Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 13, 2019

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

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

Stanley Aronowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 3, 2019

What can the left learn from Vito Marcantonio’s career in Congress?

Filed under: electoral strategy,Jacobin,third parties — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Last August, I wrote a piece for CounterPunch titled “Young Marxist Intellectuals and the Democratic Party” that called attention to how impressive scholarship is being used to sustain a reformist agenda:

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.

The latest example just showed up in a December 20, 2018 Jacobin article titled “New York’s Last Socialist Congressperson” that is a eulogy to Vito Marcantonio, a Congressman from East Harlem’s district from 1935 to 1951, who author Benjamin Serby, a doctoral student at prestigious Columbia University, quite rightly compares to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Unquestionably, these politicians push the envelope of leftist politics and make the prospect of using the Democratic Party for social change plausible. As such, they extend the life of the longest-functioning capitalist party in the world and thus forestall the possibility of a radical party to the left confronting the bourgeoisie at the ballot box and in the streets.

Are Marcantonio and Ocasio-Cortez part of some conspiracy to co-opt the left? I don’t think so. Basically, they are operating in the framework of pragmatism, the guiding philosophy of American liberalism that has been around since the days of John Dewey and that was turbocharged by the Communist Party in the 1930s. If Marcantonio and his friends in the CPUSA and the labor bureaucracy were not so intent on backing FDR and strangling attempts to build a Labor Party in the cradle, who knows what might have happened?

To derail third party efforts, it is most effective to have people operating within its ranks as a Trojan Horse. Nominally, acting on behalf of a radical alternative to the Democratic Party, they conspire to prevent it. The most recent example was the Demogreen leaders of the Green Party, including Medea Benjamin, pushing for the nomination of an obscure figure named David Cobb in 2004 rather than Ralph Nader. They were traumatized by the election of George W. Bush in 2000 that many of their liberal co-thinkers blamed on Ralph Nader and wouldn’t allow that to happen again. David Cobb can be accused of many things but draining votes is not one of them.

Like most Columbia students, an institution that sets a high bar for scholarship, Serby has done quite a bit of research to prepare this article. We learn that Marcantonio was arrested in 1936 for his role in leading a demonstration of fifteen thousand unemployed workers against cuts to the Works Progress Administration. Impressive research there.

Based on Serby’s account, you can say that Marcantonio’s entire career was stellar. Obviously, if you are going to maintain the illusion that the Democratic Party can be an instrument of social change, especially when many workers were revolutionary-minded, you have to demonstrate your class struggle credibility on a consistent basis. That was not only true of Marcantonio. It was also true of the Communist Party that could be found in the forefront of civil rights struggles, organizing drives for the CIO and rally the people against fascism (except of course during  the Nonaggression Pact.)

The vanguard role of the CP was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it helped to win significant reforms, especially the right to have a trade union but on the other, it propped up a capitalist party that would use its authority on the left to launch an imperialist war, sabotage the Little Steel Strike, throw Japanese-Americans into concentration camps, and keep a lid on the civil rights movement.

Like Eric Blanc, Benjamin Serby sees electoral politics on a pragmatic/tactical basis rather than a Marxist/class basis. In December 2017, Blanc defended the “dirty break” on Jacobin, an article defending the idea that socialists can exploit the Democratic or Republican party primaries to spread revolutionary ideas and even win office.

Serby sees Marcantonio’s career as validating this theory, without mentioning Blanc’s name. It is clear that the two brilliant doctoral students have the same agenda ideologically. I don’t want to sound cynical but having a Ph.D. and being capable of talking out of both sides of your mouth is not to be minimized from a career-development standpoint. I mean, after all, who wouldn’t prefer to write for a prestigious JSTOR journal or the Nation rather than some obscure WordPress blog?

Serby writes:

Marc’s Republican affiliation cost him his congressional seat in 1936, as the Democratic Party swept national elections. It proved to be a temporary setback. Two years later, he exploited a New York election law that permitted candidates to “cross-file” on multiple ballot lines, and ran in the Republican, Democratic, and American Labor Party (ALP) primaries.

After winning the GOP and ALP races, he trounced his Democratic opponent in the general election, 18,802 to 12,375. By delivering almost nine thousand of those votes, the ALP, a labor-backed party founded by socialist New Dealers, established itself as a force capable of tipping important elections. Within two years, Marc was the leader of its Manhattan branch and its sole representative in Congress.

