Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 23, 2018

On the ISO’s refusal to endorse Howie Hawkin’s campaign

Filed under: Green Party,Lenin — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

Howie Hawkins

Recently a series of exchanges between Howie Hawkins and the ISO that were published in the Socialist Worker newspaper reflect a big problem on the left for the past 7 years, namely how to maintain unity in the face of deep divisions over the war in Syria.

The first article in this series appeared on November 17th, titled The Independent Left Must Oppose Islamophobia, delivered an ultimatum to Howie. Unless he would disavow the endorsement of comedian Jimmy Dore publicly, they would withdraw their endorsement of his campaign. They wrote:

A subsequent campaign email described Dore as “one of the most courageous and funniest political voices we have today.” In fact, he is a vocal supporter of the worst variety of Assadist and Islamophobic conspiracy theories on the Syrian conflict.

In fact, that would describe about 90 percent of the left today, including Noam Chomsky, Bhaskar Sunkara, and other well-known figures to one degree or another. Dore, who might be described as a funny version of Max Blumenthal, happens to be a trenchant critic of the Democratic Party. So are the people who write for Black Agenda Report. For that matter, probably 90 percent of the people who have written for CounterPunch since 2011 line up with Jimmy Dore. Many believe that this reflects the editorial outlook of editors Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank but in reality it simply indicates the dominance of pro-Assad support of those those who submit articles. What is the possibility that a united revolutionary left can be built in the years to come in a deepening capitalist crisis that is based on a litmus test of something like the Syrian revolution?

What about a litmus test on Cuba? I say this as someone who has grown very sympathetic to the ISO’s drawing a class line on the question of lesser evil politics. Although far more diplomatic than me, they have provided a running commentary on the DSA and Jacobin that has been so inspiring to me that if I were 20 years younger, I might even consider joining. Given my age and my frailty, the only thing I would consider joining today is my wife in bed to watch old episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.

Yet, even then, the reliance on Sam Farber articles about Cuba would have probably been a show stopper even if I was 20 years younger. Does the ISO believe that a party capable of leading a socialist revolution in the USA will adhere to their line on Cuba? Granted, the group is on record as stating that members can hold different views on Cuba than those of Sam Farber but what good is that if the newspaper never reflects that?

Back in 1980, when I began discussions with Peter Camejo on the kind of left we need in the USA, he emphasized putting historical and international questions on the back burner. Why split over the class nature of the USSR or which leftist faction to support in Angola? If you studied Lenin’s articles you’d understand that Russian questions were key. Can you imagine the Bolsheviks splitting over the exact year when Thermidor started in France over a hundred years earlier?

I always had this in mind when I began writing articles about the kind of non-sectarian movement we need in the USA. Despite my deep commitment to the Syrian revolution, which is now pretty much a dying ember, I never would have broken with those who understood the need to challenge capitalism in the USA, particularly the two parties that prop it up, whatever they thought of Assad. This is why I continued writing for CounterPunch. It is also why I supported Jill Stein in 2016.

On November 20th, Howie responded to the ISO in an article titled A Missed Chance to Support a Real Alternative. Most of his article is a commentary on the sorry state of the DSA and the lesser-evil left that preferred Cynthia Nixon to Howie’s anti-capitalist campaign. When DSA member Dan La Botz put forward a motion to back Howie, abstentions were considered as no votes and so he lost. Howie noted that counting abstentions in this fashion is how Jimmy Hoffa Jr. forced the latest UPS contract down the throat of his union. (Strange to see “Democratic” Socialists behaving like Jimmy Hoffa Jr., or maybe not so strange.) Just when the DSA was shafting Howie, the NYC ISO was acting on their Jimmy Dore ultimatum.

Howie’s take on all this struck me as making perfect sense:

But I had no time for picking a fight with Dore over Syria in the last weeks of the campaign. I think most New Yorkers following my campaign would have asked, “Who the hell is Jimmy Dore?” and “What does Syria have to do with the problems we face in New York?”

I know from experience on the Syria question that making a statement about the reality of the Syrian revolution brings a torrent of responses from the pro-Assad “anti-imperialists,” who will lie and put words into my mouth, such as saying I support U.S. military intervention for regime change in Syria. The responses come from around the world, from “peace” activists in the U.S. to East European acolytes of the Russian fascist Aleksandr Dugin. One has to respond to set the record straight.

Then there would be Jimmy Dore fans asking me why I was picking on him. I didn’t have time for all that. My campaign decided we would pick our own fights and focus on the pressing problems the people of New York face under Cuomo’s rule.

Three days later, Jen Roesch, the ISO organizer in NYC, defended her party’s decision. Her article referred in turn to an article by ISO leader Danny Katch that urged support for Hawkins. Such public debate about Hawkin’s campaign in Socialist Worker along with the earlier one about whether to support Ocasio-Cortez gives you hope that the ISO will continue to dump “democratic centralist” norms overboard, where they belong.

