Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 26, 2020

Thoughts triggered by ex-ISOers seeing the light

Filed under: electoral strategy,Lenin,reformism,Russia,two-party system — louisproyect @ 10:40 pm

On January 31st, ex-ISOer Alan Maass posted a nearly 9,500 word article on Medium that offered “a retrospective assessment of the politics of the former ISO on elections and some thoughts on socialist organization.” It boiled down to a self-criticism for his past belief that revolutionary socialists must oppose the Democratic Party on principle. Only a year and a half ago, Maass wrote an article for the ISO newspaper arguing the exact opposite. I guess a lot can change in 18 months. Must be something wrong with me, I suppose. After voting for LBJ in 1964, who promised that he would not “send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves,” that was it for me. Fifty-six years ago and I am still pissed.

Like Alan Maass, fellow born-again democratic socialist Paul Heideman also argued against supporting the DP four years ago, when he wrote an article for Jacobin titled “It’s Their Party.” It told the story of how SDS supported LBJ in 1964 as part of a realignment strategy to purge the DP of its segregationist Congressmen. He credits Max Shachtman with the realignment strategy that he described as representing “one of the high points of the struggle for social democracy in the United States.” That sounds like a pretty low bar but what do I know? This long article finally gets around to the essential point:

Any political action comes with opportunity costs, and the costs of a strategic focus on electing Democrats have been grave — from the labor movement’s inability to defend itself against attacks from “their” party to antiwar movements that disappear when a Democrat comes to office.

Unlike Maass, Heideman never came out with a mea culpa. Instead, without any fanfare, he resurfaced in 2019 as a full-blooded Sandernista, indistinguishable from any other Jacobin author. He even goes further. He advises Sanders against defining himself as a “good socialist” as opposed to a bad socialist like Maduro or Castro. It is best to avoid those divisive questions about what capitalism or socialism from some pedantic standpoint as if it really mattered. Instead, just equate socialism with all the great things that have sprung up under Democratic Party rule:

He should point to the long line of policies that have been denounced as socialist and are now bedrock institutions of American life. Social Security? They called it socialist. Unions? A socialist project. Medicare? A socialist takeover of health care.

Yeah, sure. Who would want to get into such boring and irrelevant matters such as the right of American companies to have more money than entire countries. Walmart, for example, had revenue of $486 billion in 2017, out-earning the sixth-largest economy in the euro zone – Belgium, with a GDP of $468 billion. If it were a country, Walmart would be ranked 24th in the world by GDP. Has Bernie Sanders ever questioned the right of the Walton family to own 11,503 stores and clubs in 27 countries? Not unless he wanted to be called a communist or something.

Ex-ISOer Danny Katch is another fellow traveler on the Road to Damascus. Understanding that brevity is the soul of wit, Katch takes only 1,225 words to let Indypendent readers know that even though the Democratic Party is undemocratic, the path to making it democratic runs through the trail blazed by Bernie Sanders and “the squad”.

If Sanders becomes president, he would have to try to democratize the Democrats as part of the fight to enact his agenda without disastrous compromises. If these efforts fail to redeem an irredeemable party, they could at least start a national conversation about the long-overdue creation of a legitimate U.S. socialist party.

Even more emphatic than Maass and Heideman, Katch wrote an article in 2016 titled “Why I Won’t Be Voting For Bernie” that gave me hope that the ISO would become the badly needed pole of attraction needed for a mass socialist movement. As should be obvious by now, the comrades wilted under the pressure generated by the DSA. It makes me wonder how committed the comrades ever were to the task of strengthening the class independence of the left.

Katch’s article makes points identical to those I have been making in recent weeks on Facebook where it seems like 75 percent of my “friends” are gung-ho over Bernie Sanders:

I have enthusiastically felt the Bern this past week, without ever questioning my decision to not vote for him (or Clinton) in the Democratic primary tomorrow.

Not because Sanders’s isn’t “radical enough” for me–although I do consider his version of socialism to be more like old-fashioned liberalism, especially his unquestioning support for the right of the U.S. to bomb and invade other countries.

