Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

February 10, 2019

How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should have answered Chuck Todd’s question about whether a socialist can be a capitalist

Filed under: DSA,socialism — louisproyect @ 10:06 pm

On Friday night, Chuck Todd interviewed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the Meet the Press Daily show on MSNBC. Like most of the people with shows on MSNBC, Todd identifies with the Democratic Party leadership and would tend to be tougher with someone like Bernie Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez than with Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton. The interview has generated more than the usual buzz since Todd asked her if a democratic socialist can be a capitalist, which is an absurd question since it mixes apples and oranges. The goal was to clearly put her on the spot. A democratic socialist is a politician while a capitalist is someone who is belongs to a class defined by its relationship to the means of production. Much of the interview has the two working at cross-purposes but it is worth watching since it gets to the heart of Ocasio-Cortez’s core beliefs and implicitly those on the left who nod approvingly of her and Sanders’s self-identification as socialists.

We should start off by acknowledging that her supporters in the DSA are much further to the left and would not offer the kind of circumlocutions she puts forward if they were being interviewed. DSA websites are filled with proclamations about the need to abolish private property and produce on the basis of human need. In this sense, they are the continuation of major Social Democratic parties that always insisted on the need for a classless society even if their modus operandi was based on class-collaboration. With Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, you get something different. Their idea of socialism is Sweden under Olof Palme while Olof Palme’s idea was something much closer to the Jacobin editorial board, especially given their affinity with the Meidner Plan that hoped to gradually increase the percentage of corporate shares owned by workers until the boss was eased out. Instead, it was the Meidner plan that was eased out in Sweden.

Replying to the question about whether a socialist (I will dispense with the word democratic because socialism is based on the idea of full democracy) can be a capitalist, Ocasio-Cortez dodges the question as skillfully as Muhammad Ali dodging a punch: “Well, I think it depends on your interpretation. So there are some democratic socialist that would say absolutely not. There are other people that are democratic socialist that would say I think it’s possible.” Todd follows up by asking her “what are you?” This elicits the reply that she is for a “democratic economy”.

A democratic economy? Who would be opposed to that? Ron Paul? The Koch brothers? Barack Obama? Elizabeth Warren?

With respect to Warren, Ocasio-Cortez offers another circumlocution: “So … in some ways whether it’s you’re coming from say Elizabeth Warren’s perspective where she says, you know she says things like I’m a capitalist but we need to have hard rules for the game.” What the hell? Why can’t Ocasio-Cortez just come out and state her economic views directly and clearly? Why drag Warren into the discussion?

About the best you can hope for is what she says in reply to Todd’s question about whether the private sector can do some things better than the public sector:

Yes, I think there’s a lot of things. There’s a lot of consumer goods where the private sector works. And by the way, I think it’s important to delineate that just because you’re in the private sector doesn’t — you can be in the private sector and be a democratically socialist business.

Worker cooperatives are a perfect example of that. It’s not about government takeover, it’s about how much do workers have a say in your business. Do you have workers on the board? Do workers enjoy a decent amount of the wealth that they are creating.

Or is the majority of these profits going to shareholders while you’re paying a worker $15 an hour to live in a New York City apartment. And to that too me is a the difference. It’s not that public — the public sector is democratically socialist and the private sector is not. It’s really about a more nuance understanding of how our economy should work.

Well, there is no doubt that the “private sector” can often produce consumer goods better than the public sector. Just look at the crappy clothes Russians had to put up with in the 1960s. Everybody knows that they backed perestroika in order to get a pair of Levi’s even if today’s Levi’s are garbage. But what does this have to do with the crisis we are living through? Capitalism is degrading the water we drink, the air we breathe and the food we eat. At the rate things are going, the only wildlife left 50 years from now will be pigeons, squirrels and rats.

Predictably, Ocasio-Cortez refers to cooperatives as an example of a “democratically socialist business”. While nobody would minimize the importance of the Brooklyn food co-op or the co-ops that flourished in my hometown of Woodridge, NY that PM described as a “utopia in the Catskills”, they are essentially marginal enterprises. Yes, you can get a good deal on a 50-pound bag of potatoes in Brooklyn and grain to feed your chickens as the Communist poultry farmers did in Woodridge but we are dealing with monstrous capitalist predators like ExxonMobil, Boeing, Dow, General Electric (until it goes bankrupt), Walmart, and American Airlines that will continue to destroy the possibility of humanity’s future into the twenty-second century at the rate things are going. Would adding ExxonMobil workers to the board of directors make any difference? Absolutely not. Most of them probably identify much more with Rex Tillerson rather than Bernie Sanders.

