Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 14, 2019

Bernie Sanders and the New Deal

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,New Deal,reformism — louisproyect @ 8:13 pm

As might be expected, the Jacobin/DSA tendency is beside itself over Bernie Sanders’s speech that by now follows a familiar script. Just compare these excerpts from 3 different speeches following the same pattern:

(1) What’s the fundamental challenge of our day? It is to end economic violence. Most poor people are not lazy. They’re not black. They’re not brown. They’re mostly white, and female and young. Most poor people are not on welfare.

I know they work. I’m a witness. They catch the early bus. They work every day. They raise other people’s children. They work every day. They clean the streets. They work every day. They change the beds you slept in in these hotels last night and can’t get a union contract. They work every day.

(2) More to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour. More to do for the father I met who was losing his job and choking back tears, wondering how he would pay $4,500 a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits he counted on. More to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college.

(3) Are you truly free if you are unable to go to a doctor when you are sick, or face financial bankruptcy when you leave the hospital?

Are you truly free if you cannot afford the prescription drug you need to stay alive?

Are you truly free when you spend half of your limited income on housing, and are forced to borrow money from a payday lender at 200% interest rates.

What these 3 speech excerpts have in common is that they were made by Democratic Party politicians who captured the imagination of the left. The first came from Jesse Jackson’s speech to the 1988 Democratic Convention, the second was from Barack Obama’s to the 2004 Democratic Convention, and the last was Bernie Sanders’s June 12, 2019 speech at George Washington University. All three politicians have been identified with FDR. Salon magazine described Jackson’s campaigns as combining “New Deal-esque economic programs with a pro-social justice domestic agenda and a foreign policy that emphasized fighting for peace and human rights.” Appearing on the Letterman show in the first year of his presidency, Obama dismissed his critics who called him a socialist: “What’s happened is that whenever a president tries to bring about significant changes, particularly during times of economic unease, then there is a certain segment of the population that gets very riled up. FDR was called a socialist and a communist.” As for Sanders, unlike Obama, he embraces both the term socialist and New Deal programs, which for all practical purposes he sees as interchangeable. Finally, like Obama, he dismisses the red-baiting attacks on his socialism:

In this regard, President Harry Truman was right when he said that: “Socialism is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years…Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”

Ironically, in effect Sanders confirms what Truman said but not the way that Truman intended. Truman was trying to say that the John Birch Society, Joe McCarthy, et al were calling such reforms “socialist” when they were really just liberal reforms. For Sanders, it is exactly these measures that mean socialism to him rather than what they mean to Marxists. Naturally, it is ABCs for people like me, who have been defending socialism for 52 years, that Social Security is a good thing (I get my check on the fourth Wednesday each month), even if it is not particularly socialist. Indeed, the first country in the world to adopt old-age insurance was Germany under Otto von Bismarck in 1889. It wasn’t even his idea. It was first proposed by the fucking Emperor William of Germany 8 years earlier who sounded like he was giving a speech to a Democratic Party convention: “…those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.”

If socialism is the same thing as the New Deal, what do you need Marxism for? Why not just emulate the CPUSA that became the left wing of the Democratic Party in the 1930s, following FDR in lock-step? The CP even defended this opportunism by formulating it as the first step in overthrowing capitalism in the USA. After all, if the Republicans took over the White House, the next step would be concentration camps not the future socialist society everybody believed in. Naturally, when FDR did establish concentration camps for Japanese-Americans, the CP gave its approval.

Essentially, Jacobin/DSA has dusted off the Earl Browder game plan and reintroduced it for the 21st century. The irony is that the Socialist Party of Browder’s day refused to support FDR. When Norman Thomas was asked how he felt about the New Deal carrying out the SP’s program, Thomas replied that it was carried out—on a stretcher.

