Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 FDR as strikebreaker

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

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

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

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

The miners didn’t budge.

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

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

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

 ‘Can’t dig coal with bayonets’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

October 5, 2019

Christian Parenti’s weak tea

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

Christian Parenti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 8, 2019

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

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

Micah Uetricht

Seth Ackerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

July 2, 2019

Butting in to Bhaskar Sunkara’s debate with a Trotskyist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

July 1, 2019

Lars Lih versus Eric Blanc

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

Lars Lih, the master disowns his disciple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

June 14, 2019

Bernie Sanders and the New Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 22, 2019

A Jacobin/DSAer’s Red Herrings

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

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

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

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

The original core of the group consisted of the Jacobin generation of members, several of whom were part of a Left Caucus in the pre-surge DSA, who were looking to heat up the old organization’s tepid politics. There are six votes from the Bread and Roses caucus on DSA’s national political committee (NPC), effectively its board of directors, not quite a third of the total of 19, giving the caucus a serious, if not dominant, presence. Two of them are on the Jacobin masthead (Chris Maisano and Ella Mahony), and another prominent Bread and Roses member, Micah Uetricht, is the magazine’s managing editor. The strong presence on the NPC and the affiliation with Jacobin, the most influential publication on the American socialist left these days, gets people to talking about a sect with its own propaganda arm plotting to control the organization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

May 17, 2019

Trotsky, Bukharin, and the Eco-Modernists

Filed under: Bukharin,Counterpunch,DSA,Ecology,Jacobin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 17, 2019

Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.

– Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” (1924)

For some Trotskyist groups, these words have been interpreted as a green light to support all sorts of ecomodernist schemas. For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means using technology, often of dubious value, to ward off environmental crisis.

For example, the Socialist Workers Party, when it was still tethered to the planet Earth, was a strong supporter of Green values but after becoming unmoored it began to publish articles that asserted: “Science and technology — which are developed and used by social labor — have established the knowledge and the means to lessen the burdens and dangers of work, to advance the quality of life, and to conserve and improve the earth’s patrimony.”  These abstractions have meant in the concrete supporting GMO: “The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species–so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”

A split from the SWP, the Spartacist League is just as gung-ho. In a diatribe against ecosocialist scholar and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, they position themselves as global warming skeptics: “Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society.” Their answer is very much in the spirit of the Trotsky quote above: “Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.” It turns out that Indian Point et al would be put at the service of society based on an article titled “Greens’ Anti-Nuclear Hysteria Amnesties Capitalism”.

Of course, the granddaddy of this kind of crude productivism is the cult around Spiked Online that is correctly perceived today as a contrarian and libertarian outlet. But its roots are in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain that defended GMO, nuclear power, DDT, etc. using Trotsky’s rhetoric. Today, there’s nothing to distinguish it from Donald Trump’s Department of Energy.

As it happens, Trotsky’s business about moving mountains through technology serves as the epigraph to Jacobin’s special issue on environmentalism that is permeated by ecomodernist themes. Among them is an article by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that shares an affection for nuclear energy with the nutty sects listed above. They reason: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” Their techno-optimism rivals that of Steven Pinker’s: “We patched our deteriorating ozone layer; we returned wolf populations and the forests they inhabit to central Europe; we relegated the infamous London fog of Dickens, Holmes, and Hitchcock to fiction, though coal particulates still choke Beijing and Shanghai.” As it happens, China is reducing coal particulates by displacing them geographically. The IEEFA, an energy think-tank, reported that a quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations.

Continue reading

April 15, 2019

HM/Jacobin Conference 2019: Socialism in our Time

Filed under: Historical Materialism,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

The Socialism in Our Time conference that met this weekend was co-sponsored by Jacobin and Historical Materialism. This is a not an attempt at presenting an impartial report but simply my own reaction to the presentations.