By 1942, Marcantonio was winning all three party primaries handily, leading critics to charge that he was “a one-man political machine with an all-party organization.” In fact, he had no “machine” that dispensed patronage or political favors. Instead, his campaign relied on the voluntary commitment of a coalition of liberals, socialists, and communists — and on the support of organized labor.

American Labor Party? What’s wrong with that? If Marcantonio ended up as its legislator in Congress, doesn’t that mean he broke from the Democratic Party? How can any party with Labor in its name and backed by “organized labor” not be the kind of thing we need today? Unless you are an unrepentant Marxist dinosaur like me.

Let’s take a closer look at the American Labor Party to understand its role in the electoral system.

The American Labor Party (ALP) was spawned by Labor’s Non-Partisan League (LNPL) in 1936, a group that also came into existence in that year in order to ensure FDR’s re-election. It was the brainchild of John L. Lewis, the head of the CIO and the United Mine Workers union. He was assisted by Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union and  George L. Berry of the printer’s union.

Arguably, Hillman was the real political strategist for the ALP based on his years of exposure to Marxist in-fighting. He was a member of an underground Marxist study circle in Lithuania when he was 16 years old and then moved on to join the Bund, the Jewish socialist group. After moving to the USA, he became a trade union activist and like many of his generation became an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet Union in the early 20s that drew him to the CP. When Hillman decided to support Robert La Follette’s presidential campaign in1924, he earned the wrath of the CP that saw La Follette as a capitalist politician and nothing more. (I argue that his campaign was worth supporting here).

Any sympathy for the idea of a radical party was long-gone by the time that Hillman became a powerful bureaucrat in the 1930s. But doesn’t that sound antithetical to the formation of a Labor Party? Maybe not. Like Medea Benjamin, Hillman was clever enough to undermine the formation of a third party while paying lip-service to it.

In an invaluable article for the September-October 2002 International Socialist Review, Sharon Smith describes the complicated pirouette that Hillman executed, one that would have landed Nijinsky on his ass.

In 1936, support for a farmer-labor party was massive in the USA. Not only did 21 percent of those polled by Gallup back such a formation, existing farmer-labor parties were winning elections in both Wisconsin and Minnesota. Smith writes: “Inside the labor movement, this sentiment was even stronger, with locals from the auto, electrical, and garment workers’ unions voting in favor of a labor party. At both the AFL and various CIO conventions in 1935, resolutions in support of forming a labor party were put forward, which garnered considerable support.”

Worried that Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party campaign would “rob” votes from FDR in the same way that Medea Benjamin worried that Nader’s might rob them from John Kerry in 2004, Hillman went on the offensive. By putting FDR’s name on the American Labor Party, many workers might be conned into believing that they were voting in their own class interests. You get the same thing today with the Working Families Party in New York that despite its name routinely puts Democratic Party candidates on its ballot line, including our vicious anti-union governor Andrew Cuomo last year.

In the Winter 1979-1980 Radical History Review, there’s an article titled “Picket Line & Ballot Box: The Forgotten Legacy of the Labor Party Movement, 1932-1936”. Co-authored by Eric Leif Davin and Staughton Lynd, it gives you a compelling insight into the machinations that helped destroy the possibility of a labor party challenge to FDR. (Contact me for a copy since it is behind a paywall.)

Using the ground-level case study of labor party activism in Berlin, New Hampshire, the authors show how Hillman subverted its spread elsewhere. Berlin was basically a company town ruled by Brown Paper. To fight back against wage cuts and layoffs in 1932, the workers started the Coos County Workers club with 150 members. Within a year, the figure rose to 1500. As it happens, many of these workers were French Canadians originally and had the fighting spirit of the Yellow Vests.

In 1934, the Workers Club entered politics by forming a Labor Party made up of workers rather than bureaucrats. It swept into municipal office, winning office for all but one of its candidates. Among its first acts was to raise teacher’s pay by 50 percent. That’s what workers power can do. It also helped dairy farmers organize into a co-op to help them get better prices for their milk.

In trying to become part of a broader movement, they reached out to the Socialist Party. Norman Thomas came to town to speak at a rally that was the culmination of a massive parade. From the podium, Thomas said that their efforts were a “model for us all”. Instead of affiliating with the Socialists, the workers formed a state-wide farmer-labor party like the ones in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Announcing “its immediate goal” of increasing taxes on higher incomes and opposing a sales tax in New Hampshire, they began planning for the state elections in 1936. The Mayor of Berlin, Arthur Bergeron, was a forceful advocate of working class demands and a firm believer in independent political action.

The authors describe how Labor’s Non-Partisan League undermined their efforts:

In New Hampshire, a statewide convention of labor party forces was held in Concord on July 26. Among the participants was David Randlett, president of the Concord Central Labor Union and first vice president of the state AF of L. Beforehand, Randlett wrote Arthur Bergeron, “I have always been interested in a Labor Party, but I haven’t as yet seen the time when the opportunity was right.” At the convention he repeated this sentiment but agreed to serve on the Platform Committee. Then, a short time later, he resigned from the Farmer-Labor Party and went to work for the Non-Partisan League. In the course of the ensuing campaign, he spoke out strongly in opposition to the Farmer-Labor effort.

Bergeron, on the other hand, remained true to the cause, and in September was chosen by the Farmer-Labor Party to be its candidate for governor, In accepting his nomination, Bergeron declared, “The major parties are bankrupt for ideas, leaders and platforms. We shouldn’t put too much faith or hope in President Roosevelt. Due to circumstances in the country and state, the time is ripe for a third party movement.” Not that he expected instant success. “There’s no use insulting our intelligence in thinking that I’ll be the next Governor of New Hampshire,” he went on, “but we will poll more than three percent of the total vote for Governor and make ourselves a duly constituted party.” And he vowed to make “relief, relief from the high cost of living on the one hand and relief from unemployment on the other” a major issue in his campaign.

Even the modest goal of attracting three percent of the state’s electorate proved beyond reach. Norman Thomas returned to Berlin to endorse Bergeron’s candidacy, but organized labor offered no support. The annual convention of the New Hampshire AF of L in September defeated a resolution to endorse the Farmer-Labor Party on the grounds “that it was not time as yet.” National leaders of the CIO, as we have seen, gave priority to the President’s reelection, not local insurgency efforts.

In the end, Bergeron garnered less than two thousand votes statewide, approximately one percent of the ballots cast for governor. Berlin, his stronghold, gave him seven-tenths of his total. But even there, said the Reporter, “Not a single Farmer-Labor candidate survived the Democratic avalanche . . . to gain election to even a minor ward office.”

For nearly another decade the Farmer-Labor Party would dominate Berlin municipal politics. Bergeron was reelected mayor in 1937 and Aime Tondreau won as a Labor candidate for the same office from 1939 to 1943. (Legassie [a labor militant] lost in 1938.) But the hope of generating an effective statewide, much less national, movement for an independent workers’ party was crushed in Berlin, as elsewhere, by the Roosevelt landslide of 1936.

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.

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 1, 2018

A Party with Socialists in it

Filed under: electoral strategy,Great Britain,Labour Party — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

For American leftists wrestling with the question of whether the Democratic Party can be remade into an instrument of “democratic socialism”, I recommend Simon Hannah’s newly published “A Party With Socialists in It: a History of the Labour Left” even though there is not a single word about Bernie Sanders. Since many on the left view the Democratic Party and British Labour as essentially the same, an excursion through Labour Party’s history would help to validate or falsify that claim.

Ironically, Corbyn himself lends credibility to the comparison by openly admitting that he got his ideas from Bernie Sanders. Playing Gaston to Corbyn’s Alphonse, Sanders saw Corbyn’s efforts to transform politics and take on the establishment as parallel to his own campaign.

There is also the close affinity between the two politicians whose neoliberalism helped to fuel leftist rebellions in both parties. Just as Corbyn and Sanders saw each other as kindred spirits, so did Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Blair’s New Labour turn and Clinton’s reshaping of the Democratic Party to conform to the Democratic Leadership Council’s precepts were cut from the same cloth. Seeking middle-class support, particularly among those voters benefiting from the technical and financial sectors, the DP and Labour saw blue-collar workers as expendable.

