“Antifa”, the working class movement and the far right

by John Reimann, North Star editorial board member on September 2, 2017

Scenes from the counter demonstration against the far right in Berkeley, Aug. 27

The role of antifa at the anti-fascist/anti-Trump supporters demonstration in Berkeley on August 27 is getting wide attention. But that role can only be understood in its more general political context.

Earlier in the week leading up to the equivalent counter demonstration in San Francisco set for Saturday, Aug. 26, the ILWU Local 10 had voted to shut down the ports and mobilize against the “Patriot Prayer” event at Crissey Fields. That would have been huge, had that happened. Consider:

Missing: The Unions
In almost all the protests against racism, against the police, and against Trump (e.g. at the airports after Trump’s Muslim exclusion orders) the unions have been missing in action. Their absence has been so constant that hardly

Ferguson community gathering at the QT lot after Michael Brown was killed.
A UAW member commented that his local leadership had told him “this is not our battle.”

anybody even notices it anymore. There are two main reasons for that absence: First is that the “progressive”/liberal wing of the Democratic Party does not want the social disruption of these protests. They also support the police. And the union leadership takes its political marching orders from this wing of the Democrats.

The second reason is that these same union leaders are granting concessions after concessions to the employers. They are doing their best to suppress any desire of the members to fight for their own interests. So they have a contradiction: How can they mobilize their members to fight the right if they are facilitating cuts to their members’ living standards at the same time? (That is exactly what we found when we raised the issue among union members of mobilizing against the racists as explained in this article.)

“Representing” the thousands
In place of mobilizing their members, the union leadership will sometimes send a few of their representatives to speak at protests like the one in Berkeley. Invariably, these union leaders boast about how they “represent 10,000 members”, or some such. This is met with great cheers, but the real question is: “So, why didn’t you try to mobilize them?”

Failure to Discuss this Question
Unfortunately, even the socialist left in general refuses to discuss this role of the union leadership. They never raise it when they speak and they don’t raise it in their newspapers. Instead, the speakers usually content themselves with thunderous condemnations of racism, sexism, income inequality and sometimes even capitalism itself. What also never gets raised is: What is the general path, the general trajectory, that the movement has to follow if it is to advance? What are the next concrete steps to be taken along that path?

Building trades leaders with Trump. Carpenters president Doug McCarron is second from right. They are not the only union leaders who have posed with Trump.

These questions can only be answered by considering the general objective situation, one in which confusion reigns within the US working class; one in which the US working class hardly exists as an independent political force. This is despite the increasing anger and frustration among millions of workers. The reason for this confusion is the absence of an organizing center, one which explains all issues from a class perspective; that it is up to the working class to resolve the problems. Such an organizing center can only be a mass working class political party. Flowing from that, the question poses itself: What are the next specific steps that can be taken to start to resolve this deafening absence.

Posing the Class Image
Imagine if the unions had a major and open presence in these events: Right now, the general image is that the right is made up of discontented and frustrated workers while the left is idealistic middle class people and crazed radicals. If the unions had a

ILWU Local 10 at Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland.
They were marching in protest of racist police killings.
If the unions had a real presence in these protests, that would transform the movement.

mass presence, this would completely flip the script. It would start to really clarify the question: That the far right, including but not only the fascists, represent the interests of Corporate America, the US capitalist class, and that the left represents the working class. In other words, the class issue would start to emerge much more clearly.

These are the sorts of issues that never get discussed. It is part and parcel of a general lack of serious discussion within the left on perspectives, program and strategy. This leaves a huge vacuum, and that vacuum tends to get filled with the Nike approach: “Just do it!” In other words, action. Any sort of action. It doesn’t matter where the action leads. What comes next doesn’t matter. Just do something, anything. And those who feel the most strongly should commit the most extreme actions is the view. That inevitably leads to physical attacks against the right wing on the part of some.

Trump Supporters
We have to be clear: Not all – or even most – Trump supporters are fascists. The evidence is that at least in some areas, some 30% of union members who voted voted for Trump. Not all of these workers are committed racists and chauvinists. It would be impossible to even propose trying to drive them out of the work places and out of the unions. Some of them can be argued with, reasoned with. Those who cannot, who are firmly committed to Trump’s methods, have to be defeated politically. In other words, their influence among their fellow workers has to be minimized. This can only be done by defeating their arguments.

