Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 11, 2012

Progressives for Obama, version 2.0

Filed under: liberalism,New Deal,Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

On March 25, 2008 Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Barbara Ehrenreich, and Danny Glover issued a statement launching “Progressives for Obama” that included a number of endorsers with impeccable Marxist credentials such as Robin D.G. Kelly, Immanuel Wallerstein and Francis Fox Piven. Meanwhile Bill Fletcher Jr. was a one-time member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a “New Communist Movement” (NCM) group that survived the 1980s implosion of Maoism described by Max Elbaum in “Revolution in the Air”. For most NCM groups, working in the Democratic Party was a tactic while for their Trotskyist adversaries it was rank class-collaborationism. Since the inspiration for the New Communist Movement was the “heroic” CPUSA of the 1930s and 40s, it was natural for them to keep an open mind about the Democrats even if the CPUSA itself was widely dismissed as “revisionist”.

Tom Hayden

The statement put forward the notion that pressure applied from below would work to move Obama to the left in much the same way that CIO activism in the 1930s acted on FDR:

However, the fact that Barack Obama openly defines himself as a centrist invites the formation of this progressive force within his coalition. Anything less could allow his eventual drift towards the right as the general election approaches. It was the industrial strikes and radical organizers in the 1930s who pushed Roosevelt to support the New Deal.

Maybe Obama himself bought into this formula since he put the burden of change on the grass roots in his 2012 speech to the Democratic Party convention:

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change…

If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible…well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.

Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.

Immune to Obama’s charisma from the get-go, the NY Times’s Maureen Dowd had little use for the “you were the change” nonsense:

We were the change!

We were the change? Us?

How on earth could we have let so much of what we fought for slip away? How did we allow Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, the super PACs, the Tea Party, the lobbyists and the special interests take away our voice?

“Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen,” the president chastised us. “Only you have the power to move us forward.”

We’re so lame. We were naïve, brimming with confidence that we could slow the rise of the oceans, heal the planet, fix the cracks in the Capitol dome.

After four years of White House catering to Wall Street banksters, Guantanamo, drone attacks on civilians, death lists that include American citizens, unparalleled deportations, and generally what looks like George W. Bush’s third term, selling Obama 2012 is about as daunting a prospect as opening a pork store in a Hasidic neighborhood.

As an eager albeit clumsy propagandist for the Democratic Party, Tom Hayden stepped into the breach with a challenge to Obama-haters everywhere: support the sleazy incumbent or be found guilty of “white blindness”.

Why Obama’s achievements are dismissed or denied by many on the white liberal-left is a question worth serious consideration. It may only be a matter of legitimate disappointment after the utopian expectations of 2008. It could be pure antipathy to electoral politics, or a superficial assessment of how near impossible it is to change intransigent institutions. It could be a vested organizational interest in asserting there is no difference between the two major parties, a view wildly at odds with the intense partisan conflicts on exhibit every day. Or it could even be a white blindness in perceptions of reality on the left. When African American voters favor Obama 94 percent to zero, and the attacks are coming from the white liberal-left, something needs repair in the foundations of American radicalism.

Tim Wise, who was one of the endorsees of the 2008 pro-Obama declaration, has a virtual monopoly on ferreting out “white blindness” so one hopes for poor Tom Hayden’s sake that Wise does not contact a good intellectual property lawyer.

Singled out as a “white blindness” miscreant is Harper Magazine editor Thomas Frank who had the temerity to conclude that Obama will never pursue a second New Deal because “that is precisely what Obama was here to prevent.” Frank, of course, is symptomatic of the wholesale disillusionment with Obama that Hayden is trying to dismiss. Like Hayden, Frank had a special place in his heart for FDR and devoted much energy and ink trying to advise Democrats how to get their mojo back. Once it became clear that Obama had no use for such advice (his chief aide, now Mayor of Chicago declaring war on the teacher’s union, dismissed anything coming out of “the professional left”), people like Thomas Frank decided that fighting back was the only thing that made sense. Tom Hayden, on the other hand, argued in the words of David Byrne that it was necessary to stop making sense.

Jason Schulman

Michael Hirsch

Proceeding from the ridiculous to the not quite sublime, we consider now an article written for the excellent Jacobin Magazine by two long-time DSA members, Jason Schulman and Michael Hirsch titled “Beyond November”, which starts off on a high note and then plummets downwards at lightning speed.

