On the Dialectics of U.S. “Backwardness”

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This paper was originally published in the Committee for a Revolutionary Socialist Party’s International Discussion Bulletin Series, no. 8, December, 1980.

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Current fashions in world leftism dictate that the U.S. working class be regarded exclusively with sneers, contempt, anger or an airy dismissal. The North American proletariat has been endowed with a new, hyphenated name—the backward-American proletariat.

This is a dangerous and erroneous frame of mind for internationalists because it flouts the materialist conception of history and ascribes to the question of class consciousness a psychological or cultural-nationalist base instead of an economic one.

Further, to belittle and denigrate American workers is to break ranks and needlessly lose confidence in a class whose rhythms and moods and power and exploits are nothing less than heroic, and whose promise, based on its dramatic past practices, holds out tremendous hope for the imminent reality of world revolution.

It is ironic, if understandable, that Trotskyists—who should be suffused with the Old Man’s emphases on the most-oppressed, super-exploited, and poly-harassed (those who face discrimination on multiple levels of class, race, sex, nation, etc.) instead choose to ignore the explosive vanguard potential of the backward, the late-bloomers, the longtime dumbbells, and the brain-washed.

But to underestimate the need for and capacity of North American workers to once again erupt onto the main arena of world revolution is to kiss good-bye to that very world revolution.

A workers’ state in the USA is not only mandatory to cinch and inspire and stabilize revolutions abroad. It is also eminently realistic, something to be confidently expected and planned for. The patterns of revolt always show those on the bottom leaping to the forefront, those who were laggards catching up and surpassing with ten-league boots, those who were backward catapulting into the forefront.

Dialectics alone, even without close knowledge of U.S. history, should teach us that!

Look to the Past to Explain the Present

The reasons for American backwardness must be sought in history and geography, not in a reverse-colonialism superiority complex, wherein European and Third World radicals take out their hatred of imperialism, the Pentagon and the White House on the hapless U.S. workers.

It is liberating to be able to say, “Fuck American workers, who needs ’em?” Liberating—but not wise, not true, and not conducive to a correct grasp of world power politics and the still-central role of Wall Street in the world economy and the counter-revolution.

We must never forget that the USA is a unique country, a huge land where capitalism started afresh, with its horrors qualitatively mitigated by the opportunities offered by a vast 3,000-mile-wide and 2,000-mile-long frontier, virgin soil for farming and ranching, endless possibilities for small business in new settlements and towns, and lots of work building railroads, in maritime, lumber mills, granaries, consumer goods and fighting Indians, among other things. The economy was almost always expanding, the people were relatively prosperous, the system was not only stable but hugely successful.

Apart from new immigrants and female and child labor in a very few big cities, poverty and misery did not exist among whites. Black slavery was enormously profitable to the entire eastern seaboard. And labor was in enormous demand. Class lines were extremely blurred; almost anybody could go west and make it. Vocational apprenticeships and free education were widely available to white males, and the church and other charities generally looked after the ill and destitute.
In a growing, energetic economy, topped with all the trappings of personal and political liberty, radical politics do not flourish!

It took the rise of industrialism, ghettoes and depressions to foment mass unionism—and not until the 1930s did the CIO emerge.

What? No Labor Party?

But the workers were still getting the super-crumbs, the super-benefits, the payoff for living in the land of Wall Street. Colonialism and imperialism were profitable for most of us in Yankeedom. Credit the capitalists for some sense; Roosevelt saved the system by making concessions to the poor and the unions, and the Democratic Party still plays the role of a European-type social democratic instrument of class politics, siphoning off class struggle into class-collaboration politics and deals.

Engels, Marx and Trotsky were far more understanding of the lack of a labor party in the U.S. than some of our international and domestic colleagues. These comrades are more impatient with relatively prosperous American workers who have never seen the need for basic social change (why should they?) than with the world-weary compromisers of the mass reformist parties around the world who have mouthed off about socialism for 100 years and never even got close to making a revolution.

Not to mention the deep, petty-bourgeois fixations of Latin American, African and European revolutionaries who topple the fascist/military dictators, but rarely move beyond bourgeois democratic Popular Fronts or Stalinist/Maoist cabals.

Call me an American chauvinist, but I infinitely prefer the tumultuous dynamic of a class that leaps into the struggle when it decides to and makes up dramatically for its late start. Indeed, the very contradictory nature of U.S. workers—conservative but wildly militant and innovative—makes them all the more revolutionary when they go into motion.

This is an historically youthful class, a self-confident, even smug, class, and an undefeated class. It has nowhere to go but up.