The same methods within the working class and within the only mass working class organizations in the US – the unions – have to be used in the wider movement. The Trumpsters have to be defeated politically. This cannot be done by beating them over the head.

This guy was chased away after he tear gassed some people, according to reports. If so, he represents an immediate physical threat. But not all Trump supporters are necessarily fascists.

Fascists
It is somewhat different for the outright fascists such as the KKK, Identity Europa, the Proudboys, etc. These are terrorist groups. Their gatherings are not just to express a point of view; they are to mobilize to attack black people, other people of color, gays, etc – and the left (including the unions). The issue of “free speech” is irrelevant here. But even in this case, while their presence cannot be tolerated, socialists should oppose beating individual fascists to the ground, as happened in Berkeley on Aug. 27. Simply removing them, driving them away through force of numbers is much more appropriate. Instead, what approached mob violence was used. These same methods in the future could be used against those on the left who oppose these tactics. Not only that, but no distinction was made between just the general supporters of Trump and the out-and-out fascists.

There is another mistake being made: At both the events of last weekend, the issue was posed almost exclusively as being one of racism against black people. Of course, in racist America, all pro-capitalist politics involves racism to one extent or another and this must be openly opposed. But that is not the only issue. In Charlottesville, for example, (which was an actual fascist gathering) racism was the rallying point. But let’s remember that their two chants were (1)”Jews will not replace us!” and (2) “Blood and soil” (a general fascist chant). And the young woman killed was part of an attack on the left in general. Similarly, the planned right wing rally in Berkeley was planned as a rally against “Marxism”.

And historically, we must remember that before the Nazis started killing the Jews in Germany they first killed the Communists.

All of these issues need an open discussion as the background to discussing the role of Antifa.

Here are the two signs we carried at the Berkeley rally. The one on the right is a reminder regarding those socialists and socialist groups who directly or indirectly support Assad and Putin, as well as about the Zionists who come out to oppose anti-Semitism but defend Zionist racism in Israel.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

S. Artesian September 2, 2017 at 3:57 pm
S. Artesian September 2, 2017 at 4:07 pm

This…

“We have to be clear: Not all – or even most – Trump supporters are fascists. The evidence is that at least in some areas, some 30% of union members who voted voted for Trump. Not all of these workers are committed racists and chauvinists. It would be impossible to even propose trying to drive them out of the work places and out of the unions. Some of them can be argued with, reasoned with. Those who cannot, who are firmly committed to Trump’s methods, have to be defeated politically. In other words, their influence among their fellow workers has to be minimized. This can only be done by defeating their arguments.

The same methods within the working class and within the only mass working class organizations in the US – the unions – have to be used in the wider movement. The Trumpsters have to be defeated politically. This cannot be done by beating them over the head.”

….really misses the point and by the mile. Not all those who voted for Trump are committed fascists, racists, chauvinists? Maybe not, but all those who voted for Trump ARE willing to take the risk of fascism, are willing to tolerate racism and racists, chauvinism and chauvinists in the “hope” that things will be getting better for THEM, those who will think they will escape the brutal repercussions of tolerating fascists, racists, chauvinists. Not fascists themselves? Swell. But they are willing to tolerate fascists, chauvinists, racists, because SOMEBODY ELSE will pay the price for that “unintentional by-product” of their own “discontent.”

You want to think that that makes them “accessible” to rational argument, moving them away from their acceptance of Trump, of racism, of chauvinism? I think you’re wasting time, and effort. They’ll be won over, if at all, only to the point that the nazis are driven off the streets, and out of the working class.

And before we assume that unions are organizations that are adequate to the task of defeating the fascists, that is to say mobilizing workers as a class, we need to ask ourselves a) how many workers are in fact unionized b)how many of those that are unionized are members of police and prison guard unions c) exactly how did the unions perform in the face of previous mobilizations by the bourgeoisie, like Wisconsin not so long ago; like Operation Dixie in 1946.

