Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 17, 2019

Trotsky, Bukharin, and the Eco-Modernists

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

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

April 3, 2019

Down with neo-Kautskyism

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

Karl Kautsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 5, 2019

Democratic Socialism: a hot commodity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bingo.

February 20, 2019

Bernie Sanders arrives at the Finland Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

January 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In May, 2016 Sanders told an Ohio audience: “I believe in public education, and I believe in public charter schools. I do not believe in private – privately controlled charter schools.” Hmm. I hope one of his aides clued him in that charter schools in LA are public schools. That is the problem, after all. They drain public resources into an essentially private enterprise. Indeed, Bernie voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998. He believes, however, that these they must be “held to the same standards of transparency as public schools to ensure accountability for these privately managed organizations.” Transparency? Accountability? Jesus fucking Christ. These are not the right criteria. The right criteria are funding and the right to have a union. Charter schools get the lion’s share of the funding and teachers lose the right to challenge the administration through strikes or grievances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 4, 2019

Sanders, Warren and the DSA

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

Michael Harrington: the DSA’s founding father

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 4, 2019

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

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

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

Continue reading

December 26, 2018

Race, class and the DSA

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

Miguel Salazar, hired gun for the New Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 1, 2018

Not learning from the New Communist Movement

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,Maoism — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm

Max Elbaum, author of “Revolution in the Air”

Micah Uetricht, Jacobin assistant editor

There’s an interview with Max Elbaum on Jacobin today titled “Learning from the New Communist Movement” that is mostly unobjectionable. As I pointed out in a review of Max’s “Revolution in the Air” in 2002, “I strongly recommend this recently published Verso book to anybody trying to make sense of the state of the left today. While focused on the ‘New Communist Movement’ of the 70s and 80s (that I prefer to call Maoist), the lessons Elbaum draws are applicable to all vanguard party-building projects including those of the Trotskyist movement that I participated in.”

Clearly, there is an affinity between Jacobin/DSA and the Maoist movement that Elbaum belonged to and that is chronicled in this book. With both the DSA and the “New Communist Movement” of yore recycling the politics of the Popular Front, you might even wonder why it took so long for them to have a friendly chat. Max was a leader of the Line of March (LOM) in the 1970s, a Maoist group founded by Irwin Silber, the film critic of the now defunct American radical newsweekly The Guardian.

The LOM had a most peculiar political agenda. They wanted to either convince the CPUSA to return to its glorious past or carry out that task themselves. Whatever complaints they had about the CPUSA, being embedded in the Democratic Party was not one of them.

In the early 80s, I was active in the New York chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) that was mostly made up of political independents like me but had some LOM and Communist Workers Party (CWP) members playing an important role as well. The CWP is best known for its ultraleft strategy in North Carolina that played into the hands of the KKK. As two important trends in the New Communist Movement, they both were very active in Democratic Party campaigns involving Black progressives who were the Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the day: Harold Washington, who would be elected mayor of Chicago, and Jesse Jackson.

In 1984, CISPES passed a motion that its members would work closely with Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Still allergic to anything connected to the Democratic Party, I began to wind my CISPES activism down. Micah Uetricht, the Jacobin assistant editor who conducted the interview with Elbaum, stigmatizes people like me: “Planting the banners and waiting in a left-wing stronghold for people to come to us will not cut it.” This almost sounds like a plagiarism of Hal Draper’s “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect” if you ignore the fact that Draper opposed the Democratic Party on a principled basis.

The full exchange appears below:

Micah Uetricht: In the book, you quote Vladimir Lenin: “Politics begin where the masses are, not where there are thousands, but where there are millions.”  Then you write that revolutionaries must not “accept marginal status as a permanent fact of life — much less a mindset that glorifies marginality as a sign of true revolutionary faith. … Planting the banners and waiting in a left-wing stronghold for people to come to us will not cut it.”

