Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 22, 2017

Reply to a disgruntled 27-year old

Filed under: socialism,third parties — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

Kshama Sawant: going to Washington DC to explore possibility of a new People’s Party

Customarily when I receive a private message such as the one below, I answer it publicly without identifying the sender since it might likely be a question that other readers of this blog have been wrestling with:

Hi there,

I’m a disgruntled 27 year old who’s been reading your blog recently, because I’ve become interested in left wing analysis of, well everything. I admittedly don’t consider myself a Marxist, but I also don’t consider myself an anarchist or a liberal or a centrist or anything like that, so I don’t know where I fit. Maybe anti capitalist? But I don’t have a replacement on hand so it seems kind of a useless term. Reading through your blog, I have read you have had decades of experience with activism going back to the 1960s. So what I’m asking simply is, what is my generation, this generation, supposed to do? I understand you or anyone else probably doesn’t have an answer, or not much of one, but I’m hoping you might have some insights on how this generation can deal with the massive issues now and coming. I’m sorry if this is a stupid question, and feel free to ignore it.

J.

Hi, J

To start with, there are good reasons why identifying as an anti-capitalist rather than a socialist might make sense. In 2009, the French Trotskyist group known as the Revolutionary Communist League dissolved itself into a new group called the New Anticapitalist Party because it was trying to get away from the “Russian questions” that had gotten much of the socialist left bogged down in doctrinal hairsplitting. After all, why argue over when the USSR became a “degenerated workers state” or “state capitalist” when the real problem facing Americans was how to secure health care or affordable housing.

There are other new left formations in Europe that have taken the same tack as the NPA with even greater success, such as Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. While Syriza has been disavowed by most of the left for having caved into the demands of German banks and other lending institutions, there was a need for the Greek left to come together in a broad left formation that did not impose an ideological straightjacket on its members. Whatever your take on Soviet history or its various leaders, the pressing question for Greeks was how to get from under the crushing debt cycle. That Syriza failed this test is more a judgement on its Eurocommunist leadership than on its origins as a broad-based anti-capitalist party.

There is nothing quite like this in the USA today. I held out hopes ever since Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign that the Green Party would move in this direction but am dismayed by the party’s failure to develop into a nation-wide membership party. About six months ago, I paid $25 to become a Green Party member but nothing has come out of that. I wasn’t expecting to get a phone call or anything but if there was a national office for the party, it might be consolidating members in New York so that they could come together and discuss what can be done to challenge the status quo. With a transportation crisis in New York City, a well-organized Green Party chapter consisting of hundreds of members could play an important role in mobilizing support for investment in subway infrastructure.

As you probably are aware, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have experienced explosive growth in the past year with reports that it now has a membership in excess of 25,000—many of whom are your age and probably of a similar background. I had questions on whether this was only a paper membership but their participation in the protest against the far-right “Freedom of Speech” rally in Boston suggests a departure from past norms. Currently the main problem with the DSA is its failure to break decisively with the Democratic Party. Ever since the cooptation of Tom Watson’s Populist Party, the Democrats have managed to prevent a leftist third party from emerging. In my view, the need for such a party eclipses any considerations of ideological purity. Last year I took a lot of heat from people I had been close to around Syrian solidarity issues because of my support for Jill Stein, who had ambivalent positions on Syria—and sometimes even worse. It was more important that a third party emerge rather than making international questions a litmus test. However, the main obstacle to the Green Party becoming that party is not difference over this or that question but the general inability of the top tier of leadership to understand the need to take party-building seriously. I have no idea what Jill Stein did with the millions raised to investigate voting irregularities in the presidential vote but surely some of it could have been funneled into creating a national office with a competent staff.

On the third party front, Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative has now issued a call for such a party:

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant will be in Washington, D.C., early next month to discuss the possible launch of a new party.

Its name may sound familiar to Seattle: The People’s Party.

However, while Sawant was an early supporter of the newly founded Seattle Peoples Party and its mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver, the two groups with similar names have no formal relationship with each other, though they are feeding off the same populist fervor. And just as the Seattle Peoples Party upended local political dynamics during the mayoral primary, the national party has simliar ambitions.

