On the Class Point of View and the Rule of Law

Date: 2023-05-17T07:01:16+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Gil Schaeffer responds to Anton Johannsen, arguing that socialists cannot be indifferent to the principle of equality under law.

Anton Johannsen’s Trump, the Rule of Law, and the Ruling Class tackles the big political question of what attitude the left should take regarding Donald Trump’s prosecution by the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg. This is the kind of ambitious analysis that the left needs in order to orient itself within a deliberately opaque and confusing political/legal/media environment. If I take issue with Johannsen’s analysis, it is because it is worth taking issue with.

My framework for discussing Johanssen’s article is Lenin’s theory of political consciousness and agitation developed in Chapter III of What Is to Be Done? (WITBD) and the Iskra article, “Political Agitation and ‘The Class Point of View.'” These are the two most important essays ever written by a Marxist because they explain what political consciousness is and how Marxist journalists should convey this consciousness to the working class and other social groups and strata. I emphasize “journalist” because that is how Lenin described himself.1 In these writings, Lenin distinguishes three levels or aspects of political consciousness that Social-Democratic journalists need to communicate. The first and most basic is the necessity to be a tribune of the people rather than just a trade union militant, even a revolutionary socialist trade union militant. In a much quoted passage from WITBD, Lenin says a Social-Democratic tribune of the people is someone:

who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.2

In response to the Economist’s assertion that “the economic struggle ‘is the most widely applicable means’ of drawing the masses into active political struggle,”3 Lenin writes:

Any and every manifestation of police tyranny and autocratic outrage, not only in connection with the economic struggle, is not one whit less ‘widely applicable’ as a means of ‘drawing in’ the masses. The rural superintendents and the flogging of the peasants, the corruption of the officials and the police treatment of the ‘common people’ in the cities, the fight against the famine-stricken and the suppression of the popular striving towards enlightenment and knowledge, the extortion of taxes and the persecution of the religious sects, the humiliating treatment of soldiers and the barracks methods in the treatment of the students and liberal intellectuals—do all of these and a thousand other similar manifestations of tyranny, though not directly connected with the ‘economic’ struggle, represent, in general, less ‘widely applicable’ means and occasions for political agitation and for drawing the masses into the political struggle? The very opposite is true.4

Most Marxists probably agree with Lenin on this general point. However, I don’t think it is as widely recognized that he included some landlords and capitalists among those classes and strata suffering from police tyranny and autocratic outrage. I noted this aspect of Lenin’s theory here and here, but mainly to establish that he equated the Marxist “class point of view” with liberal-democratic values and the goal of a democratic republic. I spent less time explaining why he thought supporting even liberal capitalist and landlord protests was so crucial to the development of a consistent Social-Democratic “class point of view”:

It is our direct duty to concern ourselves with every liberal question, to determine our Social-Democratic attitude towards it, to help the proletariat take an active part in its solution and to accomplish the solution in its own, proletarian way. Those who refrain from concerning themselves in this way (whatever their intentions) in actuality leave the liberals in command, place in their hands the political education of the workers, and concede the hegemony in the political struggle to elements which, in the final analysis, are leaders of bourgeois democracy.5

Lenin is saying here that liberal complaints against religious persecution, police brutality, censorship, and the denial of other basic rights are also of direct concern to the proletariat, but that the political proposals advanced by the liberals are not capable of providing a solution to these problems. Only Social-Democracy’s consistent commitment to universal rights and a democratic republic can do that. Lenin insists so strongly on the necessity of Social-Democracy fighting with liberalism for political leadership on these issues, it constitutes a distinct level of political consciousness all its own.

Some may object that the question of the relationship of Marxism to liberalism that Lenin addresses here is a problem specific to Russia under the Tsar. After all, Lenin himself held that backward Russia was only at the “democratic stage” of the revolution, whereas western Europe was at the “socialist stage.” But this division of stages is only applicable to the level of economic development in different countries, not to democratic republican ideology and strategy in the political system. As a political question, Lenin placed the Dreyfus Affair in France, an economically developed constitutional republic, on the same plane as the Russian autocracy’s intimidation of students and the reformist nobility. Full civil and democratic rights and a democratic republic were needed just as much in France and the rest of Europe as they were in Russia. Lenin was not alone in this view. From Engels6, to Jean Juares7, Rosa Luxemburg8, and Karl Kautsky9, the relationship of liberalism and liberal republicanism to the democratic republicanism of Marxism was the central political question confronting Social-Democracy during these years. Lenin was unique only in the degree to which he elaborated the full implications of the logic of democratic-republican ideological hegemony.

