Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 19, 2020

The Big Scary “S” Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 26, 2020

Marxist alternatives to Jacobin

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

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

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

Left Voice

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

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

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

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

Regeneration

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

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

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

I couldn’t have put it better.

International Socialism Project

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

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

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

Spectre: a Marxist Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tempest: a revolutionary socialist organizing project

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

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

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

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

July 14, 2020

Antibodies and anticapitalists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

July 6, 2020

Walter Benn Michaels: the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism

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

Walter Benn Michaels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Web Site Shows Drop in Minority Enrollment at US Law Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 27, 2020

Chris Maisano’s class-reductionism apologetics

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

Chris Maisano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 13, 2020

Putting class-reductionism under a microscope: Adolph Reed Jr., Jacobin, and the George Floyd protests

Filed under: Black Lives Matter,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 5:42 pm

Adolph Reed Jr.
(Photo by Dan Creighton)

Recently three blips popped up on my radar screen that reminded me it was time once again to look at the tortured race/class debate that dominates, if not haunts, the American left.

On June 5th, Philly DSA issued a statement on George Floyd’s killing that epitomized the class-reductionism that has festered in the group for some time now. So much static was generated over the statement, especially on social media, that they issued a Maoist-style self-criticism3 days later:

On Friday, Philly DSA posted a statement on our website titled “Against Police Violence and Austerity, For Worker Power”. In doing so, we made a mistake that we deeply regret. Our statement did not sufficiently address the disproportionate impact of police violence on people of color, specifically Black Americans, and the significant anti-racist character of the protests. George Floyd’s life mattered, and all Black lives matter.

Along the same lines, Cedric Johnson, a black professor and class reductionist par excellence, wrote an article for Nonsite titled “The Triumph of Black Lives Matter and Neoliberal Redemption”. It asserted, “This moment has been a triumph for Black Lives Matter activists, but once the plumes of tear gas dissipate and compassion fatigue sets in, the real beneficiaries will likely be the neoliberal Democrats and the capitalist blocs they serve.” Johnson also reminded his readers that the silent majority in the black community is pro-cop:

While a slim majority of Americans now believe police are more likely to use excessive force against blacks than other groups, millions more do not share the most militant calls to defund or dismantle police departments voiced by some activists. Most Americans are upset by police killings, but they also want more effective policing. Over the last five years, satisfaction with police has strengthened among all ethnic and racial groups, including African Americans (from 50% “at least somewhat satisfied” in 2015 to 72% now).

To bolster his arguments, Johnson cited an article by Adolph Reed Jr. titled “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence” that also appeared on Nonsite, where Reed serves on the editorial board alongside fellow class-reductionist Walter Benn Michaels. Like Reed and Johnson, Michaels (who is white) sees any pro-black movements as a particularism that ultimately supports the goals of the capitalist liberal elite.

Reed’s article crows triumphantly over his revelation that white people constitute the majority of victims of police shootings, even if blacks are disproportionately affected. He cites a Washington Post article that reveals that the states with the highest rates of police homicide per million of population are among the whitest in the country. The only problem with his data-driven analysis is that it doesn’t account for how and why these homicides take place. Would Derek Chauvin have kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes if he was white? Or would Timothy Loehmann, a white cop, have shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year old black boy playing with a toy pistol in a Cleveland park? To even pose the question renders you brain-dead, no matter your academic credentials. For the class-reductionist left, suggesting that cops single out blacks for shooting first and asking questions later puts you in the same category as the kente-wearing Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer.

Not only does Reed turn a cold shoulder to the protests against George Floyd’s murder, he probably is grumbling at all the statues now being overturned. Writing for the Lens, a New Orleans ‘zine, in 2017, he urged readers not to be duped: “The clamor to take down the monuments falls short of a truly radical movement.” Among the statues he would defend against the unruly mob was Andrew Jackson, the slave-owner and Cherokee mass murderer whose portrait adorns Donald Trump’s Oval Office:

Already the group has over-reached in its tone-deaf demand that the statue of Andrew Jackson be removed from Jackson Square because Jackson was a slaveholder and architect of genocidal suppression of Native Americans. The Jackson statue against the backdrop of St. Louis Cathedral is one of the city’s most iconic, internationally known images, and Jackson, never really my cup of tea, fought to save the young republic and extend its reach, not secede from it in an act of treason. Indeed, when the city was under Union occupation, Gen. Benjamin F. Butler emblazoned the Jackson statue with the legend, “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved,” thus rendering it an emblem of Confederate defeat.

Never his cup of tea? WTF? Sure, he fought to defend the young republic, whatever that means. As for his being on the side of preserving the Union, it should never be forgotten that Jackson was the first DP president. And what does Reed mean by extending the reach of the U.S.A.? Does this refer to Jackson’s ability to wrest control of land owned by American Indians? After the War of 1812 ended, General Jackson was directed to secure the southern borders of the United States. He used his military muscle to get the Creeks, Chickasaws, Cherokees and Choctaws to sign treaties ceding huge tracts of land to the U.S., thus leaving them confined in much smaller territories. The only other academic I’ve run into who has this unaccountable devotion to Jackson is Sean Wilentz, the only opponent of the 1619 Project that not even WSWS would touch with a ten-foot pole.