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Reza September 2, 2017 at 5:33 pm

S. Artesian,

62,984,825 people voted for Trump.

So, unless you want to install a Pol Pot type of regime, you’ll have to learn the art of persuasion.

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S. Artesian September 3, 2017 at 1:47 am

Similar numbers voted for Romney McCain Reagan etc etc. What’s supposedly so unique, so compelling, that makes us think Trump votes are more accessible, more important, than those who have supported others candidates?

In Germany, how many voted for the social democrats before Hitler was appointed to power?

Do you really think persuading Trump supporters that Mexicans are not rapists; that Robert E. Lee was not a “great American” is a vital task?

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Les Evenchick September 3, 2017 at 9:16 am

John is generally correct, Artesian is generally wrong. That many Trump supporters are capable of realizing they made a mistake is shown by the polls that show a sharp drop in support for Trump since the election. Non fascist, non racist support for Trump in the election was large and based on seeing the Democrats as responsible for their economic problems. The fascist/NAZI views of Trump were not obvious to many who did not follow the news media carefully. To say that voting for Trump implied ‘willing to take the risk of fascism” is absurd. it inplies a much higher level of political consciousness among the masses than really exists. Just look at all the well educated leftists who demonized Clinton as a “war monger” for her call for a Syria no fly zone (a call that actually called for negotiations with the Russians). Were they consciously willing to take the risk of fascism?

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Reza September 3, 2017 at 12:39 pm

S. Artesian,

First, as Les Evenchick points out, Trump’s support has been diminishing among those who voted for him, as they realize what a disastrous move they made. Also as Les points out a whole bunch of leftists were advocating against Hillary Clinton; were they giving their consent to possible fascism?

Now, when I use the term ‘the art of persuasion’, it does not mean you physically sit down with racists and convince them that Mexicans are not rapists; although you *can* have that argument with a family member who votes Republican, and who is by no measure of imagination a racist. I know people who were interned as children in Japanese internment camps and who vote Republican.

By ‘art of persuasion’ I am talking about a *strategic* persuasion. It’s not just persuading the Republican voters (at least some of them) that’s necessary. But it is more necessary to gain more voters on the side of socialist ideals. Political work is many-sided. One side is to get more people to join your side, another side is neutralizing the forces of your enemy. Part of is also creating organizations that actually work toward achieving people’s demands, and so on.

As it is, Trump is doing a lot of the work of neutralizing some of his own voters.

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S. Artesian September 3, 2017 at 1:24 pm

I’m not concerned with whether or not someone votes Republican or Democrat; and I have no doubt that some placed in internment camps vote Republican, or Democrat, or supported the war in Vietnam, Iraq, whatever. But…whether or not they’ve been interned, and no matter who they vote for, and no matter their own ethnic background, anyone who thinks all Mexicans emigrating to the US are rapists, is pretty much by definition a racist. Knock yourself out, if you desire, arguing with them at your next family get together…but that says a lot more about family get-togethers than it does about anything else.

My points are 1)to dispel this notion that somehow the support for Trump represents “legitimate” grievances of (white) workers. It, he, no more represents that than George Wallace did when he won the Michigan primary 2) that a revolutionary [pick your own adjective,– radical, socialist–] movement has to “appeal” to so-called disaffected (white) workers who embrace Trump.

Such efforts are “labor intensive, low yield” from the getgo. You want to “convince” Trump supporters, they’re wrong? First you build a movement that drives the nazis out of the unions, out of the workplaces, off the streets. You build that movement among those who are willing to listen that the problem isn’t with individuals, as in which individual is president, but rather with institutions, i.e. the institutions of capitalism.

I truly doubt the validity of any analysis that proclaims that there was even such a thing as “non-racist” support for Donald Trump [please don’t trot out this or that black person who supported Trump; or claim I must then think the Democrats aren’t racist]. To argue such a thing is a bit more than cognitive dissidence, given that every word Trump spoke was a code for racism; given that the Republicans took the presidency and both house of Congress, and 33 governships (I think) and something like 66 state legislative bodies on the basis of 16 years of voter suppression aimed at African-Americans and gerrymandering also aimed at African-Americans.

