Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 27, 2020

Eric Blanc endorses Joe Biden

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,Kautsky,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 9:52 pm


Eric Blanc

The first time I came across Eric Blanc’s writing was in 2016, when his article “Anti-imperial Marxism” was making the rounds. It was an important contribution, arguing that the “lesser nationalities” of the Czarist empire played a far more important role than had been acknowledged. Since I had been making the case for Ukrainian self-determination ever since the Euromaidan protests began in 2013, I was glad to see this:

While Iskra tended to assume that national consciousness and national movements would get weaker as capitalist development and proletarian struggle advanced, other Marxist currents believed that that the opposite would prove to be the case. Kelles-Krauz of the PPS argued in 1899 for the relevance of the fight for Ukrainian independence on the following grounds: “Economic evolution and the class struggle will give rise to—or revive—national sentiment, above all to the Ruthenians [Ukrainians], who will without a doubt create their own remarkable socialist movement.” Seeing the emergence of proletarian-separatist movements in the borderlands as key to the overthrow of tsarism, the PPS supported the Ukrainian socialist movement and advocated an independent Ukraine. When the Iskraist theoretical journal Zaria declared that it would be “strange” to demand political autonomy for “Little Russians” (Ukrainians) because they “do not need it,” the PPS replied that this was a “matter whose decision must be unconditionally left to the concerned nationalities themselves.”

Since most on the left equated Ukrainian national aspirations with fascism, it was reassuring to see at least one Marxist beside me, and a young one at that, willing to break with the consensus.

My first reaction to his next article on “Lessons from Finland’s 1917 revolution” was positive since it seemed to be in the same vein. Like Ukraine, Finland was under Czarist domination. I had no idea that Finland was part of the post-1917 revolutionary upsurge but was willing to take Blanc at his word:

Tsarism’s overthrow in February 1917 unleashed a revolutionary wave that immediately engulfed all of Russia. Perhaps the most exceptional of these insurgencies was the Finnish Revolution, which one scholar has called “Europe’s most clear-cut class war in the twentieth century.”

To my surprise, some Marxists found fault with his article, including one who I had a high regard for, namely Duncan Hart, a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia. In his critique of Blanc’s article, Hart takes issue with Blanc’s claim that the revolution led by Social Democrats “confirms the traditional view of revolution espoused by Karl Kautsky; through patient class-conscious organization and education, socialists won a majority in parliament, leading the Right to dissolve the institution, which in turn sparked a socialist-led revolution.” Hart saw the social democrats as putting a brake on the revolutionary process and thus helping to abort it.

I didn’t pay close attention either to Blanc’s article or to Hart’s rejoinder but the notion that, in Blanc’s words, the revolution confirmed “the traditional view of revolution espoused by Karl Kautsky” might have made me wonder where he was going politically. I only knew Kautsky’s writings as a didactic and fairly useful introduction to historical materialism but never considered him to be much of a revolutionary strategist, especially after 1917.

It soon became painfully clear to me that Blanc had become a disciple of Lars Lih, who has made a career out of scholarship that sought to prove that Kautsky was the ideological guiding light of the Russian revolution. This involved debunking the idea that the April Theses were a break with the traditional Bolshevik belief that a “revolutionary dictatorship” in Russia would prevail over capitalist property relations for an extended period.

Lih introduced these ideas in a 2011 article titled “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context” that appeared in Russian History, a peer-reviewed journal behind a JSTOR paywall. He followed up with a Jacobin article the same year titled “Questioning October” that sought to knock Leon Trotsky off his pedestal:

Back in the 1905–6 (the story goes), Leon Trotsky came up with his theory of permanent revolution and pronounced socialist revolution to be possible in backward Russia. Since his theory attacked the unimaginative dogmas of “Second International Marxism,” Trotsky was greeted with universal incomprehension. Fortunately, just in time, Lenin saw the light and caught up with Trotsky in April 1917. Together the two great leaders rearmed the Bolshevik Party, thus making the glorious October Revolution possible.

It took a couple of years following Blanc’s assertion that the Finnish revolution confirmed Kautsky’s Marxism to pen his own paean to Kautsky in Jacobin titled “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)”. As someone who might have written something along these lines on behalf of Trotsky fifty years ago, it seemed strange to see the same type of hero worship. Kautsky wrote some useful articles but he never belonged on a pedestal, nor did Trotsky for that matter.

