Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 28, 2020

August Nimtz on Lenin and “lesser evil” voting

Filed under: Lenin,liberalism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm

I can think of no other scholar who has written more about Lenin’s electoral strategy than August Nimtz, an ex-SWPer who has taught at the University of Minnesota for many years. I got in touch with him a while back when I first ran into the argument that Lenin was an advocate of “lesser evil” politics because he approved of a bloc with the Cadets in the second round of the Duma elections. It might have been prompted by Kasama Project’s Mike Ely reference to this tactic or somebody else trying to justify voting for a Democrat. The most recent use of Lenin’s articles was in Eric Blanc’s article in Socialist Worker newspaper advocating a vote for Sanders and now for Biden. August sent me a copy of his “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905” that I highly recommend. According to Amazon, the paperback edition is out of print but fortunately you can buy a copy from Haymarket.

This is the relevant section:

“SPLITTING THE VOTE” AND THE “BLACK HUNDRED DANGER”: THE LESSER OF EVILS CONUNDRUM

In his pamphlet Lenin addressed for the first time an issue that has bedeviled many a working-class party in multiparty elections—the “danger of splitting the vote.” Marx and Engels first raised the issue in their Address. In calling for the proletariat to put forward its own candidates in elections, even though “there is no prospect whatever of their being elected . . . they must not allow themselves to be bribed by such arguments of the democrats . . . that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory. The ultimate purpose of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is infinitely more important than the advantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.” To these kernels of wisdom, Lenin added the necessary body.

The “few reactionaries” Lenin had to deal with were the fascist-like “pogrom mongers,” the Black Hundreds. And for that reason the issue of vote splitting had to be taken “seriously”: “It cannot be denied,” he admitted, that in the absence of a “bloc of the Lefts,” “Black-Hundred electors may be elected . . . And there is no doubt that the general public will take this [possibility] . . . into account; they will be afraid of splitting the vote, and because of that will be inclined to cast their votes for the most moderate of the opposition candidates.”

The first thing that had to be taken into account, he said, was “the present electoral system in Russia.” Elections were held in two to four rounds in four curia or electoral colleges, for landowners, urban dwellers, peasants, and workers. In the initial rounds the voting was for electors who eventually elected the deputies to the Duma. (The following figures make clear that due to the law of December 11, 1905, there was nothing representative about the elections: “one elector to every 2,000 voters in the landowner curia, one to each 7,000 in the urban curia, one to 30,000 in the peasant curia and one to 90,000 in the worker curia.”11 In the first round, Lenin argued, when the mass of “primary voters go to the poll,” the conundrum of vote splitting was most pronounced. In the subsequent rounds “when the elected representatives [or electors] vote, the general engagement is over; all that remains is to distribute the seats by partial agreements among the parties, which know the exact number of their candidates and their votes.” The Black Hundreds were likely only to be elected from the cities, which contributed less than 10 percent of the seats to the Duma; in the countryside the electoral process was generally nonpartisan.

So should social democracy enter into electoral agreements in the first rounds—that is, have joint lists of candidates with other parties, especially Cadets, to block the election of the Black Hundreds? For Lenin that would be a mistake: “We would undermine the principles and the general revolutionary significance of our campaign for the sake of gaining a seat in the Duma for a liberal! We would be subordinating class policy to parliamentarism instead of subordinating parliamentarism to class policy. We would deprive ourselves of the opportunity to gain an estimate of our forces. We would lose what is lasting and durable in all elections—the development of the class-consciousness and solidarity of the socialist proletariat. We would gain what is transient, relative and untrue—superiority of the Cadet over the Octobrist.”12 Furthermore, the “arithmetic possibility of splitting the vote,” he argued, based on an analysis of the returns for the First Duma, was minimal. But in later rounds, again, electoral agreements were not only permissible but necessary to block the Black Hundreds. That meant, more specifically, blocs with the Trudoviks to defeat the Cadets and blocs with the Cadets to defeat the Black Hundreds. This was Lenin’s ranking of the evils, from lesser to greater.

Given the Mensheviks’ orientation toward the Cadets—on full display in the First Duma—it is not surprising that they objected to Lenin’s call for a prohibition on electoral agreements in the first rounds of voting. Such a policy, in their view, would be an obstacle to their pas de deux with the liberals. At a party conference in Tammerfors (Tampere), Finland, November 3–7, the Menshevik-dominated Central Committee had enough delegates to adopt a resolution that allowed for electoral agreements with the Cadets in the first rounds. Because it was a conference, the decisions, as Lenin pointed out later, were only “advisory.” The Bolsheviks submitted, for discussion in local organizations, a “dissenting opinion” that reiterated their call for a ban on electoral agreements in the first rounds, but with a qualification: “Exceptions to this rule are permissible only in cases of extreme necessity and only in relation to parties that fully accept the main slogans of our immediate political struggle, i.e., those which recognize the necessity of an armed uprising and are fighting for a democratic republic. Such agreements, however, may only extend to the nomination of a joint list of candidates, without in any way restricting the independence of the political agitation carried on by the Social-Democrats.” But there was an exception to this exception: “In the workers’ curia the Social-Democratic Party must come out absolutely independently and refrain from entering into agreements with any other party.”13 If Lenin was willing to be a bit flexible on the general stricture on blocs in the first rounds of elections, that didn’t apply to the arena devoted exclusively to the proletariat—the one place where social democracy had to be pure and unadulterated in order to accurately assess its support. More than anything to date, the differences at Tammerfors revealed the collision course the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were on.

The “Black-Hundred danger,” the Mensheviks insisted, justified first-round electoral agreements with the liberal Cadets—a claim that has a very familiar ring to it for anyone acquainted with Left politics in advanced capitalist countries since the Second World War. Lenin took this head-on in “Blocs with the Cadets,” his first major writing after Tammerfors.

There were three basic “flaws” with the Menshevik argument. The first is that it assumed an alliance with the Cadets would actually lessen the Black Hundred danger. But there was nothing, he pointed out, in the track record of the Cadets that warranted such a claim. Look, he said, at their behavior in the First Duma. As a liberal-monarchist party, the Cadets were apologists for the Czar—“the known leader of the Black Hundreds. Therefore, by helping to elect Cadets to the Duma, the Mensheviks are not only failing to combat the Black-Hundred danger, but are hoodwinking the people, are obscuring the real significance of the Black-Hundred danger. Combating the Black-Hundred danger by helping to elect the Cadets to the Duma is like combating pogroms by means of the speech delivered by the lackey [Cadet] Rodichev: ‘It is presumption to hold the monarch responsible for the pogrom.’”

“The second flaw . . . is that . . . the Social-Democrats tacitly surrender hegemony in the democratic struggle to the Cadets. In the event of a split vote that secures the victory of a Black Hundred, why should we be blamed for not having voted for the Cadet, and not the Cadets for not having voted for us?” Social democrats “must not allow themselves to be bribed”—as Marx and Engels counseled in their Address—by what had always happened whenever they embarked on independent working-class political action in the electoral arena, “the howling and barking of the liberals, accusing the socialists of wanting to let the Black Hundreds in.” Why should the Cadets be allowed to pose as democrats? To the contrary, they had to be fought: “Now or later, unless you cease to be socialists, you will have to fight independently, in spite of the Black-Hundred danger. And it is easier and more necessary to take the right step now than it will be later on . . . But the real Black-Hundred danger, we repeat, lies not in the Black Hundreds obtaining seats in the Duma, but in pogroms and [field] military courts; and you are making it more difficult for the people to fight this real danger by putting Cadet blinkers on their eyes.” Ceding “hegemony in the democratic struggle to the Cadets” was to miseducate the masses and therefore disarm them in waging the “real” fight.

The “third flaw” was related to the second—“its inaccurate appraisal of the Duma and its role.” Implicit in the Mensheviks’ “tactics of partial agreement,” as they called them, was the assumption that what transpired within the elegant walls of Tauride Palace was decisive in the class struggle. Trying to utilize the “Duma as a whole, i.e. the Duma majority”— again, in their own words—was the best way for “fighting the autocratic regime.” It was just the opposite for Lenin and the Bolsheviks: “We think it is childish to imagine that the elimination of the Black Hundreds from the Duma means the elimination of the Black-Hundred danger.” The Black Hundred danger, he argued, would be overcome in the only place it could—in the streets. The Mensheviks, Lenin charged, had succumbed to “parliamentary cretinism”—not the first and not the last well-intentioned revolutionaries to have met such a fate.

Although Lenin’s answer to the vote-splitting/lesser-evil conundrum took into account the then existent electoral rules in Russia, there is nothing to suggest that it would have been qualitatively different for a different set of rules. At the heart of his position was a cost-benefit calculation informed by the assumption that what took place outside the parliamentary arena was decisive in politics. To the extent that participation in the electoral arena advanced independent working-class political action then it was worth taking part. If, however, such involvement interfered with that course, then the costs outweighed the benefits. Forming a bloc with the Cadets in the first round of elections incurred, in his view, an unjustifiable cost—the miseducation of the working class and its allies. It would be better to abstain—as the Bolsheviks did with the Bulygin Duma proposal—than to risk such an outcome. Even in the likelihood of the Black Hundreds obtaining a majority in the Duma, Lenin would have had the same answer; the Third and Fourth Dumas bear that out. However frightening that prospect might have been to some, Lenin knew that in the final analysis the “real” fight with the Black Hundreds had to take place outside Tauride Palace. “Everywhere we have a single policy: in the election fight, in the fight in the Duma, and in the fight in the streets—the policy of armed struggle. Everywhere our policy is: the Social-Democrats with the revolutionary bourgeoisie”—that is, the peasantry—“against the Cadet traitors.”14 Nothing distinguished the Bolsheviks more from the Mensheviks than that stance.

