More on Keynesian Jacobins

by Ben Campbell on October 29, 2012

I hope everyone is safe from the hurricane. While it may be poor form to post during a potential natural disaster, I may as well use this downtime in my bunker to clarify a couple things.

My previous posting about Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Frase’s manifesto has been subjected to some criticism on social media, which I welcome. I am new to this project of rebuilding the radical left, so please forgive any initial missteps of mine into the polemical and tendentious style of early Russian Marxism. Sunkara deemed my critique “unworthy of response”, but nonetheless posted a response of sorts directed at unreferenced “critiques from the Left”. I can’t help but think that if Sunkara and his fellow Young Democratic Socialists would engage with left criticism more directly (instead of ironic evasions, dismissals, vague hand-waving, and caricatures), then perhaps a discussion could be held in a more comradely manner. For Sunkara to dismiss my entire critique on the grounds that it is “poorly written” is particularly disappointing, since any renewed Marxist project will need to welcome online debate that is not limited to professional writers. While I admit that last evening’s posting was perhaps overly polemical, I cannot agree with Sunkara’s assertion that polemic is the equivalent of intellectual masturbation (tell that to Marx). In many cases polemic aids in drawing out important political differences, and as a founder of “a magazine of culture and polemic” I imagine Sunkara must recognize that.

I mention my recent conversion to the “radical left” (to the extent that such a milieu exists), to aid in understanding the stance from which I critique Sunkara and Frase’s politics. (1) The historic economic crisis, (2) the overt corporatism of the Obama administration, (3) the ongoing dismantling of European social democracy, and (4) the Occupy movement, all combined to force my conversion from a passive and incoherent left-liberalism to my current interest in reviving a Marxist project. It is therefore particularly disappointing to see major voices of our fledging Marxist renewal supporting politics that are little different from the impotent ActBlue progressivism to which I, and certainly many others, are seeking an alternative. As I posted previously, my experiences with the DSA were quite off-putting.

It appears as though post-2008 material conditions have caused many former liberals, like Chris Hedges and myself, to be driven further left than many of these Marxists. From my observations of Occupy Wall Street, it appears that many disillusioned liberals have become attracted to a rather naive anarchism, and it’s hard to blame them with “Marxism” these days used mainly by Marxoid sects on one hand, and as a rhethorical flourish for Keynesians on the other. The DSA’s Marxism might have made some sense when Mike Harrington debated Peter Camejo in 1976, or during the prolonged End of History narrative, if only as the only game in town (who wants to be a member of a Trotskyist sect?). But Sunkara, Frase and the DSA do not appear to have adjusted their politics in light of the post-2008 economic reality (or for that matter the post-Citizens United political reality). As in the case of the Russian “legal Marxists”, Sunkara’s current invocation of “Marxism” in mainstream publications serves to deradicalize and reinforce the mainstream narrative, by suggesting that even Marxism offers no alternative. Despite Sunkara’s allusion to “democratic horizons”, it certainly reminds me of Lenin’s critique of the legal Marxists:

they take from Marxism all that is acceptable to the liberal bourgeoisie, including the struggle for reforms, the class struggle (without the proletarian dictatorship), the “general” recognition of “socialist ideals” and the substitution of a “new order” for capitalism; they cast aside “only” the living soul of Marxism, “only” its revolutionary content.

This is not about ultra-left posturing. This is the crux of the matter: When Marxists pursue a politics that is indistinguishable from Paul Krugman, why would they expect Marxism to grow? If Sunkara believes that I have missed the point of his manifesto, perhaps he could explain how it is different from the politics of Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, or the Netroots crowd. Far from missing the point, I believe my criticism gets to the heart of the issue – while Sunkara tends to skirt around issues of electoralism, his project ultimately reduces to a project of “more and better Democrats”. In fact, the Sunkara-Frase manifesto is arguably less radical than the “acceptable” left, as it does not even explicitly mention a major program of wealth redistribution. I cannot help but believe that if this type of welfare statism becomes the contemporary face of Marxism, any potential for radicalization will be lost to apathy and anarchism. Regardless of Frase and Sunkara’s insistence that they are forward-looking, these atavistic politics are self-defeating, as they undercut the very radicalization that would be necessary to achieve their goals.

The point of disagreement is not whether to support “non-reformist reforms”. Indeed, Sunkara and Frase are to be commended for not succumbing to an ultra-leftism, or as Ross Wolfe put it, “militant posturing that pretends like revolution is just around the corner”. But Sunkara and Frase’s politics are counterproductive. Rather than combating ultra-leftism, they actually encourage it by providing a Marxist strategy that is thoroughly unappealing to the increasing numbers seeking out an alternative from mainstream politics.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Ross Wolfe October 29, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Regarding questions of tone, I think that the latter-day Left doth protest too much. These complaints are not new, though. Engels occasionally found himself sparring with thin-skinned opponents in debate, as in The Housing Question:

“Mülberger complains of the form and the content of my criticism. As far as the form is concerned, it will be sufficient to reply that at the time I did not even know who had written the articles in question. There can therefore be no question of any personal ‘prejudice’ against their author; against the solution of the housing question put forward in the articles I was certainly in so far ‘prejudiced’ that I was long ago acquainted with it from Proudhon and my opinion on it was firmly fixed.

