OFFICIAL CALL FOR CONVENTION
to Work Out Marxist-Humanist Perspectives for 2021-2022
July 11, 2021
To All Members of News and Letters Committees
The heat wave that struck western Canada, Washington and Oregon shocked even the climatologists. Longer and hotter heat waves and broken records were expected, but climate models did not suggest anything as extreme as the repeated breaking of records by multiple degrees in many localities from Portland, Ore., to Lytton, B.C., killing several hundred people and sparking wildfires. Three days in a row, Lytton set a new heat record for all of Canada, ending up at 121 degrees F, an astonishing 8 degrees higher than the previous record. And then 90% of Lytton was burned up.
At the 1992 Earth Summit, world leaders signed a treaty in which they solemnly committed to the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” That level had already been passed and each year since it has receded further into the rearview mirror. We have reached the point where the danger is not looming, not imminent, but manifesting itself all around us—killing thousands every year; raising sea levels and destroying homes; facilitating the spread of diseases, even pandemics; worsening the mass extinction of species among all animal and plant groups, caused by globalized, automated, advanced capitalist production; contributing to famines; displacing millions of people from their home regions, and thus providing more fuel to anti-immigrant nationalism and fascist politics.
What are the capitalist system and its nation-states doing in the face of the climate emergency unfolding at a breathtaking pace? “Pretending to wage war against fossil fuels, while opening up brand new coal mines and oil fields and pipelines,” in the words of Greta Thunberg at the Austrian World Summit on July 1.
Far more frequent pandemics are one expected result of the climate and ecological crisis. The world response to COVID-19 presents a grave warning about how future pandemics will be mishandled, and how the climate and ecological crisis itself will be handled, as long as the capitalist system is in the driver’s seat. We will not take the space here to elaborate on the systematic lies and coverups, the false solutions that do little more than line a few pockets, the extraordinary steps taken to protect the wealthy and powerful (note shocking vaccine inequality between and within nations), the largesse showered upon capitalists and their businesses to cushion them from the economic shock while millions of workers are thrown out of work or forced to work in dangerous conditions. (Much of this was detailed a year ago in last year’s Draft Perspectives Thesis and other articles in News & Letters.) Let us only point out that all of these things are already happening in response to the climate crisis.
Both the pandemic and the climate and ecological crisis struck at a time when the world capitalist system had shown itself unable to extricate itself from a prolonged economic slump, and they deepened it. This is not likely to be vanquished by the temporary stimulus passed by Congress under the Trump and Biden administrations, despite the “sugar rush” recovery. That very weakness and the unrest brewing—especially among young people facing a future worse off than their parents, and now even doubting their future altogether—also underlies the system’s enabling of fascist movements, including scapegoating of immigrants or people from other countries for the pandemic and environmental problems. The fact that the mass-murdering terrorist of Christchurch, New Zealand, labeled himself an “ethno-nationalist eco-fascist” (and the terrorist of El Paso praised that manifesto) is an early indicator of the growing exploitation of ecological damage by the far right.
Despite the far right’s setback in the last elections, their pernicious power is seen in everything from the Supreme Court’s recent racist decisions on voting rights to the raft of ultra-reactionary laws being passed in nearly half the states. (See the July-August News & Letters issue’s editorial “Republicans savage democracy and history” for more detail and analysis.) Above all, it is seen in the way the January 6 insurrection and failed coup is being treated as yesterday’s news. Yes, some villains will be prosecuted and the select committee of the House of Representatives will conduct an investigation. But that is already a capitulation. They are unable even to pass a law to set up an independent commission to investigate January 6, let alone pass sweeping bills protecting voting rights and labor organizing. And even if they did pass those bills, who doubts that the Supreme Court’s extremist majority would gut them? Gone is the talk of reforming the Supreme Court, because it is a pipe dream with the filibuster in place, and unlikely even without it. The Democrats cannot bring themselves to eliminate the filibuster because it is more important to protect capitalists from some mildly social-democratic legislation than it is to block the wholesale destruction of democracy.
