Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 15, 2018

The DSA, Julia Salazar and the future of the left

Filed under: DSA — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

About six months ago I went to the DSA website and became a member. That amounted to making a $5 contribution and nothing else. My main interest was being apprised of their goings on and as such my $5 was worth it since I get emails from Maria Svart, their elected leader, a subscription to their membership forum and their print newsletters.

In a FB conversation with long-time Marxist Democratic Party activist Carl Davidson about whether DSA’s membership figures were inflated based on an interloper like me being included as a member, Carl assured me that I really wasn’t a member. Well, just a couple of days ago I got snail mail indicating that I was one of the 50,000 members for real. My only question is how many others are only paper members like me.

Obviously not all since they were largely responsible for ringing the doorbells that helped get Julia Salazar elected, who by their reckoning is tantamount to the Bolshevik Party having a party member elected to the Duma. As it happens, there was one–Roman Malinovsky who turned out to be a Czarist spy. Now I don’t want to equate Julia Salazar with Malinovsky but she appeared to be living a double life as well. To her comrades, she was a working-class immigrant and Sephardic Jew from Colombia who was radicalized by her experience working as a domestic and by the treatment of Palestinians. The creeps at Tablet magazine looked into her background and discovered that she came from a wealthy family with no Jews in their past and enjoys a $685,000 trust fund from her deceased father. Also, she had a rightwing past that included defending Israel on Glenn Beck’s talk show. I suppose DSA’ers accepted all that like in the final scene of “Some Like it Hot” when Jack Lemmon pulls off his wig and confesses to Joe E. Brown: “We can’t get married because I am a man” (the reality of the period). Whereupon, Brown answers: “Nobody’s perfect”.

I’ll accept that she has made a legitimate political and religious conversions even though some cynics might have concluded that being self-identified as a Jew and a leftist is a good way to get elected in New York. My only question is why she did not disclose her past to her comrades. Unless, of course, that would have triggered suspicions that they were dealing with an opportunist. But, on second thought, that doesn’t hurt when you are running as a Democrat. Opportunism probably is a good way to get higher up in the DP machinery just like downing 20 Jello Shots when applying to become a member of a fraternity or sorority.

Over on Jacobin, there’s an article by DSA member and trade union steward Ben Beckett ebulliently titled “We’re On a Winning Streak” that offers up-to-date thinking among the young Marxist Democratic Party activists who will become the next generation’s Carl Davidson.

Showing a bit of buyer’s remorse, Beckett explained Nixon’s loss to Cuomo as a result of her lack of interest in working class issues. Of course, in the unlikely event that she had bested Cuomo, I am sure that Jacobin and DSA would have been basking in her glory. That’s how that kind of politics based on pragmatism works.

Beckett drew attention to the bourgeois press’s putting her past under a microscope, something that does not customarily take place when a candidate is running for a relatively minor post like State Senator. This could have only meant that the real estate industry was out to get her. That undoubtedly was true but it was also true that the democratic socialists have been getting more press than the marriage of Prince Harry & Meghan Markle so what else would you expect? It sells newspapers and is clickbait supremo.

Finally Beckett gets down to brass tacks and deals with the questions of dinosaurs like me blasting DSA for its Democratic Party orientation. Well, not me exactly. More like the ISO’ers who have benefited from exposure in Jacobin even if they help give it credibility on its left flank.

Here is Beckett’s excuse for supporting the Democratic Party:

However, any prospects of forming a working-class party in the future will also fail if that party cannot gain the support of a large number of people who currently identify as Democrats. By running in Democratic primaries now, socialists can sharpen the contradictions between voters and party heads and help accelerate the process by which founding an independent party will become feasible.

If you apply this formula to the last great collision between reaction and revolution in the USA, you’d have to conclude that it was a mistake to form the Free Soil or Liberty Parties. It would have been better to stay in the Whig Party since that was where most of the gradualist opponents of slavery could be found. Of course, it is difficult to reconcile your abolitionist beliefs with membership in such a party but even more so today when you are dealing with a party that has a vast funding base and propaganda machine rooted in wage slavery rather than chattel slavery.

