Sunday Hot Takes, March 14th, 2021

Electoralism or revolution? The PMC? Bernie, battleships, and more for this Sunday’s Hot Takes!

The PMC road to socialism Jacob W, University of Virginia

The term of analysis (or insult) “PMC” — professional-managerial class — is used by leftists to separate a certain group of people from the working-class. Barbara and John Ehrenreich coined PMC in 1977 to describe “salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.” This could be an innocuous new class category meant to theorize the middle classes in a way that explained the perseverance of capitalism. However, its recent usage has expanded to include any and all cultural salaried employees, white-collar professions, and “mental workers.” There are glaring problems with this. Instead of talking about the PMC as a separate class, I propose we talk about the divisions within the working-class.

The Ehrenreichs’ 2013 reflections on the PMC indicate the inability of the category to describe anything that exists today. Capitalism’s offensives have led to the proletarianization of college education and mental work, meaning that, functionally, the PMC does not exist as a separate class. Additionally, the Ehrenreichs note that “[m]ore profoundly, the PMC’s original dream — of a society ruled by reason and led by public-spirited professionals — has been discredited.” This is where much of the confusion comes from. People see a liberal-meritocratic ideological tendency that comes from mental workers which makes PMC seem like a good means of analysis; but the answer is actually much simpler: these workers are a layer of the working-class, and their ideology and opposition to socialist politics are a result of working-class divisions that we must combat.

This debate about cultural workers has been going on for decades. Michael Denning traces them in his book The Cultural Front. In 1932, Communist cultural workers and professionals published a pamphlet titled “Culture and Crisis: An Open Letter to the Writers, Artists, Teachers, Physicians, Engineers, Scientists, and Other Professional Workers of America,” calling on their peers to join the working-class movement. Debates around the class position and revolutionary potential of mental and cultural workers continued throughout the era, oftentimes using the theories of Antonio Gramsci as backdrop for how to create a cultural movement for socialism. The mental workers of capitalism, therefore, have often confused Marxists, but the challenges they present should not be mistaken for full scale separation from the working-class. Many of these very workers are the ones facing increased crises under capitalism.

Socialists today should heed these Popular Front positions as well as the Ehrenriechs’ reevaluation of their own concept. Cultural indicators and ideological predispositions don’t make a class, relationship to the means of production does. Socialists understand the working class is divided in a variety of ways right now, but our north star of a united working class must remain. We should drop “PMC” from our vocabulary instead refocusing our efforts on describing the ways that types of work and capitalist ideology create divisions between working-class people. 

Revolutionary Totalitarianism — A. Thoreau, Illinois State University

Many of us, including those in Y/DSA, talk about the revolution in infantile terms. They see the revolution as a romantic wave of civil disobedience that ends in an immediate free society or as a peaceful transfer of power through elections and legislation. The revolution may or may not be a serious act of aggression, it may or may not be a long period of struggle; but there are definite facts about the revolution. We often overlook or even deny the need for revolutionary totalitarianism out of fear of offending “the masses” and the history of Stalinism.

Revolutionary totalitarianism is not a bureaucracy or the subjugation of the working class by an alien force, rather it is an apparatus that knows no moral limitations; it exists to secure the success of the proletarian revolution and the final destruction of capitalism. It is an open class dictatorship of the proletariat. It does not concern itself with liberal democracy because any traditional sense of democracy implies a multi-party apparatus, furthering the notion of multi-class society, which is antithetical to a working-class state. It is a society in which the communist party has total political hegemony.

The fear of offending the masses comes from the legacy of Stalinist “socialism,” which was really nothing more than bureaucratic capitalism. Stalinist totalitarianism was a period of counter-revolution, in which it defended the interests of a ruling clique as opposed to those of the working class. The totalitarianism of the true proletarian state must be itself revolutionary, constantly attacking and routing out all attempts to bring back the conditions that favor bourgeois interests. The revolutionary totalitarian model secures the existence of workers’ power against capital and the exploiters, who will, in their desperation, act out in all their mighty reaction!

This is not a new idea, it goes back as far as Marx and Engles when discussing how the working class will make no excuses for the terror of the working-class revolution. But perhaps the person who most famously spoke on the subject was Amadeo Bordiga, the anti-Stalinist Marxist who founded the Communist Party of Italy. Bordiga wrote in “Proletarian Dictatorship and Class Party” that:

Communists have no codified constitutions to propose. They have a world of lies and constitutions — crystallised in the law and in the force of the dominant class — to crush. They know that only a revolutionary and totalitarian apparatus of force and power, which excludes no means, will be able to prevent the infamous relics of a barbarous epoch from rising again — only it will be able to prevent the monster of social privilege, craving for revenge and servitude, from raising its head again and hurling for the thousandth time its deceitful cry of Freedom!