She is much more concerned with people working in the service industries whose plight she suffered when she was working as a waitress in a taqueria. However, we need to figure out a way to reach the vast majority of workers who have the social power to become a new ruling class. The median household income in the USA in 2017 was $61,372. Most people who hold down jobs in auto factories or oil refineries are doing much better than that.

The problem for us is convincing ordinary workers that their interests and that of the ruling class are opposed. While there is little likelihood that the millions of factory workers in the USA are ready to join the DSA, let alone a revolutionary organization, the primary goal of socialists is to draw clear class lines that will help to raise consciousness. Certainly, the speeches given by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez about the “billionaire class” help to draw such lines but what’s sorely missing is a clear and precise diagnosis of the underlying cause of a wide variety of ills that are hard to miss nowadays, from the opioid epidemic to the flooding that ravaged Houston in 2017. American families are becoming increasingly vulnerable to socio-economic dislocations that having nothing to do with minimum wage or whether ExxonMobil refinery workers in Houston are on the board of directors or not. In fact, many of them were probably living in those houses that were devastated by the flood.

If I were a guest on Chuck Todd’s show, and he asked me if a socialist could be a capitalist, I would have answered this way:

Chuck, of course a socialist can be a capitalist. Karl Marx’s partner Friedrich Engels owned a textile mill. But the real question facing the American people is whether we need socialism. I maintain that we do based on the following considerations.

Everything you use, everything you eat or wear, your car, your housing — you didn’t make any of these things. We don’t produce these things as individuals. We produce socially. We have a division of work in the United States, and in the whole world for that matter. People in one part of the world make things which people in another part of the world use.

But, even though we produce socially, through co-operation, we don’t own the means of production socially. And this affects all the basic decisions made in this society about what we produce. These decisions are not made on the basis of what people need, but on the basis of what makes a profit.

Take the question of hunger. There are people going hungry all over the world, and the US government recently reported that there are a lot of people going hungry right here in the United States. And yet, because of the profit system, the US government is now paying some farmers not to farm. Farmers don’t make their decisions by saying: “We need a lot of corn in the US, so I’m going to plant a lot of corn.” They never say that. They say: “How much money am I going to make if I plant corn?” Did you know that if decisions were not made on this basis, then the US alone would have the potential to feed the whole world? The economic potential is there.

I’ll give you another example of how the potential for meeting human needs is destroyed because of the profit system. Say you are a capitalist, and you’re about to build a factory. Do you say: “I’ll build it where it’s nice, where there are trees and fresh air, and where the workers will have nice homes and will be able to go mountain climbing or hunting or swimming?” No, that’s not the way you think. You say: “Well, where’s my market, where are my raw materials coming in, how can I make the most profit?” And this means you might build the factory where you will pump even more poison into the air.

(The italicized paragraphs above are From Peter Camejo’s “How to Make a Revolution in the United States” from 1969).

 

January 27, 2019

Eric Blanc, the LA School Strike, and Swimming Against the Stream

Filed under: DSA,Education,electoral strategy,two-party system — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

Unlike other teachers strikes over the past year, the one that just took place in Los Angeles confronted a Democratic Party machine rather than one run by the Republicans. For those trying to understand our current period in class terms, it is a useful reminder that the labor movement has to learn how to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is the Republican Party with its snarling right-to-work, Koch-backed politicians while Charybdis is the Blue State power elite that uses seduction to get its way. Put in a nutshell, the main obstacle to putting public education in Los Angeles on the same footing it enjoyed 60 years ago means breaking through the veil of seduction and overthrowing the liberal establishment.

There’s a useful article by Eric Blanc on Jacobin titled “Never Trust a Billionaire’s Antiracism” that takes names and kicks ass as we used to put it in the 1960s. He singles out LA School Board President Monica Garcia who supported charter schools against the teachers union attempt to rein them in:

Nobody embodies this hypocrisy better than LAUSD head Monica Garcia. The daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants in East Los Angeles, Garcia has leveraged her personal background to climb the city’s power structure. She consistently paints her political project — which mostly consists of promoting charters and opposing the strike — in activist colors.

