Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 10, 2009

Reimagining socialism?

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 3:01 pm

Barbara Ehrenreich

The latest issue of The Nation Magazine has a number of articles addressing the topic of “Reimagining Socialism” with a lead item by Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr. titled “Rising to the Occasion“,  with four responses to it by Immanuel Wallerstein, Bill McKibben, Rebecca Solnit and Tariq Ali. Except for Ali’s article, I had problems with the others despite their value in taking the idea of socialism seriously. As the financial crisis deepens, we can expect more of this.

Barbara Ehrenreich is an honorary chairperson of Democratic Socialists of America, the U.S.’s official section of the Socialist International. Most of her articles and books in the recent period have had to do with the problems of the working poor. My most vivid memory of her take on socialism prior to this article goes back to a Socialist Scholars Conference in New York shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union when she rebuked the audience for not understanding the importance of consumer goods. Unless we could supply the X-rated videos and bananas that East Germans were now buying after their liberation, we had nothing to offer the working class. At the time I felt that this was a prime example of lowering the socialist bar, especially in light of the fact that people make revolutions in order to stop being killed by cops and the military rather than being able to buy “Debby Does Dallas”. But, more to the point, the consumer goods that East Europeans hankered for now seem to be a thing of the past under conditions of economic ruin.

In many ways, Ehrenreich and Fletcher’s article has the same kinds of preoccupations as her early 1990s talk. They still worry whether socialism can deliver the goods, but are much less sanguine about the power of the marketplace which seduced so many Marxists in the early 1990s at the height of Francis Fukuyama’s nonsense:

What is most galling, from a socialist perspective, is the dawning notion that capitalism may be leaving us with less than it found on this planet, about 400 years ago, when the capitalist mode of production began to take off. Marx imagined that industrial capitalism had potentially solved the age-old problem of scarcity and that there was plenty to go around if only it was equitably distributed. But industrial capitalism–with some help from industrial communism–has brought about a level of environmental destruction that threatens our species along with countless others. The climate is warming, the oil supply is peaking, the deserts are advancing and the seas are rising and contain fewer and fewer fish for us to eat. You don’t have to be a freaky doomster to see that extinction may be what’s next on the agenda.

In this situation, with both long-term biological and day-to-day economic survival in doubt, the only relevant question is: do we have a plan, people? Can we see our way out of this and into a just, democratic, sustainable (add your own favorite adjectives) future?

If the only relevant question is whether we have a plan, it is understandable why the comrades would recommend something like this:

Z Magazine founder Michael Albert developed a detailed approach to mass-based planning that he calls participatory economics, or “parecon,” and one of us (Fletcher, in his book Solidarity Divided, written with Fernando Gapasin) has proposed a locally based network of people’s assemblies.

Not having read Fletcher and Gapasin’s book, I really can’t comment but I can say that Albert’s blueprint is nothing less than the sort of socialism that I have dealt with in an article on Neo-Utopian Socialism.  In that article, I pointed out how parecon was a throwback to the 19th century:

In a reply to somebody’s question about social change and human nature on the Z Magazine bulletin board, Albert states:

“I look at history and see even one admirable person–someone’s aunt, Che Guevara, doesn’t matter–and say that is the hard thing to explain. That is: that person’s social attitudes and behavior runs contrary to the pressures of society’s dominant institutions. If it is part of human nature to be a thug, and on top of that all the institutions are structured to promote and reward thuggishness, then any non-thuggishness becomes a kind of miracle. Hard to explain. Where did it come from, like a plant growing out of the middle of a cement floor. Yet we see it all around. To me it means that social traits are what is wired in, in fact, though these are subject to violation under pressure.”

Such obsessive moralizing was characteristic of the New Left of the 1960s. Who can forget the memorable slogan “if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.” With such a moralistic approach, the hope for socialism is grounded not in the class struggle, but on the utopian prospects of good people stepping forward. Guevara is seen as moral agent rather than as an individual connected with powerful class forces in motion such as the Cuban rural proletariat backed by the Soviet socialist state.

Albert’s [and Hahnel’s] enthusiasm for the saintly Che Guevara is in direct contrast to his judgement on the demon Leon Trotsky, who becomes responsible along with Lenin for all of the evil that befell Russia after 1917. Why? It is because Trotsky advocated “one-man management”. Lenin was also guilty because he argued that “all authority in the factories be concentrated in the hands of management.”

To explain Stalinist dictatorship, they look not to historical factors such as economic isolation and military pressure, but the top-down management policies of Lenin and Trotsky. To set things straight, Albert and Hahnel provide a detailed description of counter-institutions that avoid these nasty hierarchies. This forms the whole basis of their particular schema called “participatory planning” described in “Looking Forward”:

“Participatory planning in the new economy is a means by which worker and consumer councils negotiate and revise their proposals for what they will produce and consume. All parties relay their proposals to one another via ‘facilitation boards’. In light of each round’s new information, workers and consumers revise their proposals in a way that finally yields a workable match between consumption requests and production proposals.”

