Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 28, 2020

Using light and disinfectant against COVID-19

Filed under: COVID-19,Donald Trump,humor — louisproyect @ 12:24 am

More from Sarah Cooper

April 27, 2020

When Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign, this is the speech he should have given

Filed under: Bernie Sanders — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

On April 8th, Bernie Sanders suspended his primary campaign. Not long afterwards, he did a video with Joe Biden that was something to behold:

If you look at the transcript, you’ll see that Biden spouted some outrageous bullshit:

You know, Bernie, you and I’ve always shared a profound conviction as long as we’ve both been in politics. This country wasn’t built by Wall Street. It wasn’t built by CEOs and hedge fund managers. It was built by workers. The great American middle class was built by American labor unions. Unions, and yes, unions, that’s the story of America.

Biden also had trouble with mangled sentences: “Here’s my pledge. I will make an educator an education that in fact, Jill, my wife is a professor at a community college, says any country that out competes us, Joe.”

Whether this meeting of the minds will result in a genuine partnership is open to question. Governor Cuomo carried out a maneuver that eliminates the Democratic Party primary election in New York as part of an overall restriction of ballot status that also left the Green Party and the Working Families Party out in the cold. By November, the Sanders campaign will be left with a lot less clout that it even had in 2016. All the talk about a “political revolution” will become a fading memory as either a Biden or Trump presidency accelerates the decay that begin with the pandemic and the economic collapse.

Just recently it occurred to me that although I would have never exploited the DP ballot line if I were Bernie Sanders, I could have made a much stronger case for truly fighting for change inside the party. Some “inside-outside” leftists have argued that Sanders is helping to precipitate the formation of a new party by heightening the contradictions inside the DP, using the example of the birth of the Republican Party in the 1850s from the bowels of the Whig Party. Theoretically, they argue that by harping on the “political revolution”, it creates sharp class divisions that will split the party, taking the youth, Black, Latino and working class constituency into a new home. This was the provenance of the Eric Blanc “dirty break” Jacobin intellectuals that I suppose still has some purchase there, even if Dustin Guastella and Paul Heideman seem bent on opposing any “third party” initiatives from DSA (not that they really have to worry much.)

In 2014, I wrote a speech for Bernie Sanders on the basis of him “seeing the light” and running as an independent. This go-round, I will be writing another speech that accepts him exploiting the DP ballot line. As I said, I don’t believe that this is in the interest of the radical change we need in the USA but, as you will see, it articulates the position that is consistent with the expectations DSA and Jacobin placed in him. It assumes that he placed political principle over his long-time comity with Biden, Clinton, Obama et al. It was just such comity that drove his top advisers nuts apparently:

But on the stage that night, Sanders didn’t take his aides’ advice. Instead, he largely gave Biden a pass, bashed Bloomberg sometimes — but not over stop-and-frisk — and mostly stuck to his standard talking points. It wasn’t the first nor the last time Sanders eschewed his staffers’ suggestions to be more aggressive with his top rival. Their warnings proved prescient: Biden went on to sweep the day in South Carolina, unify moderates, and then carry Super Tuesday.

“Knocking out Biden was job No. 1. And even when he was down, no one went for a knockout blow,” said a top aide. “That was the problem.”

So, here’s the speech Sanders would have given on April 8th if he paid attention to his advisers:

My fellow Americans,

I am suspending my campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for President since it has become clear that leading party officials have closed ranks against me. The suspension of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar’s campaigns were designed to help unify the party apparatus around Joe Biden’s campaign and thus make the question of “electability” paramount.

Like my fellow Democrats, I believe that Donald J. Trump must not be re-elected. I want to urge my supporters to vote for Joe Biden, who, despite our serious and major political differences, will never adopt the authoritarian methods that have turned the White House into Tony Soprano’s strip club in “The Sopranos”, where favors and payoffs were dispensed.

My goal is the same that it has been since I decided to run for president. For my entire political career, both on the streets and in my capacity as an elected official, I have stood for the rights and well-being of working people. Because of restrictive ballot laws in the USA, I have run as a Democrat since that was the only way I could reach large segments of our population who tend to pay less attention to third party election campaigns.

That being said, I want to bend the stick in the opposite direction from this day going forward. I made the mistake in thinking that by running as a Democrat, I would be given the same respect as Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Instead, I have been pilloried by analysts on MSNBC and CNN as if I were a spoiler. They have denied my right to defend working-class families in my presidential campaign. I have been called an anti-Semite and hounded for defending reforms carried out in Castro’s Cuba with the same arguments Barack Obama used. There was something very much like McCarthyism going on, even though I am a democratic socialist, not a Communist. This attempt to put a gag over my mouth was something I tolerated because of the need to focus on the bigger questions dividing me from my fellow candidates, but it eventually became clear that it was a symptom of deeper problems within the Democratic Party that must now be put on the front burner.

With the suspension of my campaign, I will now move ahead rapidly to create a party within a party that will be called The New Democracy and its members The New Democrats. Its goal will be to fight for the restoration of New Deal values in the Democratic Party and to serve as an organizing center for grass roots campaigns for social equality, trade union power, and immigrant rights in a country that has for too long catered to the greed and the arrogance of the super-rich.

The $182 million in small donations to my campaign will now be reallocated to the creation of New Democracy headquarters in cities across the United States, in both blue and red states. I have begun assembling a senior staff that will be in charge of creating this infrastructure. Cornel West, David Sirota, Krystall Ball and Julian Castro have already agreed to serve and I expect more people committed to New Deal values to join us in the coming weeks.

