Jacobin attacks Revolutionary Marxism
What is “Democratic Socialism”? How does it differ from Revolutionary Marxism?
Jacobin Takes Off The Gloves — -Doubles Down on Reformism and Class Reductionism
Jacobin has consistently been an organ of “Democratic Socialism”, i.e. reformism with a radical face. It has been the expression of an important wing in DSA which favors class reductionism and thinks revolution is unrealistic and unnecessary. It has favored reform of capitalism through elections while trying to differentIate itself from Social Democracy by seriousness about socialism.
Though this has clearly been its stance, the Winter 2021 issue made this even more blatant. It openly bashed revolutionary politics , pushed electoralism and denounced organizing around “cultural” issues. Jacobin calls for a focus on issues that impact everyone rather than the special demands of the oppressed as well as general demands.
Jacobin may not be officially a line publication. However, the collective product pushes in a definite direction. Though the publisher and other authors may disagree about particular formulations in individual articles, the overall thrust is clear.
This essay will examine each of these themes in this issue. In the end, it will put forward an argument for confronting newly militant reformism — -i.e. militant against revolutionary politics.
Reform NOT Revolution
“ It should be clear that the only feasible political-strategic orientation for US socialists is…Marxist or Left Reformism. While the DSA has soared , political currents that flow from Leninist and Trotskyist traditions are exhausted. They cannot break out of their debilitating marginality because their strategic orientation is fundamentally incompatible with the political and social conditions of advanced welfare-state capitalism and bourgeois democracy. In the U.S. contetxt , they are further constrained by an aversion to electoral action, as well as dogmatic sectarianism regarding the Democratic Party.” Pg 11 “A Left that Matters” Chris Maisano, a contributing editor of Jacobin
There are so many things wrong with this statement that it is difficult to know where to start. First of all it is based on crude empiricism. In 2015 , a commentator could have said “ Democratic Socialism in the U.S. is dead. DSA after years of organizing has never been able to break the 5000 threshold . It is clear that Americans are not interested in socialism”. In 1855 , a commentator could have said “ Both major political parties favor slavery. It is clear that the abolitionism has no political expression and will not break through.” In the early 70s one million U.S. students called themselves revolutionaries. A quarter of all Black youth identified with the Black Panther Party. Thousands of people joined Maoist organizations. Democratic Socialist organizations were tiny in comparison. Examples like this could go on forever. Basing absolute predictions and universal analysis on current popular opinion is fraught with danger and is invalid .
What about the underlying analysis that props up the crude empiricism? The U.S. has been a very volatile bourgeois democracy. It was founded in a revolution. Less than 100 years later another revolution abolished slavery. In the 1930s, millions of workers challenged bourgeois property rights . Only the lack of a strong revolutionary party prevented this upsurge from turning into an actual revolution. Bourgeois democracy generally is not as stable as Maisano implies. In Italy and Germany it turned to Fascism. In France in the late 60s workers began to challenge for power. A similar situation occurred in democratic Chile in the early 70s. In the last two years, there has been a wave of revolts around the world , including in bourgeois democracies.
Further , calling the U.S. an “advanced welfare state capitalism” is quite a stretch. The U.S. has never had as robust a welfare state as Europe . Ironically, Jacobin often bemoans this fact and calls for Democratic Socialism to fix it. Neoliberal austerity has cut into what little the U.S. had. Homelessness is now in the millions. Millions more cannot afford or access health care in the midst of a pandemic. Undocumented people are left out of the meager benefits . Prisons are the largest low income housing program. The economic and Covid crisis will likely cause big upsurges in struggle over precisely these issues.
An adequate case against revolution must be based on far more than its supposed current unpopularity. Principled politics starts with an objective analysis not an opinion poll. The question is “What will it take to bring about socialism ?” Starting instead with what we think people will right now accept is a strategy for continuing to water down our politics. It is the very definition of opportunism
Instead of starting from a principled position, Maisano asks us to conclude that “ the only feasible political strategic orientation for U.S. socialists is…Marxist or left reformism.” Feasible here seems to mean what the public will currently accept. Maisano also misunderstands and actually slanders Marxism. “ Marxist ..reformism” is an oxymoron! As Engels said “ Marx was first of all a revolutionist”.
Volumes have been written on why it will take a revolution( eliminating the capitalist state and creating a democratic workers’ state) to bring about socialism. The two classic arguments are Lenin’s State and Revolution and Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution. The bottom line of Lenin’s argument is that the current state is irredeemably capitalist. It is a machine for enforcing the ruling class’s control of the economy and society. It is fundamentally “special bodies of armed men” used to defend capitalist rule. This capitalist institution cannot be the tool we use to bring about socialism. This is true in bourgeois democracy as well as military dictatorship. Luxemburg argued that the capitalist system cannot be slowly reformed into socialism with unions, co-ops and good legislation. Instead , the working class must seize political power in an insurrection. Marx supported these arguments earlier saying that the working class “cannot take over the ready made state machinery”. Instead it must smash the old state and create a workers’ state.
