Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 25, 2011

The Establishment Left shifts gears

Filed under: Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

Last month an open letter to the pro-Obama “establishment left” raised some hackles but it now appears that the intended targets are putting some distance between themselves and the President, as well they should if they hope to maintain a shred of credibility as progressives.

The first and most important reflection of this shift is a website called www.rootsaction.org that appears to be the handiwork of Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, especially in light of their announcement about the website on Znet today. Cohen and Solomon’s proudest moments in my opinion were spent with FAIR, a media watchdog organization that was very useful in refuting lies about Sandinista Nicaragua.

Eventually Cohen and Solomon drifted into Democratic Party politics and lent themselves to the anti-Nader cause. Both wrote articles in 2004 urging a vote for Kerry and quarantining Nader. There are also rumors that they were understudies for Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin in “An Unreasonable Man”, the very fine documentary on Ralph Nader.

In the last year or so, both have become vocal critics of Obama but within the framework of a loyal opposition. Solomon is a past master of holding Obama’s feet to the fire while making sure to maintain his credentials as a Democratic Party operative.

In a Counterpunch article dated April 6, 2009, Solomon proved adept at speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He warned, “In their eagerness to help the Obama presidency, many of its prominent liberal supporters — whatever their private views on the escalation — are willing to function as enablers of the expanded warfare.” But there’s hope for the progressives. It will help the Democrats if they disavow war and seek peace:

For those already concerned about Obama’s re-election prospects, such war realities may seem faraway and relatively abstract. But escalation will fracture his base inside the Democratic Party. If the president insists on leading a party of war, then activists will educate, agitate and organize to transform it into a party for peace.

I would say that the statement that “If the president insists on leading a party of war, then activists will educate, agitate and organize to transform it into a party for peace” makes about as much sense as urging Goldman-Sachs to order its partners to contribute half their income to earthquake relief in Haiti. Solomon would have been far more practical if he had written a letter to Santa Claus urging him to not bring presents to the White House if the President did not behave himself.

Most of the people who have lent their name to Rootsaction.org are the sort of people you hear at the opening plenary of Left Forums in New York. They are also the kind of people who have worked with Progressive Democrats of America, a group that habitually calls on the President to return to traditional Democratic Party values. I would have to remind the comrades that he has returned to such values, if by this you mean the record of DP President Grover Cleveland who broke the Pullman Strike and colonized Hawaii.

There was obviously a need for something like Rootsaction.org in light of the growing disgust with Democratic Party politics. By creating a voice that has no obvious connection to the DP, Cohen and Solomon will have more credibility with the left—at least those sectors of the left that can’t connect the dotted lines between their sordid Democratic Party affiliations and this latest maneuver.

Perhaps in an effort to give multiple voices to the left wing of the Democratic Party all on the same day, Znet also published an article by Bill Fletcher Jr. who is ideologically very close to Cohen and Solomon but with the added cachet of having spent some time as a Marxist activist. Fletcher’s piece takes up the question of the Obama presidency through a review of Horace Campbell’s “Barack Obama and Twenty-First-Century Politics.” Campbell, an African-American scholar, was a Marxist like Fletcher, but has created his own ideology called Ubuntu that Fletcher describes as “a means for cooperation, forgiveness, healing and a willingness to share.” Without wanting to sound too disrespectful, this ideology makes about as much sense to me as writing letters to Santa Claus in a world ruled by Lloyd Blankfein and Presidents who cater to their every whim.

Like Fletcher, Campbell blames progressives for the failure of the Obama presidency to live up to the ideals of the New Deal or other ostensibly progressive interludes in a long, dreary succession of DP White Houses that have much more to do with Grover Cleveland than FDR. Fletcher writes:

[The book] focuses on both a critique of Obama-as-President but more importantly on the unwillingness or inability of many progressive social forces to retain the level of mobilization that was evident in the 2008 election. Instead there has been an overreliance on Obama-as-individual rather than treating him as an instrument which needs to be pressured. Campbell, in contrast, points out the manner in which Abraham Lincoln was forced, through a combination of social forces, to become more than he had anticipated being.

