A Socialist Party in Our Time?

Photograph Source: David Shankbone – CC BY 3.0

Nearly two years ago, Eric Blanc wrote an article for Jacobin that justified socialists running on the Democratic Party primary ballot as a “dirty break” from the two-party system. Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party, to which Jacobin pays lip-service, instead supported a “clean break”, as did the Communist Party until Stalin ordered it to back FDR. Ultimately, the idea of a “dirty break” (or its close relative, an “inside-outside” orientation to the Democratic Party) has little to do with Marxism. It is instead old-fashioned pragmatism that has led liberals to support the Democratic Party for generations. When I was young, it was what led SDS to raise the slogan “Part of the Way with LBJ.” After I voted for him in 1964 and faced the draft not much later, I “parted ways” with the Democratic Party.

In the trail blazed by Eric Blanc, other articles have followed suit in Jacobin along the same lines. Blanc is associated with the Bread and Roses caucus of DSA that stresses its rock-ribbed adherence to Marxist principles in The Call. This website that is unsurpassed in terms of its ability to make pro-Democratic Party tactics sound like a daring initiative. Many of the caucus members are either graduate students or young professors skilled in the art of casuistry. In an article on the DSA for the New Republic, Doug Henwood referred to the reputation Bread and Roses has with other DSA’ers. “The strong presence on the NPC [National Political Committee] and the affiliation with Jacobin, the most influential publication on the American socialist left these days, gets people to talking about a sect with its own propaganda arm plotting to control the organization.”

Blanc is (or was) a Ph.D. student in the NYU Sociology department, one of the few in the country where an aspiring Marxist can get the credentials needed to land a position in a tight job market. Among the highest profile professors in the department is one Vivek Chibber, who is the editor of Catalyst Magazine, an offspring of Sunkara’s Jacobin. Chibber is best-known for his strident defense of Political Marxism, a school around UCLA Professor Emeritus Robert Brenner. The PM’ers believe that capitalism began in the British countryside almost accidentally and that it had nothing to do with colonialism or slavery.

For reasons that remain obscure, Chibber fired Brenner from his position as co-editor of Catalyst last year. Sunkara backed Chibber to the hilt, as might be expected given his status as one of the NYU professor’s proteges. He touchingly acknowledged Chibber in “The Socialist Manifesto”: “I’d be remiss if I failed to mention how much I’ve learned from New York University professor Vivek Chibber over the years. If he’s a great chef, I’m doing to his recipes what Chef Boyardee did to pasta. I happen to like SpaghettiOs. I hope you do too.”

Until now, Catalyst has not published an article defending the “dirty break”, “inside-outside” tactic. In the latest issue, however, you can read a gargantuan article (14,258 words) titled “A Socialist Party in Our Time?” that is behind a paywall. One imagines (ahem) that getting a copy will not be that difficult in an age when information yearns to be free.

The co-authors are graduate students, Jared Abbott at Harvard and Dustin Guastella at Rutgers. Both are also DSA members and—I’ll bet—Bread and Roses members. They start by offering a socialist version of the Goldilocks story. On the American left, there are three beds. One is “movementist”, preferring demonstrations to electoral politics. But it is too “narrow” a bed since it cannot translate its street actions into policy. The other bed is also too narrow since it belongs to the “sectarian” left that stubbornly avoids all contact with the Democratic Party and sees the fight for socialism only possible by joining up with one of their Leninist groupuscules.

Abbot and Guastella invite us to snuggle up into the only bed that is the right size for any sensible person. It is “like the mass parties of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: an organization that competes for elections, mobilizes a mass base, and has a democratic internal structure.” This describes the socialist parties of the early 20th century and the Communist Parties later on. Since the DSA is too small to effectuate a “clean break” for such a party, it instead has to be tactically clever and oh-so dirty.

It can build a “party-surrogate” that is independent of the Democrats but exploits the Democratic Party ballot line to make inroads politically. What bed is right for a Green Party supporter like me? After all, I am no “movementist” or “sectarian”. I am loyal to the party that soldiers on despite being plagued by structural problems created by “Demogreens” like David Cobb. And what about the millions of working-class people who have become fed up with the Democratic Party, even to the point of being unmoved by Bernie Sanders? What bed is right for them?

