Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 10, 2016

On Bernie Sanders’s “political revolution”

Filed under: Bernie Sanders — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

Graphic from Socialist Workers newspaper

Being a senior citizen is a mixed blessing. On the debit side, I have to put up with ailments that tend to develop once you are past 50 (which I am well past) such as cataracts, hypertension, and the male-only benign prostatic hyperplasia. On the credit side, having been on the front lines of most of the political battles of the past 50 years, I have gained a lot of experience that allows me to be a bit more skeptical of the Sanders campaign that many younger people on the left embrace like a shiny new toy.

Of course, there are some grizzled veterans who are also fixated on the new toy, which can be explained by their viewing votes for a Democrat as a tactical matter. To give credit where credit is due, I would say that Ethan Young’s article on the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung website titled “A Political Revolution” is the most skillful attempt to justify voting Democrat—much more informed than, for example, the Socialist Alternative people whose article explaining their participation in the Sanders campaign appears juvenile by comparison.

I should mention that the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is basically the NY branch office of Die Linke, the German left party that generally fights the good fight even though it has erred badly on Syria. In my view, the USA is urgently in need of such a party as the Socialist Alternative comrades argue in their article but mistakenly believe—as does Young—that the Sanders campaign can mutate into such a party. It is more likely that I will mutate into Rosa Luxemburg.

Young starts off by making comparisons between Debs and Sanders that might seem plausible at first blush since Sanders had his picture in both his mayor’s office in Burlington and now in his Senate office. In 1979, he made an LP that paid tribute to “a socialist, a revolutionary and probably the most effective and popular leader that the American working class has ever had.” Young writes: “Sanders is the first self-proclaimed socialist to win a national audience since Eugene V. Debs ran as the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in the early 20th century, and the size of his base is arguably greater than that of any socialist leader in U.S. history.”

Missing from this equation is any understanding of what socialism meant to Debs. If Debs evaluated Sanders’s political record, he would most certainly state, paraphrasing Marx, “if that is socialism, I am no socialist.” For Debs, socialism was the implacable enemy of the capitalist system. If you can find any resemblance between a Sanders speech and what Debs said in his 1912 “Capitalism and Socialism”, you are probably having hallucinations and should make an appointment with a psychiatrist. Debs said, “The Socialist party is the only party in this campaign that stands against the present system and for the rule of the people; the only party that boldly avows itself the party of the working class and its purpose the overthrow of wage-slavery.” He also said:

The Republican, Democratic and Progressive conventions were composed in the main and controlled entirely by professional politicians in the service of the ruling class.

There were no working men and no working women at the Republican convention, the Democratic convention, or the Progressive convention.

These were clearly not working class conventions. Ladies and gentlemen of leisure were in evidence at them all. Wage-slaves would not have been tolerated in their company. They represented the wealth and culture and refinement of society and they were there to applaud and smile approval upon the professional politcians and patriots who were doing their work.

So please, comrades, let’s not take the name of Debs in vain from now on. Furthermore, what does it mean to say that Sanders is now making the term socialism popular among young people? If it is nothing but a synonym for New Deal policies that have doubtful possibility of being reenacted in a transformed American capitalist system, the confusion assumes biblical proportions. Back in the 1960s, when I used to sell the stupid Militant newspaper door to door in Columbia University dormitories as a “socialist newsweekly”, I often had to waste 5 minutes of my time pointing out that it was not what existed in Sweden. Mind you, I don’t think it would be a bad thing to see the kinds of social welfare programs that exist there to be replicated in the USA just as long as it is understood as capitalism with a human face and not meant for the hapless immigrant encroaching on Aryan terrain.

Ethan Young has a rather peculiar idea about what made parties such as Eugene V. Debs’s apparently so irrelevant:

Repeated attempts to introduce a social democratic or labor party that could eclipse the Democratic/Republican duopoly have never succeeded. From 1900 to 1946, the political Left was largely embodied in two parties: Socialist and Communist. Both of these parties fell to the background during the years of the New Deal and World War II.

First, on the SP. It did not “fall to the background”. It was pushed there by the American Trotskyist movement that entered the party with the goal of destroying it as part of the “French turn” that Trotsky encouraged. It was a parasitic tactic to recruit the party’s left wing on the behest of a Leninist sect. Its leader James P. Cannon gloated over its success in leaving the SP as a “dead husk”.

