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.