July 14, 2020

Antibodies and anticapitalists

Filed under: COVID-19,Jacobin,two-party system — louisproyect @ 7:08 pm

On May 22nd, a Quest Diagnostics serology test revealed that I had COVID-19 antibodies. In other words, I was supposedly immune. In writing about this experience for CounterPunch, I tried to convey how perplexing these results seemed. I had no symptoms associated with the disease, like a dry cough or fever, nor did I have any idea how long the immunity would last. The scientific consensus was that the antibodies were not permanent.

I assumed that the antibodies were from a coronavirus cold, which can also produce antibodies according to the CDC. Were they from a nasty cold that I had last September that evolved into bronchitis? That didn’t seem to make sense since I caught it from my niece whose own serology test turned out negative for COVID-19 antibodies. On top of that, the Quest website is pretty specific about the antibodies being a result of COVID-19 and not a coronavirus cold. “This type of test detects antibodies that show if you have had a prior COVID-19 infection—even if you never experienced symptoms. Detection of antibodies means you may now have some level of immunity to the virus.”

Since I had no idea when the statute of limitations would expire on the antibodies, I have made sure since May 22nd to stick to the practices recommended by the CDC: masks, social distancing, and washing my hands or using a sanitizer. My wife and I are pinning our hopes on her college sticking with online classes for the fall term. Given the huge spike in infections over the past few weeks outside of N.Y., there is a good chance we’ll be okay. The City University of New York suffered 38 deaths in its system during the pandemic and there is considerable resistance to taking any chances now. CUNY’s chancellor has said that the school is considering a hybrid approach but we haven’t heard how that will affect my wife.

Just yesterday, Business Insider reported on a number of studies that found that COVID-19 antibodies have a short shelf-life. A study conducted in Spain left me feeling vulnerable:

The recent study on this topic in Spain found that one in five people lost detectable levels of antibodies within five weeks.

That research, published last week in The Lancet, involved 60,000 people in Spain. They were tested for antibodies three times between April and June. About 7% of the participants who had antibodies during the first phase of the study (April 27 to May 11) no longer had them in the second phase (May 18 to June 1), according to CNN. About 14% of participants who had antibodies during the first stage no longer had them by the third phase (June 8 to 22).

In some ways, this doesn’t surprise me. The common cold, either the rhinovirus or coronavirus type, produces antibodies but they don’t last very long. That is why someone like me has had over fifty colds in my life. None would kill me but they do make me feel miserable.

The Business Insider reporter tried to be upbeat. She quoted Florian Krammer, a vaccinologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, that antibodies don’t disappear all at once. At five weeks, you might have lost half of them but they may be sufficient to preserve your immunity. That’s of little consolation to me and anybody else worried about the disease.

The overarching question is whether a vaccine can produce antibodies for COVID-19. The goal is to produce antibodies in enough people to build up herd immunity within the population. Krammer is not deterred by the possibility by people having to get vaccinated every year, just as you do with the flu. Unfortunately, however, flu has transparently obvious symptoms early on unlike COVID-19. When I’ve had the flu in the past (I’ve never been vaccinated), it hits me like a two-by-four. The last thing that I’d be up for is going to work and infecting others, especially since I’d be throwing up constantly on my way there.

In 2003, there was another coronavirus epidemic called SARS. It was deadlier than its close relative SARS-2 (or COVID-19) but it died out on its own in just a few months. Because it no longer posed a threat, researchers stopped trying to find a vaccine.

On May 22nd, the day I got my Quest Diagnostics antibody report, the Guardian published an article titled “Why we might not get a coronavirus vaccine” that warned against high expectations. Probably, the best we can hope for is a vaccine that might lessen the impact of the disease but not so much so that old folks would still be highly vulnerable. The article contained this sobering note:

People will have to adapt – and life will change. Heymann says we will have to get used to extensive monitoring for infections backed up by swift outbreak containment. People must play their part too, by maintaining handwashing, physical distancing and avoiding gatherings, particularly in enclosed spaces.

That’s not very reassuring when tens of millions of Americans are in open revolt against such threats to their “personal liberty”.

For the foreseeable future, American society will be roiled by a combination of ills that make the idea of returning to “normalcy” improbable. You have what amounts to a mass movement increasingly willing to use violence against antiracist protesters and to defy all measures intended to reduce the impact of COVID-19. Indeed, there will be an increasing tendency for the cops and the ultraright mobs to blend into each other. There have been sixty incidents of cars being driven into crowds of protesters, including by cops in both Detroit and New York.

You will also see corporate America driven to make workers pay for the economic consequences of the pandemic. In an article by Robert Brenner in the latest NLR that thankfully is not behind a paywall, he writes about “Escalating Plunder”, namely the way in which the bourgeoisie is using this calamity to defend its own class interests. Like the 2008 bailout under Obama, the underlying motivation was “too big to fail” but this time the billions were funneled to non-financial corporations as well. Pelosi and Schumer offered virtually no opposition and showed a cold indifference to unemployed and hungry people.

When I and my wife go out on our daily exercise walk, we see more and more boxes of food being distributed in front of churches. And those lining up to get them are not those who you’d regard as the underclass. The NY Post reported on April 19th:

The vast ranks of newly unemployed are straining the capacities of food banks, soup kitchens and pop-up services across New York City.

One user, Brittany, a 35-year-old Ph.D. candidate at Teachers College at Columbia University, who declined to give her full name, says she started visiting food services at Salem United Methodist Church in Harlem a few weeks ago after her partner lost his bartending job.

“I’ve been going two or three times a week for lunch,” she told Side Dish. “The fresh air makes it seem a little less scary.”

The next act in this pandemic tragedy will be a dramatic increase in homelessness. There had been a moratorium on evictions in N.Y.C. but that expired on the weekend of June 21-22. Housing rights groups estimate that 50,000 to 60,000 cases can end up in New York City’s housing courts.

It is just as dire in the rest of the country. Urban Footprint, a housing rights group, warned about the pending disaster:

The results are staggering. Across the country, nearly 7 million households could face eviction without government financial assistance. These are heavily rent-burdened households that have likely experienced job loss as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. This level of displacement would be unparalleled in U.S. history and carries the potential to destabilize communities for years to come.

In June 2019, Joe Biden reassured his wealthy donors at the Carlyle Hotel that he would be looking after their interests when president. He promised not to “demonize” the rich and that “no one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.” The only change since he made this speech is that the standard of living for Jeff Bezos has grown higher while for the PhD student cited above, it has plummeted.

This is the same Joe Biden who Bernie Sanders predicted a Biden administration would be the “most progressive since FDR” after his team worked out a series of compromises through a “Unity Task Force”. You can get an idea of who gave up more from the position on climate change. Even though A. O-C headed up the panel on climate change, the end result is merely a pledge to end carbon emissions by 2035. Something tells me that Biden won’t be around by then. As has been the case with capitalist environmentalism all along, you make big promises but fail to deliver. Even Dissent Magazine was able to see what a liar Barack Obama had been.

Given the irreconcilable class differences between Joe Biden and the people facing unemployment, hunger and eviction, it is depressing to see “lesser evil” politics coming into play as if Biden could deliver on his promises. If it took WWII to break the back of the Great Depression, how can we possibly expect people like Biden, Pelosi and Schumer to make the USA resemble a Scandinavian welfare state.

Because the DSA voted to endorse Bernie Sanders at its convention in 2019 and nobody else, especially Joe Biden, it is not easy—maybe impossible—to reverse itself. Even though Bhaskar Sunkara says that he will vote for Howie Hawkins, a N.Y. Times op-ed included this circumlocution:

I share the belief that having Joe Biden in the White House would be far less damaging to most workers than another four years of Donald Trump. Mr. Biden is at odds with the progressive, labor-oriented wing of his party, but every poor and working person in America, along with every socialist, would be better off butting heads with a White House filled with centrist Democrats than one filled with Trump appointees.

If this doesn’t give DSA’ers the green light to vote for Biden, I don’t know what else would. Bill Mosley, the editor of the Washington State DSA’s “Washington Socialist”, evidently got the message. He wrote an article titled “DSA Isn’t Endorsing Biden. That Doesn’t Mean Members Can’t Work for Him”. He writes:

No, DSA will not and cannot endorse Biden, but individual DSA members can and should help him win. It’s not clear that all of the traditional pre-pandemic methods of campaigning will be possible by the fall, but there is much else to do – if nothing else, phone banking, posting on social media, making contributions. The campaign should have ideas for how volunteers can contribute. And DSA members must work not only for Biden, but for a Congress that will undo the harm of the Trump administration and make meaningful strides forward, which will mean turning the Senate blue.

You can even see where Jacobin might be going on Biden as November draws near. Branko Marcetic, a Jacobin staff writer and author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, has been positively excoriating on Biden. In February, he wrote no less than five articles raking Biden over the coals. However, in April, there was one titled “I Literally Wrote the Case Against Joe Biden. But I’ve Got Some Free Advice for Him” that represents an escape valve for Sunkara’s magazine. Marcetic made Biden an offer he couldn’t refuse if he wanted the “democratic socialists” to get behind his campaign:

Biden initially ran as a New Deal liberal and upset a long-serving, beloved senator using an economically populist platform tailored to the times. As the waning “liberal consensus” of the postwar years was replaced by a neoliberal one aimed at cutting taxes and shrinking government, Biden moved to the right to win reelection, transforming into an anti-busing fiscal conservative who wanted to put every federal spending program on the chopping block every four years. This is the path he’s followed ever since.

