Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 26, 2018

Bring back communism?

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:33 pm

When I reviewed Michael Lebowitz’s “The Socialist Alternative” in 2011, I found his argument that Marx considered the words socialism and communism interchangeable persuasive. While he did not rule out the use of the word communism, he certainly implied that it had drawbacks:

The term communism communicated something different when Marx wrote in the nineteenth century. Communism was the name Marx used to describe the society of free and associated producers — “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.” But very few people think of communism that way now. In fact, people hardly think of communism as an economic system, as a way in which producers organize to produce for the needs of all! Rather, as the result of the understanding of the experiences of the last century, communism is now viewed as a political system — in particular, as a state that stands over and above society and oppresses working people.

When I was in the Socialist Workers Party, we never called ourselves communists because of its associations with the Soviet bureaucracy. After cult leader Jack Barnes decided to break with Trotskyist tradition, the word communist became ubiquitous mainly because it was the word preferred by the Cubans. As the party descended deeper into political mental illness, it began using the term worker-Bolshevik to describe party members. After hooking up with Peter Camejo in the early 80s, I repeated his warnings about sectarian appropriations of the USSR every chance I got especially on the net. For me, when a group puts up hammers and sickles or red stars on its website, or pictures of Stalin, Trotsky or Mao for that matter, I am always reminded of the words of the cop in “Cool Hand Luke”: “What we have here is a failure to communicate”.

Now that the term “democratic-socialist” has gained about the same currency as Che Guevara t-shirts or the “Kars for Kids” commercial on TV and radio, I have reached the boiling point. What does being for single-payer or against ICE have to do with socialism? Maxine Waters is identical to Bernie Sanders on these matters but described herself as a “capitalist” politician in a CNBC interview.

For that matter, what is the point of prefixing the word with “democratic”? Is the idea that you don’t want to be mistaken for one of those socialists who has good things to say about Fidel and Che? For Marx and Engels, socialism was a system based on both political and economic democracy in the sense of the Greek origins of the term. “Demo” + “cracy” = rule of the people.

After Marx’s death, Engels helped to influence the direction of the Second International that fell within the rubric of “social democracy”, a term that was interchangeable with socialist. It was only the failure of the Second International to oppose WWI that led to the formation of the Third International, or Communist International. From 1917 onwards, those who saw the USSR as a model labeled themselves communist proudly. The Trotskyists eschewed the term for the reasons alluded to above.

The problem facing the “hard left” today for lack of a better term is the ubiquity of the term “democratic-socialist” that has begun to suck all the oxygen out of the room. With many on the “hard left” attaching themselves to the Jacobin/DSA colossus like remoras to a shark, those of us who failed to be seduced by the charms of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are left out in the cold. Who are we? Where do we stand? What is our future?

I was left with such questions after reading the article “What is Millennial Socialism?” written for The American Interest by Ben Judah that consigns people like me to the dustbin of history:

“Revolution” was to a generation of socialists what Godot was to Vladimir and Estragon. Waiting for the revolution, anticipating the revolution, planning for the revolution, paralyzed a generation of socialists in Britain and America.

“We can’t sit around waiting; our chance is happening right now,” I remember my friend James Schneider told me when he co-founded Momentum to support Jeremy Corbyn. This attitude, and how prevalent it is, matters.

The idea of the revolution crippled a generation of socialist activists and intellectuals. Not anymore. Britain’s millennial socialists believe that the Labour Party can be made the vehicle for the revolution they want—breaking 1 percent financial capitalism—and they can achieve it through the ballot box.

This idea of the revolution could not be more different from the older generation. The old Left—think Perry Anderson and his New Left Review—went from believing Harold Wilson could open the path to socialism through the ballot boxes, to waiting expectantly for a May ‘68-type situation to emerge in the United Kingdom, to writing it off completely as a historic impossibility in the 1990s.

That old idea of the revolution—the massive crowds, the vanguard and the Kalashnikov chic—is so absent from millennial socialism that it’s hard to get across how important it was to the old Left. What for the new is commodified ironic Soviet kitsch was deadly serious to the founders of the New Left Review, for whom October 1917 was an inseparable part of thinking about socialism. Late-night discussions in the upstairs room at pubs in Islington about the exact moment to seize Parliament based on analysing Karl Liebknecht’s mistakes for when the ‘situation’ next comes round? That was the old 1970s Left. Go to the pub with millennial socialists and all you will hear about is party politics.

