Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 18, 2021

Whither DSA/Jacobin?

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:38 pm

A word of explanation about the title of this article. It is shorthand for Jacobin and the Bread and Roses Caucus in DSA, overlapping entities as Doug Henwood pointed out in a New Republic article:

There are six votes from the Bread and Roses caucus on DSA’s national political committee (NPC), effectively its board of directors, not quite a third of the total of 19, giving the caucus a serious, if not dominant, presence. Two of them are on the Jacobin masthead (Chris Maisano and Ella Mahony), and another prominent Bread and Roses member, Micah Uetricht, is the magazine’s managing editor. The strong presence on the NPC and the affiliation with Jacobin, the most influential publication on the American socialist left these days, gets people to talking about a sect with its own propaganda arm plotting to control the organization.

Probably most DSA’ers don’t have a clue about this ideological bloc and are content to carry out worthy struggles in the hundreds of chapters around the country but it is worrisome that people with so much power over Jacobin, the de facto official journal of the DSA, can set the tone for the organization.

Lately, several articles came to my attention that reflect a deepening rightward dynamic in DSA that this bloc might push at the same time there is a rise in the class struggle in the USA. It is as if they believed it was still 1964, Johnson was in the White House, and Bayard Rustin had the Democratic Party’s fawning attention. This social democratic wet-dream is the sort of thing you’d expect to see in Dissent, not a magazine that is named after French revolutionaries who waged a bloody class struggle against feudal institutions.

Behind a paywall in the latest Jacobin, there’s an article by Dustin Guastella titled “Everyone Hates the Democrats” that reduces the party’s woes to focusing on the affluent, progressive-minded suburbs rather than the white, blue-collar bastions that exist mostly in Guastella’s imagination as if steel and auto defined the American economy rather than Amazon. I use the word white even though it is implicit throughout the article.

Basically, there’s not much difference between his recommendations and what Columbia professor Mark Lilla wrote in “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.” It is also what Thomas Frank argued in “Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” These frequent guests on cable talk shows warn the Democratic Party that unless it dumps “identity politics” and prioritizes white working-class interests (white is implied, not stated for obvious reasons), the Republicans will continue to win elections.

This nostalgia for the Great Society when white workers were attached to the Democratic Party as if they rooting for the home team lasted long after the objective conditions had ceased to exist as a result of runaway shops, NAFTA, and all the other neoliberal policies both Democrats and Republicans had supported.

You can get a good idea of how attached Jacobin/DSA is to this notion of the good old days of DP and white working-class comity from a recent article commemorating John Sweeney, the former head of the AFL-CIO who hoped to reignite the Great Society. Titled “John Sweeney: The Man Who Wanted to Be a ‘Big Labor’ Leader” and written by John Yeselson, it rapturously described “The Fight for America’s Future: A Teach-in with the Labor Movement,” held at Columbia University in October 1996 as an event that was to mark the reunification of leftist intellectuals and academics with much of organized labor, “a coalition that had foundered during the sclerosis of the ’50s.” A real Jacobin/DSA wet dream.

You might remember that 1996 was the same year that a movement to build a Labor Party was launched in the USA by progressive trade union leaders. Like Sweeney’s teach-in, it led nowhere. You are not going to see a revitalized labor movement until you see people at the bottom being moved into action by insufferable conditions. On February 18th, the NY Times Sunday magazine described just such a possibility in an article titled “Amazon’s Great Labor Awakening” that drew an analogy between the 1930s and today:

Throughout history, and especially during the Great Depression, company towns also became central hubs for labor movements. In 1936, General Motors, with its main plants in Flint, Mich., was the biggest automaker and the most profitable company in America. It had 262,000 employees at 57 plants across North America. In his book, “There Is Power in a Union,” Philip Dray writes that Flint “had long been a company town — its workers, elected officials and even its daily press loyal to the town’s majority employer.” The General Motors president at the time “may not have fully grasped the extent to which the individuals who manned the assembly lines in the big auto plants had grown frustrated by the increasing levels of automation and the speedups that disregarded their needs as human beings.”