As I have stated, I plan to vote for Joe Biden on election day and hope that all my supporters will follow suit. However, this does not mean that I will remain silent on the issues that divided us. While I don’t believe that the Obama White House could ever be mistaken for the naked criminality of the Trump administration, it is clear that its failure to confront the billionaire class left working people less motivated to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. When she gave speeches to Goldman-Sachs for $675,000, it symbolized the willingness of the Democratic Party elites to play ball with Wall Street. It allowed Donald J. Trump to demagogically attack the Democrats as part of the swamp and land us in the current mess.

New Democrats will use the Democratic Party ballot line, just as I did. In cities and states across the country, we need to take on the Republicans who are using their political power to increase the economic power of the corporations that are defying regulations against fracking, making trade unions impossible to organize and creating terrible suffering among our immigrant population, both documented and undocumented. We expect New Democrats to be both candidates and organizers. To further that end, we will be creating training centers where young people will learn the skills that helped build the CIO and the NAACP in the 1930s and 40s. As someone committed to New Deal values, I will be using all my time and energy to creating a party within a party that can turn this country around.

Facing an existential crisis unlike any encountered in the USA since the Great Depression, we need a new generation of fighters to be inspired by the words of FDR in 1933:

It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By “business” I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as the men in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level-I mean the wages of decent living.

Perhaps through our militancy and our deep resolve, the Democratic Party leadership will begin to return to its New Deal roots and lead us into a new epoch. It will not be as a result of conversations I have one-to-one with Joe Biden or any other senior elected official. Instead, it will be a result of mass pressure in the streets, strikes, rallies and other forms of struggle just as was the case in the 1930s. As devoted as I am to the legacy of the New Deal, I recognize that without the agitation and activism of millions of working-class people FDR would have not taken the bold actions he took.

Finally, in the hope that our message gets out, we will not be relying on MSNBC and CNN to back ideas that their corporate masters are determined to silence. I have begun exploratory conversations with media experts about how to create an alternative media that can reach millions. It will be commercial-free and committed to the truth. In a time when we have a president pouring out lies by the thousands, it is incumbent upon us to defend the truth. With corporations creating a blizzard of lies through its stranglehold on the media, it is up to us to speak the truth to power. Tentatively, we will be calling our new media center the North Star in homage to Frederick Douglass who once said: “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning.”



April 24, 2020

Smithfield and our troubled future

Filed under: Counterpunch,COVID-19,farming — louisproyect @ 12:11 pm


On April 15th, Smithfield closed down its pork factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota after 640 employees became sick from COVID-19. They constitute 44 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the state, making it the epicenter of the pandemic locally.

Joseph W. Luter founded the company in 1936. Like most industrial meat-producing companies, Smithfield became infamous for CAFO, the initials for concentrated animal feeding operation. Poultry farms were the first to convert operations to CAFO in the 1950s, followed by beef and pork in the ensuing decades. Smithfield’s flagship operation was Tar Heel, North Carolina, which processed 32,000 pigs a day. Given the highly concentrated nature of this mode of production, disposing of waste products is a chore for management. Pig excrement tends to follow the path of least resistance, however. It flows directly into the rivers and lakes of the states that house CAFO-type operations.

In 2019, Hurricane Florence struck North Carolina. In Duplin County, CAFOs produce twice as much pig urine and feces as all the toilets in New York City. Most of it ends up in hog “lagoons”, the open-air pits clustered in the area hardest hit by Hurricane Florence. It caused overflows that carried E. coli, salmonella, cryptosporidium, and other harmful bacteria into North Carolina waters. Even when there are no hurricanes, there is still extensive water pollution since the lagoons seep into groundwater that then pollutes rivers and lakes.

Continue reading

April 22, 2020

Donald Trump’s enablers at Stanford University

Filed under: Academia,COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Leland Stanford

Some of America’s most prestigious universities were created and named after robber barons. Carnegie-Mellon was founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1900, just 11 years after the steel magnate gave the green light to Pinkerton for an armed assault on the strikers in Homestead. Then there is Duke University, named in honor of James Duke, the tobacco boss who left millions in an early grave from cancer, heart disease and emphysema. Equally prestigious is Stanford University that got its name from Leland Stanford, a railroad tycoon.

Like other robber barons, Stanford launched a political career. He became governor of California in 1862 and used his power to persecute the Chinese. In a speech made early in his career, he made Donald Trump look like Bernie Sanders by comparison:

To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population. Large numbers of this class are already here; and, unless we do something early to check their immigration, the question, which of the two tides of immigration, meeting upon the shores of the Pacific, shall be turned back, will be forced upon our consideration, when far more difficult than now of disposal. There can be no doubt but that the presence among us of numbers of degraded and distinct people must exercise a deleterious influence upon the superior race, and to a certain extent, repel desirable immigration.

Stanford is infamous for its Hoover Institution of War, Revolution, and Peace, a rightwing think-tank founded in 1919 by Stanford alumnus Herbert Hoover. The Hoover Institution was in the news recently when one of its fellows, an NYU law professor named Richard Epstein, predicted that there would be no more than 500 deaths from COVID-19 in the USA. In a must-read interview with Epstein by New Yorker Magazine’s Isaac Chotiner, the cocky and ill-informed lawyer was twisted into a pretzel, at one point stating, “You know nothing about the subject but are so confident that you’re going to say that I’m a crackpot.” I am not that much into Freud, but this sounds like a classic example of projection.