To avoid being co-opted by the liberal elite, it is supposedly necessary to abandon “anti-racism” and advance economic demands that can unite black and white workers. In putting this position forward, Reed and Johnson are continuing with a very long ideological tradition going back to Eugene V. Debs. In his 1905 “The Negro and the Class Struggle”, he wrote, “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.” In distinction to the SP, the CPUSA did see race and class as interlinked, even if in practice it fell short such as in opposing A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington during WWII.

However, by the early 60s, it too began to sound a lot like Debs. When Malcolm X began to develop a following, James E. Jackson, a black CP leader, ripped into him in Political Affairs in 1963:

The Muslim organization, in general, and Malcolm X, in particular, are ultra-reactionary forces operating in the orbit of the Negro people’s movement, with the strategic assignment to sow ideological confusion, to dissipate the organization energies of the Negro masses, to promote divisionism within the Negro movement, and to alienate the Negro movement from fraternal ties with and support of comparably deprived or democratically inclined white masses.

The Muslim movement objectively serves the interests of the main enemies of the cause of Negro freedom and equality.

The Trotskyist movement saw Malcolm much more positively, even if he was still under the sway of his sect’s obscurantism. This should not come as a great surprise since Leon Trotsky spoke favorably of Marcus Garvey in his discussions with American co-thinkers, including CLR James.

Some SWP members felt the same way as James E. Jackson. Tim Wolforth and James Robertson regarded black nationalism as divisive, so much so that this would convince the two to start their own groups based on the mechanical black-white unity defended by Debs and Jackson.

Wolforth’s group folded long ago but much of his thinking is preserved in the World Socialist Web Site, the online newspaper of the Socialist Equality Party that has been on a campaign against the 1619 Project launched by the NY Times last August. In addition to providing a space for civil war historians appalled by the idea that slavery was a major factor in black oppression today, the WSWS allowed Adolph Reed Jr. to recite some of his talking points. He disparaged those who are dwell on killer-cops and racial profiling. Despite his willingness to trash the 1619 Project, he failed to understand that its basic premise is correct, namely that this was the year that slavery first appeared in this country. He says, “Those first 20 people weren’t slaves. There wasn’t chattel slavery yet in British North America.” Implicit in these words is the notion that they were indentured servants, when in fact they were nothing of the sort. Whites who became indentured servants signed a contract under duress, usually to pay off a debt. But the Africans were simply kidnapped by Portuguese, who then ended up on a privateer’s ship alongside such genuine indentured servants.

I’ll give Jacobin credit for publishing a critique of Reed in 2016 written by Paul Heideman and Jonah Birch. In defending BLM against the charge that it is a tool of Nancy Pelosi, et al, they point to its success in changing young peoples’ minds: “At this point, BLM has majority support among young white Americans.” Only 4 years later, it now has the support of a majority of American voters by a 28-point margin, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began. One can imagine Reed and Johnson sitting in the chairs at home watching all these protests and gnashing their teeth over such a wasted effort.  They’d be better off, I guess, ringing doorbells for the latest round of “democratic socialists” as the next election approaches.

Reed and Johnson get more articles published in Jacobin than any other black people, as far as I can tell. It is clear that Bhaskar Sunkara endorses their analysis, which coincides with his own social democratic gradualism. That affinity also exists between the Philly DSA and Reed, who developed ties with the chapter’s leadership when he was still teaching at the U. of Pennsylvania. One might hope that the self-criticism alluded to at the beginning of the article shows that the material reality of people in the streets in numbers might have changed their minds.

Over the past year or so, Jacobin has become more and more stuck in the rut of electoral politics. With the collapse of the ISO, there are fewer more openly revolutionary articles in its pages or on the website. And for those ex-ISOers who still have an in with Sunkara, there must have been an understanding that spouting the old-school opposition to the Democratic Party was a no-no. Ex-ISOer Paul Heideman, who once skewered illusions in the DP in Jacobin, is now just as vehemently a Sandernista ideologue.

It will be interesting to see whether Sanders’s swan dive into the Biden election campaign, as well as his opposition to police defunding, will have an impact on rank-and-file DSA’ers and/or Jacobin subscribers. As of now, Reed is on record as opposed to Biden, having co-authored a Guardian op-ed with Cornel West titled “Joe Biden wants us to forget his past. We won’t”.

Yet, he was not above urging a vote for someone cut from the same cloth as Biden, once upon a time. In an April 28, 2008 Progressive article that starts off with the ostensibly insurrectionary-minded title of “Obama No”, we learn that it could have just as easily been titled “Hillary Yes”:

I’m hardly a Clinton fan. I’m on record in last November’s issue as saying that I’d rather sit out the election entirely than vote for either her or Obama. At this point, though, I’ve decided that she’s the lesser evil in the Democratic race, for the following reasons: 1) Obama’s empty claims to being a candidate of progressive change and to embodying a “movement” that exists only as a brand will dissolve into disillusionment in either a failed campaign against McCain or an Obama Presidency that continues the politics he’s practiced his entire career; 2) his horribly opportunistic approach to the issues bearing on inequality—in which he tosses behaviorist rhetoric to the right and little more than calls to celebrate his success to blacks—stands to pollute debate about racial injustice whether he wins or loses the Presidency; 3) he can’t beat McCain in November.

