Max bounces

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Wed Sep 23 13:14:46 PDT 1998

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From: sawicky at (Max Sawicky) To: <lbo-talk at> Subject: Ultra Means You're Too Much Date: Wed, 23 Sep 1998 15:17:42 -0400 Message-ID: <000101bde726$d665a100$02f246d1 at epi59.EPI> MIME-Version: 1.0 Content-Type: multipart/alternative;

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Glad to see Carroll's in fine fettle, virtually- speaking, given his marvelously convoluted post.

I define ultra-left as the gross overstatement of the vulnerability of capitalism to complete takeover by the working class in the name of expropriating the capital stock and retaining control over it. One typical corollary of this fantasy is a stipulation of the inability of the working class to effectively influence policy in democratic societies, with all the warts that usually go along with such political systems. A related one is the immutability of the system to noteworthy, positive changes short of complete transformation.

If you sense an inconsistency here, you're not alone. That the workers could topple the capitalist state but not be able to take over, say, the Democratic Party, is a glaring contradiction-in-terms. That the system can only collapse, but not be susceptible to reform is another. That's why over- or under-estimating the power of the working class is not the issue. Both left and ultra-left put some weight on the power of the working class; the difference is where this power might be effectual. Lefts see effect in reform, while ultra-lefts see working class power as non-existent unless it reaches a threshold where it can actually topple the system.

Clearly workers have the power to influence events significantly, and this does not depend exclusively on legal action. Mass actions can be crucial, catalyzing events. The point is you can't suck them out of your thumb, foment them, or sit around waiting for them. All you can do is exploit their rare occurrences. Other times you have to find something useful to do.

Expropriation-cum-central planning is all the less feasible because there is little reason to believe the latter could work. Expropriation per se is not a technical problem in this sense; it just happens to be a political dream. Nor is it as economically beneficial as it seems to most of its adherents.

I would not apply my definition to all manner of societal transformations short of capital expropriation, including some that are described by their adherents (or critics) as "socialism." For instance, a much larger state sector that took over many sorts of markets is conceivable. So are a proliferation of labor-managed firms and consumer cooperatives. So is a tax-and-budget system that made for a much more equal distribution of income. So too with labor market management, incomes policy, etc.

In the practical political realm, ultra-leftism ranges from a waste of energy to a genuine nuisance, depending on whether it merely engrosses people in pointless exercises, or whether it defines its political mission as the targeting of less-radical, liberal or so-called "pwogwessive" political and labor forces.

Hitchens and Cockburn generally follow "the worse, the better" view of many ultra- lefts. The system is so strong that only chaos and widespread misery creates the possibility for its dissolution.

My grumpiness, characterized by JD as 'sectarianism,' stems from annoyance whenever people with little or no record of political accomplishment are citied as if they were authorities on political change, even more when such citation is mostly attributable to a superficial celebrity. I am not proposing myself as a counter-example as far as political analysis goes. Like most others here, that's more of an avocation for me than a profession. Nor someone merely by virtue of long experience, since people can spend a long time in fruitless activity if they are just too stubborn to self-evaluate. Upon reflection, there's only one person on this list I would elevate to such status whom I won't embarrass by naming. The rest of us ought to deliver more qualified statements when it comes to political pontification.

As a side note, I would like to remind people that the endless invocation of the authority of Marx by our ultra's has no meaningful relation to any positive notion of the U.S. working class--radical, revolutionary, or reformist. These people are way off the Marxist reservation in the most basic sense (as is much of the U.S. bourgeois left); you don't have to be an expert to see that. The same derives from the substitution of green concerns and "over-consumption"/ overproduction nonsense for a policy aimed at raising the living standards of *all* working people in the U.S. of A., among other places.

I'd also like to anticipate one ripose, namely the equation of ultra-left with red-baiting. Those who may cry red-baiting (though none here have yet) are never slow to apply negative, polemical, summary characterizations to their own adversaries, like "cop," "collaborator" (shades of The Sorrow and the Pity), or "traitor," for instance. I see no reason why adherents to communism, Marxism- Leninism, Trotskyism, etc., can't play constructive political roles. "Ultra" means the substitution of ideology-cum-religion for political rationality.

This may just provoke some reactions, but this is my third post today so any interested parties will have to wait until tomorrow for counter-point.

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