Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 7, 2019

Bhaskar Sunkara “The Socialist Manifesto”: a review

Filed under: reformism,social democracy — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm


To get a handle on the theoretical foundations for Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Manifesto”, the best place to look is in the Acknowledgements where he gives his props to a sociology professor:

“I’d be remiss if I failed to mention how much I’ve learned from New York University professor Vivek Chibber over the years. If he’s a great chef, I’m doing to his recipes what Chef Boyardee did to pasta. I happen to like SpaghettiOs. I hope you do too.”

Chibber is the editor of Catalyst, a high-toned theoretical journal that is part of Sunkara’s burgeoning publishing empire. Two years ago, in a special issue of Jacobin devoted to the Russian Revolution, Chibber’s article “Our Road to Power” summed up this great chef’s understanding of what the fight for socialism amounts to today:

The Russian road, as it were, was for many parties a viable one. But starting in the 1950s, openings for this kind of strategy narrowed. And today, it seems entirely hallucinatory to think about socialism through this lens…If this is so, then the lessons that the Russian experience has to offer — as a model of socialist transition — are limited. Our strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach. For the foreseeable future, left strategy has to revolve around building a movement to pressure the state, gain power within it, change the institutional structure of capitalism, and erode the structural power of capital — rather than vaulting over it. This entails a combination of electoral and mobilizational politics.

Using a language in keeping with his Chef Boyardee credentials, Sunkara said about the same thing a decade ago when he said farewell to the Marxism list I moderate: “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.”

If you were about building a left-oriented publishing empire, the last thing you needed was an albatross chained to your neck like the Russian Revolution. The New Yorker Magazine, a symbol of middle-class complacency if there ever was one, interviewed Sunkara about his new book in April and inadvertently indicated their shared preferences through a perceptive question:

Your book also evinces a certain respect for reformist, rather than radical, politics, and you write that you are aware of “how profound the gains of reform can be.” So why is Sweden insufficient? I think a lot of people would look at Sweden and say, “O.K., it’s not perfect. It can get better. But it’s about as good as any society that humans have been able to construct.

Sunkara does have a thing for Sweden. In chapter five (The God that Failed), he describes it not only as the most livable society in history but one in which socialists made more headway against capitalism than any other European country in the post-WWII period. One supposes that this might be news to people who lived in Eastern Europe where capitalism was abolished under Soviet occupation. While it is true Swedes enjoyed political freedom, it was only in the Eastern bloc where the capitalist class was expropriated.

Sunkara’s capsule history of 20th century Swedish history is a cherry-picking exercise. The Social Democratic party is extolled as defending the interests of the working class in constructing a “people’s home” for the entire population. The folkhemmet, Swedish for people’s home, sounds rather benign—like a Norman Rockwell painting of people at a Thanksgiving Day dinner.

Folkhemmet was a key to the eugenics program that Gunnar and Alva Myrdal espoused. It blurred the lines between the family unit, the state and the seemingly progressive character of the welfare state that the social democrats promoted. Between 1935 and 1976 Social Democratic governments forced 63,000 women to be sterilized. As part of a eugenics program meant to weed out the genetically or racially ”inferior,” the women were told that they would lose benefits and be separated from their living children if they refused. Typically the women were poor, learning disabled or people with non-Nordic or mixed ethnic backgrounds.

Under folkhemmet, the goal was not to overturn property relations but to reduce the differences in income between those at the top of society and those at the bottom. Isn’t this what attracts people like Bernie Sanders to Swedish “socialism” even though it has little to do with Karl Marx’s call for revolutionary change?

Like the New Deal, Swedish social democracy historically was a deal between the rich and the state to fund welfare programs to mollify a restive population that was attracted to the USSR, where unemployment had been eradicated and public services were abundant. Sweden even developed a brand of deficit spending to kick-start the economy after the fashion of John Maynard Keynes.

