Should the left try to take over the Democratic Party? That question is answered affirmatively in Benjamin Kunkel’s Sweet ’16: Notes on the US Election that appeared in Salvage, a British journal launched by Richard Seymour and other well-known Marxists in July 2015. Meanwhile, Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara and managing editor Nicole Aschoff, a lecturer in sociology at Johns Hopkins, make the case that Only Socialism Can Defeat Trumpism in The Nation, an article that might be more properly titled “Only a Reformed Democratic Party Can Defeat Trumpism”.
Despite the freshness of magazines like Salvage and Jacobin, there is something a bit musty about such advice. When you consider Kunkel’s role as a founder of the very smart and sassy n+1, you have all bases of Young Turk Marxist journals covered. Considering the hoary past of the Democratic Party hostile takeover strategy, you’d think that there would be an aversion to the Earl Browder shuffle from insurgent youth. But then again, Jacobin has always been friendly with Dissent Magazine, a proponent of working in the DP just as much as the CPUSA’s Political Affairs journal.
To some extent, this might have been expected given n+1, Salvage and Jacobin’s infatuation with the Sanders campaign. When Sanders turned out to be much more of a Democratic Party insider than an insurgent, many on the left were reconciled to fall into line behind him since “Trumpism” (whatever that is) was considered such a threat. Speaking with Marxist authority second to none, Adolph Reed wrote a provocatively titled piece Vote for the Lying Neoliberal Warmonger: It’s Important that probably had the effect of allowing the smart, young Marxists to support Hillary Clinton, the candidate of the oldest, continuously functioning capitalist party in the world. Reed was like a rabbi telling a Reform congregation that it was okay to eat shrimp.
I suppose that since Benjamin Kunkel is a month shy of 44, my jibes about young people might seem misplaced but considering my age (a carefully guarded secret) not so much so. It reminds me of what Harry Magdoff told Michael Lebowitz just a few months before his death at the age of 92: “If only I was 80 again, I’d be down in Venezuela in the thick of things with you.”
Kunkel has a BA from Harvard and an MFA from Columbia in creative writing. One can only surmise that learning to write fiction must have been a big help in preparing his Salvage article that begins by lumping together the Sanders campaign with Syriza and Podemos as “populist”. However, this misses a crucial difference between Sanders and the two European parties, namely that they were formed as a conscious break with the Greek and Spanish two-party systems that consisted of centrist capitalist parties and the social democracies trading places once the voters got sick and tired of the incumbents. Once things continued to worsen under a new government, the only recourse was to vote the bums out just like in our own two-party shell game. Syriza, of course, turned out to be no different than the social democracy after taking power and there is some question about Podemos’s resolve. That being said, Sanders never pretended to be anything different than a Democrat as his promise to endorse Hillary Clinton should have made clear from the outset.
I am also a bit skeptical about Kunkel’s assurance that the youthfulness of Sanders voters and their being “nonchalant about race and sexual orientation, laissez-faire about drugs and religion” makes much difference in the long run. In 1984 Ronald Reagan was much more popular with 18-24 year olds than Walter Mondale. This was because the economy was more robust than it is now and because many young people succumb to idiotic campaign commercials just like old people do. On August 2nd, it was reported that 10 percent of Sanders voters were ready to vote for Gary Johnson, just 3 percent less than those who were leaning to Jill Stein. This obviously indicates that youth is no guarantee of wisdom even if they wear tattoos, smoke pot and download Lady Ga Ga into their smart phones.
Kunkel may no longer be listed on the n+1 editorial board but his article resonated with an editorial that appeared in the Spring 2016 issue that I found irksome both for its dabbling in Syrian amen corner politics and its misunderstanding of what the Vietnam antiwar movement was about. Leaving aside the Syrian discussion which is not germane to this article, the n+1 editors lamented that the 60s radicals did not hook up with the Democrats like the Communist Party did in the 1930s. Citing Daniel Schlozman’s “When Movements Anchor Parties”, they faulted the antiwar movement for not “anchoring itself within the party structure” and creating “a lasting alternative coalition”. You can guess what that meant for me—joining the Upper West Side Democrats and stumping for Bella Abzug and Ted Weiss. I confess to making mistakes as an SWP member at the time but if transported back to 1971 in a time machine, the last thing I would have done is ring doorbells for liberal politicians as current n+1 editor Nikil Saval did for Bernie Sanders.
Here’s Kunkel’s formulation of the same game plan but more pessimistically:
What was once called the New Left failed to assemble, in 1968 or after, any similarly effective coalition; its main components – organised labour, the non-unionised non-white poor, and college-bred liberals and leftists like myself – have never coordinated their politics very well, and, even if they had, might have lacked the numbers to dominate and define US politics. Electorally, this reduced the broad American left to the position it still endures as the appendage of a Democratic Party it can neither possess nor abandon.
I am not sure what Kunkel means by the “broad American left” but for those of us trying to assemble a revolutionary organization that has the power to finally break the neck of American capitalism, we have a different agenda. Our interests are not in electing a more capable administrator of capitalist property relations but abolishing them. In a way, I feel odd bringing this up with a self-described Marxist like Kunkel who is young enough to be my son, but it has to be said nonetheless.
