Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 19, 2020

The Big Scary “S” Word

Filed under: DSA,Film,Jacobin,reformism — louisproyect @ 9:44 pm

A half-century ago when our horizons seemed unlimited, Socialist Workers Party members were delighted to see a movie about our party shown at Oberlin College, where our yearly conferences took place. It was directed by party member (or perhaps fellow-traveler) Nick Castle whose Wikipedia page does not even mention the word socialism. Nick’s claim to fame was playing Michael Meyers in the first of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” movies and then becoming a director himself with credits like “The Last Starfighter” and “Dennis the Menace” to his name. I can’t remember anything about the SWP documentary but can at least state that its irrational exuberance reflected our self-importance at the time. Not only did someone with Hollywood credentials want to tell a story about us, we also managed to score a profile in the Sunday Times Magazine section written by Walter and Miriam Schneir. Unfortunately, the Times decided the article wasn’t critical enough and turned it down. The Schneirs took it to The Nation, which was happy to publish it. (Contact me for a copy.)

In the early 70s, the terms socialism and communism were interchangeable even though it led to some confusion when I was selling subscriptions to The Militant door-to-door in Columbia University dormitories. When I asked a student if they would be interested in a socialist newsweekly, they’d always ask if the socialism was like in Sweden or in Cuba.

Today, the term communism has lost its power, mainly because the Cold War is over and because what’s left of it is like a boxer on the ropes. On the other hand, socialism is more popular than ever. A Pew Research Poll a year ago found that 42 percent of Americans have a positive view. Of course, they don’t mean Cuba. They want the USA to be more like Sweden, at least what it was like around the time Nick Castle made his movie about the SWP.

A new film titled “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word” will certainly be embraced by the 42 percent of Americans in the Pew poll and even win over maybe another 9 percent. However, if 51 percent of Americans ever become the kind of socialist featured in Yael Bridge’s documentary, you can be assured that capitalist property relations will continue into the indefinite future. 51 percent having a positive view of communism is a horse of another color (red).

You can get an idea from Bridge’s political orientation by keeping in mind that she produced a documentary based on Robert Reich’s “Saving Capitalism”. The Daily Californian, the student and community newspaper of U. Cal Berkeley, where Reich teaches, had little use for it: “Yet there’s no examination of the shortcomings of the capitalist system at large, no nuance given through critical analysis on issues of privilege or generational poverty. The topic is briefly discussed through personal anecdotal interviews but never unpacked.”

The title of Bridge’s film is probably inspired by John Nichols’s book “The S Word”. For Nichols, socialism does not really mean abolishing capitalist property relations. Nichols is prominent throughout the film and argues throughout that socialism is not about Russia or Cuba. It is about our native-traditions going back hundreds of years. In one of the more interesting passages in the film, we learn that there was not only a socialist commune called the Wisconsin Phalanx in Ripon, Wisconsin in the 1840s, but that its leaders went on to form the Republican Party in 1854, which was of course revolutionary back then. The film does not go into much detail about the Wisconsin Phalanx but suffice it to say that it was a utopian experiment based on Fourier’s concepts. Yes, Farmers lived communally in a Long House, but it is somewhat far-fetched to call this socialism unless you also want to describe the Israeli kibbutz in the same terms. A Guardian review of Nichols’s book was critical of its “big tent” understanding of socialism:

Nichols distorts history by dragooning reformist liberals into his socialist tradition. For example, Tom Paine is posthumously drafted as a socialist hero because he favoured a version of a welfare state and progressive taxation, even though these are compatible with an economy based primarily on private property. Nichols does not mention Paine’s belief in minimal government or his support of an armed citizenry, which are cited today by American libertarians and opponents of gun control.

The film is a virtual who’s who of the Sandernista movement today, with Eric Blanc, Vivek Chibber, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Adaner Usmani, Kshama Sawant, Matt Karp, and Cornel West doing most of the heavy lifting in interviews. Not a single one ever takes up the question of making a revolution.

In one of the more revealing passages, we see Vivek Chibber providing a brief history of class society. He starts off by describing hunting-and-gathering societies that despite their primitive nature were examples of people working together to produce the goods they shared on an egalitarian basis. Next came feudalism that was made possible by the creation of a grain surplus and, thus, the creation of a ruling class made up of knights capable of defending farmers in exchange for a percentage of the food they produce. Finally, there is capitalism that is marked by the separation of the farmers from their means of production (i.e., the Brenner thesis). Once that happens, they have no other recourse except to become wage laborers. What’s missing? Can you guess? Yup. He never gets into the question of what happens after capitalism. Maybe, the director could have gotten him to answer that question. That would have led to an outright repudiation of what Karl Marx meant by socialism, even though he is widely regarded as the ultimate word on socialism. (Except maybe outside of Jacobin and the NYU Sociology Department.) Okay, maybe Marx is relevant but certainly not Lenin, as Chibber attests. In a Jacobin article from 2015, Chibber explains what it means to be an anti-capitalist today. It boils down to saying no to the entire project:

Today, the political stability of the state is a reality that the Left has to acknowledge. What is in crisis right now is the neoliberal model of capitalism, not capitalism itself.

There are only a couple of experts who stray from this neo-Bernsteinian path. One is Eric Foner, who sticks to American history—bless his heart—and stays away from the kind of banal identification between socialism and the welfare state that prevails throughout the film.