It is essential to understand that when Lenin speaks of the need to oppose every violation of liberal rights and to “support” every liberal protest against these violations, he is not seeking to form a political coalition or united front with liberals. He knows very well that the Marshal of the Nobility who is the subject of the “Political Agitation and ‘The Class Point of View’” article will side with the Tsar against the people in a revolutionary situation. Landlords remain a long-term strategic class enemy. Nevertheless, when the interests of a particular section of the propertied classes come into conflict with certain activities of an authoritarian state, be it the Tsarist state or the French military state or the US national security state, that conflict often “’provides material for the political education of the proletariat.’”10 These conflicts provide material for the education of the proletariat because for the last four hundred years these conflicts have been articulated in the language of universal human rights, and because the elites engaged in these conflicts often seek to enlist the lower classes on their side. But the liberals’ loyalty to the liberal principles of freedom of speech, press, association, and security from arbitrary police surveillance, search, seizure, persecution, and prosecution is limited and conditional. It is limited because the propertied classes have never wanted these liberal rights to include universal and equal voting rights, and it is conditional because liberals (or those who pretend to be liberals) will abandon their liberal principles the moment their power, privilege, and property are threatened by a mass movement of the people. Because Lenin and all Social-Democrats took liberal civil and political rights seriously (they included them in their Programs and expected them to be integral to the workings of the democratic-republican socialist society they hoped to found and build), he believed it was essential to educate the working class about the Social-Democratic attitude toward these rights and how Social-Democrats and liberals differed in their political strategies to secure these rights. Rather than seeking a coalition with liberals, Lenin’s aim was to explain why the liberals were politically unreliable, why the working class was the only consistent supporter of liberal-democratic rights, and why the working class had to organize independently of the liberals in order to secure those rights.

The vacillation and unreliability of liberals produces the need for the third aspect or level of political consciousness. Lenin’s liberal noble in 1901 was not concerned that his criticism of Tsarist strong-arm tactics would undermine the foundations of the Russian social order because at the time the working class and Social-Democratic forces were still diffuse and unorganized, but that changed in 1905. The nation-wide uprisings that followed the massacre at the Winter Palace scared the liberals and pushed them to seek an accommodation with the Tsarist regime, still clothed, however, in the anti-authoritarian language of constitutional reformism. This proclivity of liberals and other social groups to say one thing but do another leads Lenin to argue that:

In order to become a Social-Democrat, the worker must have a clear picture in his mind of the economic nature and social and political features of the landlord and the priest, the high state official and the peasant, the student and the vagabond; he must know their strong and weak points; he must grab the meaning of all the catchwords and sophisms by which each class and each stratum camouflages its selfish strivings and its real ‘inner workings’; he must understand what interests are reflected by certain institutions and certain laws and how they are reflected. But this ‘clear picture’ cannot be obtained from any book. It can be obtained only from living examples and from exposures that follow close upon what is going on about us at a given moment; upon what is being discussed, in whispers perhaps, by each one in his own way; upon what finds expression in such and such events, in such and such statistics, in such and such court sentences, etc., etc. These comprehensive political exposures are an essential and fundamental condition for training the masses in revolutionary activity.11

That’s Lenin’s full theory of political consciousness, agitation, and democratic-republican ideological hegemony. The rest of this article will analyze Johannsen article from this “class point of view.”

Johannsen begins his article with a review of the legal technicalities of Bragg’s case against Trump. He points out that the falsification of business records “in order to violate other lawsis a felony under New York Penal Law. In Trump’s case, those “other laws” involve electoral campaign finance laws, both state and federal, but Bragg has not charged Trump with violation of those laws specifically. Johannsen doesn’t emphasize it, but Bragg’s case is out of the ordinary in that prosecution of violations of federal campaign finance law falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Election Commission, which has not charged Trump with any violations. Although not decisive in answering the question of whether the law is being weaponized against Trump, the lack of action on the federal level does highlight how unorthodox Bragg’s legal intervention is.