Biden and the people running his candidacy need to recognize a similar political shift is happening again. The neoliberal order is on its last legs, and is in much worse shape than the liberal one it replaced in the late 1970s when Biden was coming up. When the Trump administration is offering to pay for millions of people’s health care, and when a conservative Republican is taking his policy cues from Denmark, it’s a sign the political winds are rapidly changing. But don’t take it from me: listen to the capitalist-to-its-bones Financial Times, which recently argued for “radical reforms” aimed at “reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades.”

Something is obviously going on in the Jacobin editorial meetings. In May, June and July, there has not been a single article on Biden. What do they say? Silence is golden? They must be slapping themselves on the shoulder since the Unity Task Force has purged his campaign of all traces of the Obama and Clinton presidencies—at least on paper. Marcetic says that “When the Trump administration is offering to pay for millions of people’s health care, and when a conservative Republican is taking his policy cues from Denmark, it’s a sign the political winds are rapidly changing.” So, don’t worry about being a tax-and-spend liberal.

Yeah, the political winds are changing. Right. Any fool would understand that the Tucker Carlson wing of the Republican Party is adopting the rhetoric of the left.

A Truthout article titled “’New Right’” Leaders Are Co-opting Progressive Language to Mislead Voters” sees this clearly:

In general, this faction holds true to the extreme cultural stances that have long united most American conservatives. But they distinguish themselves by rebuking the mainstream right’s cozy relationship with financial elites, a relationship they (correctly) see as both politically unwise — because it alienates working- and middle-class voters — and societally disastrous — because it promotes and reproduces extreme inequality. They oppose asset stripping, stock buybacks, and other economic practices that further empower and enrich financial elites; and they support redirecting wealth toward the growth of American industry.

Are the Democrats any better? At least I know that they are not as evil. Anyhow, my vote will go to the genuine anticapitalist:

 

April 20, 2020

Jacobin’s road map within the catacombs of the Democratic Party

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,DSA,Jacobin,third parties,two-party system — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

One big difference between the Jacobin left and the left of my generation is over the “road map”. In 1973 or so, nobody in the SWP or any Maoist, for that matter, had an idea about how a revolution could take place except in the most general terms. We all pretty much understood that the workers would not march under the banner of socialism, at least understood according to the Communist Manifesto, unless there was a profound change in American society that forced them to engage in uncompromising struggle like took place during the Great Depression. It was up to us to engage in various struggles as they arose, from the right to an abortion to challenging the trade union bureaucracies, but we accepted the constraints Marx put forward in “The German Ideology”: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

In the late 70s, the SWP accepted the word of its leadership that revolution was on the agenda, but there was no road map as such that described the specific route to state power. The entire membership was instructed to get blue-collar jobs because increasing class conflict supposedly made the factories and mines like Columbia University and Berkeley were in 1968. This was delusional, of course.

Then along came Bhaskar Sunkara who, with his customary aplomb and self-confidence, told his readers in the penultimate chapter of “The Socialist Manifesto”:

The dilemma for socialists today is figuring out how to take anger at the unjust outcomes of capitalism and turn it into a challenge to the system itself…Easier said than done. But this chapter offers a road map based on the long, complex, variously inspiring and dismal history of left politics—for challenging capitalism and creating a democratic socialist alternative to it.

It is not too difficult to figure out what this road map looked like. It began on the expressway built by Jeremy Corbyn in England and Bernie Sanders in the USA. Although there was no guarantee that their becoming Prime Minister and President respectively was assured, it made much more sense to take your Tesla on that road than to waste your time in revolutionary organizations like the kind we belonged to in the 60s and 70s.

After all, Sunkara’s guru Vivek Chibber, who was to the NYU Sociology Department as Lenin was to the Smolny Institute, had used his Marxist GPS to help write an article titled “Our Road to Power”. (Road, get it? It’s a leitmotif in the Jacobin oeuvre.) Chibber warns his readers about taking “the Russian road”: “The Russian road, as it were, was for many parties a viable one. But starting in the 1950s, openings for this kind of strategy narrowed. And today, it seems entirely hallucinatory to think about socialism through this lens.”

For Chibber and virtually all the Jacobin intellectuals, Washington could never be mistaken for the decaying Czarist state. It was virtually unsmashable: “Today, the state has infinitely greater legitimacy with the population than European states did a century ago. Further, its coercive power, its power of surveillance, and the ruling class’s internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability that is orders of magnitude greater than it had in 1917.”

So, if the “Russian road” was precluded by permanent structural obstacles, how could we get past capitalism? This is where Jacobin becomes a bit more evasive. Ever since the 2016 elections, the emphasis has been less on the need for system change than it has been for a “political revolution”, a term that meant electing Corbyn, Sanders, and politicians that received benediction from Jacobin and Tribune, the British magazine that became part of Sunkara’s publishing empire.

For most DSA members, the prospect of seeing Bernie Sanders in the White House was so enthralling that the questions posed in Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune could not be less germane. Why bother yourself with obscure questions of workers ruling in their own name when enlightened politicians could shepherd legislation like a Green New Deal through Congress. Sunkara nimbly made the case for socialism being largely realized through enlightened government policies:

Luckily, the United States doesn’t have to contend with antidemocratic supranational organizations like the eurozone, and it has immense resources to work with. We ultimately have larger ambitions than “socialism in one country,” but if it’s possible anywhere, it’s possible here. Cobbling together the legislative power to achieve these reforms will not be easy.

But it is possible to achieve certain socialist goals within capitalism. As we’ve seen in the history of social democracy, any achievements will be vulnerable to crises and resisted at every step, but they are morally and politically necessary nonetheless.

I could spend ten thousand words dismantling the ideological baggage that underpins this absurd passage but suffice it to say that the word “socialism” is misused here. Larger ambitions than “socialism in one country” in a capitalist country? WTF? Socialist goals within capitalism? When you peel away the rhetoric, it is simply a recipe for electing politicians like Sanders and the squad. Or as Eduard Bernstein once put it, “The movement is everything, the final goal is nothing.”

Most Jacobin intellectuals were poised to accept a Sanders presidency as the first leg in the road to power, especially after his thrilling victory in Las Vegas. Dustin Guastella and Connor Kilpatrick were beside themselves. In an article titled “After the Nevada Blowout, It’s Bernie’s Party Now”, they rolled out the red carpet: “He’s on his way to not just the nomination, but the White House.” If someone ever wrote a book about articles that had a brief shelf life, this one would make it right alongside that one:

For normal people, Biden’s subsequent clearing-the-pool-table victories, abetted by Obama’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering and Sanders’s fulsome deference to his “old friend” Joe Biden, might be enough to make the traffic signs on the Jacobin road look like this:

Until now, Jacobin’s Grand Poobah has not weighed in but members of his court have tried to put the best possible spin on the reversal of fortune. Dauphin to Kautsky’s throne, Eric Blanc spoke for those who slapped themselves on the back for helping to make Sanders’s “ideological victory” possible:

Since our collective expectations were raised so high after Nevada, it’s easy to forget how much we’ve already accomplished in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. As Bernie correctly emphasized in his suspension speech this morning, the campaign has largely won the battle of ideas. And the paralyzing myth that there is no political alternative to the neoliberal status quo has been shattered.

How this will translate in “road map” terms to the next election remains uncertain. Sanders has turned in a truly demoralizing performance as he began walking off the stage. In an video co-produced by the Biden and Sanders campaign, you are reminded of Vladimir and Estragon in a sequel to the Beckett classic titled “Waiting for Socialism”:

Unlike Blanc, some of the Jacobin intellectuals were undeterred. They brazened it out, finding nothing wrong with being embedded in the Democratic Party, as if it were some sort of 21st Century version of Lenin’s vanguard party. Yeah, it didn’t have much to do with socialism but it was legitimated by the facts on the ground. What are you going to do, anyhow? Waste your time on some tiny group that still takes The Communist Manifesto seriously when you can be devoting the next four years to help elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Yes, she is showing less and less “democratic socialist” credibility but everybody loves a winner unlike those pathetic Green Party candidates who prioritize principles.

Dustin Guastella, who co-wrote the article about the Sanders take-over of the DP referred to above, warned about abandoning the world’s oldest still-functioning capitalist party in an article titled “Like It or Not, If We Run Third Party, We Will Lose.” Showing the kind of bluster once heard from “socialist” UFT leader Albert Shanker, Guastella, a Teamsters Union official in Philadelphia, rolled out all the predictable reasons for staying inside Joe Biden’s political catacombs. Ballot laws kept 3rd parties on the defensive, including new laws in NY State that would make both the Greens and the Working Families Party victims of the “enlightened” governor’s hunger for power.

Guastella, who will likely to be paid as a Teamster official for the foreseeable future, warns against futile efforts to create a radical left party in the USA:

That third parties are destined to lose is no secret — it’s right there in the name. They are the distant bronze medalists of American politics. But, a skeptic might ask, if what you say is true — that party realignment and break are outcomes of struggle — why haven’t we seen Joe Biden bend on key policy issues? And, further, what basis is there for believing that the Democrats will ever bend (or break)?

Patience. We are still a weak, small movement — despite the fact that our ideas have captured the attention of voters, our candidates haven’t won the loyalty of mass constituencies, and our base is largely disorganized. After all, the Democratic establishment just steamrolled us with a candidate that seems severely confused at best and demented at worst.