For its part, the CP worked in the opposite direction. Instead of helping to build a broad-based labor party that could confront the Roosevelt administration on a class basis, it threw its considerable weight behind the New Deal and even sabotaged efforts to build a labor party—ironically through its involvement with the American Labor Party.

When the CP made its turn to Roosevelt as part of its obedience to the Comintern’s new Popular Front strategy, it joined with rightwing Social Democrats who had defected from Debs’s party now under the imperfect but generally principled leadership of Norman Thomas in initiating something called the Labor Non-Partisan League. Trade union bureaucrats in the needles trade like Sidney Hillman et al were upset by the SP getting 200,000 votes in the New York City elections of 1935, something they saw as undermining Roosevelt’s campaign the following year. In other words, these were the Demogreens of their day.

In the summer of 1936, the LNPL transformed itself into the American Labor Party with the clear goal of making it possible for a nominally independent party to provide a ballot line for the Democrats after the fashion of the Working Families Party who provided one for the dreadful Andrew Cuomo in 2014. In 1938, the LNPL and the CP backed Michael Igoe for Senator from Illinois. Igoe was a long-time operative in the Kelly-Nash Democratic Party machine in Chicago that the CP regarded as a “friend of labor”.

In an article by Roger Biles on Edward J. Kelly, who was mayor of Chicago from 1933 to 1947, that appears in the collection titled “The Mayors”, we discover how internecine the ties were between a corrupt and brutal DP and its allies on the left:

The Democratic machine also received the support of organized labor, despite the potentially disastrous Memorial Day Massacre of 1937. In that incident, Chicago police fired pistols into a crowd of fleeing picketers, killing ten and wounding thirty more. Kelly staunchly defended the actions of the police, but a well-publicized investigation by a U.S. Senate Committee chaired by Robert LaFollette, Jr., condemned the police action and the city’s blatantly partial investigation. The Democratic leadership so feared retaliation by working-class voters that they met with CIO officials to discuss ways of improving their rap-port. Kelly offered them future exemption from police interference in return for official forgiveness for Kelly’s role in the Memorial Day affair. The CIO worked for the machine in subsequent elections and, amazingly, a steelworker whose eye had been shot out in the 1937 skirmish gave Kelly a radio endorsement during the 1939 mayoral campaign. Thereafter, Chicago police assumed a more circumspect stance during labor-management confrontations, and the CIO took its place among the supporters of Chicago Democracy.”

Notwithstanding its diehard support for FDR and other Democrats far to his right like Edward G. Kelly, the American Labor Party was contested territory between the CPUSA and trade union militants who sought to turn it into an instrument of struggle.

Emile Mazey, a UAW leader whose brother Ernie was in the SWP, was one of them. In 1943 he and other leftists took over the moribund Michigan LNPL with the hope of leveraging it into a Labor Party just as it had given birth to the ALP in NY. They found an ally in the David Dubinsky wing of the ALP that was locked in battle with the Sidney Hillman-CPUSA wing of the party. Hillman, a rightwing social democrat, saw eye to eye with the Stalinists on backing the Democrats. Dubinsky, for his part, was dissatisfied with its subservience to the NY State Democratic Party even though he continued to be a New Deal stalwart. Needless to say, the Hillman-CPUSA faction saw people such as Dubinsky and Mazey as “ultraleft”.

This was a party of 100,000 or so members that held lofty perches in most of the CIO unions. When you have this kind of duplicitous electoral strategy, it is rather misleading to refer to past third party efforts as Quixotic efforts. It was not a question of a hallucinatory knight tilting at windmills. No, comrades, the windmills were real and tilting at us.

After a reasonably accurate chronology of the left’s difficulties since 2000, Young turns his attention to the Sanders campaign and with a purview for defending his running as a Democrat and promising to support the DP nominee unlike the troublesome Ralph Nader:

To avoid the stigma of splitting the Democratic vote and ensuring a Republican victory, Sanders pledged to support whomever won the party’s nominated candidate if he lost the primaries or was squeezed out in the national convention. (Ralph Nader’s run as a Green in 2000 may or may not have led to a tie vote between George W. Bush and Al Gore, and still sits badly with Democratic leftists…)

Of course it sits badly with the Democrats who would not think of blaming themselves for running a lame candidate like Al Gore—the real cause of their loss. At the risk of sounding Talmudic, let me quote Marx and Engels on the question of splitting the vote:

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. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body. If the forces of democracy take decisive, terroristic action against the reaction from the very beginning, the reactionary influence in the election will already have been destroyed.

