Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 13, 2019

Stanley Aronowitz: the father of the “dirty break”?

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 6:49 pm

Stanley Aronowitz

Just a few days ago, I got a copy of “The Lesser Evil”, a Pathfinder book that has the debate between Peter Camejo and Michael Harrington that unfortunately never got posted online, mostly because of the tight control the SWP has over its “intellectual property”. While browsing through the book, I noticed that there was also a debate between cult leader Jack Barnes and Stanley Aronowitz from 1965 over the same questions.

I was startled to see how close Aronowitz’s tactical support for running in Democratic Party primaries was to the Jacobin and DSA articles of today. Aronowitz, unlike Harrington, was a serious Marxist thinker who was 32 at the time, not that far in age from Bhaskar Sunkara, Eric Blanc and all the other Jacobin/DSA theorists who favor a “dirty break”. Indeed, after reading Aronowitz’s answers to questions from the floor at a conference held on October 30, 1965, you almost feel that nothing much has changed.

Simply put, the dirty break was a term coined by Eric Blanc for socialists running in Democratic Party primaries as opposed to the “clean break” that people like me advocate, ie., running independently of the two capitalist parties. Blanc’s Jacobin article on the dirty break is here.

Aronowitz was speaking on behalf of the Committee for Independent Political Action, a group that he helped to found with Jimmy Weinstein, the publisher of “In These Times” that has been the informal voice of the DSA, long before Jacobin. The two men were closely linked to SDS and saw CIPA as a sister project of the New Left’s rapidly growing student-based movement. It is no exaggeration to state that SDS was the DSA of its day, its growth fueled by the Vietnam antiwar movement. If you study SDS history, you’ll learn that it backed LBJ for President in 1964, raising the slogan “Part of the Way with LBJ”. When LBJ began escalating the war, the New Left rejected the Democratic Party but never really theorized the question of independent political action. Its most notable achievement was building the Peace and Freedom Party that achieved ballot status in California and attracted widespread grass roots support. It succumbed, however, to sectarian disruption in latter years that it was ill-prepared to fend off. Below you can read a transcript of the Q&A with Aronowitz with my commentary in italics as well.

QUESTION: I want to ask a question about the concrete tactics that Stanley proposed. I understand that Stanley is one of the signers of a statement or proposal for a local New York political organization in one of the congressional districts. I was talking to Jimmy Weinstein the other night, who is also a signer, I believe, and he said that you intended to take part in the Democratic primary as a functional operation. I just wondered if you would comment on that and explain why you want to do that.

ARONOWITZ: First, it is not a proposal for a party, it is a proposal for a political committee. It’s called the Committee for Independent Political Action, and it exists. The idea of the committee is, as Barnes so correctly said, to build a movement around a program and not to build a movement around a constituency. That is, not to say we want to win people in this community, therefore we are going to have a program. In this sense it differs from the Communist Party, but not from the Socialist Party from 1900 to 1920, because they had a program: it was called socialism. [Aronowitz fails to mention the frequent denunciations of the Republican and Democratic Party parties by Eugene V. Debs. Today, you get countless tributes paid to Debs from Sandernistas, including Sanders himself, but they all sidestep what Debs said: “The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.”]

Our program is what we consider to be the central reason that we are an independent and radical political movement. The program is that the cold war and its Vietnams are what set the tone and pace for all other questions in this country, that the racism that is inherent in our society and in our foreign policy not only limits what kind of domestic issues we can have, what kind of domestic struggles we can carry on—because you can’t get any money for anything, including a poverty program—but it also determines the fact that there can be no political democracy in this country as long as the inheritors of the corporate system are in control of our policies. And that is stated openly and publicly.

Now the reason we raise the idea of possibly running in the Democratic primary—and we are not wedded to the idea—is because we regard the form as being a practical question, just as politicians from radical political organizations work in the antiwar movement, even in liberal movements sometimes. All you need is 1,000 signatures and you can enter the Democratic primary. Now in New York City, where most people participate in electoral politics through the primary and not through the general election, we see that it might be possible to run in the primary and then go on and run in the general election.

This is analogous to the view that the Freedom Democratic Party took in Mississippi. That is, the political question in Mississippi was not whether you ran in the Democratic primary, whether you called yourself Democratic or not, but what your program was. Whether you were opposed to the racists in Mississippi or not. [The Freedom Democratic Party got royally screwed at the 1964 Convention when New Deal stalwarts LBJ and Hubert Humphrey refused to seat them. To beat Goldwater, the Democrats saw the Dixiecrat delegations being seated as crucial to their “electability”. It is this tradition that Joe Biden is keeping up.]

The thing that we want to prevent is setting a sterile limit on the number of arenas that we can participate in. To a large degree, the Republican and Democratic parties in this country represent the same class. And yet they are arenas in which all kinds of opposition can take place, because they are not parties that nominate at the convention. Before Carmine DeSapio made the Democratic primary an open primary, there was no question that third party politics was the only way in which independent politics could be played in this country. Now we are saying that we need an independent political movement that will evolve into a third party. We will attack the Democratic Party, we will attack the Johnson administration, but we will at the same time not shut the door to what we consider to be a meaningful forum. [Very dialectical.] We think that there is a possibility of entering a primary in order to educate people. It’s like revolutionaries entering elections because they want to educate people; they don’t necessarily believe they are going to win in the elections, or that elections are the way in which people can gain power, but they believe that there is a possibility that there will be people who will listen through such a forum.

We are not calling ourselves the Reform Democratic Party Club, we are not going to run for party leadership within the Democratic Party; we are going to run, whether the reformers run or not. We have another problem which determines that: We want to put reform Democrats who are radicals programmatically on the spot. We want to tell them: You run in the Democratic Party because you thought that the Democratic Party, and its reform movement, which is a liberal coalition, was the only place where you could function. We will not invite into our political association activists who do not agree with our program. Here is a place where you can get active, here is a place where you fight out your program, not within an internal, narrow, sectarian group of Reform Democrats, where you lose every time, but within your own political association. If we can, we hope that we will utilize this educational forum to talk to radicals within the reform movement to pull them out, or at least to exercise them in their own consciousness about what they are doing. The process by which people are moved is not in terms of setting up, in an abstract sense, a political campaign or a political party, but in terms of the real struggles that people have participated in.

ARONOWITZ (responding to Barnes on the same question above): I would like to correct a couple of ideas that you have about it. We deliberately proceeded on the basis that we had to have a real ideological basis for activists to come in. Not civil rights, not peace, not minimum issues, but we had to have a statement. When you sign “I’m interested in joining CIPA” here, you get back this statement which, I think, pretty much explains where we are at.

It begins: “Most Americans have been cut off and excluded from the process of making the basic decisions that affect their lives. Partisan politics in the United States operates to sustain and extend the immediate and long-range interests of a relative handful of giant corporations and their institutional supporters, but the material and strategic interests and commitments of these corporations and their leaders, and the social values that flow from these interests, differ essentially from those of the poor, the workers, and most middle class Americans. In the determination of both domestic and foreign policy concern with the protection and extension of private property and profits takes priority over the personal and social needs of ordinary people. Domination of American politics by giant corporations has brought the United States to international crisis and to the organization of our lives around the ideological, political and material necessities of the cold war.”

That’s what we mean by independent politics. What we mean is that the political questions that we raise are not the kind of questions that could ever be raised in the reform movement of the Democratic Party or within the Johnson wing of the Democratic Party, by Buckley, by Bayard Rustin, or others, because we have made a political judgment about American politics which relates to the whole question of who controls.

[In fact, those questions were being raised loudly by DP candidates within a year or so as the “peace candidates” became the counterpart of the “democratic socialist” candidates of today. At least one Jacobin author sees the direct connection. Read “Bernie and the Search for New Politics” by Adam Hilton and you will see the connection. Referring to the McGovern-inspired “New Politics” movement inside the Democratic Party, Hilton writes: “By thinking institutionally and conceiving the Democratic Party as a terrain of struggle, it is evident that engagement with that party (or actors inside it) will sometimes be a valuable strategic move, depending on the particular political moment.”] 

Now the reason we regard the whole question of the Democratic Party, in New York City—not in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or any other place necessarily—as a tactical question is because of the history of political struggles in New York City. The reform movement of the Democratic Party is not an arena in which we can really develop a radical politics. And so we cut people off from that. There were many people who were involved in the California Democratic clubs who learned a lesson out of their experience—real sensuous, concrete experiences. [Sensuous? You mean like silk pajamas?] And so they went into organizations like the VDC [Vietnam Day Committee]. And we built a radicalism. Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Paul Potter, Paul Booth—every last one of the organizers of SDS, which is the real key organization of the antiwar movement, began in liberal study groups of the National Student Association.

The real problem is not whether Tom and the other people in SDS have rejected or accepted the Democratic Party as an arena of political action. We know they are radicals. And the reason we know they are radicals is because SDS organized the best goddamned march on the Vietnam issue, which is the crux of the whole question of politics in this country today, and nobody else organized it. [In fact, the SWP was critical in getting that demonstration off the ground. The SDS leadership was wilting under the pressure of the League for Industrial Democracy and the Trots helped stiffen their back.] And what made them organize it was the fact that they had gone through a process of political experience. Not a process of liberalism reinforced by liberalism, which is the old SP-CP pattern. Not that kind of situation, but where they began to recognize where control was.

When Paul Potter got up at the SDS march and said it is the corporations that are the enemy, and we have to name the enemy in this country, that was the most important, primary precondition for politics, that was the content, that was the principle, that was the dividing line. The dividing line is not where you choose your forum—the Democratic Party is a temporary, transient kind of tactical situation because it is a place which has permitted participation of different positions.

The Democratic Party primary says that we have to get 350 signatures in an assembly district and 1,500 signatures in a congressional district to get on the ballot. It does not tell us what to say, how to say it, or how to mobilize. And it’s not really the center of our movement. The center of our movement is to organize and educate around this concept. But not to organize and educate depending upon the TV and the radio and the press to give us publicity. Instead, to educate on the basis of canvassing, house-by-house canvassing and community organizing around the rent strikes.

How many radicals who have good programs have been involved in the rent strikes? I have. I have been with eighteen tenants at different times down to Mayor Wagner’s office, and all we were able to do was to get rid of Mayor Wagner, by our activity of the boycott and the sit-ins in the rent strikes.

We have never been able to develop any kind of political position that has been meaningful to tenants, that has been meaningful to workers. Now I think that the problem is how you find those forums to talk to people, not to talk to them in the way of finding the minimum common denominator, that’s not the problem, but to find the forums where you will be listened to, where you will have a forum, and if that forum happens to be within the Democratic primary—and not in the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party means you run in a party election, we are not going to run in any party elections—this primary gives us one forum. Then we go on and we run in November independently. [Jimmy Weinstein did end up running as an independent but that was the last hurrah of CIPA, largely made irrelevant by the peace candidates of the Democratic Party on both a national and local basis.] By the way, Governor Rockefeller has given us a way of doing this beautifully. He says that we are now going to have a Democratic primary in June and a general election in November. That means that if we run in June we have one chance of getting before people a program, an educational program. We ain’t going to win, don’t kid yourself, and we are not going to invite reformers into the political movement either. But then we can go ahead and get our independent petitions for the general election signed. And this is not an unusual practice.

The point is that we are ready to discuss what tactic is proper at any one time. And if we determine as a result of a serious discussion that we should not go into the Democratic primary, we will not go into the Democratic primary, because we are not wedded to the coalition concept. And when we say in this statement that coalitions are secondary, we don’t mean the coalition question as raised by Rustin, we mean coalitions with the Socialist Workers Party and coalitions with the Communist Party—that is a secondary question to our common need to go out and build a radical constituency, a radical base for a program.

I’m prepared to vote for any radical socialist candidate that runs for office. And I think that those candidates should be run. What I’m trying to do is not to develop radical politics on the old bases which divide the left. I’m for a coalition of the left. A coalition which is based on a program. And if we can discuss the question of tactics we will discuss the question of tactics. But if you get hung up on the question of whether you are in the Democratic primary, and not the Democratic Party, then I think you effectively exclude your-self from the opportunity of developing a radical program that has any meaning.

QUESTION: This is a brief question to Mr. Aronowitz, which can be answered briefly. While you are telling people what the ruling class’s role is and all of the things that they are against, and while you are running a candidate in the nineteenth congressional district, who do you tell them to vote for in the main elections?

ARONOWITZ: We are not Democrats asking people to support the Democratic ticket. We are not going to enter into a coalition with Mayor Wagner or with Abraham Beame. We would not enter into a coalition with [Congressman William F.] Ryan unless we saw that he was prepared to accept our position. We are not looking for that kind of electoral coalition. What we hope to have happen, very frankly, is not that this community organizing thing will be confined to this.

