The following is a response from the Communist League of Richmond to Tibor Szamuely’s piece “You Can’t Fight Meme Fascism With Meme Marxism”
CLR is proud to have published our article “Patriotic Socialism and Transphobia” on our website and the Virginia Worker. We wrote this piece in part to draw a line of demarcation in favor of trans rights (and against some of the anti-trans arguments we have seen) and against the obnoxious patriotic socialist current that has arisen in the past year or two.
But in drawing such lines of demarcation, it is necessary to be precise in our wording and careful in our arguments. We never intended our intervention to be a comprehensive statement on every aspect of trans politics, nationalism, the PatSoc current, etc.
After sedulously reading the response by Tibor Szamuely, we can see that our points were sometimes unclear, and we welcome this occasion to spell them out plainly. Nevertheless, there are points in our critic’s response which are mischaracterizations or are just plain incorrect.
The Science of Marxism: Our View
The most fundamental difference between TS and the Communist League of Richmond is in our understanding of what the Marxist project is at a basic level. While our critic clearly has a great degree of facility with key Marxist texts (for instance, to his credit he easily caught our error in saying workers sell their labor rather than labor power), he simply does not understand what Marxism is for; he can repeat what Marxist texts say, but cannot grasp what Marxist texts are meant to do and what they are meant to help us do.
The most galling and obvious expression of this ignorance is found in TS’s statement, “as Marxists we don’t evaluate slogans on the basis of whether they offer ‘benefit’ We evaluate them on the basis of whether they conform to objective reality.” But this is simply untrue.
Marxists seek to develop a scientific understanding of society, but ours is an applied science. As an applied science, the project of Marxism is not to merely accumulate facts about the world, but to change it. Marxism– good Marxism– is both true and useful. That is, it is based on objective reality and it provides us with insights for the purpose of changing objective reality.
Marxism is even more than an applied science: it is also a science that takes sides and offers no apologies for doing so. Marxism takes the side of the proletariat and uses a scientific approach to assist and hasten the process of proletarian revolution and the achievement of communism.
In applied sciences, such taking of sides is totally uncontroversial. A doctor practices the applied science of medicine and their tasks necessarily involve assessing which courses of action are most beneficial to patients. A doctor who has no preference for whether a patient lives or dies is not fit to practice medicine. Similarly, a civil engineer is not ambivalent as to whether a bridge stands or if it will fall.
Should Marxist literature expose the lies of national chauvinists whose corrupt worldview distracts from the long-term interests of the proletariat in the international task of building communism, or should it dare not speak this truth for fear that speaking to workers of their interests is anti-scientific? CLR proudly takes the first route, but if TS wishes to journey down the second path, the road to an anti-political pedantry, we know we cannot stop him.
CLR does not believe that just because Marx and Engels said something that it must necessarily be true, however our critic’s insistence that Marxism does not consider the question of benefit and interests even at the level of slogans would come as news to the founders of our movement who exhorted workers that they “have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
On Dogmatism, Democratic Rights, and the Demand for a Science that Stays Put:
TS severely misrepresents our argument on why we support trans rights and queer liberation. We stand accused of “hinging the argument for the democratic rights of trans people on the basis of such a subjective fantasy is ill considered and irresponsible” – the “fantastical” aspects of our argument, according to TS include: that the biology of sex is a bit more multifaceted than the crudest bio-essentialists portray and that trans women are women.
We are raked over the coals for supposedly rejecting the argument popularized by Engels that the origins of patriarchy lie in the appropriation of the reproductive capacity of those who can gestate. The problem for TS, however, is that we do not reject this. We state, “the anthropological data may continue to add up in such a way that forces us to reconsider the claims of both of the above works [by Engels and Gerda Lerner].”
However, in the very next sentence we write, “It may well be the case that the appropriation of the reproductive capacity of those with wombs constitutes the origin of gender.” We merely state an openness to new insights based on new data– a fundamental touchstone of any scientific mindset. That TS allows himself to be so blinded by hostility to such an elementary scientific viewpoint that he cannot even tell the difference between the phrase “it may well be the case” and “it is certainly not true” ought to be humiliating for him.
We have refuted the claim that our defense of trans rights rests upon a rejection of Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, but is it true that our defense of trans rights is contingent on any one theory of the origins of gender? Absolutely not. Indeed, we state that regardless of the origins of patriarchy, we stand in solidarity with those oppressed by patriarchy in the here and now.
TS claims that we disagree with his observation that “trans people are a sexual minority who face attack from patriarchal and clerical forces, an attack which demands a vigorous defense of their rights to healthcare, against workplace discrimination etc.” If there was any lack of clarity in our initial article, let us state unambiguously: we do indeed support the struggles of trans people as a group threatened by the forces of patriarchy.