When I read that, I think of the critiques of mass campaigns like Medicare for All or for politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which have shown that they can bring the idea of socialism to mass numbers of people who have never heard this term before. Some of those critiques are valid, like the worry that engaging too heavily in electoral politics will water down DSA’s radical politics to the point that the organization ceases to advance a bold socialist vision. But most of them seem more rooted in people clinging to that “pure” marginality — at a moment when socialism has an opportunity to become a truly mass movement. The opportunity to reach the “millions” that Lenin references is here, but orienting a leftist organization in that direction involves ditching some of the habits of glorifying marginality.

Max Elbaum: I think the Bernie campaign, the insurgent campaigns, the way people are learning to speak to large numbers who are envisioning moving the country as a whole — all of that is extremely positive. Politics is a matter of looking at the balance of forces and where the masses are at and intervening in a way that moves the needle. We have to speak to the majority and build a majoritarian movement.

We’re obviously a long way from a majority of the United States not just supporting fundamental change and an alternative to capitalism but taking steps and risks to make that happen. That’s not going to come about by offering only a maximalist program and trying to move in one leap from where we are now to that maximalist program.

It’s certainly legitimate and necessary to realize there’s uneven development in society — you’re going to have an advanced guard, what Lenin called the “conscious element.” That’s the point of having a socialist organization where people are united on the long-range goal. But it works in different layers. It has its immediate base and its periphery, and it works in coalition with outside forces.

So, I think that the purist tendencies, the ones that are critical of anything that is less than their total vision of what a revolutionary socialist program would be, are self-defeating. Because you never break out of the margins.

The idea that you just plant the flag and everyone will come to you if you have the correct line has never worked. That’s not how politics works. Politics is addition — you need to get more people on your team.

The Left has been marginal for a long time in the United States. For some people, that’s their comfort zone. When you mix it up in broad mass politics, there’s always a danger that you compromise some key principle and fall down a slippery slope. Those are real dangers. But every successful movement for radical reform or revolution has to engage in those broad mass politics. There’s no other way to build a majoritarian movement from where we are now to a majoritarian movement for socialism.

With all due respect to Max and Micah, it appears that the words “Politics begin where the masses are” do not appear in the Marxist Internet Archives. It seems to have about the same provenance as “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” None. In fact, the words attributed to Lenin could justify practically anything, including urging a vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, as Max did.

The exchange between the hardened social democrat (or democratic socialist, whatever) and the hardened Eurocommunist is notable for leaving the words “Democratic Party” out. Instead, it frames the differences between “glorifying marginality” by “purist tendencies” and those who are involved with “electoral politics” like the DSA, the Communist Party and the Committees of Correspondence. You might even say that articles written for the Jacobin and People’s World in support of working to elect Democrats are virtually indistinguishable except for the fact that Jacobin articles tend to use the language of the graduate school rather than the AFL-CIO media bureau.

If Jacobin had decided to ask tough questions rather than the kind that Charlie Rose would feed to Henry Kissinger or Bill Gates, they would have brought up Jesse Jackson’s campaigns. For all practical purposes, the Rainbow Coalition was the Sandernista movement of its day with volunteers being drawn from various Maoist sects rather than the social democracy, which was pretty marginal at the time.

Just as Jacobin authors kid themselves into believing that Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez et al might eventually break with the Democrats as Lincoln did with the Whigs, you heard the same thing in 1984 and 1988. Most leftists thought there was a realistic possibility that the Rainbow Coalition could turn into a new third party when Jackson had as much of an intention of leading such a break as Sanders does today. You can understand how even more unlikely this would be for Sanders since he enjoys the perks of being an elected Senator.

Thirty years ago, Joanna Misnik wrote a pamphlet for Solidarity titled “The Rainbow and the Democratic Party— New Politics or Old?: A Socialist Perspective” that I highly recommend. It is written from the perspective of Lenin’s electoral strategy that has nothing in common with the exchange between Uetricht and Elbaum above. Instead of quoting non-existent words, they might have tried to grapple with Lenin’s polemics against the Mensheviks who advocating blocs with the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), the Democratic Party of Czarist Russia.

