Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 17, 2020

John Clegg, Bhaskar Sunkara, and the deeper implications of Project 1619

Filed under: Jacobin,Project 1619,racism,reparations,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

Most of the vitriol directed against Project 1619 centers on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, especially her observation: “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity.” The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) and its allies hope to put Lincoln back on his pedestal and refute the notion that black Americans have tended to fight against racism on their own. All of this is subsumed under the opposition’s main idea that they are fighting “identity politics” that undermines class unity.

There is another beef that the class fundamentalists have against Project 1619 that has generated less commentary. They don’t care for Matthew Desmond’s support for the New History of Capitalism, as it has been dubbed. Or NHC, for short. Titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation,” the article cites two of the key NHC’ers:

“American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism,” write the historians Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. The task now, they argue, is “cataloging the dominant and recessive traits” that have been passed down to us, tracing the unsettling and often unrecognized lines of descent by which America’s national sin is now being visited upon the third and fourth generations.

For some academics, including Marxists, the idea that slavery is part of the DNA of American capitalism is a metaphor as objectionable as Hannah-Jones’s usage. They discount the importance of slavery as key to the growth of American capitalism and even go so far as to argue that it was a ball and chain on economic progress.

Writing for Jacobin in the sole article dealing with Project 1619, John Clegg, who disagrees with Charles Post’s analysis of slavery as “pre-capitalist”, describes the southern plantation as capitalist but concurs with Post’s description of it as retrograde. Unlike Sean Wilentz and company, Clegg is not that interested in a discussion of whether racism is in America’s DNA. Instead, his goal is to refute the NHC’ers Desmond cites:

Desmond begins his article by drawing on the Harvard historian Sven Beckert who argues that “it was on the back of cotton, and thus on the backs of slaves, that the U.S. economy ascended in the world.” Yet Desmond neglects to mention that this claim has been widely rejecte by specialists in the economic history of slavery.

If you click the link to “rejected” in the citation above, you will be directed to an article by economists Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode titled “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism” that is the source of one of Clegg’s key rejoinders:

It’s true that cotton was among the world’s most widely traded commodities, and that it was America’s principal antebellum export. But it’s also true that exports constituted a small share of American GDP (typically less than 10 percent) and that the total value of cotton was therefore small by comparison with the overall American economy (less than 5 percent, lower than the value of corn).

I understand that Clegg is an accomplished academic with a post in the U. of Chicago history department but I have to wonder if he bothered to do anything except take Olmstead and Rhode’s claim at face value. They wrote, “More than this, cotton was not even the nation’s most important agricultural commodity in terms of value—that distinction always went to corn.” They don’t back that up with statistics and Clegg follows suit.

Clegg also takes their findings on exports as a percentage of American GDP at face value, but did he bother to put that under the same kind of critical scrutiny as he puts the NHC’ers? As a Columbia University retiree, I have access to the online Cambridge Historical Statistics that will likely never be checked by the Jacobin readers who walk away from Clegg’s article assuming that slavery was less important than corn in the take-off of American capitalism.

There’s a bit of a problem, however. The GDP that Olmstead and Rhode refer to was a product of their own research and not some independent data-gathering body. Since Olmstead is one of the six editors who put together the five-volume Cambridge series, it is entirely possible that his own biases might have crept into how the data is presented. It doesn’t help that one of the other editors is Gavin Wright, whose own attack on the NHC’ers is linked to in the word “widely” in Clegg’s citation above. Wright lets the impudent historians know that they are in for a good biffing: “Having thus allowed the editors to dig their own rhetorical graves, let me urge economic history readers not to overreact to the bluster and bombast.”

I should add that there was no government agency collecting data for GDP during slavery. If you do a search on “GDP” in the online Cambridge Historical Statistics, you will find the following disclaimer:

The official estimates of national income and product provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) begin in 1929. The broad interest in long-term trends has generated a number of attempts to estimate national product for the earlier period… It is important to note that all pre-1929 estimates are based on fragmentary data that were not originally collected for the purpose of making national product estimates. This means that the series are less precise than the official estimates.

In fact, prior to the publication of the Cambridge Historical Statistics, the only available data was from the census bureau but only beginning in 1869. In the essay on GDP in the Cambridge Historical Statistics, you will learn that economists have no uniform opinion on such matters. It even warns that Robert Gallman’s statistics on GDP dating back to 1839 “are not appropriate for studies of economic fluctuations or dynamics.” But never mind, let John Clegg cherry-pick the statistical findings in an article by Olmstead and Rhode that is congenial to his thesis that slavery retarded American capitalism. Others will dig deeper than the U. of Chicago sociologist.

All in all, reading Olmstead/Rhode and Wright reminds me of Sean Wilentz’s gate-keeping that keeps historians like Nicholas Guyatt beyond the pale. Wilentz huffs and puffs about how the impudent Hannah-Jones does not pay proper respects to Lincoln while the economists are beside themselves over the nerve of Sven Beckert and company exaggerating the importance of cotton and slavery. How dare they.

For some, there’s good reasons to cheer on Olmstead and Rhode since their debunking of the NHC’ers has the added value of rendering the need for reparations obsolete. If slavery did not turbocharge capitalism, why should black people be entitled to reparations? Maybe they should be paying back American corporations to compensate for lost profits under slavery.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Nikole Hannah-Jones said:

If you read the whole project, I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations. You can’t read it and not understand that something is owed. But there’s not a piece that looks at that in the project, so I’m going to be working on a piece that is actually asking the question of: If we understand that the legacy is alive right now and that so much of the conditions of black Americans can be traced to that legacy, then what do we actually owe? What is the restitution that is owed?

The WSWS, a bastion of opposition to Project 1619, will have none of this. “But the race-based interpretation advanced by the 1619 Project, reflecting the social aspirations of the more affluent sections of the African-American middle class, serves to bolster demands for reparation payments. This is not incidental to the Project’s aims. Hannah-Jones has already announced that her forthcoming project will be a demand for racially based reparations.”

Opposition to reparations also comes from the rightwing cesspool, just as was the case with Project 1619. When both the National Review and WSWS line up against Project 1619, you have to ask what the hell is going on. Same thing with the NHC and reparations. On August 26, 2019, an article appeared in National Review that gloated over Olmstead and Rhode’s “stinging rebuke” of NHC historian Edward Baptist. Since Baptist’s work was cited by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s in a call for reparations, naturally the government will have to say, no thank you.

Bhaskar Sunkara also came out against reparations in The Guardian but without the WSWS’s vitriolic class-fundamentalism or the National Review’s obvious white supremacist baggage. Instead, he finds the idea of reparations beyond the capability of government agencies to administer and unfair to non-black citizens who will be getting short shrift (the reference to Coates below is Ta-Nahisi Coate’s 2014 article in the Atlantic calling for reparations):

But what kind of bureaucratic process would be necessary to identify who gets to receive the reparations Coates supports? It can’t simply be race, because recent immigrants from Africa wouldn’t qualify, nor would the descendants of slaves held in former French or British colonies. Would we need a new bureau to establish ancestry? Is that overhead and the work it will involve for black Americans to prove that they qualify worth it compared to creating a universal program that will most help the marginalized anyway?

Or consider this dilemma: money for reparations will come from government expenditure, of which around half is funded by income tax. Could we be in a situation where we’re asking, say, a black Jamaican descendent of slaves, or a poor Latino immigrant, to help fund a program that they can’t benefit from? Reparations wouldn’t be quite such a zero-sum game, but it would hard to shake the perception. Is this really the basis that we can build a majoritarian coalition?

A blogger named Paul Sowers, about whom I know nothing, took exception to Sunkara in an article titled “Fuel for the Journey: Bhaskar Sunkara, Black Exclusion, and Reparations.” He begins by pointing out that the New York State county that Sunkara grew up in was sued by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, a private civil rights group. It made the case that local government in Westchester County was violating the terms of an agreement to receive federal funds contingent upon their being allocated to undo obvious, longstanding patterns of segregation.

He caustically added: “Sunkara was born and raised in the village of Pleasantville, N.Y., which—when the lawsuit was initially filed in 2006—had an African-American population of 0.0%. It is referenced explicitly in Beveridge’s sworn declaration. And like many jurisdictions in Westchester County, it appears to have remained particularly keen on preserving the broader region’s rich history of enforced separation of black people.”

He then lets the hammer drop:

Which is what makes Sunkara’s most recent commentary on the issue of reparations in The Guardian so totally objectionable; because his life in America simply does not exist in any recognizable way without the fact of that manufactured black failure. Jacobin arguably does not exist without that black failure (Sunkara’s parents’ names both appear on Jacobin Press LLC’s business license filings, with his dad listed as the company principal, and the company address being listed at an apartment that the family owns in the Bronx). And so the question is, then, what does it mean for an individual whose life and professional career, which in so direct and unambiguous a way has been made wholly possible by the specific oppression suffered by black people, to then use his position in the media to promote the message that specific policy designed to redistribute such opportunities back to those very people “can’t adequately address racial inequality”?

In my view, the assault on both the NHC and on reparations demonstrates that racism remains part of the DNA of the U.S.A. as Nikole Hannah-Jones points out. In keeping with his undying loyalty to Bernie Sanders, Sunkara used his opposition to reparations as a cudgel against Elizabeth Warren.

Although I have all sorts of problems with Ta-Nehisi Coates, he makes some very good points in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations”. Like is the case with Nikole Hannah-Jones’s reflections on her father’s experiences in her Project 1619 essay, Coates examines the costs racism extracted from a black man named Clyde Ross, who was born into a family fortunate enough to own 40-acres as promised by the Radical Republicans.

Unfortunately, his father was swindled out of his land by racists:

When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know any-one at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.

Coates offers an impassioned case for reparations in contrast to Sunkara’s pettifoggery. It makes a good companion-piece to the articles that appeared in the Project 1619 special issue of the Sunday Times Magazine. If you have trouble getting past Atlantic’s paywall, contact me at lnp3@panix.com and I will send you a copy.

February 5, 2020

Jimmy Dore, Joe Rogan, and the left

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,comedy,Green Party,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 11:02 pm

On October 17, 2018, the Socialist Worker newspaper—the voice of the disbanded ISO—published an article titled “The Independent Left Must Oppose Islamophobia.” It called attention to a statement of the NY branch of the ISO condemning Howie Hawkins’s “decision to welcome the endorsement of political commentator and comedian Jimmy Dore and to feature Dore alongside Howie at a livestream event this September in Brooklyn.”

Howie was running for governor against Andrew Cuomo that year and obviously had no reason to disavow Dore, who—as the ISO correctly pointed out—was a supporter of Bashar al-Assad. The ISO also took potshots at the Green Party’s 2016 vice presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka, who had written several articles about Syria that were not nearly as toxic as Dore’s podcasts, although certainly wrong. What the NYC ISO failed to point out in its statement was the lack of any evidence that Baraka used his campaign to promote Assad.

