Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Debate within SDS. RYM II vs. Weatherman

Jim Mellon


from New Left Notes, May 13, 1969

At the Austin NC, it became clear that important differences existed among the people who had supported the “Revolutionary Youth Movement” proposal in Ann Arbor. For my part, I could not support the “May Day” resolution nor the “Schools Must Serve the People” resolution. Further, an amendment that I opposed was made to the “Summer Program” proposal. It is difficult to tell how important these differences will be in the future or whether they will work themselves out in practice, but at this point it is clear that they are based on differing theoretical conceptions of U.S. society. Rather than go over the specific arguments on the proposals, I would like to discuss those theoretical conceptions.

The points of difference fall into two broad groups: 1) those concerning a class analysis of American society, and 2) those concerning the specific nature of the crisis in capitalism in this period of history. I will deal with these two groups by laying out some of my own analysis as well as by discussing some questions that are raised in my mind about the subject. I hope this will provoke further discussion in New Left Notes.

Class Analysis

I) Class Analysis of American Society. Marx’s prophecy of the development of capitalist society into two classes, a large working class and a small ruling bourgeoisie, has nearly come true. Stated another way, the complete socialization of production and the concentration of production into the private ownership of a tiny number of people is very nearly complete in the USA. If class membership is determined by relationship to the means of production, in a Marxist fashion, then the vast majority of the people of this country, who own no means of production, and are forced to sell their labor power to someone who does, are members of the working class. This is not to ignore the vast differences among working people In terms of wages, working conditions and relative control over the work process. It is not to Ignore the central fact of privilege which divides the masses of the working class and promotes false consciousness of particular interest as opposed to general class interest It is, rather, to point out that the socialisation of the ownership and control of the means of production is in the objective class Interests of the overwhelming majority of the people at this time – which is a radically different situation than has over existed previously.

The bourgeoisie, for its part, is divided into the large corporate (liberal) monopoly bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie, the latter of which is in our time very small and declining. If the bourgeoisie is defined as those who own and control means of production and who live by the exploitation of the labor of others, then the petit bourgeoisie is that group which employs and lives off small numbers of laborers. Throughout the development of capitalism, this petit bourgeoisie has seen its interests as opposed to the large bourgeoisie, whose developing monopolism threatens to wipe out the petit bourgeoisie as a class. The petit bourgeois consciousness has been an anti-monopolist consciousness. In this country, this group is almost entirely defeated. Monopoly capitalism dominates almost all lines of production and the petit bourgeoisie are staging a small but futile resistance. When Wallace says that “pointy headed intellectuals in Washington think they can tell us how to live,” and that he would “throw their briefcases into the Potomac,” he is expressing the anti-monopolist sentiment that exists. But it is clear that he cannot win without winning over a vast segment of the working class, which will, of course, require a great deal of duplicity.

In the formal structure of U.S. Government, drawn up two centuries ago, the petit bourgeoisie appear to have power disproportionate to their numbers or economic strength, especially at the local and Congressional levels. If one followed day-to-day politics in U.S. newspapers, he might be convinced that the petit bourgeoisie were indeed powerful. A sophisticated view of U.S. politics, however, would indicate that the important decisions are not made at these levels, but are made at the top by agents of monopoly power.

In speaking of students, middle level management, highly skilled labor an professionals, many radicals would like to create a residual middle category and call it the petit bourgeoisie. First, this is a non-Marxist classification not being based on relationship to the means of production, Second, the ideology which characterizes the groups is certainly not petit bourgeois anti-monopolist consciousness, (to the extent that it is not proletarian ideology) it is ruling class, monopoly (what has come to be called corporate liberal) ideology.

Many radicals would also like to use the terms “middle class” to describe these groups. It is important understand that the term ”middle class has little meaning in Marxist analysis: Marx himself was occasional translated into English as saying that the petit bourgeois and professionals were middle class (a better translation would be intermediate classes), but the bulk of his analysis he very careful delineated objective class position based upon relationship to the means production. In this country, the vast majority of the people generally referred to as “middle class” are objectively of the working class, and the socialization of the ownership and control of the means of production is objectively in their class interest.

