Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 19, 2020

The Big Scary “S” Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 26, 2020

Thoughts triggered by ex-ISOers seeing the light

Filed under: electoral strategy,Lenin,reformism,Russia,two-party system — louisproyect @ 10:40 pm

On January 31st, ex-ISOer Alan Maass posted a nearly 9,500 word article on Medium that offered “a retrospective assessment of the politics of the former ISO on elections and some thoughts on socialist organization.” It boiled down to a self-criticism for his past belief that revolutionary socialists must oppose the Democratic Party on principle. Only a year and a half ago, Maass wrote an article for the ISO newspaper arguing the exact opposite. I guess a lot can change in 18 months. Must be something wrong with me, I suppose. After voting for LBJ in 1964, who promised that he would not “send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves,” that was it for me. Fifty-six years ago and I am still pissed.

Like Alan Maass, fellow born-again democratic socialist Paul Heideman also argued against supporting the DP four years ago, when he wrote an article for Jacobin titled “It’s Their Party.” It told the story of how SDS supported LBJ in 1964 as part of a realignment strategy to purge the DP of its segregationist Congressmen. He credits Max Shachtman with the realignment strategy that he described as representing “one of the high points of the struggle for social democracy in the United States.” That sounds like a pretty low bar but what do I know? This long article finally gets around to the essential point:

Any political action comes with opportunity costs, and the costs of a strategic focus on electing Democrats have been grave — from the labor movement’s inability to defend itself against attacks from “their” party to antiwar movements that disappear when a Democrat comes to office.

Unlike Maass, Heideman never came out with a mea culpa. Instead, without any fanfare, he resurfaced in 2019 as a full-blooded Sandernista, indistinguishable from any other Jacobin author. He even goes further. He advises Sanders against defining himself as a “good socialist” as opposed to a bad socialist like Maduro or Castro. It is best to avoid those divisive questions about what capitalism or socialism from some pedantic standpoint as if it really mattered. Instead, just equate socialism with all the great things that have sprung up under Democratic Party rule:

He should point to the long line of policies that have been denounced as socialist and are now bedrock institutions of American life. Social Security? They called it socialist. Unions? A socialist project. Medicare? A socialist takeover of health care.

Yeah, sure. Who would want to get into such boring and irrelevant matters such as the right of American companies to have more money than entire countries. Walmart, for example, had revenue of $486 billion in 2017, out-earning the sixth-largest economy in the euro zone – Belgium, with a GDP of $468 billion. If it were a country, Walmart would be ranked 24th in the world by GDP. Has Bernie Sanders ever questioned the right of the Walton family to own 11,503 stores and clubs in 27 countries? Not unless he wanted to be called a communist or something.

Ex-ISOer Danny Katch is another fellow traveler on the Road to Damascus. Understanding that brevity is the soul of wit, Katch takes only 1,225 words to let Indypendent readers know that even though the Democratic Party is undemocratic, the path to making it democratic runs through the trail blazed by Bernie Sanders and “the squad”.

If Sanders becomes president, he would have to try to democratize the Democrats as part of the fight to enact his agenda without disastrous compromises. If these efforts fail to redeem an irredeemable party, they could at least start a national conversation about the long-overdue creation of a legitimate U.S. socialist party.

Even more emphatic than Maass and Heideman, Katch wrote an article in 2016 titled “Why I Won’t Be Voting For Bernie” that gave me hope that the ISO would become the badly needed pole of attraction needed for a mass socialist movement. As should be obvious by now, the comrades wilted under the pressure generated by the DSA. It makes me wonder how committed the comrades ever were to the task of strengthening the class independence of the left.

Katch’s article makes points identical to those I have been making in recent weeks on Facebook where it seems like 75 percent of my “friends” are gung-ho over Bernie Sanders:

I have enthusiastically felt the Bern this past week, without ever questioning my decision to not vote for him (or Clinton) in the Democratic primary tomorrow.

Not because Sanders’s isn’t “radical enough” for me–although I do consider his version of socialism to be more like old-fashioned liberalism, especially his unquestioning support for the right of the U.S. to bomb and invade other countries.

But if a candidate with Sanders’ platform were running as an independent, I would strongly consider supporting the campaign and working within it to try to push it further to the left. Bernie is running as a Democrat, however, and like other members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), I don’t vote for the Democratic Party (or the Republicans) as a matter of principle.

What exactly did Katch mean by “principle”? What do Marxists regard as principles? Every so often, these questions come to the fore. In 2017, the DSA had a bit of a scandal on its hands when it was discovered that Danny Fetonte, a newly elected member of their National Political Committee, was a longtime organizer for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT)—the largest organization representing Texas cops. He stepped down subsequently.