When it comes to issues she has no control over, Garcia is as progressive as can be. Her Twitter account is full of Nelson Mandela quotes, denunciations of Trump’s xenophobia, and praise for Elizabeth Warren. Despite her hard opposition to today’s strikes, Garcia is nevertheless fond of hosting conferences that raise the banner of the 1968 Chicano student walkouts.

Unfortunately, Blanc continues along his patented neo-Kautskyite lines in this article by drawing a contrast between LA’s former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Garcia on one side and the “socialist” wing of the DP on the other:

That’s why figures like Garcia and Villaraigosa were pushed forward to attack (in the name of racial justice) a movement of, and for, a predominantly nonwhite workforce and student body. It’s also why the Democratic Party establishment and its pundit apologists will continue to use antiracist rhetoric to attack Bernie Sanders and the resurgent socialist movement.

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.” Hmm. 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 these they must be “held to the same standards of transparency as public schools to ensure accountability for these privately managed organizations.” Transparency? Accountability? Jesus fucking Christ. These are not the right criteria. The right criteria are funding and the right to have a union. Charter schools get the lion’s share of the funding and teachers lose the right to challenge the administration through strikes or grievances.

As for Antonio Villaraigosa, Blanc merely refers to him as “a former union organizer who quickly abandoned his pro-labor commitments upon becoming LA’s mayor in 2005.” It is worth pointing out the DSA enthusiastically supported him for mayor. Writing for the DSA Democratic Left, Peter Dreier singled out the networks who were crucial to his election:

When he ran for Mayor the first time in 2001 he lost, but he ran again and won in 2005. Now we have a progressive mayor, thanks in large part to this impressive network of grassroots organizations, labor unions and community and environmental organizations. Many of them have lifted up some of their leaders into positions of electoral power. It’s a network of activists that work closely with elected officials, like Congresswoman Hilda Solis, and it’s just remarkable what L.A. has become.

In 2010, Villaraigosa named Austin Beutner as his Deputy Mayor. Beutner became Superintendent of the LA School System last year, appointed by the current mayor Eric Garcetti. Whatever made Villaraigosa pick someone like Beutner to be his second in command? In 1989, Beutner was a partner at Blackstone, a private equity group run by Stephen Schwarzman who once described Obama’s “crackdown” on Wall Street as “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” Soon after Beutner became Deputy Mayor, he stated in an interview that his goal was “to make Los Angeles the most business-friendly city in the country.”

In 2015, billionaire Eli Broad, the Waltons and Michael Bloomberg spent $2.3 million to help elect a board of education that backed charter schools. This has been part of a major offensive by the capitalist class to restructure American education along quasi-privatization guidelines. Despite Bernie Sanders’s foolish notions about private versus public, all charter schools are private. The only difference between Arne Duncan and Betsy Devos is degree. The same thing with Obama saying in November 2018 “That whole suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer … that was me, people” and Trump targeting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—just a matter of the degree.

What is going on with people like Villaraigosa selling out? Why can’t “democratic socialists” anticipate such developments? Perhaps the best way to understand this is the sheer difficulty of being a revolutionary in the USA. I can’t blame Eric Blanc for joining the DSA rather than the ISO. Being in a small revolutionary organization swimming against the stream is a taxing business. Can’t you imagine the excitement around Villaraigosa’s campaign in 2005 when he had an “impressive network of grassroots organizations, labor unions and community and environmental organizations”? It must have been as heady an experience as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being elected to Congress. Or Obama getting elected in November, 2007.

Unfortunately, swimming against the stream is the only way to make a revolution in the USA. As tiresome as it is for the salmon to reach its spawning grounds or for tiny numbers of Marxists to break out of their isolation and rally working people to the cause of revolution, this is the task that confronts us in the 21st century. All around us are signs of terminal decay, from monarch butterfly extinction to a new nuclear arms race. If it was possible for the Democratic Party to overcome these crises, it might make sense to adopt an “inside-outside” orientation. There’s a wrinkle, however. The 20th century was replete with radicals being taken over by the Nancy Pelosis of the world rather than us taking over the Democratic Party. Let’s make the 21st century a new start for independent class action. If the ability of government workers at airports to withhold their labor could torpedo (even if momentarily) Trump’s wall, imagine if they and the rest of the working class could form a left party with the resolve to create a new society based on human needs rather than private profit. That was Karl Marx’s goal and it is still worth pursuing.

