Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 31, 2019

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

COUNTERPUNCH MAY 31, 2019

Your first reaction to a book titled A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things that consists of 312 pages is to wonder if it is the first in a series of volumes since a single volume hardly seems capable of packing in everything from Ancient Egypt to the 2007 financial crisis. Yet, oddly enough, it does an excellent job by using a singular perspective, namely how “cheapness” has become the sine qua non for class society’s dubious advances over millennia.

Co-authors Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore are exponents of what they call world-ecology. While I am not familiar with Patel’s work, I have been reading Moore ever since he was a graduate student and posting to the World Systems Network, a defunct mailing list that was home to scholars like Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank. World systems theory always made a lot of sense to me since it was premised on the idea that Europe was responsible for what Frank called the development of underdevelopment in Asia, Africa and Latin America. What Moore contributed to this theory was the ecological dimension. Colonialism involved massive changes to nature that were universally destructive even though they helped to make cheap commodities available to the colonizers.

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May 29, 2019

Paul Le Blanc’s lamentations

Filed under: ISO,Lenin,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

paulleblancphotobyalexbainbridge
Paul Le Blanc

Despite being highly critical of Paul Le Blanc’s dead-end support for “Leninism”, I found something poignant about his 6,100 word attempt to provide an answer to “What happened to the International Socialist Organization?” This is now his third attempt at constructing or reconstructing a Leninist party in the USA. In the first go-round, he was one of the many long-time members of the SWP who was expelled for opposing Jack Barnes’s ideological assault on Trotskyism that was carried out bureaucratically. He then became part of a group led by Frank Lovell and George Breitman that published the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, a futile attempt to persuade the SWP membership to return to the party’s roots. His next stop was Solidarity, a group that wisely eschewed “Leninist” norms but was never able to become much more than a network of people around the magazine Against the Current. His final stop was the International Socialist Organization, a group he joined a decade ago and that has just disbanded. My guess is that this will be his last hurrah as far as Leninism is concerned unless in the next decade or so there is a massive radicalization in the USA that will help to foment a revolutionary socialist organization that is the counterpart of Lenin’s party. If that happens, you can be assured that such an organization will look nothing like the myriad of groups that sought to construct one from scratch. As a rule of thumb, revolutionary organizations can only emerge out of a mass movement and all such attempts to create an embryo of one according to some ideological construct will either implode like the SWP or ISO, or muddle along like the British SWP, Lutte Ouvriere or others too obscure to mention.

Paul states that the analytical framework he uses in trying to make sense of what happened “can be found in various writings (particularly the essays in Unfinished Leninism published by Haymarket Books in 2014).” Since there are arguments against my critique of Leninism in that book, I was obviously motivated to compare his analytical framework to mine on the passing of the ISO.

Paul subheads the section that deals with the ISO’s failed attempt to live up to his Leninist ideals Avoiding sterile ‘vanguardism’, which leads me to pose the question whether ‘vanguardism’ can ever be anything but sterile. For Paul, this is an opportunity to find a silver lining in the SWP’s dark cloud. He writes that George Breitman and Frank Lovell were quite open and non-dogmatic in their approach, as opposed to the younger leadership loyal to Barnes. I didn’t know Breitman and Lovell all that well but since they gave their blessing to Jack Barnes’s “turn to industry”, I have my doubts. In fact, just before I left NY to save my soul in a Kansas City factory, I challenged Lovell’s assertion at a city-wide meeting that in 1978 the American working class was more radical than ever. It was only in the hermetically sealed environment of American Trotskyism that such a workerist dogma could be expressed.

Paul saw the ISO as better and more open than this, which I would describe as setting the bar about an inch off the ground. He assures us that by the time he joined, there were no delusions of grandeur about it being the revolutionary vanguard party or even the nucleus of the future mass revolutionary party. Unfortunately, this concession to reality made little difference since the group dynamics were pretty close to that of the SWP or any other “Leninist” group. As a rule of thumb, any group that publishes a magazine and newspaper, which for its entire history hosts not a single debate by party members, is willy-nilly creating a homogenous political culture that fosters “sterile dogmatism”. In contrast to Lenin’s party that used Iskra to provide a platform for debates, the Socialist Worker newspaper has never reflected the diversity of opinion that exists on the left. It was always seen as the voice of an ideological current associated with Tony Cliff seeking to preserve market share on the left. Who knows how they envisioned a future revolutionary party? Would it be something like a holding company that had different brands, with state capitalists being offered to consumers alongside Maoism and old-school Trotskyists like those in Alan Woods’s orbit? That has been tried both in England and Australia with meager results. When a true Leninist party emerges in the USA, it will likely be focused on contemporary American issues rather than when Russia became state capitalist. That, of course, pretty much describes the DSA and what would be exactly what is needed right now if it stopped functioning as the leftwing of the Democratic Party.

Some of what Paul writes strikes me as buyer’s remorse. He extols the practical activism in social movements that was essential for SWP branches but not the norm for the ISO. Practically sneering, he describes this as a deficiency all-too-often justified by what struck him as pseudo-revolutionary strictures against “movementism.” Now I have no idea what ISO norms were like but I would guess that given the low ebb of social movements in the past 30  years or so it reflected a more realistic expectation of membership. After 1973, I saw the “activism” of the SWP as artificially generated, an attempt by the party tops to provide “busy work” to keep us from drifting away. By 1977, this was superseded by the “turn to industry” with its absurd job committees meeting 3 times a week to figure out how to place members in factories or, failing that, at least getting them to go out six in the morning to sell the Militant at plant gates to bleary-eyed workers speeding by en route to the parking lot.

Missing from Paul’s analysis is any engagement with the obvious growing resistance to “democratic centralist” norms suffocating the ISO. Sometimes I wonder whether Paul bothered to reply to a crank like me when he wrote Unfinished Leninism on the outside chance that ISO’ers were being seduced by my anti-Leninist notions. Among the documents submitted to the most recent convention of the ISO was one titled “For building a new model of revolutionary socialism” that was signed by 133 members. Here is a relevant paragraph:

Since our break with the British Socialist Workers Party, the ISO has asserted that it is not the nucleus of a revolutionary party. While we understood this in the most vague and long term of ways, the seeds of that conception remained, as reflected in the distorted way that building the ISO as the ISO became an end in and of itself. Democratic centralism meant two people holding the information and building based on what ended up being unwarranted trust. [emphasis added]

In the concluding paragraphs of his article, Paul writes:

How should revolutionaries organize themselves today in order to do what must be done?

We are not starting from scratch. There are residual elements from the ISO itself – formally independent entities that it helped bring into being and sustain: the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC), connected with both the immensely valuable publishing operation of Haymarket Books and the yearly Socialism conferences. Former ISO members can connect with these and various other publications and conferences. There are also other socialist organizations, some avoiding the pseudo-Leninist trap of “vanguardism” – and former ISO members are considering options and possibilities. Realities are fluid, and other structures might be developed to facilitate networking and collaboration, as we seek to transform this defeat into a luminous victory.

