Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 14, 2017

New Communists? A reply to Jacobin Magazine

Filed under: Jacobin,Lenin,Russian Revolution,two-party system — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Adaner Usmani

Connor Kilpatrick

In the latest issue of Jacobin devoted to commentary on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, there’s an article co-written by Adaner Usmani, a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute of Brown University, and Jacobin editor Conner Kilpatrick titled “The New Communists” that basically urges the left to put that revolution stuff behind us or, more exactly, the far left, which I most certainly belong to as an “unrepentant Marxist”. The two young political scientists advise: “And yet the far left today embraces the Soviet obsession like a vampire hunter wields garlic. The problem is that garlic repels far more than just monsters — it makes you stink.”

Although Jacobin prides itself on being stylistically polished, I am not sure whether the words “embraces the Soviet obsession” is in keeping with its lofty aspirations. What does it mean to embrace an obsession, which almost sounds like obsessing over an obsession? If I were editing the smart magazine with its even smarter graphics, I might have changed that to “embraces the memory of the Soviet Union” or better yet to drop all the circumlocutions about “new communism” and simply say “And yet the far left today embraces Marxism like a vampire hunter wields garlic” because buried beneath all the clever prose is an agenda that might have not sat well with Jacobin subscribers. In keeping with the vampire-hunting analogy, the true goal of Usmani and Kilpatrick is to plunge a wooden stake into the heart of Marxism.

Since the article is behind a paywall, I will quote more liberally from the article than I do ordinarily in posts to this blog. So please forgive me in advance. To understand the dodgy approach of the authors, you have to begin with the fact that the word Marxism appears only 3 times in the article and only as a referent to states that have little to do with Marxist politics. For example, they write:

At its peak, some variation of the USSR’s flag flew over 20 percent of the Earth’s habitable landmass. But while McDonald’s has now spread to over 120 countries, today only three of the four ruling Communist parties left fly the hammer and sickle. Of the five nations that claim Marxism-Leninism, the hammer and sickle appears on the state flags of none. Once the symbol of the struggle for a better world, today the hammer and sickle is a sign of little more than single-party sclerosis.

But what does it mean to claim “Marxism-Leninism”? Is the presence of a hammer and sickle supposed to be some kind of genealogical marker indicating that the carrier has something to do with Karl Marx’s ideas? Missing from the article is any engagement with Stalin’s legacy, a dictator who made the hammer and sickle a symptom of sclerosis at least 85 years ago. The only reference to Stalin in the article is this:

Counterfactuals have become the stuff of lifelong sectarian debates for the socialist left: “if only Germany had gone the right way, if only Lenin had lived, if only Stalin had been isolated, if only, if only . . .” In almost every instance of mass revolt they find the Bolshevik’s October — Germany in 1918–20, France in 1968, Egypt in 2011, and everything in between — revolutions made mere “revolutionary rehearsals” by conniving bureaucrats or naive cadre.

This is quite a mouthful. Although it would take far too many words to unpack the sophistry embedded in this paragraph, suffice it to say that the mass revolt in France nearly 50 years ago came to an end because the French Communist Party had the numbers and the influence in the working class to break the back of the resistance and help Charles De Gaulle restore order. It is not a question of being “naïve”. Rather, it is one of being too small. It is also one of being disunited. In 1968, France’s far left was divided into many Trotskyist and Maoist sects. If it had learned to overcome its differences and constitute a united revolutionary front, it would have been much more difficult for the CP and the Gaullists to seize control. If there is one thing that Jacobin can contribute to now, it is serving as a catalyst for left revolutionary unity. Unfortunately, it appears to be far more interested in functioning as the ideological mouthpiece of the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

Usmani and Kilpatrick want to cleanse the left of its self-righteous sectarians who insist on ideological purity:

At its worst, in this crowd, isolation is proof of revolutionary virtue, rather than political calamity. Particularly in a country like ours, the politics of “Yay revolution! Boo reform!” has led to a rhetorical arms race in which the most virtuous, maximalist positions are the most progressive.

I wonder if the two understand how Marxists have used the term “maximalist” in the past. Generally (and most certainly prevalent in Maoist circles), this is the outlook of groups like Avakian’s RCP or the Spartacist League that are in the habit of reminding their readers that socialism is the answer to whatever problem confronts the working class. Maximalism tended to appear in its purist form on May Day demonstrations years ago, when CP-led parades would carry banners calling for a Communist America.

If the authors were more forthright and less bent on fighting straw men, they would simply come out and say that they are sick and tired of people making work inside the Democratic Party a litmus test. The far left is not really opposed to reforms as might be indicated by Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant’s tireless advocacy of a $15 minimum wage. Speaking as a former member of another Trotskyist group, I have no memory of ever saying anything like “Yay, revolution”. I do confess to joining the rest of the comrades in singing “The Internationale” but that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead.

The real divide is not over the need for reforms but how to fight for them. It has become clear that DSA’ers have begun to identify with the “sewer socialism” of elected Socialist Party members such as Victor Berger as illustrated by the election of DSA members in Somerville, Massachusetts. An article in CommonWealth made the comparison:

Somerville now has an opportunity to build a new kind of 21st century sewer socialism: getting the basics right while attending to the core distributional questions of municipal governance. The election showed that Somerville voters want to see their aldermen focus on issues of legislative policy. This is, of course, their primary task. The informal alliance of Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America in Somerville has coalesced around the politics of development: affordable housing and the rights of tenants, workers, and immigrants.

What’s missing from the CommonWealth article and 9 out 10 written about the Somerville election is the fact that the DSA’ers ran on the Democratic Party ticket. In Victor Berger’s day, this never happened. Upton Sinclair’s 1934 End Poverty In California (EPIC) gubernatorial run marked the first time an SP’er ever ran as a Democrat. So upsetting was this to SP members that his own son broke ties with him.

Perhaps I have a different idea of what kind of reforms are needed. While one understands completely why someone running for alderman in Somerville might want to make an issue out of garbage collection, my idea of a reform would be something much more like what I was involved with in 1970, when I lived not far from Somerville. We tragically unhip Trotskyists got behind the Shea Bill, sponsored by state legislator James Shea. Jr. that authorized Massachusetts residents to refuse combat duty in wars Congress has not declared. It also instructed Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Quinn to defend and assist servicemen who refused to fight on such grounds.

Furthermore, whenever the Trotskyists got involved with any reform, whether for antiwar demands or abortion rights, it always stressed mass action such as rallies, petition drives, etc. If there is anything worth preserving from the long-lost Russian Revolution, it is the need for what we used to call “proletarian methods of struggle”. At the risk of sounding like a moldy fig, let me quote from Trotsky’s Transitional Program: “Self-reliance and proletarian methods of struggle. Only the workers themselves, organized to make full use of their massive numbers and social weight, can solve their problems. No wing of the ruling class is our ally. Strikes and other forms of mass action, which demonstrate the power of the workers’ movement in life, are the most effective.”