Keep in mind just what the Democrats are capitulating to. The fact remains that millions of U.S. citizens approve of the fascist January 6 insurrection and adhere to the absurd election lies that have become a Republican shibboleth. Trumpification has gripped the entire party as well as the state governments it controls and its factions in Congress.
All of this is occurring not just despite but because of the massive revolt that tore through the land in 2020, bringing to the fore a new revolutionary generation led by the youth, particularly the Black youth, particularly women of color and Trans, Two-Spirit and Genderqueer people. Climate and ecological struggles were revitalized by a new multiracial generation of activists and built on what a new generation of Indigenous youth brought to the struggle at Standing Rock in 2016.
Consider how todayish we may find what Raya Dunayevskaya wrote in the 1972 Call for Convention at a very different moment half a century ago:
“If Nixon’s mad holocaust can be considered not a holocaust because it is ‘only Vietnam,’ then My Lai is, indeed, only an ‘incident’! For that matter, for anyone to think that George Wallace’s primary victories are small potatoes compared to global brinkmanship, is a capitulation to capitalistic values. It becomes imperative to jog one’s memory—whether one was or was not yet alive at Hitler’s coming to power, when his blitzkrieg culminated in the capitulation of France without the firing of a single shot!…The continental ramifications of this capitulation were never fully faced by the Left in France, so that, to this day, the unspeakable downfall of the West’s greatest cultural citadel remains wrapped in the glories of the Resistance, when it finally did arise. It is a history that shows that delusions can kill thought as totally as bullets kill the body.
“It becomes all the more imperative not to let the greatness of the anti-Vietnam War movement keep us from facing the neo-fascism of Wallaceism that is now pervading every facet of American life—including large sections of the white working class, a few Black bureaucrats, and some of the Left who think they see anti-Establishment aspects in Wallace’s ‘message to the Washington bureaucrats.’…
“In a word, neo-fascism is ‘new’ only in its suddenly acquired outer garment of respectability, not in its ‘mass populist appeal.’”
It is precisely because of capitalism’s underlying weakness and the strength of discontent and revolt that its ruling class is ready to capitulate to new varieties of fascism, though they may be openly brutal, disrupt the “free market,” and even get a few hundred thousand Americans killed through incompetence, corruption, delusion, racism and self-dealing. In the face of revolt such as has fermented throughout the world since the 2008 economic crisis, at times underground and at times openly, ideology is a crucial weapon of the system.
Ideology—false consciousness, as Karl Marx understood it—is always operative in class societies. The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. In “normal” times, these ideas operate under cover in plain sight through their seeming naturalness, as he revealed in the section on “The Fetishism of the Commodity” in chapter 1 of Capital, Volume 1. The commodity appears as if it has a life of its own, driven by the need for value and more value—so that it appears normal that tons of food are plowed under during a pandemic while millions are going hungry. In a dialectical inversion, the objects—money and commodities, including machines in the workplace—appear as the subject dominating the actual subject, the living human being who does the work. These alienated social relations appear so natural that, as is often said, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
In a moment like today, those ideas become discredited in many minds. Especially among the youth, there is a growing rejection of capitalism and reach for socialism—which is why we published our new booklet What Is Socialism? At such times ideology jumps into the spotlight, propagating the most absurd delusions, demanding obeisance to them, and calling for harsh repression against opposing ideas, not shrinking from calling for the death of their proponents. All of this can be seen today.
Much of the Left and liberals are rooted in an earlier incarnation of bourgeois ideology, that of the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. Illusions abound that pointing out the facts of climate change, for example, can defeat climate denial, or exposing Trump’s lies about the election and what really happened on January 6 will convince his followers.
Marx pointed out that these kinds of delusions are rooted in “a state of affairs which needs illusions” and the point is to tear “the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man shall wear the unadorned, bleak chain but so that he will shake off the chain and pluck the living flower.”