To me such a claim of “non-racist” support is a textbook example of the typical US blindspot.

But to reiterate, my objection is to the notion that there is some validity in the “romance” of (white) workers with Trump-ism. Expending efforts to overcome that erroneous assumption is a fool’s errand… at its best.

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Reza September 3, 2017 at 1:48 pm

S. Artesian,

So, I will repeat my original point: Are you willing to physically eliminate nearly 63 million people? You think that will solve our political problems?

Talk about a fool’s errand.

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S. Artesian September 3, 2017 at 6:14 pm

No, of course I’m not willing to physically eliminate 63 million people because they voted for Trump; no more than I’m willing to eliminate the 66 million who vote for Clinton.

That’s a ridiculous question. The questions, which I raised before, and which you studiously avoid are about the blindspot in not recognizing the support for Trump as including, and intrinsically, support for racism; support for expulsion of migrants; support for voter suppression; gerrymandering, etc.

Instead of dealing with those issues, you’d rather ask absurd questions about prospects for mass murder, and pretend that has anything to do with the issues at hand.

Good luck at your family get together convincing yourself, and others, that your uncle who supports border walls, etc. isn’t really racist, but just a regular misguided working class schmo.

One more reason to avoid Thanksgiving dinner, in my book.

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Reza September 3, 2017 at 6:50 pm

Artesian,

See, that’s the problem with your kind. You think you’re the only person in the room without blind spots, while everybody else in the room is some misguided, closet racist or sexist or ignoramus. You think you’re the only person with ‘pure’ ideas.

In my book anybody who votes for EITHER one of the duopoly in power is misguided, and potentially racist, anti-working class, misogynist, and all the rest of it. The whole system creates those sentiments and prejudices on a daily basis. THAT was my point. You want to put the blame just on Trump supporters. I blame the whole system.

My family, BTW, is all immigrants. Not a single racist or prejudiced person in my family.

YOU however, are full of ignorance. Good luck with your wanking to your own glory.

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S. Artesian September 3, 2017 at 9:24 pm

The trouble with my sort? You go around asking “Do you endorse mass murder” as if it’s a serious question, and get your knickers all in a twist when somebody points out your’re talking shite.

You can’t answer a single question so you cop your faux aggrieved attitude and drag out your exit with a fine speech about the whole system; complete with false charges about blaming it all on Trump supporters.

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S. Artesian September 3, 2017 at 9:25 pm

My favorite part though has to be Reza’s pom-poming the notion of non-racist support for Trump, which is why Trump did so well among African-Americans, right?

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John Reimann September 6, 2017 at 1:04 am

Artesian goes from general abstract truths (sometimes) to concrete mistakes.

First, as far as the unions: It’s true that they’re a very small percentage of the workforce today in general. But in many major metropolitan areas, like where I live (Oakland CA), they are a major force. We should remember that when we consider the image that is presented on the two sides: On one side is the discontented, full-of-anger and hate white worker. On the other side is that enlightened liberal or foggy-headed radical. If the unions had a real mass presence at some of these rallies, that image would start to be shattered.

There’s another issue: The absence of the unions at most of the protests over the last few years (BLM, etc.) has helped along the massive confusion that exists on the left. It has helped obscure the link between racism and the class question.

Then, as far as working class Trump voters: Let’s not forget that nearly 10% of black voters voted for Trump and well over 20% of Latino voters did so also. I know a guy who was telling me that he has a coworker who’s a Trump supporter and this supporter’s parents are undocumented immigrants! Then there’s the case of Carrier Company. I read an interview with a worker there who said that after Trump promised to save their jobs all the workers, white and black, were wearing MAGA hats. So white workers do not have the patent on confusion in this country.

But granted, the confusion is far greater among white workers. That’s simply another way of saying that there are various strata within the working class and one strata is more confused, more reactionary than most other workers. That layer has increased in recent years, largely because of the role of the union leadership. So, if you’re in a union, how do you deal with that? Seriously. What does Artesian propose?