Kunkel finally gets down to brass tacks in the concluding paragraphs of his article:
Bernie and Trump have performed the service of revealing the Democratic and the Republican parties to be largely empty vessels, much more readily commandeered by their ideological fringes than anyone supposed. But the empty vessels are not frail barks; these have been the two principle [sic] parties in the US since before the Civil War, and no matter what other developments perturb US politics neither party will readily cede to an upstart. Much easier than to displace either party, if still daunting enough, is to take it over, as Trump has at least temporarily done to the GOP, or to radicalise it from within, as a generation of politicians, activists, donors, foundations, and publications did in shifting the Republicans ever-further to the right.
The idea of similarly remaking the Democrats from the left, as well as attempting from now on to field presidential candidates closer in outlook to Sanders than Clinton, may not seem alluring or plausible after party officials undermined Bernie in the primaries and Clinton courted Republicans to counter Trump. But the party is essentially a shell, with a small permanent organisation in the form of the Democratic National Committee and no formal dues-paying membership in the European style.
The notion of the Democratic Party as a “shell” rather than a membership party in the European style has been around for some time. In the March-April New Left Review (behind a paywall), Susan Watkins wrote about Sanders in the same vein as Kunkel, namely as the American equivalent of Syriza and Podemos. She also concurred with his “shell” analysis:
In European terms, the Democratic Party is not really a party at all, but simply a framework within which candidates can run for office; when there isn’t a Democrat in the White House, it doesn’t even have a national leader. There are no party members, only affiliated voters, who register as such with their states rather than with local party branches, and don’t pay dues, attend meetings or decide policy.
Let’s consider this argument carefully. It amounts to a “left tea party” strategy. We all join the Upper West Side Democratic Club or its nearest equivalent and earn the respect of fellow members to the point when you can become a delegate to a convention or run for office on anti-corporate platform. It has worked for the Republican Party, hasn’t it?
Admittedly, the idea that leftist candidates raising money through small donations on the Internet is seductive. It seemed to have worked for Sanders, didn’t it? What’s missing in this calculation, however, is that Sanders never would have gotten the millions he did if not for a long career as a conventional liberal politician that afforded him face time on MSNBC and a many other TV shows. In other words, he tapped in to the same cash cow as Donald Trump whose TV appearances also had made him a brand name.
For all of the allure of Internet-based campaigning, we should never forget that the bourgeois media has the ability to put the spotlight on candidates who conform to the class interests of the owners. And with respect to the Internet, there is the same sort of class bias at work in electronic media as the Daily Beast’s crusade against Jill Stein might indicate. With Chelsea Clinton on the board of directors that owns the website, it is Goldman-Sachs’s agenda that gets promoted, not “the people’s”.
Ultimately it is not sufficient to decide to run for Congress as a principled leftie committed to revolutionary or even progressive change. You have to spend years and years building up a public image that comes from Rachel Maddow appearances where you go on and on about the “billionaire class” but you can be damned sure that those appearances are only made possible by your status as an elected Democrat. Otherwise setting up a website for Paypal donations would be a waste of time. Also, it may have been possible for Sanders to have built up such political capital in a state like Vermont but Texas or New York? A utopian prospect.
More importantly, if you are serious about getting to the root of our problems, electing a “populist” like Sanders is just putting a Band-Aid on a cancerous tumor. The environmental crisis, the looming epidemics of diseases brought on by that crisis, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the desperation of peoples living in the global South that leads to horrific wars, and a general waste of human potential require a total transformation of economic and social relations. One might have hoped that a Marxist like Benjamin Kunkel understood that.
Turning now to the Aschoff-Sunkara article, it is a variant on the theme I have seen repeatedly over the past 35 years or so when men like Reagan and the Bushes were being elected and most prominently from Thomas Frank who has been banging away at this for most of that time in books like “What’s the Matter with Kansas” and “Listen, Liberal”, his latest. Frank et al are jiminy crickets to the Democratic Party. They say, “If you don’t mend your ways, you’ll be sorry”—being sorry over losing elections obviously. As far as mending their ways, this means returning to the proletarian orientation it once had in the good old days. You know, like Flint, Michigan was once upon a time. Just watch “Roger and Me” and it’ll be obvious. If you don’t provide good union jobs, the workers will vote for people like Donald Trump.
Aschoff and Sunkara put it this way:
The Democratic Party must ponder a tough question: How much of Trump’s support among the white working class can really be chalked up to Republican propaganda and race-baiting, or is a good deal of populist anger rooted in the Democrats’ hypocrisy on economic issues? If the past eight years of Obama recovery haven’t benefited these workers, why would they be enthused to rally beyond his anointed successor?
Why don’t the DP tops get it? The votes are there if you reverse course and take a rock-ribbed social democratic approach:
Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party would do well to take the popular demand for an alternative seriously. Americans—especially young adults and minorities—don’t see Sanders as a dinosaur trading on nostalgia or harking back to an irredeemable past. Instead, they see capitalism as a key source of their troubles.
