Saturday, March 31, 2018

Willful blindness on sexual abuse

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Female farm workers demonstrating against sexual abuse

by Frank Brenner

The following post is a continuation of a previous one, “Some thoughts on Weinstein”. This one is a critique of the positions of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) and its leader David North. There is a third part to follow which will discuss due process and consent, among other issues related to #MeToo.

By now we've had #MeToo and the backlash against it and some backlash against the backlash. For me the essential problem with #MeToo is that it has created a climate where there's no distinction between being a prick and a predator. A clumsy come-on or even an inadvertent gesture can now lead to accusations of assault, which can have devastating consequences for the accused. It can also end up demonizing half the human race. As I'll get to in a later installment, though, there is a lot of complexity lurking behind these simple, sensible statements. The messiness of the debate over #MeToo ultimately comes out of the messiness of human sexuality, compounded by the constraints of a fundamentally inhuman society.

But before that it's necessary to draw a distinction between criticism of #MeToo that is legitimate and criticism that isn't. In the latter category I would put criticism that serves to downplay or marginalize the social scourge of sexual abuse. And that's precisely what it seems to me the WSWS is guilty of. They have little or nothing to say about sexual abuse (including as it applies to working class women) but they have a lot to say in defense of powerful or prominent men who've been accused of such abuse. If you read the WSWS, every revelation that has come out of #MeToo is false, reactionary, a witch-hunt. But that is nonsense. The exposure of powerful figures like Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Bill O'Reilly and Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn as sexual predators makes the world a better place for women, albeit only slightly so. Actually, David North bridles at the term 'predator', which he denounces as a modern-day version of the Puritans' Scarlet Letter. Does that mean it shouldn't apply to Weinstein or Moore or O'Reilly? Or Bill Cosby … or Donald Trump? It's true that some of the accusations that have come out of #MeToo are probably false or exaggerated, but that doesn't warrant a blanket dismissal of all accusations. When someone is falsely accused of murder, that is a travesty of justice, but it is even more of a travesty to ignore the murder itself. If you read the WSWS on this issue, the latter is just the sort of travesty they commit.

A few facts: The Center for Disease Control finds that 1 in 5 women (compared to 1 in 71 men) will experience rape or attempted rape at least once in their lifetimes. In 2015 there were 90,000 rapes reported to police, but as is widely known, rape is a greatly under-reported crime. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which tries to measure incidents which went unreported, estimated that in the same year the real figure was over 400,000. These are appalling figures, and even if we reduce them by as much as half to account for any murkiness in the definition of rape, that would make it 1 in 10 women who will experience rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives, and those are still appalling figures. It doesn't mean that women live in a permanent state of fear, but it does mean that for a great many women, probably most, there is always a worry at the back of their minds. And you see evidence of that in everyday situations. As for instance: is there a woman anywhere who doesn't think twice about walking down a street alone at night?

This social reality is a blank page on the WSWS. The website has no section concerning sexual harassment or assault or indeed anything relating to the rights of women, and to the extent that these issues are ever raised, they are only done so in passing. You never see any programmatic demands or meetings or campaigns where these issues are highlighted.

A case in point is the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal. The WSWS didn't devote a single article to this story. It is, according to Wikipedia, “one of the biggest sexual abuse scandals in sports history.” It involved, at last count, 265 girls and young women who were molested by Nassar, who worked as the chief team doctor for USA Gymnastics as well as for Michigan State University. Nassar was tied in to a network of gym owners, coaches and staff involved in the abuse of female athletes, mostly children, that went on for two decades. You would think that anyone concerned about the rights of women – to say nothing of a supposedly Marxist publication (and, one might add, a publication based in Michigan where this story played out) – would want to cover this story in some depth, examine how perpetrators like Nassar were allowed to operate for so long, how authorities ignored or covered up his crimes, and what this says about the whole culture of high performance athletics and especially the exploitability (sexually, commercially and for national prestige) of young female bodies. The WSWS looked at none of this. The one mention of the story is a paragraph in an article on the winter Olympics in Korea.

The WSWS does have plenty of sympathy, but typically for the alleged perpetrators, figures like Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey and conductor James Levine, among others. Some of this is understandable: there is indeed an element of tragedy in the downfall of these talented men. But surely that has to be balanced by some sympathy for their alleged victims. If the accusations were patently false that would be one thing, but that isn't the case with these men: there are multiple accusers who recount similar stories, and each of these men had an 'everybody knew' reputation. Whether any of these accusations ever stand up in court is another matter (which I'll get to later) but legal justice isn't always – and shouldn't necessarily be – the final arbiter in such matters. Does anyone seriously believe that Nicole Simpson wasn't murdered by her husband?

Kevin Spacey is a good example here. The WSWS was quick to come to his defense and denounce the accusations against him as a witch-hunt. Their reaction to the initial accuser, a young actor, was to try to discredit him: “On Sunday, actor Anthony Rapp, for reasons best known to himself, accused Spacey of making sexual advances to him some thirty years ago when was 14 and Spacey was 26.” For reasons best known to himself?? Rapp may or may not be telling the truth but the fact that he waited a long time to make the accusation is anything but unusual. If the WSWS paid any attention to this issue, they would know that it is  common for victims of sexual abuse to stay silent for long periods of time, especially if the experience was traumatic (which is likely the case if you're 14) and/or they feel their stories won't be believed.

Since that initial accusation, 15 more people have come forward to accuse Spacey of assaulting them sexually (groping seems to be a common complaint, though there is at least one accusation of attempted rape). This includes eight people who worked with him on the tv series House of Cards. It also includes another person who claims to have had a sexual relationship with Spacey when he was 14 and Spacey was 24. In addition, there are 20 people associated with the Old Vic theater company who signed statements alleging sexual misconduct by Spacey during his 11 years as artistic director, with three of these people having contacted police. These are a lot of accusations over a long stretch of time, and involving different groups Spacey was associated with, which at least gives the accusations plausibility. And yet so far as I can tell these further accusations have gone unreported on the WSWS.

