Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 27, 2020

Eric Blanc endorses Joe Biden

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


Eric Blanc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tried to put Lenin’s position in context:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, I figured it out.

Badaev wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 19, 2020

The Big Scary “S” Word

Filed under: DSA,Film,Jacobin,reformism — louisproyect @ 9:44 pm

A half-century ago when our horizons seemed unlimited, Socialist Workers Party members were delighted to see a movie about our party shown at Oberlin College, where our yearly conferences took place. It was directed by party member (or perhaps fellow-traveler) Nick Castle whose Wikipedia page does not even mention the word socialism. Nick’s claim to fame was playing Michael Meyers in the first of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” movies and then becoming a director himself with credits like “The Last Starfighter” and “Dennis the Menace” to his name. I can’t remember anything about the SWP documentary but can at least state that its irrational exuberance reflected our self-importance at the time. Not only did someone with Hollywood credentials want to tell a story about us, we also managed to score a profile in the Sunday Times Magazine section written by Walter and Miriam Schneir. Unfortunately, the Times decided the article wasn’t critical enough and turned it down. The Schneirs took it to The Nation, which was happy to publish it. (Contact me for a copy.)

In the early 70s, the terms socialism and communism were interchangeable even though it led to some confusion when I was selling subscriptions to The Militant door-to-door in Columbia University dormitories. When I asked a student if they would be interested in a socialist newsweekly, they’d always ask if the socialism was like in Sweden or in Cuba.

Today, the term communism has lost its power, mainly because the Cold War is over and because what’s left of it is like a boxer on the ropes. On the other hand, socialism is more popular than ever. A Pew Research Poll a year ago found that 42 percent of Americans have a positive view. Of course, they don’t mean Cuba. They want the USA to be more like Sweden, at least what it was like around the time Nick Castle made his movie about the SWP.

A new film titled “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word” will certainly be embraced by the 42 percent of Americans in the Pew poll and even win over maybe another 9 percent. However, if 51 percent of Americans ever become the kind of socialist featured in Yael Bridge’s documentary, you can be assured that capitalist property relations will continue into the indefinite future. 51 percent having a positive view of communism is a horse of another color (red).

You can get an idea from Bridge’s political orientation by keeping in mind that she produced a documentary based on Robert Reich’s “Saving Capitalism”. The Daily Californian, the student and community newspaper of U. Cal Berkeley, where Reich teaches, had little use for it: “Yet there’s no examination of the shortcomings of the capitalist system at large, no nuance given through critical analysis on issues of privilege or generational poverty. The topic is briefly discussed through personal anecdotal interviews but never unpacked.”

The title of Bridge’s film is probably inspired by John Nichols’s book “The S Word”. For Nichols, socialism does not really mean abolishing capitalist property relations. Nichols is prominent throughout the film and argues throughout that socialism is not about Russia or Cuba. It is about our native-traditions going back hundreds of years. In one of the more interesting passages in the film, we learn that there was not only a socialist commune called the Wisconsin Phalanx in Ripon, Wisconsin in the 1840s, but that its leaders went on to form the Republican Party in 1854, which was of course revolutionary back then. The film does not go into much detail about the Wisconsin Phalanx but suffice it to say that it was a utopian experiment based on Fourier’s concepts. Yes, Farmers lived communally in a Long House, but it is somewhat far-fetched to call this socialism unless you also want to describe the Israeli kibbutz in the same terms. A Guardian review of Nichols’s book was critical of its “big tent” understanding of socialism:

Nichols distorts history by dragooning reformist liberals into his socialist tradition. For example, Tom Paine is posthumously drafted as a socialist hero because he favoured a version of a welfare state and progressive taxation, even though these are compatible with an economy based primarily on private property. Nichols does not mention Paine’s belief in minimal government or his support of an armed citizenry, which are cited today by American libertarians and opponents of gun control.

The film is a virtual who’s who of the Sandernista movement today, with Eric Blanc, Vivek Chibber, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Adaner Usmani, Kshama Sawant, Matt Karp, and Cornel West doing most of the heavy lifting in interviews. Not a single one ever takes up the question of making a revolution.

In one of the more revealing passages, we see Vivek Chibber providing a brief history of class society. He starts off by describing hunting-and-gathering societies that despite their primitive nature were examples of people working together to produce the goods they shared on an egalitarian basis. Next came feudalism that was made possible by the creation of a grain surplus and, thus, the creation of a ruling class made up of knights capable of defending farmers in exchange for a percentage of the food they produce. Finally, there is capitalism that is marked by the separation of the farmers from their means of production (i.e., the Brenner thesis). Once that happens, they have no other recourse except to become wage laborers. What’s missing? Can you guess? Yup. He never gets into the question of what happens after capitalism. Maybe, the director could have gotten him to answer that question. That would have led to an outright repudiation of what Karl Marx meant by socialism, even though he is widely regarded as the ultimate word on socialism. (Except maybe outside of Jacobin and the NYU Sociology Department.) Okay, maybe Marx is relevant but certainly not Lenin, as Chibber attests. In a Jacobin article from 2015, Chibber explains what it means to be an anti-capitalist today. It boils down to saying no to the entire project:

Today, the political stability of the state is a reality that the Left has to acknowledge. What is in crisis right now is the neoliberal model of capitalism, not capitalism itself.

There are only a couple of experts who stray from this neo-Bernsteinian path. One is Eric Foner, who sticks to American history—bless his heart—and stays away from the kind of banal identification between socialism and the welfare state that prevails throughout the film.

The other is Richard Wolff, who has some pithy comments on the New Deal that Bernie Sanders defines as socialism. Wolff refers to how the New Deal improved the lot of workers but that its gains began to evaporate under Reagan, Bush and even Bill Clinton. (Oh, forget that I said “even”.) He asks rhetorically in words like these, “Are we going to try to bring back the New Deal? That wasn’t permanent, was it? The answer is to change the system.” Unfortunately, Wolff does not think that revolutions are going to work, either. His answer is co-operatives. Like many on the squishy left, they have some bizarre ideas about how co-operatives can take root in the U.S. because they are so nice. Once they reach a critical mass, they can diffuse outward and turn the entire nation into an egalitarian model. You can only hold such positions by bracketing out the sordid history of Mondragon.

Apparently, Jacobin and the people behind the film are going to use it to educate people about their Swedish fantasies. The press notes state:

We have already received many requests for community screenings and partnerships with local organizations. Such screenings could be a major component of our distribution and marketing strategy. We are partnering with Jacobin magazine to create a robust curriculum around the film, including readings, timelines, and discussion questions to engage viewers watching in the classroom or in small groups. Community screenings, virtual or in- person are a great way to bring engaging speakers from the movie and local socialists and historians to underscore the relevance of this historical movement to the lives of all Americans disillusioned with politics.

I hate to break it to these people but the shelf-life on this documentary is pretty much exhausted. Just as Nick Castle’s film celebrated a sectarian vision of how a revolutionary party could transform the U.S., so does Yael Bridge’s sell an equally bogus proposition based on Kautsky and Michael Harrington. Even though the film has brief references to the pandemic and BLM, there’s not the slightest interest in addressing the current crisis that has left the Sandernista left looking clueless. The film spends an inordinate amount of time following Lee Carter around. Running as a “socialist” on the Democratic Party ballot in Virginia to win a seat in the state legislature, Carter comes across as a sincere and dedicated public servant. However, the notion that electing people like Lee Carter will eventually lead to the abolition of capitalism is utterly nonsensical even if it conforms to Vivek Chibber’s anti-revolutionary guidelines.

