Peter Camejo: A comment on the North American revolution (1984)

Originally published by the North Star Network (USA) as a discussion article on October 1, 1984.

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By Peter Camejo

Peter Camejo Archive, Marxists Internet Archive -- The development of a vanguard for the Third American Revolution must be rooted in our culture, language, and democratic and revolutionary traditions. This question in our opinion is not simply a tactical matter, nor is it a question of finding popular expressions of Marxist concepts. It is rooted in a correct conception of the Third American Revolution.

Defensive nature of revolution

Revolutions are defensive. Fundamental social change takes place as a defense against attempts to take back established rights, gains, or conditions. Revolutions do not occur out of ideological commitment to a better or higher social order. Ideas, on a mass scale, can transcend the ideological constraints of the existing social order only in part and for short periods of time, during intense, mass, independent (from the ruling class) activity. To believe otherwise is to reject a materialist conception of the relationship between ideas and their socioeconomic and political environment.

Revolutions in our epoch occur because deep contradictions develop between what the masses see as justifiable — as taught by the existing society — and the unjustifiable policies pursued by the ruling class.

For example, it is easy to see the contradiction between the democratic traditions stemming from bourgeois revolutions and present-day military dictatorships such as existed in Nicaragua under Somoza. The ability of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to win over and mobilize massive support in the revolutionary struggle against Somoza was rooted in the inability of imperialism to bring the fruits of its own bourgeois revolution to Nicaragua, and the ability of the FSLN to champion the progressive sentiments of the masses.

The traditional ideals of bourgeois revolutions — self-­determination, bourgeois democracy (parliamentary regimes, civil liberties), land reform, and industrialization — were opposed by the same social order that helped transmit those very ideas through its example, culture, history, and traditions [of] United States capitalism. Thus, imperialism created a framework within which the defense of what is already accepted as the norm in our epoch became revolutionary in Nicaragua.

It is not surprising that the first anti-colonial movement in Central America led by Morazan looked to the United States for a model to follow. Or that Sandino closed his first political manifesto in 1921 by paraphrasing Lincoln. The ideals originally created by capitalism today are in conflict with its perpetuation.

'Down with Somoza'

“Down with Somoza” capsulized in three words the defensive demands of an historic epoch. This thought bridged the gap between what capitalism claimed society should be like and what it was — the gap between self-determination with civil liberties and a parliamentary democratic form of government and a totalitarian, arbitrary regime reflecting foreign domination. Yet this struggle opened the way to look beyond capitalism, because the social forces necessary to bring Somoza down were forces that objectively did not benefit by its continuation.

What made this transition possible was the existence of a vanguard, the FSLN.

As is evident in Nicaragua, capitalism creates a continuous conflict between its own ideals and the reality it creates. While capitalists find parliamentary forms to their advantage in the advanced industrial countries, they have been unable to take advantage of this form to its full extent in the Third World and have had to rule more overtly as a consequence.

In a longer range perspective, this difficulty holds true for capitalism worldwide, including the financial-industrial-commercial centers of Japan, Western Europe, and the United States. In a period of worldwide economic recession, the liberal reforms granted during earlier periods of economic expansion will be curtailed. The conflict between capitalism’s drive for profits before human needs and the “condoned” intervention and participation by an ever more educated and organized working class within capitalist society inevitably leads to social explosions.

Capitalism cannot resolve its basic contradiction by becoming more responsive to social needs except for short periods of time, and then only in a limited manner. This is the case because taking into consideration human needs always comes into conflict with the drive for profits that is capitalism’s reason for existence. Inevitably, capitalism is forced to go against its own ideals and thus open the road towards revolution.

The right to self-determination is certainly one of the more loudly advertised attributes of the US model of democracy. Self-determination is at once the declared goal of the United States as taught in the official education system, reinforced in every ideological defense of “America”, and the principle it violates in reality on a massive scale, in an increasingly crude manner, throughout the world. Of course, this has and does provoke crises within the United States, weaken the credibility of its government, and create divisions within society as a whole. The hollow promise also serves to inject confusion and disarray into ruling class circles as they attempt to deal with an opposition that roots itself in a framework that is difficult to repudiate. Thus, imperialist politicians are forced into the most complicated distortions of truth, attempting to make opposition to self-determination appear instead as support. The drive to defend the Third World from “Russian imperialism” is a familiar — if perverted — rationale. Reagan’s orchestration of the media during the invasion of Grenada is a fine example of the poor correlation between freedom of the press and inquiry and the functional access to information we experience in the United States. Mondale, claiming a “difference” with Reagan, favored the invasion to protect Grenada’s right of self­-determination from “communists” — but thought it incorrect to exclude the press.