Crossing a picket line is also a matter of principle. Under no circumstances should socialists cross a picket line. This question divided the left in 1968 when both the Trotskyist SWP and the Maoist PLP took the side of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville administrators in New York who were trying to purge racist teachers from their schools. When Albert Shanker organized a strike to keep them in place, it was necessary to side with those fighting for community control.

Socialists have also opposed on principle settling disputes in the capitalist courts. Even when one group libels another, it is very rare for the aggrieved party to file a suit. Closely related to this is the principle that you should not use violence within the movement. Back in the 60s, this was a major problem since the Maoist groups and Larouche arrogated to themselves the right to use violence since their adversaries were supposedly outside the movement.

When it comes to voting for bourgeois parties, it becomes a bit more complicated. To start with, those on the left looking for an escape clause from the burdensome task of swimming against the stream. After all, it takes a lot of backbone, if not stubbornness, to resist the seductive popularity of an FDR or a Bernie Sanders. There’s always the precedent of the IWA, the first socialist international, sending congratulations to Abraham Lincoln for his electoral victory. If opposing capitalist parties is a principle, how could Marx and Engels endorse Lincoln? Keep in mind that they were on record of calling for workers to run their own candidates in 1850 in an address to an early communist group:

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.

As I have said, Marx and Engels were on solid grounds congratulating Lincoln but were far from grasping the complex relationship of class and racial forces during the Civil War. They saw Lincoln as completing what amounted to a bourgeois revolution that would put the workers of the north in a better position to build a socialist movement. When the abolitionists lined up with Victoria Woodhull, Marx and Engels threw their considerable weight behind her rival Friedrich Sorge who saw the Irish immigrant worker as more crucial to the revolutionary movement than the emancipated blacks. Suffice it to say that Marx and Engels were not close enough to the situation to anticipate how convenient it was for Republicans to abandon black people by 1877. In any case, by the time Reconstruction ended, it should have been obvious that the two-party system was well on its way to maintaining its stranglehold on American politics.

That is why Engels saw any challenge to the two-party system as critical, even when it came to the election campaign of Henry George who clearly had no clue about the abc’s of socialism. In a letter to the clueless Friedrich Sorge in 1886, Engels made the case for backing a “confused and highly deficient” party set up under the banner of Henry George:

The rottenest side of the K. of L. [Knights of Labor] was their political neutrality, which resulted in sheer trickery on the part of the Powderlys, etc. [Terrence Powderly was the head of the Knights of Labor]; but this has had its edge taken off by the behaviour of the masses at the November elections, especially in New York. The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party. And this step has been taken, far more rapidly than we had a right to hope, and that is the main thing. That the first programme of this party is still confused and highly deficient, that it has set up the banner of Henry George, these are inevitable evils but also only transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement–no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement–in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn wisdom by hurting themselves.

You’ll note that Engels speaks of “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party.” This, in other words, is a restatement of what he and Marx advised in 1850. It might even be said that the endorsement of Lincoln was something of an outlier, but hardly equivalent to backing any other Republican following his death.

I’d make the case that it took the German and Russian socialist movements to fully come to terms with a principled basis for electoral politics. In Germany, the socialists were divided between Marxists and Lassalleans. The Marxists advocated a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist state, while Lassalle’s followers (he died in a duel in 1864) sought concessions from the state, especially when it was led by an enlightened politician like Otto Von Bismarck. While most leftists today, including Bernie Sanders, regard the New Deal as virtually synonymous with socialism, it might be argued that Bismarck was as progressive as FDR, if not more so. In volume four of Hal Draper’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution”, you can see how willing Bismarck was to support progressive measures as a way of undermining the revolutionary left:

In 1883 a Sickness Insurance Act was passed, with the workers contributing only a third of the cost. In 1884 an Accident Insurance Law followed, with costs borne by employers alone. In 1889 an Old Age and Disability measure was adopted. In 1903 came a code of factory legislation, with a system of labor exchanges to promote employment. Many of these measures were the first of their kind in the world; by the time of the world war Germany had become the model land of advanced social legislation, under the pressure of the absolutist state, not the bourgeoisie.

Perhaps if Bismarck had not been so determined to crush the Socialist Party, Lassalle’s ideas would have gotten a bigger foothold. Leaving aside Kautsky’s problematic understanding of how a revolution might be possible, you at least have to give him credit for seeing the need for class independence. In chapter five of “The Erfurt Program”, his call for independent political action on a principled class basis can hardly be mistaken for the “dirty break” policies advanced in his name:

The interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are of so contrary a nature that in the long run they cannot be harmonized. Sooner or later in every capitalist country the participation of the working-class in politics must lead to the formation of an independent party, a labor party.