On Dec. 30, 1936, workers at two G.M. Fisher Body plants in Flint “simply stopped working” during a peak busy season, according to Dray. This strike “would be the first large-scale use of the sit-down, a tactic to which automobile assembly lines were especially vulnerable because manufacturing in the auto industry was based on the continuous flow of production.”

Like the Depression-era strikes in those G.M. plants, today’s labor movement has been fueled by a national crisis. Reese, of U.C. Riverside, led a team of students in interviewing 47 former and current Amazon employees throughout the Inland Empire about living and working conditions. When the pandemic began, Reese noticed labor activity spike in ways that mirrored historical patterns. Even when unemployment was at a high during the Great Depression, people were still organizing, “despite the risks of getting fired and replaced.”

Turning now to Guastella’s article, you get the obligatory swipe at the “woke” activists who regularly get spanked by Tucker Carlson and Matt Taibbi. They “embrace…niche cultural attitudes found only in highly educated urban districts and among Twitter users — 80 percent of whom are affluent millennials.” Despite his aversion to their pretensions, he admits that they make up the activist core that goes out to ring doorbells for democratic socialists. Yet at what terrible costs:

Winning the loyalty of the majority of working people in this country will require breaking out of the existing liberal fortresses and appealing to workers across our massive continental democracy. But pairing a popular economic program with alienating rhetoric, chic activist demands, and identity-based group appeals only weakens the possibility of doing so.

Later on, he spells out his orientation versus that of the woke, suburban, quiche-eating, white-wine drinking viewers of MSNBC:

According to a report from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, Democratic-leaning working-class voters ranked their top five issues as follows: health care, social security, Medicare, the economy, and jobs. But liberal professionals listed theirs as: environment, climate change, health care, education, and racial equality.

Get it? Racial equality is backed by liberal professionals but not Democratic-leaning working-class voters. What’s missing from this word association game? The word “white” before Democratic-leaning. I mean, really, why would any self-respecting white worker who voted for Trump now vote for a Democrat who made a stink about racial equality with all those buildings being burned during the George Floyd protests?

You can understand where Guastella is coming from. Last year he wrote an article that attempted to clarify the question of whether cops are racists. Written naturally for Adolph Reed Jr’s Nonsite, it takes aim at “woke” demands such as defunding the police that alienate construction workers and those working in aerospace, etc. For a thorough dismantling of this article, I recommend Peter Ikeler’s reply to Guastella in Spectre titled “To End Police Violence, End Racial Capitalism”. He exposes the faulty data used by Guastella and ends his article with this pithy observation: “Guastella is clear where he falls on these questions. The DSA and the wider left should make it equally clear where such anti-activist sentiments and class reductionism belong: in a goddamn trash can.”

The practical policy recommendations that come out of Guastella’s article are that workers should run for office in the Democratic Party. He names Mark Pocan, a longtime member of the painters’ union, and Donald Norcross, the House’s only electrician, who have recently announced a new labor caucus in Congress that could inspire other workers to run. Like the “squad”, such representatives are never going to become dominant in a capitalist party that learned 100 years ago at least how to co-opt the left. It’s really a shame that James Clyburn and Nancy Pelosi have a stronger grasp of the class differences that will keep such workers impotent than someone writing for Jacobin.

Most importantly, how is Jacobin/DSA supposed to relate to the most important labor struggle since the Flint sit-down strike when one of its leading spokesman ties racial equality to woke suburbanites? Anybody who has been following this mainly black-led organizing drive at Amazon realizes that it is joined at the hip to long-standing struggles in the South for racial equality.

An PBS article titled “Black Lives Matter backs Amazon union push in Alabama” fills in the details:

Organizers trying to form the first union at an Amazon warehouse are getting support from another big name: Black Lives Matter.

The group plans to hold an event Saturday near the warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, making it the latest high-profile supporter of the union push, which is the biggest in Amazon’s nearly 30-year history.