This analysis has been born out by history. There has never been a reformist transformation of capitalism into socialism. Social Democrats have followed the reformist road for over 100 years to no avail. In the tragic case of Chile in 1973 , the capitalist state overthrew the “socialist” government and slaughtered thousands of workers and exiled more.
Obviously , revolutionary Marxists ally with other workers and fight for reforms under capitalism. The classic united front was developed by the Communist International in the early 1920s following Marx’s earlier application of the same method. We can win reforms by fighting hard against the capitalist class and its state. However, we cannot make the transition to socialism by using that state. — or by tinkering with the capitalist economy. As Marx said “Socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class”.
If this analysis is correct , we need to say so openly. We should not hide the truth in order to win temporary electoral support( if that were even possible}. The road of “left reformism” is either based on a misunderstanding of how socialism can be achieved , or it is based on pure opportunism.
Electoralism and the Democratic Party
This issue has roiled the Left for over a century. In spite of the author’s pronouncement it has certainly not been settled by a long shot. What we know for sure is that all the major advances in U.S. history have come as a result of mass struggle, As Howard Zinn put it:
“ it matters not so much who is sitting in the White House as who is sitting in..”
The state is run in the interests of the ruling class — the top tenth of one percent. They either run it directly or use their economic power to compel it to do its bidding. No matter who is in office, the degree of reform we win is based on our strength of the social and economic struggle against the capitalist state. We win gains by hurting the interests of the rulers through strikes and/or making them fear loss of legitimacy through radical opposition.
This means that electoral strategy must be judged on how it impacts struggle, not how it does in winning elections. We should not advise capitalist candidates on how to get elected. Instead , we should confront whoever is in office with our own demands.
This is especially true of support for the Democratic Party. It is a political expression of the class enemy. It is an agent of the ruling class. It is financed and run by capitalists. To call for no support for this party and its candidates is not “sectarian” as Chris argues. Instead it is a recognition of reality. In contrast, Jacobin has consistently supported Democratic Party campaigns . As Bhaskar Sunkara , the publisher of Jacobin put it in The Socialist Manifesto:
“far from being “just” a modern social democrat. Sanders … is more closely aligned with socialists throughout history than with the liberal reformers he’s had to ally with to pass laws. Sanders gave American socialism a lifeline by returning to its roots: class struggle and a class base.”
The case against socialists trying to use the Democratic Party has been made many times. Here is just one recent article against lesser evilism:
Beyond the issue of the Democratic Party, a major focus on electoralism is a non-starter just in practical terms. It is now 21 months until the next national election, the 2022 midterms. If elections are the focus , what are socialists supposed to do in those 21 months? Those extremely motivated by elections might get involved in midterms a year from now. What are they to do until then? Even in a year , only the most avid will get involved. For most, active campaigns only last a couple months every 2 or 4 years.
In promoting an electoral strategy, Maisano says on page 7
“ Election campaigns –and presidential elections above all are the form of political activity that ordinary Americans engage with the most”
But this is a very low bar. The vast majority of people never “engage with” election campaigns. Even during presidential elections , usually only about half of potential voters go to the polls. In 2020, the best turnout in over 100 years, only about 2/3 of potential voters voted. The voting rosters further exclude millions of U.S. adults — undocumented immigrants, most legal immigrants, prisoners and most felons. For most who vote, that is their only act in relation to the election. They do not campaign, make phone calls , door knock etc.
Given this , Maisano’s statement that “ large-scale class formation will, for the foreseeable future , run largely ( though not exclusively) through electoral politics”( pg 7) is an unsubstantiated wish, not a proven fact.
Socialists have been divided over the relationship between exploitation and special oppression for over 100 years. Most of the early Socialist movement in the U.S. saw racism as just a subset of exploitation. It reduced oppression to exploitation. Eugene Debs, the labor leader and Socialist candidate for President said “ We have nothing special to say to the Negroes. We cannot make separate appeals to all the races.” This position is called class reductionism since it reduces oppression to just an aspect of class exploitation. Debs himself opposed racism in practice in spite of his flawed theory. Some of his SP colleagues however were open racists. Most of the racists were reformists.
The Bolshevik Party in Russia took a very different position. In order to unite the working class they called on all workers to oppose every manifestation of oppression, national, racial , religious, gender etc. As Lenin said socialists need to :
“react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, . . . to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation.”
A recent article in New Politics makes clear why socialists must take up issues of special oppression:
Jacobin has consistently taken a class reductionist position . Dustin Guastella makes this very clear in “ Everyone Hates Democrats”:
“ Instead of the single minded focus on working class issues , they often embrace the liberal culture war..” Pg 120
( note that this assumes that women’s issues, Black issues etc. are not working class issues! This ignores the fact that over half the working class is women. It further ignores the fact that people of color will soon be very close to a majority of the U.S. working class. On top of that, divisions created by racism, sexism, oppression of immigrants. LGBTQ people etc. are key elements in the weakening of the working class as a whole. This argument by a supposed socialist makes socialism less attractive to anyone concerned with issues of oppression}
“ .pairing a popular economic program with alienating rhetoric , chic activist demands , and identity based group appeals only weakens the possibility …” of winning elections
What are these “chic activist demands”? Guastella makes this clear:
“ Representative James Clyburn insisted that the “defund” slogan was a liability for Democrats . Progressives , therefore have made it easy for moderates to attack an appealing left-wing economic program by simply associating it with the most unpopular pillars of the progressive agenda”.pg 122.