It is these contradictions between reality and tradition that have generated massive sympathy for the non­intervention movement, along with the memory of Vietnam and the growing consciousness of the danger of nuclear holocaust. The conflict generated in the US around the issue of self-determination in Central America is one example of a process that is occurring in response to a whole range of issues and crises.

Even such a simple everyday concept as the right to education, which we have come to take for granted, at least at the secondary level, comes into direct conflict with the profit system. The struggle for universal education as a right swept the United States as a byproduct of the First American Revolution in the period between the First and Second revolutions — the 1770s to the 1860s. It is now deeply ingrained in our consciousness as a norm and a right.

The general expression “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” takes on 1001 concrete forms that are coming into increased conflict with the needs and very premises of the capitalist order. From efforts to protect our environment to the battles against oppression based on gender and race, people are drawn into the struggles to defend a “tradition” that lays claim to the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

Ending our isolation

The need to root the future vanguard of the Third North American Revolution in the traditions, language, and culture of the United States is essential in order to avoid isolation. This is crucial to unifying and organizing whatever mass expressions of opposition might be generated by the contradictions of the system.

An understanding of the traditions, ideals, and the variations that exist among the different sectors of the exploited and oppressed in the US is crucial if we are to develop a revolutionary movement capable of linking with mass consciousness. It is essential for driving a wedge between the ruling class and the masses and for creating mass motion against the ruling class.

The traditions of the struggles of working people, oppressed nationalities and women have left impressions on the mass consciousness in the United States. From the Declaration of Independence’s revolutionary rhetoric to Lincoln’s claim that our government should be “of, by, and for the people”, we have a basis for opposition to present ruling class policies.

Speaking American-ese

Symbols and terms borrowed from other revolutionary experiences are often completely misunderstood by the people, and socialists have often used them in ways that are counterproductive. An obvious example is the famous Russian symbol of the hammer and sickle. In 1917 they symbolized workers and peasants and their need to unite to fight for their common interests. However, to wave a flag emblazoned with a hammer and sickle in the United States does not bring to mind thoughts of workers and peasants. To most it evokes the Soviet Union and is equated, as a byproduct of anti­communist propaganda, with dictatorship and governmental abuse. Yet some of our truly infantile ultra-lefts love to bring the hammer and sickle to demonstrations. Such “radical” acts usually serve the ruling class by confusing the issues and undermining the actual struggles that the ultra-lefts allegedly want to support. Yet this more extreme example is repeated on more subtle levels continuously by our left.

For a 'workers’ and farmers’ government'

A more sophisticated example is the use of terms like a “workers and farmers” government. This term comes out of discussions in the Third International of the early 1920s in Moscow, but today some sectarians actually think it a “popularized” expression in the United States.

In pursuing this example, we must first explain the concept behind this slogan. What interests us is finding a genuine form to the concept that would be understandable to the American people, and thus of some value.

In the early 1920s the world revolutionary movement tried to draw lessons from the Russian Revolution by discussing at length what kind of government should be advocated. Their starting premise was Marx’s concept that, to end the rule of capitalism, a state was needed that would defend the interests of the working class. Such a state must be prepared to suppress the capitalist class as a class, preventing it from continuing its exploitative economic role. Marx referred to such a state as a “dictatorship of the proletariat” as opposed to a “dictatorship of capital”. Marx was not speaking of the form that a government might take at the head of a state apparatus. Under capitalism governments have taken a variety of forms from fascist dictatorships to parliamentary democracies, all of which maintain by force exploitative capitalist economic and social relations. Thus, they are all “dictatorships of capital”.

A “dictatorship of the proletariat”, that is, a state that defends the interests of the working people, is by definition far more democratic in any form than the most democratic dictatorship of capital, which must defend the interests of a tiny minority. History has already shown us that great abuses can exist under regimes that have broken the control of capitalism and are moving toward a socialist society. But this is another matter. What must concern us here is how to explain to the North American people what kind of government we advocate.

During Lenin’s lifetime, the congresses of the Third International tried to take up the question of the class basis of government. The concept of a workers and peasant government was developed as a step toward the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The point of a workers and peasants government was that it would rest on social layers broader than the working class. In countries where the working class was a minority, the call for a worker and peasant government thus had the content of a call for a “majority” government.

