Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 29, 2021

The use and misuses of Ralph Miliband: a reply to Chris Maisano

Ralph Miliband

As a member of the Bread and Roses DSA caucus, which functions as an informal think-tank for Jacobin, Chris Maisano shares the heavy lifting of producing ideological justifications for work in the Democratic Party with fellow caucus member Eric Blanc. Both have elevated Karl Kautsky into a pantheon after the fashion of my generation worshipping at the altar of Trotsky, Mao, Castro or even Stalin. Lately it came to my attention that Kautsky’s star has fallen a bit in the Democratic Socialist firmament, to be replaced perhaps by Ralph Miliband, the editor of Socialist Register until his death in 1994.

Before delving into Maisano’s wrongheaded attempt to turn Miliband into a lodestar for the current epoch, it is worth saying a word or two about who Miliband was and what he stood for. Born in 1924, Miliband was a Marxist intellectual and a secular-minded Jew who fled Nazi persecution with his family. As refugees in England, the Milibands lived in a working-class neighborhood and barely scraped by. His introduction to radical politics was through Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-Zionist youth group. From there, he evolved into a Marxist academic after graduating from the London School of Economics. It is reasonable to state that Miliband was a forerunner to Leo Panitch, another Jewish Marxist academic who assumed the helm of Socialist Register after Miliband’s passing. Although many of SR’s articles become available online, it is primarily a paywalled academic journal just like New Left Review, with contributions by academic leftists writing for others in their professional orbit. I never had any idea that SR existed until getting on the Internet in 1991 at Columbia University.

Despite sharing Karl Kautsky’s rejection of socialist revolution except through parliamentary means, Miliband’s ideology reflected trends that became fashionable in the 1960s, especially state theory. Alongside Nicos Poulantzas, Miliband was preoccupied with the question of how capitalism could be superseded on a basis other than what Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, and Trotsky advocated. This is obviously the same concern that the Jacobin/DSA think-tank has given its rejection of what it regards as “insurrectionary” illusions.

In a famous debate between Poulantzas and Miliband, they offered clashing views on how a non-revolutionary strategy might work. For Miliband, the state functions to serve capitalist interests because of the class basis of the government and the personal ties and influence between members of the government and ruling-class elites. His perspective showed the influence of C. Wright Mills, who was a friend. As for Poulantzas, he offered an Althusserian analysis of the state, which prioritized “structure”. It didn’t matter which class occupied government posts. It was the capitalist system that dictated which class interests were upheld. I haven’t read much Poulantzas but his writings on fascism were persuasive, given their ability to explain how Hitler—despite his class origins—could create a system that satisfied German big business. Of course, their debate had very little impact outside of the academy.

Maisano first made the case for Miliband in a polemic against Philly Socialist’s Tim Horras in a 2019 article written for The Call, the Bread and Roses magazine. Titled “Which Way to Socialism?“, its subtitle warned against “insurrectionary strategies” as if Tim, a librarian by trade, was out drilling with an AR-15 on the weekends. Maisano cites NYU sociology professor Jeff Goodwin to make his case:

As Jeff Goodwin reminds us in his comprehensive study of twentieth century revolutions, “no popular revolutionary movement, it bears emphasizing, has ever overthrown a consolidated democratic regime”

And to drive the point home, he buttresses Goodwin with a blast from Miliband:

There has been no such ‘fit’ between revolutionary organisation and leadership and the structures and circumstances of advanced capitalism and bourgeois democracy. Another way of saying this is that advanced capitalism and bourgeois democracy have produced a working class politics which has been non-insurrectionary and indeed anti-insurrectionary; and that this is the rock on which revolutionary organisation and politics have been broken.”

Is there a possibility that highly-placed academics who spend perhaps 8 hours lecturing per week and making over $140,000 per year might not be in the best position to hold forth on the working class being non-insurrectionary? In fact, it would probably be a good idea to retire the word insurrectionary since it is such a red herring when it comes to revolutionary strategy. Marx never wrote about insurrection, after all. That was more the bailiwick of Bakunin and the anarchists who never gave much thought about drawing workers into a mass movement.

More importantly, Maisano was citing a Miliband article written in 1978 and titled “Constitutionalism and Revolution: Notes on Eurocommunism” that hardly spoke to our contemporary situation. Miliband drew a picture of “Leninist” groups that people like Bhaskar Sunkara and Chris Maisano would guffaw at:

In a broader perspective, it is obvious that conditions in advanced capitalist countries would have to become enormously worse, in ways which it is at present difficult to envisage, for the necessary basis of mass support to be engendered which would significantly advance the prospects of a “vanguard party” bent on an ultimate seizure of power. Those groupings which see themselves as embryonic (or actual) “vanguard parties” do in fact work on catastrophist assumptions, and expect that economic collapse, the replacement of bourgeois democracy by some form of authoritarianism and fascism, and even war, will eventually bring about the necessary conditions of revolutionary success and make it possible to repeat the Bolshevik scenario of 1917.

By 1978, there were few on the far left who thought in such terms. After seeing the roadside detritus of the Maoist and Trotskyist groups, most Marxists had already begun to rethink the “democratic centralist” formulas that had led to sect-cult formations. This is not to speak of the political deep freeze that could hardly be ignored with Jimmy Carter in the White House and cocaine flooding the discotheques. In essence, Miliband was beating a corpse over the head.

Even if “vanguard” parties had bitten the dust, it would have been a mistake for Miliband to view 1978 as a permanent state. Between 1978 and 2021, a period of 43 years, catastrophist assumptions and economic collapse have become realities. Keep in mind that if the Communist Manifesto seemed out of whack with bourgeois normality in 1848 (except of course for those pesky struggles against feudal remains), 1889—41 years later—would have set the stage for the imperialist rivalries that would bring capitalism crashing to its knees in 1914.

This, of course, is the fatal flaw of Jacobin/DSA. It expects to see a renaissance of the Scandinavian welfare states when they are already being dismantled. Even with Joe Biden’s bailout and proposals for a massive infrastructure investment, we are facing a Sixth Extinction according to some of the world’s leading scientists. Does anybody expect that such catastrophic threats can be overcome by electing liberal Democrats, even if they like to call themselves socialists?

Whatever Miliband’s flaws, respects have to be paid for his insistence on the need for socialism. Just like Leon Panitch and Sam Gindin’s Socialist Project, Ralph Miliband created the Socialist Society in 1981 in collaboration with Raymond Williams to help launch a socialist party that could challenge both Labour and the Conservatives. The Socialist Society involved New Left Review leaders like Tariq Ali and worked closely with the British Trotskyists of the Ernest Mandel-led Fourth International. Like Peter Camejo’s efforts to develop a non-sectarian left in the USA, it was a product of its time. Unfortunately, the Socialist Project and before it The Socialist Society lacked the foot-soldiers of a mass movement to turn this dream into a reality. You can see the harbingers of such a mass movement in BLM that most leftists identify with, even if Jacobin/DSA continues to provide a platform for Adolph Reed Jr.’s academic sect that warns about BLM being a tool of the corporate elite rather than the most important Black struggle organization since the 1960s.

Turning now to Maisano’s latest on Ralph Miliband, an article written for the DSA magazine titled “A Left That Matters” (a briefer version appears in Jacobin), it restates the Jacobin/DSA think-tank’s by-now calcified support for the Democratic Party:

I was more sympathetic to arguments against tactical use of the Democratic line before the catalytic effects of the Sanders campaigns became fully clear. But the political developments of the last few years have effectively settled the Democratic Party question, at least for now. Whether we like it or not, working-class organizers will continue to use major party primaries so long as they exist and bear fruit. Though the Democratic Party establishment proved to be cohesive enough on a national level to defeat Sanders’ 2020 primary campaign, traditional party organizations at the state and local levels are, to a significant extent, moribund and hollowed out. In many cases they cannot effectively defend themselves and their incumbents, and can’t depose insurgents after they win office through election on the Democratic Party ballot line.

After this bedraggled post-Michael Harrington argument is put forward, Maisano summons up the ghost of Ralph Miliband to give it the stamp of authority. Once again, we hear about the sectarian left as if it were 1971 or so: “The political currents which flow from the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions are exhausted. They cannot break out of their debilitating marginality because their strategic orientation is fundamentally incompatible with the political and social conditions of advanced, welfare-state capitalism and bourgeois democracy.” For Christ’s sake, who is this directed at? Like a creature from outer space, particularly the green Jell-O like monster in “The Blob”, the DSA has already absorbed the ISO and is about gobble up Socialist Alternative for dessert.