Here is Misnik on the “Inside-Outside” strategy defended by the DSA:

The Rainbow includes a number of socialist and left organizations that hope the Coalition can ultimately precipitate a break from the Democrats in favor of a new anticapitalist political party. Groups such as the National Committee for Independent Political Action (NCIPA) typify the “inside-outside” strategy of the not-really Democrats in the Rainbow. They hold the position that the way to break the Democratic Party apart is to join it. They are urging people to register and vote Democrat!

“Inside-out” Rainbow activists are concerned about the decline of the movements for change during the past decade. They mistakenly identified the shift to the right of establishment politics as a rightward drift in the population at large. Sectors of the movement, buying into the idea that Reagan had a mandate, became fearful and hesitant. This timidity was fed by the collapse of the Black movement into the Democratic Party and the failure of the labor movement to mount a defense against concessions, plant closings, unemployment and the general effects of the recessionary economy.

The difficult political climate led to conclusions of the type offered by Rainbow leader Sheila Collins in her recently published The Rain­bow Challenge: the Jackson Campaign and the Future of U. S. Politics. Collins explains:

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 shocked many left activists into discovering the dialectical relationship between social movements and electoral institutions…. Electoral politics was no longer seen as a substitute for movement-building, but as a necessary complement. Although it was difficult to do both simultaneously, there was a growing realization that the two forms of political activity were dialectically related. (105-108)

This new “dialectic” for the ’80s is a high-toned way of sounding a retreat from what history has already taught. There isn’t a shred of evidence to support the idea that the Democratic Party, in or out of power, offers fundamental concessions to the locked-out when they loyally lock-in their votes in massive numbers. All successes in shifting the social relation of forces—from the rise of the CIO to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war victories—have been the direct results of unruly mass movements playing outside the acceptable channels of U.S. two-party politics.

In the case of both labor in the 1930s and the social movements of the 1960s, it was precisely at the point when major sectors of these movements decided it was time to move “from protest to politics” and act as a pressure group within and around the Democratic Party than reforms began to slack off and eventually disappear. In fact, the brevity of these two periods of major change is due to this very co-optation. Unable to defeat capitalist control of the party from the inside and claim it as their own, the reformers were themselves beaten and became the reformed.

Left Rainbow advocates may argue that all this does not apply. After all, they have an organization separate and apart from the Democratic Party that enables them to resist absorption while they use the “tactic” of Jackson’s candidacy to build a new, integral progressive force. Unfortunately this is not the case.

The Rainbow has only one tactic, one focus that glues all its components together: Jackson’s race for the Democratic Party nomination. No other goals were established at the Raleigh convention. By definition, this subsumes the Rainbow into the Democratic Party and hands it over to those who want it to be nothing more than an army of foot soldiers for the Jackson Campaign Committee.

This problem is not something only those outside the Rainbow can perceive. The powerful New Jersey delegation to the Rainbow Con­vention led a well-received fight to democratize the notoriously top-down Rainbow structure. They were motivated by the fear that the Rainbow will be dictated to by official campaign structures, stunting its growth and threatening its ability to exist beyond `88. Some structural changes were made, such as adding state chairs to the all-powerful Board of Directors and halving the minimum number of members required to receive a local charter.

However, the Rainbow chartering system still requires a minimum membership in a third of a state’s congressional districts. Using the districts as its basic unit shapes the vote-getting operation. It is a foreign and unwieldy organizational structure for activists accustomed to city-wide mobilizing.

September 22, 2018

A multiple-choice test by the New York Times, answer correctly and you are DSA material

Filed under: DSA — louisproyect @ 7:04 pm

As part of its continuing PR effort on behalf of the DSA, the New York Times has a multiple choice/interactive feature titled “What is Democratic Socialism”. With this article reaching nearly 2.2 million readers, you can just see the membership figures for the DSA topping 100,000 before long. That’s the same number the CP reached in the 30s and was, like with the DSA, partly a result of its cachet among liberal elites.

