It requires some mighty fine bait to lure a relatively quiet Marxist like myself out of my supposed ideological cave, but it seems that the recent letter by Comrade Pickrell has just about done it. Titled Plant the Flag, this well-written butchering of Marxism has gained my attention. The letter by our comrade encompasses a wider phenomenon within the left and Marxism of a cry for pragmatism (masked by a supposed interest in material circumstance), which not only negates any helpful or true revolutionary sentiment but actively seeks to destroy the workers’ cause by pacifying it into social democracy. This is done through a variety of methods, but most important in our case, the movement for constitutionalism.
The broader point of the polemic was painted plainly when Pickrell stated “I hope to convince others about the necessity of a democratic constitution based on one person, one equal vote” at the very beginning of his work. This will receive the entirety of my attention. This immediately caught my eye and swiftly brought me to scratching my head, so we may as well begin here.
For starters, a democratic, constitutional republic like the one inscribed therein can be described as bourgeois in its entirety. It must be spelled out in absolutely stark terminology that this is the wet dream of many a reformist, as well as many a flawed revolutionary. It finds its bourgeois character in its negation of the necessity for all power to be vested in the workers’ councils, party, and their organs of popular organization which comprise the dictatorship of the proletariat. These councils and factory organizations are spontaneously organized to meet material needs and circumstances. No long-theorized Jacobin principle can substitute for genuine worker dictatorship, for that truly is what the dictatorship must be: undemocratic. It is the subjugation of a class of leeches through the proletariat; it is a mass finding of consensus and decision-making outside of archaic constitutional and state-sponsored structuralisms. Fundamentally, the democrat and he who speaks of a democratic republic is absolutely in line with a liberal position. Parliament cannot ever be an organ of the workers, for they are alien to it, and it to them. The voters and the voted-in cannot exist without an undeniably bourgeois hierarchy at play, for this, friends, is at its core, the socialization of bourgeois subjugation.
What this means in simplicity is the attempted conversion of the fatcats’ house to the workers’ chamber, which is absolutely impossible. In no way can a parliamentary or representative system be of the workers, because they are fundamentally bourgeois in their character.
With all of that said, we move to the second calamity. Pickrell continues, “[d]issolve the Senate — an ‘obstructive and useless body, a menace to the liberties of the people, and an obstacle to social growth’— and vest supreme power in an enlarged House of Representatives.” This is no more than mere reformism. Debates on topics such as these were had long ago during the times of Pannekoek and Lenin, and still, parliament in any shape remains alien to the working class. The working class cannot hold a dictatorship while governed, and cannot govern itself through liberal frameworks of social organization. Pannekoek said it best when he stated “Just as the ‘Socialist’ government is only the continuation of the former capitalist government under the banner of Socialism, ‘socialization’ is only the continuation also of the former capitalist exploitation under the guise of Socialism.” He remains ever correct and relevant to this correspondence. If we seek to glean even one single truth from that quote, it is that there is no difference in bourgeois character between the red republic and one in the hands of the uncloseted bourgeoisie. It seems our friends here prefer their iron fist in a red velvet glove.
In quick succession, and in no aid to his supposedly revolutionary case, Pickrell quotes the Social Democrat Victor Berger: “[t]he House’s enactments, in the words of Victor Berger, ‘shall be the supreme law, and the President shall have no power to veto them, nor shall any court have the power to invalidate them.'” Coincidentally, I grew up in Berger’s home county, where he was much beloved for his reformist social democratic program of constitutional and labor rights reform. This quotation is all the more telling of our friend’s supposedly radical persuasion. To me, this is but scantily clad reformism all dressed up in its best pseudo-Bolshevik fashions. Friends, this is not a case for the abolition of the bourgeois parliament, it is for its centrality to the working class as a means of its own internalized subjugation. This was bad enough until our friend Luke here brought in the idol of many an apparent Marxist, Mr. V.I. Lenin. Pickrell goes on banging his drum, asking “[w]as Lenin an ‘idealist’ when he described the police murder of a peasant as a ‘mockery of justice’ and an affront to ‘human dignity’ and connected the killing to the ongoing ‘struggle for liberty?’” Now I hardly call myself a Leninist anymore, but to butcher our friend Vladimir into such a Robspierrish costume – I have little to say. What I might add is that these quotes are peculiarly no more than Lenin’s affirmation of values, the same values held by the many Marxists who would scoff at the proposed notion of a “People’s Speaker of the House,” so to speak.