Jacobin/DSA is giddy with excitement over Sanders’s speech, with each spokesman competing over who could write the biggest encomium to the Vermont Senator. Paul Heidman, an ex-ISOer, wrote a Jacobin article stating that “Sanders took aim at one of the central dogmas of contemporary capitalism: that it enhances freedom.” Maybe so, but the speech was cautious to step around the 800-pound gorilla in the living room, namely whether Sanders advocated an end to the very system that limited freedom. As long as there is private ownership of the means of production, how can true freedom exist when the owner has the right to move a factory to Mexico, fire half of his workers, or refuse to give them a pay hike? Sanders is opposed to unfettered or “out of control” capitalism but not capitalism itself.

Not to be outdone, Branko Marcetic was so thrilled to death that he equated socialism with the New Deal even if it annoyed people like me:

Though no doubt infuriating some on the Left, Sanders — who’s weathered decades of this kind of thing — wisely situated his vision of socialism in the long tradition of US progressivism and, crucially, the New Deal liberalism forged by Franklin Roosevelt that dominated American politics until somewhere around the late 1970s.

Interesting that Marcetic sees the presidencies of Harry Truman and LBJ as a continuation of New Deal liberalism. I can’t say I have a problem with that in light of Truman carrying out FDR’s mandate to use atom bombs on the Japanese. Or LBJ using B-52s against peasant villages. FDR went to war to defend American imperialism, not make the world safe for democracy. I guess as long as all these warmongers made sure to keep the welfare state benefits of American workers secure, that was “socialist” enough for the CPUSA and its bastard offspring, the Jacobin/DSA.

As the king of all “democratic socialists”, the Puff Diddy of the left Bhaskar Sunkara had the final word in The Guardian, the liberal British newspaper. In a rapturous piece titled “Bernie Sanders just made a brilliant defense of democratic socialism”, he presented Sanders as an PG-Rated version of the hard-core, R-Rated socialism of Eugene V. Debs:

Sanders still has a portrait of Debs in his Washington DC office, and in the 1980s he curated an album of the legendary socialist orator’s speeches. But yesterday’s address was a reminder that even though he still embodies much of the old socialist spirit, he has found ways to soften its edges and make it more accessible to ordinary Americans.

Well, of course. How are you going to get invited to MSNBC if you are saying “hardened” things like this?

The capitalist class is represented by the Republican, Democratic, Populist and Prohibition parties, all of which stand for private ownership of the means of production, and the triumph of any one of which will mean continued wage-slavery to the working class.

The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.

Eugene V. Debs speech as SP candidate, September 1, 1904

Like Marcetic, Sunkara slapped at the revolutionary mosquitos that were ruining his picnic: “Hardened socialists might scoff at Sanders’s summoning of Roosevelt as a proto-socialist.”

Well, yeah. Us Hardened, R-Rated socialists who still find the Communist Manifesto more inspiring than Michael Harrington’s “The Next Left: The History of a Future” would rather back someone like Howie Hawkins who does not mince words. Referring to Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez et al, Howie stated:

However, something is notably missing in these candidates’ descriptions of socialism. They are leaving out the distinguishing tenet of the traditional socialist program — the definition of socialism you will find in the dictionary — a democratic economic system based on social ownership of the major means of production.

Finally, on the question of a President Sanders carrying out anything remotely similar to the New Deal, you have to forget all the lessons you learned reading historical materialist classics like Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” or Karl Marx’s “18th Brumaire”. The New Deal was a reaction to concrete conditions 85 years ago that no longer exist.

To start with, FDR was anxious to rein in the worst excesses of the capitalist class in order to stave off a revolution. As the nobleman in “The Leopard” put it, “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”

Despite Social Security and despite the make-work programs that paid a pittance, it was WWII that ended the Depression. As I explained in an article on whether WWII ended the Depression, more than half of the recovery took place between 1941 and 1942—in other words when war spending had geared up. Government purchase of goods and services ticked up by 54.7 percent in this one-year period and continued to increase as the actual war began.

