How to Overcome Our Sisyphus Fate

Conditions in the U.S. are objectively revolutionary. But the subjective factor is in deep crisis. Processes of social change cannot succeed if these two conditions are not united.

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The principal question for any socialist movement today, be it in the U.S. or outside, is where it stands on issues of war and peace – what will be its position regarding American imperialism. As the great W. E. B. Dubois had long ago noted, “the government of the United States and the forces in control of government regard peace as dangerous.” The foundation of American society, as it exists under the tyranny of capital, is war. They have built up a grand machinery of lies, pumping out through all mediums the twisted facts and invented realities needed to support their topsy-turvy narrative of world events – and thereby, obtain consent for their crimes. They have slaughtered people and allowed whole populations to face the meat grinder of war to defend the right of accumulation for the owners of big capital – the monopoly-finance capitalist class. To defend the ‘rights’ of those who have pillaged the world for centuries. Those who make a killing out of killing. Who trade in the annihilation of life for profit.

As everyone knows, wherever there is oppression and immiseration there will be, sooner or later, resistance. This is a universal law of all human societies fractured by class antagonisms. It is this dialectic of class struggles which pushes humanity forward, often producing the births of whole new social systems from the ashes of a previous one. But these moments of societal renewal, where a new class comes into a position of power and creates a world in its own image, are not guaranteed – even if the conditions for producing it are. There is always the possibility, as Marx and Engels had long ago noted, of a general societal dissolution. To put it in terms fitting with the contradictions of the capitalist mode of life, it isn’t only socialism which stands as a possibility within the embryo of capitalism, equally capable of actualizing itself is, as Rosa Luxemburg long ago noted, barbarism.

The human element, what in traditional communist literature is called the subjective factor or the subjective conditions, are indispensable. It does not matter how bad things get, how clearly revolutionary the objective conditions are, without the subjective factor all is nil. It is the organized masses, led by the most conscious within their ranks, that make, out of the objectively revolutionary conditions, the revolutions.

For Lenin and the communist tradition, objectively revolutionary conditions require the presence of a few key factors: 1- the worsening of the masses’ living conditions, 2- their inability to go on in the old way, 3- their willingness to act (and not just passively accept dissatisfaction), and 4- a crisis in the ruling class itself, where even they cannot continue on in the old way. These objective conditions are present, and intensifying daily, in American society. I chronicle them in detail in my book, The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism.

We are faced with the first generations in American history to live lives worst than their parents. Precarity has become a general reality for working people, the majority of whom are a lost paycheck away from joining the 600 thousand homeless wandering around in a country with 33 times more empty homes than homeless people. Debt slavery has also become, in our highly financialized capitalism, a generalized reality drowning most working-class Americans. Hundreds of thousands die yearly for lacking the financial means to access medical services or overdosing on opioid drugs pushed by the medico-pharmaceutical industrial complex in cahoots with the government, the universities, and NGOs. Social decay is evident as former industrial powerhouse cities are plagued by zombified humans and rusted remains of the industries that once were the basis of decent working-class communities. The American dream has become a joke for working-class people who have more and more come to realize what the comedic-critic George Carlin once said: it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

But these conditions, although functioning as the prime matter for building a revolutionary movement, are not enough. Why is that? I turn to Lenin, who says that “it is not every revolutionary situation that gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the above-mentioned objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls’, if it is not toppled over.”

Like Sisyphus, the left of the last two decades seems condemned to roll the rock up simply to see it fall… rinsing and repeating continuously every few years. Since the protest movement against the invasion of Iraq, to Occupy Wall Street, to the Bernie Movement, to the Black Lives Matter Protests, to the current protests against the Zionist Genocide, the left has seen itself condemned to pull hundreds of thousands, and sometimes even millions, into the streets to express anger with whatever injustice is latched onto, only to then, after a few weeks or months, have everything return to square one.

I genuinely hope that the protest for a permanent ceasefire breaks this trend.

