Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 21, 2016

Reading the fine print in Seth Ackerman’s blueprint for a new party

Filed under: socialism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

Seth Ackerman

Issue #23 of Jacobin, which I received today, is devoted to an examination of “The Party We Need”. Since I have been advocating a new left party for the past 35 years both on and off the Internet, I was curious to see what the DSA supporters on the editorial board had to say on this topic. I probably will be evaluating other articles in the issue but want to start off with Seth Ackerman’s “A Blueprint for a New Party” that was available at least a month before it came out. It made sense that Ackerman’s article would be highlighted since it encapsulates perfectly the fence-straddling politics of DSA today, especially the youth wing that has made Jacobin its semi-official organ.

To start with, I was wary about Ackerman’s title since the word blueprint is antithetical to Karl Marx’s approach. Keep in mind that he once wrote in defense of the “critical analysis of actual facts instead of writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future”. Of course, when Marx wrote this he was referring to the sort of grand designs for classless societies found typically in Albert-Hahnel’s Parecon and not how to build parties. That being said, Ackerman has displayed a susceptibility to recipe-writing in the past as we can see from his Jacobin article “The Red and the Black”:

Why, then, are radicals so hesitant to talk about what a different system might look like? One of the oldest and most influential objections to such talk comes from Marx, with his oft-quoted scorn toward utopian “recipes” for the “cookshops of the future.”

Ackerman felt that Marx violated his own rules in “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, where he supposedly wrote “his own little cookshop recipe” that “involved labor tokens, storehouses of goods, and an accounting system to determine how much workers would get paid.”

One imagines that Ackerman was referring to Marx’s reference to a worker receiving a certificate based on the amount of labor he or she has contributed and that could be used in turn to purchase goods equal to the amount of labor embodied in the certificate. That is not only the sole reference to such a mechanism in “Critique of the Gotha Programme” but in Karl Marx’s entire body of work.

Indeed, the opening sentence in the relevant paragraph should give you a better idea of Marx’s approach: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” If you want to get a handle on Marx’s concept of a socialist society, the place to go is the 1871 “Civil War in France” that puts forward the Paris Commune as its concrete realization. The book is focused entirely on the steps workers had taken to reshape society according to their own class interests with nary a word about certificates.

After recruiting Karl Marx as a fellow blueprint writer, Ackerman shows his true colors by recommending Albert and Hahnel’s Participatory Economics:

Parecon, as it’s called, is an interesting exercise for our purposes, because it rigorously works out exactly what would be needed to run such an “anarchist” economy. And the answer is roughly as follows: At the beginning of each year, everyone must write out a list of every item he or she plans to consume over the course of the year, along with the quantity of each item. In writing these lists, everyone consults a tentative list of prices for every product in the economy (keep in mind there are more than two million products in Amazon.com’s “kitchen and dining” category alone), and the total value of a person’s requests may not exceed his or her personal “budget,” which is determined by how much he or she promises to work that year.

Preposterous, isn’t it? And any connection between this and the 104 words in “Critique of the Gotha Programme” about labor certificates is purely coincidental.

Ackerman’s article on a blueprint for a new party starts out promisingly enough:

This political moment offers a chance to fill in some of these blanks — to advance new electoral strategies for an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class.

Yeah! Gosh-darn-it. Let’s get on board with this.

But there are obstacles in the way of implementing such a proposal as should be obvious by Ackerman’s discussion of the stillborn Labor Party of 20 years ago, an effort I was quite familiar with. It was initiated by Tony Mazzochi, a leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union (OCAW). After an initial flurry of interest, it withered on the vine because the left bureaucracy that was willing to endorse it was not ready to “go all the way”. Ackerman describes why. “Running candidates against Democrats risked electing anti-labor Republicans. For unions whose members had a lot to lose, that risk was considered too high.” In other words, the same kind of union officials who urged a vote for Hillary Clinton this year would have been reluctant to run candidates who might siphon votes away from Al Gore in 2000 just as the NY Times reported that year:

This outpouring of enthusiasm for Mr. Nader worries many Democrats, who fear that so many steelworkers, auto workers, teamsters and other union members will vote for him this fall that Mr. Gore could lose in Ohio and other Midwestern swing states. For the Democrats, an added concern is that two of the most powerful unions in the Midwest, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, have flirted with Mr. Nader and have not endorsed Mr. Gore, even though the A.F.L.-C.I.O. is backing the vice president.