Which isn't to say that it's wrong to be sympathetic to Spacey. His erasure from the Ridley Scott movie All the Money in the World is chilling and brings to mind victimizations in witch-hunts like McCarthyism. But the analogy between #MeToo and McCarthyism (made repeatedly on the WSWS) is a superficial one. Scott reshot Spacey's scenes in the film (replacing him with Christopher Plummer) for  mercenary reasons – because he didn't want the scandal surrounding Spacey to sink the film and jeopardize the investments of his producers. There wasn't anything directly political about Scott's action, as reprehensible as it was; indeed, this kind of cold-blooded financial calculation is standard practice in Hollywood. In the case of McCarthyism, the witch-hunt was totally political, the purpose being to purge left-wing activists and left-wing culture from the US political scene. Those activists had abused no one; on the contrary, what they were being victimized for was something admirable, their resistance to an oppressive social system. There is nothing admirable about what Spacey is alleged to have done, and even if the accusations against him are only partly true, he bears responsibility for what's befallen him, and his victims deserve more sympathy than he does.

Demonstration in support of the Hollywood Ten victims of McCarthyism

Nor is #MeToo as a movement comparable to McCarthyism. It is true that at times there has been a lynch-mob atmosphere on social media connected to #MeToo, but that is hardly unique to #MeToo. On the contrary, it seems an endemic feature (at least in our times) of platforms like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook, which all too often become a breeding ground for trolling and social aggression. It's also true that in the welter of voices that have become associated with #MeToo, there are establishment celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and strident purveyors of identity politics, whose political agendas go from cynical to sinister. But much of this is what you would expect from an upsurge of spontaneous outrage over sexual abuse and decades of frustration over the failure to do much about it by official society, an upsurge that is inevitably going to be very confused given the absence of a broad-based radicalization in the working class. When it came to McCarthyism, there wasn't anything grassroots (or confused) about it, it was a full-throated political witch-hunt by powerful elites in the government and mass media. (The WSWS tries to make out that #MeToo is a conspiracy concocted by the New York Times and the Democrats, but they offer no evidence to back this up. Given their willful blindness to the scope of sexual abuse, it makes sense from their point of view to explain away #MeToo as a conspiracy, but this says more about North and company than it does about #MeToo.)

If we look deeper at the WSWS coverage of #MeToo, two aspects emerge about their attitude to sexual abuse: first that it isn't really about sex and second that it isn't such a big problem.

The first aspect is evident in their initial article on Weinstein: “The real key to Weinstein’s behavior, assuming the accusations to be true, is wealth. The scandal is not about Weinstein personally and his psychological make-up. His is a widespread form of abuse. The common denominator is that the abuse is carried out by those with money and power. It is not about over-active hormones, but a brutal expression of the type of pressure placed upon people: if you want to keep your job, this is what you must do …The right of certain people to act like this, and get away with it, is bestowed upon them by money.”

The claim here is that the Weinstein scandal isn't about sex but about “money and power.” Why should this be either/or? Why can't it be about money and power AND ALSO about sex? After all Weinstein isn't a Bernie Madoff or some crooked congressman. Take away the sex in Weinstein’s case and there is no scandal at all.

There is also the claim that what Weinstein allegedly did “is a widespread form of abuse”. Just how widespread we are told in a later paragraph: “But this sort of extortion of sexual favors is not simply part of Hollywood, it’s part of the American business and corporate culture as a whole, part of the brutality of social relations in the US. How would the New York Times or any major enterprise hold up under scrutiny? Sexual assault or coercion is vastly under-reported in factories (where today union officials have joined supervisors as the guilty parties) and other work places, in the US armed forces, in the vast gulag of local, state and federal jails and prisons, among low-paid and immigrant workers and in all the countless situations in America where the weak find themselves at the mercy of the powerful.”

This is pretty unequivocal: sexual abuse is rampant in America. And it is “vastly under-reported” – including by the WSWS itself, one might add!

