Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 23, 2020

Vivek Chibber and the turn to the working-class

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

Although he is a relatively obscure figure on the American left, NYU Sociology professor Vivek Chibber can be accurately described as the éminence grise of DSA/Jacobin. I conjoin DSA and Jacobin as a way of honing in on the overlap between DSA’s top leaders and their role as editors or contributors to Jacobin, which is the de facto voice of the DSA just as much as the Daily Worker was once that of the CPUSA.

I was especially interested in hearing what he had to say in a Jacobin podcast interview he gave to Ariella Thornhill titled “What’s Next for the Left”. (Thornhill, an African-American, was a member of the editorial board of Jacobin but is no longer—now leaving it totally white.) Since DSA/Jacobin had invested so much in the Sanders campaign, which was understood to be the first stage in a rocket launch that would lead to a Swedish-style welfare state in maybe 20 years from now and culminating in a genuine socialist country, if not world, there had to be some soul-searching after Biden’s nomination and his repudiation of the Sanders wing of the party.

According to Chibber, the neo-Kautskyian formulas that had led to such illusions now lie in a smoldering heap of rubble. The Democratic Party has found a winning formula that makes Sanders’s brand of neo-New Deal politics unnecessary. In a nutshell, the DP has its eyes on a coalition between the top 35 percentile of suburban American wage earners and the Black and Latino population that will obediently follow the instructions of establishment figures like Jim Clyburn and Tom Perez. Even if they lose an election to another rightwing bastard like Trump, that would be preferable to having someone like Sanders in the White House.

Chibber also disparaged the importance of “democratic socialists” winning local or state offices that he described as a swamp. Unlike Sanders’s campaigns, there’s little opportunity for using them as a bully pulpit to address profound policy issues of war and peace. Furthermore, those who have the most to gain from even a mildly social democratic president—the young people in the gig economy—do not vote as heavily as the older and more conservative constituents like, for example, the “Tejanos” who voted for Trump in south Texas.

Despite the monomaniacal devotion to electoral politics that characterize the DSA, Chibber has a rather striking alternative that seems hardly consistent with his professorial privileges. He advocates that the DSA and the left immerse itself in the working class both physically and politically in order to build a base that can transform American society. In a 2017 Jacobin interview, Chibber was not exactly clear about how to go about bringing the typical DSA member and someone who stocks shelves at a Walmart:

It is absolutely true that the union movement today shows no interest in doing this. It shows no interest in fighting. It shows no interest in pursuing the kinds of goals that the labor movement in the past had. To me, that just means you build a better one, that’s all. It’s like saying a cure for this disease is not doing as well as it could, but until you find a different cure, you’ve got to keep working on that one.

It’s harder making this case today in left settings because there are very few workers who come to left settings. It’s harder to make the case that workers are important, because a lot of people on the Left are students and academics, and they want to talk about exotic things. But I don’t know any other way around it.

Maybe Chibber can set an example for the DSA and quit his NYU job and go to work in a factory himself. I tried that one morning in 1978 and called it quits.

DSA has 100,000 members but it is not a serious, disciplined revolutionary organization that can generate the momentum to get its members to make life-changing choices such as the kind revolutionary groups made in the 60s and 70s. Furthermore, they often end up as exercises in futility as workers fail to make the connection between their day-to-day lives and socialist propaganda.

Toward the end of the interview (1:02), Chibber is asked specifically what the left should do. To start with, it has to break out of the milieu it inhabits, which is a small, cloistered professional milieu that is largely unconnected to the lives of working people. He says that the gains of the DSA are real but they will not go very far if it continues to follow the electoral road. It is possible to use the electoral gains the DSA made to establish beachheads in working-class neighborhoods and workplaces to build a real and permanent physical presence, not just for six months to ring doorbells for “woke” candidates. You have to integrate yourselves into the lives of such people. However, one wonders why Chibber would use the term “beachhead” to describe the relationship of socialist activists and the working class. Doesn’t it summon up images of the Normandy invasion and Iwo Jima rather than a natural affinity?

