Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 16, 2018

The excuses some Marxists make for voting Democratic (part one)

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,Lenin — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

Loved cats, hated liberals

On June 30th, Nick, a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, posed the question on the Marxism list whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “emphasizing a class position” as part of “hostile takeover” type campaigns by the DSA in the Democratic Party had more of a potential for promoting socialist politics than intervening in the Australian Labour Party, a party that makes Tony Blair’s “New Labour” look radical by comparison. Since I was somewhat surprised to see a member of a group that emerged out of the Trotskyist movement warming up to the DSA’s Democratic Party orientation, I defended what I considered to be a Marxist position: “The key difference between a reformist Labor Party and the Democratic Party is based on class. For example, socialists have had a tactical orientation to the NDP in Canada for decades now but none have oriented to the Liberal Party. Unless we can distinguish between a bourgeois party and a reformist social democratic or labor party, we are missing the all-important class criterion.”

This prompted a DSA member on Marxmail named Jason to edify silly me on Marxist theory. Referring to Lenin’s “Ultraleftism, an Infantile Disorder”, he stated: “There is a shibboleth in the Trotskyist movement that this is from Lenin, but it’s not actually what Lenin argued. He said ‘the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party’”.

Showing a familiarity with Lenin probably not typical of DSA members, he backed up his claim the next day by referring to Lenin’s support for the Cadets in Czarist Russia:

Of course I didn’t meant to imply he ignored or we should ignore the relationships of various parties to various class forces, but even there, Lenin did not use the “clear class line” to refuse any electoral support or relationship, as one can see from the 1912 conference resolution he worked on and supported, which called for “exposing the counter-revolutionary views of the bourgeois liberals (headed by the Cadet Party)” while still saying in specific circumstances an “agreement must be concluded to share the seats” with them.

Although Lenin urging ultraleft Communists to support British Labour even though it was a “bourgeois party” just like the Democratic Party was a new excuse to me for crossing class lines, the business about Lenin approving a bloc with the Cadets was not. In 2010, when I insisted on the now defunct Kasama Project that Lenin never supported the Cadets—Russia’s liberal opposition to the Czar, its leader Mike Ely referred me to a book by a Bolshevik Duma elector named A.E. Badaev that stated: “But in order to safeguard against the possible victory of reactionary candidates, the Bolsheviks permitted agreements respectively with the bourgeois democrats (Trudoviks, etc.) against the Liberals, and with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curias.”

In a way, the Maoist Mike Ely and the DSA’er trying to turn Lenin into a Menshevik relies on the sort of skills you see in the legal profession. When defending a criminal, you need to pour through the legal books to see if there is some precedent that will clear your client of a crime. Going through Lenin’s millions of words to find a couple of references to a bloc with the Cadets takes an enormous amount of patience and, even more so, the cynicism of a trial lawyer.

Marxist politics are not the same as courtroom proceedings. Furthermore, if precedence is what matters, all you need to do is search on Lenin and Cadets in the Marxist Internet Archives and you will find for every one cited by Mike and Jason another hundred  that distinguish Lenin from the Mensheviks who did have an orientation to the Cadets so much in common with the DSA’s toward the Democratic Party:

The Mensheviks’ main argument is the Black-Hundred danger. The first and fundamental flaw in this argument is that the Black-Hundred danger cannot be combated by Cadet tactics and a Cadet policy. The essence of this policy lies in reconciliation with tsarism, that is, with the Black-Hundred danger. The first Duma sufficiently demonstrated that the Cadets do not combat the Black-Hundred danger, but make incredibly despicable speeches about the innocence and blamelessness of the monarch, 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 Rodichev: “It is presumption to hold the monarch responsible for the pogrom.”

Blocs With the Cadets, November 23, 1906

Substitute the word Republicans for “Black-Hundred” and Democrats for Cadets and you are basically getting Bernie Sanders urging his followers to hold their nose and to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Lenin was not for “lesser evil” politics. He was opposed to bourgeois parties on both the left and the right. He saw the Duma elections as a way of electing Bolshevik deputies so that workers could get representation in a society where repression was deep.