What we expect, or we hope, is that other people will take it up. Look at the seventh congressional district in Berkeley, where Jeffrey Cohelan is the best liberal Democrat that you can find, outside of a guy like Phil Burton, if you take issues. I understand that the antiwar movement is preparing to run against Phil Burton. Well, that has been the direct inspiration of the kind of movement that we’ve started here. What we hope to emerge is a confluence of a lot of local movements that experiment, that don’t have any real solid answers.

I wish I had this surety that Jack Barnes has and that some people have about where the direction is. We have to experiment, we have to grope. The only thing we have is our ideology. With that, there is no compromise. Maybe it’s a difference in experience. But we’re clear, I think it’s fairly clear what we mean. We mean that if you accept the view that the priorities of this country are developed out of the cold war context, that we have to end that context, by ending neocolonialism and American imperialism, then you belong in this movement. Therefore we are not reform, because reform believes that you work in coalitions around electoral alliances that do not understand the central question.

Now there is another difference. And I’ll just make that very brief. The difference is the old concept of the united front that was developed by the CP and the SP in the thirties and a new concept of what a united front could be now. In this country the application by a number of radicals of the idea of united action was that we organize for Roosevelt, and Jack did a brilliant job on that. [I have no idea what Aronowitz is talking about here. In the 1930s, the CP started out as sectarian mad dogs and then did a 180 degree turn backing Roosevelt as part of the implementation of the Popular Front in the USA. The SP had nothing to do with the SP except in united actions to support strikers in Flint, for example. When Aronowitz refers to “united action” for Roosevelt, which certainly did not include the SP that ran Norman Thomas against him consistently, you can only conclude that he is referring to the Popular Front, although erroneously.] I think that the only way we can prevent thousands of students and thousands of other people from falling back into the trap of organizing for lesser evils is if we develop a political alternative that is meaningful to them. And we think that this kind of thing can be meaningful to them, not because of the primary but because most of our concepts arise out of experience.

QUESTION: Mr. Aronowitz, in the Democratic primaries only registered Democrats can vote. In the Republican primaries only registered Republicans vote. I understand that you are going to go into the primary in order to convince the registered Democrats that you are against the Democrats. Do you exclude going into the Republican primaries to convince the Republicans that you are against the Republicans? And do you think this is an effective way of boring from within these parties to organize an independent party?

ARONOWITZ: Well, we’re back to the old saw. We are not going into the Democratic Party, we are going into the Democratic primary. You don’t see the difference, but there is a difference, and the difference is evident to anybody who knows about the operations of the Democratic Party. [I am sure that Eric Blank knows the difference. This is the dirty break.]

For one thing the situation in New York City is the following, and we’ve done a little study. More than 90 percent of Negroes and Puerto Ricans and workers happen to be registered Democrats or registered Liberals; there is only 10 percent of that group in the population that happens to be registered Republican, and that’s one factor. We are not looking at what party we are going into, we are looking at where the constituency is.

The second thing is, that the real vote that takes place, and the way in which politics operates in this city is that the big battles, what most people worry about, in terms of where the politics is, have been within the Democratic primary in the nineteenth congressional district. I know the nineteenth congressional district; in this district, the Republican gets 28 percent or 29 or sometimes 30 percent of the vote. Therefore, where the people vote significantly, where they make choices, is not in the general election. They tend to make choices in the Democratic primary. That’s where the action is, that’s where all the pressure and all of the activity and all of the debate takes place, in the nineteenth congressional district. [All the activity and all the debate? Are you kidding? Voting is a passive act. You watch a TV commercial or get a phone call from your union or church telling you who to vote for on election day. (This is pre-Internet days, remember. He makes it sound like the St. Petersburg Soviet, for chrissake.]

What we are going to say, if we go into that primary, not that party, is that neither of these men has anything to say about the problems of the people of this district that is different from what the administration has been promulgating. What we are going to say is that our needs in this district can only be met if we accept a whole different idea.

The point is that we expect that when other movements around the country develop a serious national political movement, the whole idea of going into the Democratic primary will become unnecessary, because then we’ll have a national program and a national movement that is able to project a real national struggle. We are not in that position now. We are in a position of starting locally because we think that it is not possible to do it on a mass basis nationally. [By 1967, CIPA was history. The tsunami of antiwar activism swept it away. Something tells me that before long, Sandernism will also be swept away by working-class activism. All we will need at that point is a political instrument that can help maximize its impact.]

June 28, 2019

Socialism 2019: the Left at a Crossroads

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,DSA,ISO — louisproyect @ 2:41 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 28, 2019

For a number of years, the International Socialists Organization, once the largest Marxist group in the USA, held educational conferences either in Chicago or in various American cities. In 2004, I attended a plenary session of a regional conference at City College in New York, mostly to hear my old friend Peter Camejo who was the featured speaker alongside Ahmed Shawki, the disgraced former leader whose cover-up of multiple rapes in the ISO led to its dissolution this year. If Peter had lived, I am not sure what he would make of its demise. Although he was a sharp critic of “Leninism”, he had high regard for the ISO, as did the late Sol Dollinger, a member of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union. The Socialist Union was the first attempt to break with sectarianism in the USA but dissolved in 1959 because of unfavorable political conditions not all that different from what we face today.

Those conditions played a large role in the ISO’s demise. If being a Marxist today is like swimming against the current (the aptly named magazine of Solidarity, another left group following in the Socialist Union tradition), the current period has left most socialist groups gasping for air like spawning salmons. The ISO was formed in 1977, just at the point when the Socialist Workers Party, the sect I belonged to, had begun a “colonization of industry” strategy that would eventually reduce its membership by 90 percent. The Maoist groups of the late 60s and early 70s had also begun to sputter out and die, their story recorded in Max Elbaum’s essential “Revolution in the Air”.

If Leninist groups have a shelf life, the 21-year history of the ISO is about par for the course. Except for Kshama Sawant’s Socialist Alternative, there is no self-avowed Leninist group that amounts to anything in 2019. Those that still exist tend to be hermetically sealed sects like the Spartacist League or the Socialist Equality Party that have never sought to have an impact on the mass movement, seeing themselves instead as its high priesthood critics.

Continue reading

June 19, 2019

No, Seth Ackerman, Norman Thomas did not think the New Deal was “socialist”

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,DSA,New Deal — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

After Bernie Sanders equated the New Deal with “democratic socialism”, the Jacobin intellectuals have been pirouetting like Nureyev trying to make this sound consistent with their neo-Kautskyism. I imagine that even Eric Blanc must have squirmed when Sanders made it crystal-clear that he had no interest other than in capitalist reform.

There have been a steady stream of articles trying to smooth the ruffled feathers of any DSA member over this speech that was designed to reassure DP voters that Sanders’s “socialism” had nothing to do with overthrowing capitalism or any other goals that threatened private property.

The latest in this series is a Jacobin article by Seth Ackerman titled “Why Bernie Talks About the New Deal” that portrays various socialists endorsing the idea that the New Deal was socialist. Unsurprisingly, he cites Eric Hobsbawm who despite his groundbreaking history books was a fairly conventional CP member. Also, unsurprisingly, he does not quote any Trotskyist, least of all James P. Cannon who spent 16 months in prison for violating the Smith Act–ie., opposing FDR’s imperialist ambitions for entering WWII.

But this caught my eye:

It wasn’t only red-baiting opponents of socialism who saw the resemblance. So did many socialists — including Norman Thomas, the longtime leader of the Socialist Party of America. In the words of his biographer, Thomas “viewed Roosevelt’s program for reform of the economic system as far more reflective of the Socialist Party platform than of his own [Democratic] party’s platform,” in particular its embrace of a shorter workweek, public works, abolition of sweatshops, a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and old-age pensions. Though always highly critical of Roosevelt — who never embraced “our essential socialism” — Thomas acknowledged that FDR built a rudimentary welfare state by adopting “ideas and proposals formerly called ‘socialist’ and voiced in our platforms beginning with Debs in 1900.”

With respect to the links in the passage quoted above, I’d avoid relying on the word of his biographer, who might have had his own agenda, or going through the trouble of determining whether Thomas “acknowledged” anything of the sort (the link is to a book that is not online.)

It would be much better to read Norman Thomas’s speech titled “Is the New Deal Socialism” that gets to the heart of the matter. Ironically, it was reproduced in a Chicago DSA publication. I wonder what they think of this New Deal = socialism jive.

Is the New Deal Socialism?

An Answer to Al Smith and the American Liberty League

By Norman Thomas

(This pamphlet is taken from a speech delivered by Norman Thomas over the Columbia Broadcasting System on February 2, 1936.)

The air rings, the newspapers are filled with the politics of bedlam. There are still around 10,000,000 unemployed in the United States. Re-employment lags behind the increase of production, and the increase of money wages in industry lags behind both. The burden of debt piles higher and higher. The world, and America with it, drifts toward new war of inconceivable horror — war from which we shall not be delivered by spending out of our poverty more than a billion dollars a year on naval and military preparations without so much as squarely facing the issue: what are we protecting and how shall we protect it?

In this situation the leaders of our two major political parties have begun speaking, or rather shouting. And what do they say? First President Roosevelt makes a fighting speech to Congress and the nation defending the record he has made, but proposing no new program. Scarcely has he finished his speech when the AAA decision of the Supreme Court and the enactment of the bonus legislation by Congress compel him to seek new laws and new taxes.

Then Mr. Roosevelt’s one-time dearest political friend and sponsor, Alfred E. Smith, rushes to the fray. This erstwhile man of the people chooses a dinner of the Liberty League at which to proclaim the religion of Constitution worship, favorable incidental mention of the Holy Bible, Washington as the nation’s capital and Stars and Stripes forever.

It was attended, the newspapers tell us, by twelve duPonts — twelve apostles, not of liberty but of big business and the profits of war and preparation for war. Indeed, the record of Mr. Smith’s new friends shows that that organization is as much entitled to the name Liberty League as was the disease commonly known as German measles to be called liberty measles in the hysteria of war.

Mr. Smith was promptly answered in a speech read, if not written, by Senator Robinson, who is the close political and personal friend of the utility magnate, Harvey Crouch, and the protector of the plantation system which in his own State is now answering the demands of the exploited share-croppers by wholesale evictions and organized terror. On this subject Senator Robinson and other defenders of the New Deal preserve a profound silence.

Then the Governor of Georgia jumped into the fray along with an oil baron and Huey Long’s share-the-wealth clergyman to exploit race and sectional prejudice in the name of States’ rights. These are all Democrats.

Meanwhile the Republicans who defeated Alfred E. Smith in 1928 rise to applaud him. Ex-President Hoover, rejuvenated by the skillful services of a new ghost writer, denounces Mr. Roosevelt’s administration and proposes a plan of farm relief quite similar to Roosevelt’s substitute for AAA.

Between him and the States’ Rights Senator Borah, who still believes that the country can be saved by the simple device of trying to smash monopoly, there is a deep a gulf fixed as there is in the Democratic party. Alf Landon floats somewhere in between that gulf.

Yet basically beneath all the alarms and confusion these worthy warriors, happy and unhappy, are acting upon a common assumption — an assumption which is dangerously false. All of them are assuming the durability of the profit system, the security of a capitalist nationalist system in which our highest loyalties are to the principle of private profit and to the political power of an absolute jingoistic nationalist State. They assume that prosperity is coming back again to stay for a while.

Impartial in Smith – Roosevelt FrayMr. Roosevelt aand his followers assume that prosperity is coming back because of the New Deal. Al Smith and the rest of Roosevelt’s assorted critics assume that it is in spite of the New Deal and perhaps because of the Supreme Court. Mr. Hoover plaintively protests that the catastrophic depression of January – February, 1933, was due merely to the shudders of the body politic anticipating the economic horrors of the New Deal.

As a Socialist, I view the Smith – Roosevelt controversy with complete impartiality. I am little concerned to point out the inconsistencies in Al Smith’s record, or to remind him that in 1924 and 1928, when I happened to be the Socialist candidate for high office against him, more than one of his close political friends came to me to urge me as a Socialist not to attack him too severely since he really stood for so many of the things that Socialists and other progressive workers wanted.

But I am concerned to point out how false is the charge that Roosevelt and the New Deal represent socialism. What is at state is not prestige or sentimental devotion to a particular name. What is at state is a clear understanding of the issues on which the peace and prosperity of generations — perhaps centuries — depend. A nation which misunderstands socialism as completely as Al Smith misunderstands it is a nation which weakens its defense against the coming of war and fascism.

But, some of you will say, isn’t it true, as Alfred E. Smith and a host of others before him have charged, that Roosevelt carried out most of the demands of the Socialist platform?