Despite having qualifications far in advance of Richard Epstein’s, some Stanford epidemiologists have been in the news making Donald Trump talking points. John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist and co-director of Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Center, caught the eye of the NY Times’s Thomas Friedman who cited him an op-ed piece questioning the seriousness of the pandemic. Friedman noted that the Stanford expert believed that we still do not have a firm grasp of the population-wide fatality rate of coronavirus. It might only be one percent and could even be lower. That being the case, Ioannidis warned:

If that is the true rate locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.

Ioannidis had co-thinkers at Stanford. In a March 24 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Stanford professors Eran Bendavid and Jay Bhattacharya that was widely circulated on pro-Trump websites, you got the same analysis as Ioannidis. They wrote, “A universal quarantine may not be worth the costs it imposes on the economy, community and individual mental and physical health. We should undertake immediate steps to evaluate the empirical basis of the current lockdowns.”

Ioannidis, Bendavid and Bhattacharya were in the news again this week. They conducted a blood survey of residents in Santa Clara County and discovered that between 2.49% and 4.16% of may have coronavirus antibodies. The good news, as far as they were concerned, was that the infection fatality rate was between 0.12% and 0.2%. So, what’s to worry?

Another jackass from the Hoover Institution couldn’t wait to get the findings circulated on pro-Trump media. Hoover fellow Victor Davis Hanson, even more cocksure and reactionary than Richard Epstein, got in touch with Rush Limbaugh to give him the good news. From the moron’s website:

Folks, I was minding my own business on Friday, and I got a flag email from my friend Victor Davis Hanson, and it was a preliminary report on Stanford University’s research in Santa Clara County. It is bombshell. It was the prepublication. The file that he sent me was actually the preprint version, which is pre-peer review.

But here is the take-away paragraph from the research. It suggests that one county’s cases, Santa Clara, California — which, by the way, is where the 49ers are. For those of you who know geography by your sports teams, Santa Clara is where the 49ers stadium is, 49er training complex. They’re not in San Francisco anymore. “One county’s cases could be more than double the entire state’s reported cases by testing.

“Even a 1% to 4% existing positives to the virus in a population, completely overturn the case-to-fatality rates. In this case, the figures work out to a mortality rate of 0.1%, not 1%, not 2%, not 4%, not 5% — 0.1% at the high, and the low end, 0.02%.” That would be like a normal or bad flu year. One to two per thousand dying in the population. Remember, when we started, the models here that everybody swore by which gave us the lockdown policy were predicting four to one dying per hundred — per hundred, not thousand.

Writing for Slate, Jane Hu took apart both Victor Davis Hanson and the scientists he relied on to spread his Trumpist talking points:

On Tuesday, KSBW, a news station in Monterey, California, aired a story about California’s potential “herd immunity” to the novel coronavirus. The piece opens by discussing a new study from Stanford Medicine in which researchers are conducting blood tests that detect antibodies, which can show whether an individual has or previously had COVID-19. The reporter then goes on to cite Victor Davis Hanson, a Stanford-affiliated source who advances the theory that COVID-19 might have actually begun spreading in California in fall 2019. “[Stanford’s] data could help to prove COVID-19 arrived undetected in California much earlier than previously thought,” KSBW reported.

The piece has spread widely. An accompanying web story posted to the TV station’s website has been shared more than 58,300 times, and has also been picked up by SFGate. The theory is appealing to some, particularly those who had respiratory illnesses in late 2019 that they now believe could’ve been COVID-19. In their minds, that might mean they have some immunity to the virus—and if a large portion of Americans have some immunity, we can begin our move out of lockdown. But that theory has no scientific basis, and it spreads dangerous misinformation.

Let’s start with the facts. I reached out to Stanford Medicine to try to understand the goals of its antibody test, and how it relates to Hanson’s fall 2019 theory. The short answer on the latter is that it doesn’t. “Our research does not suggest that the virus was here that early,” says Lisa Kim of Stanford’s media relations team.

Neither does anyone else’s, it appears. “There is zero probability [SARS-CoV-2] was circulating in fall 2019,” tweeted Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who has been tracking SARS-CoV-2’s genetic code as it has spread. Allison Black, a genomic epidemiologist working in Bedford’s lab, says this is apparent from researchers’ data. As the virus spreads, it also mutates, much like the way words change in a game of Telephone. By sequencing the virus’s genome from different individual samples, researchers can track strains of the coronavirus back to its origins. They have been continually updating their findings on Nextstrain. (In case you’re wondering, the strains have nothing to do with severity of illness. They’re simply a way to track the virus’s mutations over time.)

Richard Neher, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, told the Scientist that Nextstrain researchers’ work has tracked the virus back to a single source “somewhere between mid-November and early December,” which then spread in China. The earliest cases in the U.S. appeared in January 2020, according to Nextstrain’s sequencing work. Washington state, where the first known COVID-19 case in the U.S. was identified, has at least six strains. A similar analysis of California’s coronavirus cases—which has yet to be peer-reviewed—identified at least eight strains in the state, suggesting transmission from Washington state, New York, Europe, and China.