In fact, he was so committed to promoting working-class interests that he was not even averse to cutting deals with the Black Hundreds to get someone like A.E. Badaev elected. In 1911, he was ruthless in applying Bolshevik electoral tactics:

The democratic members of the gubernia electoral assemblies should form blocs with the liberals against the Rights. If it proves impossible to form such a bloc immediately (and most likely this is what is going to happen in the majority of cases, because the electors will not be acquainted with each other), the tactics of the democrats should be to unite first with the liberals to defeat the Rights, and then with the Rights to defeat the liberals, so that neither are able to secure the election of their candidates (provided that neither the Rights nor the liberals command an absolute majority by themselves, for if they do the democrats cannot hope to get into the Duma).

The democrats referred to above are the Bolsheviks and the peasant parties they were allied with such as the Trudoviks. In a 1906 article titled “Cadets, Trudoviks and the Workers’ Party”, Lenin characterized the Trudoviks as bourgeois democrats who “are compelled to become revolutionary, whereas the liberals, the Cadets and so forth, represent the bourgeoisie, whose conditions of existence compel it to seek a deal with the old authorities. It is natural also that the peasantry should clothe its aspirations in the mantle of utopias, i.e., unrealisable hopes, such as equalised land tenure under capitalism.”

With respect to A.E. Badaev and his reference to the Bolsheviks working out an agreement with the Cadets on the Second Ballot, Mike Ely (wherever he is nowadays), failed to mention upon what basis the agreement stood. Badaev’s “The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma” makes clear that it excluded any hint of political accord. He referred to the Prague Bolshevik Conference that set down guidelines for the Fourth Duma elections in 1912 as stipulating: “election agreements must not involve the adoption of a platform, nor must the agreements bind the Social-Democratic candidates by any political obligations whatsoever, or prevent the Social-Democracy from resolutely criticising the counter-revolutionary nature of the Liberals and the half-heartedness and inconsistency of the bourgeois democrats.”

I would only say that if the DSA concluded blocs with the Democratic Party that stood by the same exacting standards, I might ring doorbells alongside them myself. Fat chance of that happening. Oh, the fat chance is one of their candidates “resolutely criticising the counter-revolutionary nature of the Liberals and the half-heartedness and inconsistency of the bourgeois democrats”.

In my next post, I will take up the question of British Labour and the Social Democracy in general as “bourgeois parties”.



  1. If you have time, it would be interesting if you could frame some of your analysis by reference to Andrew Murray’s article in Socialist Register 2014 – probably the most cogent case I have read for socialists to be active inside the British Labour Party given the specific condition of class politics in Britain.

    Comment by Guy Debord (@Guy_Debordx) — July 17, 2018 @ 12:59 am

  2. It can’t be emphasized enough that while the British Labor Party under Blair et al became a neoliberal party, it nevertheless has labor and socialist roots that the Democratic Party lacks and would reject. Corbyn, for all his warts, has that living tradition behind him.

    The liberal ideological heroes of the Democratic Party are mostly wealthy white men serving their class as they see fit–Roosevelt, the Kennedys, Johnson, etc.

    No amount of democratic socialism IMHO will ever shift the party of Jefferson and Jackson (shudder) from its true class bias and roots, so it’s at most of a limited tactical value as the lesser evil.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — July 17, 2018 @ 4:45 pm

  3. Badaev an amusing career. He was appointed head of GLAVPIVO (the Soviet Beer industry), then got sacked for alcoholism.

    Comment by ml — July 18, 2018 @ 12:04 am

  4. This issue is related to the discussion of Chris Hedges’ mistaken belief that “identity politics” must be rejected for a purely “class-based” fighting strategy.

