Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 13, 2016

Adolph Reed: master of Marxism-Clintonism

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 5:17 pm

Adolph Reed

Adolph Reed is an African-American political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a prestigious Ivy League school, and a ubiquitous presence on the Internet left as a public intellectual. Along with Cornel West and Michelle Alexander, he has figured as a prominent Black intellectual supporter of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Reed’s ideological profile is very much based on class orthodoxy bordering on workerism. To what extent his Marxism retains some of his early Trotskyist training is open to question. Reed was a member of the Atlanta Young Socialist Alliance in the late 60s and smart enough to drop out long before he was transformed into a loyal cult member like me.

That class orthodoxy leads him to embrace positions that echo Walter Benn Michaels, a Marxist academic who argues that race-based political demands divide the working class. For Reed, reparations for slavery fall into this category as he maintained in a Progressive article: “reparations talk is rooted in a different kind of politics, a politics of elite-brokerage and entreaty to the ruling class and its official conscience, the philanthropic foundations, for racial side-payments.” Like Michaels, Reed has a bit of a conspiracy-minded approach to such matters as if officers at the Ford Foundation were burning the midnight oil trying to figure out how to prevent Black people from reading “The 18th Brumaire” and building workers councils.

This kind of rock-ribbed class orthodoxy seems an odd match to Reed’s partiality to Hillary Clinton candidacies, even if on a lesser evil basis drawn from the Gus Hall playbook. In an April 28, 2008 Progressive article that starts off with the ostensibly insurrectionary-minded title of “Obama No”–a shot across Carl Davidson’s bow so to speak–, we learn that it could have just as easily been titled “Hillary Yes”:

I’m hardly a Clinton fan. I’m on record in last November’s issue as saying that I’d rather sit out the election entirely than vote for either her or Obama. At this point, though, I’ve decided that she’s the lesser evil in the Democratic race, for the following reasons: 1) Obama’s empty claims to being a candidate of progressive change and to embodying a “movement” that exists only as a brand will dissolve into disillusionment in either a failed campaign against McCain or an Obama Presidency that continues the politics he’s practiced his entire career; 2) his horribly opportunistic approach to the issues bearing on inequality—in which he tosses behaviorist rhetoric to the right and little more than calls to celebrate his success to blacks—stands to pollute debate about racial injustice whether he wins or loses the Presidency; 3) he can’t beat McCain in November.

I hate to say it but this sounds much more like what you’d read in a NY Times Op-Ed or an MSNBC panel discussion. Maybe Reed should have stuck around the Trotskyist movement for another 3 or 4 years to get a clearer focus on the two-party system. It might have damaged him psychologically but that’s a small price to pay for being less damaged ideologically.

Now, eight years later, Reed makes another pitch for Hillary Clinton in a July 7th radio interview on Doug Henwood’s “Behind the News”:

DH: The movement that has catalyzed with the Sanders campaign, how can we keep it from dissipating as November approaches. “Trump is so horrible, you know, hold your nose and vote for Hillary. etc.” There’s a great possibility for induced amnesia to set in. How do we fight that?

AR: What one does in November lies in a different dimension from the movement building concerns. From a pragmatic point of view there really is nothing else to do except to vote for Hillary. But that only becomes a big to-do if you have an exaggerated sense of the significance of your own vote anyway.

DH: People get so obsessed with something that takes five minutes to do in early November. It’s really remarkable.

AR: Absolutely. On some level it only comes down to a matter of taste and existential choice. I could vote for Gore in 2000. I lived in Connecticut and it was easy not to vote for Gore in 2000 and to vote for Ralph. I’d argue that this is a different moment and especially with Republican control of Congress-even if they lose the Senate which is a long shot . . . we’re going to be in the same position on the Wednesday after the election than we were on the Monday before the election. The real challenge is to try to disconnect the organizing from it being driven by the election cycle.