Their idea of a feasible socialism is beyond reproach, just as any idealized schema will be. The problem is that it is doomed to meet the same fate as ancestral schemas of the 19th century. It will be besides the point. Socialism comes about through revolutionary upheavals, not as the result of action inspired by flawless plans.

There will also be a large element of the irrational in any revolution. The very real possibility of a reign of terror or even the fear of one is largely absent in the rationalist scenarios of the new utopians. Nothing can do more harm to a new socialist economy than the flight of skilled technicians and professionals. For example, there was very little that one can have done to prevent such flight in Nicaragua, no matter the willingness of a Tomas Borge to forgive Somocista torturers. This had more of an impact on Nicaraguan development plans than anything else.

The reason for the upsurge in utopian thought is in some ways similar to that of the early 19th century: The industrial working-class is not a powerful actor in world politics. Engels observed that in 1802 when Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared, “the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed.”

Isn’t this similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the word’s population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalized working-class in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1930s, an entire historical epoch. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemas are bound to surface. Could one imagine a work like “Looking Forward” being written during the Flint sit-down strikes? In the absence of genuine struggles, fantasy is a powerful seductive force.

Contrary to Ehrenreich and Fletcher, I would argue that the main task facing socialists today is breaking with the two-party system, not coming up with blueprints for socialism. This is of particular urgency given the fact that The Nation Magazine serves as the most important left support for Obama in the U.S. Despite trenchant criticisms of Obama, the magazine still sees its role pretty much as the CPUSA saw its role in the 1930s vis-à-vis FDR-as a kind of left flank rather than an independent political alternative. You can still see this kind of confusion in the Nation, even from somebody as committed to social transformation as Immanuel Wallerstein, who compares the MST’s support for Lula and the U.S. left’s relationship to Obama in an article titled “Follow Brazil’s Example“:

In my view, the only sensible attitude is that taken by the large, powerful and militant Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil. The MST supported Lula in 2002, and despite all he failed to do that he had promised, they supported his re-election in 2006. They did it in full cognizance of the limitations of his government, because the alternative was clearly worse. What they also did, however, was to maintain constant pressure on the government–meeting with it, denouncing it publicly when it deserved it and organizing on the ground against its failures.

The MST would be a good model for the US left, if we had anything comparable in terms of a strong social movement. We don’t, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to patch one together as best we can and do as the MST does–press Obama openly, publicly and hard–all the time, and of course cheering him on when he does the right thing. What we want from Obama is not social transformation. He neither wishes to, nor is able to, offer us that. We want from him measures that will minimize the pain and suffering of most people right now. That he can do, and that is where pressure on him may make a difference.

While I don’t want to take a position on MST’s critical support for Lula, there is a point that Wallerstein misses completely when comparing the Brazilian situation to our own. The Workers Party in Brazil is essentially based on the trade unions while the Democratic Party in the U.S. is a bourgeois party through and through. In the 1920s, Lenin urged Communists to back socialist candidates because they could only get a hearing from rank-and-file workers if they did so. But in 2007, there were no illusions in the Democratic Party worth exploiting. Most people vote for Democrats because they fear and hate the Republicans. In order for the class struggle to move forward in the U.S., a class alternative to the two big capitalist parties must be forged. Just as the Republican Party came into existence in the 1850s as an alternative to the two parties that backed chattel slavery (the Whigs and the Democrats), a new party opposed to wage slavery must be built today. That, not blueprints for a future society, is what is on the agenda today.


  1. What good is an idea that leaves you in a propaganda mode ad infinitum? I don’t know any serious forces in the trade unions that want a Labor Party. At best, the more class-struggle oriented may have some interest in PDA as a pole for the labor left in the Dems and the AFL-CIO, but apart from a hundred or so Trotskyist ideologues, the idea has no legs, however many ‘MUSTS’ you attach to it. Believe me, I would love to be proved wrong, but I’m an organizer and an activist, as well as a student of theory, and I have no interest in wasting time on it.

    Comment by carldavidson — March 10, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

  2. Carl, I have no idea why you aren’t in the CPUSA since you have their politics nailed down. Who knows, maybe you are.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 10, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

  3. You’re out of touch, Louis. The CPUSA is a tad to the right of me. Even PDA tends to make them nervous! My tactical approach is a nonpartisan alliance of PDA and Realo Greens, but if the Labor Party notion ever gets legs, I’ll be happy to join. Meanwhile, I’ll use other cudgels to breakup the alliance at the core of the Dems.