Maisano would have us read Ralph Miliband’s 1976 article titled “Moving On” just to make sure that we have learned our lesson properly:

The political currents which flow from the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions are exhausted. They cannot break out of their debilitating marginality because their strategic orientation is fundamentally incompatible with the political and social conditions of advanced, welfare-state capitalism and bourgeois democracy. In the U.S. context, they are further constrained by an aversion to electoral action as well as a dogmatic sectarianism regarding the Democratic Party.

If you take the trouble to read Miliband’s article, you’ll see that much of it is directed against the Labour Party. Indeed, most of his career, as I pointed out earlier, was devoted to creating a non-sectarian socialist party that would finally leave the dead-end of Fabian Socialism behind. Just substitute the words “Democratic Party” for “Labour Party” and you’ll understand why poor Ralph Miliband would be spinning in his grave if he was aware of the words Chris Maisano put in his mouth, so much so that a transformer attached to his big toe could probably serve Phoenix, Arizona’s electrical needs for six months at least. This is not to speak of the fact that Labour broke with the Liberal Party in England, their equivalent of the Democratic Party. Oh, did I mention that Eric Blanc advocates staying with the Democrats for as long as possible based on the “success” of Labour only breaking with the Liberals after far too many years of tail-ending a capitalist party?

Inevitably, one must start with the Labour Party. There cannot now be many socialists in the Labour Party (and even fewer outside) who believe that most of its leaders are concerned with the task of effecting the ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families’ of which the Labour Manifesto spoke in 1974. But there are many socialists in the Labour Party who do believe very firmly that they can eventually and by dint of great pressure compel their leaders to adopt left-wing policies and even to translate these policies into practice; or alternatively that they can bring to the leadership of the Labour Party men and women who will want to adopt and put into practice such policies.

There is no point in rehearsing here arguments which have been endlessly canvassed as to whether this is a realistic prospect or not. That controversy has gone on for three quarters of a century, that is ever since the Labour Party came into existence; and insofar as it cannot be conclusively proved that the Labour Party will not in any serious sense be turned in socialist directions, the chances are that the controversy will go on for a long time to come, without leading anywhere. My own view, often reiterated, is that the belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone. But this is not what I propose to argue yet again here. It will be more useful to take up some of the more important considerations which are commonly advanced by socialists for working in the Labour Party, whatever the odds, and for not looking farther afield.

March 18, 2021

Whither DSA/Jacobin?

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:38 pm

A word of explanation about the title of this article. It is shorthand for Jacobin and the Bread and Roses Caucus in DSA, overlapping entities as Doug Henwood pointed out in a New Republic article:

There are six votes from the Bread and Roses caucus on DSA’s national political committee (NPC), effectively its board of directors, not quite a third of the total of 19, giving the caucus a serious, if not dominant, presence. Two of them are on the Jacobin masthead (Chris Maisano and Ella Mahony), and another prominent Bread and Roses member, Micah Uetricht, is the magazine’s managing editor. The strong presence on the NPC and the affiliation with Jacobin, the most influential publication on the American socialist left these days, gets people to talking about a sect with its own propaganda arm plotting to control the organization.

Probably most DSA’ers don’t have a clue about this ideological bloc and are content to carry out worthy struggles in the hundreds of chapters around the country but it is worrisome that people with so much power over Jacobin, the de facto official journal of the DSA, can set the tone for the organization.

Lately, several articles came to my attention that reflect a deepening rightward dynamic in DSA that this bloc might push at the same time there is a rise in the class struggle in the USA. It is as if they believed it was still 1964, Johnson was in the White House, and Bayard Rustin had the Democratic Party’s fawning attention. This social democratic wet-dream is the sort of thing you’d expect to see in Dissent, not a magazine that is named after French revolutionaries who waged a bloody class struggle against feudal institutions.

Behind a paywall in the latest Jacobin, there’s an article by Dustin Guastella titled “Everyone Hates the Democrats” that reduces the party’s woes to focusing on the affluent, progressive-minded suburbs rather than the white, blue-collar bastions that exist mostly in Guastella’s imagination as if steel and auto defined the American economy rather than Amazon. I use the word white even though it is implicit throughout the article.

Basically, there’s not much difference between his recommendations and what Columbia professor Mark Lilla wrote in “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.” It is also what Thomas Frank argued in “Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” These frequent guests on cable talk shows warn the Democratic Party that unless it dumps “identity politics” and prioritizes white working-class interests (white is implied, not stated for obvious reasons), the Republicans will continue to win elections.

This nostalgia for the Great Society when white workers were attached to the Democratic Party as if they rooting for the home team lasted long after the objective conditions had ceased to exist as a result of runaway shops, NAFTA, and all the other neoliberal policies both Democrats and Republicans had supported.

You can get a good idea of how attached Jacobin/DSA is to this notion of the good old days of DP and white working-class comity from a recent article commemorating John Sweeney, the former head of the AFL-CIO who hoped to reignite the Great Society. Titled “John Sweeney: The Man Who Wanted to Be a ‘Big Labor’ Leader” and written by John Yeselson, it rapturously described “The Fight for America’s Future: A Teach-in with the Labor Movement,” held at Columbia University in October 1996 as an event that was to mark the reunification of leftist intellectuals and academics with much of organized labor, “a coalition that had foundered during the sclerosis of the ’50s.” A real Jacobin/DSA wet dream.

You might remember that 1996 was the same year that a movement to build a Labor Party was launched in the USA by progressive trade union leaders. Like Sweeney’s teach-in, it led nowhere. You are not going to see a revitalized labor movement until you see people at the bottom being moved into action by insufferable conditions. On February 18th, the NY Times Sunday magazine described just such a possibility in an article titled “Amazon’s Great Labor Awakening” that drew an analogy between the 1930s and today:

Throughout history, and especially during the Great Depression, company towns also became central hubs for labor movements. In 1936, General Motors, with its main plants in Flint, Mich., was the biggest automaker and the most profitable company in America. It had 262,000 employees at 57 plants across North America. In his book, “There Is Power in a Union,” Philip Dray writes that Flint “had long been a company town — its workers, elected officials and even its daily press loyal to the town’s majority employer.” The General Motors president at the time “may not have fully grasped the extent to which the individuals who manned the assembly lines in the big auto plants had grown frustrated by the increasing levels of automation and the speedups that disregarded their needs as human beings.”

On Dec. 30, 1936, workers at two G.M. Fisher Body plants in Flint “simply stopped working” during a peak busy season, according to Dray. This strike “would be the first large-scale use of the sit-down, a tactic to which automobile assembly lines were especially vulnerable because manufacturing in the auto industry was based on the continuous flow of production.”

Like the Depression-era strikes in those G.M. plants, today’s labor movement has been fueled by a national crisis. Reese, of U.C. Riverside, led a team of students in interviewing 47 former and current Amazon employees throughout the Inland Empire about living and working conditions. When the pandemic began, Reese noticed labor activity spike in ways that mirrored historical patterns. Even when unemployment was at a high during the Great Depression, people were still organizing, “despite the risks of getting fired and replaced.”

Turning now to Guastella’s article, you get the obligatory swipe at the “woke” activists who regularly get spanked by Tucker Carlson and Matt Taibbi. They “embrace…niche cultural attitudes found only in highly educated urban districts and among Twitter users — 80 percent of whom are affluent millennials.” Despite his aversion to their pretensions, he admits that they make up the activist core that goes out to ring doorbells for democratic socialists. Yet at what terrible costs:

Winning the loyalty of the majority of working people in this country will require breaking out of the existing liberal fortresses and appealing to workers across our massive continental democracy. But pairing a popular economic program with alienating rhetoric, chic activist demands, and identity-based group appeals only weakens the possibility of doing so.

Later on, he spells out his orientation versus that of the woke, suburban, quiche-eating, white-wine drinking viewers of MSNBC:

According to a report from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, Democratic-leaning working-class voters ranked their top five issues as follows: health care, social security, Medicare, the economy, and jobs. But liberal professionals listed theirs as: environment, climate change, health care, education, and racial equality.