Usmani and Kilpatrick are anxious to remind us that even the Communists were “practical-minded” just like them:

The uncomfortable truth for both liberals and die-hard revolutionaries is that whenever and wherever Western Communist parties were strongest, it was because they were the most effective reformers, not revolutionaries. They won when they bested the social democrats at their own stated aims. It was not starry-eyed dreaming but everyday material victories that led 1.5 million people to attend Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer’s 1984 funeral. The flip side of this fact is that in the pre–World War II period, European Communism was feeble and ineffective — with the telling exception of the French Communist Party during the Popular Front and the Spanish one during the Civil War.

When I read this, I spit the coffee out of my mouth that I was drinking. This is most shocking statement in the entire article. So, if in the rest of Europe Communism was “feeble and ineffective”, we can at least look back at the Spanish Civil War as an exception to that rule? Are these two brilliant political scientists for real? The goddamned Communist Party was one of the main reasons Franco triumphed. Unlike France in 1968, this was not just a victory of the right facilitated by the CP’s hegemony. In Spain, it was a victory made possible by the CP’s willingness to murder revolutionaries, including Andres Nin. Nin and many others on the left were trying to overthrow capitalism, while the CP was dead-set on keeping the capitalist Spanish Republic intact even if that meant opposing worker control of the telephone building in Barcelona. When the largely anarchist workers refused to surrender, the CP-led security forces laid siege to the building, which provoked a general uprising. As might be obvious from what is going on in Spain today, Catalans were not only seeking national independence but also class independence. It was the CP’s “effective” control over the Popular Front that gave them the power to tame the unruly Catalan working class. Surely, Usmani and Kilpatrick are aware of this history. Why they would apply Stalinist varnish to it is a mystery.

Following the above citation, the authors get down to brass tacks:

The unprecedented success of Bernie Sanders’s run and his enduring popularity should have been a wake-up call to much of Leftworld: the country is ready for working-class politics, and even for the s-word, as long as we talk about it in everyday, tangible terms.

If you click the link in the paragraph above, you are directed to an interview with Adolph Reed from the August 8, 2016 Jacobin. If Usmani and Kilpatrick were half as open about their beliefs as Reed, the debate on the left that this article has provoked already on Facebook would have a lot more clarity. We have to assume that they agree with Reed who says:

Some who are eager to pronounce the campaign a failure are motivated by other ideological objectives. For example, Trotskyists and others who fetishize association with Democrats as the greatest sin in politics want to argue that Sanders would have been more successful if he’d run as an independent.

That’s a delusional position. In the first place, an independent candidacy outside the Democrat and Republican primaries would have received no attention at all to this point, which means we’d have wasted the last year, and almost none of the unions or other entities would have endorsed it.

Left out of these considerations is the big question about class independence. Until the CP’s Popular Front turn, Marxists never backed bourgeois parties. Maybe the irritation that Jacobin (at this point, we can probably assume that the article expresses the editorial board’s thinking) feels over the Russian Revolution is its connection to Lenin’s obdurate refusal to bloc with or vote for capitalist parties, which in Czarist Russia meant the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets). This is not the Lenin they want to have anything to do with.

Today, the relevant Lenin is not Lenin the indefatigable revolutionary, but Lenin the disconsolate strategist — the man who in 1920 chastised Communists “to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them with artificial and childishly ‘Left’ slogans.”

What astonishing disregard for Lenin’s views. They are quoting “’Ultraleftism’: an Infantile Disorder”, which most people remember as a qualified endorsement of voting for Labour Party candidates (even if the qualification is along the lines of supporting them like a rope supports a hanging man.) So, if you are enthusiastic about Jeremy Corbyn and view Bernie Sanders as the American Corbyn, why not? Maybe it fudges over important theoretical questions to liken the Democrats to Labour but let’s put that aside momentarily. It is far more important to take another look at what Lenin actually said.

He is mostly trying to wean young CP leaders off of the ultraleftism that sounds a lot like the “yay, revolution” straw man Usmani and Kilpatrick were tilting at, especially Sylvia Pankhurst who wrote “The Communist Party must not compromise. . . . The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of reformism inviolate, its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution.”

Lenin’s advice to Pankhurst and other impatient young revolutionaries is not anything like that of Usmani and Kilpatrick’s despite their predictable exploitation of a stance that mimics his like a funhouse mirror. There is nothing about becoming the leftwing of the Labour Party or that would sanction what DSA is doing today running as Democrats and stumping for Bernie Sanders’s next bid for President.

In my opinion, the British Communists should unite their four parties and groups (all very weak, and some of them very, very weak) into a single Communist Party on the basis of the principles of the Third International and of obligatory participation in parliament. The Communist Party should propose the following “compromise” election agreement to the Hendersons and Snowdens: let us jointly fight against the alliance between Lloyd George and the Conservatives; let us share parliamentary seats in proportion to the number of workers’ votes polled for the Labour Party and for the Communist Party (not in elections, but in a special ballot), and let us retain complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity. Of course, without this latter condition, we cannot agree to a bloc, for that would be treachery; the British Communists must demand and get complete freedom to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdens in the same way as (for fifteen years—1903–17) the Russian Bolsheviks demanded and got it in respect of the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens, i.e., the Mensheviks.

I don’t mind particularly that Jacobin has decided to breathe new life into the Fabian Society, which evidently is more to their liking than Bolshevism. I suspect that most young people today are waiting with bated breath for the next big confrontation with capitalism as occurred during the Occupy movement and will have little interest in ringing doorbells for some Democrat, DSA member or not.

I only wish that if they are going to recruit V.I. Lenin to their sorry project, they’d at least respect what he actually wrote rather than jamming words into his mouth. He deserves better.

UPDATE:

In a comment below, Dave Grosser denied that Ben Ewen-Campen ran as a Democrat. I guess this was photoshopped or something.

Screen Shot 2017-12-14 at 6.45.43 PM

January 20, 2017

Words are cheap department

Filed under: two-party system — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

From President Obama’s January 21, 2009 Inauguration Speech:

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.  The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift.  And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth.  We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.  We’ll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost.  We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.  And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.  All this we can do.  All this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.  Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.  What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.  Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward.  Where the answer is no, programs will end.  And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.


From President Trump’s January 20, 2017 Inauguration Speech:

From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.

I will fight for you with every breath in my body — and I will never, ever let you down.

America will start winning again, winning like never before.

We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.

We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.

We will get our people off of welfare and back to work — rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.

December 23, 2016

FDR and the Little Steel strike

Filed under: Counterpunch,New Deal,trade unions,two-party system — louisproyect @ 4:57 pm

FDR and the Little Steel Strike

Frank in particular has built a virtual career out of making such points. In April 2016, he gave an interview to In These Times, a citadel of such hopes, titled Thomas Frank on How Democrats Went From Being The ‘Party Of The People’ to the Party Of Rich Elites  that was based on his new book Listen, Liberal, which argues that the Democrats have gone from the party of the New Deal to a party that defends mass inequality. In the interview Frank chastises Obama for not carrying out a new New Deal despite having control of Congress. “He could have done anything he wanted with them, in the way that Franklin Roosevelt did in the ’30s. But he chose not to.”