However, rather than proceeding directly to the question of whether the law is being weaponized against Trump inappropriately for political purposes and clarifying what “the rule of law” is supposed to entail, Johannsen chooses instead to focus on Trump’s response to the indictment. Of course, Trump claims he is being persecuted and treated unfairly, but for the purpose of delegitimizing the very concept of “the rule of law” itself and promoting his own personal power unbounded by any rules at all. Johanssen goes on to say, “Whatever falsity exists in this is irrelevant—the plausibility has purchase in the realm of politics, given the horrific illiteracy of the American public.” Johannsen takes a wrong turn here. The truth or falsity of the claim that the law is being weaponized is not irrelevant to us, no matter what political use Trump himself makes of the indictment. To say otherwise implies that the “rule of law” is an illusory concept, a mere ideological cover for the cynical manipulation of power under a thin veil of moral rationalizations. Johannsen frames his entire discussion in these terms, a framing that is catastrophically flawed.

The best Marxists framed the problem of law under capitalism differently. Jean Juares argued in justifying his defense of Dreyfus:

There are two parts to capitalist and bourgeois legality: There are a whole mass of laws aimed at protecting the fundamental iniquity of our society, …that consecrate the privileges of capitalist property, the exploitation of the wage earner by the owner. We want to smash these laws, and even by revolution if necessary abolish capitalist legality in order to bring forth a new order. But alongside these laws of privilege and rapine, made by a class and for it, there are others that sum up the pitiful progress of humanity, the modest guarantees that it has little by little conquered through centuries-long effort and a long series of revolutions.12

Luxemburg argued similarly in regard to the Dreyfus case:

The socialist principle of class struggle demands the action of the proletariat wherever its interests as a class are in question. This is the case for all conflicts that divide the bourgeoisie. Every shift in the relation of social forces in bourgeois society, any change in the political relations of the country, influences, in the first place, the situation of the working class. We can’t act as indifferent witnesses to what goes on in the interior of the bourgeoisie, unless socialism could be realized outside of bourgeois society, for example through the foundation in each country of a colony. But since we haven’t thought of emigrating, as it were, from bourgeois to socialist society, but on the contrary of overthrowing bourgeois society by means created within that same society, the proletariat must make an effort, in its forward march to victory, to influence all social events in a favorable direction. It must attempt to become a power that weighs ever heavier in the balance in all the political events in bourgeois society. The principle of class struggle not only doesn’t prohibit, but on the contrary it imposes the active intervention of the proletariat in all the political and social conflicts of any importance that take place inside the bourgeoisie.13

And Lenin’s thesis that “The political demands of working-class democracy do not differ in principle from those of bourgeois democracy, they differ only in degree”14 expresses a similar theory of the overlapping but conflicting relationship between bourgeois liberal rights and full liberal-democratic republicanism.

In contrast to the political and legal attitude toward the Dreyfus case shared by Juares, Luxemburg, and Lenin, Jules Guesde, one of the men who drove Karl Marx to exclaim, “I am not a Marxist,”15 refused to join the campaign to exonerate Dreyfus. For Guesde, the theory of the class struggle meant that socialists should not concern themselves with bourgeois political conflicts or defend the laws of a bourgeois state. Johannsen’s analysis of law and politics has more in common with Guesde’s views than those of Juares, Luxemburg, and Lenin. In saying that the truth is irrelevant in analyzing the claim that Trump was unjustifiably targeted by the National Security apparatus, that “Marxists aim to overthrow the rule of law as such,” and that the concept of “the weaponization of the law enforcement system for political purposes” is just a partisan polemical artifice not to be taken seriously by Marxists, Johannsen adopts a Guesde-ist version of socialism and the class struggle. Although he backtracks a little on this stance toward the end in calling for genuine “equality before the law,” in the main Johannsen’s analysis avoids engaging fully in the questions raised by the national security, political, legal, and media campaigns against Trump over the past seven years.

Returning to Johannsen’s original starting point about the truth or falsity of Trump’s claim that the law has been weaponized against him, my judgement is that Trump is right: the law, or more accurately the investigative arms of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, were mobilized under false pretenses to accuse Trump of crimes he did not commit. At first, the 2016 Clinton campaign looked on Trump as a joke and thought a Democratic victory would be more likely if the Republican opponent was a right-wing nut. Then things started to go wrong for Clinton. Leaks of private emails from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta were embarrassing, and the Clinton campaign immediately blamed Russia for the leaks and meddling in US politics in a “shoot the messenger” diversion from the content of the emails. Of course, at the time the US was already deeply involved in Ukraine and the blame-Putin rhetoric meshed nicely with ongoing US foreign policy, a foreign policy that Trump repeatedly denounced.

