Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 1, 2018

Not learning from the New Communist Movement

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,Maoism — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm

Max Elbaum, author of “Revolution in the Air”

Micah Uetricht, Jacobin assistant editor

There’s an interview with Max Elbaum on Jacobin today titled “Learning from the New Communist Movement” that is mostly unobjectionable. As I pointed out in a review of Max’s “Revolution in the Air” in 2002, “I strongly recommend this recently published Verso book to anybody trying to make sense of the state of the left today. While focused on the ‘New Communist Movement’ of the 70s and 80s (that I prefer to call Maoist), the lessons Elbaum draws are applicable to all vanguard party-building projects including those of the Trotskyist movement that I participated in.”

Clearly, there is an affinity between Jacobin/DSA and the Maoist movement that Elbaum belonged to and that is chronicled in this book. With both the DSA and the “New Communist Movement” of yore recycling the politics of the Popular Front, you might even wonder why it took so long for them to have a friendly chat. Max was a leader of the Line of March (LOM) in the 1970s, a Maoist group founded by Irwin Silber, the film critic of the now defunct American radical newsweekly The Guardian.

The LOM had a most peculiar political agenda. They wanted to either convince the CPUSA to return to its glorious past or carry out that task themselves. Whatever complaints they had about the CPUSA, being embedded in the Democratic Party was not one of them.

In the early 80s, I was active in the New York chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) that was mostly made up of political independents like me but had some LOM and Communist Workers Party (CWP) members playing an important role as well. The CWP is best known for its ultraleft strategy in North Carolina that played into the hands of the KKK. As two important trends in the New Communist Movement, they both were very active in Democratic Party campaigns involving Black progressives who were the Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the day: Harold Washington, who would be elected mayor of Chicago, and Jesse Jackson.

In 1984, CISPES passed a motion that its members would work closely with Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Still allergic to anything connected to the Democratic Party, I began to wind my CISPES activism down. Micah Uetricht, the Jacobin assistant editor who conducted the interview with Elbaum, stigmatizes people like me: “Planting the banners and waiting in a left-wing stronghold for people to come to us will not cut it.” This almost sounds like a plagiarism of Hal Draper’s “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect” if you ignore the fact that Draper opposed the Democratic Party on a principled basis.

The full exchange appears below:

Micah Uetricht: In the book, you quote Vladimir Lenin: “Politics begin where the masses are, not where there are thousands, but where there are millions.”  Then you write that revolutionaries must not “accept marginal status as a permanent fact of life — much less a mindset that glorifies marginality as a sign of true revolutionary faith. … Planting the banners and waiting in a left-wing stronghold for people to come to us will not cut it.”

When I read that, I think of the critiques of mass campaigns like Medicare for All or for politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which have shown that they can bring the idea of socialism to mass numbers of people who have never heard this term before. Some of those critiques are valid, like the worry that engaging too heavily in electoral politics will water down DSA’s radical politics to the point that the organization ceases to advance a bold socialist vision. But most of them seem more rooted in people clinging to that “pure” marginality — at a moment when socialism has an opportunity to become a truly mass movement. The opportunity to reach the “millions” that Lenin references is here, but orienting a leftist organization in that direction involves ditching some of the habits of glorifying marginality.

Max Elbaum: I think the Bernie campaign, the insurgent campaigns, the way people are learning to speak to large numbers who are envisioning moving the country as a whole — all of that is extremely positive. Politics is a matter of looking at the balance of forces and where the masses are at and intervening in a way that moves the needle. We have to speak to the majority and build a majoritarian movement.

We’re obviously a long way from a majority of the United States not just supporting fundamental change and an alternative to capitalism but taking steps and risks to make that happen. That’s not going to come about by offering only a maximalist program and trying to move in one leap from where we are now to that maximalist program.

It’s certainly legitimate and necessary to realize there’s uneven development in society — you’re going to have an advanced guard, what Lenin called the “conscious element.” That’s the point of having a socialist organization where people are united on the long-range goal. But it works in different layers. It has its immediate base and its periphery, and it works in coalition with outside forces.

So, I think that the purist tendencies, the ones that are critical of anything that is less than their total vision of what a revolutionary socialist program would be, are self-defeating. Because you never break out of the margins.

The idea that you just plant the flag and everyone will come to you if you have the correct line has never worked. That’s not how politics works. Politics is addition — you need to get more people on your team.