Between 1932 and 1976, Sweden was ruled by social democratic governments that were a poster child for the kind of socialism Sunkara advocates. What he does not mention were the circumstances that led to the first elected social democratic government. In 1931, sawmill workers in Adalen organized a general strike for better pay and working conditions. In a peaceful march on May 14, they were blocked by the police and army from reaching the barracks where scabs were being housed. They were finally stopped in their tracks when a cop opened fire on the strikers with a machine gun, leaving five dead and many wounded. There was such outrage throughout Sweden over this massacre that voters elected the first in a series of social democratic governments. The irony is that the workers were mostly Communist Party members or supporters, according to most historians. The Social Democrats banned members from attending the funerals of those on May 14 because they were seen as sympathetic to the Communists.

During WWII, Sweden managed to stay aloof from the anti-fascist military campaign that most historians regard as largely dependent on Soviet arms, materiel and manpower. Aloof might not be the most appropriate word in this instance since Sweden allowed the Nazis to use their railways to transport troops to the Eastern front for the invasion of the USSR. The two very blonde and Aryan nations bonded together economically during the war. Between 1933 and 1943, nearly 25 million tons of iron ore was sold to the Nazis while Sweden bought German coke and coal, as well as German weapons that by all accounts were very cost-efficient. In November 1934, Hitler admitted that without Swedish iron ore, Germany would not be able to make war.

Does Sunkara know anything about this? If he did and cared not to factor this into his love poem to Sweden, then shame on him. It is entirely possible that given the long hours he puts into his publishing empire, he simply does not have the time to dig too deeply into Swedish history or any other history for that matter. As we continue our stroll through the Socialist Manifesto, this will become glaringly obvious.

Chapter four (The Few Who Won) of The Socialist Manifesto is conventional anti-Communist history with the mandatory observation that Stalinism had its roots in Bolshevism. After reviewing all of the well-known Stalinist distortions imposed on Soviet society, Sunkara sums up the main lesson: this “model” came to be synonymous with the socialist ideal itself.

To drive home this point, he renders his judgement on “The Third World Revolution” in chapter six. Compared to Sweden, the colonial revolution led by Communists resulted in disasters. Of course, if China or Vietnam were selling iron ore to Hitler during WWII, things might have turned out better. But we don’t deal in hypotheticals, do we?

Like Russia, China gets treated as a violation of democratic socialism, leaving the reader feeling rather deflated. We discover that in the 1950s the backyard steel furnaces were a fiasco and that a campaign against the “four pests” (flies, mosquitos, rats and sparrows) led to a famine. Though pests in many ways, these creatures fed on the grasshoppers that now lacking a natural predator were free to feast on grain. Despite such Maoist bungling, whatever attraction China had as a model all but evaporated after Nixon’s trip to China and the subsequent transformation of China into a capitalist economy, something accepted by most on the left except those intoxicated by Stalinist dogma such as Roland Boer, the Australian theologian who blogs as Stalin’s Moustache.

In the same chapter where China gets a thumb’s down, Cuba is also dismissed, almost as an afterthought. With sixteen pages on China versus the single page that discusses Cuba, you might have expected Sunkara to take a closer look at the one country in the world that is still trying to build socialism. (I don’t include North Korea because it is such a grotesque Stalinist/Confucian outlier.) After acknowledging Cuba’s giant strides in education and health care, he gives it a failing grade for lacking democracy. One has to wonder where he gets his yardstick for passing such judgements. What if Sweden had been invaded and occupied by the USA for a century to prevent it from becoming the welfare state he so admired? If it was finally able to drive out an oligarchy and begin instituting the measures Cubans enjoy, would the Swedes tolerate political parties funding by the USA to overturn the welfare state? I don’t believe in hypotheticals but it is always necessary to put democratic rights into context. Perhaps on a day when he was less subject to anti-Communist thinking, Sunkara might have understood why Cuba had not become an “Open Society”, to use George Soros’s terminology. In this chapter on third world revolutions, he has a brief reference to our hemisphere’s sorry history:

Elsewhere in the Americas, democratic roads to socialism in Nicaragua and Chile, the latter supported by a powerful working-class movement, were blocked by conservative domestic elites and American meddling. The nature of this US interference was not always coups and invasions but also sanctions, trade sabotage, and election rigging. Even where Third World socialist movements had democratic impulses, the experience of those like Allende seemed to encourage authoritarian paths to change.