Eight years later, Reed made another pitch for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in a July 7th radio interview on Doug Henwood’s “Behind the News”:

DH: The movement that has catalyzed with the Sanders campaign, how can we keep it from dissipating as November approaches. “Trump is so horrible, you know, hold your nose and vote for Hillary. etc.” There’s a great possibility for induced amnesia to set in. How do we fight that?

AR: What one does in November lies in a different dimension from the movement building concerns. From a pragmatic point of view there really is nothing else to do except to vote for Hillary. But that only becomes a big to-do if you have an exaggerated sense of the significance of your own vote anyway.

DH: People get so obsessed with something that takes five minutes to do in early November. It’s really remarkable.

AR: Absolutely. On some level it only comes down to a matter of taste and existential choice. I could vote for Gore in 2000. I lived in Connecticut and it was easy not to vote for Gore in 2000 and to vote for Ralph. I’d argue that this is a different moment and especially with Republican control of Congress-even if they lose the Senate which is a long shot . . . we’re going to be in the same position on the Wednesday after the election than we were on the Monday before the election. The real challenge is to try to disconnect the organizing from it being driven by the election cycle.

What was it that Molotov said to reporters after signing a non-aggression pact with the Nazis? Oh, I remember: “fascism is a matter of taste”. As far as existential choices are concerned, I would say that celibacy is an existential choice. Or assisted suicide. Or masturbating with a vacuum cleaner. That sort of thing, if you gather my drift.

May 11, 2020

Peter Dreier, Bhaskar Sunkara, and the Green Party

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,revolutionary organizing,third parties — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

On April 28th, a 71-year old professor named Peter Dreier lit into Bashkar Sunkara in The Nation magazine with the kind of ferocity that made you wonder if the Jacobin editor had co-produced “Planet of the Humans”. Titled “WTF Is Jacobin’s Editor Thinking in Voting Green?,” Dreier reacted to an April 22nd Tweet that was probably not intended to generate any kind of controversy:

You can even describe the Tweet as damning with faint praise since it disavows support for the Greens as a party and uses most of its 280 characters reminding his readers to vote Democrat.

Like many other liberals, Dreier repeats the same arguments that have been heard ad infinitum ever since Ralph Nader was blamed for allowing George W. Bush to be elected in 2000. Rather than holding Al Gore up to the scrutiny he deserved as Bill Clinton’s neoliberal sidekick, people like The Nation’s Eric Alterman and the singularly loathsome Todd Gitlin blamed Nader for being a “spoiler”.

Peter Dreier

I had never run across Dreier before but a brief search reveals that he was the subject of a 2014 LA Review of Books article by Tom Gallagher titled “Those Still Going on About Ralph Nader Electing Bush in 2000 Should Desist”. The LA review, which is many degrees to the left of the NY Review of Books, gave Gallagher the opportunity to answer Dreier’s Huffington Post article titled “Nader’s Hypocrisy,” which claimed that “Without Nader, there’d have been no President George W. Without George W., no war in Iraq.” Get it? Dreier has been writing this kind of bullshit for the longest time.

Gallagher informed his readers that Dreier was a big-time Obama fan, “displaying a life size cardboard cutout of the man at the party he was hosting and I was attending.” Like many people today who hope that Biden can carry on the Obama tradition, Dreier probably didn’t concern himself that much with Biden’s avid support for Bush’s invasion of Iraq, nor Obama’s own dubious “peace” credentials. Gallagher sets him straight:

Well, since Peter Dreier’s main charge against Nader is that he enabled Bush to start the Iraq war, let’s stick to “Iraq war-like” things. For one, there are those who consider the drone-based missile attacks Obama orders in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere violations of international law, which is to say, war crimes. And there are those who fault him for unraveling the major legal achievement of the Vietnam War opposition, the War Powers Act, when he bombed Libya without Congressional approval. And then there’s those who think that sending more troops to Afghanistan after seven years of war, the way he did, was either a very stupid or a very cynical act — and not that many people think he’s stupid.

Dreier tries hard to make a vote for Biden sound palatable. “Thanks in part to Sanders, and the Democratic Party’s leftward shift, Biden has adopted other progressive stances on key issues—the minimum wage, health care, workers’ rights, abortion, climate change, and college debt—and could be pushed further left during the campaign and after he takes office.” There’s a big push going on to sell the Biden campaign to people in their 20s and 30s who can’t stand him, including the women who are disgusted by the arguments of Linda Hershman in a NY Times op-ed “I Believe Tara Reade. I’m Voting for Joe Biden Anyway.”

Just two years after Sunkara launched Jacobin, he was working assiduously to burnish his left credentials. This meant downplaying the Sandernista politics of the recent past, getting ISO’ers and other Marxist critics of the DP to write for Jacobin, and generally striking leftist poses. He threw the gauntlet down against the liberal establishment in the pages of The Nation in an Open Letter that had this subhead: “Liberalism—including much of what’s published in this magazine—seems well-intentioned but inadequate. The solution lies in the re-emergence of American radicalism.”

