Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Battle Cry of Social Revolution: Eugene Deb's Canton, Ohio Speech

On June 16, 1918, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio protesting World War I. He was subsequently arrested for treason and sentenced to ten years in prison for his vocal opposition to the imperialist war. Debs ran for president from behind bars in 1920 and received 913,664 votes (3.4%). He was released in 1921 but was never able to recover his health from his years of imprisonment. He died in 1926.

This speech has always been a source of great inspiration for me, and is one of the most beautiful and inspiring socialist commentaries I know of. His words are more relevant today than ever.

The full text of the speech can be read here at the Marxist Internet Archive.

Here is an excerpt:

Socialism is a growing idea; an expanding philosophy. It is spreading over the entire face of the earth: It is as vain to resist it as it would be to arrest the sunrise on the morrow. It is coming, coming, coming all along the line. Can you not see it? If not, I advise you to consult an oculist. There is certainly something the matter with your vision. It is the mightiest movement in the history of mankind. What a privilege to serve it! I have regretted a thousand times that I can do so little for the movement that has done so much for me. The little that I am, the little that I am hoping to be, I owe to the Socialist movement. It has given me my ideas and ideals; my principles and convictions, and I would not exchange one of them for all of Rockefeller’s bloodstained dollars. It has taught me how to serve—a lesson to me of priceless value. It has taught me the ecstasy in the handclasp of a comrade. It has enabled me to hold high communion with you, and made it possible for me to take my place side by side with you in the great struggle for the better day; to multiply myself over and over again, to thrill with a fresh-born manhood; to feel life truly worthwhile; to open new avenues of vision; to spread out glorious vistas; to know that I am kin to all that throbs; to be class-conscious, and to realize that, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color or sex, every man, every woman who toils, who renders useful service, every member of the working class without an exception, is my comrade, my brother and sister—and that to serve them and their cause is the highest duty of my life.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Some Thoughts on Antonio Gramsci

So this year I've decided to finally make it a point to “learn” Antonio Gramsci. Before ever reading any of his work, I must admit that I had initially been quite dismissive of his ideas, largely because of the supposed links he had with the development of Eurocommunism (that pathetic attempt by various European communist parties to “revise” Marxism by scrapping notions of class struggle, refuting the imperative of capturing state power, and embracing bougeois notions of “democracy”). So far I've only just scratched surface of his Prison Notebooks, but I must say I am extremely glad that I got over my skepticism and actually began to study the work of this brilliant thinker. And I'm happy to say that all my preconceived notions were wrong.

Anyway....I recently wrote a paper incorporating some of Gramsci's ideas about civil society, so I thought I might as well post the relevant parts here for anyone wanting a very basic (and wholly insufficient) understanding of his main ideas.


“Gramsci & Civil Society”

According to Antonio Gramsci, the domination of the capitalist class in modern society is maintained through mechanisms of both force and consent. Gramsci argues that the ruling class not only uses the state as an instrument of class control, but also uses civil society to transmit and preserve bourgeois cultural values. In this sense, one cannot talk about “culture” in capitalist society without recognizing how it is permeated and dominated by class-driven interests. Culture is largely defined by the network of social relations that exist within society, and therefore it reflects its hegemonic arrangements. For example, a country which adopts a system of slave labor will quickly develop a racist culture that serves to justify it. Similarly, a society built around notions of the free market and private ownership of capital will inevitably adopt a materialistic value system that legitimizes vast social inequalities.

Civil society, in Gramsci's view, is a crucial element for maintaining class hegemony. He defines it as the collection of social institutions through which people organize themselves autonomously from the state to defend their common interests. Civil society thus includes employer associations, trade unions, churches, political parties, cultural groups, as well as other social actors. Gramsci argues that the bourgeoisie will make concessions to these social forces to help win the “consent” of the subordinate classes, while ensuring that such “compromise cannot touch the essential; for though hegemony is ethical-political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity.” (1) Civil society thus serves to prevent the working class from making concrete gains by deflecting demands for reform away from the core economic areas.

In this way, Gramsci builds upon Hegel and Marx's assertion that civil society is basically the social sphere independent of the state, by arguing more concretely that the state is “only an outer ditch, behind which there [stands] a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks,” (i.e. civil society). (2) This system embodies the “'spontaneous' consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.” (3) Civil society and the state are thus mutually reinforcing: when the state enters a period of crisis, civil society functions as a bulwark against social upheaval, and when civil society fails in preventing social unrest, “the apparatus of the state coercive power...enforces discipline on those groups who do not 'consent' either actively or passively.” (4) These two “superstructures” work symbiotically to preserve an exploitative economic order that favors the interests of the dominant class.