Hegel recognized the contradictory nature of the Enlightenment’s achievement of using science to dismantle superstitions that upheld the old social order, and yet still building its culture on the foundations of an alienated social reality. The very nature of the Enlightenment cuts through old thought but presents a barrier to thought’s further self-liberation. The same is true of scientific institutions today and the way science and facts are used by Democratic politicians like Joe Biden to counter the mass delusions fostered by Trumpism. Even some in the climate movement advocate above all, “Listen to the science.” As crucial as that is, it is not adequate to solving the social crises that undermine and misdirect scientific and technological solutions. As Dunayevskaya pointed out (in her letter to Erich Fromm relating Marx’s critique of fetishism to Hegel’s critique of Enlightenment, Feb.-March 2008 N&L, p. 4):
“Despite its great fight against superstition, despite its great achievement—‘Enlightenment upsets the household arrangements, which spirit carries out in the house of faith, by bringing in the goods and furnishings belonging to the world of the Here and Now…’—it remains ‘an alienated type of mind’:
“‘Enlightenment itself, however, which reminds belief of the opposite of its various separate moments, is just as little enlightened regarding its own nature. It takes up a purely negative attitude to belief….’
“In a word, because no new universal—Marx too speaks that only true negativity can produce the ‘quest for universal’ and hence a new society—was born to counterpose to superstition or the unhappy consciousness, we remain within the narrow confines of ‘the discipline of culture’—and this even when Enlightenment has found its truth in Materialism, or Agnosticism, or Utilitarianism. For unless it has found it in freedom, there is no movement forward either of humanity or ‘the spirit.’”
The delusions and propaganda that recall the spirit of fascism cannot be defeated simply by countering them with facts implicitly grounded in a different type of capitalist ideology. The new universal required must be grounded in the movements from below, their actions and ideas, their reach for a totally new future, and the philosophy of liberation that roots itself in those movements both of today and historically. Anything less ends in capitulation. Our world on the precipice of interacting disasters cannot afford to get mired in more compromise and capitulation.
As Dunayevskaya remarks in her Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, the incompleteness of Enlightenment’s attempt to battle alienation set the stage for retrogression. “To go forward,” she says, “Substance had to become Subject. This is where Hegel comes in. The last three pages of the Phenomenology are an outpouring of ‘simple mediating activity in thinking’ where the whole process releases itself, History and Science, Nature and Spirit are ‘born anew from the womb of knowledge—the new state of existence, a new world and a new embodiment of spirit.’”
“This new world, which Hegel calls Absolute Knowledge, is the unity of the real world and the notions about it, the organization of thought and activity, which merge into the new, the whole truth of the past and the present, which anticipates the future.”
It is this grounding in freedom, this quest for universality, the transformation of Substance into Subject and the releasing of the new world latent in the old one that we aim to help come to pass by projecting the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism as we participate in social movements and battles of ideas.
For that purpose we issue this Call for a national Convention in Chicago this Indigenous Peoples Day weekend. The outgoing National Editorial Board will meet in Executive Session Friday evening, October 8. Beginning on Saturday morning, October 9, and running through Sunday, October 10, all sessions of the Convention will be open to members and to invited friends, who are given the same privileges to the floor for discussion.
We are asking the Chicago local to host the Convention. All locals and members at large are asked to let the Center know at least two weeks in advance who will be attending the Convention, in order for the host local to plan meals and logistics. Participants should make housing arrangements as early as possible and inform the Center.
With this Call begins a full 90 days of pre-Convention discussion. A draft Perspectives Thesis will be published in the September-October issue of News & Letters so that it can be discussed by members and friends, correspondents and critics, before the Convention. Articles for pre-Convention Discussion Bulletins must be submitted to the Center by Monday, September 13. Any articles after that date must be copied and brought to the Convention to be distributed there or distributed online. Discussion within our local committees and with all those we can reach is vital to preparation for our Convention and all our activities throughout the pre-Convention period.
—The Resident Editorial Board