Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 22, 2018

A multiple-choice test by the New York Times, answer correctly and you are DSA material

Filed under: DSA — louisproyect @ 7:04 pm

As part of its continuing PR effort on behalf of the DSA, the New York Times has a multiple choice/interactive feature titled “What is Democratic Socialism”. With this article reaching nearly 2.2 million readers, you can just see the membership figures for the DSA topping 100,000 before long. That’s the same number the CP reached in the 30s and was, like with the DSA, partly a result of its cachet among liberal elites.

Let’s take the multiple choice test together:

(1) Let’s start with the big question. In an ideal world, who would control the means of production?

a. Private Owners

b. The Government

c. Workers

For some reason, each of the questions includes one that is a giveaway. As if anybody who favors “private owners” is trying to make up their mind whether they are socialists or not.

It’s sort of a trick question since socialism, whether you identify it with Cuba or Sweden, does involve government control. If you chose b, however, you are not a democratic socialist since only “Leninist” governments are control freaks. If you chose c, you are in good company since that means workers will be in charge and who can oppose that? The DSA does allow that key industries like steel and energy would be “administered” by the government but everything else would be those apple-cheeked cooperatives that Richard Wolff is so gung-ho on. This begs the question whether steel and energy would be state-owned or not. After all, administration could also mean riding herd in the way that Cuba deals with foreign-owned hotels. As for cooperatives, what prevents them from becoming like Mondragon? A company making pressure cookers, as Mondragon does through its Fabor subsidiary, has to compete with other pressure cooker manufacturers in a market economy. Since there are always winners and losers, it always helps a firm be a winner if it pays attention to the bottom line. In a Fortune Magazine article titled “Defiant Spanish workers stage lock-in, resist layoffs”, we can see that cooperatives obey the same economic dictates as conventional firms do:

Almost 28,000 companies have declared bankruptcy during Spain’s five-year economic crisis, hitting a peak of 2,854 during the first three months of 2013. But Fagor Electrodomésticos is not just any business. Launched in 1956 by a Catholic priest named José María Arizmendiarrieta and five students from a technical college he started in the wake of the Spanish Civil War, Fagor is the foundational unit of Mondragón, the world’s biggest conglomerate of worker-owned cooperatives.

With 80,000 employees and operations in 18 countries outside Spain, Mondragón became a symbol of what a worker-owned cooperative model could achieve. In the late 1980s, Pedro Nueno, a professor of entrepreneurship at the IESE Business School, consulted with Fagor on ways to innovate for the “kitchen of the future.” He says he was struck by the leaders’ long-term vision and by how committed they were considering their low salaries (top executives at Mondragón make less than 10 times the lowest paid worker’s salary).

 “A person with the same responsibilities would be getting five times that in another company,” he says.

Similarly, when Richard Wolff, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, visited Fagor two years ago, he was impressed by the seriousness with which management handled buying assembly line equipment, which came from outside the Mondragón family of industrial companies. “They gave me a lecture on policy: You buy within Mondragón if quality or price was competitive. If not, you go outside,” he says.

But such commitment and seriousness has done little to help Fagor recently. Revenues fell from €1.75 billion in 2007 (about $2.58 billion at the time) to €1.28 billion in 2011, and the company has lost money for the last five years, racking up debts of €859 million. During that time, Mondragón lent it some €300 million.

(2) In a capitalist system, do you believe government regulations are helpful or harmful?

a. Helpful

b. Harmful

A giveaway.

(3) Do you believe that everyone is entitled to a certain minimum standard of living?

a. Yes

b. No

Another giveaway.

(4) Do you believe labor unions are a positive force?

a. Yes

b. No

Another giveaway. As you can see, questions 2 through 4 are set up to make people like Cynthia Nixon decide to declare that she is a socialist. In fact, probably 90 percent of the audience watching Rachel Maddow would choose the “correct” answers. The truth is that anybody who voted for Obama would be a “democratic socialist” on the basis of how they reply to those questions. Maybe the whole thing is calculated to make “democratic socialism” such an acceptable choice in order for the Democratic Party to regain the hegemonic status it possessed from FDR to LBJ. American capitalism has a rocky road in front of it and it requires adroit statesmanship to avoid a collision. Clearly, the new generation of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and even Andrew Gillum, who eschews the label of socialist, are waiting in the wings to displace Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.