If genomics isn’t your thing, consider this: If the virus had arrived earlier, we would have known. Humans have no natural immunity to this new virus, which is why it’s spreading quickly, infecting millions and killing tens of thousands. That’s evident in what’s going on in New York right now, says Black. “If it had arrived in fall of 2019, and we were all living our lives as normal, we would’ve had New York back in fall of 2019,” she says. There’s no reason why this virus would have spread undetected for months before wreaking the havoc it has.

This is not the end of the controversy. Besides the Slate article, there is a wave of criticism directed at the study from professionals in the field as reported in the Mercury News.

But over the weekend, some of the nation’s top number crunchers said their extrapolation of the results rests on a flimsy foundation.

They contended the Stanford analysis is troubled because it draws sweeping conclusions based on statistically rare events, and is rife with sampling and statistical imperfections.

Gelman of Columbia University called the conclusions “some numbers that were essentially the product of a statistical error.”

“They’re the kind of screw-ups that happen if you want to leap out with an exciting finding,” he wrote, “and you don’t look too carefully at what you might have done wrong.”

From the lab of Erik van Nimwegen of the University of Basel came this: “Loud sobbing reported from under Reverend Bayes’ grave stone,” referring to a famed statistician. “Seriously, I might use this as an example in my class to show how NOT to do statistics.”

“Do NOT interpret this study as an accurate estimate of the fraction of population exposed,” wrote Marm Kilpatrick, an infectious disease researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz. “Authors have made no efforts to deal with clearly known biases and whole study design is problematic.”

My advice is to visit the Stanford University Board of Trustees page where you will get a good idea of who runs the place. It is filled with hedge fund operators, real estate developers, silicon valley bosses, private equity, et al. If we ever cut off the head of the beast that is responsible for the mess we are in right now, one of the first things we’ll have to do is make all universities public and fund them properly. Right now, they are wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate American and in this instance glaringly so.

April 21, 2020

Why Don’t You Just Die!

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:31 pm

Unless you are one of those fat slobs wearing a MAGA cap out on the street demanding that Chick-fil-A’s be re-opened immediately, you’re like me—under house arrest from COVID-19. Assuming that you’ve run out of things to watch on Netflix, I have great news. I just watched “Why Don’t You Just Die!”, a Russian film originally slated for theatrical opening in N.Y. but re-packaged as VOD yesterday (availability below).

This is a film that has a few things in common with Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight”. It takes place under a single roof, features morally deficient characters, and has enough blood pouring from their veins to fill a hot tub. Tarantino intended that his film be enjoyed for its grand guignol humor. Unfortunately, like most of his recent films, the gags fell flat.

The good news is that Kirill Sokolov, a 30-year old Russian, has out-mastered Tarantino at his own game. Rotten Tomatoes has a brief profile on the wunderkind:

Born in 1989 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. In 2012, he received a master’s degree in the Physics and Technology of Nanostructures. However, even as he worked to complete his degree in Physics, he began making short films with his friends, initially using just ketchup as blood. Inspired by films such as “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” “Evil Dead 2,” “Oldboy,” and “Kill Bill” Volumes 1 and 2, Sokolov discovered that he had both a love and a talent for dark comedy, a genre which has yet to gain popularity in Russia.

In the opening scene of “Why Don’t You Just Die!”, a young man with the body and face of a veteran mixed-martial-arts fighter stands outside the door of a Russian apartment with a hammer clutched in one hand behind his back. With the other, he is just about to ring the apartment’s doorbell but hesitates for a minute or so. He is there to use the hammer on the man who lives there, a middle-aged cop named Andrey, whom his girlfriend wants killed. The cop is her father, and rapist continuously from the age of 12. At least that is what he has been told.

Welcomed into the apartment, Matvey continues to keep the hammer concealed. He sits down opposite the scowling father at the dining table where he is in the middle of his lunch. (No matter the gladiator ring violence that goes on in the apartment, Andrey continues to eat, raiding the refrigerator at one point after drilling holes in Matvey’s leg with a power tool.)

Andrey is totally bald, bull-headed and built like a door. In the course of asking Matvey what brings him there, the hammer falls from his trousers and sets into motion about ten minutes worth of bloody mayhem that will leave you laughing out loud. Although film buffs will recognize the Tarantino influence, for me there is just much of a trail of bread crumbs that lead you to classic Warner Brothers cartoons. For all practical purposes, the blood that comes pouring out the veins of both Matvey and Andrey evokes the coyote and the roadrunner just as much as Tarantino’s early classics.

This is Sokolov’s first film and a most auspicious one. I urge you to spend the modest rental fee to see it. It will get your mind off this fucking pandemic and the failure of the political establishment to act in our interests.


Apple TV US – https://apple.co/2yhBkhi

Google Play US – https://bit.ly/3cys9rG

Microsoft US – https://bit.ly/3eAnVBP


April 20, 2020

Jacobin’s road map within the catacombs of the Democratic Party

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,DSA,Jacobin,third parties,two-party system — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

One big difference between the Jacobin left and the left of my generation is over the “road map”. In 1973 or so, nobody in the SWP or any Maoist, for that matter, had an idea about how a revolution could take place except in the most general terms. We all pretty much understood that the workers would not march under the banner of socialism, at least understood according to the Communist Manifesto, unless there was a profound change in American society that forced them to engage in uncompromising struggle like took place during the Great Depression. It was up to us to engage in various struggles as they arose, from the right to an abortion to challenging the trade union bureaucracies, but we accepted the constraints Marx put forward in “The German Ideology”: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

In the late 70s, the SWP accepted the word of its leadership that revolution was on the agenda, but there was no road map as such that described the specific route to state power. The entire membership was instructed to get blue-collar jobs because increasing class conflict supposedly made the factories and mines like Columbia University and Berkeley were in 1968. This was delusional, of course.