In my view, there are some encouraging signs on the left. Despite my sharp disagreements with the hopes of the people around Left Voice to breathe life into the Leninist project, they at least have the courage of their convictions to challenge the “democratic socialist” circumlocutions of the Jacobin/DSA. They have not yet cohered into a cadre organization and might yet be convinced that a united revolutionary organization around basic core agreements on the environment, class struggle unionism, anti-imperialism is still possible. You also have the Marxist Center that has brought together groups like the Philly Socialists. What they might lack in numbers as compared to the DSA, they certainly make up for with class struggle principles and rootedness in communities of those fucked over by capitalism. I also have hopes that Howie Hawkins’s campaign for President will help generate some momentum back into the Green Party. There was a time when the ISO made up the activist core for Peter Camejo’s campaign for governor in California and perhaps the ex-members can see the wisdom of helping Howie’s campaign serve as an alternative to whatever the Democrats offer up, even—dare I say it?—if it Bernie Sanders.

Speaking of Peter Camejo, the last time I saw him before he died, he was a guest speaker at an ISO regional conference at CCNY. We briefly spoke about the prospects of the ISO that he regarded as the best thing happening on the left. That was something I also heard from Sol Dollinger who was a member of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union in the 1950s, a group I strongly identify with.

Although I obviously had much less of a commitment to the ISO than either of these two old friends and comrades, I—like Paul—was sorry to see it fold. I had been sustained for the past 7 years by the courageous and principled articles about Syria in Socialist Worker, as well as the uncompromising resistance to joining the leftwing of the Democratic Party.

I plan to be at the Socialism 2019 conference in Chicago between July 4—July 7, the first ISO conference I have ever attended. Ironically, I am still looking forward to it even if it is now being co-sponsored by Jacobin/DSA. There is intense interest in how to move the left forward in a period of deepening social and political crisis and I would hope that others make plans to attend this conference since it will surely draw the lessons of the passing of the ISO and enhance the prospects of something rising Phoenix-like from its ashes.

May 28, 2019

Thomas Nozkowski (1944-2019): an extraordinary artist by any measure

Filed under: art,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:11 pm

Yesterday, there was an obituary in the NY Times about an artist named Thomas Nozkowski, who was extraordinary by any measure. Dead at the age of 75 from pancreatic cancer, he was best known for his small-scale abstract paintings that were a conscious rejection of the oversized canvases of Jackson Pollack, et al. Long associated with the Pace Gallery in New York, you can see his work and relevant information about the artist on their website.

Since I am not a trained art critic, I will only say that his work reminds me of Henri Matisse and Joan Miro’s. Here is an untitled painting that I found particularly beautiful:

What interests me more is the unusual path he followed in becoming an artist. To start with, he came from a working-class family. His father worked in an Alcoa Aluminum factory and then as a postman. His mother worked also in factories and as a bookkeeper.

While he was part of my generation that radicalized during the Vietnam War, his break with the status quo had more to do with his attitude toward his chosen profession. As Frances Stonor Saunders pointed out in her “Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War”, abstract expressionism was exploited by the CIA as proof that artistic freedom in the West trumped the hackneyed socialist realism of the USSR. While Nozkowski was little interested in an open rebellion against the well-entrenched abstract expressionism, he sought an alternate path as described in W magazine:

Then one day around 1970 he remembers walking into a SoHo gallery and seeing a 45-foot painting. “I looked at this thing and thought, This is crazy,” he says. “It was for the institutions that we’d been hating. Where does this go? A lobby, a bank, a museum, a rich person’s house, come on. At the time my paintings were a healthy 90 by 110 inches. Nice wall-filling items. And I said, I don’t want to do this. I want to do paintings that hang in my friends’ apartments.

He told John Yau, the author of a monograph on his work, that such large-scale works were nothing but “an extension of imperialism…it occupied whatever space it wanted to without regard for others”

Like many artists, Nozkowski had a “day job” before earnings from his work could sustain him. In his case, it was working for magazines, first at Time Magazine and then as the production director of Mad Magazine. He also designed hundreds of books. He told Hyperallergic Magazine that his specialty was pop trash: UFOs, Movie Tie-Ins, Disco Dancing, Celebrity Biographies and Bermuda Triangle books. He confessed that he even wrote one of those. You can even buy a copy of his work at Mad Magazine from Amazon.com.

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For many years, Nozkowski lived in a refurbished synagogue on the Lower East Side but moved to Ulster County in the Catskills, not far from where I grew up. He bought a house near the Shawangunk Ridge, a mountain range I used to be able to view from the rear window of the house I grew up in Woodridge, N.Y.

In a 2015 post, I wrote about my affinities with the Shawangunk Ridge that included this brief video clip.

In an interview with Dylan Kerr for Artspace, Nozkowski stated that his recent paintings were related to drawings that the artist did for the magazine Esopus:

I do a lot of walking in the area of the Hudson Valley where I live, on the Shawangunk Ridge, and I’ve worked with a lot of organizations preserving land on the Shawangunks. There’s an area near Kerhonkson where several hundred acres of land have recently been acquired by non-profits, and I’ve spent the last two years hiking around this area, mapping it and so forth. I decided to do drawings from this area for Esopus, and in fact I even drew a map of where the trails were for the magazine, so in theory someone could follow the map and find the locations. Not a chance that anyone will, of course, but that was the idea.

Here’s a lovely video of Thomas Nozkowski hiking up around the Shawangunks, talking about art.

May 24, 2019

Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:09 pm

Opening at the IFC in New York today and at the Laemmle in LA on June 14, “Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground” is a documentary about a woman who was a key player in the early 1960s experimental film scene who went on to become a friend and companion to cultural icons like Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan. Interesting as a personality in her own right, Rubin is also a symbol of the exhaustion of some members of the cultural and political avant-garde who retreated into mysticism. At the age of 18, Rubin was the protégé of Jonas Mekas, the godfather of underground films. At the time of her death in 1980 at the age of 35, she was the mother of 5 children and a Hasidic housewife living in France.

Born the same year as me, Rubin (as well as me) was drawn to the emerging counter-culture like a moth to a flame. In 1963, she went to work for Mekas at The Film-Makers’ Cooperative in New York, which was dedicated to the distribution of films by people like Stan Brakhage who that very year came up to Bard College to introduce some of his films that—to be honest—left me perplexed. Mekas, who died in January of this year, is one of the main talking heads in a documentary that is a rich trove of footage from the wild and woolly days of the early 60s. At one point, he states that the responsibility of a filmmaker is to inform and to make poetry with films made by Barbara Rubin emphasizing the poetry.

She is best known for a film titled “Christmas on Earth” that can be downloaded here. (https://trakt.tv/movies/christmas-on-earth-1963). It features masked and painted actors engaging in both gay and straight sex. It is very much in the same spirit as Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures” that was stopped in midstream by the cops in a raid on Bleecker Street Cinema in 1964. Just before the war in Vietnam generated a political radicalization, people like Rubin and me were oriented to the senior citizens of the beat generation. Rubin was madly in love with Ginsberg and hoped one day to bear his children. As a gay man, he had other ideas.

Like many others, she became an activist after the war deepened but not an organizer. In the legendary protest at the Pentagon in 1967, she joined Shirley Clark, an underground filmmaker of major importance, and Fugs band member Tuli Kupferberg in civil disobedience that led to a week in jail.

As the sixties wore on, the possibilities for making a living as an underground artist faded and Rubin’s health declined, a function of both being poor and a heavy drug user. Looking for an exit path from what was becoming a dead end, she drifted toward the Kabbalah, an ancient Jewish text that promised the kind of release from worldly temptations found in Eastern religion. Among those who would attach themselves to this kind of mysticism besides Rubin include Madonna and Rosanne Barr.