DIGITAL SCREENING – OFFICIAL SELECTION OF AFI FEST from Monday, October 19 through Thursday, October 22

August 17, 2020

The background to the NY Times article on Adolph Reed Jr. and the “cancelled” meeting

Filed under: Black Lives Matter,class-reductionism,DSA — louisproyect @ 7:37 pm

Adolph Reed Jr.

On August 14, NY Times sports reporter Michael Powell weighed in on the virtual meeting for Adolph Reed Jr. that fell through in May after DSA’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus demanded a debate instead. On June 12, Reed and co-thinker Walter Benn Michaels did an interview with Bellows magazine in which Reed stated that he did not need the stress of listening to hostile comments in a virtual meeting, so he decided to withdraw.

The left has been trying to figure out why the Times decided to report on this controversy, with many concluding that it was an attempt by the paper to weaken our movement. Since the NY Times has been one of the biggest supporters of the DSA, this seems unlikely to me. My guess is that they were simply trying to sell newspapers since this “cancel culture” business has been hot ever since the Harper’s Open Letter. They have mined this culture wars vein in the past with ample coverage of Alan Sokal’s spoof, for example.

One can understand why Bellows would have provided a friendly platform for Reed and Michaels. Self-described as an online Marxist magazine, it has the same contrarian bullheadedness as Reed and Michaels. Just check an article on the home page titled “The New Cultural Revolution” that describes the George Floyd protests as a conspiracy orchestrated by “transnational capital and its petit bourgeois enforcers”. Although I haven’t had time to check all the content on Bellows, it strikes me as a leftwing version of Quillette. Reed might have thought twice about being interviewed by a Quillette contributor like Matt Taibbi did but perhaps Bellows has less of a reek about it.

The clash between Reed and DSA’s Black caucus was to be expected. This has been a simmering dispute since 2017 when Reed went for their jugular on Adam Proctor’s Dead Pundits Society podcast to talk about “Race, Class and the DSA”. The bulk of it was an attack on the resolution the caucus submitted to the 2017 DSA convention that endorsed BLM and reparations, both of which Reed considers a roadblock to building class unity.

Basically, Proctor, an ideologue in the Dustin Guastella mode, and Reed saw eye-to-eye on what a threat the resolution was to the DSA’s social democratic agenda. There was no pretension about the term democratic socialism in their conversation. Both men expressed deep nostalgia for Bayard Rustin and agreed that the left took a wrong turn in 1965 when it abandoned social democracy for black power. As is generally the case with these ritual bows to Rustin, there is no attention paid to his refusal to support the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 DP convention or Rustin keeping mum on the Vietnam War in order to placate wealthy liberal donors and trade union bureaucrats.

Reed dismissed BLM as inconsequential and having no organic ties to the Black community. If they weren’t happy with the class-unity, social democratic strategy of the DSA, they should just get out, to use Jordan Peele’s terminology. The best thing for this “little authoritarian enclave” is to have their caucus dissolved and its members disseminated into class-based efforts by the DSA such as ringing doorbells for democratic socialist candidates.

Adam Proctor makes no efforts to be respectful to BLM activists or Black caucus members. He favors a scorched earth approach even more brutal than Reed’s, describing the caucus as immersed in “melatonin” politics. He is cozy with people like Amber A’Lee Frost and Angela Nagle who joined him in a discussion of “How the left got lost in puritanism and in-group policing and the right took advantage.” In other words, the same agenda as Thomas Chatterton Williams and Matt Taibbi. If that wasn’t bad enough, he allowed Rania Khalek and Ben Norton to hold forth on “How Kinky are Salafists In Syria?”. They must had a thousand laughs about bombing hospitals and killing tens of thousands of men in Sednaya Prison.

One of the interesting points made by Michael Powell was about Reed’s co-thinkers who “see the current emphasis in the culture on race-based politics as a dead-end.” One of them is Bhaskar Sunkara. Since that is explicitly a barb aimed at BLM, Sunkara must have a short memory in light of what he wrote in “The Socialist Manifesto”:

Now history seemed to be repeating itself in Ferguson: Wilson absurdly maintained he felt like a “five-year-old” next to Brown’s “Hulk Hogan” and said he fired to protect his life. Less than a day later, Ferguson was gripped by massive protests that turned into violent confrontations at night as police tried to disperse the demonstrations. The actions lasted for weeks and inspired solidarity protests in cities around the country.

This was the inaugural moment of the nation-wide Movement for Black Lives (MBL), which called for an end to racist law enforcement. MBL challenged accepted realities about state violence and harassment faced by black Americans. After Ferguson, as unarmed people continued to die at the hands of US police—with some of it caught on cell phone cameras similar protests rocked cities like Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Chicago, and New York. The demands advanced by the protesters in Ferguson and their counterparts around the country—including an end to police impunity and the creation of poverty-alleviation programs in black neighborhoods—were broadly social-democratic and garnered widespread sympathy.

So BLM raised demands that “were broadly social-democratic and garnered widespread sympathy.” How deep was Sunkara’s analysis if he could change politics like underwear? Was it a good marketing choice to extol MBL (same as BLM) in his book and now a better one to write it off? Since the guy’s main goal in life is to build a publishing empire, I can’t say I blame him.

While Michael Powell does not end up squarely in the Harper’s open letter camp, it is clear that his goal is to portray Reed as a victim of cancel culture:

Amid murmurs that opponents might crash his Zoom talk, Professor Reed and D.S.A. leaders agreed to cancel it, a striking moment as perhaps the nation’s most powerful Socialist organization rejected a Black Marxist professor’s talk because of his views on race.

The truth, of course, is that they called for a debate that clearly the organizers would not have agreed to. As I said above, Reed dropped out because he didn’t want to deal with hostile comments in a virtual meeting.

Yesterday, Roger Berkowitz, a Bard professor who signed the Harper’s letter, understood Powell’s intentions even if most of the left could not. He wrote:

If you want an example of the inability to see the absurdity of a situation and a complete aversion to reality, the story of how the Democratic Socialists of America have canceled a speech by Adolph Reed is at the top of the list. Reed grew up in the segregated South and organized poor Black people and war resisters. He has been a leading socialist fighter for the rights and dignity of the poor. And he is an esteemed professor. But Reed’s belief that the root of oppression today is based in poverty rather than race runs afoul of contemporary pieties. As Michael Powell explains, this has led to the truly unreal situation where he has been prevented from speaking to the Democratic Socialists.

His article concluded: “Amid murmurs that opponents might crash his Zoom talk, Professor Reed and D.S.A. leaders agreed to cancel it, a striking moment as perhaps the nation’s most powerful Socialist organization rejected a Black Marxist professor’s talk because of his views on race.”

What’s apparent to me is an inability of the DSA to have clarity around these issues, which is the function of its unresolved position on race/class. I can see at least three distinct outlooks. The Black caucus sees things pretty much in the way that revolutionary socialists have viewed them going back to the time of Lenin. Reed spent a fair amount of time scoffing at the idea of self-determination for Black America that was popular in the 1960s. Where are the borders of their country, he laughed. In 1920, Lenin wrote a resolution for the Comintern that stated “All communist parties must directly support the revolutionary movement among the nations that are dependent and do not have equal rights (for example Ireland, the Negroes in America, and so forth), and in the colonies.” As for trying to make sense of how this applies to the USA today and BLM, I would only say that having a mass movement that focuses on specific Black demands is much more in line with the Comintern than Reed’s Bayard Rustin platitudes.