But if a candidate with Sanders’ platform were running as an independent, I would strongly consider supporting the campaign and working within it to try to push it further to the left. Bernie is running as a Democrat, however, and like other members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), I don’t vote for the Democratic Party (or the Republicans) as a matter of principle.

What exactly did Katch mean by “principle”? What do Marxists regard as principles? Every so often, these questions come to the fore. In 2017, the DSA had a bit of a scandal on its hands when it was discovered that Danny Fetonte, a newly elected member of their National Political Committee, was a longtime organizer for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT)—the largest organization representing Texas cops. He stepped down subsequently.

Crossing a picket line is also a matter of principle. Under no circumstances should socialists cross a picket line. This question divided the left in 1968 when both the Trotskyist SWP and the Maoist PLP took the side of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville administrators in New York who were trying to purge racist teachers from their schools. When Albert Shanker organized a strike to keep them in place, it was necessary to side with those fighting for community control.

Socialists have also opposed on principle settling disputes in the capitalist courts. Even when one group libels another, it is very rare for the aggrieved party to file a suit. Closely related to this is the principle that you should not use violence within the movement. Back in the 60s, this was a major problem since the Maoist groups and Larouche arrogated to themselves the right to use violence since their adversaries were supposedly outside the movement.

When it comes to voting for bourgeois parties, it becomes a bit more complicated. To start with, those on the left looking for an escape clause from the burdensome task of swimming against the stream. After all, it takes a lot of backbone, if not stubbornness, to resist the seductive popularity of an FDR or a Bernie Sanders. There’s always the precedent of the IWA, the first socialist international, sending congratulations to Abraham Lincoln for his electoral victory. If opposing capitalist parties is a principle, how could Marx and Engels endorse Lincoln? Keep in mind that they were on record of calling for workers to run their own candidates in 1850 in an address to an early communist group:

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.

As I have said, Marx and Engels were on solid grounds congratulating Lincoln but were far from grasping the complex relationship of class and racial forces during the Civil War. They saw Lincoln as completing what amounted to a bourgeois revolution that would put the workers of the north in a better position to build a socialist movement. When the abolitionists lined up with Victoria Woodhull, Marx and Engels threw their considerable weight behind her rival Friedrich Sorge who saw the Irish immigrant worker as more crucial to the revolutionary movement than the emancipated blacks. Suffice it to say that Marx and Engels were not close enough to the situation to anticipate how convenient it was for Republicans to abandon black people by 1877. In any case, by the time Reconstruction ended, it should have been obvious that the two-party system was well on its way to maintaining its stranglehold on American politics.

That is why Engels saw any challenge to the two-party system as critical, even when it came to the election campaign of Henry George who clearly had no clue about the abc’s of socialism. In a letter to the clueless Friedrich Sorge in 1886, Engels made the case for backing a “confused and highly deficient” party set up under the banner of Henry George:

The rottenest side of the K. of L. [Knights of Labor] was their political neutrality, which resulted in sheer trickery on the part of the Powderlys, etc. [Terrence Powderly was the head of the Knights of Labor]; but this has had its edge taken off by the behaviour of the masses at the November elections, especially in New York. The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party. And this step has been taken, far more rapidly than we had a right to hope, and that is the main thing. That the first programme of this party is still confused and highly deficient, that it has set up the banner of Henry George, these are inevitable evils but also only transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement–no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement–in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn wisdom by hurting themselves.

You’ll note that Engels speaks of “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party.” This, in other words, is a restatement of what he and Marx advised in 1850. It might even be said that the endorsement of Lincoln was something of an outlier, but hardly equivalent to backing any other Republican following his death.

I’d make the case that it took the German and Russian socialist movements to fully come to terms with a principled basis for electoral politics. In Germany, the socialists were divided between Marxists and Lassalleans. The Marxists advocated a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist state, while Lassalle’s followers (he died in a duel in 1864) sought concessions from the state, especially when it was led by an enlightened politician like Otto Von Bismarck. While most leftists today, including Bernie Sanders, regard the New Deal as virtually synonymous with socialism, it might be argued that Bismarck was as progressive as FDR, if not more so. In volume four of Hal Draper’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution”, you can see how willing Bismarck was to support progressive measures as a way of undermining the revolutionary left:

In 1883 a Sickness Insurance Act was passed, with the workers contributing only a third of the cost. In 1884 an Accident Insurance Law followed, with costs borne by employers alone. In 1889 an Old Age and Disability measure was adopted. In 1903 came a code of factory legislation, with a system of labor exchanges to promote employment. Many of these measures were the first of their kind in the world; by the time of the world war Germany had become the model land of advanced social legislation, under the pressure of the absolutist state, not the bourgeoisie.