For Blanc, Kautsky was the ultimate antidote to the widespread belief in insurrection on the left:

Even at his most radical, Kautsky rejected the relevance of an insurrectionary strategy within capitalist democracies. His case was simple: the majority of workers in parliamentary countries would generally seek to use legal mass movements and the existing democratic channels to advance their interests. Technological advances, in any case, had made modern armies too strong to be overthrown through uprisings on the old nineteenth-century model of barricade street fighting. For these reasons, democratically elected governments had too much legitimacy among working people and too much armed strength for an insurrectionary approach to be realistic.

When I read this, I wondered how Blanc could have gone so wrong. Insurrectionary? I don’t recall the SWP ever using such a term and that was a group that was rife with ultraleft tendencies when I joined. Not long after reading his article, I pointed out that he had knocked down a straw man:

If this is not the stupidest thing I have read from a preeminent Marxist, I can’t imagine anything surpassing it. I am afraid that Blanc has Marx confused with Blanqui because what he describes above is Blanquism pure and simple. Louis Auguste Blanqui was a 19th century socialist who was a fearless opponent of both the bourgeoisie and the landed gentry but, unlike Marx, did not believe in mass action. He was an advocate of small, armed groups acting on behalf of the working class, a strategy that became known as Blanquism.

Insurrection is a loaded term, especially when applied to October, 1917. Keep in mind that there was zero barricade fighting in the weeks prior to the assault on the Winter Palace. Of course, the Mensheviks described the seizure of power as a coup since they considered the Constituent Assembly as the proper vehicle of working class struggle rather than the Soviets. Clearly, the logic of Blanc’s neo-Kautskyism would be to look back at the orientation to the Soviets rather than the Constituent Assembly as an act that legitimized the “old nineteenth century model of barricade street fighting”.

Although Eric Blanc has not written anything describing his ideological journey, I am generally under the impression that it follows this trajectory. As a red diaper baby, he joined Socialist Organizer, a tiny sect led by his father Alan Benjamin. From there he moved on to the ISO, but it is difficult to ascertain whether he was a member or a fellow traveler. He did write an article about Stalinism for them in 2017 but, other than that, there’s not much of a paper trail. What is apparent, however, is, if he was a member, he was certainly close to the faction that sought to dissolve the ISO and join the blissful caravan into the DSA.

It is as a DSA member and a regular Jacobin contributor that Blanc became a leading theorist of neo-Kautskyism, a bid to make the orientation to the Democratic Party consistent with Marxist orthodoxy. Even perhaps as an ISO member, Blanc argued in 2017  that a “dirty break” might be a useful tool to help build the revolutionary movement in the USA. This meant socialists using the Democratic Party ballot line as a clever trick to get a hearing and maybe even elected.

In “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)”, Blanc connected the dots between Kautsky’s Marxism and the dirty break, linking “ballot line” to his earlier article:

First, moving away from dogmatic assumptions about the generalizability of the 1917 model should help socialists abandon other political dogmas, including on pressing issues such as how to build a Marxist current and whether it’s okay to ever use the Democratic Party ballot line. Though there are still many positive lessons to be learned from Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, the era of building small groups each dedicated to defending their particular conception of Leninist continuity is thankfully over.

Once he immersed himself in the DSA political culture, the references to Kautsky began to disappear, especially in the heat of the Sanders campaign that had Blanc positively giddy with excitement. In October 2019, he wrote:

Political openings like this don’t arise very often — we need to seize the moment to rebuild working-class power by leaning on the Bernie campaign to elevate labor militancy and rebuild an organized socialist Left rooted in the multiracial working class.

Did it matter that Sanders was hardly an example of a “dirty break” or that his notion of socialism was bringing back the New Deal? Of course not. This was long before Sanders got clobbered in the South Carolina primary and it was easy for Jacobin and DSA to have rose-colored fantasies about a Sanders presidency.

Once Sanders was eliminated and became a fervent supporter of Biden, who he unaccountably described as the most progressive DP candidate since FDR, it was necessary for DSA/Jacobin leaders to reconcile their panic over a Trump re-election with the vote of the DSA convention to only support a Bernie Sanders candidacy. At the time of the convention, that prospect seemed realistic.

Now, just a week before the election, Blanc has joined the Biden club just like Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich and every other old fart that ever spoke at a Left Forum plenary session. This is the kind of “socialism” that is indistinguishable from the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party, except for the empty invocation of the term.

