Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 29, 2019

Left Strategy for the 2020 Elections and Beyond: a critique

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Bill Fletcher Jr.

Carl Davidson

Long-time supporters of an “inside-outside” approach to the electoral shell-game that veers sharply to the inside, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Carl Davidson promote a “A Left Strategy for the 2020 Elections and Beyond” that has shown up on various websites including Truthout. While generally overlapping politically with the DSA/Jacobin wing of the left that has virtual hegemony today largely because of the fawning attention it receives from the capitalist press, the two are for the Democratic Party more on the basis of “lesser evilism” than their counterparts who believe rather incredibly that a Sandernista presidency would be the first step toward a socialist revolution in the USA.

They write:

The defeat of Donald Trump and the ejection of his right-wing and white supremacist populist bloc from the centers of political power is a tactical goal of some urgency not only for Democrats but also for leftists. The outcome of the upcoming election will have a direct effect on thwarting right-wing populism and the clear and present danger of incipient fascism and war.

Ever since I began voting in 1961, I have heard something like this from the Communist Party or the social democracy. Unless we elect LBJ, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern et al, the Republicans will take over and establish a fascist state. When Democrats are elected, however, they tend to create a backlash among voters suffering the ill-effects of neoliberalism that enables a Ronald Reagan or a Donald Trump victory. Then, the cycle begins all over again with each Republican victory ratcheting up the depravity.

Showing that they can invoke classical Marxism as effectively as Eric Blanc does with his ritual incantations of Kautsky’s pre-1910 writings, they base themselves on Gramsci’s distinction between “wars of position” and “wars of movement”. The first is understood as “mass campaigns” such as organizing the unorganized, or unionizing the South while the second means lining up votes for whoever the Democrats nominate.

Gramsci deals with these terms at length in the pages between 481 and 497 in Prison Notebooks that you can find here. Good luck in trying to apply this to the 2020 elections unless your imagination is as vivid as Fletcher and Davidson’s. For example, what in the world does this have to do with their article?

The war of position demands enormous sacrifices by infinite masses of people. So an unprecedented concentration of hegemony is necessary, and hence a more “interventionist” government, which will take the offensive more openly against the oppositionists and organise permanently the “impossibility” of internal disintegration—with controls of every kind, political, administrative, etc., reinforcement of the hegemonic “positions” of the dominant group, etc. All this indicates that we have entered a culminating phase in the political-historical situation, since in politics the “war of position”, once won, is decisive definitively. In politics, in other words, the war of manoeuvre subsists so long as it is a question of winning positions which are not decisive, so that all the resources of the State’s hegemony cannot be mobilised.

Suffice it to say that Gramsci’s articles have little to do with electoral opportunism even though Alexis Tsipras and his cohorts did their best to bend theories about “hegemony”, etc. to their will. While American capitalism is much more powerful than Greece’s, the likelihood of turning the state into a “democratic socialist” instrument is just about as precluded here. I suspect that Gramsci’s writings are being exploited as propaganda to transform the Democratic Party into something like Syriza, which is setting the political bar pretty low. Keep in mind that Davidson is a long-time leader of the Committees of Correspondence, a split from the CPUSA that sought to adapt Eurocommunism to the American landscape. You might even wonder if the Jacobin intellectuals are on the same wavelength. Two pinches of Gramsci and another two from Kautsky make for a tangy stew, just as long as you don’t put any of those bitter Leon Trotsky or V.I. Lenin spices into the pot.

Showing that they are not advocating robotic tasks like ringing doorbells for Sanders or whoever the Democrats nominate, they think big. Nothing less than targeting the heights of power in the longest, continuously-functioning bourgeois party on the planet:

Socialists shouldn’t work “within the Democratic party,” but with one of its clusters, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, especially its DSA/WFP/PDA left wing and its mass allies. The Progressive Caucus is by far the largest of the Democratic Caucuses, with numbers above 100 members (compared with the smaller New Democrats and Blue Dogs).

The goal would be to develop and expand the CPC, win over as many of the New Democrats as possible, and isolate the Blue Dogs if they can’t be budged. How could people on the left do so? By simply fighting for what people need, defined as those redistributionist and structural reforms that can unite a progressive majority of voters. Medicare for All is now a case in point, and the Green New Deal is becoming one. When connected with the base communities in the local congressional districts, the left could elect progressives until it becomes a solid majority among Democrats in the House.