Most of the workers in the warehouse are Black, according to union organizers, and the backing from Black Lives Matter could help further legitimize the cause. Besides higher pay, organizers are also asking for more break time and for Amazon to treat workers with respect.

“Black workers have historically been the backbone of this country, its institutions, and innovations,” said Patrisse Cullors, the executive director of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, in a statement. “Therefore, it is fully within our rights and dignity that we be treated and compensated fairly. Just as we have the right to live, we also have the right to work.”

In the same issue of Jacobin, you can find an article by Chris Maisano, who is on DSA’s national political committee (NPC) that Doug Henwood described as effectively its board of directors. Titled “A Left that Matters”, it is a de facto editorial introduction to the issue.

After reaffirming the wisdom of backing candidates of the Democratic Party, Maisano brings up the question of revolution in the USA. Given the pandemic and a continuing economic crisis, one might think that this highly placed democratic socialist apparatchik might be giving it some new consideration. But no, instead it is a return to what apparently works, building the leftwing of the Democratic Party:

Even if we witness state breakdown or systemic collapse in the coming years, an eventuality many base builders take as given, it’s likely they won’t be able to take advantage of the situation because their strategy will keep them too small and isolated beforehand. Why should the desperate masses turn to organizations they’ve never heard of for salvation?

The failure of revolutionary socialism to grow even in the midst of major capitalist crises underscores its lapse into futility. But just because “Marxist reformism” is the only road available to us doesn’t mean it won’t be filled with potholes, switchbacks, and other drivers trying to run us off a cliff.

What a statement! If there is state breakdown or systemic collapse in the coming years, don’t count on small groups involved with base-building to play a role because they will be to small and isolated beforehand. So we can’t count on them to lead a revolution.

What about the DSA, which will likely have 200,000 members by then and continue to be lionized in the NY Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Teen Vogue, The Nation, Field and Stream, and Motor Trend? Sorry, they’ll be too busy ringing doorbells for Democrats, not lending their massive numbers and influence to build a revolutionary movement.

Finally, saving best for last, we come to Eric Blanc, the éminence grise of the DSA and neo-Kautskyite par excellence. In a Jacobin article not behind a paywall, he advises that “The Birth of the Labour Party Has Many Lessons for Socialists Today”. In it, he reminds us that the Conservative and Liberal Parties in England amounted to a two-party system similar to our Republican and Democratic Parties until the trade unions and socialists were able to carry out a “dirty break” and form the Labour Party.

Like the DSA, the British radicals who believed in class independence patiently bored away in the innards of the Liberal Party until they had reached a critical mass capable of forming the party that would fight for socialism, even if according to Fabian Society nostrums. These radicals were referred to as lib-labs.

Our counterparts back then considered lib-lab politics as an exercise in futility. Blanc writes:

Some leftist critics lambasted Liberal-Labour MPs for their ties to a capitalist party, arguing that their moniker itself was a contradiction, “as if a man could be a sober drunkard.” While it’s true that their identification with a business-led party muddied their political independence, such condemnations of the Lib-Labs were short-sighted.

Have patience, Blanc advises:

Whatever their limitations, Liberal-Labour representatives did constitute a distinct working-class current in national political life and, as such, a step forward in the process of class formation. Flash forward to today and you can see a similar process unfolding with democratic socialists recently elected to local, statewide, and national office on the Democratic Party ballot line. Like in the UK, a consistent growth in the US left’s electoral power over the coming years will necessarily put us on a collision course with the tens-of-thousands of Democratic politicians and operatives whose careers and prestige depend on preserving the status quo.

Missing entirely from this utterly self-serving flim-flam is any engagement with the question of whether a “dirty break” resulted in anything except a dirty Labour Party. The Labour Party that emerged out of the bowels of the Liberal Party was led by people who make Joe Biden look like Che Guevara.

More than any other party at the time, it was the poster child for reformism. Indeed, the Fabian Society that gave its name to Fabianism, the doctrine of reformism par excellence, was one of the major architects of Labour Party ideology.

