Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 15, 2017

Reflections on the DSA

Filed under: social democracy,socialism — louisproyect @ 12:59 pm

Fifty years ago I fully expected that by 2017 we would be living under socialism in the USA, thanks to a combination of deepening contradictions that would make capitalism untenable and our steely resolve in building a vanguard Trotskyist party up to the task of leading the glorious revolution of the future. It turned out that it was our vanguardist pretensions that were untenable. That plus capitalism’s ability to both co-opt and repress the left leaves us where we are today: in a total mess.

In the early 80s I hooked up with Peter Camejo’s North Star Network in the hope of building a new left that dispensed with vanguardist pretensions. Carrying out a one-man probe of the extant non-Leninist left, I decided to attend DSA’s “Radical Alternatives for the 1980s: A Conference on Education and Strategy for Progressive” in 1983. After spending 11 years in the Trotskyist movement with its cocksure belief that it was predestined to lead the American revolution, I found the conference a breath of fresh air, especially Stanley Aronowitz’s presentation on what Peter and I used to call “tasks and perspectives” reports. The DSA was only a year old at the time, having been formed through a merger of Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM). NAM was probably closer to the North Star politically but not likely to be interested in a regroupment effort with ex-Trotskyists. Michael Harrington’s DSOC was not only much larger but had an orientation to the Democratic Party that was a match to the ideological background of leading NAM members like Richard Healy, the son of former CP leader Dorothy Healy.

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  1. Some important economic info came out today in the morning paper in the state that I am visiting. Median income has risen over the past year. That got me to looking in to state income a little more closely. In this state, probably in the top 15 of the 50 states, 25% of adults live in families with an annual income of more than 150,000 dollars. That is a heck of a lot of money for one year. The percent of college grads who reach this level is over 50%. Even earning 100,000 dollars a year will lead to a reasonably good living in this state if you do not have some kind of problem such as a drug or gambling addiction. Ok quite a few people are probably working a job and half to achieve these higher levels. None the less the current system works for large numbers of people. Would it be hard to imagine that for many of those may not yet be in the above 100,000 dollar category are imagining that they will be in the 100,000 dollar plus category? Many of these people have been hearing from unrepentant Marxists for more than a century that the system is going to collapse. Is it any wonder that they scoff at such pessimistic assessments. The system may have actually already collapsed for some people. But for huge numbers of people the system seems invulnerable. The people who have the most training in creating a mass movement are those with apparently the least incentive to do so as they are the ones with vast economic resources. 150,000 dollars is chicken fee d compared to what the Koch brothers make yet there are very few people who would not be satisfied with such an income?
    I don’t know maybe this is not even relevant information. Should Louis have a vote as to whether or not this comment should be deleted? Or should he just delete it with no vote?

    Comment by CLK 200 MB — September 16, 2017 @ 12:44 am

  2. CLK seems to be whistling in the dark. If the system was working so well, why is Washington hated so much? And why did a Harvard University survey, which polled young adults between ages 18 and 29, find that 51 percent of respondents do not support capitalism as opposed to 42 percent supporting it? I don’t think that the USA is on the brink of a revolution but at the rate things are going, the system’s future is cloudy at best

    Comment by louisproyect — September 16, 2017 @ 1:21 am

  3. How does this Harvard U. survey compare with what young adults said 15, 25, 35, and 50 years ago. I never saw the results of such a poll when I was a younger adult. But, I do remember that it was popular to say that anyone who was not a socialist at age 18 had no heart. Anyone who was still a socialist at age 38 had no brain. My guess is that this saying was made up to explain why the hippies of the 60s became the soccer moms of the 70s and 80s.
    0f course the future of the American system is cloudy. The future of the entire planet is in peril. Do people people know that they have a choice between socialism and barbarism? 0r, do people know that they DID have a choice between socialism and barbarism?

    Comment by CLK 200 MB — September 16, 2017 @ 2:33 am

  4. You are correct in criticizing the naive aspects of worker-coops. But there is one very important aspect that you have ignored. Socialism is no longer seen as nationalization, as the state running the means of production. It is now seen, correctly, one might add, as worker-self management. This is a big step forward away from the statist swamp that the movement got stuck in post WW1 with the Leninists and Fabians. And work place democracy is vastly more desirable than bureaucratic control in the eyes of working people.