This charge is by no means peculiar to Mr. Smith. I am told that a Republican speaker alleged that Norman Thomas rather than Franklin D. Roosevelt has been President of the United States. I deny the allegation and defy the allegator, and I suspect I have Mr. Roosevelt’s support in this denial. Matthew Woll, leader of the forces of reaction in the American Federation of Labor, is among the latest to make the same sort of charge.

Roosevelt Not Socialist

Emphatically, Mr. Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher. What is true is that when Mr. Roosevelt took office he had to act vigorously.

We had demanded Federal relief for unemployment. Hence any attempts Mr. Roosevelt made at Federal relief could perhaps be called by his enemies an imitation of the Socialists platform. It was an extraordinarily poor imitation. We demanded Federal unemployment insurance. Hence any attempt to get Federal security legislation could be regarded as an imitation of the Socialist platform. It was an amazingly bad imitation.

Indeed, at various times Mr. Roosevelt has taken particular and rather unnecessary pains to explain that he was not a Socialist, that he was trying to support the profit system, which by the way, he defined incorrectly. In his last message to Congress his attack was not upon the profit system but on the sins of big business.

His slogan was not the Socialist cry: “Workers of the world, workers with hand and brain, in town and country, unite!” His cry was: “Workers and small stockholders unite, clean up Wall Street.” That cry is at least as old as Andrew Jackson.

What Mr. Roosevelt and his brain trust and practical political advisers did to such of the Socialist immediate demands as he copied at all merely illustrates the principle that if you want a child brought up right you had better leave the child with his parents and not farm him out to strangers.

Reformism

Some of it was good reformism, but there is nothing Socialist about trying to regulate or reform Wall Street. Socialism wants to abolish the system of which Wall Street is an appropriate expression. There is nothing Socialist about trying to break up great holding companies. We Socialists would prefer to acquire holding companies in order to socialize the utilities now subject to them.

There is no socialism at all about taking over all the banks which fell in Uncle Sam’s lap, putting them on their feet again, and turning them back to the bankers to see if they can bring them once more to ruin. There was no socialism at all about putting in a Coordinator to see if he could make the bankrupt railroad systems profitable so they would be more expensive for the government to acquire as sooner or later the government, even a Republican party government, under capitalism must.

Mr. Roosevelt torpedoed the London Economic Conference; he went blindly rushing in to a big army and navy program; he maintained, as he still maintains, an Ambassador to Cuba who, as the agent of American financial interests, supports the brutal reaction in Cuba. While professing friendship for China, he blithely supported a silver purchase policy of no meaning for America except the enrichment of silver mine owners which nearly ruined the Chinese Government in the face of Japanese imperialism. These things which Al Smith or Alf Landon might also have done are anything but Socialist.

Mr. Smith presumably feels that the President’s Security Bill, so-called, was socialism. Let us see. We Socialists have long advocated unemployment insurance or unemployment indemnity by which honest men who cannot find work are indemnified by a society so brutal or so stupid that it denies them the opportunity to work. This insurance or indemnification should be on a prearranged basis which will take account of the size of the family. It should be Federal because only the national government can act uniformly, consistently and effectively.

What did Mr. Roosevelt give us? In the name of security, he gave us a bill where in order to get security the unemployed workers will first have to get a job, then lose a job. He will have to be surge that he gets the job and loses the job in a State which has an unemployment insurance law.

He will then have to be sure that the State which has the law will have the funds and the zeal to get the money to fulfill the terms of the law. This will largely depend upon whether it proves to be practical and constitutional for the Federal Government to collect a sufficient tax on payrolls so that 90 percent of it when rebated to employers to turn over to the State officers will be sufficient to give some kind of security to those who are unemployed!

The whole proceeding is so complicated, the danger of forty-eight competing State laws — competing, by the way, for minimum, not for maximum benefits– is so dangerous that the President’s bill can justly be called an in-Security bill.

“Billions of Words”

If Mr. Smith means that the programs of public works either under PWA or WPA is Socialist, again he is mistaken. We do not tolerate the standards of pay set on much WPA work — $19 a month, for instance, in some States in the South. We do insist not upon talk but upon action to re-house the third of America which lives in houses unfit for human habitation, which is possible given the present state of the mechanic arts in a nation of builders.

The administration, having spent billions of words, not dollars, on housing with little result, is now turning the job over to private mortgage companies. Would not Al Smith or Alf Landon do the same?

But even if Mr. Roosevelt and the New Deal had far more closely approximated Socialist immediate demands in their legislation, they would not have been Socialists, not unless Mr. Smith is willing to argue that every reform, every attempt to curb rampant and arrogant capitalism, every attempt to do for the farmers something like what the tariff has done for business interests, is socialism.

Not only is it not socialism, but in large degree this State capitalism, this use of bread and circuses to keep the people quiet, is so much a necessary development of a dying social order that neither Mr. Smith nor Mr. Hoover in office in 1937 could substantially change the present picture or bring back the days of Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland or Calvin Coolidge.

What Roosevelt has given us, and what Republicans cannot and will not substantially change, is not the socialism of the cooperative commonwealth. It is a State capitalism which the Fascist demagogues of Europe have used when they came to power. The thing, Mr. Smith, that you ought to fear is not that the party of Jefferson and Jackson is marching in step with Socialists toward a Socialist goal; it is that, unwittingly, it may be marching in step with Fascists toward a Fascist goal.

I do not mean that Mr. Roosevelt himself is a Fascist or likely to become a Fascist. I credit him with as liberal intentions as capitalism and his Democratic colleagues of the South permit. I call attention to the solemn fact that in spite of his circumspect liberalism, repression, the denial of civil liberty, a Fascist kind of military law, stark terrorism have been increasing under Democratic Governors for the most part — in Indiana, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and, of course, in California, where Mr. Roosevelt did not even come to the aid of an ex-Socialists, Upton Sinclair, against the candidate of the reactionaries.

I repeat that what Mr. Roosevelt has given us is State capitalism: that is to say, a system under which the State steps in to regulate and in many cases to own, not for the purpose of establishing production for use but rather for the purpose of maintaining in so far as may be possible the profit system with its immense rewards of private ownership and its grossly unfair division of the national income.

Today Mr. Roosevelt does not want fascism; Mr. Hoover does not want fascism; not even Mr. Smith and his friends of the Liberty League want fascism. The last-named gentlemen want an impossible thing: the return to the unchecked private monopoly power of the Coolidge epoch.

Must Abolish the Profit System

All the gentlemen whom I have named want somehow to keep the profit system. Socialism means to abolish that system. Those who want to keep it will soon find that out of war or out of the fresh economic collapse inevitable when business prosperity is so spotty, so temporary, so insecure as it is today, will come the confusion to which capitalism’s final answer must be the Fascist dictator.

In America that dictator will probably not call himself Fascist. He, like Mr. Roosevelt in his address to Congress, will thank God that we are not like other nations. But privately he will rejoice in the weakness of our opposition to tyranny. Under the forms of democracy we have not preserved liberty. It has not taken black shirts to make us docile.

Given the crisis of war or economic collapse we, unless we awake, will accept dictatorship by violence to perpetuate a while longer the class division of income. We shall acknowledge the religion of the totalitarian state and become hypnotized by the emotional appeal of a blind jingoistic nationalism. Against this Fascist peril and its Siamese twin, the menace of war, there is no protection in the New Deal, no protection in the Republican party, less than no protection in the Liberty League.

Who of them all is waging a real battle even for such civil liberties and such democratic rights as obstensibly are possible in a bourgeois democracy? When Al Smith appeals to the Constitution is he thinking of the liberties of the Bill of Rights or is he thinking of the protection the Constitution has given to property?

As a Socialist, I was no lover of the NRA or AAA. NRA, at least temporarily, did give the workers some encouragement to organize, but at bottom it was an elaborate scheme for the stabilization of capitalism under associations of industries which could regulate production in order to maintain profit. AAA was perhaps some relative help to many classes of farmers. It was no help at all to the most exploited agricultural workers and share-croppers, but rather the opposite. And it was, as indeed it had to be under capitalism, primarily a scheme for subsidizing scarcity.

This was not primarily the fault of the AAA. It was the fault of the capitalist system which Roosevelt and Smith alike accept; that system which makes private profit its god, which uses planning, in so far as it uses planning at all, to stabilize and maintain the profits of private owners, not the well being of the masses. In the last analysis the profit system inevitably depends upon relative scarcity. Without this relative scarcity there is no profit and there is no planning for abundance which accepts the kingship of private profit.

When the world went in for great machinery operated by power it went in for specialization and integration of work. It doomed the old order of pioneers. The one chance of using machinery for life, not death, is that we should plan to use it for the common good. There is no planned production for use rather than for the private profit of an owning class which does not involve social ownership. This is the gospel of socialism.

Abundance Possible

We can have abundance. In 1929, according to the Brookings Institute — and that, remember, was our most prosperous year — a decent use of our capacity to produce would have enabled us to raise the income of 16,400,000 families with less than $2,000 a year to that modest level without even cutting any at the top.

Instead, without any interference from workers, without any pressure from agitators, the capitalist system so dear to Al Smith and his Liberty League friends went into a nose-spin. The earned income dropped from $83,000,000,000 to something like $38,000,000,000 in 1932, and the temporary recovery, of which the New Deal administration boasts, has probably not yet raised that income to the $50,000,000,000 level. It has, moreover, burdened us with an intolerable load of debt.

What we must have is a society where we can use our natural resources and machinery so that the children of the share-croppers who raise cotton will no longer lack the cotton necessary for underclothes. What we must have is a society which can use our resources and our mechanical skill so that the children of builders will not live in shacks and slums.

It is not that Socialists want less private property. We want more private property in the good things of life. We do not mean to take the carpenter’s kit away from the carpenter or Fritz Kreisler’s violin away from Fritz Kreisler, or the home or the farm in which any man lives and works away from him.

We do intend to end private landlordism, and to take the great natural resources — oil, copper, coal, iron; the great public utilities, power, transportation; the banking system, the distributive agencies like the dairy trust, the basic monopolies and essential manufacturing enterprises — out of the hands of private owners, most of them absentee owners, for whose profits workers with hand and brain are alike exploited. And we intend to put these things into the hands of society.

Tax Private Wealth

We intend to make this change to social ownership in orderly fashion. In the meantime we can avert fresh economic collapse by the road of crazy inflation or cruel deflation only by an orderly process of taxing wealth in private hands, by a graduated tax, approaching expropriation of unearned millions, in order to wipe out debt and to help in the socialization of industry.

We do not mean to turn socialized industries over to political bureaucrats, to Socialist Jim Farleys, so to speak. The adjective doesn’t redeem the noun. For instance, we intend that a socialized steel industry shall be managed under a directorate representing the workers, including, of course, the technicians in that industry, and the consumers.

We can do it without conscription and without rationing our people. We ought not to pay the price Russia has paid because we are far more industrially advanced than was Russia and should learn from Russia’s mistakes as well as her successes.

Goal Is True DemocracyOur goal, Mr. Smith, is true democracy. It is we who lead in the fight for liberty and justice which you in recent years have sadly ignored. It is we who seek to make freedom and democracy constitutional by advocating a Workers Rights Amendment in the interest of farmers, workers and consumers, giving to Congress power to adopt all needful social and economic legislation, but leaving to the courts their present power to help protect civil and religious liberty.

Our present judicial power of legislation is as undemocratic as it is in the long run dangerous to peace. Remember the Dred Scott decision! Congress rather than the States must act because these issues are national. The religion of the Constitution with the Supreme Court as the high priests and the Liberty League as its preacher will never satisfy human hunger for freedom, peace and plenty.

The Constitution was made for man and not man for the Constitution. We Socialists seek now its orderly amendment. We seek now genuine social security, real unemployment insurance. We seek now a policy which will make it a little harder for American business interests to involve us in war as a result of a mad chase after the profits of war.

These, gentlemen who quarrel over the way to save capitalism, are the things of our immediate desire. But deepest of all is our desire for a federation of cooperative Commonwealths. Some of you may like this far less than you like the New Deal, but will you not agree that it is not the New Deal?

You said, Mr. Smith, in a peroration worthy of your old enemy, William Randolph Hearst, that there can be only one victory, of the Constitution.

And this is our reply: There is only one victory worth the seeking by the heirs of the American Revolution. It is the victory of a fellowship of free men, using government as their servant, to harness our marvelous machinery for abundance, not poverty; peace, not war; freedom, not exploitation.

This is the victory in which alone is practicable deliverance from the house of our bondage. This is the victory to which we dedicate ourselves.

 

June 14, 2019

Bernie Sanders and the New Deal

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,New Deal,reformism — louisproyect @ 8:13 pm

As might be expected, the Jacobin/DSA tendency is beside itself over Bernie Sanders’s speech that by now follows a familiar script. Just compare these excerpts from 3 different speeches following the same pattern:

(1) What’s the fundamental challenge of our day? It is to end economic violence. Most poor people are not lazy. They’re not black. They’re not brown. They’re mostly white, and female and young. Most poor people are not on welfare.