However, we trust that honest readers can read the section of our article “The Thin Edge of the Wedge– What is at Stake” and find that we make precisely this point. We highlight the looming threat of an emboldened far right, patriarchal movement and express our desire to be on the same side of the barricades as trans people struggle for their rights.
Furthermore, we allude to an array of other democratic struggles, such as the struggle for Black liberation, the struggle for migrants’ rights, and more and we clearly locate trans rights within this same context. It is clear that we oppose oppression in general and we in general support democratic rights for groups under threat.
There is another major misrepresentation: that Escalante’s argument or our argument has anything to do with “authentic” womanhood. TS on three occasions makes references to our supposed theory of authentic womanhood, and on every one of those three occasions, he uses quotation marks. Given this, the average reader would be led to believe that the two Escalante articles we cite or our own piece made references to authentic womanhood or the concept of authenticity in gender. In fact, neither of the Escalante articles uses the word authentic a single time, nor do we!
This is a ridiculous attempt to turn our argument into its opposite– we find Escalante’s arguments compelling not because they attempt to define womanhood by some “authentic” aspect, some metaphysical essence, but precisely because they problematize definitions of women that rely on any one essence.
Instead of a simple definition that is unchanging throughout millennia of human history (during which human society in general and patriarchal relations in particular have developed and changed considerably), Escalante advances a theory of women that is inherently political and is grounded in the experiences– yes, experiences!– of patriarchal oppression in society.
Is all this talk of experiences a retreat from materialism and an embrace of subjectivist conceptions of reality? In a word, no. Our own evaluations and conceptions about our experiences are subjective, but the experience itself is objective. Abraham Lincoln’s self-image was subjective but his experience winning the 1860 presidential election was not subjective– it is an objective, verifiable historical fact.
Similarly, the experiences of patriarchal oppression raised by Escalante or by us are also grounded objectively, whether the experiences in questions are the rates of interpersonal violence directed at trans people or a denial for trans people to do what they please with their bodies.
A voluminous social science literature confirms the former and a quick scan of a newspaper will confirm the latter. TS finds himself so triggered by the very word “experience” that he practically winds up making the silly argument that social relations in general are separate from objective reality.
Unlike our critic, CLR is not persuaded by arguments from authority. TS rages against Alyson Escalante and CLR for disagreeing with “classical Marxism”, and doesn’t always see fit to explain why classical Marxism is correct. Again, CLR views Marxism as an applied science that takes sides, which advances positions that are both true and useful for the proletarian struggle.
Because we have a scientific worldview, we seek new data that will confirm, discredit, or enrich pre-existing Marxist theory. Hence, the classical works of Marxism are a tremendous resource for us and are an appropriate starting point for the examination of many crucial questions.
However, they are never the final word on anything. No other science allows itself to be frozen in 1848 or 1917. Biologists can still study On the Origin of Species, but no evolutionary biologist believes that Darwin’s ideas are so sacrosanct that they are totally authoritative.
Not all novel ideas are correct and not all old ideas are incorrect, however science should always advance. Science does not stay put. To lean so heavily into appeals to authority represents a rejection of the best aspects of the Marxist method.
In responding to the critique of our article’s section titled “Trump voters and Class Consciousness”, it is evident that more clarity and focus is essential in ensuring that this section not be taken as an exercise in demographic splitting.
TS determines the section to be guilty of this on account of a particularly offensive statistical citation that describes rural districts as having lower median incomes and higher rates of unintentional injury. This citation could have (and should have) been thoroughly utilized to form a comprehensive class analysis. This critique presents an opportunity to provide context and explanation as to why the section was presented as published.
Why is there an emphasis on “rural” districts? TS dials in on this point of emphasis as proof that this piece relies on “the same superficial statistical obfuscations the bourgeois uses to slice and dice the working class”. This is certainly a valid concern, it would absolutely dilute any attempted class analysis to rely solely on statistical depictions of a “rural experience”.
However, the usage of these statistics was not to shift towards a more abstract character within rural districts, but to aid in understanding why the current Pat Soc movement targets portions of the proletariat that voted for Trump, of which rural districts contained high concentrations.
This piece is clearly not equipped to provide a total explanation of the superstructural mechanisms influencing this inclination among the rural proletariat, and so measures of the material reality within these districts is useful in assessing class character. Is this experience uniform or homogenous? Obviously not, and there were no attempts within this section to distill an essential depiction of someone living in a rural district.