But there is also something askew about this analysis. It paints a simplistic picture of abuse as being committed solely by the powerful against the weak. While this is a major part of the story, it leaves out the sad reality that abuse crosses class lines and that, for example in domestic abuse, it is often the weak abusing the weak, which is to say, working class men abusing their wives. (Or similarly the powerful abusing the powerful in the case of wealthy couples, and let's not leave the middle class out of this either.) And this is true not only of domestic abuse. When a woman or a girl is harassed while walking down a street, it's isn't always – or even most often – by someone in a three-piece suit driving a Mercedes.
But a less simplistic picture would make it difficult to write off sexual abuse as being just a manifestation of “money and power”. It would force us to consider that sexual relationships are themselves political, which is to say (not always but all too often) relationships of exploitation and oppression. It would also force us to have some theoretical framework for understanding human sexuality. But this sort of analysis is something the WSWS does NOT want to consider. Names like Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Walter Benjamin, Marcuse, Lacan, Jameson, Žižek play no role in its theoretical work. Indeed, any mention of such ideas is anathema to North and his acolytes, who consider them a subjectivist deviation from their rigidly mechanical conception of Marxism. Sexual relationships are never neat and it is absurd to imagine they are containable by crude categories like “money and power.” An atrophied version of Marxism that is suspicious of any theoretical innovation past 1940 and dismissive of subjective realities like emotions and mass psychology is going to have nothing fruitful to say about sexuality. Instead it's going to try to change the channel, as it were, whenever possible.
So not surprisingly a few weeks later we find the same writer, David Walsh, the WSWS point man on the Weinstein story, presenting a markedly different picture of sexual abuse. “The sexual misconduct campaign is dishonest in so many ways. There is the ludicrous pretense, for example, that Hollywood or the entertainment industry generally is the measure of sexual and workplace relations in America. In the 2014 General Social Survey, a random sample of Americans was asked, 'In the last 12 months, were you sexually harassed by anyone while you were on the job?' In response, 3.6 percent of women said yes, a decrease from 6.1 percent in 2002. Not a conclusive statistic by any means, but not an indication of the 'state of siege' described by the various columnists and pundits.”
Gone is the panorama of rampant sexual abuse in factories, prisons, the armed forces, among immigrants etc. Instead it's just a problem amplified out of all proportion by a privileged few in Hollywood who presume to think of themselves as “the measure of sexual and workplace relations in America.” And then we get a statistic thrown in that Walsh admits isn't conclusive and is based on a random study. But it's conclusive enough for Walsh to dismiss 'state of siege' talk as exaggerated. And of course, a phrase like 'state of siege' is hyperbole. But what is ALSO being dismissed is the widespread nature of sexual abuse that Walsh himself was insisting on only a few weeks earlier. That isn't hyperbole; on the contrary, it's a reality afflicting a great many women in factories, offices, retail, restaurants, farms – in other words, working class women. The British union federation, the TUC, reports that half of the working women in the UK report having had to deal with harassment, in the US the number is closer to three-quarters. When you downplay the extent of harassment, it is the plight of these women that you are brushing aside.
This willful blindness to sexual abuse is also evident in North's major pronouncement on #MeToo. While he excoriates #MeToo at length as a reactionary witch-hunt, he says next to nothing about his own views on sexual abuse; indeed, the term sexual abuse isn't even mentioned until the last couple of paragraphs. The closest we come to any theorizing on the subject is the following:
“The 'Me Too' movement is pitched to the lowest level of social awareness, even on the question upon which it is most focused: sex. Throughout the 20th century, there was a persistent effort to demystify sex, to remove the tyrannical weight of religious prejudice in the evaluation of sexual behavior. Even aberrant and violent sexual behavior came to be viewed as a social and psychological phenomenon that required scientific study and medical treatment. Remorseless and inhumane punishment serves no end other than the bitter desire for revenge.
From the get-go this gets off on the wrong foot: #MeToo isn't focused on sex but on sexual abuse, a rather crucial distinction. And so, the vague generalizations about the demystifying of sex (by who? one wonders since Freud is a complete blank on the WSWS) miss the point. Or more accurately they leave out the most relevant part of the story: it wasn't just that sex was demystified in the last century, it was also that the ugly reality of sexual abuse was brought into the light of day.
I'm old enough to remember a time when 'beating up your wife' was still considered a joke, and not just in bars or locker rooms but also in polite society and even the halls of Congress. (Actually, it still seems to be popular among Republican politicians, as in Ted Cruz attempting a lame joke at a conservative convention: “No, I have not stopped beating my wife.” Apparently cracking jokes like this shows how tough you are in standing up to political correctness.) Up to the Fifties and even the Sixties and Seventies wife beating was considered a private matter, a secret to be kept from anyone outside the family. If there was any controversy about it, it wasn't about whether to do it but to what extent. A man was the king of his castle, and he had a right to use force to discipline not only his children but also his wife, who as a woman was considered overly emotional and hence essentially childish. You can see this treated in a comic vein in tv sitcoms from the Fifties like I Love Lucy. Whenever the title character gets into trouble, her husband Ricky takes her across his knee and spanks her, to the raucous approval of the laugh track. Or there was The Honeymooners where bus driver Ralph Kramden was repeatedly threatening to whack his wife Alice so hard she'd go “to the moon”, a punch line in a quite literal sense.
This ugly reality was also evident in the legal system's treatment of rape in this era. If a man threatened to use force in order to have sex with a woman, that was insufficient grounds for a rape charge. You needed to show that he had threatened to kill her or inflict grave bodily injury. More striking still is the then-prevailing legal definition of consent, as discussed here by liberal philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum:
“Usually the woman had to show that she had resisted, even in the face of force or the threat of force, because only this was taken to give evidence of non-consent. Some states made resistance a formal statutory requirement, but more often it was read into statutes as a requirement implicit in the notions of force and/or non-consent. The old requirement was that the victim resist 'to the utmost'; more recently, this was replaced by terms such as 'reasonable resistance' or 'earnest resistance' ... A woman who did not resist physically, or who succumbed to lesser threats [i.e. lesser than the threat of death or grave bodily injury] was treated as consenting, and the man's conduct was not criminal at all.” And Nussbaum quotes from a 1973 New York state appellate court decision overturning a rape conviction: “Rape is not committed unless the woman opposes the man to the utmost limit of her power. The resistance must be genuine and active. It is difficult to conclude that the complainant here waged a valiant struggle to uphold her honor.”
Today we recognize such attitudes as blatant misogyny, but they were prevalent not only in legal circles but in society at large until late into the 20th century, and indeed haven't entirely disappeared even now. Perhaps the best-known pushback by feminists against this misogyny is the 'No Means No' slogan. Though it's often been criticized for oversimplifying the problem (since sexual encounters can be fraught with ambiguities so that sometimes No doesn't really mean No), the impulse behind that slogan is an understandable reaction to a widespread social injustice. This misogyny misshaped what men expected from sexual encounters with women, and it distorted women's expectations as well. As Nussbaum writes:
“Women who had been raped, however violent and non-consensual the incident, felt shamed and sullied and frequently did not even consider turning to the law for help. Often guilt about their own sexual desires, or about having consented to kissing or petting, made women feel that they had 'asked for it,' even when the rape involved violence and substantial physical damage. In addition, women who had consented to intercourse but who had not consented to acts of violence within intercourse also felt it impossible to complain because the reigning view was that a woman who said yes to intercourse had no right to complain about any abuse that ensued. Such a woman would surely have been treated with mockery and abuse by the police had she complained.”
I recently came across an 'asked for it' story when I was looking up the Wikipedia entry for Loretta Young, an A-list Hollywood movie star from the Thirties and Forties who eventually crossed over into tv. Though Young was a devout Catholic, it was widely known in Hollywood that she'd had a child out of wedlock (as they used to say) by Clark Gable. The two had starred together in a 1935 movie (based on Jack London's Call of the Wild) and it was assumed that they'd had the usual off-screen romance. Young made up an elaborate cover story to hide the pregnancy and after the birth she pretended she'd adopted the baby, a true-life melodrama that a good many women had to live through (often, needless to say, with far less money and support than a movie star). But near the end of her life (she died in 2000), Young revealed that though she had flirted with Gable on set, the sex hadn't been consensual. What provoked her to make this claim was learning what the term 'date rape' meant; she suddenly had words to explain the incident with Gable. According to the Wiki entry, Young “had previously always believed that a woman's job was to fend off men's amorous advances and had felt the fact that Gable had been able to force himself on her was thus a moral failing on her part.” Of course we'll never know for sure what happened since Gable isn't around to tell his side of the story. But the fact that Young herself believed almost to the end of her life that she'd 'asked for it' by not doing enough to fend Gable off rings very true. And it speaks to the experience of a great many women who endured date rape without ever realizing that's what it was.
Needless to say, experiences like date rape or terms like misogyny appear nowhere in North's piece or in any of the WSWS coverage of #MeToo. So that when, at the very end of his article, North declares that sexual abuse is a “class issue”, what could be an insight is really obfuscation. To say that the fight against sexual abuse is a class issue SHOULD MEAN that's it's an issue to be championed by the working class and its revolutionary vanguard. It SHOULD MEAN that this fight plays an important role in the agitation and propaganda of that vanguard because it's about defending the democratic rights of all women, including half the working class. But for North it doesn't mean any of that. Labelling sexual abuse as a class issue is just licence for him to forget about it entirely.
There are important class issues pertaining to #MeToo, specifically the complaints of organizations and activists who work with working class women that #MeToo is focused far too much on the relatively privileged women in Hollywood and not enough on those in low wage jobs. But this criticism is only credible if it is based on solidarity with victims of sexual abuse, the very thing lacking on the WSWS. Moreover, the message coming from working women is the polar opposite of the WSWS line: they don't want to renounce #MeToo, they want to it to EXPAND. Hence headlines like: “Will Women in Low-Wage Jobs Get Their #MeToo Moment?” or “The #MeToo Moment: Blue Collar Women Ask, 'What About Us?'”
And there are some reports of working women being galvanized into action. In November a coalition representing 700,000 female farm workers issued an open letter expressing solidarity with the victims of Weinstein et al. This was in the lead-up to a march in Los Angeles to “Take Back the Workplace”.  There was also a piece from National Public Radio also in February, titled “Low Wage Workers Say #MeToo Movement Is A Chance For Change”, that picked up on the recent resignation of Steve Wynn as head of his hotel and casino empire (and also as finance chair of the Republican party) after multiple accusations of sexual abuse by workers in his facilities. It also mentions the resignations of celebrity chefs Steve Besh and Mario Batali after similar allegations by women who worked for them. Restaurant, retail, domestic work and agriculture are all areas where sexual harassment is rampant, and the report quotes a number of women workers in these areas who feel that “this is our shot to make a change.”
It may be that those hopes don't pan out, but Marxists should strongly support the struggles of these women while doing everything possible to make apparent the link between sexual abuse and social inequality. In that regard (though you would never know it from reading the WSWS) there is actually a long tradition of socialists championing the rights of women that goes back to Charles Fourier and continues with Engels (The Origin of the Family etc.), August Bebel (Women and Socialism) and the unprecedented expansion of women's rights in the first years of Soviet power. While in our time it's necessary for Marxists to resist the tide of identity politics, that doesn't mean that all feminism has to be bourgeois feminism. For Marxists to ignore a widespread social reality like sexual abuse is not only shameful but it also cedes the issue to bourgeois feminism, and that serves to strengthen identity politics rather than undermine it. The gist of identity politics is to separate women's issues from class issues, but the sectarian politics of the WSWS does the same in reverse. A 21st century Marxism would work to bring the two together.
A few words more, this time about some criticism North directed at Alex Steiner and myself in a comments section of a WSWS article on #MeToo. Alex will address the philosophical issues in a separate post, but here I want to make a couple of points. North claims that we have broken with our past views that led us to join the Trotskyist movement in the 1970s. We would contend that the opposite is true – it is North and his organization that have broken from the revolutionary traditions of Trotskyism. Of course Trotsky is venerated on the WSWS, but this proves little: Marx and Lenin were revered in Stalin's Soviet Union, even as every principle they stood for was trampled on. North's organization practices a brand of Trotskyism that Trotsky himself would have found unrecognizable: no Transitional Program, no defense of unions from government attack, no upholding the right of nations to self-determination, instinctive hostility to any mass movement of the working class, a virulent sectarianism that brands everyone else on the left as 'pseudo-left', and a cult-like internal regime where political disagreements are suppressed and every resolution is passed 'unanimously'. Here it's worth making a more general point about the relationship between tradition and revolutionary practice. North makes a big deal about upholding tradition, it features prominently in his lectures and writings. But his kind of 'orthodoxy' often ends up betraying the traditions it claims to uphold. This is because there is a dialectical relationship between tradition and practice in revolutionary politics, which 'orthodoxy' is blind to. In the career of the great revolutionary Marxists there always came a crucial moment where it was necessary for them to break with tradition, a break understood as superseding the tradition rather than renouncing it. Lenin and the Second International, Trotsky and the Third, are classic examples. Probably the best-known counter-examples of an undialectical orthodoxy are Kautsky and Plekhanov. The latter in particular is someone North reveres. As the fate of both these men proves, the road to reaction can be paved with even the best of traditions.

