Me and Trotsky walk into a Market Basket (Why I am a bad socialist)

I am a bad socialist.

Well, I don’t necessarily think I’m bad, but I can see why other socialists would think so. In fact, they’re quite justified to think so. Perhaps nothing sheds more light on just how bad a socialist I am than my reaction to this summer’s worker uprising at Market Basket.

For those not familiar with the story, a brief summary: Market Basket is a regional grocery chain in New England with 71 stores. Its low prices (lower than Wal-Mart), 1960s floor tiling and décor, and stores staffed with an abnormally high number of polite, helpful, clean-shaven, short-haired employees have made it a favorite among New England shoppers for decades. Its reputation for dignified treatment of workers, pay above the retail average, ample full-time opportunities, good and inexpensive benefits, and profit-sharing and pension programs has created workers that consider themselves “family.” Name badges proudly display years of service, and it’s not uncommon to see non-managerial employees who have made a 30-year middle class career out of their full time hourly retail work at the chain.

"I AM DETERMINED TO BE A LITTLE BIT NICE."
“I AM DETERMINED TO BE A LITTLE BIT NICE.”

It is a privately held company owned by the Demoulas family, which has been embroiled in a truly bizarre, decades-long feud currently manifested in a death struggle between two cousins named Arthur, both among the wealthiest men in Massachusetts. Arthur T. was the longtime CEO believed to be responsible for the chain’s culture of low prices and relatively good treatment of employees, until Arthur S. gained control of the board last year and ousted Arthur (“Artie”) T. this June. That’s when things went wild – the workers, all nonunion, staged a full-on rebellion, stating a refusal to work for anyone but Artie T. Procurement buyers in the offices refused to work. Warehouse workers refused to load trucks. Drivers refused to deliver loads. Store workers – including managers – refused to unload the trucks that did arrive. At present, stores are essentially bereft of all perishable groceries.

Miraculously, this refusal very quickly won the support of the public, which has been extremely committed to a full boycott of the chain, opting for more expensive stores instead. Politicians have gotten involved, issuing statements and attending employee rallies in solidarity. The outcome is still uncertain, but sales have plummeted 90%, the business effectively shut down overnight in a strike that has yet to be broken several weeks later.

"We demand the right to choose our oppressors, damn it! Is that so unreasonable?"
“We demand the right to choose our oppressors, damn it! Is that so unreasonable?”

If you want more than that, use the Google (or whatever anti-capitalist search engine you prefer). The Boston Globe has had excellent daily coverage, even officially coming out on the side of the workers in an editorial.

Right off the bat, here’s one glaring way in which I’m a bad socialist: when I hear of a business executive, however wealthy and evil, who treats his employees at least vaguely well (even going so far as to replenish $46 million in employee retirement funds lost in the 2008 economic crash, a direct hit to profits), and when I see these employees rewarding this treatment with courageous, passionate loyalty and family pride, I get all warm in the heart. It speaks to a fantasy I harbor about a capitalism that can at least be sort of just, resting at the heart of a well-intentioned and benevolent society. I suspect it’s a fantasy shared by many; in fact, I’m pretty convinced many Americans cling desperately to the notion that it’s not a fantasy, which explains a lot of the public support for the grocery workers.

Quite simply, I fantasize about how great it would be if capitalism were good. I know my fantasy’s a fantasy. I know damn well capitalism can’t be good. But I still wish it were, and that’s the sort of thing a good socialist doesn’t wish.

Applied to a more dialectical level, I grow tired of the notion that socialist political theory and philosophy is “scientific” or that conditions are ever “objective.” These are fine intellectual exercises and are quite likely very important, but an overreliance on theoretical materialist certainty boils down to a form of faith, one I see as not particularly productive. I am not now, nor have I ever been, convinced that the conditions of capitalism inevitably evolve toward socialist revolution. I am not convinced that anyone, thus far, has uncovered the One True Revolutionary Path from our present state to #fullcommunism. I’m not even sure I would want to consider things like politics and economics to be sciences, I’m not sure how to do so, and I’m not sure how it’s helpful.

Furthermore, I believe that most normal people who are not leftists do not operate primarily on an intellectual basis, which therefore makes such a reliance on this rigid kind of mechanical view of everything inherently limited. Sometimes I feel like shouting “Tell you what! You guys worry about intellectual materialism and I’ll worry about actually trying to talk to people.”

leon_trotsky
“Jay, you suck. You are a bad socialist.”

That’s where my old homeboy Leon, Comrade Trotsky, shows up to berate me in the empty dairy aisle. Now, I want to be clear, I love Trotsky. In that guy was not merely a brilliant revolutionary but the kind of thinker in no way limited by the confines of his own country or even his own time period.