Blanc is a member of the Bread and Roses caucus of DSA that generally hews to Jacobin editorial talking points. He has co-authored a piece with Neal Meyer titled “This Time Is Different: Socialists and The Lesser Evil” that is identical to what you’d read in The Nation or any other liberal magazine. Since calling for a vote for Biden is so contrary not only to his past ortho-Marxist convictions but to his own caucus’s vote for a Sanders-only campaign for President, he and Meyer have to dig deep into the most obscure crevices of Bolshevik history:

And contrary to what some on the Left seem to assume, there is no timeless principle dictating that socialists can never lend critical support to a capitalist candidate. Even Lenin at times advocated that his comrades vote for liberals to prevent a far-right electoral victory, arguing in 1907 that “when a socialist really believes in a Black-Hundred danger and is sincerely combating it — he votes for the liberals without any bargaining.” Similarly, the Bolsheviks’ 1912 electoral strategy gave the green light to common lists and electoral agreements with liberals to prevent the election of right-wingers to the State Duma.

I’ve heard these arguments before but not from Blanc. Instead, they were voiced by Mike Ely, the founder of the now-defunct Kasama Project, an attempt to build something like Bob Avakian’s RCP but without the cult leadership. Ely, a Maoist, did not go around defending a vote for a DP candidate but maybe he had that in the back of his mind when he “corrected” me for insisting that Lenin never advocated voting for a capitalist party, particularly the Cadets.

This was my reply to Ely, who vanished into obscurity, 10 years ago:

Since many people who read and comment on Kasama have a “Marxist-Leninist” past, it is not surprising that one person asked “Didn’t Lenin talk about participation in legal elections too?” It should be understood that in such circles, Lenin’s imprimatur will count as much as the Pope’s for Catholics. It should also be understood that there is an unfortunate amalgam made during the entire discussion on Kasama between “electoral work” and supporting the Democrats. The two really have to be separated, in my opinion.

I tried to put Lenin’s position in context:

The peculiar condition was the continuing ability of the parties of the Second International and British Labour to draw working-class votes in the 1920s. Lenin advocated that the Comintern parties urge a vote for their candidates in order to get a hearing from such voters, understanding that once they got elected they would sell out–thus helping to persuade workers to join the CP. In any case, this had nothing to do with supporting bourgeois parties like the Democrats in the USA. For people who want to understand how Lenin regarded such parties, go to the Marxism Internet Archives and do a search on “Cadet” within Lenin. This, after all, was the major difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks: how to understand bourgeois liberalism. It is regrettable that a century after these debates took place, ostensible revolutionaries are dusting off Menshevik arguments.

This led Mike Ely to correct me: “actually there were situations in the Duma elections where the Bolsheviks would support Cadets against the Black hundreds.”

Now this was not the first time I heard such a claim. Back in November 2008, just around the time that Obama was in all his glory, one Marxmail subscriber cited an article by Lenin from 1912 that advocated blocs with “bourgeois democrats”. But he did not realize that Lenin was referring to the SR’s and not the Cadets.

When I asked Mike Ely to document his claim, he cited a book written by a Bolshevik deputy A.E. Badaev. Titled “Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma”, it seemed to support his claim:

The Bolsheviks thought it necessary to put up candidates in all workers’ curias and would not tolerate any agreements with other parties and groups, including the Menshevik-Liquidators. They also considered it necessary to put up candidates in the so-called “second curiae of city electors” (the first curiae consisted of large property owners and democratic candidates had no chance there at all) and in the elections in the villages, because of the great agitational value of the campaign. But in order to safeguard against the possible victory of reactionary candidates, the Bolsheviks permitted agreements respectively with the bourgeois democrats (Trudoviks, etc.) against the Liberals, and with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curias.

Well, that seemed pretty solid evidence for a Lenin who the Committees of Correspondence could love. A “practical” kind of guy who could urge a vote for the Obamas of his day against the really scary Black Hundreds, the Sarah Palins of Czarist Russia.

This was worth checking out. Although I don’t think it is very useful to base one’s politics in 2010 on what Lenin or A.E. Badaev wrote in 1912, as an amateur Lenin scholar I was curious to figure out what was going on. So I assiduously searched through Badaev’s book looking for more detail on the “agreements” between the Bolsheviks and the Cadets but could only come up with items like this that are hardly redolent of Carl Davidson’s popular front maneuvers:

Despite their failure on the question of chairman [a reference to an invitation from the Cadets to the left parties to support their nomination], within the next few days the Cadets made another attempt to draw the Social-Democratic faction into some agreement. They invited our fraction to a joint meeting of the “united opposition” to discuss certain bills which were being drafted by the Cadet fraction. In reply to this invitation the Social-Democratic fraction passed a resolution stating that they would undertake no joint work with the Cadets, that the Cadets were essentially counter-revolutionary and that no friendly relations were possible between them and the party of the working-class.