David North's main statement on #MeToo is here: His remarks on Steiner and myself are in the comments section of this article: 
Martha Nussbaum's book is Sex and Social Justice (1999, Oxford UP). Quotes are from pp. 138-9 & 141.
BuzzFeed did a feature story in 2015 on the Loretta Young/Clark Gable relationship:  
The story about female farm workers and #MeToo was posted on the Time magazine website:

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Walking the tightrope: The DSA and Jacobin

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[Note: This article was originally published in the Weekly Worker, March 22, 2018,  See also the author's previous article on the politics of Michael Harrington, a founder of the DSA; The left wing of the permissible]

By Jim Creegan

When - to the astonishment of many in the Second International, including Lenin - Karl Kautsky refused to denounce the German Socialists in the Reichstag who voted war credits to the kaiser on that fateful day of August 4 1914, there were some members of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) for whom their leading theoretician’s betrayal of the Second International’s anti-war pledges did not come as a bolt from the blue.

Four years earlier, in 1910, Kautsky found himself on the horns of a dilemma. The kaiser’s government had banned an SPD demonstration for a more democratic Prussian electoral system, scheduled to take place in the Treptow district on the southern edge of Berlin. But instead of assembling there and confronting the police, the party secretly directed its members to gather in the centre of the city, in the Tiergarten, near the Reichstag. The 150,000 workers who answered the call threw the ruling class into a state of virtual panic. Rosa Luxemburg and her followers on the SPD left saw this demonstration, combined with growing worker discontent over falling wages, as an opportunity to build a more powerful revolutionary movement, possibly by expanding the protest into a mass strike.