At what moment in its history the proletariat of any particular country will reach the point at which it is ready to take this step, depends chiefly upon its economic development. In some degree, also, it depends upon two other conditions, the insight of the working-class into the political and economic situation and the attitude of the bourgeois parties toward one another.

When you keep in mind that Lenin’s chief goal was to build a party in Czarist Russia that lived up to the example of the German social democracy, you can easily understand why he would be so adamantly opposed to forming blocs with the Cadets as advocated by the Mensheviks. Certainly, the Erfurt Program was uppermost in Lenin’s mind when he proposed a program for the Russian movement in 1899 that openly stated, “We are not in the least afraid to say that we want to imitate the Erfurt Programme: there is nothing bad in imitating what is good, and precisely to day, when we so often hear opportunist and equivocal criticism of that programme, we consider it our duty to speak openly in its favour.”

If you want to understand the differences between those on the left today who see the question of support for a bourgeois party on a principled rather than a tactical basis, the best place to start is with Lenin’s polemics against the Mensheviks. With all proportions guarded, the Cadets were the Democratic Party of Czarist Russia consisting of a liberal, modernizing section of the bourgeoisie that hoped to see an end to the monarchy but without the resolve needed to lead a bourgeois revolution. Lenin hoped to push the Cadets aside and lead such a revolution (it turned out to require a working-class leadership) but had to deal with the Mensheviks who saw the Cadets as allies.

The Mensheviks considered Lenin to be impractical and obstinate. Like Jacobin today that views a Nordic model as the only feasible socialism for a country in which revolution is no longer possible, the Mensheviks set their sights low. It would take an extended period of enlightened bourgeois rule to allow the working-class movement to gather the strength it needed to gain power.

While undoubtedly the ex-ISOers would never accept the idea that they are the counterparts of the Russian Mensheviks, their rallying around the Sandernista banner leads this observer to believe that they find it much easier to swim with the current. In a 1906 polemic against the Mensheviks, Lenin refers to the possibility that they are wilting under the pressure of a much larger, wealthier and legally unfettered capitalist party: “But what about the bourgeois opportunists? They own a press ten times larger than that of the Social-Democrats and the Socialist-Revolutionaries put together.” I imagine if Lenin were alive today, he would coolly appraise the democratic socialist wing of the Democratic Party, with the massive coverage it gets in the bourgeois press, and still insist that we stick to our principles.

Just as 1914 threw socialism into a crisis across Europe, you can expect a convergence of late capitalist decrepitude and political routinism on the left to create a fertile ground for the kind of revolutionary socialism that is no longer fashionable. My recommendation is to stick to your principles, comrades, since they are the only way you will be able to be effective in a period when the walls start caving in around us.

February 8, 2020

Eric Blanc’s ersatz socialism

Filed under: DSA,reformism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 10:56 pm

Eric Blanc

For those trying to keep track of the ongoing attempt to seduce American radicals into Democratic Party politics, Eric Blanc’s articles are essential. Unlike most of the people who write for Jacobin, Blanc got some intensive training in Marxism starting with his membership in Socialist Organizer, a tiny sect affiliated with the U.S. fraternal section of the Organizing Committee for the Re-constitution of the Fourth International. His next stop was the ISO, where he was likely in the vanguard of the group’s mass exodus into the DSA. Now, comfortably ensconced there, he is a member of the Bread and Roses caucus that takes pride in itself as the Marxist redoubt of the group hoping to Re-constitute social democracy in the USA.

On top of all this, he has been something of a disciple of Lars Lih who has written millions of words extolling Lenin while at the same time making it clear that he is not a socialist. This deep immersion in Marxist lore has seen Blanc come up with some very fresh ideas, especially on the role of borderland socialists and the evolution of Bolshevism on national liberation. More recently, and unfortunately, his erudition has mostly been used to promote voting for Democratic Party candidates as a tactical “dirty break”. Unlike the crude “lesser evil”, “stop the fascist threat” analysis perfected by the Communist Party, Blanc frames his arguments in neo-Kautskyist terms, even though, as his critics make clear, Kautsky was adamantly opposed to voting for liberals.

Blanc’s latest foray into DP apologetics is available in an article titled “From Meyer London to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”. In analogizing the two politicians, he is once again using an ersatz version of socialist theory and history in the same manner as his “dirty break” article that made the case for socialists using the ballot line of the two capitalist parties in primaries. Historically, this coincided with SP leader Meyer London being elected to the House of Representatives without such gimmicks.