The other is Richard Wolff, who has some pithy comments on the New Deal that Bernie Sanders defines as socialism. Wolff refers to how the New Deal improved the lot of workers but that its gains began to evaporate under Reagan, Bush and even Bill Clinton. (Oh, forget that I said “even”.) He asks rhetorically in words like these, “Are we going to try to bring back the New Deal? That wasn’t permanent, was it? The answer is to change the system.” Unfortunately, Wolff does not think that revolutions are going to work, either. His answer is co-operatives. Like many on the squishy left, they have some bizarre ideas about how co-operatives can take root in the U.S. because they are so nice. Once they reach a critical mass, they can diffuse outward and turn the entire nation into an egalitarian model. You can only hold such positions by bracketing out the sordid history of Mondragon.

Apparently, Jacobin and the people behind the film are going to use it to educate people about their Swedish fantasies. The press notes state:

We have already received many requests for community screenings and partnerships with local organizations. Such screenings could be a major component of our distribution and marketing strategy. We are partnering with Jacobin magazine to create a robust curriculum around the film, including readings, timelines, and discussion questions to engage viewers watching in the classroom or in small groups. Community screenings, virtual or in- person are a great way to bring engaging speakers from the movie and local socialists and historians to underscore the relevance of this historical movement to the lives of all Americans disillusioned with politics.

I hate to break it to these people but the shelf-life on this documentary is pretty much exhausted. Just as Nick Castle’s film celebrated a sectarian vision of how a revolutionary party could transform the U.S., so does Yael Bridge’s sell an equally bogus proposition based on Kautsky and Michael Harrington. Even though the film has brief references to the pandemic and BLM, there’s not the slightest interest in addressing the current crisis that has left the Sandernista left looking clueless. The film spends an inordinate amount of time following Lee Carter around. Running as a “socialist” on the Democratic Party ballot in Virginia to win a seat in the state legislature, Carter comes across as a sincere and dedicated public servant. However, the notion that electing people like Lee Carter will eventually lead to the abolition of capitalism is utterly nonsensical even if it conforms to Vivek Chibber’s anti-revolutionary guidelines.

DIGITAL SCREENING – OFFICIAL SELECTION OF AFI FEST from Monday, October 19 through Thursday, October 22


  1. The film was the 1976 “petitioning film”, which showed the heavy (both financial and in human resources) the SWP spent in it’s failed attempt to get on the ballot in California…something the infamous “Brown-Burton” Demorcatic Party machine was simply never going to allow to happen. The film was not so much, as I remember “about the SWP” but the petitioning effort, especially in the LA area. The film showed both the successes *and the failures* with comrades attempting to get people to sign the petition in the hot sweltering sun of SoCal. In this sense the film was “balanced”.

    Comment by David Walters — October 19, 2020 @ 11:42 pm

  2. <>

    Sounds like a pretty good start on a socialist economy transitioning from a capitalist society within a socialism itself in the process of converting itself.–Misstatement–“from a capitalist society within a socialist society itself in the process of being converted by ourselves into a communist commonwealth.”

    Lemme see:

    “welfare state and progressive taxation”-These are demands that any self-respecting Marxist, Marxian, socialist and/or anarchist outgh applaud and fight for;

    “Minimal govt”-dissolution of the armed forces; phased disbandment of cops, judges and attorneys, prison guards, clerical staff. managers and, above all—Misstatement: “below all”–the capitalists of the military-industrial-penal system; abolition of the Federal Reserve, etc.; Condemning to ‘buggy whip’ status insurance and real estate agents. Bankers, Wall Streeters, pitch men, politicians, con men Washington ‘insiders’ and lobbyists; in short, all the snake oil-sales-(and I do mean “Woe”)(WO)men who peddle their wares, if only, figuratively from the back of a horse-drawn schooner. Etc. Etc. Etc. Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep.

    “Armed Citizenry”-until racists, armed soldiers and policemen, and/or their hired mercenary thugs, we need arm, remain armed, well-instructed and trained by ourselves.

    In sum:

    “In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?…The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only…2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm

    No matter what the state (stage) of our struggle, we must participate, we must do something. Bunchy Carter, RIP (Jan, 1969), BPP, said “Do something. Do something, Niggah, if you just spit.” At all stations, at all times, in whatever capacity, we must join in working people’s uprisings, if only by a spit, while differing from our comrades-to-be only by this:

    In all stages, at all times, in all the multitudes of the arenas of class struggle, while struggling alongside our fellows, we bring to the fore the property question. We must need show the relationship between the problem and the economic ‘system’ that is capitalism.


    Comment by John A Imani — October 20, 2020 @ 5:00 am

  3. The opening quote from the article was elided while posting, I assume because it was in brackets (<>). But from the article:

    “Tom Paine is posthumously drafted as a socialist hero because he favoured a version of a welfare state and progressive taxation, even though these are compatible with an economy based primarily on private property. Nichols does not mention Paine’s belief in minimal government or his support of an armed citizenry, which are cited today by American libertarians and opponents of gun control.”

    Comment by John A Imani — October 20, 2020 @ 5:04 am

  4. Good review. The continuity between left republicans interested in social issues at the time of the US and French revolutions (1770s to 1800s) is also an issue in French history. It runs through Babeuf, Buonarotti, the Carbonari and later conspiratorial movements before merging with “socialist” communalism and the socialism of engineers and planners, in the late 1820s.

    Comment by John Barzman — October 20, 2020 @ 6:52 am

  5. Not to dampen your forever war on Vivek Chibber, who seems to have seriously annoyed you at a conference a few words back, but you are attacking him for Erik Olin Wright’s words:

    Comment by Jim Holstun — October 22, 2020 @ 12:49 am

  6. Thanks for reminding me. I changed it yesterday on FB but forgot to fix it here.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 22, 2020 @ 1:26 am

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