Recognizing the swamp-like nature of the DP, Beckett advises:

To avoid…potential pitfalls, the Left must follow Salazar’s lead and work to cohere a distinct and consistent collective political identity based on a material analysis of society, the centrality of working-class solidarity and struggle against the capitalist class, and simple-to-understand, class-wide reforms that bring concrete benefits to voters at the expense of capitalists.

The problem is that a “materialist analysis of society” would in of itself dictate against running as a candidate in the oldest, still functioning capitalist party in the world. Formed by Andrew Jackson’s supporters in 1828, it was supposed to be the party of the “common man” even though commoners of the Cherokee nation and chattel slaves were not included.

He was succeeded by his protégé James Polk who launched a war against Mexico in 1846 that Ulysses S. Grant described as “as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation” and “an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

The next two Democrats to occupy the White House were white supremacists who make Donald Trump look like Ralph Nader. Franklin Pierce signed the Fugitive Slave Act and Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed those living in the two states to decide whether they wanted slavery or not. After him, it got even worse with James Buchanan backing the Dred Scott decision that denied the right of a slave taken to a free state by his owner to sue for his freedom.

Grover Cleveland was a Democrat who embodied imperialism. There’s not much else to say.

Woodrow Wilson, the first Democrat to supposedly fight for progressive economic policies, showed “Birth of the Nation” in the White House and had Eugene V. Debs charged with ten counts of sedition.

After a century of these kinds of Democratic Party administrations, we had FDR, Truman and LBJ who were idealized by social democrats and Stalinists as our equivalent of European social democrats even though they were warmongers who dropped atomic bombs, used biological warfare in Korea and killed millions of Vietnamese. Notwithstanding this monstrous history, Bernie Sanders demonstrates a certain affinity:

Screen Shot 2018-09-15 at 1.39.30 PM

To understand what the Sandernista movement and its offshoot in the DSA represents, you have to step back and look at the broader developments in the Democratic Party since the New Deal. Every so often, a significant portion of American society becomes deeply alienated by conditions naturally occurring under the capitalist system and the DP serves the ruling class by containing the discontent through reforms and/or promises of reform.

Under FDR, it was the working class that was ready to break with the system. It was up to the Communist Party and New Deal liberals to sustain the illusion that things would be set right.

With LBJ, it was Black America that was in open revolt. Thus, it was necessary to open the doors to Black politicians like DSA member John Conyers so they could bring working class Blacks back into the fold.

Today it is young people who are angry. A college or high school degree do not guarantee steady work. Furthermore, it is becoming more and more difficult to afford the necessities of a middle-class life like home ownership and raising a family even if you are lucky enough to get a decent job. So Bernie Sanders comes along to fight for a return to New Deal glory when economic conditions militate against that. We are in a long-term decline of American capitalism and no amount of tariffs, Keynesian gimmickry or winning State Senate offices will reverse that trend.

Even though the idea of revolution might come to the average American as a cure worse than the disease, that is what is needed. You got a glimmer of that being understood during the Occupy movement but the anarchist leadership (sorry for the contradiction in terms) could not see beyond the “prefigurative” nonsense that was swept away by Obama’s cops.

Starting in the early 1980s, I began working with Peter Camejo to promote the idea of a non-sectarian left. As you might have noticed, the North Star website that was dedicated to this goal is hibernating right now. Whether it wakes up or something else comes along to replace it, there is still a crying need for left unity but on a revolutionary basis.

The democratic socialists or social democrats or Marxist Democratic Party activists—whatever you want to call them—are opposed to revolutionary politics. Despite the lip-service they pay to changing the system, they are basically America’s Mensheviks. Despite the hoary character of Lenin’s polemics, we are dealing with the same issues with the Democratic Party seducing the DSA leaders and Jacobin editors in the same way the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) seduced Julius Martov. Socialists have to support socialist parties, or at the very least “petty-bourgeois” parties that Lenin blocked with such as the SR’s. We have the equivalent of such parties today in the Greens. We should only be so lucky to see them as having the same weight. Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to see a radical working-class party come along before long. After all, the conditions are rotten-ripe for it.