What Artesian doesn’t seem to understand is that these things are not set in stone nor is there an iron ring around the Trump supporters. The layer of working class Trump supporters expands and contracts. If I were still in a union (I was expelled for fighting for the members), I’d be taking up the arguments of the Trump supporters inside my union. I’d be trying to bolster those members who see through the BS, draw the middle layer closer to us, and try to isolate the die-hard Trump supporters. You cannot do that by simply denouncing them, without dealing with their arguments.

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S. Artesian September 9, 2017 at 12:53 pm

I appreciate John’s comment, but I think he’s got it a bit backwards. He asks “Imagine if the unions had a major and open presence in these events”– and then doesn’t answer the questions explicit in his imagining– why don’t the unions have a major presence; are unions capable of mobilizing a “major presence,” if yes or no, why or why not? Instead he provides speculation straight out of the bourgeois media “the general image is that the right is made up of discontented and frustrated workers”

There are separate issues here: Why don’t the unions do what John thinks they should do? And… how much support does Trump have in the working class?

I think support for the right among “discontented and frustrated workers” is much, much less than fantasized by the media, and is part of the persistent, historically prevalent confusion of “working class” with petit-bourgeois layers that has so characterized class analysis in the US. This obfuscation has much to do with the “small town”/rural “dispersal” that characterized significant sections of smaller scale US industry– and that, along with much of the smaller scale agricultural production, were wiped out in the 1980s (see the book Broken Heartland by Osha Davidson) and helped create a “politics of resentment” (excellent book by that name by Katherine J. Cramer about the the rise of Scott Walker in Wisconsin)– where a declassed and struggling rural petit-bourgeois wax nostalgic for their imagined past as “hard workers.”

Ain’t real, hasn’t been real in over 30 years.

The “left” to its discredit has then jumped in on the resentment of these elements and claimed it represents some sort of real frustration, some sort of legitimate grievance against……capitalism. Well of course the petit-bourgeois are aggrieved by capitalism. That doesn’t mean their REACTION is anything other than reactionary.

And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t elements of reaction among workers. In the late late 60s and early early 70s when I worked in Detroit, there were KKK cells in UAW locals. And George Wallace did win the Michigan primary.

We can ask a lot of questions here: Were all those who voted for Wallace, racists? Fascists? If so, then what distinguished them from those who voted for Trump? Did X percent of blacks vote for Wallace? etc. etc. but that’s not going to get us anywhere.

We do have to deal with this issue that John raises: “Those who cannot, who are firmly committed to Trump’s methods, have to be defeated politically. In other words, their influence among their fellow workers has to be minimized. This can only be done by defeating their arguments.

The same methods within the working class and within the only mass working class organizations in the US – the unions – have to be used in the wider movement. The Trumpsters have to be defeated politically. This cannot be done by beating them over the head.”

So….1: John is supposing that there is a distinction between hard-core Trump supporter and fascists. I don’t think that is a valuable, or even valid distinction. Trump has obscured the distinction himself in his statements and actions both before and after Charlottesville. Maybe John would like to think there is that distinction, but that sounds way too much akin to Trump’s own statements about Charlottesville, that a lot “of very good, very fine people” attended those demonstrations because of their concern about the historical status of Robert E. Lee, thereby ignoring exactly what Robert E. Lee stands for. John reproduces that very same obscurantist function when separating “hard core” Trump supporters from nazis, kkkers– right they’re just there, with Trump, because they really believe……….believe what? Mexicans are all rapists? That Muslims are all terrorists? The Hillary Clinton was operating a child-porn marketplace out of a pizza restaurant?

John then uses that false distinction to make a false distinction between defeating them politically, and defeating them physically. You can’t defeat them politically without neutralizing them physically.