Unlike them, Rubin was ready to drop all connections to the secular world. She became an acolyte of a Hasidic rabbi in Far Rockaway and embraced the patriarchal lifestyle of his sect. Stymied by the sexism of the counter-culture, she ironically felt comfortable in a world where men thanked god each day that they were not born a woman.

Among the other commentators on her life and career is J. Hoberman who blogged about her in the New York Review of Books:

Rubin’s accomplishments can all be seen as way stations in a search for transcendence. Was she a saint who finally found redemption? Or, in secular terms, did this incandescent woman, unschooled and hyperactive, find a protective community and self-medicate her way to some sort of serenity? In the face of such questions, Rubin remains remarkably elusive. Although her image appears throughout Smith’s movie, she never looks quite the same. It’s as though Rubin, forever going through changes, was too quick for the camera.

Finding a protective community, of course, is what drives so many people today to embrace socialism—however they define it. I invite young people who only know about the sixties from history books to check out this film, which will help to fill in the blanks.

A second look at Netflix

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Nicolas Cage: a national treasure

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 24, 2019

Just over five years ago, I posted two articles to CounterPunch arguing against a Netflix subscription. At the time, Netflix was positioned as a dispenser of Hollywood movies and, as such, not worth your money. Since then, the streaming service has moved away from the kind of fare that can be found on Hulu, Vudu, iTunes, Verizon FIOS and other streaming services that serve up steaming ordure like “Apollo 11” or “Madea: A Family Funeral” on a silver platter.

When I posted the two articles in 2014, the intention was to inform CounterPunch readers about streaming services that offer the kind of offbeat films I tend to review: foreign-language, documentary and independent films that show up in theaters in New York or Los Angeles and then disappear after a week or so. You can still see such films on Mubi, Fandor and on Ovid, the new VOD service that was formed by a group of leading-edge distributors that share the same political outlook as CounterPunch. For only $6.99 per month, Ovid is a bargain at twice the price. To give you a sense of the kind of films available from Ovid, it has just added the 2013 documentary “To Chris Marker, An Unsent Letter”, a tribute to the great Marxist filmmaker. Although I hate Jeff Bezos just as much as any leftist, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Amazon does provide VOD for many excellent, non-commercial films.

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May 23, 2019

James Robertson (a guest post)

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 3:01 pm

(I can’t vouch for any of this but thought it was worth sharing.)

Jim Robertson: A Fragmentary Retrospective

By Stephen Goodman

In the long run a harmful truth is better than a useful lie.
–Thomas Mann

Now that Jim Robertson has left the scene, it is only fit and proper for those who knew him, even ever so slightly as I did, to share our memories of him. I will present two conversations I had with him over the years. No one else was present then, so I remain the only witness to and participant in these events. But first I wish to offer a rather startling observation.

At Dick Fraser’s memorial on 8 January 1989 Jim Robertson said, “I first ran into Dick Fraser about 31 years ago, and he was my last personal teacher.   ……… Dick Fraser is supposed to have said, ‘One of the best things I ever did in my life was sit Jim Robertson down at a kitchen table and pound at him for a few nights.’ Well it’s funny, because I’d just said across the country, at the same time, ‘The last guy that ever convinced me of anything in an argument was Dick Fraser.”

So we learn directly and indisputably from Robertson’s own words that in the course of the 31 years after Dick Fraser’s “pounding” no one could ever get Robertson to change his mind on anything. One reads these words in jaw-dropping disbelief! That means Robertson was always right on everything and that his intellectual opposition was always wrong on everything. Seriously? Did any member of the Spartacist League ever dare to challenge this monstrous megalomania and gross grandiosity?

In very modest contrast, the Pope is hailed by the faithful as “infallible,” but only when he speaks on Catholic doctrine. Yet Robertson soared far above the Pope. He was, in his own eyes, infallible across the board. Did Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Darwin, Einstein or any other genius ever lay claim to intellectual infallibility either on one subject, or, still less, on all topics in the world? Hubris seems far too humble and puny a word to have embraced Robertson’s titanic superego. This self-proclaimed unfailing infallibility falls in squarely with the following two encounters I had with him.

Robertson certainly could evince a most revolting sense of “humor.” About 1978 we were talking in the Prometheus Research Library. He said he wanted to play me a song on his stereo. I asked him sarcastically if it was the Horst Wessel Lied, the marching song of the Nazis. “Nah, it‘s not that,” he replied dismissively. I felt ashamed for having said this. But, as it turned out, my suspicion was spot on. It was an unknown German song which I asked him to identify. “It’s a song of the Nazi submariners,” he explained smirking broadly.

“Why are you playing this?” I asked, light years beyond astonishment.

“I play this for our maritime fraction and our Jewish comrades.” (I was only an SL sympathizer, but still I qualified for this “special” treatment.)

“Why?” I persisted.

“I like to see them get angry,” he replied with a broad and self-satisfied grin. He saw absolutely nothing wrong in this outrageous and utterly contemptible behaviour. On the contrary, he joyfully exulted in it. Can anyone imagine any Bolshevik from Lenin and Trotsky on down engaging in such an egregiously obnoxious act? Why would any self-respecting Marxist even own such a record, let alone play it just to infuriate others, especially potential victims of fascism? But then, no one could convince him of anything in an argument.

The second event occurred when I met him by chance about 1982 whilst in London. I challenged him on why the SL defended Sara Jane Moore who had attempted to assassinate U.S. President Gerald Ford. I told him that she was an FBI fink and clearly deranged, a thoroughly repulsive character by anyone’s reckoning. This argument had zero effect on him. He defended her thoroughly unpolitical and maniacal act as a legitimate protest against (in his own words) “the growing imperial presidency.” I found this to be bizarre politics, besides being utterly divorced from reality.

I then asked him if he defended Arthur Bremer, the man who had shot ultra-racist Alabama governor George Wallace. “No,” he replied, “That guy was just a nut!” As opposed to Sara Jane Moore? What was the difference? Where was the logic?

Yet I persisted. I told him that a defense of such an unsavoury lunatic and her unhinged act would bring nothing but opprobrium and ridicule to the SL. His amazing answer was that had I lived at the time, I would not have defended Alfred Dreyfus. Presumably he meant that though Dreyfus was an agent of French imperialism yet he still should have been defended, so likewise FBI fink Sara Jane Moore should be defended. This vacuous “logic” was worthless. I countered that I would have defended Dreyfus because he was the victim of a massive wave of anti-Semitism. Here the argument stopped cold as Robertson had nothing more to offer. He just couldn’t be wrong about anything or be convinced by anyone in an argument. Magister dixit, the master has spoken!

Robertson was the most well-read man I’d ever encountered. Bakunin once said of Marx, “He read widely and intelligently.” That was Robertson all over. One couldn’t reference an historical personage or event, however arcane, obscure or esoteric, that he hadn’t read about and knew thoroughly. Innumerable times I’d heard his brilliant public discourses. They were dazzling arabesques all. His mental landscape was breathtakingly broad and prolifically populated. Robertson was intellectually unique.

Robertson broke in turn from Stalinism, Shachtman, the SWP and Healy. He worked sedulously and patiently to restore and build Trotskyism in America and abroad. As far as I can judge, he never capitulated to reformism or anti-communism, two nearly impossible feats for the American left. For all of this he deserves to be remembered with honor.