Marx wrote in The Civil War in France that every few years workers got to decide which members of the ruling class were to misrepresent them. How right he was. And is. That is uncontestable.

The rest of the article amounts to a contesting of exactly what Marx wrote, an exercise in advanced dialectics I guess.

Just to cover their left flank, Hirsch and Schulman write just the sort of thing designed to raise Hayden’s dander:

The prospects of selling Obama as the preferred candidate are daunting, if worth doing at all. With his proliferation of the national security state, his refusal to put juice behind the Conyers 
jobs bill, his water-carrying for the insurance companies and destruction of any near-term possibility for single-payer health care, his failures on card check and other labor law reforms, his refusal to treat Wall Street as a criminal enterprise, his embrace of reactionary education philosophies, his incursive black-ops foreign policy, and his ten o’clock scholar’s embrace of gay marriage, his is an administration not to praise but to damn.

Well, hurrah for damning. Where do I sign up?

Apparently our two intrepid leftists have a bait-and-switch scheme up their sleeves because they end up finding reasons to vote Democrat, even if it falls within the category of damning with faint praise. As an unrepentant Marxist, I won’t settle for anything less than pure damning—Dante 9th circle style.

After describing 3rd party election campaigns like the Greens as being based on a “prayer” rather than a “plan”, they make the hoary case for being practical:

The Democrats as a coalition are hegemonic because they provide a service, finite as it is, that is indispensable for institutions, whether they be unions, social service providers, or community-based organizations.

The article concludes with a call for reelecting Obama—if you read between the lines:

Allowing Obama to be reelected without any critique from the Left – even one that is purely propagandistic, as the Green and Socialist parties will offer – only ratifies his centrist approach of cottoning to and co-opting the Right while neutering the Left and any possibility for substantial social gains. We can do better.

In other words, it is okay to vote for Obama just as long as you make sure to make the record that he is something of a pig.

Maybe Michael Hirsch felt constrained to deemphasize the need to actually vote for Obama in 2012—the official position of the Democratic Socialists of America, the group he has been long associated with—because Jacobin’s editors are quite a bit to the left of the DSA, even if a few are members. If you go to the DSA website, you can find a position paper on the 2012 elections that makes the “lesser evil” case quite openly even while renouncing it. That’s the art of dialectics, after all:

In light of the threat that would be posed to basic democratic rights by Republican control of all three branches of the federal government, most trade union, feminist, LGBTQ and African- American and Latino organizations will work vigorously to re-elect the president. And in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and elsewhere, many DSA members may choose to do the same. But DSA recognizes that an Obama victory, unaccompanied by the strengthening of an independent progressive coalition able to challenge the elites of both parties, will be a purely defensive engagement in lesser-evil politics.

This is the same argument I have been hearing since 1968, a year after I joined the Trotskyist movement. Ironically, I became disillusioned with the Democratic Party three years earlier, just after graduating Bard College.

I was too young to vote in 1964 but if I had been old enough I surely would have voted for Lyndon Johnson. I was not that concerned with Vietnam since it was still a very much low intensity affair but the idea of Barry Goldwater’s finger on the H-Bomb trigger scared the bejeezus out of me.

He told audiences, “Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict. They call upon the U.S. to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do. We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves. We don’t want to get . . . tied down to a land war in Asia.”

It turned out he had plans to escalate the war all along. I spent most of 1966 staring at the evening news on television trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. How could a “peace” candidate turn out to be such a warmonger?

Within a year I got educated into class politics through new members classes in the Young Socialist Alliance and particularly “Socialism on Trial”, which amounted to the court proceedings in the trial of SWP leaders in 1941 for violation of the Smith Act. James P. Cannon testified on the party’s attitude toward Roosevelt’s New Deal:

Q: What is the position of the party on the attempt of Roosevelt to improve the social system in this country?

A: How do you mean, “improve the social system”?

Q: To set capitalism into motion again, after the depression of 1929.

A: Well, all these measures of the New Deal were made possible in this country, and not possible for the poorer countries of Europe, because of the enormous accumulation of wealth in this country. But the net result of the whole New Deal experiment was simply the expenditure of billions and billions of dollars to create a fictitious stability, which in the end evaporated.