After reading Blanc and Guastella, I am left with the conclusion that these people are hopeless. I left the SWP in 1978 because I became convinced that nothing could deter the cult leadership from a self-destructive path. The culture of “democratic centralism” created a mindset that made it impossible for Barnes and company to reverse course. While the Jacobin/DSA is no cult, the people around Blanc and Guastella’s Bread and Roses caucus wear self-enforcing ideological blinders that might make it impossible for them to consider anything else except operating on the fringes of the Democratic Party.

For those whose minds are not captive to Leninist or Kautskyite formulas, it is obvious that profound and highly momentous changes are in play as a result of the pandemic. Right now, half of all men under the age of 45 in Los Angeles County are either unemployed or working reduced hours. All across the USA, men and women vulnerable to getting the disease are starting to carry out wildcat strikes. Today there was a report on the “Service workers strike at two luxury Manhattan buildings“:

The service workers, who are based at The Chamberlain and 432 West 52nd Street condominiums, walked out at 11:30 a.m. Thursday and will strike for 24 hours, they said.

They accuse their employer, building-services contractor Planned Companies, of paying them substandard rates while they work through the coronavirus pandemic, and blocking their efforts to join labor union SEIU 32BJ. They also say Planned failed to provide enough masks and gloves to protect them on the job.

Unlike Jacobin/DSA, both the Philly Socialists and the activists who produce Cosmonaut have circulated an appeal for young activists to get jobs working at Amazon:

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Amazon’s infrastructure and workforce to their limits. As people self-quarantine and flock to the e-commerce giant to home-deliver their stockpiles of food, water, and sanitation supplies, logistics workers at Amazon and elsewhere strain under the increased burden. As the virus spreads and schools close, leaving working-class children with no caretakers, workers are forced to make impossible decisions between earning a wage and caring for their family. The current crisis is rapidly accelerating class conflict within these dynamics. Workers in Italy are going on strike, and unrest is developing here in the United States.  The left should see this as an opportunity to expand the efforts of workers already organizing on the ground, pushing forward demands that will not only help drive a humane working-class centered response to the crisis, but further the groundwork for stronger working-class organization moving forward.

This is what a socialist party has to be all about. Organizing men and women to get involved with fights for working class power. The DSA has to understand that it will be expected to put its substantial muscle behind such organizing efforts if it wants to have any credibility. Eric Blanc showed that he had some appreciation for the need for this kind of solidarity through his articles on the wildcat teachers’ strikes, even if it was framed in terms of how important Bernie Sanders was in getting them going—a claim some teacher activists found overstated.

In any case, Lenin’s party rather than Kautsky’s is a model for what is needed today. Even if Lenin credited Kautsky’s party as a model, the Russians always put struggle first. The Bolsheviks ran candidates but mostly in the interest of spreading socialist ideas rather than taking over the capitalist state. As for understanding the Bolshevik electoral policy, I recommend August Nimtz’s “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets―or Both”. For those unwilling to read the book for lack of time, I at least urge you to watch this video. It was made for the stormy period we are entering:

 

February 26, 2020

Thoughts triggered by ex-ISOers seeing the light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 8, 2020

Eric Blanc’s ersatz socialism

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

Eric Blanc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

December 21, 2019

Pete Buttigieg and the $900 bottles of wine: what they tell us about capitalist politics

Filed under: capitalism,two-party system,water — louisproyect @ 8:27 pm

Last Thursday, during the Democratic Party presidential candidate debate, Elizabeth Warren took a dig at Pete Buttegieg, the gay, neoliberal Mayor of South Bend, Indiana:

So, the mayor just recently had a fund-raiser that was held in a wine cave, full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine. Think about who comes to that. He had promised that every fund-raiser he would do would be open-door, but this one was closed-door. We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States. Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.

Buttegieg defended himself by pointing out that she too has taken donations from rich people and that he, unlike her and the other people on stage with them, was no millionaire. Clearly anticipating some static over his unabashed sucking up to billionaires, he told her:

Senator, your presidential campaign right now as we speak is funded in part by money you transferred, having raised it at those exact same big-ticket fund-raisers you now denounce. Did it corrupt you, Senator? Of course not. So to denounce the same kind of fund-raising guidelines that President Obama went by, that Speaker Pelosi goes by, that you yourself went by until not long ago, to build the Democratic Party and build a campaign ready for the fight of our lives, these purity tests shrink the stakes of the most important election. We’d like to bring everyone in.

Warren, trying to triangulate between Bernie Sanders’s grass-roots fundraising and the sort of feeding at the trough that routinely goes on in Democratic Party campaigns for President and Congress, had no answer for this. She is clearly a stealth candidate who, if elected, would probably cave in to corporate interests willingly. In the unlikely event that Sanders was elected, the caving would be unwillingly.

With much of the controversy revolving around the ostentation of the fund-raiser, much more has to be said about Craig Hall who was upset over being in the spotlight. Hall, a real estate and winery baron who has donated more than $2.4 million to Democratic Party candidates over the years, felt like they were picking on the wrong guy: “These people don’t know who they’re talking about when they throw me in the class that they did. As much as it’s frustrating, it’s more disappointing to me that Democrats are fighting with each other when we have a common goal, which is to get back to the White House.”

Like most billionaires, Hall is involved in philanthropy, which means that for every $100 he gets in tax cuts, he gives “worthy causes” $10 off the top—and tax-deductible, if you please. Unlike his fellow real estate magnate, the grubby Donald Trump, Hall runs what practically sounds like it was based on Murry Bookchin’s writings: “[W]e strive to do business responsibly. This includes developing environmentally sustainable buildings, encouraging employee volunteerism through paid time off‑, and operating our business with unwavering integrity, morality and a commitment to truth. We believe in doing what is right over what is easy.”

In the mid-80s, Hall was implicated in a crooked deal to avoid bankruptcy with Jim Wright, a member of the House of Representatives from Texas who was as powerful as Nancy Pelosi in his day. Like the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis, the 1980s Savings and Loan crisis was all about gambling on real estate. Craig Hall was Texas’s biggest real estate mogul, who had financed his empire with high-interest loans from S&L’s that were never supposed to get into that kind of business, just as banks 30 years later were not supposed to get involved with mortgage-based securities.

Hall used his massive donations to the Democratic Party to influence Jim Wright’s intervention on his behalf. Overseeing the efforts to keep the failing S&L’s afloat was a government agency called the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. In a strong-arm effort reminiscent of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, Wright told the regulators to look the other way when it came to Craig Hall, who was having trouble making payments on more than $1 billion in mortgages to some 20 S&Ls. If he couldn’t pay, the S&L’s would come tumbling down like dominos, which were under the supervision of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. (FSLIC).

Like Hall, the FSLIC was on thin ice. When the S&L crisis was just beginning in 1986, the FSLIC asked Congress for permission to sell $15 billion in bonds to recapitalize their insurance fund. The “FSLIC recap bill” was approved by the House and headed for a vote.

In late September of 1986, Wright called the Federal Home Loan Bank Board Chairman Edwin Gray and asked him to lay off Craig Hall using the same kind of indirection mafia bosses and Donald Trump use. Gray told House Ethics Committee investigators that Wright did not ask for anything specific, but “anybody who has worked in government for very long knows that when the soon-to-be speaker of the House of Representatives is asking you to look into it, its not just anybody.”

On September 26, Wright put a hold on the bill to recapitalize the FSLIC. As Hall himself put it, “Congressman Wright has in some manner held up the bill and … it appeared it somehow related to us.” Like the cut-off of military aid to Ukraine, Wright’s pressure had the desired effect. Hall got new loans at tax-payer expense and dodged bankruptcy.

One of the other types of pressure that Wright used was to get regulators fired if they were too uppity. Edwin Gray told ethics investigator about one instance:

And so I received a call and it basically was another call about the treatment of Texas S&L; institutions. And then (Wright) said that he understood that (names a federal bank regulator in Texas)) was a homosexual. And he understood from people that he believed and trusted (that the regulator) had established a ring of homosexual lawyers in Texas at various law firms, and that in order for people to deal with the Federal Home Loan Bank supervision people, they would have to deal with this ring of homosexual lawyers.

Wright’s ham-fisted interference eventually led to the end of his career, which unfortunately doesn’t seem in the cards for Trump. He resigned as House Speaker on May 31, 1989, the first on account of a scandal.

Like all financial crises, the S&L crisis petered out and Hall began making out like a bandit again. He wrote a book in 1990 titled “News of My Death Was Greatly Exaggerated: How I Survived the Texas Depression: My Financial Strategies for the ’90s.” Somehow I doubt that it gets too deeply in Jim Wright’s role in keeping him alive.

Once the cash started flowing again, Hall began using it to buy protection if disaster fell again. He got added to Vice President Al Gore’s rolodex and attended a White House coffee gathering. President Clinton nominated his wife Kathryn to serve as ambassador to Austria, undoubtedly because the Halls contributed more than $240,000 to the Democrats during the 1996 election cycle and not because of her expertise in Middle European diplomacy. The Center for Public Integrity’s Charles Lewis said, “The fact that a sitting Vice President would call someone whose failed S&L cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars — that’s a metaphor for the whole campaign fundraising scandal itself. … This person Hall should be a pariah that politicians would run away from.” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that more than $100,000 of the Hall’s contributions to the DNC came after the Halls received a call from Gore’s office in April 1996.

Showing the same inclination to feed at the billionaire’s trough, Hillary Clinton made a pilgrimage to the Halls’ winery in 2015. The invitation-only event, with tickets reportedly ranging from $250 to $50,000, targeted the same rich bastards that showed up last Thursday to greet Buttegieg.

As for the winery, the Halls run the same jive that they run on their real estate business: “Responsibility is one of our core values. This translates to developing LEED certified buildings, sustainable farming and operating our business with unwavering integrity. We are constantly innovating to turn our words into actions.”

