As the 2020 US General Election approaches, the United States and the world stand at a crossroads, faced with a decision which may well be the most momentous in their history. It is a choice between freedom and slavery, fascism and liberal democracy, survival and genocide. That some elements on the Left continue to promote the idea that there is no significant difference between the candidates or between the Democratic and Republican parties is astounding, as it the claim conflicts with both obvious fact and the entire body of revolutionary theory which we have painstakingly built up over the past two centuries.
The argument against voting for Biden generally consists of four distinct propositions: 1) that Biden represents a bourgeois party or at best the dominant neoliberal wing of a multi-class party and that a vote for Biden is therefore a vote for capitalism and against socialism, that 2) Biden will “do nothing for the working class” that 3) electing reformers retards the radicalization of the proletariat, and that 4) a popular front led by the bourgeoisie will never transcend capitalism.
The first of these claims is in fact broadly true, but it is no reason not to vote for Biden and the Democrats. As even a cursory analysis of the election finance data will demonstrate, both of the principal political parties in the United States are financed and thus controlled by the bourgeoisie. The Democratic Party, however, represents the more progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie —the information, technology, and finance sectors in particular, with the education and the nonprofit sector, elements of the petty bourgeoisie, both traditional and new, and the unionized working class playing the role of junior partners in a class alliance. The Republican Party represents the most backward sectors of Capital: mining, energy, lumber, and most agriculture, as well as the lowest technology manufacturing and transportation sectors, with much but not all of the traditional petty bourgeoisie (think insurance agents and automobile dealers) as junior partners in the alliance. Many sectors of the bourgeoisie, such as defense/aerospace and health care and insurance are sharply divided, as is the “new” petty bourgeoisie or professional managerial class, depending on the sector in which they work and the relative weight of humanistic, scientific technical, financial education in their formation.
These are facts. The question, of course, is their significance. And in order to understand their significance we need to understand the difference between the worlds being created by the more progressive and the more reactionary sectors of the bourgeoisie. The progressive bourgeoisie needs a world of literate, diverse, free, and reasonably prosperous consumers who supply the final demand for what the information sector (which is the demand side driver in the current capitalist regime of accumulation) produces (television, film, games, music, etc.), and for the consumer technologies through which those products are distributed. It is this final consumer demand which in turn creates the demand for high technology capital goods (think the equipment used to make smart phones, tablets, and computers and the technological infrastructure necessary to run the internet and 5G networks). And it is the demand for capital goods which creates the demand for Capital. The progressive bourgeoisie, furthermore, because it needs mass consumers needs a habitable planet. They have a limited need for human labor and what labor they need is labor highly skilled and capable of complex intellectual and emotional tasks. They do not, therefore, need to reduce women to their wombs. On the contrary, they need small families which choose parenthood, invest intensely in their children, and cultivate emotional complexity, not toxic masculinity. Finally, they need an integrated global market which gives every producer access to every consumer. And cultural diversity is good for them, creating a multitude of niche markets which many individuals cross, expanding total demand.
This is why Biden and the Democratic Party support investment in green energy, universal access to health care, a higher minimum wage, and investment in education, research, and development. It is also why they support reproductive rights for women, protection for those who do not correspond to gender norms, free trade, and are at least beginning to move on immigration, racism, and police brutality. Are they perfect on these issues? Of course not. But they are vastly better than Trump and the Republican Party. And there is a trajectory, a possible though unlikely world in which continued technological progress gradually renders human labor —or at least involuntary, noncreative human labor— obsolete. The value of labor power and thus real wages —and effective demand— will decline towards zero. If the liberal bourgeoisie wants to continue to sell its products, it will have to support reforms such as a universal basic income and a rapidly rising social wage (goods and services provided directly to all citizens such as free health care, public transportation, education, etc.) which will leave in place mass consumers who can buy them. And as this system expands, capitalist relations of production become an empty shell. “Capitalists” become a sort of archaic title holder, like contemporary members of the aristocracy who are neither the wealthiest nor the highest status people on the planet. Star Trek, in other words, a world in which capitalism has been transcended without anyone ever noticing it, really is a possible future.