Roesch pointed to factors that might have tipped the scales in the direction of not endorsing Howie even before Dore became an issue. Apparently there were ISO members that had been influenced by pro-DP arguments made by the Eric Blanc wing of the DSA. They may be described as erudite treatises steeped in Marxist scholarship justifying a vote for Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar and other DSA-backed campaigns. With the massive positive publicity for these campaigns, the explosive growth of the DSA, and the failure of the Green Party to have met the expectations placed in it when Ralph Nader got 2,882,955 votes in 2000, you can understand the misgivings Roesch described:

Those arguments included: the campaign wouldn’t build the left; campaigns that can’t actually win are nonstarters in an era of victorious left Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez; and the Green Party has a serious problem of Assadism and Islamophobia. Our rushed discussion and vote resulted in the conflation of these and other arguments, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t.

It was apparent that many members would not have decided to endorse the campaign if they had the chance again, whether it was because of the original arguments or experiencing the campaign’s interactions with Dore. I still think there were good reasons to support the campaign despite its weaknesses, but clearly this was the full discussion we should have had initially.

Well, at least that refreshing admission was not the sort of thing we ever saw in the Militant back in my days in the SWP. I will say that.

Finally, Roesch draws closer to the concerns I articulated at the start of the article by asking how the ISO can build united fronts and electoral campaigns alongside people with whom they have major disagreements. Actually, it is a much bigger question than that. A united front can involve revolutionary and reformist parties, as Lenin made clear in the 1920s but does the ISO think that a mass revolutionary party will have a newspaper that has the slightest resemblance to Socialist Worker? Even though it is a breath of fresh air to see Danny Katch disagreeing with ISO majority positions in the paper, this is a far cry from the American Iskra that will be necessary to serve as the voice of the vanguard in years to come.

At the risk of sounding outlandish to ISO members so used to the comfort zone of ideological homogeneity, an American Iskra will probably read a lot more like CounterPunch. I should add that I only ended up writing for it in 2012 after Jeff St. Clair invited me to write an answer to CounterPunch attacks on Pussy Riot based on what I had already written on my blog. In many ways, CounterPunch is the continuation of the Guardian newsweekly that stopped publishing in 1992. After it evolved away from Maoism, it regularly opened its pages to debates on the left. Come to think of it, that is what Lenin thought that Iskra should be when he wrote “What is to be Done” between 1901 and 1902.

Lenin only saw Iskra as a pole of attraction for socialists operating in different cities across Russia who worked in isolation from each other. It was not a “line” newspaper in any sense of the word. On October 19th, during the CounterPunch fund drive, Jeff St. Clair described the role it played on the left. Substitute “party line” for “company line” and it will make even more sense:

Unlike many political sites, CounterPunch doesn’t a have company line. The online edition of CounterPunch has always been a venue where different voices, on what can loosely be described as the “left,” can freely engage in fierce debates about politics, economics, war, movies, racism, music and political movements. We’ve tried to make CounterPunch free from dogma and cant, but to keep it open for writers with fresh points of view and vivid writing styles. The experience can perplex readers who are used to grazing in the usual media feedlots of processed prose and artificially-colored opinions.

Compare this to how Lenin ended the final chapter of “What is to be Done”, titled The “Plan” For an All-Russia Political Newspaper, and you will get an idea of the kind of approach that is needed today:

Every outbreak, every demonstration, would be weighed and, discussed in its every aspect in all parts of Russia and would thus stimulate a desire to keep up with, and even surpass, the others (we socialists do not by any means flatly reject all emulation or all “competition”!) and consciously prepare that which at first, as it were, sprang up spontaneously, a desire to take advantage of the favourable conditions in a given district or at a given moment for modifying the plan of attack, etc. At the same time, this revival of local work would obviate that desperate, “convulsive” exertion of all efforts and risking of all forces which every single demonstration or the publication of every single issue of a local newspaper now frequently entails.

I have always warned about mechanically following the example of Lenin’s party but there is something about this citation that convinces me that the true spirit of Lenin’s party has yet to be understood fully to this day. As grievous as the collapse of the USSR was, it at least had the value of undermining the institutional foundations of “Leninist” parties whether Stalinist or Trotskyist. Now is the time, more than ever, to build new foundations for the monumental class battles of the future.


  1. I do agree that a position on Syria should not be a litmus test for whether or not one supports a candidate or a political organization. Throughout my life, I have read and heard a mountain of garbage coming out of the western left on Iran, for example; so much so that I think they should just stop talking about societies they understand so little, and try to do something positive at home.

    But, of course, if you’re most western leftists, you assume you know everything, and that you have to have a fully formed and enforceable opinion about everything under the sun. Western left, right and center, they all assume that third-worlders are just a bunch of people to be lectured and talked down at.

    While I have given up looking to people’s positions on single-country issues as a litmus test, I don’t ignore the fact that certain positions taken by the western left *do* signify underlying assumptions. And that is not something to ignore. But, again, I view those erroneous positions as *symptoms*.

