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A basis for solidarity: Milton Fisk replies.

A BASIS FOR SOLIDARITY: MILTON FISK REPLIES

In their responses to my article "Why the Anti-Marxists Are Wrong" (MR, March 1987), Michael Albert and Ray Wrabley charge, between them, that my position is reductionist, monist, economist, and leaves classes as the sole agents of history. There may well be views to which these would be appropriate responses, but in the course of my article I pointed to ways in which precisely such charges can be avoided. If I was wrong about this invulnerability, Albert and Wrabley could have indicated how I had been misled. But neither of them attempts to show how the view I sketch out leads to such undesirable results. Of course, they note that I wish to give a special role to the economic, but they don't bother themselves with what this role might be. They assume that it is the reductionist and economist role assumed to be inherent in the position they call Marxist.

Let me then repeat what this special role is. I distinguish between several types of causal factors in historical explanation. On the one hand, there are factors that initiate or stimulate sequences of events. In one of my examples, the pressure from the black movement of the early 1960s provided the initiative for a change in the racial policy of the U.S. labor movement. Here, therefore, is a case in which classes are not the sole agents at work. On the other hand, underlying the factors that initiate change are structural factors that of themselves initiate nothing yet determine the kinds of effects pressures, initiatives, and stimuli can have. In another of my examples, the modern wage system was shown to play the role of a structural cause: in the context of this structure, various factors--reflecting the interests of women in the late nineteenth century--could lead to the development of the "family wage." The role of gender is thus not left out or put on the back burner; it is rather located at a different level from that of economic structure. Noneconomic as well as economic factors play a crucial role. Since they have this crucial role, the charge of reductionism and economism doesn't apply.

The stimulus/structure distinction raises two questions. First, why is a level of structure needed at all? Albert talks only about interactions between spheres of social life--race, gender, class, the state. There is no framework for these interactions. Thus these spheres and their interactions are all there is to society. This leaves it indeterminate as to what these interactions might be. It is worth noting that developed physical and social theories do rely on structures in studying interactions.

Second, why is the economic structure given primacy? Here we are talking about primacy at the structural level, not at the level of stimuli. Structures that are not primary are either local, in that they are not essential to all explanations, or partial, in that another structure must always supplement them. The claim that the economic is primary is that it is the only global and complete structure. As such it acts as the framework for interactions within and between the various spheres of social life.

Those who agree that a structural level is vital to understanding may still wish to deny that any specific structure is primary. They would claim that an adequate framework contains structural features from each and every sphere of social life. The bogey of reductionism is the motive for this rejection of primacy. This motivation is undercut by pointing out that primacy at the level of structure does not imply either that the nature of nonprimary structures is determined by the primary structure or that one of the spheres of life is primary at the level of stimuli.

I turn now to the question about the need for structure. Albert envisages a union of the oppressed into a common movement. How, though, are the oppressed to achieve this solidarity? For him there are several paths to solidarity. Along one path, male workers might recognize that they will lose their class demands unless they support the general interests of women. True enough, but these workers will weigh this against the loss of male privileges if they support the interests of women. Is what they stand to win at the level of class more than what they stand to lose at the level of gender? How shall they decide? The interaction between class and gender is indeterminate without bringing both within a common framework. To judge that solidarity is better than sexism requires a structural center of some kind.

The other path to solidarity is ideal rather than pragmatic. Solidarity comes from recognizing the value of liberating human potential. Humanism is the motive for solidarity. This detaches solidarity from any social base and grounds it in the pull of an ideal of liberation. This path leaves the terrain of social explanation for idealist philosophy.

How precisely can the addition of structure make up what is wanting in Albert's view of solidarity? Suppose the structure providing the framework is a gender structure containing many of the tendencies associated with traditional patriarchy. Male workers would then expect to lose little as regards their class demands when they refuse solidarity with women; because of patriarchal control, women would continue to support male workers despite their lack of solidarity. So in this case there is no strong reason for solidarity with women. Suppose though that the framework is an economic structure containing the tendencies of late capitalism. Economic growth will have put almost as many women as men in the labor force with a resultant weakening of traditional patriarchy. The ability of women to prevent the winning of class demands is enhanced at the same time that many male privileges are diminished. So in this case there is a strong reason for solidarity with women.

Solidarity is not, then, determined merely by the fact of interactions between different groups of the dominated. The nature of those interactions is what is important, and it remains indeterminate as far as its effect on solidarity is concerned in the absence of a structural framework. Albert's view does not eliminate this indeterminacy, and thus he cannot tell us why solidarity between various oppressed groups is possible.

Now for the question about which structure to emphasize in choosing the framework. There are a variety of structures to choose from. Newton chose a structure of gravitating mass points in absolute space and time. For Hegel it was the moral tug of the ideal of freedom. For Galbraith it is state-of-the-art technology. For Shulamith Firestone it is patriarchal kinship relations. For Marvin Harris it is the carrying capacity of a given environment. It is inappropriate to conclude from this diversity that each of these choices of framework is equally valid, for to do so would be to adopt the view that reality varies according to the way we choose to look at it. Rather, where there is competition between structures, there are paths of investigation that generally indicate how one choice is better than another, given common theoretical and practical goals. These paths lead to empirical rather than to a priori investigations.