So I scratched my head and tried to figure out which Badaev was the true one, the one who Mike Ely cited or the one that comes across repeatedly throughout the rest of the book like an early version of Glenn Ford or Paul Street? It reminded me a bit of that old television show “To Tell the Truth”. Would the real A.M. Badaev please stand up?  I decided to reread the citation that Mike Ely found so convincing for the 12th time. Maybe there was something I was not getting.

Finally, I figured it out.

Badaev wrote:

with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curias.

The election of electors? What was an elector? I felt that this was the key to unraveling the mystery of Bolshevik “agreements” or blocs with the Cadets, the “bitter enemies” of the Black Hundreds in the same way that the Democrats are toward the Republicans. Ha-ha-ha.

You have to understand that the Czar set up a Duma on pretty much the same basis as our electoral college, in order to preempt the will of the people. You did not vote directly for Bolshevik, Trudovik, Black Hundred or Cadet candidates. Instead you had to vote for electors who came from four different “curiae”, or electoral groups: the landowners, urban middle class, peasants and workers. So the Bolsheviks came to an agreement with the Cadets not on a common electoral slate, but on who should be an elector. In some ways, this reminded me of all the flak that Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo got in 2008 when they used the ballot designation in some states that had belonged to a 3rd party that originated out of the Pat Buchanan campaign. You would have to be daft to accuse them of supporting Pat Buchanan’s politics, even though of course there were plenty of nuts who did, starting with the Demogreens, Eric Alterman et al.

Now I would be willing to be persuaded that Badaev was actually referring to political agreements between the Bolsheviks and the Cadets, but I would not hold my breath waiting–especially in light of the long and unambiguous record of Lenin’s hostility to the Cadets at all times and under all circumstances.

Although I don’t think it is very useful to base one’s electoral strategy on Lenin’s writings and prefer to understand our problems in terms of what Eugene V. Debs said (“I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it”), I do think that there are some similarities between the challenges Lenin faced and what we face today. In December 31, 1906, Lenin wrote an article titled “The Attitude of the Bourgeois Parties and of the Workers’ Party to the Duma Elections” that strikes me as sounding quite contemporary. Lenin wrote:

Hence, the whole of the Cadets’ election campaign is directed to frightening the masses with the Black-Hundred danger and the danger from the extreme Left parties, to adapting themselves to the philistinism, cowardice and flabbiness of the petty bourgeois and to persuading him that the Cadets are the safest, the most modest, the most moderate and the most well-behaved of people. Every day the Cadet papers ask their readers: Are you afraid, philistine? Rely on us! We are not going to frighten you, we are opposed to violence, we are obedient to the government; rely on us, and we shall do everything for you “as far as possible”! And behind the backs of the frightened philistines the Cadets resort to every trick to assure the government of their loyalty, to assure the Lefts of their love of liberty, to assure the Peaceful Renovators of their affinity with their party and their election forms.

No enlightenment of the masses, no agitation to rouse the masses, no exposition of consistent democratic slogans— only a haggling for seats behind the backs of the frightened philistines—such is the election campaign of all the parties of the liberal bourgeoisie, from the non-party people (of Tovarishch) to the Party of Democratic Reforms.

Substitute the words Democratic Party for Cadets and you pretty much get an idea of why there is non-stop and hysterical chatter about the Tea Party from MSNBC, the Nation Magazine, and all the other ideological heirs of the Cadets and their best friends on the left at that time, the Mensheviks whose spineless reformism is apparently alive and well.

4 Comments »

  1. excellent work, thank you!

    Comment by Dayne Goodwin — October 27, 2020 @ 11:15 pm

  2. This 2018 quote from Eric Blanc seems to indicate that he was a member of the ISO:

    Todd [Chretien] makes a compelling case that upholding our current opposition to using the Democratic Party ballot line would allow the ISO to play a “unique” role on the U.S. left.

    But differentiating ourselves from left DSAers on this question is not a sufficient basis for adopting a political strategy.

    https://socialistworker.org/2018/08/06/socialists-democrats-and-the-dirty-break

    Comment by alan ginsberg — October 28, 2020 @ 4:06 am

  3. Eric was a member of the ISO. He left it for DSA in the Summer of 2018, about 6 months before the ISO blew up.

    Comment by John B. — October 28, 2020 @ 2:13 pm

  4. […] Now, just a week before the election, [Eric] Blanc has joined the Biden club just like Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich and every other old fart that ever spoke at a Left Forum plenary session. – Louis Proyect […]

    Pingback by On The Left – Let Each Fall Into Place – NeoPopulism — October 29, 2020 @ 4:20 pm


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