Referring to Cuba’s “revolution from above” in the very next paragraph, he doesn’t seem to make the connection. As the president of the board of one of the largest Nicaragua solidarity organizations, I have bitter memories of how the USA was able to interfere in Nicaraguan elections. If Cuba had to choose between children being fed, educated, housed and kept healthy on one hand and catering to Human Rights Watch’s litmus tests on the other, I’ll go with the children.

After having covered (or covered up) European, Latin American and Asian history, Sunkara finally gets around to reviewing socialist movements in the USA. In keeping with DSA iconography, Eugene V. Debs gets a clean bill of health. Moving right along, he finds the Communist Party to his liking, not so much for its Stalinism but its civil rights and trade union activism. But he particularly admires their close ties to the New Deal, an alliance that has inspired the DSA’s support for Bernie Sanders who has insisted that his socialism is identical to the New Deal rather than misbegotten Soviet experiments.

Unlike the CP, the Socialist Party advocated a clean break with the two-party system just as Eugene V. Debs did. In the 1930s, it was led by Norman Thomas who was once asked by a reporter how he felt about Roosevelt carrying out his party’s program. His pithy reply was that it was carried out but on a stretcher. Sunkara writes:

But Thomas and most of the Socialist Party clung to its Debsian-era strategy of opposition to bourgeois reformers—class independence was paramount. Thomas saw the New Deal as a “program that makes concessions to workers in order to keep them quiet a while longer and so stabilize the power of private owners.” No doubt this was true, but these reforms didn’t placate workers; they led them to demand more.36

If you check endnote number 36, you’ll discover that it is a reference to Irving Howe’s “Socialism and America”. This is like writing that Trump has been a great president and backing it up with a citation to a book written by Sean Hannity.

Referring to the 1936 election, Sunkara makes Norman Thomas’s SP practically look like the Spartacist League—an ultraleft purist sect that did not recognize the profound realities of American society:

In the 1936 presidential election, workers around the country were making a rational decision to support the Democratic Party, hungry to continue Roosevelt’s reforms and recognizing the institutional barriers to independent politics. Thomas’s cohort couldn’t offer a strategy to overcome any of those barriers or even a way to not counterpoise themselves to the best New Deal reforms. They just had slogans about opposing capitalist parties. Ironically, the more fringe Communist Party was better able to relate to Roosevelt supporters.

To start with, the CP was not exactly “fringe”. In 1936, it had perhaps ten times as many members as the SP and could count on people like Count Basie or Bennie Goodman to play at a benefit for the Spanish Civil War, and even the NY Times for articles supporting the Moscow Trials. In any case, the bigger problem was the CP’s ongoing sabotage of any attempts to start a Labor Party in the USA, something that would have had a great amount of traction in 1936. The New Deal might have been able to provide low-paying jobs in the WPA but it had not broken the back of the Great Depression. To show you the lengths that the New Deal left would go to elect FDR, it helped to create the American Labor Party that while nominally independent placed FDR on its ballot line. It was the same kind of shifty electoral maneuvering that the Working Families Party adopted when it put Andrew Cuomo on its ballot line in the last gubernatorial election. These parties are independent in name only.

The 1960s radicalization that made me the person I am today—for better or for worse—gets about as brief a mention in The Socialist Manifesto as Cuba. There were just as many young people in the 1960s committed to bringing about socialism as there are in the DSA today but the word meant something different to us. It meant abolishing wage slavery just like Radical Republicanism meant abolishing chattel slavery to Frederick Douglass.

