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Socialism 2019: the Left at a Crossroads

Photograph Source: International Socialist Organization – Public Domain

For a number of years, the International Socialists Organization, once the largest Marxist group in the USA, held educational conferences either in Chicago or in various American cities. In 2004, I attended a plenary session of a regional conference at City College in New York, mostly to hear my old friend Peter Camejo who was the featured speaker alongside Ahmed Shawki, the disgraced former leader whose cover-up of multiple rapes in the ISO led to its dissolution this year. If Peter had lived, I am not sure what he would make of its demise. Although he was a sharp critic of “Leninism”, he had high regard for the ISO, as did the late Sol Dollinger, a member of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union. The Socialist Union was the first attempt to break with sectarianism in the USA but dissolved in 1959 because of unfavorable political conditions not all that different from what we face today.

Those conditions played a large role in the ISO’s demise. If being a Marxist today is like swimming against the current (the aptly named magazine of Solidarity, another left group following in the Socialist Union tradition), the current period has left most socialist groups gasping for air like spawning salmons. The ISO was formed in 1977, just at the point when the Socialist Workers Party, the sect I belonged to, had begun a “colonization of industry” strategy that would eventually reduce its membership by 90 percent. The Maoist groups of the late 60s and early 70s had also begun to sputter out and die, their story recorded in Max Elbaum’s essential “Revolution in the Air”.

If Leninist groups have a shelf life, the 21-year history of the ISO is about par for the course. Except for Kshama Sawant’s Socialist Alternative, there is no self-avowed Leninist group that amounts to anything in 2019. Those that still exist tend to be hermetically sealed sects like the Spartacist League or the Socialist Equality Party that have never sought to have an impact on the mass movement, seeing themselves instead as its high priesthood critics.

It hardly comes as any surprise that sponsorship of the ISO’s Socialism 2019 conference to be held in Chicago from July 4th through 7th has been relinquished to Haymarket, Jacobin, and the Democratic Socialists of America. Haymarket was the publishing arm of the ISO that will soldier on. Jacobin and the DSA, as the emcees put it, need no introduction. With the Jacobin/DSA imprimatur, this might be a larger than usual conference and should at least be devoid of the kind of pep rally atmosphere you’d expect at an ISO event although—who knows—maybe there will be a surprise appearance by Bernie Sanders, the DSA endorsed candidate who has never bothered to encourage his supporters to join the DSA.

If the 1960s vintage Leninist groups had not crashed and burned but managed instead to overcome their small proprietor outlook and coalesced into a broad left organization with tens of thousands of members, the political landscape would look a lot different today. They left nothing behind except a political vacuum. Since both nature and politics hate vacuums, it was inevitable that the DSA would become as massive as it is today. That vacuum and Bernie Sanders’s decision to run for president as a Democrat created the perfect seedbed for a rebirth of social democracy that has taken the country by storm.

A search in Lexis-Nexis for articles on “DSA and socialism” returned 761 items, with the cheekily titled “Pinkos Have More Fun” at the top. Classical Marxism evokes the words of Max Horkheimer that “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.” With such grim prospects, who wouldn’t prefer being a DSA member especially since the NY Magazine article starts off this way:

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.

The roster tonight is heavy on extremely online political-media types. The podcaster and performer Katie Halper tells me she’s a fourth-generation socialist from the Upper West Side who used to attend a summer camp once affiliated with a communist organization called the International Workers Order. The hosts of the leftist podcast Chapo Trap House are not here, but Eli Valley, the gonzo artist who illustrated their book, is, as is Dave Klion, a ubiquitous Twitter pundit recently seen feuding with CNN’s Jake Tapper. Nearby, Sarah Leonard, who, at 30, is a veteran of the lefty-journalism orbit, tells me she’s launching a Marxist-feminist glossy called Lux, named for Rosa Luxemburg.

Gosh, I wonder if there will be any swinging parties at the Socialism 2019 conference. Since I generally hit the sack at 10:30 after drinking some warm milk, I might not be able to make them.

Whatever else, the conference will allow me to take the pulse of the ex-ISOers and DSAers who will likely dominate the panel discussions and account for comments during Q&A. My main interest at this point is in trying to understand the thinking of the young left in 2019 that has accepted the idea that voting for Democrats is a tactic that can help lead to a revolution sometime down the road.

After the ISO voted to dissolve, it opened up the pages of Socialist Worker to the membership. When I read an article by Steve Leigh titled “What Models of Organization Can Guide Us Now?”, I had high hopes that a new, non-sectarian approach might rise phoenix-like from the smoldering ashes:

The ISO did encourage debate, but the debate was hobbled by the drive for unity flowing from the rigid propaganda group model. Members with dissident positions were often seen as bad members and were sometimes pressured out of the organization. This sometimes happened at the direction of the leadership, but often even at the behest of rank-and-file members.

Reading this and other contributions along these lines led me to believe that ex-members might create a network similar to Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century, a group that emerged out of a crisis in the Socialist Workers Party in England over a rape cover-up. They aim to “create a political space where ideas are discussed and acted on. We reject any sectarianism, or any claim that a small number of activists can substitute for a larger movement.” This is something sorely needed in the USA.

