Whose lessons? Which direction?

Dec 19, 2022

Poster by Nina Nikolaevna Vatolina.


As obituaries for neoliberalism pile up on our nightstands and Antonio Gramsci’s adage that the old is dying and the new cannot be born appears newly profound, we turn to the past for direction. What successes should guide us? What can we learn from our failures? If we are to advance politically in the twenty-first century, we need to learn the correct lessons from the twentieth. But what are they?

For some on the left, the problems we face today are as they have ever been failures of organization and collective commitment. A disciplined and organized working class could do more than compel concessions from capital; it could transform society. What’s needed is the revolutionary party. Others on the left blame labor’s political weakness on refusals to compromise. Militant organizations aren’t solutions. They’re errors. Only when unions and left parties accept capitalist social property relations do workers earn their seat at the table and engage in the bargaining that increases their share. Communist parties hinder such acceptance.

Forty years of neoliberalism reveals the bankruptcy of the latter perspective. Capital makes concessions only when it has no other choice. Ruling classes across the Global North have dismantled public sectors and decimated middle classes rather than provide the tax support necessary for maintaining social democracy. They’ve rolled back hard-won political and social gains, treating basic democratic rights as threats to their power. While strong tendencies on the right recognize radicalization as necessary for politics in a period of uncertainty and double down on their various illiberalisms, opponents of revolution insist that the lesson of the twentieth century is the necessity of compromise. Presuming there’s no alternative to capitalism, left Thatcherites declare that progress depends on leaving behind our communist baggage.

One instance of this perspective is Jonah Birch’s “The Cold War Made it Harder for the Left to Win” [1]. Criticizing Gary Gerstle’s argument in The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order, Birch rejects Gerstle’s claim that it was the communist threat that made significant reform possible in the twentieth century [2]. With homogeneous Sweden as his example of social democratic success, Birch asserts that conditions were worse for labor in countries with large communist parties. He concedes that the socio-economic context that led to economic growth after World War II is unlikely to reappear. Nevertheless, Birch advises the left to accept the lesson that communists hurt the working class.

The struggle against white supremacy and fascism is class struggle

Birch’s deeply conservative message moves to the right of mainstream liberal recognition of the impact of the court of world opinion during the Cold War. It is widely accepted that competition with the Soviet Union for hearts and minds pushed the U.S. to take steps toward the abolition of Jim Crow apartheid and institutionalized white supremacy. The denial of voting rights and violent repression of activists damaged the country’s reputation as democracy’s global defender. As soon as one acknowledges the multiracial and multinational character of the working class, one realizes how the Swedish fantasy operates (even in Sweden, as Tobias Hϋbinette demonstrates in a recent piece in the Boston Review) to make a small subset of struggles—the wage struggles of white workers—stand in for the broad array of struggles of the diverse multinational working class [3].

In the U.S., for example, communist involvement in the fight against lynching, segregation, and Jim Crow was more than a propaganda point in the Cold War’s great power conflict. From its early years, the Communist Party recognized that workers would only prevail if they were united. So long as Black workers were paid lower wages than white workers and so long as Black workers excluded from unions were available as strikebreakers, the position of all workers was insecure. The struggle against white supremacy was thus central to building the collective power to win the class struggle. This analysis of the national composition of the working class under conditions of white supremacy and racism committed communists to deepening engagement in “Negro work” in multiple arenas. These arenas included organizing agricultural and domestic workers, taking on legal campaigns on behalf of the falsely accused, and drawing out the connections between the conditions facing Black people in the U.S. and oppressed and colonized people all over the world. Even more broadly, the Party demonstrated how anti-fascist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist movements for peace were indispensable to class struggle insofar as they all took aim at U.S. monopoly capital [4].

Communists were at the forefront of the struggle against fascism and its doctrine of Aryan superiority. Birch treats the French and Italian Communist Parties as divisive organizations. He blames them for splitting the labor movement in their respective countries, thereby marginalizing the left and isolating the working class. On the one hand, Birch’s charges are belied by his own evidence: in both countries the communists regularly won around twenty percent of the national vote in elections, hardly an indication of marginalization and isolation. Multiple localities and municipalities had communist leaders. On the other hand, Birch’s myopic focus on the expansion of social programs as the single measure of political success leads him to neglect central communist contributions. The partisans who gave their lives in the war against European fascisms, the thousands who carried out a heroic resistance in occupied countries, are erased from view. Surely their achievements are as noteworthy as the collective bargaining institutions, and generous social services that preoccupy Birch. And since Birch concedes that the economic conditions that prevailed in the post-war heyday of social democracy are unlikely to appear again, what is the political cost today of failing to acknowledge and learn from the courage of communist resistance?