The party’s reformist right wing, on the other hand, took fright, along with the bourgeoisie. They fretted that such anger in the streets might endanger the support of bourgeois parties for the passage of a tepid suffrage-broadening bill and hurt their chances in an upcoming Reichstag election by scaring off more moderate provincial voters. Kautsky, while still attempting to steer a middle course between left and right, came down substantially on the side of the parliamentarians. He emphasised the primary importance of elections, branded advocacy of a mass strike adventurist, and refused to allow Luxemburg’s dissenting views to be published in Die Neue Zeit, the party monthly he edited. From this time forward, Kautsky was inclined to regard Luxemburg and her revolutionary cohort, as opposed to Eduard Bernstein and the reformist right, as his main adversary within the SPD.

The question posed by this dispute was not the worthiness of the fight for electoral reform. Both Kautsky and Luxemburg supported this elementary democratic demand. The argument was over whether the struggle for reform should be conducted by revolutionary methods - ie, principally by extra-parliamentary mobilisations, possibly broadening into a struggle for power - or by reformist means: hoping the ruling class and their political parties could be persuaded to grant greater democracy by assuring them that such a reform did not pose a revolutionary danger.

Only a year earlier, Kautsky had taken up the cudgels against the SPD’s leading right ‘revisionist’, Eduard Bernstein, in The road to power,regarded as his most revolutionary work. In itKautsky refutes Bernstein’s argument that the goals of revolution and proletarian dictatorship had been rendered obsolete by parliamentary democracy and the steady progress of reform. He reaffirms the conquest of political power by the proletariat to the exclusion of all other classes, and the complete abolition of private property in the means of production, as the party’s historic mission.

Kautsky, however, is inclined to relegate the accomplishment of this mission to a far-off day. Only after the achievement of a series of democratic reforms - the SPD’s minimum programme - would the question of the conquest of political power and the socialisation of the means of production - the maximum programme - present itself. By fighting for democratic reforms, writes Kautsky, workers increase their combativity and political consciousness. He thinks that a revolutionary conjuncture is most likely to occur as a result of the bourgeoisie’s panicked and violent reaction against the steady accretion of working class trade union and electoral strength, which would force the proletariat to respond in kind.

It may be fairly said, in light of historical experience, that Kautsky gives far too little weight to the possibility that the line of working class advance could be more jagged and contradictory than his tidy, incremental prognosis anticipates. The working class can suffer major defeats. And, while it is true that the fight for reform can be a prelude to revolution, and hence completely compatible with the ultimate goal, the imperatives of reform and revolution can also collide. What if liberal allies demand disavowal of revolutionary means in return for their support for reform measures? And what if, as in the crisis described above, events occur out of sequence, and the masses (not having read Kautsky) begin to take potentially revolutionary steps before the reform agenda has been completed? Will not many of their leaders, having become accustomed to the pacific routines of election cycles and collective bargaining during a prolonged reformist period, regard such mass initiatives as unwelcome disruptions of their expectations of orderly progress, and hence denounce them as ‘anarchy’? Kautsky was one such leader. Facing the unanticipated dilemma of 1910, he chose parliamentarism over mass protest, arguably taking the first step on the road to the infamy of August 1914.[1]

We live today under circumstances vastly different from those of workers and socialists in the Kaiserreich Germany of over a century ago. An improvement in material conditions has been accompanied by a severe contraction of the realm of possibility. There is no militant mass workers’ movement in any western country, and today’s question is whether or not any significant progressive reforms are even attainable, let alone whether the power of capital can be broken. With industrial and trade union struggles at an historic low, people are expressing their anger over declining living standards and social marginalisation in what they see as the only place left to them: the electoral arena. Although more of that anger is finding an outlet in support for fascistic, rightwing politicians than for the thoroughly reformist left that stands at the opposite pole, that pole is growing too. The fact that the horizons of its principal figures - Corbyn, Mélenchon, Sanders - are limited to hustings and parliamentary benches should not lead those of us on the left of the left - who dismiss as unrealistic the main reformist goal of restoring the post-World War II welfare state - from appreciating the significance of this voter rebellion, interrogating its possibilities, and attempting to steer it to the left. And it is in the course of such an interrogation that the old questions of reform or revolution inevitably resurface, albeit in less urgent ways.

New day
In the US, the principal left beneficiary of the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders is Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose membership has swelled from about 6,000 to 30,000 since the presidential election, and now has about 300 chapters throughout the country. Eighty percent of its 24,000 new members are under 35. The organisation is 90% white and 75% male. The influx of new members has given the group a somewhat different complexion from the pale pink, Democrat-loyal outfit founded in 1982 by America’s then leading social democrat, Michael Harrington, from a merger between his own followers and rightward-moving remnants of the 1960s new left.[2]

Organisationally diffuse and politically amorphous though today’s DSA certainly is, its youthful new members are showing distinct signs of leftward momentum. The 1,000 delegates who assembled for its Chicago convention this past August re-elected several of the Harringtonite old guard to the national political committee from among the various slates on offer, but they also voted to end the group’s affiliation to the Second International - which Harrington had worked hard to achieve. And in a repudiation of DSA’s founding principle of support for Israel, the convention decided to back the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. There was reported to be some sentiment among delegates for breaking entirely with the Democrats.

A demand was raised immediately after the convention for the expulsion of Danny Fetonte, who had not apprised the delegates who had just elected him to the national executive of the fact that he had earlier worked as a publicist for a police union in Texas. Although the executive failed to expel Fetonte, he resigned shortly after the scandal broke. Older members complained that Harrington would not have recognised the current organisation; younger ones - some of whom style themselves revolutionaries - said, the less recognisable, the better.

The organisation now stands somewhere halfway between its old social democratic self and the kind of leftwing big tent that Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) became in the 1960s. And like SDS, it is starting to become a magnet for other far-left groups that would not have touched it previously with a 10-foot pole, but who now have hopes of acquiring new recruits for themselves and/or influencing the direction of DSA as a whole. It is doubtful that a standing rule excluding members of outside democratic-centralist organisations will keep these entryists at bay.