I know they work. I’m a witness. They catch the early bus. They work every day. They raise other people’s children. They work every day. They clean the streets. They work every day. They change the beds you slept in in these hotels last night and can’t get a union contract. They work every day.

(2) More to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour. More to do for the father I met who was losing his job and choking back tears, wondering how he would pay $4,500 a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits he counted on. More to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college.

(3) Are you truly free if you are unable to go to a doctor when you are sick, or face financial bankruptcy when you leave the hospital?

Are you truly free if you cannot afford the prescription drug you need to stay alive?

Are you truly free when you spend half of your limited income on housing, and are forced to borrow money from a payday lender at 200% interest rates.

What these 3 speech excerpts have in common is that they were made by Democratic Party politicians who captured the imagination of the left. The first came from Jesse Jackson’s speech to the 1988 Democratic Convention, the second was from Barack Obama’s to the 2004 Democratic Convention, and the last was Bernie Sanders’s June 12, 2019 speech at George Washington University. All three politicians have been identified with FDR. Salon magazine described Jackson’s campaigns as combining “New Deal-esque economic programs with a pro-social justice domestic agenda and a foreign policy that emphasized fighting for peace and human rights.” Appearing on the Letterman show in the first year of his presidency, Obama dismissed his critics who called him a socialist: “What’s happened is that whenever a president tries to bring about significant changes, particularly during times of economic unease, then there is a certain segment of the population that gets very riled up. FDR was called a socialist and a communist.” As for Sanders, unlike Obama, he embraces both the term socialist and New Deal programs, which for all practical purposes he sees as interchangeable. Finally, like Obama, he dismisses the red-baiting attacks on his socialism:

In this regard, President Harry Truman was right when he said that: “Socialism is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years…Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”

Ironically, in effect Sanders confirms what Truman said but not the way that Truman intended. Truman was trying to say that the John Birch Society, Joe McCarthy, et al were calling such reforms “socialist” when they were really just liberal reforms. For Sanders, it is exactly these measures that mean socialism to him rather than what they mean to Marxists. Naturally, it is ABCs for people like me, who have been defending socialism for 52 years, that Social Security is a good thing (I get my check on the fourth Wednesday each month), even if it is not particularly socialist. Indeed, the first country in the world to adopt old-age insurance was Germany under Otto von Bismarck in 1889. It wasn’t even his idea. It was first proposed by the fucking Emperor William of Germany 8 years earlier who sounded like he was giving a speech to a Democratic Party convention: “…those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.”

If socialism is the same thing as the New Deal, what do you need Marxism for? Why not just emulate the CPUSA that became the left wing of the Democratic Party in the 1930s, following FDR in lock-step? The CP even defended this opportunism by formulating it as the first step in overthrowing capitalism in the USA. After all, if the Republicans took over the White House, the next step would be concentration camps not the future socialist society everybody believed in. Naturally, when FDR did establish concentration camps for Japanese-Americans, the CP gave its approval.

Essentially, Jacobin/DSA has dusted off the Earl Browder game plan and reintroduced it for the 21st century. The irony is that the Socialist Party of Browder’s day refused to support FDR. When Norman Thomas was asked how he felt about the New Deal carrying out the SP’s program, Thomas replied that it was carried out—on a stretcher.

Jacobin/DSA is giddy with excitement over Sanders’s speech, with each spokesman competing over who could write the biggest encomium to the Vermont Senator. Paul Heidman, an ex-ISOer, wrote a Jacobin article stating that “Sanders took aim at one of the central dogmas of contemporary capitalism: that it enhances freedom.” Maybe so, but the speech was cautious to step around the 800-pound gorilla in the living room, namely whether Sanders advocated an end to the very system that limited freedom. As long as there is private ownership of the means of production, how can true freedom exist when the owner has the right to move a factory to Mexico, fire half of his workers, or refuse to give them a pay hike? Sanders is opposed to unfettered or “out of control” capitalism but not capitalism itself.

Not to be outdone, Branko Marcetic was so thrilled to death that he equated socialism with the New Deal even if it annoyed people like me:

Though no doubt infuriating some on the Left, Sanders — who’s weathered decades of this kind of thing — wisely situated his vision of socialism in the long tradition of US progressivism and, crucially, the New Deal liberalism forged by Franklin Roosevelt that dominated American politics until somewhere around the late 1970s.

Interesting that Marcetic sees the presidencies of Harry Truman and LBJ as a continuation of New Deal liberalism. I can’t say I have a problem with that in light of Truman carrying out FDR’s mandate to use atom bombs on the Japanese. Or LBJ using B-52s against peasant villages. FDR went to war to defend American imperialism, not make the world safe for democracy. I guess as long as all these warmongers made sure to keep the welfare state benefits of American workers secure, that was “socialist” enough for the CPUSA and its bastard offspring, the Jacobin/DSA.

As the king of all “democratic socialists”, the Puff Diddy of the left Bhaskar Sunkara had the final word in The Guardian, the liberal British newspaper. In a rapturous piece titled “Bernie Sanders just made a brilliant defense of democratic socialism”, he presented Sanders as an PG-Rated version of the hard-core, R-Rated socialism of Eugene V. Debs:

Sanders still has a portrait of Debs in his Washington DC office, and in the 1980s he curated an album of the legendary socialist orator’s speeches. But yesterday’s address was a reminder that even though he still embodies much of the old socialist spirit, he has found ways to soften its edges and make it more accessible to ordinary Americans.

Well, of course. How are you going to get invited to MSNBC if you are saying “hardened” things like this?

The capitalist class is represented by the Republican, Democratic, Populist and Prohibition parties, all of which stand for private ownership of the means of production, and the triumph of any one of which will mean continued wage-slavery to the working class.

The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.

Eugene V. Debs speech as SP candidate, September 1, 1904

Like Marcetic, Sunkara slapped at the revolutionary mosquitos that were ruining his picnic: “Hardened socialists might scoff at Sanders’s summoning of Roosevelt as a proto-socialist.”

Well, yeah. Us Hardened, R-Rated socialists who still find the Communist Manifesto more inspiring than Michael Harrington’s “The Next Left: The History of a Future” would rather back someone like Howie Hawkins who does not mince words. Referring to Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez et al, Howie stated:

However, something is notably missing in these candidates’ descriptions of socialism. They are leaving out the distinguishing tenet of the traditional socialist program — the definition of socialism you will find in the dictionary — a democratic economic system based on social ownership of the major means of production.

Finally, on the question of a President Sanders carrying out anything remotely similar to the New Deal, you have to forget all the lessons you learned reading historical materialist classics like Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” or Karl Marx’s “18th Brumaire”. The New Deal was a reaction to concrete conditions 85 years ago that no longer exist.

To start with, FDR was anxious to rein in the worst excesses of the capitalist class in order to stave off a revolution. As the nobleman in “The Leopard” put it, “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”

Despite Social Security and despite the make-work programs that paid a pittance, it was WWII that ended the Depression. As I explained in an article on whether WWII ended the Depression, more than half of the recovery took place between 1941 and 1942—in other words when war spending had geared up. Government purchase of goods and services ticked up by 54.7 percent in this one-year period and continued to increase as the actual war began.

The overarching economic framework for the postwar prosperity that allowed workers to buy homes and pay for their kids’ college education was the ongoing expansion of American industry that had no competition. Once Japan and Germany got in the game, industry grew wings and took flight to Mexico. Afterward, when China became capitalist, the wings grew stronger and factories flew even further away. Who knows? Maybe they’ll take Aaron Bastani’s advice and send the jobs to outer space.

That’s the reality we are operating in now. Workers need jobs that can keep a family in a relatively secure position. Sanders talks about recreating such an environment but the capitalist class will go where money can be made, not in accord with the needs of the majority. Do you expect production for human need to supersede the material interests of the most ruthless and determined ruling class in history? Bernie Sanders might mean well, bless his balding head, but the looming struggle between working people and the bosses will leave no room for the wishy-washy.

May 22, 2019

A Jacobin/DSAer’s Red Herrings

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 6:35 pm

A red herring is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question, according to Wikipedia, which also states that the term was popularized in 1807 by English polemicist William Cobbett, who told a story of having used a kipper (a strong-smelling smoked fish) to divert hounds from chasing a hare. Cobbett was an early English radical who took up the cause of impoverished peasants falling prey to “rotten boroughs”, a form of gerrymandering that favored the rich. One imagines that red herrings were used widely in the interest of privilege back then but as a term it can now be used to describe any dodgy political argument such as those found in an article by Jacobin/DSAer Chris Maisano titled “Which Way to Socialism?

Maisano’s article appears on The Call, the website of the Bread and Roses Caucus whose make-up explains my use of the term “Jacobin/DSAer” to describe Maisano. In Doug Henwood’s New Republic article about the DSA, he describes the overlap between the DSA’s leading body and the magazine that serves as its informal theoretical magazine:

None of these outfits [working groups and caucuses] causes serious trouble for the larger trajectory of DSA organizing. However, one caucus in particular, formerly known as Momentum, then renamed Spring, and again renamed Bread and Roses, is the object of ire from outsiders.

The original core of the group consisted of the Jacobin generation of members, several of whom were part of a Left Caucus in the pre-surge DSA, who were looking to heat up the old organization’s tepid politics. 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.

Funny how the term sect comes up. After reading Maisano’s article, with its predictable reference to Karl Kautsky’s infinite wisdom that Eric Blanc and Bhaskar Sunkara uphold as well, I mentioned on Facebook how it reminded me of an older political culture: “the Jacobin/DSA’ers…are as ideologically homogeneous as any Leninists I have ever run into. It is always the same stuff, citing Kautsky, etc. Groupthink basically.” This prompted someone to follow up:

Groupthink is a good description. My own perspective is maybe a bit skewed, being in Philly DSA, an extreme case, but it is the worst groupthink I have ever experienced on the left. In fact, it’s done more to turn me off of “socialism” than anything I have experienced in my life. The way these people rant about “horizontalists” and “anarcho-liberals” and “Occupy-ish”, etc., as a way to slander anyone who opposes them, is pathetic, and gives an indication of what they would be like if by some nightmare they got into a position of actual power.

Speaking of Philadelphia, it is necessary to point out that Maisano’s article is written as a rebuttal to Philly Socialist member Tim Horras’s article titled “Goodbye Revolution” on Regeneration, the website of the Marxist Center, a network of groups to the left of the DSA that I support. In a nutshell, Tim defends the classical Marxist understanding of the need for socialist revolution as encapsulated in Lenin’s “State and Revolution” and other works by Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. I strongly urge you to read Tim’s article because it is an important statement that reflects a willingness of young revolutionaries to both swim against the reformist stream and avoid sectarianism.

Maisano hopes to trip Horras up by making the question of “armed struggle” a focus of his polemic. Horras writes:

Mass mobilizations, broad popular support, and the weapon of the general strike certainly ought to be tactics in the arsenal of any socialist movement. But in the face of the ruling class’s trump card — a full-blown military coup d’etat — it is likely even these powerful forces will prove insufficient without an armed and organized resistance.

For me, this is an elementary observation—at least if you are a Marxist. Lenin refers to the state as resting on “special bodies of armed men”, a term that he associates with Engels’s “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Keep in mind that the October 1917 revolution was made possible not by guerrilla warfare but by the wholesale defection of the army to the Bolsheviks. When a relatively small band of soldiers committed to the revolutionary cause overran the Winter Palace, there were fewer people killed than probably those who died that day in St. Petersburg because of traffic accidents. Basically, the task facing us is not preparing for armed struggle, which is implicit in the misguided attempts to form leftwing gun clubs by ultraleftists, but by building such a massive movement that soldiers will gravitate to it rather than to the capitalist state. At least that’s what I learned from the men and women who were Leon Trotsky’s comrades in the 1930s.