    Comment by carldavidson — March 10, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

  4. Louis,

    I have to disagree a bit vis-a-vis the MST and Lula. The PT is no longer associated with trade unions, and the MST has pretty much publicly broken with Lula, as I noted in a letter to the Nation on the topic. The MST, it seems (although it’s hard to tell–an activist friend who spent more time than I in Brazil thinks the MST support for Lula damaged them pretty severely; my less informed impression is that it’s more in the nature of a temporary setback) initially critically supported Lula, found the strategy came to naught, and moved on to critical dissidence.

    Lula has appointed progressive ministers in certain posts, but they are overruled at every step by the right-wingers. Brazil’s model is totally neo-liberal.
    Now, it’s true, the PT is an amalgam. There are still critical elements within it, more critical elements than their are in the Democratic party. But it has formally abandoned socialism, and many leftists have abandoned it for the PSOL, which polled 7.7 percent in the 2006 elections. Its candidate, Heloisa Helena, draws about 12 to 13 percent of the country’s voters in recent polls. Worth thinking about, especially with relation to the formation of a third party in the US.

    Comment by max1284 — March 10, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

  5. Make that, “there are.”

    Comment by max1284 — March 10, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

  6. Nice post… Now that Marxism/socialism isn’t a taboo subject we can’t let the dialogue be controlled by the Ehrenreichs of the world.

    Comment by Sky — March 10, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

  7. The simplicity of yr last sentence shows how straightforward could be such an agenda’s appeal. But the Brazilian case has an institutionalized quality–an industrial unionist structure stable or at least somewhat insulated (though also corruption-prone) for movement-builders to long-march through. I mean, don’t the MSTs efforts stand a bit on the shoulders of the PTs accomplishments along the journey from radicals to power-players?

    I wonder what civic structures exist that could offer traction (and perhaps some hint of stability in the face of serious system-shaking) for ‘wage-slave’ party-building?

    Comment by Doorworker — March 10, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

  8. I couldn’t agree with you more, Louis, that “a new party opposed to wage slavery must be built today. That, not blueprints for a future society, is what is on the agenda today.”

    Unfortunately, the liberal-left “progressives” in and around publications like the Nation, want “blueprints” and “guarantees” (that not a drop of bourgeois blood be spilled and not a line of the Constitution be ignored) precisely because they do not believe that opposing wage slavery, ie, capitalism, as a system is possible. Hence their endless infatuation with the Democratic party as the only possible vehicle for limited social progress in the United States. These are people who are more critical of Lenin and Trotsky than John Kerry and Barack Obama. As for Tariq Ali, for all his militant opposition to US and UK imperialism, he jumped on board the ABB bandwagon in 2004 and supported Obama as well in 2008 as soon as he saw the latter was drawing big crowds, ie, a new “mass movement.” At least the Nation crowd is consistent in its liberalism and reformism.

    Indeed, if anyone has “illusions” in the Democrats, its ex-radicals like Davidson and Co. who have made a career out of “organizing” and “theorizing” their burying themselves there. What they choose to do with themselves, of course, is no concern of mine. However, they are still able, through vehicles like UFPJ, to disorient, demoralize and demobilize the mass movements, in that direction as well. Now they are actually opposing marching on Washington against Obama’s wars on March 21st out of deference to the Democrats. Expect them to lay low on any issues where Obama takes positions that are almost identical to Bush on while raising a big stink over any small change issues where there are differences between both bosses’ parties.

    As for Carl’s claim that he and his fellow reformists are in the process of helping to “breakup the alliance at the core of the Dems,” that is, shatter the Popular Front by building it, such “dialectics” would put even Uncle Joe himself to shame. As Obama escalates the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, does NOT withdraw from Iraq, remains staunchly behind Israel and continues to dole out billions in welfare for Wall Street (while we get $13 a week), you can see how much successful they’ve been so far! Besides, having taken all the movements they control or influence off the streets and having helped insure that there exists no independent alternatives to the Democrats, they are in no position to “breakup” anything anyways. Or as we used to say when we were kids, “Carl and what army?”

    Comment by MN Roy — March 10, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

  9. Good grief, aren’t we beyond this level of argument?

    There’s only one reason I’m interested in the Democratic Party–that’s where the working class is, including it’s most politically active elements, and I’m talking about regular workers, not bureaucrats. If they were of a mind to be somewhere else, I’d be there. If you want to work and organize among these folks, this is where you do it. They’re not interested in third parties of any sort at this time, not even a labor party. You can shout your ‘MUSTS’ as loudly as you like, but it’s just so much ‘MUSTURBATION’ if it doesn’t resonate with where the consciousness of active workers actually is.