I wonder what working with the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) really means. Right now, the only Senate member is Bernie Sanders. There are lots more in the House but very few of them are of the A O-C, Ilhan Omar variety. Most are run-of-the-mill Democrats like my representative Carolyn Maloney who referred to Comrade Omar as follows: “It is deeply disturbing to hear a colleague give credence to anti-Semitic tropes, especially from someone who means to stand for equality and acceptance for all peoples.” Then, there’s Pete DeFazio from Oregon who has called for massive increases in logging on public forests—not surprising given the power of the timber corporations in his home state. No matter how good a DeFazio is on questions of Medicare for all or LGBT rights, he can’t keep getting re-elected if he neglects to fill the pork barrel. In the same spirit, Bernie Sanders gave his blessing to keep the F-35s in Vermont. It was all about jobs, after all.

Even a diehard supporter of the Democratic Party like Norman Solomon could point out how unreliable an ally of the left the CPC was. In a CounterPunch article from 2013 titled “Progressive Caucus Folds”, he scolded the 75 percent of its members who refused to sign a letter that stated “we will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.”

Speaking from the left side of their mouth, the authors hold out the possibility of a radical third party emerging in the future but only out of the bowels of the Democratic Party:

Some on the left have asked: Why doesn’t DSA just start a new party? The answer: because DSA and its close allies, objectively, are already helping to do so by growing the social-democratic bloc and giving it an organized and independent grassroots base in the working class and communities of the oppressed. But the work begins under the Democratic tent as a largely inside job. Once you get over 100,000 or even 200,000 new DSA members from the organizing and base-building of backing Sanders on the Democratic line, you’ve created at least one key component of the large bloc needed for a new First Party.

What happens to these wonderful plans if people like Joe Biden and Steny Hoyer move against those boring away from within the Democratic Party? Here’s what: “The Third Way types may try to throw us (and our close allies) out. Then the Dems will face the dilemma of transform or die, much as the imperiled Whig Party of 1860 was replaced by a new political formation — the only example of such a change in our history.” This is an analogy I’ve heard over the years from Carl Davidson that I gave up on debunking long ago. Lincoln’s Republican Party was product of profound class conflict between two wings of the capitalist class. By the time the USA was on the precipice of a Civil War, you had in effect a “dual power” situation with the North based in Washington, DC and the South based in the Confederate capital in Montgomery at first and then in Richmond. If you are trying to draw an analogy between the bourgeois revolution against slavery and the future socialist revolution, you must see it in class terms. The mounting assaults against working-class interests will inevitably lead to neighborhoods or entire cities forming their own self-sustaining institutions and defending them by force of arms. By then, parliamentary style elections will have outlived their usefulness. It will be the hour of the American socialist revolution. I understand that for most people used to the meaningless bourgeois election circus this will sound like science-fiction. Maybe so but history has a way of sharpening the contradictions that make all this very real.





  1. Now by “targeting the heights of power in the longest, continuously-functioning bourgeois party on the planet” do you mean the party responsible for the deaths of 620,000 people during the American Civil War fighting to uphold slavery or do you mean the party that prosecuted every major war in the 20th century or do you mean the party that permanently hobbled American Trade Unionism by ramming through the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act? Oh that’s right. It’s all the same party.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 29, 2019 @ 7:28 pm