Labour essentially was a kind of hybrid political formation like one of those half-man/half-animals from Greek mythology. It was midwifed by Liberal Party figures who superimposed their Christian/free market dogma on a nascent socialist formation that, unlike other Social Democratic parties, especially Kautsky’s, had little engagement with Marxism. Frustrated with the Liberal Party’s concessions to the Tories in Parliament, the Fabians and the Independent Labour Party founded the Labour Party in 1900, with its main purpose to put pressure on the Liberal Party from the left. In a way, the strategy was similar to the DSA’s hope of serving as the Tea Party of the left, even though they have never articulated this as such, to my knowledge.

Instead of being led by a fire-breathing radical like Eugene V. Debs, the Labour Party was in the hands of Ramsey MacDonald who promised that when it became a minority government in 1923 with backing from the Liberals it would “not be influenced…by any other consideration other than the national well-being.” His colonial minister, a former railway union leader named J.H. Thomas, promised that there would be “no mucking about with the British Empire”.

In 1926, the Tories were in power again and facing a general strike led by coal miners. Despite Labour’s institutional ties to Labour and MacDonald’s vow to back them in their struggle, he wilted under pressure and told Parliament that “with the discussion of general strikes and Bolshevism and all that kind of thing, I have nothing to do at all.”

Is this what the Jacobin/DSA is aspiring to? Comrade Blanc sounds more like Irving Howe in his seventies than the perpetually cap-wearing young socialist image he carefully cultivates. I just don’t get it. I became a socialist in 1967 and remain committed to the same principles I had 53 years ago, even if I have dropped the “Leninism”.

He, on the other hand, started off as a member of an obscure Trotskyist sect maybe a decade ago that his father led and then joined the ISO. His politics at the time are reflected in the video above. After a brief time in the ISO, he migrates to the DSA where he dispenses with their class-based opposition to the Democratic Party and becomes an advocate of the “dirty break”, trying to adapt Karl Kautsky’s Marxism to the USA. Eventually, the neo-Kautskyism goes by the wayside and he now identifies with the men who founded the Labour Party. My head is spinning at these ideological mutations. How deep were convictions picked up and cast aside like fast fashion from Zara? I guess given the cap that must be cemented to his head by Gorilla Glue, the politics are easier to pick up and then discard.

9 Comments »

  1. Today’s DSA arguments for ‘pushing Dems to the left’ is proof that willful ignorance is not limited to Republicans, or rightwing Democrats.

    If DSA’s leading theorists are really serious about doing to the Democratic Party what some did to the Liberal Party in the UK (in order to break away and form Labour Party in that country), then they should do the exact same thing: They should dissolve DSA, and as a whole body of organized activists join up with the SQUAD in the Democratic Party, and work to that end. The sooner they do that the better for the socialists in this country.

    Comment by Reza — March 18, 2021 @ 11:34 pm

  2. Just a note to point out the first sitdown strike was not in Flint but in Schenectady GE a few weeks before Christmas in 1906. One of the main organizers of it was James Connolly who came over from Ireland to join the SLP and helped DeLeon set up the IWW. They later split over the question of industrial unionism on which Connelly was correct and DeLeon wrong. Of course Connolly went back to Ireland and organized the Transport union with Jim Larkin and was instrumental in creating the Irish Citizens Army, but he led the Schenectady GE workers in the first sitdown strike in the US a fact that has been neglected if not forgotten.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — March 19, 2021 @ 1:08 pm

  3. Interesting and useful information on the inner workings and evolution of DSA. The reference to the foundation of the British Labour party could be improved to make the argument more convincing. The break with the Liberal Party, however muddled, was a great step forward. Within a a decade and a half, the LP came to adopt a socialist program. Ramsay McDonald should be credited with his refusal to support British participation in the war, contrary to most Social-Democratic leaders in Europe. The creation of the Labour party was not just the child of the Fabian Society, TUC bureaucracy around J. H. Thomas and other Lib-Lab leaders. It benefited from the work of class-struggle militants (sometimes syndicalist like Tom Mann) in the trade unions which led to the transformation (massification) of the union movement, of women’s organizations, major strikes, rent-strikes, as well as of the openly socialist parties like the Independent Labour Party (Keir Hardie should be mentioned), Social-Democratic Federation and other smaller socialist parties. At the time Kautsky, Lenin and Trotsky hoped for the adoption of a truly socialist program by this party, and the latter two advised their followers after 1917 to join the Labour Party.