The closest thing to a flagship publication of the DSA left is Jacobin - far and away the hottest new item on what exists of an American radical literary scene. Since its appearance as an online journal in 2010, and its 2011 debut as a printed quarterly magazine, it has acquired a circulation of 15,000, and claims over 700,000 unique monthly online hits. Although not officially a DSA publication, its founder and editor, Bhaskar Sunkara, is a vice-chairman of the group; and its managing editor, Seth Ackerman, is also a member. Its stable of writers and editors seem to be part of a DSA-ish, postgraduate student milieu. They see themselves as representing the thinking of a crop of younger Marxists, not defined by the questions that divided the left during the cold war.

Jacobin is Sunkara’s brainchild. In the short space of eight years, he has created a journal of high literary quality and striking graphic design. Its print and online editions regularly feature articles from amongst the brightest stars in the Anglophone left academic and journalistic firmament, and over 50 reading groups meet to discuss its contents. The editors have recently launched an allied analytical journal called Catalyst.This literary success has vaulted Sunkara into something like media celebrity status. He has become the subject of numerous interviews and a profile, as well as an op-ed piece, in The New York Times,the country’s newspaper of record; he is a sometime guest on at least one television talk show. All of the above is a remarkable achievement for a man of Sunkara’s 28 years.

Jacobin is nothing if not eclectic. It welcomes contributions by everyone from social democratic liberals to avowed revolutionaries. The first issues of Catalyst, for instance, feature articles by two self-declared Marxists, Mike Davis and Kim Moody, as well as a piece by Jamie Galbraith, an unabashed Keynesian liberal (and son of America’s foremost Keynesian, the late John Kenneth Galbraith). Indeed, Sunkara himself describes his project as an attempt to stake out some kind of middle ground between social democratic reformism and revolutionary Marxism. In a 2014 interview with New Left Review,he enumerates a few of his major intellectual and political influences:

One of them would definitely be Michael Harrington, even though we disagree with him politically. Those of us on the left wing of DSA often fight against a lot of Harringtonite ideas, like his softness toward the trade union bureaucracy and the Democratic Party … and I’d hope for a break with the Democrats much more than Harrington did. But, intellectually, I think he’s very much underrated as a populariser of Marxist thought …

Ralph Miliband is another important influence, because, more than anyone, he represented that middle ground … between Leninism and social democracy …
Some of us came from traditions inspired by Trotskyism, without ever quite becoming Trotskyists …[3]

Remarks like the above give rise to further questions. What are the precise coordinates of this middle ground in terms of historical affinities, current political choices and longer-term prospects? These questions could admit of no easy answers during the first few years of Jacobin’s existence. More recently, however, the outlines of a political profile are beginning to emerge amid the quarterly’s rich variety of articles and topics, and the tendency of its editors and leading writers to wax both revolutionary and social democratic.

Leaning left
In its more leftwing mode, the magazinehas gone some distance to divest itself of the most repellent features of social democracy. Absent from its pages is the reflexive anti-communism with which the Second International assured western ruling classes of its loyalty from November 1917 through the end of the cold war.

The lead article by Sunkara in last year’s Russian Revolution centenary issue is an accurate historical summary, which recognises the Bolshevik Party as a uniquely democratic formation, and Lenin and Trotsky as the passionate working class revolutionaries that they were. Sunkara specifically repudiates the standard bourgeois and social democratic portrayals of the Bolsheviks as conspiratorial, power-hungry demons. A cursory glance at Jacobin online will also reveal everything from a laudatory profile of Shapurji Saklatvala, Britain’s first communist member of parliament, to a recycled 1984 piece by Ralph Miliband and Marcel Liebman on the pitfalls of anti-communism.

Second, Jacobin rejects the old Harringtonian notion that the Democratic Party can be realigned into a social democratic formation through a politics of internal pressure. It proclaims its ultimate goal to be the formation of a mass-based labour party independent of both Republicans and Democrats.

Thirdly, Jacobin has followed DSA in disavowing any affinity with the so-called socialist parties of the Second International, which have presided over the imposition of neoliberal austerity.

And, finally, Jacobin asserts the need to go beyond the social democratic welfare state of the Scandinavian type. In a 2017 article, ‘Social democracy is good. But not good enough. They won’t let us keep the nice things’, authors Bhaskar Sunkara and Joseph Schwartz acknowledge that “achieving a stable welfare state, while leaving capital’s power over the economy intact, is itself far from viable”. They continue:

Since the early 1970s - the height of western social democracy - corporate elites have abandoned the post-war ‘class compromise’ … What capitalists grudgingly accepted during an exceptional period of post-war growth and rising profits, they would no longer.
The authors then go on to remind readers how the French and European ruling classes sabotaged French Socialist president François Mitterrand’s 1981-83 attempt to introduce radical Keynesianism in one country with a capital strike, and how the earlier Swedish Rehn-Meidner plan to tax capital, and eventually nationalise industry, was abandoned for fear of capitalist resistance. Schwartz and Sunkara’s conclusion: “To chart a different course, we would need a militant labour movement and a mass socialist presence strengthened by accumulated victories, looking to not merely tame, but overcome, capitalism.”[4]

Yet, in addition to these general aversions and ambitions, one is inclined to enquire further concerning specific political strategies. Two recent articles provide the outlines of the thinking of Jacobin’s editors. An op-ed piece by Sunkara entitled ‘Socialism’s future may be its past’ in The New York Times this past summer speaks of three destinations for the future: “Singapore Station”, by which Sunkara means a globalist, neoliberal capitalism, with austerity and widened class division, presided over by an equal-opportunity, internationally-minded capitalist elite, anti-democratic, but open to anyone regardless of creed, colour or nationality. A second is dubbed “Budapest Station” - the return to a chauvinist, racist, go-it-alone, national capitalism now being offered by the likes of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump. The third - which Sunkara advocates - is “Finland Station”, the writer’s designation for pre-World War I social democracy, untarnished by either the betrayals that commenced in 1914 or the Bolsheviks’ post-1917 authoritarian drift, culminating in the gulag.
What kind of socialism would such a revivified social democracy aim at? According to Sunkara,

Some broad outlines should already be clear: worker-owned cooperatives still competing in a regulated market; government services coordinated with the aid of citizen planning; and the provision of the basics necessary to live a good life (education, housing and healthcare) guaranteed as social rights.
And how does Sunkara propose to attain this socialist goal? He envisions

a transition … that does not require a ‘year zero’ break with the present [ie, revolution - JC]. This time, people get to vote. Well, debate, deliberate and then vote - and have faith that people can organise together to chart new destinations for humanity.[5]
The above themes are further elaborated in ‘Our road to power’ in the Jacobin for autumn 2017. The article appears under the name of the New York University sociology professor, Vivek Chibber, but its format as a poster-like insert - combined with the fact that Chibber is the editor of Catalyst, published by Jacobin - would suggest that it is intended as something resembling a platform statement.