  2. In the early 1970s. when I was still in the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, I remember its proclamations of the death of social democracy. Today, that misjudgment hasn’t led to any self-criticism for its error, and a sickening love fest with social democracy and milquetoast “socialism” has increasingly become the face of the “Left.” I’m not sure this is “because of the fawning attention it receives from the capitalist press,” or because of the inherent conservatism and lack of imagination–and even of a desire to fight for one’s own interests–on the part of the increasingly vanishing Left and the diminishing “proletariat.” You can see this in most social movements of the sixties, all of which have accommodated themselves to the ruling class and its agenda or been co-opted by it–and that includes most of the Left. How else to explain the servile adoption of the ruling-class agenda on issues like gays in the military, gay marriage, hate crimes, trans mania (a complete rejection of a materialist approach to reality in favor of identity politics and rank idealism)? If only the stupidity of yet again–after so many failures over the decades–of young people, DSA, etc., wallowing in the Dumbocrat swamp could be attributed to naivete. It is that, certainly, but it also suggests that people like Fletcher and Davidson and DSA and many millennials are either fools who have learned nothing from decades of failed policy of supporting the Democrat Party as a lesser evil, or outright agents of capitalist fraud. That goes also for the so-called LGBT crowd, the remains of the feminist movement, the black, Hispanic, and Native American movements, and the Left as a whole. Adam Smith was wrong: the human animal does not necessarily support his/her own interests. Just the opposite is too often true. And salvation is not going to come from a “proletariat” that carries increasingly little social weight. That, sad to say, is the world we live in.

    Comment by David Thorstad — April 29, 2019 @ 8:03 pm

  3. Leaving aside melodramatic (and self-dramatizing) recitals of historical nightmares and the crimes of Andrew Jackson etc., a major problem with “inside/outside” is that it provides nothing for the inevitable case when the Biden-Clinton-Obama strategy is defeated and the framework of so-called “constitutional” government grinds to a halt or simply breaks down.

    Nobody at present seems to be taking seriously the possibility for example–not a near-certain probability, but by no means an impossibility–that at some point in Trump’s probably inevitable second term the then equivalent of General Mattis decides not to go quietly but rather to seize power with his friends in a military coup.

    To whom or what can the people appeal in such a case–or in the multitude of likelier cases reflecting the actual breakdown of the alleged “democratic process”?

    It doesn’t suffice to have a climate of opinion that likes the word “socialism” and a landscape full of cliques of mutually admiring college-educated “radicals” inveighing against “fascism.” There needs to be a massive and organized concentration of forces capable of exerting power in defense of the people and ultimately of seizing state power under the right circumstances.

    No matter what is wrong with Biden (and what isn’t?), every ounce of “progressive” effort on Biden’s (or equivalent’s) behalf takes resources away from the urgent task of ensuring the safety of the people.

    The reality is that, barring the recession that appears at least for now to be deferred (and who is mad enough to cheer that on merely to win an election for the Democrats) Trump is almost certain to win reelection in a landslide, probably also carrying both houses of Congress.

    Then, in the immortal words of Keanu Reeves on the runaway bus, “What do you do?” The labor movement barely exists. There is no safety in the Democratic Party. The damage caused, metonymically speaking, by Monsanto and literally by the fossil fuel industry rages on unabated. This isn’t a bridge that can be crossed spontaneously when we get there.

    It doesn’t make a huge amount of difference how you spend an hour or two on Election Day. It’s what you don’t do between now and then that will cause the damage.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 29, 2019 @ 8:34 pm

  4. Every time I see something from Fletcher or Davidson, I want to scream. The same tired arguments, the same ridiculous language, the same distortions of history. I have nothing against either of them personally. I have never met Davidson, but Fletcher is a decent guy. I imagine Carl is too. It is the analysis that is wanting.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — April 29, 2019 @ 9:29 pm

  5. “Nobody at present seems to be taking seriously the possibility for example–not a near-certain probability, but by no means an impossibility–that at some point in Trump’s probably inevitable second term the then equivalent of General Mattis decides not to go quietly but rather to seize power with his friends in a military coup.

    To whom or what can the people appeal in such a case–or in the multitude of likelier cases reflecting the actual breakdown of the alleged “democratic process”?”

    Yes, this is a serious problem, which probably explains why the “Resistance” within the Democratic Party spends so much time catering to the military industrial complex and federal law enforcement. Trump and the neoliberals within the Democratic Party are fighting for their allegiance.

    As a consequence, the “lesser evil” Democratic Party has openly embraced more and more policies that they support: the prosecution of Assange, the tightening of sanctions and coup in Venezuela, the tightening of sanctions against Iran, massive increases in defense spending, the adoption of Russophobia as one of the centerpieces of our foreign policy and a lower level, but equally concerning, trade conflict with China in the guise of national security (such as, for example, the efforts to economically constrain the growth of Huawei).