Guess what party politics is. Here’s a clue: A. O-C.

Get it? Ben Judah sees the division between dinosaurs like me and fresh-faced kids like Bhaskar Sunkara as being based on revolution versus electoralism. “Now—even more so since the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—millennial socialist activists are convinced that the hollow establishment parties that their forerunners disdained are instruments ripe for the taking.”

I don’t know quite how to put this but the only thing I spot on the horizon as ripe for taking are the millennials who hope to take over the Democratic Party. With A. O-C wilting under pressure on Israel and Palestine, the term might even be rotten-ripe.

Just a word or two about the provenance of The American Interest and Ben Judah. The American Interest is a magazine whose executive committee is chaired by Francis Fukuyama. The editorial board includes Anne Applebaum, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Mario Vargas Llosa. As for Ben Judah, he is the son of Tim Judah at the New York Review of Books, a long-time anti-Communist hack. Only 30 years old, Ben Judah was talented enough to become a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations between 2010 and 2012. Wow. Only 22 years old and making it big-time on a policy-making body funded by George Soros. Just the kind of person qualified to put the crown on the head of the boy-prince Bhaskar Sunkara.

If you want some help understanding democratic-socialism, you might want to consult Neal Mayer’s “What is Democratic Socialism” in (where else?) Jacobin. Mayer is on the DSA’s Citywide Leadership Committee and obviously qualified to speak for the spanking New Left.

He proposes a “Democratic Road to Socialism” that is different from the one conceived by “our friends on the socialist left”, in other words the people Ben Judah describes as being into “commodified ironic Soviet kitsch”. Speaking for the DSA (and likely the Jacobin editorial board), Mayer writes: “We reject strategies that transplant paths from Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1959 to the United States today, as if we could win socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn.”

Oh, I see. Remind me not to write any more articles about winning socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn.” I must have gotten such a silly idea from reading too much CLR James. I mean, for fuck’s sake, anybody writing such drivel understands about as much as Cuba in 1959 as I do about particle physics. Fidel Castro got started as a bourgeois politician just like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and only became a guerrilla after realizing that electoral politics in Cuba was a con game. Unlike most people seeking comfortable careers as professional politicians, Fidel Castro cared about the suffering of the Cuban people even if he didn’t live up to Sam Farber’s lofty standards.

Like most DSA’ers, Mayer sees work in the Democratic Party as a tactical question to be decided pragmatically:

To begin with, Sanders rose through an established party. Though political parties have suffered a profound degree of delegitimation, this has not sidelined them; their continuing economic and social impact ensure their continuing relevance. That they were nevertheless weakened gave individuals like Sanders who were not tainted with being part of the party establishment the advantage of operating inside these parties while retaining their branding as outsiders (this was also true of Corbyn in the Labour Party and Trump re the Republicans).

Had Sanders run as an independent, without the on-the-ground resources of the Democratic machine and the profile of running as a Democrat, it was highly unlikely — as he well knew — that his campaign would have had anywhere near the impact it did, just as attempts to form a left party outside the British Labour Party have generally and quickly faded. For all the discrediting of political parties, party politics remains a central site for being taken seriously. Starting a new party from scratch is something else and presents formidable difficulties.

Obviously, this is just another way of saying what Ben Judah said: “Now—even more so since the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—millennial socialist activists are convinced that the hollow establishment parties that their forerunners disdained are instruments ripe for the taking.”

Formidable difficulties if the goal is getting elected. In 2000, Ralph Nader ran an election campaign that generated 1,182 news articles and, according to people like Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman, cost Al Gore the election. Nader got 2,882,955 votes, or 2.74 percent of the popular vote. While not quite in the same realm as Debs’s 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912, it was on a par with all his other runs. In fact, his showing was so impressive that people like David Cobb, Ted Glick, Medea Benjamin and other Green Party leaders conspired to deprive him of ballot status in 2004 just to make sure the Democrats would not have any competition.