Let’s take the multiple choice test together:

(1) Let’s start with the big question. In an ideal world, who would control the means of production?

a. Private Owners

b. The Government

c. Workers

For some reason, each of the questions includes one that is a giveaway. As if anybody who favors “private owners” is trying to make up their mind whether they are socialists or not.

It’s sort of a trick question since socialism, whether you identify it with Cuba or Sweden, does involve government control. If you chose b, however, you are not a democratic socialist since only “Leninist” governments are control freaks. If you chose c, you are in good company since that means workers will be in charge and who can oppose that? The DSA does allow that key industries like steel and energy would be “administered” by the government but everything else would be those apple-cheeked cooperatives that Richard Wolff is so gung-ho on. This begs the question whether steel and energy would be state-owned or not. After all, administration could also mean riding herd in the way that Cuba deals with foreign-owned hotels. As for cooperatives, what prevents them from becoming like Mondragon? A company making pressure cookers, as Mondragon does through its Fabor subsidiary, has to compete with other pressure cooker manufacturers in a market economy. Since there are always winners and losers, it always helps a firm be a winner if it pays attention to the bottom line. In a Fortune Magazine article titled “Defiant Spanish workers stage lock-in, resist layoffs”, we can see that cooperatives obey the same economic dictates as conventional firms do:

Almost 28,000 companies have declared bankruptcy during Spain’s five-year economic crisis, hitting a peak of 2,854 during the first three months of 2013. But Fagor Electrodomésticos is not just any business. Launched in 1956 by a Catholic priest named José María Arizmendiarrieta and five students from a technical college he started in the wake of the Spanish Civil War, Fagor is the foundational unit of Mondragón, the world’s biggest conglomerate of worker-owned cooperatives.

With 80,000 employees and operations in 18 countries outside Spain, Mondragón became a symbol of what a worker-owned cooperative model could achieve. In the late 1980s, Pedro Nueno, a professor of entrepreneurship at the IESE Business School, consulted with Fagor on ways to innovate for the “kitchen of the future.” He says he was struck by the leaders’ long-term vision and by how committed they were considering their low salaries (top executives at Mondragón make less than 10 times the lowest paid worker’s salary).

 “A person with the same responsibilities would be getting five times that in another company,” he says.

Similarly, when Richard Wolff, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, visited Fagor two years ago, he was impressed by the seriousness with which management handled buying assembly line equipment, which came from outside the Mondragón family of industrial companies. “They gave me a lecture on policy: You buy within Mondragón if quality or price was competitive. If not, you go outside,” he says.

But such commitment and seriousness has done little to help Fagor recently. Revenues fell from €1.75 billion in 2007 (about $2.58 billion at the time) to €1.28 billion in 2011, and the company has lost money for the last five years, racking up debts of €859 million. During that time, Mondragón lent it some €300 million.


(2) In a capitalist system, do you believe government regulations are helpful or harmful?

a. Helpful

b. Harmful

A giveaway.


(3) Do you believe that everyone is entitled to a certain minimum standard of living?

a. Yes

b. No

Another giveaway.


(4) Do you believe labor unions are a positive force?

a. Yes

b. No

Another giveaway. As you can see, questions 2 through 4 are set up to make people like Cynthia Nixon decide to declare that she is a socialist. In fact, probably 90 percent of the audience watching Rachel Maddow would choose the “correct” answers. The truth is that anybody who voted for Obama would be a “democratic socialist” on the basis of how they reply to those questions. Maybe the whole thing is calculated to make “democratic socialism” such an acceptable choice in order for the Democratic Party to regain the hegemonic status it possessed from FDR to LBJ. American capitalism has a rocky road in front of it and it requires adroit statesmanship to avoid a collision. Clearly, the new generation of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and even Andrew Gillum, who eschews the label of socialist, are waiting in the wings to displace Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.