At the risk of undermining their case, Abbott and Guastella document how the Democratic Party prevents it from becoming the socialist party they favor. Unlike parliamentary systems elsewhere, the odds are stacked against the formation of such a party as was the intention of Washington, Jefferson and the other landed gentry. A “presidentialist” system such as ours creates a dynamic in which a presidential candidate tries to be all things to all people—a popularity contest that even allowed FDR to win the 1932 election with a platform having little to do with the New Deal.

All this pales in comparison to the number one problem: money’s domination. Despite Sanders’s ability to raise millions from small donations, “the proportion of campaign finance coming from the superrich has increased dramatically over the past three decades, and since access to campaign finance plays a critical role in determining a candidate’s viability, the declining proportion of campaign finance available to candidates not supported by the superrich makes their capacity to win elections increasingly slim.”

After reviewing the obstacles to turning the Democratic Party into a socialist party, or even one conforming to Bernie Sanders’s vision of an updated version of FDR’s New Deal, Abbot and Guastella lay out a party-surrogate strategy. This strategy rests on the class analysis of the late Eric Olin Wright, whose Marxist sociology had a great impact on young scholars like the authors. In my view, Wright was much more capable of making sense out of class formation than he was at offering political solutions that might finally put an end to class oppression. Back in 2007, Wright generously engaged in a debate with me over his “Envisioning Real Utopias”, a book that saw the compass as a metaphor for socialist strategy. It could identify the general direction of the class struggle but little else. As a professional sociologist, Wright sought to identify “ideal-types”, a category having more in common with Max Weber than Karl Marx. As much as I admired his work, I was appalled by his inclusion of the Israeli kibbutzim within the ideal-type of socialism.

Wright’s value to Abbot and Guastella lies in his ability to draw distinctions between the Professional Middle Class (PMC) and the working-class. The PMC has done well in the past few decades. It benefited from globalization and its employment in high-tech and finance that have withstood the pains of neoliberalism. It is this class that the Democrats have oriented to rather than the working-class that, if not avid Trump supporters, was alienated enough by the Clinton campaign in 2016 to stay at home on election day.

After decades of economic decline, the working-class has finally begun to assert itself through high-profile strikes. First was those mounted by public school teachers in Red States. Recently we had the UAW strike that, while failing to make an impact on the two-tier wage system, at least gave workers a feeling that they had social and economic power. Abbot and Guastella see Bernie Sanders as the benefactor of these trends: “Additionally, the involvement of important sectors of organized labor in Sanders’s 2016 Democratic primary campaign suggests that more unions are willing to take a risk on outsider candidates, provided those candidates have a viable path to power and a working-class political program. Specifically, seven national labor unions representing approximately 1.25 million workers (just under 9 percent of all organized workers in the United States) backed Sanders, as did more than seventy union locals within national unions that did not endorse Sanders.”

Given the willingness of workers to engage in militant strikes for the first time in decades and the respect paid to Bernie Sanders, conditions are now ripe for creating a party-surrogate. To make this embryonic form of a socialist party happen, the DSA must roll up its sleeves and get started. If the DSA concentrated its electoral resources in key areas, developed a pro-working class program, and drew upon a large number of candidates from within its activist base, it could provide the initial scaffolding for a mass party-surrogate.

The final 3,000 words of the article boil are nothing less than the current electoral strategy of the Jacobin/DSA. Whether all these words were necessary to make sure that everybody remained on board with “democratic socialist” orthodoxy is open to question. Since the driving ideological impetus behind the article is pragmatism, everything hinges on getting results. Like many of the thousands of articles written about electoral politics in the past few decades, the authors are consumed with the question of electability. For example, they write that a surrogate must find a way to convince strong candidates that it represents a credible path to electoral success while assuring voters that it “can be competitive and perform well in office.” Be competitive and perform well in office? Was that Eugene V. Debs’s ambition?