Johannsen agrees that the Mueller Report thoroughly debunked the Russiagate story and that the Durham investigation established that DNC operatives connected to the Clinton campaign did provide misleading information to a willing-to-be-mislead FBI regarding Trump’s contacts with Putin and Russia, but he puts these perfectly legal, public investigations in the same “weaponization of the law” category as the original Russiagate operation because they contained politically useful information for Republicans, just as Russiagate provided politically useful information for Democrats. I disagree with Johannsen’s reductionist logic here. Just because both legally authorized and illegal, unauthorized activity by government agencies produce information that have political uses doesn’t render the line between legal and illegal irrelevant or unimportant. Laws against illegal search, seizure, surveillance, and harassment make up some of the “pitiful progress” humanity has made over the years that should be defended, no matter who is affected.

It is important to defend this aspect of “the rule of law” because “the rule of law” is not an uncontested, one-dimensional concept solely supportive of bourgeois hegemony. This is so because historically the bourgeoisie and the working class rose up together against the arbitrary dictates of King, Church, and Nobility in order to establish a representative political system founded on at least some general notion of universal human rights. Since then, there has been a constant ideological and political battle between the bourgeoisie and workers over the meaning and extent of those rights, which has often taken the form of having to defend rights previously won when the bourgeoisie or factions of it find them inconvenient. Johannsen loses sight of these dual, contested meanings of “the rule of law” when he writes that “Marxists aim to overthrow the rule of law as such, to be replaced with the self-government of the people,” as if a self-governing people won’t have any need to write their own laws and create legal and police institutions to adjudicate and enforce them. Rather than talking about overthrowing the rule of law as such, Marxists should foster a culture of democracy in which rights are clearly delineated and an alternative conception of society envisioned and promoted. That is how to establish democratic republican ideological hegemony.

Of course, the purpose of making these conceptual distinctions is to help us understand and see more clearly how the US political system operates and how socialists (and real democrats) can intervene in it more effectively. Although Johannsen makes a few useful observations and suggestions pointing in this direction, the pieces aren’t in the right proportion and don’t fit together into a coherent picture. The main distortion of perspective and proportion derives from making Trump the center of attention. Trump certainly upended the old-boy network of the Republican Party and succeeded in finding an unlikely path to the Presidency, but he went too far when he tried to bypass the established electoral system and displace traditional centers of power. Those traditional power holders are now taking their revenge on Trump personally, but have no desire at all to deal a death blow to Trump’s right-wing base because it is too useful, particularly to the Democrats. As Johannsen observes, both Trump and the Democrats feed off each other’s attacks, resulting in politics now being little more than a ritualistic cycle of outrage in the mass media. The Democrats are right that there is plenty about Trump and the Republicans to be outraged about, but they have refused to pass legislation that would benefit the majority of the country or to identify the source of bi-partisan oligarchic rule in the structure of the Constitution itself. As the beginning point of our political strategy, we should be very clear that our main political enemy is not Trump or the Right. It is the undemocratic structure of our political system as a whole and the Democratic Party’s crucial role in camouflaging its defense of it, not out of “cowardice” as Johannsen suggests in several places, but out of cold calculation.

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  1. Lars Lih uses the term “journalist” in his translation of What Is to Be Done? in Lenin Rediscovered, p. 739. The older translations use “publicist.” See Lenin, Collected Works, 4th ed., vol. 5, “What Is to Be Done?”, p. 414.
  2. CW, vol. 5, p. 423.
  3. CW, vol. 5, p. 401-2.
  4. CW, vol. 5, p. 341.
  5. CW, vol. 5, p. 402.
  6. A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891 by Engels (architexturez.net)
  7. The Socialist Interest by Jean Jaurès 1898 (marxists.org) Hat tip to Lawrence Parker for citing the Juares piece in his Weekly Worker article, Scenes from history – Weekly Worker
  8. Rosa Luxemburg: The Dreyfus Affair and the Millerand Case (1899) (marxists.org) and Rosa Luxemburg: The Socialist Crisis in France (1901) (marxists.org)
  9. Karl Kautsky on Democracy and Republicanism, Edited and translated by Ben Lewis, Haymarket Books.
  10. Lenin quotes this line from the Communist Manifesto, CW, vol. 4, p. 340.
  11. CW, vol. 5, p. 413.
  12. “The Socialist Interest”
  13. “The Dreyfus Affair and the Millerand Case”
  14. CW, vol. 5. p. 342.
  15. See the editorial introduction to “The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier” Programme of the French Worker’s Party (marxists.org)