Despite the attempt by Maisano to introduce the red herring of ordinary citizens never having the capability of overcoming “huge innovations in technology, military tactics, and urban planning” that have “strengthened the hand of the state and its armed forces against any potential insurrection”, the real difference between the Jacobin/DSA and those who identify with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky is not over insurrection but on revolution. Obviously, a “nuclear-armed national security state” is a frightening prospect but the goal is not to form militias that can take down an oncoming ICBM aimed at Brooklyn radicals. Instead the need is to create such a pole of attraction for socialism that the soldiers operating such devices will follow the example of Maryknoll nuns who sabotaged a building that stored enriched uranium in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

In a laughable attempt to bolster his case, Maisano cites Frederick Engels’s introduction to the 1895 edition of Karl Marx’s “Class Struggles in France”, a work that examines the growing importance of working-class mobilizations during 1848-1850 when it had not yet emerged as an independent political force. At first glance, Engels seems to be lining up with the Jacobin/DSA’ers:

But since then there have been very many more changes, and all in favor of the military. If the big towns have become considerably bigger, the armies have become bigger still. Paris and Berlin have, since 1848, grown less than fourfold, but their garrisons have grown more than that. By means of the railways, the garrisons can, in twenty-four hours, be more than doubled, and in forty-eight hours they can be increased to huge armies. The arming of this enormously increased number of troops has become incomparably more effective. In 1848 the smooth-bore percussion muzzle-loader, today the small-caliber magazine breech-loading rifle, which shoots four times as far, ten times as accurately and ten times as fast as the former. At that time the relatively ineffective round-shot and grape-shot of the artillery; today the percussion shells, of which one is sufficient to demolish the best barricade. At that time the pick-ax of the sapper for breaking through walls; today the dynamite cartridge.

By 1895, the year in which Engels’s introduction was written, the German working-class had achieved considerable political power through universal suffrage.

With this successful utilization of universal suffrage, an entirely new mode of proletarian struggle came into force, and this quickly developed further. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organized, offer still further opportunities for the working class to fight these very state institutions. They took part in elections to individual diets, to municipal councils and to industrial courts; they contested every post against the bourgeoisie in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had its say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.

Against such a formidable mass movement, the kind of reactionary violence that was used in 1848 and then again in 1871 would be ineffective. Engels writes: “And there is only one means by which the steady rise of the socialist fighting forces in Germany could be momentarily halted, and even thrown back for some time: a clash on a big scale with the military, a bloodbath like that of 1871 in Paris. In the long run that would also be overcome. To shoot out of the world a party which numbers millions—all the magazine rifles of Europe and America are not enough for this.”

In other words, the goal is to increase working-class political power until it simply has the weight to withstand military counter-revolutionary offensives. There is an implicit assumption, of course. In such an event, it would be necessary for the masses to defend a workers state. It would not take the form of street barricades that would be ineffective against heavy artillery but by a section of the army taking up the cause of the working-class party. This, in fact, is exactly what happened in Russia when the Red Army was created to defend Soviet power. This has nothing to do with “insurrection”, however. It is simply the need for revolutionary self-defense that any truly socialist government will have to mount.

Engels’s main concern was overcoming what might be called Blanquism, a tendency for advanced revolutionary contingents to march far ahead of the masses, using direct action excessively. He wrote: “The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past.”

Needless to say, Engels did not anticipate the degree to which the growth of the German social democracy became a double-edged sword. By developing institutional power, it created a parliamentary and trade union bureaucracy that adapted to capitalist state power. In recommending the Swedish social democracy as a positive example in a recent review as opposed to the negative Venezuelan Chavista experiment, Bhaskar Sunkara apparently shows little comprehension of the hazards of parliamentary cretinism even if it does offer the kind of blandishments that softened up the German social democracy chieftains before WWI.

The other red herring in Maisano’s article flows from the first. If a mass revolutionary movement is not feasible because the capitalist class has nuclear weapons, etc., then the alternative is participating in elections. He cites Carmen Sirianni, the Morris Hillquit Professor of Labor and Social Thought at Brandeis University who argues that elections “have been the major national forums for representing class-wide political and economic interests of workers… there was no pristine proletarian public prior to parliament, and the working class did not have a prior existence as a national political class.”

He also cites Jeff Goodwin, an NYU Sociology professor, to make the same point: “no popular revolutionary movement, it bears emphasizing, has ever overthrown a consolidated democratic regime”.

And, finally, he cites Ralph Miliband who argues that the absence of a revolutionary leadership in parliamentary democracies in advanced capitalist countries, where Marx and Engels assumed would be the first to break with capitalism, is a function of the low level of class struggle:

There has been no such ‘fit’ between revolutionary organisation and leadership and the structures and circumstances of advanced capitalism and bourgeois democracy. Another way of saying this is that advanced capitalism and bourgeois democracy have produced a working class politics which has been non-insurrectionary and indeed anti-insurrectionary; and that this is the rock on which revolutionary organisation and politics have been broken.

I suppose his sons David and Ed are graphic examples of that “anti-insurrectionary” tendency.

But once again, the term “insurrectionary” is misplaced. It is no surprise that someone who is as confused over the difference between insurrection and revolution as Maisano would find Miliband’s words seductive.

In a way, the focus on how to seize power is an utter waste of time. As James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism who had his own problems, once put it, the art of politics is knowing what to do next. What is the point of debating whether street-fighting, barricades and training to use an AK-47 is better than ringing doorbells for some Democrat or vice versa? In the USA today, there is very little support for the idea of abolishing capitalism even if 43 percent of Americans believe that socialism would be a good thing for the USA, according to a Gallup poll. If Cynthia Nixon could get away with calling herself a socialist, you have to believe that the word is an empty signifier that is likely indistinguishable from left-liberalism. Except for the fact that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist and Elizabeth Warren calls herself a capitalist, there’s not a big difference between their programs—and even some evidence that she is to the left of him on some major questions.

The big question facing us now in terms of Cannon’s knowing what to do next is the Democratic Party. In 2016, the DSA supported Cynthia Nixon for governor of New York who was running as a Democrat rather than Howie Hawkins, who was the Green Party candidate and written off by the DSA for being “unelectable”. In an article for CounterPunch last Friday, Howie Hawkins summed up what this “democratic socialist” stood for:

The Democratic socialists and progressives seemed as starstruck as the corporate media, who smothered the “Sex and the City” star with coverage. Nixon was far from being a socialist or even a Sanderista. None of the socialists and progressives seemed to have checked the Federal Election Commission campaign finance records for Nixon, which show that Nixon gave the maximum allowable $2,700 donation to Hillary Clinton for her primary campaign against Bernie Sanders and also threw in another $5,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund and $2,300 to the Democratic National Committee, both of which infuriated the Sanders campaign for collaborating with each other against Sanders. It was no surprise when Nixon endorsed Cuomo after the primary.

There’s a good shot that Howie Hawkins will be the Green Party candidate for President in 2020 and just as good a shot that Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic Party candidate. I plan to support him in every way possible because I believe that a radical alternative to the Democratic Party is necessary.

Despite the blizzard of words from Maisano about the placid bourgeois democracy we live under forcing us to back someone like Cynthia Nixon, the truth is that the foundations for class collaboration are disappearing rapidly during an ongoing economic recession that shows no sign of relenting. Economic insecurity will be combined with environmental destruction (forest fires, floods, undrinkable water, etc.) to create an opening for a genuine radical alternative to the existing system. I will close with the words written by Karl Marx that were included in the Green Party’s invitation to the DSA in 2016 to back Howie’s campaign that they rejected in favor of Nixon’s:

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.

 

May 18, 2019

The New Republic climbs aboard the DSA bandwagon

Filed under: DSA — louisproyect @ 7:43 pm

The New Republic is the latest media powerhouse to get on the democratic socialist bandwagon, joining the NY Times, the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Teen Vogue, Rolling Stone, Vox, NPR, The Atlantic, The Nation, Time Magazine, and The New Yorker. You’d have to go back to the 1930s to see such a romance between those calling for the overthrow of capitalism and such elite capitalist media outlets. In a way, history is repeating itself. After all, both the CPUSA of the 1930s and the DSA today are for pushing the Democratic Party to the left but not over a cliff. Indeed, Bernie Sanders, the politician who accounts for most of the DSA’s growth, describes himself as basically trying to replicate the New Deal. When asked by an anti-Communist Russian émigré at a CNN Town Meeting how he could “rectify” (she obviously meant reconcile) his notion of democratic socialism with the failures of socialism in nearly every country that has tried it, he replied that he stood by FDR’s 1944 State of the Union message.

Through social media, I imagine that most of my readers have become aware of Doug Henwood’s article in the New Republic titled “The Socialist Network: Inside DSA’s struggle to move into the political mainstream”. With all due respect to a friend for the better part of 30 years, that sounds to me like breaking down an open door. Unlike any other group that has claimed to be in the Marxist tradition, it has achieved marquee status for a media that generally regards socialism as a curse. All you need to do is read the Washington Post on Venezuela. Then again, when asked by the National Review if Nicholas Maduro was “legitimate”, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez replied, “I defer to caucus leadership on how we navigate this.” Of course, I understand why she would have to walk a tight-rope. Apparently, there are a number of Venezuelans in her congressional district that might vote against her if she did say he was legitimate. Electability has to be taken into account when you are trying to legislate socialism into existence.

Joining Doug is one Astra Taylor, whose article is titled “Reclaiming the Future: On the growing appeal of socialism in an age of inequality”. I’ve run into Taylor before, having reviewed her documentary “Examined Life: Philosophy is in the Streets” Her film consists of interviews with left-wing philosophers, including Slavoj Zizek who was the subject of an earlier film she directed. My review  of “Examined Life” concluded on this note:

Going from the ridiculous to the ridiculousest, we meet Slavoj Zizek in a garbage dump where he spends his 10 minutes blasting what he calls “ecology”, which is nothing but a straw man that he defines as an idea that Nature is Pure and that Man violates Nature through Hubris. For Zizek, nature is anything but pure. It is filled with catastrophes that happen without human involvement such as the ice age that led to mass extinctions. He advises that in the face of nature’s imperfections that we learn-using his words-to see “perfection in imperfection”. This kind of relationship between man and nature will be a kind of “love”, as our Lacanian puts it.

Unfortunately, Taylor did not see fit to challenge Zizek’s idiocy.

Let me turn now to Doug’s 5,645 word article that is written in his customarily limpid prose that is a joy to read, even if I depart from most of his analysis.

There’s not much to quibble with in the first thousand words or so of his article that is an accurate chronicle of the DSA’s formation as a product of Michael Harrington’s zeitgeist and its transition into a far more radical group in the years following the 2007 crash when a millennial precariat concluded that capitalism had little to offer them.

I do have to interrogate, however, the claim that “There’s no ideological or organizational line, unlike all the American left’s many Trotskyist sects of old.” It would be more accurate to say that the DSA does not operate on the basis of democratic centralism but there certainly is an ideological line that hews closely to The Jacobin, an unofficial voice of the DSA leadership. The line can be described as left social democratic as opposed to the typical party of the Socialist International that the DSA’ers had the good sense from which to withdraw. Specifically, most DSA leaders, who after all are more equal than the rank-and-file DSA’er, hew closely to the Sandernista strategy of launching a Swedish-style social democracy in the USA that would be the first stage in a total socialist transformation. This strategy has been enunciated by Bhaskar Sunkara, Eric Blanc and other Jacobin authors. Yes, of course, a grizzled ex-Trotskyist member of the DSA has every right to denounce this strategy on a blog or a branch meeting but in the long run such dissidents are nothing but a minor annoyance.

After spending another thousand words or so providing some interesting insights into the evolution of the Republican and Democratic Parties in the post-Reagan era, Doug considers the main issue that prevents me from writing the kind of encomium to the DSA you’ll find in Vogue or Rolling Stone, namely its relationship to the Democratic Party. As I have said on many occasions, I reject the organizational model of the “Leninist” left and regard something much closer to the DSA as appropriate to the current state of the class struggle. In fact, my model is even much closer to Debs’s party to which most “democratic socialists”, including Bernie Sanders, pay homage. However, Debs was as opposed to the Democratic Party on a principled basis as any number of the grizzled old ex-Trotskyists that most DSA’ers find annoying.

Doug writes:

Most DSA activists I talked to, ranging from executive director Maria Svart to local leaders to rank-and-filers, are uninterested in such a takeover. They look at the Democrats as a vehicle to borrow, not own. As Svart says, while DSA members have shown a diversity of attitudes toward the Democratic Party, they still regard it as a “capitalist party” and are determined to build “independent power.” Until such power blossoms into a historic force on the national political scene, however, there’s no substitute for the party’s automatic ballot line. Sanders would have been a marginal curiosity had he run as an independent.

What comrade Svart does not seem to understand is that Marxists have never taken such a “tactical” stance on the Democratic Party until 1934 when Georgi Dimitrov directed Communist Parties to adopt the Popular Front turn that led to coalitions between the CP and capitalist parties throughout Europe and the Western Hemisphere. In the USA, the Popular Front took the form of backing FDR to the hilt, even to the point of endorsing the internment of Japanese-Americans, a no-strike pledge during WWII, opposing A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington, and—most disgustingly—supporting the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Ironically, the Socialist Party that the DSA descended from never backed voting for Democrats. When Upton Sinclair decided to run for governor in California as a Democrat, his own son, who was a member of the SP just like him, threatened to disown him. When Norman Thomas learned that Sinclair was going to run as a Democrat, he wrote him a letter:

Words are symbols. You alone, or you with the help of a certain number of California voters, cannot make the word Democratic a symbol for Socialism. That word with its capital D is a symbol for the party which bitterly discriminates not only against Negroes but white workers in the South, for the party of Tammany Hall in New York, and Hague in New Jersey. There are not words enough in the dictionary for you to explain to the great masses of common folk who have looked to your books for leadership the different sense in which you are Democrat. Still less will you be able to explain your defection to the multitudes in Europe who have hailed you as prophet and spokesman of their hopes.

