Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 27, 2017

Commentary on Bhaskar Sunkara’s New York Times op-ed

Filed under: social democracy — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Bhaskar Sunkara

Since its launch in 2010, Jacobin Magazine has shown up in one way or another in the NY Times 25 times. The references fall into different categories and are consistently supportive. You can see it cited as a barometer of left opinion with the conservative Catholic Russ Douhat being one such example. He wrote an op-ed on 12/29/2012 titled “How to Read in 2013” that advised his readers on how to stay on top of things:

Start on the non-Republican right, maybe, with the libertarians at Reason magazine, the social conservatives at First Things and Public Discourse, the eclectic dissidents who staff The American Conservative. Then head for the neo-Marxist reaches of the Internet, where publications like Jacobin and The New Inquiry offer a constant reminder of how much room there is to the left of the current Democratic Party.

I should add that the term neo-Marxist is often applied to Jacobin, although I am not sure that is the right word. Unlike Monthly Review that also earned that label rather unfairly, Jacobin functions much more as a host for articles written by both Marxists and left-liberals. Unlike the effort undertaken by Paul Sweezy or Harry Magdoff, I can’t discern any signs that the editorial board of Jacobin is devoted to renewing Marxist theory.

In line with Douhat’s demarcating the borders of what savvy NY Times readers should read (you can bet Monthly Review will remain unheralded), Jacobin has cropped up recently in a new feature titled “Right and Left: Partisan Writing You Shouldn’t Miss” that remains within the same confines—ideological kettling, so to speak. The Times has a rather peculiar notion of what it means to be “left” since you find Jacobin and Alan Dershowitz cheek by jowl on the portside.

Another type of Jacobin manifestation is seen less often nowadays, especially since the magazine is quite well-established. In its first few years, you saw breathless encomiums to the “new left” journals such as Jacobin, n+1, and New Inquiry that were often touted in that order as if they were respectively “win, place and show” in a horse race. I have been subscribed to the first two magazines for seven years now and don’t expect to try the third, maybe because the name sounds too much like the rancid New Criterion.

On January 20, 2013, Jennifer Schuessler gushed over how “A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream”. It gave you a good idea of how the gods were smiling on its founder:

“Bhaskar’s a really remarkable — I want to say kid, but that sounds condescending,” said the MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who gave Jacobin a shout-out in Rolling Stone last June before inviting Mr. Sunkara onto his show. (Mr. Sunkara skipped part of his college graduation to appear.) “He’s got the combination of boastful assurance and competence of a very good young rapper.”

MSNBC? Rolling Stone? I can’t imagine Michael Yates or John Bellamy Foster traveling in such circles but then again they’re too busy trying to make revolutionary socialism relevant to our epoch through books and articles.

I emphasize the word revolutionary since it has a bearing on Bhaskar Sukara’s debut on the NY Times op-ed page, a sign of having “made it” in a highly competitive world. Except for former Marxism list moderator Zeynep Tukfeci who writes op-ed pieces about the Internet  (and who won’t even reply to a Twitter message I sent her), Bhaskar is the first Marxmail alumni who has elbowed his way to the top of the heap–you can’t get much more elevated than the NY Times op-ed page even if most of it is drivel. I doubt that the surly Michael Yates will ever get past the velvet rope with his blunt put-downs of the elite.

Now 28 years old, Bhaskar is advising NY Times readers about how “Socialism’s Future May Be Its Past”. Jesus, what was I doing when I was 28? That was 1973 and I was in Houston organizing Militant Labor Forums. I had been in the Trotskyist movement for six years by then and never written a single article. Oh, let me take that back. I had written some for the internal bulletin of the SWP during pre-convention discussion on arcane matters such as how the Cochranites became embourgeoisified even though they were auto workers but I understood that the audience was limited. (Drawing my analysis from James P. Cannon on Bert Cochran, I could have not been more wrong.) I guess the only benefit I got out of writing for internal bulletins is that it sharpened my polemical skills. If I had to make a choice between writing effective polemics for a narrow audience trying to figure out how to develop a revolutionary strategy and getting touted in the Rolling Stone, there’s no contest.

So  let’s accompany our neo-Marxist wunderkind Bhaskar on his stroll through 100 years of class struggle history. He tried to convey a short form of this on Twitter but without much success, I’m afraid.

Things start off problematically enough:

One hundred years after Lenin’s sealed train arrived at Finland Station and set into motion the events that led to Stalin’s gulags, the idea that we should return to this history for inspiration might sound absurd.