The Left has been marginal for a long time in the United States. For some people, that’s their comfort zone. When you mix it up in broad mass politics, there’s always a danger that you compromise some key principle and fall down a slippery slope. Those are real dangers. But every successful movement for radical reform or revolution has to engage in those broad mass politics. There’s no other way to build a majoritarian movement from where we are now to a majoritarian movement for socialism.

With all due respect to Max and Micah, it appears that the words “Politics begin where the masses are” do not appear in the Marxist Internet Archives. It seems to have about the same provenance as “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” None. In fact, the words attributed to Lenin could justify practically anything, including urging a vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, as Max did.

The exchange between the hardened social democrat (or democratic socialist, whatever) and the hardened Eurocommunist is notable for leaving the words “Democratic Party” out. Instead, it frames the differences between “glorifying marginality” by “purist tendencies” and those who are involved with “electoral politics” like the DSA, the Communist Party and the Committees of Correspondence. You might even say that articles written for the Jacobin and People’s World in support of working to elect Democrats are virtually indistinguishable except for the fact that Jacobin articles tend to use the language of the graduate school rather than the AFL-CIO media bureau.

If Jacobin had decided to ask tough questions rather than the kind that Charlie Rose would feed to Henry Kissinger or Bill Gates, they would have brought up Jesse Jackson’s campaigns. For all practical purposes, the Rainbow Coalition was the Sandernista movement of its day with volunteers being drawn from various Maoist sects rather than the social democracy, which was pretty marginal at the time.

Just as Jacobin authors kid themselves into believing that Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez et al might eventually break with the Democrats as Lincoln did with the Whigs, you heard the same thing in 1984 and 1988. Most leftists thought there was a realistic possibility that the Rainbow Coalition could turn into a new third party when Jackson had as much of an intention of leading such a break as Sanders does today. You can understand how even more unlikely this would be for Sanders since he enjoys the perks of being an elected Senator.

Thirty years ago, Joanna Misnik wrote a pamphlet for Solidarity titled “The Rainbow and the Democratic Party— New Politics or Old?: A Socialist Perspective” that I highly recommend. It is written from the perspective of Lenin’s electoral strategy that has nothing in common with the exchange between Uetricht and Elbaum above. Instead of quoting non-existent words, they might have tried to grapple with Lenin’s polemics against the Mensheviks who advocating blocs with the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), the Democratic Party of Czarist Russia.

Here is Misnik on the “Inside-Outside” strategy defended by the DSA:

The Rainbow includes a number of socialist and left organizations that hope the Coalition can ultimately precipitate a break from the Democrats in favor of a new anticapitalist political party. Groups such as the National Committee for Independent Political Action (NCIPA) typify the “inside-outside” strategy of the not-really Democrats in the Rainbow. They hold the position that the way to break the Democratic Party apart is to join it. They are urging people to register and vote Democrat!

“Inside-out” Rainbow activists are concerned about the decline of the movements for change during the past decade. They mistakenly identified the shift to the right of establishment politics as a rightward drift in the population at large. Sectors of the movement, buying into the idea that Reagan had a mandate, became fearful and hesitant. This timidity was fed by the collapse of the Black movement into the Democratic Party and the failure of the labor movement to mount a defense against concessions, plant closings, unemployment and the general effects of the recessionary economy.

The difficult political climate led to conclusions of the type offered by Rainbow leader Sheila Collins in her recently published The Rain­bow Challenge: the Jackson Campaign and the Future of U. S. Politics. Collins explains:

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 shocked many left activists into discovering the dialectical relationship between social movements and electoral institutions…. Electoral politics was no longer seen as a substitute for movement-building, but as a necessary complement. Although it was difficult to do both simultaneously, there was a growing realization that the two forms of political activity were dialectically related. (105-108)

This new “dialectic” for the ’80s is a high-toned way of sounding a retreat from what history has already taught. There isn’t a shred of evidence to support the idea that the Democratic Party, in or out of power, offers fundamental concessions to the locked-out when they loyally lock-in their votes in massive numbers. All successes in shifting the social relation of forces—from the rise of the CIO to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war victories—have been the direct results of unruly mass movements playing outside the acceptable channels of U.S. two-party politics.

