Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Marxism Without The Leninism

When I first joined the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) in 1969, we encountered a group of very old (they must have been at least fifty!) socialists. They were members of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), and they met monthly at the public library in downtown Portland. Occasionally we'd talk to them and even buy a copy of their newspaper, The Weekly People.

If you've read one issue of The Weekly People, you've read them all. The SLP's political program had almost nothing to do with current events, so there was little news in the paper. Instead, it read very much like some Jehovah's Witness tract--the Truth laid bare for all to see if only you have eyes.

The Party is based on the ideas of Daniel DeLeon (interesting Wikipedia article here), who combined Marxist theory with Wobbly sensibilities. The SLP believes in One Big Union, but instead of the IWW, it is the Socialist International Union (SIU). The key, according to every issue of The Weekly People, is to show how the SIU can be organized to effect workers taking over the means of production.

And that led directly to the most prominent feature of every issue of The Weekly People--organization charts (pdf). That's it--with a perfectly constructed organization chart, utopia can be achieved in America today. It's that simple.

It's important to point out that the SLP are not Leninist revolutionaries. They foresee no violence. It's not that they're pacifists, but they think the properly organized SIU will simply vote the capitalists out of the factory. No vanguard Party is necessary, nor is overthrowing the state, but instead the masses need to be properly organized.

The SLP comrades were nice people. How could it be otherwise? They proposed a simple, democratic, non-violent route to a socialist society. "Marxism without the Leninism" is the way I recall them describing themselves. Indeed, Leninism is the totalitarian doctrine--eliminate that and all that's left is a feel-good, harmless, free-unicorns-for-everybody sect. I have argued before that Marxism will never die--the we're poor because the rich people stole all the money meme is so easy to believe. But Leninism (and hence, Trotskyism) will die. So why isn't the SLP more popular?

Partly that's because they're just so easy to make fun of. We, being young and self-righteous, teased them mercilessly. They weren't happy with us, but they didn't run away, either.

And then partly it's because they've aged out of activity. They were middle aged in the 70s, which puts them into their 80s today. Once an organization passes a certain demographic, it becomes impossible for them to recruit younger people. That fate was obvious to us looking at the SLP in the 1970s, and it appears that the Socialist Workers Party is going the same direction. Indeed, I think that's what will happen to all so-called vanguard Parties.

I don't know when The People ceased to be a weekly. They first started publishing on-line in 1999, and by that point it was a monthly. In 2008 they dropped print publication and it became an internet quarterly. The last issue of that appeared in Spring, 2011. Apparently anybody with any journalism skills has since passed away.

Their website contains this very interesting document, entitled Technology & Job Loss. (Indeed, that topic also concerns the last published issue (pdf) of The People, in a letter exchange between a member and National Secretary Robert Bills.)  What the document demonstrates is how and why socialism is inherently Luddite.

The document's lede:
Computers, cell phones and the Internet are just a few of the technological marvels created over the last few decades that have brought tremendous changes into our lives. Now we can communicate with our families, friends and coworkers from anywhere at anytime just by picking up a cell phone or connecting to the Internet. 
These and other new “consumer” technologies unquestionably have eased the lives of millions of people in many ways. New technology, however, has not been restricted to consumer items. Industry also has seen its share of advances with effects that have devastated the lives of millions of workers.
Further along, they say
Labor-displacing technology is becoming more evident even in our everyday lives. Self-service grocery checkout lanes are replacing clerks, ATM machines are replacing bank tellers and automated airline kiosks are replacing ticket agents. The driving force behind these technological advances is the elimination labor. You know it, we know it and the ruling class that “earns” its living by destroying yours knows it too.
 So let's reduce the argument to bullet points:

  • Automation is good for consumers.
  • Automation is bad for workers because it leads to unemployment.
  • The capitalists want to save on labor expenses.
  • To save on labor, capitalists invest in automation.
  • Their savings comes out of your hide.
  • Therefore workers should oppose automation.
Now the first point--automation is good for consumers--is true because automation lowers the cost of doing business. It's convenient for consumers to be able to use a cell phone, and it saves money to use automated check-out lanes. What Marxists fail to notice is that all economy exists for the benefit of consumers--what's good for consumers is good for people.

The second point is unproven, but historically it's false. The rise of the automobile certainly increase unemployment amongst blacksmiths, but it didn't increase unemployment overall. Likewise, the demise of the checkout clerk will lead to a smaller retail workforce, but the consumer savings will result in money being spent on something else. For the current, very drastic round of automation, it is not clear whether the historical precedent will hold. (I think it will.)

The third and fourth points are also true, but the capitalists are not the primary beneficiaries. In the long term (not very long), price competition will lower prices to account for the cheaper labor costs. Thus the capitalist benefits by remaining competitive, but he doesn't make any extra profit. Walmart, for example, admits that upfront, and automatically passes any labor savings directly on to the consumer.

The fifth point is true for workers narrowly construed. The benefits of the automobile certainly came out of the blacksmiths' hide. But it dramatically raised the standard of living for everybody else in society, including, eventually, former blacksmiths.

And the last point is just a silly example if you carry things to illogical extremes. At what point do we turn off new technology? Will we really be richer if we reinstate human telephone operators as opposed to automatic switching? The Amish have chosen this path--they have turned off innovation at the end of the nineteenth century. Of course the Amish are correspondingly poor.

By ignoring benefits to the consumer, socialists completely lose any value in innovation. Workers and capitalists are not the only economic actors. The most important actor is the consumer, because it is by the consumer that we measure the standard of living.

Anyway, I'm sorry to see the Socialist Labor Party go. Unlike Trotskyists, they are an honorable and harmless sect. They're the oldest socialist party in the US, dating from 1876. They represent a unique part in American history. I'll miss them.

Maybe I should put my money where my mouth is? After all, I'm almost old enough to join them.

Further Reading:

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