Probably, the big majority of the DSA goes along with the sort of analysis found on the Bread and Roses website and in magazines like In These Times and Jacobin (excluding the Reed and Cedric Johnson junk). They support any movement against racism but, like Reed and Sunkara, feel that the most effective strategy is finding demands that are in the interest of Black and white workers alike.

Finally, you have the Philly DSA and the LES DSA branch that sponsored Reed’s talk. They are totally into the whole Bayard Rustin nostalgia trip. Let them take that ride while the rest of us move forward to socialist revolution.

June 27, 2020

Chris Maisano’s class-reductionism apologetics

Filed under: class-reductionism,DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

Chris Maisano

On June 23rd, Ross Douthat, one of the NY Times’s rightwing opinion writers, came out with a piece titled “The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders” that saw him as being out-of-step with the BLM protests over George Floyd’s murder. Perhaps as a result of reading Adolph Reed Jr. or Cedric Johnson’s class-reductionist articles, Douthat smeared BLM as a corporate tool:

The fact that corporations are “outdistancing” even politicians, as Crenshaw puts it, in paying fealty to anti-racism is perhaps the tell. It’s not that corporate America is suddenly deeply committed to racial equality; even for woke capital, the capitalism comes first. Rather, it’s that anti-racism as a cultural curriculum, a rhetoric of re-education, is relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism, under the tutelage of the human resources department. The idea that you need to retrain your employees so that they can work together without microaggressing isn’t Marxism, cultural or otherwise; it’s just a novel form of Fordism, with white-fragility gurus in place of efficiency experts.

This was not the first NY Times article that described Sanders as being superseded by these protests. On June 19th, an article titled “Bernie Sanders Predicted Revolution, Just Not This One” took on the question of class-reductionism frontally:

When Mr. Sanders spoke about racial equality, it was often in the context of economic equality, championing proposals and prescriptions that he believed would improve the lives of all working Americans. He said that policies like single-payer health care would address higher maternal and infant mortality rates in black communities. And he wanted to legalize marijuana and end cash bail, policies he said were aimed in particular at helping black Americans and other people of color.

This is essentially the analysis put forward not only by Sanders but by Reed. Instead of raising race-based demands like defunding the police (which Sanders opposes) or—god forbid—reparations, Sanders, Reed, Sunkara, the Bread and Roses caucus in DSA, and the “democratic socialist” movement in general stresses economic demands to create black-white unity. In fact, this has been the foundation-stone of socialist groups since the time of Debs. Except for a brief period when the CPUSA raised the idea of a Black Belt, the party also envisioned a movement based on economic demands. In the 1930s, this meant getting workers of all races into a CIO union even when FDR was stabbing black people in the back. So irked by charges that FDR was a racist, Reed defended his record in a New Republic article titled “The New Deal Wasn’t Intrinsically Racist”.  Oh, did I mention that the word “lynching” doesn’t appear in the article?

The NAACP had persuaded Democratic Senators Robert Wagner and Edward Costigan to sponsor an anti-lynching bill but it needed FDR’s support. When he met with the two Senators, he said, “Somebody’s been priming you. Was it my wife?” FDR was annoyed by these men interfering with his New Deal reforms. He reminded them that if he backed an anti-lynching bill, the Dixiecrats “will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.” It also must be said that FDR was every bit of a racist as Teddy Roosevelt, whose statue is finally being removed from the front of the Museum of Natural History. In the chapter on FDR in  Kenneth O’Reilly’s “Nixon’s Piano”, we get the goods on the “friend of the Negro”:

Roosevelt had few contacts with African Americans beyond the odd jobs done for an elderly widow while a student at Groton. The servants at the Hyde Park estate where he grew up were all English and Irish. When serving in the New York State Senate he scribbled a note in the margin of a speech to remind himself about a “story of a nigger.” Telling jokes about how some “darky” contracted venereal disease was a habit never outgrown. He used the word “nigger” casually in private conversation and correspondence, writing Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt of his trip to Jamaica and how “a drink of coconut water, procured by a naked nigger boy from the top of the tallest tree, did much to make us forget the dust.”

Despite it being obvious that Jacobin was fully behind Sanders’s class-based “socialism” that most black leaders regarded as woefully blinkered, Chris Maisano insisted that Jacobin/DSA was for combining  class and race demands. Like most left groups, the DSA is not into self-criticism. With 70,000 members, they are feeling their oats.

Maisano is astute enough to acknowledge the similarities between what Douthat wrote and what Reed and Cedric Johnson have written in dozens of articles. He even considered the possibility that Douthat was wooing the DSA in the same way that Tucker Carlson has wooed Max Blumenthal (or maybe the other way around in this case.)

Ideologically attuned conservatives like Douthat are surely aware of the seemingly endless conflict between, for lack of better terms, “class-oriented” and “intersectional” conceptions of radical politics. They want to drive a wedge into the new US left and perhaps even win over a segment of the class-oriented left by mimicking some of its vocabulary and concerns.

Maisano clears the air by making the record that when Douthat counterposes demands for “Medicare for All and taxing plutocrats” to demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” the protesters themselves are, by and large, not doing so. This might be true but you better bet your ass that Adolph Reed Jr. and Cedric Johnson are not into demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” Is there anything clearer than their opposition to anti-racism? All you have to do is Google Reed and anti-racism and you come up with something like this:

Notwithstanding its performative evocations of the 1960s Black Power populist “militancy,” this antiracist politics is neither leftist in itself nor particularly compatible with a left politics as conventionally understood. At this political juncture, it is, like bourgeois feminism and other groupist tendencies, an oppositional epicycle within hegemonic neoliberalism, one might say a component of neoliberalism’s critical self-consciousness; it is thus in fact fundamentally anti-leftist. [emphasis added.]

Got it? All those mass actions, including one organized by five Louisville teens that produced a rally of 10,000 people, are “anti-leftist”. What a job that Jacobin has on its hands in trying to resolve the contradictions between what Reed writes and Maisano’s hollow attempt to put some distance between him and them. For Christ’s sake, his boss Bashkar Sunkara does an hour and twenty minute interview with Reed on June 10th and the George Floyd protests are not even mentioned.

To give the appearance that he is trying to deal with Reed and Johnson’s class-reductionism, he offers this:

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which to reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

I spent a few minutes trying to decipher these two sentences and wondered why Maisano wasn’t more straightforward and capable of writing this instead:

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which he or Adolph Reed Jr. reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

The last time anybody wrote something critical of Reed on Jacobin was back in 2016 and that was when the authors Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman were still in the ISO and capable of independent thinking. Now, after having drunk the Sanders Kool-Aid, they’ve seen the light.

Toward the end of his apologetics, Maisano urges patience with these young activists who haven’t been exposed to the brilliance of NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber or neo-Kautskyite legend Eric Blanc:

More important, so long as American police are able to kill and abuse people with impunity, and so long as there are clear racial disparities in police violence — even after accounting for class — it is unrealistic to expect activists with no connection to a severely diminished labor movement to spontaneously link race and class the way socialists might want them to do.