For many on the left, particularly the DSA and its journalistic sounding boards such as Jacobin, In These Times and Dissent, FDR is an icon who embodies their hopes for what they call socialism, a Scandinavian style welfare state that ostensibly put the needs of the workers over the capitalist class. While likely admitting that this is not the socialism that Marx advocated, they certainly are right that a reincarnated New Deal would be better than Donald Trump or the corporatist presidency of Barack Obama. Whether that would be feasible under a capitalism that has been leaking jobs to automation and runaway shops for the past 40 years is debatable. Many on the left have argued that it was WWII that lifted the USA out of the Great Depression rather than any New Deal program.

But the gauzy, halcyon portrait of the New Deal does not stand up to the reality of the Little Steel Strike of 1937 that is the subject of Ahmed White’s magisterial The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America that I discussed in a previous CounterPunch article focused on identity politics and the racism endured by Black steelworkers. For those new to the topic, “little” refers to the group of companies that blocked the CIO from organizing its workers, as opposed to US Steel, the “big” company that had they had come to terms with in March 1937. Little Steel consisted of Republic Steel Corporation, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company and Inland Steel Company. Despite being called “little” in comparison to US Steel, each ranked among the hundred largest firms in America.

Read full article

December 4, 2016

Mark Lause: Recounting a Presidential Election: the Backstory

Filed under: North Star,two-party system — louisproyect @ 12:35 am

stein-clinton-trump-701x394

Here we are, weeks after the 2016 election and Green candidate Jill Stein and her campaign committee are looming larger in the news than they ever did during the presidential race itself.   Her efforts to raise money for a formal recount in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have gained regular national attention and involves much more money than the campaign itself had raised.  Proponents insist that this drive to win a recount in three pivotal states that turned the election against Hillary Clinton has nothing to do with cozying up to the Democrats and is about nothing less than the integrity of the electoral process itself.

However, much of the Green Party itself has thus far remained aloof, and prominent party figures have declared themselves against the effort.  (See Daniel Marans, “Jill Stein’s Recount Campaign Is Winning Her New Fame — And Losing Her The Green Party,” Huffington Post, December 1, 2016.)  Brandy Baker has drawn stark conclusions about it in “The Stein Campaign and the Fight for Green Party Independence,” Counterpunch, November 28, 2016.  Stein’s vice presidential running mate, Ajamu Baraka called the recount “a potentially dangerous move” that gave the public the impression that the Greens were “carrying the water for the Democrats.” (Eli Watkins, “Jill Stein’s running mate: ‘I’m not in favor of the recount'” CNN, November 30, 2016.)  Discerning conservatives have been delighted to see the candidate go one way and the party the other.  (Warner Todd Huston, “Green Party releases statement distancing itself from Jill Stein,” Bizpac Review, December 1, 2016.)  Nevertheless, the Democrats generally seem to follow the lead of President-elect Donald J. Trump in describing the recount project as the work of the Green Party.

Some backstory on this might be helpful.

The Origins

According to published accounts, the recount project began with John Bonifaz, a Boston attorney who has founded and/or officered a series of organizations around voting rights.   Although he reportedly voted Green once, he is a registered Democrat and has run for statewide office as a Democrat. (See his bio on Wiki  or on his Free Speech for People site.)  Almost as soon as the 2016 election was over, he raised the concerns of what he calls “the electoral integrity community” about the integrity of the elections based on what some cited as statistically anomalous “indicators” in the three states that Clinton had hoped to win but lost to Trump.  Bonifaz dutifully took those concerns to his party.  (See Gabriel Shermen, “Experts Urge Clinton Campaign to Challenge Election Results in 3 Swing States,” Daily Intelligencer, reposted New York Magazine.)

Read full article

November 21, 2016

Reading the fine print in Seth Ackerman’s blueprint for a new party

Filed under: socialism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

Seth Ackerman

Issue #23 of Jacobin, which I received today, is devoted to an examination of “The Party We Need”. Since I have been advocating a new left party for the past 35 years both on and off the Internet, I was curious to see what the DSA supporters on the editorial board had to say on this topic. I probably will be evaluating other articles in the issue but want to start off with Seth Ackerman’s “A Blueprint for a New Party” that was available at least a month before it came out. It made sense that Ackerman’s article would be highlighted since it encapsulates perfectly the fence-straddling politics of DSA today, especially the youth wing that has made Jacobin its semi-official organ.

To start with, I was wary about Ackerman’s title since the word blueprint is antithetical to Karl Marx’s approach. Keep in mind that he once wrote in defense of the “critical analysis of actual facts instead of writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future”. Of course, when Marx wrote this he was referring to the sort of grand designs for classless societies found typically in Albert-Hahnel’s Parecon and not how to build parties. That being said, Ackerman has displayed a susceptibility to recipe-writing in the past as we can see from his Jacobin article “The Red and the Black”:

Why, then, are radicals so hesitant to talk about what a different system might look like? One of the oldest and most influential objections to such talk comes from Marx, with his oft-quoted scorn toward utopian “recipes” for the “cookshops of the future.”

Ackerman felt that Marx violated his own rules in “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, where he supposedly wrote “his own little cookshop recipe” that “involved labor tokens, storehouses of goods, and an accounting system to determine how much workers would get paid.”

One imagines that Ackerman was referring to Marx’s reference to a worker receiving a certificate based on the amount of labor he or she has contributed and that could be used in turn to purchase goods equal to the amount of labor embodied in the certificate. That is not only the sole reference to such a mechanism in “Critique of the Gotha Programme” but in Karl Marx’s entire body of work.

Indeed, the opening sentence in the relevant paragraph should give you a better idea of Marx’s approach: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” If you want to get a handle on Marx’s concept of a socialist society, the place to go is the 1871 “Civil War in France” that puts forward the Paris Commune as its concrete realization. The book is focused entirely on the steps workers had taken to reshape society according to their own class interests with nary a word about certificates.

After recruiting Karl Marx as a fellow blueprint writer, Ackerman shows his true colors by recommending Albert and Hahnel’s Participatory Economics:

Parecon, as it’s called, is an interesting exercise for our purposes, because it rigorously works out exactly what would be needed to run such an “anarchist” economy. And the answer is roughly as follows: At the beginning of each year, everyone must write out a list of every item he or she plans to consume over the course of the year, along with the quantity of each item. In writing these lists, everyone consults a tentative list of prices for every product in the economy (keep in mind there are more than two million products in Amazon.com’s “kitchen and dining” category alone), and the total value of a person’s requests may not exceed his or her personal “budget,” which is determined by how much he or she promises to work that year.

Preposterous, isn’t it? And any connection between this and the 104 words in “Critique of the Gotha Programme” about labor certificates is purely coincidental.

Ackerman’s article on a blueprint for a new party starts out promisingly enough:

This political moment offers a chance to fill in some of these blanks — to advance new electoral strategies for an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class.

Yeah! Gosh-darn-it. Let’s get on board with this.

But there are obstacles in the way of implementing such a proposal as should be obvious by Ackerman’s discussion of the stillborn Labor Party of 20 years ago, an effort I was quite familiar with. It was initiated by Tony Mazzochi, a leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union (OCAW). After an initial flurry of interest, it withered on the vine because the left bureaucracy that was willing to endorse it was not ready to “go all the way”. Ackerman describes why. “Running candidates against Democrats risked electing anti-labor Republicans. For unions whose members had a lot to lose, that risk was considered too high.” In other words, the same kind of union officials who urged a vote for Hillary Clinton this year would have been reluctant to run candidates who might siphon votes away from Al Gore in 2000 just as the NY Times reported that year:

This outpouring of enthusiasm for Mr. Nader worries many Democrats, who fear that so many steelworkers, auto workers, teamsters and other union members will vote for him this fall that Mr. Gore could lose in Ohio and other Midwestern swing states. For the Democrats, an added concern is that two of the most powerful unions in the Midwest, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, have flirted with Mr. Nader and have not endorsed Mr. Gore, even though the A.F.L.-C.I.O. is backing the vice president.

Was there a way for the Labor Party to advance its agenda without generating the opprobrium heaped upon the Nader campaign? Ackerman believes there was, namely to avoid creating a separate ballot line. Having a separate ballot line is practically a fetish in Ackerman’s eyes, the sort of exercise that reminds me quite a bit of my time in the Socialist Workers Party:

These parties are frequently forced to devote the bulk of their resources not to educating voters, or knocking on doors on election day, but to waging petition drives and ballot-access lawsuits. The constant legal harassment, in turn, ends up exerting a subtle but powerful effect on the kinds of people attracted to independent politics. Through a process of natural selection, such obstacles tend to repel serious and experienced local politicians and organizers, while disproportionately attracting activists with a certain mentality: disdainful of practical politics or concrete results; less interested in organizing, or even winning elections, than in bearing witness to the injustice of the two-party system through the symbolic ritual of inscribing a third-party’s name on the ballot.

Yes, this certainly evokes the days I spent collecting signatures for the party in the 60s and 70s standing in front of supermarkets in Vermont in 1972 with a clipboard in my hand, freezing my nuts off. I suppose that I must confess to being “less interested in winning elections” and “disdainful of practical politics” at the time although I didn’t find anything “symbolic” about getting Linda Jenness and Andrew Pulley on the ballot. The war in Vietnam was still raging and for someone like myself George McGovern did not begin to address the underlying cause of the war, namely the capitalist system. At the time the SWP had about 2000 members and was still growing rapidly. Our election campaigns were one of the primary ways that young people could be attracted to the socialist movement. We were right about the need for running such openly socialist campaigns even if none of us had an inkling of what a bizarre sect-cult the SWP would turn out to be.

Ackerman adds, “The official parties are happy to have such people as their opposition, and even happy to grant them this safe channel for their discontent.” Gosh, someone might have mentioned that to the FBI. That would have save them the trouble of trying to get me fired from my job as a programmer in 1968 when they sent Metropolitan Life a postcard fingering me as a red.

For Ackerman, a different strategy is needed, one that is more “creative”. Does that mean working in the Democratic Party? He answers his own question: “No. Or at least, not in the way that phrase is usually meant.”

After casting doubt on some of the traditional left-liberal and social democratic strategies for working in the DP such as supporting candidates like McGovern or serving as a tail to the DP’s kite after the fashion of the Working Families Party, Ackerman enunciates a spanking new approach.

The widespread support for Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, particularly among young people, has opened the door for new ideas about how to form a democratic political organization rooted in the working class.

The following is a proposal for such a model: a national political organization that would have chapters at the state and local levels, a binding program, a leadership accountable to its members, and electoral candidates nominated at all levels throughout the country.

Hmm. Intriguing. But be sure to read the fine print in a paragraph to follow:

But it would avoid the ballot-line trap. Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line. [emphasis added]

It could choose to run in major- or minor party primaries?

Oh, I get it. It could run in the DP primaries just like Bernie Sanders did, who asked us to vote for Hillary Clinton and now describes the execrable Charles Schumer as being better prepared and more capable than anybody else of leading the Senate Democrats–god help us.  (I have no idea what Ackerman meant by “minor party primaries”. Does the Working Families Party hold primaries? The SWP certainly doesn’t.)

The rest of Ackerman’s article takes up minutiae such as establishing a PAC, etc. But they are incidental to the overriding question of whether DSA’ers like Ackerman and the rest of the hustlers at Jacobin have any intention of breaking with the Democratic Party.

The title of the article is a complete fraud. When you penetrate through Ackerman’s prose, you will understand that it is not a “new party” he talking about at all. Instead it is a caucus of the Democratic Party that will not be encumbered by the need to go out and collect signatures to gain ballot status like Jill Stein did.

And if you think a bit more deeply about what this is about, it is really less about the onerous task of getting on the ballot that Ackerman exaggerates but remaining acceptable to the prevailing mood of the middle-class intelligentsia that Jacobin orients to at Vox, The Nation, Dissent, etc. Do you think that you will see fawning articles about the young intellectuals involved with magazines like n+1 or Jacobin if they got involved with a project that took a clear class line? Forget about it.

This debate about the Democratic Party has been going on for a half-century at least. In 1964, SDS adopted the slogan “Part of the Way with LBJ”. It took five years of brutal war to create a mood of resistance on campus and in the professional classes that produced the Peace and Freedom Party, a promising initiative that was hobbled by sectarian “intervention”.

This year there was significant support for Jill Stein’s candidacy that was undermined by an understandable fear of a Trump presidency. Unlike others who identify with the Greens, I was not disappointed by her modest vote total, which it must be noted was triple that of her last campaign. My problem is with the inability of the Greens to cohere as a membership organization that can begin to function as a nerve center for the left nationally even if it never wins another election.

A vacuum of leadership exists today that is crying out to be filled. There are basically three strategies that are being put forward. Groups such as the ISO and Socialist Alternative see work in the Green Party as a means to an end, namely the growth of their own group that is the nucleus of the future vanguard party that will topple the capitalist system. Even if they give lip-service to the idea of a broad left party (the ISO much less so), they continue to believe that it is only they who have the winning program that can rally the working class under the banner of socialism.

The DSA is both more modest and more circumlocuitous. Despite being on record in favor of the socialist transformation of the United States, their real orientation is to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that they see as the only political force capable of delivering Scandinavian type reforms even though the capitalist system in 2016 and for the foreseeable future is incompatible with such goals.

Finally, there is the liberal establishment itself that the DSA’s umbilical cord is attached to. It is the source of both intellectual and real capital. It exerts pressure on people such as Seth Ackerman that he is probably not even aware of. Like many of the contributors to Jacobin who are PhD students, there is a tendency to tailor their Marxism to the prevailing sensibility of the academy—one that encourages careerism and servility. The dissertation process is ultimately geared to reining in radicals and housebreaking them. When the rewards are a tenured professorship with the prestige, emoluments and job security that go along with it, the temptations to play it safe are irresistible.

Finally, the real challenge for people such as Seth Ackerman and the other Jacobin writers is to begin testing their ideas in practice. A magazine so invested in theory and “reading clubs” has little chance to test its ideas in practice. Granted, the low ebb of the class struggle today hardly gives people such as Ackerman the opportunity to assume leadership in the mass movement even though the responsibilities of completing a PhD likely would stand in the way to begin with.