The purity of the ISO comrades is most admirable but perhaps they should have applied the litmus test to themselves, especially Haymarket books that published no less than 8 books by Roland Boer. Granted the books were only his turgid ruminations on the relationship between Protestantism and Marxism but perhaps they hadn’t noticed that his blog Stalin’s Moustache had been an open sewer of support for suppressing the Uyghurs, the Tibetan right to self-determination, and other offenses even more grievous than Jimmy Dore’s. While I would never put John Bellamy Foster in the same category as the slimy Roland Boer, the online publication MR has operated for the past 20 years or so has been both a propagandist for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assad. When ISO’er Phil Gasper wrote a flattering review of Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology,” it didn’t occur to him to slap Foster’s wrist—as well as it shouldn’t.

So why the special treatment for Howie Hawkins, who, unlike Baraka, never said a word endorsing Assad either in print or in a speech? In fact, he has opposed him ever since the revolution began in 2011.

I have a suspicion, although I can’t prove it, that the NY ISO’ers were already beginning to go through a road to Damascus conversion about the value of “democratic socialism”, which requires as an article of faith rejection of candidates running to the left of the Democratic Party. We’ll never know, of course.

The ISO statement turned Syria into a litmus test, which a Green Party campaign email failed since it described Dore as “one of the most courageous and funniest political voices we have today.” Scolding the Greens, the ISO’ers retorted, “In fact, he is a vocal supporter of the worst variety of Assadist and Islamophobic conspiracy theories on the Syrian conflict.”

In fact, about 90 percent of the left today, including Noam Chomsky, Bhaskar Sunkara, and other well-known figures, would fail that litmus test as well. Dore, who might be described as a funny version of Max Blumenthal, happens to be a trenchant critic of the Democratic Party. So are the people who write for Black Agenda Report. For that matter, probably 90 percent of the people who have written for CounterPunch since 2011 line up with Jimmy Dore. Many believe that this reflects the editorial outlook of editors Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank but in reality it simply indicates the dominance of pro-Assad support of those who submit articles. What is the possibility that a united revolutionary left can be built in the years to come in a deepening capitalist crisis that is based on a litmus test of something like the Syrian revolution? Almost zero.

I hadn’t given much thought to this controversy since 2018 but a recent flap about Bernie Sanders and Joe Rogan brought it back to mind. Rogan is a lot like Jimmy Dore but with a much larger megaphone. Starting out as a stand-up comedian, he has become one of the most listened-to podcasters. Like Dore and the Chapo Trap House crew, he has tapped into a broad audience that likes its commentary raw and funny—even if it is at the expense of weak and marginalized communities. Like Dore, Rogan is a conspiracy theorist who understands the appeal of such a discourse for the average American. His Joe Rogan Experience averages 16 million downloads a month, which can represent a potential goldmine for the politician who appears on his show.

On August 6, 2019, Bernie Sanders made a guest appearance on Rogan’s show that Jacobin’s Luke Savage described as being consistent with his speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University or his town hall appearance on Fox News. What’s interesting is that Savage lumped Rogan together with the rightwing Christian school and Rupert Murdoch’s shitty news channel. That changed in a few months when Rogan decided to endorse Sander’s candidacy and Sanders tweeted that endorsement with no qualifications.

Some Nation Magazine writers have been favorable to Bernie Sanders while others lean toward Elizabeth Warren. Unlike Jacobin, the magazine, which tends to buy into the New Deal legends wholeheartedly rather than half-heartedly, was in no mood to rationalize Sanders playing footsie with Rogan. Donna Minkowitz, who Newsweek Magazine listed as one of “30 gay power brokers” in 1993, lashed out at Sanders in an article titled “Bernie Broke My Heart When He Embraced Rogan’s Endorsement”:

In 2018, he told frequent guest Gavin McInnes, founder of the violent white supremacist and misogynist gang known as the Proud Boys, that people often become gay or lesbian because of “molestation at an early age.… it seems to be a real factor.”

And Rogan, who has reveled in using the N-word, said that going to a black neighborhood made him feel like he was visiting “the Planet of the Apes.” He likes to use the word “faggot,” has announced that queer women “don’t have the lower back muscles” to give other women “a proper fuck,” and says campuses are being too aggressive in prosecuting sexual assaults. He also claims that “feminism is sexist.”

All of this is why I felt so hurt and angry when I saw my favorite candidate, Bernie Sanders, trumpet Rogan’s endorsement in a campaign commercial released on Twitter.

Taking an entirely different tack, Michael Brooks and Ben Burgis told Jacobin readers that “It’s Good That Joe Rogan Endorsed Bernie. Now We Have to Organize.” Unlike Luke Savage, the two cherry pick the Dr. Jekyll side of Joe Rogan rather than his Mr. Hyde:

In some contexts, ranging from Palestine to health care to Trump’s child separation policy he’s been a voice of reason and compassion. On that last subject, he’s gone so far as to say that if you don’t oppose what Trump has done to immigrant and refugee families, “you aren’t on the team” of the human race.

As for democratic socialism’s chief arbiter of what is politically correct, Bhaskar Sunkara assured Guardian readers that “the Joe Rogan endorsement is a good thing for Bernie Sanders.” In a confessional mode, Sunkara wrote:

I’m a Joe Rogan Experience listener myself, and I have been for a few years. But like most of the show’s seven million YouTube subscribers, I skip most episodes and only watch a few clips here and there. Rogan has a strange range of interests — and he’s had on thousands of guests that have aired millions of views, some inspiring, some cringeworthy or odious.

I normally end up watching the ones with comedians or pop-thinkers, and I morbidly can’t turn away from the ones with right-wing charlatans like Jordan Peterson, but avoid all the mixed martial arts stuff and Rogan’s updates on his diet, exercise regime, or bowel movements (this stuff constitutes much of JRE’s output). And, of course, I’ve never bought any of the medically dubious “nutritional supplement” hawked on the show.

Well, at least you can say that Howie Hawkins probably had very little knowledge of what Jimmy Dore stood for. In a reply to the NYC ISO statement, he wrote:

I had never even heard of Jimmy Dore before. I heard from no one during the campaign about Jimmy Dore and Syria except the NYC ISO, until the Friday before the election when a pro-Assad “anti-imperialist,” alerted by NYC ISO’s statement, posted an attack on my pro-Syrian revolution position on Facebook that began circulating among campaign supporters. I had to respond then, and it is appended at the end of this response.

To be honest, I had no idea who Jimmy Dore was until someone clued me in that he was an Assadist. As for Joe Rogan, I remember him from the days when he was a commentator on the mixed martial arts cable show,  the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I thought he was a loud-mouth back then but not much more so than anybody else who was connected to a “sport” I tired of after six months or so.

Frankly, if I had any influence on Sanders, I wouldn’t have advised him to disavow Joe Rogan. He seems a lot less harmful than the politicians he has been connected with in a long and somewhat contradictory career, including Hillary Clinton, the politician he endorsed for President in 2016.

Oh, and by the way, Jimmy Dore finally realized what a mistake he made by reaching out to Howie Hawkins, even if the ISO purists never corrected their own by stigmatizing him.

 

January 16, 2020

What does Bernie Sanders mean by political revolution, anyway?

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

Something’s been nagging away at me for the longest time. I was reminded of it when reading Daniel Denvir’s “What a Bernie Sanders Presidency Would Look Like”, article number 7,631 reminding Jacobin’s readers to vote for the democratic socialist. He writes:

Sanders consistently argues, “Beating Trump is not good enough.” This is an understatement. The world quite literally depends upon a political revolution. And only Sanders has a plan for that.

So, what exactly does a political revolution involve? Outside of the Trotskyist movement, Marxism does not refer at all to such a phenomenon. Whether it is people who come out of the pro-Moscow, pro-Beijing, or pro-Coyoacán cathedrals, the word revolution stands on its own. It is qualified by bourgeois or socialist, with France 1789 or Russia 1917 being accepted by all Marxists as examples of such revolutions.

For Trotsky’s followers, the term political revolution entered the vocabulary as a way of describing mass movements trying to overturn Stalinist bureaucracies but that left post-capitalist economic structures intact. Suffice it to say that there have only been attempts at consummating a political revolution, such as Czechoslovakia in 1968. Generally, such movements have either petered out or been suppressed, leaving behind a passive, undemocratic, neoliberal regime in their place.

You can find numerous references to political revolution in Jacobin, a journal that, in its fan-boy (except for Meagan Day) devotion to Bernie Sanders, refers to it as constantly and as fervently as Maoist newspapers of the 1960s referred to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

For Branco Marcetic, it is tantamount to seizing power as indicated by the title of his article “Bernie’s First Political Revolution” that puts his election as Mayor of Burlington in 1981 almost on the same level as Fidel Castro riding victoriously on a tank into Havana in 1960. A “a deeply entrenched city establishment” was replaced by one that would “place that power in the hands of the working people of the city”, according to Sanders—making it sound like the Paris Commune to continue with the analogies. Sanders did push through some badly needed reforms, such as adjusting the property tax burden to fall more on corporations than on homeowners. While the local New England Telephone Company was probably pissed off about paying higher property taxes, I doubt that they worried much about being nationalized like the oil refineries in Castro’s Cuba. When Shell Oil refused to pay the new, higher taxes needed to build socialism, he made their refinery public property. That’s what you call a real revolution.

For Keeanga-Yamahtta and Taylor Maurice Mitchell, the political revolution was the election campaign of Working Families Party (WFP) candidates Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke who were running for city council in Philadelphia last November. Brooks and O’Rourke promised “affordable housing, school funding, wages, and a local Green New Deal.” I am not exactly sure if promising “wages” is particularly revolutionary but perhaps the Jacobin authors were just overlooked by the eagle-eyed editorial assistants at America’s leading democratic socialist journal. With respect to the WFP, I don’t want to sound like a Debbie Downer but it is not exactly the kind of party that has revolution on the agenda, either in Sandernista or Marxist terms. In 2018, the NY WFP, the most powerful in the country, allowed Andrew Cuomo’s name to appear on their ballot. To return the favor, he pushed for a new law that would make getting ballot status so onerous that it effectively shut off the electoral access to any party to the DP’s left.

In Jacobin’s most recent contribution to political revolution theory, Chris Maisano maintains that “If we want to make Bernie Sanders’s political revolution a reality, we can’t just propose bold policies to make people’s lives better — we have to rebuild popular confidence in the possibilities of politics itself. And we can’t rebuild that confidence without democratizing the United States’s decidedly undemocratic political institutions.”

Written as a way of avoiding Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to be elected, Maisano urges the Sandernista movement to avoid his big mistake: tending not “to foreground a vision of radical democratic reform and popular political empowerment.” Yes, Corbyn did propose economic benefits to the working-class but as long as they remained alienated from electoral politics, there was always the danger that they would vote for a slug like Boris Johnson. To avoid Donald Trump beating Bernie Sanders in 2020, it is not sufficient to call for Medicare for all. You must energize the masses, something that Sanders has made happen:

Sanders has made a massive contribution to the cause of political regeneration by introducing the concept of “political revolution” to American political discourse. This is the sort of overarching, integrating theme the Corbynite project lacked and which the British right found in Brexit. It also differentiates him from Democratic Party politicians who have no problem proposing ambitious spending programs but lack Bernie’s lifelong commitment to a genuinely insurgent, anti-establishment brand of politics.