    Comment by Larry Gambone — September 16, 2017 @ 8:12 pm

  5. Dear Larry,
    I do not have any friends in the USA. I have just been visiting here for the past three weeks. Therefore I am not really in a position to say whether or not your assertion that socialism is now seen in the USA as worker self management. But to me the essence of socialism is the prevention of large income and net wealth disparities in society, especially those disparities that are a result of economic exploitation.
    Of course many people who use a socialist label to describe their political orientation like to talk about a classless society. My take is that to talk of a classless society is unrealistically Utopian. People are so diverse even if everyone had the same wage, which would be unfair since not all jobs are the same, it would not take long before it would appear that some people were wealthier than others. My guess though is that there is a difference between wealthier and a lot wealthier. With that understanding we have a definition of socialism that could work.
    Is there only one way to prevent large income and net wealth disparities that will work, more than one way that will work, or no way that will work?

    Comment by CLK 200 MB — September 17, 2017 @ 2:49 am

  6. OOps I obviously for the words, “is correct” after worker self management.

    Comment by CLK 200 MB — September 17, 2017 @ 2:51 am

  7. OOps forgive me I recently had a stroke.

    Comment by CLK 200 MB — September 17, 2017 @ 2:52 am

  8. I have a friend who has been interested in the DSA, but concerned about the lack of people of color among those he has encountered.

    Here is an observation from him:

    “Last night when cops in St. Louis were mass arresting and brutalizing people, none of the dozens of prominent DSA activists I follow were tweeting about it, and many still seem not to have noticed what happened at all. It further confirmed my feeling that they’re mostly interested in goofy memes, “dunking” on liberals (I don’t need to be reminded for the 10,000th time that Neera Tanden and Peter Daou are jackasses), and smugly chirping among themselves, like it’s all a game to see who can have the cleverest hot take. They could have been bringing attention to the emergency in real time, and helping to solicit bail funds, but nope, jokes about Sean Spicer at the Emmys were more urgent.”

    Consistent with the DSA Austin defense of placing a cop on a high level national DSA committee.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 18, 2017 @ 5:19 pm

  9. Dear Louis,
    To answer your question about why there is so much hatred for Washington, it seems to me because lots of people think that those making the policies in Washington are cheating them. Yet huge numbers of people are being fooled about just who exactly it is that is cheating them. Huge numbers of people do not blame the retired colonels who spent a life getting paid to do nothing productive and then get paid to do nothing at all. No this mass of people think that it is welfare “cheats”, immigrants, or even unions that are dragging them and America down.

    If this obstacle could be overcome I do not think that people should dream of a replacement for capitalism that tries to do away with a bureaucracy. The world is now very complex and impersonal. No matter who goods and services are produced by there will be a lot of temptation to cheat. A bureaucracy is vital in maintaining oversight in order to reduce cheating.

    Another thought that I have about this mass movement for change idea is that is that even if it could be implemented it would not last long. A socialist society would have some clear winners, those that are currently the clear losers. But it will also create a lot of angry opposition, mainly those in the top 20% of net wealth holders or income earners. Then there will be large numbers of people who really do not gain much at all, those in the next 30%. Now there could be some neet gain by reducing waste in the DOD without even alienating those who are involved with the DOD by giving them less to do and more pay to nothing as they are phased out. Yes paying such bribery sucks but these gangsters have lots of ammunition. But this net gain would be offset by a probable net loss of needing to maintain more environmentally sustainable economic policies.

    So a conclusion that I draw from such an assessment is that expecting a majority of the people in the USA or even Canada to support anything more than mild reforms to the capitalist system in the short or even the intermediate term, AFTER the leadership of the current system has been decapitated, IF that could even be done, is very unrealistic. People will need to see the results and in addition be transformed in to a different type of human than they are, for the most part, are now.

    So the conclusion that I draw from that assessment is that any attempt to change the path that humanity is one must first stress seizing the institutions of power with the support of only a small but ruthless minority as its primary focus while attempting to build a mass movement as its secondary focus. This secondary focus is necessary because a ruthless minority can usually not remain in power for long without mass support. YET the secondary focus, of trying to remove those in power who are leading us to extinction, by means of a mass movement, has even less chance of success than a small number of ruthless people using violence, which is of course very small. The ability of any movement to act is delayed by its dumbest members. A large movement will naturally have a lot more foolish people.