Internationalism as the ground of struggle

The significance of the communist contribution continues to expand as we zoom out from a narrow focus on Europe. No one can deny the role of communist-led national liberation movements in the colonized world. In virtually every liberation struggle Marxist-Leninists played an indispensable part. Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, Congo-Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and China are not insignificant data points just because they are not from Europe.

For decades critics of colonialism and neocolonialism have pointed out that the capitalist class has been able to secure the political passivity or even support of a large layer of the working class in the imperialist core through benefits accrued from the global exploitation of Black and brown people. These critics continue a line of argument already prominent in Lenin’s analysis of the enormous super-profits generated by imperialism. That capital is international and the struggle against it must be as well is a lesson from communists in the twentieth century that remains indispensable in the twenty-first. Workers couldn’t afford nationalist myopia then and surely cannot in today’s setting of global supply chains, mass migration, and climate change.

In the U.S., Black women in and around the Communist Party in the first half of the twentieth century demonstrated the practical implications of internationalism in their organizing. As early as 1928, Williana Burroughs emphasized concrete tasks related to engaging foreign-born Black workers in the U.S. (West Indies, South America, Cape Verde Islands, Africa) and using anti-imperialism as a point of connection (“Thousands of Negroes from Haiti, Cuba, British possessions, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have felt the iron heel of British or American Imperialism”) [5].

The Party took the view that Black workers in the U.S. were an oppressed national minority with a right to self-determination. While controversial within and without the Party, this line constituted a fundamental ground for unifying Black and white workers because it recognized the centrality of the struggle for Black liberation. Organizing Black workers meant organizing Black women because most Black women worked for wages to support their families. Organizing Black women meant organizing immigrants and farm workers and attending to the housing, education, and neighborhood conditions impacting workers’ lives. Organizing immigrants and farm workers meant building an understanding of the patterns of oppression and resistance facing all workers. Internationalism was more than an expression of solidarity. It was a principle with repercussions for domestic organizing.

Claudia Jones’s famous International Women’s Day speech from 1950 described the global peace movement and signature campaign against the A-bomb, Marshall Plan, and Atlantic war pact. Jones noted women’s organizations’ opposition to NATO, “which spells misery for the masses of American women and their families.” She advocated rousing the internationalism of American women in protest against “Wall Street’s puppets in Marshalized Italy, in fascist Greece and Spain.” And she linked the Justice Department’s attack on the Congress of American Women as “foreign agents” with the group’s long-standing advocacy of women’s equal rights, Negro-white unity, and child welfare and education [6].

The resolute internationalism of communists in the twentieth century was indispensable to confronting imperialism and colonialism. We build the power of the working class by emphasizing the patterns of oppression and resistance, linking struggles, and targeting capitalism as the system to be defeated.

Anti-communism is the enemy

Over the last decades of neoliberalism, the right has advanced. In the U.S., UK, Brazil, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and elsewhere, conservative parties use nationalism to reach out to those left behind by globalization. When socialists take as their measure of success the wages of an outmoded, masculinist, and Eurocentric image of the working class, they undermine their capacity to build mass unity, strengthening the hand of the right. Insistence on the multinational composition of the labor force of all the so-called developed countries gives the lie to nationalist and isolationist fantasies as well as to the patriarchal conceptions of the family that support them.

A component of right-wing advance has been its relentless assault on communism. Thirty years after the defeat of the Soviet Union, conservatives attack even the most common sense of public measures as communist plots. More subtle but no less reactionary are the epistemological dimensions of anti-communism, what Charisse Burden-Stelly theorizes as intellectual McCarthyism [7]. Anti-communism persists today in the suppression of knowledge of the continuities between anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist struggles. Instead of the site where those struggles were unified, communism is treated as a dangerous and alien ideology. Its role in the fight against white supremacy domestically and internationally is buried.

