Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 21, 2019

Reflections on the Samuel Farber/Todd Chretien exchange

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

Samuel Farber

Todd Chretien

On June 30, Samuel Farber wrote an article for Jacobin titled “What Revolutionary Socialism Means to Me” that was probably the first one I ever agreed with even if it predictably gave short shrift to Che Guevara as an “insurrectionist”.

In a section titled “The Democratic Party”, Farber defends independent class action—a principle shared by those from my generation who were trained either in James P. Cannon or Hal Draper’s politics. Farber was a member of Draper’s group and I was in Cannon’s. If I had an access to a time-machine, I’d probably travel back to 1967 and sign up with the Draperites. He cites Lance Selfa, an ex-ISOer who might have more trouble adapting to the new-found “democratic socialism” of other exer’s in light of what he has written, according to Farber:

As Lance Selfa shows in his book The Democrats: A Critical History, important sectors of capital contributed similar, if not higher, sums to the Democratic than to the Republican Party in the 2008 elections. Contributions to the Democratic Party included 45 percent of all the funds contributed to the election by agribusiness, 68 percent of all the election contributions from the communications and electronics sectors, 52 percent from defense, 55 percent from finance, insurance, and real estate, 54 percent from health, 74 percent from lawyers and lobbyists, and 55 percent from miscellaneous businesses.

After recapitulating key arguments why you should not support DP candidates (“lesser evilism”, lack of accountability, etc.), Farber turns to the Jacobin/DSA that has been irresistible to a number of ex-ISO’ers looking for a place where swimming upstream doesn’t go with the territory. In a section titled “The Dirty Break”, he refers to articles by Seth Ackerman and  by Eric Blanc’s that make the case for socialists running on the Democratic Party line in primaries. This ultra-sophisticated tactic is dubbed a “dirty break” as opposed to the “clean break” with the two-party system that moldy figs like me advocate. Farber is having none of that:

The main problem with this tactic is that it might end up unintentionally misleading voters who might feel manipulated unless they are explicitly informed that the “dirty break” candidates do not support, and in fact oppose, the Democratic Party as presently constituted. And the candidates pledge, in advance, that if elected they will not join the Democratic caucus and instead create a separate caucus. And that if they lose, they will not support a mainstream Democratic Party winner (a big problem with Bernie Sanders’s strategy of supporting mainstream Democrats who win the presidential and other primaries.) This approach would also have the virtue of preventing the cementing of illusions about the Democratic Party.

Todd Chretien is one of the ex-ISOers who has abandoned the independent class action perspective of both Farber and Selfa. Along with Paul Le Blanc, Chretien has become an enthusiastic Sandernista. In a July 6 Jacobin article titled “Revolutionary Socialists in the Democratic-Socialist Movement”, he tries to answer Farber.

He starts off by making a point heard from many ISO’ers just before they dissolved themselves. They were behind the curve: “But the reality is that the proponents of democratic socialism have grown proportionally stronger over the last few years because they have answered some key questions correctly; revolutionary socialists, meanwhile, have hesitated.” I don’t know about that. The DSA has grown because it was a magnet to tens of thousands of young people who voted for Bernie Sanders and who were much more ready to join a group that had an amorphous understanding of “socialism” rather than to hook up with a group that required a much bigger commitment and support for an ideology that was rooted in Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, et al and all those other musty figures from the past who have never been on Chapo Trap House. That’s a bridge too far for an 24-year old kid forced to work in a Starbucks because his or her art history degree proved to be a waste of $100,000.

In response to Farber’s warning about the susceptibility of leftist DP elected officials to become corrupt or to shift to the right, Chretien offers up a non-sequitur:

But does knowing that Cyril Ramaphosa went from union leader to billionaire, or that the European left has hit an impasse, or that the Lenin-Kautsky debate deserves serious study answer the question of whether or not to vote for Sanders? Or whether or not to support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib?

Probably not. In fact, the more relevant question is whether there is a class criterion that defines the Democratic Party. Keep in mind that until 1934, socialists always opposed the two capitalist parties as a matter of principle. After the Popular Front, all that changed. FDR was the Bernie Sanders of his day. The patrician politician convinced everybody on the left except the Trotskyists and Norman Thomas to get on board his bandwagon even though he rejected the idea of socialism. Perhaps that’s of little consequence given Sanders’s insistence that he wants to be the FDR of 2020. What does it matter if the word “socialism” is an empty signifier? As long as you are for government assistance, that’s good enough for democratic socialists. To give some oomph to the New Deal rebirth, all we need is to restore Communism in Russia and China. That would scare the bejeezus out of the Koch brothers and Jeff Bezos and get them to fund a Green New Deal, wouldn’t it?

In a mea culpa, Chretien writes:

In 2016, I believed that Sanders would be brought to heal [sic] by the DNC. Instead, he helped fuel the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America and, remarkably, played a role in giving teachers and others the confidence to strike. And recently AOC tweeted in support of one of the first political strikes in modern US history at Wayfair in solidarity with immigrant families caged in concentration camps.

Well, I’m glad that AOC tweeted in solidarity with immigrant families but has Todd forgotten what Sanders said about open borders? At a campaign even in April, someone criticized his open borders stance, to which he replied: “What we need is comprehensive immigration reform. If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it. So that is not my position.”