In the case of both labor in the 1930s and the social movements of the 1960s, it was precisely at the point when major sectors of these movements decided it was time to move “from protest to politics” and act as a pressure group within and around the Democratic Party than reforms began to slack off and eventually disappear. In fact, the brevity of these two periods of major change is due to this very co-optation. Unable to defeat capitalist control of the party from the inside and claim it as their own, the reformers were themselves beaten and became the reformed.

Left Rainbow advocates may argue that all this does not apply. After all, they have an organization separate and apart from the Democratic Party that enables them to resist absorption while they use the “tactic” of Jackson’s candidacy to build a new, integral progressive force. Unfortunately this is not the case.

The Rainbow has only one tactic, one focus that glues all its components together: Jackson’s race for the Democratic Party nomination. No other goals were established at the Raleigh convention. By definition, this subsumes the Rainbow into the Democratic Party and hands it over to those who want it to be nothing more than an army of foot soldiers for the Jackson Campaign Committee.

This problem is not something only those outside the Rainbow can perceive. The powerful New Jersey delegation to the Rainbow Con­vention led a well-received fight to democratize the notoriously top-down Rainbow structure. They were motivated by the fear that the Rainbow will be dictated to by official campaign structures, stunting its growth and threatening its ability to exist beyond `88. Some structural changes were made, such as adding state chairs to the all-powerful Board of Directors and halving the minimum number of members required to receive a local charter.

However, the Rainbow chartering system still requires a minimum membership in a third of a state’s congressional districts. Using the districts as its basic unit shapes the vote-getting operation. It is a foreign and unwieldy organizational structure for activists accustomed to city-wide mobilizing.

6 Comments »

  1. Thank you Louis, for sharing Joanna Misnik’s take on the Rainbow Coalition’s ‘inside-outside’ strategy.

    Perhaps an analogy can be drawn between Democratic Party and private equity firms’ practice of ‘asset stripping’. As highlighted in the article above, Democrats have (historically) successfully stripped the social assets of the racial justice movement, environmental movement, voting rights movement, labor movement, etc., and rendered all those movements toothless.

    As explained by Investopedia: “Asset stripping is the process of buying an undervalued company with the intent of selling off its assets to generate a profit for shareholders. The individual assets of the company, such as its equipment, real estate, brands or intellectual property, may be more valuable than the company as a whole due to such factors as poor management or poor economic conditions. The result of asset stripping is often a dividend payment for investors and either a less-viable company or bankruptcy.” [Source: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/assetstripping.asp%5D

    The assets that the Democrats strip out of such social movements are the creative energies and the outrage of millions of people, something that could have been channeled into a real movement for social change and social justice, turning them into votes for corrupt Democrats. The dividend the Democrats pay out to their ‘shareholders’ (to their donor class) is, well, the docility of previously oppositional social forces.

    But, here’s the thing: the current movement towards a mass acceptance of socialist ideas that started in the wake of the 2008 financial crash is not an ‘undervalued’ social phenomenon. Quite the opposite. It has huge potentials for growth as an independent social force.

    But, this budding movement is being *undersold* by the leaders of DSA and other ‘socialist’ forces that advocate for an ‘inside-outside’ tactic to split the Democrats or take it over (as if!!). The DSA types are underselling the movement down the river even BEFORE this movement has had a chance to make a dent into the political superstructure; all because they have no faith in the people and consider themselves as a substitute for the movement.

    And, with these people, there is *never* any retrospective analysis of what went wrong, or how the movement disappeared down the digestive tract of the Democratic Party; hence, no lessons ever learned.

    Comment by Reza — October 1, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

  2. “Asset strippers”–good one, Reza.

    For me the decisive thing is the very great difference between e.g. the Labour Party–corrupt and coopted though it has historically been, especially during the era of neoliberal ideology–as a membership organization with roots in actual labor politics, and the Democratic Party, which is 1) not only, as has often been pointed out in these pages, a capitalist party; but 2) moreover a political entity, AFAIK, of a particularly American stripe–that is, an antiparty, something created to ensure that nothing like the Labour Party can ever grow here because membership and activity are dictated by a complicated legal and political apparatus that radically excludes anything like democratic input from a rank and file–indeed, effectively precludes the idea of a “rank and file” at all, except as a manner of speaking.