Looking back into American history, Maisano believes that the abolitionist movement could be a guide to fleshing out “political regeneration”:

How might we start making “government of the people, by the people, for the people” a substantive reality and not just a line from a textbook? One possibility is the formation of a convention movement to discuss and promote measures for overhauling our country’s broken political system. It would take inspiration from the Colored Conventions Movement that swept northern black communities before the Civil War, which articulated numerous demands and promoted the establishment of new political organizations. These would be informal gatherings lacking official sanction, but over time they could potentially gain legitimacy and serve as a source of popular pressure and demands that politicians would ignore at their peril.

This historical reference brings us back to the question of how Marxists view the term revolution. For them, it boils down to class war with the stakes of property relations placed on the agenda with burning intensity. For black Americans, this meant abolishing slavery as part of a thorough-going bourgeois revolution that placed the class interests of northern industrialists, yeoman farmers, workers, and slaves above that of the plantation owners bent on extending their form of property relations into the western states.

If you were serious about taking inspiration from the Colored Conventions Movement, you’d have to make abolishing wage slavery a top priority even if it discomfited Nancy Pelosi or Tom Steyer for that matter. That’s what Eugene V. Debs campaigns stressed, after all. The democratic socialist—or I should say, revolutionary socialist—who would never resort to circumlocutions like a “political revolution” that boiled down to electing progressive Democrats, WFP’ers or any other careerist hoping to make the kinds of millions that Bernie Sanders has stashed away.

IN THE struggle of the working class to free itself from wage slavery it cannot be repeated too often that everything depends upon the working class itself. The simple question is, can the workers fit themselves, by education, organization, co-operation and self-imposed discipline, to take control of the productive forces and manage industry in the interest of the people and for the benefit of society? That is all there is to it.

The capitalist theory is that labor is, always has been, and always will be, “hands” merely; that it needs a “head,” the head of a capitalist, to hire it, set it to work, boss it, drive it and exploit it, and that without the capitalist “head” labor would be unemployed, helpless, and starve; and, sad to say, a great majority of wage-workers, in their ignorance, still share in that opinion. They use their hands only to produce wealth for the capitalist who uses his head only, scarcely conscious that they have heads of their own and that if they only used their heads as well as their hands the capitalist would have to use his hands as well as his head, and then there would be no “bosses” and no “hands,” but men instead—free men, employing themselves co-operatively under regulations of their own, taking to themselves all the products of their labor and shortening the work day as machinery increased their productive capacity.

Such a change would be marvelously beneficial all around. The idle capitalists and brutal bosses would disappear; all would be useful workers, have steady employment, fit houses to live in, plenty to eat and wear, and leisure time enough to enjoy life.

That is the Socialist theory and what Socialists are fighting for and are ready to live and die for.

–Eugene V. Debs, “Labor’s Struggle For Supremacy”, International Socialist Review , Vol. XII, No. 3. September 1911

 

October 7, 2019

Was there anything “socialist” about CIO officialdom’s alliance with FDR?

Filed under: Jacobin,New Deal,socialism,trade unions,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

UAW President Walter Reuther conferring with President Harry S. Truman in the Oval Office, 1952

On October 2nd, Jacobin published an interview with Jake Altman titled “The Socialist Party in New Deal–Era America” that made an amalgam of Norman Thomas’s party and FDR. This is not the first such exercise in bad faith. On June 19th, Seth Ackerman wrote an article titled “Why Bernie Talks About the New Deal” that made identical points. It is understandable why these “democratic socialists” would try to shoehorn Norman Thomas’s SP into their neo-Kautskyist political agenda.

If the DSA is a continuation of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party as Thomas was a continuation of Eugene V. Debs, then everything is hunky-dory especially if you can convince people that Thomas “viewed Roosevelt’s program for reform of the economic system as far more reflective of the Socialist Party platform than of his own [Democratic] party’s platform”. The quote is from a Norman Thomas biography that Ackerman thought would bolster his SP/New Deal amalgam. Whatever credibility the biographer claimed, it seems unlikely that he ever thought much about the words of Norman Thomas himself who once said, “Emphatically, Mr. Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher.”

For Ackerman and Altman, one of the main proofs of the socialist character of the New Deal was its cheek-by-jowl connection to the CIO’s organizing drives. Ackerman writes, “By 1936, the newly formed industrial unions that grew out of those strikes had become the core of his political base, and most were led or had been organized by socialists and communists: Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, Sidney Hillman of the Clothing Workers, Harry Bridges of the Longshore Workers, John Brophy of the CIO. At the same time, thousands of socialist and communist experts flooded into the New Deal agencies, including the National Labor Relations Board and the Treasury, Agriculture, and Commerce departments.”

Altman says about the same thing. “You also have socialist leaders and organizers in a number of unions, and they achieve a lot in terms of building a robust labor movement in the United States. They didn’t do it on their own, but through coalitions they were able to build some really impressive institutions like the United Auto Workers (UAW). It helped that they had allies in unions that were already led by social democrats, including the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). The ACWA poached promising organizers from the Socialist Party for union work, and some of these socialists went on to hold important positions in the labor movement for decades. The most well known are the Reuther brothers. There was a robust middle rank, too.”

Missing from this analysis is any reference to the Little Steel Strike of 1937 when FDR allowed the bosses to smash the trade union organizing drive led by Gus Hall and other radicals. In FDR’s infamous words, he told capitalists and workers “a plague on both your houses”. Furthermore, there is little evidence that organizing drives to build industrial unions in and of themselves have that much to do with socialism. Both Ackerman and Altman view the Reuther brothers as symbols of the ties between the Socialist Party and the New Deal. However, Walter Reuther not only quit the SP in 1939; he led the purge of CP members from the CIO after becoming president of the UAW in 1947.

What neither Ackerman and Altman can seem to grasp is the dialectical relationship between FDR’s relatively tolerant attitude toward CIO type unionism and the co-optation of the working-class into the imperialist hegemonic aspirations of the USA from 1941 onwards. In order to rely upon working-class support for its colonial wars abroad, it was necessary to offer sufficient material gains to make co-optation feasible.

Just before his untimely death, Leon Trotsky wrote an article titled “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” that was discovered in a desk drawer. If you’ve never read it, I urge you to take a look. And, if you have read it, I urge you to take a fresh look since it shows Trotsky at his most prophetic. Of the CIO, he writes:

In the United States the trade union movement has passed through the most stormy history in recent years. The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses. Indicative and noteworthy in the highest degree, however, is the fact that the new “leftist” trade union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state. The struggle among the tops between the old federation and the new is reducible in large measure to the struggle for the sympathy and support of Roosevelt and his cabinet.

On December 13, 1942, Walter Reuther wrote an article for the N.Y. Times titled “Labor’s Place in the War Pattern” that illustrated exactly what Trotsky was warning about.

These tragic realities must compel American labor to an appreciation of its obligations as a major member of America’s war team. Labor’s place in the new pattern that war has forced on America is clear.

Labor’s first obligation is to realize that we are not now producing solely to provide our population with their everyday needs, but that we are producing primarily to protect our freedom, our nation and our homes from destruction.

Labor must face the challenge of the war as it would a forest fire or a flood that menaced the home town. The promise of labor’s spokesmen that strikes will be abandoned for the duration of the war, a pledge which has been underwritten by labor’s organizations in conventions, must be honored.

That no-strike pledge would haunt the UAW and other CIO-type unions until this day. The “national interest” is just a cover-up for the right of the rich to enjoy their wealth without any concerns for the needs of working-people. It is exactly how GM managed to impose a two-tiered pay scale on the UAW and how it is trying to maintain its grip on “our nation’s” well-being.

For an alternative to Walter Reuther’s class-collaborationism, I recommend Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step”. Preis was a member of the SWP whose book diverges sharply from Ackerman and Altman’s gauzy portrayal of FDR’s partnership with CIO officialdom. This excerpt will show you how some workers defended their class interests during WWII despite the no-strike pledge:

There were many signs of the growing restiveness of the industrial workers as 1942 drew to a close and during the opening months of 1943.

The coal miners, for the most part isolated in small towns, were squeezed worst of all. When Pennsylvania anthracite miners started an unauthorized walkout on January 2, 1943, it was clear that they had reached a point of open revolt against economic conditions.

On March 10, the UMW opened negotiations with the Appalachian soft coal operators. Among the seven demands [union president John L.] Lewis and the UMW committee presented to the mine owners were: (1) retention of the existing 35-hour, five-day week in the coal mining industry; (2) inclusion of all time traveled from the pit entrance to the point of work and back to the surface as part of the paid work time; (3) a $2-per-day raise in base pay.

The UMW president cited the terrific accident rate in the mines due to lack of safety equipment: 64,000 men killed and injured in 1941; 75,000 in 1942; an estimated 100,000 in 1943, with the intensification of war production.

The mine owners brushed aside the UMW’s demands and the Roosevelt administration intensified pressure on the union to capitulate.

Roosevelt himself intervened as the April 1 mine strike deadline approached. He asked the operators on March 27 to agree to extend the existing contract beyond April 1 and make any subsequent wage adjustment retroactive to that date. At the same time he said that the dispute must be settled “under the national no-strike agreement of December 26, 1941” with “final determination, if necessary, by the National War Labor Board.”

The moral position of the miners was becoming stronger every day. The CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] and AFL [American Federation of Labor] leaders backed the miners’ demands and, for the time being, refrained from open attacks on the UMW’s threat to strike. Local bodies of the United Auto Workers and other CIO unions passed resolutions of unconditional support for the miners.

On April 22, the WLB announced it was assuming jurisdiction of the case. The UMW refused to appear before this “court packed against labor.” On April 24, WLB Chairman Davis announced that the board would consider the case only within the framework of the Little Steel Formula, which automatically ruled out any raises for the miners.

Miners in Western Pennsylvania and Alabama left the pits that same day, a week in advance of the truce deadline.

The United Press reported that 41,000 bituminous miners were already out.

 FDR as strikebreaker

The spreading coal strike forced Roosevelt to step forward personally to take public responsibility for leading the opposition to the miners. He telegraphed Lewis on April 29 that he would use “all the powers vested in me as President and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy” if the strikes were not ended by the morning of May 1. Roosevelt’s threat brought an immediate defiant reply from the mine workers. Nearly 10,000 Ohio miners left the pits. By the morning of Saturday, May 1, every union soft coal mine in the country was closed.

The national strike of the miners was not only the largest coal strike the country had seen up to this time. It was the largest single strike of any kind the land had ever known. It was carried out with a dispatch, discipline and single-minded determination that had never been surpassed in the American labor movement.

The press did surpass itself in the volume of vituperation, slanders and threats hurled at the miners and Lewis. Lewis was linked with Hitler in newsreels, on the radio, in countless newspaper cartoons. Union leaders joined the chorus of anti-labor forces who were screaming for nothing less than the destruction of the miners union under the guise of aiding the war for “democracy.”

