Generational Conflicts

Against the Current, No. 50, May/June 1994

Ernie Haberkern

Justin Schwartz complains, in his otherwise favorable review of Socialism from Below, (Against the Current, 48), that the author, Hal Draper, like Marx, fails to outline “in more detail what we should be for.” He recognizes, of course, that his position is close to that of those socialists ridiculed by Marx as authors of “recipes for the cookshops of the future.” Then, however, he drops the issue.* Involved is a fundamental question of method.

Is socialism a product of the intellectual schemes of individuals (regardless of class origin) or is it the culmination of a class struggle? Schwartz is right to quote the phrase from the Rules of the First International on the self-emancipation of the working class as a key to understanding Marx. But, for Marx, the most important thing about the International was not its program (which he thought an unsatisfactory compromise that was necessary to hold a very heterogeneous organization together) but the existence of an international class organization of workers.

In two of the longer essays in Socialism from Below Draper does discuss how socialism will function. Indirectly in the reply to Max Nomad’s approach and directly in his discussion of Marxism and trade unions. The reason Schwartz did not realize that these essays were aimed at his questions is that his generation came to political consciousness when class struggle was for the most part subterranean. Our generation naturally has difficulty seeing working-class organization as a new world germinating in the decay of the old.

In a sense, every labor contract, because it restricts the authority of the employer and substitutes the collective decision of the union membership for the law of the market, is a first installment of workers’ democracy. Extend that principle of organization to the society as a whole and you will have socialism.

From a Marxist point of view, the AFSCME contracts at Ohio State where Schwartz teaches are a better guide to what socialism will look like than most political science textbooks. Behind the labored legalese of those contracts are hidden some very nasty fights and some very radical changes in the way the institution functions.

I think I have a good appreciation of the reviewer’s problem because of my own experience. As a graduate student and newly recruited socialist I read The Civil War in France for the first time. Naturally, I was impressed by Marx’s Swiftian contempt for the bourgeoisie and his vision of the Commune as a workers’ state. But what was socialist about the Commune? What socialist measures did it take?

One measure Marx mentioned was the abolition of night work for bakers. Well, of course, one was happy for the bakers. But as a first installment of socialism this achievement seemed to me not so much reformist as, well, chicken shit. Sometime later, after several years as a rank-and-file union organizer and grievance handler (and innumerable hours of late-night, compulsory, overtime), I had occasion to reread the pamphlet. I was very impressed that the Commune won this demand for the whole city. Shows you what the armed working class is capable of.

Hal Draper grew up politically in the ’30s and ’40s — decades of depression, the growth of fascism, war, and militant class struggle. Can you imagine his reaction, or that of his contemporaries, to someone who tried to argue that capitalism had solved its economic problems? Yet, when C. Wright Mills, Daniel Bell and Irving Howe made such an argument in the late ’50s and early ’60s people of my generation (and Schwartz’s) had to take them seriously even if we disagreed.

Reformism Versus Revolution

It is this thesis that still dominates the thinking of the left even though the social and political conditions that made it seem plausible have long since disappeared. Behind phrases like “workerism” and “class reductionism” lies this obsolete assumption. In the ’60s, most radicals and liberals – the”New Left” — saw a mass movement, the civil rights movement, driven by the grievances of a minority oppressed, apparently, by non-economic, culturally-determined prejudices. Racism seemed a cultural phenomenon pure and simple. The same analysis was applied to the later movements for an end to discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.

The hidden conclusion — hidden for most members of the New Left though not for Mills, Bell or Howe — was that socialism was a chimera. Reform the existing society by spreading its benefits around. That was their solution, however militant the rhetoric or the means used to achieve the end. That was also, inevitably, the fundamental program of the social movements of the ’70s and ’80s. Socialists have attempted to project a more radical political and economic program on these movements but it has never stuck because it is alien to them.

The NAACP and NOW are, rightly, concerned with eliminating the “glass ceiling” that deprives their constituency of the rewards due them under the rules that apply to others in this society. Socialists, as consistent democrats, have to support their demands and cannot help but admire the struggle waged to win them.

But you cannot expect a movement with such concerns to worry much about what a socialist society would look like. You cannot expect people who are trying to remove the glass ceiling to help you blow up the building. Those demands that do begin to address the concerns of the majority of women or minorities and do challenge capitalist authority — demands like equal pay for equivalent work or parental leave — tend to split movements based on gender or race identity.

The feminist Dianne Feinstein, as mayor of San Francisco, vetoed a City Council contract with the municipal unions because it included a provision for equal pay. A few months later Dianne Feinstein, as candidate for the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nomination, received a standing ovation from the NOW convention. She deserved it. She does represent what NOW is fighting for.

The problem facing the left is that we are clearly entering — we are already in — a political period closer to that of the ’30s and ’40s than to the one most of us grew up in. As the “economic problem” becomes more serious movements based on race or gender identity are likely to crack up or become irrelevant or even become reactionary.

That does not automatically lead to a progressive, class-based, inclusive movement. It could lead to the further fragmentation and irrelevance of the political left (in the broad sense of that term) in this country. A lot depends on the ideological and programmatic choices available. The ideological equipment left over from the ’60s will not be of much use.

* There is a very clear discussion of Marx’s critique of the utopians in Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 4. It is especially important because it makes clear what Marx agreed with in the utopians’ dissection of capitalist society and their prescriptions for its reform. A discussion of this issue at length would be a digression here.

ATC 50, May-June 1994