    All of these things make a major war and suppression of dissent in the US more likely. I’m at a loss to understand how working within the Democratic Party will do anything other increase the probability of them happening.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 30, 2019 @ 11:16 pm

  6. “No matter what is wrong with Biden (and what isn’t?), every ounce of “progressive” effort on Biden’s (or equivalent’s) behalf takes resources away from the urgent task of ensuring the safety of the people.”

    This is exactly how Democratic party *DE-mobilizes* the socialist left on a regular basis. And because it can do so, Democratic Party is the ruling establishment’s most effective instrument in acting as the most exhausting, demoralizing, de-mobilizing force working against the socialist tendencies lying dormant just beneath the surface of this society (or any other on earth). The more socialist-oriented groups encourage people to work with the Democratic Party, the more they’re shooting themselves in the head, both in the here and now and in the future.

    Maybe a second Trump presidency is not that bad anyway. We thought we’d never survive a second W presidency, but we’re still here, and things are still getting worse. But it is a fact that things can get infinitely worse. At the same time, it seems clear that the ‘masses’ are far more awake now than they were during Obama’s time, or Clinton before him, when all the establishment media were happy as hell to sing lullabies; keep ’em asleep.

    Now they’re all outraged because Trump is showing how flimsy the whole ‘democratic institutions’ really are. If you’ve lived in areas frequented by storms, you know whose house was built sturdily and whose wasn’t. Trump, by introducing constant chaos into the political scene, has shown that this house wasn’t built that sturdy. So, of course, establishment media has to be up in arms about a gangster-type buffoon who’s exposing all the holes in the system.

    Trump is exposing the entire system. That’s a good thing. He’s showing that the whole propaganda about ‘rule of law’ means nothing. There is no ‘rule of law’; the biggest violators of the ‘rule of law’ are the rulers. What better education for the masses than to realize that the dream they’d been gobbling up is a lie?

    Of course, once you realize you’ve been buying lies, you have two ways to go: barbarian or socialist.

    Comment by Reza — May 1, 2019 @ 12:40 am

  7. Lesser evil democrats all rushing to get behind trumps botched coup in Venezuela. Spineless Bernie and his toadie Alexandria so far silent. After all Gusano votes in Miami and New Jersey are at stake. Don’t expect liberal left like Dsa/jacobin to say much either. As for Maoist retread, or retard, Carl Davidson, he never met a democrat he didn’t like. Right in form, right in essence.

    Comment by Roy rollin — May 1, 2019 @ 1:59 am

  8. Nothing those old-time right-Maoists loved more than a block with the “progressive” wing of the ruling class! Given his days in the OL/CP-ML, I’m surprised he didn’t throw a little something about the fight against Russian imperialism in there as well…

    Comment by Jon Malley — May 2, 2019 @ 4:28 pm

  9. In general, I think we’re fucked.

    If by some miracle Bernie were to get the DP nomination, I’d probably vote for him. But in the more unlikely event he were to be elected president, I don’t see any discussion about how the left in this country could prevent the obstruction of a progressive agenda by the corporate neoliberals of both capitalist parties. Clearly protest as usual wouldn’t be sufficient…

    Comment by Kurt Hill — May 3, 2019 @ 7:45 pm

  10. Funny how the ex maoists wound up right back in the Democratic Party with the cp revisionists they originally split from or claimed to oppose from the left, isn’t it?

    As Louis points out, Davidson and friends have been pushing the lesser evil line, cut and paste and scissors and paste before computers, since pop front days. Only they use Gramsci the way the Dsa now uses kautsky to pretend that their mass line, to use mao talk, is in some way connected to fighting for socialism. At least some in Dsa, like sankara, will pretend that they will stay at home if Bernie gets robbed again, whereas Davidson, fletcher and co will vote for Biden or whoever the dnc picks no matter what.

    Comment by Roy rollin — May 3, 2019 @ 10:15 pm

  11. Interesting comments, mostly retreads. Ours has developed some and is to the left of the CPUSA. In any case, if anyone has a better approach to our current situation, one that involves more than voting Green or abstaining from the whole lot and ‘building a mass movement (insert your flavor of the day), or doing theoretical work and writing film reviews (I already support both), let me know. I’m all ears. Just note that one key political skill is knowing how to count.

    Comment by carldavidson — May 15, 2019 @ 4:16 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: