Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 7, 2018

The excuses some Marxists make for voting Democratic (part two)

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,Lenin — louisproyect @ 5:58 pm

Ramsay McDonald, reformist politician and the illegitimate son of a farm laborer and housemaid

As I stated in my article on young Marxist intellectuals and the Democratic Party, the level of sophistication is far in advance of the “lesser evil” arguments I used to hear from the Communist Party. While I referred to the academic contributors to Jacobin as exemplifying this trend, others outside the academy have shown the same kind of erudition, even if steeped in casuistry.

In a Marxmail discussion touched off by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Joe Crowley, I made the point that socialists have no business supporting bourgeois parties and that this practice dates back to the Popular Front. When an Australian Socialist Alliance member and A. O-C supporter asked why it would be acceptable to vote for a Labour Party candidate in Australia that has positions worse than the Democrats on some questions, I replied that the “The key difference between a reformist Labor Party and the Democratic Party is based on class.”

This prompted a very well-read young DSA member (isn’t that a redundancy?) to correct me:

There is a shibboleth in the Trotskyist movement that this is from Lenin, but it’s not actually what Lenin argued. He said “the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party” (https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/ch13.htm — and this is just one example). There’s a history to arguing that a “bourgeois labor party” is a party based on the workers but with bourgeois leadership and that that was Lenin’s concept. However, as one can see reading this https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm, in context the term Lenin used was “bourgeois Labor Party”, i.e. “the Labor Party is a bourgeois party” (note the capitalization–which can be inconsistent in various editions but again, in context this becomes clear).

One can make an argument for this idea of voting or working with based solely on the class-basis of parties and ignoring everything else, but it should at least be made with the awareness that this isn’t what Lenin argued and I haven’t seen anyone do that: he was for the CP working in and voting for the British Labor Party and he thought that party was a bourgeois party. For Lenin, the class-basis did matter in that that was why he urged the building of a separate working-class political organization, but it did not tie down his thinking from considering a range of tactical and strategic options–including working within and voting for–in relationship to other parties, including bourgeois ones.

After reading Richard Seymour and Simon Hannah’s books on British Labour, I was left with the conclusion that any resemblance between Labour and the Democratic Party is purely coincidental. While analogies between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are fairly obvious, subjecting Labour and the DP to a historical materialist analysis reveals massive differences. Above all, the entire history of Labour has revolved around bitter struggles between the leftist and working class base against the party’s elite. But that elite has little in common with the Democratic Party’s elite. For example, Ramsay McDonald, a notoriously rightwing leader who betrayed the 1926 General Strike, was the illegitimate son of a farm laborer and a housemaid. When McDonald served a brief term as Prime Minister in 1923, his colonial minister promised that there would be “no mucking about with the British Empire”. His name was J.H. Thomas, a man who was the son of a young unmarried mother. Raised by his grandmother, he began working when he was 12, soon starting a career as a railway worker and eventually becoming the head of their trade union. This reflected the social base of Labour that was not only overwhelmingly proletarian but had institutional ties to the unions, even if their leaders—like Thomas—were the Samuel Gompers of their day.

Now you certainly cannot deny that Lenin described Labour as “bourgeois” but I am not exactly the sort of person who follows Lenin’s writings as if he were infallible. Nor Trotsky, for that matter. These men and some women like Rosa Luxemburg who have been deified deserve better than to be cited by us as if we were Christian fundamentalists citing scripture.

Unlike his much more analytical analysis of Russian political parties, Lenin’s references to Labour were polemical and designed in the heat of the moment to shepherd ultraleft Communists into Labour—like putting a candy coating on a bitter pill.

Before he turned his attention to weaning his comrades off of ultraleftism, Lenin offered a more dispassionate appraisal in 1913: “The British Labour Party, which exists side by side with the opportunist Independent Labour Party and the Social-Democratic British Socialist Party, is something in the nature of a broad labour party. It is a compromise between a socialist party and non-socialist trade unions.” That sounds about right. We should only be so lucky to have such a party in the USA today.

If I was alive when Lenin was writing “Left Wing Communism, an infantile disorder”, I would have sat him down and urged him to use the term “petty-bourgeois” rather than bourgeois to describe Labour. Although that term left a bad taste in my mouth after 11 years in the SWP, I do think that if applied in strict class terms does have its uses. For Lenin, alliances between the proletarian Russian Social Democracy and middle-layer parties based on the peasantry were permissible but not with the bourgeois Cadets, the party that the Mensheviks adapted to just as the DSA adapts to the Democratic Party today.

In 1900, Lenin wrote “An Attempt at a Classification of the Political Parties of Russia” that can serve as a useful guideline. He described the Social-Democratic Party as a distinct type. “In Russia it is the only workers’ party, the party of the proletariat, both in composition and in its strictly consistent proletarian point of view.” Moving to the right, the next type was illustrated by the Trudoviks that he described as “petty-bourgeois” and whose ideological confusion reflected the extremely precarious position of the small producer in present-day society. Finally, there were the parties of the bourgeoisie with the Black Hundreds and Cadets corresponding roughly to the Republicans and Democrats of today.

Cadet politicians were typical bourgeois intellectuals and sometimes even a liberal landlord, according to Lenin. As for the Black Hundreds, “It is in their interests to perpetuate the filth, ignorance and corruption that flourish under the sceptre of the adored monarch”. Sounds rather like Fox News, doesn’t it?

Parties corresponding to the Cadets and the Black Hundreds exist all across Europe with Germany being a prime example. Angela Merkel is a typical Cadet politician while she is under pressure from the latter-day Black Hundreds. So is Macron and Hillary Clinton.

In the first years of Bolshevik power, there was an understandable triumphalism that tended to paper over the differences between true bourgeois parties and those of the Second International. When this led to the disastrous March 1921 Action in Germany in which semi-lumpen CP members treated SP workers as the enemy, Lenin reversed direction under the influence of Paul Levi’s critique. Levi had advocated a united front between revolutionary and reformist workers parties. This served as Communist strategy until Stalin’s disastrous “Third Period” turn that marked a return to the March 1921 insanity. Under the “Third Period”, the German CP backed a Nazi referendum that would have ousted a Socialist governor in Saxony and other kinds of madness.

These united front policies were adopted formally at the 1922 Comintern Congress that legitimized Levi’s critique even if it foolishly decided to expel him for breaking discipline. If the united front was geared to specific actions such as demonstrations, there was also a call for a “workers government” that considered power-sharing between Communists and Socialists (and presumably Labour as well) as in the interests of class unity. John Riddell, the translator and editor of the proceedings of the 1922 Comintern gathering, has a number of articles categorized as “workers government” on his blog that are very helpful in understanding this part of the Comintern’s new approach. The one titled “The Comintern’s unknown decision on workers’ governments” contains the resolution itself, which states: “Instead of a bourgeois-Social-Democratic coalition, whether open or disguised, Communists propose the united front of all workers and a coalition of all workers’ parties, in both the economic and political arena, to struggle against the power of the bourgeoisie and ultimately to overthrow it.”

Is there any doubt what was meant by all “workers’ parties”? What would that mean in Germany except the SP and the CP? Or Labour and the CP in England?

If you follow the DSA’er’s logic, there would be no difference between the workers government advocated in 1922 and the 1934 Popular Front turn that was not only a sharp reversal from the “Third Period” but an overcorrection that effectively revived the Menshevik orientation to the Cadets. In Spain, France and the USA, you had the CPs either participating in coalition governments with capitalist parties or supporting them from outside the government. Obviously, this is what happened under Roosevelt but it also took place in Cuba. At its congress in 1939 the Cuban Communists promised to “adopt a more positive  attitude towards Colonel Batista”, who had relied on the CP-led trade unions for support. Batista was no longer “…the focal point of reaction; but the focal point of democracy”. (New York Daily Worker, October 1, 1939). The Comintern stated in its journal: “Batista…no longer represents the  center of reaction…the people who are working for the overthrow of Batista are no longer acting in the interests of the Cuban people.” (World News and Views, No 60 1938). Historian Hugh Thomas once commented that the Catholic laity had more conflicts with Batista’s dictatorship than the Cuban Communists did.

The role of Social Democracy (including its rejuvenated offspring in the DSA) and Stalinism historically has been to mediate between the two main classes in society, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Even when leaders like Leon Trotsky and V.I. Lenin come from privileged families, they devote themselves fully to the working class movement.

Today, there are few opportunities for young people to follow in their path since the working class is so quiescent. In the decline of manufacturing in the USA, blue-collar wage workers, either unionized or not, make up a smaller percentage of the population. Instead, the economy has shifted to the services such as hospital employees, fast food, information technology, etc. The last significant presence of socialists in the working class movement was in the early 70s when veterans of the state capitalist tendency helped to form Teamsters for a Democratic Union. As valuable as their work was, it came to naught because of terrible mistakes made by TDU leader Ron Carey.

For DSA’ers, the attraction to the Democratic Party is oddly enough related to the ultraleftism Lenin fought in 1922. Young radicals have little patience for the sort of long haul required for building a revolutionary movement in the USA. Unlike Colombia or Pakistan, where Marxist activism can earn you a bullet in the head, our biggest obstacle is indifference. When A. O-C can get on Meet the Press, why defend the Communist Manifesto, a stance that can only produce derision or hostility? Unless you are a miserable old cuss like me that refuses to bow down to bourgeois authority.

August 3, 2018

Young Marxist intellectuals and the Democratic Party

Filed under: DSA,two-party system — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

Adam Hilton: McGovern + Marx = democratic socialism

The “democratic socialist” movement spawned by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign has led to an interesting development. Highly educated and self-described socialists in the academy have written erudite articles making the Marxist case for voting Democratic. Even if they are wrong, I am impressed with the scholarly prowess deployed on behalf of obvious casuistry.

These articles often appear in Jacobin, which has managed to repackage arguments made by Irving Howe a half-century ago in the snazziest of graphics. In 2016, for example, Seth Ackerman, a Jacobin editor and dissertation student at the highly prestigious Cornell University, wrote “A Blueprint for a New Party” that advanced “new electoral strategies for an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class” but in fine print recommended running in Democratic Party primaries. Jacobin followed up with another such article by Eric Blanc but couched in terms of a “dirty break” from the Democratic Party as opposed to the “clean break” advocated by Marxist dinosaurs like me. Such a “dirty break” was adopted by the Nonpartisan League in the early 20th century, when it ran candidates in both the Democratic and Republican parties (a case can be made that the Republicans were the lesser evil at the time). Blanc, who is a dissertation student at NYU, is even more steeped in Marxist lore than Ackerman. One supposes that this is a prerequisite for convincing congenitally radical young people to work for Democratic Party candidates when disgust with the party is at an all-time high.

The most recent occurrence of this special pleading can be found in the 2018 Socialist Register. Adam Hilton, a visiting lecturer at Mount Holyoke, takes up 31 pages in consideration of “Organized for Democracy? Left Challenges Inside the Democratic Party” that is based on his 2016 dissertation “Party Reform and Political Realignment: The New Politics Movement in the Democratic Party”. Essentially, Hilton points to the “New Politics” movement of the late 60s and early 70s as an experiment that might have produced a European style Social Democracy if George McGovern hadn’t gotten clobbered by Nixon. For an unrepentant Marxist like me, the nostalgia is over 1917 Bolshevism rather than 1972 left-liberalism. For that I make no apologies.

Hilton has defended pretty much the same thesis in six different scholarly journals and another four more easily accessible magazines, including two for Jacobin. One gathers that there is a booming market now for “democratic socialism” in both high and low venues. Since most of you don’t have access to the paywalled Socialist Register, my advice is to read one of the Jacobin articles, with this one best for understanding my critique.

My interest was piqued by Socialist Register publishing an article defending work in the Democratic Party since the editorial board virtually constitutes the high priesthood of Marxism, with York University’s Leo Panitch earning pride of place as a long-time advocate of class politics, resistance to bourgeois parties and all sorts of other good things. Maybe he included an article defending voting for Democrats as a courtesy to Hilton, who was his dissertation student. Let’s hope so since the Democratic Party would be the last party in the world I’d expect Panitch to promote.

For me, this pandering to the oldest, still-functioning, capitalist party in the world by smart young things is a novel experience. Ever since I got into Marxist politics in 1967, the only people on the far reaches of the left who advocated voting Democratic were in the Communist Party. You were not likely to find references to the Nonpartisan League running in Democratic primaries a century ago in their party press. Instead, it was more like vote for Hubert Humphrey or else we get WWIII.

If Hilton has a scholarly grasp of what was going on in the Democratic Party in 1972, he seems a lot less knowledgeable about the broader dimensions of a debate that has been going on since the 1930s when for the first time in history the Communist left in the USA supported the Democratic Party under the ideological umbrella of Georgi Dimitrov’s Popular Front.

In the second paragraph of his article, he states that “amidst the Great Depression, the Democratic Party under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal successfully integrated insurgent farmer and labour groups, after which independent third-party vote shares in US elections declined and never recovered.” Declined and never recovered? This almost makes it sound organic, like a zinnia dying after the first frost in autumn.

In fact, there was widespread support for a labor party in the 1930s but it was quashed by the same people who told you to vote for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. In 1980, Mike Davis wrote an article in New Left Review titled “The Barren Marriage of American Labour and the Democratic Party” that anticipated his classic 1986 book “Prisoners of the American Dream”. Describing the hunger for electoral alternatives even with a friend of labor in the White House, Davis writes:

In ‘feudal’ steel towns, as we have seen, political mobilization for democratic rights was a virtual precondition for union organization. Similarly in auto centers, the sitdown strikes spurred UAW militants to campaign against corporation-dominated local governments. In Lansing and Jackson, Michigan, for example, UAW ‘flying squads’ did double duty on picket lines and ballot counting, while in Flint and Saginaw the union stewards were also organized on a residential basis, creating a powerful ward organization. Local after local of the auto, electrical and garment workers voted support for the concept of a labour party in a groundswell of political independence that discomforted Lewis and Hillman. A Gallup Poll conducted in August, 1937, following the sitdown wave, showed that at least 21% of the population supported the eventual formation of a national farmer-labour party.

What if the Communist Party had thrown its weight behind the formation of a labor party, especially after working-class ire was raised by FDR’s “plague on both your houses” statement during the Little Steel strike? In 1937, Chicago cops opened fire on a Memorial Day parade organized by the steelworkers that left ten dead and hundreds wounded from gunfire or clubs. The mayor who ordered the attack was a Democrat named Edward J. Kelly who had been endorsed by the CP. Afterward, Kelly met with the CP-led steelworkers union and promised to keep the cops on a short leash if it would endorse him once again in 1939. Not only did it agree, a worker who lost an eye in the massacre did a radio spot for him during his re-election campaign.

There was one independent left party in the 1930s and early 40s, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, but the CP succeeded in merging it with the Democratic Party in 1944. While the party was shaky at best, taking a hostile position toward the Trotskyist-led Teamsters Strike in 1934, it was something that could have been made more effective by the presence of an organized and supportive socialist component—in other words, the sort of thing the DSA is up to in the DP. Writing for CounterPunch in 2014, Graeme Anfinson referred to Stalinist elements within the party, who had been instrumental in bureaucratically shutting down any disagreeing voice from the unions, being at the forefront of the merger.

So, the independent third-party vote did not die of natural causes during the New Deal. It was killed.

Targeting moldy figs who still view the Democratic Party as a bourgeois party, Hilton assures us that it cannot be bourgeois since it has intimate ties with the trade unions. He writes:

Even though, as will be developed below, Democratic Party organs have rarely served as centres of community life, the party apparatus did develop structural links with trade unions in most large industrial states in the 1930s as well as at the national level in the process of presidential nomination and campaigning. In some states, such as Michigan, these institutional linkages of elite brokerage fused into tightly integrated party-union relationships. In other states, through the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ political action committee (CIO-PAC) and, later, the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education (COPE), organized labour engaged in voter registration, door-to-door canvassing, literature distribution and get-out-the-vote drives for unionists and non-unionists alike.