Perhaps if Bismarck had not been so determined to crush the Socialist Party, Lassalle’s ideas would have gotten a bigger foothold. Leaving aside Kautsky’s problematic understanding of how a revolution might be possible, you at least have to give him credit for seeing the need for class independence. In chapter five of “The Erfurt Program”, his call for independent political action on a principled class basis can hardly be mistaken for the “dirty break” policies advanced in his name:

The interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are of so contrary a nature that in the long run they cannot be harmonized. Sooner or later in every capitalist country the participation of the working-class in politics must lead to the formation of an independent party, a labor party.

At what moment in its history the proletariat of any particular country will reach the point at which it is ready to take this step, depends chiefly upon its economic development. In some degree, also, it depends upon two other conditions, the insight of the working-class into the political and economic situation and the attitude of the bourgeois parties toward one another.

When you keep in mind that Lenin’s chief goal was to build a party in Czarist Russia that lived up to the example of the German social democracy, you can easily understand why he would be so adamantly opposed to forming blocs with the Cadets as advocated by the Mensheviks. Certainly, the Erfurt Program was uppermost in Lenin’s mind when he proposed a program for the Russian movement in 1899 that openly stated, “We are not in the least afraid to say that we want to imitate the Erfurt Programme: there is nothing bad in imitating what is good, and precisely to day, when we so often hear opportunist and equivocal criticism of that programme, we consider it our duty to speak openly in its favour.”

If you want to understand the differences between those on the left today who see the question of support for a bourgeois party on a principled rather than a tactical basis, the best place to start is with Lenin’s polemics against the Mensheviks. With all proportions guarded, the Cadets were the Democratic Party of Czarist Russia consisting of a liberal, modernizing section of the bourgeoisie that hoped to see an end to the monarchy but without the resolve needed to lead a bourgeois revolution. Lenin hoped to push the Cadets aside and lead such a revolution (it turned out to require a working-class leadership) but had to deal with the Mensheviks who saw the Cadets as allies.

The Mensheviks considered Lenin to be impractical and obstinate. Like Jacobin today that views a Nordic model as the only feasible socialism for a country in which revolution is no longer possible, the Mensheviks set their sights low. It would take an extended period of enlightened bourgeois rule to allow the working-class movement to gather the strength it needed to gain power.

While undoubtedly the ex-ISOers would never accept the idea that they are the counterparts of the Russian Mensheviks, their rallying around the Sandernista banner leads this observer to believe that they find it much easier to swim with the current. In a 1906 polemic against the Mensheviks, Lenin refers to the possibility that they are wilting under the pressure of a much larger, wealthier and legally unfettered capitalist party: “But what about the bourgeois opportunists? They own a press ten times larger than that of the Social-Democrats and the Socialist-Revolutionaries put together.” I imagine if Lenin were alive today, he would coolly appraise the democratic socialist wing of the Democratic Party, with the massive coverage it gets in the bourgeois press, and still insist that we stick to our principles.

Just as 1914 threw socialism into a crisis across Europe, you can expect a convergence of late capitalist decrepitude and political routinism on the left to create a fertile ground for the kind of revolutionary socialism that is no longer fashionable. My recommendation is to stick to your principles, comrades, since they are the only way you will be able to be effective in a period when the walls start caving in around us.

10 Comments »

  1. Sad isn’t it that they were (rightly) saying for decades that the Democratic Party was the graveyard of social movements. And now they’ve pushed open those rusty iron gates of the graveyard, marched blindly in and started digging a hole for themselves.