    To use the old-timers’ (from whom I learned plenty) terminology, the socialist movement has always had a right deviation as well as an extreme left deviation. Those in the socialist movement who think they can infiltrate and change Democratic Party USA from within are the right deviationists. They types of Chris Hedges, who look at race and gender issues as “Democratic Party single issues”, are the extreme left deviation. Both tendencies are deviations because they depart from actual social realities.

    The right deviation does not take into account the specific historical material that has gone into the making of the Democratic Party (as pointed out by Farans in comment #2 above). Labor Party UK was built mostly by trade unionists in the England demanding eight hour working days, abolition of child labor, and universal free school education for kids. The Democratic Party, in the U.S. south at least, was for the longest time a private club (literally) made up of slave owners. In the north, Democrats were comfortable enough with slavery as to make sure they never mentioned it as a problem, and were only too happy to enact laws forcing north to have to catch and return escaping slaves back to the southern slave holders.

    For the past fifty years at least, Democrats’ history is one of normalization of Republican policies. In ten years from now, they’ll be normalizing and making more appetizing the policies Trump is pushing now. You’ll see. We didn’t think they’ll normalize Reaganite policies, but they did under Clinton. Bush eradicated habeas corpus and introduced the concept of an endless war fought across the globe with an invisible enemy, a war that could include invading and destroying any government they wish anywhere. Then Obama *normalized* the eradication of habeas corpus (by not mentioning its name ever), the mass deportation of immigrants, maintaining kill lists, and the continuation of an endless illegal warfare by drones; all that, on top of the bailing out of the banks and not the citizens. So, that’s the right deviation. They just don’t see that this machinery of right wing normalization is far too big for them to “infiltrate”. They have already infiltrated YOU if you think you can change them.

    The left deviation is the Chris Hedge types: they depart from the historical facts that have concretely shaped, defined and can explain American history and clearly illustrate the particular dynamics and internal workings of this American form of capitalism. They miss the most obvious political facts that must be taken into account in any political thinking: If there is protest over something, it’s showing you a point of pain, a point of conflict, a point of contradiction presenting itself to you, asking you for an answer. Your answer cannot be, “I don’t recognize you!” If that’s your answer, you’re not recognizing historical reality.

    Each country’s capitalist social relations came into being through a very particular history. If you don’t acknowledge that history, you cannot find historically accurate social solutions that can address the social contradictions that exist in all countries. Capitalism is in fact *very specific* and *very concrete*. No two national capitalisms function in exactly the same way and ONLY in that exactly same way. The types of Chris Hedges think that capitalism in every country is an abstract relationship, and is exactly the same thing in every country. Granted, different national capitalisms share basic fundamentals, but that’s all they have in common. Beyond the fundamentals (which can make possible international solidarity), each local socialist movement must address very particular sets of social contradictions. The left deviation’s main theoretical failing is that it does not take into account these particularities and considers capitalism as a unitary functioning system with exactly the same *general* class contradiction ONLY, the manifestations of which does not take on additional layers of social conflicts and contradictions, and lacks any local colorings.

    Comment by Reza — July 18, 2018 @ 4:55 am

  5. Footnote: in a Guardian piece on Ocasio-Cortez I just read that a twittering ponce called Sam Rosenfeld, prof at Colgate actually said, “northern, liberal Democrats had managed to change the [Democratic] party in the 1960s, eventually disempowering, and alienating, the white southern ‘Dixiecrat’ voters and laying the path for the Democratic party to become more liberal than the Republicans.” [Emph. mine]

    So the Democratic party of the macho-posturing, militaristic Kennedys was more Progressive than the party of Roosevelt that made Henry Wallace vice president. No contradictions there!

    Things are just getting better all the time. Stop thinking! Vote Democratic!

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — July 19, 2018 @ 11:38 am

  6. I envy the American left and its “millennial socialism” moment. It is more advanced than the f****** political deformation that marks the Canadian left.

    F*** the NDP!!!

    Comment by Jacob Richter — March 17, 2019 @ 12:17 am

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