I am not going to quarrel with friend Mülberger about the ‘tone’ of my criticism. When one has been so long in the movement as I have, one develops a fairly thick skin against attacks, and therefore one easily presumes also the existence of the same in others. In order to compensate Mülberger I shall try this time to bring my ‘tone’ into the right relation to the sensitiveness of his epidermis.

Mülberger complains with particular bitterness that I called him a Proudhonist, and he protests that he is not one. Naturally, I must believe him, but I shall adduce the proof that the articles in question – and I had to do with them alone – contain nothing but undiluted Proudhonism.”

You’re right to stress that while the nostalgia for the welfare state is more than a little unfounded, it is still better than the futile clamoring for revolution in the streets. I just wish that rather than being written off as “unworthy of response” or as having “completely missed the point,” there could be a short response spelling out exactly what it was that you missed or exactly how you missed it. Otherwise it just seems like evasion.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp November 2, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Evasions are a sign he hit the nail on the head. We saw similar behavior from Pauls LeBlanc and D’amato in the Tony Cliff debate, especially after Lars Lih came down on my side on the substantive issues.

You are absolutely right the left does protest about tone too much. Anything to avoid substantive engagement, it seems.


Ross Wolfe November 11, 2012 at 11:50 pm

That’s my suspicion. Ben’s criticism hit home, which is why it wasn’t really addressed head-on.


Ross Wolfe November 11, 2012 at 11:51 pm

I still really wish you could have made that Lenin panel for our Convention this last year! Perhaps this March.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp November 30, 2012 at 11:05 pm

Same here; however, I’ve learned the hard way that Lenin debates just end up being strawmen-fests. All mentions of my arguments at the plenary being a prime example.


Brian S. October 30, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Ben (and Ross) take the wrong starting point for their critique of the Frase & Sunkara proposals when they base it on their “viability” in the current economic conjuncture. First of all “viability” is a variable, dependent upon the relationship of social forces (what the ruling class sees as viable depends upon what the alternatives are); secondly, the starting point for a programme that can mobilise mass support should not be its viability, but its potential efficacy in addressing and answering popular needs. It should be designed as a programme for struggle – in some contexts (eg the post WWII boom) that struggle will be relatively easy; in others it will be more difficult. But in the latter case it may also be more radicalising, since it will raise questions about the validity of a system which cannot or will not respond to the elementary needs of the majority.
The key ingredients of a radical action programme are:
* it should start from where the mass of the population is at, in terms of material and social needs and political consciousness;
it should be oriented to identifiable social forces that have the potential to coalesce into a viable social movement;
it should be grounded in a dialectical approach to programme and movement: a coherent programmatic starting point may be necessary to spark off off a movement, but ultimately the movement must shape and embrace its own programme if it is to acquire real momentum.
Using this as a starting point for looking at the Frase & Sunkara article I would note the following: it has an overly INSTITUTIONAL focus – its demands are essentially institutional (not about WHAT should be delivered, but HOW it should be delivered – ie. via federal programmes: that is an unlikely theme for mass enthusiasm); and its notion of the potential coalition participants is largely institutional (Occupy is the exception; but one has the feeling that “organized labour” movement is there as an institutional rather than a class force; and “Local and State Officials” certainly are. Surely a class orientation would point towards a much wider array of potential participants from community groups – especially the black and Hispanic communities? Frase & Sunkara’s ideas about potential conflicts between the local/state and federal institutional levels are interesting, and may well have some strategic potential in the longer term, but as a starting point they simply look like some personal hobby-horse. Get the movement off the ground and such ideas can be explored; start with such narrow notions and you’re unlikely to end up with anything more than a leftish think tank.


Ben Campbell October 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Thanks for the critique Brian. I think we are in agreement, although perhaps my phrasing could have been improved. The problem with Sunkara-Frase is not that it is unviable given the current social forces. Rather, the issues are (1) that they appear to think it is viable, and (2) given that it is unviable with the current social forces, how does their program help to stir the social forces necessary to enact it? On this second point, their program is counter-productive, because its “institutional focus”, as you say, actually works against the mass mobilization that would be necessary to achieve their program. As I have stated, the mass mobilization of Occupy was largely an expression of frustration and abandonment with the Democratic party and other establishment institutions. Sunkara and Frase want to redirect energies back towards these institutions “without sacrificing [the] uncompromising zeal” of Occupy. IMO, that is impossible, and it is in this sense that their program would “undercut the very radicalization that would be necessary to achieve their goals.”


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