(5) Which of these best matches your views on health care?

a. The government should have minimal or no involvement in providing or funding health care.

b. The government should subsidize the cost of private insurance for people who can’t afford it, through a system more or less like the Affordable Care Act.

c. We should have a single-payer system, like “Medicare for all.”

d. The whole health care industry should be socialized. Health care would be funded through a single-payer government system, and doctors would be public employees, like in Britain.

If you chose c, you are partly a democratic socialist but if you want to be included in the inner circle that will save humanity from Armageddon, the right choice would have been d since that’s the most socialistic. Unfortunately, the health care system in Britain is being undermined by a thousand cuts, just like the shitty Obamacare is in the USA. Unless the political power of the bourgeoisie is ended, health care is subject to its whims. That political power rests on its economic power, of course, something that will resist relinquishing in the same way that the southern bourgeoisie resisted Lincoln’s abolitionist agenda: violence. This leads me to the final question that really needs to be sorted out since it is basically a trick question.

(6) Ideally, how should major social or political changes be achieved?

a. Through the traditional democratic process: elections, legislation and popular lobbying.

b. Through grass-roots organizing.

c. By any means necessary, including violence and/or revolution.

If you chose a, you’d be partially democratic socialist even though there’s not much to differentiate you from an ordinary Democratic Party ward-heeler. If you chose grass-roots organizing, what are you waiting for? Go to the DSA website, enter your name, address, etc. and click “submit”. That’s all there is to it. After all, being in favor of grass-roots organizing doesn’t actually obligate you to do anything. That would be so Leninist, after all.

Choosing c condemns you as a “communist”:

You disagree with democratic socialists. This is a common point of misunderstanding for people who conflate democratic socialism with communism. Democratic socialists don’t support a revolution to overthrow capitalism; they believe change should happen, well, democratically. “Any possible transition to socialism would necessitate mass mobilization and the democratic legitimacy garnered by having demonstrated majority support,” Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Schulman wrote.

Democratic socialists support and participate in the electoral process, but they believe that ideally, workers should achieve changes for themselves — for instance, through unions and tenant organizations — rather than relying on people in traditional positions of authority.

“We would prefer, for example, for us to win universal rent control in New York through organizing millions of New Yorkers,” Ms. Svart said. “We believe that it’s through the process of pushing for these changes that people empower themselves.”

The Schwartz and Schulman referred to above are Joseph Schwartz and Jason Schulman who co-wrote “Toward Freedom: Democratic Socialist Theory and Practice” on December 21, 2012. They see themselves as more advanced than Karl Marx since, unlike them, “Marx did not make clear his commitment to political democracy”. Poor Karl Marx did not understand the need for “political pluralism” that obviously means having free elections that include parties arguing for the overthrow of socialism. Leaving aside whether Chile or Nicaragua were socialist, Salvador Allende and Daniel Ortega tried that. Look how far it got them. Nasty old Cuba did not permit that. Yeah, it meant that you were living under authoritarian rule but given Cuba’s proximity to the USA, it is doubtful that anything else would have allowed the socialized medicine DSA supports to be possible.

This business about “violence” is the stock-in-trade of sleazy liberal journalists going back for a century. I used to hear it all the time when Malcolm X was alive. This is how he used to handle it:

Malcolm X was sympathetic to the Socialist Workers Party and for good reasons. He and the party understood this question of violence to the marrow of their bones. When James P. Cannon and other party leaders were on trial for violating the Smith Act in 1941, he spoke about the SWP’s position on violence. I recommend reading his entire “Socialism on Trial” but will conclude with the section dealing with question of violence:

Q: Now, what is the opinion of Marxists with reference to the change in the social order, as far as its being accompanied or not accompanied by violence?

A: It is the opinion of all Marxists that it will be accompanied by violence.

Q: Why?

A: That is based, like all Marxist doctrine, on a study of history, the historical experiences of mankind in the numerous changes of society from one form to another, the revolutions which accompanied it, and the resistance which the outlived classes invariably put up against the new order. Their attempt to defend themselves against the new order, or to suppress by violence the movement for the new order, has resulted in every important social transformation up to now being accompanied by violence.