    The top ranks of the Dems are a faction in the camp of Global capital, even if it’s not Bush’s neoliberal bunch. I understand exactly who them are. At the moment, they’re desperately seeking neo-Keynesian options to get themselves out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves and the rest of us in. Some of these measures will help the working class in the short run, so we’ll fight for them, and then some, including some deeper structural reforms that can point us to socialism.

    Uncle Joe? Goodness, you really are caught in a time warp. 30-for-40, the labor party and the transitional program, right back to 1938!

    Well, keep it up, I guess. It keeps you busy over in the ultraleft cul-de-sac, far removed from organizing among workers. It keeps you out of mischief in our arena, where it matters to us, and if you don’t want to be here, it’s fine by me.

    Comment by carldavidson — March 10, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

  10. Yesterday, a friend of made a reference to the movie “V for Vendetta” while he was speaking of his fantasy similar to the situation of a reign of terror that you mentioned above. I responded him with paraphrasing Zizek, despotic violence and anarchist-terrorist violence are two sides of the same coin. But, after reading your post and immediately watching the movie afterwards, I’ve come to a different conclusion on our conversation. Far from being a daydreamer who is only capable of imagining revolution with individual anarchist terrorism, my friend is a well versed Marxist who sustains his radical desire towards communism not through utopian fantasy of how future communist society will be, but through the necessary revolutionary violence. On the other hand, utopian fantasies function to underlie the desire to maintain our innocence and virtue without tangling with the evil of existing order. Although it is not an easy task on its own account, resisting to become a sort of Christopher Hitchens requires a certain fidelity to the cause, in the last analysis utopian fantasy is an instrument to escape from the bitter realities of the radical desire.

    Comment by Mehmet Çagatay — March 10, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

  11. Fantastic article, and it really hits the nail on the head in terms of our tasks.

    By the way, Ehrenreich’s excellent contributions (Nickel and Dimed, for example) are really overshadowed in my mind by the fact that she chose to use her op-ed column that she had in the New York Times in 2004 to attack Ralph Nader’s challenge to the two-party duopoly (see: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D00E4DD123AF93BA25754C0A9629C8B63 ). In other words, she was given an audience of millions of readers, and used it to slander the biggest challenger to the two-party system and provide a left-wing cover to Kerry and the Democrats pro-war, pro-corporate policies.

    This shows the role that Ehrenreich and The Nation crowd play regarding what I agree is “the main task facing socialists today is breaking with the two-party system, not coming up with blueprints for socialism.”

    Comment by Dan DiMaggio — March 10, 2009 @ 9:48 pm

  12. Yes, the working class…and most of the rad-lib “social movement” milleau, unfortunately, support the Democrats. Only every time there is some kind of movement threatening to break that stranglehold, it’s Carl Davidson, Leslie Cagan and Co who can be counted upon to help keep it in place. They were all scared out of their minds in 2002, that with elections almost around the corner, ANSWER and NION were drawing tens, if not, hundreds, of thousands to their anti-war demonstrations, so they came up with UFPJ to get make the anti-war movement “clean” for whatever “Anybody But Bush” the Democrats came up with. They did the same in 2006 in order to “Take Back Congress” and really struck gold with Obama in 2008. Now that they’ve helped to ensure that there is no anti-war movement, Carl and Co, are out to keep things that way by purging the far left from whatever’s left of it, so to speak, to make sure that no one rocks the Obama bandwagon…just like they did when Clinton was in office. They already showed where their real; allegience is by boycotting most of the events protesting the Israeli onslaught against Gaza. Apparently that wasn’t their “arena” since the “Dems” are bigger fans of Israel than the GOP is.

    As for time-warps, it’s Carl and Co. whose love affair with the Democrats keeps them stuck in the Stalinist Fight-the Right, Lesser Evil class collaborationist politics of the Pop Front period, doing the same thing over and over again, even if they don’t work any better than they did the first time. While we “ultra-leftists” only call this reformism, a fellow by the name of Albert Einstein, more accurately described this methodology as insanity.

    The far left may indeed have its problems, something most of the readers of this site are certainly well aware of. However, Carl’s reformist “cul-de-sac” of burying himself (and those foolish enough to follow him) in the Democratic party not only has NOT gained them any real influence amongst rank and file workers, but will place them in opposition to them when they begin to struggle against the anti-working class austerity policies of “the top ranks of the Dems (who) are a faction in the camp of Global capital.” And they haven’t even influenced the Dems either, which is “where it (really) matters to” Carl and Co., as most of the Obama administration’s Bush-lite and Bush-smart policies show.

    Comment by MN Roy — March 10, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

  13. Well said, folks. Obviously there are fine distinctions that we need to make in better understanding what’s going on in Brazil, and it sure is hard to tell anything from this far away.