On May 1 Roosevelt himself ordered government seizure of the struck coal mines under Solid Fuels Administrator Harold L. Ickes. Ickes “seized” the mines by promptly ordering the American flag to be flown over all mine properties and directing all mine owners and managers to run the mines as government agents in the name of the government—all profits to continue as usual. Ickes then declared the miners were working “for the Government” and ordered them back to work.

The miners didn’t budge.

It was during the first of the series of wartime coal mine strikes that the Communist Party revealed to what depths of treachery it could really sink in order to demonstrate to the United States capitalists how useful the CP could be to them if American capitalism would make some kind of permanent deal with the Kremlin.

The May 1-4 national coal strike brought the anti-labor, strikebreaking activities of the Communist Party to a peak of ferocity that the vilest capitalist enemies of the unions did not surpass. On April 29 the Daily Worker carried a front-page appeal by CP National Chairman William Z. Foster, urging the miners not to respond to their union’s strike call.

On the morning of June 1, some 530,000 miners refrained from entering the pits “without any special strike call being issued and with casual matter-of-factness,” as George Breitman, the Militant’s correspondent, wrote from the mining area around Pittsburgh.

 ‘Can’t dig coal with bayonets’

Roosevelt, on June 3, threatened to call out the troops unless the miners returned to work by June 7.… The miners merely shrugged and repeated their classic phrase: “You can’t dig coal with bayonets.”

By the time the official strike deadline, November 1, had arrived, all 530,000 coal miners were out, for their fourth official national wartime strike within one year.

Roosevelt was at the end of his rope. He could not arrest 530,000 miners. He could not force them to go down into the pits at bayonet point, and even if he could, they need not mine an ounce of coal. He could not jail Lewis and the UMW leaders, for the miners swore they would strike “till Hell freezes over” if Lewis were victimized in any way. The President again seized the struck mines and authorized Ickes to negotiate a contract.

The WLB on November 20 finally agreed to a contract acceptable to the union and contractors. This fixed the mine wage at $57.07 a week and provided $40 to each miner for retroactive payment for travel time.

The UMW Policy Committee ratified the new contract on November 3 and instructed the miners to return to work. They had cracked the wage freeze.

If the miners had not fought and won, if they had been defeated, it would have meant not only the crippling and possibly the crushing of one of the most powerful industrial unions—the UMW—but a demoralizing blow of shattering proportions for the auto, rubber, steel, electrical equipment, and other CIO workers. The government would have introduced new “formulas” to slash wages, increase hours of work and intensify the exploitation of labor in the name of patriotism and the “needs of the war.”

Instead, the miners’ victory opened a whole new wave of labor struggle, mounting steadily through 1943, 1944 and 1945, reaching a titanic climax in the winter of 1945-46.

The miners themselves were able to go on from victory to victory in the war and immediate postwar period, winning many new gains, such as health and welfare funds, retirement pensions and other conditions, which then became objectives of the CIO unions as well.

 

October 5, 2019

Christian Parenti’s weak tea

Filed under: Ecology,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

Christian Parenti

As should be abundantly clear at this point, the Bhaskar Sunkara publishing empire has little to do with ecosocialism. It unfurled its banner in the Summer 2017 Jacobin issue that included Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski’s recommendation of nuclear energy as well as other ecomodernist nostrums. In the latest Catalyst, there’s an article by pro-nuclear Syracuse University professor Matt Huber that continues along those lines. All three have a special animosity toward any notion of ecological limits, with Huber being irked by André Gorz’s call: “The only way to live better is to produce less, to consume less, to work less, to live differently.”

Two days ago, Christian Parenti’s “Saving the Planet Without Self-Loathing” appeared in Jacobin that, like the three authors mentioned above, took a hard line against the idea of ecological limits. He wrote:

This worldview has driven much of conservationism. It is at the heart of the concern with “overpopulation.” It lurks within the common left anxiety about “development” and “growth.” And it is found in the “jobs vs. environment” debate.

To start with, there are two ways of understanding overpopulation. In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich, wrote “The Population Bomb”, a book that by the authors’ own admission was an attempt to apply Malthus’s ideas to the contemporary world. On the other hand, the combination of an expanding population expecting to enjoy the life-style of the average citizen in a G8 country will be impossible to realize. The world’s population today is 7.6 billion and is expected to be around 11 billion by the end of the century. If a car, air-conditioning, and meat 3 or 4 times a week are considered non-negotiable, then we are in trouble.

Last August, Leigh Phillips wrote an article for Jacobin titled “In Defense of Air-Conditioning” that had this subtitle “Opposition to air-conditioning is just another form of austerity politics. Nothing’s too good for the working class — especially not freedom from the heat.” He assures us that there would be no downside to making air-conditioning a universal right since Canadians enjoy electricity without environmental consequences: “While it may seem fantastical in much of the US, north of the border, the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, and Québec have grids that are almost entirely fossil-fuel free (91 percent, 95 percent, and 99 percent clean, respectively), primarily from hydroelectric or nuclear power.” Leaving aside the obvious risks associated with nuclear power, one has to wonder if Phillips has any idea of the damage hydroelectric dams have done to indigenous people in Canada as I pointed out in a CounterPunch article 5 years ago. Perhaps Phillips agrees with Huber that such “marginal” populations do not offer sufficient social weight for an effective “strategy”. Perhaps? No, probably definitely.

Parenti alludes to the common left anxiety about “development” and “growth.” It sounds to me as if he is trying to pick a fight with “degrowth” advocates like Jason Hickel but is not quite up to the task. It should be mentioned that Parenti believes that there are technical solutions to climate change that might be capable of allowing everybody to keep their air-conditioners running 24/7. As pointed out by Ian Angus, Parenti wrote an article for Dissent that backed carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as a “fairly simple” way of solving the climate change crisis. Angus debunked this claim:

There is only one commercial plant in the entire world that captures CO2 directly from the air. According to the journal Science, it takes in just 900 tons of CO2 a year, roughly the amount produced by 200 cars. The company that built it says that capturing just one percent of global CO2 emissions would require 250,000 similar plants. “Fairly simple” just doesn’t apply.

Parenti’s main goal in this article is to debunk the notion that “Western environmentalism has long suffered from”, namely an implicit Malthusianism that sees humanity as intruders upon a harmonious and static thing called “nature.” It might have been helpful if Parenti had named some names but it is likely that he is referring to Deep Ecology, a movement with some misanthropic tendencies that are associated with David Foreman, who was a co-founder of Earth First! Foreman left the Sierra Club after it rejected his anti-immigration proposals. Nowadays, Foreman is involved with the Rewilding Institute, a project that might lead to a ban on cattle ranching in most of the West and repopulating it with native grasses and bison. In my view, something like this will be necessary for the survival of humanity whether or not Parenti gets it.

Parenti addresses the Jacobin readers as if they were in junior high school:

The truth is, we are not intruders. In reality, humans have always been an environment-making species. In fact, every species is.

What we call “nature” or “the environment” is ultimately just the sum total of layer upon layer of organism-environment interactions. Thus it is dynamic, not static. Every organism interacts with, and impacts, its environment. At the same time, every organism is always also part of the external environment of all other organisms.

Environment making is what life forms do. Bees need flowers from which to collect nectar and pollen; in the process of their foraging, bees pollinate flowering plants, helping them reproduce and spread. Thus, bees are central to producing a habitat that produces bees.

To survive, beavers need beaver ponds. But they do not find their niche habitat — they make it by compulsive dam building. When beavers build, they also destroy. In areas they flood, previously established plant communities drown — including, on occasion, bee habitat.

This is followed by a little lecture on Engels’s “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man” that from Parenti’s presentation sounds to my ears like early ecomodernism:

Just as our ancient ancestors “learned to consume everything edible” thanks to the technology of fire management, Engels noted that fire allowed humans “to live in any climate” and thus “spread over the whole of the habitable world.”… The further afield early humans moved, the more technology they created and used, the more environments they helped shape.

How odd that Parenti would not refer to the section in Engels’s article that most ecosocialists know almost by heart:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.

Like a physician reassuring a 75-year old person with some deadly illness that they can live to 78 at least, Parenti tells us: “In other words, human labor can have life-encouraging effects, or it can do the exact opposite, depending on how labor and production are organized.” So, everybody knows what this means. Capitalism is life-discouraging and socialism is life-encouraging.

Except that the examples supplied by Parenti of “life-encouraging” human labor don’t have very much to do with socialism. He hails a fish farm in Spain and Chinese rice-growing. While there’s no point in denigrating such efforts, you don’t get the sense of the apocalyptic future that faces us at the end of the 21st century. Like everybody else on the Sunkara Express, Parenti believes in the Green New Deal. While the Jacobin/DSA sees this as tantamount to overthrowing capitalism, those with cooler heads see it as something likely not to come into existence under capitalism.

In a 2015 article written before the GND had become for the Jacobin/DSA what Trotsky’s Transitional Program was for me in my impetuous youth, Parenti wrote an article titled “Shadow Socialism in the Age of Environmental Crisis” that will give you a clear idea on where he stands on the most urgent issue of our day, namely how to get rid of the capitalist system that Malcolm X called “vulturistic”.

Shadow socialism is nothing more than government ownership of, for example, canals and railroads in the 19th century and the New Deal in the 20th:

Then comes the New Deal in which America’s Shadow Socialism becomes explicit. The effort to get out of the crisis of the Great Depression relied on the state to jump-start capitalism, to redistribute wealth downward to common people, to create markets by giving poor people jobs and income so they could buy the products of industry and keep the economy turning over. And the state itself purchased (and still purchases) large amounts of technology, invested heavily, and consumed a vast amount of output.

In the conclusion of his article, Parenti sheepishly apologizes to wild-eyed young radicals who probably made the mistake of reading Howard Zinn rather than Michael Harrington:

Let me end with that and an apology or explanation. I know this doesn’t sound revolutionary or radical, but what I’m trying to do is to be very, very realistic. Because I don’t think it is sufficient to be outraged about this and invoke the righteousness of our cause. We have to come up with credible solutions and stories that will really work and strategies that will work at different time frames. So, okay, what I’ve suggested here is not the solution to all problems associated with capitalism. It’s not even the solution to the environmental crisis. It’s just a realistic approach to dealing with climate change so as to buy time, so as to pull back from the brink, so that we can continue struggling. If we don’t take things that seriously and get comfortable with the contradictions implied in that, I think we will not be able to address the climate crisis. But we do have the means to do it economically and technologically, and so it is just a matter of politics.

Is this the end result of Parenti making a career as a professional intellectual rather than as a professional revolutionary as I tried back in 1967? He worked for George Soros’s Open Society for many years and is now ensconced in the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in NY. It is becoming clear to me that it exactly such people who are providing the brain-power, such as it is, for Sunkara’s publishing empire. But don’t fret. This kind of pablum leaves a vacuum that will be filled by genuine sans culottes, not the pretend kind that write for Jacobin.