Q: Who, in the opinion of Marxists, initiated that violence?

A: Always the ruling class; always the outlived class that doesn’t want to leave the stage when the time has come. They want to hang on to their privileges, to reinforce them by violent measures, against the rising majority and they run up against the mass violence of the new class, which history has ordained shall come to power.

Q: What is the opinion of Marxists, as far as winning a majority of the people to socialist ideas?

A: Yes, that certainly is the aim of the party. That is the aim of the Marxist movement, has been from its inception.

Marx said the social revolution of the proletariat—I think I can quote his exact words from memory—“is a movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority”[2] He said this in distinguishing it from previous revolutions which had been made in the interest of minorities, as was the case in France in 1789.

Q: What would you say is the opinion of Marxists as far as the desirability of a peaceful transition is concerned?

A: The position of the Marxists is that the most economical and preferable, the most desirable method of social transformation, by all means, is to have it done peacefully.

Q: And in the opinion of the Marxists, is that absolutely excluded?

A: Well, I wouldn’t say absolutely excluded. We say that the lessons of history don’t show any important examples in favor of the idea so that you can count upon it.

Q: Can you give us examples in American history of a minority refusing to submit to a majority?

A: I can give you a very important one. The conception of the Marxists is that even if the transfer of political power from the capitalists to the proletariat is accomplished peacefully—then the minority, the exploiting capitalist class, will revolt against the new regime, no matter how legally it is established.

I can give you an example in American history. The American Civil War resulted from the fact that the Southern slaveholders couldn’t reconcile themselves to the legal parliamentary victory of Northern capitalism, the election of President Lincoln.

Q: Can you give us an example outside of America where a reactionary minority revolted against a majority in office?

A: Yes, in Spain—the coalition of workers’ and liberal parties in Spain got an absolute majority in the elections and established the People’s Front government. This government was no sooner installed than it was confronted with an armed rebellion, led by the reactionary capitalists of Spain.

Q: Then the theory of Marxists and the theory of the Socialist Workers Party, as far as violence is concerned, is a prediction based upon a study of history, is that right?

A: Well, that is part of it. It is a prediction that the outlived class, which is put in a minority by the revolutionary growth in the country, will try by violent means to hold on to its privileges against the will of the majority. That is what we predict.

Of course, we don’t limit ourselves simply to that prediction. We go further, and advise the workers to bear this in mind and prepare themselves not to permit the reactionary outlived minority to frustrate the will of the majority.

Q: What role does the rise and existence of fascism play with reference to the possibility of violence?

A: That is really the nub of the whole question, because the reactionary violence of the capitalist class, expressed through fascism, is invoked against the workers. Long before the revolutionary movement of the workers gains the majority, fascist gangs are organised and subsidised by millions in funds from the biggest industrialists and financiers, as the example of Germany showed—and these fascist gangs undertake to break up the labor movement by force. They raid the halls, assassinate the leaders, break up the meetings, burn the printing plants, and destroy the possibility of functioning long before the labor movement has taken the road of revolution.

I say that is the nub of the whole question of violence. If the workers don’t recognise that, and do not begin to defend themselves against the fascists, they will never be given the possibility of voting on the question of revolution. They will face the fate of the German and Italian proletariat and they will be in the chains of fascist slavery before they have a chance of any kind of a fair vote on whether they want socialism or not.

It is a life and death question for the workers that they organise themselves to prevent fascism, the fascist gangs, from breaking up the workers’ organisations, and not to wait until it is too late. That is in the program of our party.


  1. This NYT multiple choice exam is bizarre on so many levels.

    Comment by Big Bill — September 25, 2018 @ 9:43 am

  2. God forbid the Times actually compiles responses to this and then indulges in statistical beard-tugging about the responses.

    On the other hand, “[T]he outlived class, which is put in a minority by the revolutionary growth in the country, will try by violent means to hold on to its privileges against the will of the majority … .”

    Couldn’t be clearer … . Don’t cry “Fascist” until you see the whites of their eyes … .

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 25, 2018 @ 8:47 pm

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