London never used this dubious tactic since at the time the SP had massive support. In Eugene V. Debs’s run for president in 1912, he got an astounding 6 percent of the vote. As for Meyer London, he was one of the only two SP’ers who were ever elected to Congress. The other was Victor Berger, who, like London, was a “sewer socialist” with politics akin to Eduard Bernstein. Why in this day and age of deep capitalist crisis with fascism on the march all over the planet would anybody look to someone like Meyer London as some kind of positive example? Beats me.

Blanc believes we should study London’s career because he proposed New Deal type reforms in Congress long before the New Deal. In Blanc’s words, he had “only a light commitment to Marxism…, believed in an evolutionary transition to socialism and wavered in his opposition to the First World War.”

Notwithstanding these political flaws, Meyer London was more dedicated to the working class movement than any Democrat. He was a strong ally of the garment workers in New York City and pushed for “comprehensive social insurance for all in the form of national health care, unemployment and disability insurance, and public works jobs programs.”

Of course, there is a yawning gulf between London and A. O-C, who is obviously intent on serving as a Democrat despite her lip-service to socialism. In the second half of his article, Blanc explains why this decision was forced on her.

There are no easy answers or simple formulas for how to proceed in today’s novel context. Given the relative weakness of the socialist movement, and the well-known obstacles to electing third-party candidates in the US, it made tactical sense for Ocasio-Cortez, like Sanders before her, to run on the Democratic Party ballot line. At the same time, elected socialists will ultimately need full political independence from the party establishment in order to advance their class-struggle agendas. We’ll eventually need a party of our own. Playing by the rules of the game has led all too many honest politicians to cover for, and bend to, a corporate-funded Democratic machine whose built-to-fail centrism led to our current Trump nightmare.

It was only after reading this subtle exercise in Marxoid casuistry a second time that it dawned on me what he was carefully eliding. Meyer London was a member of a party. He had to operate within its political guidelines in order to get its financial and organizational support for his election campaigns. In other words, his relationship to the SP was like that of any politician in the European Second International parties. With all proportions guarded, he and Berger operated as parliamentarians that were expected to carry forward their party’s program in the same way that they did in Kautsky’s SPD. In fact, the term “democratic centralism” did not originate in Russia. It originated in Germany long before “What is To Be Done”.

As Paul LeBlanc explains in “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”, the term predates Lenin by many years and was first used in 1865 by J.B. Schweitzer, a Lassallean. Furthermore, in Russia it was first used by the Mensheviks at a November 1905 conference. In a resolution “On the Organization of the Party” adopted there, they agree that “The RSDLP must be organized according to the principle of democratic centralism.” A month later the Bolsheviks embraced the term at their own conference. A resolution titled “On Party Organization” states: “Recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the Conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centers full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, their actions are given broad publicity, and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities.”

So, what in the hell does this have to do with today’s “democratic socialist” movement? Not only is Bernie Sanders not a member of the DSA; he doesn’t even encourage people to join. Basically, they and Jacobin operate as his fan club. He is free to say whatever he wants and when he says or does something clearly problematic, they are free to say “tut-tut” or rationalize it, as was the case with the Joe Rogan endorsement.

While they are not in the same kind of exalted position as Sanders, A. O-C and the “squad” pretty much have the same kind of latitude even if they are members (Ilhan Omar is not). They rely on the DSA to do the grunt work and once they are elected they use their own judgement when they vote or say something dumb. In a Left Voice article titled “Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Represent the Politics of the DSA?”, we see how far she can stray from democratic socialism, a program that would likely exclude support for Israeli war crimes:

Ocasio-Cortez’s statements about replacing ICE with a more humane INS have already garnered criticism from her left supporters. But a major source of concern for DSAers was Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks on the occupation of Palestine. Pushed a bit by Margaret Hoover on Firing Line about a tweet in which she denounced the Land Day Massacre, Ocasio-Cortez said not only that she “believes absolutely in Israel’s right to exist,” but also that she “just looked at that incident [as] just an incident.” When asked about her use of the term “occupation,” she replied, “I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these.”

Although my politics are much more aligned with Rosa Luxemburg than Karl Kautsky, I would be a lot more sympathetic to the DSA if it was aspiring toward Kautsky’s model. Instead, it is much more reminiscent of the Young Democrats I used to run into during the Vietnam antiwar movement. They came to meetings wearing Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern buttons, politicians they saw as being capable of returning the Democratic Party to its New Deal traditions. In exchange for passing out campaign literature, the young activists might be rewarded with an early end to the Vietnam War just as DSA’ers hope that the USA will be transformed into Sweden if Sanders is elected.

 

August 7, 2019

Bhaskar Sunkara “The Socialist Manifesto”: a review

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

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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.

Bingo.

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