With all due respect to Eugene V. Debs, it took the Russian Revolution to help socialist-minded people to put elections into perspective. Unlike the German social democracy, Lenin only saw elections as a way to spread socialist ideas. Given the mystification of bourgeois democracy promoted by the Cadets, Czarist Russia’s version of the Democratic Party, Lenin saw Bolshevik election campaigns as a way of educating workers about the need to break with both wings of the ruling class. The Black Hundreds were the MAGA faction of their day, just as the Cadets were Clinton-style Democrats. They were probably more hostile to the idea of a socialist revolution than they were of Czarist misrule.

What we have seen so far of the Sanders campaign of 2016 and 2020 leaves little doubt that he is nothing more than a liberal politician who uses the word “socialist” a lot. The enemy is the “billionaire class”, not the private ownership of the means of production. All of the changes he advocates would make the USA much more like Norway, but given the declining rate of profit globally, it is difficult to see how that would take place. Without some violent attack on the working class, either domestically or abroad, there is no possibility of a new round of capital accumulation. After all, it was WWII that made the USA a place for which Sanders and Michael Moore remain nostalgic, not the WPA.

In this epoch, when extinction and nuclear war loom large, the electoral pettifoggery of the Abbott and Guastella article is a sad commentary on the inability of the educated and largely academic base of Jacobin and Catalyst authors to rise to the occasion. The idea of spending the next twenty-five years of creating a party-surrogate through electoral “dirty breaks” while flooded coastal cities create tens of millions of refugees and insects become extinct, shows misplaced priorities.

There is one point I agree with. There is a need for something like “the mass parties of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: an organization that competes for elections, mobilizes a mass base, and has a democratic internal structure” with just a couple of changes. I worry less about competing for elections than I do about the need for using them to challenge the capitalist system. Peter Camejo ran for governor in California three times, the last run in 2006 just two years before his death. His highest vote total was 5.3% in 2002. Even if he didn’t get elected, his speeches did a lot to wake Californians up to the terrible future that laid in store for them as a result of climate change.

In 2004, Peter was Ralph Nader’s VP candidate. In the face of vicious attacks by Democratic Party lawyers on their right to be on the ballot, Peter wrote:

The Democrats are on an all-out effort to attack the Nader/Camejo campaign because if voters begin to vote for what they want the entire electoral system will unravel. If twenty million citizens voted for Nader it would be the beginning of the end of the two-party system. The Democrats would enter into a crisis, the ability of money to control people would begin to crack and the possibility of a democracy where citizens could vote for what they believe would be born.

The Democrats are determined, not to beat Bush but to stop Nader, to protect the two-party pro-corporate rule that America lives under.

I would expect the nucleus of a socialist party in the USA to take such as stance so different from the weak tea of the party-surrogate. Accepted universally by Jacobin, Catalyst and the Bread and Roses caucus, it amounts to prescribing aspirin for cancer.

Back in August of 2018, when the Bread and Roses caucus launched The Call, it announced that “We don’t take any writer as gospel. But we believe that as socialists and Marxists we are carrying on a proud tradition. In the course of almost two centuries of struggle, organizers and writers have been able to capture certain enduring truths about politics.” As proof of that, they posted an article written by Peter Camejo titled “Liberalism, Ultra-leftism, or Mass Action” that I heard him deliver on multiple occasions when we worked closely together in the Boston branch of the SWP.

In the speech, Peter defends the electoral strategy of the SWP that we all understood as an adaptation of Bolshevik policies to the USA:

In our election campaigns we’ve got to emphasize that it’s not the individual candidate that is decisive but his or her party and which social layer the party serves. That is the real question: which social layer, which class, rules? And the Socialist Workers Party campaigns will be saying clearly, “Don’t vote for the parties of war! We in the SWP, our program — not the Democrats’ — represents the interests of the masses of people.”

The SWP was one of the narrow-bed sectarian groups Abbott and Guastella referred to at the beginning of their article. As someone who supported and learned from Peter after he broke with such sectarianism, we had hopes that a new radicalization could retain the militancy of the SWP but upon a much broader framework. As the capitalist crisis of the 21st century deepens, there will be an urgent need for such a socialist party. I have no doubts that Abbott and Guastella sincerely wish that one might evolve. I only hope that that they make a clean break with dirty break politics for the sake of the revolution we so desperately need.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.