  1. What Happened to the Pink Tide (Saturday 10:30am-12pm)

The speakers were Rene Rojas and Kenneth Roberts, with Roberts serving as a “discussant” (an academic conference convention) on Rojas’s article that appeared in the Summer 2018 Catalyst titled “The Latin American Left’s Shifting Tides”, which is not behind a paywall. It is a very long and very good article that I recommend thoroughly. Rojas’s analysis was not surprising:

When world commodity prices plummeted, the result was an unavoidable tightening of services and goods for their urban poor backers. Leftists in power could only think of tapping and squeezing as much as possible from their countries’ existing production and commercial circuits rather than developing new, alternative, and more reliable means to provide for their constituents. A recent Chavista voter could not have put it better, declaring that the government “just needs to find a way to make an economic revolution, so we can eat once again!” In short, poor urban voters abandoned the Pink Tide for its inability to break through the limits set by the neoliberal economy. Whereas elites beat back the classical left for going too far, the Pink Tide governments are falling to the very sectors that voted them into office, who are punishing left regimes for not going far enough.

He draws a contrast between the Pink Tide and what he calls the “classical left”, which meant, for example, the trade union movements in Brazil and Argentina of the 40s and 50s that exploited their social weight to gain concessions from a modernizing bourgeoisie:

Ironically, the rise of Latin America’s classical left was fueled by elite modernization projects. For the first time since the Mexican Revolution, the region’s popular sectors effectively threatened ruling-class power. Its foundation was the organized industrial working classes that emerged with the post-Depression industrial development in the region’s most economically advanced countries, along with the rebellious “peasantry” that was thrust into militancy with capitalist transformation of agriculture. Aided and often coordinated by an ancillary layer of students and low-level professional revolutionists, these effective left movements were built on radicalizing segments in unions and insurgent proletarianized rural communities and associations.

By contrast, the Central American revolutions of the 1970s and 80s relied on peasant movements and the informal sector:

The main impact of these rural-based insurgencies was to deliver real democratic reform and permanently dismantle the repressive labor system on which their agrarian oligarchies relied. The Sandinistas led a generalized insurrection that toppled the Somozas in 1979. In neighboring El Salvador, the FMLN twice attempted to replicate the former’s strategy. They came close, first in 1981, then again with the final 1989 offensive, occupying vast sections of the capital, each time fighting the oligarchic military regime to a standstill. The Guatemalan guerrillas built a less potent military apparatus that was essentially contained by the early 1980s, yet, punching above their weight and withstanding the regime’s genocidal response, they also forced a stalemate. The Salvadoran insurgency best illustrates the Left’s achievements: the mass armed insurgency of proletarianized rural communities was so costly to the traditional agrarian oligarchy that it reshaped their fundamental interests. By making the extra-economic forms of labor exploitation unviable, it forced ruling classes to shift to other commercial and manufacturing sectors.

Jeffrey Webber wrote a critique of Rojas in NACLA that is worth reading.

During the discussion, I pointed out that Rojas’s article failed to mention the constraints on Central and Latin American leftist governments, either of the “classical left” or Pink Tide varieties. In my experience carrying out solidarity work for the FSLN, it became obvious that the relationship of forces were making it impossible to move forward. Once the USSR went capitalist, the ability of anti-capitalist states to survive was severely limited. I didn’t have time to make an additional point that has some bearing on this but will mention it now. It was impossible, even under the best of circumstances, for Nicaragua or Venezuela to build socialism for the same reason it was impossible in the USSR. Socialism is a world system, just like capitalism. If there was to be a movement toward socialism in Latin and Central America, it would have to be continent-wide, just as it was in the 19th century against Spanish colonialism. Unfortunately, despite the lip-service given to Simon Bolivar by Hugo Chavez, there was never much attempt to apply the lessons of his struggle. In the 1960s, the Cubans formed OLAS as a way to unite revolutionary forces in Latin America but on a mistaken guerrilla warfare basis. When that failed, Cuba more or less gave up on such projects. With the exhaustion of the Pink Tide, it will be up to Marxist currents to carry the struggle forward. One hopes that they can abandon sectarianism and achieve the kind of mass support that Hugo Chavez or other Pink Tide leaders enjoyed.