This formula, of course, has been repeated a thousand times in the pages of the Nation Magazine both before and after Obama’s election. It assumes that if sufficient pressure was put on Obama, he’d have pushed for EFCA, effective measures against climate change, an ambitious jobs program, etc. Nowadays, you find virtually no such appeals because it has probably dawned on even the thickest progressive that Obama has much more in common with Herbert Hoover than FDR, or Abe Lincoln for that matter. Obama is capable of responding to social forces, as long as they emanate from Wall Street.

The remainder of Fletcher’s review serves as a kind of distancing of himself from the heady days of the Progressives for Obama website launched by Carl Davidson, where illusions in Obama were fostered on a wholesale basis. Fletcher writes, for example, that “Obama himself was programmatically not very different from Hillary Clinton.” Given this admission, it makes one wonder why he bothered to debate a Clinton supporter on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” radio show in 2008. Back then he said:

My reasons for backing Obama is that I think that on the issues that he is better positioned and that he offers an opportunity, beginning with his inauguration in 2009, to change the direction of the country and particularly to change the relationship between the United States and the rest of the planet.

In other words, the same pipe dream as Horace Campbell’s.

One hopes that the next time Fletcher will keep his early Marxist training in mind before making such an ill-considered prediction. One could have figured out where Obama was going long before he became President, as long as one looked at the social forces that had operated on him from an early age. The radical poet Franklin Marshall Davis warned the young Obama what was in store for him:

He studied me over the top of his reading glasses. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train you to want you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you that you’re a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they’ll yank on your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger, but you’re a nigger just the same.

(Dreams from My Father)

Finally, I would urge you to read Chris Hedges’s article that appears in today’s Truthdig. It is a quite penetrating look at the efforts of such progressives to distinguish themselves from the White House while refusing to break with the two-party system. Hedges writes:

Barack Obama is another stock character in the cyclical political theater embraced by the liberal class. Act I is the burst of enthusiasm for a Democratic candidate who, through clever branding and public relations, appears finally to stand up for the interests of citizens rather than corporations. Act II is the flurry of euphoria and excitement. Act III begins with befuddled confusion and gnawing disappointment, humiliating appeals to the elected official to correct “mistakes,” and pleading with the officeholder to return to his or her true self. Act IV is the thunder and lightning scene. Liberals strut across the stage in faux moral outrage, delivering empty threats of vengeance. And then there is Act V. This act is the most pathetic. It is as much farce as tragedy. Liberals—frightened back into submission by the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party or the call to be practical—begin the drama all over again.

We are now in Act IV, the one where the liberal class postures like the cowardly policemen in “The Pirates of Penzance.” Liberals promise battle. They talk of glory and honor. They vow not to abandon their core liberal values. They rouse themselves, like the terrified policemen who have no intention of fighting the pirates, with the bugle call of “Tarantara!” This scene is the most painful to watch. It is a window into how hollow, vacuous and powerless liberals and liberal institutions including labor, the liberal church, the press, the arts, universities and the Democratic Party have become. They fight for nothing. They stand for nothing. And at a moment when we desperately need citizens and institutions willing to stand up against corporate forces for the core liberal values, values that make a democracy possible, we get the ridiculous chatter and noise of the liberal class.

The moral outrage of the liberal class, a specialty of MSNBC, groups such as Progressives for Obama and MoveOn.org, is built around the absurd language of personal narrative—as if Barack Obama ever wanted to or could defy the interests of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase or General Electric. The liberal class refuses to directly confront the dead hand of corporate power that is rapidly transforming America into a brutal feudal state. To name this power, to admit that it has a death grip on our political process, our systems of information, our artistic and religious expression, our education, and has successfully emasculated popular movements, including labor, is to admit that the only weapons we have left are acts of civil disobedience. And civil disobedience is difficult, uncomfortable and lonely. It requires us to step outside the formal systems of power and trust in acts that are marginal, often unrecognized and have no hope of immediate success.