    Comment by John BARZMAN — March 19, 2021 @ 5:24 pm

  4. Barzman, don’t you remember that you were totally fucking rude to me on FB? Are you getting that old that you can’t remember being an asshole? As a life-long asshole myself, I keep track of my abusive behavior. Can’t you?

    Comment by louisproyect — March 19, 2021 @ 5:32 pm

  5. NO. I don’t remember being rude.

    Comment by John BARZMAN — March 19, 2021 @ 5:39 pm

  6. I can’t imagine that you would. I sent you a message about a movie we saw at the Brattle Theater. You said, “I take your message as a signal that you want more civil exchanges.” More civil exchanges, I said to myself? I had never contacted you before on any matter so where was this “more civil” coming from? I didn’t bother finding out.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 19, 2021 @ 6:15 pm

  7. I think that Doug Henwood’s article is useful reading to learn about the politics of the DSA, particularly in the 2016 – early 2019 period [The Socialist Network: Inside DSA’s Struggle to Move Into the Political Mainstream https://newrepublic.com/article/153768/inside-democratic-socialists-america-struggle-political-mainstream ].  It was published almost two years ago when the de facto Jacobin magazine/Bread and Roses (B&R, nee Spring nee Momentum) caucus probably had been the strongest but certainly not a dominant political force within DSA.  Chris Maisano was on the NPC elected at DSA’s August 2017 national convention but has not been on the NPC since the August 2019 national convention election.

    Henwood’s article notes the formation of the Socialist Majority caucus (SMC) in preparation for the 2019 DSA convention.  The frankly reformist electorally-focused Socialist Majority candidates for NPC were more successful than any other caucus winning four seats out of sixteen at that 2019 convention.  According to Andrew Sernatinger B&R & SMC each had about 20% of the support from 1,000+ delegates but B&R won just three seats.  Andrew’s detailed analysis of the 2019 DSA convention is here:
    Inside Baseball: What the 2019 Convention Vote Data Tells Us About the DSA Membership, Medium, October 14, 2019
    https://andrew-sernatinger.medium.com/inside-baseball-what-the-2019-convention-vote-data-tells-us-about-the-dsa-membership-6172cccfc366

    I agree with Henwood’s depiction of the NPC as a ‘board of directors’ but the organization is managed and run by the officers and staff; i think that National Director Maria Svart is aligned with the Socialist Majority caucus by political perspective.  My impression is that the unusually unified DSA’s national organizational support for Sanders’ Democrat presidential primary campaign was the result of a tactical convergence of strategic perspective between the Socialist Majority and Bread and Roses caucuses along with Sander’s wide general popularity in DSA.

    Comment by Dayne Goodwin — March 20, 2021 @ 3:47 am

  8. There’s nothing like showing your working-class qualifications than a cloth cap.
    Alex Glasgow lampooned the middle-class, university grads who wanted to become Labour Party MP’s in the industrial towns of the north of England.

    Comment by splodgen — March 21, 2021 @ 5:03 am

  9. Henwood blocked my original Twitter account years ago over two things.

    1. Pointing out that Jim Crow was Jim Crow by race not class, that Jim Crow had been installed in the South before it was, for the most part, being industrialized.
    2. Calling out Reed for saying New Mexico was one of the Whitest states in the nation. Surely news in a state that has one of the highest, by percentages, Hispanic AND American Indian populations in the nation.

    Comment by SocraticGadfly — March 22, 2021 @ 3:51 am


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