  1. Brexit: WTF? (Saturday, 1pm-2:30pm)

This was a talk by Richard Seymour that was up to his usual high standards. Fortunately, he posted it to his Patreon account that I urge you to look at, as well as signing up for a monthly donation to his work.

https://www.patreon.com/posts/brexit-wtf-26090049

  1. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the Middle East (Saturday 3pm-4:30pm)

Yasser Munif spoke about the regime’s success in overtaking Aleppo that relied on a combination of aerial bombardment and being able to exploit ethnic and religious divisions.

After Munif, Anand Gopal spoke about class divisions that have largely gone unreported, even by people who are considered experts on Syria. Ultimately, it was class divisions rather than ethnic or religious divisions that undermined the possibility of a democratic revolution. He recounted his experiences in Manjib, a city of about 100,000 that was one of the first to expel the Assadist government officials early and to come under the control of a Revolutionary Council that encouraged the full flowering of democratic rights. However, the Council was dominated by the local bourgeoisie that despite suffering under Assad was determined to maintain private property rights at all costs. This meant that when local working-class residents demanded price controls on bread and their supply being maintained collectively rather than privately, the Council resisted. This led to young activists based in the local college organizing protests against the Council that had no effect until Islamists moved into Manjib and used force against it in the name of serving the people according to Islamic principles. Once the Islamists gained control of the city, they absorbed it into ISIS’s bogus caliphate and operated as a dictatorship, with no regard for the hunger that persisted under their rule. In his last visit to Manjib, Gopal learned that young activists, including some who joined ISIS, are thinking through the lessons of what happened and are now opened to socialist politics.

The final speaker was Frieda Afary, an Iranian-American member of the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists, who spoke about the emerging grass-roots resistance of trade unionists and women to the Islamic Republic. Her articles can be found on their website.

  1. Is there a Democratic Road to Socialism? A Debate. (Sunday 10:30am-12pm)

This was between Eric Blanc and Charles Post and largely forgettable. Blanc defended his neo-Kautskyite perspective, with several references to the importance of the “electoral arena”. If this was only about backing candidates as well as mass action, there wouldn’t have been much need for a debate. Perhaps sensing the leftist sensibility of the audience, Blanc did not mentioned the Democratic Party once but did, of course, talk about the need to back Sanders. Post, who is a congenital windbag, spent his time talking about working class power, the inevitably of a revolutionary struggle for power and other abstractions. If you were expecting the kind of debate that Peter Camejo had with Michael Harrington, you would have been disappointed. Since Charles Post is a humorless pedant, the debate was pretty much of a dud. It would have been far more interesting if Tim Horras had debated Blanc but he is not part of the charmed HM/Jacobin circle. However, I do urge you to read his article taking up all these questions here.

  1. How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West (Sunday, 1:00pm-2:30pm)

This was a presentation by James Parisot on his new book as titled above. I picked the book up on Saturday during lunch and can’t recommend it highly enough. Based on his PhD, it argues that slavery, capitalism and imperialism were intertwined. Rather than recapitulate his presentation, it would be best if I provided a brief excerpt from this intelligent and well-written Pluto book:

When Thomas R. Gray wrote Nat Turner’s “confessions” after interviewing him, he included in the introduction of his book, “Nat Turner, the leader of this ferocious band, whose name has resounded throughout Our widely extended empire, was captured.” For Gray, Turner’s rebellion was a challenge to empire. And in the south, empire could be seen as stretching from the household to the polity. As the Marquis de Chastellux put it, more critically, “I mean to speak of slavery; not that it is any mark of distinction, or peculiar privilege to possess negroes, but because the Empire men exercise over them cherishes vanity and sloth.” Thus, for some, the “empire” of slavery was not something to celebrate, but to criticize. Compared to the more prosperous and economical north, southern slavery tarnished human potential, encouraging arrogant behavior and idleness through the exercise of personal slave empires.