It is suicidal to write off the U.S. working class, without whom nobody’s revolution can mature into socialism, regardless of the extravagant attributions of world imperialist hegemony to Japan, West Germany, whoever. International radicals are stuck with us whether they like it or not; if they think otherwise, they will end up as apostles of socialism in only acceptable countries. And Trotsky says no-no to this kind of political exclusivity!

Radicals in a Bourgeois Democracy

Overseas comrades tend to be critical of the apparent ease and expertise of U.S. radicals in manipulating the system for financial, legal, social and political gain. We’re accused of being reformist-orientated. Why?

What kind of Leninist sense does it make to ignore all our historically-lucky opportunities for good jobs; public work; open organizing; mass mobilizations for survival; reform and transitional legislation; easy access to the media; etc.?

Should we adopt guerrilla warfare instead, while democratic forms and norms are still ripe to be used—and remain our normal modus operandi? “Revolutionary expediency,” said Lenin, not self-imposed monkeys on our backs. God, yes, we have it easy—but our class bled and died for 200 years to gain this heritage for us, and we are obliged to use and revive and expand every democratic process in the book. This is our battering ram against the encroaching police state.

Now, if the workers are even more regressed than we think, why in the world should we be more radical? We should be less so in order to reach them, no?

No, we should carry on as we do, spreading the voice of Bolshevism through every available channel. Actually, we use bourgeois democracy (courts, press, etc.) in order to expose it and build mass morale and teach modes of resistance. Even Bernadine Dorhn of Weather Underground and Abby Hoffman just surfaced, when even they saw the absurdity of ultraleft, clandestine futility in this country at this time.

Enter Race and Sex

Racism, sexism and homophobia are not the foundations of the political immaturity of the class. Economics—relative prosperity—is the bottom line, the basic reason for the remarkable absence of class politics here in the 19th and 20th centuries. The culture then takes over to keep the class divided and malleable. Given the class-collaboration politics of the U.S. worker, the culture of bigotry and misogyny lock the privileged white males into a prison of conservatism or slow reformism that has no exit.

White skin privilege, male chauvinism, and heterosexism have turned millions of workers into lackeys of the boss, shorn of class consciousness and permeated with elitism. This is the social base of the labor bureaucracy.

But these aristocrats of labor, the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class, are the ebbtide sector in the labor movement, being swiftly replaced and ignored by the army of new worker militants from the ranks of women, youth, minorities and lesbians/gays. These low-paid, powerless strata are the majority and leading edge of the new American working class, and their consciousness is light years ahead of the moribund chauvinist pigs.

Here is the wave of the future for the Third American Revolution!

Don’t Underestimate American Workers

American workers have won some of the best conditions, benefits and payscales on the face of the earth—wrested them from the slavers, the robber barons, the giant monopolies, and the very flagship of imperialism. No small feat, that. And attention must be paid! A little respect, too.

The American Revolution of 1776 galvanized and inspired the wretched workers of the world. The Civil War did the same; the horrors of slavery and the determination of the American workers to eradicate the “peculiar institution” can never be forgotten.

The saga of American labor history, from its earliest beginnings before the Revolution through it tumultuous development into the National Labor Union of the 19th century, the AFL, the IWW, and finally the audacious CIO, is a story of enormous impact on the world stage by afflicted women and men workers of North America, of all races. (James P. Cannon’s and Murry Weiss’s American Thesis vividly evokes and evaluates this stormy history of long-patient but intrepid-in-struggle proletarians.)

American workers have nothing to be ashamed of except the bureaucratic monolith that stifles, corrupts and maneuvers them—and in this they differ little from most contemporary proletariats. And they will dispose of the AFL-CIO fakers just the way the CIO dumped the old AFL—unceremoniously, and with a revolutionary program.

It is one thing to be the superior, arrogant, egocentric ugly American. It is quite another for serious American revolutionaries to give just due and pay proper homage to the proud history, combativeness and revolutionary aspirations of the popular masses.

As denizens of the heartland of world counter-revolution, we rightfully aim to become exponents and leaders of world revolution. Trotsky insisted that this was the manifest destiny of U.S. radicals, and what was true in the 1930s is even more burning today, as every social overthrow on the planet flounders and sours so long as the American colossus co-opts, encircles, starves or bombs it. Our revolution is everybody’s revolution, and our revolution can and will be made, with a little help, and less detachment, from our friends.

The dialectics of American history will fuse the perplexed worker and the conscious vanguard into a titanic unity of opposites that will qualitatively alter the course of world history. But this coming synthesis couldn’t be attained without the volcanic fury imbedded precisely in the contradiction between subjective backwardness and objective need. The road from backwardness to vanguardness is a short one from the historical vantage point.

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