    But what Louis and others here have said about the retarding effect the moralizing of Ehrenreich and Davidson and many others here holds true. I could respect the energy that goes into working inside the “democratic” party if it really were about developing a strategy or tactics to work support away from the “democratic” party, but I’ve yet to see any effort that went in that direction that didn’t end up swallowing in whole the trajectory of “democratic” party leadership. I’m watching the same dynamic with community leaders in the local labor councils in Seattle who begin with great intentions, but end up tailing the “democrats” and Obama on practically every issue. It never fails, and it reaches proportions that border on the criminal.

    Take the issue of gang violence in Seattle, which is climbing steadily. The local chapter of Zulu Nation is an organization that has created effective anti-gang and anti-violence programs that are driven by youth themselves. They just had a national summit in Seattle in regard to gang violence and many other crucial questions that affect young urban workers. They drew 3000 attendees and participants to a youth cultural function that secured itself, and had no incidents of violence over a three day period. They have credibility with urban youth that no other gang intervention program in this town run by things like United Way or the Chamber of Commerce can touch.

    But are the A. Phillip Randolph Institute or the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists attempting to engage with them or dialogue with them? I contacted APRI at the request of a Zulu Nation organizer and saw numerous emails and phone calls to its local leadership stiff armed. They’re ignoring the organizational prospects. And the gang war rages on, and claims younger and younger casualties every other week. The “democrats” and their senile program comes first. Another opportunity to build solid defense and nurturance organizations between labor activists and among inner city youth is being pissed away due to energies lost on Obamaism. Is this being addressed? Sure, as long as it’s done within a labor council rubric that’s enforced by “democratic” party hacks. So the question never comes to the floor.

    This is the world that the utopians have led us to, so they’ve got a lot of damn nerve crying about how there’s not a program now. They get in the way routinely, they up their efforts to discredit independent working class leadership every election year. They make me sick.

    And on it goes.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — March 10, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

  14. Being a veteran of the last (1989-2004) Labor Party push here in the United States, I’ll offer a few lines from a longer article I penned in the wake of its demise; “On the Left we are prone to characterize the Democratic Party incorrectly. The Democratic Party does not exist. At least not as an organized structure with members, solid principles, and discipline for those who violate its rules. Instead, it is a cauldron of constantly shifting groups, factions, and personalities often working at the same ends, sometimes working at contradictory ends. It possesses no central nervous or circulatory system. In short, it has evolved into a reform-proof, multi-celled creature that can no more be captured than it can be killed. The primary means to influence in the existing structure is cash money, and the more the merrier. The Democratic Party offers to supporters a degree of influence commensurate with the size of your financial contributions.”
    As for the Nation effort, I respect the participants and don’t question their motives, but I find their lectures to be tiresome. Speeches and lectures do not organize workers, and certainly don’t steel them to be prepared for the looming struggles with both employers and governmental bodies. Does anyone pay attention to recent labor battles? When the members of my union — UE — siezed their closing Republic Windows factory in Chicago last December. it was a bold move that declared their complete vote of “no confidence” in the political structures, politicians, laws, and regulations that supposedly “protect” workers. The politicians came running to us – several helped quite a bit. The big banks finally conceded and met the workers demands because they are in a weakened position and chose not to risk further erosion of their position. Now, the plant is re-opening because the union has driven a hard bargain with the new owners. While some on the left might stumble around and believe that we won because of some politician or because of Obama’s stimulus funds, there is not much doubt in the minds of the several hundred members of UE Local 1110 that they have what they have because of their unified actions as a union in defense of themselves from poachers and predators on all sides. While we are not offering the Republic battle as any kind of “one size fits all” example for others, we do urge workers and their allies to find the next “Republic” and run with it. Labor’s Congressional push for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act cries out for such a struggle someplace. We have to cure ourselves of the itch to believe that we win because we offer the perfect analysis or plan. As a 30 year member of our movement I have listened to more great speeches and analysis while watching 90% of the militant activists head for the exits with few new recruits to replace them. The time for talk is over. Show me the organization, strike, struggle, something. Show me the capacity to lead workers in a worthwhile struggle. Then I’ll listen to the speech.

    Comment by Chris Townsend — March 11, 2009 @ 4:36 am

  15. Yeah! Why should socialism be reimagined when we already have the awesome template of 1917? It’s so simple: just make a Bolshevik party and storm the Winter Palace and everything will work out fine … like it did back then.

    Comment by Adrian — March 11, 2009 @ 4:56 am

  16. There’s only one reason I’m interested in the Democratic Party–that’s where the working class is, including it’s most politically active elements, and I’m talking about regular workers, not bureaucrats

    Where I’m from, the working class votes Republican. And they don’t do so just because they all hate gays. They see little difference between the parties and at least the republicans don’t patronize them with platitudes only to sell them out later. Things have changed a bit, as republicans have governed so incredibly incompetently, but nearly every time I talk politics at home it is just taken as an unsaid truth that both parties are hopelessly corrupted by capital. The same goes for the factory I work at now. We all might not agree on all social issues, but we all know the owners of the factory make money off our backs. I believe it is a difference in prioritizing. Some good activists find a niche and forget about class struggle. Next thing they know they are spending their days advocating within the democratic party to get more money for more arts in school. Fine, but it politically neuters them. Class collaboration simply doesn’t work for the working class.