    Wealthy contributors are excluded from this structure of deafness of course–they are always heeded, and indeed Democratic Party “liberalism” in the American sense really refers to the idea that if “men and women of good will” just speak with adequate “civility” (“passion” is of course allowed–it’s in most advertising) their benevolent counterparts in the ruling class will hear them and respond with “enlightened” political action.

    Even to get a Rooseveltian procapitalist compromise (and don’t look at E. Warren, who will certainly bring about no such thing no matter what she says she’s for) you would have to have the equivalent of what used to be lumped indiscriminately as “Communists,” clearly perceived to be threatening what used to be called “the power structure.”

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — October 1, 2018 @ 6:39 pm

  3. Elbaum and Utrecht set up straw men here and then by knocking them down presume that they are also knocking down all those who do not agree with their pronouncements about how best to bring about radical change. I don’t know many ultra leftists who fit their bill. Almost all of us have many specific suggestions, principles, and programs aimed at revolutionary change. I spent some 32 years teaching working men and women along radical lines, sending a good many students back to the labor movement with new and radical ideas that they then began to promote in their unions and political organizations. Has Max spent a minute doing this? I took the workers as they came to me, using their life experiences as catalysts for discussion. I have no doubt that many came away with a more radical perspective than the one they entered the classroom with. I am sure all radical labor educators could say the same. Not once did I urge people to work inside the Democratic Party, but never did a student suggest that I was offering pie in the sky. If you really want to be a socialist, you have to name the system and offer an alternative to it, one that rejects all aspects of capitalism, because there are no good ones. I have found that people respect those with principles, even those they might not fully agree with. I don’t see most DSAers and their magazines, etc. espousing really revolutionary perspectives. They seem to take the view that the working class just isn’t ready for these yet. However, it has never been the case that they will come around through electoral politics, certainly not that which revolves around the Democratic Party.

    Comment by Michael Yates — October 1, 2018 @ 9:51 pm

  4. “With all due respect to Max and Micah, it appears that the words “Politics begin where the masses are” do not appear in the Marxist Internet Archives. It seems to have about the same provenance as “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”
    “…and politics begin where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands, but millions, that is where serious politics begin.”
    -V. I. Lenin Extraordinary Seventh Congress of the R.C.P.(B.) MARCH 6-8, 1918 Section One (Found on MIA)

    Comment by lgloster — October 1, 2018 @ 9:54 pm

  5. Thanks for the reference, especially for allowing me to see the context of Lenin’s words. It has nothing to do with voting for bourgeois parties. It is instead part of a speech dealing with the ordeals imposed on Russians by the Civil War:

    “The millions-strong masses—and politics begin where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands, but millions, that is where serious politics begin—the masses know what the army is like, they have seen soldiers returning from the front. They know—that is, if you take, not individual persons, but real masses—that we cannot fight, that every man at the front has endured everything imaginable. The masses have realised the truth that if we have no army, and a predator is lying beside us, we shall have to sign a most harsh, humiliating peace treaty. That is inevitable until the birth of the revolution, until you cure your army, until you allow the men to return home. Until then the patient will not recover. And we shall not be able to cope with the German predator by shouting “hurrah!”; we shall not be able to throw him off as easily as we threw off Kerensky and Kornilov. This is the lesson the masses have learned without the excuses that certain of those who desire to evade bitter reality have tried to present them with.”

    How something like this can turn into a justification for voting for the Democratic Party is a mystery to me.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 1, 2018 @ 10:06 pm

  6. Well, I understsnd the marxist doctrine discussed above, but as a guy and worker in society I thought the main aspect of the Jackson campaign was the pushback against racism in mainstream ciulture that it represented with a former leader of the civil rights movement running as the first African-American candidate for president of a major party. In that regard, I remember a couple guys in the breakroom at work mocking Jackson with racist epithets while watching him on CNN. So based on my intuition, I supported Jackson, went to the WA primary caucuses where I was elected a precinct delegate. Not just LOM but WWP supported Jackson and Rainbow in 1984 in that context as an important fight in the struggle against racism in society even while seeing that in the long term the Dem Party is a dead end. But counterposing some obscure marxist sect and its doctrines, worthy as it and they might be, deflects away from the head on confrontation and pushback in the mainstream that was going on with that historic campaign that serious activists were entirely justified in getting aquarely behind.

    Comment by Sue Sponte — October 7, 2018 @ 2:15 pm


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