Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 20, 2020

Jacobin’s road map within the catacombs of the Democratic Party

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,DSA,Jacobin,third parties,two-party system — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

One big difference between the Jacobin left and the left of my generation is over the “road map”. In 1973 or so, nobody in the SWP or any Maoist, for that matter, had an idea about how a revolution could take place except in the most general terms. We all pretty much understood that the workers would not march under the banner of socialism, at least understood according to the Communist Manifesto, unless there was a profound change in American society that forced them to engage in uncompromising struggle like took place during the Great Depression. It was up to us to engage in various struggles as they arose, from the right to an abortion to challenging the trade union bureaucracies, but we accepted the constraints Marx put forward in “The German Ideology”: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

In the late 70s, the SWP accepted the word of its leadership that revolution was on the agenda, but there was no road map as such that described the specific route to state power. The entire membership was instructed to get blue-collar jobs because increasing class conflict supposedly made the factories and mines like Columbia University and Berkeley were in 1968. This was delusional, of course.

Then along came Bhaskar Sunkara who, with his customary aplomb and self-confidence, told his readers in the penultimate chapter of “The Socialist Manifesto”:

The dilemma for socialists today is figuring out how to take anger at the unjust outcomes of capitalism and turn it into a challenge to the system itself…Easier said than done. But this chapter offers a road map based on the long, complex, variously inspiring and dismal history of left politics—for challenging capitalism and creating a democratic socialist alternative to it.

It is not too difficult to figure out what this road map looked like. It began on the expressway built by Jeremy Corbyn in England and Bernie Sanders in the USA. Although there was no guarantee that their becoming Prime Minister and President respectively was assured, it made much more sense to take your Tesla on that road than to waste your time in revolutionary organizations like the kind we belonged to in the 60s and 70s.

After all, Sunkara’s guru Vivek Chibber, who was to the NYU Sociology Department as Lenin was to the Smolny Institute, had used his Marxist GPS to help write an article titled “Our Road to Power”. (Road, get it? It’s a leitmotif in the Jacobin oeuvre.) Chibber warns his readers about taking “the Russian road”: “The Russian road, as it were, was for many parties a viable one. But starting in the 1950s, openings for this kind of strategy narrowed. And today, it seems entirely hallucinatory to think about socialism through this lens.”

For Chibber and virtually all the Jacobin intellectuals, Washington could never be mistaken for the decaying Czarist state. It was virtually unsmashable: “Today, the state has infinitely greater legitimacy with the population than European states did a century ago. Further, its coercive power, its power of surveillance, and the ruling class’s internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability that is orders of magnitude greater than it had in 1917.”

So, if the “Russian road” was precluded by permanent structural obstacles, how could we get past capitalism? This is where Jacobin becomes a bit more evasive. Ever since the 2016 elections, the emphasis has been less on the need for system change than it has been for a “political revolution”, a term that meant electing Corbyn, Sanders, and politicians that received benediction from Jacobin and Tribune, the British magazine that became part of Sunkara’s publishing empire.

For most DSA members, the prospect of seeing Bernie Sanders in the White House was so enthralling that the questions posed in Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune could not be less germane. Why bother yourself with obscure questions of workers ruling in their own name when enlightened politicians could shepherd legislation like a Green New Deal through Congress. Sunkara nimbly made the case for socialism being largely realized through enlightened government policies:

Luckily, the United States doesn’t have to contend with antidemocratic supranational organizations like the eurozone, and it has immense resources to work with. We ultimately have larger ambitions than “socialism in one country,” but if it’s possible anywhere, it’s possible here. Cobbling together the legislative power to achieve these reforms will not be easy.

But it is possible to achieve certain socialist goals within capitalism. As we’ve seen in the history of social democracy, any achievements will be vulnerable to crises and resisted at every step, but they are morally and politically necessary nonetheless.

I could spend ten thousand words dismantling the ideological baggage that underpins this absurd passage but suffice it to say that the word “socialism” is misused here. Larger ambitions than “socialism in one country” in a capitalist country? WTF? Socialist goals within capitalism? When you peel away the rhetoric, it is simply a recipe for electing politicians like Sanders and the squad. Or as Eduard Bernstein once put it, “The movement is everything, the final goal is nothing.”