What was it that Molotov said to reporters after signing a non-aggression pact with the Nazis? Oh, I remember: “fascism is a matter of taste”. As far as existential choices are concerned, I would say that celibacy is an existential choice. Or assisted suicide. Or masturbating with a vacuum cleaner. That sort of thing, if you gather my drift.

But when Adolph Reed says that voting for a Democrat is a matter of taste or existential choice, who the hell is he kidding? The Democratic Party is about as much a challenge to class politics as the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) were in Czarist Russia. Lenin wrote hundreds of thousands of words—maybe millions—arguing that the left would be violating its most basic principles by voting for the Cadets. Indeed, this was his main quarrel with the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democracy:

Briefly, the Cadets’ tactics may be formulated as follows: to ensure the support of the revolutionary people for the Cadet Party. By “support” they evidently mean such action by the revolutionary people as will, first, be entirely subordinated to the interests of the Cadet Party and carried out according to its instructions, etc.; and secondly, not be too resolute and aggressive, and above all, not be too drastic. The revolutionary people must not be independent, that is the first point; and it must not achieve final victory, it must not crush its enemy, that is point two. These are the tactics that, on the whole, will inevitably be pursued by the entire Cadet Party and by any Cadet Duma. And, of course, these tactics will be backed, defended and justified with the aid of the rich ideological stock-in-trade of “scientific” investigations, “philosophical” obscurities, political (or politicians’) banalities, “literary-critical” squealing (a la Berdayev), etc., etc.

The squealing Berdayev referred to immediately above, by the way, was Nicolai Berdayev, a Russian philosopher aligned with the Mensheviks and later on exiled from Russia in the infamous “philosopher’s ship” in 1922 that targeted men who were ideologically opposed to the revolution. In my view, this was one of the biggest mistakes of the Communists. When I was a freshman at Bard, Berdayev was very trendy, just like Kierkegaard. Their Christian Existentialism was just the sort of thing to appeal to 18 year olds suffering from Weltschmerz. Was this the kind of existential choice Adolph Reed had in mind? Perhaps so given the mood of disaffected Sanderistas.


  1. Ha! Henwood’s follow-up to Reed’s pathetic remarks on voting perhaps explain how Henwood has rationalized all the Democrats he’s voted for. Reed and Henwood too for that matter, are overrated thinkers, to put it mildly. Reed has been harping that class first and foremost line for a long time and it sounds sillier each time he repeats it. He ought to retire altogether from political commentary. Obama can’t beat McCain! It is interesting how Henwood and others in his circle think that Reed is god almighty when it comes to political analysis. Says a lot about the sorry state of the left in the US.

    Comment by michael yates — July 13, 2016 @ 9:07 pm

  2. Maybe if he had been in the YSA or SWP a bit longer though he might have absorbed a more rounded Marxist view of racial and other oppressions rather than the workerism which is also how I thought of him after hearing him a few times on the Doug Henwood show, not to mention of class independence. E.g. Barry Sheppard’s columns in Green Left are a lot more incisive, on point and interesting. Just making the point that training in a Marxist group even if it goes off the rails is generally better than academia per se.

    Comment by Nick Fredman — July 13, 2016 @ 11:39 pm

  3. I shudder at the very thought of the training I had in the Fourth International Mandelite Communist League and IS, Nick. I would say as well that Reed’s point one about Obama’s politics has not been shown to be far off the mark. Having said that, it was for me personally disappointing to see Doug, who I admire greatly, play along with the silly trope of saying the vote in November is not important because it only takes five minutes. American politics is stuck fast in the mire of capitalist dominance because of the accumulative effect of millions of five minutes in Novembers.


