Cross-post: When life hands you lemons you make…a revolution?

Our comrade reflects powerfully on our oppression, and the organization we’re gonna need to destroy it.  A reminder to bring us down to earth: oppression and exploitation aren’t abstract concepts.  They suck our life from us, steal our health, stretch us thin…………..and the difference gets made up by the strength and dedication of mothers and caretakers, of those in the working class who struggle to support themselves and their communities.  For more analysis and reflections on the lived class struggle check out her blog Kissing in the Dark!

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A few days ago I had to have two of my back molars pulled, because I do not have health care and cannot afford the services (root canal and crown) to save them and prevent infection. This came after waiting nine hours at Highland Hospital just to be seen. I got there at 5:30am in order to get on the new client emergency services list, and I was still number 22 (they only take the first 45). Some people got there as early as 4:30am in order to get seen. This incident occurred two days after my wallet got stolen (with my new EBT card inside) making it the newest incident in a long line of irritating and problematic events that keep popping up in my life and testing my spirit and drive.

When I was sitting in the Highland Hospital dental clinic in the early morning waiting with all the other working-class sick people for some rushed and inadequate care, I noticed a beautiful little girl sitting with her mother. It reminded me of my own adolescence sitting in over-crowded health clinics with my mother, who was determined to keep her four children healthy despite the lack of health insurance at her exploitative restaurant job; despite the lack of help from her dead-beat ex-husband; despite the lack of help from a capitalist system that relies on profit extracted by people’s labor at the expense of their health.

I look at these working-class mothers and their children, who are up before the sun rises in order to get 15 minutes with a doctor (if they’re lucky), and I am reminded that the economic crisis is settled on their backs. It is their commitment to the survival of themselves, their children and their communities that sustains them all; certainly not this barbaric, teeth yanking system. When prices rise despite high unemployment and wage cuts, it is often the women who must find ways to feed their families. When schools, daycare centers, and after school programs close, it is the mothers who must find education and safe places for their children to be at when they are at work. When health clinics close and affordable healthcare isn’t an option it is the women who keep their children warm  while they sit in emergency room clinics hoping to be seen.

This is why I am offended by these complacent, bourgeois phrases that attempt to blame the working-class for the lower standard of living they must endure at the hands of capital. Phrases like ‘lift yourself up from your boot straps’ and ‘when life hands you lemons you make lemonade’ fail to see the contradictions within a system that is organized around a division of labor that has built in unequal social relations. These phrases instill in the working-class this incorrect idea that they are the ones to blame for their lack of upward mobility and comfort, and that if they just work hard enough they can achieve it. People are working hard everyday, and they aren’t going nowhere and this is exactly how it is suppose to be. Capitalist society is organized around a class of paid and unpaid workers, who are exploited through the wage; and it is the unwaged worker, such as the unemployed, and the unpaid labor, such as gendered domestic work, that supports the exploitation of the waged worker. We must all participate in this system in some capacity in order to get a paycheck/money to survive. The only way we will achieve any kind of liberation and relief from such an oppressive organization of society is not by working harder, but by smashing such a system of forced labor that steals our life away and keeps us sick. We must re-create the system, the productive forces, and the concept of labor to embody the creativity and the collective survival of the people. This is the historical task of the oppressed.

As the capitalist economy continues to descend into crisis the working class, who are already socialized in the workplace and in unemployment lines, must become organized and armed with revolutionary theory and political clarity on the system, and how reforming it will not lead to our liberation. The working-class must understand their historical task through understanding the system and their role in it and their role in changing it. In Georg Lukacs’s brilliant book,History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics he speaks to the practical and revolutionary functions of theory and consciousness within the class. He writes,

“Only when a historical situation has arisen in which a class must understand society if it is to assert itself; only when the fact that a class understands itself means that it understands society as a whole and when, in consequence, the class becomes both the subject and the object of knowledge; in short, only when these conditions are all satisfied will the unity of theory and practice, the precondition of the revolutionary function of the theory, become possible.” (3)