The more backward sectors of the bourgeoisie, on the other hand, need cheap labor, which requires growing populations and thus submissive, fertile women. They need submissive labor and thus the racism which keeps a large part of the population living in terror. And for the most part, they need workers with only modest skills. This is why Trump and the Republicans favor extractive and combustive energy which will create a poisoned world in which humanity will have to adopt an r strategy in order to survive. It is why they oppose anything which lightens market pressure or leads to increased wages. It is why the want to strip women of control over their bodies and their lives and ensure that immigrants and African Americans live each day in terror of deportation or random murder. It is why they want to destroy liberal education.
Here, too, there is a trajectory, a possible future. It is one in which impoverished masses languish in slums stretching out across the hellish landscape of a dying planet, while a tiny elite live off their labor in walled compounds. It is a future which combines the worst of natalism and genocide, in which a restored patriarchy cultivates sadomasochistic personalities full of rage and hate which is periodically discharged in wars of annihilation which pit surplus populations against each other.
The future being prepared for us by the liberal bourgeoisie still falls far short of what is possible for humanity. But it is infinitely better that the future which Trump and the Republicans have in store for us.
But this is just a superficial analysis, based on the facts and innocent of revolutionary theory and revolutionary strategy. The relevant theory here is centered around the concept of “contradiction.” One of Marx’s great insights is that history is, in significant measure driven by contradictions. But he was never entirely clear just which contradictions were most fundamental and how various contradictions are articulated with each other. In the Paris Manuscripts he identifies as fundamental the contradiction between humanity’s species being, our underlying creativity, sociality, and sapience, and the ccommodification of labor power which alienates us from our true selves as well as from nature and from each other. In the German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto, on the other hand, the focus is on the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, with the former understood more nearly as advancing technology and the latter as the private property. But in the Manifesto he also claims that “history is the history of class struggle,” and sets out a series of stages through which the class struggle develops, from sabotage to trade unionism to political reformism to the emergence of a revolutionary vanguard.
In all of this, however, Marx made two assumptions which have been proven not to be true. The first is that the liberal and democratic struggles are largely complete, and that socialism, understood as the form of transition to communism, is now on our agenda. The second is that the proletarianization which is a constitutive dimension of capitalist development radicalizes the working classes, generating socialist consciousness if not spontaneously, then at least with the help of the conscious leadership of the humanistic intelligentsia.
Already in the beginning of the last century Lenin recognized that neither of these propositions was true. The liberal and democratic struggles were far from complete in either the majority of the planet which had been colonized by Europe or in places like Russia which represented weak links in the imperialist chain. And proletarianization, far from created a consolidated, revolutionary working class engendered divisions based on location in the international capitalist division of labor, with privileged workers in the imperial metropoles favoring reformist social democracy and marginalized workers and peasants in the colonies supporting socialism. These insights were further refined later in the century by Mao and Fromm. Mao showed that correct political strategy depends on identifying the principal contradiction of a particular period or conjunction. This contradiction will drive political struggles whether we like it or not and we must therefore engage this contradiction and leverage it to advance our ultimate aims. Fromm demonstrated that the alienation which results from the commodification of labor power produces sado-masochistic, authoritarian personalities which are vulnerable —or worse— to fascist appeals.
It was these insights which informed the historic victory of humanity over fascism in the middle of the last century. This struggle was was not won on the basis of sectarian purism. On the contrary, an international communist movement which was supported by a much better organized working class, after veering sharply to the left during the “third period” in the late 1920s (largely so that Stalin could justify the forced collectivization and rapid industrialization necessary to prepare for what he knew would be a struggle to the death with fascism) banked back to the center and forge a popular front with the liberal bourgeoisie and indeed all elements (including, in parts of Europe, elements of the old landed aristocracy) against the fascist menace. The role of the communist movement in leading this struggle secured it a place at the table for nearly fifty years in those countries in Europe in which it played a significant role. And to the extent that the victory over fascism remained incomplete, it is because the left had not yet developed any way to cope with the dehumanizing impact of proletarianization on the human soul.