  1. Excellent, Louis. These liberal and pseudo-Marxist putzes are part of the problem and why progress is so elusive in the USA. There will never be any progress until the Democrat Party stops winning elections, and these apologists for the historical party of war are dreaming with they eyes open in trying to influence such a criminal enterprise over which Wall Street exerts influence that negates their own many times over. The ruling class has more smarts than they do, by far. Fronting Obama was a smart move, but I doubt that hoodwinking lefties like these was its main goal. Their role is to whitewash the crimes of imperialism and tailend and apologize for the crimes of the ruling class. Nobody who ever thought they could “take over” the Democrat Party ever did anything more than wind up captured by it.

    Comment by David Thorstad — January 25, 2011 @ 8:49 pm

  2. Seen, David. The Obamian trend is the best thing the ruling houses of this country have come up with since Reagan. Talk about the Teflon candidate.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — January 25, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

  3. so Soloman, Fletcher, Hayden and others march onward into a well deserved obscurity, masked by the continued availability of the pages of The Nation to their recycled blather

    on a more serious note, there is the question as to how to subject the pro-Obama liberal scene to a more rigorous class analysis, who are they, who do they represent, and, what can we conclude from the answers to these questions

    at the end of th day, I think that we will discover that many of them personally benefit from the policies that they publicly condemn, as the liberals of the college town where I used to live, Davis, California, benefitted from the neoliberalism of Reagan and Clinton

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 25, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

  4. “..at a moment when we desperately need citizens and institutions willing to stand up against corporate forces for the core liberal values, values that make a democracy possible, we get the ridiculous chatter and noise of the liberal class.

    “The moral outrage of the liberal class, a specialty of MSNBC, groups such as Progressives for Obama and MoveOn.org, is built around the absurd language of personal narrative….”

    Exactly, and the same will apply to us “oppositionists” as well, so long as we fancy that we can have a “dialogue” with those listed in both Louis’ article and the misbegotten “Letter to the Establishment Left”. The Obama moment is the definitive point at which we must part ways with them. The ball is in their court; they can leave the Democratic Party at any time, but they will have to do so – or not, as I believe – on their own, as have Hedges and Paul Street. For us to relate ourselves to them in any other way would to be to also believe in a Santa Claus and sugar plum fairies.

    I want in particular to underline two key expressions contained in the the Hedges passage quoted above: “institutions” versus “personal narrative”. As I’ve said over and over ad nauseum, the fundamental problem of U.S. leftism today is that there IS NO organized mass (or even “mass vanguard”) Left based on any kind of minimal common program – only a (considerable) mass of individualized leftists (including the inconsequential, because ‘non-massive’, sects). U.S. leftism is even below the level of political development of the pre-WWI European Left in its debates over “minimum” vs. “maximum” program, since we don’t have organized agreement on what the “minimum” should be. (This leads me to think that, once such a movement gets going, we have to jump right into a “transitional program” modus operandi).

    The result should not surprise: certain of the individual leftists pursue careers as such. That’s the only reason they can never break with the Democratic Party – it would mean the end of their careers as Huffn’Puff pundits or Soros sponsored think tankers and whatnot. Like Paul Street, they’d have a harder time getting air time on ‘Democracy Now!’. They wouldn’t get invitations to “certain” social events. That, btw, is the fallacy and error behind the titling of “The Letter..” – there is no “Establishment Left” since there is no ORGANIZED Left, only membership or allegiance to the right wing Democratic Party. Therefore the intended recipients could indeed legitimately feign “offense” at the mislabeling and use this to disguise the real basis for their refusal to participate in the White House action: the “personal narrative” of the career!

    So let’s wash our hands of these, finally. If some of them do actually individually break with the Democrats, we can welcome them, but until then they are safely ignored – for the same reason the Democrats ignore them when they are not gratuitously insulting them. They are otherwise doomed. Obama has made that crystal clear.

    An interesting side note on the concept of “Cleveland Democrats” and that poorly politically understood era generally. Grover Cleveland was one of the “Bourbon Democrats” (a very political reference to the late French monarchy and not the American drink) who dominated the Democratic Party at the Federal level. The basis for their domination lay in the revived, “redeemed” class of large landowners in the ex-Confederate South after the end of Reconstruction in 1876, now based upon sharecropper exploitation via rent appropriation rather than on slavery (hence the central failure of Reconstruction was to not expropriate the lands of the former plantation owners, emphasizing again the underrated importance of landed property in political economy). Atop this basis there operated the traditional mercantile and allied financial bourgeoisie centered in New York City and thereby exercising political influence throughout New York State, then by far the most populous state in the U.S, with the City being also the largest and most technically advanced and diverse manufacturing center in the U.S. as well.