Was there a way for the Labor Party to advance its agenda without generating the opprobrium heaped upon the Nader campaign? Ackerman believes there was, namely to avoid creating a separate ballot line. Having a separate ballot line is practically a fetish in Ackerman’s eyes, the sort of exercise that reminds me quite a bit of my time in the Socialist Workers Party:

These parties are frequently forced to devote the bulk of their resources not to educating voters, or knocking on doors on election day, but to waging petition drives and ballot-access lawsuits. The constant legal harassment, in turn, ends up exerting a subtle but powerful effect on the kinds of people attracted to independent politics. Through a process of natural selection, such obstacles tend to repel serious and experienced local politicians and organizers, while disproportionately attracting activists with a certain mentality: disdainful of practical politics or concrete results; less interested in organizing, or even winning elections, than in bearing witness to the injustice of the two-party system through the symbolic ritual of inscribing a third-party’s name on the ballot.

Yes, this certainly evokes the days I spent collecting signatures for the party in the 60s and 70s standing in front of supermarkets in Vermont in 1972 with a clipboard in my hand, freezing my nuts off. I suppose that I must confess to being “less interested in winning elections” and “disdainful of practical politics” at the time although I didn’t find anything “symbolic” about getting Linda Jenness and Andrew Pulley on the ballot. The war in Vietnam was still raging and for someone like myself George McGovern did not begin to address the underlying cause of the war, namely the capitalist system. At the time the SWP had about 2000 members and was still growing rapidly. Our election campaigns were one of the primary ways that young people could be attracted to the socialist movement. We were right about the need for running such openly socialist campaigns even if none of us had an inkling of what a bizarre sect-cult the SWP would turn out to be.

Ackerman adds, “The official parties are happy to have such people as their opposition, and even happy to grant them this safe channel for their discontent.” Gosh, someone might have mentioned that to the FBI. That would have save them the trouble of trying to get me fired from my job as a programmer in 1968 when they sent Metropolitan Life a postcard fingering me as a red.

For Ackerman, a different strategy is needed, one that is more “creative”. Does that mean working in the Democratic Party? He answers his own question: “No. Or at least, not in the way that phrase is usually meant.”

After casting doubt on some of the traditional left-liberal and social democratic strategies for working in the DP such as supporting candidates like McGovern or serving as a tail to the DP’s kite after the fashion of the Working Families Party, Ackerman enunciates a spanking new approach.

The widespread support for Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, particularly among young people, has opened the door for new ideas about how to form a democratic political organization rooted in the working class.

The following is a proposal for such a model: a national political organization that would have chapters at the state and local levels, a binding program, a leadership accountable to its members, and electoral candidates nominated at all levels throughout the country.

Hmm. Intriguing. But be sure to read the fine print in a paragraph to follow:

But it would avoid the ballot-line trap. Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line. [emphasis added]

It could choose to run in major- or minor party primaries?

Oh, I get it. It could run in the DP primaries just like Bernie Sanders did, who asked us to vote for Hillary Clinton and now describes the execrable Charles Schumer as being better prepared and more capable than anybody else of leading the Senate Democrats–god help us.  (I have no idea what Ackerman meant by “minor party primaries”. Does the Working Families Party hold primaries? The SWP certainly doesn’t.)

The rest of Ackerman’s article takes up minutiae such as establishing a PAC, etc. But they are incidental to the overriding question of whether DSA’ers like Ackerman and the rest of the hustlers at Jacobin have any intention of breaking with the Democratic Party.

The title of the article is a complete fraud. When you penetrate through Ackerman’s prose, you will understand that it is not a “new party” he talking about at all. Instead it is a caucus of the Democratic Party that will not be encumbered by the need to go out and collect signatures to gain ballot status like Jill Stein did.

And if you think a bit more deeply about what this is about, it is really less about the onerous task of getting on the ballot that Ackerman exaggerates but remaining acceptable to the prevailing mood of the middle-class intelligentsia that Jacobin orients to at Vox, The Nation, Dissent, etc. Do you think that you will see fawning articles about the young intellectuals involved with magazines like n+1 or Jacobin if they got involved with a project that took a clear class line? Forget about it.