But we must delve deeper into this co-opting of historical liberalism. Pickrell goes on to say (in his criticism), “[m]aybe Steve considers ‘rights’ and ‘democracy’ to be ‘idealist’ because he thinks the Russian Revolution changed Marxism and made the demand for a democratic republic irrelevant.” Yes! Steve is wholeheartedly opposed to this for good reason. Both these phenomena are completely idealist! Human rights are a liberal construct, as is the republic: this cannot be disputed. I have no clue what pseudo-Marxism has brought our friend to believe that the Bolshevik revolution was based in some sense of Jacobin-esque personal liberty. It cannot ever be called a democratic republic for it was a Soviet one. The Soviets are organs of popular organizing from the units of production, or at least were envisioned by revolutionaries to be such. Again we observe the pursuit of a left populism instead of Marxism. Unfortunately for our friends here, Pickrell continues his streak of reform by quoting Dr. King, stating: “[a]n unjust law is no law at all, and, “‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’’’ Our struggle is not one for law and order, nor is it for equality and especially not to correct the legal injustices present now without our own legal reforms. Dr. King’s own hesitance to militancy, while noble, dampened the effectiveness of the popular movement of his time and was regarded as much too moderate by many a black revolutionary. Moving on from this point, Pickrell begins the crusade of the reform brigade, sounding eerily like our friend Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and company: “[i]t’s always the right time to denounce the Constitution because it’s illegitimate twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year. Our votes are being denied right now! Our task is to connect the ongoing struggles for democracy, gather the fighters under the banner of a democratic constitution, and bring those not yet in struggle into battle.” This is near comical at best and sinisterly reformist at worst. This is not a struggle for popular control by the workers, but rather an argument for the institution of a red parliamentarism to subjugate the masses.
Continuing, Pickrell in a twist says: “I’m in no hurry to map out what will happen when we have a revolutionary movement.” However, this is absolutely in contradiction with his parliamentary ambitions for this radical movement: a democratic constitution is a fixed structure that the proletariat must apparently impose on itself. This confusing mix of reform through revolutionary progress must fundamentally be understood as socialization, dare we say Kautskyistic. Moving on from this stumble, our friend shifts to optics and popularity, stating: “[m]any Marxist Unity Group members think that words like ‘Communism’ will appeal to people and that the existing left within the Democratic Socialists of America will be the most keen to fight for a democratic constitution. I’m skeptical that we should constrain our audience to the existing left and that Communism as a ‘maximum demand’ will ever appeal to a majority of Americans.” I would appreciate breaking this down. Communism is our banner, socialism is our cry, and we organize that through popularizing socialism, not by co-opting liberal ideas or movements. This popular front mindset or at least an “anti-sectarian” one is not the practical solution it masquerades as; it is only a material distraction due to falsely perceived failures of Marxism. I do not believe that the solution to the popularity problem of Marx and co. is not real, but certainly, we cannot put on a mask of democracy to nudge the masses into our camp. I am, however, on my friend’s side here in his frustration with MUG, but his critique is directed at the wrong problem. This sympathy, however, pretty quickly slips out the window with his statement: “[b]eing the vanguard of the movement to democratize the political system isn’t sectarian because democracy isn’t sectarian.” The vanguard’s goal is absolutely not to democratize any political system, but rather to abolish them. You cannot bring proletarian power (or control) to a fundamentally bourgeois construct, which parliamentary democracy absolutely is. Following this, he ends the paragraph with a zinger “…what language and ideas he thinks will appeal to people, but if I had to guess, they would include ‘socialism’ and ‘mass strike.'” This is absolutely wrong. Socialism is our movement. We can’t conceal it, we must confront its problems, bring it to the originally hesitant masses, and convert them to its fiercest advocates. We do this through popular organization, not collaboration with the bourgeois or liberal forces. This is not the modernization of socialism to meet our current material needs, but rather its total abandonment in favor of what immediately appeals to the ideologically reactionary masses.
Moving to the detailed issue of the Constitution, Pickrell says “...the democratic lens expands our field of vision to include not only socialists and anti-Constitutional advocates for democracy but everyone dissatisfied with politics who hasn’t yet concluded that the Constitution must change.” Again, our goal is not constitutional change and can never be. This is absolutely irrelevant to socialism and the prospective workers movement. Our lens has nothing to do with bourgeois law and bourgeois constructs. I hate to break it to our red reformers, but the words of the poor and oppressed are found in the Grundrisse, not in Common Sense.