Get it? Racial equality is backed by liberal professionals but not Democratic-leaning working-class voters. What’s missing from this word association game? The word “white” before Democratic-leaning. I mean, really, why would any self-respecting white worker who voted for Trump now vote for a Democrat who made a stink about racial equality with all those buildings being burned during the George Floyd protests?

You can understand where Guastella is coming from. Last year he wrote an article that attempted to clarify the question of whether cops are racists. Written naturally for Adolph Reed Jr’s Nonsite, it takes aim at “woke” demands such as defunding the police that alienate construction workers and those working in aerospace, etc. For a thorough dismantling of this article, I recommend Peter Ikeler’s reply to Guastella in Spectre titled “To End Police Violence, End Racial Capitalism”. He exposes the faulty data used by Guastella and ends his article with this pithy observation: “Guastella is clear where he falls on these questions. The DSA and the wider left should make it equally clear where such anti-activist sentiments and class reductionism belong: in a goddamn trash can.”

The practical policy recommendations that come out of Guastella’s article are that workers should run for office in the Democratic Party. He names Mark Pocan, a longtime member of the painters’ union, and Donald Norcross, the House’s only electrician, who have recently announced a new labor caucus in Congress that could inspire other workers to run. Like the “squad”, such representatives are never going to become dominant in a capitalist party that learned 100 years ago at least how to co-opt the left. It’s really a shame that James Clyburn and Nancy Pelosi have a stronger grasp of the class differences that will keep such workers impotent than someone writing for Jacobin.

Most importantly, how is Jacobin/DSA supposed to relate to the most important labor struggle since the Flint sit-down strike when one of its leading spokesman ties racial equality to woke suburbanites? Anybody who has been following this mainly black-led organizing drive at Amazon realizes that it is joined at the hip to long-standing struggles in the South for racial equality.

An PBS article titled “Black Lives Matter backs Amazon union push in Alabama” fills in the details:

Organizers trying to form the first union at an Amazon warehouse are getting support from another big name: Black Lives Matter.

The group plans to hold an event Saturday near the warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, making it the latest high-profile supporter of the union push, which is the biggest in Amazon’s nearly 30-year history.

Most of the workers in the warehouse are Black, according to union organizers, and the backing from Black Lives Matter could help further legitimize the cause. Besides higher pay, organizers are also asking for more break time and for Amazon to treat workers with respect.

“Black workers have historically been the backbone of this country, its institutions, and innovations,” said Patrisse Cullors, the executive director of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, in a statement. “Therefore, it is fully within our rights and dignity that we be treated and compensated fairly. Just as we have the right to live, we also have the right to work.”

In the same issue of Jacobin, you can find an article by Chris Maisano, who is on DSA’s national political committee (NPC) that Doug Henwood described as effectively its board of directors. Titled “A Left that Matters”, it is a de facto editorial introduction to the issue.

After reaffirming the wisdom of backing candidates of the Democratic Party, Maisano brings up the question of revolution in the USA. Given the pandemic and a continuing economic crisis, one might think that this highly placed democratic socialist apparatchik might be giving it some new consideration. But no, instead it is a return to what apparently works, building the leftwing of the Democratic Party:

Even if we witness state breakdown or systemic collapse in the coming years, an eventuality many base builders take as given, it’s likely they won’t be able to take advantage of the situation because their strategy will keep them too small and isolated beforehand. Why should the desperate masses turn to organizations they’ve never heard of for salvation?

The failure of revolutionary socialism to grow even in the midst of major capitalist crises underscores its lapse into futility. But just because “Marxist reformism” is the only road available to us doesn’t mean it won’t be filled with potholes, switchbacks, and other drivers trying to run us off a cliff.

What a statement! If there is state breakdown or systemic collapse in the coming years, don’t count on small groups involved with base-building to play a role because they will be to small and isolated beforehand. So we can’t count on them to lead a revolution.

What about the DSA, which will likely have 200,000 members by then and continue to be lionized in the NY Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Teen Vogue, The Nation, Field and Stream, and Motor Trend? Sorry, they’ll be too busy ringing doorbells for Democrats, not lending their massive numbers and influence to build a revolutionary movement.

Finally, saving best for last, we come to Eric Blanc, the éminence grise of the DSA and neo-Kautskyite par excellence. In a Jacobin article not behind a paywall, he advises that “The Birth of the Labour Party Has Many Lessons for Socialists Today”. In it, he reminds us that the Conservative and Liberal Parties in England amounted to a two-party system similar to our Republican and Democratic Parties until the trade unions and socialists were able to carry out a “dirty break” and form the Labour Party.

Like the DSA, the British radicals who believed in class independence patiently bored away in the innards of the Liberal Party until they had reached a critical mass capable of forming the party that would fight for socialism, even if according to Fabian Society nostrums. These radicals were referred to as lib-labs.

Our counterparts back then considered lib-lab politics as an exercise in futility. Blanc writes:

Some leftist critics lambasted Liberal-Labour MPs for their ties to a capitalist party, arguing that their moniker itself was a contradiction, “as if a man could be a sober drunkard.” While it’s true that their identification with a business-led party muddied their political independence, such condemnations of the Lib-Labs were short-sighted.

Have patience, Blanc advises:

Whatever their limitations, Liberal-Labour representatives did constitute a distinct working-class current in national political life and, as such, a step forward in the process of class formation. Flash forward to today and you can see a similar process unfolding with democratic socialists recently elected to local, statewide, and national office on the Democratic Party ballot line. Like in the UK, a consistent growth in the US left’s electoral power over the coming years will necessarily put us on a collision course with the tens-of-thousands of Democratic politicians and operatives whose careers and prestige depend on preserving the status quo.

Missing entirely from this utterly self-serving flim-flam is any engagement with the question of whether a “dirty break” resulted in anything except a dirty Labour Party. The Labour Party that emerged out of the bowels of the Liberal Party was led by people who make Joe Biden look like Che Guevara.

More than any other party at the time, it was the poster child for reformism. Indeed, the Fabian Society that gave its name to Fabianism, the doctrine of reformism par excellence, was one of the major architects of Labour Party ideology.

Labour essentially was a kind of hybrid political formation like one of those half-man/half-animals from Greek mythology. It was midwifed by Liberal Party figures who superimposed their Christian/free market dogma on a nascent socialist formation that, unlike other Social Democratic parties, especially Kautsky’s, had little engagement with Marxism. Frustrated with the Liberal Party’s concessions to the Tories in Parliament, the Fabians and the Independent Labour Party founded the Labour Party in 1900, with its main purpose to put pressure on the Liberal Party from the left. In a way, the strategy was similar to the DSA’s hope of serving as the Tea Party of the left, even though they have never articulated this as such, to my knowledge.

Instead of being led by a fire-breathing radical like Eugene V. Debs, the Labour Party was in the hands of Ramsey MacDonald who promised that when it became a minority government in 1923 with backing from the Liberals it would “not be influenced…by any other consideration other than the national well-being.” His colonial minister, a former railway union leader named J.H. Thomas, promised that there would be “no mucking about with the British Empire”.

In 1926, the Tories were in power again and facing a general strike led by coal miners. Despite Labour’s institutional ties to Labour and MacDonald’s vow to back them in their struggle, he wilted under pressure and told Parliament that “with the discussion of general strikes and Bolshevism and all that kind of thing, I have nothing to do at all.”

Is this what the Jacobin/DSA is aspiring to? Comrade Blanc sounds more like Irving Howe in his seventies than the perpetually cap-wearing young socialist image he carefully cultivates. I just don’t get it. I became a socialist in 1967 and remain committed to the same principles I had 53 years ago, even if I have dropped the “Leninism”.

He, on the other hand, started off as a member of an obscure Trotskyist sect maybe a decade ago that his father led and then joined the ISO. His politics at the time are reflected in the video above. After a brief time in the ISO, he migrates to the DSA where he dispenses with their class-based opposition to the Democratic Party and becomes an advocate of the “dirty break”, trying to adapt Karl Kautsky’s Marxism to the USA. Eventually, the neo-Kautskyism goes by the wayside and he now identifies with the men who founded the Labour Party. My head is spinning at these ideological mutations. How deep were convictions picked up and cast aside like fast fashion from Zara? I guess given the cap that must be cemented to his head by Gorilla Glue, the politics are easier to pick up and then discard.

November 24, 2020

Matt Huber, nuclear power, and the socialist beachhead

Filed under: Ecology,Jacobin,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 9:30 pm

This is a companion piece to the one I just wrote about Vivek Chibber calling upon DSA’ers to create beachheads in the working class. It too is based on a podcast interview, this time with Matt Huber, who has published a long article in Chibber’s magazine titled “Ecological Politics for the Working Class” that dismisses the need for ecological limits. Like Chibber, this Syracuse professor looks askance at the social class he belongs to: “The environmental movement in its current form is dominated by middle-class professionals.” So, his advice boils down to another version of Chibber’s—the environmental movement has to create beachheads in the trade union movement.

Since I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to plow through 10,500 words of Hubert’s prose, my advice is to watch the podcast above to get a handle on the sort of politics being purveyed in Bhaskar Sunkara’s publishing empire.

Huber’s environmental ideas flow from a rather dogmatic understanding of Marxism that revolves around the point of production. His beef with today’s environmental movement is that it is focused on consumption rather than production. He wonders why the left can’t understand something so simple. The capitalist class owns the means of production, like factories, mines, transportation, and power plants. If the working-class uses its class power against the owners to force it to stop burning greenhouse gases and polluting the air, water and soil, you are likely to see the kinds of changes that are so necessary. Implicit in this rather simplistic proposal is that DSA’ers would get union jobs in the most critical industries to persuade fellow workers to take direct action.

Specifically, Huber views the heavily unionized (relatively speaking) electricity-supplying sector of power plants as a place where a beachhead should be established. He names the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as a target for such an implantation. Now, if you got a job through someone you knew through the IBEW, it just might be in a nuclear power plant, where the union generally holds sway. What possibility would there be for the workers in such a plant, like Homer Simpson, taking militant action to shut it down? Zero.

But that’s no problem for Huber since he agrees with the IBEW that nuclear power is a key part of the Green New Deal. Here’s something from their media center:

In an age of shrinking bipartisanship and climbing global temperatures, the Nuclear Powers America Act might just be the bipartisan legislation the country needs to cleanly and reliably power future generations.

”The challenges we face in terms of the climate and the security and reliability of our energy grid go beyond political persuasions because they will impact us all, and the Nuclear Powers America Act is a strong example of finding a common sense solution that works for Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists and everyone else who cares about clean energy production,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson.

And here’s Huber making the same case in the DSA magazine:

There is evidence advanced reactors and recycling can solve many of the environmental worries of waste and meltdowns. The most credible objection to nuclear is cost, but this should not be the main criteria under a socialist program whose aim is decarbonization and production for social needs (and, like renewables, once nuclear plants are built the cost is very low).

It is remarkable that an energy expert like Matt Huber can recommend nuclear power with so little in his scholarly background to show for it. If you go to his Syracuse University website, you will find 41 peer-reviewed articles. Not a single one delves into nuclear power.

As it happens, nuclear power plants create radioactive waste material that remains toxic for 250,000 years. Since power plants generate 2000 tons of it a year, where to put it is a big problem. It might come as a big surprise that it is foisted on poor people, especially American Indians. However, the bulk of it remains inside the power plant where it is subject to deus ex machina events like earthquakes. The Diablo Canyon power plant is half-way down the California coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles ringed by a dozen earthquake faults. You know who owns it? None other than the Pacific Gas and Electric Company that has been partly responsible for the disastrous forest fires of the past few years.

Now, one might presume that none of this would be a problem if we overthrow capitalism and start building a communist world. The utmost standards of safety would be adopted with the vanguard of the working class led by Bhaskar Sunkara, Vivek Chibber and Matt Huber overseeing the alternative-energy grid from their offices in Washington. However, given the beachhead mindset of these guys, one doubts that they would urge militant protests to shut down such plants since they would alienate the Homer Simpsons who work there.

One doubts that someone guided by Matt Huber’s pearls of wisdom would cause any kind of ruckus in a power plant given the solicitous concern shown toward workers in his Catalyst article:

Whereas a class politics was always about offering a vision of increased overall welfare, ecological politics became a politics of less. André Gorz developed an explicitly eco-socialist standpoint centered on less: “The only way to live better is to produce less, to consume less, to work less, to live differently.” Over the years class and environmental politics were constantly at odds in the “jobs versus environment” debate. It was working-class loggers who opposed the protection of the spotted owl or the restoration of salmon runs in the Columbia River. As Richard White recounts, the bumper sticker “Are you an Environmentalist or do you Work for a Living?” became popular among rural working-class communities.

I don’t quite know to put this but even if workers have the power to bring capitalist production to a grinding halt, their consciousness has to change before hand. Perhaps comrade Huber has not read Lenin’s “What is to be Done”. It makes the case that revolutionary class consciousness is not something that arises spontaneously. It has to come from outside the workplace by conscious socialists:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.[2] The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia.

Much of Huber’s podcast is a diatribe against the professional management class (PMC) that is outside the working-class, just as Marx and Engels were. The idea that DSA’ers are going to get jobs working in a nuclear power plant and persuade workers to take militant actions against an employer who is paying them $65,000 per year is absurd. Of course, given his partiality toward nuclear energy, that will never be a problem.

It is, on the other hand, our problem that we have such bilge being promoted by the Jacobin/DSA in the name of socialism.

November 23, 2020

Vivek Chibber and the turn to the working-class

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

Although he is a relatively obscure figure on the American left, NYU Sociology professor Vivek Chibber can be accurately described as the éminence grise of DSA/Jacobin. I conjoin DSA and Jacobin as a way of honing in on the overlap between DSA’s top leaders and their role as editors or contributors to Jacobin, which is the de facto voice of the DSA just as much as the Daily Worker was once that of the CPUSA.

I was especially interested in hearing what he had to say in a Jacobin podcast interview he gave to Ariella Thornhill titled “What’s Next for the Left”. (Thornhill, an African-American, was a member of the editorial board of Jacobin but is no longer—now leaving it totally white.) Since DSA/Jacobin had invested so much in the Sanders campaign, which was understood to be the first stage in a rocket launch that would lead to a Swedish-style welfare state in maybe 20 years from now and culminating in a genuine socialist country, if not world, there had to be some soul-searching after Biden’s nomination and his repudiation of the Sanders wing of the party.

According to Chibber, the neo-Kautskyian formulas that had led to such illusions now lie in a smoldering heap of rubble. The Democratic Party has found a winning formula that makes Sanders’s brand of neo-New Deal politics unnecessary. In a nutshell, the DP has its eyes on a coalition between the top 35 percentile of suburban American wage earners and the Black and Latino population that will obediently follow the instructions of establishment figures like Jim Clyburn and Tom Perez. Even if they lose an election to another rightwing bastard like Trump, that would be preferable to having someone like Sanders in the White House.

Chibber also disparaged the importance of “democratic socialists” winning local or state offices that he described as a swamp. Unlike Sanders’s campaigns, there’s little opportunity for using them as a bully pulpit to address profound policy issues of war and peace. Furthermore, those who have the most to gain from even a mildly social democratic president—the young people in the gig economy—do not vote as heavily as the older and more conservative constituents like, for example, the “Tejanos” who voted for Trump in south Texas.

Despite the monomaniacal devotion to electoral politics that characterize the DSA, Chibber has a rather striking alternative that seems hardly consistent with his professorial privileges. He advocates that the DSA and the left immerse itself in the working class both physically and politically in order to build a base that can transform American society. In a 2017 Jacobin interview, Chibber was not exactly clear about how to go about bringing the typical DSA member and someone who stocks shelves at a Walmart:

It is absolutely true that the union movement today shows no interest in doing this. It shows no interest in fighting. It shows no interest in pursuing the kinds of goals that the labor movement in the past had. To me, that just means you build a better one, that’s all. It’s like saying a cure for this disease is not doing as well as it could, but until you find a different cure, you’ve got to keep working on that one.

It’s harder making this case today in left settings because there are very few workers who come to left settings. It’s harder to make the case that workers are important, because a lot of people on the Left are students and academics, and they want to talk about exotic things. But I don’t know any other way around it.

Maybe Chibber can set an example for the DSA and quit his NYU job and go to work in a factory himself. I tried that one morning in 1978 and called it quits.