    A clear example is the 2009 uprising of the people in Iran, in the aftermath of the stolen elections (apologies for repeating this for the hundredth time here). A majority of leftists sided with the theocratic dictatorship. (Mr. Proyect being a refreshing exception, which led me to trust his political views on most other issues). Later, it came out that Obama administration was negotiating in secret with the Iranian regime. But, even before the elections and before the uprising, we read that Obama had sent letters of support to the regime (to Khamenei, specifically), declaring American support regardless of the election outcome. Most of the western left, however, was in a feverish hysteria about a ‘color revolution’ being orchestrated by the CIA. As if MILLIONS of Iranians are a bunch of CIA stooges and clueless about the causes of their suffocating misery. An insult as huge as that cannot be ignored. Paul Craig Roberts (president Reagan’s former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy) was allowed to repeat this kind of garbage on Counterpunch, proving that even highly smart leftists like Alex Cockburn could stumble.

    For me, if a left grouping cannot have an unambiguous position on a theocratic dictatorship (or a genocidal tyrant) in a very capitalist country, there is little hope for it to be able to answer much deeper and hugely more complex issues facing humanity at this point in history.

    So, as this post by Louis suggests, part of the solution is to start by working on something you do know something about.

    Comment by Reza — November 24, 2018 @ 1:40 am

  2. The ISO unendorsing the Howie Hawkins election campaign shows a sectarian view of neither creating needed left unity and demanding all must hold the same view on every question to work together. I find it disappointing that the ISO which claims interest in worker candidates promoting a working class political program, believes that Howie Hawkins is “not sufficient” because he is endorsed by someone who holds a different view than their majority of members on the Syrian War. If memory serves me correctly,the very same ISO, had no problem with their involvement in supporting Ralph Nader in that 2000 election campaign and did not withdraw when non-socialists who did not oppose capitalism, endorsed Nader. So what happened in the past 18 years is that the ISO has become either more sectarian, or was wrong in 2000, or is just a sectarian groip that follows whatever their “leaders” moods are on a particular day and election campaign? Howie Hawkins has nothing to defend, of his years of activism and principle on behalf of the working class. The ISO decision to unendorse reflects poorly on the ISO pronounced intention to build left unity and even of less understanding of how to work with other left political currents, to build a needed mass left united front

    Comment by John O'Brien — November 24, 2018 @ 6:58 am

  3. I was hoping the modern Iskra would be AOC’s Instagram where walking between congressional buildings and running the coin-operated clothes machine get first billing and the debate over Pelosi’s leadership gets the editing room floor.

    Comment by aaron — November 25, 2018 @ 3:57 pm

  4. Clearly this article is not so much about the ISO, or about Howie Hawkins and the Green Party. Louis Proyect makes that disclaimer right up front. The article is somewhat about Syria indirectly, but much more about a far deeper problem on the Left in the U.S.A. It is very difficult to focus our minds on the deeper problem of What Is to Be Done? and far too easy to get distracted by Syria, the ISO, and Howie Hawkins.

    Comment by Gracchus Redhat — November 26, 2018 @ 6:54 pm

  5. Was it sectarian to split the movement over support or opposition to the Russian revolution in 1917?

    It strikes me that revolution and counter-revolution in the 21st century is a rather more relevant criteria today in any case.

    Comment by John Game — November 27, 2018 @ 2:26 am

  6. Recently I keep coming back to the thought that what the left needs is not only political candidates like Hawkins, plus or minus whatever unacceptable deviations he may be seen to embody, but also, behind such figures, an organization or network of organizations that is of service to the people–a presence in people’s lives–and that is made up of “party” members who are, and are seen to be, both accessible and utterly honest and incorruptible. Such a organization would fill the space vacated by most unions, but would operate differently. In a way, for all their faults (e.g. their reiteration of Nechayev’s vile Catechism), I suspect the Black Panthers understood this and tried to embody this principle. Who is operating in this mode today?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 27, 2018 @ 12:36 pm

  7. “such a” –> “such an” Sigh.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 27, 2018 @ 12:51 pm

  8. It still bears repeating, and repeating that: “… the true spirit of Lenin’s party has yet to be understood fully to this day.”

    Comment by Gracchus Red — November 27, 2018 @ 10:52 pm

  9. “For me, if a left grouping cannot have an unambiguous position on a theocratic dictatorship (or a genocidal tyrant) in a very capitalist country, there is little hope for it to be able to answer much deeper and hugely more complex issues facing humanity at this point in history.”

    I think that a big part of the problem is the inability of many on the left, especially the purportedly Marxist left, oddly enough, to understand what a capitalist country really is.

    Hence, the tendency to aggregate countries like Syria, Iran, Libya, Venezuela, the Russian Republic, Brazil, Turkey, China and North Korea as an anti-capitalist opposition to the US. On this list, the only country that can legitimately be called anti-capitalist is North Korea, although China is somewhere in between. I support the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, but it’s can’t really be called anti-capitalist.

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 29, 2018 @ 1:41 am

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