    Comment by Graeme — March 11, 2009 @ 7:04 am

  17. Here is Western PA, where I am now, most union workers and younger workers, and almost all African Americans, vote Democratic. The GOP tells them to get rid of their unions, and cling to God, and everything will be fine, which doesn’t get very far.

    But you’re right, there’s not much ‘mass’ to the Dems, only little groups around the incumbents. Still, on a recent picket line for hospital workers cheated out of two weeks of pay, it’s only the Dem politicians who show up, and most of those have been union members or officers at some time, before being elected. The workers are skeptical of all politicians, but appreciate the difference they see. All the Dems, for instance, are backing EFCA, and all the GOP opposes it.

    Of course the workers understand the firms they work for make money off their labor. Why else would a company be in business? If it wasn’t making money, it wouldn’t be there. And of course, they’d like a bigger piece of it.

    I’ve been a part of just about every third party effort–Citizens party, labor party, New Party, Green party–so the claim that I’ve tried to prevent any breakaway to the left is just silly, and shows you know nothing about me or just make thing up. Likewise, I’m engaged in every outburst of class struggle here, and fan the flames. But right now, there’s zero interest in any third party. The more forward-looking workers did organize around Kucinich, and then Obama, and a good number did join up with PDA.

    You might like to have a different working class, and can carry on about what you think it MUST do, but they have minds of their own. You can bring more advanced ideas from without, and widen consciousness and forms of struggle, but you had better understand the lay of the land, and work accordingly.

    Comment by carldavidson — March 11, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

  18. Chris Townsend, would you please give a reference to your article on the late unlamented (by me) Labor Party of America? I was a delegate to its founding convention, which was devoid of democracy: the big internationals had the platform pre-written, and others were brought in to ratify it. The managers of the convention quashed a pro-choice plank (can’t alienate the UFW), an anti-death penalty plank (can’t alienate the vengeful), and an anti-armaments manufacturing plank (can’t alienate the munitions workers). The “party” resolutely forbade endorsing candidates–yes, that’s right, a party without candidates: the best invention since phone sex and alcohol-free beer. From the perspective of our delegation (from Buffalo), it began to look like a power play by the late Tony Mazzochi inside the AFL-CIO. The closest we came to democracy from below was when our local chapter ignored the national and endorsed a local progressive candidate. This brought Chairman Tony out to decertify us.

    All this is to say that parties can be as “utopian” (in Engels’s sense) as utopian theorizing: i.e., growing not out of actually-emerging social tendencies and contradictions, but out of an idealist or putschist fantasy. Where would a labor party begin today? I don’t have any good idea. Louis’s essay is a good critique, but the call at the end also feels a little utopian, or at least unfinished.

    Comment by Jim Holstun — March 11, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

  19. It’s all well and good to make the argument that since the bulk of the workforce is stuck inside “democratic” party organization that that’s where we all should be. I’ve worked along those lines, and still work with people who do. But the “democrats” aren’t going to be “taken over”. It’s not going to happen. We’ll get some minor concessions here and there, but that’s it. If Carl D. wants to put all his energies there, that’s his trip. But there are lots of us who’ve been there, done that, and are just as tired of his kind of anti-vanguardist vanguardism as we are of the sects.

    For those of us who’ve worked with the “democrats” previously, it doesn’t make any sense to “tail” workers who want to put all their eggs in that basket. It seems to me our task is to work in that wild area between the “democratic” party operatives and sustain factions that want to break with the “democrats” as their treachery becomes more apparent, and given the circumstances of the moment, those numbers are going to grow. For my own part, I know a few rank and filers who were true believer “democrats” eight years ago, who are now beginning to grow exhausted by the phoniness of the dems even as Obama makes his moves. These are folks who are going to make a difference in time. And there are connections to these sort of folks that have to get made within and outside of the formal labor movement.

    I mentioned the efforts of Hip Hop organizations like Zulu Nation chapters earlier because Zulu Nation organizers and other cultural fronts of urban workers, eclectic political mixes though they are, are going to be part of how independent organization and thought is going to get built among the working class, just as cults like Rastafarianism played a role in the development of Pan-African thought in the West Indies and among West Indian immigrants to Europe. CLR James and Walter Rodney both wrote about this sort of transition of sections of the workforce and Marx and Engels looked to build an independent working class leadership through critical observation of and interaction with “secret societies” within the workforce. Liberation theology in the Americas contained a similar organizational dynamic in terms of developing independent working class leadership.