While I still hold out the possibility that such a formation may come into existence, there are worrying signs that ex-ISOers are being absorbed into the DSA. Ironically, a membership trained never to go about things in half-measures seems as gung-ho for Bernie Sanders as it once was for Tony Cliff’s state-capitalist theory.

Ex-ISOer Todd Chretien, who was very close to my old friend Peter Camejo, left me staring in amazement when he told FB friends that Bernie Sanders’s Socialism = The New Deal speech was the most important one made by a major political figure since King’s “I have been to the mountain top” in 1968. He also believed that if Peter was alive today, he feel the same way:

I believe that anti-racist, working-class, feminist, internationalist socialists can disagree with Bernie about any number of things (and they shouldn’t be quiet about it), and I respect anyone who remains wary of the U.S. electoral system in general and/or who believes the Democratic Party in specific will get the better of us (as I argued for nearly 30 years). And there are many other ways to fight back without supporting Bernie. But there is something happening here. Hundreds of thousands of new socialists will organize for Bernie over the next year and we should join them. Backing a socialist running in the Democratic primaries can be a slippery slope, but that’s why you wear cleats in the batter’s box.

In 2018, Meagan Day quoted my socialist mentor Peter Camejo at the Great Transition conference in Montreal about how socialist activists must steer clear of the twin dangers of abstentionism and opportunism. Of course, Peter went home to that great commune in the sky before this new movement started so we can’t say for sure, but I can’t imagine him sitting this one out… and, better late than never, I’m not going to either. I hope other comrades join in.

In fact, Peter was very supportive of Bernie Sanders in the early 80s. I, Peter, and another ex-SWPer from San Diego named Alan (can’t recall his last name) used to discuss Sanders at length. Alan was going to write a biography of Sanders but never followed through. When Peter visited Australia in the mid-80s on the invitation of the Trotskyist movement, he was excited over Sanders’s election as mayor of Burlington, as reported by Steve O’Brien in Green Left Weekly:

Camejo described his meeting with Sanders in the Burlington City Hall. Banners were stacked in the corner and posters in solidarity with the Third World and women’s, black and labour struggles decorated the walls.

“It was just like being in an activist centre like this,” he quipped.

The affinity between Peter Camejo and Bernie Sanders was also brought up in a red-baiting article in the May 22nd NY Times:

At a fund-raiser in Berkeley, Calif., for Mr. Sanders’s gubernatorial campaign, Peter Camejo, an activist who would later be Ralph Nader’s running mate in the 2004 presidential race, cited Mr. Sanders’s foreign travel as a key reason to support him, The San Francisco Bay Guardian reported.

“Do you know what it would mean,” Mr. Camejo enthused, “for a governor to go to El Salvador, to go to South Africa?”

At the risk of sounding like a medium channeling the thoughts of a dead man, I doubt that Peter would support Bernie Sanders running as a Democrat. The only time in his political career that he made such a mistake was with Jesse Jackson in 1984. In his “North Star” memoir, Peter recounts how Jackson backed a machine Democrat against Wilson Riles, a leader of the Rainbow Coalition in Oakland:

Jesse Jackson was scheduled to come to Oakland and we thought this could be a real opportunity to gain support for Wilson Riles. To our shock and amazement Jesse Jackson, without talking to Wilson or to the Rainbow Coalition, held a press conference to endorse the mainstream Democrat against Riles. I will never forget the anger it created. Wilson stood up to Jackson and publicly attacked Jackson’s open break with the supposed platform of the Rainbow Coalition. Wilson lost the election in part due to Jesse Jackson’s betrayal. Years later Wilson Riles, Jr., resigned as a Democrat and joined the Green Party.

Some might draw a distinction between Jesse Jackson and Bernie Sanders because Sanders calls himself a socialist, something that Jackson never did as far as I can recall. It is the same kind of distinction DSA’ers draw between Sanders and Elizabeth Warren today, who failed to make the grade because she described herself as a “capitalist”. It is a little hard to decipher what she meant by this since the term describes someone like Jeff Bezos or the Koch brothers, not a former attorney like her. It is clear that she meant that she was an old-fashioned New Deal liberal but does Bernie Sanders’s use of the term socialism have much to do with its traditional use as a term to describe how an economy is organized? Only a few days ago, Bloomberg News reported that “Elizabeth Warren Channels the Real New Deal” so how is that she is so different from Bernie Sanders?

In the speech that captured Todd Chretien’s imagination, Bernie Sanders equated his goals with FDR’s New Deal. Most historians regard the New Deal as a savvy and successful attempt to stave off a socialist revolution in the USA but in the wake of this speech, ex-ISOers have seen it instead as a preparatory step in overturning capitalist property relations in the USA.

In a June 18th Jacobin article, ex-ISOer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor shared Chretien’s enthusiasm over the Sanders speech that she understood as a call for “a complete transformation of the country.” It supposedly identified capitalism as the culprit and democratic socialism as the solution.