  1. I’m wondering why the North Star “hybernated”, Louis?

    Comment by mtomas3 — September 15, 2018 @ 6:31 pm

  2. Excuse me, Louis, but how do you know she did not disclose her background to her comrades early on, and they just kept it to themselves? And, what’s opportunistic about revealing one’s support for BDS, as Julia did, in a state where Cuomo issued an executive order barring companies from complying with it? Tablet went after Julia after the Jewish Telegraphic Agency revealed her support for BDS.

    Comment by Sheldon Ranz — September 15, 2018 @ 6:49 pm

  3. Your first paragraph is a keeper, as Rachmaninoff said to his agent about variation 18 in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The rest of the essay is damned good too. And just as variation 18 turns the theme literally upside down, so too do our DSA’ers, especially those who lean right within the organization, which is the majority i would say, have turned history upside down. At least Rachmoninoff’s variation is beautiful, almost incredibly so. Many of the movers and shakers among our social democrats are nothing of the kind. The owner of Jacobin comes to mind. Hustlers and promoters of their brands best describes them.

    Comment by Michael Yates — September 15, 2018 @ 10:37 pm

  4. Mr. Yates, thank you for your note.

    It inspired me to tune out of the political hellhole we’re in and have a listen to my favorite Rachmaninoff piano piece, concerto no. 2, once again, remembering the times in my lifetime that I’ve screamed in my head (as the opening notes of the concerto repeatedly and ominously denote and warn) “No, not again, not again!” [The rest of the concerto, for me, is a beautiful array of clashes of sadness, outrage, heartache and beart break, followed by serenity, then by repeated themes of struggle, more outrage, then sadness, heartache and serenity again, and a beautifully triumphant explosion at the end.]

    As I watch this new wave of upsurge of militancy being directed into the body of the Democratic Party by so-called socialists, I can’t help but fear that Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto no. 2 will be visited more frequently for the next few years, minus the triumphant ending. Let’s hope that is not the case.

    Meanwhile, the DSA people, maybe when they’re older and thinking about their youthful follies, may listen to Eric Carmen’s “All by myself”: a rip-off of (Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto no. 2’s) second movement’s main melody, with appropriately cheesy lyrics as accompaniment. They lack the depth of sophistication and patience (just like in their politics) to appreciate the entirety of the original full, three-movement masterpiece.

    Comment by Reza — September 16, 2018 @ 12:51 am

  5. As someone who actually joined the DSA and happy that I did, I recommend it as a healthy alternative to sectarian defeatism. I prefer a large effective Left Movement that is reaching large numbers of working people and organizing around the conditions that effect their lives. While sectarians think and operate as a religion, it is refreshing that many from different Left political currents are working together, to introduce many to socialist views and practice. I am not working for democratic party candidates and there is no one in DSA demanding that I do. Instead, I am working with my comrades, a sincere dedicated and growing group of people around health care, rent, prisons and labor unions. My local monthly chapter meetings in my city, are larger in numbers of people than the entire national membership of most of the sectarian aging groups of arrogant smug believers who know it all – and change and effect nothing! Those as myself who recognized that the Bernie Sanders for president campaign and the growth of DSA, are welcomed developments and reflect and interact with a growing radicalization and Class awareness. Sectarians continue to deny reality and operate like religious thinkers who hold the world must adhere to their views of what is “acceptable”. I prefer creativity and people who work together against injustice and not abstentionism and “neutral in practice” against the right wing. Stay isolated and sectarian – or join a growing Left Movement. Which side are you on? Would you be happy that DSA does not grow and that we return to the days before the Bernie Sanders for president campaign? Stay in denial of sectarian thinking and practice, or get involved in struggle to effect.

    Comment by John O'Brien — September 17, 2018 @ 3:46 pm

  6. I am not working for democratic party candidates and there is no one in DSA demanding that I do.

    Big fucking deal. I get communications every week announcing DSA’s latest foray into DP politics. If you think that miseducating young people about class politics is inconsequential, you have lost your way politically.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 17, 2018 @ 7:17 pm

  7. @ John O’Brien,

    I have been active in socialist politics for more than 35 years, am not a member of any sectarian group (never have been), and I am always giddily happy to see a real and diverse socialist alternative take shape in the form of an independent political organization. I have also seen the treachery of people who advocate for the “middle way”.

