Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 15, 2017

Reflections on the DSA

Filed under: social democracy,socialism — louisproyect @ 12:59 pm

Fifty years ago I fully expected that by 2017 we would be living under socialism in the USA, thanks to a combination of deepening contradictions that would make capitalism untenable and our steely resolve in building a vanguard Trotskyist party up to the task of leading the glorious revolution of the future. It turned out that it was our vanguardist pretensions that were untenable. That plus capitalism’s ability to both co-opt and repress the left leaves us where we are today: in a total mess.

In the early 80s I hooked up with Peter Camejo’s North Star Network in the hope of building a new left that dispensed with vanguardist pretensions. Carrying out a one-man probe of the extant non-Leninist left, I decided to attend DSA’s “Radical Alternatives for the 1980s: A Conference on Education and Strategy for Progressive” in 1983. After spending 11 years in the Trotskyist movement with its cocksure belief that it was predestined to lead the American revolution, I found the conference a breath of fresh air, especially Stanley Aronowitz’s presentation on what Peter and I used to call “tasks and perspectives” reports. The DSA was only a year old at the time, having been formed through a merger of Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM). NAM was probably closer to the North Star politically but not likely to be interested in a regroupment effort with ex-Trotskyists. Michael Harrington’s DSOC was not only much larger but had an orientation to the Democratic Party that was a match to the ideological background of leading NAM members like Richard Healy, the son of former CP leader Dorothy Healy.

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July 24, 2017

Chapo Frat House

Filed under: comedy,sexism,social democracy — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

The Chapo Trap House boys from left to right: Matt Christman, Felix Biederman, Will Menaker

I am gay and I voted for Obama
I am a shill for the Clinton campaign and the leftwing mainstream press
I’m a pussy who gets fucked right up the ass

I am a cuck
I am a libtard
I am a fag who was blessed to live amongst us
And Arabs to have equal rights.
I have no love of country and the white folks are not all bad
And the Albright folks are tacky
It makes me sad

I am a cuck
I am a libtard

Don’t talk of Trump ‘cause nothing scares me more
I really should call him daddy
He could be the savior and will go down in history
And save us all from douchebags like me

I am a cuck
I am a libtard
A cuck has no fun
A libtard always cries

Choosing a Chapo Trap House podcast to listen to for the first time, I picked a show that featured an interview with Shane Bauer. Bauer is a journalist who has written for Mother Jones and who I follow on Twitter, partly because he has a very good understanding of what’s happening in Syria. Perhaps that’s a function of spending two years in an Iranian prison accused of being a CIA agent. He and two others were hiking in Iraq (don’t ask me why) and inadvertently strayed in to Iranian territory.

Bauer was being interviewed on his going undercover to gather material on rightwing militias for a Mother Jones article and for the first half-hour, I found nothing objectionable even if it was hardly the sort of radio (or podcast) that I would make a habit of.

At the thirty-minute break, the song above came on. Sung ostensibly by the Chapo Trap House principals, I wondered what was the point. Was this something in the spirit of Sasha Baron Cohen singing “Throw the Jew Down the Well” at a Texas roadhouse in “Borat”? The point of Borat’s exercise was to demonstrate that Texas was filled with anti-Semites but what was their point? Maybe they didn’t have any except to show that they were “bad boys”.

Ironically, in another podcast I sampled earlier, they were riffing on Bill Maher’s use of the “nigger” word to show how disgusting he and HBO were. So exactly what’s the difference? I don’t see any unless it is okay to call people “fags” as a joke but not to use the word “nigger”. What about “kike”? That might get a few laughs.

I first heard about this show from a puff piece that appeared in The New Yorker magazine on November 18, 2016 that quoted Matt Christman, one of the three men who started Chapo, on what the goal of the “dirtbag left” is: “to offend the sensibilities of ‘leftist’ language police whose only goal is sabotaging social solidarity in order to maintain their brands as arbiters of good taste and acceptable speech.” Oh, I see. How about throwing in some “kikes” and “niggers” somewhere along the line to push the envelope even further.

For me, the mystery was how Chapo ever got such a glowing testimonial in a magazine that hates the left. The New Yorker, for example, published an article by Jill Lepore trashing Howard Zinn, as well as one promoting GMO. The editor is David Remnick, a Sovietologist who Alexander Cockburn once referred to as “a third-tier talent who has always got ahead by singing the correct career-enhancing tunes, as witness his awful reporting from Russia in the 1990s.”

Like Jacobin, Chapo has the knack of getting accolades from the most powerful newspapers and magazines in the USA. The next big publicity shot in the arm came in the form of a July 5, 2017 New York Times Sunday Magazine article titled “Hated by the Right. Mocked by the Left. Who Wants to Be ‘Liberal’ Anymore?” The author was Nikil Saval, a founder of n+1 magazine that is often mentioned in the same breath as Jacobin—namely, a Young Lion pretender to the throne of Marxism. I generally enjoy reading n+1 but found Saval’s prolix account of working on the Bernie Sanders campaign pretty objectionable from a Marxist standpoint. As might be obvious, the Chapo/Jacobin/n+1 milieu takes Sanders’s “socialism” at face value.

The brunt of Saval’s piece is to call attention to liberal-bashing of the sort that Chapo Trapo House specializes in. Saval mentions that they spend a lot of airtime “making fun of liberal cultural life, with one common target being fervor for the musical Hamilton.” Well, with the price of tickets for the Broadway smash hit, most of their listeners would not be able to pay for a ticket so the jokes might have sailed over their heads. However, with the $70,000 per month the boys are making from their podcasts, I assume that they might want to go see it for themselves. I just hope they don’t yell any racial epithets at the performers even if they are tempted to call Javier Muñoz, the HIV-positive star, a fag.