    Comment by Gary MacLennan — July 14, 2016 @ 4:58 am

  4. Whatever the content of the rest of this post, the fact is that Reed’s position on this is a lot closer to Lenin’s than yours is:

    “When a socialist really believes in a Black-Hundred danger and is sincerely combating it—he votes for the liberals without any bargaining, and does not break off negotiations if two seats instead of three are offered him. For instance, it may happen that at a second ballot in Europe a Black-Hundred danger arises when the liberal obtains, say, 8,000 votes, the Black-Hundred representative or reactionary, 10,000, and the socialist 3,000. If a socialist believes that the Black-Hundred danger is a real danger to the working class, he will vote for the liberal. We have no second ballot in Russia, but we may get a situation analogous to a second ballot in the second stage of the elections. If out of 174 electors, say, 86 are of the Black Hundreds, 84 Cadets and 4 socialists, the socialists must cast their votes for the Cadet candidate, and so far not a single member of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party has questioned this.”

    Comment by Dabrowski — July 14, 2016 @ 3:11 pm

  5. This is about ELECTORS, not elected officials. I have heard this bullshit a thousand times from Maoists. Congratulations on being number 1001.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 14, 2016 @ 3:14 pm

  6. Reed said:

    “But that only becomes a big to-do if you have an exaggerated sense of the significance of your own vote anyway.”

    Did that sting or something, Louis, that you felt the need to write this pissy a post? And you always going on about building movements rather than ideological clean hands . . . .

    Comment by Todd — July 14, 2016 @ 3:47 pm

  7. I get particularly worked up, I have to admit, when people urge a vote for someone like Hillary Clinton in the name of Marxist orthodoxy. Plus, I can’t stand Walter Benn Michaels or anything that sounds like him.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 14, 2016 @ 3:49 pm

  8. Well, Reed did say it was from a purely pragmatic PoV ie who else do you vote for if you even want a shred of conscience left, neh?

    Comment by Todd — July 14, 2016 @ 5:42 pm

  9. Sorry, I don’t have much use for pragmatism. I am a moldy old Marxist fig.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 14, 2016 @ 6:21 pm

  10. Todd,

    So, are you suggesting basically that we should never run independent socialist candidates?

    Then … Let’s just dispense with any socialist talk and just vote Democrat into the indefinite future because, let’s face it, the Republicans are moving further and further to the extreme right, and by your logic, the Democrats will always remain ‘liberal’ by comparison, and any vote for anybody to the left of Democrats will ultimately bring in the fascists!

    So, let’s just put an end to all this bullshit about socialism and let’s accept that There Is No Alternative!

    For capitalists like Thatcher and Reagan to say TINA, OK, I understand. Should socialists in this country be saying the same thing? This is an argument for the socialists to abandon the political field altogether and completely, an argument for becoming permanent tools of the Democrats.

    Comment by Reza — July 14, 2016 @ 8:14 pm

  11. Hardly, Reza.

    Try reading what I actually wrote instead of reading into it something you want to be there and clanging on about it.

    Louis, I doubt Reed was going on about capital P pragmatism.

    Comment by Todd — July 14, 2016 @ 9:20 pm

  12. Todd,
    I am sorry if I misunderstood what you said. I read your comment many more times. I still don’t understand what you are actually arguing. I didn’t wish to ‘clang on’. Would you please explain your point a bit more so that a second-language speaker of English such as myself can clearly get the gist of your argument?

    Comment by Reza — July 14, 2016 @ 10:50 pm

  13. Reza,

    I’ve been reading Louis’ blog for a while, and I’m somewhat used to his positions, arguments, kvetching, etc. This blog entry surprised and disappointed me because he was obviously getting upset in such a way that I found pretty uncharacteristic of him, given what he’s written here before. I was chiding him for it.

    (Louis, how’s the family in Turkey? Everyone OK?)

    Comment by Todd — July 16, 2016 @ 4:25 pm

  14. Todd,

    Thank you. I now understand the *intent* of your argument. But, I still don’t understand the *content* of your comment. If I understand Louis’s argument, he is saying that independent socialists must run their own candidates and not be scared into voting Democratic ticket. But, I am not clear about what your counter-argument is. I am not being facetious, or anything; just trying to understand what the arguments are here.

    Comment by Reza — July 16, 2016 @ 5:13 pm

  15. “If I understand Louis’s argument, he is saying that independent socialists must run their own candidates and not be scared into voting Democratic ticket.”