But alcoholism warped his mind. That’s the inevitable mental end-product of that psycho-physical disease. Furthermore, his ego was both inflated and deformed by his near-apotheosis as the object of an uncritical, adoring, obsequious and worshipful personality cult. When the people around you chorus for decades on end that you are always right, you start believing in your own infallibility. Louis XIV’s regal conceit “I am the state” found a modern incarnation in Robertson’s egotistical boast “I am never wrong.”

There was a dialectical relationship between his rampant alcoholism and titanic egotism, on the one side and the cloying cultism of his membership on the other. They exacerbated each other and were the twin black holes that dragged Robertson down inexorably to his cringeworthy degeneration. They inexorably led the Spartacist League into the twilight of inconsequentiality. That was a great loss for the Spartacist League and Trotskyism. It is a sad object lesson and dire warning for the future. Alcoholism and personality cultism can be tolerated only at a Marxist organization’s greatest peril.

May 22, 2019

A Jacobin/DSAer’s Red Herrings

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 6:35 pm

A red herring is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question, according to Wikipedia, which also states that the term was popularized in 1807 by English polemicist William Cobbett, who told a story of having used a kipper (a strong-smelling smoked fish) to divert hounds from chasing a hare. Cobbett was an early English radical who took up the cause of impoverished peasants falling prey to “rotten boroughs”, a form of gerrymandering that favored the rich. One imagines that red herrings were used widely in the interest of privilege back then but as a term it can now be used to describe any dodgy political argument such as those found in an article by Jacobin/DSAer Chris Maisano titled “Which Way to Socialism?

Maisano’s article appears on The Call, the website of the Bread and Roses Caucus whose make-up explains my use of the term “Jacobin/DSAer” to describe Maisano. In Doug Henwood’s New Republic article about the DSA, he describes the overlap between the DSA’s leading body and the magazine that serves as its informal theoretical magazine:

None of these outfits [working groups and caucuses] causes serious trouble for the larger trajectory of DSA organizing. However, one caucus in particular, formerly known as Momentum, then renamed Spring, and again renamed Bread and Roses, is the object of ire from outsiders.

The original core of the group consisted of the Jacobin generation of members, several of whom were part of a Left Caucus in the pre-surge DSA, who were looking to heat up the old organization’s tepid politics. There are six votes from the Bread and Roses caucus on DSA’s national political committee (NPC), effectively its board of directors, not quite a third of the total of 19, giving the caucus a serious, if not dominant, presence. Two of them are on the Jacobin masthead (Chris Maisano and Ella Mahony), and another prominent Bread and Roses member, Micah Uetricht, is the magazine’s managing editor. The strong presence on the NPC and the affiliation with Jacobin, the most influential publication on the American socialist left these days, gets people to talking about a sect with its own propaganda arm plotting to control the organization.

Funny how the term sect comes up. After reading Maisano’s article, with its predictable reference to Karl Kautsky’s infinite wisdom that Eric Blanc and Bhaskar Sunkara uphold as well, I mentioned on Facebook how it reminded me of an older political culture: “the Jacobin/DSA’ers…are as ideologically homogeneous as any Leninists I have ever run into. It is always the same stuff, citing Kautsky, etc. Groupthink basically.” This prompted someone to follow up:

Groupthink is a good description. My own perspective is maybe a bit skewed, being in Philly DSA, an extreme case, but it is the worst groupthink I have ever experienced on the left. In fact, it’s done more to turn me off of “socialism” than anything I have experienced in my life. The way these people rant about “horizontalists” and “anarcho-liberals” and “Occupy-ish”, etc., as a way to slander anyone who opposes them, is pathetic, and gives an indication of what they would be like if by some nightmare they got into a position of actual power.

Speaking of Philadelphia, it is necessary to point out that Maisano’s article is written as a rebuttal to Philly Socialist member Tim Horras’s article titled “Goodbye Revolution” on Regeneration, the website of the Marxist Center, a network of groups to the left of the DSA that I support. In a nutshell, Tim defends the classical Marxist understanding of the need for socialist revolution as encapsulated in Lenin’s “State and Revolution” and other works by Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. I strongly urge you to read Tim’s article because it is an important statement that reflects a willingness of young revolutionaries to both swim against the reformist stream and avoid sectarianism.

Maisano hopes to trip Horras up by making the question of “armed struggle” a focus of his polemic. Horras writes:

Mass mobilizations, broad popular support, and the weapon of the general strike certainly ought to be tactics in the arsenal of any socialist movement. But in the face of the ruling class’s trump card — a full-blown military coup d’etat — it is likely even these powerful forces will prove insufficient without an armed and organized resistance.

For me, this is an elementary observation—at least if you are a Marxist. Lenin refers to the state as resting on “special bodies of armed men”, a term that he associates with Engels’s “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Keep in mind that the October 1917 revolution was made possible not by guerrilla warfare but by the wholesale defection of the army to the Bolsheviks. When a relatively small band of soldiers committed to the revolutionary cause overran the Winter Palace, there were fewer people killed than probably those who died that day in St. Petersburg because of traffic accidents. Basically, the task facing us is not preparing for armed struggle, which is implicit in the misguided attempts to form leftwing gun clubs by ultraleftists, but by building such a massive movement that soldiers will gravitate to it rather than to the capitalist state. At least that’s what I learned from the men and women who were Leon Trotsky’s comrades in the 1930s.

Despite the attempt by Maisano to introduce the red herring of ordinary citizens never having the capability of overcoming “huge innovations in technology, military tactics, and urban planning” that have “strengthened the hand of the state and its armed forces against any potential insurrection”, the real difference between the Jacobin/DSA and those who identify with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky is not over insurrection but on revolution. Obviously, a “nuclear-armed national security state” is a frightening prospect but the goal is not to form militias that can take down an oncoming ICBM aimed at Brooklyn radicals. Instead the need is to create such a pole of attraction for socialism that the soldiers operating such devices will follow the example of Maryknoll nuns who sabotaged a building that stored enriched uranium in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

In a laughable attempt to bolster his case, Maisano cites Frederick Engels’s introduction to the 1895 edition of Karl Marx’s “Class Struggles in France”, a work that examines the growing importance of working-class mobilizations during 1848-1850 when it had not yet emerged as an independent political force. At first glance, Engels seems to be lining up with the Jacobin/DSA’ers:

But since then there have been very many more changes, and all in favor of the military. If the big towns have become considerably bigger, the armies have become bigger still. Paris and Berlin have, since 1848, grown less than fourfold, but their garrisons have grown more than that. By means of the railways, the garrisons can, in twenty-four hours, be more than doubled, and in forty-eight hours they can be increased to huge armies. The arming of this enormously increased number of troops has become incomparably more effective. In 1848 the smooth-bore percussion muzzle-loader, today the small-caliber magazine breech-loading rifle, which shoots four times as far, ten times as accurately and ten times as fast as the former. At that time the relatively ineffective round-shot and grape-shot of the artillery; today the percussion shells, of which one is sufficient to demolish the best barricade. At that time the pick-ax of the sapper for breaking through walls; today the dynamite cartridge.

By 1895, the year in which Engels’s introduction was written, the German working-class had achieved considerable political power through universal suffrage.