Yes, we were fragmented by sectarian notions of who was the genuine continuation of Lenin’s party but we put our lives on the line. For all practical purposes, the attempts to build such parties has come to an end with the self-liquidation of the International Socialists Organization. Many, if not most of its members, have hooked up with the DSA and are as eager to recreate the New Deal as Bernie Sanders.

Sunkara finally gets around to outlining a strategy to establish socialism in the USA in chapter nine, titled “How We Win”. It consists of 15 points that few would disagree with since they are anodyne proposals for the most part. For example, there is this:

The socialist premise is clear: at their core people want dignity, respect, and a fair shot at a good life. A democratic class politics is the best way to unite people against our common opponent and win the type of change that will help the most marginalized, all while engaging in a far longer campaign against oppression rooted in race, gender, sexuality, and more.

Well, of course. Who could argue with this? The real issue, however, is the same as it has been since the mid-1930s when the largest group on the left became embedded in the Democratic Party. As long as we continue to search in vain for the Democrat on horseback who can ride into the White House and put things right, the real struggle for socialism will be ineffective.

This time it will be different, according to Sunkara:

It will come as no surprise that I’ve been a registered Democrat since my eighteenth birthday—the same day I joined the Democratic Socialists of America. I joined the latter because the DSA reflected my actual political beliefs, the former because I lived in New York and wanted to participate in the only meaningful elections in my area, which were closed Democratic Party primaries. As a registered Democrat, I don’t have the power to influence the party’s politics in any meaningful way: like most registered voters in this country, I don’t get a vote when it comes to my own party’s political platform. But on the flip side, there’s no way for the Democrats to expel me or hold me to a political program. I can spend most of my waking hours attacking the Clintons and other corporate Democrats, and I can’t be disciplined in any way. I can only lose my ability to vote in Democratic primaries in New York if I change my registration or commit a felony and am incarcerated or on parole. Precisely because it is so undemocratic, the Democratic Party may actually be vulnerable to what Ackerman calls “the electoral equivalent of a guerilla insurgency.”

A guerrilla insurgency? Hardly. The Democratic Party has been around since the time of Andrew Jackson and has weathered challenges by “insurgents” going back to its co-optation of Tom Watson’s Populists. What Bhaskar Sunkara and his comrades do not understand is that the presence of “democratic socialists” in the Democratic Party helps to keep its brand alive. Even if Ilhan Omar is the target of racist tweets, even if she keeps Nancy Pelosi awake at night and even if she costs the Democrats the 2020 Presidential election, the “Squad” and Bernie Sanders will help to sustain the illusion that the party can become an instrument of genuine political transformation.

When Ralph Nader ran for president in 2004, Democratic Party lawyers fought to keep him and his running mate Peter Camejo off the ballot across the entire country. The DP elite wants to make sure that efforts to outflank it from the left never get off the ground. If we are serious about launching a true “guerrilla insurgency”, the first step is supporting Howie Hawkins for President in 2020 as the Green Party candidate. Last December Hawkins made the case for independent class politics that would be the first step in reconstituting an authentic socialist movement in the USA incorporating the best that the SP, the CP and even the Trotskyist movement I joined over a half-century ago could offer:

So what would a socialist alternative to the capitalist Democrats look like, both as a program for social transformation and as a movement of the working class for its own freedom? Sanders’s regulatory and social insurance reforms of capitalism do not end the polarization of society into rich and poor flowing from the exploitation of working people. Those reforms do not end the oppression, alienation, and disempowerment of working people. Those reforms do not stop capitalism’s competitive drive for mindless growth that is devouring the environment and roasting the planet. Socialism as a program has traditionally meant economic democracy—social ownership of the means of production for democratic planning and allocation of economic surpluses—as a necessary condition for full political democracy and freedom. But in the absence of a sizable socialist Left that runs its own candidates against both capitalist parties, socialism has been reduced in popular parlance to simply government programs.

These words encapsulate in my mind what a real socialist manifesto would begin to look like. For information on Howie Hawkins’s campaign, go to https://howiehawkins.us/.

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.