In the 60s and 70s, there ample opportunities to learn about organizing people with so many different forms of rebellion both on and off the campus. I suspect that the Trump presidency will be providing brand new opportunities over the next four years as it begins to encroach on gains that were won over the past half-century. Let’s hope that people such as Seth Ackerman will avail themselves of the opportunity to build the movement, something that will be a lot more rewarding as I discovered in 1967 after dropping out of the New School and devoting every free moment to building the Vietnam antiwar and socialist movements.

November 16, 2016

Where was Roosevelt?

Filed under: Stalinism,two-party system,workers — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

Staughton Lynd

Radical America, July-August 1974
The United Front in America: a Note
by Staughton Lynd

Between the harsh and isolating politics of 1929-1933 and the bland and self-abasing politics of later years there thus came about an intermediate episode, full of interest for the present. Roughly it may be dated from the coming to power of Hitler and Roosevelt early in 1933 to the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization in November 1935 and Roosevelt’s second campaign in 1936. The strategy of the Left in that time was, as Richmond rightly emphasizes, experimental and localized. It was not mechanically adopted after some overseas initiative. The best summary phrase for what was attempted then had it not acquired other, sectarian meanings would be the “united front from below”.

Minimally, this meant that rank-and-file workers associated with different Left tendencies should seek ways to act together against their common enemies. David Montgomery and Jeremy Brecher speak of the 1911-1922 upsurge when “the old lines dividing revolutionary groupings tended to break down, and their once-competing local members threw themselves into actual class struggle without regard to their former ideological and organizational hostilities”. (6) Something like this also happened in 1933-1935. In contrast to the later 1930s there were no union bureaucrats with whom one could hope to ally. Rather the felt need was for people active at the grass roots to join forces in collective struggle. This was the spirit responsible for the local general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco in 1934.

It is important to recall that despite Roosevelt’s great popularity when first inaugurated and again after the “second New Deal” of 1935-1937, in 1934 and 1935 there was much disillusionment with New Deal labor policy. The National Recovery Administration to which working people had enthusiastically responded in 1933 was renamed the “National Run Around”.

There is no way that the working-class mood of those years can be considered anti-fascist. What was to the fore was a growing disenchantment with liberalism and with Roosevelt. Those who, like myself, did not experience that time can, I think, get a sense of it by recalling the mood of SNCC activists and the northern black community in 1962-1964. Just as Kennedy was then criticized for rhetorically espousing civil rights, yet standing by while those who acted on his rhetoric were jailed, beaten, and killed, so on the bloody picket lines of 1933-1935 men wonderingly asked themselves: Where was Roosevelt ?

What one observes in the general strikes of 1934 is a happy fusion of the intransigence of the Third Period and the ability to widen an action beyond its initial protagonists. The typical scenario was for one group of striking workers to be beaten on the picket line, and then for the entire working class of the locality to walk off their jobs in sup-port. Trotskyists in Minneapolis, Socialists and Musteites in Toledo, Communists in San Francisco all appear to have acted in a manner that avoided the sectarianism of the years preceding and the opportunism of the years that followed.

Electorally, the thrust of the Left in 1933-1935 was to-ward a labor party (not a people’s party). Throughout 1935 Communists and Socialists advanced this objective, Earl Browder and Norman Thomas appearing together at a Madison Square rally in the fall. The Central Committee of the Communist Party called for ‘a Labor Party built up from below on a trade-union basis but in conflict with the bureaucracy, putting forward a program of demands closely connected with mass struggles, strikes, etc., with the leading role played by the militant elements, including the Communists”. The Party, its Central Committee stated, “should declare its support for the movement for a Labor Party and fight in this movement for the policy of the class struggle, resisting all attempts to bring the movement under the control of social-reformism”. (7) As I have written elsewhere, the formation of local labor parties was endorsed by labor conventions and councils in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Oregon, Toledo, and Paterson, New Jersey; local labor party tickets were formed in San Francisco, Chicago, and Springfield, Massachusetts; and in October 1935, strong support for a labor party was voiced at the annual AF of L convention.

In November sweeping Socialist victories were recorded in Bridgeport, Connecticut and Reading, Pennsylvania. In Detroit, Attorney Maurice Sugar, running for alderman on a Labor Party ticket, just missed election, polling 55,574. Speaking to an audience of 1500 in New York City, Farmer-Labor Governor Floyd Olson of Minnesota predicted that a national farmer-labor party would make a bid for power in 1936 or 1940. As 1935 came to an end the Seattle Central Labor Council endorsed and affiliated with the Washington Commonwealth Federation; a Farmer-Labor Federation was formed in Wisconsin; the founding conference of the South Dakota Farmer-Labor Party was held; and Vice-president Francis Gorman of the United Textile Workers announced that forces working for a national farmer-labor party would open an office in the near future. (8)

The popular-front strategy which replaced that of the united front from below produced a qualitative change. The change did not happen all at once. Although the Communist Party hoped for a Roosevelt victory in 1936, it did not formally support him, and indeed declared publicly : “Roosevelt stands for capitalism, not socialism.” (9) As late as 1938 the Communist Party criticized “the inconsistencies and vacillations of the Roosevelt administration” and called for a ‘progressive realignment” based on beginnings such as the Farmer-Labor and Progressive parties of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the American Labor Party in New York, the Commonwealth Federations of the Pacific, and Labor’s Non-Partisan League. (10) Nevertheless the direction of change was clear. In 1935 the Party’s center of gravity was rank-and-file working people. By 1938 it was an amorphous coalition of so-called progressive forces. The united front was based on the rank and file, not on a “left-center” coalition with union bureaucrats. The united front was improvised on the basis of American needs, ra-ther than following an international line. The united front attacked the Democratic Party, instead of supporting it as after 1936. The united front was a response to the promises and failures of liberalism, whereas the popular front was directed at fascism overseas. It may be, for reasons indicated at the outset, that there was no real possibility of a mass radical movement in this country in the 1930s. If there was such a possibility, the hope for it lay in pursuing to the end the strategy of the united front from below.

 

November 14, 2016

Did the Democratic Party ever really represent the working class? (part one)

Filed under: two-party system,workers — louisproyect @ 11:22 pm

Not long after Trump’s election, a number of liberal commentators wrote essentially the same article that called for the Democrats to return to their blue-collar roots. Michael Moore, who is haunted by the memory of the good old days in Flint when workers had well-paying jobs, got a jump on fellow liberals by predicting a Trump victory made possible by the defection of “Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room.”

Also ahead of the curve was Thomas Frank who wrote on March 7th: “The working people that the party used to care about, Democrats figured, had nowhere else to go, in the famous Clinton-era expression. The party just didn’t need to listen to them any longer.”

Catching up with Moore and Frank, Robert Reich wrote on November 13th: “The Democratic Party once represented the working class. But over the last three decades the party stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class – failing to reform labor laws to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violate them, or help workers form unions with simple up-or-down votes.”

One might ask Reich when exactly did the Democratic Party represent the working class. For most on the left, that would mean FDR’s New Deal and perhaps LBJ’s Great Society that was seen as building on the New Deal.