Seeing my wife go through the ordeal of getting tenure, I understand how dissertation students have to be monomaniacally focused on their topic but surely Hilton must have heard somewhere along the line that there are bourgeois parties everywhere that have such links to trade unions. Christian Democratic trade unions have been around forever in Europe. As a London School of Economics article points out, they were bigger in the Netherlands than unions connected to the social democracy:

Unlike in the UK, trade unionism in the Netherlands has never been an exclusively left-wing operation. In fact, all current Dutch trade unions have part of their roots in Christian-democratic trade unionism. Until the 1970s there was a Catholic, Protestant and socialist trade union. Their members voted exclusively for the Catholic, Protestant and labour party, and the leadership of these trade unions and parties was strongly intertwined.

For that matter, although I don’t have much direct knowledge of European trade unions, I am quite sure that they have many more connections to the grassroots than American unions. Hilton refers to voter registration drives, etc. but working-class disaffection from organized labor is at an all-time high just as it is for the DP. What’s missing today is any sense of a labor movement. Proof of that was the wildcat teachers’ strikes that only took place because the union bureaucracy had left the rank-and-file teacher to his or her own device.

Finally, let me turn to the “New Politics” movement that is the subject of Hilton’s dissertation. I know a bit about this since I was forced to contend with the McGovern campaign in 1972 as a member of the Socialist Workers Party. In 1968 and 1972, the antiwar movement declined because many young people understandably acting on a pragmatic basis hoped that the election of a Eugene McCarthy or a George McGovern would end the war. Indeed, when I was facing the draft in 1966, I was praying that someone like Senator Fulbright would save the day.

The New Politics movement was launched by Fred Harris, who was the head of the Democratic National Committee. He convened a commission led by George McGovern and Minnesota Congressman Donald Fraser that would propose changes to allow greater membership control and officeholder accountability. These reforms were meant to assuage “segments of the civil rights, student, antiwar, and feminist movements, as well as the labour-left”, according to Hilton.

Certainly, there were such segments, most of all people like Sam Brown and David Hawk who set the Vietnam Moratorium in motion. Their intention was to organize protests that would sheepdog people behind “peace candidates” like George McGovern, as Bruce Dixon puts it. Unfortunately for them, the Socialist Workers Party and its radical allies shanghaied the Moratorium and turned into a mass action calling for Out Now.

McGovern promised to withdraw US troops within 90 days of being elected but Nixon’s withdrawal was set for only 90 days longer after being re-elected. Since he was an incumbent and had practically invented the demagogic tricks of Donald Trump, he had no problem beating McGovern. Would McGovern’s election made much difference on the ground? Speaking for myself, I saw the antiwar demonstrations and the Vietnamese resistance as the only guarantee of peace.

On the more fundamental question of whether the New Politics movement could have made much difference resisting the neoliberal turn that arguably began in 1973 with the overthrow of Allende, one has to see the last 45 years as a function of capitalist contradictions rather than the ill-will of party bosses who hated McGovern. It was not the dominance of centrist Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton that led to capitalist austerity. Rather it was capitalist austerity that made Carter and Clinton necessary.

Capital has a remarkable instinct for self-preservation. In his 1972 acceptance speech, McGovern stated:

We must also make this a time of justice and jobs for all our people. For more than three and half years we have tolerated stagnation and a rising level of joblessness, with more than five million of our best workers unemployed at this very moment. Surely, this is the most false and wasteful economics of all.

Our deep need is not for idleness but for new housing and hospitals, for facilities to combat pollution and take us home from work, for better products able to compete on vigorous world markets.

Better products to compete on vigorous world markets? What is that except another way of saying make America great again? In both the Democratic Party left and the Republican Party right, there is this mythology of a return to a Golden Age based on an expanding economy and rising wages. For the past forty years at least, the trend has been toward us returning to a previous era but one resembling the Grover Cleveland administration rather than the New Deal.

Combatting the two-party system is going to require much more than elections. It will require the kind of strikes carried out by teachers, the Black Lives Matter protests, the Occupy Wall Street movement and a thousand other types of resistance to the status quo. For that struggle to move forward, it will require a revolutionary party that can coordinate and defend the mass movements. As it advances, it will eventually run up against the brick wall of resistance that every ruling class mounts when it is pushed back on its heels. When push comes to shove, we will need an American Lenin steeled in struggle to lead the movement toward socialism rather than a Bernie Sanders whose socialism stops short of even making the simple statement that capitalism is the source of all our problems. Based on our traditions, it will certainly be a democratic socialism that no capitalist power would be emboldened to attack it. After all, Cuba’s tight controls were a function of the Bay of Pigs more than anything else.

It is doubtful that such an outcome can be gestated out of the Democratic Party. Nay, precluded.

July 26, 2018

Bring back communism?

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:33 pm

When I reviewed Michael Lebowitz’s “The Socialist Alternative” in 2011, I found his argument that Marx considered the words socialism and communism interchangeable persuasive. While he did not rule out the use of the word communism, he certainly implied that it had drawbacks:

The term communism communicated something different when Marx wrote in the nineteenth century. Communism was the name Marx used to describe the society of free and associated producers — “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.” But very few people think of communism that way now. In fact, people hardly think of communism as an economic system, as a way in which producers organize to produce for the needs of all! Rather, as the result of the understanding of the experiences of the last century, communism is now viewed as a political system — in particular, as a state that stands over and above society and oppresses working people.