This debate about the Democratic Party has been going on for a half-century at least. In 1964, SDS adopted the slogan “Part of the Way with LBJ”. It took five years of brutal war to create a mood of resistance on campus and in the professional classes that produced the Peace and Freedom Party, a promising initiative that was hobbled by sectarian “intervention”.

This year there was significant support for Jill Stein’s candidacy that was undermined by an understandable fear of a Trump presidency. Unlike others who identify with the Greens, I was not disappointed by her modest vote total, which it must be noted was triple that of her last campaign. My problem is with the inability of the Greens to cohere as a membership organization that can begin to function as a nerve center for the left nationally even if it never wins another election.

A vacuum of leadership exists today that is crying out to be filled. There are basically three strategies that are being put forward. Groups such as the ISO and Socialist Alternative see work in the Green Party as a means to an end, namely the growth of their own group that is the nucleus of the future vanguard party that will topple the capitalist system. Even if they give lip-service to the idea of a broad left party (the ISO much less so), they continue to believe that it is only they who have the winning program that can rally the working class under the banner of socialism.

The DSA is both more modest and more circumlocuitous. Despite being on record in favor of the socialist transformation of the United States, their real orientation is to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that they see as the only political force capable of delivering Scandinavian type reforms even though the capitalist system in 2016 and for the foreseeable future is incompatible with such goals.

Finally, there is the liberal establishment itself that the DSA’s umbilical cord is attached to. It is the source of both intellectual and real capital. It exerts pressure on people such as Seth Ackerman that he is probably not even aware of. Like many of the contributors to Jacobin who are PhD students, there is a tendency to tailor their Marxism to the prevailing sensibility of the academy—one that encourages careerism and servility. The dissertation process is ultimately geared to reining in radicals and housebreaking them. When the rewards are a tenured professorship with the prestige, emoluments and job security that go along with it, the temptations to play it safe are irresistible.

Finally, the real challenge for people such as Seth Ackerman and the other Jacobin writers is to begin testing their ideas in practice. A magazine so invested in theory and “reading clubs” has little chance to test its ideas in practice. Granted, the low ebb of the class struggle today hardly gives people such as Ackerman the opportunity to assume leadership in the mass movement even though the responsibilities of completing a PhD likely would stand in the way to begin with.

In the 60s and 70s, there ample opportunities to learn about organizing people with so many different forms of rebellion both on and off the campus. I suspect that the Trump presidency will be providing brand new opportunities over the next four years as it begins to encroach on gains that were won over the past half-century. Let’s hope that people such as Seth Ackerman will avail themselves of the opportunity to build the movement, something that will be a lot more rewarding as I discovered in 1967 after dropping out of the New School and devoting every free moment to building the Vietnam antiwar and socialist movements.


  1. “Scandinavian type reforms…the capitalist system in 2016 and for the foreseeable future is incompatible with such goals.”

    How come? I know what you mean, but this is a dispositive statement, not to be tossed off.

    “The DSA is both more modest and more circumlocuitous.”

    Whew! Periphrastic, circumlocutory, circumlocutionary? Prolix, even logorrheic?

    Comment by Ralph Johansen — November 21, 2016 @ 11:22 pm

  2. “And if you think a bit more deeply about what this is about, it is really less about the onerous task of getting on the ballot that Ackerman exaggerates but remaining acceptable to the prevailing mood of the middle-class intelligentsia that Jacobin orients to at Vox, The Nation, Dissent, etc.”

    And you know this how? Ever been to a Jacobin reading group? How exactly do you know what class the people are who read Jacobin? The readership are mainly millennials and there are very few “middle class” millennials. I saw your apartment back in the late ’90s, Louis; you’re a hell of a lot more middle-class than the people who keep Jacobin afloat.

    In any case what Seth is arguing for is a European-style membership party where people actually pay dues (unlike the state-run ballot lines known as the Democratic and Republican parties — as well as the Libertarians and the Greens) but which wouldn’t bother trying to get its own permanent ballot line (“Labor,” “Left,” “Socialist,” whatever). It could run its own candidates as Independents (preferably) without bothering with the whole ballot-line problem which keeps minor parties (like the Greens) so often stuck in court trying to remain on the ballot.

    Yes the WFP does hold primaries sometimes. Never mind the WFP or at least its NY version. There are state parties like the VT Progressive Party where this strategy might work. (These are what Seth means by minor parties, BTW.)