Slavery was, of course, not only racialized, but gendered. American slavery was unique in that it developed into a self-reproducing system, so that, even with the formal abolition of the slave trade, slavery could continue to expand south and west. Often slave women worked in the fields, the same as men, although in some cases their gender was preferred for household tasks. And, as recorded in the story of Harriet Jacobs, female slaves were also regularly raped. The result of this, along with the fact that free blacks and whites did occasionally copulate on consensual terms, led to years of debate over who, exactly, was “black.” Milton Clarke’s narrative, for example, reveals he was called a “white nigger.” And one record of racial categories in New Orleans shows a complexity of racial categories:

Sacatra: griffe and negress.
Griffe: negro and mulatto.
Marabon: mulatto and griffe.
Mulatto: white and negro.
Quarteron: white and mulatto.
Metif: white and quarteron.
Meamelouc: white and motif.
Quarteron: white and meamelouc.
Sang-mele: white and quarteron.

Charles Post and John Clegg were discussants in this panel discussion. Clegg, who agrees with Parisot that slave plantations were capitalist, offered useful points of agreements as well as criticisms, especially on what he thought were imprecise formulations on empire. Parisot, who has a refreshingly modest manner for an academic, thought that Clegg had a point.

As for Post, who was invited to be a discussant by Parisot, repeated his well-trodden arguments about why you can’t have capitalism without wage labor. Yawn.

  1. Leninism, Social Democracy, and the State (Sunday, 3:00pm-4:30pm)

This was an odd panel discussion with two of the speakers from the Socialist Project in Canada who declared Leninism extinct. In doing so, they were not repeating the arguments I have made but much more in line with Eric Blanc’s neo-Kautskyism. The other speaker was Nathaniel Flakin, an editorial board member of Left Voice who took up the cudgels against Kautskyism. If you go to the Left Voice website and do a search on Kautsky, you’ll find a number of interesting articles by Flakin as well as Doug Greene, who has begun to write for it as a guest columnist. Doug Greene, of course, is always worth reading.

April 3, 2019

Down with neo-Kautskyism

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,Kautsky — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

Karl Kautsky

Five years ago Jacobin was a big happy family with the ISO and Solidarity members basking in the spotlight alongside the DSA intellectuals. Despite the obvious cleavage between the Trotskyist origins of the former group and the Michael Harrington orientation of Bhaskar Sunkara, everybody could benefit from the exposure afforded by the magazine’s vast readership.

Eventually, the differences became too pronounced to ignore. Probably the first manifestation of this was Charles Post’s gentle reprimand of Vivek Chibber in the February 2018 issue that took issue with an earlier article by Chibber targeting the “ruptural” strategy associated with the early Communist International and the revolutionary left. Despite Chibber’s reputation as a high priest of orthodox Marxism (bolstered by Post and Jacobin, it should be added), there was no denying that he had much more in common with Michael Harrington than Leon Trotsky.

Establishing the orthodoxy of the Jacobin left took much more than citing Michael Harrington. To maintain its left cover, it had to search for a Marxist authority who could be invoked when dealing with a bunch of old fogies like Charles Post or Robert Brenner who could not see the wisdom in ringing doorbells for a Democratic Party candidate. Of course, one cannot be sure that Brenner was purged from the Catalyst editorial board by Sunkara and Chibber for political reasons but I’d bet a bottle of Glenlivet scotch that it was a factor.

Eric Blanc was Johnny-on-the-spot. This young Marxist scholar had an impressive track record of articles that were notable for their erudition even when some of their conclusions were questionable. Perhaps the most questionable of them were those that endorsed Lars Lih’s pro-“Old Bolshevik” analysis that there was a continuum between Karl Kautsky and Lenin. It was only a matter of time that Blanc’s political trajectory could be discerned. His interest in Kautsky was not just historical. He saw in Kautsky the missing link that could establish the revolutionary continuity between Karl Kautsky and the DSA’s inside-outside electoral strategy.