The reality contradicts this bullshit as Wine Business reported last year:

A Napa County Superior Court on Tuesday tentatively ruled against the opponents of a vineyard slated to be developed above the Napa Valley floor.

Judge Thomas Warriner’s tentative ruling in favor of Napa County is not final as lawyers representing environmental groups and a residential water district continue to argue their case in court.

Attorneys for Living Rivers Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and Circle Oaks County Water District seek to overturn Napa County’s 2016 decision to approve Kathryn and Craig Hall’s plans to develop Walt Ranch on Atlas Peak. The attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity also represents the Sierra Club.

Walt Ranch is the 200-acre vineyard development long proposed by Craig and Kathryn Hall of HALL Wines.

Like Stewart and Linda Resnick, the pistachio and pomegranate juice billionaires, the Halls have little interest in how their wine-making impacts working people. They proposed removing nearly 23,000 trees to develop 271 acres of vineyards on the 2,300-acre Walt Ranch, which occupies a sensitive watershed. Geoff Ellsworth, a member of Wine and Water Watch, told the Food and Environment Reporting Network: “We’re in the middle of a business war. This big corporation is competing against that big corporation, and the collateral damage are the citizens and the flora and fauna.” The worries are the same as when farmworkers living near the Resnick plantations discovered that they often lacked enough water pressure to take a shower or flush a toilet:

While the Napa Valley conjures images of idyllic winery estates and luxurious lifestyles, all is not well in wine country. A growing number of residents decry the region’s proliferation of upscale hotels, the wineries that double as event centers and the strain on Napa Valley’s water resources. In the wake of California’s unprecedented drought, the city of Calistoga—like others—has been under mandatory water rationing. “We’re told not to flush our toilets,” says Christina Aranguren, a vocal critic of the proposed resort, whose guests will be under no such restrictions. “I want to know where the water will come from.”

Yeah, where will the water come from? Who cares, as long as the wine keeps flowing.

 

July 21, 2019

Reflections on the Samuel Farber/Todd Chretien exchange

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

Samuel Farber

Todd Chretien

On June 30, Samuel Farber wrote an article for Jacobin titled “What Revolutionary Socialism Means to Me” that was probably the first one I ever agreed with even if it predictably gave short shrift to Che Guevara as an “insurrectionist”.

In a section titled “The Democratic Party”, Farber defends independent class action—a principle shared by those from my generation who were trained either in James P. Cannon or Hal Draper’s politics. Farber was a member of Draper’s group and I was in Cannon’s. If I had an access to a time-machine, I’d probably travel back to 1967 and sign up with the Draperites. He cites Lance Selfa, an ex-ISOer who might have more trouble adapting to the new-found “democratic socialism” of other exer’s in light of what he has written, according to Farber:

As Lance Selfa shows in his book The Democrats: A Critical History, important sectors of capital contributed similar, if not higher, sums to the Democratic than to the Republican Party in the 2008 elections. Contributions to the Democratic Party included 45 percent of all the funds contributed to the election by agribusiness, 68 percent of all the election contributions from the communications and electronics sectors, 52 percent from defense, 55 percent from finance, insurance, and real estate, 54 percent from health, 74 percent from lawyers and lobbyists, and 55 percent from miscellaneous businesses.

After recapitulating key arguments why you should not support DP candidates (“lesser evilism”, lack of accountability, etc.), Farber turns to the Jacobin/DSA that has been irresistible to a number of ex-ISO’ers looking for a place where swimming upstream doesn’t go with the territory. In a section titled “The Dirty Break”, he refers to articles by Seth Ackerman and  by Eric Blanc’s that make the case for socialists running on the Democratic Party line in primaries. This ultra-sophisticated tactic is dubbed a “dirty break” as opposed to the “clean break” with the two-party system that moldy figs like me advocate. Farber is having none of that:

The main problem with this tactic is that it might end up unintentionally misleading voters who might feel manipulated unless they are explicitly informed that the “dirty break” candidates do not support, and in fact oppose, the Democratic Party as presently constituted. And the candidates pledge, in advance, that if elected they will not join the Democratic caucus and instead create a separate caucus. And that if they lose, they will not support a mainstream Democratic Party winner (a big problem with Bernie Sanders’s strategy of supporting mainstream Democrats who win the presidential and other primaries.) This approach would also have the virtue of preventing the cementing of illusions about the Democratic Party.

Todd Chretien is one of the ex-ISOers who has abandoned the independent class action perspective of both Farber and Selfa. Along with Paul Le Blanc, Chretien has become an enthusiastic Sandernista. In a July 6 Jacobin article titled “Revolutionary Socialists in the Democratic-Socialist Movement”, he tries to answer Farber.

He starts off by making a point heard from many ISO’ers just before they dissolved themselves. They were behind the curve: “But the reality is that the proponents of democratic socialism have grown proportionally stronger over the last few years because they have answered some key questions correctly; revolutionary socialists, meanwhile, have hesitated.” I don’t know about that. The DSA has grown because it was a magnet to tens of thousands of young people who voted for Bernie Sanders and who were much more ready to join a group that had an amorphous understanding of “socialism” rather than to hook up with a group that required a much bigger commitment and support for an ideology that was rooted in Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, et al and all those other musty figures from the past who have never been on Chapo Trap House. That’s a bridge too far for an 24-year old kid forced to work in a Starbucks because his or her art history degree proved to be a waste of $100,000.

In response to Farber’s warning about the susceptibility of leftist DP elected officials to become corrupt or to shift to the right, Chretien offers up a non-sequitur:

But does knowing that Cyril Ramaphosa went from union leader to billionaire, or that the European left has hit an impasse, or that the Lenin-Kautsky debate deserves serious study answer the question of whether or not to vote for Sanders? Or whether or not to support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib?

Probably not. In fact, the more relevant question is whether there is a class criterion that defines the Democratic Party. Keep in mind that until 1934, socialists always opposed the two capitalist parties as a matter of principle. After the Popular Front, all that changed. FDR was the Bernie Sanders of his day. The patrician politician convinced everybody on the left except the Trotskyists and Norman Thomas to get on board his bandwagon even though he rejected the idea of socialism. Perhaps that’s of little consequence given Sanders’s insistence that he wants to be the FDR of 2020. What does it matter if the word “socialism” is an empty signifier? As long as you are for government assistance, that’s good enough for democratic socialists. To give some oomph to the New Deal rebirth, all we need is to restore Communism in Russia and China. That would scare the bejeezus out of the Koch brothers and Jeff Bezos and get them to fund a Green New Deal, wouldn’t it?

In a mea culpa, Chretien writes:

In 2016, I believed that Sanders would be brought to heal [sic] by the DNC. Instead, he helped fuel the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America and, remarkably, played a role in giving teachers and others the confidence to strike. And recently AOC tweeted in support of one of the first political strikes in modern US history at Wayfair in solidarity with immigrant families caged in concentration camps.

Well, I’m glad that AOC tweeted in solidarity with immigrant families but has Todd forgotten what Sanders said about open borders? At a campaign even in April, someone criticized his open borders stance, to which he replied: “What we need is comprehensive immigration reform. If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it. So that is not my position.”

Yeah, that’s not his problem. Fuck him and the horse he rode in on. If he had one percent of Eugene V. Debs’s radicalism, Sanders would have said something like this: “There already is open borders for American investors and American subversion. Hondurans are taking their lives in their hands to cross the border into the USA. Chiquita Banana stole land from the Honduran farmers and when they resisted, the Marines invaded Honduras 7 times between 1903 and 1924. If Honduras would be allowed to close its borders to Chiquita Banana and the Marines, then I’d understand closing our own. Until that happens, I’m for open borders.”

Chretien makes light of the kind of criticisms that would likely appear in the Spartacist newspaper rather than from a serious socialist, or even a half-serious gadfly like me:

AOC, Bernie, Chicago’s recently elected six socialist city council members, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and others are at this point confounding the revolutionary socialist expectation that they will fall prey to what Karl Marx referred to as “parliamentary cretinism” in short order.

In fact, they have functioned honorably. So did many Democrats over the years who had radical credentials, from Vito Marcantonio to Bella Abzug. This is not the issue. It is instead whether progressive politicians have anything to do with making a revolution in the USA. The implication of DSA-backed candidates “fighting the good fight” is that more is needed. More AOC; more Ilhan Omar… Okay, if that’s the goal, go right ahead but at least respect the right of others on the left to stick to Marxist principles. What Marx wrote in 1850 still makes sense to a lot of us:

Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled.

 

June 12, 2019

Charles Post, Left Voice, and the question of a labor aristocracy

Filed under: Lenin,two-party system,workers — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

Rodrigo Carrillo, a farmer in Hoja Blanca, Guatemala, says falling coffee prices mean he can no longer make a profit on the once-lucrative crop. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

On May 25th, Left Voice published an article by an Argentine Trotskyist named Matías Maiello on “Social Democracy and Imperialism: The Problem with Kautsky” that was the latest in a series of critiques of Eric Blanc, a DSA/Jacobin figure who has justified backing Democratic Party candidates on the basis of Karl Kautsky’s pre-1910 writings.

On June 5th, Charles Post responded to Maiello’s article in Left Voice, which to its credit has opened its pages to criticisms. Despite the magazine’s professions of Leninist orthodoxy, this is a departure from the norms of the American SWP that I belonged to from 1967 to 1978. Then again, the norms of the SWP might have been in violation of Bolshevik practice, given Iskra being published to further debate among socialists.