With this successful utilization of universal suffrage, an entirely new mode of proletarian struggle came into force, and this quickly developed further. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organized, offer still further opportunities for the working class to fight these very state institutions. They took part in elections to individual diets, to municipal councils and to industrial courts; they contested every post against the bourgeoisie in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had its say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.

Against such a formidable mass movement, the kind of reactionary violence that was used in 1848 and then again in 1871 would be ineffective. Engels writes: “And there is only one means by which the steady rise of the socialist fighting forces in Germany could be momentarily halted, and even thrown back for some time: a clash on a big scale with the military, a bloodbath like that of 1871 in Paris. In the long run that would also be overcome. To shoot out of the world a party which numbers millions—all the magazine rifles of Europe and America are not enough for this.”

In other words, the goal is to increase working-class political power until it simply has the weight to withstand military counter-revolutionary offensives. There is an implicit assumption, of course. In such an event, it would be necessary for the masses to defend a workers state. It would not take the form of street barricades that would be ineffective against heavy artillery but by a section of the army taking up the cause of the working-class party. This, in fact, is exactly what happened in Russia when the Red Army was created to defend Soviet power. This has nothing to do with “insurrection”, however. It is simply the need for revolutionary self-defense that any truly socialist government will have to mount.

Engels’s main concern was overcoming what might be called Blanquism, a tendency for advanced revolutionary contingents to march far ahead of the masses, using direct action excessively. He wrote: “The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past.”

Needless to say, Engels did not anticipate the degree to which the growth of the German social democracy became a double-edged sword. By developing institutional power, it created a parliamentary and trade union bureaucracy that adapted to capitalist state power. In recommending the Swedish social democracy as a positive example in a recent review as opposed to the negative Venezuelan Chavista experiment, Bhaskar Sunkara apparently shows little comprehension of the hazards of parliamentary cretinism even if it does offer the kind of blandishments that softened up the German social democracy chieftains before WWI.

The other red herring in Maisano’s article flows from the first. If a mass revolutionary movement is not feasible because the capitalist class has nuclear weapons, etc., then the alternative is participating in elections. He cites Carmen Sirianni, the Morris Hillquit Professor of Labor and Social Thought at Brandeis University who argues that elections “have been the major national forums for representing class-wide political and economic interests of workers… there was no pristine proletarian public prior to parliament, and the working class did not have a prior existence as a national political class.”

He also cites Jeff Goodwin, an NYU Sociology professor, to make the same point: “no popular revolutionary movement, it bears emphasizing, has ever overthrown a consolidated democratic regime”.

And, finally, he cites Ralph Miliband who argues that the absence of a revolutionary leadership in parliamentary democracies in advanced capitalist countries, where Marx and Engels assumed would be the first to break with capitalism, is a function of the low level of class struggle:

There has been no such ‘fit’ between revolutionary organisation and leadership and the structures and circumstances of advanced capitalism and bourgeois democracy. Another way of saying this is that advanced capitalism and bourgeois democracy have produced a working class politics which has been non-insurrectionary and indeed anti-insurrectionary; and that this is the rock on which revolutionary organisation and politics have been broken.

I suppose his sons David and Ed are graphic examples of that “anti-insurrectionary” tendency.

But once again, the term “insurrectionary” is misplaced. It is no surprise that someone who is as confused over the difference between insurrection and revolution as Maisano would find Miliband’s words seductive.

In a way, the focus on how to seize power is an utter waste of time. As James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism who had his own problems, once put it, the art of politics is knowing what to do next. What is the point of debating whether street-fighting, barricades and training to use an AK-47 is better than ringing doorbells for some Democrat or vice versa? In the USA today, there is very little support for the idea of abolishing capitalism even if 43 percent of Americans believe that socialism would be a good thing for the USA, according to a Gallup poll. If Cynthia Nixon could get away with calling herself a socialist, you have to believe that the word is an empty signifier that is likely indistinguishable from left-liberalism. Except for the fact that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist and Elizabeth Warren calls herself a capitalist, there’s not a big difference between their programs—and even some evidence that she is to the left of him on some major questions.

The big question facing us now in terms of Cannon’s knowing what to do next is the Democratic Party. In 2016, the DSA supported Cynthia Nixon for governor of New York who was running as a Democrat rather than Howie Hawkins, who was the Green Party candidate and written off by the DSA for being “unelectable”. In an article for CounterPunch last Friday, Howie Hawkins summed up what this “democratic socialist” stood for:

The Democratic socialists and progressives seemed as starstruck as the corporate media, who smothered the “Sex and the City” star with coverage. Nixon was far from being a socialist or even a Sanderista. None of the socialists and progressives seemed to have checked the Federal Election Commission campaign finance records for Nixon, which show that Nixon gave the maximum allowable $2,700 donation to Hillary Clinton for her primary campaign against Bernie Sanders and also threw in another $5,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund and $2,300 to the Democratic National Committee, both of which infuriated the Sanders campaign for collaborating with each other against Sanders. It was no surprise when Nixon endorsed Cuomo after the primary.

There’s a good shot that Howie Hawkins will be the Green Party candidate for President in 2020 and just as good a shot that Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic Party candidate. I plan to support him in every way possible because I believe that a radical alternative to the Democratic Party is necessary.

Despite the blizzard of words from Maisano about the placid bourgeois democracy we live under forcing us to back someone like Cynthia Nixon, the truth is that the foundations for class collaboration are disappearing rapidly during an ongoing economic recession that shows no sign of relenting. Economic insecurity will be combined with environmental destruction (forest fires, floods, undrinkable water, etc.) to create an opening for a genuine radical alternative to the existing system. I will close with the words written by Karl Marx that were included in the Green Party’s invitation to the DSA in 2016 to back Howie’s campaign that they rejected in favor of Nixon’s:

Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled.

 

May 21, 2019

Putin, Trump, the Christian Right, Austrian fascists, and the schizoid left

He paved the way for Max Blumenthal and Roger Waters

I came across articles this week that demonstrate how both Christian evangelists in the USA and the alt-right Freedom Party in Austria have been building ties to the Kremlin. An Open Democracy article titled “Revealed: Trump-linked US Christian ‘fundamentalists’ pour millions of ‘dark money’ into Europe, boosting the far right” was written by Claire Provost on March 27, 2019. It demonstrates how US Christian right ‘fundamentalists’ linked to the Trump administration and Steve Bannon are key players that have poured at least $50 million of ‘dark money’ into Europe.

Meanwhile, the same kind of affinities have been shared by the Kremlin and the same alt-right parties, including Austria’s Freedom Party that has been undone by a sting carried out by unidentified parties which showed the party’s Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache meeting with a woman in Ibiza who represented herself as the niece of a Russian oligarch. The party’s first leader was Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi functionary and SS member. It became the first far right party since the end of WWII to become part of a government when Jörg Haider entered a coalition with the conservative People’s Party in 2000.

In exchange for supporting Russian interests, Strache would be expected to receive secret and illegal donations from the oligarch to the tune of millions of Euros. In the same week that I noticed any number of articles on my FB timeline calling attention to the valiant role of the USSR in defeating Nazism, I wondered how many people posting links to them were aware that the Freedom Party is trying to recreate the Third Reich. An Atlantic Monthly article on the scandal reported:

A state senator for the Freedom Party, reporters revealed, once belonged to a fraternity that openly glorified the Third Reich. (“At that point, the Jew Ben Gurion came into their midst,” go the lyrics for one of the fraternity’s songs, “and said: ‘Step on the gas, ye old Teutons, we’ll manage the seventh million.’”)