DSA has 100,000 members but it is not a serious, disciplined revolutionary organization that can generate the momentum to get its members to make life-changing choices such as the kind revolutionary groups made in the 60s and 70s. Furthermore, they often end up as exercises in futility as workers fail to make the connection between their day-to-day lives and socialist propaganda.

Toward the end of the interview (1:02), Chibber is asked specifically what the left should do. To start with, it has to break out of the milieu it inhabits, which is a small, cloistered professional milieu that is largely unconnected to the lives of working people. He says that the gains of the DSA are real but they will not go very far if it continues to follow the electoral road. It is possible to use the electoral gains the DSA made to establish beachheads in working-class neighborhoods and workplaces to build a real and permanent physical presence, not just for six months to ring doorbells for “woke” candidates. You have to integrate yourselves into the lives of such people. However, one wonders why Chibber would use the term “beachhead” to describe the relationship of socialist activists and the working class. Doesn’t it summon up images of the Normandy invasion and Iwo Jima rather than a natural affinity?

Going even further, Chibber accuses the left of living in the same cultural, moral, political universe as the people it criticizes, both the liberal and conservatives. There’s a turf war between liberals and conservatives at the top 20 percent of society but the left is part of that battlefield. The only way forward is to break out of it. If it doesn’t, it will only end up as a service organization (like replacing broken taillights, I guess) or a rump of the Democratic Party. An NGO that knocks on the door for Democratic “progressives” or “socialists”.

Really?

Can the DSA make such a “turn” when its most charismatic figure is someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who led Vogue magazine through her skin-care and signature-red-lip routine? Or Bhaskar Sunkara who used to regale his Twitter followers with his jet-setting itineraries?

Some of the people who might be expected to carry out such a turn are those who have been grad students in Chibber’s department like Paul Heideman who lashed out at a left that was subject to anti-electoral movementism?

The path forward for the DSA is guarded at best. It is simply too loosely knit and politically amorphous to make the kind of turn that Chibber outlines. It is also too comfortable in the cocoon it occupies, with its semi-bohemian culture, its Chapo Trap House affinities, its predominantly youthful make-up, its preference for semi-gentrified urban neighborhoods and all the rest.

All of this is the natural outcome of a left that destroyed itself with “Leninist” illusions fifty years ago. A vacuum was created that was filled by a reborn social democracy. There is something almost Viconian about the return of a movement that exhausted itself in the 1960s when its leadership aligned itself with LBJ’s war in Vietnam. What will help generate a new cyclical return to a mass revolutionary movement? God only knows.

October 27, 2020

Eric Blanc endorses Joe Biden

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


Eric Blanc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tried to put Lenin’s position in context:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, I figured it out.

Badaev wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 19, 2020

The Big Scary “S” Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 26, 2020

Marxist alternatives to Jacobin

Filed under: Jacobin,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:46 pm

I felt a real sense of loss after the ISO dissolved. Although political differences over Cuba and Venezuela (as well as old age) prevented me from joining, I highly valued their newspaper and magazine that consistently defended a class line on electoral politics. When I discovered that a significant layer of their membership had joined the DSA and become Bernie Sanders supporters, the sense of loss became keener. When long-time revolutionary socialist Paul Le Blanc began sounding indistinguishable from the Jacobin writers, who all sounded alike on Sanders for that matter, I began to look for alternatives. To some extent, the principled left positions could still be found in “Against the Current” and “New Politics”. As for “Against the Current”, it will most likely continue even after Solidarity folds. You can also rely on “New Politics” to have many years ahead of it.

The alternatives under consideration here, except for Left Voice and Spectre, are strictly online publications, thus making them accessible to people not willing to spend hard-earned money during a time of complete financial collapse. I have contributed to a couple of them (Left Voice, Regeneration) and encourage you to be generous when they request donations. So, without further ado:

Left Voice

This magazine first came to my attention when it began publishing truly brilliant critiques of the neo-Kautskyism promoted by Jacobin. It is put out by a small pre-party formation of mostly young people who identify with the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas in Argentina, a split from the Moreno current in Argentina.

I obviously have differences with them on the organizational questions, just as I did with the ISO, but I feel closer to them politically than I ever did with the ISO.

Some of the best arguments against work in the Democratic Party can be found in Left Voice, including Juan Cruz Ferre’s “If There Is to Be Any Future for the U.S. Left, We Must Break with Sanders and the Democrats”. I met Ferre, a CUNY dissertation student, once and was very impressed with his erudition. His Argentinian roots and erudition came into play in this article:

The role Sanders is now called to play for the 2020 elections is to infuse enthusiasm and young blood into Biden’s anemic campaign. The game is clear. You can almost hear Sanders telling Biden “I’ll be your left man, just give me something to show, go along with me.” The six joint policy working groups they formed at the moment Sanders endorsed Biden is an obvious example. What other purpose could these task forces have? Is Biden going to concede on Medicare for All, or any other policies that characterize Sanders’s campaign? Biden keeps repeating to this day that he opposes Medicare for All, and he isn’t budging on any other significant policy proposals, like tuition-free college, the cancellation of student debt, or the Green New Deal. Juan Domingo Perón, the bourgeois populist leader of Argentina, is credited with having said, “If you want something to get stalled, create a commission.”

Regeneration

This is the magazine of the Marxist Network that Philly Socialists helped to found in early 2019. Unlike people coming from a more traditional Marxist background, they eschew electoral politics altogether. Their activism involves a lot of mutual aid and experiments with “dual power”, a term that has a different meaning than found in the classical Marxist literature. Although my theoretical background is quite a bit different, I deeply respect their work.

Like Left Voice, Marxist center comrades are young. However, not exclusively so. In a recent article “Letter to the Socialists, Old and New” written by long-time activist and Marxist Center at-large member Chris Townsend, you’ll see why geezers like and Townsend are sympathetic to this new generation (or regeneration):

  1. Throw out once and for all your reverence for the old order, and dare to dream about what its replacement will look like. We want and deserve something new and better. Chattel slavery and subjugation were replaced by wage slavery, and we fight for freedom from this last slavery which holds a tight grip on billions of fellow workers worldwide. As socialists we are optimists. Our movement follows the high road of history.
  2. Spend time with the old Socialists and old Bolsheviks when you can, before they are gone; talk to them, get to know them, ask them questions and pull them into your work. Learn what can be learned from them, and insist that they support the movement fully, including financially. Many have led prosperous lives and they can – and should – be generous in their support of the new socialist generation. Ask them for the money and resources to fund the movement today; many have it.

I couldn’t have put it better.

International Socialism Project

This is essentially the leadership of the ISO that was overturned just before the group dissolved. You’ll recognize the names: Ahmed Shawki, Sharon Smith, Lance Selfa, and Paul D’Amato. I had mixed feelings about recommending this website because of the charges made against the ISO leadership that failed to respond to multiple rapes. The crisis led to its dissolution, just as the same dereliction of duty in the British SWP led to whole sale resignations. On the other hand, both the International Socialism Project and the British SWP continue to publish important material that Marxists would benefit from. For example, Paul D’Amato wrote an article titled “The struggle has moved far ‘Beyond Bernie’” that correctly exposes how the Sandernista enthusiasts at Jacobin have shifted toward support for Biden. Even if there are articles on Jacobin blasting Biden, there are still signs that it gives it benediction to a Biden vote as D’Amato writes:

Both Heideman and Sunkara’s pieces assure Democratic Party liberals that the DSA won’t get in the way of a Biden victory in November. Sunkara explains that “88 percent” of Sanders supporters voted for Hillary Clinton, and that he expects the same thing to happen in the fall. What this shows is that there isn’t an effective barrier between supporting Sanders and supporting Biden. Sunkara then explains how he thinks DSA fits into the picture:

The small but resurgent socialist movement in this country is developing a political approach that can speak to millions of alienated Americans. Like center-left liberals and progressives, during the coming presidential election and beyond we aim to defeat right-wing populism. The difference is that we refuse to do so on the centrist terms that we believe helped create it in the first place.

Spectre: a Marxist Journal

This seems to be a joint venture of ex-ISO’ers and long-time socialists, all of whom were fairly typical Jacobin contributors in the past, when Jacobin was more open to revolutionary socialists. Tithi Bhattacharya, an editorial board member, and managing editor Ashley Smith are both ex-ISOers. Also on the editorial board are Charles Post and David McNally, who have a long background in non-sectarian Marxist politics.

The articles in Spectre are first-rate. I particularly appreciated Kim Moody’s critique of the kind of class-reductionism that Jacobin favors, from Adolph Reed Jr. to Cedric Johnson. In the article, titled “The Roots of Racist Policing”, Moody focuses on articles written by Cedric Johnson in New Politics and Catalyst that contest the idea that race and racism is at the heart of mass incarceration. He adds that much of Johnson’s argument is drawn from James Forman, Jr.’s account of the role of Black communities and officials in supporting the escalation of “tough-on-crime” policies in the 1970s and a similar argument made by John Clegg and Adaner Usmani. (Clegg is an economist who argues that slavery held back the development of American capitalism; Usmani is an editorial board member of Catalyst, the theoretical magazine published by Jacobin.)

Moody points out that they base themselves on a one-sided interpretation of Foreman’s work:

Given the weight that Johnson gives to Forman’s arguments in diminishing the importance of race, it is worth quoting Forman’s own caveat to his readers:

But in focusing on the actions of black officials, I do not minimize the role of whites or racism in the development of mass incarceration. To the contrary: racism shaped the political, economic, and legal context in which the black community and its elected representatives made their choices.

I also recommend Kim Moody’s “Cedric Johnson and the Other Sixties’ Nostalgia” that appeared in New Politics. It pointed out how Johnson, like Adolph Reed Jr., base themselves on an uncritical view of Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph.

Tempest: a revolutionary socialist organizing project

No editors are identified in the “about” page, so it is a little difficult to determine the provenance of this, the newest of the Marxist alternatives to Jacobin. However, an article co-written by Ashley Smith and Charlie Post suggests that its lineage is in the cadre of writers who no longer appeared in Jacobin after its Sandernista mutation.

All I know about Tempest contributor Andy Sernatinger is that he is a member of DSA and a rank-and-file Teamster union member. Unlike most younger DSA members (I am guessing that Sernatinger has been around the block given the savvy displayed in “At a Crossroads: DSA in the COVID age”), he is much more capable of seeing its shortcomings. It has become apparent since March that it is ill-equipped to face up to the massive crisis we are facing, as Sernatinger displays so masterfully:

This political time crashed headlong into the George Floyd uprising. The revived Black Lives Matter movement operated on a very immediate, daily timing while DSA had built its infrastructure on a routinized weekly and monthly timing without mechanisms for rapid response. What’s more, the emphasis on electoral activity trained DSA members in a type of politics that was substantially different from militant protest, and organizationally left DSA without direction for the moment. DSA approached the semi-spontaneous uprising based on its previous experience with short-term demonstrations and ended up disoriented by the continuous actions confronting the state.

I would suggest bookmarking these websites to keep abreast of revolutionary journalism in a time when it is so badly needed.

July 14, 2020

Antibodies and anticapitalists

Filed under: COVID-19,Jacobin,two-party system — louisproyect @ 7:08 pm

On May 22nd, a Quest Diagnostics serology test revealed that I had COVID-19 antibodies. In other words, I was supposedly immune. In writing about this experience for CounterPunch, I tried to convey how perplexing these results seemed. I had no symptoms associated with the disease, like a dry cough or fever, nor did I have any idea how long the immunity would last. The scientific consensus was that the antibodies were not permanent.

I assumed that the antibodies were from a coronavirus cold, which can also produce antibodies according to the CDC. Were they from a nasty cold that I had last September that evolved into bronchitis? That didn’t seem to make sense since I caught it from my niece whose own serology test turned out negative for COVID-19 antibodies. On top of that, the Quest website is pretty specific about the antibodies being a result of COVID-19 and not a coronavirus cold. “This type of test detects antibodies that show if you have had a prior COVID-19 infection—even if you never experienced symptoms. Detection of antibodies means you may now have some level of immunity to the virus.”

Since I had no idea when the statute of limitations would expire on the antibodies, I have made sure since May 22nd to stick to the practices recommended by the CDC: masks, social distancing, and washing my hands or using a sanitizer. My wife and I are pinning our hopes on her college sticking with online classes for the fall term. Given the huge spike in infections over the past few weeks outside of N.Y., there is a good chance we’ll be okay. The City University of New York suffered 38 deaths in its system during the pandemic and there is considerable resistance to taking any chances now. CUNY’s chancellor has said that the school is considering a hybrid approach but we haven’t heard how that will affect my wife.

Just yesterday, Business Insider reported on a number of studies that found that COVID-19 antibodies have a short shelf-life. A study conducted in Spain left me feeling vulnerable:

The recent study on this topic in Spain found that one in five people lost detectable levels of antibodies within five weeks.

That research, published last week in The Lancet, involved 60,000 people in Spain. They were tested for antibodies three times between April and June. About 7% of the participants who had antibodies during the first phase of the study (April 27 to May 11) no longer had them in the second phase (May 18 to June 1), according to CNN. About 14% of participants who had antibodies during the first stage no longer had them by the third phase (June 8 to 22).

In some ways, this doesn’t surprise me. The common cold, either the rhinovirus or coronavirus type, produces antibodies but they don’t last very long. That is why someone like me has had over fifty colds in my life. None would kill me but they do make me feel miserable.

The Business Insider reporter tried to be upbeat. She quoted Florian Krammer, a vaccinologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, that antibodies don’t disappear all at once. At five weeks, you might have lost half of them but they may be sufficient to preserve your immunity. That’s of little consolation to me and anybody else worried about the disease.

The overarching question is whether a vaccine can produce antibodies for COVID-19. The goal is to produce antibodies in enough people to build up herd immunity within the population. Krammer is not deterred by the possibility by people having to get vaccinated every year, just as you do with the flu. Unfortunately, however, flu has transparently obvious symptoms early on unlike COVID-19. When I’ve had the flu in the past (I’ve never been vaccinated), it hits me like a two-by-four. The last thing that I’d be up for is going to work and infecting others, especially since I’d be throwing up constantly on my way there.

In 2003, there was another coronavirus epidemic called SARS. It was deadlier than its close relative SARS-2 (or COVID-19) but it died out on its own in just a few months. Because it no longer posed a threat, researchers stopped trying to find a vaccine.

On May 22nd, the day I got my Quest Diagnostics antibody report, the Guardian published an article titled “Why we might not get a coronavirus vaccine” that warned against high expectations. Probably, the best we can hope for is a vaccine that might lessen the impact of the disease but not so much so that old folks would still be highly vulnerable. The article contained this sobering note:

People will have to adapt – and life will change. Heymann says we will have to get used to extensive monitoring for infections backed up by swift outbreak containment. People must play their part too, by maintaining handwashing, physical distancing and avoiding gatherings, particularly in enclosed spaces.

That’s not very reassuring when tens of millions of Americans are in open revolt against such threats to their “personal liberty”.

For the foreseeable future, American society will be roiled by a combination of ills that make the idea of returning to “normalcy” improbable. You have what amounts to a mass movement increasingly willing to use violence against antiracist protesters and to defy all measures intended to reduce the impact of COVID-19. Indeed, there will be an increasing tendency for the cops and the ultraright mobs to blend into each other. There have been sixty incidents of cars being driven into crowds of protesters, including by cops in both Detroit and New York.

You will also see corporate America driven to make workers pay for the economic consequences of the pandemic. In an article by Robert Brenner in the latest NLR that thankfully is not behind a paywall, he writes about “Escalating Plunder”, namely the way in which the bourgeoisie is using this calamity to defend its own class interests. Like the 2008 bailout under Obama, the underlying motivation was “too big to fail” but this time the billions were funneled to non-financial corporations as well. Pelosi and Schumer offered virtually no opposition and showed a cold indifference to unemployed and hungry people.

When I and my wife go out on our daily exercise walk, we see more and more boxes of food being distributed in front of churches. And those lining up to get them are not those who you’d regard as the underclass. The NY Post reported on April 19th:

The vast ranks of newly unemployed are straining the capacities of food banks, soup kitchens and pop-up services across New York City.

One user, Brittany, a 35-year-old Ph.D. candidate at Teachers College at Columbia University, who declined to give her full name, says she started visiting food services at Salem United Methodist Church in Harlem a few weeks ago after her partner lost his bartending job.

“I’ve been going two or three times a week for lunch,” she told Side Dish. “The fresh air makes it seem a little less scary.”

The next act in this pandemic tragedy will be a dramatic increase in homelessness. There had been a moratorium on evictions in N.Y.C. but that expired on the weekend of June 21-22. Housing rights groups estimate that 50,000 to 60,000 cases can end up in New York City’s housing courts.

It is just as dire in the rest of the country. Urban Footprint, a housing rights group, warned about the pending disaster:

The results are staggering. Across the country, nearly 7 million households could face eviction without government financial assistance. These are heavily rent-burdened households that have likely experienced job loss as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. This level of displacement would be unparalleled in U.S. history and carries the potential to destabilize communities for years to come.

In June 2019, Joe Biden reassured his wealthy donors at the Carlyle Hotel that he would be looking after their interests when president. He promised not to “demonize” the rich and that “no one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.” The only change since he made this speech is that the standard of living for Jeff Bezos has grown higher while for the PhD student cited above, it has plummeted.

This is the same Joe Biden who Bernie Sanders predicted a Biden administration would be the “most progressive since FDR” after his team worked out a series of compromises through a “Unity Task Force”. You can get an idea of who gave up more from the position on climate change. Even though A. O-C headed up the panel on climate change, the end result is merely a pledge to end carbon emissions by 2035. Something tells me that Biden won’t be around by then. As has been the case with capitalist environmentalism all along, you make big promises but fail to deliver. Even Dissent Magazine was able to see what a liar Barack Obama had been.

Given the irreconcilable class differences between Joe Biden and the people facing unemployment, hunger and eviction, it is depressing to see “lesser evil” politics coming into play as if Biden could deliver on his promises. If it took WWII to break the back of the Great Depression, how can we possibly expect people like Biden, Pelosi and Schumer to make the USA resemble a Scandinavian welfare state.

Because the DSA voted to endorse Bernie Sanders at its convention in 2019 and nobody else, especially Joe Biden, it is not easy—maybe impossible—to reverse itself. Even though Bhaskar Sunkara says that he will vote for Howie Hawkins, a N.Y. Times op-ed included this circumlocution:

I share the belief that having Joe Biden in the White House would be far less damaging to most workers than another four years of Donald Trump. Mr. Biden is at odds with the progressive, labor-oriented wing of his party, but every poor and working person in America, along with every socialist, would be better off butting heads with a White House filled with centrist Democrats than one filled with Trump appointees.

If this doesn’t give DSA’ers the green light to vote for Biden, I don’t know what else would. Bill Mosley, the editor of the Washington State DSA’s “Washington Socialist”, evidently got the message. He wrote an article titled “DSA Isn’t Endorsing Biden. That Doesn’t Mean Members Can’t Work for Him”. He writes:

No, DSA will not and cannot endorse Biden, but individual DSA members can and should help him win. It’s not clear that all of the traditional pre-pandemic methods of campaigning will be possible by the fall, but there is much else to do – if nothing else, phone banking, posting on social media, making contributions. The campaign should have ideas for how volunteers can contribute. And DSA members must work not only for Biden, but for a Congress that will undo the harm of the Trump administration and make meaningful strides forward, which will mean turning the Senate blue.

You can even see where Jacobin might be going on Biden as November draws near. Branko Marcetic, a Jacobin staff writer and author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, has been positively excoriating on Biden. In February, he wrote no less than five articles raking Biden over the coals. However, in April, there was one titled “I Literally Wrote the Case Against Joe Biden. But I’ve Got Some Free Advice for Him” that represents an escape valve for Sunkara’s magazine. Marcetic made Biden an offer he couldn’t refuse if he wanted the “democratic socialists” to get behind his campaign:

Biden initially ran as a New Deal liberal and upset a long-serving, beloved senator using an economically populist platform tailored to the times. As the waning “liberal consensus” of the postwar years was replaced by a neoliberal one aimed at cutting taxes and shrinking government, Biden moved to the right to win reelection, transforming into an anti-busing fiscal conservative who wanted to put every federal spending program on the chopping block every four years. This is the path he’s followed ever since.

Biden and the people running his candidacy need to recognize a similar political shift is happening again. The neoliberal order is on its last legs, and is in much worse shape than the liberal one it replaced in the late 1970s when Biden was coming up. When the Trump administration is offering to pay for millions of people’s health care, and when a conservative Republican is taking his policy cues from Denmark, it’s a sign the political winds are rapidly changing. But don’t take it from me: listen to the capitalist-to-its-bones Financial Times, which recently argued for “radical reforms” aimed at “reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades.”

Something is obviously going on in the Jacobin editorial meetings. In May, June and July, there has not been a single article on Biden. What do they say? Silence is golden? They must be slapping themselves on the shoulder since the Unity Task Force has purged his campaign of all traces of the Obama and Clinton presidencies—at least on paper. Marcetic says that “When the Trump administration is offering to pay for millions of people’s health care, and when a conservative Republican is taking his policy cues from Denmark, it’s a sign the political winds are rapidly changing.” So, don’t worry about being a tax-and-spend liberal.

Yeah, the political winds are changing. Right. Any fool would understand that the Tucker Carlson wing of the Republican Party is adopting the rhetoric of the left.

A Truthout article titled “’New Right’” Leaders Are Co-opting Progressive Language to Mislead Voters” sees this clearly:

In general, this faction holds true to the extreme cultural stances that have long united most American conservatives. But they distinguish themselves by rebuking the mainstream right’s cozy relationship with financial elites, a relationship they (correctly) see as both politically unwise — because it alienates working- and middle-class voters — and societally disastrous — because it promotes and reproduces extreme inequality. They oppose asset stripping, stock buybacks, and other economic practices that further empower and enrich financial elites; and they support redirecting wealth toward the growth of American industry.

Are the Democrats any better? At least I know that they are not as evil. Anyhow, my vote will go to the genuine anticapitalist:

 

July 6, 2020

Walter Benn Michaels: the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism

Filed under: affirmative action,class-reductionism,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

Walter Benn Michaels

After posting a critique of Adolph Reed Jr.’s class-reductionism, the aggrieved professor emeritus who has written for Harpers, the Atlantic, the Nation, the NY Times, the Washington Post, and countless other peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed magazines over the years felt the need to chew me out on my insignificant, little blog. His invective-filled comment charged me with racism. On top of that, just two days ago, I made the mistake of posting a link on Facebook to an article I wrote in 2016 critiquing Reed for endorsing Hillary Clinton in the DP primary. And for that transgression, Todd Cronan, one of his sycophants, repeated the charge, “Your fixation suggests you might be a racist.” Fixation? I’ve only roasted Max Blumenthal 10 times more often.

Cronan is the editor of nonsite.org (don’t ask me what that means), a peer-reviewed journal out of Emory University, where Cronan is a tenured art historian. So, what prompted someone regarded as one of America’s leading African-American Marxists, and a professor at a prestigious university regarded as the Harvard of the south, to resort to such a crude and demagogic attack? The answer is simple. Neither is prepared to defend an indefensible idea, namely that BLM is anti-leftist.

While Reed and Cedric Johnson have been critiqued on this blog over the past month or so for their class-reductionism, they are not nearly so bad as Walter Benn Michaels, a literature professor at University of Illinois at Chicago. (Michaels is white so if he bothers to respond to this article, I trust that he won’t accuse me of anti-Semitism since we are both Jews. I happen to like Jews. I just don’t have much use for self-important academics.)

Lately, Michaels has entered the fray over BLM just like Reed and Johnson before him. Like Reed, Michaels got a softball interview on a Jacobin podcast conducted by Jennifer Pan. Pan writes for Jacobin but you’d have to read her article on New Republic on “Why Diversity Training Isn’t Enough” to understand why she’d refuse to ask Michaels tough questions. In her article, she takes up “whiteness” studies and particularly a book by Robin DiAngelo titled “White Fragility”. It was already a NY Times best-seller but it went totally viral after the George Floyd protests because it charged white Americans with benefiting from structural racism, a not very controversial analysis in my view. However, when she decided to make an amalgam between DiAngelo, Ted Allen and David Roediger, that seemed kind of nutty. How can you link a pop sociologist with these two Marxists? Pan refers to Cedric Johnson’s dismissal of their work:

From a practical point of view, the political scientist Cedric Johnson has recently argued that whiteness studies promote a fatalistic view of white workers as too hopelessly committed to their racial identity to be won over to a multiracial left coalition. Such a perspective, he writes, inevitably prioritizes reeducating such workers over attempting to organize them.

