By W. T. Whitney Jr.
August 20, 2019
Cuban President Miguel Díaz–Canel, speaking in Bayamo on July 26, Cuba’s National Day of Rebellion, strayed into the realm of ethical ideals and other intangibles. At first glance that’s odd. He is the president of a nation guided by a communist party whose theoretical underpinnings are materialist. The writings of many of the 19th century founders of that movement centered on economic concepts like exchange value, surplus value, commodities, wealth accumulation, pricing, etc.
Díaz–Canel proposed that the young people who rebelled on that day in 1953 under Fidel Castro’s leadership possessed “more moral authority than weapons.” He mentioned “human values, [a] sense of justice, loyalty to a cause … unshakable faith in the people and unity.” He lauded “the people and their moral reserves, and aspirations for growth with beauty.” These words are planets away from Marxist notions of, for example, “forces of production” and “relations of production.”
Demonstrating a materialist orientation of his own, Díaz–Canel described Cuban farm workers as exemplifying “a revolution of, by, and for the downtrodden.” Quoting defendant Fidel Castro’s plea to the court after the 1953 rebellion, he cited down-to-earth justifications for that action: problems of land, industrialization, housing, unemployment, education, and health care.
Insights of the movement’s founders must have occupied the thinking of Communist agitators of years past. Their demands, mainly economic, were different from the stated goals of Communist – led rebellions that would follow, and had little resemblance to the policies of revolutionary governments intent upon survival – Cuba’s for example. For instance, masses of people under Bolshevik leadership sought “Bread, Land, and Peace.” Chinese Communists fought for national liberation and to rid China of warlords, landlords, and corruption. For the Vietnamese and Cubans alike national independence was paramount.
It seems that unbridled fixation on economic demands by a workers’ movement or workers’ state promises little good for the prospects of a social revolution, especially if political struggle, the making of the revolution, takes a back seat. This scenario emerges when revolutionaries opt for short-term satisfaction of demands for a better life, mainly for themselves. The cost is paid in the loss of unity and revolutionary fervor.
Lenin at the dawn of the 20th century defined the contours of this situation, most notably in his book What Is To Be Done. There he inveighed against those class-conscious activists who, focused on reforms mediated through the labor movement, withdrew from the larger political struggle. Lenin, in response, elevated the role of a so-called vanguard political party. It manifested shortly thereafter as the Bolshevik Party, whose members were experts in revolution.
Beginning with Lenin, the mistake of opportunistically giving up on politics in favor of economic gains took on the label of “economism.” That economism endangers the prospects of social revolution is a central theme of an impassioned essay presented by the scholar and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois in 1920. The title is: “The Souls of White Folk.”
Discussing “the current theory of colonial expansion,” Du Bois writes that, “the duty of white Europe to divide up the darker world and administer it for Europe’s good.” But for that to happen, Europe – and by implication the United States – had to find “a way out of long-pressing difficulties.” He explains that, “subjection of the white working classes cannot much longer be maintained … The day of the very rich is drawing to a close.” The working class, with an eye to political power and better educated, was changing.
He identifies a “loophole.” “There is a chance,” he states, “for exploitation on an immense scale for inordinate profit, not simply to the very rich, but to the middle class and to the laborers. This chance lies in the exploitation of darker peoples. It is here that the golden hand beckons. Here are no labor unions or votes or questioning onlookers or inconvenient consciences. These men may be used down to the very bone, and shot and maimed in “punitive” expeditions when they revolt. [There] is only one test of success,—dividends!”
For us, the essence of Du Bois’s statement is the matter of “profit” for “the middle class and to the laborers.” He elaborates: “High wages in the United States and England might be the skillfully manipulated result of slavery in Africa and of peonage in Asia.” He implies that the European and U.S. American working class, having been paid off, will remain silent and thereby complicit in the face of horrors in the colonies. Du Bois alludes to bribery as he describes the “guild of the laborers” opting for “king and kaiser” and accepting World War I.
He holds up economism as a tool in the employ of capitalists. Economism manifests in history as movements of progressive reform, notably social democracy, the welfare state, and the New Deal.
Analyst Atilio Borón, a leader of the Communist Party of Argentina, explained recently that capitalists do exist who, like their class-conscious adversaries, are materialists obsessed with economics. They tend toward “total mercantilization of social life” and attach monetary value to ideas, beliefs, and culture. For them, “social good and evil comes to be measured strictly according to economic data.”
For Borón they represent a “crude sort of economism,” an “aborted, incomplete, deformed version of Marxism.” As practitioners of an economism that favors the wealthy, they are expert in manipulating their own kind on the other side.
They were in charge at the time of the U.S. Civil War. The nation’s pre-war economy had subsisted on profits and commerce derived from slavery. (See, for example, Edward Baptist, The Half That Has Never Been Told, Basic Books, NY, 2014.) That war might have been an occasion for revolutionary change. Instead, capitalist-inclined materialists dedicated to national unity arranged for economics to take charge over moral and ethical considerations. Consequently racial oppression remains embedded within the structural framework of U.S. society and politics.
U.S. political activists and thinkers James and Grace Lee Boggs over 50 years ago addressed the problem of economism. Introducing their bookRevolution and Evolution, they remark that too often under capitalism, “economic overdevelopment exists dangerously side by side with political and moral underdevelopment.” They insist that politics come first.
In Bayamo, President Miguel Díaz–Canel was looking to balance economics and politics. “The Revolution”, he declared, “now needs us to unleash a great battle for our defense and economy so we can break the enemy’s plan to destroy and asphyxiate us. But at the same time it requires that we strengthen spirituality in our people, plus civility, decency, solidarity, social discipline, and a sense of public service …There will be no long-lasting progress if the social fabric breaks down morally.”