September 8, 2019

What Bernie Sees in the New Deal? Not the same thing as Marxists–obviously

Filed under: Jacobin,New Deal — louisproyect @ 11:18 pm

Micah Uetricht

Seth Ackerman

Jacobin’s Managing Editor Micah Uetricht did a podcast interview with Jacobin Executive Editor Seth Ackerman recently and now you can read the transcript on Jacobin titled “What Bernie Sees in the New Deal”. The net effect is Charlie Rose interviewing Bill Gates or Hillary Clinton, or maybe more accurately Charlie Rose interviewing Charlie Rose.

It seems that Ackerman was annoyed with liberal pundits like Chris Hayes who found the notion of the New Deal being socialist unconvincing. He added that Hayes reminded him of “the most ultra-left troll that you encounter on internet message boards” who say “that’s not ‘real socialism,’ man!” Ackerman does acknowledge that FDR, unlike Sanders, never called himself a socialist and that his administration did not socialize the means of production.

On the other hand, the New Deal was seen by socialists, and by enemies of socialism, as a form of “socialism in government” or “socialism in practice.” Clearly, the rightwing saw FDR as a socialist in the same way that the John Birch Society saw Eisenhower as a Communist but not all socialists saw him in the same way. For example, the Socialist Party ran Norman Thomas against FDR who it did see as a capitalist politician and nothing less. When a reporter asked Thomas how he felt about the New Deal carrying out his program, he replied that it was carried out but on a stretcher. Despite their deep ideological differences, Norman Thomas and Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon had the same take on Roosevelt.

Maybe these socialists didn’t matter much to Ackerman who he might have seen as the “ultra-left trolls” of the 1930s. But surely the Communist Party must have been those socialists who saw his administration as “socialism in government” or “socialism in practice.” Everybody knows that the CP was effectively the left wing of the Roosevelt administration in the same way that the Jacobin/DSA aspires to play the same role in the unlikely event of a Bernie Sanders administration.

In doing some research on Browder’s CP in the 1930s, it turns out that even if the party did support his candidacies, it was not above holding his feet to the fire as the NY Times article posted just beneath this one indicates. Speaking to those gathered at the 1936 CPUSA convention, Browder used the kind of words that “ultra-left trolls” use on Bernie Sanders. He said that the Democratic Party was “still a capitalist party, still dominated by big-business interests”.

Not only that, Browder was ready to join forces with Norman Thomas’s SP in a joint ticket of the left. On May 20, 1936, the NY Times published an article titled “Reds Ask to Share Socialist Ticket”. It reported that Thomas rejected the invitation but this did not deter the CP’s willingness to work with the Farmer-Labor Party, at least those members who supported FDR. Even if they agreed to work with the CP, that would not “mitigate their criticism of the President and his policies”.

Browder was clever enough to make sure the Communists used slogans about the need to “Stop Landon” rather than “Elect FDR”. It was obvious that many rank-and-filers had grown tired of the New Deal’s empty promises. After all, the Great Depression dragged on into the early 40s when military Keynesianism finally broke the back of unemployment.

It was not just the rank-and-file that had its fill of FDR. On August 29, 1936, the Times reported on the resignation of the Daily Worker’s Managing Editor—the same post that comrade Uetricht holds at Jacobin. It seems that a top editor at the CP newspaper was an ultra-left troll, just like Norman Thomas:

A statement by James Casey, managing editor of The Daily Worker, resigning that post, resigning from the Communist party and denouncing the Presidential campaign tactics of the Communists as “hypocritical,” was delivered to newspaper offices last night.

Mr. Casey declared the Communist party political bureau had prepared a program “to swing the support of its membership and affiliated mass organizations to President Roosevelt.” He said that as an editor of The Daily Worker he was directed by party leaders to “be cautious of attacks on Roosevelt.” “He was to be chided gently,” said the statement, “as a blind to readers while all the fire was to be concentrated on Landon.”

Mr. Casey declined to run on the Communist ticket for Representative in the Bronx, a post for which he had been nominated, he said, over his own protests. He accused the Communist party of “downright deceit and unscrupulous political maneuvering.” “These leaders,” he said, “will call me a traitor and expel me after I have already resigned. This again is another old-line method. But I would rather be called a traitor to such men and suffer their slanders than be false to my principles and to the masses of the American people.”

So, that’s what the Managing Editor of the Daily Worker was capable of saying. Too bad that the Jacobin/DSA has such a groveling posture toward Bernie Sanders. At least, FDR might have had to put up with some people in his administration with some backbone. I imagine that if people like Ackerman and Uetricht wormed their way into jobs with a Bernie Sanders administration, they’d toady up to him just like Stephen Miller toadies up to Trump.

In acknowledging the failure of Bernie Sanders to name the system that was causing so much suffering and the need to abolish it—capitalism—Ackerman argues that “dirty breakers” like himself are carrying out the kind of agenda that Engels urged American socialists to carry out in the 1880s:

Politics changes over time and so do definitions of socialism. When we look at Bernie’s concept of socialism, we should remember that Marx and Engels always said it was more important to have a real movement of workers who understand their real interests than it is to have a perfect, doctrinally correct program. When Engels talked about American politics in the late nineteenth century, he said he much preferred the populistic Knights of Labor or “agrarian reformers” to the hyper-orthodox Marxists of the Socialist Labor Party, who sounded like Marxoid robots when they talked. He much preferred the messy, ideologically incoherent Knights of Labor because they actually represented a real movement of workers fighting for some kind of egalitarian vision in opposition to the established order.

Nobody would ever want to sound like “Marxoid robots”, I suppose, but if it was a choice between sounding like one and voting for a candidate of the oldest, still-functioning capitalist party in the world, I’d have to go “beep-beep, boop-boop” just like 3-CPO. Yet, I’d urge a word of caution about romanticizing the Knights of Labor. While it did attract a lot of militant workers, including Blacks, the leadership was just as lacking as that of the SLP.

Its leader Terrance V. Powderly would not allow Knights of Labor members to strike. Wikipedia states that “Powderly intervened in two labor actions: the first against the Texas and Pacific Railroad in 1886 and the second against the Chicago Meatpackinghouse industry. 25,000 workers in the Union Stockyards struck for an 8-hour day in 1886 and to rescind a wage reduction. In both cases, Powderly ended strikes that historians believe that labor could have won.”

In an article on T.V. Powderly and the Knights of Labor, Eugene V. Debs had their number as opposed to Ackerman who holds it up as a model for today (to be sure, Engels only mentioned the Knights of Labor in passing in his letters.) Debs wrote: “What are his words? Stop striking, stop boycotting, stop doing the very things you have been doing, else the Order goes down ‘as surely as night follows day.’”

Showing that they know how to answer their critics with lethal arguments, they resort to this withering sarcastic exchange that left me feeling utterly vanquished:

Uetricht: I will only support Bernie Sanders’s campaign if he refers to the United States exclusively as the Great Satan. Nothing less than that will I accept!

Ackerman: Well, you’re a moderate. I insist on “AmeriKKKa,” and he has to pronounce each K.

What utter stupidity. If you combined the brains of these two hacks, it would still be incapable of analyzing American history dialectically, especially when it comes to socialists in the 1930s, the Knights of Labor, et al. That’s what happens when you belong to a clique like the Jacobin/DSA that is too cowardly to engage with a serious critique of their class-collaborationism. You get flabby and flat-footed.

The rest of the article continues in this vein, kowtowing to FDR and Bernie Sanders. They praise FDR for telling workers to join a union but not a word about the Little Steel Strike that led the New Deal pro-labor president to tell the bosses and the striking workers: “a plague on both your houses”. That’s the strike in which the Chicago cops opened fire on strikers and their families on Memorial Day, 1937, killing 10.

The two “dirty breakers” do admit that the New Deal did not confront racism but at least it was ready to take on the economic issues that affected Black Americans: “Then, when Roosevelt came in, his mandate was not to do anything in particular in respect to racial equality, but to address the economic emergency — a situation that affected blacks more than anybody else, actually. The unemployment rate was 25–30 percent, and among blacks it was probably twice that.”

What they don’t seem to understand is that most Blacks were sharecroppers rather than factory workers so their plight was not relieved by New Deal programs. This, of course, begs the question of how it was that WWII reduced unemployment, not the WPA and similar programs.

One of his key programs hurt Black sharecroppers preponderantly, according to the Atlanta Black Star:

The Agricultural Adjustment Administration reduced agricultural production by paying farmers subsidies not to plant on part of their land and to kill off excess livestock, which in turn reduced crop surplus and effectively raised the value of crops. But since 40 percent of all Black workers made their living as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, the (AAA) acreage reduction hit Blacks hard, according to Digital History. White landlords could make more money by leaving land untilled than by putting land back into production. As a result, the AAA’s policies forced more than 100,000 Blacks off the land in 1933 and 1934. The act initially required landowners to pay the tenant farmers and sharecroppers on their land a portion of the money, but after Southern Democrats in Congress complained, the secretary of agriculture surrendered and reinterpreted the act to no longer send checks to sharecroppers directly.

I think the problem with the Jacobin/DSA is they have blinders on, just like a team of horses. They are shielded from the real record of the New Deal that most of us who lived through the sixties and seventies absorbed from reading radical historians like Howard Zinn. Let me conclude with what he wrote about the New Deal in “People’s History of the United States”: “When the New Deal was over, capitalism remained intact. The rich still controlled the nation’s wealth, as well as its laws, courts, police, newspapers, churches, colleges. Enough help had been given to enough people to make Roosevelt a hero to millions, but the same system that had brought depression and crisis—the system of waste, of inequality, of concern for profit over human need—remained.”

 

July 2, 2019

Butting in to Bhaskar Sunkara’s debate with a Trotskyist

Filed under: Jacobin,social democracy — louisproyect @ 9:26 pm

Debates between DSA’ers and Trotskyists are few and far between, especially today when Trotskyist groups are gnats compared to the elephantine DSA. Once upon a time, long before the Sandernista left reconstituted itself as the DSA, these debates were more frequent because the relationship of forces was different. The SWP, which is a micro-gnat today, was once the largest group on the left and anxious to defend its ideas against all comers. Although I hate to see even a single penny go to this grotesque cult today, Pathfinder’s collection of 3 debates titled “The Lesser Evil?: Debates on the Democratic Party and Independent Working-Class Politics” is only sixteen dollars and would be useful reading today. It contains Peter Camejo’s legendary standoff with DSA founding father Michael Harrington in 1976, cult leader Jack Barnes’s with Stanley Aronowitz in 1965, and George Breitman’s with Carl Haessler in 1959. While the DSA did not exist in 1965 or 1959, social democracy did.

Aronowitz was a leader along with James Weinstein, the late publisher of “In These Times”, of the Committee for Independent Political Action that was a forerunner of the DSA strategy. A NLR article on the Rainbow Coalition will indicate that this strategy has been around for a long time:

In 1965, a group of white socialists in New York City created the Committee for Independent Political Action, which attempted to advance an anti-Vietnam war agenda within the Democratic Party primary elections. Radical trade unionist Stanley Aronowitz viewed the strategy as a means for ‘an independent political movement’ to attack the Democratic Party, as well as to ‘evolve into a third party.’ Revolutionaries who entered the Democratic Party could ‘put reform Democrats who are radicals programmatically on the spot’, while educating a mass audience.

