Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 29, 2018

Corey Robin on the “new socialists”

Filed under: DSA — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

You know those double-takes that Stan Laurel used to pull off when, for example, he saw Oliver Hardy walking through the front door with a black eye his wife had just given him? That’s the expression I wore after turning to the Sunday NY Times Review section and saw Corey Robin’s article “The New Socialists” splashed across the front page.

The ability of the Jacobin/DSA steamroller to garner such attention, starting with a January 20, 2013 Times article about Bhaskar Sunkara titled “A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream”, boggles the mind. Once upon a time, as fairy tales begin, the group I belonged to nearly got spotlighted in the Sunday Times Magazine section. The magazine had commissioned Walter and Miriam Schneir, who were best known for their book on the Rosenbergs trial, to write such a piece when the SWP was making huge gains on the left as a result of our work in the antiwar movement. When the Scheirs turned it in, the Times nixed it because it was too complimentary. It is one thing to publish puff pieces about Jacobin; it was another to publish one for a group on J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro hit-list. Maybe when Jacobin’s offices get burglarized under mysterious circumstances, I’ll take them more seriously.

The Schneir’s article appeared in the September 25, 1976 Nation, just two years before the party embarked on the “turn toward the working class” that would lead to 90 percent of the membership either being expelled or resigning. Just rereading it for the first time in 20 years or so, it strikes me that this is the kind of article that needs to be written about the DSA. The Schneirs were not interested in promoting the SWP, only reporting on it as this excerpt would indicate. (The Seigle alluded to in the excerpt was Larry Seigle, an obnoxious full-timer who within a year after denouncing the FSLN as traitors dropped out of the SWP and returned to private life.)

Seigle and others who joined the Socialist Workers in the 1960s believed that the past contained lessons that they could absorb and apply. They regarded the actions of many SDSers, Yippies, pacifists, Black Panthers and other radicals as pragmatic and impulsive. They themselves followed well-trodden paths. To influence large numbers of people they used their time-tested tactic, the united front, whereby members join various mass organizations whose limited objectives they share. Those unfriendly to the tactic call it “infiltrating.” A variation is the creation of a single-issue organization by a coalition of otherwise politically diverse groups. During the anti-war movement, the united front coalition was a resounding success in helping to mobilize millions of demonstrators but it also engendered political hostilities on the Left that persist to this day.

The Schneirs were absolutely correct. (Contact me at lnp3@panix.com for a copy of the article.)

Robin’s article, titled “The New Socialists”, begins by trying to explain the surge of interest in Sanders, Jacobin, Chapo Frat House, A. O-C, DSA, et al by pointing to the betrayal of liberals. With candidates like Hillary Clinton, no wonder young people prefer those politicians who describe themselves as socialist. Robin writes:

Since the 1970s, American liberals have taken a right turn on the economy. They used to champion workers and unions, high taxes, redistribution, regulation and public services. Now they lionize billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, deregulate wherever possible, steer clear of unions except at election time and at least until recently, fight over how much to cut most people’s taxes.

I hate to sound petty and vindictive but wasn’t A. O-C aware of Ted Kennedy’s role in deregulation when she interned for him a decade ago? He was the prime mover in deregulating the railroads, airlines, and trucking during the Carter presidency. And when Bill Clinton was president, Ted Kennedy voted to repeal Glass-Steagall as well. Maybe this didn’t matter to her at the time if she was trying to get her foot in the door politically. It does look good on a resume, I have to admit.

With socialism becoming a mass movement, there are some curmudgeons who raise the awkward question of what the word means. As Robin puts it, “What explains this irruption? And what do we mean, in 2018, when we talk about ‘socialism’?” He answers the question thusly: “Socialism means different things to different people. For some, it conjures the Soviet Union and the gulag; for others, Scandinavia and guaranteed income. But neither is the true vision of socialism. What the socialist seeks is freedom.”

At the risk of personalizing the debate, this answer strikes me as dodgy since it excludes me. I certainly don’t think of gulags in a word association test since Stalin put so many of the people I admire into them, at least those that weren’t executed. As for Scandinavia, this certainly describes Bernie Sanders who, when asked by Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” how he defined socialism, answered that he was for “democratic socialism”, or what they’ve had in countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland for many years. Since Robin’s article identifies Bernie Sanders and A. O-C as the main spokespeople for this new socialist movement, you might wonder if he somehow missed Sanders’s reply to Schieffer. If Scandinavia is not “the true vision of socialism”, then Sanders is not much of a socialist.