People on the left who try to debunk the notion that Trump is pro-Russia will always bring up matters such as how the Ukrainians are receiving heavy weapons from the Pentagon or how sanctions have been maintained and even beefed up. They take Trump at his word when he says that he is the most anti-Russian president the country has ever seen.

However, they don’t bother to address the question of how the Kremlin colludes—dare I use the word?with Christian evangelicals. To a large extent, this simply reflects the tendency of some on the left with a particularly Manichean brand of geopolitics to act as if the Cold War had never ended. During the Cold War, the Christian right was a mainstay of the anti-Communist crusade. Billy Graham, For example, in the summer of 1954, spoke to 25,000 West Germans gathered in Düsseldorf’s Rheinstadium about how Berlin was “a battleground, a continent for conquest”. During the Vietnam War, Graham agreed with Nixon that bombing the dikes in the North would be necessary even if it cost the lives of a million Vietnamese.

But his son Franklin had a different take on Russia. In March 2014, Decision Magazine, a publication of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, featured a cover article on Vladimir Putin. Inside, a Franklin Graham op-ed praised Putin’s signing a law barring the dissemination of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to children. He wrote: “It’s obvious that President Obama and his administration are pushing the gay-lesbian agenda in America today and have sold themselves completely to that which is contrary to God’s teaching,” Graham wrote. In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”

Mother Jones took note of the ties between Russia and the Christian right just around the time that Decision Magazine article appeared. The World Congress of Families decided to hold its annual meeting in Russia that year. The WCF is one of the most powerful voices of the Christian right. Showing its continuing ties to the European far right, it held its annual conference this year in Verona, Italy where Matteo Salvini, the fascist Interior Minister of Italy, spoke on the need “to defend the family that consists of a mother and a father”. Other participants included Dimitri Smirnov, a Russian Orthodox priest who says abortion is  “scarier than the Holocaust” and Forza Nuova, an Italian neofascist party.

Does the sting of the Freedom Party leader in Ibiza mean that he was like some poor soul in the USA who was entrapped to take part in some illegal act, like bombing a synagogue? While I am opposed to stings of this sort as a matter of principle, there is little doubt that Putin is for the rightwing coalition government in Austria until the scandal forced the withdrawal of Strache and other party members.

Russia has naturally denied any ties to Strache’s party but at least one journalist noticed disturbing contacts not only between Putin and these fascists but with Trump as well. In a December 20, 2016 Progress Pond article titled “Trump, Austrian Neo-Nazis, and Putin”, Martin Longman reported that Strache came to New York just after Trump’s election to meet with Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor who subsequently stepped down after he was charged with unauthorized communications with Russian officials. Oh, did I mention that he sat at the same table with Max Blumenthal and Vladimir Putin for the RT.com 10th anniversary banquet in 2015?

A day before the Progress Pond article was published, the NY Times described the fallout from the Strache-Flynn meeting. A cooperation agreement outlined plans for regular meetings to hammer out economic, business and political projects. It was signed by Sergei Zheleznyak, a member of Putin’s United Russia Party. In welcoming the fascists to his party headquarters, Zheleznyak cited Europe’s “migration crisis” as a field for cooperation. I can’t say I am surprised that this is a field of cooperation since the European fascist movement prioritizes nativism as well as homophobia and anti-abortion laws just as does the Trump administration.

In the 1950s, schizophrenia was often mislabeled as an illness entailing a “split personality”. In fact, the word “schizo” is Greek for split. It was confused with dissociative identity disorder that was dramatized in the 1957 film “Three Faces of Eve” that was based on a true story of a woman manifesting 3 different personalities. In 2016, M. Night Shyamalan upped the ante with “Split”, a film whose main character had 23 different personalities.

Perhaps the first popular culture expression of this phenomenon was Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde”, in which the transformation to the evil Mr. Hyde was triggered by chemicals produced in a laboratory rather than in the brain.

It occurs to me that the Doctor Jekyll/Mister Hyde duality is rampant on the left today with many people saying all sorts of good things about the Palestinians but evil things about the Syrians because of their embrace of Manichean geopolitics that sees support for every Kremlin initiative as incumbent on “anti-imperialists”. Max Blumenthal is a prime example although one has to wonder if his being paid in rubles rather than ideology or chemical imbalances explains his evil writings on Syria. You get the same thing with Roger Waters and Susan Sarandon who would likely martyr themselves on behalf of the Palestinians when their “good” half takes over but when the “evil” half kicks in, they have no trouble defaming the half-million or so martyred Syrians as jihadists who deserved what they got.

Today, the left is mobilized around the threat to abortion rights in places like Alabama, Georgia and Ohio that is being pushed by the Christian right. It is this very Christian right that Steve Bannon is aligned with as it hopes to transform Europe into something resembling Alabama on a continent-wide basis. Dennis Bernstein can write an article for Consortium News about the ongoing struggle for abortion rights in 2016 and then turn around in 2018 conduct a softball interview with the late Robert Parry, who founded Consortium News, about The Rush to a New Cold War, which repeats the same talking points you hear continuously there, on Grayzone, WSWS.org, The Nation and elsewhere. Parry tells Bernstein:

The Russians have taken a very different perspective, which is that the United States is encroaching on its borders and threatening them in a strategic manner. They also look at what happened in Ukraine very differently. They see a U.S.-backed coup d’etat in February 2014 that ousted an elected president and put in a regime that is very supportive of free market, neoliberal policies, but also includes very strong right-wing elements, including neo-Nazis and far-right nationalists. A crisis was created and tensions continue to spiral out of control.

A search for “Freedom Party” and Austria on Consortium News returned zero hits.

Perhaps the only explanation for this part of the left’s split personality is its failure to understand world politics from a class perspective. If your unit of analysis is the nation-state and if you somehow think that the Cold War, that had at its roots a conflict between two different modes of production that were as irreconcilable as capitalism and feudalism, has never ended, you can easily end up waking up in the morning writing benign articles or Tweets about the need for solidarity with the Palestinians and closer to midnight writing crap about how Syrians gassed their own families with chlorine as a “false flag”, with blood dripping from your fangs. Is there any hope for such people reintegrating their personalities by reading Marxists? If so, I’d recommend that they start with Leon Trotsky’s 1938 “Learn to Think”:

Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.

 

 

May 18, 2019

The New Republic climbs aboard the DSA bandwagon

Filed under: DSA — louisproyect @ 7:43 pm

The New Republic is the latest media powerhouse to get on the democratic socialist bandwagon, joining the NY Times, the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Teen Vogue, Rolling Stone, Vox, NPR, The Atlantic, The Nation, Time Magazine, and The New Yorker. You’d have to go back to the 1930s to see such a romance between those calling for the overthrow of capitalism and such elite capitalist media outlets. In a way, history is repeating itself. After all, both the CPUSA of the 1930s and the DSA today are for pushing the Democratic Party to the left but not over a cliff. Indeed, Bernie Sanders, the politician who accounts for most of the DSA’s growth, describes himself as basically trying to replicate the New Deal. When asked by an anti-Communist Russian émigré at a CNN Town Meeting how he could “rectify” (she obviously meant reconcile) his notion of democratic socialism with the failures of socialism in nearly every country that has tried it, he replied that he stood by FDR’s 1944 State of the Union message.