The working-class is a class in and of itself that is a part of the society we live in; they are one part (a huge part) of the objective conditions. When the working-class begins to study capital and understand the way society functions they begin to see themselves as this class of people with a particular function in the system that was created through a historical process. When the class begins to want to change these objective conditions as a subjective force, thus seeing itself as the subject and object of history, is when they can begin to make history through revolutionary means. This is when the class, the oppressed, becomes a fighting class for itself. In order for this to happen we need an organization of revolutionaries dedicated to developing other worker militants, who can spread such ideas among the class to reproduce revolutionary theorists and militants within the class. This is where Lenin’s system of reproducing professional revolutionaries that he theorizes about in What is To Be Done is incredibly useful and still relevant today; especially when most Leninist/Trotskyist organizations fail to do so. Lenin asserted that the working-class  has embryonic consciousness of the inequality of the system through their lived experiences, but this doesn’t automatically result in all of the oppressed becoming dedicated revolutionaries committing their lives to overthrowing the ruling class, and emancipating humanity. This class consciousness must be supported and advanced by revolutionaries trained in such ideas, as well as the historical situations that inspire the masses to move. He illustrates this point well here, and when he refers to social-democrats he is referring to socialists. The way I would use that term today would be to describe liberals not socialists.

““We have become convinced that the fundamental error committed by the ‘new trend’ in Russian Social-Democracy is it’s bowing to spontaneity and its failure to understand that spontaneity of the masses demands a high degree of consciousness from us Social-democrats. The greater the spontaneous upsurge of the masses and the more wide-spread the movement, the more rapid, incomparably so, the demand for greater consciousness in the theoretical, political, and organizational work of social democracy.”(53).

This is true to me based off of my own class experience. I grew up poor as a woman of color. I watched my father get harassed by the police and my mother work several minimum wage jobs to support us, while dealing with my fathers emotional and physical abuse. I believed that the system was racist, and sexist and allowed serious class divides to exist between the rich and the poor. I also believed in the righteous struggle by the oppressed and considered myself a socialist by high school. But my socialism wasn’t theoretically informed by revolutionary theory and history enough to stop me from supporting John Kerry in 2004 and Obama early in 2006. I repped the Black Panthers, but saw potential in reformist and bourgeois politicians. These contradictions were based on a combination of my own contradictory consciousness and lived experience. When I begin to get exposed to Marxist thinkers, and read Marx and other revolutionary theories, histories and biographies, the fuzzy line between revolutionary and reformist politics begin to sharpen. I saw the contradictions within the system that would only be resolved through the revolutionary change in that system and the destruction of capital. It is this transformation within myself that reaffirms Lenin’s thesis to me and makes me committed to such a project. The people need political clarity; clarity that they will not receive from bourgeois education or their workplace. This clarity comes from the conditions we live in; the theory we study; and the determination and movement of the working masses and their organizations.

Ive grown tired of lemonade; give me my freedom!

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4 responses to “Cross-post: When life hands you lemons you make…a revolution?

  1. This is a great article, and I’m glad to see it. As a healthcare worker, I think you hit on something that’s actually crucial to understand about capitalism in general and I’m glad you formulated it as you did. Much of the healthcare institutions do not actually make much profit. In terms of raw profit, hospitals and clinics can be net money losers. All the profit goes to the salaries of privledged staff to an extent (management, some physicians though a small percentage of them), but largely to companies producing the commodities of the health care system. It is as you say it, that health care is an industry and profit generating for capital but in large part we experience it not as extracting profit from us but in terms of trying to displace costs onto us, our families, and our bodies.

    Skyrocketing costs in hospital care particularly has caused a shift to the community since the 80s. This is good in a way, institutionalized care is horrifying, but in the same vein it is being pressed onto us without resources, financial or educational, to deal with it. There’s a transformation of paid professional work into unpaid unprofessional work that Nona Glazer, a marxist nurse academic, wrote about in the 1990s. This is part of a general trend in capitalism which is contradictions within the ruling class lead to shifting costs, which the ruling class tries to impose on us. I’ve read that in the 80s there was research done into attempting to make patients families provide basic care in the hospital in place of workers, as is done in much of the 3rd world though I personally saw in India.

    “In order for this to happen we need an organization of revolutionaries dedicated to developing other worker militants, who can spread such ideas among the class to reproduce revolutionary theorists and militants within the class. This is where Lenin’s system of reproducing professional revolutionaries that he theorizes about in What is To Be Done is incredibly useful and still relevant today; especially when most Leninist/Trotskyist organizations fail to do so. Lenin asserted that the working-class has embryonic consciousness of the inequality of the system through their lived experiences, but this doesn’t automatically result in all of the oppressed becoming dedicated revolutionaries committing their lives to overthrowing the ruling class, and emancipating humanity. This class consciousness must be supported and advanced by revolutionaries trained in such ideas, as well as the historical situations that inspire the masses to move.”