Then along came Bhaskar Sunkara who, with his customary aplomb and self-confidence, told his readers in the penultimate chapter of “The Socialist Manifesto”:

The dilemma for socialists today is figuring out how to take anger at the unjust outcomes of capitalism and turn it into a challenge to the system itself…Easier said than done. But this chapter offers a road map based on the long, complex, variously inspiring and dismal history of left politics—for challenging capitalism and creating a democratic socialist alternative to it.

It is not too difficult to figure out what this road map looked like. It began on the expressway built by Jeremy Corbyn in England and Bernie Sanders in the USA. Although there was no guarantee that their becoming Prime Minister and President respectively was assured, it made much more sense to take your Tesla on that road than to waste your time in revolutionary organizations like the kind we belonged to in the 60s and 70s.

After all, Sunkara’s guru Vivek Chibber, who was to the NYU Sociology Department as Lenin was to the Smolny Institute, had used his Marxist GPS to help write an article titled “Our Road to Power”. (Road, get it? It’s a leitmotif in the Jacobin oeuvre.) Chibber warns his readers about taking “the Russian road”: “The Russian road, as it were, was for many parties a viable one. But starting in the 1950s, openings for this kind of strategy narrowed. And today, it seems entirely hallucinatory to think about socialism through this lens.”

For Chibber and virtually all the Jacobin intellectuals, Washington could never be mistaken for the decaying Czarist state. It was virtually unsmashable: “Today, the state has infinitely greater legitimacy with the population than European states did a century ago. Further, its coercive power, its power of surveillance, and the ruling class’s internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability that is orders of magnitude greater than it had in 1917.”

So, if the “Russian road” was precluded by permanent structural obstacles, how could we get past capitalism? This is where Jacobin becomes a bit more evasive. Ever since the 2016 elections, the emphasis has been less on the need for system change than it has been for a “political revolution”, a term that meant electing Corbyn, Sanders, and politicians that received benediction from Jacobin and Tribune, the British magazine that became part of Sunkara’s publishing empire.

For most DSA members, the prospect of seeing Bernie Sanders in the White House was so enthralling that the questions posed in Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune could not be less germane. Why bother yourself with obscure questions of workers ruling in their own name when enlightened politicians could shepherd legislation like a Green New Deal through Congress. Sunkara nimbly made the case for socialism being largely realized through enlightened government policies:

Luckily, the United States doesn’t have to contend with antidemocratic supranational organizations like the eurozone, and it has immense resources to work with. We ultimately have larger ambitions than “socialism in one country,” but if it’s possible anywhere, it’s possible here. Cobbling together the legislative power to achieve these reforms will not be easy.

But it is possible to achieve certain socialist goals within capitalism. As we’ve seen in the history of social democracy, any achievements will be vulnerable to crises and resisted at every step, but they are morally and politically necessary nonetheless.

I could spend ten thousand words dismantling the ideological baggage that underpins this absurd passage but suffice it to say that the word “socialism” is misused here. Larger ambitions than “socialism in one country” in a capitalist country? WTF? Socialist goals within capitalism? When you peel away the rhetoric, it is simply a recipe for electing politicians like Sanders and the squad. Or as Eduard Bernstein once put it, “The movement is everything, the final goal is nothing.”

Most Jacobin intellectuals were poised to accept a Sanders presidency as the first leg in the road to power, especially after his thrilling victory in Las Vegas. Dustin Guastella and Connor Kilpatrick were beside themselves. In an article titled “After the Nevada Blowout, It’s Bernie’s Party Now”, they rolled out the red carpet: “He’s on his way to not just the nomination, but the White House.” If someone ever wrote a book about articles that had a brief shelf life, this one would make it right alongside that one:

For normal people, Biden’s subsequent clearing-the-pool-table victories, abetted by Obama’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering and Sanders’s fulsome deference to his “old friend” Joe Biden, might be enough to make the traffic signs on the Jacobin road look like this:

Until now, Jacobin’s Grand Poobah has not weighed in but members of his court have tried to put the best possible spin on the reversal of fortune. Dauphin to Kautsky’s throne, Eric Blanc spoke for those who slapped themselves on the back for helping to make Sanders’s “ideological victory” possible:

Since our collective expectations were raised so high after Nevada, it’s easy to forget how much we’ve already accomplished in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. As Bernie correctly emphasized in his suspension speech this morning, the campaign has largely won the battle of ideas. And the paralyzing myth that there is no political alternative to the neoliberal status quo has been shattered.

How this will translate in “road map” terms to the next election remains uncertain. Sanders has turned in a truly demoralizing performance as he began walking off the stage. In an video co-produced by the Biden and Sanders campaign, you are reminded of Vladimir and Estragon in a sequel to the Beckett classic titled “Waiting for Socialism”:

Unlike Blanc, some of the Jacobin intellectuals were undeterred. They brazened it out, finding nothing wrong with being embedded in the Democratic Party, as if it were some sort of 21st Century version of Lenin’s vanguard party. Yeah, it didn’t have much to do with socialism but it was legitimated by the facts on the ground. What are you going to do, anyhow? Waste your time on some tiny group that still takes The Communist Manifesto seriously when you can be devoting the next four years to help elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Yes, she is showing less and less “democratic socialist” credibility but everybody loves a winner unlike those pathetic Green Party candidates who prioritize principles.

