Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 27, 2017

Commentary on Bhaskar Sunkara’s New York Times op-ed

Filed under: social democracy — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Bhaskar Sunkara

Since its launch in 2010, Jacobin Magazine has shown up in one way or another in the NY Times 25 times. The references fall into different categories and are consistently supportive. You can see it cited as a barometer of left opinion with the conservative Catholic Russ Douhat being one such example. He wrote an op-ed on 12/29/2012 titled “How to Read in 2013” that advised his readers on how to stay on top of things:

Start on the non-Republican right, maybe, with the libertarians at Reason magazine, the social conservatives at First Things and Public Discourse, the eclectic dissidents who staff The American Conservative. Then head for the neo-Marxist reaches of the Internet, where publications like Jacobin and The New Inquiry offer a constant reminder of how much room there is to the left of the current Democratic Party.

I should add that the term neo-Marxist is often applied to Jacobin, although I am not sure that is the right word. Unlike Monthly Review that also earned that label rather unfairly, Jacobin functions much more as a host for articles written by both Marxists and left-liberals. Unlike the effort undertaken by Paul Sweezy or Harry Magdoff, I can’t discern any signs that the editorial board of Jacobin is devoted to renewing Marxist theory.

In line with Douhat’s demarcating the borders of what savvy NY Times readers should read (you can bet Monthly Review will remain unheralded), Jacobin has cropped up recently in a new feature titled “Right and Left: Partisan Writing You Shouldn’t Miss” that remains within the same confines—ideological kettling, so to speak. The Times has a rather peculiar notion of what it means to be “left” since you find Jacobin and Alan Dershowitz cheek by jowl on the portside.

Another type of Jacobin manifestation is seen less often nowadays, especially since the magazine is quite well-established. In its first few years, you saw breathless encomiums to the “new left” journals such as Jacobin, n+1, and New Inquiry that were often touted in that order as if they were respectively “win, place and show” in a horse race. I have been subscribed to the first two magazines for seven years now and don’t expect to try the third, maybe because the name sounds too much like the rancid New Criterion.

On January 20, 2013, Jennifer Schuessler gushed over how “A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream”. It gave you a good idea of how the gods were smiling on its founder:

“Bhaskar’s a really remarkable — I want to say kid, but that sounds condescending,” said the MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who gave Jacobin a shout-out in Rolling Stone last June before inviting Mr. Sunkara onto his show. (Mr. Sunkara skipped part of his college graduation to appear.) “He’s got the combination of boastful assurance and competence of a very good young rapper.”

MSNBC? Rolling Stone? I can’t imagine Michael Yates or John Bellamy Foster traveling in such circles but then again they’re too busy trying to make revolutionary socialism relevant to our epoch through books and articles.

I emphasize the word revolutionary since it has a bearing on Bhaskar Sukara’s debut on the NY Times op-ed page, a sign of having “made it” in a highly competitive world. Except for former Marxism list moderator Zeynep Tukfeci who writes op-ed pieces about the Internet  (and who won’t even reply to a Twitter message I sent her), Bhaskar is the first Marxmail alumni who has elbowed his way to the top of the heap–you can’t get much more elevated than the NY Times op-ed page even if most of it is drivel. I doubt that the surly Michael Yates will ever get past the velvet rope with his blunt put-downs of the elite.

Now 28 years old, Bhaskar is advising NY Times readers about how “Socialism’s Future May Be Its Past”. Jesus, what was I doing when I was 28? That was 1973 and I was in Houston organizing Militant Labor Forums. I had been in the Trotskyist movement for six years by then and never written a single article. Oh, let me take that back. I had written some for the internal bulletin of the SWP during pre-convention discussion on arcane matters such as how the Cochranites became embourgeoisified even though they were auto workers but I understood that the audience was limited. (Drawing my analysis from James P. Cannon on Bert Cochran, I could have not been more wrong.) I guess the only benefit I got out of writing for internal bulletins is that it sharpened my polemical skills. If I had to make a choice between writing effective polemics for a narrow audience trying to figure out how to develop a revolutionary strategy and getting touted in the Rolling Stone, there’s no contest.

So  let’s accompany our neo-Marxist wunderkind Bhaskar on his stroll through 100 years of class struggle history. He tried to convey a short form of this on Twitter but without much success, I’m afraid.

Things start off problematically enough:

One hundred years after Lenin’s sealed train arrived at Finland Station and set into motion the events that led to Stalin’s gulags, the idea that we should return to this history for inspiration might sound absurd.