    I agree with the general thrust of this. Spontaneous struggle will typically not automatically lead to advances. We need to be organized and attempt to intervene in struggles to expand and develop them. I disagree with a strong version of that though. Sometimes spontaneity will produce advanced consciousness and organization without the intervention of revolutionaries. Likewise, revolutionaries it has to be said usually aren’t very good at doing these tasks. In fact often revolutionaries retard struggles, and in the most pitched moments (as Lenin showed us with his own actions) revolutionaries can be outpaced by the revolutionary masses.

    Lenin’s analysis in WITBD suffers from his theoretical origins (in a revised Kautskyist form) and his assumptions about externality to the class. Seeing revolutionary consciousness originating outside the class, and believing that the class could never go beyond trade union consciousness led Lenin to this idea of the necessity of revolutionaries as the incubators of the revolution. The reality is much more complicated, and in light of history we can’t give ourselves such an important and unambiguous role. The reality is that revolutionaries are (or should be) inside the class, and suffer from all the same maladies that everyone does. We still need organization, consciousness, and intervention, but we can’t pretend to set ourselves apart merely by appealing to a method and ideology. We need a different model. We need to think in terms of how we develop and co-evolve revolutionary currents within the working class. This is one place I see the syndicalist tradition as having something useful to guide us in understanding the development of revolutionary consciousness.

    Paul Thompson (Big Flame) critiqued the Sojourner Truth Organization’s writings about consciousness along the same lines that influenced my thinking
    http://www.sojournertruth.net/thompson.html

    “The people need political clarity; clarity that they will not receive from bourgeois education or their workplace. This clarity comes from the conditions we live in; the theory we study; and the determination and movement of the working masses and their organizations.”

    I agree again. I would only say that clarity is good, not necessary though. We should strive for clarity and I’m with you. But I also think clarity often comes, in revolutionary situations, after periods of intense confusion. Many of todays revolutionaries won’t be tomorrows revolutionaries. Tomorrow’s revolutionaries probably do not know they will be, and don’t have that clarity. Struggle transforms social relationships and consciousness, and this happens in a way that’s hard to predict. We should still try, but we shouldn’t rely on it and we need to be prepared when our own forces are transformed and others along with it.

    Thanks again for this great contribution.

  2. re lemons; lovely piece!I work as a nurse ,for many years[till my schedule changed ]I volunteered at our free clinic.Over 85% of the people we saw worked one and sometimes two jobs just to ‘make ends meet’.One night an employee from wal-mart came in,and in the course of her visit she told us that after working there for several months ,she asked her boss about benefits.He told her to meet him in the parking lot . They drove to the dept.of social services and said if you want benefits apply there-your wages are low enough-you’ll qualify…..

  3. scott– i hear and even jive a little with what you’re saying, but ultimately i think it’s missing as much or more as the ‘organizationalist leninism’ you caricature.

    1. scott wrote:
    “We still need organization, consciousness, and intervention, but we can’t pretend to set ourselves apart merely by appealing to a method and ideology. ”

    revolutionaries should by and large, almost entirely across the board be “of the class,” be from it and be currently living in it. these are the organic worker-militants that make the substance of revolution. it can be no other way really, who else is there to lead revolutionary struggle by thousands and millions besides oppressed and poor people–people of the proletariat as it’s called.

    also, lenin did not make the russian revolution. this idea is a pitfall that leninists fall into as much as anti-leninists. instead, it was literally millions of insurgent russians who made the revolution. HOWEVER, these regular did in NO WAY do so spontaneously.

    so, the point is that these millions of people from the working class need to organize their historical activity. there is no other way to fight politically and historically for a systematic shift than to take on a historical task of fighting for the direction of an entire society or epoch. if you take nothing from lenin–take this: this is a war, and we need to fight it as such. we should want to take our place, as the oppressed of the world, in a historical process and intervene in its outcome. to change the course of history.

    this means organization and consciousness as broad and deep amongst the oppressed and dispossessed as possible. and organization that is OF the class as much as it is trying to self-consciously and organizationally influence the class struggle beyond the limitations of reactive self-defense and towards the conscious intervention in history that marxism (materialism) shows is possible.