“I think Nikkita Oliver’s campaign is a symptom and actually an example of what’s happening politically in this country,” says Dr. Bill Kildall, Washington State coordinator. “The two party system no longer represents our working people and [her] campaign obviously was directed at gaining support from working people.”

A town hall will be hosted in Washington D.C. on Sept. 9 to discuss the formation of the new People’s Party. It will be livestreamed across the country to similar gatherings. The event in D.C. will be headlined by Sawant, Dr. Cornel West, and Nick Brana, founder of Draft Bernie for a People’s Party (that organization was what gave rise to the national party’s name).

“What we will be doing,” Kildall says, “is establishing what I would call chapters in each place where the sister townhalls are going to be held. There will be follow up meetings where we will actually form these chapters of the People’s Party and elect officers and make by-laws.”

I am not sure that Socialist Alternative has the clout to pull this off but on paper it sounds great. Perhaps if the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and the DSA put their shoulders to the wheel, it might work. Icitizen, admittedly not a neutral body, took a poll in June that had some eye-popping results. In their online survey of 1,176 adults, nearly sixty percent are likely to consider voting for a third-party candidate for president in 2020 and over half believe that if a third party gained Congressional seats, legislation would improve.

As Leon Trotsky might have put it, conditions are rotten-ripe for a new left party.

This brings us to the question of what is to be done by your generation. When I was your age, the largest groups on the left were either Trotskyist like the one I belonged to or Maoist. Both types of party were sectarian mistakes. I have written dozens of articles since 1992 or so explaining why Trotskyism had a self-imposed glass ceiling by demanding that members be committed to a program much more narrow than any mass party would consider. The same thing was true of the Maoists as Max Elbaum pointed out in his “Revolution in the Air”. That epoch has come to an end. The only people starting new “Leninist” parties today are young and inexperienced and their efforts are mostly Internet-based. After all, to start a new “Revolutionary Communist Party-Marxist Leninist” in the USA, a WordPress account suffices.

I have no problem recommending membership in the ISO or Socialist Alternative even though they claim to be “Leninist”. They are so far from the rigid and cultish norms of the Trotskyist and Maoist groups of the 1960s and 70s that you certainly won’t come out of as damaged goods like me when I left the SWP in 1978. As long as you are not afraid to speak your mind, these groups could provide a useful education and the avenues to productive work in the mass movement.

If it weren’t for its temporizing with the Democratic Party, the DSA would be hands down winners. I have a feeling that their potential for growth is practically unlimited since it allows total political and intellectual freedom for its membership, which as it happens was the same kind of freedom that existed in Rosa Luxemburg’s party in Germany or Lenin’s in Russia.

If you are reluctant to join any party at this point, I’d recommend looking into a Jacobin reading group. Many of the people who get together to discuss radical literature have the same kind of background as you and can be a useful resource in hooking you up with activism in the city where you live.

Finally, I’d stay away from the two big temptations today, Democratic Party politics and black bloc/antifa adventurism. In a PJ Wodehouse short story, the manservant Jeeves told his master Bertie Wooster: “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.” I feel the same way about the Democrats and ultraleftism.

9 Comments »

  1. […] to return to the purpose of this blog I was interested to read a discussion written by Louis Proyect. A ‘Marxist revolution’ may indeed not be the way to go. I do feel that I need to […]

    Pingback by An idea slowly begins to develop | BOYCIE'S BLOGS: DEFENDING BRITAIN'S WELFARE SYSTEM — August 22, 2017 @ 5:09 pm

  2. Didn’t the world try this already, and Socialism failed miserably?

    Comment by warren trout — August 23, 2017 @ 12:34 am

  3. Not really. it is capitalism that has failed miserably. 2 world wars that cost the lives of millions of innocent civilians outweighs the dubious merits of being able to buy 13 different types of laxatives at CVS. In fact, it might be capitalism that is causing chronic constipation.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 23, 2017 @ 12:52 am

  4. Oh apparently not, so I’ll try again:

    Hi, it’s J, the person you responded to. Thanks for this, it is interesting and has given me a lot to think about. I admit that “ideologically” I’d more more in line with the DSA, as I consider myself a social democrat (which I imagine is basically admitting I worship Lucifer to most communists) and not a communist (leninist, trotskyist, maoist, etc) and don’t think burning the whole thing down is a viable path for the USA, or really anywhere at this point. I admit my politics are more Sanders/Corbyn than they are Luxemburg/Lenin, which I hope doesn’t get me expelled from your website.