All of this is indisputable. However, one cannot gloss over the class differences between the DP and Labour or their institutional and organizational distinctions. Reading Simon Hannah’s history of Labour will make you acutely aware of their differences.

The title of the book is carefully chosen since it is written from the perspective of those who have struggled for more than a century to turn the Labour Party into a genuine socialist party. To understand the dialectics of this struggle, you have to go back to the party’s formation that combined contradictory elements. From the Fabians, it got the idea that socialism could be achieved through piecemeal reforms. In essence, they were Britain’s Eduard Bernsteins. It is not hard to understand why Germany and Great Britain would be susceptible to reformist illusions. As two of the most advanced economies in the late 1800s, workers would find revolutionary socialism a risky proposition. Why build barricades when the ballot would serve your needs?

Even the trade unions in England bought into the gradualist schemas, or more accurately the trade union officialdom. As counterparts of Samuel Gompers, they saw their role as mediating between the boss and their dues-paying membership.

At the conference that launched Labour in 1900, the only participants that could be mistaken for Marxists were those of the Social Democratic Federation led by Henry Hyndman, an eccentric businessman who formed the party after reading the Communist Manifesto. If Ramsey MacDonald had ever read the manifesto, it certainly didn’t show. His concept of socialism was based on the idea that workers and bosses were part of the same organism and that it was Labour’s job to prevent either class from becoming too greedy. Nobody at the conference had spent much time analyzing the British state, including Hyndman.

Another leftist component of the Labour Party was the Independent Labour Party that despite the similarity in name was closer to Hyndman politically. When WWI broke out, the ILP took an antiwar stance just like Eugene V. Debs. However, its internationalism only went so far. When the Easter Rebellion broke out in Ireland, they lined up with Ramsey MacDonald in calling for its suppression.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution shook up the left everywhere, including England. A Communist Party was formed in 1920 that immediately took up the question of its relationship to Labour. Those of you familiar with Lenin’s essay on ultraleftism know that the young Communist Party held a sectarian position. After reading about Ramsey MacDonald in both Richard Seymour and Simon Hannah’s books, I understand their position better even if it was wrong.

Meanwhile, the ILP continued to be the main socialist organization in England, electing a number of MP’s from Glasgow in the 1920s who scandalized the rightwing of the party by singing “The Red Flag” outside of Parliament each morning.

When the miners launched a general strike in 1926, the ILP provided much of the support while MacDonald and his likeminded MP’s did everything they could to sabotage it. Among the ILP activists was a very young Aneurin Bevan from Wales who dropped out of school at the age of 14 and went into the mines to work alongside his father. Eventually, he became an MP and devoted to the working class cause. In the 1950s, he was the Corbyn of his day. Indeed, when you connect Bevan to Tony Benn and then Benn to Jeremy Corbyn, a persistent red thread becomes apparent, one that has no equivalent in the Democratic Party.

When the Great Depression hit England, MacDonald proposed a coalition government with the Tories that so antagonized Labour voters, it resulted in the party not winning an election until after WWII. Unlike the USA where FDR carried out Keynesian economics, Great Britain was effectively ruled by their version of Herbert Hoover, with Labour offering no alternative.

Fed up with Labour reformism, the ILP disaffiliated with some members going on to form the Socialist League that included Harold Laski, Ralph Miliband’s professor, Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot. Hannah writes that the League was the first theoretical challenge to Labourism. Unlike the ILP, it remained affiliated to Labour and hoped to influence party policy through books and articles written by its intellectual cadre.

In 1932, Socialist League member R.H. Tawney published an article in the Political Quarterly (coincidentally an issue containing one by Trotsky titled “Is Stalin Weakening or the Soviets?”) titled “The Choice Before the Labour Party” that articulated the choice that remains before us up until the present day:

Yet the objective of a socialist party, and of the Labour Party in so far as it deserves the name, is simplicity itself. The fundamental question, as always, is: Who is to be master ? Is the reality behind the decorous drapery of political democracy to continue to be the economic power wielded by a few thousand—or, if that be preferred, a few hundred thousand—bankers, industrialists and land-owners ? Or shall a serious effort be made—as serious, for example, as was made, for other purposes, during the war—to create organs through which the nation can control, in co-operation with other nations, its own economic destinies ; plan its business as it deems most conducive to the general well-being ; override, for the sake of economic efficiency, the obstruction of vested interests ; and distribute the product of its labours in accordance with some generally recognised principles of justice ? Capitalist parties presumably accept the first alternative. A socialist party chooses the second. The nature of its business is determined by its choice.