Essentially, Moore, Frank and Reich urge the Democrats to go back to its roots if it wants to win elections in the future. Bernie Sanders embodies these hopes with many rebuking the party leadership for torpedoing his candidacy. They insist that Sanders would have cleaned Trump’s clock or words to that effect.

This begs the question of how painful losing an election was to someone like Hillary Clinton who along with her husband is worth $110 million. The last Democrat before her to lose an election to a rightwing monster was John Kerry–the richest Democrat ever to run for president and worth twice as much as the Clintons. Despite losing the election, he remained a powerful player in Washington politics. By the time you become the Democratic Party candidate for president, economic insecurity would have ceased to be a problem long ago. That was why so many people laughed at Hillary Clinton’s claim that she and her husband were “dead broke” when he left the White House.

I would argue that when you have fortunes in the hundreds of millions of dollars like these people, it tends to determine your ideology. If capitalism worked so well for them, why can’t it work so well for everybody else? If that is true for the candidates, it is a thousand times true for major donors like George Soros who has convened a powwow of rich bastards like himself to consider changes to the Democratic Party that will help it become a winner once again. I always get a laugh out of Soros’s duplicity. He has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Working America, the vote corralling organization launched by the AFL-CIO, at the same time his currency manipulation has ruined entire nations. This is not to speak of his warnings about climate change that don’t seem to preclude investing in coal and fracking.

As a Marxist, I have often been described as unrealistic but is there anything more unrealistic than expecting the Democratic Party to be taken over by Bernie Sanders and those CP’ers and DSA’ers who are carrying out deep entry tactics in the party? I often wonder if these comrades have really thought much about the Democratic Party’s history.

While having such knowledge probably wouldn’t make much difference to those who see voting for Democrats as a tactical question, I thought it might be useful to write about the Democratic Party using the tools of historical materialism and to hone in on the question of its relationship to working people. Although I mostly regret the time I spent in the Trotskyist movement, I did benefit from the Marxist education I received there and particularly the analysis of American history from George Novack, who despite his leaden prose and a certain amount of reductionism bordering on vulgar Marxism, was most astute at debunking the hagiography around FDR.

I am not sure how many posts I will be writing about the DP and the working class, but these three will surely be included:

  1. From Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson: I will be starting with this today. Although some might question what bearing Jackson has on today’s DP, I will argue that many on the left still labor under the illusion that he was the working man’s best friend.
  2. FDR: Obviously the icon of the liberal left and the president people like Moore and Reich consider the model for pro-working class governance.
  3. Post-FDR: a look at JFK, the first “New Democrat” and those that followed in his footsteps.

Andrew Jackson

If FDR is Michael Moore’s poster child for the Democratic Party,, at least one left historian hearkens back to the very first Democrat who called the White House his home. In 2005 Wilentz wrote a biography that was meant to refurbish Jackson’s reputation in more or less the same manner that Ron Chernow tried to do with his Alexander Hamilton biography, a friend of the rich who for some ungodly reason is now being celebrated on Broadway as proof that immigrants can make it in the USA.

For Wilentz, this meant repeating arguments made originally on Jackson’s behalf by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who regarded the architect of Cherokee removal and defender of slavery as pro-labor. While it is true that the Democrats were more partial to the early labor movement’s opposition to the eleven-hour workday and the expansion of voting rights, Jackson’s party was hardly one to serve as model for progressive change.

In 1946, Harry Braverman wrote an article (as Harry Frankel) for the Trotskyist press titled “The Jackson Period in American History” that put the pro-labor orientation of Andrew Jackson into context.

The original home of this political art was in the Northern wing of the planters’ Democratic Party – an auxiliary in enemy territory. It fought the bourgeoisie through sections of the urban petty-bourgeois and proletarian masses, who were mobilized by means of democratic and even anti-capitalist slogans. The planting class, resting on unorganized, unrepresented, almost unmentioned slave labor, could afford to countenance reforms which struck against the Northern bourgeoisie. The ten-hour day for workers, extension of the vote to the proletariat, attacks upon the factory system and other such agitations, typical of the Jackson period, represented no direct economic threat to the planters. During the Jackson period the planters put on their best democratic garb … in the North. But during that very same time, barbarous slave legislation multiplied on the statute books in the South. The concessions in the North were part of the slaveholder system of maintaining national power. John Randolph, the erratic phrasemaker of the planter bloc in Congress, gave clear expression to this strategy. “Northern gentlemen,” he taunted, “think to govern us by our black slaves, but let me tell them, we intend to govern them by their white slaves!”

As the needs of the “planting class” grew stronger, the Democratic Party became the political instrument of slavery and utterly indifferent to the needs of Northern workers who had by the 1850s become partial to the abolitionist cause. Despite the earlier plutocratic tendencies of the Whigs, it was a faction of the party led by Abraham Lincoln that launched the Republican Party whose record on labor struggles was mixed at best according to Mark Lause. Andrew Johnson was a perfect example of the Democratic Party of that time. Despite being Lincoln’s vice president, he was ready to retreat on Reconstruction while Lincoln’s corpse was still warm.

Grover Cleveland

Like Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland was a forerunner of the shitty centrist politics that is responsible for Republican Party victories today. As is the case today, this was a candidate who defiantly defended the class interests of the big bourgeoisie.

A two-term president from 1885 through 1897, Cleveland was a labor-hating shithook. He was aligned with the so-called Bourbon Democrats who were the Democratic Leadership Council of their day. These were politicians firmly wedded to free market economics of the sort that we call neoliberalism today except back them there was nothing “neo” about them back then. Like Thomas Friedman or Paul Krugman, the Bourbons were opposed to Trump-style protectionism. Despite the 130 years that separate us, it seems that the same issues keep cropping up.

In 1894 Cleveland intervened in the Pullman workers strike that for the time was as pivotal a confrontation as Reagan’s with the airline controllers. The workers were organized in the American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs. When George Pullman refused to recognize the union, Debs called for a boycott of Pullman cars that was very effective, costing the company $80 million. This led to Cleveland ordering the army to break the strike and then charging Debs with violating the injunction against the strikers. Debs served a six-month prison term for defying the government. At the time of his arrest, Debs was not a socialist but during his time in prison, he read the works of Karl Marx. After his release in 1895, he became America’s best-known socialist and as such ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket. Any resemblance between him and Rich Trumka is purely coincidental.

Upon being sentenced, Debs issued a proclamation to the ARU that should remind you of what labor radicalism once sounded like. The fact that Bernie Sanders can keep a picture of Eugene V. Debs on his wall is enough to make you sick to your stomach. From the proclamation:

I need not remind you, comrades of the American Railway Union, that our order in the pursuit of the right was confronted with a storm of opposition such as never beat upon a labor organization in all time. Its brilliant victory on the Great Northern and its gallant championship of the unorganized employees of the Union Pacific had aroused the opposition of every railroad corporation in the land.