In introducing himself to Nation readers, Sunkara supplied a bit of autobiographical information. At the dinner tables of childhood friends, he was pressed to identify himself ideologically. He would “meekly” call himself a socialist, all the while regretting that he couldn’t just utter the word “liberal” instead. “Like Sweden?”, he would be asked. He replied, “No, like the Russian Revolution before its degeneration into Stalinism.” In just a couple of years he would become a diehard Sandernista, never once being discomfited by his idol’s insistence on describing socialism as what they have in Sweden.

As might be obvious at this point, Sunkara has been carrying out a delicate balancing act since he launched Jacobin. He hopes to become the leading authority on Marxism by tracing his lineage back to Karl Kautsky, an aspiration that draws sustenance from the articles written by Lars Lih and his disciple Eric Blanc over the years. Filled with erudition, Lih and Blanc’s work is bent on elevating Kautsky and demoting Leon Trotsky.

As a symbol of uncompromising revolutionary ambition, Trotsky hardly seemed to be a useful figure for the Jacobin intellectuals to exploit. They became specialists in connecting the dotted lines between Kautsky, Lenin and Bernie Sanders. Sunkara hoped to keep left and right in perfect balance. In his left hand, you had Kautsky and in his right Bernie Sanders, a professional politician who now endorses Joe Biden. Like Philippe Petite walking a tightrope across the Twin Towers in 1974, Sunkara has to find a windless day to make the daring trek across the political landscape. Needless to say, the past few months have amounted to a political category-5 hurricane, so it is not clear that a balancing act can work.

Sunkara got around to replying to Dreier on May 4th in a Nation article titled “What Should Socialists Do in November?” Despite the nod to Hawkins that got Dreier so worked up, there’s a wink-wink, nod-nod aspect to his article that makes the difference between them vanishingly small:

Of course, I’d rather see a Democrat in the White House than a Republican. Biden is part of a centrist party that has within it not just the oligarchs he favors but a progressive, labor-oriented wing, as well. Trump, on the other hand, is the leader of a right-wing party filled with reactionaries. It’s obvious that socialists would rather be the political opposition to a government composed of centrists than one of the radical right.

This is just another way to tell DSA’ers that it is kosher to vote for Biden. Like Earl Browder, who saw the need for the CPUSA to run its own candidates to give the appearance of class independence, Sunkara says his personal choice is a vote for Howie Hawkins. Very radical of him. Yet, who you vote for is personal, not political. Don’t you see?

If it is up to leftists to make personal decisions about who to vote for, why stand in the way of those who succumb to the pressure of voting for Biden? As Sunkara put it, “I’d rather see a Democrat in the White House than a Republican.” Wink-wink, nod-nod.

Instead of—god forbid—using his authority to actually help build the Green Party, Sunkara subscribes to the theory of building a surrogate within the Democratic Party:

What I left unsaid is what kind of organization could spearhead this strategy—a “party-surrogate.” This would be an organization that, as Jared Abbot and Dustin Guastella argue in Jacobin, “would be internally democratic, financed by dues, focused on member mobilization, and organized around a workers’ agenda.” Such a vehicle could contest elections on the Democratic Party ballot line—not ordinary Democrats, but candidates bound together by a simple, common program, who eschew corporate funding and are propelled to power by a broad membership base.

This is the same Dustin Guastella who lectured Jacobin readers against trying to help start a new left party in an article titled “Like It or Not, If We Run Third Party, We Will Lose”. But Dreier is not assuaged by what Sunkara and Guastella tell DSAers and Jacobin readers in these kinds of circumlocutions.  He wants the Full Monty, with them on the stage fully naked, playing trumpets and banging the drums for Biden.

Missing entirely from both Dreier’s attack and Sunkara’s defense is any recognition of the gravity of the situation we now face. Economists, except those writing for the Hoover Institution or the Heritage Foundation, are predicting a plunge into Great Depression type misery with hunger, homelessness and the lack of healthcare on a monumental scale. Meanwhile, Laurie Garrett argues that a three-year pandemic is the best case scenario.

Facing such a disaster, what hopes can we place in either a Biden presidency or Sunkara/Guastella’s “party-surrogate” model that is based on incremental change through the election of candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was the only Democrat to vote against Trump’s pro-billionaire bail-out. There are 236 Democrats in the House of Representatives and only 1 votes the right way? Is the idea to organize DSA to back candidates who think and act like A. O-C? To tell you the truth, I’d expect her to become much more like Nancy Pelosi than the other way around.

Right now there are wildcat strikes taking place all around the country. Imagine the impact it would have if DSA began organizing people to get jobs in meatpacking houses, Amazon fulfillment centers and other front-line essential companies. In the 1930s, the CP sent people into coal mines, steel mills and auto plants. The Trotskyists sent Farrell Dobbs into a warehouse doing the same kind of dirty work that Howie Hawkins did before he retired as a Teamster last year.

The SWP miscalculated in 1978 when it pressured me to take a job as spot welder in Kansas City. If I were in my 20s today, I’d be far more willing to become part of a radical working-class movement that is destined to take shape today under conditions unlike any I have seen in my entire life.

For the DSA to become part of this burgeoning movement, it will have to wake up to the reality we face today and drop the neo-Eduard Bernstein incrementalism. The idea of slow and steady change leading to a social democratic government in the USA 20 or so years from now is utopian. It is far more likely that we are headed into unimaginable disasters with maybe a million people victims of the capitalist back-to-work drive.