For many, the Clement Attlee government of 1945 to 1951 seemed to be the second alternative. Through its nationalization of much of the economy and the creation of a National Health Service, socialism was on the agenda at last. But this was no utopia. In the winter of 1946-47, a coal shortage left many homes without heat and light. This led some leftist MP’s like Michael Foot and others to form a group called Keep Left that was similar to the Socialist League, seeing itself as a pressure group on Labour. They wanted more state planning and a more forthright commitment to working class needs. In addition, they also opposed Labour’s growing ties to American imperialism in the early stages of the Cold War.

Discontent with Attlee’s government also helped to spawn the Socialist Fellowship, launched by Ellis Smith and Fenner Brockway, former ILP members. Brockway helped to recruit people to fight for the Spanish Republic, including George Orwell, an ILP sympathizer. Like Debs, he was imprisoned for his antiwar activism during WWI. At the time he co-founded the fellowship, he was a Labour MP. If his profile resembles any Democratic Senator or Congressman you know of, please drop me a line so I can follow up. Maybe I should even offer a $50 reward for finding a needle in a haystack.

Smith and Brockway consciously sought to include Trotskyists in their group, including Gerry Healy, as well as left MPs. They started a newspaper called Socialist Outlook that reached a circulation of 10,000 in 1951 during the depths of the Cold War.

In the 1950s, a bitter struggle broke out in the Labour Party between the old guard MacDonald-like rightwing, including the labor bureaucrats, and the leftwing led by Aneurin Bevan. Like Corbyn, Bevan was popular with the party’s base but reviled by the upper crust in Parliament and the unions. Despite reining in Bevan, who was seen as undermining the party’s chances in elections, Labour kept losing to the Tories for a 13 year period until Harold Wilson’s election in 1964,

In a bid to expand its base and throw a bone to the left, the party leadership formed the Young Socialists in 1959 but kept it on a tight leash. They were ordered not to invite any Keep Left people to speak at their meetings. Ted Grant and Tony Cliff both adopted entryist tactics into the YS that worked to their advantage. Meanwhile, Gerry Healy approached the group with his typical sectarian bombast and was told to get lost.

Battles resumed after Wilson’s election. Like Attlee, he turned out to a major disappointment especially on foreign policy. Hannah describes how someone in the Socialist Fellowship/Keep Left tradition responded to Labour’s failure:

The experience of the Labour government of 1964-70 had a profound effect on Ralph Miliband. He saw that too many of the left MPs had been bought off with opaque phrases or vague promises of socialism and peace. They confused the rhetoric with the reality and grasped at each left nod from the party leadership as a new principled turn. By the time the second edition of Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism came out in 1972, his conclusion was clear enough: Labour was finished as a vehicle for any kind of socialism. Even its Fabian perspective of gradual, incremental moves towards socialism had been abandoned by the party leaders’s Now it was a mere shill, a prop for the ruling class, and the Labour left was a busted flush, made up of isolated ‘pathetic figures’ able to mount ‘episodic revolts’ but nothing more. Miliband proposed ‘moving on’ from Labour, building something new. Nevertheless, the years following the publication of the second edition of Parliamentary Socialism heralded a renaissance for the left of the party, which went on to achieve breakthroughs in both politics and constitutional arrangements that changed the future of Labour.

Robin Archer is the Director of the Ralph Miliband Program at the London School of Economics. He is also the author of the author of Economic Democracy: The Politics of Feasible Socialism (Oxford, 1998) and Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? (Princeton, 2010). In June, he wrote an article for Jacobin titled “Is Corbyn the Future of the Left?“. It is worth noting his analysis of the Democratic Party:

But it would be a mistake to overstate the similarities between Britain and the United States. In most respects, British party politics remained fundamentally different. The Labour Party is not merely a label (or a brand) which enables supporters to engage in candidate selection, but an ongoing membership organization for which the unions that founded it continue to provide vital ballast. And the parliamentary nature of the political system in which it operates leaves Corbyn in a far stronger position than a defeated candidate in the United States, by giving him a clear, ongoing, constitutionally recognized role as leader of the opposition (the Prime Minister in waiting) at the head of a government in waiting (the Shadow Cabinet). Moreover, at present this influence is further accentuated, both within the Labour Party and in parliament: within the party because Labour’s unexpectedly strong electoral performance in 2017 has stabilized Corbyn’s position among previously hostile MPs; and within parliament because the election has left the governing Conservative Party, even after reaching an agreement with the small Northern Ireland Unionist Party of the late Ian Paisley, with an extremely narrow parliamentary majority.