As for Haessler, he was 72 at the time he debated George Breitman and had probably shifted to the right, keeping pace with other SP members who were thoroughgoing anti-Communists in 1959. To his credit, he went to prison for opposing WWI and was closer to Eugene V. Debs than he was to Victor Berger, the sewer socialist he dubbed an “old fogey”.

While Bhaskar Sunkara has largely been identified with Michael Harrington and Karl Kautsky, I would see him much more as in the tradition of Stanley Aronowitz who was one of CUNY’s best-known Marxist professors. He helped to get the Socialist Scholars Conference going in the 1960s and restarted it in 1981 as a DSA-backed enterprise.

Like Sunkara, Aronowitz was a very nimble defender of social democratic politics and had momentum on his side in the 1970s when a number of Democratic Party elected officials joined the DSA, especially African-Americans. The disgusting McCarthyite KeyWiki website provides a list of DSA elected officials from 1990 that includes 19 men and women including Congressmen Ron Dellums and Major Owens, NYC Mayor David Dinkins, and Ruth Messinger, the Manhattan Borough President. It was not uncommon for leftists to take jobs with these elected officials. For example, Lars Lih worked for Ron Dellums as Ron Ashford did for Major Owens. Ashford was a member of CISPES in New York, where I got to know him, as well as a member of the Communist Workers Party that made the tragic mistake of getting into an armed confrontation with the KKK in North Carolina.

More recently, there have been two debates between leading DSAers and people coming from a Trotskyist tradition. Back in April, there was a conference in NYC co-sponsored by Jacobin and HM that included a debate between Charles Post and Eric Blanc. Unfortunately, there was no video recording but you can read my capsule summary here.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been watching a debate between Bhaskar Sunkara and James Peterson, the editor of Socialist Revolution that can be seen above. Peterson, like Post, repeats the standard arguments for independent class action that they learned in the Trotskyist movement. Post was a former member of the SWP and Peterson belongs to the American section of the IMT, a British Trotskyist International led by Alan Woods that never gained nearly as high a profile as its rival Socialist Alternative. Probably, the decision of Peterson’s group to call itself the International Marxist Tendency has quite a bit to do with its modest presence.

Actually, I was far more interested in what Sunkara had to say since he has never really replied to his critics on the left, least of all a skunk like me. When he was 16 years old (or something like that), he was on the Marxism list but never promoted social democratic politics except in his farewell address to the subscribers:

I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.

Unlike Eric Blanc, Sunkara is not much of a theorist. I’ll be getting around to his “Socialist Manifesto” but as far as I know, most of his statements are rather anodyne op-ed type pieces in the bourgeois press, including a regular column in the Guardian where he offers up this kind of wisdom:

I’ve been wrong about this once before, but I’d bet that whoever the Democratic nominee is in 2020, they’ll be able to defeat Trump. That’s all the more reason to go with the most viable progressive candidate – someone committed to change and with the knowledge and willingness to do battle with the big business interests that want to hear none of it.

At the very least, this acknowledges that Sanders is a “progressive candidate” rather than the boilerplate description of him as a socialist, a label that is getting harder and harder to justify given how he has clothed himself in New Deal garments.

Early on in the debate, Peterson defends the distinction between socialism and communism that in reality never appeared in Marx’s writings, as Michael Lebowitz points out. For Peterson (and many other Marxists, including Lenin—I would add), socialism is identified with the dictatorship of the proletariat—a state in which the workers rule. After socialism has become a world system and completed the task of wiping out all traces of capitalist property relations, money will no longer be needed and the state will begin to dissolve until communism is achieved, a purely classless society that will have a lot in common with utopian literature of the past. Frankly, I’ll be glad if we even get to those conditions that Trotskyists used to call a workers state with bureaucratic deformations given the descent into hell of the past decade or so.

Sunkara views this distinction between socialism and communism as baseless. There will always be a need for a state, in his view. He puts it this way. “Let’s say that you want to build a bridge and I want to build a tunnel. How do we mediate that without a state?” To start off, I remain mystified by any attempts by the left to grapple with the problem of future socialist societies whether it is the boneheaded Fully Automatic Luxury Communism or the thoughtful attempt by Sam Gindin to say “What socialism will look like”.

I try to imagine why a state would be necessary to decide for example whether a tunnel or a bridge should be built. The implication of Sunkara’s example is that markets would solve these problems rather than planning. Keep in mind that this is what Vivek Chibber, the editor of Catalyst magazine, has already said:

What is more challenging is the issue of economic planning. We have to start with the observation that the expectation of a centrally planned economy simply replacing the market has no empirical foundation. We can want planning to work, but we have no evidence that it can. Every attempt to put it in place for more than short durations has met with failure.

In a society of millions of people, billions if you conceive of communism as a world system, planning will be essential if for no other reason to utilize resources intelligently. Scientific planning, in fact, is the only way to avoid the Sixth Extinction whatever the Jacobin/Catalyst hustlers believe. If scientists getting together to figure out how to preserve old-growth forests while still supplying the wood needed for chairs and desks is the same thing as cops arresting environmentalists sitting in to protect redwood trees, then the differences between social democrats and Marxists is deeper than anybody could have ever imagined.

Moving right along, Sunkara and Peterson wrangled over the question of “bourgeois democracy”. At 18:00 in the video, Sunkara expresses disagreement with the idea that democracy was a gain of bourgeois revolutions, as put forward by Peterson who was simply expressing the idea scattered throughout Kautsky’s writings. He wonders why the bourgeoisie should get credit for the very thing they violently opposed. He says that from 1848, the bourgeoisie opposed “democratization”. Of course, there is a problem in the way he formulated this. Marxists don’t use a term like “democratization” that is class neutral. That is why they refer to bourgeois democracy. For example, the American civil war produced bourgeois democracy. It ended chattel slavery and allowed Blacks to become free wage laborers. Even if Jim Crow forced them into second-class citizenship, they still had the right to move wherever they wanted, including New York and Chicago where they could get jobs making Ford automobiles and vote for the Democratic Party that was largely responsible for Jim Crow. This is a contradiction that largely escaped Sunkara, whose grasp of dialectics is about as deep as mine is of particle physics.

The final 30 minutes or so of their debate revolves around the Democratic Party that Sunkara referred to as a cesspool above. In accord with Eric Blanc’s article on “the dirty break”, he explains that it is okay to “use” the primary ballot to raise all sorts of hell as a socialist candidate more likely to get air time than we used to when we ran people like Peter Camejo for President. If this was all there was to the tactic, I’d take the Jacobin publishing empire-builder a bit more seriously. However, these campaigns by Sanders, A. O-C, et al are not about socialist propaganda. They are serious attempts to get elected and seen so by Jacobin and the DSA, so much so that A. O-C told CNN that she “look[s] forward to… us rallying behind all Democratic nominees, including the governor, to make sure that he wins in November.” That was Andrew Cuomo, the politician who represents everything that is filthy about the Democratic Party. It is no different than Sanders urging a vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. My guess is that whoever runs against Trump next year, Sanders will certainly endorse whoever the Democrats nominate, even Joe Biden. That will be a contradiction for Bhaskar Sunkara to unravel—speaking dialectically.

 

July 1, 2019

Lars Lih versus Eric Blanc

Filed under: Jacobin,Kautsky,Lenin — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

Lars Lih, the master disowns his disciple

In what practically amounts to self-plagiarism, Lars Lih has written now what seems like the tenth article elevating Karl Kautsky’s reputation to heights not seen since the early 20th century before it was permanently damaged by his ideological scabbing on the Russian Revolution. Jacobin, the go-to place for neo-Kautskyism, has just published Lih’s “Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution”, which is meant as a corrective to his acolyte Eric Blanc’s attempt to consign Bolshevik-type revolutions to the ashbin of history. Ironically, Lih views October 1917 as a vindication of Kautsky’s writings while his disciple Blanc views those same writings as a disinfectant against the unreconstructed Leninism that stubbornly refuses to accept Bernie Sanders as the greatest revolutionary since Eugene V. Debs. In essence, Kautsky serves as a Rorschach test for the two Jacobin authors. Lih sees the image resembling Lenin and Blanc sees it as the anti-Lenin. Of course, before Blanc became so gung-ho on Democratic Party politics, his take might have been closer to Lih’s but why expect him to be consistent? After all, consistency is the hobgoblin of foolish minds.

While Lih himself has never said a word about post-1920s politics, he implicitly takes issue with Blanc’s attempt to replace Lenin with Kautsky as supreme helmsman for the revolution DSA will lead in the glorious future. Very few DSA’ers have ever read Karl Kautsky, let alone Eric Blanc, but among the Jacobin/DSA mandarins Kautsky plays the kind of role that Trotsky played for the sect I belonged to in the 1960s and 70s. If you need an excuse to re-register as a Democrat and pass out campaign brochures for Bernie Sanders, nothing tops citing Kautsky who at least never set up gulags or outlawed abortion.

Blanc’s Jacobin article “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)” implicitly endorses Kautsky’s 1918 condemnation of the Bolshevik seizure of power in “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat”:

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

You’ll note how similar this is to what Kautsky wrote in the early 1930s that was collected into a book titled “Social Democracy versus Communism”, long after his anti-Bolshevik stance had calcified into something resembling a Dissent Magazine article by Irving Howe:

There are people who believe that even under a democratic order Labor should utilize the methods of “revolution,” insurrection, the general strike, because, in their opinion, such methods will lead to Socialism more quickly than the casting of ballots, and that in the final analysis the opponents of Socialism in the democratic states will yield only to insurrection and the general strike.

In rejecting democracy, they go so far as to believe that a Socialist minority could achieve power by force in a democratic state. And, finally, they assert that Socialists cannot hope to attain an electoral majority even in countries where Labor represents the greatest number as long as the opponents of Socialism retain control over the economic and intellectual instruments of power.

How odd it is that a young radical like Eric Blanc can mutate ideologically into the Kautsky of the 1930s, probably without even being aware of it. One hopes that he does not lurch even further to the right. Over the past 50 years, I have seen many leftists lose their revolutionary fiber, an occupational hazard of living in the most brutally reactionary state in world history.

The word insurrection occurs repeatedly throughout Blanc’s article, a dirty word that summons up those Trotskyist Neanderthals that are as detached from reality as the eponymous hero of “Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment”, a failed artist who spends most of his day either fantasizing about being the leader of a Red Army detachment or a gorilla stomping through the rainforest.

This business about October 1917 being an “insurrection” does not fit into Lih’s schema, namely that Kautsky’s revolutionary tactics guided those of Lenin and all the other Bolshevik leaders toward the seizure of power in a massive socialist revolution based on Soviet democracy. He has made that argument many times in the past and repeats his talking points once again:

Bolshevik hegemony was not the only piece of tactical advice by Kautsky that proved crucial in 1917. In 1909, Kautsky published a small book entitled Road to Power. The Bolsheviks reacted with by now typical enthusiasm. In a glowing book review, Lenin’s closest lieutenant, Grigorii Zinoviev, brought out the book’s wide range of topics as well as its significance as a weapon of the “orthodox” against the “revisionists” — or, in Russia, the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks.