    Back in 1988, there were plenty of socialists (young and full of boundless energy) who were campaigning for Jesse Jackson. These were *socialists*, not just regular Democratic party hacks; self-described socialists. On the university campus where I was studying, they would set up tables as supporters or members of socialist organizations, and kept encouraging others to vote for Jesse Jackson, arguing that his Rainbow coalition would force the left wing of the Democrats to peel off and in good time establish an independent organization that would represent the interests of the working people.

    The Rainbow coalition got nearly 7 million of the primary votes in that year. But, that is not the most important part. Check out their platform (more radical than Bernie’s): (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesse_Jackson_presidential_campaign,_1988):

    — creating a Works Progress Administration-style program to rebuild America’s infrastructure and provide jobs to all Americans,
    — reprioritizing the War on Drugs to focus less on mandatory minimum sentences for drug users (which he views as racially biased) and more on harsher punishments for money-laundering bankers and others who are part of the “supply” end of “supply and demand”
    — reversing Reaganomics-inspired tax cuts for the richest ten percent of Americans and using the money to finance social welfare programs
    — cutting the budget of the Department of Defense by as much as fifteen percent over the course of his administration
    — instituting an immediate nuclear freeze and beginning disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union
    — giving reparations to descendants of black slaves
    — supporting family farmers by reviving many of Roosevelt’s New Deal–era farm programs
    — creating a single-payer system of universal health care
    — ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment
    — increasing federal funding for lower-level public education and providing free community college to all
    — applying stricter enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and
    — supporting the formation of a Palestinian state.

    Do these platform items sound familiar to your DSA ears? They should, but they all died in the Democratic Party’s archives. Why? Because Jesse Jackson refused to split with the Democrats. And remember, back then, the Rainbow coalition was comprised of labor, environmentalists, student activists, feminists, anti-war groups and anti-imperialists and a good many socialists. You can’t get a much more diverse coalition of left forces than that.

    You can say what you want about DSA’s formal independence from Dems, but when their ‘big names’ come out and urge us to support Dems in November, remember what happened to Jesse.

    Comment by Reza — September 17, 2018 @ 8:30 pm

  8. Forgot to include these other forces in the coalition:

    “various minority groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, Middle Eastern Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, family farmers, the poor and working class, and LGBT people, as well as white progressives” (from the same source).

    Comment by Reza — September 17, 2018 @ 8:34 pm

  9. Today’s so called left can’t remember all the way back to Jesse Jackson’s days…their sole point of reference is Bernie. And the great Alexandria, the last I heard she was getting behind her party comrade Andrew Cuomo, not Howie Hawkins, the left wing Green Party candidate for the same office.

    As for Carl Davidson, that senile cyber-Stalinist never met a democrat he didn’t like…or support . Davidson, a Marxist? Which one, Zeppo or gummo?

    Comment by Roy rollin — September 18, 2018 @ 6:41 pm

  10. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was a good deal more progressive than what the DSA puts forward. It also had some good electoral success in 1988. Yet , in the end it went nowhere because it was part of the Democratic Party.

    Comment by purple — September 19, 2018 @ 10:50 am

  11. And you can’t get progressive social programs in this country without cutting the military. DSA candidates don’t want to touch this. They also don’t want to touch US imperialism overseas. A modicum of political courage is required.

    Comment by purple — September 19, 2018 @ 10:52 am

  12. Any opportunism is bad. If the US Left now joins or collaborates with the Greens, then they would make both the Greens and themselves rotten, particularly if and when it becomes likely that the Greens would win a seat in the Senate or the House of Reps. I personally experienced this process in Germany in the 1980s. First the communists took over the Green Party and pushed out the ecologists. Then the opportunists took the party over and pushed out the communists. Today, the Green Party of Germany is a nondescript party, ready to coalesce with any group for the sake of getting a few highly paid jobs. So remain true to yourself even if are lonely.

    Comment by Saral Sarkar — September 23, 2018 @ 9:34 am

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