Dustin Guastella, who co-wrote the article about the Sanders take-over of the DP referred to above, warned about abandoning the world’s oldest still-functioning capitalist party in an article titled “Like It or Not, If We Run Third Party, We Will Lose.” Showing the kind of bluster once heard from “socialist” UFT leader Albert Shanker, Guastella, a Teamsters Union official in Philadelphia, rolled out all the predictable reasons for staying inside Joe Biden’s political catacombs. Ballot laws kept 3rd parties on the defensive, including new laws in NY State that would make both the Greens and the Working Families Party victims of the “enlightened” governor’s hunger for power.

Guastella, who will likely to be paid as a Teamster official for the foreseeable future, warns against futile efforts to create a radical left party in the USA:

That third parties are destined to lose is no secret — it’s right there in the name. They are the distant bronze medalists of American politics. But, a skeptic might ask, if what you say is true — that party realignment and break are outcomes of struggle — why haven’t we seen Joe Biden bend on key policy issues? And, further, what basis is there for believing that the Democrats will ever bend (or break)?

Patience. We are still a weak, small movement — despite the fact that our ideas have captured the attention of voters, our candidates haven’t won the loyalty of mass constituencies, and our base is largely disorganized. After all, the Democratic establishment just steamrolled us with a candidate that seems severely confused at best and demented at worst.

After reading Blanc and Guastella, I am left with the conclusion that these people are hopeless. I left the SWP in 1978 because I became convinced that nothing could deter the cult leadership from a self-destructive path. The culture of “democratic centralism” created a mindset that made it impossible for Barnes and company to reverse course. While the Jacobin/DSA is no cult, the people around Blanc and Guastella’s Bread and Roses caucus wear self-enforcing ideological blinders that might make it impossible for them to consider anything else except operating on the fringes of the Democratic Party.

For those whose minds are not captive to Leninist or Kautskyite formulas, it is obvious that profound and highly momentous changes are in play as a result of the pandemic. Right now, half of all men under the age of 45 in Los Angeles County are either unemployed or working reduced hours. All across the USA, men and women vulnerable to getting the disease are starting to carry out wildcat strikes. Today there was a report on the “Service workers strike at two luxury Manhattan buildings“:

The service workers, who are based at The Chamberlain and 432 West 52nd Street condominiums, walked out at 11:30 a.m. Thursday and will strike for 24 hours, they said.

They accuse their employer, building-services contractor Planned Companies, of paying them substandard rates while they work through the coronavirus pandemic, and blocking their efforts to join labor union SEIU 32BJ. They also say Planned failed to provide enough masks and gloves to protect them on the job.

Unlike Jacobin/DSA, both the Philly Socialists and the activists who produce Cosmonaut have circulated an appeal for young activists to get jobs working at Amazon:

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Amazon’s infrastructure and workforce to their limits. As people self-quarantine and flock to the e-commerce giant to home-deliver their stockpiles of food, water, and sanitation supplies, logistics workers at Amazon and elsewhere strain under the increased burden. As the virus spreads and schools close, leaving working-class children with no caretakers, workers are forced to make impossible decisions between earning a wage and caring for their family. The current crisis is rapidly accelerating class conflict within these dynamics. Workers in Italy are going on strike, and unrest is developing here in the United States.  The left should see this as an opportunity to expand the efforts of workers already organizing on the ground, pushing forward demands that will not only help drive a humane working-class centered response to the crisis, but further the groundwork for stronger working-class organization moving forward.

This is what a socialist party has to be all about. Organizing men and women to get involved with fights for working class power. The DSA has to understand that it will be expected to put its substantial muscle behind such organizing efforts if it wants to have any credibility. Eric Blanc showed that he had some appreciation for the need for this kind of solidarity through his articles on the wildcat teachers’ strikes, even if it was framed in terms of how important Bernie Sanders was in getting them going—a claim some teacher activists found overstated.

In any case, Lenin’s party rather than Kautsky’s is a model for what is needed today. Even if Lenin credited Kautsky’s party as a model, the Russians always put struggle first. The Bolsheviks ran candidates but mostly in the interest of spreading socialist ideas rather than taking over the capitalist state. As for understanding the Bolshevik electoral policy, I recommend August Nimtz’s “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets―or Both”. For those unwilling to read the book for lack of time, I at least urge you to watch this video. It was made for the stormy period we are entering:


A message to the government

Filed under: comedy,COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm

April 17, 2020

Assad or We Burn the Country

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm


Sam Dagher’s “Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed” is the definitive chronicle of a tragic war that has left the country in the state described by Tacitus: “where they make a desert, they call it peace.” As for the title, it originates from the graffiti that Assad’s militias painted on walls everywhere. “Assad or We Burn the Country.”

Left in shambles by a senseless war, about 83 percent of Syrians live under the poverty line. A half-million people died in the fighting. That would be equivalent to more than seven million people in the USA. Meanwhile, more than six million Syrians were internally displaced, with another round five million going into exile. This was the necessary price, it seems, for preserving a family dynasty that began in 1971.

Sam Dagher was among the three most capable reporters covering the war. Two others succumbed far too early in their careers. N.Y. Times reporter Anthony Shadid died in 2012 at the age of 43, a result of an asthma attack brought on by walking behind horses. His asthma attack was in turn the result of putting himself into the care of smugglers who customarily used horses to enter and leave the country. If only Shadid had agreed to write the same kind of puff-pieces others have written about al-Assad, none of this would have been necessary. Then, there is Marie Colvin, who was a victim of one of Assad’s barrel bombs in Homs in 2012. Her mistake was being embedded with the rebels rather than al-Assad’s military. After a day in the field, you could always return to a four-star hotel in Damascus for cocktails.

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April 15, 2020

Motorcycle Madness

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 10:19 pm

While under COVID-19 house arrest, I have to figure out ways to pass the time. Mostly, I am reading Marxist literature both in print and online but find myself more and more surfing the net to find interesting things to share on FB or in the instance below mostly for my own amusement. Absent a byline, I still recognized this article I wrote for the Bard Observer in 1965. It was the only thing I wrote for the student newspaper in my four years there. When I was in the SWP, I may have written a single article but can’t be sure. It was only after I got involved with putting out the Nicaragua Network Newsletter in the 1980s that I began to write on a regular basis. This was at a time when using Ventura desktop publishing was a big deal. After getting on the Internet at Columbia in 1991 did I begin to become “the prolific idiot” as Marc Cooper once put it.

My motorcycle referenced in the article:

Motorcycles Return After Near Extinction

What is it that turns people on about motorcycles? For about two semesters now the vast majority of students at Bard have been going berserk about bikes. Listen to conversations; one is constantly hearing references to “the machine I’m bringing up in couple of weeks” or “the one I’m definite getting as soon as I can get some scratch together”. Mention, in a loud enough voice, “blown Vincent”, Yamaha YDS-3 or Triumph TT Special, and everyone’s ears prick up. Chicks included. One girl insists that she’s getting one, a Triumph Tiger Cub is the one for her.

It’s not difficult to understand the fascination attached to motorcycles. I think it works on several levels. First, there is the aesthetic sensual appeal. Bikes are just so good looking. There is nothing so fine as a new machine with just enough chrome and a tasteful paint job. Hondas have won a number well-understood awards in the design field. Cycle pipes and mufflers flowing back gracefully along the length of the frame are a key element in aesthetic design. Some scramblers incorporate pipe-layout that would make Calder green with envy—the Honda dirt machine for example. The sounds that come from bikes are also something else. A throbbing roar coming from a straight pipe, can be a tuned megaphone, is as appealing to some people as music. (I have a friend who is composer studying at Julliard, and who is considering writing some musique concrete with cycle sounds.) Part of the sensual appeal of bikes is the plain thrill of acceleration in the open air. Going 0 to 60 in 5.1 second (figures for a Norton 750) with nothing about you is just unreal. Steering a cycle is also a great experience; one steers by leaning. Let’s say there’s a 20 mph- curve. You come into it at fifty, downshift into third and take it at thirty-five without the slightest difficulty Just lean.

On another level, bikes are fascinating because they’re so inexpensive to purchase and operate. Most bikes get at least seventy five miles to the gallon, with some light weights getting 120 to the gallon. Name one car that can come near that. Last semester I spent about 5 bucks on gas for a huge amount of getting around. Some people say you can’t use them in the winter, so they’re not good transportation. Baloney. Just as long as the roads are dry, you can use them and can even be reasonably comfortable.

For the benefit of newcomers to Bard, I’ll try to give a brief survey of the bikes at Bard in the nearly four years I’ve been here—and the students who drove them. When I was a freshman there were two guys, Arnie Melk and Fred Feldman, who looked like less prominent members of the cast of The Wild One. Fred went through about four bikes at Bard. They were all used and often falling apart, and unmuffled. His best machine was a 650 AJS which had been painted pop art pink. Arnie had a Harley which he claimed was a 74 inch; I’m skeptical. There was Bill Tinker who owned a hilarious old Indian with ape-hangers. Steve Dane, a good old friend, had a Ducati 50 cc that was unmuffled. At a distance it sounded like a furious mosquito. Mark Kennedy had a Beesah 250 [BSA] one year and then traded it in for a new Ducati Diana. Mark was probably the most skilled rider ever at Bard. These people left Bard a long while ago. After their exit, the only rider was Dave Jacobowitz; his sturdy Matchless 350 single was a good “thumper” and not very fast. Dave is now hot to get a Matchless 750 scrambler. Good luck, Dave. Last semester, it seems that everyone decided to finally make the big leap. Chester Denton came up with a fantastically hot 650 Beesah scrambler. Joe Ribar had two bikes at once—a groovy old single-cart 650 Beesah and a Zundapp 250 which is not so groovy. Don Moore now owns the Beesah but has blown the head gaskets, tch-tch. Peter Schabacker bought a stunning BMW which was really the center of attention. Mr. Herdman has a smaller BMW which he keeps in immaculate condition, much to the Director of Admission’s credit. Joel Morrow bought a very pretty Ducati Monza. And I bought a 175 Jawa which is as slow as molasses, but is cheap to own and run. My next bike will probably be a hot 250, maybe a Bultaco which is a screaming Spanish bike. The latest bike on campus is Steve Lipson’s YDS-3 Yamaha which goes 0-60 in less than eight seconds and has five forward gears. It is a very fine bike.