Something tells me that Robin Archer’s Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? is worth reading.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, when Ralph Miliband wrote his article, Labour’s death was being greatly exaggerated. Not only was there to be another fracas with Tony Benn taking on the rightwing, there would finally be Corbyn himself keeping alive the militancy that was present, even if only a flicker, at Labour’s birth.

Looking back at the 100 years of struggle in British Labour described by Hannah, I can see nothing comparable in the Democratic Party except the peace candidates of the 1960s, the Jesse Jackson campaign, and the Sandernista tendency now at work. That being said, the differences being fought out in the Labour Party were over fundamental questions of whether the party would fulfill the promise made in Clause IV of the 1918 constitution of the Labour Party and. No debate like this ever took place in the Democratic Party:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

Despite the Fabian origins of the Labour Party, Corbynism represents the ripening of contradictions in the party that took a century to reach fruition. A hollowed out economy that has left millions of British left out and suffering can no longer be represented as one capable of being reformed. Despite the rather bland rhetorical style of Corbyn, the Labour Party can conceivably become a powerful vehicle of social change. It certainly won’t serve as a vanguard party but it is a necessary first step in coalescing the British left into a well-organized and powerful force that will fight to transform society in first country ever to become capitalist. Who knows? Maybe it will be the first to become socialist.

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 15, 2018

Richard Seymour on how “Project Fear” failed against Jeremy Corbyn

Filed under: Britain,electoral strategy — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

(This is the latest installment of excerpts from Richard Seymour’s book on Corbyn. I plan to review the book for CounterPunch next week since it is such an extraordinary combination of brilliant analysis and prose mastery that suggests Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens in their prime. It is criminal that this young man does not have a job writing for the Guardian or the Independent rather than the fossils they employ.)

The class valence of Corbyn’s supposed unelectabil-ity varied, depending on whom one was listening to. According to an opinion piece in the Telegraph, Corbyn’s `sub-Marxist drivel’ showed that he had ‘no understanding of the British people’,” whose great middle class had no need of the types of Leftist reforms he proposed. A simi-larly splenetic piece in the Guardian held that Corbyn’s Labour was so `poncified’ [effeminate] that working-class voters had turned off in droves.” These claims reached a comical zenith during an otherwise unremarkable by-election. The Times had insisted that Labour was ‘counting the cost’ of Corbyn’s peacenik antics in Oldham, where a UKIP challenge was ready to reduce Labour’s majority to a margin of error. John Harris, in a video report from Oldham for the Guardian, held that `Corbynmania’ was about to collide with `reality’.’ Corbyn’s leadership was ‘looking increasingly fragile’, Harris averred, and cited an encounter with an anti-Corbyn Labour voter to suggest that perhaps the only remaining Labour voters would be the hardened tribalists who put the party first. There being no polling in this by-election, journalists relied on a combination of anecdotes, vox pops and their own prejudices. In the end, Labour held the seat not only with a sizeable majority of over ten thousand, but increased its share of the vote with a 7.5 per cent swing in its favour. The anti-climax was palpable, and the Telegraph wondered whether `Muslims worried about war’ might not be to blame for the victory.’