Going even further, Chibber accuses the left of living in the same cultural, moral, political universe as the people it criticizes, both the liberal and conservatives. There’s a turf war between liberals and conservatives at the top 20 percent of society but the left is part of that battlefield. The only way forward is to break out of it. If it doesn’t, it will only end up as a service organization (like replacing broken taillights, I guess) or a rump of the Democratic Party. An NGO that knocks on the door for Democratic “progressives” or “socialists”.

Really?

Can the DSA make such a “turn” when its most charismatic figure is someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who led Vogue magazine through her skin-care and signature-red-lip routine? Or Bhaskar Sunkara who used to regale his Twitter followers with his jet-setting itineraries?

Some of the people who might be expected to carry out such a turn are those who have been grad students in Chibber’s department like Paul Heideman who lashed out at a left that was subject to anti-electoral movementism?

The path forward for the DSA is guarded at best. It is simply too loosely knit and politically amorphous to make the kind of turn that Chibber outlines. It is also too comfortable in the cocoon it occupies, with its semi-bohemian culture, its Chapo Trap House affinities, its predominantly youthful make-up, its preference for semi-gentrified urban neighborhoods and all the rest.

All of this is the natural outcome of a left that destroyed itself with “Leninist” illusions fifty years ago. A vacuum was created that was filled by a reborn social democracy. There is something almost Viconian about the return of a movement that exhausted itself in the 1960s when its leadership aligned itself with LBJ’s war in Vietnam. What will help generate a new cyclical return to a mass revolutionary movement? God only knows.

2 Comments »

  1. Unfortunately the Left is studded (if you’ll pardon the pun) with chestpounding masculine authority figures like Chibber who do nothing but pick fights and make trouble, even when the things they say have a certain plausibility.

    Another example might (or might not) be the Italian economist Vladimiro Giacche–for whose work I am told Michael Roberts, in private correspondence with a friend of mine, has expressed guarded respect–who appears to conduct himself like an angry orangutan in any discussion–atbleadt with citizens of the United Stateshat he personally does not control. Giacche takes IMO and AFAIK per Roberts a very good line on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, but then ???

    In the long run, of course, one has more use for the volcanically anti-American Giacche than one does for the IMO slimy and self-promoting Chibber, who perhaps has far less to contribute. I’ve always considered Chibber to be the wine, cheese, and nookie type of professor who actually has little to say theoretically and is out to grab whatever he can get while he still can.

    Of course we all have to make a living somehow, even the useless tit variety of college professors–who is without sin? Fairness matters. But is Cibber really anything but a leftwing entrepreneur looking for a new market for his brand, which he is perhaps revolutionizing in somewhat the same way in which Ain’t Jemima replaced Aunt Jemima? I smell a
    mediocrecareer on the back burner.

    There is an issue on the Left about these self-promoting little Lenins–whether theoretically honest as Giacche appears to be, or perhaps not so much so, that needs to be resolved. As to the content of Chibber’s “turn to the working class,” it seems to me pretty much painting by the numbers with no concrete strategy. Can we really believe that this apparent self-promoter has been struck blind on the road to Damascus and is now a saint?

    It should be obvious by now in any case that in the US the working class has to be understood as being far wider than factory workers creating surplus value for factory owners. There undoubtedly are working class organizers among the great number of activists involved in and peripheral to the BLM movement who are currently being stuffed into a sack by the Democratic Central Committee and the Republican Party because socialism–assuming they’re not vulgar Graeberites wishing away “bullshit jobs” because it hurts them to think. Why not start a conversation with them?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 23, 2020 @ 9:35 pm

  2. Sam Gindin here in Toronto, similarly, speaks a lot about the working class and class struggle–but when it comes to challenging the social-democratic left here that predominates among the “left,” he is silent.

    Comment by The abolitionist — November 23, 2020 @ 9:52 pm


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