    Comment by splodgen — February 27, 2020 @ 5:47 am

  2. The „recommendation“ of repentant „Marxist“ Louis Proyect to the repentant ex-ISO „comrades“ (aka the socialdemocrats of DSA and „Jacobin“) is to stick to their „principles“. Remember: In the 2016 presidential election Proyect recommended a vote for the bourgeois Green Party. In 2020, Project (a DSA member) agitates for the Greens again. That‘s „principled“ indeed.

    Comment by Bernhard — February 27, 2020 @ 8:10 am

  3. Another important piece.

    In the U.S. in recent decades even people who should know better tend to focus on elections in a near-hypnotic fashion while nothing effective is done about the absence of coordinated social action on the national scale. This (among other things) is necessary to enlist the forty-plus percent of eligible voters who ignore the elections. The unions have duly committed suicide as the partners of capitalism. Something–a party if you like–has to do what they ought to have been doing all along. This “party” has to be capable of assuming powers of governance in or out of office.

    It would be fine to push for Sanders to be elected, but the party I’m talking about ought to be fully organized and active well in advance of his near-inevitable defeat. As things stand, only pandemic disease and full-on depression can change his fate. The social-organizational effort should be bigger than the electoral effort and fully activated in parallel with the presidential campaign. It should be capable of surviving electoral defeat with all motors running and a fully charged battery bank.

    IMO the real problem with the ISO and Sanders in the DP is that if and when S. is either sent packing like Corbyn or gets chomped in the gently smiling jaws of the capitalist crocodile, there is no actual presence in people’s lives that they can turn to to buffer the consequences of losing. Sanders’s “mass movement” is nothing but a slavish repetition of the electoralist formula of clubs and interlinked Farley files that has made up the shadowy corpus of the Democratic antiparty since time immemorial. Small donor funding, as Richard Estes has said, is a significant departure from the traditional corrupt megadonor formula, but it is still a purely electoralist strategem.

    I actually have a good deal of somewhat sneaking respect for Sanders, as I do for Noam Chomsky and a number of other left voices with whom I disagree about key points. But the idea that his non-organization can be a force outside the confines of elections and elective office is madness if it has to rely on mere spontaneity after the fact.

    Donald Trump has apparently just said that the coronavirus vaccine will be too expensive to give to everyone. Think about what his second term will look like, even if the Demicraps somehow manage to hang on to the House of Representatives. Must we pray for a plague to save us?

    It’s a sad day when the only hope of escaping semi-dictatorship is coronavirus and an old-fashioned stock market crash. But this is what we are faced with when the Left continues to play Jiminy Cricket in hopes that the Sanders “movement,” unlike all its nearly identical predecessors in living memory, will somehow spontaneously turn into a political revolutionary party after a blistering defeat–or even a Pyrrhic victory.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — February 27, 2020 @ 1:31 pm

  4. Bernhard, I imagine that for you the only workers party in the world is led by Joseph North, a multimillionaire owner of a printing company. By the same token, Howie Hawkins, who will likely be the Green Party candidate for president, is a retired warehouse worker and Teamsters Union member. So, shove it up your ass.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 27, 2020 @ 2:13 pm

  5. This article is mistaken from its first premise.

    The Bernie Sanders campaign is not a campaign of the Democratic Party. That much is evident to the Democratic Party establishment and will most likely be expressed by the super-delegates voting against Sanders for the Presidential nomination. Why this is not evident to Louis Proyect as well is a mystery. Is it not obvious when one considers that Sanders is not even a member of the Democratic Party. And the only party that has endorsed Sanders is the Democratic Socialist Party of the USA.

    The Workers’ Party will emerge out of the Democratic Party and may even become its majority as was the case of the majority of the French Socialist Party who voted to become the Communist Party. And if Sanders does not get the nomination then let us urge him to continue on with an independent campaign that will lay the basis for a Workers’ Party.

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    Comment by abraham Weizfeld Ph.D. — February 27, 2020 @ 5:21 pm

  6. if Sanders does not get the nomination then let us urge him to continue on with an independent campaign that will lay the basis [etc]

    1) Sanders’s campaign most definitely is a campaign of the Democratic Party. What else could it be when the candidate himself has already vowed to support whatever reactionary the party nominates in his place, as he did the last time? It is exactly like all the other Children’s Crusades that have gone forth dreamily in the poppy fields of the Democratic Party over the past sixty years.