    The northern Bourbon Democrats were dogmatic low tariff free traders with an uneasy relationship with the Tammany machine. In the 1890’s they lost control of the national Democratic Party to the Bryanites, as also their NYC social basis was eclipsed by the new JP Morgan style financial-industrial combines also centralized in NYC and concentrated in the McKinleyite Republican Party. But they continued as a major tendency at the federal level, temporarily regaining control over the Presidential nomination in 1904. Woodrow Wilson originated as a Bourbon Democrat.

    Therefore in Clinton-Obama the federal Democratic Party can been seen as returning to its real, traditional ideological home and the ” New Deal liberal” Democratic Party can now be seen in retrospect as having been an aberration, just as the postwar reorganization of capitalism under the American hegemony was a temporary aberration, a counter-tendency in the long term historical trajectory of capitalism.

    Only today’s Bourbon Democrats operate without the solid social basis they relied upon in the past. Rather they rest upon a volatile alliance of transnational and finance capital with little interest in the development of the domestic U.S. economy.

    Comment by Matt — January 25, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

  5. I’m not sure whom I’m voting for in the next election–I just know my candidate will be an anti-Democratic spoiler.

    But given the fact that we’re fucked into a two-party system from the constitutional git-go, what’s the next step? Don’t get me wrong–I’d be delighted to see the Democratic Party destroyed, but “the worse, the better” is a suicidal mantra. How do we get a better party going? What are the precedents? Free association of the direct producers, yes, of course, as a guiding principle, but to get there, what?

    Recent third-party debacles like the disgusting Labor Party of America are not encouraging.

    Comment by Jim Holstun — January 25, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

  6. thanks, Matt, for a nice essay. You probably know GAbriel Kolko’s book The Triumph of Conservatism, which proves there never was such a thing as citizen-oriented, or anti-business Progressivism, but business-sponsored reform of itself to regulate its own self-destructive competitiveness.

    Comment by senecal — January 26, 2011 @ 3:54 am

  7. This site has been very critical of Obama’s performance.

    Comment by Gene — January 26, 2011 @ 5:15 am

  8. Matt you write “So let’s wash our hands of these, finally. If some of them do actually individually break with the Democrats, we can welcome them, but until then they are safely ignored – for the same reason the Democrats ignore them when they are not gratuitously insulting them. They are otherwise doomed. Obama has made that crystal clear.”

    Who is “we” who is welcoming them? Your essay points to the absence of any organized left outside of the Democratic party, so is the “we” the people who read this blog? I appreciate Proyect’s call for civil disobedience but in what direction, to what end? Obama’s health care project benefitted insurance companies enormously, but also expanded Medicaid for millions and will (according to the CBO) ultimately provide health care for over 30 million people. Is this relevant at all? Would this have happened under a Republican administration?

    Look I understand the necessity of attacks upon “liberals” and the like, but if the alternative is random “civil disobedience” and/or small sectarian grouplets who believe they have all the answers because they know all of the details of the Russian revolution and have memorized Trotsky and we would have had a revolution by now IF only left leaders had applied the right tactics then it seems that the only real options available is to drop out of the political process all together OR support the Democrats.



    Comment by Will — January 26, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

  9. For example, I have long had this fantasy of bringing the leaders/central activists of the Green Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Equality Party, the Revolutionary Workers Party (I think thats the name, the party with that funky leader who is “missing”), Sanders supporters, the Peace and Freedom party (if they are still around) into a room and have them commit to minimal and maximum program that they could agree upon as well as commit to the unfication of their resources/members to this agenda….I would be ready to sign up today.



    Comment by Will — January 26, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

  10. Will, I’d refer you to the website of Physicians for a National Health Plan at http://www.pnhp.org/ for a look at why obama’s insurance industry giveaway should not have passed.

    the problem with ‘committing to minimal and maximum programs’ is that the left tied to the D’s has NO minimal program. It has devolved into perpetual support of the ‘least worst,’ which leads predicatbly to the worst getting worse [yup] each election cycle, until we arrive at the hideous spectacle of ‘leftists’ eagerly supporting a mass murderer politically to the right of richard nixon.