However, Gramsci does not see civil society as merely an instrument of bourgeois control, even if its prevailing institutions are used to manipulate and de-radicalize workers. In fact, one of Gramsci's crucial points is that, given the pervasiveness of ruling class ideology in all aspects of life, it is absolutely necessary for people to organize their own representative institutions and produce their own “organic” intellectuals that can work to transform civil society into an alternate “hegemony” capable of confronting state power. Gramsci argues that whereas in the East, the relative weakness of bourgeois hegemony over civil society allows the proletariat to attack state power directly (what he calls a “war of maneuver”), in advanced Western societies the proletariat must engage in a protracted “war of position” in which its primary goal is to create a counter-hegemony that can uproot the embedded bougeois order. It is the task of the revolutionary party to educate and agitate among the working class to bring about this shift in popular consciousness.


(1) Gramsci, A (1971). Selections From the Prison Notebooks. In Q. Hoare and G. N. Smith (eds.) Lawrence and Wishart, London, 161.
(2) Ibid, 238.
(3) Ibid, 12.
(4) Ibid, 12


For those of you who wish to learn more about Gramsci, I suggest reading "An Introduction to Gramsci's Life and Thought” and studying some of his writings at the Marxist Internet Archive.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Gangs, Drugs, and Police Repression: Remembering the Toledo Riots

When hundreds of Toledo residents mobilized in the streets to protest a neo-Nazi march through their neighborhood a year ago this October 15th, many found themselves in the midst of a full-scale cop riot. While city officials and the media were quick to blame the appalling situation on "gang violence," chaos only erupted after the police tried to block the protesters from legally demonstrating in their own neighborhood. The events that took place that day help to illustrate and important point: across the country, police repression is used to restrict the rights of individuals and organizations that actively struggle for social and economic justice.

From the Palmer raids of 1918-1921, to the FBI's infamous COINTELPRO operations of the 1950s-70s, to the recent establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, the US government has consistently attempted to undermine and destroy any protest groups in poor communities that seek to organize working people for radical change. Using infilration, police harassment, extralegal force, and outright violence, authorities have targeted groups such as the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the American Indian Movement, killing their members and railroading them into jail on fraudulent charges. More recently, on September 23, 2005, 78-year-old Puerto Rican independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios was shot in his home in Puerto Rico by FBI agents and then left to bleed to death. His murder sparked outrage among many Puerto Ricans who worry that the US administration will further crackdown on the island's independence movement. (To add insult to injury, the day of the FBI action took place on the 137th anniversary of the 1868 rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, one of the most important dates in Puerto Rican history.)

Apart from subverting nationalist and anti-capitalist organizations, the US government attempts to depoliticize inner-city communities by turning a blind-eye on drug trafficking. They allow the drug mafias to market their lethal products that ruin the social fabric of these areas and that prevent progressive political movements from emerging. In several cases, law enforcement agencies and the CIA have actually been caught working alongside overseas drug traffickers to flood poor neighborhoods with narcotics. One of the biggest of such conspiracies was uncovered in 1987, when a congressional committee led by John Kerry discovered that members of the Reagan administration and the CIA had been secretly financing the right-wing Contra paramilitaries in Nicaragua by helping them import drugs into California ghettos. Despite the fact that this was one of the most sordid scandals in the history of US foreign policy, when information about the scandal was made public the story was only picked up by four major US newspapers and did not make any front page.

When inner-city gangs and community groups speak out against drug use in their communities, they become targets of police harassment. For example, when the prominent black nationalist Sonny Carson established Black Men Against Crack in the early 1980s which shut down several crack houses in Brooklyn, NY, three of the organization's leaders were framed on fabricated weapons charges and sent to prison. Similarly, when Crips leader Dewayne Holmes successfully organized a truce between Los Angeles gangs in 1992, he was soon after arrested for allegedly stealing ten dollars, given an incompetent public attorney and an unfair trial, and sentenced to eight years imprisonment. The LAPD also undermined the gang truce by breaking up the gang peace meetings that were taking place throughout the city in the wake of the LA riots.

Law enforcement agencies across the country make a conscious and concerted effort to attack and harass progressive individuals and organizations that exercise leadership in their communities. At the same time, they instigate gang wars and promote petty crime and prostitution in working class areas. The police are responsible for some of the most shameful and outrageous violations of civil rights in our country, but they go unpunished because they are the agents of the state with the overriding goal of protecting the interests of the ruling class.

Yet people across the country are not sitting idle while their rights are being trampled upon. The events in Toledo occurred at the same time as hundreds of thousands of people, overwhelmingly black, rallied in Washington at the Millions More Movement. Both of these events demonstrated that racial and class tensions in America are reaching a critical point. Working people are showing a greater readiness to mobilize in defense of their interests, and are coming to understand that the root cause of our nation's problems is our thoroughly corrupt, rotten capitalist system.