A “workers and peasants” government was a transitional step in winning allies of the working class to fight with it for a state that would defend the class interests of workers — a “workers’ state”, or a “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

In the United States the working class itself forms the absolute majority of the population. A call for a government of working people is itself a call for majority rule. Nevertheless, the concept of a broader government that draws in working class allies is of paramount importance to isolate the ruling class and neutralize middle layers that might otherwise support that ruling class. The concept is also essential to consolidate an alliance with oppressed sectors that have suffered oppression independent of their status as workers, such as women, Afro-Americans, undocumented workers, and homosexuals. Potential allies also include small fanners and other petty businesspeople.

How can we best express this concept of a broad government of workers and their allies? One obvious way is to call for a government of, by, and for the people. Today, we have a government responsive to corporations run of, by, and for the rich. A majority of the North American people, based on our democratic traditions, favor a govenunent genuinely of, by, and for the people, but do not fully understand that the present government does not meet that goal. Our task is not to introduce confusing terminology, so we can pat ourselves on the back for our imitation of historic revolutions in other lands. Our task is to claim for ourselves the positive symbols and traditions of struggle and so drive a wedge between the masses and the ruling class.

During the movement against the Vietnam War and in the more recent movement against intervention in Central America, various banners and flags have appeared at demonstrations. In the large demonstrations of the late sixties we often saw the appearance of the stars and stripes with thirteen stars. What impact did this have? It drove home the contradiction between the accepted support for self-determination and the present policy of the US government. Others would carry red flags or flags with the hammer and sickle. What did such flags mean? Did they help the Vietnamese, or our movement — or did they merely satisfy the egos of those who like to fantasize that they are super-revolutionaries?

Our movement must learn from others without stopping at simple imitation. We must drop all ultra-leftism. We must learn to differentiate between our traditions of struggle and the symbol of chauvinism. We are patriots of the North American working class, of the Afro-Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans and other oppressed nationalities, all genders and ages of working people in the United States — not of the United States as an imperialist country. Yet, more often than not, avoiding the danger of social-patriotic symbols has meant handing many progressive symbols of our revolutionary traditions to the bourgeoisie.

Struggle for rights

While it is the underlying contradiction between working people and the owners of capital that will create pre-revolutionary crises, the forms such crises take can appear quite diverse. A society that values profits over human needs provokes all kinds of crises, opposition and mass struggles. While the underlying causes are economic, the form is inevitably political, the struggle for “rights”.

Thus, the defense of the political freedoms that the working class has won can become the focus of other pressures. A working class suffering unusual difficulty during an economic depression can suddenly become enraged over a violation of freedom of speech. Such struggles tend to become most acute where they are most defensive in nature; their forms most acceptable and understandable; where the enemy camp is more divided, isolated, and vulnerable; and where such actions find broad support and sympathy.

The struggle to overthrow Somoza, for instance, was very popular worldwide. At the root of the anti-Somoza conflict was the poverty, the unemployment, the lack of education, the abuses of foreign domination, low wages, long hours, harsh working conditions, and a thousand other concrete instances of class exploitation and national oppression. But the line-up in the early stages of the struggle was more focused on the arbitrary form of Somoza’s dictatorial rule in clear conflict with bourgeois democratic ideals.

Once the struggle advanced to a more direct attack on the underlying aspects of oppression, the ideological solidity of the anti-Somoza revolutionary camp became more vulnerable. The US and other imperialist governments have sought to win allies and to isolate the Nicaraguan revolution by trying to turn the ideals of the bourgeois revolution, which helped overthrow Somoza, against the revolution and its progressive anti-capitalist measures.

The FSLN has struggled marvelously to explain and maintain the continuity of Sandino’s struggle for self­-determination and the struggle to improve the conditions of workers and poor peasants.

We must learn to make this link. All our social problems are intertwined, and the struggle to improve the quality of our lives and our “rights” are tied to our tradition of struggle and the democratic side of our origins as a nation. It is inevitable that, as capitalism’s crises increase, there will be explosions in defense of the Bill of Rights and the “Constitution”.

Electoral arena

Jesse Jackson, in his recent presidential campaign, noted a few of the whole network of regulations and laws that are aimed at blocking any political expression by working people. (Engels wrote 100 years ago that the electoral set-up in the United States was the “first” reason our working class has not developed an independent mass political party.) Jackson noted that when he got 20 per cent of the vote he ended up with only 9 per cent of the delegates.