Now a serious neo-Marxist might have taken the trouble to elucidate the exact linkage between Lenin and Stalin but—jeez—this is the NY Times op-ed page, not New Left Review. In brief, the events that led to Stalin’s gulags had nothing to do with Lenin. They were the result of a brutal imperialist invasion that cost the lives of up to 12,000,000 civilians and massive economic losses. Wikipedia states that the industrial production value descended to one-seventh of the value of 1913 and agriculture to one-third. During this catastrophe, one of the greatest losses was that of the most conscious revolutionaries who rushed to join the Red Army and defend the socialist gains of 1917. When they died in combat, it left a vacuum filled by former officials of the Czarist bureaucracy that became Stalin’s chief base of support. All of this is explained in Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Leon Trotsky, a book that I doubt Bhaskar will ever have time to read given the demands made on his time selling subscriptions and raising funds.

Sounding like he was 58 rather than 28, Bhaskar strikes a repentant note:

Most socialists have been chastened by the lessons of 20th-century Communism. Today, many who would have cheered on the October Revolution have less confidence about the prospects for radically transforming the world in a single generation. They put an emphasis instead on political pluralism, dissent and diversity.

I suppose he is right about “most socialists” since by his definition that includes an “avowedly socialist” leader like Bernie Sanders. This might be the heart of the problem. I don’t consider Sanders a socialist at all. He is a left-liberal of the MSNBC variety and uses the term socialist in the way I used to hear the term selling subscriptions to the Militant newspaper in college dorms a lifetime ago. Since the masthead of the paper described it as a “socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people”, the first question out of the mouth of the student tended to be something like “Socialist, like in Sweden?” I had no problem telling them, “No, like in Cuba”. As I said, this was a lifetime ago. Back then, an hour spent in a Columbia dorm would result in 25 subscriptions. That was when Che Guevara was alive and kicking, the Black community was rising up against the cops and the National Guard, and the Vietnamese were fighting the anti-imperialist battle of the century. Clearly the lack of such objective conditions has made Bhaskar more cautious than I was when young but then again there have always been people like him looking to make a career on the left.

After warning his readers about the hazards facing the working class that range from neoliberal Singapore to neo-fascist Hungary, Bhaskar offers up a vision of socialism that probably wouldn’t frighten any but the most well-heeled NY Times reader:

Stripped down to its essence, and returned to its roots, socialism is an ideology of radical democracy. In an era when liberties are under attack, it seeks to empower civil society to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives. A huge state bureaucracy, of course, can be just as alienating and undemocratic as corporate boardrooms, so we need to think hard about the new forms that social ownership could take.

Some broad outlines should already be clear: Worker-owned cooperatives, still competing in a regulated market; government services coordinated with the aid of citizen planning; and the provision of the basics necessary to live a good life (education, housing and health care) guaranteed as social rights. In other words, a world where people have the freedom to reach their potentials, whatever the circumstances of their birth.

Is socialism really an ideology of radical democracy? I suppose it is in the sense that the rule of the people entails the abolition of private property that has been undermining even bourgeois democracy over the past 30 years or so. As far as “civil society” being empowered to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives, this strikes me as an utterly amorphous formula. Civil society cannot begin to address the economic inequalities that allows both George Soros and the Koch brothers to control the electoral process. At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I would propose that it is high time for the left to begin raising one of Trotsky’s transitional demands:

The socialist program of expropriation, i.e., of political overthrow of the bourgeoisie and liquidation of its economic domination, should in no case during the present transitional period hinder us from advancing, when the occasion warrants, the demand for the expropriation of several key branches of industry vital for national existence or of the most parasitic group of the bourgeoisie.

Thus, in answer to the pathetic jeremiads of the gentlemen democrats anent the dictatorship of the “60 Families” of the United States or the “200 Families” of France, we counterpose the demand for the expropriation of those 60 or 200 feudalistic capitalist overlords.

In precisely the same way, we demand the expropriation of the corporations holding monopolies on war industries, railroads, the most important sources of raw materials, etc.

I would say that the call for nationalizing the railroads and the sources of raw materials will resonate with many Americans, given the miserable state of Amtrak and the damage that fracking does to our health. I may not use the same language as Leon Trotsky but advocate the left trying to figure out the way to say the same thing but in the words ordinary people understand.