Yeah, that’s not his problem. Fuck him and the horse he rode in on. If he had one percent of Eugene V. Debs’s radicalism, Sanders would have said something like this: “There already is open borders for American investors and American subversion. Hondurans are taking their lives in their hands to cross the border into the USA. Chiquita Banana stole land from the Honduran farmers and when they resisted, the Marines invaded Honduras 7 times between 1903 and 1924. If Honduras would be allowed to close its borders to Chiquita Banana and the Marines, then I’d understand closing our own. Until that happens, I’m for open borders.”

Chretien makes light of the kind of criticisms that would likely appear in the Spartacist newspaper rather than from a serious socialist, or even a half-serious gadfly like me:

AOC, Bernie, Chicago’s recently elected six socialist city council members, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and others are at this point confounding the revolutionary socialist expectation that they will fall prey to what Karl Marx referred to as “parliamentary cretinism” in short order.

In fact, they have functioned honorably. So did many Democrats over the years who had radical credentials, from Vito Marcantonio to Bella Abzug. This is not the issue. It is instead whether progressive politicians have anything to do with making a revolution in the USA. The implication of DSA-backed candidates “fighting the good fight” is that more is needed. More AOC; more Ilhan Omar… Okay, if that’s the goal, go right ahead but at least respect the right of others on the left to stick to Marxist principles. What Marx wrote in 1850 still makes sense to a lot of us:

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.



  1. One of the points raised by Stanley Aronowitz (in the earlier post) was to use the Democratic Party *primaries* as a platform to raise your own issues. If I understand what he means, he was advocating for basically crashing the party. The Dems say you can participate in their primaries, and we say, “OK, we’ll participate … and bring out own platform.”

    If it’s limited to that, and ONLY that, and you openly declare a ‘no-allegiance pledge’ to Dems or their whoever-gets-nominated as their candidate (unlike what Bernie is doing), then, why not?

    We can do it in the very spirit expressed by Marx quoted at the end of this post. We’ll bring our platform and discussion points to the issues in the primaries, and then run *our own candidates* in general elections to see how many actual votes we can garner. The actual votes cast for one of our candidates is only a slight segment of a lot more people who lean in our direction ideologically.

    I really don’t understand why it’s not done more often in a country where you can do so legally.

    As socialists, we’d do so to represent legitimate grievances of our communities demanding critically needed and *earned* resources (by virtue of having contributed to the social labor that makes a society run) to take care of their *immediate* needs … while the revolutionary conditions await and may or may not materialize.

    It is *always* better to be in better conditions, whether or not revolutionary conditions are on the horizon. If that’s a revelation, you haven’t been deprived. People who think worsening of social conditions accelerates the class struggle in a revolutionary direction miss the fact that worsening conditions mostly worsen life conditions of the working classes. The ruling classes rarely have it bad, if ever.

    Comment by Reza — July 22, 2019 @ 1:49 am

  2. When people move from one cult to another, thought goes out the window. I was in the cult of Cesar Chavez once, but that didn’t last long. I said, never again. I was at an ISO convention once, not on the inside but outside selling MR Press books. They were nice enough to let me do this, but the whole situation there gave me the creeps. Leaders of these groups are always like the brain police Frank Zappa sang about. Dangerous business, in my humble opinion.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — July 22, 2019 @ 3:11 am

  3. Best description of the DSAs membership I’ve read yet. For a good obituary on the iso read the piece on the internationalist group website…just ignore the so artsy stuff the way you would wrapt the contents of a sandwich without the bread.

    But what’s the story with leblanc…does that old ortho trot really support Bernie. That’s a big step away from even the jack Barnes Barry Sheppard SWP cannon he was self appointed high priest of.

    Comment by Roy rollin — July 22, 2019 @ 1:25 pm

  4. It’s just a fundamental error IMO to assume that social progress can flow downward from elected officials to the masses. The mistakenly idealized FDR–who, far from being a “traitor to his class” probably preserved it–was confronted with an activist mass left wing who were not prepared to give up labor activism or the struggle for civil rights. FDR, just barely, crossed the frontier of social democracy and tolerated the popular front only because he and his kind found it necessary to buy class peace; a goal regarded by today’s one percent as completely absurd and unnecessary.

    Underemployed and downwardly mobile mostly white college students –while not to be despised–do not appear to constitute a sufficient base–and that seems to be one of the fundamental errors of Sanders-ism. Dirty Breakers might attain Abzug and/or Marcantonio stature, but as things stand, how could such people ever constitute either the nucleus of or the spark to ignite a true mass movement?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — July 22, 2019 @ 1:27 pm

  5. Well, thankfully, Howie Hawkins is steadfast in his principles of an independent, left worker’s party, as well as calling for open borders,

    “We will demand open borders where movement between nations is free, like it is in the European Union. International borders should be authentic fair-trade zones where people are free to travel across borders for work, shopping, or recreation. ”

    Comment by andreamerida — July 22, 2019 @ 3:33 pm

  6. Let me add that Sam Farber is 80 and looks 110. My guess is, in terms of what he might tell us, he is well past his expiration date. Why would he even bother to debate Blanc? Seems a monumental waste of time.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — July 22, 2019 @ 5:54 pm

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