Yeah, okay. Maybe if Jacobin/DSA cadre had been spending more time getting behind organized anti-racist activism, they’d have been in a better position to “educate” these raw youth. I only hope that they don’t recommend Adolph Reed Jr. to the young’uns. To paraphrase what Jeeves said to Bertie Wooster, they might say, “You would not enjoy Adolph Reed Jr. He is fundamentally unsound.

May 11, 2020

Peter Dreier, Bhaskar Sunkara, and the Green Party

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,revolutionary organizing,third parties — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

On April 28th, a 71-year old professor named Peter Dreier lit into Bashkar Sunkara in The Nation magazine with the kind of ferocity that made you wonder if the Jacobin editor had co-produced “Planet of the Humans”. Titled “WTF Is Jacobin’s Editor Thinking in Voting Green?,” Dreier reacted to an April 22nd Tweet that was probably not intended to generate any kind of controversy:

You can even describe the Tweet as damning with faint praise since it disavows support for the Greens as a party and uses most of its 280 characters reminding his readers to vote Democrat.

Like many other liberals, Dreier repeats the same arguments that have been heard ad infinitum ever since Ralph Nader was blamed for allowing George W. Bush to be elected in 2000. Rather than holding Al Gore up to the scrutiny he deserved as Bill Clinton’s neoliberal sidekick, people like The Nation’s Eric Alterman and the singularly loathsome Todd Gitlin blamed Nader for being a “spoiler”.

Peter Dreier

I had never run across Dreier before but a brief search reveals that he was the subject of a 2014 LA Review of Books article by Tom Gallagher titled “Those Still Going on About Ralph Nader Electing Bush in 2000 Should Desist”. The LA review, which is many degrees to the left of the NY Review of Books, gave Gallagher the opportunity to answer Dreier’s Huffington Post article titled “Nader’s Hypocrisy,” which claimed that “Without Nader, there’d have been no President George W. Without George W., no war in Iraq.” Get it? Dreier has been writing this kind of bullshit for the longest time.

Gallagher informed his readers that Dreier was a big-time Obama fan, “displaying a life size cardboard cutout of the man at the party he was hosting and I was attending.” Like many people today who hope that Biden can carry on the Obama tradition, Dreier probably didn’t concern himself that much with Biden’s avid support for Bush’s invasion of Iraq, nor Obama’s own dubious “peace” credentials. Gallagher sets him straight:

Well, since Peter Dreier’s main charge against Nader is that he enabled Bush to start the Iraq war, let’s stick to “Iraq war-like” things. For one, there are those who consider the drone-based missile attacks Obama orders in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere violations of international law, which is to say, war crimes. And there are those who fault him for unraveling the major legal achievement of the Vietnam War opposition, the War Powers Act, when he bombed Libya without Congressional approval. And then there’s those who think that sending more troops to Afghanistan after seven years of war, the way he did, was either a very stupid or a very cynical act — and not that many people think he’s stupid.

Dreier tries hard to make a vote for Biden sound palatable. “Thanks in part to Sanders, and the Democratic Party’s leftward shift, Biden has adopted other progressive stances on key issues—the minimum wage, health care, workers’ rights, abortion, climate change, and college debt—and could be pushed further left during the campaign and after he takes office.” There’s a big push going on to sell the Biden campaign to people in their 20s and 30s who can’t stand him, including the women who are disgusted by the arguments of Linda Hershman in a NY Times op-ed “I Believe Tara Reade. I’m Voting for Joe Biden Anyway.”

Just two years after Sunkara launched Jacobin, he was working assiduously to burnish his left credentials. This meant downplaying the Sandernista politics of the recent past, getting ISO’ers and other Marxist critics of the DP to write for Jacobin, and generally striking leftist poses. He threw the gauntlet down against the liberal establishment in the pages of The Nation in an Open Letter that had this subhead: “Liberalism—including much of what’s published in this magazine—seems well-intentioned but inadequate. The solution lies in the re-emergence of American radicalism.”

In introducing himself to Nation readers, Sunkara supplied a bit of autobiographical information. At the dinner tables of childhood friends, he was pressed to identify himself ideologically. He would “meekly” call himself a socialist, all the while regretting that he couldn’t just utter the word “liberal” instead. “Like Sweden?”, he would be asked. He replied, “No, like the Russian Revolution before its degeneration into Stalinism.” In just a couple of years he would become a diehard Sandernista, never once being discomfited by his idol’s insistence on describing socialism as what they have in Sweden.

As might be obvious at this point, Sunkara has been carrying out a delicate balancing act since he launched Jacobin. He hopes to become the leading authority on Marxism by tracing his lineage back to Karl Kautsky, an aspiration that draws sustenance from the articles written by Lars Lih and his disciple Eric Blanc over the years. Filled with erudition, Lih and Blanc’s work is bent on elevating Kautsky and demoting Leon Trotsky.

As a symbol of uncompromising revolutionary ambition, Trotsky hardly seemed to be a useful figure for the Jacobin intellectuals to exploit. They became specialists in connecting the dotted lines between Kautsky, Lenin and Bernie Sanders. Sunkara hoped to keep left and right in perfect balance. In his left hand, you had Kautsky and in his right Bernie Sanders, a professional politician who now endorses Joe Biden. Like Philippe Petite walking a tightrope across the Twin Towers in 1974, Sunkara has to find a windless day to make the daring trek across the political landscape. Needless to say, the past few months have amounted to a political category-5 hurricane, so it is not clear that a balancing act can work.

Sunkara got around to replying to Dreier on May 4th in a Nation article titled “What Should Socialists Do in November?” Despite the nod to Hawkins that got Dreier so worked up, there’s a wink-wink, nod-nod aspect to his article that makes the difference between them vanishingly small:

Of course, I’d rather see a Democrat in the White House than a Republican. Biden is part of a centrist party that has within it not just the oligarchs he favors but a progressive, labor-oriented wing, as well. Trump, on the other hand, is the leader of a right-wing party filled with reactionaries. It’s obvious that socialists would rather be the political opposition to a government composed of centrists than one of the radical right.

This is just another way to tell DSA’ers that it is kosher to vote for Biden. Like Earl Browder, who saw the need for the CPUSA to run its own candidates to give the appearance of class independence, Sunkara says his personal choice is a vote for Howie Hawkins. Very radical of him. Yet, who you vote for is personal, not political. Don’t you see?

If it is up to leftists to make personal decisions about who to vote for, why stand in the way of those who succumb to the pressure of voting for Biden? As Sunkara put it, “I’d rather see a Democrat in the White House than a Republican.” Wink-wink, nod-nod.

Instead of—god forbid—using his authority to actually help build the Green Party, Sunkara subscribes to the theory of building a surrogate within the Democratic Party:

What I left unsaid is what kind of organization could spearhead this strategy—a “party-surrogate.” This would be an organization that, as Jared Abbot and Dustin Guastella argue in Jacobin, “would be internally democratic, financed by dues, focused on member mobilization, and organized around a workers’ agenda.” Such a vehicle could contest elections on the Democratic Party ballot line—not ordinary Democrats, but candidates bound together by a simple, common program, who eschew corporate funding and are propelled to power by a broad membership base.

