Post-Conference Discussion: Add your voice now!

Marxist-Humanist Initiative convened a conference on “The Economic Crisis & Left Responses” on November 6, 2010 at Pace University in lower Manhattan. The conference was conceived as a way of promoting critical dialogue on both the Left’s theories of the recent crisis and recession and the practice that flows from these theories.

A number of materials have been gathered together on this website –- including conference papers and a video recording of the entire conference –- to help extend and deepen the dialogue opened at the conference. Click here for an article, “Economic Crisis Conference Featured Wide Participation and Debate,” which provides an overview of conference proceedings and links to these materials.

We make this space available for our readers to discuss conference presentations, theoretical controversies that emerged at the conference, and the themes of the conference broadly. We hope to have wide-ranging dialogue, not only so that all views can be heard but also so that we can test different ideas in debate and work out answers to the questions we face at this moment.

Please help expand the discussion by adding a comment below.


  1. On “the need to raise consciousness”

    I would like to comment on the concept of vanguard party leadership, termed essential to getting rid of capitalism by Walter Daum, and on the more popular Left concept of “needing to raise people’s consciousness.” The latter concept was stated or seemed to be assumed by many, if not most, of the speakers and discussants at the conference. Although this group would probably recoil from being associated with Trotskyist party programs, the two groups have much in common. By subscribing to the idea that the masses of people “need their consciousness raised,” the Left acquires an essential role for itself as their leadership, whether in party form or, more broadly, as those who must instruct the masses in the ABCs of what’s wrong with existing society. Such a view, however, is necessarily based on a belief that the masses’ consciousness is “backward.” This attitude toward the masses, I contend, has been a large factor in truncating and stifling social movements rather than aiding them.

    The long-time Left concept of “the backwardness of the masses” replicates the split between thinking and doing that characterizes the dominant capitalist culture. This split is rooted in capitalism’s economic basis in the separation of workers’ heads from their hands. Marx describes in Vol. I of Capital how capitalism evolved as a system of production that was adequate to the on-going technological revolutions which allowed for the breakdown of jobs into small repetitive parts, for assembly lines, mass production, etc. The split not only supports class divisions and hierarchy in the work place; it encourages racist and sexist divisions, and it defines an educational system that trains people for their roles in a society where only an elite few need to think logically, while the rest of the people are left to repeat superstitions and conspiracy theories.

    Marx had a different view: he wrote that people’s conditions determine their consciousness, not vice versa. A worker already knows, because she lives it all the time, that struggling in solidarity with other workers is the only way to win concessions from the boss; that even then, exploitative and dehumanizing relations in the workplace remain and recur; and how her job might be changed to make it humane in another system. What she may not know is whether it is possible to reorganize the socio-economic system, and here is where the intellectuals come in. They can, first of all, provide information and access to ideas that most people don’t have, and can do so without limitations or directions that channel people into this or that party or program favored by the intellectuals. Secondly, they can provide “leadership” in theoretical work by demonstrating what an alternative to capitalism could be, and discussing these theories with the workers, in preparation for their figuring out what to do at the moment when it is possible to replace capitalism.

    In short, I contend that the failure of recent mass struggles to lead beyond mere revolt is not the fault of “backward” masses, but of the Left, which has not provided the theoretical evidence that “another world is possible.” MHI takes as its central task this theoretic work, not in order to dictate to the workers, but to offer a credible and sustainable vision of socialism, and to bring them into developing its theoretical foundations before they are faced with the hugely difficult work of breaking with the law of value and establishing a new mode of production.

    Although many Leftists think that once the workers have their consciousness raised, they will then be prepared to re-organize society without need for any theoretical work now on the questions they will face, that view defies the history of 20th century revolutions. In these reactionary times, have we so diminished our vision of the future that we cannot see beyond a continuation of the same: revolutions followed by counter-revolutions, revolutions transformed into their opposite like Russia’s, and revolutions limited from the start by their failure even to try to break with world-wide capitalism? Or will we take on the responsibility, not to tell the masses what to think and do, but to bring them into the project of developing ideas about how to make a socialist future realizable?

    Basing Left activity on the concept of “the backwardness of the masses” is a noose around the neck of social movements. It dooms the Left’s relationships with the masses to mimic class society, and thus, rather than encouraging revolt, it instills fear that attempts at change will only lead to replicating existing society. In contrast, I am proposing that the Left offer information and access to ideas that working people may choose to pursue, and try to engage them in the theoretical work that cries out to be done as actual preparation for revolution.

    Ideas are essential and are not the unique province of intellectuals. We need to forge a new relationship between workers and intellectuals, and between practice and theory, so that each side of the relationship informs the other, and a new development emerges—what Raya Dunayevskaya called “a single dialectic of thought and activity.”

    Anne Jaclard


    To the Marxist-Humanist Initiative

    Internationalist Perspective shares MHI’s insistence on the importance of Marxist theory and its development in the midst of the present global crisis. Indeed, IP has long been committed to the need for a renaissance of Marxist theory as a primordial task of pro-revolutionaries. It is in that spirit that IP accepts your invitation to us, and our members, to participate in the international Network for the Circulation of Theoretical Struggles (NCTS).

    We agree that theoretical activity, the praxis of theory, can only take place in a framework in which censorship, dogma, and unalterable positions, have been excluded. The needed renaissance of Marxism will only occur in a spirit of open debate, one in which it is possible to question and to challenge long-held positions without fear of proscription. However, while “…doing theory does not mean adopting political positions ….”, as you say in your proposal, we believe that MHI will agree that theory is the basis for the subsequent adoption of political positions. And, while we agree that NCTS (which is not a political group) “… will not have a political or theoretical ‘line,’” doesn’t the shared commitment to theoretical struggle also entail a set of common political positions, a framework within which debate and discussion takes place: a commitment to the overthrow, not reform, of capitalism, to the abolition of abstract labor, waged work, the commodity form?

    We look forward to seeing the bases for the practical implementation of the proposal for NCTS.

    Comradely greetings,

    Internationalist Perspective

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.