All this leads to the same conclusion as Kunkel’s:
As with the collapsing social democrats in Europe, the Democratic Party’s best bet is to move left and embrace a platform that speaks to the real needs, fears, and aspirations of working people. This doesn’t mean looking back with rose-colored glasses on the New Deal; it means building a coalition of young people, working-class whites, and minority voters around a new politics.
In other words, become a leftist Democrat. This is really what it means. How else will the Democrats embrace such a platform unless there are smart, young Marxists in the party’s ranks that can be spelling it out the benefits for them? This has been the basis for Dissent Magazine type politics for the past 54 years since its founding by Irving Howe and other former revolutionaries. It is the world of The Nation, Dissent, George Soros philanthropy, AFL-CIO education departments, Democratic Party think-tanks like the Center for American Progress, and countless other high-minded and well-funded nonprofits that will always find a place on staff for an Ivy League graduate who can defend working inside the Democratic Party using Marxist rhetoric.
Despite the professed allegiance to Karl Marx, the real theoretical justification for a Democratic Party takeover strategy would be in the writings of Eduard Bernstein. If you assume that the Democratic Party is the American equivalent of the British Labour Party or the European Social Democracies, it becomes the vehicle for the kind of piecemeal reforms Bernstein advocated.
At the heart of the Kunkel and Aschoff/Sunkara articles is a failure to assess the Democratic Party in class terms, a rather glaring deficiency given their ostensible Marxist provenance. My good friend and fellow North Star editorial board member Mark A. Lause wrote a four-part series on the history of the two-party system that was distinguished by its careful analysis of the class roots of the Democratic Party. It is essential reading for a new generation of radicals who are rightly disgusted with Hillary Clinton and those like Adolph Reed who stump for her. This is from Mark’s final installment in the series:
Following the lead of the AFL-CIO, many African-American organizations, and women’s groups, the “progressive left” rationalizes the same miserably failed doctrines. The Democratic Socialists of America, because “the U.S. electoral system makes third parties difficult to build,” expects “progressive, independent political action will continue to occur in Democratic Party primaries . . . .” Progressive Democrats of America declares that it “was founded in 2004 to transform the Democratic Party and our country.”
By abstracting their values from what they do politically, they can imagine electing Wall Street flunkies as a means of fostering profound social progress because of what the voters have between their ears. In the social and political real world, a candidate who solicits votes based on his advocacy of draconian national security measures will likely promote those measures—regardless of what those who vote for him/her might be telling themselves, but have no means to socially and politically express.
As it happens, there has been a dramatic shift on the part of the DSA. On October 29th, a number of well-known members, including Bhaskar Sunkara, issued a statement that at least has the merit of rejecting Adolph Reed’s marching orders: “Hillary Clinton is a staunch defender of the status quo, and will not be a friend of social movements and the left when in office. We think our time and energy is much better spent on building opposition to her administration now instead of canvassing votes for her.”
Yet, they stop short of calling for a new party of the left:
We reject the realignment strategy that has guided much of the left’s electoral orientation for decades. We do not, however, call for an immediate and total break from voting for or supporting any Democratic candidate. We all fervently supported Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, and recognize that he probably would have been a footnote to the campaign if he tried to run as an independent. Voting for Democratic candidates in specific state and local races can be justified in many circumstances.
In the meantime, Jacobin has called for a meeting on November 21 at 7pm at the Mayday Space in Brooklyn (176 St. Nicholas Avenue) that celebrates the publication of issue 23 that features an article by Seth Ackerman titled “A Blueprint for a New Party”. He and Nicole Aschoff will be the featured speakers.
Although I have my doubts about any strategy based on a “blueprint”, I am holding out hope that the comrades are serious about breaking with the Democratic Party even though I remain a bit skeptical based on the Aschoff/Sunkara Nation article. Hope does spring eternal in the human breast.
As is the case in Europe, social forces are accelerating the drive toward new left parties that open up the possibility of shifting the relationship of forces against capital. No matter the betrayal of Syriza or the vacillations of Podemos, such parties are the almost inevitable consequence of a labor movement that has not been saturated with revolutionary consciousness. Considering the depths of the social crisis that arrived in Russia in 1917 and the widespread confidence in the revolutionary movement, it would be unrealistic to expect anything approaching such proportions now in Europe or the USA. For the Leninist sect, October 1917 exists all the time and everywhere even if its assessment is nothing but wish fulfillment, something Freud regarded as a neurosis. We on the other hand must be grounded in reality rather than faith-based initiatives.
The left squandered an enormous opportunity in the 60s and 70s. With all due respect to Benjamin Kunkel, who is quite advanced in his thinking except on the Democratic Party question, we did need to think in terms of a lasting institutions but not the one he had in mind. If we had a left party today that emerged out the 1960s radicalization that had 50,000 members or so, it would be the ruling class and not us that would have its back against the wall. Comrades, we are entering a period when such a party is in our grasp. Let’s not blow our chances again.