In January 2019, John Muldoon published an article in Jacobin titled Reclaiming the Best of Karl Kautsky that described him as the original “democratic socialist”. In my rebuttal to Muldoon, I wrote:

Kautsky’s basic message is don’t rock the boat with all that socialist revolution stuff. No wonder it would appeal to people smitten with Bernie Sanders, who is all for his home state serving as a base for F-35s, a $1.5 trillion boondoggle, or Jeremy Corbyn, whose chief economic adviser John McDonnell warns against nationalizing industry, something that would hearken back to 1945—god forbid.

Post had his own response to Mullin last month in an article titled The “Best” of Karl Kautsky Isn’t Good Enough that was critical but not so nearly as mine. Unlike Post, I don’t care about burning bridges and rather enjoy blowing up the smoldering remains with dynamite while I am at it. He wrote:

On the other hand, there are the electoral breakthroughs by self-proclaimed socialists and radicals such as Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib in the United States. The rising electoral profile of open critics of neoliberalism give the renewed struggles outside the electoral arena a political voice — a voice which could stimulate new and broader struggles.

If you take this seriously, then why not ring doorbells for the Democrats? After all, it might lead to workers councils and general strikes someday.

As gentle as Post’s critique was, Eric Blanc felt the need to defend Kautsky against him. (He even criticized Mullin for not giving Kautsky his due.) In an article titled Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care), Blanc comes out full-tilt-boogie for Kautsky, a man that Karl Marx described as “a member of the philistine tribe”.

In the first paragraph, Blanc describes Kautsky as “the world’s preeminent Marxist theorist from the late 1880s through 1914.” I’d make the case for Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky having those qualifications but do consider the possibility that Blanc uses the word “preeminent” in the same way that it applies to Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as socialists. After all, with all their appearances on cable TV, the term “preeminent” describes them much more than obscure figures like David Harvey or John Bellamy Foster.

According to Blanc, the fan boy James Muldoon and the critic Post were both wrong in characterizing him as opposed to a “ruptural” break with capitalism. They didn’t realize that Kautsky was a big-time rupture guy. (I’ll never get used to that word being used in this context. When I was young, the word always meant hernia, like when a kid told me in 7th grade that our social studies teacher wore a special belt for his rupture.)

Blanc’s basic position is that “The difference between Kautsky’s approach and that of Leninists like Post is not over whether a revolution was necessary, but how to get there.” To close the deal ideologically, Blanc uses the word insurrection as a way to make revolutionaries sound hopelessly blind to modern-day realities:

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

That the term “insurrection” does not appear once in The State and Revolution does not appear to perturb Blanc. I mean, after all, if it takes putting words in peoples’ mouth to win an argument… Blanc does admit that Kautsky did move toward the center after 1910 but up until that point, “Kautsky was the leading light of the far left in Germany, Russia, and across the world.” Not only that, he was not to blame for the SPD’s reactionary politics after 1910, with its support for WWI and its murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. That was the responsibility of an “unexpected rise of a caste of party and union bureaucrats who were dismissive of Marxist principles in general and Kautsky’s ‘intransigent’ class strategy in particular.”

Judging Kautsky’s pre-1910 writings as beyond reproach strikes me as the predictable outcome of Blanc connecting the dots between Kautsky and Lenin. Instead of seeing Trotsky’s writings on combined and uneven development as key, Lih and Blanc are much more inclined to see Lenin’s Bolshevism as resting on a stodgy and understandably neglected work like The Social Revolution, written in 1902. It contains pearls of wisdom like “For example, in all modern civilization the direction of capitalist development during the last century has been the same, but in every one of them the form and the velocity was very different. Geographical peculiarities, racial individualities, favor and disfavor of the neighbor, the restraint or assistance of great individualities, all these and many ether things have had their influence.” Yes, we can’t forget about those racial individualities, can we? Who would want to bother with Trotsky’s discussion of the 1905 revolution when there are such profundities awaiting us.