January 4, 2019

Sanders, Warren and the DSA

Filed under: Counterpunch,DSA — louisproyect @ 3:43 pm

Michael Harrington: the DSA’s founding father

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 4, 2019

For the past few months, dating back at least to Bhaskar Sunkara’s October 23rd Guardian op-ed piece titled “Think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the same? They aren’t”, the “democratic socialist” wing of the Democratic Party has mounted an ideological offensive against the Senator from Massachusetts, laying the groundwork for Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign. Though likely almost as happy to get behind a Warren candidacy, it faults her for backing “Accountable Capitalism” rather than the Scandinavian-style socialism Sanders embraces. From the perspective of the Republican Party, and likely the Biden/Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, there’s not much difference between the two Senators. The “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism”, issued by Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers in the same month as Sunkara’s op-ed, had this take on the two:

The Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who cited Marxism as the model for his country, described “the ruthless economic exploitation and political oppression of the peasants by the landlord class” (Cotterell 2011, chap. 6). Expressing similar concerns, current American senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have stated that “large corporations . . . exploit human misery and insecurity, and turn them into huge profits” and “giant corporations . . . exploit workers just to boost their own profits.”6

Can you guess which Senator’s quote was which? Take 5 minutes to decide but no cheating, please. Okay, the answer is that Sanders’s quote came first. But wouldn’t any DSA’er be nearly as happy to see Warren become President in light of her belief that “giant corporations . . . exploit workers just to boost their own profits”? It is worth noting that some on the left—including Boris Kagarlitsky and Diana Johnstone—took Trump’s populist rhetoric to heart, so maybe something more than words have to be taken into account.

Continue reading

December 26, 2018

Race, class and the DSA

Filed under: african-american,DSA,racism — louisproyect @ 11:49 pm

Miguel Salazar, hired gun for the New Republic

On December 20th, Miguel Salazar wrote an article for New Republic titled “Do America’s Socialists Have a Race Problem?” that was clearly intended to scandalize the DSA. While the magazine is by no means as disgusting as it was under Martin Peretz’s neoconservative editorial control, it certainly reflects the dominant position of the Clinton/Biden/Pelosi wing of the Democratic Party. If you want to get a handle on Salazar’s politics, you should read the Nation interview he did with Jon Lee Anderson, the author of a hostile biography of Che Guevara. Check out this question: “Recently, in the US, there has been a push for a more revisionist approach in looking back at historical figures such as Robert E. Lee or Andrew Jackson. In an interview with BBC Mundo, you say that we can’t compare figures from the past using the morals of today. Where do we draw the line on figures like Che?” Imagine that. Making an amalgam between the slavocracy and a physician who gave up a promising career to risk his life fighting for the liberation of Cuba’s campesinos.

It appears that an African-American politician named Cat Brooks was urged to come to a Bay Area DSA by some of her supporters who were at a meeting in progress. They summoned her because there was sentiment against endorsing her candidacy for mayor of Oakland. A DSAer named Jeremy Gong was likely leading the opposition to her based on an article he wrote in September titled “East Bay DSA Should Not Endorse Cat Brooks”. To start with, Gong argues that her support for charter schools should preclude an endorsement. But additionally Gong hearkens back to a hoary debate on the left going on for a century at least. He writes: “in her statements to and about DSA, Brooks has revealed that she holds a political perspective which understands race to be the fundamental dividing line in society instead of class — and this undermines our project of building a multiracial working-class movement.”

For Salazar, the emphasis on class betrays the DSA’s supposedly old-school Marxism:

But unlike other progressive groups, DSA has to contend with internal factions that are very seriously wedded to a certain strain of socialist ideology—one that emphasizes, as Karl Marx did, a churning class war that governs the history of humankind. For these socialists, an anti-capitalist movement must be anti-racist, since capitalism has been instrumental in the subjugation of minorities. But they are also weary of liberal politicians who, they say, exploit race to pander to minority groups, all while skirting the deeper class conflict at work. In the past year, these hard-liners have clashed on numerous occasions with other socialists, often minorities themselves, who contend that righting America’s unique wrongs requires an approach distinct from the universal precepts of historical materialism—one that emphasizes racism’s special impact on inequality, supra-class.