    Comment by jp — January 26, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

  11. Louis, will you ever get over your love affair with Nader? You rail on about leftists who drift into the Democratic Party, but then you spend a huge chunk of your time here promoting a pro-war, anti-union, nationalist politician.

    Comment by The Idiot — January 26, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

  12. JP,

    Thanks for the link on health care, so you support the project of a single-payer health care plan and the Democrats who support it? http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:HR00676:@@@P Or are these co-sponsors of the legislation part of this “hideous spectacle”? Thanks.


    Comment by Will — January 26, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

  13. Will,

    you must be talking about those Democrats who would swerve their cars into trees to avoid hitting a squirrel, but have no qualms pulling the trigger on billions to slaughter our sisters and brothers on the other side of the world.

    i support no Democrat (that’s zero) who supports (that means vote for, even while claiming opposition to) imperial slaughter for the rest of the world, or wage/debt/prison slavery at home.

    that answers your question; here’s mine: if the sisters, brothers and children those Democrats vote to slaughter were across the street from you, or over in the next town, would it still be ok to vote for them as the least worst to get your awful insurance bill? or is it only ok if the slaughter is sufficiently far away?

    Comment by jp — January 26, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

  14. Here in the UK, Obama is very much softballed by the mainstream media. Reading Americans, it appears he’s hated by way more people than our liberal commentators would care to admit (who largely make out it’s just a Tea Party obsession).

    But Obama seems to be having as weird an effect on your ‘left-liberal’ establishment as Tony Blair did here, where supposed media ‘leftists’ got into crazy contortions to justify his various atrocities. Like Blair, he seems to have repositoned ‘the centre’ into a suffocating right-wing corner, paving the way for further scorched-earth craziness from the oppositon party that followed.

    Comment by W.Kasper — January 26, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

  15. I like your breakdown of how the class system has historically functioned within both political parties, Matt, and particularly your posit that the New Deal was an abberation. That’s very real, given how easy it was for the later generations of capital to destroy their only serious effort at the construction of a viable social contract during the 20th and early 21st century. Nice use of the dialectical method, I thought. By default, I think, that puts the working class right back at the center of the question, where we belong. Like you, I’m not sure where we go from here- but having some clarity on the shifting variables within the beast we’re dealing with is a nice start.

    And I apologize for my own akwardness in trying to think and write about these things, but I really thought your discourse was one of the better postings I’ve seen here in awhile.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — January 26, 2011 @ 7:31 pm

  16. http://www.zcommunications.org/november-2nd-the-end-of-progressivism-by-david-green

    My article on the (hoped-for) end of “progressivism.”

    Comment by David Green — January 28, 2011 @ 1:48 am

  17. I just continue to be amazed – Hedges plumbs more and more of his psychic breakdown, and yet he continues to get the applause as he words get more and more absurd. How many more ridiculous paeans to himself and only himself do think he has in him – are we to get another thousand “truthdigs” – how more bare can pietistic vanity be stripped for his ascetic acolytes?
    A phrase like “amorphous, high-blown moral rhetoric” sounds like pure Freudian projection to me – Hedges defines that. He uses words like “fight, ” and “militant,” and hasn’t got the slightest ideas of what they mean, nor does anyone else in his choir. Get chained and released the next day? Write another truthdig, issue another lecturing. blithering sermon about how only he and his pal Jesus know the way to a good proper scourging?
    The Left Forum, as Hedges states, is a monumental concern; surely Bill Gates will attend, sending George Soros into a snit. They might actually have lemonade in a pitcher at Pace this time, and its videos on YouTube might just get more hits than somebody’s drooping azaleas. The White House is sending in a veritable army of undercover surveillance operatives, led by Jared Bernstein – the whole world will be watching.
    In this celebrity death-match disintegration of the “left,” no one is going to be left standing. They (we) are all going to pack it up and meet at Vegas and have a good laugh. At least Kucinich got a hot wife out of it all before he went under.

    Comment by MJ — January 30, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

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