To crush the American Railway Union was the one tie that united them all in the bonds of vengeance; it solidified the enemies of labor into one great association, one organization which, by its fabulous wealth, enabled it to bring into action resources aggregating billions of money and every appliance that money could purchase. But in this supreme hour the American Railway Union, undaunted, put forth its efforts to rescue Pullman’s famine-cursed wage slaves from the grasp of an employer as heartless as a stone, as remorseless as a savage and as unpitying as an incarnate fiend. The battle fought in the interest of starving men, women and children stands forth in the history of Labor’s struggles as the great “Pullman Strike.’ It was a battle on the part of the American Railway Union fought for a cause as holy as ever aroused the courage of brave men; it was a battle in which upon one side were men thrice armed because their cause was just, but they fought against the combined power of corporations which by the use of money could debauch justice, and, by playing the part of incendiary, bring to their aid the military power of the government, and this solidified mass of venality, venom and vengeance constituted the foe against which the American Railway Union fought Labor’s greatest battle for humanity.

Woodrow Wilson

Like Cleveland, Wilson was a two-term president from 1913-1921. Best known as a “progressive” and an internationalist (ie. imperialist), Wilson’s relationship to the working class is a bit of a blur to most people, including me before writing this article. Under the influence of the Progressive movement, Wilson did support a much more enlightened policy than Cleveland. In 1912 the Democrat Party’s draft campaign program called for all federal employees to be provided a minimum wage, an eight-hour day and six-day workweek, and health and safety measures. It also called for the prohibition of child labor, safeguards for female workers and a retirement program.

The Rich Trumka of his day, AFL president Samuel Gompers (there was no CIO yet), developed close ties to the White House. Like LBJ, Wilson campaigned as someone who would keep the USA out of war. But when Wilson betrayed the voters by entering WWI, Gompers agreed to serve on the Labor Advisory Board and supported a no-strike pledge just as the Communist Party did during WWII. Despite inflation eating away at workers’ wages, the AFL stayed true to the Democratic Party.

This was not the case for the IWW, the SP or the Communists who were hounded by the FBI for practicing sedition. Not relying exclusively on Gompers’s class collaborationism, Wilson established a Committee on Public Information (CPI) that promoted WWI to the American public through newspapers, radio, movies and other forms of communication. It recruited 75,000 “Four Minute Men” who volunteered to speak at social gatherings on behalf of the inter-imperialist rivalry that cost millions of lives.

Perhaps you have heard of Edward Bernays, who directed the CPI’s Latin American bureau. Bernays is widely regarded as the founder of modern public relations. In 1928 Bernays wrote a book titled “Propaganda” that has probably been studied by the likes of both Republican and Democratic campaign managers, State Department officials and other paid lackeys of the ruling class for the better part of 90 years. Bernays wrote:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

In my next post, I will have a whack at FDR.

 

November 7, 2016

Should the left try to take over the Democratic Party?

Filed under: North Star,two-party system — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

kunkel

Benjamin Kunkel

Should the left try to take over the Democratic Party? That question is answered affirmatively in Benjamin Kunkel’s Sweet ’16: Notes on the US Election that appeared in Salvage, a British journal launched by Richard Seymour and other well-known Marxists in July 2015. Meanwhile, Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara and managing editor Nicole Aschoff, a lecturer in sociology at Johns Hopkins, make the case that Only Socialism Can Defeat Trumpism in The Nation, an article that might be more properly titled “Only a Reformed Democratic Party Can Defeat Trumpism”.

Despite the freshness of magazines like Salvage and Jacobin, there is something a bit musty about such advice. When you consider Kunkel’s role as a founder of the very smart and sassy n+1, you have all bases of Young Turk Marxist journals covered. Considering the hoary past of the Democratic Party hostile takeover strategy, you’d think that there would be an aversion to the Earl Browder shuffle from insurgent youth. But then again, Jacobin has always been friendly with Dissent Magazine, a proponent of working in the DP just as much as the CPUSA’s Political Affairs journal.

To some extent, this might have been expected given n+1, Salvage and Jacobin’s infatuation with the Sanders campaign. When Sanders turned out to be much more of a Democratic Party insider than an insurgent, many on the left were reconciled to fall into line behind him since “Trumpism” (whatever that is) was considered such a threat. Speaking with Marxist authority second to none, Adolph Reed wrote a provocatively titled piece Vote for the Lying Neoliberal Warmonger: It’s Important that probably had the effect of allowing the smart, young Marxists to support Hillary Clinton, the candidate of the oldest, continuously functioning capitalist party in the world. Reed was like a rabbi telling a Reform congregation that it was okay to eat shrimp.

read full article

October 24, 2016

Tom Hayden (1939-2016): a political assessment

Filed under: obituary,parliamentary cretinism,student revolt,two-party system — louisproyect @ 11:31 pm

Tom Hayden

I knew nothing about Tom Hayden in 1967 except that he was an SDS leader. I developed a better understanding after reading an article he wrote in the New York Review of Books on August 24, 1967 titled “A Special Supplement: The Occupation of Newark” that reflected the editorial position of the journal at the time, one much further to the left than it is today although not nearly as radical as me back then or now for that matter.

That very week I had decided to join the SWP because the war in Vietnam and the racial oppression in Harlem I had seen working for the Department of Welfare pushed me over the edge. Hayden’s article is worth reading both for its reporting on the realities of Newark, a city that he and other SDS’ers had “colonized” in a kind of neo-Narodnik fashion, and as a gauge of this SDS elder’s thinking at the time:

This is not a time for radical illusions about “revolution.” Stagnancy and conservatism are essential facts of ghetto life. It is undoubtedly true that most Negroes desire the comforts and security that white people possess. There is little revolutionary consciousness or commitment to violence per se in the ghetto. Most of the people in the Newark ghetto were afraid, disorganized, and helpless when directly facing automatic weapons. But the actions of white America toward the ghetto are showing black people that they must prepare to fight back. The conditions are slowly being created for an American form of guerrilla warfare based in the slums. The riot represents a signal of this fundamental change.

In 1965 I had only the foggiest notion of what SDS stood for. I went directly from early 60s existential liberalism a la Camus directly to Trotskyism without passing go. There were SDS’ers at the New School where I was avoiding the draft by studying philosophy at the time but I had zero interest in joining the chapter there. It was only through contact with an SWP member over a two-year period that led me to break radically with my past.

Hayden eventually outgrew SDS and became a celebrity leftist like Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman, Benjamin Spock, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis et al. He, Herbert Aptheker and Staughton Lynd had traveled to North Vietnam in 1965 as guests of the government. From that point on he became identified with a wing of the antiwar movement that tended to waffle on the question of immediate withdrawal. Although the notion of traveling to Vietnam seemed quite radical at the time, the primary emphasis of Tom Hayden and his allies was to push for “peace” in Vietnam.

Divisions in the Democratic Party in 1968 were very much like those this year with Hubert Humphrey roughly equivalent to Hillary Clinton and Eugene McCarthy to Bernie Sanders. In the summer of 1968 Tom Hayden called upon young people to come to Chicago to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam and for Black liberation but the obvious subtext to the protests was to pressure the Democrats into nominating McCarthy.

When the cops attacked the protests, the press widely described the violence as a “riot” but in reality it was a police riot just like we see today in many of the Black Lives Matter protests. In the aftermath, Hayden, Bobby Seale, and six other leftists were arrested for conspiracy and incitement to riot. All the charges were eventually dropped.