It is these same principles which we need to apply —and extend— in the present period. While the contradiction between labor and Capital has certainly ripened, it is not yet the principal contradiction of the period or the conjuncture. On the contrary, because of the legacy of patriarchy and imperialism, liberal and democratic struggles remain in the fore, and more specifically struggles around gender and race. This would be true even if we were not facing a resurgence of fascism that threatens not only women and colonized peoples, but essentially all of the liberal and democratic victories of the past several centuries.
Now each situation does have its unique characteristics, and it is important to understand what is driving the current fascist offensive. Here the comparison with the last century is useful. By the beginning of the twentieth century the contradictions of capitalism had ripened to the point that they could no longer be resolved except by exporting capital to low technology, low skill, low wage activities in the colonies, and by repatriating profits to support effective demand in the metropoles. The period witnessed two popular revolutions (Russia and Mexico), one of which led to socialism and the other to a regime with significant socialist features. Fascism emerged as a way to discipline and militarize the population by leveraging nationalist, racist, and religious ideologies and authoritarian personality structures in order to defend existing colonial empires (Spain, Portugal) or gain new colonies (Italy, Germany, Japan) —and defeat the communist movement in the process.
The current situation is, as we noted above, defined by technological progress which may ultimately call capitalism itself into question and which, at the very least, points beyond an industrial capitalism driven by the combustion of fossil fuels and the exploitation of low skilled industrial workers. It certainly points beyond a natalism supported by patriarchal structures which reduce women to wombs and transform men into toxic, sado-masochistic monsters and beyond a colonialism in which the facts of a conquest five centuries ago determine not only one’s place in the international capitalist division of labor but whether or not one can walk the streets or sleep in one’s bed without threat of random violence.
The fascist offensive in the present period is, precisely, an attempt to defend and intensify this industrial regime along with the patriarchy and colonialism which are its presuppositions. And the correct response to this offensive is, as in the last century, a popular front with the liberal bourgeoisie and indeed all other elements of society which have cause to resist. Inevitably in this situation struggles around the ecosystem, race, and gender will dominate and even overshadow struggles around class. But these struggle 1) matter all on their own and 2) will help undercut the technological, economic, political, cultural, and psychosexual foundations on which capitalism rests. Communism properly understood has never been something apart from liberal and democratic struggles. It is, rather, simply the recognition that the completion of these struggles requires us to transcend the commodification of labor power. And the survival of the planet and the liberation of women, those who reject gender norms, and the colonized peoples of the planet are legitimate aims in their own right. Socialist feminists such as Chodorow and Federici have, furthermore, demonstrated the centrality of the oppression of women in the (ongoing) primitive accumulation of capital and the creation of the authoritarian personalities which Capital requires (and onto which racist ideologies draw).
Our analysis thus far has already demonstrated the foolishness of the first three arguments against supporting Biden. Yes, Biden does represent a bourgeois party, but alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie is, in fact, fundamental to antifascist struggle. Biden will do a great deal for the working class. In fact a Democratic victory may well put us on a trajectory which makes capitalist relations of production incompatible with capitalist profit, and thus create the conditions for the fundamental contradiction of capitalism to come to the fore. Reforming capitalism, finally, will not slow the radicalization of the proletariat and the formation of class consciousness. On the contrary, we have seen, unmitigated capitalism produces authoritarian, sado-masochistic monsters and actually prepares the ground for fascism. If there is any capitalism the progress of which favors the political development of the working classes it is one in which liberal and democratic rights are strong and market pressures have been softened enough for people to begin to recover their humanity.