April 12, 2020

How both American and French imperialism supported Assad in 2011

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:20 pm

(In chapter 12 of Sam Dagher’s “Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria”, there’s a telling discussion of how both the USA and France were anxious to keep Assad in power. This was before the killing machine became too obvious to prettify. Part of the PR campaign for the dictator included a puff piece in Vogue magazine. In addition to that, there’s the eye-opening mention of how Bernard Kouchner, France’s foreign minister, former head of Doctors without Borders, and a symbol of imperialist regime change, was on board with keeping ties to the dictatorship. If you read the bullshit from Max Blumenthal, Seymour Hersh, Tariq Ali, Julian Assange, et al, you’d get the impression that there were plans to topple Assad militarily and that the burgeoning protests were a cat’s paw to accomplish that end. Dagher is a brilliant reporter and I once again urge getting his book for the all-round best chronicle of the disaster in Syria.)

By then, Asma’s [Mrs. Bashar al-Assad] touch was everywhere, both at home and in shaping Syria’s image abroad. She completely remodeled the Assad family residence in Malki where Bashar and his siblings grew up, did the same for an old presidential mansion, and fixed up the Assads’ summer home in Latakia with the help of a famous British landscape architect.? She spent a few million US dollars on abstract sculptures. In March 2011, as protests were kicking off and turning violent, Vogue magazine had a whole spread on her titled “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert.” The main photo was of her wrapped in a red-wine-colored pashmina and standing on top of Mount Qasioun at twilight, with Damascus visible below. Joan Juliet Buck, the writer who flew in for the piece right after Asma’s return from Paris, spent time with her and Bashar and the children at home playing and eating fondue and later singing carols at the annual Christmas concert of the children’s choir they supported.


Photo from Vogue Magazine article on Mrs. Assad that can be read here

“This is how you fight extremism—through art,” Bashar told Buck during the concert. “This is the diversity you want to see in the Middle East.”

The article depicted them as the modern and tolerant Middle East power couple who nurtured and protected minorities like Christians. Bashar also made sure that he repeated to Buck what he often told foreigners: he had studied eye surgery because “it’s very precise… and there is very little blood.”

The article was the idea of one of Asma’s aides at the Trust, a friend from her London days. He approached the New York public relations firm Brown Lloyd James, which already represented several high-profile clients in the Middle East. The firm’s principal, Peter Brown, was friends with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.

Two months after the article came out and as the regime’s crackdown became bloodier, Brown’s firm sent another Asma aide a memorandum with advice on “crisis communications.”

The firm claimed that the US government “wants the leadership in Syria to survive,” despite the strongly worded condemnation of the violence by President Obama in April and the executive order he signed at the end of that month imposing sanctions on Bashar’s brother, Maher, his cousin Atef Najib, and mukhabarat chief Ali Mamlouk. It said that these were warning shots to prod Bashar to stop killing protesters and implement credible reforms. But the firm said the window was closing fast, as US media coverage was intensifying and officials like Senator John Kerry were beginning to reassess their positions.

Brown Lloyd James recommended drastic changes in the way the regime was articulating its reform agenda. The reform program needed “a face or brand,” Bashar must communicate more often with more “finely tuned messaging,” Asma must “get in the game” and do “listening tours,” and a reform “echo chamber” must be developed, especially in foreign media, focusing on Bashar’s desire to conduct reform in “a non-chaotic and rational way.”

Refocusing the perception of outsiders and Syrians on reform will provide political cover to the generally sympathetic US government, and will delegitimize critics at home and abroad,” concluded the firm.

The PR firm was very close to the mark in its portrayal of the prevailing thinking and mood among officials in Western capitals, at least in the first few weeks of protests in Syria.

France’s ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, was one of these officials. Syria was Chevallier’s first posting, in 2009; he was a medical doctor by training and had until then worked mostly in international humanitarian assistance with the French government, as well as various NGOs and UN agencies. He accepted the Syria mission at the urging of his longtime mentor and current boss, foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, also a physician turned politician. The forty-nine-year-old Chevallier combined French charm and boyish good looks with a businesslike, practical approach to diplomacy.

To veteran French diplomats with long experience in the Middle East, Chevallier was the new kid on the block. From their perspective, he was impressionable and too eager to cozy up to Bashar and members of his inner circle, including the Tlasses.

Chevallier was interviewed for Vogue’s March 2011 piece on Asma. “I hope they’ll make the right choices for the country and the region,” he told the writer about Bashar and Asma in December 2010.

While Chevallier appeared to his detractors like an enthusiastic promoter of the Assad couple, he believed he was simply advancing his country’s policies in Syria. France was among the first in the West to bet on rehabilitating the Syrian regime and Bashar, with strong encouragement from Qatar’s superrich ruling family. The Americans, the British, and others started to reengage with Bashar after France had already made overtures, sending Sarkozy to visit Damascus in 2008 and frequently hosting Bashar and Asma in Paris. Some thought that the French had moved too fast, but France believed it had a national-interest stake in trying to steer Bashar in the right direction.

“There were two ways for them to lead the country: stick to his father’s regional alliances and family policies, or try to move forward toward a more open society, stable foreign policy, and being part of the solution in the region instead of being the problem,” argued Chevallier.16 The day after the fall of French ally Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Chevallier sent a cable to Paris from Damascus.

“Could we have a rose revolution in Damascus?” he wrote in the subject line, alluding to the damask rose. Chevallier reported that many Syrians were transfixed by what was happening in Tunisia, but it was too early to predict whether the country was going down a similar path

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