This is the same Dustin Guastella who lectured Jacobin readers against trying to help start a new left party in an article titled “Like It or Not, If We Run Third Party, We Will Lose”. But Dreier is not assuaged by what Sunkara and Guastella tell DSAers and Jacobin readers in these kinds of circumlocutions.  He wants the Full Monty, with them on the stage fully naked, playing trumpets and banging the drums for Biden.

Missing entirely from both Dreier’s attack and Sunkara’s defense is any recognition of the gravity of the situation we now face. Economists, except those writing for the Hoover Institution or the Heritage Foundation, are predicting a plunge into Great Depression type misery with hunger, homelessness and the lack of healthcare on a monumental scale. Meanwhile, Laurie Garrett argues that a three-year pandemic is the best case scenario.

Facing such a disaster, what hopes can we place in either a Biden presidency or Sunkara/Guastella’s “party-surrogate” model that is based on incremental change through the election of candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was the only Democrat to vote against Trump’s pro-billionaire bail-out. There are 236 Democrats in the House of Representatives and only 1 votes the right way? Is the idea to organize DSA to back candidates who think and act like A. O-C? To tell you the truth, I’d expect her to become much more like Nancy Pelosi than the other way around.

Right now there are wildcat strikes taking place all around the country. Imagine the impact it would have if DSA began organizing people to get jobs in meatpacking houses, Amazon fulfillment centers and other front-line essential companies. In the 1930s, the CP sent people into coal mines, steel mills and auto plants. The Trotskyists sent Farrell Dobbs into a warehouse doing the same kind of dirty work that Howie Hawkins did before he retired as a Teamster last year.

The SWP miscalculated in 1978 when it pressured me to take a job as spot welder in Kansas City. If I were in my 20s today, I’d be far more willing to become part of a radical working-class movement that is destined to take shape today under conditions unlike any I have seen in my entire life.

For the DSA to become part of this burgeoning movement, it will have to wake up to the reality we face today and drop the neo-Eduard Bernstein incrementalism. The idea of slow and steady change leading to a social democratic government in the USA 20 or so years from now is utopian. It is far more likely that we are headed into unimaginable disasters with maybe a million people victims of the capitalist back-to-work drive.

Young radicals to the left of the DSA have to figure out a way to consolidate their ranks and begin the process of building a revolutionary movement. Howie Hawkins and his running-mate Angela Walker are clearly too old to play this role but they can play a major role in drawing clear class lines that are so necessary today as we enter a period in which “catastrophe” is the norm.

Dreier worries that Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker will be spoilers once again. In reality, the true spoilers will be the Democratic Party machinery in NY that has already made ballot access for 3rd parties onerous. Given the absolutely horrendous Hobson’s Choice between Trump and Biden, more people than ever will be open to voting for the GP. Unlike Sunkara, Hawkins understands that it will take a revolutionary movement to win a Green New Deal and other major reforms so necessary today. That movement will use mass actions in the streets and the openness to new political ideas during election years to move the struggle forward.

Under normal conditions, people tend to be conservative. Not in the sense of the National Review but in the sense of going to work and returning home in the evening to stare at the TV. In the 1960s, I saw people forsaking their conservatism and becoming activists, including me. That was in a time of prosperity. Today, there is no prosperity. Instead, we face a headlong dive into the abyss. The only practical political response is to become revolutionary. Last year before the coronavirus struck, I wrote about crises down the road that would demand revolutionary action. I had no idea that such a time would come so quickly. In 1915, Rosa Luxemburg wrote the Junius Pamphlet as a call to action against WWI and the need for worldwide revolution. We have to begin thinking in the same terms as Rosa Luxemburg who put it forward most eloquently:

This brutal victory parade of capital through the world, its way prepared by every means of violence, robbery, and infamy, has its light side. It creates the preconditions for its own final destruction. It put into place the capitalist system of world domination, the indispensable precondition for the socialist world revolution. This alone constitutes the cultural, progressive side of its reputed “great work of civilization” in the primitive lands. For bourgeois-liberal economists and politicians, railroads, Swedish matches, sewer systems, and department stores are “progress” and “civilization.” In themselves these works grafted onto primitive conditions are neither civilization nor progress, for they are bought with the rapid economic and cultural ruin of peoples who must experience simultaneously the full misery and horror of two eras: the traditional natural economic system and the most modern and rapacious capitalist system of exploitation. Thus, the capitalist victory parade and all its works bear the stamp of progress in the historical sense only because they create the material preconditions for the abolition of capitalist domination and class society in general. And in this sense imperialism ultimately works for us.

April 20, 2020

Jacobin’s road map within the catacombs of the Democratic Party

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,DSA,Jacobin,third parties,two-party system — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

One big difference between the Jacobin left and the left of my generation is over the “road map”. In 1973 or so, nobody in the SWP or any Maoist, for that matter, had an idea about how a revolution could take place except in the most general terms. We all pretty much understood that the workers would not march under the banner of socialism, at least understood according to the Communist Manifesto, unless there was a profound change in American society that forced them to engage in uncompromising struggle like took place during the Great Depression. It was up to us to engage in various struggles as they arose, from the right to an abortion to challenging the trade union bureaucracies, but we accepted the constraints Marx put forward in “The German Ideology”: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

In the late 70s, the SWP accepted the word of its leadership that revolution was on the agenda, but there was no road map as such that described the specific route to state power. The entire membership was instructed to get blue-collar jobs because increasing class conflict supposedly made the factories and mines like Columbia University and Berkeley were in 1968. This was delusional, of course.

Then along came Bhaskar Sunkara who, with his customary aplomb and self-confidence, told his readers in the penultimate chapter of “The Socialist Manifesto”:

The dilemma for socialists today is figuring out how to take anger at the unjust outcomes of capitalism and turn it into a challenge to the system itself…Easier said than done. But this chapter offers a road map based on the long, complex, variously inspiring and dismal history of left politics—for challenging capitalism and creating a democratic socialist alternative to it.

It is not too difficult to figure out what this road map looked like. It began on the expressway built by Jeremy Corbyn in England and Bernie Sanders in the USA. Although there was no guarantee that their becoming Prime Minister and President respectively was assured, it made much more sense to take your Tesla on that road than to waste your time in revolutionary organizations like the kind we belonged to in the 60s and 70s.

After all, Sunkara’s guru Vivek Chibber, who was to the NYU Sociology Department as Lenin was to the Smolny Institute, had used his Marxist GPS to help write an article titled “Our Road to Power”. (Road, get it? It’s a leitmotif in the Jacobin oeuvre.) Chibber warns his readers about taking “the Russian road”: “The Russian road, as it were, was for many parties a viable one. But starting in the 1950s, openings for this kind of strategy narrowed. And today, it seems entirely hallucinatory to think about socialism through this lens.”

For Chibber and virtually all the Jacobin intellectuals, Washington could never be mistaken for the decaying Czarist state. It was virtually unsmashable: “Today, the state has infinitely greater legitimacy with the population than European states did a century ago. Further, its coercive power, its power of surveillance, and the ruling class’s internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability that is orders of magnitude greater than it had in 1917.”

So, if the “Russian road” was precluded by permanent structural obstacles, how could we get past capitalism? This is where Jacobin becomes a bit more evasive. Ever since the 2016 elections, the emphasis has been less on the need for system change than it has been for a “political revolution”, a term that meant electing Corbyn, Sanders, and politicians that received benediction from Jacobin and Tribune, the British magazine that became part of Sunkara’s publishing empire.