Obviously, this does not take into account Lenin’s April Theses that broke with the Second International “stagism” found not only in Kautsky’s writings but Lenin’s as well prior to 1917. As I have pointed out a number of times, Lih does not consider the April Theses a breach with Lenin’s earlier writings that advocated a democratic-bourgeois revolution but instead just another example of Kautsky’s deep influence on the Bolsheviks. That Lenin complained about “Kautskyism” seeping into Pravda articles on April 12, 1917 somehow escaped Lih’s attention. What could have prompted Lenin to take up this matter in a letter to J.S. Hanecki and Karl Radek? Alexander Rabinowitch, one of the most authoritative historians of the Russian Revolution, filled in the details:

Beginning with the March 14 issue the central Bolshevik organ swung sharply to the right. Henceforth articles by Kamenev and Stalin advocated limited support for the Provisional Government, rejection of the slogan, “Down with the war,” and an end to disorganizing activities at the front. “While there is no peace,” wrote Kamenev in Pravda on March 15, “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless,” echoed Stalin the next day.

If Lih erred in granting Kautsky authority he did not deserve, at least he understood that the word “insurrection” was misplaced when it came to Bolshevism:

In his Jacobin article, Eric Blanc states the following: “Following Lenin’s arguments in his 1917 pamphlet State and Revolution, Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils.” This remark brings together not one, but two, deep-rooted misconceptions about 1917: first, that a clash between two types of democracy — parliamentary vs. soviet — as found in the pages of State and Revolution, had anything to do with the October victory or the politics of the revolutionary year. (State and Revolution was drafted in 1917 but only published in 1918 and it is irrelevant to the events of the previous year.) Second, that the Bolsheviks took power by means of an “insurrection,” “armed uprising,” or whatever.

So, it looks like master and disciple have parted ways. I suspect that Lih had no interest in disassociating himself from Eric Blanc’s Democratic Party politics but in only fending off attempts to drive a wedge between Kautsky and Lenin. For all I know, the fact that Lih worked in Ron Dellums’s office for 6 years might have indicated that he could be just as flexible as Blanc. In an interview conducted by Dario Cankovic in the defunct North Star website, Lih hardly sounded predisposed to the kind of militancy found in the 1970s left: “My own politics—well, I don’t spend too much time thinking about them, because I’m too busy thinking about the early 20th century, you know, so I just characterise my views as vaguely left. Which I think is OK, because that means I’m sort of automatically not partisan and I think that’s good for everybody.” Vaguely left? I quite agree. In fact, the only thing he even begins to sound dead-set on is minimizing Leon Trotsky’s role in the Russian Revolution.

 

 

June 14, 2019

Bernie Sanders and the New Deal

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,New Deal,reformism — louisproyect @ 8:13 pm

As might be expected, the Jacobin/DSA tendency is beside itself over Bernie Sanders’s speech that by now follows a familiar script. Just compare these excerpts from 3 different speeches following the same pattern:

(1) What’s the fundamental challenge of our day? It is to end economic violence. Most poor people are not lazy. They’re not black. They’re not brown. They’re mostly white, and female and young. Most poor people are not on welfare.

I know they work. I’m a witness. They catch the early bus. They work every day. They raise other people’s children. They work every day. They clean the streets. They work every day. They change the beds you slept in in these hotels last night and can’t get a union contract. They work every day.

(2) More to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour. More to do for the father I met who was losing his job and choking back tears, wondering how he would pay $4,500 a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits he counted on. More to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college.

(3) Are you truly free if you are unable to go to a doctor when you are sick, or face financial bankruptcy when you leave the hospital?

Are you truly free if you cannot afford the prescription drug you need to stay alive?

Are you truly free when you spend half of your limited income on housing, and are forced to borrow money from a payday lender at 200% interest rates.

What these 3 speech excerpts have in common is that they were made by Democratic Party politicians who captured the imagination of the left. The first came from Jesse Jackson’s speech to the 1988 Democratic Convention, the second was from Barack Obama’s to the 2004 Democratic Convention, and the last was Bernie Sanders’s June 12, 2019 speech at George Washington University. All three politicians have been identified with FDR. Salon magazine described Jackson’s campaigns as combining “New Deal-esque economic programs with a pro-social justice domestic agenda and a foreign policy that emphasized fighting for peace and human rights.” Appearing on the Letterman show in the first year of his presidency, Obama dismissed his critics who called him a socialist: “What’s happened is that whenever a president tries to bring about significant changes, particularly during times of economic unease, then there is a certain segment of the population that gets very riled up. FDR was called a socialist and a communist.” As for Sanders, unlike Obama, he embraces both the term socialist and New Deal programs, which for all practical purposes he sees as interchangeable. Finally, like Obama, he dismisses the red-baiting attacks on his socialism:

In this regard, President Harry Truman was right when he said that: “Socialism is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years…Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”

Ironically, in effect Sanders confirms what Truman said but not the way that Truman intended. Truman was trying to say that the John Birch Society, Joe McCarthy, et al were calling such reforms “socialist” when they were really just liberal reforms. For Sanders, it is exactly these measures that mean socialism to him rather than what they mean to Marxists. Naturally, it is ABCs for people like me, who have been defending socialism for 52 years, that Social Security is a good thing (I get my check on the fourth Wednesday each month), even if it is not particularly socialist. Indeed, the first country in the world to adopt old-age insurance was Germany under Otto von Bismarck in 1889. It wasn’t even his idea. It was first proposed by the fucking Emperor William of Germany 8 years earlier who sounded like he was giving a speech to a Democratic Party convention: “…those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.”

If socialism is the same thing as the New Deal, what do you need Marxism for? Why not just emulate the CPUSA that became the left wing of the Democratic Party in the 1930s, following FDR in lock-step? The CP even defended this opportunism by formulating it as the first step in overthrowing capitalism in the USA. After all, if the Republicans took over the White House, the next step would be concentration camps not the future socialist society everybody believed in. Naturally, when FDR did establish concentration camps for Japanese-Americans, the CP gave its approval.

Essentially, Jacobin/DSA has dusted off the Earl Browder game plan and reintroduced it for the 21st century. The irony is that the Socialist Party of Browder’s day refused to support FDR. When Norman Thomas was asked how he felt about the New Deal carrying out the SP’s program, Thomas replied that it was carried out—on a stretcher.

Jacobin/DSA is giddy with excitement over Sanders’s speech, with each spokesman competing over who could write the biggest encomium to the Vermont Senator. Paul Heidman, an ex-ISOer, wrote a Jacobin article stating that “Sanders took aim at one of the central dogmas of contemporary capitalism: that it enhances freedom.” Maybe so, but the speech was cautious to step around the 800-pound gorilla in the living room, namely whether Sanders advocated an end to the very system that limited freedom. As long as there is private ownership of the means of production, how can true freedom exist when the owner has the right to move a factory to Mexico, fire half of his workers, or refuse to give them a pay hike? Sanders is opposed to unfettered or “out of control” capitalism but not capitalism itself.

Not to be outdone, Branko Marcetic was so thrilled to death that he equated socialism with the New Deal even if it annoyed people like me:

Though no doubt infuriating some on the Left, Sanders — who’s weathered decades of this kind of thing — wisely situated his vision of socialism in the long tradition of US progressivism and, crucially, the New Deal liberalism forged by Franklin Roosevelt that dominated American politics until somewhere around the late 1970s.

Interesting that Marcetic sees the presidencies of Harry Truman and LBJ as a continuation of New Deal liberalism. I can’t say I have a problem with that in light of Truman carrying out FDR’s mandate to use atom bombs on the Japanese. Or LBJ using B-52s against peasant villages. FDR went to war to defend American imperialism, not make the world safe for democracy. I guess as long as all these warmongers made sure to keep the welfare state benefits of American workers secure, that was “socialist” enough for the CPUSA and its bastard offspring, the Jacobin/DSA.

As the king of all “democratic socialists”, the Puff Diddy of the left Bhaskar Sunkara had the final word in The Guardian, the liberal British newspaper. In a rapturous piece titled “Bernie Sanders just made a brilliant defense of democratic socialism”, he presented Sanders as an PG-Rated version of the hard-core, R-Rated socialism of Eugene V. Debs:

Sanders still has a portrait of Debs in his Washington DC office, and in the 1980s he curated an album of the legendary socialist orator’s speeches. But yesterday’s address was a reminder that even though he still embodies much of the old socialist spirit, he has found ways to soften its edges and make it more accessible to ordinary Americans.

Well, of course. How are you going to get invited to MSNBC if you are saying “hardened” things like this?

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

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

Eugene V. Debs speech as SP candidate, September 1, 1904

Like Marcetic, Sunkara slapped at the revolutionary mosquitos that were ruining his picnic: “Hardened socialists might scoff at Sanders’s summoning of Roosevelt as a proto-socialist.”

Well, yeah. Us Hardened, R-Rated socialists who still find the Communist Manifesto more inspiring than Michael Harrington’s “The Next Left: The History of a Future” would rather back someone like Howie Hawkins who does not mince words. Referring to Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez et al, Howie stated:

However, something is notably missing in these candidates’ descriptions of socialism. They are leaving out the distinguishing tenet of the traditional socialist program — the definition of socialism you will find in the dictionary — a democratic economic system based on social ownership of the major means of production.

Finally, on the question of a President Sanders carrying out anything remotely similar to the New Deal, you have to forget all the lessons you learned reading historical materialist classics like Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” or Karl Marx’s “18th Brumaire”. The New Deal was a reaction to concrete conditions 85 years ago that no longer exist.

To start with, FDR was anxious to rein in the worst excesses of the capitalist class in order to stave off a revolution. As the nobleman in “The Leopard” put it, “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”

Despite Social Security and despite the make-work programs that paid a pittance, it was WWII that ended the Depression. As I explained in an article on whether WWII ended the Depression, more than half of the recovery took place between 1941 and 1942—in other words when war spending had geared up. Government purchase of goods and services ticked up by 54.7 percent in this one-year period and continued to increase as the actual war began.

The overarching economic framework for the postwar prosperity that allowed workers to buy homes and pay for their kids’ college education was the ongoing expansion of American industry that had no competition. Once Japan and Germany got in the game, industry grew wings and took flight to Mexico. Afterward, when China became capitalist, the wings grew stronger and factories flew even further away. Who knows? Maybe they’ll take Aaron Bastani’s advice and send the jobs to outer space.

That’s the reality we are operating in now. Workers need jobs that can keep a family in a relatively secure position. Sanders talks about recreating such an environment but the capitalist class will go where money can be made, not in accord with the needs of the majority. Do you expect production for human need to supersede the material interests of the most ruthless and determined ruling class in history? Bernie Sanders might mean well, bless his balding head, but the looming struggle between working people and the bosses will leave no room for the wishy-washy.