There are only two occurrences of the word capitalism in Sanders’s speech, but both are qualified by the word “unfettered”. If being opposed to “unfettered capitalism” is the same thing as calling for an end to capitalism itself, that would make a whole bunch of people as qualified as Sanders to call themselves socialist, including Elizabeth Warren. For example, Rutger Bregman, the Dutch historian who called out Tucker Carlson, has a spotless reputation for opposing “unfettered capitalism” but has made clear that he is no socialist. And what else are Michael Moore’s documentaries about, except a full-throated condemnation of “unfettered capitalism”? I should add that he, like Bernie Sanders, has undying hopes that a new FDR can bring our long nightmare to an end.

Looking into the future, there is little doubt that movements to the left of the DSA will begin to take shape if for no other reason that voting for Democrats is seen as a dead-end. A study conducted by the Democracy Fund  revealed that 2 out of 3 Americans feel a new party is needed even if they can’t agree on its policies. Warts and all, the Green Party has been around for decades now even though it is badly in need of a transfusion. If there is anybody who can give it a shot in the arm, it is Howie Hawkins who is seeking the Green Party nomination for president in 2020. Next to Peter Camejo, Howie was the party’s most principled and class-conscious candidate for major office. His article “Bernie Sanders is no Eugene Debs” is a useful resume of the need for independent political action:

Sanders is confusing people about what socialism is. Socialism is not so much a social theory, a platform of policies or social ownership of the means of production. Socialism is, above all, the movement of the working class for their own freedom and power in a full democracy.

Sanders’ policies are pretty good on working-class economic justice demands and climate action, and not so good on foreign policy and militarism. But his positions on the issues is secondary to the question of whether his politics are helping the working class act for itself or subsume itself under the big business interests in charge of the Democratic Party. By entering the Democratic primaries with the promise of supporting Clinton as the lesser evil to the Republicans, Sanders is not helping the working class to organize, speak and act for itself.

I should mention that Howie’s article appeared in Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the now defunct ISO.  I regret that the newspaper, like the organization that produced it, has come to an end.

Fortunately, you can still find support for independent political action in Left Voice, the magazine of a group of radicals in the USA who have fraternal ties to an Argentine Trotskyist group with significant support in the trade union movement as well as elected officials. Frankly, I have little expectations that any Trotskyist group can achieve a mass base today but that does not stop me from hailing the exceptional analysis in Left Voice, including an article titled “A Socialist Case Against Bernie 2020” by Juan Cruz Ferre, who I had the good fortune to meet a couple of months ago.

Finally, there is the Marxist Center, a network of socialist groups that publish a magazine called Regeneration. The Philly Socialists, a group with 200 members at last count, was a key participant in this new network that has both broken with sectarianism and is attempting to sink roots in the working class, a sine qua non for the kind of revolutionary movement that will be needed to take on both the Trumps and the Bidens of this world.

In a Regeneration editorial titled “Beyond the Vote: Base-Building for Class Independence in Philadelphia”, there is a conscious attempt to break with the illusion that society can be changed through electoral means:

Elections are often seen as the obvious site for political activity because people in the U.S. are conditioned to think of them as the sum total of political engagement, and because they come with a fixed timeline and clear strategies that lead toward an obvious “win.” But the needs of the working-class are broader than the electoral system allows. Movements that focus on electoral campaigns miss the opportunity to build meaningful, long-term, trust-based relationships with large sections of working and marginalized people by focusing only on those who can, and do, vote. They also fail to develop their own independent political structures, leaving them ill-prepared to act without the support of either the State or elected officials.

From now until election day, the mass media will be focused on the Democratic Party primary and then the presidential election as if it were a horse race. Every night on CNN and MSNBC, there will be hosts like Steve Kornacki with his sleeves perpetually rolled up as he ponders the bar graphs indicating the latest poll numbers. There will also be ordinary citizens sitting in rows of threes and fours speaking from the heart about their voting preferences, all of it essentially meaningless. There certainly will be an impact on their lives depending on whether a Democrat or a Republican is elected even if that impact, harder or softer, is part of a downward spiral that will continue until the pain midwives a radical movement just as it did in previous epochs.

For the average person, the idea of confronting the American capitalist class seems like an exercise in futility. Ever since the Russian revolution of 1917, the attempts to build socialism have been fruitless just as Bhaskar Sunkara has pointed out in “The Socialist Manifesto”. There is consolation for some in the hope that electing Bernie Sanders can relieve the pain that an out-of-control “unfettered” capitalism produces. The left has to face up to its historic responsibility in organizing a movement that can overcome capitalist property relations, fettered or unfettered, once and for all. Scientists warn that a Sixth Extinction cannot be prevented unless drastic measures are taken over how resources are utilized. If half-measures could work, there would be no reason to oppose them. The preponderance of evidence points to them as failing as often as full-measures do. If Russia failed, so did the Scandinavian social democracies. With the virtual disappearance of social democracy globally, our options are limited. As Rosa Luxemburg once put it, the choice is between socialism and barbarism but even more starkly posed than ever.

More articles by:

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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