The utility of Marxism for these voters is not contingent upon the red-cloaked jingoism of the Pat Soc movement, but because Marxism is a discipline possessing the necessary dynamism to sift through the sociocultural tendencies used by the petit bourgeois and bourgeois to suppress class consciousness whilst also recognizing that these same tendencies exacerbate fault lines within the working class. Victory of class struggle is dependent on assessing these fault lines so that there is neither a backslide towards tailism or an appeal to bourgeois divisional tactics.
On the Question of Nationalism and the National Liberation Struggles of Oppressed Nations:
“If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that Freedom whose cause you had betrayed. Nationalism without Socialism – without a reorganisation of society on the basis of a broader and more developed form of that common property which underlay the social structure of Ancient Erin – is only national recreancy.”
–James Connolly, “Socialism and Nationalism,” 1897.
The critic questions the existence of nationalism outside of the realm of the Bourgeois, This is not merely a response to the critic though, it is an understanding of a core tenet of Internationalism: Self-Determination.
Let us start by saying that the categorical requirement of Marxist theory in investigating any social question must be examined within definite historical limits. Especially, when referring to a particular country (here, the united states of america), that account be taken of the specific features distinguishing that country from others in the same historical epoch.
In order to tackle the difference between Bourgeois Nationalism and the nationalism of an oppressed nation’s national liberation struggle we must pose two definitions related to the topic: What is a nation? and what is nationalism? A nation is a historically-evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a community of culture.
Of course, a nation’s interests are not homogenous; every nation has multiple classes with different interests, which sometimes overlap and sometimes are in antagonism. But the history of the communist movement in the 20th century demonstrates that communists can play a leading role in movements of national liberation in a way that advances the international interests of the proletariat. In this sense we can see that the nationalism of the oppressor nations and the national movements of oppressed nations are far from identical.
After introducing these two related concepts we must remind the reader of a third concept that was lifted on high by Lenin Himself: Self-Determination. Self-Determination is in part the right to the formation of an independent state, if the majority wills it. We can find Lenin’s definition in his text, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination:
“Consequently, if we want to grasp the meaning of Self-Determination of nations, not by juggling with legal definitions, or “inventing” abstract definitions, but by examining the historical-economic conditions of the national movements, we must inevitably reach the conclusion that the Self-Determination of nations means the political separation of these nations from alien national bodies, and the formation of an independent national state.”
National liberation struggles and nationalism of the bourgeois in the transition of feudalism to capitalism were markedly different from concepts of self determination and its ending of national oppression.
A country continually controlled by finance capital was not truly self determined. Within the histories of the United States we can draw from a proletarian national liberation struggle hoping to secede and create a socialist nation state: The Black Belt Republic.
The Black Belt Republic’s interests were firmly grounded in forming a socialist state. From its inception, it was meant to be a nation in the South of the continental United States (stretching from parts of Maryland to Texas, geographically) with a socialism that was grounded in science.
The Black Belt thesis was not only an internationalist project, it was the child of hundreds of African thinkers within the Comintern. This, a project taken seriously, on its path to national liberation was a project proposed by socialists (including Lenin) to the CPUSA by directive from the Comintern.
Party member and writer Claudia Jones speaks on the particular category of Black Self-Determination in the region in her 1946 thesis “On the Right To Self-Determination for the Negro in the Black Belt.” The Black Belt Thesis was articulated by many members of the CPUSA (most famously Harry Haywood) as integral to the success of the international proletarian revolution:
“It was our understanding of the negro question in the United States as a special question and as an issue whose solution requires special demands in addition to the general demands of the American working class.”
The formation of this nation was not only with the understanding and explicit ouster of “bourgeois nationalism,” it also was with the materialist understanding that it would establish a state under the dictatorship of the proletariat with a national character not outlined by skin color or phenotype.
It was planned to provide an “intimate link” between the struggle for proletarian internationalism and the struggle for emancipation and land for the oppressed negro people and white workers in the black belt: see Claudia Jones’ work “On the Right to Self-Determination for the Negro People in the Black Belt”.
The “nationalism” of a national independence struggle for an oppressed nation, within an imperialist “oppressor nation” is built on national consciousness, national self-respect, national self-confidence and Self-Determination of that nation: see Mao’s “The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War”.
This “Proletarian nationalism” experienced by an oppressed nation, struggling for national independence is in complete opposition to imperialism. Internationalism necessitates the end of oppression of any nation by one’s own nation; so the struggle for self determination is not only a core tenet of internationalism, it is a tenet that when absent results in national chauvinism.
Nationalism on the basis of the formation of an independent national state, with a socialist mode of production is diametrically opposed to the bourgeoisie and imperialism. This is the nationalism we speak of. The nationalism and patriotism of the contemporary patriotic socialists is a Bourgeois nationalism: a nationalism based on the subjugation of other nations.