Like Maiello, Post is a critic of Jacobin’s neo-Kautskyism, even going so far as to refer to Eric Blanc as a “left reformist”. In the world occupied by Post and Maiello, the “left” that qualifies “reformist” might be regarded as damning with faint praise.

Most of Maiello’s article is an attempt to demonstrate the affinity of the German Social Democracy with the leftwing of the Democratic Party, personified by figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In either case, you are dealing with self-described socialists adapting to imperialism. This is obviously manifested by the German socialist parliamentarians voting for war credits in 1914 and Sanders voting in favor of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which called for removing “the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power.” I should note that Maiello cites my editor Jeff St. Clair of CounterPunch on Sanders’s voting record. I commend the Argentinian for his ability to keep on top of the truly radical press in the USA. This sets an example for the kind of proletarian internationalism so necessary in a “globalized” world (please excuse the tautology.)

After stating his agreement with the main thrust of the Left Voice article, Post parts company with Maiello for his alleged support for the theory of “labor aristocracy”:

We differ, however, in our analysis of the material roots of the bureaucratization of the workers movement. Maiello relies on Lenin’s notion of “labor aristocracy” to explain working-class reformism. According to Lenin, the export of productive capital from the Global North to the South since the late 19th century allowed large, “monopoly” capitalists to accrue “superprofits,” which were used to “bribe” a sector of the working class and create a labor officialdom. Thus, reformist bureaucrats defend their national imperialism in order to maintain the social basis for their relatively privileged position in the working class.

You’ll note that Post refers to Lenin’s “notion” but in the next paragraph refers to a “theory”: “Unfortunately, the theory of the labor aristocracy, in all its variants, is without factual-empirical basis and rests on questionable theoretical assumptions.” This is an important distinction and one that he neglects to clarify. In Lenin’s copious writings, there are not many references to the labor aristocracy. Probably the best known of them was his 1916 “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”  that only refers to some letters by Engels that express his dismay over the state of the British working class: “…The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.” Not only did Engels write this letter prior to the mature imperialism examined in Lenin’s writings but as an off-the-cuff remark without much of a “theorizing” ambition.

Once he is finished quoting from Engels and Marx’s letters, Lenin adds his own thoughts that add up to a “notion” rather than a theory:

Formerly a “bourgeois labour party”, to use Engels’s remarkably profound expression, could arise only in one country, because it alone enjoyed a monopoly, but, on the other hand, it could exist for a long time. Now a “bourgeois labour party” is inevitable and typical in all imperialist countries; but in view of the desperate struggle they are waging for the division of spoils it is improbable that such a party can prevail for long in a number of countries. For the trusts, the financial oligarchy, high prices, etc., while enabling the bribery of a handful in the top layers, are increasingly oppressing, crushing, ruining and torturing the mass of the proletariat and the semi-proletariat.

Other than this article, the only other attempt by Lenin to present his own understanding of the labor aristocracy is in the preface to the French and German edition of “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” that only contains a couple of paragraphs similar to the one above. There are several other articles that offer up a line or two but are hardly worth mentioning. My advice is to consult the Marxist Internet Archives (MIA), an invaluable resource for researching such matters.

The MIA reveals that in the entire “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, as opposed to the preface, there is not a single reference to the term. There’s a good reason for that. That 1914 work was an attempt to explain the economic basis for WWI as a conflict between monopoly capitalist powers, using J.A. Hobson as a primary source. If you are looking for a class analysis of the trade union bureaucracy and its base of support among skilled tradesmen, you won’t find it in Lenin. You only can find “notions”, to use Post’s word, but that’s about it.

If you are looking for a fully developed theory, you can find it in a 1982 pamphlet by Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer titled “The Labour Aristocracy The Material Basis for Opportunism in the Labour Movement” that tries to bridge the gap between Lenin’s theory of imperialism and his scattered and rather minimal references to the upper layers of the working class being bribed, etc.

Elbaum and Seltzer were members of Line of March, a Maoist sect that was founded by Irwin Silber, the film critic of the defunct but essential Guardian Newsweekly. Line of March was part of a significant Maoist current in the USA that existed from 1968 or so to the mid-80s. The Maoist press wrote about “white skin privilege” and Third World revolution swamping the imperialist strongholds after a protracted People’s War, etc.

For Elbaum and Seltzer, the aristocracy is not just the workers you’d expect to be singled out, like the white construction workers who beat up antiwar protesters in 1970. It is the entire American working class that benefits from imperial bribery:

Certainly relative to the masses in the colonies and semicolonies, the entire working class in the advanced capitalist countries possesses political, economic, and cultural advantages. Just as monopoly capital consolidated the split between the labour aristocracy and the lower strata of the proletariat, it accentuated the division between workers in imperialist countries and the masses in the oppressed nations. Indeed, this latter division has often served to moderate (and obscure) the tensions between the labour aristocracy and the lower strata in imperialist countries, as both have benefited somewhat from imperialist exploitation of workers in the colonies and neocolonies. Lenin observed this phenomenon and didn’t mince words about its meaning: “To a certain degree the workers of the oppressor nations are partners of their own bourgeoisie in plundering the workers (and the mass of the population) of the oppressed nations.”

Post does not refer to this pamphlet in his Left Voice article but in 2006, he wrote a two-part article in Solidarity on “The Myth of the Labor Aristocracy” that took aim at the Elbaum/Seltzer pamphlet as well as articles written by a member of the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia that endorsed their findings. What makes this linkage interesting is the Trotskyist heritage of the DSP, which despite the name had little to do with the DSA politically. For Post, it might have seemed odd for people with the same ideological background as his to be defending nominally Maoist beliefs but not so strange in light of what Leon Trotsky had written over the years. For example, in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”, a 1940 sketch for an article that was never written due to his assassination, he wrote:

Hence flows the need of the trade unions – insofar as they remain on reformist positions, ie., on positions of adapting themselves to private property – to adapt themselves to the capitalist state and to contend for its cooperation. In the eyes of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement the chief task lies in “freeing” the state from the embrace of capitalism, in weakening its dependence on trusts, in pulling it over to their side. This position is in complete harmony with the social position of the labor aristocracy and the labor bureaucracy, who fight for a crumb in the share of superprofits of imperialist capitalism.

Part of the problem, of course, is the failure of Lenin or Trotsky to flesh out what they meant by a “labor aristocracy”. Is it the same as the labor bureaucracy? Evidently not, or else they wouldn’t have used two different terms.

Ironically, Post and Elbaum/Seltzer agree on the existence of a class-wide privileged layer in the imperialist heartland but draw different conclusions. Post writes:

Higher profits result in more investment across the board in the industrialized countries. More investment eventually brings a growing demand for labor (within limits set by investment in newer, more capital intensive technology), falling unemployment and rising wages for all workers in the industrialized capitalist countries.

Put simply, this means that imperialist investment in the global South benefits all workers in the global North – both highly paid and poorly paid workers. Higher profits and increased investment mean not only more employment and rising wages for “aristocratic” steel, automobile, machine-making, trucking and construction workers, but also for lowly paid clerical, janitorial, garment and food processing workers. As Ernest Mandel put it, “the real ‘labor aristocracy’ is no longer constituted inside the proletariat of an imperialist country but rather by the proletariat of the imperialist countries as a whole.” That “real ‘labor aristocracy’” includes poorly paid immigrant janitors and garment workers, African-American and Latino poultry workers, as well as the multi-racial workforce in auto and trucking.

For Post, the “bribe” is distributed across the board almost like Social Security and as such it would refute the notion that it was only hard hats with their fishing boats and 6,000 square foot houses in Suffolk County that are “aristocrats”. It would also include the janitors and garment workers, et al. This is his way of discounting the viability of this theory. On the other hand, it might explain the willingness of African-Americans to vote for Joe Biden by 46 percent as opposed to Bernie Sander’s 10 percent approval rating in the Black community.

It is always necessary to remind ourselves that Lenin wrote articles and books in the heat of the moment. Within 5 years, he referred to “What is to Be Done” as a work that was obsolete. To regard “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” as a work that can explain today’s world is a useless exercise but often taken to dismiss the idea that imperialism exists since definitionally it was next to useless. Those committed to formal logic rather than Marxist dialectics were the loudest in questioning its applicability.

In Post’s Against the Current article, he scoffs at the idea that the imperialist nations were in any way reliant on superprofits extracted from the Third World:

Imperialist investment, particularly in the global South, represents a tiny portion of global capitalist investment. Foreign direct investment makes up only 5% of total world investment – that is to say, 95% of total capitalist investment takes place within the boundaries of each industrialized country.

Of that five percent of total global investment that is foreign direct investment, nearly three-quarters flow from one industrialized country – one part of the global North – to another. Thus only 1.25% of total world investment flows from the global North to the global South. It is not surprising that the global South accounts for only 20% of global manufacturing output, mostly in labor-intensive industries such as clothing, shoes, auto parts and simple electronics.

Data for profits earned by U.S. companies overseas do not distinguish between investments in the global North and global South. For purposes of approximation, we will assume that the 25% of U.S. foreign direct investment in labor-intensive manufacturing in Africa, Asia and Latin America produces profits above those earned on the 75% of U.S. foreign direct investment in more capital-intensive production in western Europe, Canada and Japan. It is unlikely, however, that more than half of the profits earned abroad by US companies are earned in the global South.

This, of course, is consistent with his dismissal of the idea that capitalism relied on slavery in its early stages. You have to understand that his aversion to theories tainted by the Monthly Review dependency theorists and other neo-Smithians was strongly influenced by Robert Brenner whose 1977 NLR article warned against theories that called attention to how imperialism was “squeezing dry the ‘third world’”. Instead of nonsense about the core versus periphery, the cities versus the countryside, etc. the answer was in the international proletariat allying itself with the oppressed people of all countries against the bourgeoisie. Who can be opposed to that? The idea of American workers organizing a general strike against Trump’s anti-immigrant racism is inspiring, even if it is a fantasy.