Here, Chibber argues that any socialist strategy for today “has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture, and navigate a more gradualist approach”. Revolutionary situations, he says, may emerge in the long run, but “For the foreseeable future, left strategy has to revolve around building a movement to pressure the state, gain power within it, change the institutional structure of capitalism, and erode the structural power of capital - rather than vaulting over it.” While acknowledging that a revolutionary outlook may have been realistic in the period between the two world wars, Chibber writes:

Today, the state has infinitely greater legitimacy with the population than European states did a century ago. Further, its coercive power, its power of surveillance, and the ruling class’s internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability that is orders of magnitude greater than it had in 1917.[6]
As to the shape of the gradually-arrived-at socialist future, Chibber avers that “the burden of proof” is on those who would argue that a planned economy of any kind might work and that “… we might seriously have to consider that the possibility that planning as envisioned by Marx might not be a real option …”, and, “given the dubious record of central planning, … that a post-capitalist economy might have to take the form of some sort of market socialism”:

… it will be different from capitalism in that:
  •  The market will be constrained, so that it isn’t the arbiter of people’s basic well-being.
§   Economic decision-makers will be democratically accountable.
§   Wealth inequalities will not be allowed to translate into political inequalities.[7]

Absence of argument
So here we have it: parliamentary gradualism, leading to a market socialism, combined with strong welfare-state protections.

What is so striking here is not the assertions of strategy and goals by these two writers, but the complete absence of any sustained supporting argumentation. Sunkara and Chibber may, for instance, have tried to explain why the undoubtedly greater stability of post-war capitalism has made it any more amenable than before to legalistic attempts at deep structural reform. Does not the fate of such endeavours - from Allende’s Chile in the 70s, to Mitterrand’s France in the 1980s (cited elsewhere by the authors themselves) - point to the conclusion that the ruling classes, faced with what they consider unacceptable legislative challenges to their wealth and prerogatives, will respond with economic sabotage, and ultimately with deadly force?

They may also have asked themselves why reformist strategies have suddenly become more viable in a period when the bourgeoisie is on the offensive against the remaining pillars of the welfare state, and, at least in the US, is so puffed up with arrogance as to consider attempts to defend, let alone extend, these gains as tantamount to communism. It seems to elude them that the post-war class compromise, while partly due to popular struggles and an economic boom that made it affordable for the capitalist class, was also part of a quid pro quo.Social democratic parties and unions were given ‘a seat at the table’, partly in exchange for their loyalty and cooperation in combating the ‘Soviet threat’. One does not have to be an apologist for Stalinism to understand that the Soviet Union and its allies were non-capitalist, and hence became the object of a global anti-communist crusade, in the service of which the western ruling classes were willing to make broad concessions; after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they became more determined to take them back.

The rejection of the idea of a planned economy, moreover, seems premised entirely on the equation of planning with the failed bureaucratic Soviet model. Are not other, more democratic forms of planning possible, such as, for instance, planning under workers’ control, in which a national plan for the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy would be executed by workers invested with broad powers of implementation at the workplace, including the right to elect and dismiss their managers and supervisors? Can the market be used in such a system to register consumer preferences without determining the fate of entire enterprises and their employees?

Chibber argues that the only alternative to complete top-down planning is worker cooperatives, whose production is regulated, and whose viability is determined, by nothing other than market vicissitudes, with continued anarchy of production as a result. Chibber thinks it possible to prevent the economic inequalities - which he seems to acknowledge will occur when less profitable firms succumb to the stronger - from becoming political inequalities. But how, exactly? Through laws and government regulations, which have never succeeded before in preventing the economically powerful from becoming politically dominant.

The failure of Sunkara and Chibber to tackle important questions like the ones above indicates that the combination of gradualism and market socialism they espouse represents more of a political sensibility - the crystallisation of certain contemporary left political moods - than a considered theoretical weighing of objective possibilities and constraints. This sensibility is compounded of the naivety of newly politicised youth and the pessimism of an older generation, borne of past failures and defeats. It is only to be expected that young people awakened to politics by the Sanders campaign will bring with them to DSA a slightly more radical version of the electoral politics espoused by the candidate they supported, according to which it is possible to restore Roosevelt’s ‘new deal’, and that the road to such a restoration - and perhaps something even more radical called socialism - lies along the path of electing candidates who denounce corporate power and promise to enact progressive legislation.

Nor is it surprising that conscious Marxists - perhaps chastened by the failures of revolution in the last century, as well as the bankruptcy of past efforts to organise various ‘revolutionary vanguards’ in advanced countries - should seek to accommodate the spontaneous reformist consciousness of the politically aroused young, as well as invent reformist scenarios of their own. The steady drumbeat of bourgeois propaganda since the collapse of the USSR, to the effect that the market is the only conceivable effective regulator of economic activity, has also taken its toll. Sunkara and Chibber appear to have abandoned the fundamental Marxist idea that the forces of production can be brought under conscious control.