March 5, 2019

Democratic Socialism: a hot commodity

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,reformism — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

New York magazine has been around since 1968 and can generally be found in the reception area of doctors and dentists next to the more genteel and patrician New Yorker magazine. In contrast to the New Yorker, New York is focused on trends such as identifying which low-rent neighborhoods are on the verge of becoming “hip” through gentrification or life-style advice in articles such as The Best Automatic Pet Feeders and Water Fountains, According to Experts. I usually spend about a minute or two looking over the New York and New Yorker magazine websites on Monday when the new issues come out before going on to more substantive matters.

So, when I looked at New York yesterday and noticed that it was virtually a special issue on the DSA/Jacobin phenomenon, it drove home to me the degree to which it is the perfect place for such articles. They were the latest installment of puff-pieces that began in the January 20, 2013 NY Times with “A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream”. Ever since I have been reading the NY Times on a daily basis, I have never seen anything but the most hostile and distorted reporting on socialism and Marxism but for obvious reasons, this “democratic socialism” stuff really goes over big with the publisher. The first two paragraphs of the Times article has a tone that never would have been used if the subject was Hugo Chavez or Che Guevara:

When Bhaskar Sunkara was growing up in Westchester County, he likes to say, he dreamed of being a professional basketball player.

But the height gods, among others, didn’t smile in his favor. So in 2009, during a medical leave from his sophomore year at George Washington University, Mr. Sunkara turned to Plan B: creating a magazine dedicated to bringing jargon-free neo-Marxist thinking to the masses.

Other trend-sniffing magazines followed suit with their articles about another “democratic socialist” superstar. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been profiled seven times in Vogue magazine, including an item about her multistep skin care routine. They quote her Instagram post: “I’m a science nerd and I truly enjoy the science of it, reading about compounds and studies. It’s like that.” She has also made it into Vanity Fair eleven times, including the cover photo shown above.

Let Bhaskar Sunkara and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bask in the limelight with their celebrity status. I’ll stick with socialists and radicals who are seen as notorious rather than celebrated. This includes Malcom X, Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky. When you are understood to be an enemy of the capitalist system, the gloves come off in the bourgeois press. These three, who had a big influence on me as a young radical, were notorious—so much so that they were killed for their efforts.

In a New York article titled “Okay, But What’s Wrong With Liberalism? A Chat With Jonathan Chait and Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara”, we get a “one-on-one” exchange moderated by Eric Levitz, a staff writer like the centrist Chait but closer to Sunkara politically. That doesn’t prevent Levitz from asking the question I’ve been asked a thousand times myself: “Didn’t the 20th century prove that socialism is even worse? After all, socialists are supposed to be radical (small-d) democrats — yet, in country after country, didn’t they transform into authoritarians upon their first taste of power?”

Sunkara answers this in a crafty manner. He acknowledges that Sweden was a capitalist country but “in the 1970s was the best society we’ve ever seen” and “governed by a socialist party that fought for democracy through the 1920s and ruled virtually uninterrupted for a half-century through democratic elections.” As for those shitty dictatorships like the USSR and Cuba, Sunkara leaves it like this: “We know the tragic legacy of the latter tradition.” What’s missing from this analysis is a recognition that there was a counter-revolution in the USSR. All of the major leaders of the October 1917 revolution were executed, assassinated or died in a Gulag. So what “latter tradition” is Sunkara talking about? The Communist Party that did everything in its power to prevent Spain from consummating a socialist revolution in 1938 or that used its control over the trade union movement in France to derail the May/June 1968 revolt? No, that legacy had little to do with socialism, even if Jacobin has repeatedly held up Italy’s Stalinist leader Togliatti as someone that today’s left can learn from.

Toward the end of this panel discussion, Sunkara acknowledges that in the long run the Swedish model will be unsustainable even if Bernie Sanders was elected and went about turning the USA into another Sweden. Why? “The history of social democracy is that capital will withhold investment if it doesn’t like the prevailing political mood or constraints on its freedom. In the modern, internationalized economy, this means that social democracy is harder to achieve than it was in the 20th century.”