The overarching economic framework for the postwar prosperity that allowed workers to buy homes and pay for their kids’ college education was the ongoing expansion of American industry that had no competition. Once Japan and Germany got in the game, industry grew wings and took flight to Mexico. Afterward, when China became capitalist, the wings grew stronger and factories flew even further away. Who knows? Maybe they’ll take Aaron Bastani’s advice and send the jobs to outer space.

That’s the reality we are operating in now. Workers need jobs that can keep a family in a relatively secure position. Sanders talks about recreating such an environment but the capitalist class will go where money can be made, not in accord with the needs of the majority. Do you expect production for human need to supersede the material interests of the most ruthless and determined ruling class in history? Bernie Sanders might mean well, bless his balding head, but the looming struggle between working people and the bosses will leave no room for the wishy-washy.


  1. Thank you again for this, Louis!

    As stated in the piece: “Bernie Sanders might mean well, bless his balding head, but the looming struggle between working people and the bosses will leave no room for the wishy-washy.”

    Couple of examples: 1) Do people remember the Kent State massacre? That was a small example of what the ruling class will do if at all it feels threatened for real. And these were *un-armed* students for Christ’s sake. (Please don’t mistake this as an endorsement of guerrilla warfare in the U.S.)

    2) Occupy movement’s demise. I attended the daily assemblies in our mid-sized town; also delivered them food and water almost daily (back then I was fully employed and could splurge). On all these daily comings and goings, I could see plain-clothes police surveilling the crowds and the regulars, taking photos, and I’m sure they had infiltrators in the group that was camped in the downtown area. And, for what? Occupy was so directionless it prided itself on NOT proposing a platform or a list of demands!! (Attending their assemblies used to drive me nuts. But still … I did go, because it was the only sign of life in town.)

    That’s another example of how swiftly and effectively (under Obama’s time at the helm) the ruling class moves in to sweep movements off the streets. This is not to deny the invaluable service Occupy provided, by introducing the new vocabulary of 1% v. 99%; something that paved the way for the likes of Sanders’ message to fall on fertile grounds.

    Anybody who thinks Democrats will bring about socialism is either an outright charlatan or was politically born yesterday; or just not listening to the leaders of the Democratic party!

    Comment by Reza — June 14, 2019 @ 9:32 pm

  2. The more you read the Jacobin “elite,” the sicker you will become! Whether they be aging pundits, elite college professors taking time away from the conference circuit to pen some nonsense in this magazine, former ISOers who want to be “relevant,” or utter charlatans on the make like Sunkara, they all sing the same sorry tune. Funny how when asked why Verso (which is in league with Jacobin) published people like Leigh Phillips, the leather-jacket wearing, French-speaking, serial Facebook poster, whose initials are SB, said this: “to make money.”

    Comment by Michael D Yates — June 15, 2019 @ 12:57 am

  3. For Saunders, socialism means a few badly needed reforms carried out by the same system to keep the same system going more efficiently…just like FDR himself said many a time. Not to mention keeping its empire going abroad. Only what the ruling class, that Saunders “revolution” keeps in place without an industry being nationalized, gives with one hand, it will take back with the other as soon as they get a chance. Just like the new deal became the raw deal with neo liberalism and austerity back in the mid 70s when the economic interests of the rich could no longer afford it. Hawkins, who I’ll vote for…again, is right on the money on that. I assume he would agree that the precondition for socialization is the taking of political power by the working class…which, of course, requires its own political party as well as its own, far more democratic state to do so.

    Comment by Roy Rollin — June 15, 2019 @ 2:00 pm

  4. I’m surprised that some of the Jacobin scene haven’t jumped ship to promote Elizabeth Warren. I’m guessing that we are about 3 or 4 months away before that happens.

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 17, 2019 @ 5:37 am

  5. Well there always the chance of an endorsement by AOC, who doesn’t even the guts to back her comrade Bernie. That is, before she falls in line behind joe Bidden come convention time. And the jacobin jackasses, pun intended, actually compared her to the pre 1914 German SPD Reichstag reps for voicing the needs and aspirations of the working class. Like who…Gustav Noske?