But if we are honest with ourselves, what fruit has borne out of the last two decades of protests? Did the Iraq protests stop the invasion and further destruction of the middle east? Did the occupy wall street protests stop financial speculation and overthrow the 1 percent? Did the Bernie movement win political power and bring with it the much-promised political revolution? Did the BLM protests actually challenge policing, the prison industrial complex, and the system which has made them necessary? The answer is not only No. The answer is, besides not achieving their desired ends, they have often accomplished quite the contrary. Movements such as Bernie’s and BLM, whatever still remains of it, were clearly just absorbed into the liberal, frankly most dominant, wing of the ruling class. They became what I’ve called a controlled form of counter hegemony, presenting a veneer of radicality on what is essentially a bourgeois politics that serves to reinforce the status quo with radical sounding language.
Giving up is, of course, not an option. The necessity for struggle is in the air. What do we do then?

I think we must start with being open to self-critique. Far too often even the attempt at doing so will receive backlash from those who are more comfortable with continuing the failures. Marxism is to dogma as water is to oil. If one is present the other cannot be, or at least not for long. If the tactics of the past have not worked, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and ask: why have the working masses not been won over to our side? Why have all the movements we’ve led this century ended in disappointment? It is okay to fail, but what is insane is to continue to fail in the same way while expecting a different outcome.

When questions such as these are tackled by the dominant left, the blame is almost always placed upon working people. Working people are not enlightened enough, too brute to realize how bourgeois ideology manipulates them, etc. While components of the narrative are true, the question is, so what? What is the point of communists if not precisely to piers through that, to win the struggle for the hearts and minds of the people – to rearticulate the rational kernels of the spontaneous common sense they’ve developed within the bourgeois order towards socialism, either producing active militants in the process or the sympathetic mass which it leads. In my view, the chunk of the blame for our failures lies on the left itself. On its middle-class composition and the purity fetish outlook it operates with.

Therefore, while we find objectively revolutionary conditions in the U.S., we have a deep crisis in the subjective factor, that is, a poverty of revolutionary organizations and their worldviews. Most of the organizations of the socialist left are governed by the professional managerial class, what in the time of Marx and Engels was simply called the intelligentsia. What were supposed to be working-class organizations, vehicles for the conquest of political power by this class, have become centers of petty-bourgeois radicalism, as Gus Hall used to say. This analysis is not new, many theorists have pointed out how, since the late 1970s, along with the State Department’s attack on communists and socialists in the labor unions, and its promotion, through programs such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, of a compatible anti-communist left, the working-class left has been destroyed and replaced by middle-class “radical recuperators,” as Gabriel Rockhill calls them. The U.S. State Department, as I show in my work, has been effective in creating a “controlled counter-hegemonic left,” a left that speaks radically but in substance always allies itself with imperialism.

This is far from a condemnation of intellectuals in general, but the reality is that, as it currently exists in the U.S., the dominance of the professional managerial class within socialist organizations is deeply alienating to workers, who are less concerned with their middle-class moralism than with surviving in a declining society.

On an ideological level, I have shown that this middle-class left suffers from purity fetish, a worldview that makes them relate to the world on the basis of purity as a condition for support. If something doesn’t live up to the pure ideas that exist in their heads, it’s rejected and condemned. In essence, it is the absence of a dialectical materialist worldview, a flight from a reality governed by movement, contradictions, and interconnectedness, and toward a pure and lofty ideal safe from desecration by the meanness of reality. This purity fetish, I argue in my work, takes three central forms in the United States:

1) Because a bloc of conservative workers are too imperfect or “backward” for the American left, they are considered baskets of deplorables or agents of a “fascist threat.” Instead of raising the consciousness of the so-called backward section of the working population, the purity fetish left condemns them, effectively removing about 30-40% of American workers from the possibility of being organized. This is a ridiculous position which divorces socialists from those working in the pressure points of capital. The purity fetish left, therefore, eschews the task of winning over workers irrespective of the ideas they hold. In doing so, they simply sing to the choir, i.e., the most liberal sections of the middle classes that already agree with them on all the social issues they consider themselves to be enlightened on.