The struggle for this national liberation was lost thanks to the revisionism of Earl Browder when he urged the CPUSA to reduce the Black Belt Thesis to the level of “Negro Integration.” TS seems to forget the “new soviet man” or concepts like “socialist patriotism” and “proletarian internationalism”.
This critic seems to only see the proletarian in the sense of the “19th century worker” and they forget that we have examples of actually existing socialism that encouraged their nations to have “boundless love for the socialist homeland, a commitment to the revolutionary transformation of society [and] the cause of communism.”
Even Soviet participation in World War 2 was called “The Great Patriotic War.” To quote Stalin in his “Scorched Earth” speech in 1941:
“Further, there must be no room in our ranks for whimperers and cowards, for panic-mongers and deserters; our people must know no fear in the fight and must selflessly join our patriotic war of liberation against the fascist enslavers. Lenin, the great founder of our state, used to say that the chief virtues of Soviet men and women must be courage, valour, fearlessness in struggle, readiness to fight together with the people against the enemies of our country.”
Would this not be seen as nationalism? Even patriotism? The nationalism Marx, Lenin and Stalin criticized was that of bourgeois character in an imperialist nation. The nationalism in the nations of the Soviet Union was internationalism; the national pride during China’s national liberation struggle was internationalism.
The question of the rights of nations is not an isolated, self-sufficient question; it is a part of the general problem of the proletarian revolution, subordinate to the whole, and must be considered from the point of view of the whole. This “whole” is the international proletarian struggle; in this struggle examples like Cuban internationalism and Irish Republicanism are welcome and revolutionary.
On The American Revolution:
It is beyond the scope of this brief article to fully get into the weeds of Gerald Horne’s work and the complex historiography of 1776. We do feel called upon, however, to expand our point on Horne’s arguments. This is not a defense of Gerald Horne; the appeals to authority are best left for Tibor Szamuely.
For those unfamiliar with Horne’s work, put simply, he argues that the revolution of 1776 was raised to the level of “creation myth” by the American revolutionaries–that it was a class collaborationist project that concretized the highest form of class collaboration in America: white supremacy.
He also makes the argument, consistent with historical materialism, that the shift in the slavery question on the global scale resulted in a significant quantitative shift in the revolutionary thermometer of the patriots. “a straw that broke the camel’s back not the straw that broke the camel’s back” if you will.
The critic didn’t make an argument, so I won’t create one for them. The real question is: What was the material change for the American working classes in the 1700’s? What was the bourgeois democratic shift that occurred? As we know, slavery persisted, the smallholders still had debts (but to new owners), and the mode of production persisted. (later was transformed by the industrial revolution, not this war of “independence”)
The source presented by TS:
“The history of modern, civilized America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains.”
-Lenin: Letter to American Workers.
For those of us familiar with even a spontaneous understanding of 1776, we recognize that it was all of those things. This illustration of the American Revolution letter to the American workers was not a statement of what to be proud of, it was merely a description of a revolutionary event.
Through the lens of national liberation this social revolution does not reach that precipice. The war was one of conquest. It was a squabble among kings (French, Spanish, Portuguese assisted the “patriots” in this war.) It was literally a war over the division of “usurped lands”, and “ill-gotten gains.”
The marxist interpretation of a Social Revolution is based in the material qualitative shift in the economic, political and social systems. The Marxist interpretation of what would constitute a Bourgeois Democratic Revolution would necessitate a qualitative shift in the Democratic apparatus with regard to the producers. A bourgeois democratic change from a feudal/semi-feudal order to a bourgeois democratic one would be judged by the “exploitation of wage-labour by capital.” With a baseline of this theoretical measurement 1776 is easily classified as a Social Revolution and not a Bourgeois Democratic Revolution. The verdict is in no way out on the Bourgeois Revolutionary nature of 1776.
This historical debate has been under contention since… 1776. Among Marxists there is a dispute whether the Civil War and Reconstruction represented merely the completion of a democratic revolution that began in 1776, or whether the Civil War and its aftermath were themselves America’s democratic revolution. We take the latter view.
CLR recognizes that more clarity and nuance was needed on our part when outlining the different categories around the bourgeois-democratic national movements and national struggles in the USA and around the world. However, TS’ claim that we’d struggle to find “such a perspective in classical Marxists works” proves the importance of using new data, correcting mistakes, and always building on new insights; which we encourage our critic to strive towards.
To reiterate, our initial article contained some ambiguity and a few outright errors, and we have no difficulty admitting to and correcting those. We will, however, stand by the thrust of our article: our ironclad opposition to transphobia, our respect for a Marxist methodology, and a rejection of the politics of “patriotic socialism.”
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