When I was in the Socialist Workers Party, we never called ourselves communists because of its associations with the Soviet bureaucracy. After cult leader Jack Barnes decided to break with Trotskyist tradition, the word communist became ubiquitous mainly because it was the word preferred by the Cubans. As the party descended deeper into political mental illness, it began using the term worker-Bolshevik to describe party members. After hooking up with Peter Camejo in the early 80s, I repeated his warnings about sectarian appropriations of the USSR every chance I got especially on the net. For me, when a group puts up hammers and sickles or red stars on its website, or pictures of Stalin, Trotsky or Mao for that matter, I am always reminded of the words of the cop in “Cool Hand Luke”: “What we have here is a failure to communicate”.

Now that the term “democratic-socialist” has gained about the same currency as Che Guevara t-shirts or the “Kars for Kids” commercial on TV and radio, I have reached the boiling point. What does being for single-payer or against ICE have to do with socialism? Maxine Waters is identical to Bernie Sanders on these matters but described herself as a “capitalist” politician in a CNBC interview.

For that matter, what is the point of prefixing the word with “democratic”? Is the idea that you don’t want to be mistaken for one of those socialists who has good things to say about Fidel and Che? For Marx and Engels, socialism was a system based on both political and economic democracy in the sense of the Greek origins of the term. “Demo” + “cracy” = rule of the people.

After Marx’s death, Engels helped to influence the direction of the Second International that fell within the rubric of “social democracy”, a term that was interchangeable with socialist. It was only the failure of the Second International to oppose WWI that led to the formation of the Third International, or Communist International. From 1917 onwards, those who saw the USSR as a model labeled themselves communist proudly. The Trotskyists eschewed the term for the reasons alluded to above.

The problem facing the “hard left” today for lack of a better term is the ubiquity of the term “democratic-socialist” that has begun to suck all the oxygen out of the room. With many on the “hard left” attaching themselves to the Jacobin/DSA colossus like remoras to a shark, those of us who failed to be seduced by the charms of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are left out in the cold. Who are we? Where do we stand? What is our future?

I was left with such questions after reading the article “What is Millennial Socialism?” written for The American Interest by Ben Judah that consigns people like me to the dustbin of history:

“Revolution” was to a generation of socialists what Godot was to Vladimir and Estragon. Waiting for the revolution, anticipating the revolution, planning for the revolution, paralyzed a generation of socialists in Britain and America.

“We can’t sit around waiting; our chance is happening right now,” I remember my friend James Schneider told me when he co-founded Momentum to support Jeremy Corbyn. This attitude, and how prevalent it is, matters.

The idea of the revolution crippled a generation of socialist activists and intellectuals. Not anymore. Britain’s millennial socialists believe that the Labour Party can be made the vehicle for the revolution they want—breaking 1 percent financial capitalism—and they can achieve it through the ballot box.

This idea of the revolution could not be more different from the older generation. The old Left—think Perry Anderson and his New Left Review—went from believing Harold Wilson could open the path to socialism through the ballot boxes, to waiting expectantly for a May ‘68-type situation to emerge in the United Kingdom, to writing it off completely as a historic impossibility in the 1990s.

That old idea of the revolution—the massive crowds, the vanguard and the Kalashnikov chic—is so absent from millennial socialism that it’s hard to get across how important it was to the old Left. What for the new is commodified ironic Soviet kitsch was deadly serious to the founders of the New Left Review, for whom October 1917 was an inseparable part of thinking about socialism. Late-night discussions in the upstairs room at pubs in Islington about the exact moment to seize Parliament based on analysing Karl Liebknecht’s mistakes for when the ‘situation’ next comes round? That was the old 1970s Left. Go to the pub with millennial socialists and all you will hear about is party politics.

Guess what party politics is. Here’s a clue: A. O-C.

Get it? Ben Judah sees the division between dinosaurs like me and fresh-faced kids like Bhaskar Sunkara as being based on revolution versus electoralism. “Now—even more so since the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—millennial socialist activists are convinced that the hollow establishment parties that their forerunners disdained are instruments ripe for the taking.”

I don’t know quite how to put this but the only thing I spot on the horizon as ripe for taking are the millennials who hope to take over the Democratic Party. With A. O-C wilting under pressure on Israel and Palestine, the term might even be rotten-ripe.

Just a word or two about the provenance of The American Interest and Ben Judah. The American Interest is a magazine whose executive committee is chaired by Francis Fukuyama. The editorial board includes Anne Applebaum, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Mario Vargas Llosa. As for Ben Judah, he is the son of Tim Judah at the New York Review of Books, a long-time anti-Communist hack. Only 30 years old, Ben Judah was talented enough to become a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations between 2010 and 2012. Wow. Only 22 years old and making it big-time on a policy-making body funded by George Soros. Just the kind of person qualified to put the crown on the head of the boy-prince Bhaskar Sunkara.

If you want some help understanding democratic-socialism, you might want to consult Neal Mayer’s “What is Democratic Socialism” in (where else?) Jacobin. Mayer is on the DSA’s Citywide Leadership Committee and obviously qualified to speak for the spanking New Left.

He proposes a “Democratic Road to Socialism” that is different from the one conceived by “our friends on the socialist left”, in other words the people Ben Judah describes as being into “commodified ironic Soviet kitsch”. Speaking for the DSA (and likely the Jacobin editorial board), Mayer writes: “We reject strategies that transplant paths from Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1959 to the United States today, as if we could win socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn.”

