Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 4, 2019

Sanders, Warren and the DSA

Filed under: Counterpunch,DSA — louisproyect @ 3:43 pm

Michael Harrington: the DSA’s founding father


For the past few months, dating back at least to Bhaskar Sunkara’s October 23rd Guardian op-ed piece titled “Think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the same? They aren’t”, the “democratic socialist” wing of the Democratic Party has mounted an ideological offensive against the Senator from Massachusetts, laying the groundwork for Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign. Though likely almost as happy to get behind a Warren candidacy, it faults her for backing “Accountable Capitalism” rather than the Scandinavian-style socialism Sanders embraces. From the perspective of the Republican Party, and likely the Biden/Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, there’s not much difference between the two Senators. The “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism”, issued by Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers in the same month as Sunkara’s op-ed, had this take on the two:

The Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who cited Marxism as the model for his country, described “the ruthless economic exploitation and political oppression of the peasants by the landlord class” (Cotterell 2011, chap. 6). Expressing similar concerns, current American senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have stated that “large corporations . . . exploit human misery and insecurity, and turn them into huge profits” and “giant corporations . . . exploit workers just to boost their own profits.”6

Can you guess which Senator’s quote was which? Take 5 minutes to decide but no cheating, please. Okay, the answer is that Sanders’s quote came first. But wouldn’t any DSA’er be nearly as happy to see Warren become President in light of her belief that “giant corporations . . . exploit workers just to boost their own profits”? It is worth noting that some on the left—including Boris Kagarlitsky and Diana Johnstone—took Trump’s populist rhetoric to heart, so maybe something more than words have to be taken into account.

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  1. A brilliant review of the main themes in New Left history in the USA and how intractable are the lazy impulses toward reformism in Left politics. It’s almost a rehash of the debates I heard when I was 7 in smoke filled bar rooms and meeting halls about backing Eugene McCarthy back in 1968. Dylan should change the lyrics to “The times they aren’t a changin'”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 4, 2019 @ 4:25 pm

  2. There is a difference though–in 1968, the New Deal was well within living memory, Lyndon Johnson was trying (however weirdly) to extend it, and the civil rights movement was just beginning the leftward turn that was to be co-opted and finally extinguished in the ‘seventies.

    Now all of that is dust and ashes and the old reformist impulse, as embodied in the singularly untrustworthy person of E. Warren (who is “safely to the right” of the hardly leftwing Sanders) is a lifeless ritual in which nobody really believes, but to which people keep returning out of a kind of stoical fatalism.

    In reality, 1968 was no fun at all, but there was the whiff of revolution in the air, however doomed it was. Not now–at least, not in the United States, which has no future except for oligarchy and perpetual decline.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 4, 2019 @ 5:28 pm

  3. Good essay, Louis. Many DSA members, Jacobin, and all of their gung-ho fans, including certain pundits who babble on about how principled Warren is and how great Sanders was, are pretty much oblivious to what is needed now, especially with respect to the environment. Technology isn’t going to save us. A blindly class-fist approach will be a disaster. Keynesian social democracy is never coming back. Modern agriculture must be eliminated and agroecology must be embraced and implemented, asap. Narrow nationalism is foolish and really demeans the struggles in the Global South. I suspect that most of the “leaders” of the NYC democratic socialists cannot imagine giving up their privileges. Bourgeois ideology has as firm a hold on their brains as it does on the titans of finance.

    Comment by Michael Yates — January 4, 2019 @ 9:57 pm

  4. “large corporations . . . exploit human misery and insecurity, and turn them into huge profits” and “giant corporations . . . exploit workers just to boost their own profits.”

    Easy, took me 10 seconds. First one is a critique of class power, the second one is a critique of the abuses of class power. Therefore, the first quote comes from Sanders and the second one comes from Warren. The differences between these two politicians are apparent even in seemingly innocuous turns of phrase.

    Comment by Aaron Burr — January 7, 2019 @ 1:47 pm

  5. In the absence of a real threat to neoliberal capitalism from below, I wouldn’t worry about social democratic reformism, which generally has better domestic policies than foreign ones. Thus far it’s pretty clear that Marx was wrong about a lot of things…His heroic working class has not materialized much lately…And the Bolsheviks didn’t help matters much, either, their authoritarianism paving the way for the Stalinist totalitarianism that discredited socialism…All-in-all, it’s pretty grim out there and not likely to change for the better anytime soon… “–Kurt Hill, Brooklyn, NY

    Comment by Kurt Hill — January 7, 2019 @ 3:58 pm

  6. Mr. Burr, kudos for killing Alexander Hamilton who inspired that wretched Broadway musical. As for your distinction between Sanders and Warren being based on a Marxist understanding of class, that would seem to be undermined by Sanders embrace of Scandinavian countries as “socialist”. But thanks for stopping by.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 7, 2019 @ 9:04 pm

  7. Well I got the answer right while you were scratching your head, so it would appear that I may understand a few things you don’t. Sanders is running on social democratic policies and his strategy is class war against the rich, the Democratic establishment and Trump. If you can’t tell Sanders apart from Warren, then not having a specifically Marxist understanding of class is the least of your worries. However, I think you do get the obvious difference but just don’t want to admit it for polemical reasons.

    Sanders is the sole reason why _anything_ remotely resembling a left politics even exists in America. Sanders is someone who remembers a time before the left lost all connection to the working class (and increasingly reality), which in turn was shattered into a thousand pieces with the neoliberal turn. Young people find that late gasp of class consciousness incredibly appealing, yet for objective reasons struggle to replicate it. And of course some ultra-radical types don’t even try, preferring to play makeup before they start interning for Beto or The New York Times.

    I am probably as pessimistic as you are, since I believe Sanders’ continued physical existence is central to any progress on the left. The best that can be hoped for is that Sanders succeeds in planting a few good seeds, which may bear fruit once we enter a new age of catastrophe.

    Comment by Aaron Burr — January 8, 2019 @ 12:50 am

  8. Sanders differs from Warren in offering an unabashed social-democratic perspective and program. Warren stands, as has been said, “safely to the right” of all that.

    The presence of a distinction does not mean that we are obliged to jump on one bandwagon or the other.

    They are different and they are both wrong and they both fit neatly and happily under the Big Tent of the oldest capitalist party in the western world.

    How hard is that?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 8, 2019 @ 6:53 pm

  9. Bernie doesn’t fit neatly under the big tent of the Democratic Party at all. To think that his does is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the modern DP (and ignore the news).

    It boggles my mind how much agreement there is today between the ultra-left and liberal center. With the exception of Clinton fanatics who want Sanders out, the DP center and liberal propagandists want to muddle the distinction between Sanders and the rest of the party, subsuming both under their “big tent”. That’s the carrot. At the same time, they mercilessly attack Sanders for his laserlike focus on class (allegedly at the expense of “identity”) and for his unabashed advocacy of social democratic programs. That’s the stick.

    Sanders is getting too close to the levers of power and he plays to win, hence all the efforts to neutralize him.

    Comment by Aaron Burr — January 8, 2019 @ 8:55 pm

  10. Sanders, as his abject support for the openly contemptuous Clinton demonstrates, has cast his lot with the Democrats full stop. He is a social democrat who will work to preserve capitalism. That is the Scandinavian model and that is why the Democrats find him useful as a foil. To say otherwise is to demonstrate the total absence of an ability to think

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 9, 2019 @ 2:06 pm

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