Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 5, 2019

Democratic Socialism: a hot commodity

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,reformism — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

New York magazine has been around since 1968 and can generally be found in the reception area of doctors and dentists next to the more genteel and patrician New Yorker magazine. In contrast to the New Yorker, New York is focused on trends such as identifying which low-rent neighborhoods are on the verge of becoming “hip” through gentrification or life-style advice in articles such as The Best Automatic Pet Feeders and Water Fountains, According to Experts. I usually spend about a minute or two looking over the New York and New Yorker magazine websites on Monday when the new issues come out before going on to more substantive matters.

So, when I looked at New York yesterday and noticed that it was virtually a special issue on the DSA/Jacobin phenomenon, it drove home to me the degree to which it is the perfect place for such articles. They were the latest installment of puff-pieces that began in the January 20, 2013 NY Times with “A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream”. Ever since I have been reading the NY Times on a daily basis, I have never seen anything but the most hostile and distorted reporting on socialism and Marxism but for obvious reasons, this “democratic socialism” stuff really goes over big with the publisher. The first two paragraphs of the Times article has a tone that never would have been used if the subject was Hugo Chavez or Che Guevara:

When Bhaskar Sunkara was growing up in Westchester County, he likes to say, he dreamed of being a professional basketball player.

But the height gods, among others, didn’t smile in his favor. So in 2009, during a medical leave from his sophomore year at George Washington University, Mr. Sunkara turned to Plan B: creating a magazine dedicated to bringing jargon-free neo-Marxist thinking to the masses.

Other trend-sniffing magazines followed suit with their articles about another “democratic socialist” superstar. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been profiled seven times in Vogue magazine, including an item about her multistep skin care routine. They quote her Instagram post: “I’m a science nerd and I truly enjoy the science of it, reading about compounds and studies. It’s like that.” She has also made it into Vanity Fair eleven times, including the cover photo shown above.

Let Bhaskar Sunkara and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bask in the limelight with their celebrity status. I’ll stick with socialists and radicals who are seen as notorious rather than celebrated. This includes Malcom X, Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky. When you are understood to be an enemy of the capitalist system, the gloves come off in the bourgeois press. These three, who had a big influence on me as a young radical, were notorious—so much so that they were killed for their efforts.

In a New York article titled “Okay, But What’s Wrong With Liberalism? A Chat With Jonathan Chait and Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara”, we get a “one-on-one” exchange moderated by Eric Levitz, a staff writer like the centrist Chait but closer to Sunkara politically. That doesn’t prevent Levitz from asking the question I’ve been asked a thousand times myself: “Didn’t the 20th century prove that socialism is even worse? After all, socialists are supposed to be radical (small-d) democrats — yet, in country after country, didn’t they transform into authoritarians upon their first taste of power?”

Sunkara answers this in a crafty manner. He acknowledges that Sweden was a capitalist country but “in the 1970s was the best society we’ve ever seen” and “governed by a socialist party that fought for democracy through the 1920s and ruled virtually uninterrupted for a half-century through democratic elections.” As for those shitty dictatorships like the USSR and Cuba, Sunkara leaves it like this: “We know the tragic legacy of the latter tradition.” What’s missing from this analysis is a recognition that there was a counter-revolution in the USSR. All of the major leaders of the October 1917 revolution were executed, assassinated or died in a Gulag. So what “latter tradition” is Sunkara talking about? The Communist Party that did everything in its power to prevent Spain from consummating a socialist revolution in 1938 or that used its control over the trade union movement in France to derail the May/June 1968 revolt? No, that legacy had little to do with socialism, even if Jacobin has repeatedly held up Italy’s Stalinist leader Togliatti as someone that today’s left can learn from.

Toward the end of this panel discussion, Sunkara acknowledges that in the long run the Swedish model will be unsustainable even if Bernie Sanders was elected and went about turning the USA into another Sweden. Why? “The history of social democracy is that capital will withhold investment if it doesn’t like the prevailing political mood or constraints on its freedom. In the modern, internationalized economy, this means that social democracy is harder to achieve than it was in the 20th century.”

So, what can we look forward to from the DSA/Jacobin left? Maybe thirty or forty years of election campaigns that will finally create a “democratic socialist” majority in both houses of Congress, a president like Sanders (maybe Ocasio-Cortez herself), and a Supreme Court filled with people like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, the DSA backed District Attorney who is against Mumia getting a new trial . Even if this long and arduous struggle is successful, it will have been a Sisyphean effort since the capitalists will do everything in their power to subvert it. Maybe the idea is to start building a revolutionary party opposed to the Republicans and Democrats alike, one that will challenge capital politically by running candidates that raise the consciousness of the masses by exposing the contradictions of the capitalist system, such as its inability to eradicate the racism that has been at its core for the past 300 years or so. Most importantly, this will be a party that fosters the growth of working class committees that have the power to defend themselves against counter-revolutionary violence. This is the way that socialist revolutions happen and the USA won’t be an exception.

Then there is “Pinkos Have More Fun Socialism is AOC’s calling card, Trump’s latest rhetorical bludgeon, and a new way to date in Brooklyn”, a piece that makes the DSA scene look positively happening:

It’s the Friday after Valentine’s Day. The radical publishing house Verso Books is throwing its annual Red Party, an anti-romance-themed banger. Like a lot of the best lefty parties, it takes place in Verso’s book-lined Jay Street loft, ten stories above cobblestoned Dumbo. The view of the East River is splendid, the DJ is good, and the beers cost three bucks.

Before long, you get the idea that this a subculture much more than a political movement. The people appear to be very young, very educated and very white. What is the chance that a striking Spectrum worker will feel at home where this is happening?

An hour into the party, Isser and Brostoff stage a version of The Dating Game — one bachelorette, four suitors — to promote Red Yenta. Friend-of-the-app Natasha Lennard, a columnist at the Intercept, yells for quiet. “There is a service — a communal service — that is better than a Tinder, or the last hurrahs of an OKCupid,” she announces. Who wants to slog through a few bad dates only “to find out that someone is a liberal?” Brostoff takes the mic. Pins and posters are available for purchase, she says, and donations are of course welcome. “That’s how we became capitalists,” she jokes. “And that’s what you call irony. Or dialectics.”

Funny to see Natasha Lennard in this setting. A decade ago, she was a high profile anarchist who would not have found much in common with “democratic socialists”. I guess this just reflects the counter-cultural, if not the political, ebb of anarchism. She felt at home at a party that was greeted by the NYC-DSA host: “Everybody looks fuckin’ sexy as hell. This is amazing to have everybody here looking beautiful in the same room, spreading the message of socialism. Give yourselves a round of applause.” I’m glad I wasn’t invited. My days of looking beautiful are long over, plus I get sleepy around 10pm.

The most illuminating paragraph in this life-style article is this one:

Until very recently, it wasn’t that socialism was toxic in a red-scare way. It was irrelevant, in a dustbin-of-history way. But then came Bernie Sanders’s 2016 candidacy, then the membership boom of DSA, then the proliferation of socialist cultural products like Chapo, and then, finally, the spectacular rise of Ocasio-Cortez.

The politics of the socialism that they helped revive isn’t always clear. Stripped of its Soviet context and cynically repurposed by conservative partisans, the word had lost its meaning by the time it got hot again. For some DSA grandees, like NYC chapter co-chair Bianca Cunningham, socialism means a planned economy that replaces market capitalism. “It means we own the means of production. It means we get to run our workplaces and our own government,” she says. But that is unusual. For Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and most of their devotees, it’s closer to a robust version of New Deal liberalism — or, perhaps, Northern European social democracy.

No, the word has not lost its meaning, at least for people not taken in by Sunkara’s con-game. It is a system that will exist globally or else it will not exist at all. Furthermore, it will be characterized by the collective ownership of the means of production, scientific planning, and a reintegration of the city and the countryside in order to overcome the metabolic rife. It will not be launched from Verso offices in Brooklyn but in dingy meeting halls in working-class neighborhoods in Queens and their counterpart in other cities in the USA and the rest of the world. The people at its core will be garment workers, meat-cutters, bus drivers, and miners who have no idea who Slavoj Zizek or Vivek Chibber are. They will also be largely people of color, very few of whom who will have an advanced degree. Trying to find a way to reach such people was very much on the minds of people from my generation but ironically they can be reached now by a left that largely seems committed to living in a life-style cocoon.

Toward the end of the article, the author has a conversation with Michael Kinnucan, a Facebook essayist. Kinnucan provides a quasi-Marxist analysis of the explosive growth of the DSA:

Over beers in Crown Heights, we’re tracing the origins of the movement. The most straightforward explanation for the socialism boom is, fittingly, a material one: Saddled with student debt and thrust into a shit post-2008 economy, millennials were overeducated, downwardly mobile, and financially insecure. On top of everything, the internet was making them feel bad and the planet was melting. The precariat, they called themselves.

In between frequent cigarette breaks, Kinnucan sketched his version of this progression. Graduate from the University of Chicago in 2009; get bogged down in the post-crash economy; drift to Occupy Wall Street in 2011; get radicalized. “There was a Twitter hashtag and internet meme, #SIFUAB: Shit is fucked up and bullshit,” he recalled fondly. “There was a large element of collectivizing depression. The genre of meme where you write on a piece of paper and hold up the amount of student loans you have.”

This sounds about right but susceptible to the glass ceiling that has so often stopped left groups in their tracks. For “Leninist” groups like the SWP and the ISO, that glass ceiling was about two to three thousand. Such groups grew rapidly but were constrained by their insistence on a program that required ideological conformity that many leftists disdained as a kind of intellectual straight-jacket.

For the young, University of Chicago-educated, Verso Party attending, and Caucasian precariat, the glass ceiling is much higher. Who knows? The DSA might even become as large as SDS was in its heyday. Whether it will be able to attract the people who have the social and economic power to change society is doubtful at best. Maybe that doesn’t matter much since they are having lots of fun in the meantime.

Finally, we get to Levitz’s interview with Michael Kazin titled “What Does the Radical Left’s Future Look Like?” Kazin is the co-editor of Dissent, the social democratic journal that might be described as Jacobin stripped down to its pro-Democratic Party propaganda but without the Kautskyite frosting.

Kazin, who wrote a hatchet job on Howard Zinn in 2010, is a DSA fan, especially since it focuses on economic issues unlike the left of my youth that was in effect single-issue movements against the Vietnam War, for abortion rights, etc.

Kazin is not so nearly as coy as people like Sunkara and Eric Blanc when it comes to work in the Democratic Party that they regard as merely a tactic that will be discarded maybe in 2060 or so when the country is ready to vote for a third party demanding an end to the capitalist system:

If Bernie hadn’t run as a Democrat in 2016, most Americans would never have heard of him and he wouldn’t be in a position to mount the kind of campaign he’s going to run. I think the left cannot just be a movement outside the party structure, looking askance at the party and thinking that somehow it can win real reforms and transform American society without engaging with the party. You’ve got to be both radical and Democratic with a capital D.

Levitz next asks a question that really gets to the heart of what makes the DSA so different from the anarchist-dominated anti-globalization and Occupy movements that were not shy about their hostility to capitalism: “What do you think is responsible for this pragmatic turn away from the anarchist tendency that informed the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s or Occupy Wall Street and toward a greater concern with winning and exercising power within existing institutions?” So, for all the horse-shit about transcending Scandinavian social democracy and the need to establish true socialism in the far-off future, Levitz sees the DSA as a “pragmatic turn away from the anarchist tendency that informed the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s or Occupy Wall Street and toward a greater concern with winning and exercising power within existing institutions.” Put more succinctly, Levitz nails the DSA and the intellectuals who promote it in Jacobin as pragmatists working inside the Democratic Party.



  1. “In a land without sheep, a goat is a prized possession.”

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — March 5, 2019 @ 7:50 pm

  2. Right on target. The last few times I have criticized these DSA/Jacobin luminaries, I have been called a bitter old man, a person who was losing it mentally, and always as a person jealous because he is with Monthly Review, which is said in such a way that tells me that I am a loser, because MR is a loser. It used to be OK but not now. So one thing to consider is that, to consolidate their “success,” their brand, it is necessary to tar the left, in whatever ways necessary. They red-bait all the time. The truth is that, politically, they are liberals, many of them privileged, with some money as well, and they cannot imagine a truly socialist world, one in which they were no more important than anyone else, one in which they had to give up their dreams of high personal consumption.

    Comment by Michael Yates — March 6, 2019 @ 3:30 am

  3. People are living in fear everywhere and suffering and dying the world over–and Bhaskar Sunkara is “fuckin’ sexy as hell.”.

    Frig me with a pine cone.

    “Pragmatic” just means “safe”–and entrusting the safety of the people to an American election is about as dangerous as gambling can be–no matter how fuckin sexy you feel.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 6, 2019 @ 11:53 am

  4. This quote is one of my favorites in that article:

    “The word socialism has become a kind of blank canvas on which young leftists project their political desires. The reason to call it socialism, the lefty journalist Kate Aronoff has said, is because people are calling it socialism. At least in Brooklyn, and the spiritual Brooklyns of America, calling yourself a socialist sounds sexier than anything else out there, without necessarily advocating anything too risky.”

    So much to unload here…just a couple of points…

    1) As far as I can tell, the new “socialists” are less the heir of the 90s-00s anarchist-flavored left and more just a new round of technocratic grifters — they weren’t able to become elites under neoliberalism because of its failure post-Recession, but they hope to be the next nomenklatura of the American Soviet Socialist Republics while the rest of us stand in bread lines. It would be awful if it happened, and its delusional because it won’t, but there it is.

    2) There is some similarity here to the hilarious media write-ups about anarchists in the late 90s and 00s. But one difference is that while the anarchist scene was also ridiculously cliquey and insular, but unlike these “alternative” “socialist” careerists, the anarchist lifestyle was one of dropping out into self-chosen poverty and often criminality, and therefore was EXPLICITLY RISKY, which was a big reason it could only ever attract a few people who would quickly end up dead, drugged out, burned out, or moved on to something else. When being an anarchist means either taking part in or idealizing as revolutionary the acts of shoplifting, squatting, sabotage, street fighting, looting, etc., well, that’s just not a recipe for “sustainability” to borrow a neoliberal buzzword. Where as in just the last few days I have been told that basically you are a socialist if you don’t want to see public libraries or fire departments disbanded or privatized. Basically any one who is not a hardcore libertarian, free-market-worshipper can claim to be a socialist these days. Anarchism was always much more extreme, which is why the anarchism-infused popular left of the 90s and 00s tended to borrow some of an anarchist critique and abandon other aspects—which of course also made it possible at times to accommodate to capitalism and even to libertarianism and neoliberalism. A good example is all the lefty nonprofits that tried to get in on the gutting and privatization of government services and which advertised themselves in terms borrowed from anarchist politics.

    3) As a current resident of far south Brooklyn and the spouse of a borough native whose family has been in the borough for generations, the kind of upper middle class educated white hipster socialist grifters in this article, who get alternately lauded or trashed as the “Brooklyn left” aren’t recognizable to me. I guess they all live in a handful of neighborhoods east of and very close in to Manhattan and so on different subway lines than I, where they are either concentrated in totally gentrified hubs or sprawling out and gentrifying new surrounding areas — but I suspect nowhere that is more than 20 minutes or so on train from the Village, or certainly more than 20 minutes from Williamsburg (where as my area is closer to Manhattan than Williamsburg).

    My Brooklyn is a sprawling borough with a population nearly as big as America’s 3rd biggest city, Chicago, that is only about 35% non-Hispanic white but about 40% foreign born, plus their kids. It’s as diverse as it is working class. The biggest “white” demographics include 1) Russian and Ukrainian immigrants (who aren’t so keen on anything labelled “socialism” esp. if not well defined); 2) Haredi Jews (who may practice certain “primitive communist”-type arrangements in their insular communities but I don’t think they’d allign that much with the Jacobin socialists); 3) the remnants of the Jewish and Italian communities of mid-20th century who the hipsters explicitly refer to as “the left overs” and who are in some cases quite loudly right-wing, like my neighbors who fly Thin Blue Line Flags or have “Fuck Your Feelings: Trump For President” stickers on their pick-up trucks.

    IMHO Brooklyn is a borough that generally votes “left” in terms of how “left” is defined in mainstream American politics (ie. voting Democrat) but that’s about the only political generalization that I can comfortably make — in that way it is similar to the working class logging town in the Pacific Northwest where I grew up.

    Comment by The Melancholy of Resistance (@WarAndWar2) — March 6, 2019 @ 3:36 pm

  5. The DSA / Jacobins remind me a lot of Daladier’s Radical Socialist party in France before Blum and the popular front. The party was neither radical nor socialist just like our present day DSA. The class composition and objectives are even very similar. The more things change the more they stay the same.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — March 6, 2019 @ 4:23 pm

  6. The DSA current and their ponderous politics pertaining to racial matters seem reminiscent, in more than one way, to the housing preferences of these hipsters, they gentrify the radicals out of the way, bogart the attention, and act like they invented/discovered socialism.

    Comment by stew312856 — March 6, 2019 @ 5:19 pm

  7. Michael–Maybe the big difference is that in the USA at present seventy-odd years of reactionary finagling with the consent–nay enthusiastic collaboration–of the Democrats (and the official unions) has resulted in anything like effective mass (labor) organization being inconceivable (or out of reach) to the majority of citizens. In Daladier’s (and HItler’s) time there were real militant organizations for the Stalinists and their enablers to co-opt, screw over, and sell out. This is what makes the whole DSA line so ridiculous–zero accountability to any rank and file or membership at all even before the compromises begin. And yet they want us to think it’s safe … .

    Back in 2010 or so, there was a biggish mass rally of union and pro-union forces around the Lincoln Memorial, complete with SWP literature table, stemwinding oratory by Jesse Jackson, and the like. This happened more or less at the same time as Jon Stewart’s infamous (and disgusting) rally “for sanity” (itself a response to a rightwing rally organized by the now-forgotten Glenn Beck). The union thing never got off the ground, and thousands of the (mostly white) yuppie assholes that are now flocking to the DSA all creamed themselves sick over “sanity” while being entertained by progressive titans like Garrison Keillor … .

    A lot of criticism is owing to the likes of Rich Trumka not wanting to unleash the tiger of real mass labor organizing–their hearts weren’t and aren’t in it (or anywhere close) and the union people that were bused and flown in mostly didn’t seem to have a clue about what was happening. But that was the last time to my knowledge that anything like it was even bruited. If Sanders meant what he’s saying, he’d at least be pushing some idea like that–but he isn’t and nor is Trumka or anyone else of that ilk–unsurprisingly. Dead silence.

    They won’t even go that far, mass movement BS to the contrary notwithstanding. What more do you need to know?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 6, 2019 @ 5:23 pm

  8. @WarAndWar2 —

    Great analysis, particularly the comparison with the 1990s anarchist movement, which was my own introduction to radical politics back in the day.

    I’ve since come to regard that movement as a dead end. The “tyranny of structurelessness” meant rule by cliques; participating in the movement out of agreement with its politics required adopting a specific subcultural dress/music aesthetic whether you liked it or not; and as you said, the glorification of the crusty dropout lifestyle did permanent damage to people’s lives, especially the ones who didn’t have families in suburbia to go back to.

    And yet, despite all that — the anarchists took real risks and made a serious attempt (however idealistic and futile) to break out of the stale circle of electoral-politics-as-usual. Even the nice middle class white kids for whom anarchy was just a phase had to put up or shut up when it came to living the lifestyle, and some of them learned something about real hardship along the way. At a time when Marxists were largely still in the grip of “the more factories, the better” productivism, anarchists working almost entirely outside of official academia produced serious and IMO still relevant thinking about ecology, technology and work.

    Whereas when I look at the Jacobin/DSA milieu (and the older but similarly well-heeled cohort around N+1), I see affluent, well-groomed Ivy Leaguers who are more or less openly gunning for establishment positions in “left” academia and the Dem/NGO/nonprofit complex; they’re not even *pretending* to be working-class outsiders. I don’t recognize the byline of the New York piece, but his lifestyle journalist’s eye for snarky, on-the-mark social observation shines through the Socialism is the Hot New Thing trendpiece that he was no doubt assigned to write and produces some great one-liners:

    “DSA can feel like a never-ending Brown University reunion.”

    “”What’s your name again?” he asked me. “I always forget white guys’ names.” (McElwee is white.)”

    I pity the native Brooklynites who’ve had to watch their borough become a byword for this stuff.

    Comment by xoxarb — March 7, 2019 @ 6:32 pm

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