Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

 

9 Comments »

  1. Excellent, Louis. If Hawkins runs nationally, I’ll be right there with ya.

    Comment by mtomas3 — May 22, 2019 @ 7:31 pm

  2. […] Source: A Jacobin/DSAer’s Red Herrings | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by redefining the revolutionary option beyond lenism and marx’s flawed theories…?//A Jacobin/DSAer’s Red Herrings  – Democratic Market Neo-communism — May 22, 2019 @ 8:37 pm

  3. As I pointed out on Louis’ Facebook page, these DSA/Jacobin “thought leaders” are just like the Fox News people, getting their talking points every day and repeating them over and over again, assuming that their followers will come to accept them as obviously true, evidence to the contrary. Does anyone think that any of them could write 2,000 words without mentioning Bernie Sanders? Also, not only does actually existing social democracy have its own bureaucracy in political parties and labor unions, which exert a profoundly un-radical influence, but they came to be (those that reached their peak of power in the decades after WW2) under very special circumstances. Having everything to do with the existence of a socialist bloc of countries and the fear that workers would drift to the far left. Concessions to workers had to be made to keep capital’s power intact. However, those days are long past. Yet, we are to believe that what passes for democracy in the US somehow provides ample space for the building of a “movement” built upon electing left Democrats, one that will, mirabili dictu, make the US a modern-day Sweden, but even better. This swill might sell magazines and make Jacobin’s owner rich someday, and it might convince the gullible to join the DSA, but it will never move this country toward socialism. The person who worried about what our faux socialist thought leaders would do if they had real power is correct. Head for the hills because they would lead the charge to have us all locked up.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — May 22, 2019 @ 9:20 pm

  4. Who you are referring to when you write: “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…”

    Liberal New Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote a piece about the Socialist Rifle Association (available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/02/opinion/socialist-left-guns-nra-trump.html)

    Based on that column, the Socialist Rifle Association folk seem like reasonable people with reasonable concerns about self-defense; they don’t appear to fetishize guns nor do they appear to be “preparing for armed struggle”.

    Comment by alan ginsberg — May 22, 2019 @ 9:31 pm

  5. I’m not opposed to socialist gun clubs, only the idea that they have anything to do with Trotsky’s call for workers militias in the 1930s.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 22, 2019 @ 10:38 pm

  6. So the workers should refuse to support the capitalist Democratic Party and instead.. support the capitalist Green Party?

    The same green party which is currently dominated by the Ba’athist/Red-Brown Stein/Cobb faction?

    Comment by Daphne — May 23, 2019 @ 2:09 am

  7. Capitalist Green Party? That’s really funny!

    Comment by louisproyect — May 23, 2019 @ 2:43 am

  8. […] Source: A Jacobin/DSAer’s Red Herrings | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by A Jacobin/DSAer’s Red Herrings  – Democratic Market Neo-communism — May 23, 2019 @ 10:47 am

  9. On a more municipal front, I’ve posted a criticism of a related Jacobin article. Louis, the title was inspired (ironically) by one of your anti-Kautsky blogs.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — May 28, 2019 @ 4:49 am


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