    I do not draw a conclusion based on that assessment. I just ask myself a number of questions. Is my pessimistic assessment of the world’s future, if we continue on our current course, complete bullshit. If there is a chance that my pessimistic assessment might be correct is it possible to compare the risk of lives lost at some future date with the risks of lives lost at a much earlier date due to the violence that would result from the attempt to use violence to avoid the long term consequences of unsustainable economic/environmental policies. In addition I have to ask even if such an attempt to change this horrendous perceived future could be made what are the chances that the feared future could be avoided in any case?

    There is an example from recent history in which leaders had to answer similar questions. It was during WW2 that Roosevelt and Churchill and their military experts had to ask themselves who were they really fighting the Nazis and their official Japanese allies, or the Soviets. Based on their behavior anyone with a lick of sense could only conclude that their primary enemy during the war was the Soviet Union. We can draw this conclusion because it is clear to anyone with a minimal amount of knowledge about military matters that these men could have defeated the Axis powers much faster than they actually did. They could have done that by cutting of the supply of critical raw materials that were necessary for the Axis war effort, which would have been extraordinarily easy.
    Now a supporter of these western allied leaders would claim that they were far sighted. I claim that they were treacherous traitors and accessories to the Nazi war crimes for their dereliction of duty in failing to quickly defeat the Axis. Of course the supporters of these manipulators will say that due to their far sightedness the Soviets were defeated with out a World War. My reply to that is that the Soviets would have been defeated with out a world war anyways. Yes it all boils down to speculation. My speculation is never unreasonable.

    The reason that this example is important is because Eisenhower and MacArthur and Roosevelt could accuse me of being a murdering traitor because if it were in my power I would be willing to get lots or maybe even lots and lots and lots and lots of people killed to prevent a future that I fear might happen from actually happening at a point in the future that I can not even determine, maybe 100 years maybe 500 years. Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Roosevelt could accuse me.
    Will anyone else accuse me?

    Comment by CLK 200 MB — September 19, 2017 @ 6:24 am

  10. I think that leftists have had difficulty selling solidarity because so many people think that no one has ever given them any. They have to get some from others to know that it really exists before they will be willing to give some to others. Naturally they want a good return on their investment.

    Freedom is easier to sell. You just have to convince people that you are giving the people something when they really had it all along. Clearly a government can take freedom away from people. In some cases it clearly should. This asinine idea that a person has the right to wake up a whole town with a motorcycle muffler that can be heard from 5 miles away is an example of a freedom have that can and should be taken away. But people have been falling for this idea that government protects our freedoms for 250 years. A good government will respect those freedoms that are reasonable and take those that are not.

    Solidarity will produce a good return on what is invested in it. The problem is to get the community concern started. I think that could be a reason why Stan Goff returned to his Christian beginnings after a period as a secular socialist activist. I of course could be wrong, but I imagine that he sees Christianity as a necessary ingredient in creating a civil population that will support a socialist state or a welfare state. Would a large segment of any population never support socialism because they would believe that they would be much better off under a system of unrestrained competition because these people (of this segment) believe that they are in some way superior to everyone else? Could a population indoctrinated in Christianity reduce this potential tendency?

    For most of us secular socialists even if Christianity could convince people to act with greater solidarity there is a problem with it. Christianity of whatever variety is not true and even worse history clearly shows that it can be easily abused.

    I myself favor (a small secret sect of) Buddhism as the vehicle for indoctrinating a population to support solidarity even though it may harm the short term interests of some of societies members. But since Buddhism would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull in much of the USA I would settle for Unitarian Universalism. Furthermore I can imagine some stickler for consistency saying, just wait a second!! Buddhism in what ever variety is not true either. My reply to that is, who have not yet studied my secret sect of Buddhism. Well OK it is not actually so secret or I would be its only member. I am non the less not inclined to name it.

    It is true that I have never studied Judaism. Could there perhaps be a small secret sect of Judaism that has a secret alliance with a small secret sect of Buddhism?

    Comment by CLK 200 MB — September 21, 2017 @ 3:20 am

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