Doug obviously takes the same pragmatic view of the DP as Svart:

Among other things, the hard-line left’s demonizing view of Democratic-branded seductions of power exaggerates the coherence of the party. As the political scientist Adam Hilton says, both major parties are “hollow” organizations—and porous ones—that can’t effectively police the boundaries of their ideological or intellectual identities. As Sanders showed, people can call themselves Democrats even when they’re not and run in their primaries. We’ve seen much the same phenomenon in congressional, state, and municipal races as well.

I have another way of looking at this. Despite the obvious hostility that is directed at Ilhan Omar, it is essential to the DP to have a left flank that creates the illusion that progress can be made running on its primary line. Its inability to “police” itself is actually a very effective way of maintaining the hegemonic place it shares with the Republicans. In the 1960s, it was essential to have “peace candidates” who could help convince the counterparts of today’s millennials that there was no need to join the SWP. Electing peace candidates was more “practical”. People like George McGovern had the same exact politics as Bernie Sanders but did not call themselves socialists. Even though the party’s corporate-centrist faction was as bent on destroying McGovern as it is today with respect to Sanders, it would never go so far as to define ideological boundaries. It is this very “hollowness” that helps to stabilize the capitalist system in the USA by maintaining the umbilical cord that connects a Nancy Pelosi to an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In attempting to burnish the image of the DSA, which really shouldn’t be necessary given the adulation it receives from the Washington Post on one side and the erstwhile ISO on the other, Doug creates a straw-man:

American left, stepping into a DSA meeting—at least the ones I’ve been to in Brooklyn—is a strange and lovely thing. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a typical gathering of leftists consisted of seven weirdos meeting in a ramshackle space, often fighting ancient battles about whether the USSR was a failed state capitalist experiment or a degenerated workers’ state. Goals were maximalist—to overthrow capitalism and build socialism—but no one really had an idea of what that meant.

Well, I was very active in the Central America Solidarity movement for the entire 1980s and this sounds like nothing I experienced. Meetings were devoted to questions on how to organize tabling to get passers-by to sign a petition against contra funding, not to debate the class nature of the Soviet Union. Indeed, by the 1980s at least, most of the old line Trotskyist and Maoist groups were in their twilight and had little role to play in the living movements. SWPers who showed up at Nicaragua Network meetings calling for a “proletarian orientation” were held in contempt by just about everybody.

The next thousand pages or so of Doug’s article is devoted to a discussion of the rather lively internal caucus life of the DSA that I found pretty inspiring, to tell you the truth. Let a thousand flowers bloom. As a DSA member myself, I might give some thought to starting one based on the writings of Bukharin who I find much more savory than Karl Kautsky, who is worshipped at the Jacobin altar.

Let me turn now to Astra Taylor’s article, which is 1,200 words longer than Doug’s. (Does The New Republic pay by the word? Well, at least they pay.) It is not specifically in praise of the DSA but is clearly in sync with its general emphasis on democracy. She says she was commissioned by The New Republic to write about the growing popularity of socialism in America. With that as an agenda, her article is filled with the kind of free PR the DSA gets on regular basis:

After decades of exile from mainstream American political discourse, the word “socialism” is now emblazoned in headlines and getting serious (if not always respectful) hearings from politicians holding and seeking the highest offices of the land. Even people who are not fans of Vermont Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (though a surprising number are fans—he’s the most popular politician in the country) cheered the arrival of two democratic socialist powerhouses in Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and Detroit Representative Rashida Tlaib. Their victories are higher profile, but no less significant, than those at the state and municipal level—from Houston, where a democratic socialist judge won his campaign, to Chicago, where six of 50 city council seats will soon be occupied by socialists.

Taylor’s article was based to a large extent on an appearance she made alongside Natasha Lennard at the closing panel for a conference on “Liberalism and Democracy: Past, Present, Prospects” at the New School. It appears they were invited to speak on behalf of democratic socialism as opposed to the organizers’ mainstream liberalism. This is something that did not sit well with the audience that might have thought that she and Lennard “had called for the reopening of work camps.” Taylor wrote that “Multiple respondents thought it fitting to mention that the German left had helped usher in Hitler, implying that Lennard and I were unwitting handmaidens of totalitarianism.”

For Taylor, the growth of the DSA might be explained by the willingness of its new members to rely on intuitions rather than the long and drawn-out process I went through in 1967 before joining the SWP. Before I would commit to a revolutionary organization, I really had to understand what it stood for. By contrast, “Youthful converts to left-wing politics may not know exactly what policies democratic socialism would consist of, from the nitty-gritty details of participatory decision-making structures to the role of markets in a world where capital no longer rules. But they do have a sense of what socialism would feel like. Socialism would feel like having a future.”

To Taylor’s credit, she worries if this kind of fuzziness can serve the movement’s needs. She alludes to people who tell pollsters they prefer socialism to capitalism or that Bernie Sanders is their favorite candidate. However, most of them also choose Joe Biden rather than Elizabeth Warren as their second choice, thus leaving their ideological coherence open to question.

For Taylor, the biggest concern is embodied in the title of the article “Reclaiming the Future”. In other words, there has to be a deep engagement with the problematic of how to do socialism right as opposed to the disasters of the 20th century:

A partial sampling of such questions would include, but are by no means limited to, the following: How much top-down planning will be required to create an ecologically sustainable economy or just a functional one? And how will markets, money, and finance be democratized and fit into the mix? How should we balance collective ownership of our natural common wealth with local and worker control—and how do we combine local and worker control with the ideal of international solidarity? How are the boundaries of decision-making communities to be determined and accountability to be enforced? When can democracy be direct, when must it be representative, and how could randomness or sortition—selecting people to serve as public officials instead of electing them, as we do with juries—be put to good use?

In my view, these questions are beside the point. When some catastrophe in the future shakes society to its foundations, class lines will be drawn in the sharpest terms with those still working inside the Democratic Party looking as tarnished as Syriza politicians after Tsipras caved in to the German bankers.

She asks “When can democracy be direct, when must it be representative, and how could randomness or sortition—selecting people to serve as public officials instead of electing them, as we do with juries—be put to good use?” I don’t think the average factory worker would find much use in thinking through these questions, especially since they—like me—have no idea what “sortition” means.

What will move workers into struggle is having insufficient water to drink or bathe in, or seeing their home destroyed by an out-of-control forest fire, or seeing their strike broken by private armies funded by the Koch brothers. Nicaraguans overthrew Somoza without having the faintest idea of how the FSLN government would operate. They simply got sick and tired of their children being thrown out of helicopters because they opposed the dictatorship.

As difficult as it is for many on the left to imagine, the USA is moving into a stage that will pose these sorts of sharp class battles that will impose the most exacting demands on the left. I hope that the DSA will become part of the powerful revolutionary movement that can help achieve victory but it will soon have to decide who to align with, the editorial board of Vogue Magazine or the men and women who live paycheck to paycheck.

May 17, 2019

Trotsky, Bukharin, and the Eco-Modernists

Filed under: Bukharin,Counterpunch,DSA,Ecology,Jacobin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 17, 2019

Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.

– Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” (1924)

For some Trotskyist groups, these words have been interpreted as a green light to support all sorts of ecomodernist schemas. For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means using technology, often of dubious value, to ward off environmental crisis.

For example, the Socialist Workers Party, when it was still tethered to the planet Earth, was a strong supporter of Green values but after becoming unmoored it began to publish articles that asserted: “Science and technology — which are developed and used by social labor — have established the knowledge and the means to lessen the burdens and dangers of work, to advance the quality of life, and to conserve and improve the earth’s patrimony.”  These abstractions have meant in the concrete supporting GMO: “The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species–so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”

A split from the SWP, the Spartacist League is just as gung-ho. In a diatribe against ecosocialist scholar and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, they position themselves as global warming skeptics: “Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society.” Their answer is very much in the spirit of the Trotsky quote above: “Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.” It turns out that Indian Point et al would be put at the service of society based on an article titled “Greens’ Anti-Nuclear Hysteria Amnesties Capitalism”.

Of course, the granddaddy of this kind of crude productivism is the cult around Spiked Online that is correctly perceived today as a contrarian and libertarian outlet. But its roots are in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain that defended GMO, nuclear power, DDT, etc. using Trotsky’s rhetoric. Today, there’s nothing to distinguish it from Donald Trump’s Department of Energy.

As it happens, Trotsky’s business about moving mountains through technology serves as the epigraph to Jacobin’s special issue on environmentalism that is permeated by ecomodernist themes. Among them is an article by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that shares an affection for nuclear energy with the nutty sects listed above. They reason: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” Their techno-optimism rivals that of Steven Pinker’s: “We patched our deteriorating ozone layer; we returned wolf populations and the forests they inhabit to central Europe; we relegated the infamous London fog of Dickens, Holmes, and Hitchcock to fiction, though coal particulates still choke Beijing and Shanghai.” As it happens, China is reducing coal particulates by displacing them geographically. The IEEFA, an energy think-tank, reported that a quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations.

Continue reading

April 3, 2019

Down with neo-Kautskyism

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,Kautsky — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

Karl Kautsky

Five years ago Jacobin was a big happy family with the ISO and Solidarity members basking in the spotlight alongside the DSA intellectuals. Despite the obvious cleavage between the Trotskyist origins of the former group and the Michael Harrington orientation of Bhaskar Sunkara, everybody could benefit from the exposure afforded by the magazine’s vast readership.

Eventually, the differences became too pronounced to ignore. Probably the first manifestation of this was Charles Post’s gentle reprimand of Vivek Chibber in the February 2018 issue that took issue with an earlier article by Chibber targeting the “ruptural” strategy associated with the early Communist International and the revolutionary left. Despite Chibber’s reputation as a high priest of orthodox Marxism (bolstered by Post and Jacobin, it should be added), there was no denying that he had much more in common with Michael Harrington than Leon Trotsky.

Establishing the orthodoxy of the Jacobin left took much more than citing Michael Harrington. To maintain its left cover, it had to search for a Marxist authority who could be invoked when dealing with a bunch of old fogies like Charles Post or Robert Brenner who could not see the wisdom in ringing doorbells for a Democratic Party candidate. Of course, one cannot be sure that Brenner was purged from the Catalyst editorial board by Sunkara and Chibber for political reasons but I’d bet a bottle of Glenlivet scotch that it was a factor.

Eric Blanc was Johnny-on-the-spot. This young Marxist scholar had an impressive track record of articles that were notable for their erudition even when some of their conclusions were questionable. Perhaps the most questionable of them were those that endorsed Lars Lih’s pro-“Old Bolshevik” analysis that there was a continuum between Karl Kautsky and Lenin. It was only a matter of time that Blanc’s political trajectory could be discerned. His interest in Kautsky was not just historical. He saw in Kautsky the missing link that could establish the revolutionary continuity between Karl Kautsky and the DSA’s inside-outside electoral strategy.

In January 2019, John Muldoon published an article in Jacobin titled Reclaiming the Best of Karl Kautsky that described him as the original “democratic socialist”. In my rebuttal to Muldoon, I wrote:

Kautsky’s basic message is don’t rock the boat with all that socialist revolution stuff. No wonder it would appeal to people smitten with Bernie Sanders, who is all for his home state serving as a base for F-35s, a $1.5 trillion boondoggle, or Jeremy Corbyn, whose chief economic adviser John McDonnell warns against nationalizing industry, something that would hearken back to 1945—god forbid.

Post had his own response to Mullin last month in an article titled The “Best” of Karl Kautsky Isn’t Good Enough that was critical but not so nearly as mine. Unlike Post, I don’t care about burning bridges and rather enjoy blowing up the smoldering remains with dynamite while I am at it. He wrote:

On the other hand, there are the electoral breakthroughs by self-proclaimed socialists and radicals such as Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib in the United States. The rising electoral profile of open critics of neoliberalism give the renewed struggles outside the electoral arena a political voice — a voice which could stimulate new and broader struggles.

If you take this seriously, then why not ring doorbells for the Democrats? After all, it might lead to workers councils and general strikes someday.

As gentle as Post’s critique was, Eric Blanc felt the need to defend Kautsky against him. (He even criticized Mullin for not giving Kautsky his due.) In an article titled Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care), Blanc comes out full-tilt-boogie for Kautsky, a man that Karl Marx described as “a member of the philistine tribe”.

