Sobrina de Alguien
Translation: Alice Malone

Why can’t we be friends? (2023)

12 minutes | English Español | The Crew

“People who are genuinely convinced that they are moving science forward do not demand freedom for the new views alongside of the old, but the replacement of the latter by the former.”
 — Vladimir Lenin, What Is To Be Done?

Some people understand being in favour of something as a kind of thought act: it happens in one fell swoop in the realm of intentions, and it can be verified by a simple declaration of support. It is enough for me to declare I’m in favour of, for example, abolishing the patriarchy, or capitalism, for these people to believe me. But what if I’m in favour of a general objective and at the same time opposed to every specific step needed to achieve it? Let us start by imagining how this contradiction might play out in the context of a simpler problem than patriarchy or capitalism: water is leaking through a hole in my roof. I am in favor of the overall goal of stopping the leak, but I insist on some strange rules. For instance, I decide that only supernatural beings can handle the problem. Or I forbid anyone from walking on the roof while fixing the leak. Or people may walk on my roof, but I demand that they refrain from using ladders or any other tool to get up there. Or they may use a ladder, but only after climbing onto the roof, never before. So long as I am imposing such conditions, what does it matter that I profess my desire to solve the problem? No matter how much I see myself as enemy number one of the leak, in practice I am actually in favour of keeping it around. Therefore, just saying that I’m in favour of a given objective is not enough. My declarations carry weight only when I support them with a thorough understanding of the steps needed to reach that objective and when I allow these steps to be executed in the necessary order.

The example of the leak makes the absurdity obvious, but it’s not quite so clear when it comes to complex economic problems. For a goal as ambitious as abolishing capitalism, it is enormously difficult to determine what constitutes a necessary step or an obstacle. Determining the correct order for a given set of steps is no easier. Each political tendency within the left differentiates itself by what course of action it proposes as a solution to this problem. Anarchists see the existence of the State, regardless of the social class in power, as an obstacle to the abolition of capitalism. Therefore, destroying the State seems to them like a necessary step — the first, and sometimes the only one. From their perspective, communists trying to seize and wield State power are like homeowners trying to fix a leak by painting the roof a different color. On the other hand, communists believe that capitalist domination can only be fought by an organized power with resources and dimensions comparable to those of capital: a proletarian State. From our perspective, fighting for the abolition of the State as such is functionally identical to being in favor of capitalism: anarchists want to fix the leaky roof by making the hole bigger! Even if we limit ourselves to debates within Marxism, it’s evident that there are fierce disagreements — not primarily over which steps to take, but over the order or relative importance of these steps. The partisans of the Neue Marx-Lektüre [1] believe that the fundamental task is to abolish the commodity. Marxists-Leninists see this as a later step, or perhaps not even a step but rather a necessary consequence of the emergence and consolidation of an economic technology that displaces the commodity and renders it obsolete. Some Marxists-Leninists believe that overcoming capitalism requires first establishing socialist relations of production on which to base the socialist development of the productive forces. Others believe that socialist relations of production can only be realized after sufficient development of the productive forces, a large part of which development depends on subordinating capitalist relations of production to the political-economic rule of a socialist State. Even assuming perfect agreement about what steps to be followed and in what order [2], disagreements can arise regarding when to move from one step to the next. Some believe that it’s not yet time to move from political agitation to party building, or from party building to seizing State power. It’s difficult to determine when a given position follows from a correct and sober assessment of the social context, and when it’s a sign of opportunism. Implementing whatever solution impulsively, without having understood the problem well, is useless, but “understanding the problem well” is the eternal excuse of those who don’t want the risks associated with action.

Similarly, the struggle against patriarchy is fraught with disagreement about the character of institutions like prostitution and pornography. For anarchist and liberal feminisms, legalizing prostitution is an emancipatory act both politically and economically, a necessary step on the road to the abolition of patriarchal institutions like the nuclear family, and the best way to ensure a decent standard of living for those who live off the sale of sex. In contrast, communist feminists believe that not only do prostitution and pornography not threaten patriarchy in the slightest, but that these practices are patriarchy at its harshest and most obvious. [3] We cannot eliminate the patriarchy by defending its foundations. Similarly, there’s no consensus on what gender is, or whether it should be “abolished,” or what this abolition might entail.