Just this week a feud broke out between the boys and The New Republic’s senior editor Jeet Heer who faulted them for trafficking in “dominance politics”, which means using mean-spirited humor against the Clinton wing of the party that The New Republic identifies with. Heer advocates reconciling the Sanders wing of the party that Chapo belongs to with the centrist old guard, something obviously not on Chapo’s agenda.

In a Twitter war between Heer and the boys, Chapo host Felix Biederman tweeted that he is “not reading Jeet’s article about how rude we are until he takes David Frum’s dick out of his mouth”. Both Heer and Frum are heterosexuals, while Frum is a longtime neoconservative who voted for Hillary Clinton. It is really difficult for me to understand how in 2017 this kind of gay-baiting can take place. I was around to see the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 and welcomed the rise of a Gay Liberation movement. In the radical movement of that period, you could have gotten expelled for using that kind of language unless, of course, you were in Avakian’s sect. Now it seems that it is not only permissible in the DSA/Jacobin milieu but perhaps helps to generate $70,000 per month. Other times, other manners, I suppose.

While not exactly an A-List bourgeois newspaper, the Guardian certainly has the readership that might pay for a Chapo subscription. Yesterday, they published an article titled “Leftwing Breitbart? Chapo Trap House is strong new voice in resistance to Trump” by Edward Helmore that took Chapo’s side in the conflict with Heer and The New Republic.

Helmore’s article has the benefit of placing Chapo into an ideological context:

The hosts, who are aligned with the Brooklyn arm of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), met on social media, gaining followers with their offbeat humor and views on what is termed “left Twitter”.

That led to a series of podcasts on the popular Street Fight Radio before the launch of Chapo Trap House, named for Sinaloa cartel head Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the hip-hop term for a drug house.

One DSA member familiar with the thinking of the podcast producers offered the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxism as an ideological reference, and said the spat with the New Republic illustrated the resistance of neoliberals to warnings that a hard left turn is necessary to counter the rise of the so-called alt-right and avoid continued electoral defeat.

Yes, indeed. How did I miss the parallels between Chapo Trap House and Theodore Adorno, especially given the chapter on fags in “Dialectics of Enlightenment”. I should have realized that DSA members would have been attuned to the Frankfurt School, given Stanley Aronowitz’s role in the organization’s ideological journey. Maybe at the next Left Forum, the boys can do a performance of “I am a cuck”. I’ll bet it will go over great with the bitches and the fags. Oh, did I mention that in the closing moments of the Shane Bauer podcast there was an elevated discussion of the Trump-Putin connection with the new president being referred to as Putin’s “bitch”?

Helmore is also very astute in sizing up Chapo’s role in electoral politics, referring to John Mason, a political science professor in New Jersey:

“Who is the most popular politician in the United States right now?” asked Mason. “Bernie Sanders! The ground has shifted and this is really the centre of the Democratic party. The people who have been marginalised, especially after this defeat, are those who belong to the Clinton-Obama wing.”

The far left, Mason said, is articulating itself in new ways. He pointed to a recent meeting of Sanders and Al Gore and the emergence of anti alt-right groups such as Redneck Revolt. Last week, the DSA published an electoral strategy guide; it anticipates strong or record attendance at its convention in Chicago next month.

So, let me get this straight. The “socialist” wing of the Democratic Party is now its center and proof of that is Bernie Sanders meeting with Al Gore? And what about that electoral strategy guide? Written by Joseph M. Schwartz, a political science professor at Temple University and national vice-chair of DSA, it proposes the same “inside/outside” electoral strategy that not only defines social democracy in the USA but that of the Communist Party as well:

DSA should not be in the business of solely working to secure Democratic majorities for the purpose of pressuring them from the left. But many of our allies in the black, Latino, trade union, LGBTQ, immigrant, Muslim, and feminist communities will be mobilized in 2018 to flip Republican state legislatures, to expand Democratic majorities in Democratic states, and to take back, at least, the House at the national level. We can’t simply ignore what those constituencies who would constitute a multi-racial and class-based left will be doing.

Thus, in my view, DSA should deploy its limited resources primarily to build social movements and, where possible, shore up a progressive electoral pole (a more multi-racial and labor-based version of the post-Sanders trend) that opposes the corporate, neo-liberal dominance of the Democratic Party.

I believe that the best way of doing that is to run viable democratic socialist candidates either in Democratic primaries (see Ross Mittiga) or in local non-partisan races (see khalid kamau). But if the social movement groups we work with back a strong anti-corporate Democratic Party candidate of color or labor or another staunchly progressive activist, some locals will clearly consider working on those campaigns, too — particularly if they involve a primary challenge to a pro-corporate neo-liberal Democrat.

That’s what we are left with beneath all the “bad boy” shock jock humor at the expense of gay people. A business as usual orientation to liberal politicians like Bernie Sanders and Al Gore in the hope that the Democratic Party can serve as what? The vanguard of a socialist revolution? A return to the New Deal? Talk about utopian schemas.

I find myself in advanced years wondering what will take such people to break with the Democratic Party once and for all. If it wasn’t support for slavery, the invasion of the USSR in 1918, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Korean war and the Vietnam war, what will it take? At a certain point, you begin to wonder if maybe such people are not that opposed to the capitalist system, especially when you are making $70,000 per month sitting around making banal observations about American politics that relies on four-letter words to spice things up.


I have just learned on Facebook that “I am a cuck” was “a song by the comedian Tim Heidecker who wrote it to mock the alt-right kids who went after him for, among other things, siding against keeping an alt-right influenced show on Cartoon Network’s adult swim.” As I said, the song was likely meant in jest but so was Bill Maher’s wisecrack about being a “field nigger”.

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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