And… 2) in fact, getting to scenario John imagines where unions might have a major presence at public events cannot even be imagined as possible without the unions confronting and expelling the nazis and KKKers and the “hard core” Trump supporters in their ranks

3) Instead of answering why the unions don’t have a presence, John suggest this: “The absence of the unions at most of the protests over the last few years (BLM, etc.) has helped along the massive confusion that exists on the left. It has helped obscure the link between racism and the class question.” This is exactly the sort of ass-backwards, defensive response designed to justify inaction. The absence of the unions at protests over the” last few years” has everything to do with the attacks on workers in the US over the past 70 years, attacks where the BOURGEOISIE immobilized white workers on the basis of race (anti Operation Dixie actions attacking racial equality) facilitating passage of right-to-work laws; where the BOURGEOISIE immobilized (mostly white) workers on the basis of anti-communism– and were AIDED either actively or passively by the unions themselves. That the “left” or BLM doesn’t make the “class issue” central is not the fault of the left or BLM– it is the result of the retreat of the workers and “the only mass organizations of workers– the unions” from programs demanding social equality; from programs opposing the bourgeoisie as a class; from opposing the foreign and domestic policies of capitalism. John is offering but another iteration of the cop-out that tells us “identity politics” have immobilized the working class, when in fact it is the capitulation of working class organizations to the bourgeoisie that has created a vacuum filled by identity politics. Material conditions, the bourgeoisie’s assault, an assault made more acute and sustained over 40 years, transferring wealth up the social scale, and the persistent retreat of the working class, and its “mass organizations” (although not quite so massive as only 8% of US workers in the private sector are in unions) determines the ideological entries into the contest. Those ideological entries don’t determine the material conditions.

Along those same mistaken lines, John asserts

“There is another mistake being made: At both the events of last weekend, the issue was posed almost exclusively as being one of racism against black people. Of course, in racist America, all pro-capitalist politics involves racism to one extent or another and this must be openly opposed. But that is not the only issue. In Charlottesville, for example, (which was an actual fascist gathering) racism was the rallying point. But let’s remember that their two chants were (1)”Jews will not replace us!” and (2) “Blood and soil” (a general fascist chant). And the young woman killed was part of an attack on the left in general. Similarly, the planned right wing rally in Berkeley was planned as a rally against “Marxism”.

Let’s be clear: The rally in Charlottesville was intended and functioned as a demonstration of WHITE supremacy. The nazis and their supporters were very clear on that even before the events. That’s why they chose the statue of Robert E. Lee. That’s why they marched in the attempt to intimidate and disrupt Cornel West and 20 other African-American religious figures who were conducting a, non-violent meeting, at a location removed from the statue; that’s why the nazis beat a black educator who had the temerity to verbally challenge their advocacy of white supremacy.

That the nazis are only too happy to attack Jews and communists doesn’t change the fundamental organizing principle of the nazis, the kkkers, and their OUTREACH TO ALL the “hard core” Trump supporters– white supremacy.

John asks what do I personally suggest? Ah yes, the famous “what trees do they plant?” question. Personally, it doesn’t matter what I suggest. But that hasn’t stopped me before, so first let me provide what I don’t suggest: 1) I don’t propose Pol Pot-ing any struggle anywhere 2) I don’t propose mass extermination anywhere– just so Reza is clear 3)and I don’t propose separating political “victory” over fascists, KKKers etc from physical expulsion of nazis etc from unions, and if possible work place 4)I don’t propose blaming BLM or “identity politics” for the confusion, inaction of the working class.

I do propose that working class organizations, such that exist, in workplaces where they exist, organize to defend immigrants– barring entry into the workplace of ICE, CBP and other law enforcement organizations; that those working inside unions agitate and advocate for the expulsion of all police, prison guard, associations from the union “umbrella;” I do propose that mass action be undertaken against the arrest of undocumented [and I’ll say nothing about the tactics that should be used]; and I would suggest that those who think unions represent the “mass organization” of the working class truly look at the small fraction of workers so represented and the actions those organizations take precisely to keep that fraction as a fraction.

And just to be extra special doubly triply crystal clear, I don’t suggest any sort of murder, much less mass murder a la Pol Pot.

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Keith McBee September 18, 2017 at 3:44 pm

Back to John Reimann’s article. “….that it is up to the working class to resolve the problems.” Isn’t that always the problem? It simply doesn’t, without being led by quasi-intellectuals, like ourselves. Which means it’s never really and entirely a workers’ movement. Never has been – not in Germany, Russia, Cuba, or anywhere.

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