2) The second form that the purity fetish takes is a continuation of the way it is generally present in the tradition of Western Marxism, which has always rejected actually existing socialism because it does not live up to the ideal of socialism in their heads. In doing so, they have often become the leftist parrots of empire, failing to recognize how socialism is to be built, that is, how the process of socialist development occurs under the extreme pressures of imperialist hybrid warfare in a world still dominated by global capital. In its acceptance of capitalist myths about socialism, this left acquiesces to the lie that socialism has always failed, and arrogantly posits itself as the first who will make it work. Instead of debunking the McCarthyite lies with which the ruling class has fed the people, this left accepts them.

3) The third form of the purity fetish is the prevalence of what Georgi Dimitrov called national nihilism: the total rejection of our national past because of its impurities. A large part of the American left sees socialism as synonymous with the destruction of America. Bombastic ultra-left slogans dominate the discourse of many of the left-wing organizers, who treat the history of the United States in a metaphysical way, blind to how the country is a totality in motion, pregnant with contradictions, with histories of slavery, genocide, imperialism, but also with histories of abolitionist struggles, workers’ struggles, anti-imperialist and socialist struggles. It is a history that produces imperialists and looters, but also produced Dubois, King, Henry Winston, and other champions of the people’s struggle against capital, empire, and racism.

This purity fetish left forgets that socialism does not exist in the abstract, that it must be concretized in the conditions and history of the peoples who have won the struggle for political power. As Dimitrov put it, it must socialist in content and national in form. Socialism, especially in its early stages, must always have the specific characteristics of the history of the people: in China it is called socialism with Chinese characteristics, in Venezuela Bolivarian socialism, in Bolivia it means embedding socialism within the indigenous traditions of communalism.  etc.  Kim Il Sung once wrote “What assets do we have for carrying on the revolution if the history of our people’s struggle is denied.” This is effectively what the national nihilists, rooted in the purity fetish outlook, do.

Their national nihilism, contrary to their intentions, leads them into a liberal tinted American exceptionalism, which holds that while all countries have had to give their socialist content a national form, the U.S., in its supposedly uniquely evil history, is the exception. Like German guilt pride, it is a way of expressing supremacism through guilt.

To put it in philosophical terms, there cannot be – contrary to the tradition of Western philosophy – abstract universals devoid of the specific forms they take in various contexts. On the contrary, as the Hegelian and Marxist traditions (both rooted in dialectical worldviews) maintain, the universal can only be actual when it is concretized through the particular. In other words, if we don’t take the rational progressive kernels of our national past and use them to fight for socialism, we will not only be doomed to misinterpret U.S. history, but we will fail, as we have, to connect with our people and successfully develop a socialist struggle in our context.

In every instance, the purity fetish of the middle-class left forbids them not only from properly understanding the world, but from changing it. It is no coincidence that the part of the world in which Marxist theoreticians find everything too impure to support is also the one that has failed, even under the most objectively fertile conditions, to produce a successful and meaningful revolutionary movement.

In short, conditions in the U.S. are objectively revolutionary. But the subjective factor is in deep crisis. Processes of social change cannot succeed if these two conditions are not united. For the U.S. left to succeed, it must re-centralize itself in the working masses and dispel its purity fetish outlook, replacing it with the dialectical materialist worldview – the best working tool and sharpest weapon, as Engels pointed out, that Marxism offers the proletariat. It needs a party of the people guided by this outlook, what has been traditionally called a communist party. Although some might bear that name today and tarnish it with decades of fighting for the liberal wing of the ruling class, the substance of what a communist party stands for, what it provides the class struggle, is indispensable for our advancement. It is the only force that can unite the people against the endless wars of empire that not only lead to the deaths of millions around the world, but also to the immiseration of our people and cities, who live under a state that always has money for war, but never any to invest in the people. Only when the people actually come into a position of power and create a society of, by, and for working people, can this fate change. For this we need a communist party, a people’s party. 

*This article was originally a speech of the 2024 PAS Panel ‘From Politics to Protest

Carlos L. Garrido

Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American philosophy instructor at SIU, Carbondale. He is a director at the Midwestern Marx Institute and the author of various books, including The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023).

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