By contrast, Bhaskar’s call for a worker-owned cooperatives competing in a regulated market sounds rather weak-tea by comparison. I doubt that any Fortune 500 company will care very much that, for example, the old Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago is now a worker-owned cooperative. It is not as if such an operation will not benefit the people who work there but it has nothing to do with challenging capitalist property relations. If, on the other hand, the left was powerful enough to make a difference, it would have pushed for the nationalization of the banking system in 2008.

How did the left become so impotent that it was not able to manifest its opposition to the economic system except by occupying public spaces in a rather noble but impotent gesture that anarchists argued as a “prefiguration” of the future communist world? It is a sad story that I have been telling since 1991 when I first got on the Internet. The Marxist left had a sectarian model that attempted to mechanically apply Bolshevism to the USA. We still need a party like Lenin built but it will have to emerge out of the mass movement that will be gathering momentum as capitalism continues to sink to new lows. A major step in building that movement will be creating an alternative to the Democratic Party that so many people still have illusions in, starting with the Jacobin editorial board.

15 Comments »

  1. “How did the left become so impotent that it was not able to manifest its opposition to the economic system except by occupying public spaces in a rather noble but impotent gesture that anarchists argued as a “prefiguration” of the future communist world? It is a sad story that I have been telling since 1991 when I first got on the Internet. The Marxist left had a sectarian model that attempted to mechanically apply Bolshevism to the USA. We still need a party like Lenin built but it will have to emerge out of the mass movement that will be gathering momentum as capitalism continues to sink to new lows. A major step in building that movement will be creating an alternative to the Democratic Party that so many people still have illusions in, starting with the Jacobin editorial board.”
    This last question and “sort of” answer is a bit disappointing, Louis. Sankara may have illusions in capitalist democracy (which is, of course, no democracy at all), but I think his attempt to try to make socialism more comprehensible, while disingenuous, hits on a useful approach. I certainly agree that a return to some form of transitional demands is an essential focus and has been for most of our time. I believe it was what most of us who engaged in the Occupy movement tried to do and, as you correctly note, was ultimately doomed to an “impotent gesture” led by anarchists with little vision. Indeed, the sectarian left models during that period contributed to rather than fought that impotence often opting to cede democratic practices and raising transitional demands to “marching” and “activism”. Occupy was heartening and, yet, disappointing.
    I suggest we not make the same sectarian mistakes when it comes to people like Sankara, who open a discussion even if their solutions are not really all that transitional. I think that your “pen” discussing just how one can “empower civil society to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives” through popularizing what it means to “demand the expropriation of the corporations holding monopolies on war industries, railroads, the most important sources of raw materials, etc.” as a rejoinder to Sankara in such pages as Counterpunch, Jacobin, or, even, in the NYT would be very helpful (even if it does not necessarily get published, you still have Marxmail and Unrepentant Marxist, not to mention Facebook and, even Twitter, which I would say we both tend to abhor). I believe it would be more helpful than simply dismissing Sankara for “making it” to the New York Times. In short, I think you read rather myopically as someone with professional jealousy of another “radical” in the eyes, not of your readers, but of all other potential readers who may actually consider Sankara’s ideas attractive. If we are to let go of the “sectarian model” of the Left, I suggest we begin by “patiently explaining” rather than harping apparently from the sideline. Indeed, you have some of the best grasp of Marxist economics and revolutionary politics I know. I think you should wield with a finer pen.
    Comradely,
    MTB

    Comment by mtomas3 — June 27, 2017 @ 6:39 pm

  2. Excellent piece, Louis. It is remarkable that Sunkara and his ilk are seen by all too many on the left, who you would think knew better, as harbingers of revolution. If Sunkara, Jacobin,and their ISO allies are what the left is all about, count me out. Dan La Botz can have them. Oh, that’s right. He’s one of them.

    Comment by Michael Yates — June 27, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

  3. As a young leftist trying to figure it all out what are some alternative publications you would recommend?

    Comment by jboothweb — June 27, 2017 @ 8:39 pm

  4. As I mentioned, I subscribe to Jacobin and n+1. I also subscribe to Bookforum, The Baffler, Harpers and The Nation (mostly for the crossword puzzle). I also read Socialist Register and the Monthly Review.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 27, 2017 @ 8:47 pm

  5. As I contemplate the outrageous attitude and behavior of the well-heeled lumps of human refuse who populate my gentrified DC neighborhood–a thoroughly repulsive herd of grunting pigs if there ever was one–I have to ask whether there is any justification for ever doing or saying anything these bastards would consider acceptable.

    I’m sure that Bhaskar would fit right in with this crowd.