A dear comrade, with whom I had been engaged in heated debate over the Market Basket issue, called my attention to some of Trotsky’s statements found on Marxists.org as “The Political Backwardness of American Workers.” It’s wonderful. That it is our job on the left to change the popular mentality and not to conform to it is a sentiment I believe with every fiber of our being. When he describes the “fact that the American working class has a petty bourgeois spirit, lacks revolutionary solidarity, is used to a high standard of life, and the mentality of the American working class corresponds not to the realities of today but the memories of yesterday,” it’s like he’s sitting in the room reading the internet with me.

“Naturally,” he says, “if I close my eyes I can write a good rosy program that everybody will accept. But it will not correspond to the situation; and the program must correspond to the situation.” I’m right there with him. He goes on to recognize something I consider utterly important, that effectively reaching the masses requires the use of psychology and complex strategy. When he’s pressed to cite strategy specifics, he talks about employing single-issue-based campaigns centered around clever slogans and pushing these campaigns in one city after another, infiltrating unions from the bottom up as the campaigns spread. It should not escape our notice that this is precisely the strategy employed to stunning (and still ongoing) success by American socialists with the 15Now! campaign.

The sound, timeless prescription doesn’t end there. Find the natural leaders among the workers, he suggests, win them over, and they’ll win over the rest. I agree, despite the fact that it’s much easier aid than done – and if it is to succeed, we will not win leaders to a broader program with a rigid doctrinaire approach, even if issue-based campaigns are victorious and popular in and of themselves. It’s not about adopting the workers’ bourgeois mindset or twisting our program to make it more palatable to the petit bourgeois themselves, but if we cannot approach our fellow workers in empathy with their mindset, however flawed it may be, we’re not really going to be able to communicate – and they’ll never trust us for a single second.

Trotsky might well view this as the ignorant attitude of a bad socialist. He writes:

“Our tasks don’t depend on the mentality of the workers. The task is to develop the mentality of the workers. That is what the program should formulate and present before the advanced workers. Some will say: good, the program is a scientific program; it corresponds to the objective situation — but if the workers won’t accept this program, it will be sterile. Possibly. But this signifies only that the workers will be crushed since the crisis can’t be solved any other way but by the socialist revolution. If the American worker will not accept the program in time he will be forced to accept the program of fascism. And when we appear with our program before the working class we cannot give any guarantees that they will accept our program. We cannot take responsibility for this … we can only take the responsibility for ourselves.”

This line of thinking reminds me too much of that adopted by certain unfortunate forms of Christianity, and as an approach to politics I find it utterly unsatisfying and shall not adopt it. If that’s what this game is all about, throwing radical truth bombs at workers, shouting “Take it or leave it!” and then seeing what happens, I’ll save everybody a little time. The workers are going to respond, “Cool, I think I will leave it, thanks,” and we will lose. Our time would be better spent getting high and playing video games.

"Please hold my glasses so I can dance with my old friend Leon."
“Please hold my glasses so I can dance with my old friend Leon.”

I mean, come on, he’s Trotsky, but he’s not infallible. None of the great revolutionaries were, and Comrade Leon has a penchant for sweeping, black-and-white declarations. Elsewhere in the recorded discussion, he blows right by the legitimate notion that we must not dismiss revolutionary possibility by overhyping the supposed differences between nations, dismissing all differences between nations. America is really the same as Europe, he proclaims, just a little behind. The future, in his mind, held only two possibilities – communist worker’s revolt or fascism (which was due very shortly in America and would last a few decades).

Well, that never really happened, and while America and Europe are similar and certainly intertwined, they aren’t the same. Successful worker revolts have occurred in neither the Old World or the New World, and fascism hasn’t taken over anywhere since World War II drew to a close. Instead, we got globalized neoliberal capitalism, which is horrible and barbaric and oppressive, but not fascism. Fascism is a very defined and specific form of government and political orientation, and it is not the same as what this is.

The lesson we should take here is that things are rarely either one thing or the other, and we limit ourselves strategically if we fail to remain open and adaptable to unforeseen variations on our informed historical predictions. Our success depends on strategic, if not ideological, flexibility. When a weak party spars with a much stronger opponent, victory will rarely be found in frontal open-field attack but in a careful neutralization and cooption of the stronger opponent’s strength while craftily avoiding being squashed.

This, in my mind, is how we need to think. At the very least, this makes me a heterodox socialist, perhaps even a heretical one.

Rigid application of old canonical texts, furthermore, precludes the imagining of updated tactics. We all know about how Lenin patiently explained his position to the workers, over and over again, during the early phases of the Russian Revolution, and that this is what very quickly grew the Bolsheviks from a tiny minority to the most powerful revolutionary faction. Yet if Lenin were here today, do you think he’d do his patient explanation in the exact same way? Or would he see the opportunities and the necessities inherent to today’s new media coupled with today’s weird labor climate?