For most DSA members, the prospect of seeing Bernie Sanders in the White House was so enthralling that the questions posed in Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune could not be less germane. Why bother yourself with obscure questions of workers ruling in their own name when enlightened politicians could shepherd legislation like a Green New Deal through Congress. Sunkara nimbly made the case for socialism being largely realized through enlightened government policies:

Luckily, the United States doesn’t have to contend with antidemocratic supranational organizations like the eurozone, and it has immense resources to work with. We ultimately have larger ambitions than “socialism in one country,” but if it’s possible anywhere, it’s possible here. Cobbling together the legislative power to achieve these reforms will not be easy.

But it is possible to achieve certain socialist goals within capitalism. As we’ve seen in the history of social democracy, any achievements will be vulnerable to crises and resisted at every step, but they are morally and politically necessary nonetheless.

I could spend ten thousand words dismantling the ideological baggage that underpins this absurd passage but suffice it to say that the word “socialism” is misused here. Larger ambitions than “socialism in one country” in a capitalist country? WTF? Socialist goals within capitalism? When you peel away the rhetoric, it is simply a recipe for electing politicians like Sanders and the squad. Or as Eduard Bernstein once put it, “The movement is everything, the final goal is nothing.”

Most Jacobin intellectuals were poised to accept a Sanders presidency as the first leg in the road to power, especially after his thrilling victory in Las Vegas. Dustin Guastella and Connor Kilpatrick were beside themselves. In an article titled “After the Nevada Blowout, It’s Bernie’s Party Now”, they rolled out the red carpet: “He’s on his way to not just the nomination, but the White House.” If someone ever wrote a book about articles that had a brief shelf life, this one would make it right alongside that one:

For normal people, Biden’s subsequent clearing-the-pool-table victories, abetted by Obama’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering and Sanders’s fulsome deference to his “old friend” Joe Biden, might be enough to make the traffic signs on the Jacobin road look like this:

Until now, Jacobin’s Grand Poobah has not weighed in but members of his court have tried to put the best possible spin on the reversal of fortune. Dauphin to Kautsky’s throne, Eric Blanc spoke for those who slapped themselves on the back for helping to make Sanders’s “ideological victory” possible:

Since our collective expectations were raised so high after Nevada, it’s easy to forget how much we’ve already accomplished in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. As Bernie correctly emphasized in his suspension speech this morning, the campaign has largely won the battle of ideas. And the paralyzing myth that there is no political alternative to the neoliberal status quo has been shattered.

How this will translate in “road map” terms to the next election remains uncertain. Sanders has turned in a truly demoralizing performance as he began walking off the stage. In an video co-produced by the Biden and Sanders campaign, you are reminded of Vladimir and Estragon in a sequel to the Beckett classic titled “Waiting for Socialism”:

Unlike Blanc, some of the Jacobin intellectuals were undeterred. They brazened it out, finding nothing wrong with being embedded in the Democratic Party, as if it were some sort of 21st Century version of Lenin’s vanguard party. Yeah, it didn’t have much to do with socialism but it was legitimated by the facts on the ground. What are you going to do, anyhow? Waste your time on some tiny group that still takes The Communist Manifesto seriously when you can be devoting the next four years to help elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Yes, she is showing less and less “democratic socialist” credibility but everybody loves a winner unlike those pathetic Green Party candidates who prioritize principles.

Dustin Guastella, who co-wrote the article about the Sanders take-over of the DP referred to above, warned about abandoning the world’s oldest still-functioning capitalist party in an article titled “Like It or Not, If We Run Third Party, We Will Lose.” Showing the kind of bluster once heard from “socialist” UFT leader Albert Shanker, Guastella, a Teamsters Union official in Philadelphia, rolled out all the predictable reasons for staying inside Joe Biden’s political catacombs. Ballot laws kept 3rd parties on the defensive, including new laws in NY State that would make both the Greens and the Working Families Party victims of the “enlightened” governor’s hunger for power.

Guastella, who will likely to be paid as a Teamster official for the foreseeable future, warns against futile efforts to create a radical left party in the USA:

That third parties are destined to lose is no secret — it’s right there in the name. They are the distant bronze medalists of American politics. But, a skeptic might ask, if what you say is true — that party realignment and break are outcomes of struggle — why haven’t we seen Joe Biden bend on key policy issues? And, further, what basis is there for believing that the Democrats will ever bend (or break)?

Patience. We are still a weak, small movement — despite the fact that our ideas have captured the attention of voters, our candidates haven’t won the loyalty of mass constituencies, and our base is largely disorganized. After all, the Democratic establishment just steamrolled us with a candidate that seems severely confused at best and demented at worst.

After reading Blanc and Guastella, I am left with the conclusion that these people are hopeless. I left the SWP in 1978 because I became convinced that nothing could deter the cult leadership from a self-destructive path. The culture of “democratic centralism” created a mindset that made it impossible for Barnes and company to reverse course. While the Jacobin/DSA is no cult, the people around Blanc and Guastella’s Bread and Roses caucus wear self-enforcing ideological blinders that might make it impossible for them to consider anything else except operating on the fringes of the Democratic Party.

For those whose minds are not captive to Leninist or Kautskyite formulas, it is obvious that profound and highly momentous changes are in play as a result of the pandemic. Right now, half of all men under the age of 45 in Los Angeles County are either unemployed or working reduced hours. All across the USA, men and women vulnerable to getting the disease are starting to carry out wildcat strikes. Today there was a report on the “Service workers strike at two luxury Manhattan buildings“:

The service workers, who are based at The Chamberlain and 432 West 52nd Street condominiums, walked out at 11:30 a.m. Thursday and will strike for 24 hours, they said.

They accuse their employer, building-services contractor Planned Companies, of paying them substandard rates while they work through the coronavirus pandemic, and blocking their efforts to join labor union SEIU 32BJ. They also say Planned failed to provide enough masks and gloves to protect them on the job.

Unlike Jacobin/DSA, both the Philly Socialists and the activists who produce Cosmonaut have circulated an appeal for young activists to get jobs working at Amazon:

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Amazon’s infrastructure and workforce to their limits. As people self-quarantine and flock to the e-commerce giant to home-deliver their stockpiles of food, water, and sanitation supplies, logistics workers at Amazon and elsewhere strain under the increased burden. As the virus spreads and schools close, leaving working-class children with no caretakers, workers are forced to make impossible decisions between earning a wage and caring for their family. The current crisis is rapidly accelerating class conflict within these dynamics. Workers in Italy are going on strike, and unrest is developing here in the United States.  The left should see this as an opportunity to expand the efforts of workers already organizing on the ground, pushing forward demands that will not only help drive a humane working-class centered response to the crisis, but further the groundwork for stronger working-class organization moving forward.

This is what a socialist party has to be all about. Organizing men and women to get involved with fights for working class power. The DSA has to understand that it will be expected to put its substantial muscle behind such organizing efforts if it wants to have any credibility. Eric Blanc showed that he had some appreciation for the need for this kind of solidarity through his articles on the wildcat teachers’ strikes, even if it was framed in terms of how important Bernie Sanders was in getting them going—a claim some teacher activists found overstated.