–Marx and Engels, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, London, March 1850

If you modify the excerpt above to read “Democrat” rather than “democrat”, it holds up pretty well.

In the penultimate paragraph of Young’s article, he says some things that I’ve heard many times before in a lifetime on the left:

Part of the emerging, reconstructed Left will likely take the form of an anti-neoliberal “Sanders Democrats” wing of the Democratic Party. This could directly challenge party centrists in every state, and change the direction of policy battles in Congress and in state and city governments. It would also further challenge the view on the Left that holds to a purist stance of permanently attacking the Democrats as a class enemy. This tendency, which sees the formation of a third party as always the immediate priority in electoral politics, claims that its opponents are careerists or naive liberals. However, the most widely held view among independent leftists is an “inside/outside” strategy, favoring independent candidates where the power of the party machine excludes progressive reformers. Some die-hards of the other camp have been swayed by the upsurge for Sanders.

Let me try to sort this out and fill in some background. Ethan Young was a member of the Line of March group whose leader Irwin Silber, like Ethan, used to work for the weekly radical newspaper The Guardian. It emerged out of the New Communist Movement (ie. Maoism) in the 1970s that Max Elbaum wrote about in “Revolution in the Air”.

Unlike the CPUSA which by then had calcified into a wing of the DP (recently it endorsed Hillary Clinton), the Maoists were more discreet. They were for an “inside/outside” approach that might at times opt for supporting Nader (outside) and at other times backing outlier DP campaigns such as Jesse Jackson’s in 1984 and 1988, Harold Washington for mayor of Chicago and now Bernie Sanders. Each time we are told that there was “something different happening”. Although Young was not a Progressive for Obama in 2008, some of the people who did declare for the “transformative” candidate came out of the New Communist Movement—including Carl Davidson and Bill Fletcher Jr.

As I said early on this article, I have seen these arguments many times in the past including in 1984 when members of the Line of March and the Maoist Communist Workers Party (now both defunct) argued in favor of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador becoming part of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaign in the DP primaries in 1984.

Then, like now, there was a tremendous leap of faith that a DP candidate dwelling on the far left reaches of the party could help to either transform it or lead to a radical split after the fashion of Lincoln leaving the Whigs. Indeed, there was much more of a movement in the foundations of the Jackson campaign than there is in the Sanders campaign today. Jackson was a pole of attraction for many grass roots radicals who understandably gravitated to a candidate whose program was inspired by Fred Hampton, the martyred Black Panther.

But once the primaries were over and when Walter Mondale became the candidate, the “movement” evaporated like the morning dew. Even when Jackson ran again in 1988, with arguably double the impact, nothing came out of that either.

I can understand the moth-like attraction to Bernie Sanders’s flame. People on the left feel beaten down and isolated. So when Sanders, speaking in the name of socialism, wins a primary in Michigan, the juices start flowing.

Unlike some on the left, I don’t quibble over Sanders’s programmatic decisions such as backing the continued use of drone missile attacks or even his refusal to identify capitalism as the underlying problem.

My problem is with his decision to run as a Democrat. This is a party that dates back to 1828, making it the world’s oldest active party. Now I may be old but I am not old enough to have been around when its first presidential candidate Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokees to leave their homeland and walk to Oklahoma in the genocidal “trail of tears”. But I can read the history books, starting with Howard Zinn, to know that it is the enemy of working people. For those who write sophisticated arguments for continuing to back its candidates—even on the far left—I can only pray for your misguided souls.


  1. Reblogged this on rebel.lio.

    Comment by mala114 — March 10, 2016 @ 7:14 pm

  2. Ethan Young’s father, the great Quentin Young, a founder of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, died earlier this week.

    Comment by Stuart Newman — March 11, 2016 @ 12:18 am

  3. […] happens, the question of the Democrats and labor organizing in the 1930s is very fresh on my mind after having written about Sanders’s “political revolution” in early March. It turns out that the Mayor of Chicago in 1937 was a Democratic “friend of labor” who was […]

    Pingback by An open letter to the editors of N+1 on Syria | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 29, 2016 @ 5:05 pm

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