    2. “I would only say that clarity is good, not necessary though. We should strive for clarity and I’m with you. But I also think clarity often comes, in revolutionary situations, after periods of intense confusion. Many of todays revolutionaries won’t be tomorrows revolutionaries. ”

    clarity is very importune and should be striven for. i don’t know if it’s “necessary,” but that seems kind of an evasion i’m gonna stake a position: clarity isn’t just good, we should want it, demand it of ourselves without lying to ourselves.

    again, even though i don’t consider myself a leninist, lenin becomes helpful here: he argues in what is to be done that many russian revolutionaries were capitulating to and romanticizing a kind of ‘amateurism’ in their struggle. this romanticization came from not knowing where to go next, from not understanding that the movement was growing and on the brink of a next step–and that to take that next step required a reformulation of how they organized and what their purpose was. they needed to rise to the next challenge.

    again though, regardless of lenin (and whether or not he was a kautskyist–i don’t really care: i can read his books and decide for myself where he makes crucial moves such as the one referenced above) the point is that we should not romanticize the difficulties of the last decades of the american class struggle and start to invest ourselves in an identity of confusion and vague hope.

    we shouldn’t always claim clarity–but certainly we should be striving for clarity!! why?: because we want to effectively fight our oppressors, to make good decisions, to win!! and clarity is basically necessary for that. we won’t always have it. and even when we do it won’t be enough. but we should be clear that it isn’t just some extra thing that’s kinda nice: it’s a pivotal element in our revolutionary capacity.

    ________

    discounting clarity is akin to discounting marxism–and that’s fine, but i’m a marxist. marxism is the most powerful tool today at hand before the oppressed and exploited by which they might overturn the system that dogs them.

    the reasons why marxism and clarity go together and why clarity is so important: marxism cuts through the complex torrent of reality to locate the key, fundamental bases of power so that we may orient a political strategy around an understanding that has a real basis. otherwise we are just struggling for struggle’s sake. otherwise we can’t do more than react to immediate conditions and hope that we are going somewhere in the longterm. this kind of political orientation is what i identify with clarity and it is for me a critical moment in going beyond “spontaneous struggle” (not words i like too much) towards a more self-critical, conscious approach that sees itself building a specific legacy by which capitalism can actually be destroyed and a new world actually built.

    i am arguing for a concrete, strategic orientation towards history that conceives of the real mechanisms by which the oppressed will build an international proletarian revolution. that’s also what i call marxism.

  4. I don’t disagree with the points you raise with the exception that I think the war analogy while useful isn’t totally right but that’s a minor point. I also think Lenin is much more ambiguous particularly in What is To Be Done than you’re allowing. While arguing correctly against amateurishness, Lenin’s solution was a paid professional revolutionary cadre which conflated correct positions with dangerous ones. The ambiguities in Lenin’s thought between unity and centralization, discipline and professionalism, etc., led to an underestimation of the power of a bureaucratic ruling class in training to reproduce itself. We need to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff there, and not reproduce the substitutionist orientation that many leninists became critical of.

    The issue isn’t organize or not, spontaneous or not, or clarity or none. The real questions for us are about method. Taking clarity for example, the problem is that clarity is often a product of struggles rather than a prerequisite. That doesn’t mean we don’t strive for it, but we need to understand how we get it and that is more about our relationship to struggle than an orientation to organization and ideology. Don Hammerquist has written about the ways in which seeming political unity and tightness can break down in revolutionary organizations in moments of tense struggle when personal interests get put on the line. Likewise in revolutionary ruptures new clarities are produced out of insurgent masses that were in a different place before, and other clarities are dissolved. I think this is part of what Badiou means by saying that events are retrospective in a sense and do not belong to past states of affairs.

    We always need to fight for higher levels of consciousness and organization, but it’s crucial to understand that the development of that is a matter of material forces and history. That evolution occurs in ebbs and flows, and doesn’t move linearly. Sometimes the way we talk can make that process less clear even if in practice we recognize that nuance. I’m with you on the need for those steps, I think we just need to contextualize them within the struggles of the proletariat and consequently the trajectories of struggle in history.

    From that method, we need to be more cautious to situate our actions, ideas, and role in struggle as a component of broader social struggles and not mis-assess our abilities and role. Because the nature of struggle is transformative and difficult to predict, and our abilities are more related to how we can anticipate and respond to a changing political landscape than necessarily being able to prefigure and predict those changes.

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