Through social media, I imagine that most of my readers have become aware of Doug Henwood’s article in the New Republic titled “The Socialist Network: Inside DSA’s struggle to move into the political mainstream”. With all due respect to a friend for the better part of 30 years, that sounds to me like breaking down an open door. Unlike any other group that has claimed to be in the Marxist tradition, it has achieved marquee status for a media that generally regards socialism as a curse. All you need to do is read the Washington Post on Venezuela. Then again, when asked by the National Review if Nicholas Maduro was “legitimate”, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez replied, “I defer to caucus leadership on how we navigate this.” Of course, I understand why she would have to walk a tight-rope. Apparently, there are a number of Venezuelans in her congressional district that might vote against her if she did say he was legitimate. Electability has to be taken into account when you are trying to legislate socialism into existence.

Joining Doug is one Astra Taylor, whose article is titled “Reclaiming the Future: On the growing appeal of socialism in an age of inequality”. I’ve run into Taylor before, having reviewed her documentary “Examined Life: Philosophy is in the Streets” Her film consists of interviews with left-wing philosophers, including Slavoj Zizek who was the subject of an earlier film she directed. My review  of “Examined Life” concluded on this note:

Going from the ridiculous to the ridiculousest, we meet Slavoj Zizek in a garbage dump where he spends his 10 minutes blasting what he calls “ecology”, which is nothing but a straw man that he defines as an idea that Nature is Pure and that Man violates Nature through Hubris. For Zizek, nature is anything but pure. It is filled with catastrophes that happen without human involvement such as the ice age that led to mass extinctions. He advises that in the face of nature’s imperfections that we learn-using his words-to see “perfection in imperfection”. This kind of relationship between man and nature will be a kind of “love”, as our Lacanian puts it.

Unfortunately, Taylor did not see fit to challenge Zizek’s idiocy.

Let me turn now to Doug’s 5,645 word article that is written in his customarily limpid prose that is a joy to read, even if I depart from most of his analysis.

There’s not much to quibble with in the first thousand words or so of his article that is an accurate chronicle of the DSA’s formation as a product of Michael Harrington’s zeitgeist and its transition into a far more radical group in the years following the 2007 crash when a millennial precariat concluded that capitalism had little to offer them.

I do have to interrogate, however, the claim that “There’s no ideological or organizational line, unlike all the American left’s many Trotskyist sects of old.” It would be more accurate to say that the DSA does not operate on the basis of democratic centralism but there certainly is an ideological line that hews closely to The Jacobin, an unofficial voice of the DSA leadership. The line can be described as left social democratic as opposed to the typical party of the Socialist International that the DSA’ers had the good sense from which to withdraw. Specifically, most DSA leaders, who after all are more equal than the rank-and-file DSA’er, hew closely to the Sandernista strategy of launching a Swedish-style social democracy in the USA that would be the first stage in a total socialist transformation. This strategy has been enunciated by Bhaskar Sunkara, Eric Blanc and other Jacobin authors. Yes, of course, a grizzled ex-Trotskyist member of the DSA has every right to denounce this strategy on a blog or a branch meeting but in the long run such dissidents are nothing but a minor annoyance.

After spending another thousand words or so providing some interesting insights into the evolution of the Republican and Democratic Parties in the post-Reagan era, Doug considers the main issue that prevents me from writing the kind of encomium to the DSA you’ll find in Vogue or Rolling Stone, namely its relationship to the Democratic Party. As I have said on many occasions, I reject the organizational model of the “Leninist” left and regard something much closer to the DSA as appropriate to the current state of the class struggle. In fact, my model is even much closer to Debs’s party to which most “democratic socialists”, including Bernie Sanders, pay homage. However, Debs was as opposed to the Democratic Party on a principled basis as any number of the grizzled old ex-Trotskyists that most DSA’ers find annoying.

Doug writes:

Most DSA activists I talked to, ranging from executive director Maria Svart to local leaders to rank-and-filers, are uninterested in such a takeover. They look at the Democrats as a vehicle to borrow, not own. As Svart says, while DSA members have shown a diversity of attitudes toward the Democratic Party, they still regard it as a “capitalist party” and are determined to build “independent power.” Until such power blossoms into a historic force on the national political scene, however, there’s no substitute for the party’s automatic ballot line. Sanders would have been a marginal curiosity had he run as an independent.

What comrade Svart does not seem to understand is that Marxists have never taken such a “tactical” stance on the Democratic Party until 1934 when Georgi Dimitrov directed Communist Parties to adopt the Popular Front turn that led to coalitions between the CP and capitalist parties throughout Europe and the Western Hemisphere. In the USA, the Popular Front took the form of backing FDR to the hilt, even to the point of endorsing the internment of Japanese-Americans, a no-strike pledge during WWII, opposing A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington, and—most disgustingly—supporting the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Ironically, the Socialist Party that the DSA descended from never backed voting for Democrats. When Upton Sinclair decided to run for governor in California as a Democrat, his own son, who was a member of the SP just like him, threatened to disown him. When Norman Thomas learned that Sinclair was going to run as a Democrat, he wrote him a letter:

Words are symbols. You alone, or you with the help of a certain number of California voters, cannot make the word Democratic a symbol for Socialism. That word with its capital D is a symbol for the party which bitterly discriminates not only against Negroes but white workers in the South, for the party of Tammany Hall in New York, and Hague in New Jersey. There are not words enough in the dictionary for you to explain to the great masses of common folk who have looked to your books for leadership the different sense in which you are Democrat. Still less will you be able to explain your defection to the multitudes in Europe who have hailed you as prophet and spokesman of their hopes.

Doug obviously takes the same pragmatic view of the DP as Svart:

Among other things, the hard-line left’s demonizing view of Democratic-branded seductions of power exaggerates the coherence of the party. As the political scientist Adam Hilton says, both major parties are “hollow” organizations—and porous ones—that can’t effectively police the boundaries of their ideological or intellectual identities. As Sanders showed, people can call themselves Democrats even when they’re not and run in their primaries. We’ve seen much the same phenomenon in congressional, state, and municipal races as well.

I have another way of looking at this. Despite the obvious hostility that is directed at Ilhan Omar, it is essential to the DP to have a left flank that creates the illusion that progress can be made running on its primary line. Its inability to “police” itself is actually a very effective way of maintaining the hegemonic place it shares with the Republicans. In the 1960s, it was essential to have “peace candidates” who could help convince the counterparts of today’s millennials that there was no need to join the SWP. Electing peace candidates was more “practical”. People like George McGovern had the same exact politics as Bernie Sanders but did not call themselves socialists. Even though the party’s corporate-centrist faction was as bent on destroying McGovern as it is today with respect to Sanders, it would never go so far as to define ideological boundaries. It is this very “hollowness” that helps to stabilize the capitalist system in the USA by maintaining the umbilical cord that connects a Nancy Pelosi to an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In attempting to burnish the image of the DSA, which really shouldn’t be necessary given the adulation it receives from the Washington Post on one side and the erstwhile ISO on the other, Doug creates a straw-man:

American left, stepping into a DSA meeting—at least the ones I’ve been to in Brooklyn—is a strange and lovely thing. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a typical gathering of leftists consisted of seven weirdos meeting in a ramshackle space, often fighting ancient battles about whether the USSR was a failed state capitalist experiment or a degenerated workers’ state. Goals were maximalist—to overthrow capitalism and build socialism—but no one really had an idea of what that meant.