Part of the problem in reducing the core-periphery relationship to one of a bribery extracted from superprofits is that it does not account for the entire ensemble of economic relationships that condemn a country like Guatemala to the desperation that drives its citizens to risk drowning in the Rio Grande or dying of thirst in the Mexican desert.

Today’s Washington Post reports that “The migration problem is a coffee problem”. It seems that falling coffee prices have driven growers into dire poverty, even when they are the owners of their own land. Now, if the USA had not intervened in Central America in the 1970s and 80s, perhaps all of Central America could have been liberated from dependency and formed socialist cartels to support prices for coffee exports that advantaged the farmers rather than Fair Trade hustlers like Starbucks, et al. This might have meant that American workers, who were addicted to coffee like me because it was the only way to take a proper shit in the morning, might have to pay $6 for a cup of coffee rather than $2. When the global South became master of its own commodities, it would have forced the American working class to decide where their loyalties should be placed. It might be possible to enjoy a cup of coffee or a banana without going broke but only if that entailed reducing the funding for the American military until it reached Costa Rica’s, namely zero.

Based on Charles Post’s analysis immediately above, you might conclude that Guatemala’s problem is one of malign neglect since American FDI in Guatemala ($1.1 billion) is dwarfed by the capital poured into Canada ($392 billion). However, this does not take into account the American support for rightwing dictators in Guatemala that have been armed and supported by both the USA and Israel for the past 60 years at least. To see American imperialism exclusively in terms of where banks finance capitalist expansion is a narrow way of understanding class relationships. Although Brenner scoffs at the notion of Andre Gunder Frank’s “the development of underdevelopment”, that is exactly the malady Guatemala and most of Latin America suffers from. I should add that it is no accident that Argentine Trotskyists writing in Left Voice have a better handle on that than him.

Finally, on the question of the reformist tendencies of the working class, aristocrats or plebeians, this is a question that has been at the heart of American politics going back to Werner Sombart’s 1904 “Why There is No Socialism in the United States” that states: “For the average American being successful means first and foremost becoming rich.” I rather have my doubts about this but after 52 years advocating socialism, I tend to accept Marx’s verdict in “The German Ideology” that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

I suspect that my take on the pace of revolutionary struggles in the USA are much more restrained than those of the Left Voice editorial board but am glad that it at least can draw clear class lines in a period when the entire capitalist press is solidly behind “democratic socialism”, whatever that is.

Most workers simply can’t be reached by revolutionary ideas today, even if their life is being torn apart by capitalist contradictions. Reaching the average worker will take something like the Ralph Nader campaign in 2000. I have vivid recollections of returning from a trip from seeing my girlfriend at the time, who was a graduate student in Albany. On the Amtrak, sitting on the opposite side of the train from me, were three UPS workers who spent the entire 2 hours discussing Nader’s ideas. Nader was not a socialist but he was a leftist who had the guts to run as a Green Party candidate. Was he a reformist? I guess by Left Voice’s standards, he was.

At some point in American history, someone like Ralph Nader will be a reformist block to socialist revolution but that will only be a result of UPS workers discussing Karl Marx rather than Ralph Nader. That might take decades to unfold but acting as if this was Russia in 1910 might be a serious error in tempo. I should add that even if it is a mistake, it is one that I would prefer to see people make, just as I made in 1970, then see them ringing doorbells for Democratic Party candidates.

January 27, 2019

Eric Blanc, the LA School Strike, and Swimming Against the Stream

Filed under: DSA,Education,electoral strategy,two-party system — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

Unlike other teachers strikes over the past year, the one that just took place in Los Angeles confronted a Democratic Party machine rather than one run by the Republicans. For those trying to understand our current period in class terms, it is a useful reminder that the labor movement has to learn how to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is the Republican Party with its snarling right-to-work, Koch-backed politicians while Charybdis is the Blue State power elite that uses seduction to get its way. Put in a nutshell, the main obstacle to putting public education in Los Angeles on the same footing it enjoyed 60 years ago means breaking through the veil of seduction and overthrowing the liberal establishment.

There’s a useful article by Eric Blanc on Jacobin titled “Never Trust a Billionaire’s Antiracism” that takes names and kicks ass as we used to put it in the 1960s. He singles out LA School Board President Monica Garcia who supported charter schools against the teachers union attempt to rein them in:

Nobody embodies this hypocrisy better than LAUSD head Monica Garcia. The daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants in East Los Angeles, Garcia has leveraged her personal background to climb the city’s power structure. She consistently paints her political project — which mostly consists of promoting charters and opposing the strike — in activist colors.

When it comes to issues she has no control over, Garcia is as progressive as can be. Her Twitter account is full of Nelson Mandela quotes, denunciations of Trump’s xenophobia, and praise for Elizabeth Warren. Despite her hard opposition to today’s strikes, Garcia is nevertheless fond of hosting conferences that raise the banner of the 1968 Chicano student walkouts.

Unfortunately, Blanc continues along his patented neo-Kautskyite lines in this article by drawing a contrast between LA’s former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Garcia on one side and the “socialist” wing of the DP on the other:

That’s why figures like Garcia and Villaraigosa were pushed forward to attack (in the name of racial justice) a movement of, and for, a predominantly nonwhite workforce and student body. It’s also why the Democratic Party establishment and its pundit apologists will continue to use antiracist rhetoric to attack Bernie Sanders and the resurgent socialist movement.

In May, 2016 Sanders told an Ohio audience: “I believe in public education, and I believe in public charter schools. I do not believe in private – privately controlled charter schools.” Hmm. I hope one of his aides clued him in that charter schools in LA are public schools. That is the problem, after all. They drain public resources into an essentially private enterprise. Indeed, Bernie voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998. He believes, however, that these they must be “held to the same standards of transparency as public schools to ensure accountability for these privately managed organizations.” Transparency? Accountability? Jesus fucking Christ. These are not the right criteria. The right criteria are funding and the right to have a union. Charter schools get the lion’s share of the funding and teachers lose the right to challenge the administration through strikes or grievances.

As for Antonio Villaraigosa, Blanc merely refers to him as “a former union organizer who quickly abandoned his pro-labor commitments upon becoming LA’s mayor in 2005.” It is worth pointing out the DSA enthusiastically supported him for mayor. Writing for the DSA Democratic Left, Peter Dreier singled out the networks who were crucial to his election:

When he ran for Mayor the first time in 2001 he lost, but he ran again and won in 2005. Now we have a progressive mayor, thanks in large part to this impressive network of grassroots organizations, labor unions and community and environmental organizations. Many of them have lifted up some of their leaders into positions of electoral power. It’s a network of activists that work closely with elected officials, like Congresswoman Hilda Solis, and it’s just remarkable what L.A. has become.

In 2010, Villaraigosa named Austin Beutner as his Deputy Mayor. Beutner became Superintendent of the LA School System last year, appointed by the current mayor Eric Garcetti. Whatever made Villaraigosa pick someone like Beutner to be his second in command? In 1989, Beutner was a partner at Blackstone, a private equity group run by Stephen Schwarzman who once described Obama’s “crackdown” on Wall Street as “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” Soon after Beutner became Deputy Mayor, he stated in an interview that his goal was “to make Los Angeles the most business-friendly city in the country.”

In 2015, billionaire Eli Broad, the Waltons and Michael Bloomberg spent $2.3 million to help elect a board of education that backed charter schools. This has been part of a major offensive by the capitalist class to restructure American education along quasi-privatization guidelines. Despite Bernie Sanders’s foolish notions about private versus public, all charter schools are private. The only difference between Arne Duncan and Betsy Devos is degree. The same thing with Obama saying in November 2018 “That whole suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer … that was me, people” and Trump targeting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—just a matter of the degree.

What is going on with people like Villaraigosa selling out? Why can’t “democratic socialists” anticipate such developments? Perhaps the best way to understand this is the sheer difficulty of being a revolutionary in the USA. I can’t blame Eric Blanc for joining the DSA rather than the ISO. Being in a small revolutionary organization swimming against the stream is a taxing business. Can’t you imagine the excitement around Villaraigosa’s campaign in 2005 when he had an “impressive network of grassroots organizations, labor unions and community and environmental organizations”? It must have been as heady an experience as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being elected to Congress. Or Obama getting elected in November, 2007.

Unfortunately, swimming against the stream is the only way to make a revolution in the USA. As tiresome as it is for the salmon to reach its spawning grounds or for tiny numbers of Marxists to break out of their isolation and rally working people to the cause of revolution, this is the task that confronts us in the 21st century. All around us are signs of terminal decay, from monarch butterfly extinction to a new nuclear arms race. If it was possible for the Democratic Party to overcome these crises, it might make sense to adopt an “inside-outside” orientation. There’s a wrinkle, however. The 20th century was replete with radicals being taken over by the Nancy Pelosis of the world rather than us taking over the Democratic Party. Let’s make the 21st century a new start for independent class action. If the ability of government workers at airports to withhold their labor could torpedo (even if momentarily) Trump’s wall, imagine if they and the rest of the working class could form a left party with the resolve to create a new society based on human needs rather than private profit. That was Karl Marx’s goal and it is still worth pursuing.