It would be useful if Salazar identified who “these hard-liners” were but I wouldn’t expect an article designed to scandalize the DSA to name names. My first inclination would have been to check what such a “hard-liner” had written to judge for myself, if only Salazar had bothered to provide a source. But then again I am used to reading Marxist polemics where clarity is all-important. When you write for the New Republic and The Nation, clarity gets short shrift.

Further evidence of racism might have been uncovered in Philadelphia as well. There was a proposal in DSA to set up a reading group based on Asad Haider’s new book “Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump”. After the political education committee declared that it was not starting any new reading groups, the DSA members went ahead with it anyway. When the Philly DSA leaders found out, they told them to either cease and desist or resign. Considering the loose-knit nature of the DSA, this struck me as an organizational solution to a political problem, namely how to resolve the class/race contradiction or decide whether one even exists. The two camps went back and forth for a couple of weeks with temperatures rising, I supposed.

Finally, the fight boiled over into the pages of Jacobin when Melissa Naschek, a co-chair of the Philly chapter, wrote an attack on Haider’s book because it viewed the Black Power movement of the 1960s positively. For her, Black civil rights figures such as A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin are much more in line with DSA perspectives because they “insisted that the way forward was through an interracial working-class coalition.” By creating separate Black organizations such as SNCC, the Panthers, and dozens of other less well-known groups in the sixties, the Black Power movement was “was still based on a liberal belief that economic inequality could be dealt with by segregating the working class into racially distinguished units”, even if the rhetoric of an H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael was “militant”.

Since Naschek and Haider only know the sixties by reading secondary material, I am not surprised that they find inspiration in either A. Philip Randolph or H. Rap Brown. Unfortunately, the Black struggle in the 1960s was held back by reformism on one side and ultraleftism on the other. As should be understood, they function as two sides of the same coin. As Peter Camejo once put it, the failure to win reforms, especially through electoral politics, can make impatient youth take part in adventurist actions that are designed to persuade politicians to change—an act tantamount to a tot having a tantrum.

Sometimes a liberal becomes frustrated not getting the ear of the ruling class, and he concludes that he has been using the wrong tactics. So he adopts a lot of radical rhetoric. He says this ruling class is apparently so thickheaded that what we’ve got to do is really let loose a temper tantrum to get its attention. The politicians won’t listen to peaceful things, but if we go out and break windows then Kennedy will say, “Oh, I guess there is a problem in this society. I didn’t realize it when they were just demonstrating peacefully. I thought everything was OK because they were in the system, but now they’re going outside the system, they’re breaking windows, so we’ve got to hold back.”

These liberal-ultraleftists think that’s what moves the ruling class. Actually they come close to a correct theory when they say that if people start leaving the system the ruling class will respond. But they don’t believe that the masses can be won. They think it is enough for them to leave the system themselves, small groups of people carrying out direct confrontations.

Does Melissa Naschek have any idea that A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin refused to speak out against the Vietnam War for fear that it would undermine Democratic Party programs to help Black people? You’d think that to help her make her case against Black Power she would have at least held up Martin Luther King Jr. who did tie race and class together in the course of pointing out why Blacks should oppose the war. Maybe she decided to sweep him under the rug because too many people, especially old farts like me, knew that he was beginning to adopt some of the themes that the Black Power movement had articulated. This includes his 1967 statement that “The majority of [Black] political leaders do not ascend to prominence on the shoulders of mass support … most are still selected by white leadership, elevated to position, supplied with resources and inevitably subjected to white control. The mass of [Blacks] nurtures a healthy suspicion toward this manufactured leader.” H. Rap Brown might have used coarser language but it amounted to the same thing.

Haider wrote a lengthy reply to Naschek on the Verso website that I cannot begin to summarize because of its length but suffice it to say that he finds Randolph and Rustin lacking. Somewhat surprisingly, he does not mention their silence on the Vietnam War.