After Nixon was elected, Hayden continued to press for a negotiated settlement even though his rhetoric made it sound like such a demand was in and of itself anti-imperialist. With Nixon all too willing to sit down with the Vietnamese while continuing to bomb all of Indochina, the call for Out Now seemed more urgent than ever.

In 1971 Hayden launched the Indochina Peace Campaign, a group that adopted lobbying rather than mass protests to end the war in Vietnam. In a Huffington Post article written on March 20th, 2007, Hayden described the period as one in which people like him were “recovering from the intense radicalism, sectarianism, militancy, and resistance to repression that occurred throughout the late 1960s.” A new approach was needed, one that foreshadowed Moveon.org and other pressure groups in and around the Democratic Party. Hayden wanted to turn the page on the 60s radical movement, even if there were some diehards that “opposed lobbying Congress and electoral politics for ideological reasons”. He added, “They believed in an escalation of radical tactics.”

You can get an idea of how Hayden thought about politics through his reference to “radical tactics”. Was he talking about the Weathermen? Was bombing a federal building “radical”? One suspects that the radicalism he was trying to put behind him was mass action independent of the Democratic Party, the sort of thing that would interfere with a budding career as a bourgeois politician.

While nobody would gainsay the right of the Vietnamese to use negotiations in pursuit of their ultimate goal of independence and national unification, Hayden’s tendency was to downplay the slogan of Out Now that the SWP advanced in the antiwar movement and to promote Negotiations Now, which dovetailed with the CPUSA’s orientation. Since the CP was deeply embedded in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that had begun work by 1967 to Dump LBJ, Hayden and his allies did much to weaken the movement.

It wasn’t only the Trotskyists who got on Hayden’s case. I.F. Stone wrote an article for the NY Review on November 30, 1972 questioning the efficacy of the peace negotiations that were hailed by Hayden:

If such are the terms, why does Thieu balk at them and the other side insist that we sign? The answer I believe is that the Vietnam war has been bypassed by the detente among Washington, Peking, and Moscow. Peking has been promised US troop withdrawal from Taiwan once Southeast Asia is “stabilized.” Moscow is being bailed out of the worst food crisis in years by Nixon. Hanoi’s patrons are tired of the war, and each seems somewhat miffed by the much too independent Vietnamese. In short, Nixon can pretty much write his own terms and has. Mme Binh told a visitor during the period when these latest terms were being negotiated, “Every time we take a step forward, the United States takes a step backward and the same gap remains between us.” The terms disclosed on October 26 were the outcome of a tight squeeze on Hanoi.

I think Stone got this right basically.

On January 25th, 1973 Hayden answered Stone in a letter to the NY Review that opened by describing himself as “puzzled to find so many antiwar activists, especially intellectuals, expressing the cynicism summarized by I. F. Stone in your November 30 issue.”

In a way, Hayden was correct in saying that the Vietnamese were using the negotiations to their own end. By wresting concessions from the Nixon administration that allowed “Vietnamization” to unfold, the North Vietnamese were finally in a position to roll into the South and achieve what negotiations could never achieve: final victory.

However, in the long run the USA was victorious. By drawing China into the peace process, Nixon was able to lay the foundations for the dismantlement of the Maoist economy, which despite its bureaucratic distortions did exclude the kind of rapacious capitalism that the nation eventually succumbed to. It also achieved a partial victory in Vietnam as Chomsky pointed out:

Indochina at least survives; the US did not resort to nuclear weapons as it might well have done had the population remained docile and quiescent, as it was during the terror of the US-imposed regime in the South, or when Kennedy launched the direct US attack against the South in 1962. But the “lesson of Vietnam,” which was taught with extreme brutality and sadism, is that those who try to defend their independence from the Global Enforcer may pay a fearful cost. Many others have been subjected to similar lessons, in Central America as well.

In his trips to Indochina, Hayden got introduced to and eventually married Jane Fonda, a Hollywood superstar and leftist. Her deep pockets allowed him to launch a career as a Democratic politician. He was in the State Assembly and State Senate from 1982 to 1992 and helped to convince many people that social change could be achieved through electoral means.

From that point on, he became a conventional liberal that nobody could possibly mistake for a fiery radical. His most memorable performance in that capacity was initiating Progressives for Obama in 2008 alongside Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Danny Glover. Appearing as an open letter in The Nation, it

We intend to join and engage with our brothers and sisters in the vast rainbow of social movements to come together in support of Obama’s unprecedented campaign and candidacy. Even though it is candidate-centered, there is no doubt that the campaign is a social movement, one greater than the candidate himself ever imagined.

This is pretty much the same kind of rhetoric that accompanied the Sanders campaign and about as believable.

But even the Sanders campaign was too far to the left for Hayden. In April 2016, he wrote an article in The Nation explaining why he called for a vote for Clinton rather than Sanders in the Democratic primary in California. Already stricken from the after effects of a stroke that would end his life yesterday at the age of 75, he sounds like a casualty of the reformist swamp. Although I will never would have achieved his fame and fortune or marry someone like Jane Fonda (I much prefer my feisty wife from Istanbul), I am glad to have never made my peace with bourgeois society.

 

August 30, 2016

Socialists and the electoral arena: in response to Sophia Burns

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm

halstead boutelle

The first two paragraphs of Sophia Burns’s article struck a chord with me, especially the reference to mass demonstrations as a way of raising political consciousness and as an alternative to the dreary election cycles we endure every four years when the bourgeoisie gets to pick its next White House puppet. We may have the right to vote but not the right to decide policy. We pull the lever and they pull the strings. I learned that in 1965 with my first and last vote for a Democrat who had assured voters that “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

Within two years I had joined the Socialist Workers Party and threw myself into building mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, a major focus of the group. What I did not expect was the near collapse of the movement in 1968 when the other groups and individuals associated with the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam essentially pulled out of street actions and put all their energy into electing Eugene McCarthy or Robert F. Kennedy. I became convinced that the antiwar movement was dead and doubted party leaders who said that activities would pick up after the elections when the war was certain to continue. As it turned out, they were right—one of the last times in fact. After the antiwar movement did come to an end because of the final victory of the Vietnamese themselves, the party went into a crisis of perspectives that finally led to its virtual extinction.

As it happens, the SWP ran its own campaign in 1968, with Fred Halstead and Paul Boutelle as presidential and vice presidential candidates. Like many other people who were expelled or resigned out of disagreements with the party’s misconceived “turn to industry”, Boutelle continued to be politically active as Kwame Somburu who received a dedication by Colin Jenkins in a July 13, 2016 North Star article as a scientific socialist, William F. Buckley-slayer, thorn in the side of “mental midgets,” lifelong advocate of “herstory,” mentor, and friend.

The Buckley reference was to an appearance that Halstead and Boutelle made on Firing Line that year in which they mopped the floor with the conservative bully. This appearance and every other one made by the two had narrowly defined purposes: to recruit members and to defend socialism to an audience that was usually beyond our reach. The electoral strategy was the same as every other “Leninist” group, including the Communist Party before it effectively became a wing of the Democratic Party during the New Deal.

read full article on North Star

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