Other hit pieces strained for effect. For example, a story Telegraph — a paper that, more than any other, has been out for Corbyn’s blood — referred to claims that n had a consensual relationship with Diane Abbot in the 1970s as `damaging’. Janet Daley of the Telegraph cited a horror story from Haringey in the seventies in which Jeremy Corbyn, as a local councillor, may or may not have been indifferent to the squatters residing in a house next to hers. Anne Perkins of the Guardian, with a tone so stiff as to be almost beyond satire, complained that Corbyn would not sang the national anthem at a commemoration service: ‘it was his job to sing’. The Sun published a false story alleging that Jeremy Corbyn was a ‘hypocrite’ since, as a republican, he was willing to bend his knee and kiss the Queen’s hand in order to secure state funds for Labour. This was complemented by another Sun ‘scoop’, claiming, again falsely, that Corbyn ‘refused to bow’ to the Queen, in apparently trivial defiance of protocol. Such contradictory characterisations suggested something of an internal conflict in the smear department: was Corbyn an inflexibly, excessively principled left-winger, or a conniving opportunist? This dreary sequence of contrived stories reached absurdity with the media’s extraordinary attention to Corbyn’s precise comportment in the laying of a wreath at the Cenotaph [war monument], with piece after piece suggesting that his solemn nod of the head was not quite solemn enough.

July 9, 2018

Richard Seymour on Momentum

Filed under: Britain,electoral strategy — louisproyect @ 5:30 pm

(As part of a project to help me write about the differences between the Democratic Party in the USA and Labour in the United Kingdom, I started reading Richard Seymour’s book on Corbyn that was written in 2016. Having grown frustrated with his Lacanian drift over the past 5 years or so, I am relishing every page of this book that is both politically astute and lively reading. Highest recommendation.)

In an effort to capitalise on the energy of Labour’s ranks of new, radical members, some of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters set up the campaigning group Momentum. The idea was positive: members who had mobilised in the heat of a campaign should not just be ignored and left to their own devices once the election was concluded. While Labour has never been a socialist party and is unlikely to become one, activists can at least create a durable space for themselves. Yet it has produced a chorus of condemnation from the Labour Right and their allies in the media for its supposed bullying of Labour MPs. Even Deputy Leader Watson, a seasoned and nuanced warrior of the Labour Right who tends to pick his fights carefully, denounced it as ‘a rabble’.”

In truth, there is little evidence for this, and it is not absolutely clear what Momentum will become. The group has encouraged members to participate in classic forms of street activism and protest, but it has also sought to make advances on Labour’s internal bodies — with some modest success thus far. It could be a genuinely democratic grass-roots movement, or a left-wing equivalent of pressure groups such as the New Labour-backing Progress and the soft-left Compass, or a machinery for the furthering of the influence of seasoned hard-left operators in Labour’s committees. As with any such fragile new organisation, it is betraying a propensity to attract various groupuscules, factions and office-seekers, which could end quite badly. If members of proscribed groups decide to join Labour in order to work within Momentum, they could hand the party machine an opportunity to disrupt its efforts by using i the Compliance Unit to purge the interlopers. Irrespective of the fairness of such proscriptions, misguided entryism merely legitimises such crackdowns and makes life harder for Labour activists.’ Some members also complain of the excessive dominance within the group of factions like the Livingstone-aligned Socialist Alternative, or specific individuals. It is difficult to parse these claims, which others members dismiss as paranoia or a right-wing hobby horse, but it would be a shame if the first steps in organising a fragile new Left were to be bogged down in the minutiae of individual careers, jockeying for influence and the back-ward tendencies of Britain’s old, exhausted, fractal Left.

What is more, many of the newer members are as yet ideologically unformed and politically indeterminate, while the older Bennite and Militant-style leftovers are, in general, too ideologically formed and too politically inflex-ible to be effective. Frenzied stories about Trots taking over branch meetings aside, the new Labour Left is more potential than reality, its organisation is nascent, and it is roughly divided between those who lack experience and those whose experience is one of trauma. The cultural schism between those who still sing the Red Flag at parties, and those who emerged from the more modern-day milieux of Climate Camp, the student movement and Occupy, is a palpable obstacle. The younger are more culturally fluent, know how to use Twitter, aren’t obsessed with setting up street stalls on a Saturday morning, and are capable of expressing the Left’s arguments in an idiom that is accessible — but they do not, as yet, have the confidence to lead. It is also not yet clear what kind of party they will want Labour to be, how they want it to relate to the wider organisational and social stream of the Left, or what their attitude to trade unions will be. The various left-wing groupings within Labour — be they Momentum, the Labour Representation Committee or Red Labour — are as yet underdeveloped, and hardly any match for the immense, lordly dominion of the parliamentary party and the electoral-professional caste running daily party life.

 

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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