The dispute I’ve had with comrades over this issue is ultimately one of strategy and not ideology. We all agree with the fact that it’s less than ideal that this worker’s rebellion has been hostile to unions and has as its primary goal – the reinstatement of a wealthy executive – the most bourgeois of possible aims. The disagreement rests on whether or not we should regard this collective action, therefore, warily and with some degree of disapproval, to even partially dismiss it as a “management-led strike” and actively oppose the reinstatement of the CEO. My view, if I have not already been quite clear, is that we ought to hold dear our reservations with regard to the strike’s character, while showering support and praise on the workers who’ve had the wherewithal to accomplish what we on the left have failed to do for decades – perhaps even a century. Taking that into account, I think we ought to factor in their bourgeois character as we attempt to interact with them.

Maybe instead of writing them off, we should talk to them.
Maybe instead of writing them off, we should talk to them.

Now, there have been moments in which I’ve taken personal offense when I probably shouldn’t have – the most prominent example that comes to mind was when my views led to my being presented with a reading assignment which I would be required to complete prior to discussing the matter further. It wasn’t meant as a condescending affront to my ability to think for myself, but maybe you can see where I might have interpreted it that way. I blew my stack a little, and for that I am sorry. It’s important to remember that none of us would be good leftists if we didn’t find ourselves regularly entangled with one another in heated rhetorical combat over the 0.5% (or less) of things upon which we do not exactly align. It’s part of our nature and our intellectual honesty, curiosity, and analysis can at times be an asset and not a liability.

I’m not even sure what the reading assignment was, since I didn’t read it (unless it was the Trotsky article I’ve been talking about all this time, which I would find comical), but even after weeks of wrestling internally with the issue, my position remains the same. Now that these workers, whatever their affiliation, goals, or lack of purity, have accomplished what no one has accomplished in generations, maybe we can start off by shutting up and listening.

I know, that’s a horrible thing for a socialist to say – I told you I was a bad one.

I don’t mean we listen to speeches from Market Basket rallies an disavow unions, or quit socialism, and become centrist liberals because the manager with the microphone said so. I don’t mean that we compromise principles in order to take up a fight that’s contrary to that in which we deeply believe and are committed. But when we see a wide-ranging, game-changing success story like this one, we’ve got to take the time to understand what made it so successful – even if it means acknowledging ways in which, strategically, we’re actually wrong.

We need to learn to talk to an American working class that is extremely, devotedly, bourgeois in its aspirations and character. Learning how to speak to the bourgeois and grasp what drives the days of their lives will not make us bourgeoisie. It’s not a virus you can catch. But it is a reality that must be confronted.

Relying solely on doctrinal formulae, we cannot possibly learn anything from the truly remarkable story of this bourgeois pro-capitalist anti-union business-crippling supermarket strike. I’m not proposing theses or morals or lessons, but I do propose that certain questions be asked and answered openly and not with a book report smackdown.

For instance, if these workers are against unions yet willing to put their jobs on the line in an indefinite wildcat work stoppage that grinds a whole company to a halt, is there something seriously flawed with the conventional union model? It’s a question we’re asking anyway, in other areas, such as fast food “strikes,” the failure of the UAW to succeed at Volkswagen in Tennessee, and, as always, the universal and unquestioned support of big labor bureaucracy for a useless and treacherous democratic party, so let’s turn that spotlight over this way as well. It’s for our own good.

If the middle class is typically apathetic toward worker struggles but has universally come down on the side of the workers in a near-total solidarity boycott, is there a way for us to win them over without modifying our program? Shouldn’t we at least be mildly curious as to the secret to tapping into the middle class sensibility? Surely, if nothing else, we all – even Trotsky – agree that the American working class is possessed with a solidly middle class mindset, which would suggest we have to grasp it and know how to handle it even if we don’t care what the actual middle class thinks.

If a similar labor situation is to rise up again, especially if spontaneous and sudden like this one, how do we update our approach in light of the fact that everyone now knows the Market Basket story? Will employers find better ways to nip such action in the bud, or will workers be emboldened to try and replicate what happened at the grocery chain? Is it possible for us to assist in replicating these tactics and successes while effectively radicalizing the arguments and the aims?

In my view, these are not tangential curios but speak to the very heart of our challenges today. I get heated about the subject because I believe that ignoring these questions leaves us little better off than Jehovah’s Witnesses. I fear that our insistence on the dialectic and intellectual over the practical and immediate will lead to our being regarded as lower on the outcast hierarchy than the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some days, I fear we’re there already.

So, ultimately, maybe you think I’m a bad socialist and maybe you think I’m not. I’m interested in hearing from leftists of all stripes either way. But I hope you’ll take me as sincere when I state in a final self-defense that, if I may be difficult to deal with, it’s only out of loving, passionate care for our struggle.

Now that I’ve gotten that out, judge me as you see fit.

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