    2) Even if Sanders did continue with an independent campaign in the end it would be nothing but a generic U.S. presidential campaign, functionally identical to the campaigns of the two ruling antiparties and representing the same level of effort and limited objectives. It would be doomed to failure and Trump would walk away with a majority in both houses of Congress.

    Only pandemic coronavirus and a spectacular collapse of the stock market followed by deep recession could prevent this.

    Are we reduced to praying for these calamities?

    The whole idea of a party has to be rethought. This ought to happen IMO long before anyone runs for president and should include the whole range of functions that failed to be carried out by the unions as well as the functions of human rights organizations, environmental activists, and many other activist entities. Mutual aid should be a part of this. The party as organization should be larger than elections and go on functioning whatever the results of elections.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — February 27, 2020 @ 9:07 pm

  7. I think this is an intersting critique of the electoralism problem. The wall that this runs up against is the problem the left has had for my lifetime. No one cares about radical left politics except those that self select. Capitalsim has been winning and continues to win in the face of declinging living standards, a massive economic crash, and the destruction of the planet.

    When discussing the failings of electoralsim I have yet to see a strategy presented of taking power besides well worn talk of working class movements. I would really love to see along side these articles even the start of a real world strategy for organizing and actions being taken. For all its flaws of electoralism it at the least, has a stragey and is implementing it, has a vision for mass politics along side well worn rhetoric.

    Comment by Bengie — February 29, 2020 @ 3:22 pm

  8. The fact that talk of taking power is “well worn” (whatever that means) does not make taking power any less necessary. Talk of achieving actual socialism is also “well worn.” I presume that the fashionable and (ooohhh!) “sexy” DSA Brooklynites are also well past that, just like good old not-so-sexy Bernie himself when you get right down to it .

    Besides, Abbott and Guastella etc. are also all about taking power, only (as if plays out), their advice boils down to electing Bernie first and then expecting the revolution to self generate like the mice of the middle ages from piles of old rags.

    In what concrete ways is the Bernie movement organizing the masses for mutual aid, self-defense, and self-governance of the means of production? Answer–they aren’t. They’re organizing to elect Bernie first and talking and writing about everything else in their spare time.

    When Bernie fails, as he almost certainly will, it won’t be comfortable careerists like Sunkara and Chibber who pay the price. It will be all the working people who have no one to call but the Ghost Busters. In the long run, that’s why the mythical 40+ percent don’t vote and probably won’t vote this time around. Why should they?

    Do we need to adumbrate the failure of Syriza, the co-optation of the workers’ co-operative movement as exemplified by the corporitization of Mondragon, or the annhilation of Corbyn to demonstrate the weaknesses of electoralism and the velvet-swing, pastoral socialist fantasies that accompany it?

    If Bernie were really organizing a movement beyond his presidential campaign,IMO, it would meet certain basic functional requirements that I’ve tried haltingly to indicate at a high level here and there. It would be possible to adumbrate progress and prospects in a manageable list of points, only after which would come the fine points of theory and the detailed analysis.

    That can’t be done because relatively little is happening because everyone is waiting on the goddamned election.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 1, 2020 @ 7:45 pm

  9. “waiting on the goddamned election”

    Or, as Leonard Cohen would say, “Waiting for a miracle to come”:

    Waiting for the miracle
    There’s nothing left to do
    I haven’t been this happy
    Since the end of World War II

    Nothing left to do
    When you know that you’ve been taken
    Nothing left to do
    When you’re begging for a crumb
    Nothing left to do
    When you’ve got to go on waiting
    Waiting for the miracle to come

    Comment by Reza — March 1, 2020 @ 8:17 pm

  10. i hear a lot of nay saying but i have yet to hear a strategy, and its implementation for engaging in mass politics. Do you have an answer to the question of how to do mass politics cause i dont see revolutionary left organizing at a mass scale anywhere.

    Comment by bengie — March 3, 2020 @ 5:10 pm


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