I guess comrades Johnson and Pan have no idea that Ted Allen worked as a coal miner in West Virginia as a member of the United Mine Workers, serving as an organizer and president of one Local and later a member of another. He also co-developed a trade union organizing program for the Marion County, West Virginia Industrial Union Council, CIO. (From a useful article in Wiki.)

Listening to the 109-minute schmooze-fest between Pan and Michaels was almost as agonizing as listening to Bhaskar Sunkara interviewing Adolph Reed Jr. on another Jacobin podcast. If you need any evidence that Jacobin is deep into class-reductionism, just listen to these podcasts which are as devoid of critical questions as a Charlie Rose interview with Bill Gates.

In preparing a response to Michaels based on this podcast, I found a 2011 interview Sunkara did with Michaels that really needs some commentary. I missed it at the time since I was preoccupied with the Arab Spring but reading it now makes me wonder if Sunkara is even more politically degraded than I ever suspected. He let Michaels off the hook on some really rancid remarks.

Titled “Let Them Eat Diversity”, it gives Michaels a platform to denounce anti-racism as a capitalist plot to exploit immigrant labor at the expense of our good citizens. At the higher tier, it enabled Asians to get positions as doctors and lawyers in the USA. At the lower tier, it enabled Mexicans to fill dirty, low-paying jobs of the sort that has made them victims in the pandemic. In order to get red-blooded Americans to tolerate those flooding into the country, either legally or illegally, it was necessary to promote anti-racism so that Chinese, Indians, or Mexicans wouldn’t be victimized. Human Resource departments were analogous to Pinkerton guards defending scabs.

The agents of this anti-racism plot are HR officers that have seminars on diversity so as to make white people more open to the invasion of our homeland by those bent on stealing our jobs.

You might ask yourself at this point if I am misrepresenting Walter Benn Michaels. Let him speak for himself. Sunkara does offer a featherweight challenge to his narrative about identity politics trumping good old fashioned, virile class politics. Could HR departments really be nipping class-based movements in the bud? This is where Michaels jumps the shark. It seems he sees “neoliberalism” everywhere. In the HR departments. In the radical movement. Nobody seems to be ready to fight it except guess who… The Tea Party. He tells Sunkara:

The truth is, it’s hard to find any political movement that’s really against neoliberalism today, the closest I can come is the Tea Party. The Tea Party represents in my view, not actually a serious, because it’s so inchoate and it’s so in a certain sense diluted, but nonetheless a real reaction against neoliberalism that is not simply a reaction against neoliberalism from the old racist Right. It’s a striking fact that what the American Left mainly wants to do is reduce the Tea Party to racists as quickly as humanly possible.  They’re thrilled when some Nazis come out and say “Yeah, we support the Tea Party” or some member of the Tea Party says something racist, which is frequently enough. But you can’t understand the real politics of the Tea Party unless you understand how important their opposition to illegal immigration is. Because who’s for illegal immigration? As far as I know only one set of people is for illegal immigration, I mean you may be [as a Marxist], but as far as I know the only people who are openly for illegal immigration are neoliberal economists.

Next, Sunkara delicately asks how he felt about The Nation’s Richard Kim referring to his opposition to affirmative action as “Seething, misplaced, amnesiac resentment…masquerading as class-consciousness.” To which, Michaels replies, “Are you kidding me, I’ve been called a racist for twenty years.” Maybe so, but at least he can be consoled by the support of Bhaskar Sunkara and Jennifer Pan.

Probably because he has been writing books about topics like “The Beauty of a Social Problem” and writing articles like the kind submitted to the yearly Modern Language Association conferences ever since he became a don in 1974, Michaels sees everything through the prism of the academy. He is so worked up about diversity and affirmative action being a tool for the upward mobility of petty-bourgeois elements, rather than one for the hairy-chested, lunchbox-toting proletariat, that he misses how such programs got started.

The basic flaw in Michaels’s thesis is that he fails to distinguish between the gains made by some Blacks and women who have broken into the corporate board rooms and the fate of the overwhelming majority. This can only result from a cherry-picking of the data, all designed to make it appear that they have never had it so good. In other words, he is repeating ruling class propaganda. One would understand why the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism would be get so riled up about the selection of a Black CEO or cabinet member. His fiery attacks on privileged blacks like Barack Obama must make him feel like Lenin taking apart Kautsky. Too bad that he didn’t pay attention to what is happening at the grass roots level.

For example, minority admissions to law schools, a traditional portal into the upper middle class, had been dropping around the time Sunkara sat down with Michaels. A study published by the Columbia University Law School, a place that can certainly be described as “elitist”, painted a discouraging picture:

Web Site Shows Drop in Minority Enrollment at US Law Schools

December 28, 2007 (NEW YORK) – A new Web site created by Columbia Law School documents a disturbing drop in enrollment by African-American and Mexican-American students in America’s law schools. Even though African-American and Mexican-American students have applied to law schools in relatively constant numbers over the past 15 years, their representation in law schools has fallen.

Even more worrisome is the fact that during the same period, African-American and Mexican-American applicants are doing better than ever on leading indicators used by law schools to determine admissibility – undergraduate grade point average and LSAT scores. In addition, the size of law school classes and the total number of law schools have increased – making room for nearly 4,000 more students.

More to the point, affirmative action had little to do with the academy or becoming a Goldman-Sachs partner when it was first conceived. It was a legal tool made necessary by the racism that had infected the United Steelworkers Union, one of the flagship CIO unions that the Sandernista left and its class-reductionist contingents look back at as if it was the Garden of Eden.

NAACP leader Herbert Hill cited an open letter written by a Black member of the union to I.W. Abel, the USW president at the union’s 1968 convention:

The time has come for black workers to speak and act for ourselves. We make no apologies for the fact that we as black workers and loyal trade unionists now act on our own behalf. Furthermore we are fully prepared to do so…Blacks were in the forefront during the formation of this union 25 years ago. Through the acceptance of crumbs down through the years instead of our just desserts, we now find ourselves hindmost…

Problems were deepest in the south where Blacks were confined to menial positions in steel mills. White workers got used to viewing them as inferior. When you enforce racial equality on the job, attitudes tend to change in accordance with the reality that Blacks are just as good as whites at a job, even better.

Tired of being relegated to second-class citizenship in steel mills as janitors and other menial positions, Blacks supported affirmative action that would afford them preferential treatment to make up for discrimination endured in the past. About the Sparrows Point plant of Bethlehem Steel (one of the Little Steel companies and long shut down), Herbert Hill wrote:

[I]n steel manufacturing, in the building trades, on the railroads, and in virtually every other industry, a clear distinction exists between desirable jobs and those that are not. An extensive body of law based on many court cases supports this. Federal courts have analyzed in great detail and described in various industries the jobs that have higher pay, that involve less dangerous and cleaner work, and that provide opportunity for advancement, comparing them with jobs that are more dangerous, that provide lower pay, and little or no opportunity for advancement. In the racialized steel industry labor force there was no ambiguity between “white men’s jobs” and “nigger jobs.” In his opinion in the Bethlehem Lackawanna case, a federal Judge made a clear distinction between desirable and not desirable jobs. This was how affirmative action became the law of the land, not by co-opting black college graduates into Wall Street jobs but by allowing blacks to have access to well-paying and desirable jobs in factories.

In 1979 Brian Weber, a white worker employed by Kaiser aluminum, sued the USW for violating his civil rights. It seems that the union had complied with an affirmative action program that allowed Blacks and whites into a training program on a one-to-one basis even though there were far more white employees (as you might expect in Louisiana).

From that point on, affirmative action has been a lot like abortion rights. Republicans push to get rid of it and Democrats put up a feeble defense. With Jacobin authors trash-talking about diversity and affirmative action, they hardly act in the interests of black working people.

A socialist movement that disavows particular Black demands and those of other sectors of the population acting on their own interests on the basis of gender, sexual preference, etc. will inevitably lack the universality it needs to triumph over a unified capitalist class. To state it in dialectical terms, denying the existence of contradictions and a refusing to resolve them will only lead to deeper contradictions.

June 27, 2020

Chris Maisano’s class-reductionism apologetics

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

Chris Maisano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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