November 19, 2018

Nancy Pelosi and the horse trading progressives

Filed under: two-party system — louisproyect @ 8:27 pm

Nancy Pelosi has been making news lately as an obstacle to the transformation of the Democratic Party into the kind of European Social Democratic Party the DSA and Sandernistas yearn for. There is a growing momentum to reject her bid to be reelected as Speaker for the House of Representatives.

Norman Solomon, the director of RootsAction.org, a Sandernista online activist group, wrote an article for Truthdig titled The ‘Pelosi Problem’ Runs Deep that does not quite call for a vote against her: “Nancy Pelosi will probably be the next House speaker, a prospect that fills most alert progressives with disquiet, if not dread. But instead of fixating on her as a villain, progressives should recognize the long-standing House Democratic leader as a symptom of a calcified party hierarchy that has worn out its grassroots welcome and is beginning to lose its grip.” Solomon instead urges his 1.5 million “members” (nothing more than clicking a link online) to continue more or less the same course DSA urges, namely activism around various issues such as a “Green New Deal” and electing people like Ocasio-Cortez.

Justice Democrats, another online activist outfit like RootsAction.org focused on electing “progressives”, has received the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez. Two days ago she got on the phone with some 700 Justice Democrats, most of whom were active in the Sanders campaign, and told them: “Long story short, I need you to run for office. We all need to run at all levels of government, but I really hope that many of you join me here in Congress.”

Last Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez participated in a sit-in at Pelosi’s office calling for a Green New Deal that she views as requiring the same commitment as WWII and the Marshall Plan. If I were her, I’d probably not have alluded to such obvious imperialist projects but then again I live in Another Country, as James Baldwin once put it.

Does this mean that she was ready to vote against Pelosi becoming Speaker? Surprise-surprise. Four hours ago, she pledged support for her as the “Most Progressive Candidate” . She added, “All of the rebellion for the speakership are challenges to her right, and so I think it’s important to communicate that.” Among the 16 House Democrats opposing Pelosi is Max Rose, who just got elected in Staten Island, a NY borough that has much more in common with rural Iowa than the rest of the city. Filled with white cops and firemen, you’d think that Rose would be another Joe Manchin. A visit to Rose’s website, however, will reveal that he favors lowering the age of Medicare eligibility to 55, etc. The NY Times analyzed why he beat the incumbent:

His pedigree might have alienated potential constituents, but his rhetoric did not. He offered a simple, unifying message that was progressive in substance but relatively neutral in its delivery: that the system is rigged to benefit special interests, that the little guy is getting stiffed over and over, that we need better infrastructure and stronger unions.

The most outspoken opponent of Pelosi’s reelection is Marcia Fudge, an African-American Representative from Ohio, who has even been considering a run against Pelosi. Fudge has been stigmatized as homophobic for refusing to co-sponsor the Equality act but defends herself by saying that that she supports gay rights, but not the way that particular bill was handled. She said, “They can’t find one vote, not one vote, that’s anti. I just don’t want to insert it into the civil rights bill. It should be a stand-alone bill and I’d support that.”

Fudge is an ally of Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who also signed the letter against Pelosi and who ran against her for the House Speaker post in 2016. There’s nothing much in his record to place him in the DP’s rightwing. Indeed, in an op-ed piece for the NY Times, he stated: “I think that Ocasio-Cortez was expressing the frustration that so many people feel right now that our systems aren’t working for the people who work hard and play by the rules. She talked about the cost of rent, health care, wages and education. Those are bread and butter issues that play all across the country.”

I really don’t have the time, nor the motivation, to look into the background of the other 15 Democrats but for argument’s sake will accept the possibility that they are to the right of Pelosi. What interests me more is how this fits into the broader question of how to understand the role of the Democratic Party in American society.

To start with, Ocasio-Cortez does have a point. Pelosi is, by DP standards, fairly progressive. On Facebook, Stephen Zunes, a San Francisco professor and well-known journalist of the left, wrote:

Given that under Nancy Pelosi’s leadership the Democrats won back the House while under Chuck Schumer’s leadership Democrats actually lost seats in the Senate, why is it Pelosi whose leadership is being challenged?

1) Pelosi, while not nearly as progressive as I would like, is still more liberal than Schumer. For example, she opposed the invasion of Iraq and supported the Iran nuclear agreement while Schumer sided with the Republicans on both of these important foreign policy matters. Pelosi is also more progressive on a number of important domestic issues as well.

2) Pelosi, because she is more willing to challenge Republican priorities, has been attacked a lot more by Republicans than has Schumer and some Democrats get easily spooked by right-wing criticism

3) there is still a lot of sexism among Democrats

In my view, the opposition to Pelosi is overdetermined in the Althusserian sense. Among the various factors, each of which by themselves would serve as a sufficient grounds for opposing her, are:

  1. As Zunes said above, she has been pilloried for years now by the Republicans. Leaving aside the merit of their attacks, her unpopularity rating is at 29 percent. To some extent, this is the same sort of burden Hillary Clinton carried around. The two are female (obviously), wealthy, urban, and indifferent to the plight of the working people. For example, in 2010 Pelosi opposed a moratorium on home foreclosure, something Clinton ironically did support.
  2. As opposed to the Republicans, the Sanders wing of the party views her as inimical to the changes that are necessary to make the DP an agent of “socialism”. Despite the Republican attack on her as a “radical”, Govtrack.us ranks her as the 37th most conservative Democrat in the House.
  3. Probably the most important motivation for replacing her is the perceived need voiced by younger elected officials in the DP to make room at the top for themselves and their cohorts. In a way, it is the same problem that exists in the academy where professors continue to hold down jobs well into their 70s, if not their 80s. An old friend who taught sociology at Columbia described this as “calcification” not much different than the kind that can cause a stroke.

You get a real sense of the ambitions that drive opposition to Pelosi from Beto O’Rourke, the leftwing darling who lost a narrow race to Ted Cruz in November. In today’s NY Times, he comes across as the ultimate careerist:

“You have some of the institutional members say, ‘Who are these upstarts?’ ” one of these younger Democrats, Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who was elected in 2012, told me in 2015. “One member of Congress compared us to spoiled kids, like teenagers who want a car on their 16th birthday. But you look at my class: Tulsi Gabbard, she’s not going to stay in the House for long — she’ll run for governor. Joe Kennedy, the same. Pat Murphy, the same. And they’re all talented, ambitious and good fund-raisers. I’ve just got to think that when you see that 20-year road to be in a position of consequence, other options look a lot more attractive.” O’Rourke, of course, left this year to pursue those other options, following his fellow erstwhile rising House stars Xavier Becerra (who was appointed attorney general of California in 2017) and Kyrsten Sinema (whom Arizona elected to the Senate this month). [emphasis added]

This reminds me quite a bit of what Les Evans told me when I joined the SWP in 1967. “I looked around when I joined and saw that I could become a leader of this party without too much trouble.” (Or something to that effect.) After cutting his ties to the party during the turn, Evans took a position at UCLA exploiting his knowledge of Chinese he developed in the party. Today, he is a Zionist and a liberal. Who knows where O’Rourke will be in 20 years? I can say that when he started out, he was not exactly the sort of politician that would endear himself to the average DSA member.

Probably the most savvy take on the progressive opposition to Pelosi comes from Politico, a website that views this sort of thing the way that touts view the odds at a horse race. Titled Progressives back Pelosi for speaker — in return for more power, it sees the compromise as old-fashion horse-trading, to continue with the equine analogy.

It wasn’t a coincidence that moments after Nancy Pelosi promised progressive House leaders more power in the next Congress, a host of liberal groups announced they were supporting her for speaker.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who is expected to co-chair the House Progressive Caucus next year, left a Thursday night meeting with Pelosi in the Capitol and proclaimed that her members would have more seats on powerful committees and more influence over legislation.

The Washington state Democrat then phoned MoveOn and Indivisible with the news, and they promptly tweeted out support for Pelosi. Then, on Friday morning, Jayapal, previously uncommitted on whom she would back for speaker, gave Pelosi a full-throated endorsement.

“No one can really doubt Pelosi’s progressive chops,” Jayapal told POLITICO in an interview. “And I do think, for the next two years, as we lead into 2020, and are coming off this big wave, we need someone who is smart and strategic and has done this.”

Smart and strategic? I suppose so. To give you an idea of what this means in practice, look how Jayapal and her cohorts finessed the abolish ICE demand as reported by In These Times:

In July, three members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.)—introduced a bill to abolish ICE. They intended it as a statement of principle and, as Vox observed, “weren’t ready to be taken seriously,” given that the majority of Americans oppose abolishing ICE and Democrats themselves are split. House Republicans threatened to bring it up for a vote, with the hope of embarrassing Democrats. The progressives then announced they would vote against their own bill. But as with Warren’s plan for reforming capitalism and the more ambitious climate change plans, such laws that push the moral envelope lay important groundwork for when progressives and Democrats actually have power. [emphasis added]

So if they don’t take themselves seriously, why should we?

Writing for The Nation, the abysmal Joan Walsh interviewed Jayapal as “a bridge between the still-feuding Clinton and Sanders wings of the Democratic Party”. It concluded with these words from Jayapal: “We can’t tear each other down. If we start to divide ourselves now, we’re really lost. It doesn’t mean we can’t disagree about things. But we agree we’re all working toward the same place. That’s when we begin to win.”

For the past year or so, we’ve been hearing about how people like Jayapal and Ocasio-Cortez will eventually take over the Democratic Party. Mark my words. Within a year or two, the Democratic Party will have taken them over. That’s what it has been doing with the left for over a century and it is an art it has perfected. When those being co-opted are getting richly rewarded for their surrender, no wonder there will barely be a whimper. It is up to us who still see a need for revolution to scream at the top of our lungs from every rooftop.

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