    Are there independent socialist candidates for president as of July 7th (the time of the interview Louis cited)? If so, what are their chances for winning? If there aren’t, one either doesn’t vote, or one does (for either Clinton or Trump); I kind of doubt most socialist types would hold their noses and vote for Trump (although I’m sure there still are plenty of leftists who would vote for Trump under the notion of “hastening the contradictions” and hoping to bring about enough social misery to “wake people up”).

    And all this isn’t to mention the notion that voting for president seems to be taken as some kind of ideological purity test by some people on the left.

    Comment by Todd — July 17, 2016 @ 1:32 am

  16. And all this isn’t to mention the notion that voting for president seems to be taken as some kind of ideological purity test by some people on the left.

    Huh? The only “test” is whether to vote for bourgeois parties as I tried to make clear by my reference to the Cadets. Before the Popular Front in the 1930s, socialists never voted for Democrats.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 17, 2016 @ 1:38 am

  17. Todd,

    You’re setting up a convenient straw man. I completely miss your point about, ‘You have to vote either Clinton or Trump.’ Really? Why is that the only choice? Who said anything about voting only for somebody who could ‘win’? That’s the definition of pragmatism or, worse, opportunism.

    Why not vote for the Green Party, or any third party, so that they can get up to 5% nationally, so that they can qualify for federal matching funds the next election cycle? And maybe if we thought long-term we wouldn’t be stuck in this false binary of Democrat v. Republican every election cycle?

    Elections are what they are. Sure. But, then why do you give any shit to intervene in any discourse surrounding elections at all? Clearly they mean something to you. We don’t need glib jibes from too-pure to do anything ‘leftists’ to know that elections don’t determine revolutions. I’m too old and lived through too much agony for your kind of sarcasm and contempt. You’re quick with sarcasm and smart put-downs. What’s your actual plan for anything to do with elections?

    Comment by Reza — July 17, 2016 @ 4:37 am

  18. (Sorry for leaving this-been busy.)

    “I completely miss your point about, ‘You have to vote either Clinton or Trump.’ Really? Why is that the only choice?”

    It isn’t. I asked if there were any independent socialist candidates for president and what their chances of winning were. If there are no other candidates aside from Clinton or Trump, or those other candidates have a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning, what do you do then?

    “Who said anything about voting only for somebody who could ‘win’?”

    So you don’t care if the person you’re voting for wins or not?

    “Why not vote for the Green Party, or any third party, so that they can get up to 5% nationally, so that they can qualify for federal matching funds the next election cycle?”

    That’s not a bad idea in itself (assuming such a party can actually manage to get that far; if it doesn’t, then what?). While some leftists do that, others can vote for the lesser evil in the hope that the greater one can be kept out again. Hopefully, these other parties can then gain momentum and provide more choice for those leftists who are more worried about the greater evil. Everyone’s doing their bit, and one doesn’t need to antagonize other leftists with sneers about purity.

    “why do you give any shit to intervene in any discourse surrounding elections at all?”

    I gave a shit here because what Louis said I thought undeserving of what he’d said previously about movement-building.

    “I’m too old and lived through too much agony for your kind of sarcasm and contempt.”

    >blink!< Wow.

    Translation: "I'm old and have had a hard life. Shut up"

    You think you're from the bottom of the fucking barrel and that makes you a socialist saint or something? Fuck you. What do you know about me and my problems? Again: fuck you.

    "What’s your actual plan for anything to do with elections?"

    Know what? You don't deserve A-fucking-number-one from me, Asshole.

    Comment by Todd — July 31, 2016 @ 6:31 pm

  19. […] social democrat who predictably, if begrudgingly, ends up backing Democratic Party candidates like Hillary Clinton every four years. For my part, I’d rather be a braindead workerist than every shade of woke. […]

    Pingback by Intellectual imperialism: On the export of peculiarly American notions of race, culture, and class | The Charnel-House — August 29, 2017 @ 1:13 pm

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