Oh, I see. Remind me not to write any more articles about winning socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn.” I must have gotten such a silly idea from reading too much CLR James. I mean, for fuck’s sake, anybody writing such drivel understands about as much as Cuba in 1959 as I do about particle physics. Fidel Castro got started as a bourgeois politician just like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and only became a guerrilla after realizing that electoral politics in Cuba was a con game. Unlike most people seeking comfortable careers as professional politicians, Fidel Castro cared about the suffering of the Cuban people even if he didn’t live up to Sam Farber’s lofty standards.

Like most DSA’ers, Mayer sees work in the Democratic Party as a tactical question to be decided pragmatically:

To begin with, Sanders rose through an established party. Though political parties have suffered a profound degree of delegitimation, this has not sidelined them; their continuing economic and social impact ensure their continuing relevance. That they were nevertheless weakened gave individuals like Sanders who were not tainted with being part of the party establishment the advantage of operating inside these parties while retaining their branding as outsiders (this was also true of Corbyn in the Labour Party and Trump re the Republicans).

Had Sanders run as an independent, without the on-the-ground resources of the Democratic machine and the profile of running as a Democrat, it was highly unlikely — as he well knew — that his campaign would have had anywhere near the impact it did, just as attempts to form a left party outside the British Labour Party have generally and quickly faded. For all the discrediting of political parties, party politics remains a central site for being taken seriously. Starting a new party from scratch is something else and presents formidable difficulties.

Obviously, this is just another way of saying what Ben Judah said: “Now—even more so since the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—millennial socialist activists are convinced that the hollow establishment parties that their forerunners disdained are instruments ripe for the taking.”

Formidable difficulties if the goal is getting elected. In 2000, Ralph Nader ran an election campaign that generated 1,182 news articles and, according to people like Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman, cost Al Gore the election. Nader got 2,882,955 votes, or 2.74 percent of the popular vote. While not quite in the same realm as Debs’s 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912, it was on a par with all his other runs. In fact, his showing was so impressive that people like David Cobb, Ted Glick, Medea Benjamin and other Green Party leaders conspired to deprive him of ballot status in 2004 just to make sure the Democrats would not have any competition.

On top of all this, Gallup reports that sixty percent of Americans believe that a third party is needed. Some of them might be only in favor of the sort of side show that Ross Perot ran but you can be sure that millions would be open to the sort of initiative that Ralph Nader represented. As long as the Republicans and Democrats continue to play hard and soft cop respectively to the American working class, that sixty percent is likely to grow.

Nader ran the kind of campaign that Debs ran even though it was not specifically socialist. If the entire left had thrown itself into building the Green Party as the ISO had, maybe we would have ended up with a much different constellation of forces today.

Two days ago, the Huffington Post published an article by Anthea Butler titled “We Know Protests Work. So Why Aren’t We Protesting?” that rued the failure of the left to have mounted any demonstrations against Trump since the Women’s March on Inauguration Day and the protests at airports in response to the Muslim ban. To a large extent, this is the result of having a weak and disorganized left. In the best of all worlds, a Green Party could have become the hub of a radical movement in the same way it functioned in Germany until people like Joschka Fischer turned the Greens into a conventional social democratic party.

In the final analysis, holding office for revolutionaries should only be exploited as a means of challenging the capitalist system. Until the German Social Democracy turned into a reformist swamp, it saw itself as an instrument of working class defiance of capitalist business as usual. In “What is to be Done”, Lenin praised its stances on issues of the sort the left is facing today:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

That’s the kind of party we need today. In fact, the DSA could evolve into just such a party if it dropped the Dissent Magazine/Michael Harrington/Scandinavian scaffolding it rests on and forged out on its own. Who knows, maybe the failure of any of these Sanderista elected officials to make the slightest difference to our lives will speed that process along. Let’s cross our fingers.

As for the question of what to call ourselves. I’ll be damned if started calling myself a “communist”. Socialist works just fine for me. No need to prefix it with “democratic” especially since that word rings so hollow today.

 

July 16, 2018

The excuses some Marxists make for voting Democratic (part one)

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,Lenin — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

Loved cats, hated liberals

On June 30th, Nick, a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, posed the question on the Marxism list whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “emphasizing a class position” as part of “hostile takeover” type campaigns by the DSA in the Democratic Party had more of a potential for promoting socialist politics than intervening in the Australian Labour Party, a party that makes Tony Blair’s “New Labour” look radical by comparison. Since I was somewhat surprised to see a member of a group that emerged out of the Trotskyist movement warming up to the DSA’s Democratic Party orientation, I defended what I considered to be a Marxist position: “The key difference between a reformist Labor Party and the Democratic Party is based on class. For example, socialists have had a tactical orientation to the NDP in Canada for decades now but none have oriented to the Liberal Party. Unless we can distinguish between a bourgeois party and a reformist social democratic or labor party, we are missing the all-important class criterion.”

This prompted a DSA member on Marxmail named Jason to edify silly me on Marxist theory. Referring to Lenin’s “Ultraleftism, an Infantile Disorder”, he stated: “There is a shibboleth in the Trotskyist movement that this is from Lenin, but it’s not actually what Lenin argued. He said ‘the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party’”.

Showing a familiarity with Lenin probably not typical of DSA members, he backed up his claim the next day by referring to Lenin’s support for the Cadets in Czarist Russia:

Of course I didn’t meant to imply he ignored or we should ignore the relationships of various parties to various class forces, but even there, Lenin did not use the “clear class line” to refuse any electoral support or relationship, as one can see from the 1912 conference resolution he worked on and supported, which called for “exposing the counter-revolutionary views of the bourgeois liberals (headed by the Cadet Party)” while still saying in specific circumstances an “agreement must be concluded to share the seats” with them.