Elections, If You Can Keep Them — Griffin Mahon, University of Virginia

Let’s recap what we’ve learned about elections and socialism so far.

  • Elections can spread class consciousness
  • Elections can develop (i.e., grow and professionalize) an organization
  • Elected socialists can win things for the working class
  • Socialists can run on the Democratic Party ballot line and accomplish the above

These are possibilities, not guarantees. But they’ve been demonstrably proven as fact: Bernie, DSA’s growth, AOC, etc., to 90,000 members and ~150 elected politicians. Reality has revealed that the “anti-parliamentary cretins” are simply wrong. 

This isn’t just true in the U.S.; it’s happened at the same time across Europe and Latin America. It’s something like a general rule of Marxism: socialists must compete in elections. Some form of the idea goes back to at least 1850 with Marx: “Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention.” 

We might quibble with the wording, but the emphasis is clear: elections are an important tool. So it’s a bit strange that for decades the U.S. Left ignored the exact tool that made socialist parties so popular in the first place. We have to admit that the socialists from the last half-century who developed their own strategies that undervalued elections were wrong and move on.

But “elections can be useful” is an elementary lesson. Even though actual political events have discredited anarchists and insurrectionary communists, the last five years are still evidence for a wide range of potential strategies: from the most reformist reformers who believe we can legislate socialism to cynical revolutionaries who want to use bourgeois democracy in order to undermine it in favor of some new proletarian democracy. So when we imagine what DSA’s electoral strategy should be or debate endorsements and how campaigns should be run, we have some data, but we’re also operating on hunches and opinions. All politics involves wagers, which means we have to carefully analyze what we do and update our ideas accordingly.

One such occurrence that everyone should be paying attention to is the DSA takeover of the Nevada state Democratic Party. Their task now is probably to turn a hollow brand — a state ballot line and networks of activists and donors — into a living, breathing organization of members. They will continue to face sabotage but the same issues in DSA may now reproduce themselves in the NV DP: without underlying unity and coordination on what a party is for and why socialists participate in electoral politics, progress might be mixed, or comrades may work at cross-purposes with each other. More immediately, they may face the DSA issue of being approached by candidates instead of generating them. We should figure out if this political conflict at the state level is a leading or lagging indicator of class struggle in the country. We wish them luck!

Battleships are Dumb and so is the Movie  Josiah Bloss, Illinois State University

I suspect many of us have not seen the movie Battleship (2012, based on, yes, the board game). But I am sure that we can all understand its themes given we are all god-fearing Americans: Patriotism, unbridled nostalgia for the 50s, and the celebration of the grotesque excess of neoliberalism. Battleship is to the U.S. Navy as Independence Day (1996) is to the Air Force: a propaganda piece to drive recruitment. But, while in Independence Day, we get Will Smith zooming around in the latest aircraft and kicking ass, in Battleship we get Rihanna and company fumbling around on the USS Missouri, a warship built half a century ago (no disrespect to Rihanna). The story of just how Missouri ended up in Battleship is both archetypal and bizarre one. She was laid down in January 1941, and commissioned in 1944, joining the war in the Pacific just in time to shoot down a bunch of planes and hang out. Very wasteful, considering that this was the most expensive ship the U.S. Navy had ever built at the time. The U.S. Navy, unable to foresee any use for a battleship in the 20th century, decommissioned her in 1955 without ever having engaged in ship-to-ship combat.

By 1960 there were no more battleships, mostly because they were extremely expensive and didn’t really do anything. Naturally, this meant that in 1986, “visionary” President Ronald Reagan order the Navy to recommission the then 40-year-old Iowa-class battleships, just in case the godless Communists decided to build their own brand-new battleships, which everyone agreed, would have been a bad idea since they could easily be blown up by a missile or plane before even reaching a battle (the U.S. Navy was not concerned about this). Missouri then spent the remainder of her life sucking up money like a big metal sponge (but Medicare for All is too expensive), only to be interrupted by the Gulf War, where she did nothing of note. The ship was decommissioned again in 1992, when someone finally realized that these things were useless, and had been pretty much since they were built.