In the first paragraph, Blanc describes Kautsky as “the world’s preeminent Marxist theorist from the late 1880s through 1914.” I’d make the case for Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky having those qualifications but do consider the possibility that Blanc uses the word “preeminent” in the same way that it applies to Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as socialists. After all, with all their appearances on cable TV, the term “preeminent” describes them much more than obscure figures like David Harvey or John Bellamy Foster.

According to Blanc, the fan boy James Muldoon and the critic Post were both wrong in characterizing him as opposed to a “ruptural” break with capitalism. They didn’t realize that Kautsky was a big-time rupture guy. (I’ll never get used to that word being used in this context. When I was young, the word always meant hernia, like when a kid told me in 7th grade that our social studies teacher wore a special belt for his rupture.)

Blanc’s basic position is that “The difference between Kautsky’s approach and that of Leninists like Post is not over whether a revolution was necessary, but how to get there.” To close the deal ideologically, Blanc uses the word insurrection as a way to make revolutionaries sound hopelessly blind to modern-day realities:

Following Lenin’s arguments in his 1917 pamphlet The State and Revolution, Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils. In contrast, Kautsky argued that the path to anticapitalist rupture in conditions of political democracy passed through the election of a workers’ party to government.

That the term “insurrection” does not appear once in The State and Revolution does not appear to perturb Blanc. I mean, after all, if it takes putting words in peoples’ mouth to win an argument… Blanc does admit that Kautsky did move toward the center after 1910 but up until that point, “Kautsky was the leading light of the far left in Germany, Russia, and across the world.” Not only that, he was not to blame for the SPD’s reactionary politics after 1910, with its support for WWI and its murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. That was the responsibility of an “unexpected rise of a caste of party and union bureaucrats who were dismissive of Marxist principles in general and Kautsky’s ‘intransigent’ class strategy in particular.”

Judging Kautsky’s pre-1910 writings as beyond reproach strikes me as the predictable outcome of Blanc connecting the dots between Kautsky and Lenin. Instead of seeing Trotsky’s writings on combined and uneven development as key, Lih and Blanc are much more inclined to see Lenin’s Bolshevism as resting on a stodgy and understandably neglected work like The Social Revolution, written in 1902. It contains pearls of wisdom like “For example, in all modern civilization the direction of capitalist development during the last century has been the same, but in every one of them the form and the velocity was very different. Geographical peculiarities, racial individualities, favor and disfavor of the neighbor, the restraint or assistance of great individualities, all these and many ether things have had their influence.” Yes, we can’t forget about those racial individualities, can we? Who would want to bother with Trotsky’s discussion of the 1905 revolution when there are such profundities awaiting us.

Toward the middle of the article, Blanc stops beating around the bush and gets to the real purpose of his article, which is to say it is okay to use the Democratic Party ballot line as he did in his dodgy “dirty break” article. It is high time we got over these Bolshevik “insurrectionary” illusions. Blanc writes:

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.

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”.

What existed in Russia in 1917 was rival governing powers. The Constituent Assembly insisted on prolonging the war and ignoring the pleas of the masses for “Peace, Bread and Land”. The Soviets, on the other hand, had become made up in their majority by Bolsheviks and as such were determined to carry out a revolution in order to satisfy their yearnings. If the Bolsheviks had not seized power, the counter-revolution would have prevailed just as it did in Chile under Allende. No matter how committed the Mensheviks and the Chilean left were to capitalist reform, the bourgeoisie was working overtime to make such reform impossible. At a certain point, the working class becomes exhausted and the reactionaries take the offensive.

That about says it all for theorizing revolutionary change but in reality these issues have a rather abstract character. The USA is far from having to decide whether Kautsky’s strategy is the key to unlocking the socialist door.

The real issue today is class independence. In a very real sense, the debate in the movement is not that different than the one that confronted the Russian left: how to regard the country’s capitalist reform party known as the Constitutional Democrats or Cadets. The debate between Jacobin/DSA and people like Charles Post is over how to relate to the Democratic Party, our version of the Cadets. Street-fighting and barricades have nothing to do with our present-day realities but voting for Democrats is.

In one of the most egregious misuses of revolutionary history in Blanc’s article, we are told that Kautsky’s parliamentarian approach was embraced by the sharpest minds in the Communist movement:

History has confirmed Kautsky’s predictions. Not only has there never been a victorious insurrectionary socialist movement under a capitalist democracy, but only a tiny minority of workers have ever even nominally supported the idea of an insurrection. For this reason, the most perceptive elements of the early Communist International began briefly moving back towards Kautsky’s approach in 1922–23 by advocating the parliamentary election of “workers’ governments” as a first step towards rupture.

To start with, the term “workers’ government” had nothing to do with DSA’s electoralism, the goal of which—rather unrealistically—is to see someone like Bernie Sanders turning into the second coming of Olaf Palme. In fact, Sweden won’t see the second coming of Olaf Palme, either. Capitalism has left the Fordist building. It is in the middle of a long depression, as Michael Roberts puts it, and hopes of a generous welfare state are as utopian as anything Robert Owen ever wrote.

When the Communists wrote about a workers government, they had something in mind like Germany in the early 20s when the Communists and many social democrats were revolutionary-minded. Unfortunately, the Communists were sectarian ultraleftists who would have considered such a bloc unprincipled.

But what might have been possible in Germany was not what Eric Blanc has in mind. Indeed, it had an insurrectionary character for much of the time. Germany had definitely entered a pre-Revolutionary situation in 1923. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation.

The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing Socialist named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He was friendly with the Communists and made common cause with them. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the Communist press. The united front overtures to Zeigner mostly consisted of escalating pressure to force him to accommodate to the maximum Communist program.

What if instead the Communists broached the possibility of a common electoral front with Zeigner, whose working-class comrades in Saxony had been carrying out pitched street-fighting battles with the cops and with the emerging fascist movement? This would have been a real “workers government”, not the impotent and useless coalition governments of post-WWII Europe that have been socialist in name only.

Under the conditions of capitalist austerity that will prevail for the foreseeable future in the USA and elsewhere, there will be rising discontent that can conceivably open workers up to the socialist alternative. The last thing we need are Marxists advocating on behalf of the Democratic Party, the oldest continuously functioning capitalist party in the world. The lines have been drawn and the left has to make up its mind. The future is at stake.

March 5, 2019

Democratic Socialism: a hot commodity

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,reformism — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

New York magazine has been around since 1968 and can generally be found in the reception area of doctors and dentists next to the more genteel and patrician New Yorker magazine. In contrast to the New Yorker, New York is focused on trends such as identifying which low-rent neighborhoods are on the verge of becoming “hip” through gentrification or life-style advice in articles such as The Best Automatic Pet Feeders and Water Fountains, According to Experts. I usually spend about a minute or two looking over the New York and New Yorker magazine websites on Monday when the new issues come out before going on to more substantive matters.

So, when I looked at New York yesterday and noticed that it was virtually a special issue on the DSA/Jacobin phenomenon, it drove home to me the degree to which it is the perfect place for such articles. They were the latest installment of puff-pieces that began in the January 20, 2013 NY Times with “A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream”. Ever since I have been reading the NY Times on a daily basis, I have never seen anything but the most hostile and distorted reporting on socialism and Marxism but for obvious reasons, this “democratic socialism” stuff really goes over big with the publisher. The first two paragraphs of the Times article has a tone that never would have been used if the subject was Hugo Chavez or Che Guevara:

When Bhaskar Sunkara was growing up in Westchester County, he likes to say, he dreamed of being a professional basketball player.

But the height gods, among others, didn’t smile in his favor. So in 2009, during a medical leave from his sophomore year at George Washington University, Mr. Sunkara turned to Plan B: creating a magazine dedicated to bringing jargon-free neo-Marxist thinking to the masses.

Other trend-sniffing magazines followed suit with their articles about another “democratic socialist” superstar. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been profiled seven times in Vogue magazine, including an item about her multistep skin care routine. They quote her Instagram post: “I’m a science nerd and I truly enjoy the science of it, reading about compounds and studies. It’s like that.” She has also made it into Vanity Fair eleven times, including the cover photo shown above.

Let Bhaskar Sunkara and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bask in the limelight with their celebrity status. I’ll stick with socialists and radicals who are seen as notorious rather than celebrated. This includes Malcom X, Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky. When you are understood to be an enemy of the capitalist system, the gloves come off in the bourgeois press. These three, who had a big influence on me as a young radical, were notorious—so much so that they were killed for their efforts.

In a New York article titled “Okay, But What’s Wrong With Liberalism? A Chat With Jonathan Chait and Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara”, we get a “one-on-one” exchange moderated by Eric Levitz, a staff writer like the centrist Chait but closer to Sunkara politically. That doesn’t prevent Levitz from asking the question I’ve been asked a thousand times myself: “Didn’t the 20th century prove that socialism is even worse? After all, socialists are supposed to be radical (small-d) democrats — yet, in country after country, didn’t they transform into authoritarians upon their first taste of power?”

Sunkara answers this in a crafty manner. He acknowledges that Sweden was a capitalist country but “in the 1970s was the best society we’ve ever seen” and “governed by a socialist party that fought for democracy through the 1920s and ruled virtually uninterrupted for a half-century through democratic elections.” As for those shitty dictatorships like the USSR and Cuba, Sunkara leaves it like this: “We know the tragic legacy of the latter tradition.” What’s missing from this analysis is a recognition that there was a counter-revolution in the USSR. All of the major leaders of the October 1917 revolution were executed, assassinated or died in a Gulag. So what “latter tradition” is Sunkara talking about? The Communist Party that did everything in its power to prevent Spain from consummating a socialist revolution in 1938 or that used its control over the trade union movement in France to derail the May/June 1968 revolt? No, that legacy had little to do with socialism, even if Jacobin has repeatedly held up Italy’s Stalinist leader Togliatti as someone that today’s left can learn from.

Toward the end of this panel discussion, Sunkara acknowledges that in the long run the Swedish model will be unsustainable even if Bernie Sanders was elected and went about turning the USA into another Sweden. Why? “The history of social democracy is that capital will withhold investment if it doesn’t like the prevailing political mood or constraints on its freedom. In the modern, internationalized economy, this means that social democracy is harder to achieve than it was in the 20th century.”

So, what can we look forward to from the DSA/Jacobin left? Maybe thirty or forty years of election campaigns that will finally create a “democratic socialist” majority in both houses of Congress, a president like Sanders (maybe Ocasio-Cortez herself), and a Supreme Court filled with people like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, the DSA backed District Attorney who is against Mumia getting a new trial . Even if this long and arduous struggle is successful, it will have been a Sisyphean effort since the capitalists will do everything in their power to subvert it. Maybe the idea is to start building a revolutionary party opposed to the Republicans and Democrats alike, one that will challenge capital politically by running candidates that raise the consciousness of the masses by exposing the contradictions of the capitalist system, such as its inability to eradicate the racism that has been at its core for the past 300 years or so. Most importantly, this will be a party that fosters the growth of working class committees that have the power to defend themselves against counter-revolutionary violence. This is the way that socialist revolutions happen and the USA won’t be an exception.

Then there is “Pinkos Have More Fun Socialism is AOC’s calling card, Trump’s latest rhetorical bludgeon, and a new way to date in Brooklyn”, a piece that makes the DSA scene look positively happening:

It’s the Friday after Valentine’s Day. The radical publishing house Verso Books is throwing its annual Red Party, an anti-romance-themed banger. Like a lot of the best lefty parties, it takes place in Verso’s book-lined Jay Street loft, ten stories above cobblestoned Dumbo. The view of the East River is splendid, the DJ is good, and the beers cost three bucks.

Before long, you get the idea that this a subculture much more than a political movement. The people appear to be very young, very educated and very white. What is the chance that a striking Spectrum worker will feel at home where this is happening?

An hour into the party, Isser and Brostoff stage a version of The Dating Game — one bachelorette, four suitors — to promote Red Yenta. Friend-of-the-app Natasha Lennard, a columnist at the Intercept, yells for quiet. “There is a service — a communal service — that is better than a Tinder, or the last hurrahs of an OKCupid,” she announces. Who wants to slog through a few bad dates only “to find out that someone is a liberal?” Brostoff takes the mic. Pins and posters are available for purchase, she says, and donations are of course welcome. “That’s how we became capitalists,” she jokes. “And that’s what you call irony. Or dialectics.”

Funny to see Natasha Lennard in this setting. A decade ago, she was a high profile anarchist who would not have found much in common with “democratic socialists”. I guess this just reflects the counter-cultural, if not the political, ebb of anarchism. She felt at home at a party that was greeted by the NYC-DSA host: “Everybody looks fuckin’ sexy as hell. This is amazing to have everybody here looking beautiful in the same room, spreading the message of socialism. Give yourselves a round of applause.” I’m glad I wasn’t invited. My days of looking beautiful are long over, plus I get sleepy around 10pm.