    Organizations like Zulu Nation are a home-grown variant of this worker-led process, and they have more credibility with young urban workers than anything that will come out of the “democratic” party. Their more energetic activists tend to Green politics, and this is a basis upon which working class leadership can begin to build, provided labor activists are willing to enter difficult interactions with Zulu chapters who are understandably wary of political activists in order to work those activists away from the reactionaries who are out there waiting for Obama’s bank bailout to hit the bricks. Obviously tasks like this are more daunting to white working class activists, many of whom are too uptight for the patience work like this requires, and this is why many white left activists prefer the “safe” environs of Obama’s vision of “change”. It’s easier then working with the “wild ones”, i.e, black, latino and other young activists of color who don’t suffer fools lightly.

    And please understand, I’m not talking about “glorifying the lumpen” here, either. But since the issue of worker-self direction is central to the creation of independent labor leadership, and since groups like the Zulus are stepping forward at this time, I think an urban trend like the Zulu Nation is a very promising place to begin at this moment, and I think we ought to see it, and raise.

    Remember, please, that most people on the “left” failed to see the relevance of Malcolm X during his lifetime, and so were caught completely by surprise when the more militant splits began to emerge in SCLC, the Black Panthers, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, etc. I believe the Zulu Nation is another such teaching moment, and there will be others like it, but we need to recognize them and learn to work with them when they come along if we’re really serious about independent working class organization.

    Comment by MIchael Hureaux — March 11, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  20. Not willing to delve into any of these arguments at the moment, let me just note that the title of the SERIES is “Reimagining Socialism” and the article title is “Rising to the Occasion”. Despite my fondness for both authors, I don’t think this was the strongest article in the series and I think the parecon reference wasn’t warranted. I’m very pleased to see that The Nation, an important publication is giving voice to thoughts on socialism. They are to the well to the left of Dissent, who would have predicted that 40 years ago.

    Comment by Bhaskar — March 11, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

  21. C. Davidson appears on the internet everywhere anyone might get an idea that the Democratic Party is… well, what it is: an anti-working class party of slaughter, subjugation, empire. He claims he is being realistic, but he has said, in threads on ZNet, things like: “Obama has at least 3 million young people of all nationalities fully engaged.” This is the types of delusion brought to the table by the PFO crowd.

    Davidson’s personal delusion is that he “might be able to unite 5-10 percent of the working class around” his version of “what can replace” capitalism ” (a kind of market socialism) “right now.” He would take his place in history if this were true.

    His approach doesn’t lack optimism, it’s just directed towards a goal that brings us right back to where we started. Obama.

    Davidson again: “…the enemy is low-road speculative capital, the Bail Out Wall St crowd, and the supply side neoliberalism. Unite all who can be united around a progressive majority platfom to defeat them. That’s step one.” Does his description of the enemy sound familiar? Maybe like someone in the White House?

    Now and again the Davidson’s of the left will bleat their anguish for the Palestinians, the Afghans, etc. But these brothers and sisters are just a trade-off for… maybe(!?)card check? maybe a slightly better supreme court justice? maybe loosened restrictions on Cuba? (maybe not; see Democracy Now headlines today). There is no bottom for these “activists,” no floor below which they will not go.

    An alternative to the prevailing left strategy of sniffing around the democrats for scraps will certainly be difficult to implement, but I vote with Comrade Proyect that it’s a necessity. Comrade Hureaux seems on to something real, as well.

    Comment by jp — March 11, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

  22. spot on on Parecon…it is utopian in the negative sense, I am also not convinced that it is based on a careful look at the weaknesses and strengths of non capitalist economic experiments from soviets to Spanish anarchist practical economics in the 1930s to various forms of indigenous economics.

    such a project should provide a modest resource for a process of historical struggle….blueprints for a highly detailed utopian picture of life after capitalism seem problematic.

    Comment by Derek Wall — March 11, 2009 @ 10:18 pm

  23. Chris Townsend here again, responding to the thoughtful writer of comment number 18. Below is a link to one of the places where the article I quoted remains posted. The actual Labor Party versions are no longer posted, and many of my articles appeared only in print. As to the founding Labor Party Convention, I remember it well. Mistakes were made, certainly. My union supported Mazzocchi for the most part during the entire experience, since from the very origin of the movement we were harassed and attacked by left and ultraleft sectarians from all angles. If you were among those trying to launch abortion, death penalty, and anti military resolutions at the founding Labor Party convention then I was one of those firmly opposing them. The basis for unity of the several unions at that Convention was precarious; hot button issues, however important to sections of the left, were deliberately avoided. No “founding” convention would have been possible if anything more than a basic program had been deliberated. Major unions had offered ultimatums that if this or that was adopted, they were out… Many positions were subordinated or left out, including a bunch which my own union would have liked to have offered. As for the shut down of the Buffalo group, I also supported that. Whether you understand or believe it or not, the entire financial underpinnings of the Labor Party were endangered by your manuevers. That’s not your fault, it is the corrupt electoral laws (FEC and IRS) we were forced to conform to. In the end the Labor Party experiment failed (again) because of reasons too numerous to mention here. Among them, sadly, was the largely hostile or disruptive — and unproductive at best — roles played by the bulk of the left wing forces and individuals within the Party. Ultimately, the U.S. soil was too inhospitable, too toxic, and too devoid of enough nutrients to nourish a Labor Party sappling.
    Thanks, Louis, for your articles and allowing these dialogues.