    BTW, obviously trying to realign the Dems in a left-wing way didn’t work. Various attempts to “break with the elephant, break with the ass, build a party of the working class” haven’t worked either. So self-righteousness by either side in that debate is hardly called for. Time to listen more and huff and puff less, maybe?

    Also, that pic isn’t the Seth Ackerman you’re looking for.

    Comment by jschulman — November 21, 2016 @ 11:42 pm

  3. Ever been to a Jacobin reading group?

    I am opposed to reading groups in principle.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 21, 2016 @ 11:57 pm

  4. Ackerman’s Parecon proposal does, on the face of it, appear gob-stoppingly silly.

    Schulman’s “European-style membership party where people actually pay dues,” however, makes IMHO a vital point–the current non-parties, or antiparties, or “ballot line” parties are not real parties–they don’t stand for anything except the ballot line and they are designed precisely not to have members, not to be an organizational focus, and not to be a helpful presence in people’s lives.

    They are illusions, like “the folks at Archer Daniels” or the people in the courtroom of Freud’s Justice Schreber–“miracled up” only at election time for the purpose of drawing off any real party sentiment that may be abroad. To the extent that they exist between elections, they are a) more or less conspiratorial conduits of money and influence from and to the one percent and b) de facto bodies of the elected, responsible largely to a).

    A relevant fact–not as tangential as it may at first seem:

    It now appears possible if not probable that Medicare–despite Ronald Rump’s lying promises to the contrary–is going to be abolished by a deal with Paul Ryan during Trump’s first 100 days. Social Security is also going to be trashed.


    If carried through, the promised “reforms” will drive many of us septuagenarians and near-septuagenarians to suicide. This includes people of all races.

    The suffering caused by accelerated police murders of african-americans, the abolition of Medicaid and the wretched but much appreciated Obamacare, and the persecution of Muslims and low-income Hispanics and Native Americans will multiply this exponentially.

    These facts may not matter in the great game of revolution–indeed, they may usefully fan the flames. But without parties and other organizations that offer membership and provide–to the limited extent possible–a helpful presence in the lives of the suffering, no left movement is likely to gain much traction. We will be too busy blowing our brains out.

    To organize useful political resistance, some sort of recipes–however temporary and provisional (I keep saying tactical)–will be necessary. This must include membership organizations, which in turn must have some sort of “menu” of proposed actions to both assist and attract members–even if this carries with it its own danger of corruption.

    It seems that Seth A. misses the mark. As I only skimmed his article, I will have to reread it in the light of Louis’ persuasive response to it.

    But a party that offers only sermons and no soup will never be fully legitimized by a people laboring under whatever you call Trumpism (“fascism” being moot) a critical fraction of whom are permanently silenced under the present system, and who will be driven even further out of the picture by the proposed “reforms.”

    Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. But nobody is organizing the sandbag brigades in case it does–probably not Seth A, though one doesn’t know much about him. If this is not done somehow, the left will vanish. Someone has to prime the dialectical pump in a new way.

    (NB–as his actions prove over and over again, Louis P. has always put his body on the line to assist in dire situations. None of this is meant to point that particular finger at him.)

    Comment by Joan Walker — November 22, 2016 @ 11:22 am

  5. I think my post is a bit too heavy on the mutual aid and not enough on party organizing in general. Let me therefore add that MA is IMHO only meaningful in the context of broader party organization and perhaps against a background of non-party labor organization outside the traditional unions. Fear makes us Colonel Flashmans babble even when we should know better. I don’t know of a recipe for courage, however, and therefore must get on as well as possible without it.

    Comment by Joan Walker — November 22, 2016 @ 11:32 am

  6. Another thought–in the current circumstances, IMHO political organization with the background I’ve suggested seems a fruitful way to drive a wedge in with workers and push back for more effective labor organizing. Not to say that labor organizing should not proceed, but in the present climate, a political “hook” may be necessary to draw workers into the movement and spark/fan flames of LO more broadly–which then rebounds politically.

    Enough of this.

    Comment by Joan Walker — November 22, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

  7. Whatever one thinks of the Jacobin minions, I wouldn’t bet too much on too many of them getting tenure track jobs in history, sociology, or whatever. That’s not their fault of course, just the world we live in.

    Comment by David Green — November 24, 2016 @ 4:52 am

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