(5) Which of these best matches your views on health care?

a. The government should have minimal or no involvement in providing or funding health care.

b. The government should subsidize the cost of private insurance for people who can’t afford it, through a system more or less like the Affordable Care Act.

c. We should have a single-payer system, like “Medicare for all.”

d. The whole health care industry should be socialized. Health care would be funded through a single-payer government system, and doctors would be public employees, like in Britain.

If you chose c, you are partly a democratic socialist but if you want to be included in the inner circle that will save humanity from Armageddon, the right choice would have been d since that’s the most socialistic. Unfortunately, the health care system in Britain is being undermined by a thousand cuts, just like the shitty Obamacare is in the USA. Unless the political power of the bourgeoisie is ended, health care is subject to its whims. That political power rests on its economic power, of course, something that will resist relinquishing in the same way that the southern bourgeoisie resisted Lincoln’s abolitionist agenda: violence. This leads me to the final question that really needs to be sorted out since it is basically a trick question.


(6) Ideally, how should major social or political changes be achieved?

a. Through the traditional democratic process: elections, legislation and popular lobbying.

b. Through grass-roots organizing.

c. By any means necessary, including violence and/or revolution.

If you chose a, you’d be partially democratic socialist even though there’s not much to differentiate you from an ordinary Democratic Party ward-heeler. If you chose grass-roots organizing, what are you waiting for? Go to the DSA website, enter your name, address, etc. and click “submit”. That’s all there is to it. After all, being in favor of grass-roots organizing doesn’t actually obligate you to do anything. That would be so Leninist, after all.

Choosing c condemns you as a “communist”:

You disagree with democratic socialists. This is a common point of misunderstanding for people who conflate democratic socialism with communism. Democratic socialists don’t support a revolution to overthrow capitalism; they believe change should happen, well, democratically. “Any possible transition to socialism would necessitate mass mobilization and the democratic legitimacy garnered by having demonstrated majority support,” Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Schulman wrote.

Democratic socialists support and participate in the electoral process, but they believe that ideally, workers should achieve changes for themselves — for instance, through unions and tenant organizations — rather than relying on people in traditional positions of authority.

“We would prefer, for example, for us to win universal rent control in New York through organizing millions of New Yorkers,” Ms. Svart said. “We believe that it’s through the process of pushing for these changes that people empower themselves.”

The Schwartz and Schulman referred to above are Joseph Schwartz and Jason Schulman who co-wrote “Toward Freedom: Democratic Socialist Theory and Practice” on December 21, 2012. They see themselves as more advanced than Karl Marx since, unlike them, “Marx did not make clear his commitment to political democracy”. Poor Karl Marx did not understand the need for “political pluralism” that obviously means having free elections that include parties arguing for the overthrow of socialism. Leaving aside whether Chile or Nicaragua were socialist, Salvador Allende and Daniel Ortega tried that. Look how far it got them. Nasty old Cuba did not permit that. Yeah, it meant that you were living under authoritarian rule but given Cuba’s proximity to the USA, it is doubtful that anything else would have allowed the socialized medicine DSA supports to be possible.

This business about “violence” is the stock-in-trade of sleazy liberal journalists going back for a century. I used to hear it all the time when Malcolm X was alive. This is how he used to handle it:

Malcolm X was sympathetic to the Socialist Workers Party and for good reasons. He and the party understood this question of violence to the marrow of their bones. When James P. Cannon and other party leaders were on trial for violating the Smith Act in 1941, he spoke about the SWP’s position on violence. I recommend reading his entire “Socialism on Trial” but will conclude with the section dealing with question of violence:

Q: Now, what is the opinion of Marxists with reference to the change in the social order, as far as its being accompanied or not accompanied by violence?

A: It is the opinion of all Marxists that it will be accompanied by violence.