There is one further reason for discarding the term “middle class.” It tends to reinforce the notion put forward by liberal social scientists that this country has reached a period of calm based on an end of class antagonisms. Since there is one big happy class which anyone, from skill worker to corporation executive, can a member of, then there is no re reason to struggle. There are, of course, petty differences and small problem but nothing really to be excited about, certainly nothing to be violent about. Things can be worked out over coffee downtown. This notion must be smashed. One way to begin to smash it is to clear about what class interests different people have. It does not help to clarify objective interests when we use liberal terminology which describes an “invented class.”

Aside from the working class, the petit bourgeoisie and the monopoly bourgeoisie in the U.S., there are a small number of intermediate people, namely, self-employed professionals who live mainly off their own labor and not off labor that they hire. The class position and resulting ideology of these people is admittedly confused, but today they are a very small group. In addition, It must be understood that increasing numbers of professionals are not self-employed, but work for wages In law firms, clinics, and other large institutions. (Correspondingly, it should be recognized that many petit bourgeois merchants and others have mitigated their class position through franchise and other arrangements which leave them as mere agents of monopoly capital.)

Black Vanguard

After pointing to the objective class position of most Americans, it is important to speak to the question of privilege. The central fact of privilege within the American class structure is nowhere more clearly seen than in the oppression of the black nation within the borders of the U.S. The fact of systematic preferential treatment of white workers over black and the resulting better conditions of white workers lay a material basis for a feeling that black workers threaten white privilege – and the resulting racist ideology which is fostered by that feeling of threat. This is the most important way in which the U.S. working class is divided and weakened. Two things result:

1) The participation by white workers in the oppression of the black nation gives an anti-colonial aspect – in addition to the working-class aspect – to the struggle for black liberation. Fighting white supremacy is our first task. These two conditions, in addition to the high level of consciousness and militancy of the black colony, mean that at our point in history the black liberation struggle is the vanguard of the working class movement.

One of the reasons for the confusion in class analysis which many radicals experience is the failure to distinguish between objective class position and prospects for the development of consciousness. That many (a majority) of our people are objectively of the working class does not necessarily mean that they will immediately become conscious of their class interests. The privileges that some workers have achieved are impediments to the development of working class consciousness and class solidarity. But these privileges in no way change objective class interests. Privileged workers under capitalism can never acquire wages equal to their productivity and can never gain enough control over their lives and the productive forces to be able to avoid alienated labor as long as capitalism exists.

The factors which determine the development of class consciousness and of the need for revolutionary socialism are the subject of a separate analysis. Marx and, especially, Lenin argued that the vanguard in the development of class consciousness would be the industrial workers in the large consolidated and rationalized manufacturing industries. This was for various reasons. Mainly, the need for cooperation and organization in the productive process of such plants – which was uncommon in capitalist society of that day – meant that these workers had a greater organizational ability and consciousness of the need for cooperation. (One thing must be clear. Marx and Lenin never argued that these workers would be in the vanguard because they were tile most oppressed. They were certainly not the most oppressed and, further, the most oppressed are not always the most conscious of their oppression and of the revolutionary alternatives.) Marx and Lenin were proven correct by the Russian workers in the factories in Petrograd and Moscow who led the Russian Revolution.

Today, almost everyone in society works in a productive process involving a sophisticated division of labor. Further, the industrial workers in the U.S. have undergone a peculiar experience of relative success in organizing for and achieving higher wages and near failure in the development of the consciousness of a political role for the working class. The process by which the CIO was built and then emasculated and turned into an imperialist front should be the subject of great study by the left. What is clear is that a deal of sorts was struck between the labor bosses and the ruling class that 1) no communists would be allowed in union leadership, 2) CIO unions would assist Imperialism in every way possible, including the fostering of anti-communist ideology, and 3) organized workers in U.S. factories would (for awhile, anyway) be allowed certain gains in real wages (crumbs from the imperialist table, as Lenin, put it) which would hopefully lay the material basis for support of the system. The effect of this bribery is a subject of great debate, but it is clear that class consciousness among U.S. workers is lower than almost anywhere in the world.