Young radicals to the left of the DSA have to figure out a way to consolidate their ranks and begin the process of building a revolutionary movement. Howie Hawkins and his running-mate Angela Walker are clearly too old to play this role but they can play a major role in drawing clear class lines that are so necessary today as we enter a period in which “catastrophe” is the norm.

Dreier worries that Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker will be spoilers once again. In reality, the true spoilers will be the Democratic Party machinery in NY that has already made ballot access for 3rd parties onerous. Given the absolutely horrendous Hobson’s Choice between Trump and Biden, more people than ever will be open to voting for the GP. Unlike Sunkara, Hawkins understands that it will take a revolutionary movement to win a Green New Deal and other major reforms so necessary today. That movement will use mass actions in the streets and the openness to new political ideas during election years to move the struggle forward.

Under normal conditions, people tend to be conservative. Not in the sense of the National Review but in the sense of going to work and returning home in the evening to stare at the TV. In the 1960s, I saw people forsaking their conservatism and becoming activists, including me. That was in a time of prosperity. Today, there is no prosperity. Instead, we face a headlong dive into the abyss. The only practical political response is to become revolutionary. Last year before the coronavirus struck, I wrote about crises down the road that would demand revolutionary action. I had no idea that such a time would come so quickly. In 1915, Rosa Luxemburg wrote the Junius Pamphlet as a call to action against WWI and the need for worldwide revolution. We have to begin thinking in the same terms as Rosa Luxemburg who put it forward most eloquently:

This brutal victory parade of capital through the world, its way prepared by every means of violence, robbery, and infamy, has its light side. It creates the preconditions for its own final destruction. It put into place the capitalist system of world domination, the indispensable precondition for the socialist world revolution. This alone constitutes the cultural, progressive side of its reputed “great work of civilization” in the primitive lands. For bourgeois-liberal economists and politicians, railroads, Swedish matches, sewer systems, and department stores are “progress” and “civilization.” In themselves these works grafted onto primitive conditions are neither civilization nor progress, for they are bought with the rapid economic and cultural ruin of peoples who must experience simultaneously the full misery and horror of two eras: the traditional natural economic system and the most modern and rapacious capitalist system of exploitation. Thus, the capitalist victory parade and all its works bear the stamp of progress in the historical sense only because they create the material preconditions for the abolition of capitalist domination and class society in general. And in this sense imperialism ultimately works for us.

April 20, 2020

Jacobin’s road map within the catacombs of the Democratic Party

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,DSA,Jacobin,third parties,two-party system — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

One big difference between the Jacobin left and the left of my generation is over the “road map”. In 1973 or so, nobody in the SWP or any Maoist, for that matter, had an idea about how a revolution could take place except in the most general terms. We all pretty much understood that the workers would not march under the banner of socialism, at least understood according to the Communist Manifesto, unless there was a profound change in American society that forced them to engage in uncompromising struggle like took place during the Great Depression. It was up to us to engage in various struggles as they arose, from the right to an abortion to challenging the trade union bureaucracies, but we accepted the constraints Marx put forward in “The German Ideology”: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

In the late 70s, the SWP accepted the word of its leadership that revolution was on the agenda, but there was no road map as such that described the specific route to state power. The entire membership was instructed to get blue-collar jobs because increasing class conflict supposedly made the factories and mines like Columbia University and Berkeley were in 1968. This was delusional, of course.

Then along came Bhaskar Sunkara who, with his customary aplomb and self-confidence, told his readers in the penultimate chapter of “The Socialist Manifesto”:

The dilemma for socialists today is figuring out how to take anger at the unjust outcomes of capitalism and turn it into a challenge to the system itself…Easier said than done. But this chapter offers a road map based on the long, complex, variously inspiring and dismal history of left politics—for challenging capitalism and creating a democratic socialist alternative to it.

It is not too difficult to figure out what this road map looked like. It began on the expressway built by Jeremy Corbyn in England and Bernie Sanders in the USA. Although there was no guarantee that their becoming Prime Minister and President respectively was assured, it made much more sense to take your Tesla on that road than to waste your time in revolutionary organizations like the kind we belonged to in the 60s and 70s.

After all, Sunkara’s guru Vivek Chibber, who was to the NYU Sociology Department as Lenin was to the Smolny Institute, had used his Marxist GPS to help write an article titled “Our Road to Power”. (Road, get it? It’s a leitmotif in the Jacobin oeuvre.) Chibber warns his readers about taking “the Russian road”: “The Russian road, as it were, was for many parties a viable one. But starting in the 1950s, openings for this kind of strategy narrowed. And today, it seems entirely hallucinatory to think about socialism through this lens.”

For Chibber and virtually all the Jacobin intellectuals, Washington could never be mistaken for the decaying Czarist state. It was virtually unsmashable: “Today, the state has infinitely greater legitimacy with the population than European states did a century ago. Further, its coercive power, its power of surveillance, and the ruling class’s internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability that is orders of magnitude greater than it had in 1917.”

So, if the “Russian road” was precluded by permanent structural obstacles, how could we get past capitalism? This is where Jacobin becomes a bit more evasive. Ever since the 2016 elections, the emphasis has been less on the need for system change than it has been for a “political revolution”, a term that meant electing Corbyn, Sanders, and politicians that received benediction from Jacobin and Tribune, the British magazine that became part of Sunkara’s publishing empire.