For anti-communists disorder is foreign—the refugee, the immigrant, the Black, the Muslim, the Jew. Anti-communists disavow the capitalist disorder of competition, markets, innovation, dispossession, foreclosure, debt, and imperialist war. Dramatic changes in the character of work, communities, and life that accompany disruptive and ubiquitous technology; urbanization and rural depopulation; shifts from industry and manufacture to services and servitude; the intensification of competition for decreasing numbers of affordable houses and adequately compensated jobs—these all congeal into a disorder to be dealt with by the assertion of police, family, church, and race. Anti-communism remains the lynchpin of this assertion.

The fear that anti-communism mobilizes is a fear of loss, a fear that what you have will be taken from you, what Slavoj Žižek refers to as the “theft of enjoyment” [8]. Marx and Engels call out this mobilization of fear in The Communist Manifesto when they address charges that communists want to take people’s property. They write, “in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths” [9]. The anti-communist mobilization of fear conceals the absence of property, wealth, job security, success, sovereignty, and freedom. It posits that we have them by positioning them as stolen. Communism is what prevents you from being rich, widely admired, having lots of sex, and so on. The “theft of enjoyment” fantasy obscures the fact that under capitalism a handful of billionaires have more wealth than half the planet. By positing communism as a source of deprivation, as an ideology based on taking something away, anti-communism conceals that we don’t have what is ostensibly being stolen.

Anti-communism is not confined to the political right. It often seeps into progressive and self-described socialist circles. Left anti-communists proceed as if communism were the barrier to workers’ success, as if we would all live in a Swedish social democratic paradise but for those damned communists. Not only does this deny the multiracial and international reality of the working class, but it conceals broader left political division and weakness. Virtually nowhere does the left face the choice of reform or revolution. Virtually nowhere is the left in a position where class compromise is on the table. Anti-communism obscures this basic fact.

Communism is that modern political ideology always and everywhere on the side of the oppressed. When labor begins to appear strong, when those who have been racially, sexually, ethnically, and colonially oppressed become more visible, more organized, and more militant, anti-communism intervenes to set up barriers. On the left as well as the right, anti-communism attempts to structure the political field by establishing the terrain of possibility: which political paths are available, which are unthinkable. Even in settings where communism is dismissed as itself impossible, anti-communism mobilizes social forces to oppose it. This fight against the impossible is an ideological signal: the discussion isn’t aimed toward seriously evaluating lessons and goals. It’s about shoring up the status quo, disciplining working-class imagination by preemptive arrest of any challengers to capitalist social property relations.

The political and economic situation that prevails today differs significantly from the postwar era. The U.S. has lost both its preeminent economic status and the moral position it assumed following the end of WWII (a position always fragile and contested given the U.S.’s use of atomic weapons, backing of dictatorships, imperialist and neocolonial foreign policy, and domestic police state). Unions have lost their prior bargaining power and workers their hard-won rights and benefits. Today the issue is building organizations and movements with power sufficient to compel the socialist reconstruction of the economy in the context of a rapidly changing climate. This fight is multinational and international or it is lost.


[1] Jonah Birch, “The Cold War May It Harder for the Left to Win Social Democratic Reforms,” Jacobin, 15 November 2022. Available here.
[2] Gary Gerstle, The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order (Oxford University Press, 2022).
[3] Tobias Hϋbinette, “Race and Sweden’s Fascist Turn,” Boston Review, 19 October 2022. Available here.
[4] See the contributions to Organize, Fight, Win: Black Communist Women’s Political Writing, ed. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Jodi Dean (London: Verso, 2022).
[5] Williana Burroughs, “Negro Work Has Not Been Entirely Successful,”  in Organize, Fight, Win, 21-25.
[6] Claudia Jones, “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” in Organize, Fight, Win, 181-197.
[7] Charisse Burden-Stelly, “On Bankers and Empire: Racial Capitalism, Antiblackness, and Antiradicalism,” Small Axe 24, no. 2 (2020): 175-186.
[8] Slavoj Žižek, Tarrying With the Negative (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 200-237.
[9] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, trans. S. Moore (New York: Penguin Books, 1988/1967), 237.

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...