The most illuminating paragraph in this life-style article is this one:

Until very recently, it wasn’t that socialism was toxic in a red-scare way. It was irrelevant, in a dustbin-of-history way. But then came Bernie Sanders’s 2016 candidacy, then the membership boom of DSA, then the proliferation of socialist cultural products like Chapo, and then, finally, the spectacular rise of Ocasio-Cortez.

The politics of the socialism that they helped revive isn’t always clear. Stripped of its Soviet context and cynically repurposed by conservative partisans, the word had lost its meaning by the time it got hot again. For some DSA grandees, like NYC chapter co-chair Bianca Cunningham, socialism means a planned economy that replaces market capitalism. “It means we own the means of production. It means we get to run our workplaces and our own government,” she says. But that is unusual. For Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and most of their devotees, it’s closer to a robust version of New Deal liberalism — or, perhaps, Northern European social democracy.

No, the word has not lost its meaning, at least for people not taken in by Sunkara’s con-game. It is a system that will exist globally or else it will not exist at all. Furthermore, it will be characterized by the collective ownership of the means of production, scientific planning, and a reintegration of the city and the countryside in order to overcome the metabolic rife. It will not be launched from Verso offices in Brooklyn but in dingy meeting halls in working-class neighborhoods in Queens and their counterpart in other cities in the USA and the rest of the world. The people at its core will be garment workers, meat-cutters, bus drivers, and miners who have no idea who Slavoj Zizek or Vivek Chibber are. They will also be largely people of color, very few of whom who will have an advanced degree. Trying to find a way to reach such people was very much on the minds of people from my generation but ironically they can be reached now by a left that largely seems committed to living in a life-style cocoon.

Toward the end of the article, the author has a conversation with Michael Kinnucan, a Facebook essayist. Kinnucan provides a quasi-Marxist analysis of the explosive growth of the DSA:

Over beers in Crown Heights, we’re tracing the origins of the movement. The most straightforward explanation for the socialism boom is, fittingly, a material one: Saddled with student debt and thrust into a shit post-2008 economy, millennials were overeducated, downwardly mobile, and financially insecure. On top of everything, the internet was making them feel bad and the planet was melting. The precariat, they called themselves.

In between frequent cigarette breaks, Kinnucan sketched his version of this progression. Graduate from the University of Chicago in 2009; get bogged down in the post-crash economy; drift to Occupy Wall Street in 2011; get radicalized. “There was a Twitter hashtag and internet meme, #SIFUAB: Shit is fucked up and bullshit,” he recalled fondly. “There was a large element of collectivizing depression. The genre of meme where you write on a piece of paper and hold up the amount of student loans you have.”

This sounds about right but susceptible to the glass ceiling that has so often stopped left groups in their tracks. For “Leninist” groups like the SWP and the ISO, that glass ceiling was about two to three thousand. Such groups grew rapidly but were constrained by their insistence on a program that required ideological conformity that many leftists disdained as a kind of intellectual straight-jacket.

For the young, University of Chicago-educated, Verso Party attending, and Caucasian precariat, the glass ceiling is much higher. Who knows? The DSA might even become as large as SDS was in its heyday. Whether it will be able to attract the people who have the social and economic power to change society is doubtful at best. Maybe that doesn’t matter much since they are having lots of fun in the meantime.

Finally, we get to Levitz’s interview with Michael Kazin titled “What Does the Radical Left’s Future Look Like?” Kazin is the co-editor of Dissent, the social democratic journal that might be described as Jacobin stripped down to its pro-Democratic Party propaganda but without the Kautskyite frosting.

Kazin, who wrote a hatchet job on Howard Zinn in 2010, is a DSA fan, especially since it focuses on economic issues unlike the left of my youth that was in effect single-issue movements against the Vietnam War, for abortion rights, etc.

Kazin is not so nearly as coy as people like Sunkara and Eric Blanc when it comes to work in the Democratic Party that they regard as merely a tactic that will be discarded maybe in 2060 or so when the country is ready to vote for a third party demanding an end to the capitalist system:

If Bernie hadn’t run as a Democrat in 2016, most Americans would never have heard of him and he wouldn’t be in a position to mount the kind of campaign he’s going to run. I think the left cannot just be a movement outside the party structure, looking askance at the party and thinking that somehow it can win real reforms and transform American society without engaging with the party. You’ve got to be both radical and Democratic with a capital D.

Levitz next asks a question that really gets to the heart of what makes the DSA so different from the anarchist-dominated anti-globalization and Occupy movements that were not shy about their hostility to capitalism: “What do you think is responsible for this pragmatic turn away from the anarchist tendency that informed the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s or Occupy Wall Street and toward a greater concern with winning and exercising power within existing institutions?” So, for all the horse-shit about transcending Scandinavian social democracy and the need to establish true socialism in the far-off future, Levitz sees the DSA as a “pragmatic turn away from the anarchist tendency that informed the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s or Occupy Wall Street and toward a greater concern with winning and exercising power within existing institutions.” Put more succinctly, Levitz nails the DSA and the intellectuals who promote it in Jacobin as pragmatists working inside the Democratic Party.

Bingo.

February 20, 2019

Bernie Sanders arrives at the Finland Station

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

Yesterday I was the recipient of two communications making the case for supporting Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, both filled with the sense of excitement that must have gripped Russian workers when V.I. Lenin stepped out of the German train that had arrived at Finland Station on April 16, 1917.

Bhaskar Sunkara was positively beside himself, telling Guardian readers that “Sanders started a revolution in 2016. In 2020, he can finish it”. I guess I have a different understanding of revolution than Sunkara, whose Marxism is not burdened by too rigid understandings of socialism gleaned from Lenin’s writings. He must have the same idea as Sanders who captured the imagination of white youth in 2016 by calling for a political revolution against the billionaire class. Heaven forfend the notion that a social revolution would be necessary to make scumbags like Stephen Schwarzman and David Koch squeeze some working people into their 30-room apartments as Lenin advocated in “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power”:

The squad arrives at the rich man’s flat, inspects it and finds that it consists of five rooms occupied by two men and two women—“You must squeeze up a bit into two rooms this winter, citizens, and prepare two rooms for two families now living in cellars. Until the time, with the aid of engineers (you are an engineer, aren’t you?), we have built good dwellings for everybody, you will have to squeeze up a little. Your telephone will serve ten families. This will save a hundred hours of work wasted on shopping, and so forth.”

In fact, it seems the only assault on the ruling class considered by the “democratic socialists” is to impose a 70 percent marginal tax rate that the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler regards as “not so radical” and that New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz embraces as a “a Moderate, Evidence-Based Policy”. Nothing that Ocasio-Cortez or Sanders have ever said addresses the question of whether a society that allows people to accumulate personal wealth of $51 billion (Koch) or a measly $13 billion (Schwarzman) can ever be truly democratic.

Sunkara writes, “Before 2016, who could forget that the Democratic party was dominated by charter-school supporting politicians and anti-public-sector-union types like Cory Booker and Rahm Emanuel?” All that supposedly changed with Bernie Sanders. Either Sunkara is blissfully aware of Sanders’s position on charter schools, or, being aware of it, decided to sweep it under the rug.

In May 2016, Sanders told an Ohio audience: “I believe in public education, and I believe in public charter schools. I do not believe in private – privately controlled charter schools.” I hope one of his aides clued him in that charter schools in LA are public schools. That is the problem, after all. They drain public resources into an essentially private enterprise. Indeed, Bernie voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998. He believes, however, that they must be “held to the same standards of transparency as public schools to ensure accountability for these privately managed organizations.” As if schools that are in the back pocket of hedge fund billionaires can ever be transparent.

Prior to his 2016 remarks in Ohio, Sanders entered pro-charter testimony in the Congressional Record from a ninth-grade student who said:

While I am fortunate that my family has been able to send me to private school, it should not be only the economically elite who have access to alternative education. I think a solution to this problem is federal legislation encouraging states to institute charter schools. Options would then open up for disadvantaged students. Because charter schools are still technically public schools, any student could go to the school of their choice. Students, like adults, need options; no school fits all students, just like no company is right for all workers.

Even this 9th grader could distinguish between a private school and a public charter school.

Jacobin editor Meagan Day is even more ebullient over Sanders’s candidacy than Sunkara. Her article is titled “Bernie Is Running, Thank God”. Day believes a class war is raging and that Sanders is the only one running who wants to build working-class forces to fight back. It seems that “neoliberal politicians in both parties have shamelessly and relentlessly deregulated corporations, cut taxes on the rich, stymied unions, starved social services, privatized public goods, and bailed out economic elites while imposing austerity on everyone else.” I guess Hillary Clinton was one of those “neoliberal politicians” but that did not prevent Sanders for urging a vote for her in 2016. By the same token, so is Andrew Cuomo who got A. O-C’s nod as well.

The Jacobin/DSA Democratic Party (JDDP) socialists are worried that young white people might be seduced by Elizabeth Warren whose program sounds an awful lot like Sanders’s. There have been a steady stream of articles from the JDDP warning them away from the treacherous Harvard law professor. Published on the same day as Day’s article, Shawn Gude likened her to Louis Brandeis, who as a Progressive was opposed to trusts but not capitalism. As for Bernie Sanders, he was our age’s version of Eugene V. Debs, who believed that nothing “could close the structural gulf between workers and capitalists.” You also got Berkeley Ph.D. student Ziad Jilani drawing a red line between Sanders and Warren in a Jacobin article last month titled “Why the Differences Between Sanders and Warren Matter”. Jilani, who was a staff member of a PAC that supported Warren in the past, sees her in the same way as Shawn Gude. As a proponent of “fair-minded” capitalism, she only wants to “rein in” big business.

Finally, there’s Bhaskar Sunkara, who once again used the bully pulpit of a Guardian op-ed last August to pose the question “Think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the same?” Unlike Warren, Sanders “was trained in the dying remnants of the Socialist party and cut his political teeth in trade union and civil rights organizing…The rich were not morally confused but rather have a vested interest in the exploitation of others. Power would have to be taken from them by force.”

Power would have to be taken from them by force? Ooh, boy. I can’t wait for Bernie Sanders to lead a squad of workers into 740 Park Avenue to force Stephen Schwarzman to put a roof over the heads of some people living in a shelter.

I should add that Sunkara was not always this willing to exaggerate Sanders’s class struggle bona fides. In 2015, he told Vox:

Sanders is, in many ways, a good social democrat. That’s not a bad start, but we want to not only build a welfare state, but go beyond it. We want a society in which political democracy is extended into economic and social realms as well, where workers own and control their places of employment, not just get a decent wage.

Well, of course. So, why all the bullshit about taking power by force or, even worse, comparing Sanders to Eugene V. Debs? Debs was far closer to Lenin than he was to the Scandinavian welfare states that Sanders identified as his brand of socialism to Bob Schieffer in a Face the Nation interview.

In 1904, when Debs was a presidential candidate, he made a speech that could not be further from the agenda of the JDDP. He said:

The capitalist class is represented by the Republican, Democratic, Populist and Prohibition parties, all of which stand for private ownership of the means of production, and the triumph of any one of which will mean continued wage-slavery to the working class.

As the Populist and Prohibition sections of the capitalist party represent minority elements which propose to reform the capitalist system without disturbing wage-slavery, a vain and impossible task, they will be omitted from this discussion with all the credit due the rank and file for their good intentions.

The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.

To tell you the god’s honest truth, I’d have a lot less animosity toward the JDDP if it simply dropped all the rhetoric about power being taken from the rich by force and stopped pretending it had anything to do with Eugene V. Debs. While they would never admit to it, they really are well-intended liberals just like the kids who rang doorbells for Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern when I was the same age as Bhaskar Sunkara. None of these doorbell-pushers needed to invoke Karl Kautsky to justify their misguided efforts to end the war by electing peace candidates.

In the early 70s, young people were confronted by the enormous crisis of an unceasing war in Indochina just as they are today facing an unceasing economic crisis that forces them into the precariat. War and economic misery are a function of capitalist rule. To achieve peace and economic security, it is necessary to build a revolutionary party that regards both the Democrats and Republicans as mortal enemies—just as Eugene V. Debs put it.

When I began writing about the need for a nonsectarian revolutionary party in the early 80s, I had high hopes that something might have come together by now. Unfortunately, I was overly optimistic. Today, the JDDP has sucked all the oxygen out of the room and there is no telling when new revolutionary forces will emerged. My guess is that the failure of the JDDP to put a dent into the capitalist system over the next decade at least will begin to wake people up. Maybe I’ll be around to see that.

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