In any case, Lenin’s party rather than Kautsky’s is a model for what is needed today. Even if Lenin credited Kautsky’s party as a model, the Russians always put struggle first. The Bolsheviks ran candidates but mostly in the interest of spreading socialist ideas rather than taking over the capitalist state. As for understanding the Bolshevik electoral policy, I recommend August Nimtz’s “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets―or Both”. For those unwilling to read the book for lack of time, I at least urge you to watch this video. It was made for the stormy period we are entering:

 

March 9, 2020

The Twilight of the Political Revolution

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

On the morning after the Nevada primary, Jacobin/DSA heavyweights Dustin Guastella and Connor Kilpatrick proclaimed “It’s Bernie’s Party Now.” Even before losses in South Carolina, Texas, Minnesota and elsewhere a week later, I deemed their triumphalism a bit premature. Before enumerating the powerful institutions that gird the longest still-functioning capitalist party in the world, I wrote that “it is pretty obvious that the Democratic Party is not an empty shell. Even if most people continue to vote for Bernie Sanders up until the convention, they have no other relationship to him except as an endorser.” It turned out that I was perhaps a bit swayed by the impressive victory in Nevada in failing to warn the democratic socialist comrades that the Nevada vote might have been an outlier.

Hope springs eternal in the democratic socialist breast apparently. Despite opinion polls giving Biden a 24-point advantage in Michigan, a state with 147 delegates, the Jacobin/DSAers still feel like destiny favors them. Matt Karp argued on March 4th that Democratic voters are more aligned on the issues than they are with Biden but admits that their overwhelming desire to deny Trump a second terms might persuade them to not take chances on a “socialist”. In any case, Sanders faces an uphill battle since even if he comes to the convention with a plurality of delegates, he must face a runoff that would allow the centrist super-delegates to cast their 771 votes with Biden. If Biden racks up the kind of victory in Michigan and other northern states tomorrow, it is conceivable that Sanders will drop out.

Just as was the case in 2016, Sanders will stump for Biden like he did for Clinton. Yesterday, he told Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd, “Look, Joe Biden is a friend of mine. He has indicated that if he wins the nomination I will be there for him. Together, we are going to beat Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country, but you can’t — we live in a democracy, and we have to contrast his — our records and our ideas, our vision for the future.”

You get the same thing from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who told late-night comedy host Seth Meyers that “what is so important is that we ultimately unite behind who that Democratic nominee is.” Since she also made the same pledge to back Andrew Cuomo for Governor, you can only conclude that she will never pretend that she is anything but a liberal Democrat. Adept at speaking out of both sides of her mouth, however, she is also on record as saying, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” That presumably means that if the two were in Sweden, he’d be in the Moderate Party and she’d be in the Social Democrats. Given the Social Democrats’ shift to the right over the decades, that’s hardly reassuring. As is the case generally with these democratic socialists, they are for the idea of Scandinavian model that today is a Platonic ideal summoned from the past more than anything.

In 2018, the BBC reported that Social Democrats accused the Moderate Party of “wrecking” social welfare by encouraging the arrival of foreigners – especially Muslims – who they argue do not share Swedish values. Nice.

Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jacobin has the ability of straddling the left and the not so left. On the anniversary of Olof Palme’s death, it described him as an “internationalist hero” and someone who “Today’s Social Democrats Should Be More Like,” even as the magazine also publishes Kjell Östberg, who wrote that Palme used all his prestige to help pacify the Portuguese revolution by bringing the country into the Western European fold and keeping it in NATO.

Unlike most socialist magazines, you can find analyses that are at odds with each other in Jacobin just like these. If nothing else, I suppose it helps to boost subscription sales. What there seems to be, however, is virtual unanimity on the left getting on the Bernie Sanders bandwagon. Back in 2015, you could still find articles critical of Sanders written by Ashley Smith and Lance Selfa, who were in ISO. Now that the ISO has dissolved, you will find well-known ex-ISOers like Paul Heideman writing for Jacobin, but in their post-conversion mode are as gung-ho as any other Jacobin/DSAer. As for Smith and Selfa, they are unrepentant Marxists like me and write elsewhere.

Within the Sanders fan club on Jacobin, there are some writers who may be even more anxious to remain within the Democratic Party than others, no matter the shit that is shoveled on Sanders and his followers. On February 21, just a day after the Nevada victory, Sam Lewis and Beth Huang wrote an article titled “Democratic Party Elites Are Ready to Steal the Nomination From Bernie Sanders. We Need a Plan to Stop Them.” It reviews all of the factors mentioned above and concludes that it would be a big mistake to abandon the Democratic Party:

In the event that the convention is contested or stolen, the “DemExit” strategy, a 2016 attempt to form a new third party by splitting Sanders supporters from the Democratic Party, will likely reemerge.

When you click DemExit, you will be directed to a CounterPunch article from August 5, 2016 that was written by Calvin Priest and Pam Keeley, two members of Socialist Alternative. Although Trotskyists, the group, which includes Kshama Sawant, urged a vote for him in 2016, just as it does this year—even more fervently. Priest and Keeley, who took part in walkouts after Sanders got royally screwed, wrote:

We need a real #DemExit, a real walkout on corporate politics, and a new mass party of the 99%.

The formation of a new political party was a key step on the road to ending institutionalized slavery in the US. In other countries it took new parties of the working class to win socialized medicine, paid parental leave, and free college education.

It will take a new mass party of working people in the United States to bring a real challenge to corporate politics and the failed system of capitalism.

This is the last thing that Lewis and Huang want to see. They lay out a perspective that implicitly projects a takeover of the Democratic Party by democratic socialists:

Without a clear avenue to supplant either of the two major parties, DemExit risks spoiling elections for the Republicans. Additionally problematic, DemExit takes the social movement left out of a contest for power that we are currently winning. The Sanders campaign and coalition represent the greatest threat to corporate power in the party since its decisive turn towards neoliberalism in the 1970s. No one will breathe a bigger sigh of relief than the party establishment if we, the movement behind Sanders, pack our bags and go home.

While party elites have resources and undemocratic levers of power that we do not, they are also few in number. With a plan, organization, and a mass movement on our side, we can win the convention in July, win the election in November, and begin the next phase of the struggle to transform American democracy.

The next phase of the struggle to transform American democracy will not take place at the Democratic Party convention, nor will it be conducted inside a voting booth on election day. While I am not in the business of fortune-telling, the odds favor Joe Biden and Donald Trump as the two candidates in the general election in November, with Trump returning to the White House for a second term.

Trump’s second term will be marked by deepening class polarization as the intractable problems of the capitalist system grow more acute. Today’s meltdown on Wall Street will likely have the same kind of effect on the economy as it did in 2007, perhaps with fewer long-term consequences but with little assurance that job growth will continue as it has. On top of that, you can expect Trump to target Social Security and Medicare as a way of keeping military spending untouched. Black people and immigrants will continue to face repression from the cops and women will find it even harder to get an abortion. As for the publicly-owned land in the Western states, there will be encroachments that will accelerate the extinction of protected species like the wolf and the grizzly bear. On top of that, climate change will produce even more vicious hurricanes and forest fires.

Against that backdrop, there will be little interest in building up the same kind of energy for another Bernie Sanders campaign in 2024 unless the DSA wants to pin its hope on an 82-year old candidate using a walker and wiping the drool from the corner of his mouth. After this year’s elections, Sanders will go back to his well-paid job as a Senator and continue to write books about the need for a “political revolution”. Like everything else in capitalist society, it will have a rather short shelf-life.