    Comment by Roy Rollin — June 17, 2019 @ 1:24 pm

  6. I understand the frustration many comrades feel. But whatever some on the Far-Left may think, FDR and the New Deal are viewed positively by many average Americans, and Sanders’ positions do resonate with many working class people. What does the American Left offer as an alternative? Radical rhetoric? A reading list composed of dead Trots? The dysfunctional Green Party US, which can’t even organize a National Office with a full-time staff? Or, perhaps the candidacy of Jeff Mackler for president (again)? The American Left hasn’t produced even a half-assed Labor Party such as the Canadian NDP. Whatever we’ve been doing we’ve been doing it wrong—for decades. So let’s use this period as an opportunity to take stock.

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

    Comment by Kurt Hill — June 18, 2019 @ 3:08 pm

  7. Kurt, there is a difference between leftism and Marxism. If the goal was to make capitalism less oppressive, then leftism will suffice. If the goal is to get rid of capitalism, a Marxist movement must be built. The Green Party is dysfunctional because it is at the mercy of people who want it to be that way, like David Cobb et al. At least when I vote for Howie Hawkins in 2020, I won’t feel like I need to take a bath in Lysol.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 18, 2019 @ 3:27 pm

  8. -I’m surprised that some of the Jacobin scene haven’t jumped ship to promote Elizabeth Warren. I’m guessing that we are about 3 or 4 months away before that happens.-

    Actually they have been pretty positive about Warren.

    Comment by Jeff — June 20, 2019 @ 11:33 pm

  9. Remember that AOC didn’t have the guts to oppose the Venezuela coup. I mean…

    Comment by Jeff — June 20, 2019 @ 11:34 pm

  10. U.S. imperialism is the primary contradiction. Any movement toward socialism must prioritize anti-imperialist struggle. Period.

    Comment by ANTICONQUISTA — July 1, 2019 @ 2:54 am

  11. Whether Bernie Sanders has the best of intentions or not is immaterial. The real question is whether or not any of Senator Sanders proposals work.

    I hate to say it, but history is not on his side. Nor is it on the side of any other ideologies that support state mandated redistribution of resources.


    Comment by invertedlogicblog — July 8, 2019 @ 1:08 am

  12. Karl Marx from an 1847 speech prepared for a conference on “Free Trade” in Brussels (reported by Friedrich Engels). “These laws, which Adam Smith, Say, and Ricardo have developed, the laws under which wealth is produced and distributed—these laws grow more true, more exact, then cease to be mere abstractions, in the same measure in which Free Trade is carried out…. If you wish to read in the book of the future, open Smith, Say, Ricardo. There you will find described, as clearly as possible, the condition which awaits the working man under the reign of perfect Free Trade…. Either you must disavow the whole of political economy as it exists at present, or you must allow that under the freedom of trade the whole severity of the laws of political economy will be applied to the working classes. Is that to say that we are against Free Trade? No, we are for Free Trade, because by Free Trade all economical laws, with their most astounding contradictions, will act upon a larger scale, upon a greater extent of territory, upon the territory of the whole earth; and because from the uniting of all these contradictions into a single group, where they stand face to face, will result the struggle which will itself eventuate in the emancipation of the proletarians.” So, by Marx’ own words, how do we categorize Sanders putting aside the laughable knee jerk reaction by conservatives to lump everyone on the Democratic side as Marx worshipers. Despite Sander’s populist utopian rhetoric that was used by Huey Long and other Depression era hucksters, how do you reconcile the average working Joe with his Malthusian belief structures that blame their modern living standards for the ecological problems of the planet that require brutal austerity in order to keep nature in its mythical “equilibrium”.

    Comment by historiandrew — September 7, 2019 @ 4:15 pm

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