Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

9 Comments »

  1. In the not so distant past I posted a political platform here that had around 20 planks. I have not been able to figure out where Louis or Franz would place me in this debate about the usefulness of the DSA. Among my platfrom planks was a 100% income tax rate for a family income of around 250 or 300 thousand dollars (euros). A huge increase in gasoline taxes.
    The nationalization of the armaments industry. The nationalization of the gambling industry. Huge tax increases for 18 wheelers to get promote electrified rail transport.
    I dtd not see my complete platform as being a plan to either rescue or kill capitalism. I now think that climate change is going to kill us all pretty damn quick once the Arctic ice cover is gone. After all it takes 30 times more energy to melt a kilo of ice than it does to raise the tempriture of water 1°. I did see my platform as being a first step to going in either one of several directions. Direction 1 would be Cuban style socialism. Direction 2 would be Parecon. Direction 3 would be to use government tax and spending policies to crush those who use their business positions, or any other position for that matter, to commit economic exploitation.

    I am completely against the idea that everyone over a certian age should be allowed to take part in the decision about which of the 3 directions to take. I support a confucian socialist vanguard taking power by any means possible, including violence, because neither the elites or the masses can be trusted to do what should be done. The masses can not be trusted because they have largely been incorrigably corrupted by the misindoctrination that they have been subject to. The elites can not be trusted because they have been corrupted by the unchallenged power that they have wielded for such a long time. If a such a group of confucian sociialists had managed to sieze power before it was to late to achieve anything other than burning US Generals alive as they hang from the Verzanno Narrows Bridge then only those people that such an organization has vetted as being qualified to take part in such a decision should have a say in what direction the nation moved in after the inital platform was implemented.

    With such an outlook I do not think that I could count on the support of anyone in the DSA. I also doubt if I could count on the support of anyone who considers themself a “genuine” socialist like Louis Proyect, or Frans Koslar, or Reza ???????ali. I suspect that the DSA people would think that my platform goes to far to fast. I suspect that the genuine socialist group would think that my hostility to one man one vote would make me far to politcally incorrect to want to be linked to.

    Was I ever capable of becoming anything more than a team of one. It seems that it is to late to join a team that is capable of rescuing humanity from extinction. But a team has the potential to the very last day of human history to hang up Generals from the Verranzao Bridge and light them up. That is a policy than can be accomplished in one day.

    Is my assessment of the two branches of the US left accurate?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — May 18, 2019 @ 10:05 pm

  2. “both major parties are “hollow” organizations—and porous ones—that can’t effectively police the boundaries of their ideological or intellectual identities.”

    Which is exactly why Democrats can more successfully implement Republican policies than can Republicans (think welfare reform, deregulation of banking, ‘free trade’ deals that outsource jobs). Also, exactly why there is never any accountability. The only ‘accountability’ is when, due to this very hollowness, the Dem’s base becomes so demoralized that they just stay home during elections, which leads us to a Trump presidency.

    Comment by Reza — May 18, 2019 @ 11:32 pm

  3. Anyone else notice that Henwood points out that the professional-managerial elite took over the Democrats with the neoliberal turn in the 1980s…and then proceeds to rely on thoughts and quotes solely from sources who are professional-managerial types? Are any the people who he talked to even in the AFL-CIO?

    Comment by stew312856 — May 19, 2019 @ 1:57 am

  4. Oh and the genuine socialists might condemn me for not calling for the the immediate overthrow of capitalism. Not only am I uncommitted to eventually overthrowing capitalism I think that even if I were to decide that Cuban socialism or Parecon were better than highly regulated capitalism there needs to be a transition period anyways to psycologically train a population as to what behavior is (would have been) acceptable and what behavior is (would have been) unacceptable in a new system.
    So does my position on what needs to be done make me a Stasserist, or I have just gone completely off the human political spectrum?
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    Comment by Curt Kastens — May 19, 2019 @ 9:21 am

  5. […] Source: The New Republic climbs aboard the DSA bandwagon | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by The New Republic climbs aboard the DSA bandwagon    – Democratic Market Neo-communism — May 19, 2019 @ 9:31 am

  6. Here’s the final paragraph from Rob Urie’s latest on CounterPunch, titled, “Grabby Joe and the Problem of Environmental Decline”:

    “As Uncle Joe Biden and a lifetime of even more ordinary Democrats have made known, they just don’t give a shit. They care about plenty. None of it has to do with the public interest, except inasmuch as it is a useful vehicle for serving the oligarchs. The largest impediment to environmental resolution will be establishment Democrats concern trolling about overreach.”

    I would add, the more people like Bernie spread the lie that Democrats are part of the solution, the more they help Democrats help oligarchs, and hence help bury humanity. Except, of course, oligarchs have plenty of resources to protect themselves from the worst harms of the environmental disaster they’ve helped create. The tens of millions who will die will be the poor and the surplus population that late capitalism simply cannot feed, house or provide for otherwise.

    The path to socialism in the U.S. requires the active abandonment (or, better, disintegration) of the Democratic Party.

    Comment by Reza — May 19, 2019 @ 6:47 pm

  7. Henwood is a sharp, astute, leftist political analyst. But this quote is one of the most humorous justifications for left political expediency that I’ve ever encountered. It’s a cul-de-sac:

    “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.”

    As for this one, it is just absurd:

    “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.”

    The Democratic Party is many things, most of them highly objectionable, but “hollow” it most assuredly is not. It is a neoliberal imperialist party fully in the grip of US capitalists. Sanders serves the purpose that popular economically progressive liberals have always served, to herd leftists into the party, where they can be neutralized, as pointed out frequently by Jeffrey St. Clair. The fact that anyone can call themselves a Democrat, and run for office, is no threat to this control of this party by capital. Nor is it is anything novel, as implied. It has been true during my entire life (I’m 58).

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 20, 2019 @ 8:52 pm

  8. People like Buttigieg get standing ovations for pushing what you might call the Ken Burns line that there’s a grand old liberal American narrative that is normal, and that all we have to do to snap out of the eternal crisis of our flimsy and dysfunctional constitution (and so-called “free market” and the death of the environment) is wake up and return to the great story–as we inevitably will. Baseball, gay soldiers, a “rainbow” of different-colored “entrepreneurs,” and women and “minorities” in the corporate boardroom–these are all ye need to know.

    They have no politics other than this shallow mythological bullshit, and they will inevitably fail, leaving their followers totally exposed and at risk in a gale of uncreative destruction. Socialists must provide a concrete alternative.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 21, 2019 @ 2:14 pm

  9. I’m especially cheesed off by the imputation that Buttigieg’s being ex-military is a point in his favor. Drop a hanky and these liberal asswipes all go whoring after the Navy Seals and the FBI. What a bunch of two-faced creeps–DSA, are you listening? Oh no–now for the lecture on “the average person.”

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 21, 2019 @ 4:53 pm


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