My biggest problem with his response is his tendency to express himself through abstractions. For example, he writes: “To argue for improvements in the living conditions of Americans alone is not universal. But any struggle can become universal if it challenges the whole structure of domination and brings about a collective subject with the possibility of self-governance.” I guess this is the occupational hazard of being a dissertation student. You read stuff like this all the time and it seeps into your own writing. That being said, I am probably much more in sympathy with his ideas since I was passionate about Black nationalism from the time I heard Malcolm X speak at a Militant Labor Forum in 1965.

Turning back to Salazar, he blames the Momentum caucus in DSA for the old-school Marxism that led to the rejection of Cat Brooks:

These ideological clashes, usually pitting DSA leadership against rank-and-file membership, have been largely limited to East Bay and Philadelphia, the only two major chapters in the country run by the Momentum caucus, a subgroup described in a 2017 Nation profile as the “most explicitly Marxist” within the organization, with a heavy focus on the campaign for Medicare-for-All.

You’d think that “the most explicitly Marxist” faction in DSA would be all about raising transitional demands and breaking with the Democratic Party. But in this strange skewed perspective of the New Republic and The Nation, a heavy focus on Medicare-for-All is virtually equivalent to Che and Fidel going into the Sierra Maestra mountains to start a guerrilla war. If you go to the Momentum website, you’ll discover that despite their dim view of the Democratic Party, they also view attempts to build a new left party as futile. Momentum leader Jeremy Gong co-wrote an article with Eric Blanc on Jacobin making the case that the Ocasio-Cortez campaign and Medicare-for-All illustrate “How Class Should Be Central”, as the title puts it. If that’s what “most explicitly Marxist” represents in such circles, I guess I am no Marxist.

Finally, a few words about Adolph Reed who intervened in this debate in a Common Dreams article titled “Which Side Are You On?”. Reed, who was a Trotskyist in the sixties just like me, has evolved into a class fundamentalist of the sort that the Debs SP and the CPUSA of the 1930s typified. Apparently, it is also the orientation that Miguel Salazar and Melissa Naschek favor.

Debs, bless his soul, just didn’t understand what his contemporary W.E.B. DuBois was trying to say:

I have said and say again that, properly speaking, there is no Negro question outside of the labor question—the working class struggle. Our position as Socialists and as a party is perfectly plain. We have simply to say: “The class struggle is colorless.” The capitalists, white, black and other shades, are on one side and the workers, white, black and all other colors, on the other side.

Reed sounds like he has plagiarized Mark Lilla, the Columbia professor who blamed Trump’s victory in 2016 on Hillary Clinton’s identity politics:

This politics is open to the worst forms of opportunism, and it promises to be a major front on which neoliberal Democrats will attack the left, directly and indirectly, and these lines of attack stand out in combining red-baiting and race-baiting into a new, ostensibly progressive form of invective. Hillary Clinton’s infamous 2016 campaign swipe at Sanders that his call for breaking up big banks wouldn’t end racism was only one harbinger of things to come. Indeed, we should recall that it was followed hard upon by even more blunt attacks from prominent members of the black political class.

It has been and will be all too easy for the occasion to elect “the first” black/Native American/woman/lesbian to substitute for the need to advance an agenda that can appeal broadly to working people of all races, genders and sexual orientations. Our side’s failure to struggle for that sort of agenda is one reason Trump is in the White House. We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes that helped bring about that result.

It’s worth mentioning that Reed’s hostility to Black people organizing on behalf of their own demands has led to some truly reactionary positions. In an article on Nonsite.org, he takes up the question of Black Lives Matter focusing on killer cops. He writes:

This line of argument and complaint, as well as the demand for ritual declarations that “black lives matter,” rest on insistence that “racism”—structural, systemic, institutional, post-racial or however modified—must be understood as the cause and name of the injustice manifest in that disparity, which is thus by implication the singular or paramount injustice of the pattern of police killings.

But, when we step away from focus on racial disproportions, the glaring fact is that whites are roughly half or nearly half of all those killed annually by police. [emphasis added]

As for this “glaring fact”, it skirts the real issue, namely whether a white cop would have shot a 12-year old boy like Tamir Rice running around with a toy pistol in a playground if he had been white. When someone in a position to speak for the Black left ends up spouting the kind of garbage you can hear on Tucker Carlson, you really have to wonder what went wrong.

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