Although Lenin urging ultraleft Communists to support British Labour even though it was a “bourgeois party” just like the Democratic Party was a new excuse to me for crossing class lines, the business about Lenin approving a bloc with the Cadets was not. In 2010, when I insisted on the now defunct Kasama Project that Lenin never supported the Cadets—Russia’s liberal opposition to the Czar, its leader Mike Ely referred me to a book by a Bolshevik Duma elector named A.E. Badaev that stated: “But in order to safeguard against the possible victory of reactionary candidates, the Bolsheviks permitted agreements respectively with the bourgeois democrats (Trudoviks, etc.) against the Liberals, and with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curias.”

In a way, the Maoist Mike Ely and the DSA’er trying to turn Lenin into a Menshevik relies on the sort of skills you see in the legal profession. When defending a criminal, you need to pour through the legal books to see if there is some precedent that will clear your client of a crime. Going through Lenin’s millions of words to find a couple of references to a bloc with the Cadets takes an enormous amount of patience and, even more so, the cynicism of a trial lawyer.

Marxist politics are not the same as courtroom proceedings. Furthermore, if precedence is what matters, all you need to do is search on Lenin and Cadets in the Marxist Internet Archives and you will find for every one cited by Mike and Jason another hundred  that distinguish Lenin from the Mensheviks who did have an orientation to the Cadets so much in common with the DSA’s toward the Democratic Party:

The Mensheviks’ main argument is the Black-Hundred danger. The first and fundamental flaw in this argument is that the Black-Hundred danger cannot be combated by Cadet tactics and a Cadet policy. The essence of this policy lies in reconciliation with tsarism, that is, with the Black-Hundred danger. The first Duma sufficiently demonstrated that the Cadets do not combat the Black-Hundred danger, but make incredibly despicable speeches about the innocence and blamelessness of the monarch, the known leader of the Black Hundreds. Therefore, by helping to elect Cadets to the Duma, the Mensheviks are not only failing to combat the Black-Hundred danger, but are hoodwinking the people, are obscuring the real significance of the Black-Hundred danger. Combating the Black-Hundred danger by helping to elect the Cadets to the Duma is like combating pogroms by means of the speech delivered by the lackey Rodichev: “It is presumption to hold the monarch responsible for the pogrom.”

Blocs With the Cadets, November 23, 1906

Substitute the word Republicans for “Black-Hundred” and Democrats for Cadets and you are basically getting Bernie Sanders urging his followers to hold their nose and to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Lenin was not for “lesser evil” politics. He was opposed to bourgeois parties on both the left and the right. He saw the Duma elections as a way of electing Bolshevik deputies so that workers could get representation in a society where repression was deep.

In fact, he was so committed to promoting working-class interests that he was not even averse to cutting deals with the Black Hundreds to get someone like A.E. Badaev elected. In 1911, he was ruthless in applying Bolshevik electoral tactics:

The democratic members of the gubernia electoral assemblies should form blocs with the liberals against the Rights. If it proves impossible to form such a bloc immediately (and most likely this is what is going to happen in the majority of cases, because the electors will not be acquainted with each other), the tactics of the democrats should be to unite first with the liberals to defeat the Rights, and then with the Rights to defeat the liberals, so that neither are able to secure the election of their candidates (provided that neither the Rights nor the liberals command an absolute majority by themselves, for if they do the democrats cannot hope to get into the Duma).

The democrats referred to above are the Bolsheviks and the peasant parties they were allied with such as the Trudoviks. In a 1906 article titled “Cadets, Trudoviks and the Workers’ Party”, Lenin characterized the Trudoviks as bourgeois democrats who “are compelled to become revolutionary, whereas the liberals, the Cadets and so forth, represent the bourgeoisie, whose conditions of existence compel it to seek a deal with the old authorities. It is natural also that the peasantry should clothe its aspirations in the mantle of utopias, i.e., unrealisable hopes, such as equalised land tenure under capitalism.”

With respect to A.E. Badaev and his reference to the Bolsheviks working out an agreement with the Cadets on the Second Ballot, Mike Ely (wherever he is nowadays), failed to mention upon what basis the agreement stood. Badaev’s “The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma” makes clear that it excluded any hint of political accord. He referred to the Prague Bolshevik Conference that set down guidelines for the Fourth Duma elections in 1912 as stipulating: “election agreements must not involve the adoption of a platform, nor must the agreements bind the Social-Democratic candidates by any political obligations whatsoever, or prevent the Social-Democracy from resolutely criticising the counter-revolutionary nature of the Liberals and the half-heartedness and inconsistency of the bourgeois democrats.”

I would only say that if the DSA concluded blocs with the Democratic Party that stood by the same exacting standards, I might ring doorbells alongside them myself. Fat chance of that happening. Oh, the fat chance is one of their candidates “resolutely criticising the counter-revolutionary nature of the Liberals and the half-heartedness and inconsistency of the bourgeois democrats”.

In my next post, I will take up the question of British Labour and the Social Democracy in general as “bourgeois parties”.

 

July 7, 2018

Donate to Philly Socialists Fund-drive

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,racism — louisproyect @ 4:45 pm

Reading about the Philly Socialists participation in a sit-in at ICE headquarters in Philadelphia was all the motivation I needed to donate $100 to their fund-drive. Rewire.news reported:

Hundreds of protestors in Philadelphia on Monday night set up camp with tents, tarps, lawn chairs, and beach umbrellas. They organized a space for volunteer medics and a people’s kitchen, providing free first aid and food to those at the camp. They received so many supplies they had to start rejecting and moving the supplies to an off-site location.