‘Splitting the difference’
How, more specifically, does Jacobin view the transition from social democratic-type reforms to full socialism, and its relation to American electoral politics and the Democratic Party? Several interviews with Sunkara supply a few hints. When asked by New Left Review if there was a “tension between the social democratic and radical socialist perspectives” being offered by Jacobin, Sunkara replied:

One day, in a dream scenario where you have a socialist movement pushing for full social ownership, say, and it’s encountering active opposition from the bourgeoisie, then you would have a clash. But that debate is very much in the future.[8]
Sunkara himself seems aware of the historical affinities such remarks suggest. One interviewer writes:

Trying to get more of a handle on his politics, I asked Sunkara to pick between Eduard Bernstein - the incrementalist German Marxist who sowed the seeds of modern social democracy - and Rosa Luxemburg, who assailed Bernstein for abandoning hope of revolution. “Kautsky,” he answered, naming Bernstein and Luxemburg’s contemporary who split the difference between the two. “Maybe more Luxemburg.”[9]
We have seen how Kautsky ‘split the difference’: by endorsing reformism now, and consigning the prospect of socialist revolution to a vaguely distant future. Sunkara’s remarks on political strategy seem to partake of the same approach. He says in an interview with Workers’ Liberty:

We should organise as much as we can outside the Democratic Party. A combination of building of the social forces of the left, and objective social conditions, will at some point lead to the fracturing of the two-party system … I would hope that one of the parties left standing will be a labour-backed, broad-left party with anti-capitalist currents … On the other hand, I have no hesitation in saying that I would have voted for Hillary Clinton in a swing state. There’s a certain vision of independent political action on the left that can constrain our tactical flexibility … in the Democratic Party there are certain races where I’d vote for a progressive Democrat - or even, in the case of a national election, in a swing state, for a Clinton-type Democrat …[10]
Sunkara assures the same interviewer: “I fully support Bernie Sanders. I have criticisms of him, but, when I campaign for him, I am fully and earnestly campaigning for him.” Even more revealing of Sunkara’s solicitude for reformist politicians are his remarks on Greece in another interview:

I appreciate the situation that Tsipras and the Syriza leadership found themselves in and that they accepted the latest austerity package begrudgingly and in generally good faith. They did not sell it as a victory, which is important. I reject the use of ‘betrayal’ to describe the actions of the leadership.[11]
This incidental remark is perhaps most troubling of all. Sunkara here does further homage to Karl Kautsky, who rejected the use of ‘betrayal’ for the Reichstag vote of the German Social Democrats in 1914. We can only add that if voting credits for a war one had previously pledged to oppose with a general strike, or implementing crushing austerity measures that one was elected to oppose, are not instances of betrayal, the word has no meaning.

Electoralist gradualism
In the early crisis of German social democracy described at the beginning of this article, the difference between revolutionary and reformist practice was starkly revealed. Rosa Luxemburg by no means denied the importance of reform struggles, but regarded them as a means to expand and deepen the mobilisation of the working class in preparation for the conquest of power. Kautsky, on the other hand, did not disparage mass mobilisations as such, but viewed them as an auxiliary to the party’s main electoral and legislative efforts, to be curtailed when they threatened to upset the parliamentary applecart.

The question of reform v revolution is not immediately posed by anything taking place in the US today; one can thus support Democratic candidates and participate in mass demonstrations without contradiction. It acquires more than theoretical importance to the extent that what the left does has consequences. And we can see the consequences of reformism in at least three instances in the 20th century: Allende’s Unidad Popular, Mitterrand’s Socialists, and Tsipras’s Syriza. In each of these cases the working class and its allies were led to the brink of a class confrontation by parties that had adopted a purely electoral strategy, and were unable and unwilling to mount the organised mass initiatives necessary to counter the economic sabotage and/or armed violence of the bourgeoisie. Allende, to his credit, died fighting back, gun in hand. The other two - Mitterrand and Tsipras - turned their coats to become the agents of capitalist austerity.

Jacobin editors are fond of Michael Harrington’s metaphor that pictures socialists walking a tightrope between ultimate goals and present possibilities. Less charitably, they can be said to be sitting on the fence between reformism and revolutionary Marxism. They wish to appeal to those on their left by disavowing social democracy’s more sordid historical chapters of class treason and current neoliberal complicities, while at the same time taking care not to give offence to the prevalent electoral-reformist consciousness of newly awakening political youth and old-school social democrats.

It is understandable that Jacobin wishes to avoid the fate of the various ‘revolutionary’ sects that are programmatically pure and numerically insignificant. To the extent that DSA is becoming more of a broad, leftwing umbrella than a decidedly social democratic organisation, it would be folly for revolutionaries to approach its new members with nothing more than an injunction to quit DSA and join their minuscule grouplets. One should, however, engage them with a view to bringing about a political differentiation from the hardened pro-Democratic Party reformists who still constitute an influential internal presence and sit on its national and local executives. To this end, one would seek to conduct political education in revolutionary history, and push for a number of programmatic proposals, such as no support for mainstream Democrats or the ‘progressive’ Democratic candidates who promise to endorse mainstream ones if they lose in primary contests.

Unfortunately, Jacobin is doing little along such lines. In terms of practical orientation, it simply reflects the amorphousness of the current DSA, rather than an attempt to give it a clearer political shape. Sunkara recommends that the left keep doing what most of it already does: support both independent candidates and ‘progressive’ Democrats, as circumstances permit, and continue to vote for mainstream Democrats, wherever the Republicans have a chance to win, with the hope that the opportunity for an independent, mass workers’ party will present itself due to altered circumstances some time in the future. In terms of longer-term strategies and goals, Jacobin,despite the more radical pronouncements and authors to be found in its pages, promotes a classical social democratic orientation that rejects any notion of a ‘rupture’ in favour of an electoralist gradualism aimed at penetrating and restructuring the existing state.

The above prescriptions do little to prepare for the tremors that are already beginning to unsettle an American-dominated world system in decline - one which may throw the tightrope-walkers off balance, and confront them with choices like the ones Luxemburg and Kautsky had to make over a century ago, much sooner than they think.


[1] This is a condensed version of events described in Carl Schorske, German social democracy, 1905-1917 chapter 7, London 1955.
[2]   See ‘The left wing of the permissible’ Permanent Revolution, Sept 23, 2017,
[3]   New Left Review November-December 2014,
[4]   All quotations from the Jacobin blog,
[7]   Ibid.
[8]   New Left Review November-December 2014,
[9]   D Matthews, ‘Inside Jacobin: how a socialist magazine is winning the left’s war of ideas’ March 26 2016,
[10]  ‘The horizon of socialism’ Workers’ Liberty August 24 2017,
[11]   Roar magazine, January 4 2016.