May 22, 2019

A Jacobin/DSAer’s Red Herrings

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 6:35 pm

A red herring is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question, according to Wikipedia, which also states that the term was popularized in 1807 by English polemicist William Cobbett, who told a story of having used a kipper (a strong-smelling smoked fish) to divert hounds from chasing a hare. Cobbett was an early English radical who took up the cause of impoverished peasants falling prey to “rotten boroughs”, a form of gerrymandering that favored the rich. One imagines that red herrings were used widely in the interest of privilege back then but as a term it can now be used to describe any dodgy political argument such as those found in an article by Jacobin/DSAer Chris Maisano titled “Which Way to Socialism?

Maisano’s article appears on The Call, the website of the Bread and Roses Caucus whose make-up explains my use of the term “Jacobin/DSAer” to describe Maisano. In Doug Henwood’s New Republic article about the DSA, he describes the overlap between the DSA’s leading body and the magazine that serves as its informal theoretical magazine:

None of these outfits [working groups and caucuses] causes serious trouble for the larger trajectory of DSA organizing. However, one caucus in particular, formerly known as Momentum, then renamed Spring, and again renamed Bread and Roses, is the object of ire from outsiders.

The original core of the group consisted of the Jacobin generation of members, several of whom were part of a Left Caucus in the pre-surge DSA, who were looking to heat up the old organization’s tepid politics. 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.

Funny how the term sect comes up. After reading Maisano’s article, with its predictable reference to Karl Kautsky’s infinite wisdom that Eric Blanc and Bhaskar Sunkara uphold as well, I mentioned on Facebook how it reminded me of an older political culture: “the Jacobin/DSA’ers…are as ideologically homogeneous as any Leninists I have ever run into. It is always the same stuff, citing Kautsky, etc. Groupthink basically.” This prompted someone to follow up:

Groupthink is a good description. My own perspective is maybe a bit skewed, being in Philly DSA, an extreme case, but it is the worst groupthink I have ever experienced on the left. In fact, it’s done more to turn me off of “socialism” than anything I have experienced in my life. The way these people rant about “horizontalists” and “anarcho-liberals” and “Occupy-ish”, etc., as a way to slander anyone who opposes them, is pathetic, and gives an indication of what they would be like if by some nightmare they got into a position of actual power.

Speaking of Philadelphia, it is necessary to point out that Maisano’s article is written as a rebuttal to Philly Socialist member Tim Horras’s article titled “Goodbye Revolution” on Regeneration, the website of the Marxist Center, a network of groups to the left of the DSA that I support. In a nutshell, Tim defends the classical Marxist understanding of the need for socialist revolution as encapsulated in Lenin’s “State and Revolution” and other works by Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. I strongly urge you to read Tim’s article because it is an important statement that reflects a willingness of young revolutionaries to both swim against the reformist stream and avoid sectarianism.

Maisano hopes to trip Horras up by making the question of “armed struggle” a focus of his polemic. Horras writes:

Mass mobilizations, broad popular support, and the weapon of the general strike certainly ought to be tactics in the arsenal of any socialist movement. But in the face of the ruling class’s trump card — a full-blown military coup d’etat — it is likely even these powerful forces will prove insufficient without an armed and organized resistance.

For me, this is an elementary observation—at least if you are a Marxist. Lenin refers to the state as resting on “special bodies of armed men”, a term that he associates with Engels’s “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Keep in mind that the October 1917 revolution was made possible not by guerrilla warfare but by the wholesale defection of the army to the Bolsheviks. When a relatively small band of soldiers committed to the revolutionary cause overran the Winter Palace, there were fewer people killed than probably those who died that day in St. Petersburg because of traffic accidents. Basically, the task facing us is not preparing for armed struggle, which is implicit in the misguided attempts to form leftwing gun clubs by ultraleftists, but by building such a massive movement that soldiers will gravitate to it rather than to the capitalist state. At least that’s what I learned from the men and women who were Leon Trotsky’s comrades in the 1930s.

Despite the attempt by Maisano to introduce the red herring of ordinary citizens never having the capability of overcoming “huge innovations in technology, military tactics, and urban planning” that have “strengthened the hand of the state and its armed forces against any potential insurrection”, the real difference between the Jacobin/DSA and those who identify with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky is not over insurrection but on revolution. Obviously, a “nuclear-armed national security state” is a frightening prospect but the goal is not to form militias that can take down an oncoming ICBM aimed at Brooklyn radicals. Instead the need is to create such a pole of attraction for socialism that the soldiers operating such devices will follow the example of Maryknoll nuns who sabotaged a building that stored enriched uranium in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

In a laughable attempt to bolster his case, Maisano cites Frederick Engels’s introduction to the 1895 edition of Karl Marx’s “Class Struggles in France”, a work that examines the growing importance of working-class mobilizations during 1848-1850 when it had not yet emerged as an independent political force. At first glance, Engels seems to be lining up with the Jacobin/DSA’ers:

But since then there have been very many more changes, and all in favor of the military. If the big towns have become considerably bigger, the armies have become bigger still. Paris and Berlin have, since 1848, grown less than fourfold, but their garrisons have grown more than that. By means of the railways, the garrisons can, in twenty-four hours, be more than doubled, and in forty-eight hours they can be increased to huge armies. The arming of this enormously increased number of troops has become incomparably more effective. In 1848 the smooth-bore percussion muzzle-loader, today the small-caliber magazine breech-loading rifle, which shoots four times as far, ten times as accurately and ten times as fast as the former. At that time the relatively ineffective round-shot and grape-shot of the artillery; today the percussion shells, of which one is sufficient to demolish the best barricade. At that time the pick-ax of the sapper for breaking through walls; today the dynamite cartridge.

By 1895, the year in which Engels’s introduction was written, the German working-class had achieved considerable political power through universal suffrage.

With this successful utilization of universal suffrage, an entirely new mode of proletarian struggle came into force, and this quickly developed further. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organized, offer still further opportunities for the working class to fight these very state institutions. They took part in elections to individual diets, to municipal councils and to industrial courts; they contested every post against the bourgeoisie in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had its say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.

Against such a formidable mass movement, the kind of reactionary violence that was used in 1848 and then again in 1871 would be ineffective. Engels writes: “And there is only one means by which the steady rise of the socialist fighting forces in Germany could be momentarily halted, and even thrown back for some time: a clash on a big scale with the military, a bloodbath like that of 1871 in Paris. In the long run that would also be overcome. To shoot out of the world a party which numbers millions—all the magazine rifles of Europe and America are not enough for this.”

In other words, the goal is to increase working-class political power until it simply has the weight to withstand military counter-revolutionary offensives. There is an implicit assumption, of course. In such an event, it would be necessary for the masses to defend a workers state. It would not take the form of street barricades that would be ineffective against heavy artillery but by a section of the army taking up the cause of the working-class party. This, in fact, is exactly what happened in Russia when the Red Army was created to defend Soviet power. This has nothing to do with “insurrection”, however. It is simply the need for revolutionary self-defense that any truly socialist government will have to mount.

Engels’s main concern was overcoming what might be called Blanquism, a tendency for advanced revolutionary contingents to march far ahead of the masses, using direct action excessively. He wrote: “The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past.”

Needless to say, Engels did not anticipate the degree to which the growth of the German social democracy became a double-edged sword. By developing institutional power, it created a parliamentary and trade union bureaucracy that adapted to capitalist state power. In recommending the Swedish social democracy as a positive example in a recent review as opposed to the negative Venezuelan Chavista experiment, Bhaskar Sunkara apparently shows little comprehension of the hazards of parliamentary cretinism even if it does offer the kind of blandishments that softened up the German social democracy chieftains before WWI.

The other red herring in Maisano’s article flows from the first. If a mass revolutionary movement is not feasible because the capitalist class has nuclear weapons, etc., then the alternative is participating in elections. He cites Carmen Sirianni, the Morris Hillquit Professor of Labor and Social Thought at Brandeis University who argues that elections “have been the major national forums for representing class-wide political and economic interests of workers… there was no pristine proletarian public prior to parliament, and the working class did not have a prior existence as a national political class.”

He also cites Jeff Goodwin, an NYU Sociology professor, to make the same point: “no popular revolutionary movement, it bears emphasizing, has ever overthrown a consolidated democratic regime”.

And, finally, he cites Ralph Miliband who argues that the absence of a revolutionary leadership in parliamentary democracies in advanced capitalist countries, where Marx and Engels assumed would be the first to break with capitalism, is a function of the low level of class struggle:

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.

I suppose his sons David and Ed are graphic examples of that “anti-insurrectionary” tendency.

But once again, the term “insurrectionary” is misplaced. It is no surprise that someone who is as confused over the difference between insurrection and revolution as Maisano would find Miliband’s words seductive.

In a way, the focus on how to seize power is an utter waste of time. As James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism who had his own problems, once put it, the art of politics is knowing what to do next. What is the point of debating whether street-fighting, barricades and training to use an AK-47 is better than ringing doorbells for some Democrat or vice versa? In the USA today, there is very little support for the idea of abolishing capitalism even if 43 percent of Americans believe that socialism would be a good thing for the USA, according to a Gallup poll. If Cynthia Nixon could get away with calling herself a socialist, you have to believe that the word is an empty signifier that is likely indistinguishable from left-liberalism. Except for the fact that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist and Elizabeth Warren calls herself a capitalist, there’s not a big difference between their programs—and even some evidence that she is to the left of him on some major questions.

The big question facing us now in terms of Cannon’s knowing what to do next is the Democratic Party. In 2016, the DSA supported Cynthia Nixon for governor of New York who was running as a Democrat rather than Howie Hawkins, who was the Green Party candidate and written off by the DSA for being “unelectable”. In an article for CounterPunch last Friday, Howie Hawkins summed up what this “democratic socialist” stood for:

The Democratic socialists and progressives seemed as starstruck as the corporate media, who smothered the “Sex and the City” star with coverage. Nixon was far from being a socialist or even a Sanderista. None of the socialists and progressives seemed to have checked the Federal Election Commission campaign finance records for Nixon, which show that Nixon gave the maximum allowable $2,700 donation to Hillary Clinton for her primary campaign against Bernie Sanders and also threw in another $5,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund and $2,300 to the Democratic National Committee, both of which infuriated the Sanders campaign for collaborating with each other against Sanders. It was no surprise when Nixon endorsed Cuomo after the primary.

There’s a good shot that Howie Hawkins will be the Green Party candidate for President in 2020 and just as good a shot that Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic Party candidate. I plan to support him in every way possible because I believe that a radical alternative to the Democratic Party is necessary.

Despite the blizzard of words from Maisano about the placid bourgeois democracy we live under forcing us to back someone like Cynthia Nixon, the truth is that the foundations for class collaboration are disappearing rapidly during an ongoing economic recession that shows no sign of relenting. Economic insecurity will be combined with environmental destruction (forest fires, floods, undrinkable water, etc.) to create an opening for a genuine radical alternative to the existing system. I will close with the words written by Karl Marx that were included in the Green Party’s invitation to the DSA in 2016 to back Howie’s campaign that they rejected in favor of Nixon’s:

Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled.

 

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