Do we leftists share some general slogans and objectives? Yes. But we radically disagree on what constitutes a correct strategy to achieve them, and on the timing and order of the necessary steps. It is not only impossible to avoid these disputes, but undesirable. If we truly mean to eliminate capitalism or the patriarchy, we must study these problems seriously, and, having agreed upon fundamental principles, we must debate the specifics until one single conceptual framework and course of action prevails over the others. I think it’s right to be skeptical of both the intelligence and the good “anti-capitalist” intentions of any leftist who is too conciliatory and eclectic, since this attitude evinces a fundamental unseriousness. Anyone who truly understands a problem does not unquestioningly accept the validity of any old hodgepodge of picturesque solutions for the sake of making nice with their comrades. Anyone who truly cares about your house not getting flooded would never recommend that you invite a bunch of anti-leak people over to pray, decorate, and drill more holes in the ceiling, arguing that, who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and one of those things will work out for you. This is the intellectually and ethically irresponsible behavior of people who neither understand the problem well nor, in the final analysis, care whether it gets solved. Many middle and upper class people who define themselves as anti-capitalist or anti-patriarchal behave in this way. They declare they are in favor of eliminating poverty, but since this problem does not occur in their house but in a neighbour’s, they propose buckets-on-the-floor solutions like the charity of individuals and NGOs, a nomadic lifestyle, the escape to a self-managed commune in the jungle, or the welfare state. They cry out “totalitarianism” whenever they see the poor seizing State power in whatever imperfect way they are able to manage (get on the roof, by all means, my needy friend, but don’t touch that evil ladder!). The careers of these anti-capitalist intellectuals, their speaking engagements and festival invitations, are possible only because of the contradiction between their vocal advocacy for a general anti-capitalist objective and their violent rejection of the specific steps into which that objective is disaggregated. These intellectuals are given large platforms not because of the easy show they put on of rending their garments crying for capitalism to end, but because in theory they propose utopian non-solutions, and because they condemn with even greater passion Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, China and any other political organization that, by its socialist character and effectiveness, upsets the White House.

In conclusion, capitalism is not eliminated through expressions of anti-capitalist intent. Intentions are a necessary element, but they are not an end in themselves. They are a means whose main function is to promote the serious study of the problem in order to propose equally serious and effective solutions. For every situation and moment in time there are measures that would bring us closer to the socioeconomic transformations we wish to effect. Our task is to objectively understand these measures and determine how to implement them or, at the very least, recognize those comrades who have gone the furthest down this road and defend their achievements. The rest is hot air.

[1] An interpretation of Marx’s Capital that emphasizes Marx’s distance from Ricardo and also goes by the name Value-form theory. We at RS think it has produced some interesting results (such as its emphasis on capital as “automatic subject”), but it’s connected with some very questionable politics. — R. D. 

[2] Step one is to achieve hegemony such that a Marxist-Leninist viewpoint prevails among broad swathes of society, and to form a political organization capable of challenging the political power of the capitalist class. Step two is the formation of a proletarian State, which requires the study of the particular conditions of a territory and its society so that we can, on the basis of that research, select and employ the right tools and strategies in the struggle for power: Elections? Strikes? Rebellion? Why and when do we integrate each of these? Or do we exclude some? Step three is the administration of the State in such a way that it reproduces itself as long as it remains necessary to consolidate the domination of labor over capital, thus solving the problems inherited from the capitalist mode of production. For concrete examples of reflection on the first step, see Lenin’s classics What Is To Be Done? [web] and State and Revolution; for the second step, see “Brief Analysis of the Social Structure in Guinea” (1964); [web] for the third, Xue Muqiao’s China’s Socialist Economy (1986). [web] 

[3] From our perspective, one class (mainly men who are better educated and better off than the prostituted person) makes the sexuality of others available to themselves by spending money they just happened to have; while another class (mostly women with little or no education) alienates their sexual autonomy at low cost in order to get the money that they need to survive. Legalizing prostitution (that is, trying to merely regulate the inequality that lies at the base of the prostitutional contract) is to patriarchy what “capitalism with a human face” is to capitalism: a publicity campaign to white-wash the status quo without altering it. We believe the appropriate course of action is to use the State apparatus to drive accelerated economic growth and access to education, so that job opportunities are multiplied, and access to skilled employment is made available and democratized, thus allowing people to say Yes or No to sex in absence of the economic coercion imposed by the market, the husband, and the pimp.