    Comment by Chris Townsend — March 12, 2009 @ 1:02 am

  24. In regards to utopian schemes, I think it’s unfair to scream “utopianism” when certain post-capitalist issues are raised.

    “Despite the general impression that ‘scientific socialists’ refused on principle to describe the concrete details of the future society, Angenot has discovered that during the period of the Second International, they did exactly that, continually and at great length. Party spokesmen felt the need to provide these detailed descriptions of socialist society in order to rebut continual attacks on socialism’s lack of realism and to provide the militant with a concrete final goal. These descriptions are not packaged as novels in the manner of earlier utopias but rather are hedged about with appropriate qualifications (only a scientific hypothesis about probable future trends, etc.).” (Lars Lih, from Jules Guesde, Lenin, and “Orthodox Marxism”)

    After all, Volume II of Capital briefly mentions the replacement of money-capital with labour vouchers (a common post-capitalist currency shared by Albert-Hahnel and Cockshott-Cottrell).

    Comment by Jacob Richter — March 21, 2009 @ 9:56 am

  25. Actually, I am not surprised to see that the Second International began developing utopian schemas. This sort of meshes with their tendency to develop “alternatives” to capitalism, like co-ops, etc.

    Perhaps Jacob can supply a reference to Marx’s discussion of labour vouchers. I’d like to read what he had to say.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 21, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

  26. I’ll cite the Critique of the Gotha Program:


    [The modern comments around my quotation of Marx are handy, too. They speak of plastic cards and the precedent set by “food stamp” electronic benefit transfers in the US, as well as the fundamental error of revolutionary social democracy, not just Lenin’s personal error, on this subject.]

    “He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost.”

    “Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption.”

    And also Chapter 18 of Volume II of Capital:


    “In the case of socialised production the money-capital is eliminated. Society distributes labour-power and means of production to the different branches of production. The producers may, for all it matters, receive paper vouchers entitling them to withdraw from the social supplies of consumer goods a quantity corresponding to their labour-time. These vouchers are not money. They do not circulate.”

    Engels also talked about these labour vouchers in Ch. 26 of Anti-Duhring [http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch26.htm], but his thoughts are scattered here and there.

    [I will say that Cockshott and Cottrell did stretch the discussion when writing about what would replace the economic family in Chapter 12 of their work. But their focus on electronic labour credits is nevertheless crucial.]

    Comment by Jacob Richter — March 21, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

  27. Jacob, the Critique of the Gotha Programme is hardly about imagining how a future society would work. It was instead an extended polemic against what Hal Draper called katheder-socialism. On Cockshott and Cottrell, I am very familiar with their work. I don’t see it so much as a utopian schema, but as a defense of the labor theory of value and how communism might work in broad brush strokes. I am not opposed to discussing how a future communist society would work but there are more pressing tasks facing the movement, like how to unite the left against a hegemonic two-party system in the USA, etc. As James P. Cannon once said, the art of politics is knowing what to do next.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 21, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

  28. So what do you make of the brief remarks in Volume II of Capital, then?

    I take it you’ve changed your position on Cockshott and Cottrell? In your old web page, “It is the same vision that Schweickart, Pat Devine, Cockshott-Cottrell and Hahnel-Albert share,” “rival utopians,” “my favorite utopian exercise” (your explicit description of that work then), and “What I would no longer do is classify them as examples of Marxist thought” certainly comes across as hostile to their work.

    BTW, Cockshott and Cottrell have worked on programmatic issues for the here and now beyond the mere Keynesianism of, say, Hahnel (certainly their stuff on demarchy is crucial):

    [I also have a recent paper of his on demarchy]

    [I can also send you a completed theoretical work and programmatic work-in-progress of mine, if you’re interested. Part of “uniting the left against the hegemonic two-party system” (which is ironically better in the US, with the multi-tendency SP-USA and workers-only Workers Party in America, than up here with the NDP, Trot sects, and the think-tank Socialist Project) is the need to address broad economism.]

    Comment by Jacob Richter — March 21, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

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