Most Jacobin intellectuals were poised to accept a Sanders presidency as the first leg in the road to power, especially after his thrilling victory in Las Vegas. Dustin Guastella and Connor Kilpatrick were beside themselves. In an article titled “After the Nevada Blowout, It’s Bernie’s Party Now”, they rolled out the red carpet: “He’s on his way to not just the nomination, but the White House.” If someone ever wrote a book about articles that had a brief shelf life, this one would make it right alongside that one:

For normal people, Biden’s subsequent clearing-the-pool-table victories, abetted by Obama’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering and Sanders’s fulsome deference to his “old friend” Joe Biden, might be enough to make the traffic signs on the Jacobin road look like this:

Until now, Jacobin’s Grand Poobah has not weighed in but members of his court have tried to put the best possible spin on the reversal of fortune. Dauphin to Kautsky’s throne, Eric Blanc spoke for those who slapped themselves on the back for helping to make Sanders’s “ideological victory” possible:

Since our collective expectations were raised so high after Nevada, it’s easy to forget how much we’ve already accomplished in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. As Bernie correctly emphasized in his suspension speech this morning, the campaign has largely won the battle of ideas. And the paralyzing myth that there is no political alternative to the neoliberal status quo has been shattered.

How this will translate in “road map” terms to the next election remains uncertain. Sanders has turned in a truly demoralizing performance as he began walking off the stage. In an video co-produced by the Biden and Sanders campaign, you are reminded of Vladimir and Estragon in a sequel to the Beckett classic titled “Waiting for Socialism”:

Unlike Blanc, some of the Jacobin intellectuals were undeterred. They brazened it out, finding nothing wrong with being embedded in the Democratic Party, as if it were some sort of 21st Century version of Lenin’s vanguard party. Yeah, it didn’t have much to do with socialism but it was legitimated by the facts on the ground. What are you going to do, anyhow? Waste your time on some tiny group that still takes The Communist Manifesto seriously when you can be devoting the next four years to help elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Yes, she is showing less and less “democratic socialist” credibility but everybody loves a winner unlike those pathetic Green Party candidates who prioritize principles.

Dustin Guastella, who co-wrote the article about the Sanders take-over of the DP referred to above, warned about abandoning the world’s oldest still-functioning capitalist party in an article titled “Like It or Not, If We Run Third Party, We Will Lose.” Showing the kind of bluster once heard from “socialist” UFT leader Albert Shanker, Guastella, a Teamsters Union official in Philadelphia, rolled out all the predictable reasons for staying inside Joe Biden’s political catacombs. Ballot laws kept 3rd parties on the defensive, including new laws in NY State that would make both the Greens and the Working Families Party victims of the “enlightened” governor’s hunger for power.

Guastella, who will likely to be paid as a Teamster official for the foreseeable future, warns against futile efforts to create a radical left party in the USA:

That third parties are destined to lose is no secret — it’s right there in the name. They are the distant bronze medalists of American politics. But, a skeptic might ask, if what you say is true — that party realignment and break are outcomes of struggle — why haven’t we seen Joe Biden bend on key policy issues? And, further, what basis is there for believing that the Democrats will ever bend (or break)?

Patience. We are still a weak, small movement — despite the fact that our ideas have captured the attention of voters, our candidates haven’t won the loyalty of mass constituencies, and our base is largely disorganized. After all, the Democratic establishment just steamrolled us with a candidate that seems severely confused at best and demented at worst.

After reading Blanc and Guastella, I am left with the conclusion that these people are hopeless. I left the SWP in 1978 because I became convinced that nothing could deter the cult leadership from a self-destructive path. The culture of “democratic centralism” created a mindset that made it impossible for Barnes and company to reverse course. While the Jacobin/DSA is no cult, the people around Blanc and Guastella’s Bread and Roses caucus wear self-enforcing ideological blinders that might make it impossible for them to consider anything else except operating on the fringes of the Democratic Party.

For those whose minds are not captive to Leninist or Kautskyite formulas, it is obvious that profound and highly momentous changes are in play as a result of the pandemic. Right now, half of all men under the age of 45 in Los Angeles County are either unemployed or working reduced hours. All across the USA, men and women vulnerable to getting the disease are starting to carry out wildcat strikes. Today there was a report on the “Service workers strike at two luxury Manhattan buildings“:

The service workers, who are based at The Chamberlain and 432 West 52nd Street condominiums, walked out at 11:30 a.m. Thursday and will strike for 24 hours, they said.

They accuse their employer, building-services contractor Planned Companies, of paying them substandard rates while they work through the coronavirus pandemic, and blocking their efforts to join labor union SEIU 32BJ. They also say Planned failed to provide enough masks and gloves to protect them on the job.