This brings us to Battleship. As all washed out celebrities inevitably do, the ship gracelessly starred in a B-rate action movie where she fights aliens. The Missouri is the star of the show because the aliens conveniently set up a forcefield that prevents the other, useful parts of the military from doing anything. Thankfully, Missouri was accompanied by a skeleton crew of geriatric veterans since Rihanna and co. rightfully did not know anything about running a 75-year-old ship. The movie leaves you with contradictions. It bombards you with the new, high-tech Navy, with Rihanna, volleyball, CGI, and all the techno-fat of the modern action movie, but it also overtly pushes a “Retvrn to tradition” narrative about the Navy’s former glory of having absurdly expensive and outdated battleships. You can’t have both without serious financial consequences (and a really bad movie).

Bernie Would’ve Won (Both Times) — Elias Khoury, University of Michigan

This take isn’t original. Nor is it timely. But Bernie would’ve won in 2016. 

And I don’t think it would’ve been particularly close either. Had he been the nominee, the Blue Wall wouldn’t have crumbled and Arizona would’ve flipped a cycle early. Final score: Sanders 304, Trump 234. That tally assumes no faithless electors, even though there were seven in 2016 — one of whom went for Bernie.

I think the senator from Vermont would’ve won in 2020 too. But not by as much as Biden did. I predict Bernie would’ve eked it out with 279 electoral votes to Trump’s 259 — the slimmest margin since Gore was cheated in 2000.

So, does that mean the detractors had a point? One of the most salient attacks against Bernie during the primary was that he is less “electable” than Biden. I think this was proven true with Biden taking states that Democrats had not won in a generation. Biden also garnered a larger percentage of the popular vote than any challenger to an incumbent since FDR in 1932.

But does that matter? Not really. Elections are winner-take-all in this country. The margins are therefore unimportant. I would rather barely win with a socialist than landslide with a corporatist. A win is a win.

The electability argument is only relevant if your preferred primary candidate is a long shot to win the general. But Bernie was no long shot. He definitely could have — and I believe would have — won in 2020.

It’s a real shame that didn’t happen, though. History will not absolve the electorate for passing on such a superb candidate. The question now is, Who will carry Bernie’s mantle?

Solidarity with Tigray! — Andrew Pfannkuche, Illinois State University

Last November, a brief civil war broke out between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray regional government led by the left-wing Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The conflict was the result of a prolonged political crisis which saw Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attempt to undermine Tigrayan political power at the federal level. Large-scale fighting lasted a month until the federal government captured all of the region’s major cities including Merkelle, Adigrat, and Ethiopia’s holiest city, Axum (home of the Ark of the Covenant). Around 40% of Tigray remains outside of government control. Unfortunately, while the shooting may be over, the suffering of the Tigrayan people has only just begun.

The Ethiopian government has restricted (banned, really) journalists and international aid workers from entering the region to report on conditions. Fortunately, there has been a trickle of information that is painting a horrifying picture of living conditions inside Tigray. There are reports of mass starvation bordering on famine and massacres committed by the federal security forces, Amhara (government-backed) militias, and Eritrean soldiers.

You might be asking yourself, Why are Eritrean soldiers in Ethiopia? And, if you are the Ethiopian government, you might be saying very firmly that there are no Eritrean soldiers in the region, despite the international community’s total disbelief. Last month, Amnesty International reported that, after an ambush, Eritrean soldiers entered Axum (remember, Ark of the Covenant) and “started killing randomly.” After the massacre, anyone who tried to move dead bodies from the street were themselves shot while hyenas fed on the corpses of people they knew.

The deacon of the city spoke to the AP about the massacre outside the Church of Saint Mary of Zion three months later. That he took so long is an example of how tightly controlled information coming out of Tigray is. The deacon reported that he helped count and identify the half-eaten corpses the day after they had been killed, gathering the victims’ identity cards and assisting with their burials in mass graves. “He believes around 800 people were killed that weekend at the church and around the city.”

The plight of the people of Tigray is not CIA propaganda, but we cannot let their suffering become Biden’s excuse to start bombing or expand the corrosive influence of AFRICOM. Y/DSA must stand in solidarity with the TPLF. We must offer our support —  moral, financial, and political in their struggle for liberty, justice, and equality and ensure that their struggle does not become the crowbar that Joe Biden uses to start another war! Solidarity with the people of Tigray! Solidarity with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front!

What are you thinking about this week? YDSA members: we want to hear from you! Find out how to submit articles to The Activist here.

Want to support The Activist and help build a mass working-class movement by and for student socialists? Become a YDSA member today!