    But the same as you, I don’t like their Democrat entryism, which is still the cornerstone of the DSA. Although AFAIK the DSA is now full of people now critical of the Democrats, maybe this will change. I feel it has to. Let me give an example:

    They’re doing their big campaign here in my state (California) to get California’s single payer bill to rise from the grave, and they certainly have the numbers to do this, but their approach is to get rid of the state senator who killed it and just replace him with a progressive democrat, which I feel won’t work (of course if it does, I’ll eat crow). On the one hand, it’s opened up a lot of awareness of how totally screwed up the California Democrats are, and has surged the single payer movement in California, but most of its energy is going into getting rid of this state senator instead of say getting a ballot initiative to enact it (though apparently the DSA affiliated Nurses Union is now planning to do this). The California Democrats will not enact it, but a ballot initiative might, or you know, a third party to the left of the Democrats pushing them to do so, which has worked in other countries (like in Canada).

    As for Socialist Alternative, I actually did try to join them as an experiment, but was fully honest with the recruiter (to join you need to go through an interview, unlike with the DSA) that I’m not a Leninist and what I know of Leninism leaves a lot of criticisms and a lot to be desired, and they said they couldn’t tolerate that. Which is fine, but it doesn’t seem like a group with a lot of potential for growth. Most people aren’t communists, I don’t really see a bright future for Communism, and most aren’t willing to be total foot soldiers for a cause. This is why the DSA’s entryism annoys me, because otherwise they are the only socialist group with any mass potential, as evidenced by the fact they’re the only one growing by leaps and bounds. The DSA basically would be our Podemos or Die Linke or Corbynite Labour Party if it weren’t for its cord to the Dems. And I suspect Socialist Alternative will eventually just dissolve itself as an entryist wing of the DSA, as this is their main goal to begin with.

    As for Jacobin and its reading groups, Im actually a subscriber of Jacobins and I like the magazine and their general mission, so I might try that out. Its the only left wing magazine I read, as the rest seem to just be preachy magazines for sects.

    And finally as for Antifa, I have no interests in those clowns. I agree with Noam Chomsky on them, and I also have no interest in violence. I’m not going to become a body bag for anyone or any ideology, let alone complete idiots like them.

    Again, thanks for the response and dialogue,

    J

    Comment by JT — August 23, 2017 @ 2:18 am

  5. As for the Greens, I forgot to add, I’ve voted for them twice, in 12 and 16, but I don’t see them as a viable party, given what I’ve seen. I’ve only voted for them in protest. I wish they were viable.

    Comment by JT — August 23, 2017 @ 2:50 am

  6. Forgot to add a few things:

    I voted for the Greens in ’12 and ’16 (i actually voted for Ralph Nader in 2008) but from what I’ve observed, they’re not a viable “third party”, sadly enough. I’ve only voted for them in protest.

    AFAIK, and I speak from ignorance, wasn’t SYRIZA trying everything they could before they got crushed by the Germans and French? I think the left blaming them looks like someone blaming the victim of a crime. But I really don’t know much about that situation.

    Comment by J.T. — August 23, 2017 @ 2:53 am

  7. J,

    Join whichever party or organisation you honestly think offers the best hope (however slender that might be) of positive change. If it eventually turns out you were wrong, try not to be too discouraged and try again. Really it’s your decision based on your own judgement. No one else can make it for you.

    Comment by JN — August 23, 2017 @ 4:21 am

  8. Of course, though I feel no group exists that has significant overlap with me on the stuff that matters. That’s why I asked this blog initially. I still feel every group has serious issues, unfortunately.

    Comment by J.T. — August 23, 2017 @ 4:40 am

  9. don’t feel pressured to join any organization. there’s enough raw raw my team versus your team shit on the left as it is. just find some activism going on in your town and get to know different people and groups and go from there. don’t get bogged down with identifying with this or that group. the most important thing is that you are able to speak your mind freely

    Comment by jmo929 — August 25, 2017 @ 1:01 pm


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