Unlike Jacobin/DSA, both the Philly Socialists and the activists who produce Cosmonaut have circulated an appeal for young activists to get jobs working at Amazon:

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Amazon’s infrastructure and workforce to their limits. As people self-quarantine and flock to the e-commerce giant to home-deliver their stockpiles of food, water, and sanitation supplies, logistics workers at Amazon and elsewhere strain under the increased burden. As the virus spreads and schools close, leaving working-class children with no caretakers, workers are forced to make impossible decisions between earning a wage and caring for their family. The current crisis is rapidly accelerating class conflict within these dynamics. Workers in Italy are going on strike, and unrest is developing here in the United States.  The left should see this as an opportunity to expand the efforts of workers already organizing on the ground, pushing forward demands that will not only help drive a humane working-class centered response to the crisis, but further the groundwork for stronger working-class organization moving forward.

This is what a socialist party has to be all about. Organizing men and women to get involved with fights for working class power. The DSA has to understand that it will be expected to put its substantial muscle behind such organizing efforts if it wants to have any credibility. Eric Blanc showed that he had some appreciation for the need for this kind of solidarity through his articles on the wildcat teachers’ strikes, even if it was framed in terms of how important Bernie Sanders was in getting them going—a claim some teacher activists found overstated.

In any case, Lenin’s party rather than Kautsky’s is a model for what is needed today. Even if Lenin credited Kautsky’s party as a model, the Russians always put struggle first. The Bolsheviks ran candidates but mostly in the interest of spreading socialist ideas rather than taking over the capitalist state. As for understanding the Bolshevik electoral policy, I recommend August Nimtz’s “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets―or Both”. For those unwilling to read the book for lack of time, I at least urge you to watch this video. It was made for the stormy period we are entering:

 

3 Comments »

  1. […] Source: Jacobin’s road map within the catacombs of the Democratic Party | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant M… […]

    Pingback by Jacobin’s road map within the catacombs of the Democratic Party  – R48G: last and first men — April 20, 2020 @ 10:41 pm

  2. USA: Bernie Sanders and the lessons of the “Dirty Break” – Why socialists shouldn’t run as Democrats
    https://www.marxist.com/us-bernie-sanders-and-the-lessons-of-the-dirty-break-why-socialists-shouldn-t-run-as-democrats.htm

    Comment by Cort Greene (@rojo_rojitoCort) — April 21, 2020 @ 8:51 am

  3. It shouldn’t matter in and of itself who runs as what if you have a ballot line handy. That’s the easy part. The hard part is having boots on the ground where people live, organizing the rudiments of mutual aid, governance, and services for those who are screwed to the wall by the banks and so on. Somehow the socialist party has to become a trustworthy presence in people’s lives and to be acting reliably on the behalf of workers–in touch with workers–before anyone even thinks about elections.

    Somehow the DP ballot line corrupts everyone who relies on it. In theory one would think that could be avoided if the mass party already existed and was strong outside the electoralist box. Jump on the ballot line as a Democrat–who cares–“party” is just a word–you could call your real party something else for starters. But it’s a calamity if all you’re left with after the election is some superannuated SDS bungstarter telling you that you have to vote for Biden and that doing so is the maximum allowable and feasible political action because Trump.

    Unlike Louis, I find the particular badness of Trump to be a somewhat plausible rationale for “lesser evilism” in the upcoming election but getting rid of Trump in and of itself will solve very few problems, if any. We might well be better off letting that bastard burn to the ground if all we are doing is getting neat and clean for Joe and Michelle and four short years of neoliberal National Reconciliation with the Trumpian scum and a severe regime of fiscal austerity.

    A Biden presidency will be a disaster in and of itself, and will inevitably be followed in four short years by an Alex Jones or Fucker Snarlson or Glenn Beck presidency. If there’s a breathing spell in between, it may be measurable in weeks, not even months, and certainly not in years. Biden will give us a regime of neoliberal austerity that will make our heads spin.

    Lenin is better than Kautsky, but Kautsky for most of his career was streets ahead of the Democratic Party–which in fact is a party only in name. There is no Kautsky party except in Eric Blanc’s imagination.

    There’s a desperate void in people’s lives that the left should be IMO be filling with boots on the ground where people actually live. The terrifying thing is that any form of this exists at present only in imagination, or in some debatable embryonic groupuscule. Sure as hell ain’t the Greens, though I do like Hawkins.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 21, 2020 @ 4:39 pm


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