Robin virtually identifies the “new socialists” as proletarian internationalists since they belong to families originating in colonies such as Puerto Rico (A. O-C) and Palestine (Rashida Tlaib). While it is encouraging to see people with such roots running for office, it seems like a bit of a stretch to link this to socialism. For example, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, who ran as an underdog but defeated rightwing Democrat Stephen Solarz in the same fashion that A. O-C defeated Joseph Crowley, is a Puerto Rican with bold anti-colonial politics. She was a leader in the Vieques movement that sought to stop the US military from using the inhabited island as a bombing range. In May 2000, she was arrested in a sit-in protest. Does that make her a socialist? Considering her ties to the banking and real estate industry, the answer would be no. Let’s hope that A. O-C does not turn out to be another Nydia Velázquez.

Despite the commitment that the DSA has to reforming the Democratic Party, Robin claims that “Arguably the biggest boundary today’s socialists are willing to cross is the two-party system. In their campaigns, the message is clear: It’s not enough to criticize Donald Trump or the Republicans; the Democrats are also complicit in the rot of American life.”

If being willing to attack rightwing Democrats is a sign of being a socialist, I wonder how one would describe Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. Certainly, they were as outspoken as Bernie Sanders even though they never called themselves “socialists”. This point is worth dwelling upon since Jacobin published an article by Adam Hilton titled “Searching for New Politics” that saw their candidacies as an opening for socialists back when I was young and spry.

Hilton sees the New Politics movement of the late 60s and early 70s as the place where the Bhaskar Sunkaras of my day belonged. It was just the latest in a series of experiments calculated to reform the Democratic Party, a strategy defended by Irving Howe, Michael Harrington and Jay Lovestone in Dissent Magazine. Odd to see millennial intellectuals like Adam Hilton dusting this strategy off and trying to make it sound spanking new.

As happens almost universally in the “democratic socialist” movement of today, Robin holds up FDR as a “transformative” figure who fought economic royalists in the same way that Lincoln went to war against the slavocracy. I guess that’s a sign of the ideological pendulum swinging in the opposite direction from the 60s radicalization when people like Howard Zinn debunked the notion that the New Deal was in any way “transformative”. Is Zinn unfashionable in Brooklyn socialist hipster circles? Too bad.



  1. There is something radically anti-party in the very concept of the Democratic and Republican Parties. These are not hollow shells ripe for the taking, they are devices to hollow out any political tendency that tries to inhabit them.

    For all its long history of corruption by liberalism and neoliberalism, this is NOT true of the British Labor Party, which is why there is the shadow of a chance that it might actually become a real socialist party.

    When will they ever learn?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — August 30, 2018 @ 11:18 am

  2. Here we go again. Back to the hamster wheel of Democratic Party politics. Sure, I’d rather have an FDR than a Trump (or a Clinton), but don’t hold your breath. The corporate New Democrats who hold power in the DP will pull a McGovern on Bernie or any other real progressive who has popular support. They would rather the other side win than any meaningful concessions or reforms be granted to the people…

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

    Comment by Kurt Hill — August 30, 2018 @ 5:47 pm

  3. Robin’s mostly ok, but man is he insufferable. One other flaw: his affection for Seth Ackerman and other dubious left personae. This piece you are criticizing is Robin in a nutshell.

    Comment by Quirky Lefties think their quirks are universal. — September 1, 2018 @ 10:00 pm

  4. While you are right on the money on the dsa and, if anything, a bit too soft on the McCain loving aoc, who is a liberal passing herself off as a socialist by misunderstanding as Trotsky once said about Norman Thomas, let’s not forget thAt for all of his real power is in the streets bravado, Zinn supported John Kerry as the lesser evil in 2004, a fact his iso worshippers conveniently overlooked at the same time they claimed to be supporting Nader. I believe he also supported Obama as well…but so did the great anarchist Chomsky. As for sankara and co., they on,y echo Harrington, and even Howe, in their longing for a new popular front…minus mean old uncle joe and the Ruskie connection, with them playing earl broader for Franklin Delano Sanders.

    Comment by Roy rollin — September 2, 2018 @ 10:49 pm

  5. Robin no doubt takes comfort in the idea that some unelected anonymous conservative member of the “Steady State” is secretly thwarting Trump’s agenda. Just think what would happen if Sanders got elected and tried to do something to the left of FDR? (Despite his progressive significance, FDR’s class solidarity never wavered for a moment: https://www.counterpunch.org/2008/10/03/fdr-s-response-to-the-plot-to-overthrow-him/).

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 7, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

  6. Hey Roy Rollin @ #4: Speaking of Earl Browder, get a load of what his son has been up to! http://www.counterpunch.org/2018/07/24/reflections-on-media-gone-russia-wild

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 7, 2018 @ 3:07 pm

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