Need for Theory

We need a theory which will help us understand which segments of the working class can develop class consciousness and lead the rest. It is not enough merely to say that some segments of the working class are necessary to the construction of socialism – as surely the industrial workers are – but some reason must be offered as to why that segment is likely to break out of the mystification and particularism in which it is now bogged down.

What can be clearly seen In U.S. society today is that a vanguard role in developing working class consciousness (at least to the very primitive extent to which it is developing at all) is being played primarily by the blacks, as well as the youth. Many, of the industrial labor struggles today are an extension of the black community’s struggle for self-determination into the factories. To answer the question of the U.S. working class requires an analysis and an argument. To continue irrationally to insist on the vanguard role of factory workers in our changed circumstances is mere assertion of orthodoxy, and not an argument.

For our part, SDS has committed itself to the development of a Revolutionary Youth Movement. In the present transitional period, we intend to organize among youth, penetrate the working class as much as possible with revolutionary ideas, and develop our analysis concerning who will be the vanguard of the working class. The revolutionary youth movement proposal was conceived of as a transitional strategy for the development of a specifically working class movement. It recommends the transcendance of SDS from a radical student organization to a class conscious movement of the youth of the entire working class. It is distinguished from the Worker-Student Alliance by its recognition of revolutionary youth as a part of the working class.

Position of Youth

In this context, before turning to the nature of capitalist crisis in our time, it is necessary to discuss the class position of youth and especially students. The overwhelming majority of American youth (say 18-24) are students, soldiers and unemployed. Also, the overwhelming majority come from working class backgrounds – no matter how comfortable, mystified, or bourgeois an ideology they may have. The overwhelming majority, further, are destined for jobs and positions within society which are securely within the working class – no matter how conscious they are of the privileges their specific future positions offer. I would argue, however, that what gives specific class content to the struggles of youth – in the schools and in the army specifically – is the proletarianization of the roles youth play in those institutions.

In the army, coerced though he may be to join and intangible though his product may be, the soldier provides a very necessary labor for capitalism – no different than any other service labor. In the schools, the training of labor which cannot be done by individual capitalists, is done by that agent of monopoly capital – the state. The student, by studying, creates value within himself in the form of skilled labor power, and in so doing performs an exploited and alienated labor. The nature of the specific labor of the student gives his struggles to control or change the conditions of that labor a class content. The struggles of students to break out of their alienated labor and destroy the class institutions in which they exist are part of the class struggle.

Some argue that students are intellectuals in the classic sense that Lenin and Mao conceived of revolutionary Intellectuals imbuing the masses with the idea of socialism. It must be understood that Lenin and Mao were writing about societies more than 80% illiterate. Students then participated in more mass communications and were able to carry ideas from one sector to another. The student today is in a totally different role. All of society is literate and heavily saturated with mass communications. The student is merely a worker in training and is as mystified as the general population. Besides, anyone who has any experience in our organization knows that it is not an intellectual movement and does not pretend to be.

Others argue that when students support working class struggles they are working class and when they do not, they are not. This garbles the entire analysis. The class content of the students’ struggle is determined by their objective class position. This does not mean there is never any false consciousness. Clearly, the demand for student power is analogous to the skilled workers’ struggle to protect privileges – say to constrict access to the skill in keeping out blacks. This kind of struggle for protection of privilege must be opposed. But neither the student seeking student power nor the skilled worker seeking exclusion Is thereby outside the working class – he is struggling for a particular, rather than class, Interest based on a false consciousness. To overcome this false consciousness it is necessary to continue to raise issues concerning the most oppressed sectors of the working class – especially the Vietnamese and the blacks – and to emphasize that their struggle is the same one.

Crisis of Capitalism

II) The Nature of the Current Crisis in Capitalism. The classical Marxist concept of capitalist crisis was based upon a system of competitive capitalism, in which a large number of small capitalists ere competing with one another on the basis of price. The basic contradiction of capitalism – that between the price of labor and its productivity – manifested itself at the level of the whole economy as a total production of goods produced by labor greater than the demand for the goods based on the wages paid to labor. This contradiction could be forestalled as a crisis by investment in production of machines which produce goods, but this only led to a greater productivity of labor and thereby a greater crisis. Periodically, this crisis led to a depression in which the weaker firms were either bought out or failed altogether and production was consolidated into fewer hands. Marxists argued that this would lead to succeedingly more severe crises leading to the eventual breakdown of capitalism. In this model, the struggle of workers over their wages and working conditions was central to the crisis. Demands for higher wages related directly to the capitalists’ competitive position. The crisis in capitalism, then, manifested itself at the point of production.