With its 65,000 members, the DSA is in the driver’s seat politically. The Leninist groups have largely disappeared or become adjuncts of the DSA, like Socialist Alternative. Given a willingness to make a clean break with the Democratic Party, it could beef up its leadership, become more professionally organized, and spearhead mass campaigns that will tap into the growing fury of the American people.

It could also begin to run candidates in its own name who are not afraid to speak the truth about the causes of our misery, namely the private ownership of the means of production. Instead of the mealy-mouthed formulations about taking on the billionaire class (whatever that means), it could raise slogans that go to the heart of capitalist production, like nationalizing the banks and making a job with a living wage a right guaranteed by the government.

Of course, they can continue on their merry way and let someone else take their place. Nature and politics both abhor a vacuum.

 

 

February 8, 2020

Eric Blanc’s ersatz socialism

Filed under: DSA,reformism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 10:56 pm

Eric Blanc

For those trying to keep track of the ongoing attempt to seduce American radicals into Democratic Party politics, Eric Blanc’s articles are essential. Unlike most of the people who write for Jacobin, Blanc got some intensive training in Marxism starting with his membership in Socialist Organizer, a tiny sect affiliated with the U.S. fraternal section of the Organizing Committee for the Re-constitution of the Fourth International. His next stop was the ISO, where he was likely in the vanguard of the group’s mass exodus into the DSA. Now, comfortably ensconced there, he is a member of the Bread and Roses caucus that takes pride in itself as the Marxist redoubt of the group hoping to Re-constitute social democracy in the USA.

On top of all this, he has been something of a disciple of Lars Lih who has written millions of words extolling Lenin while at the same time making it clear that he is not a socialist. This deep immersion in Marxist lore has seen Blanc come up with some very fresh ideas, especially on the role of borderland socialists and the evolution of Bolshevism on national liberation. More recently, and unfortunately, his erudition has mostly been used to promote voting for Democratic Party candidates as a tactical “dirty break”. Unlike the crude “lesser evil”, “stop the fascist threat” analysis perfected by the Communist Party, Blanc frames his arguments in neo-Kautskyist terms, even though, as his critics make clear, Kautsky was adamantly opposed to voting for liberals.

Blanc’s latest foray into DP apologetics is available in an article titled “From Meyer London to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”. In analogizing the two politicians, he is once again using an ersatz version of socialist theory and history in the same manner as his “dirty break” article that made the case for socialists using the ballot line of the two capitalist parties in primaries. Historically, this coincided with SP leader Meyer London being elected to the House of Representatives without such gimmicks.

London never used this dubious tactic since at the time the SP had massive support. In Eugene V. Debs’s run for president in 1912, he got an astounding 6 percent of the vote. As for Meyer London, he was one of the only two SP’ers who were ever elected to Congress. The other was Victor Berger, who, like London, was a “sewer socialist” with politics akin to Eduard Bernstein. Why in this day and age of deep capitalist crisis with fascism on the march all over the planet would anybody look to someone like Meyer London as some kind of positive example? Beats me.

Blanc believes we should study London’s career because he proposed New Deal type reforms in Congress long before the New Deal. In Blanc’s words, he had “only a light commitment to Marxism…, believed in an evolutionary transition to socialism and wavered in his opposition to the First World War.”

Notwithstanding these political flaws, Meyer London was more dedicated to the working class movement than any Democrat. He was a strong ally of the garment workers in New York City and pushed for “comprehensive social insurance for all in the form of national health care, unemployment and disability insurance, and public works jobs programs.”

Of course, there is a yawning gulf between London and A. O-C, who is obviously intent on serving as a Democrat despite her lip-service to socialism. In the second half of his article, Blanc explains why this decision was forced on her.

There are no easy answers or simple formulas for how to proceed in today’s novel context. Given the relative weakness of the socialist movement, and the well-known obstacles to electing third-party candidates in the US, it made tactical sense for Ocasio-Cortez, like Sanders before her, to run on the Democratic Party ballot line. At the same time, elected socialists will ultimately need full political independence from the party establishment in order to advance their class-struggle agendas. We’ll eventually need a party of our own. Playing by the rules of the game has led all too many honest politicians to cover for, and bend to, a corporate-funded Democratic machine whose built-to-fail centrism led to our current Trump nightmare.

It was only after reading this subtle exercise in Marxoid casuistry a second time that it dawned on me what he was carefully eliding. Meyer London was a member of a party. He had to operate within its political guidelines in order to get its financial and organizational support for his election campaigns. In other words, his relationship to the SP was like that of any politician in the European Second International parties. With all proportions guarded, he and Berger operated as parliamentarians that were expected to carry forward their party’s program in the same way that they did in Kautsky’s SPD. In fact, the term “democratic centralism” did not originate in Russia. It originated in Germany long before “What is To Be Done”.

As Paul LeBlanc explains in “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”, the term predates Lenin by many years and was first used in 1865 by J.B. Schweitzer, a Lassallean. Furthermore, in Russia it was first used by the Mensheviks at a November 1905 conference. In a resolution “On the Organization of the Party” adopted there, they agree that “The RSDLP must be organized according to the principle of democratic centralism.” A month later the Bolsheviks embraced the term at their own conference. A resolution titled “On Party Organization” states: “Recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the Conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centers full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, their actions are given broad publicity, and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities.”

So, what in the hell does this have to do with today’s “democratic socialist” movement? Not only is Bernie Sanders not a member of the DSA; he doesn’t even encourage people to join. Basically, they and Jacobin operate as his fan club. He is free to say whatever he wants and when he says or does something clearly problematic, they are free to say “tut-tut” or rationalize it, as was the case with the Joe Rogan endorsement.

While they are not in the same kind of exalted position as Sanders, A. O-C and the “squad” pretty much have the same kind of latitude even if they are members (Ilhan Omar is not). They rely on the DSA to do the grunt work and once they are elected they use their own judgement when they vote or say something dumb. In a Left Voice article titled “Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Represent the Politics of the DSA?”, we see how far she can stray from democratic socialism, a program that would likely exclude support for Israeli war crimes:

Ocasio-Cortez’s statements about replacing ICE with a more humane INS have already garnered criticism from her left supporters. But a major source of concern for DSAers was Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks on the occupation of Palestine. Pushed a bit by Margaret Hoover on Firing Line about a tweet in which she denounced the Land Day Massacre, Ocasio-Cortez said not only that she “believes absolutely in Israel’s right to exist,” but also that she “just looked at that incident [as] just an incident.” When asked about her use of the term “occupation,” she replied, “I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these.”

Although my politics are much more aligned with Rosa Luxemburg than Karl Kautsky, I would be a lot more sympathetic to the DSA if it was aspiring toward Kautsky’s model. Instead, it is much more reminiscent of the Young Democrats I used to run into during the Vietnam antiwar movement. They came to meetings wearing Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern buttons, politicians they saw as being capable of returning the Democratic Party to its New Deal traditions. In exchange for passing out campaign literature, the young activists might be rewarded with an early end to the Vietnam War just as DSA’ers hope that the USA will be transformed into Sweden if Sanders is elected.

 

July 13, 2019

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

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

Stanley Aronowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 28, 2019

Socialism 2019: the Left at a Crossroads

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

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 28, 2019

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

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

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

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