Now a serious neo-Marxist might have taken the trouble to elucidate the exact linkage between Lenin and Stalin but—jeez—this is the NY Times op-ed page, not New Left Review. In brief, the events that led to Stalin’s gulags had nothing to do with Lenin. They were the result of a brutal imperialist invasion that cost the lives of up to 12,000,000 civilians and massive economic losses. Wikipedia states that the industrial production value descended to one-seventh of the value of 1913 and agriculture to one-third. During this catastrophe, one of the greatest losses was that of the most conscious revolutionaries who rushed to join the Red Army and defend the socialist gains of 1917. When they died in combat, it left a vacuum filled by former officials of the Czarist bureaucracy that became Stalin’s chief base of support. All of this is explained in Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Leon Trotsky, a book that I doubt Bhaskar will ever have time to read given the demands made on his time selling subscriptions and raising funds.

Sounding like he was 58 rather than 28, Bhaskar strikes a repentant note:

Most socialists have been chastened by the lessons of 20th-century Communism. Today, many who would have cheered on the October Revolution have less confidence about the prospects for radically transforming the world in a single generation. They put an emphasis instead on political pluralism, dissent and diversity.

I suppose he is right about “most socialists” since by his definition that includes an “avowedly socialist” leader like Bernie Sanders. This might be the heart of the problem. I don’t consider Sanders a socialist at all. He is a left-liberal of the MSNBC variety and uses the term socialist in the way I used to hear the term selling subscriptions to the Militant newspaper in college dorms a lifetime ago. Since the masthead of the paper described it as a “socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people”, the first question out of the mouth of the student tended to be something like “Socialist, like in Sweden?” I had no problem telling them, “No, like in Cuba”. As I said, this was a lifetime ago. Back then, an hour spent in a Columbia dorm would result in 25 subscriptions. That was when Che Guevara was alive and kicking, the Black community was rising up against the cops and the National Guard, and the Vietnamese were fighting the anti-imperialist battle of the century. Clearly the lack of such objective conditions has made Bhaskar more cautious than I was when young but then again there have always been people like him looking to make a career on the left.

After warning his readers about the hazards facing the working class that range from neoliberal Singapore to neo-fascist Hungary, Bhaskar offers up a vision of socialism that probably wouldn’t frighten any but the most well-heeled NY Times reader:

Stripped down to its essence, and returned to its roots, socialism is an ideology of radical democracy. In an era when liberties are under attack, it seeks to empower civil society to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives. A huge state bureaucracy, of course, can be just as alienating and undemocratic as corporate boardrooms, so we need to think hard about the new forms that social ownership could take.

Some broad outlines should already be clear: Worker-owned cooperatives, still competing in a regulated market; government services coordinated with the aid of citizen planning; and the provision of the basics necessary to live a good life (education, housing and health care) guaranteed as social rights. In other words, a world where people have the freedom to reach their potentials, whatever the circumstances of their birth.

Is socialism really an ideology of radical democracy? I suppose it is in the sense that the rule of the people entails the abolition of private property that has been undermining even bourgeois democracy over the past 30 years or so. As far as “civil society” being empowered to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives, this strikes me as an utterly amorphous formula. Civil society cannot begin to address the economic inequalities that allows both George Soros and the Koch brothers to control the electoral process. At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I would propose that it is high time for the left to begin raising one of Trotsky’s transitional demands:

The socialist program of expropriation, i.e., of political overthrow of the bourgeoisie and liquidation of its economic domination, should in no case during the present transitional period hinder us from advancing, when the occasion warrants, the demand for the expropriation of several key branches of industry vital for national existence or of the most parasitic group of the bourgeoisie.

Thus, in answer to the pathetic jeremiads of the gentlemen democrats anent the dictatorship of the “60 Families” of the United States or the “200 Families” of France, we counterpose the demand for the expropriation of those 60 or 200 feudalistic capitalist overlords.

In precisely the same way, we demand the expropriation of the corporations holding monopolies on war industries, railroads, the most important sources of raw materials, etc.

I would say that the call for nationalizing the railroads and the sources of raw materials will resonate with many Americans, given the miserable state of Amtrak and the damage that fracking does to our health. I may not use the same language as Leon Trotsky but advocate the left trying to figure out the way to say the same thing but in the words ordinary people understand.

By contrast, Bhaskar’s call for a worker-owned cooperatives competing in a regulated market sounds rather weak-tea by comparison. I doubt that any Fortune 500 company will care very much that, for example, the old Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago is now a worker-owned cooperative. It is not as if such an operation will not benefit the people who work there but it has nothing to do with challenging capitalist property relations. If, on the other hand, the left was powerful enough to make a difference, it would have pushed for the nationalization of the banking system in 2008.

How did the left become so impotent that it was not able to manifest its opposition to the economic system except by occupying public spaces in a rather noble but impotent gesture that anarchists argued as a “prefiguration” of the future communist world? It is a sad story that I have been telling since 1991 when I first got on the Internet. The Marxist left had a sectarian model that attempted to mechanically apply Bolshevism to the USA. We still need a party like Lenin built but it will have to emerge out of the mass movement that will be gathering momentum as capitalism continues to sink to new lows. A major step in building that movement will be creating an alternative to the Democratic Party that so many people still have illusions in, starting with the Jacobin editorial board.

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