After much writing and little Marxism, Pickrell returns to his Bernie-bro roots stating “[t]he ‘real processes’ of struggle in the U.S. revolve around having a universal and equal say in the decisions that impact our well-being. The struggle is over who makes the laws.” This gives Cornel West a run for his social democratic money. The struggle of workers cannot be within the means of bourgeois structure. This failed and resulted in the right and correct embracement of revolt and the rejection of parliamentarism. These intentions of a workers’ parliament, however, become overshadowed by the much beaten dead horse of communist optics, which Pickrell drags out for one final thrashing, calling on us, “…see what banner — ‘The Democratic Constitution’ or ‘The Socialist Revolution’ — has convinced the most Americans.” This is absolutely ridiculous. The solution for the unpopularity of Marxism is not a hijacking of liberalism or the childish whims of entryism through parliament. Pickrell then drones: “[i]t’s not our job to ‘directly address the injustices driving the social crisis itself, whatever they happen to be.’ We must have a more holistic and concrete vision. Our job is to draw out the political content of each injustice and connect it to our inability to right these wrongs because of the Constitution.” This is absolutely silly. The constraints placed on us are not constitutional. The Constitution is the manacles that bind our wrists, while the weight of the bourgeoisie is the chains that hold us down. If you at all seek to address the injustices present in these profound social circumstances you must address the perpetrators, not losing the forest for the trees.
This mistake is repeated with Pickrell repeating: “[e]ach injustice derives from a lack of universal and equal suffrage — our inability to make collective, majoritarian decisions because of the minoritarian, unaccountable, and disproportionate power of the president, the Senate, and the Supreme Court.” This is simply ignorant of the conditions that created this constitutional issue. No issue is rooted in the Constitution itself and can be uprooted by its reform for all of them existed before it. Slavery, sexism, poverty, and structural violence are justified after the fact by the current Constitution. Every injustice is derived from class relations and their intersectional circumstances. The different shapes of the boot make no difference to the weight on our necks. Universal suffrage means nothing to us if it is under a parliament, or any other bourgeois concoction. At the end of the letter, Pickrell writes: “[u]ltimately, the differences between Steve and me are the values and goals we think will inspire people in the United States to engage in political struggle.” I absolutely sympathize with his sentiment but as I have stated just about 800 times, none of this can come about through a rigid liberal reformism, for all of it must come through worker power, and all power to them.
Pickrell’s final quote reads “[t]he battle to democratize the political system is not just a plank among others in a democratic socialist platform: it is the leading edge of the class political struggle that makes socialism possible.” And our problem with this whole letter is spelled out in clear language. The difference between myself and our friend is that my commitment to Marxism is wholly out of a desire for revolt, for abolition, not structural reform or subjugation of the masses through a new red parliament. Democratic Socialism is one of the most beloved negations of Marxism around, and it is an old one. However, we must stave off these attempts of pacification of the working class. My belief is in all power to the councils, not all power to the representatives, and I hope my friends would agree with me. Concluding the whole letter, Pickrell states “[h]uman freedom is only possible after we’ve done away with the Constitution’s tyranny of a minority.” I know my Marxist horse is well dead and beaten, but again we must reject this angle of reform. A “majoritarian” constitution does not fundamentally change the reality of bourgeois parliament and its alienation from the working class movement.
In summary, my friend here, while writing quite eloquently, is clearly mistaken if he wishes to cast his lot with the working class. The workers movement brewing in our brains and in the workplaces across the world is absolutely a movement for abolitionism, we are to be abolitionists in a modern moment, and I hope our comrades will agree with me. It has been a long time since the era of Kautsky, and many of us have hoped his feelings would have subsided, but it seems that we were a bit presumptuous in our wishful thinking. This particular variety of socialization can only be combated through the continuous adaptation of the old Marxist tradition of analysis regarding the material conditions that find us. We do this through the ruthless critique of all that exists, especially the structures and ideas that currently subjugate us. Friends, the “job” of a movement is not to forge our own chains, but to smash them entirely.
I’d like to end these remarks with just one idea for you to keep in your back pocket. Revolution cannot ever come with masses banging on the doors of Congress, rather they must grind those doors to dust. The parliament used to enslave the masses will not free them, for it is fundamentally a tool of popular enslavement.
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