    I make this dude as a careerist no different from, and no more admirable than, the moral and intellectual frauds who jumped on the Theory bandwagon at the University of Virginia in the 1970s and 80s and are now belching and farting theiir Foucauldian, nay Derridean, way into the grave, replete with decades of wine and cheese and student nookie.

    Workers’ cooperatives and participatory democracy my ass. You can get this shit any day of the week from Henry Giroux. At least he means it.

    The isolation in which anyone even marginally qualified as a non-Bernie Sanders socialist in DC is beyond belief. If you have the misfortune of being over sixty, you simply don’t exist as a human being, In my despair, I admit that I have even thought of attending a Jacobin study group.

    The more I consider this, the more I think I would rather die.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 28, 2017 @ 12:17 am

  6. Amen, brother Farans! Thanks! I cannot imagine anything less worth my time and energy than one of these study groups. And while Sunkara, et. al. babble about radical democracy, they don’t have a democratic bone in their bodies. Like the wretched Doug Henwood says, Let your inner elitism out. And someday, do anything you can to get your kids in Ivy League colleges.

    Comment by Michael Yates — June 28, 2017 @ 12:43 am

  7. Actually, I was too upset about personal matters when I wrote my comment. Since Comrade Yates was kind enough to praise that comment, I wish to qualify it without taking back anything that I said.

    I still think Jacobin does more harm than e.g. Bernie Sanders, who is positioned differently and will make people ask, “What is Socialism?” The problem with Jacobin is that it stands as the answer to that question, which makes it dangerous. But I feel the need to make a more intelligent comment.

    First of all, I acknowledge that Bhaskar’s main point is his case, if you can call it that, for a return “to the Finland Station” via the social democracy of the Second International. I find this both glib and unhistorical, but it does deserve serious attention and refutation. My concern here is narrowly with what I take to be the promotion of Participatory Democracy (PD) and workers’ cooperatives, points to which Bhaskar devotes relatively little of his glib and glossy presentation, but which, following Louis, I find revealing of the shallowness of his approach.

    There’s a bit of a dialectic here in that, in sharply rejecting these things as they are usually presented on the pseudo-left, which is where I am positioning Bhaskar, I actually find them both interesting and potentially very valuable when seen for what they actually are.

    I personally find participatory democracy as a slogan to be near meaningless except as a temporary expedient during strikes, occupations, and the like. This is an old allergic reaction to SDS, which I respected as a necessity but always found ridiculous in many of the positions it took. If PD means permanently governing by the equivalent of daily standups in which everyone in the world gets into a room twice a day and prays over every single action of society during that day, I find it insane.

    I’m no believer in the reactionary cliche of fixed human nature but their are limits (e.g. socialism will not cause the evolution of actual Men of Steel); and IMHO nobody wants to live in a permanent Standup World and nobody can sustain that indefinitely. Even on the tiny scale of an Occupy camp, when the thing folds you have nothing left but networks of cliques and the vaunted transparency is converted into total opacity.

    Even so, PD clearly works locally in times of heightened urgency and can be immensely valuable in a larger context. Witness Occupy and probably many episodes in the history of e.g. Spanish anarcho-synicalism.

    Now as to workers’ cooperatives: First of all, the workers’ cooperative is convertible to employee ownership, which, in the case of large companies, paves the way, through the magic of the stock market, for traditional corporate restructuring. When I worked for SAIC on a NASA contract for four and a half years back in the day, SAIC was employee-owned even though it was neither democratic nor progressive in any way. It’s even less d&p now. There’s a list of employee-owned companies here. How many of these are paving the way to socialism? And even if one was, these things change overnight. True, I don’t know how many of these, if any, are run as cooperatives. But I think any cooperative can mutate to undemocratic employee ownership and from there to a traditional corporation.

    Perhaps the world superstar of workers’ cooperatives is Spain’s huge Mondragon Corporation. But I note a recent article in the Guardianpraising Mondragon for their democratic way of allocating wage cuts. Isn’t that just wonderful? This just isn’t socialism or–of itself–the road to socialism.

    In twenty years’ time, Mondragon will either have ceased to exist or have been absorbed by or completely mutated into some vast multinational apparatus of oppression.