There are numerous advantages to choosing an economic structure as the framework, but I will elaborate only on the one relied on in my article. There is an asymmetry in revolutionary practice that is best understood if an economic structure is the framework. This asymmetry shows itself in a part of history that includes the present. (So the argument shows at most that economic structures are primary in that part of history.) During this period revolutions with a liberatory potential take place within a framework of existing states and cannot realize their potential except by taking state power and giving it new directions. Statelessness is not rejected as an ideal, but at present the revolutionary state plays a role in the liberatory process. On what program is state power grasped? The key point is that programs for state power are inevitably class programs. This is not to say that they involve no demands of a nonclass nature but only that dealing with class relations is a must in such programs. Moreover, to the extent that such programs for state power advance liberation, they rearrange class relations to the benefit of the lower classes.

Surely, one might object, there can be programs for black or national liberation that have no class content. This is not so easy to show. A program for black power might seem to have no class content, but that indicates an implicit acceptance of the existing class relations. If successful, it might change the color of office holders while keeping the majority of blacks in the same oppressed state. A nationalist revolution against imperialism may be initiated and led by members of the intelligentsia. But if it is to lead to national independence, its program must call for more power for workers and peasants in order to prevent the bourgeoisie from reintroducing imperialist dependency. This also illustrates that a class program need not be fought for only by the classes who will benefit most from it.

The asymmetry here resides in the fact that there is no general requirement for class programs for state power to contain demands for ending domination in other areas. In an ethnically homogeneous population, a program for taking state power would not contain racial demands, though the program would have to contain a class component. Still, programs for ending domination in nonclass areas will, as programs for taking state power, contain a class component. A program based on women's demands would not, without a class component, be a program for state power.

This asymmetry has roots reaching down to the structural framework. When this structure is a capitalist or a feudal economic structure, the society in question is necessarily a class society. The state in such a society will, among lots of other things, act to perpetuate that economic structure and hence the system of class domination associated with it. To shake the state and take power, a movement must either continue to support the existing class domination or introduce a new set of class relations. A revolutionary movement cannot be neutral on the class issue. Moreover, given the historical ties of other forms of domination to class domination, supporting the status quo in regard to class relations holds little hope for liberation in other areas.

This illustrates how the choice of an economic structure for the framework is crucial to an understanding of the asymmetry in regard to revolutionary practice. At the same time it gives a clear meaning to the much-abused idea of the primacy of class. By the primacy of class I mean that a class program is essential to any project for taking state power for purposes of advancing general liberation. Looking ahead to the time when a program for doing away with the state is relevant, a class program is still essential since class domination must end in order to end the state. Even here the sense in which class is primary is an analogous one.

Albert and Wrabley make a lot of familiar anarchist objections to Marxism. Though anticapitalist, Marxism is, they say, not against domination. It tolerates domination in the economic sphere; in their view, bureaucratic central planning is consistent with Marxist socialism. And Marxism lacks the concepts for being interested in fighting domination elsewhere. Marx's advocacy of worker self-emancipation and his vision of socialism as free human development become then but clever guises concealing a commitment to continued domination.

These charges can be refuted if we keep in mind the Marxist conception of the economic framework. It puts exploitation at the center of economic relations in class societies. Putting exploitation at the center of the economic structure makes sense of the recurring desire on the part of the lower classes to change class relations. They want to change class relations because they are based on an economic structure that is at its center exploitative. Putting exploitation at the center points not to a desire on the part of the lower classes for a different class to dominate them but to a desire to change class relations so that exploitation is done away with. Since economic domination perpetuates exploitation, Albert is wrong in saying that Marxism is uninterested in doing away with economic domination.

What are we to say about nonclass forms of domination? Recall that without a framework for integration, solidarity has to depend on humanism. Within a framework that puts one form of domination at its center, solidarity can have a basis. Within a framework that puts exploitation at the center, it can be shown that exploitation and other forms of domination are mutually reinforcing. Within a capitalist framework, for example, it is clear how racism reinforces exploitation and conversely how exploitation reinforces racism. The struggle against exploitation cannot then ignore the other forms of domination. The familiar anarchist objection thus fails to show that Marxism is uninterested in ending domination in all its forms.

My chief challenge to critics like Albert and Wrabley is to have them explain the ground for unity among what Rosa Luxemburg called "this colorful herd of recruits," that is, all the different oppressed groups. These critics suppose the oppressed will naturally rally to the cause of general liberation. But if I am to feel confident they will not be working at cross purposes, I need to find a basis on which to integrate their various oppressions. Appeals to humanism will generate neither solidarity nor a feasible common program for action. I have tried to outline how, by making an economic structure the framework for social analysis, a base is provided for solidarity among the oppressed and for a feasible common program for action.
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Author:Fisk, Milton
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Dec 1, 1987
Words:2302
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