Two things developed out of competitive capitalism: the system of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. The concentration of production into fewer and fewer hands means that competition in terms of price has nearly been eliminated. Monstrous firms, then, have no longer the problem of cutting costs in order to remain competitive. On the contrary, cutting costs while maintaining price means merely the expansion of profit margins, resulting in huge amounts of surplus capital requiring absorption in new investment outlets. In addition, wage demands by workers can be passed on to consumers by monopolies as price increases. The result is that a general Increase in the money wages of the whole working class means only a general price increase and no Increase In real wages. In this situation, the specific crisis of monopoly capitalism manifests itself not at the point of production but in ever increasing amounts of surplus capital requiring investment outlets. The manner and form of the absorption of this capital surplus Is what gives character to the crisis of our society.

Vast investments in the production of military hardware and research, combined with imperialism’s need to create a world-wide repressive military network, have resulted in the development of a military-Industrial complex within the ruling class which continues to waste resources and forge a militarized, authoritarian regimen. Vast investments in the system of higher education provide military research, produce a highly skilled labor force, and defer the entrance of surplus labor into the labor force. The draft, the tracking system and other instruments of channeling, force the young people into these institutions where they suffer severe alienation. The youth rebellion stems from these conditions.

The increasingly high ratio of capital to labor means that less unskilled labor is required and a large section of the working class, mainly black, perpetually unemployed. The containment of this surplus labor in ghettoes is the result.

Since investments in social service and welfare do not produce the return or the accelerator effect on the economics of military hardware investments, many social institutions are starving for funds. The school systems, welfare systems, distribution systems, medical care, transportation systems, etc. of the large cities are nearing collapse and severe social strains result. Rebellion among the masses of urban dwellers is only barely repressed.

The driving thrust of imperialism to control and develop suitable investment opportunities means a steadily deteriorating quality of existence for the workers of the whole world – and the struggles against that thrust do not occur mainly at the point of production. The struggle of Third World people, for liberation is primarily a nationalist struggle – and it occurs primarily as a military struggle. The struggle of blacks for liberation in this country is also a nationalist struggle, and it is led primarily not by blacks who are industrial workers, but by the street people, unstable workers that Panthers refer to as “field niggers.” For the youth of the mother country, the class struggle manifests itself around issues like the draft, the ruling class use of the university, police and other agents of the ruling class for social control. Throughout society, institutions designed to stabilize and serve capitalism are breaking down, and struggle ensues.

If the breakdown of the U.S. capitalist system is not necessarily going to come as a huge depression but as a gradual deterioration of the social structure, then our revolutionary movement must be prepared for the eventuality, not just of a general strike, but of a gradual raising of the level of struggle around various issues resulting in a general protracted civil war.

Dogmatic applications of Marxism to the U.S. make two important errors: 1) They attribute to the struggle of industrial labor a centrality to the class struggle, or worse, they say that only industrial labor struggles are the class struggle. Since industrial labor is only a segment of the broader working class and since it is not yet playing a vanguard role in the class struggle, a proper perspective on labor struggles requires that they be seen as only one front on which we are fighting.

What we need is an analysis and an argument concerning what sectors, of the total working class can develop consciousness and lead the rest. 2) Dogmatic applications of Marxism to the U.S. also fall to attribute to the struggles of youth a significant class content. When youth support the struggle of the Vietnamese and the blacks and simultaneously fight the class nature of the schools, they are waging class war. When they do not wage these struggles, they impede the class struggle.

Any argument that students can struggle only on the basis of their immediate needs for an improved education – with the implication that when the struggle moves beyond anti-imperialism to the construction of socialism itself, the students will have no further progressive role to play and must yield to the industrial workers – is based on a faulty class analysis and a faulty understanding of capitalist crisis in our time.