On top of all this, Gallup reports that sixty percent of Americans believe that a third party is needed. Some of them might be only in favor of the sort of side show that Ross Perot ran but you can be sure that millions would be open to the sort of initiative that Ralph Nader represented. As long as the Republicans and Democrats continue to play hard and soft cop respectively to the American working class, that sixty percent is likely to grow.

Nader ran the kind of campaign that Debs ran even though it was not specifically socialist. If the entire left had thrown itself into building the Green Party as the ISO had, maybe we would have ended up with a much different constellation of forces today.

Two days ago, the Huffington Post published an article by Anthea Butler titled “We Know Protests Work. So Why Aren’t We Protesting?” that rued the failure of the left to have mounted any demonstrations against Trump since the Women’s March on Inauguration Day and the protests at airports in response to the Muslim ban. To a large extent, this is the result of having a weak and disorganized left. In the best of all worlds, a Green Party could have become the hub of a radical movement in the same way it functioned in Germany until people like Joschka Fischer turned the Greens into a conventional social democratic party.

In the final analysis, holding office for revolutionaries should only be exploited as a means of challenging the capitalist system. Until the German Social Democracy turned into a reformist swamp, it saw itself as an instrument of working class defiance of capitalist business as usual. In “What is to be Done”, Lenin praised its stances on issues of the sort the left is facing today:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

That’s the kind of party we need today. In fact, the DSA could evolve into just such a party if it dropped the Dissent Magazine/Michael Harrington/Scandinavian scaffolding it rests on and forged out on its own. Who knows, maybe the failure of any of these Sanderista elected officials to make the slightest difference to our lives will speed that process along. Let’s cross our fingers.

As for the question of what to call ourselves. I’ll be damned if started calling myself a “communist”. Socialist works just fine for me. No need to prefix it with “democratic” especially since that word rings so hollow today.

 

11 Comments »

  1. I simply could never understand why so many “progressives” decried the Soviet system, but so very enthusiastically endorsed its counterpart in Cuba?

    Comment by Mike S Goodmann — July 26, 2018 @ 4:54 pm

  2. Maybe because Cuba had almost nothing in common with the USSR except calling itself Communist.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 26, 2018 @ 5:06 pm

  3. “With A. O-C wilting under pressure on Israel and Palestine.”

    I’m guessing this is a reference to the fake interview that was edited together as “satire”… I just found out about this yesterday, in case you haven’t yet.

    Comment by helium parrot — July 26, 2018 @ 5:36 pm

  4. OK, I actually had seen that… anyway, this is what happens when I get most of my news from twitter.

    Comment by helium parrot — July 26, 2018 @ 8:01 pm

  5. While I understand the justifiable and reasonable annoyance with his analysis, I think Zizek actually summed this up quite nicely some years ago. In a very serious and tangible way I think often that we are traveling through the same set of developments Europe went through in the past 10 years:

    Comment by stew312856 — July 27, 2018 @ 12:36 am

  6. I don’t know quite how to put this but the only thing I spot on the horizon as ripe for taking are the millennials who hope to take over the Democratic Party.

    Res ipsa loquitur.

    There’s Sanders who is safely to the right of actual socialism, then there’s Elizabeth Warren, who’s safely to the right of Sanders, then there’s Tim Kaine, who is safely to the right of Warren. Then there’s the immortal legacy of Obama (oh save it! save it!), safely to the right of all the rest. Let’s not even mention Senator McAsshole who replaced that bitch Scoop Jackson as the Senator from Boeing.

    Wall Street is licking its chops.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — July 27, 2018 @ 12:30 pm

  7. You might be interested in this: https://dsarefoundation.org/

    Comment by Michael — July 27, 2018 @ 3:54 pm

  8. In reference to the link provided by Michael to the radical caucus of the DSA, I wonder if a person agrees with 11 of the 13 points of unity, would such a person be unwelcome in this radical caucus of the DSA?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — July 27, 2018 @ 8:51 pm

  9. At Curt. Which you disagree with?

    Comment by Reflective Thinking — July 28, 2018 @ 4:00 pm

  10. would that make a difference as to whether or not I was excommunicated?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — July 28, 2018 @ 10:20 pm


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