Q: Why?

A: That is based, like all Marxist doctrine, on a study of history, the historical experiences of mankind in the numerous changes of society from one form to another, the revolutions which accompanied it, and the resistance which the outlived classes invariably put up against the new order. Their attempt to defend themselves against the new order, or to suppress by violence the movement for the new order, has resulted in every important social transformation up to now being accompanied by violence.

Q: Who, in the opinion of Marxists, initiated that violence?

A: Always the ruling class; always the outlived class that doesn’t want to leave the stage when the time has come. They want to hang on to their privileges, to reinforce them by violent measures, against the rising majority and they run up against the mass violence of the new class, which history has ordained shall come to power.

Q: What is the opinion of Marxists, as far as winning a majority of the people to socialist ideas?

A: Yes, that certainly is the aim of the party. That is the aim of the Marxist movement, has been from its inception.

Marx said the social revolution of the proletariat—I think I can quote his exact words from memory—“is a movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority”[2] He said this in distinguishing it from previous revolutions which had been made in the interest of minorities, as was the case in France in 1789.

Q: What would you say is the opinion of Marxists as far as the desirability of a peaceful transition is concerned?

A: The position of the Marxists is that the most economical and preferable, the most desirable method of social transformation, by all means, is to have it done peacefully.

Q: And in the opinion of the Marxists, is that absolutely excluded?

A: Well, I wouldn’t say absolutely excluded. We say that the lessons of history don’t show any important examples in favor of the idea so that you can count upon it.

Q: Can you give us examples in American history of a minority refusing to submit to a majority?

A: I can give you a very important one. The conception of the Marxists is that even if the transfer of political power from the capitalists to the proletariat is accomplished peacefully—then the minority, the exploiting capitalist class, will revolt against the new regime, no matter how legally it is established.

I can give you an example in American history. The American Civil War resulted from the fact that the Southern slaveholders couldn’t reconcile themselves to the legal parliamentary victory of Northern capitalism, the election of President Lincoln.

Q: Can you give us an example outside of America where a reactionary minority revolted against a majority in office?

A: Yes, in Spain—the coalition of workers’ and liberal parties in Spain got an absolute majority in the elections and established the People’s Front government. This government was no sooner installed than it was confronted with an armed rebellion, led by the reactionary capitalists of Spain.

Q: Then the theory of Marxists and the theory of the Socialist Workers Party, as far as violence is concerned, is a prediction based upon a study of history, is that right?

A: Well, that is part of it. It is a prediction that the outlived class, which is put in a minority by the revolutionary growth in the country, will try by violent means to hold on to its privileges against the will of the majority. That is what we predict.

Of course, we don’t limit ourselves simply to that prediction. We go further, and advise the workers to bear this in mind and prepare themselves not to permit the reactionary outlived minority to frustrate the will of the majority.

Q: What role does the rise and existence of fascism play with reference to the possibility of violence?

A: That is really the nub of the whole question, because the reactionary violence of the capitalist class, expressed through fascism, is invoked against the workers. Long before the revolutionary movement of the workers gains the majority, fascist gangs are organised and subsidised by millions in funds from the biggest industrialists and financiers, as the example of Germany showed—and these fascist gangs undertake to break up the labor movement by force. They raid the halls, assassinate the leaders, break up the meetings, burn the printing plants, and destroy the possibility of functioning long before the labor movement has taken the road of revolution.

I say that is the nub of the whole question of violence. If the workers don’t recognise that, and do not begin to defend themselves against the fascists, they will never be given the possibility of voting on the question of revolution. They will face the fate of the German and Italian proletariat and they will be in the chains of fascist slavery before they have a chance of any kind of a fair vote on whether they want socialism or not.

It is a life and death question for the workers that they organise themselves to prevent fascism, the fascist gangs, from breaking up the workers’ organisations, and not to wait until it is too late. That is in the program of our party.

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