's "Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste" is really an initiative of the Fourth International. So, for that matter, was the World Social Forum (it got its start in Porto Alegre because that city was administered by the Democracia Socialista faction of the Worker's Party, a group which, in turn, was affiliated with the Fourth International - though its status has become less clear since roughly 2003).

Certainly Americans are not going to head to the streets waving pictures of Trotsky. Or Lenin, Marx, Gramsci, Zizek, Laclau and Mouffe, Bhabha, Butler....you get the idea. And for that matter, even now my local branch of Solidarity doesn't take Trotsky as the measure of anything. Some of us still identify as Trotskyists, others (like me) don't, but none of us sit around wondering about the contemporary relevance of the 1938 transitional program. We operate on the terrain we have (and we have no illusions about that terrain), and we try to figure out if and how it might be possible to do more than react to the latest outrages, that is, within the very, very thin margin available to us, figure out how to act strategically. Any "new" organization would be faced with the same task.

SarahF

"... feminists, environmentalists, anti-racists, queers,students, teachers everybody: combine as the Left."

That's the obstacle. It's the fracturing of the Left into "special interest" groups - not that anti-racist is a special interest, or maybe it is? But there lies another problem, namely the demonization by the Left of anyone who either exhibits a prejudice or is simply perceived to be prejudiced. I bet there were plenty of bigots, sexists and homophobes in Tahrir Square. It would be wise for the Left to think more inclusively (ie more compassionately). Compassion is necessary in order to subscribe to a platform that appeals universally and that is the goal - human rights of a universal nature, which means human rights for everyone, including the racists.
As Anon pointed out, universal health care (health security) is a great place to start.

Jodi Dean

@ Michael--your tax idea seems good to me. I read it as a more detailed version of my crude "tax the rich" as an anchor point for the Left. On your number two, it seems to me that the more groups the better--no need to reinvent the wheel; the point is to use a bunch of wheels to get moving. I will look at the groups that you mentioned. To me, it makes sense to think of the Left coalition in terms of a spectrum of radicality (some will be professional revolutionaries). Since I am an academic, I take your number 3 to heart. This is crucial and important. I would hate, though, to turn to navel-gazing or focus on academia instead of the big picture (it might be that this is a more pressing concern for people who don't have tenure or people with more at stake institutionally).

@ Anon--absolutely. Maybe that should have been position number 2.

@ Alain--I think we agree on this: if a component of the strategy is to fight and win some elections (via the tool of 'tax the rich') then a very narrow focus won't work very effectively. That said, if we learn from Karl Rove, elections aren't won by large majorities--they are one by slices and percentages.

@ Michael--I think the antic-capitalist party is pretty interesting; I think a positive platform (tax the rich) is preferable, though, because it says what it will do.

@ Sarah--you are right. The fracture is the obstacle. My hope was that the 'tax the rich' program (which must be combined with health care, and which will be needed to pay for it) would cut across the fragmentation. I mentioned all the groups as a way of suggesting the different already organized sectors who should come together in a more solid movement. Compassion might work as a way of bringing in a lot of people, perhaps people less attracted to militancy and antagonism. I would hate to see it put too much of a rosy glow on the real, nasty, vicious battle ahead, though.

Joepdx

Sarah is right. The latest post on Lenin's Tomb about how the Egyptian army is trying to preserve it's power includes a great aside about how the revolution got off the ground because groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were not excluded on ideological grounds.

http://leninology.blogspot.com/2011/02/egyptian-army-moves-to-preserve-its.html

"The army's manoeuvering now is presumably aimed at breaking up the remarkably broad coalition that was first assembled in 2006. This has included of course the Muslim Brothers, the Nasserist 'Karama' party, the Labour Party (which is Islamist), the Tagammu Party (leftist), the Revolutionary Socialists (self-explanatory), Kefaya (an alliance which includes many of the above elements), the Ghad Party (a liberal offshoot of the Wafdists which was the first party to be approached by Mubarak for negotiations), and Mohammed El Baradei's National Alliance for Change. It has to be said that the alliance might have been quite difficult to maintain if the left had taken the sectarian attitude of some of the older layers of marxists who basically maintained that the Muslim Brothers were a tool of the capitalist class, simply an ally of neoliberalism and imperialism, and so on. The Revolutionary Socialists played a key role in overcoming that. Samir Najib, working in the Centre for Socialist Studies, argued that it was vital to understand that the Muslim Brothers as in part a movement of the oppressed, involving many rank and file activists who came from poor and working class backgrounds. Some of them had been on the Left, and been alienated from the Left because of their experiences under Nasser and because of the way the poor bore the brunt of the crisis that marked the latter years of the Nasser regime. He argued that socialists should act independently of the Islamists, but not dismissively of them. They should defend them when they were opposed to the state on issues such as the emergency laws, or the independence of the judiciary, and should be prepared to work with them on democratic demands. Such was an important argument in preparing the socialist Left to be directly involved in, rather than secluded from, the mass movements that have precipitated Mubarak's downfall. The subsequent alliance also meant that the Muslim Brothers were more sensitive to criticism, as when they were forced to recant on their 'Islam is the solution' slogan in 2005, which Christians and socialists argued was sectarian."

Thomas Kiefer

There is a model in American history for Prof. Dean's project: the Nonpartisan League, which existed in the Great Plains and Canada roughly between the two wars. Their platform was simple: We will vote for anyone who will sock it to the railroads and agribusiness (including nationalization). They were quite successful overall. Their eventual decline holds lessons as well.

A similar, simple program like "Soak the rich, save social services" that Prof. Dean outlines would be viable.

Prof. Dean's position 3 is key. Thanks for making it.

The Mathmos

An inspiring discussion. Thanks to all.

I particularly appreciate Michael's effort at delineating the current organizations who could hopefully lend initial weight to a program like the one Jodi proposes.

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