Toward the middle of the article, Blanc stops beating around the bush and gets to the real purpose of his article, which is to say it is okay to use the Democratic Party ballot line as he did in his dodgy “dirty break” article. It is high time we got over these Bolshevik “insurrectionary” illusions. Blanc writes:

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

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

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

What existed in Russia in 1917 was rival governing powers. The Constituent Assembly insisted on prolonging the war and ignoring the pleas of the masses for “Peace, Bread and Land”. The Soviets, on the other hand, had become made up in their majority by Bolsheviks and as such were determined to carry out a revolution in order to satisfy their yearnings. If the Bolsheviks had not seized power, the counter-revolution would have prevailed just as it did in Chile under Allende. No matter how committed the Mensheviks and the Chilean left were to capitalist reform, the bourgeoisie was working overtime to make such reform impossible. At a certain point, the working class becomes exhausted and the reactionaries take the offensive.

That about says it all for theorizing revolutionary change but in reality these issues have a rather abstract character. The USA is far from having to decide whether Kautsky’s strategy is the key to unlocking the socialist door.

The real issue today is class independence. In a very real sense, the debate in the movement is not that different than the one that confronted the Russian left: how to regard the country’s capitalist reform party known as the Constitutional Democrats or Cadets. The debate between Jacobin/DSA and people like Charles Post is over how to relate to the Democratic Party, our version of the Cadets. Street-fighting and barricades have nothing to do with our present-day realities but voting for Democrats is.

In one of the most egregious misuses of revolutionary history in Blanc’s article, we are told that Kautsky’s parliamentarian approach was embraced by the sharpest minds in the Communist movement:

History has confirmed Kautsky’s predictions. Not only has there never been a victorious insurrectionary socialist movement under a capitalist democracy, but only a tiny minority of workers have ever even nominally supported the idea of an insurrection. For this reason, the most perceptive elements of the early Communist International began briefly moving back towards Kautsky’s approach in 1922–23 by advocating the parliamentary election of “workers’ governments” as a first step towards rupture.

To start with, the term “workers’ government” had nothing to do with DSA’s electoralism, the goal of which—rather unrealistically—is to see someone like Bernie Sanders turning into the second coming of Olaf Palme. In fact, Sweden won’t see the second coming of Olaf Palme, either. Capitalism has left the Fordist building. It is in the middle of a long depression, as Michael Roberts puts it, and hopes of a generous welfare state are as utopian as anything Robert Owen ever wrote.

When the Communists wrote about a workers government, they had something in mind like Germany in the early 20s when the Communists and many social democrats were revolutionary-minded. Unfortunately, the Communists were sectarian ultraleftists who would have considered such a bloc unprincipled.

But what might have been possible in Germany was not what Eric Blanc has in mind. Indeed, it had an insurrectionary character for much of the time. Germany had definitely entered a pre-Revolutionary situation in 1923. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation.

The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing Socialist named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He was friendly with the Communists and made common cause with them. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the Communist press. The united front overtures to Zeigner mostly consisted of escalating pressure to force him to accommodate to the maximum Communist program.

What if instead the Communists broached the possibility of a common electoral front with Zeigner, whose working-class comrades in Saxony had been carrying out pitched street-fighting battles with the cops and with the emerging fascist movement? This would have been a real “workers government”, not the impotent and useless coalition governments of post-WWII Europe that have been socialist in name only.

Under the conditions of capitalist austerity that will prevail for the foreseeable future in the USA and elsewhere, there will be rising discontent that can conceivably open workers up to the socialist alternative. The last thing we need are Marxists advocating on behalf of the Democratic Party, the oldest continuously functioning capitalist party in the world. The lines have been drawn and the left has to make up its mind. The future is at stake.

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