The final objection remains —that any popular front we create today will be led by the liberal bourgeoisie and thus not able to lead us beyond capitalism.
This claim is, by itself, largely true. Certainly the popular front we propose will led by the liberal bourgeoisie. And no, it will not lead us beyond capitalism —at least not intentionally. First, without an analysis of the social determinants of fascism, an analysis which exposes its own roots in capitalist exploitation and oppression, the bourgeoisie will not be able to lead an effective struggle against fascism —much less a struggle against the capitalist conditions of its own existence. Second, while privilege can open up the space for the cultivation of a broader perspective, it does not tend to produce effective fighters who are ready to risk everything for the struggle. And third, even as elements within the bourgeoisie itself bring forward proposals, such as a Universal Basic Income, which call into question capitalist relations of production, they are doubling down on the proletarianization of the new petty bourgeoisie and imposing ever stricter market norms.
But this is what we mean when we say that the liberal bourgeoisie plays a contradictory role. Our job, alongside advancing the antifascist work of the popular front, and especially of ensuring a Democratic victory in the 2020 US General Elections, is to shift the balance of power within the popular front. And there is only one way to do this: by organizing. And this is going to take a long time, precisely due to the dehumanizing effects of proletarianization. In the last century the international communist movement was able to leverage strategic reserves from among broad sectors of society which had not yet been fully proletarianized, from the peasantry and traditional petty bourgeoisie through the academy and the religious institutions, something which laid the groundwork for Antonio Gramsci’s strategy of cultural hegemony which was in turn expressed in the Historic Compromise in Italy and in the strategic alliance between the communist movement and the Catholic Church in the national liberation movements in the 1970s. Today our strategic reserves are dwindling and it is not so much a question of leveraging existing ren as it is of rekindling and nurturing a humanity which is all but dead. Thus the central work of longue duree organizing which, I have argued, is the essential complement to the popular front. This is the work of identifying potential leaders, building relationships, agitating and nurturing, challenging and cultivating, and ultimately not just rekindling their humanity but healing it and helping it grow and develop. And it is the work of conserving what sanctuaries for humanity remain while building new ones.
Finally, I would note that there are aspects of the current situation which suggest that the liberal bourgeoisie may itself eventually embrace the struggle against capitalism. This is the fact that, with the formation of a unified market in capital mediated by global information systems Capital has begun to emerge as an autonomous intelligence independent of the historic bourgeoisie, allocating itself across the planet in whatever way maximizes accumulation, without regard to “human factors.” Now there are elements in the bourgeoisie, including elements in the technology sector, which embrace this development and envision a “transhuman” future for the planet. And some of these elements, the so-called Dark Enlightenment links this accelerations and trans humanism with neofascist ideas around race and gender and the state. But the liberal bourgeoisie is composed of human beings, and humanity has no real place in such a future. And so, the liberal bourgeoisie will likely find itself forced to choose between its capitalist privilege and its humanity. And many will choose their humanity, for the simple reason that the alternative is the loss of the only possible subject which might enjoy privilege.
We face a long and difficult struggle. Victory is never certain. But we know that matter itself is the desire for Being. Evil really is just a defect of Being and the annihilationist trajectory of Capital leads nowhere. Joining with allies whose vision and interests are compromised is never easy. But then it is always just a matter of degree. We too are shadowed by Capital. We too see but in a mirror darkly. We too have privilege and interests which hold us back. And yet our work bears fruit. There is movement and movement is always both of limitation and of growth. Let us join in this popular front not in a spirit of begrudging reluctance, seeing it as the “best we can do under bad circumstances” or the “lesser of two evils” but with a commitment whole and entire to the complex multidimensional strategy of which it is a part, as a way of joining with those who reject the way of hatred and death, whatever our other differences with them, as imperfect leaders of an imperfect humanity which is still the best hope for a flourishing and verdant planet and as the cutting edge of wisdom and compassion in this beautiful and mysterious cosmos.