Well, I was very active in the Central America Solidarity movement for the entire 1980s and this sounds like nothing I experienced. Meetings were devoted to questions on how to organize tabling to get passers-by to sign a petition against contra funding, not to debate the class nature of the Soviet Union. Indeed, by the 1980s at least, most of the old line Trotskyist and Maoist groups were in their twilight and had little role to play in the living movements. SWPers who showed up at Nicaragua Network meetings calling for a “proletarian orientation” were held in contempt by just about everybody.

The next thousand pages or so of Doug’s article is devoted to a discussion of the rather lively internal caucus life of the DSA that I found pretty inspiring, to tell you the truth. Let a thousand flowers bloom. As a DSA member myself, I might give some thought to starting one based on the writings of Bukharin who I find much more savory than Karl Kautsky, who is worshipped at the Jacobin altar.

Let me turn now to Astra Taylor’s article, which is 1,200 words longer than Doug’s. (Does The New Republic pay by the word? Well, at least they pay.) It is not specifically in praise of the DSA but is clearly in sync with its general emphasis on democracy. She says she was commissioned by The New Republic to write about the growing popularity of socialism in America. With that as an agenda, her article is filled with the kind of free PR the DSA gets on regular basis:

After decades of exile from mainstream American political discourse, the word “socialism” is now emblazoned in headlines and getting serious (if not always respectful) hearings from politicians holding and seeking the highest offices of the land. Even people who are not fans of Vermont Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (though a surprising number are fans—he’s the most popular politician in the country) cheered the arrival of two democratic socialist powerhouses in Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and Detroit Representative Rashida Tlaib. Their victories are higher profile, but no less significant, than those at the state and municipal level—from Houston, where a democratic socialist judge won his campaign, to Chicago, where six of 50 city council seats will soon be occupied by socialists.

Taylor’s article was based to a large extent on an appearance she made alongside Natasha Lennard at the closing panel for a conference on “Liberalism and Democracy: Past, Present, Prospects” at the New School. It appears they were invited to speak on behalf of democratic socialism as opposed to the organizers’ mainstream liberalism. This is something that did not sit well with the audience that might have thought that she and Lennard “had called for the reopening of work camps.” Taylor wrote that “Multiple respondents thought it fitting to mention that the German left had helped usher in Hitler, implying that Lennard and I were unwitting handmaidens of totalitarianism.”

For Taylor, the growth of the DSA might be explained by the willingness of its new members to rely on intuitions rather than the long and drawn-out process I went through in 1967 before joining the SWP. Before I would commit to a revolutionary organization, I really had to understand what it stood for. By contrast, “Youthful converts to left-wing politics may not know exactly what policies democratic socialism would consist of, from the nitty-gritty details of participatory decision-making structures to the role of markets in a world where capital no longer rules. But they do have a sense of what socialism would feel like. Socialism would feel like having a future.”

To Taylor’s credit, she worries if this kind of fuzziness can serve the movement’s needs. She alludes to people who tell pollsters they prefer socialism to capitalism or that Bernie Sanders is their favorite candidate. However, most of them also choose Joe Biden rather than Elizabeth Warren as their second choice, thus leaving their ideological coherence open to question.

For Taylor, the biggest concern is embodied in the title of the article “Reclaiming the Future”. In other words, there has to be a deep engagement with the problematic of how to do socialism right as opposed to the disasters of the 20th century:

A partial sampling of such questions would include, but are by no means limited to, the following: How much top-down planning will be required to create an ecologically sustainable economy or just a functional one? And how will markets, money, and finance be democratized and fit into the mix? How should we balance collective ownership of our natural common wealth with local and worker control—and how do we combine local and worker control with the ideal of international solidarity? How are the boundaries of decision-making communities to be determined and accountability to be enforced? When can democracy be direct, when must it be representative, and how could randomness or sortition—selecting people to serve as public officials instead of electing them, as we do with juries—be put to good use?

In my view, these questions are beside the point. When some catastrophe in the future shakes society to its foundations, class lines will be drawn in the sharpest terms with those still working inside the Democratic Party looking as tarnished as Syriza politicians after Tsipras caved in to the German bankers.

She asks “When can democracy be direct, when must it be representative, and how could randomness or sortition—selecting people to serve as public officials instead of electing them, as we do with juries—be put to good use?” I don’t think the average factory worker would find much use in thinking through these questions, especially since they—like me—have no idea what “sortition” means.

What will move workers into struggle is having insufficient water to drink or bathe in, or seeing their home destroyed by an out-of-control forest fire, or seeing their strike broken by private armies funded by the Koch brothers. Nicaraguans overthrew Somoza without having the faintest idea of how the FSLN government would operate. They simply got sick and tired of their children being thrown out of helicopters because they opposed the dictatorship.

As difficult as it is for many on the left to imagine, the USA is moving into a stage that will pose these sorts of sharp class battles that will impose the most exacting demands on the left. I hope that the DSA will become part of the powerful revolutionary movement that can help achieve victory but it will soon have to decide who to align with, the editorial board of Vogue Magazine or the men and women who live paycheck to paycheck.

May 17, 2019

Trotsky, Bukharin, and the Eco-Modernists

Filed under: Bukharin,Counterpunch,DSA,Ecology,Jacobin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 17, 2019

Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.

– Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” (1924)

For some Trotskyist groups, these words have been interpreted as a green light to support all sorts of ecomodernist schemas. For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means using technology, often of dubious value, to ward off environmental crisis.

For example, the Socialist Workers Party, when it was still tethered to the planet Earth, was a strong supporter of Green values but after becoming unmoored it began to publish articles that asserted: “Science and technology — which are developed and used by social labor — have established the knowledge and the means to lessen the burdens and dangers of work, to advance the quality of life, and to conserve and improve the earth’s patrimony.”  These abstractions have meant in the concrete supporting GMO: “The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species–so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”

A split from the SWP, the Spartacist League is just as gung-ho. In a diatribe against ecosocialist scholar and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, they position themselves as global warming skeptics: “Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society.” Their answer is very much in the spirit of the Trotsky quote above: “Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.” It turns out that Indian Point et al would be put at the service of society based on an article titled “Greens’ Anti-Nuclear Hysteria Amnesties Capitalism”.

Of course, the granddaddy of this kind of crude productivism is the cult around Spiked Online that is correctly perceived today as a contrarian and libertarian outlet. But its roots are in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain that defended GMO, nuclear power, DDT, etc. using Trotsky’s rhetoric. Today, there’s nothing to distinguish it from Donald Trump’s Department of Energy.

As it happens, Trotsky’s business about moving mountains through technology serves as the epigraph to Jacobin’s special issue on environmentalism that is permeated by ecomodernist themes. Among them is an article by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that shares an affection for nuclear energy with the nutty sects listed above. They reason: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” Their techno-optimism rivals that of Steven Pinker’s: “We patched our deteriorating ozone layer; we returned wolf populations and the forests they inhabit to central Europe; we relegated the infamous London fog of Dickens, Holmes, and Hitchcock to fiction, though coal particulates still choke Beijing and Shanghai.” As it happens, China is reducing coal particulates by displacing them geographically. The IEEFA, an energy think-tank, reported that a quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations.

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