For most DSA members, the prospect of seeing Bernie Sanders in the White House was so enthralling that the questions posed in Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune could not be less germane. Why bother yourself with obscure questions of workers ruling in their own name when enlightened politicians could shepherd legislation like a Green New Deal through Congress. Sunkara nimbly made the case for socialism being largely realized through enlightened government policies:

Luckily, the United States doesn’t have to contend with antidemocratic supranational organizations like the eurozone, and it has immense resources to work with. We ultimately have larger ambitions than “socialism in one country,” but if it’s possible anywhere, it’s possible here. Cobbling together the legislative power to achieve these reforms will not be easy.

But it is possible to achieve certain socialist goals within capitalism. As we’ve seen in the history of social democracy, any achievements will be vulnerable to crises and resisted at every step, but they are morally and politically necessary nonetheless.

I could spend ten thousand words dismantling the ideological baggage that underpins this absurd passage but suffice it to say that the word “socialism” is misused here. Larger ambitions than “socialism in one country” in a capitalist country? WTF? Socialist goals within capitalism? When you peel away the rhetoric, it is simply a recipe for electing politicians like Sanders and the squad. Or as Eduard Bernstein once put it, “The movement is everything, the final goal is nothing.”

Most Jacobin intellectuals were poised to accept a Sanders presidency as the first leg in the road to power, especially after his thrilling victory in Las Vegas. Dustin Guastella and Connor Kilpatrick were beside themselves. In an article titled “After the Nevada Blowout, It’s Bernie’s Party Now”, they rolled out the red carpet: “He’s on his way to not just the nomination, but the White House.” If someone ever wrote a book about articles that had a brief shelf life, this one would make it right alongside that one:

For normal people, Biden’s subsequent clearing-the-pool-table victories, abetted by Obama’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering and Sanders’s fulsome deference to his “old friend” Joe Biden, might be enough to make the traffic signs on the Jacobin road look like this:

Until now, Jacobin’s Grand Poobah has not weighed in but members of his court have tried to put the best possible spin on the reversal of fortune. Dauphin to Kautsky’s throne, Eric Blanc spoke for those who slapped themselves on the back for helping to make Sanders’s “ideological victory” possible:

Since our collective expectations were raised so high after Nevada, it’s easy to forget how much we’ve already accomplished in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. As Bernie correctly emphasized in his suspension speech this morning, the campaign has largely won the battle of ideas. And the paralyzing myth that there is no political alternative to the neoliberal status quo has been shattered.

How this will translate in “road map” terms to the next election remains uncertain. Sanders has turned in a truly demoralizing performance as he began walking off the stage. In an video co-produced by the Biden and Sanders campaign, you are reminded of Vladimir and Estragon in a sequel to the Beckett classic titled “Waiting for Socialism”:

Unlike Blanc, some of the Jacobin intellectuals were undeterred. They brazened it out, finding nothing wrong with being embedded in the Democratic Party, as if it were some sort of 21st Century version of Lenin’s vanguard party. Yeah, it didn’t have much to do with socialism but it was legitimated by the facts on the ground. What are you going to do, anyhow? Waste your time on some tiny group that still takes The Communist Manifesto seriously when you can be devoting the next four years to help elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Yes, she is showing less and less “democratic socialist” credibility but everybody loves a winner unlike those pathetic Green Party candidates who prioritize principles.

Dustin Guastella, who co-wrote the article about the Sanders take-over of the DP referred to above, warned about abandoning the world’s oldest still-functioning capitalist party in an article titled “Like It or Not, If We Run Third Party, We Will Lose.” Showing the kind of bluster once heard from “socialist” UFT leader Albert Shanker, Guastella, a Teamsters Union official in Philadelphia, rolled out all the predictable reasons for staying inside Joe Biden’s political catacombs. Ballot laws kept 3rd parties on the defensive, including new laws in NY State that would make both the Greens and the Working Families Party victims of the “enlightened” governor’s hunger for power.

Guastella, who will likely to be paid as a Teamster official for the foreseeable future, warns against futile efforts to create a radical left party in the USA:

That third parties are destined to lose is no secret — it’s right there in the name. They are the distant bronze medalists of American politics. But, a skeptic might ask, if what you say is true — that party realignment and break are outcomes of struggle — why haven’t we seen Joe Biden bend on key policy issues? And, further, what basis is there for believing that the Democrats will ever bend (or break)?

Patience. We are still a weak, small movement — despite the fact that our ideas have captured the attention of voters, our candidates haven’t won the loyalty of mass constituencies, and our base is largely disorganized. After all, the Democratic establishment just steamrolled us with a candidate that seems severely confused at best and demented at worst.

After reading Blanc and Guastella, I am left with the conclusion that these people are hopeless. I left the SWP in 1978 because I became convinced that nothing could deter the cult leadership from a self-destructive path. The culture of “democratic centralism” created a mindset that made it impossible for Barnes and company to reverse course. While the Jacobin/DSA is no cult, the people around Blanc and Guastella’s Bread and Roses caucus wear self-enforcing ideological blinders that might make it impossible for them to consider anything else except operating on the fringes of the Democratic Party.