Now the Roosevelt administration is trying to accomplish the same thing by the artificial means of a war boom; that is, of an armament boom, but again, in our view, this has no possibility of permanent stability at all.

Q: With reference to the misery and suffering of the masses, what would you say as to the existence of that factor in the United States?

A: In our view, the living standards of the masses have progressively deteriorated in this country since 1929. They haven’t yet reached that stage which I mentioned as a prerequisite of an enormous upsurge of revolutionary feeling, but millions of American workers were pauperised following 1929; and that, in our opinion, is a definite sign of the development of this prerequisite for the revolution.

There’s not much that I retain from my ill-spent youth in the Trotskyist movement but I’ll take James P. Cannon over Tom Hayden’s circumlocutions and Hirsch-Schulman’s “dialectics” any day of the week. Hopes for Obama launching a new New Deal are all the more vain in light of the fact that the original was a con job to begin with. And that’s that.

14 Comments »

  1. Very well put. Although you were civil enough not to suggest that Tom Hayden should simply shut the fuck up and crawl back up his own ass. I am sick to death of his big flapping mouth.

    And I’m enjoying the teacher’s strike in Chicago, it’s bound to out the president’s scabby ass to even the eyes of his blindest supporters before long.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — September 11, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

  2. these guys are so clever – of course you get closer to what you want by supporting everything you don’t want.

    yes, lbj was the peace candidate – me, armed with ‘dr. spock on vietnam’ i quoted that same lbj quote to my junior high school teacher [but without effect]. it’s worth noting that nixon was the peace candidate vs humphrey – at least he had a secret plan to end the war. progressives for nixon, who was to the left of Obama.

    Comment by jp — September 11, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

  3. You note:
    “I was too young to vote in 1964 but if I had been old enough I surely would have voted for Lyndon Johnson. I was not that concerned with Vietnam since it was still a very much low intensity affair but the idea of Barry Goldwater’s finger on the H-Bomb trigger scared the bejeezus out of me.”
    You’re not much younger than I am, and I did vote in 1964 (for the Socialist Workers Party, which years later I joined). But better to see the light later than never, I guess. That said, it was obvious even in 1964 that LBJ and the Democrat Party were hyping the threat of nuclear war only to scare benighted voters into defeating Goldwater. (Historically, the Democrats have been the party of war par excellence, after all.) Their main argument–preposterous as it seems now, and even then did to me–was that if Goldwater won, it would be World War III. As it turned out, Goldwater ended up more of a statesman and intelligent politician than most of the Democrats. It’s true that LBJ pretended to be the “peace candidate,” but the reality is that even while he was running, he was planning to implement Goldwater’s program and bomb North Vietnam.
    Have American voters (the ones that bother to vote, that is) learned any lessons from lies and shenanigans like this? Not that I can see. They are as much gullible sheeple today as they were then. And so the shell game goes on. The only thing that has changed is that the one-party system has sunk to even lower levels of lies and theft than back then. It is why, for the first time in my life, I do not plan to vote for anyone for president this time around. The anarchists are right: participating in the phony-baloney capitalist elections simply helps to shore up illusions that we live in a democracy.
    David Thorstad

    Comment by David Thorstad — September 11, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

  4. What did Jane Fonda see in this guy?! Too bad he didn’t notice Glen Ford and company and stuck with that pathetic bit about how white leftists are blind to the racism inherent in any criticisms of the nation’s leading mass killer, Barack Obama.

    Comment by michael yates — September 11, 2012 @ 10:32 pm

  5. Sorry we didn’t write our conclusion in crayon and in all caps for you. Louis, to make it unmistakeable, but nowhere did we advocate a vote for Obama. Nor do we. His administration, like every Democratic administration, is an enabler of capital, and a damn better representative of the interests of the capitalist class as a whole than are the adventurist, knuckle-dragging Republicans. Saying that is no endorsement of the Democrats; it is an effort to shake up a stale left-wing debate–one you seem only too happy to continue. Our point was that the left has no viable electoral face, and that either shilling for the national Democratic ticket or jimmy-rigging a rootless third party is equally sad if not pointless. It’s the movements that matter, and their ability to make political demands isn’t abetted by either voting for or against the latest centrist pol. BTW, I was a college freshman when the Communist Party’s Herbert Aptheker debated the National Guardian’s Russ Nixon at City College on whether to back or damn LBJ. Aptheker sounded like a Democratic precinct captain/hack defending the indefensible. I was with Russ.Still am, so lighten up.