This argument ignores the fact that the George Floyd movement was supported by 55% of the population and that 26 million people demonstrated for Black Lives Matter in 2020.
This position is taken to a further extreme by J.C. Pan in “Why the Alt-Right Will Lose”. The whole thesis of this is :
“ Thankfully , almost nobody likes a Nazi, and even fewer still like a Nazi steeped in a creepy online subculture.” Pg.127
Most of the article, obviously written before the MAGA attack on the Capitol on January 6 talks about the supposed declining appeal of the Far Right. It discounts the need to take it on directly and reinforces class reductionism by saying:
“ A preoccupation with subculture is often an indication of a political movement’s marginality…”
Thankfully, not all Jacobin writers in this issue are so dismissive of the Far Right. “ Trumpism After Trump” by Anton Jager and Arthur Borriello argues that Trumpism is not going away. .
There are of course useful analyses in various articles in this issue of Jacobin, even if it reinforces the negative trends of Democratic Socialis
Bad Positions Compliment Each Other
The three major pushes of Jacobin politics — -reformism, electoralism and class reductionism reinforce each other. If electing someone right now is the way to make progressive change, candidates must appeal to what they think are positions currently held by a majority of people. If however, change is made by mass action which can in turn move public opinion, appealing to the lowest common denominator is detrimental.
If Civil Rights activists had waited until a majority of Southerners opposed Jim Crow before organizing, legal segregation would still exist in the South. Who won Civil Rights? Was it the moderate politicians who expressed quiet liberal doubts about racism? — -Or was it the activists? Who won women the right to vote when electoralism was not an option for women? Who pushed the U.S. out of Vietnam, politicians or the mass anti-war movement at home and in the military?
An electoral orientation breeds conservatism. It refuses to stick its neck out lest elections be lost. This conservatism applies to issues of oppression as well. If winning elections right now is the gold standard then don’t run campaigns around “divisive ” issues. Instead, they feel we should focus on issues that “everyone” can agree on.
This leads directly to class reductionism. The assumption is that whites don’t care about issues that specifically affect people of color, or men don’t care about “women’s” issues. This is often false. Of the 26 million BLM protestors in 2020, a large percentage were white. Child care and abortion rights affect the whole family. Even in terms of current popular consciousness, the class reductionists are often too pessimistic.
However, the state of current consciousness misses the point. For revolutionary Marxists , the goal is working class unity to challenge and finally overthrow the system. In the Bolshevik tradition, we understand that “ a people who oppresses another cannot itself be free”( Marx). If we don’t directly challenge racism among white workers, sexism among men etc. , we will never achieve the unity needed to overthrow capitalism.
If the goal is not the “surface modification” of capitalism ( Luxemburg) but its elimination, we have no choice but to take up issues of oppression. These issues need to be advanced even when they are unpopular.
Though Democratic Socialists claim to want socialism, their vision of it is unclear. It often still includes a money and market competition. Instead of complete public ownership and democratic control of the economy, it often includes workers’ coops competing with each other. This is shown by Bhaskar’s appreciation of Bernie Sanders as kind of a Democratic Socialist.
One major weakness is their vision of internationalism. They often endorse candidates such as Sanders and AOC who still support U.S. imperialism. Here is an excellent critique of AOC’s politics:
Besides their vision, their method of achieving “socialism” is very different than Marxism. Their focus is on winning elections which is shown by 17 pages in this issue devoted directly to charts and graphs on election statistics and other articles focused on how Democrats can win elections.
It is clear that revolutionary Marxists and Democratic Socialists have very different visions of socialism and very different strategies and tactics for achieving it. The main opening essay by Chris Maisano makes this clear. It declares open ideological warfare on the revolutionary left, which it argues hard against but also claims is irrelevant.
It seems clear that Democratic Socialists understand that the appeal of revolutionary Marxism will grow even if they don’t want to admit it. They have issued a preemptive strike.
It is time that revolutionary Marxists understand this conflict as well. If the movement for socialism is to succeed it will be by the road of revolution, not that of reform and especially not through the Democratic Party and ignoring the need to fight oppression.
Marxists have a two-fold task: 1) form coalitions with anyone who wants to fight for reforms under capitalism 2) Don’t be shy about our differences with reformists of any stripe. It is not sectarian to point out these differences. Arguing hard for revolutionary strategy is one of our most important contributions to the success of the working class and socialist movement. A basic aspect of this is building revolutionary socialist organization.
We should not follow the Socialist Manifesto , but instead the Communist Manifesto:
“ The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. ..The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the World Unite!”