The right to vote, the right to representation, is deeply ingrained in our culture and traditions and can become a powerful weapon against the ruling class. When is the last time the left demanded free elections in the United States? We have one of the most manipulative and reactionary electoral arrangements among the capitalist nations. Most voters end up without any representation whatsoever. The composition of the US Senate is in no way representative of the people it claims to represent. Obviously this situation is due to a class relationship that is maintained by a spectrum of forces, one of which is quite vulnerable to struggles based on the existing consciousness of the people — the manipulative nature of our electoral laws.

Why do we allow electoral laws to exist without even a whimper of protest? For most of our “vanguards”, this point undoubtedly sounds terribly “reformist” and “electoralist”. They are far more interested in something that reminds them of someone else’s revolution, for it is much easier to play at revolution than to find the way to ones own masses.

Forms of struggle

Over time mass struggles appear. They are not created subjectively. Their forms are determined by hundreds of actors. These are objective factors out of our control. Mass movements always begin in contradictory ways (they evolve from contradictions themselves) and develop under broad pressures from conflicting interests. The recent Jackson campaign is a clear, living example. We can argue about history, but we cannot stop or control it. Those who insist on preconceived forms of struggle will simply be bypassed by history. We must watch for the trends that reflect underlying class conflicts and adapt ourselves to the forms they take while remaining true to a consistent class struggle orientation.

We are at a very late stage in the development of capitalism economically. The world is overripe for a planned rationally based economic order that produces for human needs and is administered democratically. But while we may be at a late stage economically, we are still at an early stage politically in the development of independent pro-working class movements in the United States. The left cannot grow in this country without recognizing this dichotomy. It is true the left can and will suddenly grow rapidly as political events catch up with economic contradictions. The fact that our working class has neither a mass political formation, nor a vanguard formation tempered in mass struggles, only adds to the surprise we will find in the forms of the future movements.

The stage we are in

The generation of the sixties and seventies lived one important phase in the history of the world’s revolutionary movements. This phase had its roots in the struggles of earlier generations, of course. But one can usefully begin with the Cuban revolution as a turning point in breaking out of certain limits and formalisms that had developed after the Russian revolution.

In the past 25 years we have seen wave after wave of revolutionary struggles, many of them victorious. These mass struggles and the formations that led them have helped make clear the previous errors of the left and clarified many questions that can be quite helpful for us.

A return to a better understanding of Marxism, a better grasp of linking up with one’s own revolutionary heritage and people, is not simply a negation of formations and organizations that had already been in existence. In many cases we have seen that the traditional “Communist” parties were bypassed, such as in Cuba, Nicaragua, and now in El Salvador. But we have also seen the incorporation into the revolutionary struggles not only individuals but entire traditional formations. Those of us coming out of the radicalization of the sixties and seventies must reconsider the one­sided and often sectarian attitude that has existed toward the potential of traditional left formations that for various reasons were more vulnerable to rightist pressures than to the ultraleftism and dogmatism that swept our wing of the left.

The efforts of the well-intentioned but dogmatic sectarians who opposed, sometimes correctly, certain errors and abuses within the workers’ movement too frequently led to self-righteousness, and to the formation of “vanguards” who fancied themselves the final answer. History has shown them wanting. Standing as critics of the “old left”, they became transformed into critics of truly revolutionary currents that united and organized their peoples in massive struggles, such as the Communist parties of Cuba, Vietnam and today El Salvador.

Today on our very continent, not to speak of other areas of the world, living mass revolutionary struggles can help us a hundred times better than academic studies, regardless of their importance or value with regard to movement building, differentiating between dogmatists or opportunists, between left or rightist adaptations, etc.

Our left today is, in general, divided between ideological dogmatists on one side and single-issue activists on the other. The future is with the activists. Dogmatism is usually terminal. For those of us out of the sixties and seventies who were able to absorb the lessons of those years, our task is to unite in action with those involved in the more advanced political struggles of our day. Our task today is not to “declare” the formation of a North American vanguard but to lay the groundwork for its formation later on down the road.

The sectarians wish to overcome our dichotomy between less politicized activist and highly politicized dogmatist by recruiting out of the activist layers new members into their sects. We reject this — completely. We see a totally different process. We see the development of currents attracted and inspired by the living non-sectarian mass revolutionary movements of our time and rooted in direct participation.

The transformation of such a movement into a Leninist vanguard formation will develop out of the concrete experiences of mass struggles. It will not arise as the growth and ideological triumph of one sect over the others. The road forward is with the activists, not the ideologues. We must learn to be Marxists, not sectarians who substitute ideological posturing for what can only be accomplished in living class struggle.