    Comment by Michael Hirsch — September 11, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

  6. Louis, to make it unmistakeable, but nowhere did we advocate a vote for Obama.

    As I pointed out, the Jacobin article did not come out and say “vote for Obama” but that’s why I included the DSA position paper that did. Maybe I have you confused with another Michael Hirsch who is chair of the DSA. If so, my apologies.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 11, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

  7. For the record, Mike is not chair of DSA (nor of anything else that I know about). Neither he nor I are currently in DSA’s leadership. Neither of us had any hand in crafting the DSA position paper (which, flawed as it is, does not call for DSA members to vote for Obama but simply accepts that members in swing states will probably do so). But it is true that a number of people involved in Jacobin are DSA members, including some of the editors. (I’m curious how they can be in DSA and yet “to the left of DSA” — is that “dialectics,” too?)

    Comment by jschulman — September 11, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

  8. …a vested organizational interest in asserting there is no difference between the two major parties, a view wildly at odds with the intense partisan conflicts on exhibit….”

    Since when do a pair of gang leaders calling each other names–a “partisan conflict” if there ever was one–have any “significant differences” except except for the determination of each to kill his rival and take his turf?

    How naive can you get? Does this man think there’s a good guy and a bad guy side in every fight? Or that liars can’t lie about other liars?

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — September 11, 2012 @ 11:40 pm

  9. People can check on Michael Hirsch’s organizational responsibilities here:

    http://keywiki.org/index.php/Michael_Hirsch

    Comment by louisproyect — September 11, 2012 @ 11:44 pm

  10. Check out George Carlin on why he doesn’t vote:

    Comment by David Thorstad — September 12, 2012 @ 12:20 am

  11. Oh, give it up, Louis, That Wiki was written and posted by right-wing loons. Note the reference to “a majority of New Politics board members” being DSA folk, something meant to scare the right-wing horses but that even you, Louis, know to be nonsense–and which Dan LaBotz, a fellow NP editor whom you cite approvingly, would be stunned to learn. Yes, I was an erstwhile DSA NPC member, but have not been one for two terms and NEVER was chair or vice chair or steering committee chair or…(fill in the blanks) of the group–nor was any Michael Hirsch chair, etc of the group. Perhaps you’re thinking of Michael Harrington? Jason and I wrote that piece precisely because we’re uncomfortable bordering on furious with both the Pwog set’s push for the odious Obama and the ritual campaigning of the Greens and the SP, for starters. Criticize our piece on the merits or demerits, Louis, but it’s not a DSA doc, a stalking horse for such, nor does it conform to the org’s statement. One doesn’t collapse into the other. It’s not the thin edge of the wedge in an opening to seduce anyone, least of all you. As Lev Davidovich would say, don’t build an amalgum.

    Comment by Michael Hirsch — September 12, 2012 @ 12:47 am

  12. Michael, the main point of your article was not to get out the vote for Obama. It was, on the other hand, to belittle 3rd party efforts and to argue for “tactical” approaches like this:

    “Here we make no claim that La Botz or Hawkins could have made a difference running in statewide Democratic Party primaries. We do suggest that insurgents backed by reform groups with local standing could run in area primary races and win.”

    In my view, the suggestion that “insurgents backed by reform groups with local standing could run in area primary races and win” is in many ways more harmful than what Tom Hayden wrote because it is more “reasonable”. Unless you draw a clear class line between the socialist movement and the Democratic Party, you do a disservice to Karl Marx. Hayden never really studied Marx and if he did he clearly misunderstood him. Folks like you who have read Marx and blur the class lines do much more harm.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 12, 2012 @ 12:57 am

  13. Fortunately, having abandoned the “white liberal left” sometime ago, I can blissfully ignore his charges of “white blindness”, although one is tempted to say that it does retain some utility, primarily in regard to people like him. His crude plagiarizing of Melissa Harris-Perry, who emphasized this line of delegitimization of progressive critics of the President about a year ago, is pretty lame.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 12, 2012 @ 9:00 pm


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