So, what can we look forward to from the DSA/Jacobin left? Maybe thirty or forty years of election campaigns that will finally create a “democratic socialist” majority in both houses of Congress, a president like Sanders (maybe Ocasio-Cortez herself), and a Supreme Court filled with people like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, the DSA backed District Attorney who is against Mumia getting a new trial . Even if this long and arduous struggle is successful, it will have been a Sisyphean effort since the capitalists will do everything in their power to subvert it. Maybe the idea is to start building a revolutionary party opposed to the Republicans and Democrats alike, one that will challenge capital politically by running candidates that raise the consciousness of the masses by exposing the contradictions of the capitalist system, such as its inability to eradicate the racism that has been at its core for the past 300 years or so. Most importantly, this will be a party that fosters the growth of working class committees that have the power to defend themselves against counter-revolutionary violence. This is the way that socialist revolutions happen and the USA won’t be an exception.

Then there is “Pinkos Have More Fun Socialism is AOC’s calling card, Trump’s latest rhetorical bludgeon, and a new way to date in Brooklyn”, a piece that makes the DSA scene look positively happening:

It’s the Friday after Valentine’s Day. The radical publishing house Verso Books is throwing its annual Red Party, an anti-romance-themed banger. Like a lot of the best lefty parties, it takes place in Verso’s book-lined Jay Street loft, ten stories above cobblestoned Dumbo. The view of the East River is splendid, the DJ is good, and the beers cost three bucks.

Before long, you get the idea that this a subculture much more than a political movement. The people appear to be very young, very educated and very white. What is the chance that a striking Spectrum worker will feel at home where this is happening?

An hour into the party, Isser and Brostoff stage a version of The Dating Game — one bachelorette, four suitors — to promote Red Yenta. Friend-of-the-app Natasha Lennard, a columnist at the Intercept, yells for quiet. “There is a service — a communal service — that is better than a Tinder, or the last hurrahs of an OKCupid,” she announces. Who wants to slog through a few bad dates only “to find out that someone is a liberal?” Brostoff takes the mic. Pins and posters are available for purchase, she says, and donations are of course welcome. “That’s how we became capitalists,” she jokes. “And that’s what you call irony. Or dialectics.”

Funny to see Natasha Lennard in this setting. A decade ago, she was a high profile anarchist who would not have found much in common with “democratic socialists”. I guess this just reflects the counter-cultural, if not the political, ebb of anarchism. She felt at home at a party that was greeted by the NYC-DSA host: “Everybody looks fuckin’ sexy as hell. This is amazing to have everybody here looking beautiful in the same room, spreading the message of socialism. Give yourselves a round of applause.” I’m glad I wasn’t invited. My days of looking beautiful are long over, plus I get sleepy around 10pm.

The most illuminating paragraph in this life-style article is this one:

Until very recently, it wasn’t that socialism was toxic in a red-scare way. It was irrelevant, in a dustbin-of-history way. But then came Bernie Sanders’s 2016 candidacy, then the membership boom of DSA, then the proliferation of socialist cultural products like Chapo, and then, finally, the spectacular rise of Ocasio-Cortez.

The politics of the socialism that they helped revive isn’t always clear. Stripped of its Soviet context and cynically repurposed by conservative partisans, the word had lost its meaning by the time it got hot again. For some DSA grandees, like NYC chapter co-chair Bianca Cunningham, socialism means a planned economy that replaces market capitalism. “It means we own the means of production. It means we get to run our workplaces and our own government,” she says. But that is unusual. For Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and most of their devotees, it’s closer to a robust version of New Deal liberalism — or, perhaps, Northern European social democracy.