For those whose minds are not captive to Leninist or Kautskyite formulas, it is obvious that profound and highly momentous changes are in play as a result of the pandemic. Right now, half of all men under the age of 45 in Los Angeles County are either unemployed or working reduced hours. All across the USA, men and women vulnerable to getting the disease are starting to carry out wildcat strikes. Today there was a report on the “Service workers strike at two luxury Manhattan buildings“:

The service workers, who are based at The Chamberlain and 432 West 52nd Street condominiums, walked out at 11:30 a.m. Thursday and will strike for 24 hours, they said.

They accuse their employer, building-services contractor Planned Companies, of paying them substandard rates while they work through the coronavirus pandemic, and blocking their efforts to join labor union SEIU 32BJ. They also say Planned failed to provide enough masks and gloves to protect them on the job.

Unlike Jacobin/DSA, both the Philly Socialists and the activists who produce Cosmonaut have circulated an appeal for young activists to get jobs working at Amazon:

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Amazon’s infrastructure and workforce to their limits. As people self-quarantine and flock to the e-commerce giant to home-deliver their stockpiles of food, water, and sanitation supplies, logistics workers at Amazon and elsewhere strain under the increased burden. As the virus spreads and schools close, leaving working-class children with no caretakers, workers are forced to make impossible decisions between earning a wage and caring for their family. The current crisis is rapidly accelerating class conflict within these dynamics. Workers in Italy are going on strike, and unrest is developing here in the United States.  The left should see this as an opportunity to expand the efforts of workers already organizing on the ground, pushing forward demands that will not only help drive a humane working-class centered response to the crisis, but further the groundwork for stronger working-class organization moving forward.

This is what a socialist party has to be all about. Organizing men and women to get involved with fights for working class power. The DSA has to understand that it will be expected to put its substantial muscle behind such organizing efforts if it wants to have any credibility. Eric Blanc showed that he had some appreciation for the need for this kind of solidarity through his articles on the wildcat teachers’ strikes, even if it was framed in terms of how important Bernie Sanders was in getting them going—a claim some teacher activists found overstated.

In any case, Lenin’s party rather than Kautsky’s is a model for what is needed today. Even if Lenin credited Kautsky’s party as a model, the Russians always put struggle first. The Bolsheviks ran candidates but mostly in the interest of spreading socialist ideas rather than taking over the capitalist state. As for understanding the Bolshevik electoral policy, I recommend August Nimtz’s “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets―or Both”. For those unwilling to read the book for lack of time, I at least urge you to watch this video. It was made for the stormy period we are entering:

 

March 9, 2020

The Twilight of the Political Revolution

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

On the morning after the Nevada primary, Jacobin/DSA heavyweights Dustin Guastella and Connor Kilpatrick proclaimed “It’s Bernie’s Party Now.” Even before losses in South Carolina, Texas, Minnesota and elsewhere a week later, I deemed their triumphalism a bit premature. Before enumerating the powerful institutions that gird the longest still-functioning capitalist party in the world, I wrote that “it is pretty obvious that the Democratic Party is not an empty shell. Even if most people continue to vote for Bernie Sanders up until the convention, they have no other relationship to him except as an endorser.” It turned out that I was perhaps a bit swayed by the impressive victory in Nevada in failing to warn the democratic socialist comrades that the Nevada vote might have been an outlier.

Hope springs eternal in the democratic socialist breast apparently. Despite opinion polls giving Biden a 24-point advantage in Michigan, a state with 147 delegates, the Jacobin/DSAers still feel like destiny favors them. Matt Karp argued on March 4th that Democratic voters are more aligned on the issues than they are with Biden but admits that their overwhelming desire to deny Trump a second terms might persuade them to not take chances on a “socialist”. In any case, Sanders faces an uphill battle since even if he comes to the convention with a plurality of delegates, he must face a runoff that would allow the centrist super-delegates to cast their 771 votes with Biden. If Biden racks up the kind of victory in Michigan and other northern states tomorrow, it is conceivable that Sanders will drop out.

Just as was the case in 2016, Sanders will stump for Biden like he did for Clinton. Yesterday, he told Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd, “Look, Joe Biden is a friend of mine. He has indicated that if he wins the nomination I will be there for him. Together, we are going to beat Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country, but you can’t — we live in a democracy, and we have to contrast his — our records and our ideas, our vision for the future.”

You get the same thing from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who told late-night comedy host Seth Meyers that “what is so important is that we ultimately unite behind who that Democratic nominee is.” Since she also made the same pledge to back Andrew Cuomo for Governor, you can only conclude that she will never pretend that she is anything but a liberal Democrat. Adept at speaking out of both sides of her mouth, however, she is also on record as saying, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” That presumably means that if the two were in Sweden, he’d be in the Moderate Party and she’d be in the Social Democrats. Given the Social Democrats’ shift to the right over the decades, that’s hardly reassuring. As is the case generally with these democratic socialists, they are for the idea of Scandinavian model that today is a Platonic ideal summoned from the past more than anything.

In 2018, the BBC reported that Social Democrats accused the Moderate Party of “wrecking” social welfare by encouraging the arrival of foreigners – especially Muslims – who they argue do not share Swedish values. Nice.

Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jacobin has the ability of straddling the left and the not so left. On the anniversary of Olof Palme’s death, it described him as an “internationalist hero” and someone who “Today’s Social Democrats Should Be More Like,” even as the magazine also publishes Kjell Östberg, who wrote that Palme used all his prestige to help pacify the Portuguese revolution by bringing the country into the Western European fold and keeping it in NATO.

Unlike most socialist magazines, you can find analyses that are at odds with each other in Jacobin just like these. If nothing else, I suppose it helps to boost subscription sales. What there seems to be, however, is virtual unanimity on the left getting on the Bernie Sanders bandwagon. Back in 2015, you could still find articles critical of Sanders written by Ashley Smith and Lance Selfa, who were in ISO. Now that the ISO has dissolved, you will find well-known ex-ISOers like Paul Heideman writing for Jacobin, but in their post-conversion mode are as gung-ho as any other Jacobin/DSAer. As for Smith and Selfa, they are unrepentant Marxists like me and write elsewhere.

Within the Sanders fan club on Jacobin, there are some writers who may be even more anxious to remain within the Democratic Party than others, no matter the shit that is shoveled on Sanders and his followers. On February 21, just a day after the Nevada victory, Sam Lewis and Beth Huang wrote an article titled “Democratic Party Elites Are Ready to Steal the Nomination From Bernie Sanders. We Need a Plan to Stop Them.” It reviews all of the factors mentioned above and concludes that it would be a big mistake to abandon the Democratic Party:

In the event that the convention is contested or stolen, the “DemExit” strategy, a 2016 attempt to form a new third party by splitting Sanders supporters from the Democratic Party, will likely reemerge.

When you click DemExit, you will be directed to a CounterPunch article from August 5, 2016 that was written by Calvin Priest and Pam Keeley, two members of Socialist Alternative. Although Trotskyists, the group, which includes Kshama Sawant, urged a vote for him in 2016, just as it does this year—even more fervently. Priest and Keeley, who took part in walkouts after Sanders got royally screwed, wrote:

We need a real #DemExit, a real walkout on corporate politics, and a new mass party of the 99%.

The formation of a new political party was a key step on the road to ending institutionalized slavery in the US. In other countries it took new parties of the working class to win socialized medicine, paid parental leave, and free college education.

It will take a new mass party of working people in the United States to bring a real challenge to corporate politics and the failed system of capitalism.

This is the last thing that Lewis and Huang want to see. They lay out a perspective that implicitly projects a takeover of the Democratic Party by democratic socialists:

Without a clear avenue to supplant either of the two major parties, DemExit risks spoiling elections for the Republicans. Additionally problematic, DemExit takes the social movement left out of a contest for power that we are currently winning. The Sanders campaign and coalition represent the greatest threat to corporate power in the party since its decisive turn towards neoliberalism in the 1970s. No one will breathe a bigger sigh of relief than the party establishment if we, the movement behind Sanders, pack our bags and go home.

While party elites have resources and undemocratic levers of power that we do not, they are also few in number. With a plan, organization, and a mass movement on our side, we can win the convention in July, win the election in November, and begin the next phase of the struggle to transform American democracy.

The next phase of the struggle to transform American democracy will not take place at the Democratic Party convention, nor will it be conducted inside a voting booth on election day. While I am not in the business of fortune-telling, the odds favor Joe Biden and Donald Trump as the two candidates in the general election in November, with Trump returning to the White House for a second term.

Trump’s second term will be marked by deepening class polarization as the intractable problems of the capitalist system grow more acute. Today’s meltdown on Wall Street will likely have the same kind of effect on the economy as it did in 2007, perhaps with fewer long-term consequences but with little assurance that job growth will continue as it has. On top of that, you can expect Trump to target Social Security and Medicare as a way of keeping military spending untouched. Black people and immigrants will continue to face repression from the cops and women will find it even harder to get an abortion. As for the publicly-owned land in the Western states, there will be encroachments that will accelerate the extinction of protected species like the wolf and the grizzly bear. On top of that, climate change will produce even more vicious hurricanes and forest fires.

Against that backdrop, there will be little interest in building up the same kind of energy for another Bernie Sanders campaign in 2024 unless the DSA wants to pin its hope on an 82-year old candidate using a walker and wiping the drool from the corner of his mouth. After this year’s elections, Sanders will go back to his well-paid job as a Senator and continue to write books about the need for a “political revolution”. Like everything else in capitalist society, it will have a rather short shelf-life.

With its 65,000 members, the DSA is in the driver’s seat politically. The Leninist groups have largely disappeared or become adjuncts of the DSA, like Socialist Alternative. Given a willingness to make a clean break with the Democratic Party, it could beef up its leadership, become more professionally organized, and spearhead mass campaigns that will tap into the growing fury of the American people.

It could also begin to run candidates in its own name who are not afraid to speak the truth about the causes of our misery, namely the private ownership of the means of production. Instead of the mealy-mouthed formulations about taking on the billionaire class (whatever that means), it could raise slogans that go to the heart of capitalist production, like nationalizing the banks and making a job with a living wage a right guaranteed by the government.

Of course, they can continue on their merry way and let someone else take their place. Nature and politics both abhor a vacuum.

 

 

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.

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