    Where I do find value in PD and workers’ cooperatives is on the level of tactics and strategy I’ve written before about the need for mutual aid as a way of making space for those damaged by austerity to group and stage a fight-back. Is this happening with Mondragon? No idea. But if Republic or Mondragon provides a home and a wage and benefits to workers who would otherwise be cast aside, I welcome this–as a tactical and strategic necessity. Workers’ cooperatives, do have, it seems to me–from the Internet perspective of two thousand feet–at least some capability of filling the voids left by austerity and should be both accepted and, if possible, influenced by Marxism–and absolutely promoted wherever they really can–if they can–alleviate the suffering and paralysis austerity causes. In my book, they come under the heading of mutual aid.

    So I think PD and workers’ cooperatives can be crucially valuable at a certain level in times of crisis, depending on how they function and what the surrounding historical events and tendencies are.

    But IMHO they are not socialism and cannot of themselves lead to socialism in the absence of a larger movement rooted in a deep understanding of the class system and the long-term dynamic of capitalism as understood by Marxism. There is simply no getting beyond that, in my view.

    Allowing for this by somehow turning the clock back to Kautsky via an allusion to Edmund Wilson is as farcical as any other attempt to re-enact past history literally. This is doubly offensive as Bhaskar’s particular allusive style is a cue that he is really seeking to draw attention to himself (and screw the revolution–what revolution?). We must forge ahead and think hard about what now is, and not worry so much about demonstrating our literary qualifications or building our resumes. History should illuminate this, not merely furnish scenery for a petty bourgeois costume drama.

    Anyway, the real maven (if that’s the word) of cooperatives as a cure-all as far as I know is Gar Alperovitz of the University of Maryland, who–for all his fundamental errors–knows a hell of a lot more about this than Bhaskar will ever learn. Interesting that Alperovitz gets no credit in Bhaskar’s Times article. He pops up from time to time on Henry Giroux’s Truthout and other contributors to that website take up the cooperative cause occasionally–I can’t think of their names.

    In the end, I still think Bhaskar is a yuppie and a running dog, but excess of bile only makes you sick. Screw the discussion groups anyway.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 28, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

  8. Ouch–“their are” should be “there are”

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 28, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

  9. Excellent, Farans. You make the points I was hoping would be made. I am also hoping that those on this list will hear them rather than simply ¨gossiping¨ about the shallowness of people like Sankara; a “truth” with little substance or direction. In this period, I believe it is best explain (patiently if possible, but forthrightly regardless) what our objections are to the, as you call them, “psuedo-left” notions about socialism, democracy, or for that matter, political economy, racism, and gender inequality. I believe revolutionary Marxists have much to say and we need to find a way to have it heard.
    thanks for the excellent contribution.

    Comment by mtomas3 — June 28, 2017 @ 4:13 pm

  10. Sorry for the misspelling of “pseudo-left”

    Comment by mtomas3 — June 28, 2017 @ 4:14 pm

  11. I agree with Michael Yates. If people like Sunkara were put to the question of accepting participatory democracy in the real world, they would promptly become liberals or Stalinists, which probably explains why there is no working class support for them.

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 28, 2017 @ 5:34 pm

  12. This posting is hilariously ungenerous. Old uncle cranky-pants one note.

    John Bellamy Foster wouldn’t pop into MTV? Over here in the UK actual socialists are popping into stuff kids do and vice versa. Not just Glastonbury — the hip hop scene, the rock scene. And it certainly matters for the development of actual socialist politics.

    Would you genuinely be happy if Bhaskar thundered on about liquidating class enemies?

    Think these guys may be on to something about how best to change the ‘common sense’ of society — in a Tony Gramsci sense of this phrase. But we may disagree.

    Comment by Jer — June 30, 2017 @ 5:24 pm

  13. Would you genuinely be happy if Bhaskar thundered on about liquidating class enemies?

    Absolutely.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 30, 2017 @ 9:56 pm

  14. My dear brother Farans,
    There is only one solution…incinerate them all! Crematoriums for those; “well-heeled lumps of human refuse…” Let me know when you have moved out of your “…gentrified DC neighborhood.” Here are a couple of possible listings;

    http://www.longandfoster.com/homes-for-sale/2311-Altamont-Place-SE-UNIT-3-Washington-DC-20020-156852821
    http://www.longandfoster.com/landlots-for-sale/Eastern-Avenue-NORTHEAST-Washington-DC-20019-110895611
    https://www.redfin.com/DC/Washington/4225-Gorman-St-SE-20019/home/10138970

    Oh wait you’re a Marxist so you can’t own property! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

    Comment by Eric — July 1, 2017 @ 6:06 pm

  15. Eric. Do you read Jacobin? You don’t seem intelligent enough even for that.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — July 3, 2017 @ 7:53 pm


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