“From the beginning of the camp, from its inception, the tactic that we agreed upon was like strict non-violence,” a member of Philly Socialists who asked to remain anonymous told Rewire.News. “I was really proud because when it came time to do that [tactic], everyone did it and no one broke. Everyone stuck to the tactic.”

This is exactly the type of activism we need today, one that is based on militancy but at the same time non-violence, although my tendency would be to use the word mass action rather than non-violence. During the Vietnam War, mass actions never sought confrontations with the cops although they were organized to be defended against both police repression or ultraright attacks.

I have no idea whether Philly Socialists is bigger or smaller than the DSA in Philadelphia but there is one thing I am sure of. They never would have gone overboard supporting the “radical” lawyer Larry Krasner for District Attorney.

Jacobin, the voice of the DSA, was thrilled with Krasner’s election as should be obvious from this article posted last November crowing over Larry Krasner’s victory.

But as any revolutionary could have told you, once in office Krasner would make sure to toe the line. As part of his “transition team”, he named former Philadelphia District Attorney and State Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille, a Republican who denied Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeals repeatedly. His animus directed against the “cop killer” was so obvious that in 2016 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Castille violated Mumia’s rights when he reinstated an execution order against him as a Supreme Court justice after the order had been vacated and after he’d already argued for his execution while prosecuting the case as district attorney. Instead, he should have recused himself from the case, especially since it is considered unorthodox for a judge to rule on a case he has previously prosecuted.

For an alternative take on Krasner/Castille, I recommend The Philly Partisan, the online journal of Philly Socialists. Titled “Thoughts On Larry Krasner’s Appointment of Ron Castille to His Transition Team for the District Attorney’s Office” and written by Kempis “Ghani” Songster (co-founder of the Redemption Project, Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute of Graterford), it should be all you need to read to convince to contribute generously to their fund-drive:

When a close friend of mine told me that a family member of his on the outside told him over the phone that Larry Krasner included Ron Castille in his Transition Team, I didn’t believe it. Then my friend said that, in fact, the report said Castille was Krasner’s first pick. I questioned the accuracy of the report he got from his family, i.e., his son, so hard that he started to question whether his son had read the report correctly. I mean, he started to doubt his own son and whether he himself heard his son right. That’s how hard I was defending Krasner. In my mind, there was no way someone who ran on an unprecedented, unapologetic, uncompromising “End Mass Incarceration” platform would seek and rely on one of the “purveyors of mass incarceration” to advise him on how to transition to what he promised, and what we hoped, would be a new culture in Philadelphia’s DA’s office.

Then I read the article myself in the Dec. 1 issue of the Daily News with my own eyes. I wasn’t totally surprised, which is sad, because I had seen this kind of thing before. Barack Obama campaigned aggressively on the lofty idea of Change, then when he was elected president he filled his cabinet with some of the unsavory characters who caused the problems he campaigned against. When I read the article about Krasner’s transition team, I was more like, “Deja vu. Here we go again. Politics as usual.” But, I wasn’t thinking that Krasner was flipping his campaign script and double-crossing the people who believed in him, voted for him, and put in super-hard yards to get him elected, as has been done by countless elected officials to their voters, time and time again. I was more like, “Noooo, Larry, you don’t have to do this. It’s unnecessary. You have a mandate!”

With respect to the rationale about “a symbolic transition team,” what does/would such a team with Ron Castille on it symbolize? What do We want, and what would We have, the transition team for Philly’s new DA symbolize or be “symbolic” of? What does Ron Castille symbolize? Is he a good symbol? One main campaign promise of Krasner’s was to change the culture of the DA’s office. Ron Castille does not represent/symbolize Change. Contrarily, he was one of the purveyors of the culture that Krasner promised to change and that the people elected him to change.

Castille was DA of Philadelphia from 1986-1990. He was the DA when his ADA Jack McMahon made the training video for and in front of young rookie prosecutors, schooling them on tactics for using peremptory strikes to exclude people of color from the jury in order to racially stack a jury prone to convict a defendant of color. That videotape was included in Castille’s office library for rookie prosecutors to check out and use as a training tool.

Castille was Chief Justice of the PA Supreme Court that ruled Miller v. Alabama/Jackson v. Hobbs “not retroactive” to JDBI [juvenile death by incarceration/life without parole] cases on collateral review. Castille wrote the opinion — Commonwealth v. Cunningham. He wanted to maintain DBI sentences for condemned children such as me who raised their JDBI issue on collateral. If Krasner includes Castille on the transition team, then he might as well include Lynne Abraham, too; and also Seth Williams, if he wasn’t in prison right now. Krasner’s election into the DA’s office should show that the people who put him there have won that particular institutional contest. But winning the symbolic contest is indispensable to an absolute victory in the institutional contest. Not only does the inclusion of a “symbol” such as Ron Castille in the “symbolic transition team” send mixed messages and confuse the people, but it symbolizes that we have not truly won the symbolic contest. That is, we have not won control of the narrative, the reshaping of the culture, and the meaning of all this.

If all Krasner did was appoint Castille in order to deflect charges that he was too radical (no, we can’t have that), it might be tolerable. But unfortunately, that was a prelude to a decision that makes DSA and any other “democratic socialist” think long and hard about their orientation to the Democratic Party. One of his assistant DA’s found that there was no bias in Castille’s rulings on Mumia despite the opinion of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. So the trail of broken Democratic promises continues.

 

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