No, the word has not lost its meaning, at least for people not taken in by Sunkara’s con-game. It is a system that will exist globally or else it will not exist at all. Furthermore, it will be characterized by the collective ownership of the means of production, scientific planning, and a reintegration of the city and the countryside in order to overcome the metabolic rife. It will not be launched from Verso offices in Brooklyn but in dingy meeting halls in working-class neighborhoods in Queens and their counterpart in other cities in the USA and the rest of the world. The people at its core will be garment workers, meat-cutters, bus drivers, and miners who have no idea who Slavoj Zizek or Vivek Chibber are. They will also be largely people of color, very few of whom who will have an advanced degree. Trying to find a way to reach such people was very much on the minds of people from my generation but ironically they can be reached now by a left that largely seems committed to living in a life-style cocoon.

Toward the end of the article, the author has a conversation with Michael Kinnucan, a Facebook essayist. Kinnucan provides a quasi-Marxist analysis of the explosive growth of the DSA:

Over beers in Crown Heights, we’re tracing the origins of the movement. The most straightforward explanation for the socialism boom is, fittingly, a material one: Saddled with student debt and thrust into a shit post-2008 economy, millennials were overeducated, downwardly mobile, and financially insecure. On top of everything, the internet was making them feel bad and the planet was melting. The precariat, they called themselves.

In between frequent cigarette breaks, Kinnucan sketched his version of this progression. Graduate from the University of Chicago in 2009; get bogged down in the post-crash economy; drift to Occupy Wall Street in 2011; get radicalized. “There was a Twitter hashtag and internet meme, #SIFUAB: Shit is fucked up and bullshit,” he recalled fondly. “There was a large element of collectivizing depression. The genre of meme where you write on a piece of paper and hold up the amount of student loans you have.”

This sounds about right but susceptible to the glass ceiling that has so often stopped left groups in their tracks. For “Leninist” groups like the SWP and the ISO, that glass ceiling was about two to three thousand. Such groups grew rapidly but were constrained by their insistence on a program that required ideological conformity that many leftists disdained as a kind of intellectual straight-jacket.

For the young, University of Chicago-educated, Verso Party attending, and Caucasian precariat, the glass ceiling is much higher. Who knows? The DSA might even become as large as SDS was in its heyday. Whether it will be able to attract the people who have the social and economic power to change society is doubtful at best. Maybe that doesn’t matter much since they are having lots of fun in the meantime.

Finally, we get to Levitz’s interview with Michael Kazin titled “What Does the Radical Left’s Future Look Like?” Kazin is the co-editor of Dissent, the social democratic journal that might be described as Jacobin stripped down to its pro-Democratic Party propaganda but without the Kautskyite frosting.

Kazin, who wrote a hatchet job on Howard Zinn in 2010, is a DSA fan, especially since it focuses on economic issues unlike the left of my youth that was in effect single-issue movements against the Vietnam War, for abortion rights, etc.

Kazin is not so nearly as coy as people like Sunkara and Eric Blanc when it comes to work in the Democratic Party that they regard as merely a tactic that will be discarded maybe in 2060 or so when the country is ready to vote for a third party demanding an end to the capitalist system:

If Bernie hadn’t run as a Democrat in 2016, most Americans would never have heard of him and he wouldn’t be in a position to mount the kind of campaign he’s going to run. I think the left cannot just be a movement outside the party structure, looking askance at the party and thinking that somehow it can win real reforms and transform American society without engaging with the party. You’ve got to be both radical and Democratic with a capital D.

Levitz next asks a question that really gets to the heart of what makes the DSA so different from the anarchist-dominated anti-globalization and Occupy movements that were not shy about their hostility to capitalism: “What do you think is responsible for this pragmatic turn away from the anarchist tendency that informed the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s or Occupy Wall Street and toward a greater concern with winning and exercising power within existing institutions?” So, for all the horse-shit about transcending Scandinavian social democracy and the need to establish true socialism in the far-off future, Levitz sees the DSA as a “pragmatic turn away from the anarchist tendency that informed the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s or Occupy Wall Street and toward a greater concern with winning and exercising power within existing institutions.” Put more succinctly, Levitz nails the DSA and the intellectuals who promote it in Jacobin as pragmatists working inside the Democratic Party.


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