A Sharp Rejection of Yesterday’s Critical Story About Bhaskar Sunkara, Jacobin and Democratic Socialists of America

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We ran a story yesterday that I don’t regret posting but that should have been heavily edited or paired with the story you’re reading now. The story was headlined “Louis Proyect Shreds Bhaskar Sunkara’s Manifesto” and was an attack on Sunkara, the publisher and editor of Jacobin, and written by Proyect, who describes himself as an “Unrepentant Marxist.”

The subhead said that Proyect was “not convinced by the Jacobin magazine publisher’s Quixotic plea for comrades to join him in attempting to take over the Democratic Party from the inside, a project that claims it will succeed where the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, the Rainbow Coalition, and generations of other socialists have failed.”

I like Proyect, who I met through Alexander Cockburn many years ago, and I think he can be smart and funny, but I often disagree with him. I take full responsibility for publishing the story. I didn’t request it or edit it, but I gave it the green light after skimming it while doing ten other things, and I should have read it more carefully.

I also don’t regret running the piece either because I believe in diversity of opinion. I have friends all over the political spectrum, from Communists to Paleocons and everything in between, even, God help me, a few neocons. I don’t believe I have a monopoly on wisdom or that I can’t learn from others, and people who do believe that must lead sad lives in their tiny little bubbles.

I’ve published stories critical of myself at this site and been slammed on our own Twitter and Facebook page by people posting on them at my request (even periodically people I was paying at the time). If anyone wants to pitch a hatchet job on me I’ll seriously consider publishing it as long as it’s intelligent and well written, unlike previous attacks on me by cretins like Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson and a sad sack named Lee Smith of Tablet magazine.

The problem with Proyect’s piece was that it didn’t make any sort of convincing argument and in no way shredded Sunkara’s Manifesto — to be more precise, his book “The Socialist Manifesto: The Case For Radical Politics In An Era Of Extreme Inequality.” As is frequently the case with Louis’s writing, it was an attack on someone he deems to be insufficiently radical.

Look, I’m a big fan of Karl Marx and you can’t blame him for Joseph Stalin, but he repeatedly fucked up. For starters, he imagined that the Communist Revolution would take place in a country with a relatively advanced capitalist economy and not an authoritarian, backward like Russia. The Soviet Union had its great moments, like defeating Hitler, but famine, gulags and forced collectivization are not my idea of fun.

The Soviet Union’s greatest achievement. Image: “Raising a flag over the Reichstag” by Yevgeny Khaldei, May 2, 1945.

One can argue that this was all the result of being besieged by capitalist countries, but that ignores the obvious fact that Communism gives the central government enormous powers, and that inevitably creates huge problems. Also, I don’t know exactly what is the best model for world or national government, but it sure as fuck isn’t “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

For Marx to be your prism on today’s world is as ridiculous as conservatives arguing that Adam Smith is the most insightful writer about modern day capitalism. Both writers are worth reading and I think Marx was brilliant and Smith was an idiot, but neither one should be considered the sagest guide to the modern world.

I’ll give you two examples of Proyect’s deeply flawed analysis in yesterday’s story. The first is the most problematic. He savages Sunkara for being too soft on Sweden — I’m not going to bother summarizing his case against Stockholm but read his story if you want, he does make some valid points — and accuses him of failing to mention all of Sweden’s sins.

(Update: I’m told by reliable sources that Proyect completely misconstrued and missed the point of Sunkara’s’ analysis of Sweden, which makes his critique even weaker. So if you do read his piece, keep that in mind.)

Some of the points he makes are valid but he goes on to say that Sunkara “dismissed” Cuba in his book and should have taken “a closer look at the one country in the world that is still trying to build socialism.” Proyect adds, “After acknowledging Cuba’s giant strides in education and health care, he gives it a failing grade for lacking democracy. One has to wonder where he gets his yardstick for passing such judgements.”

Here one has to wonder what Proyect’s yardstick is. I deeply admire Fidel Castro for many things but I’m a much bigger fan of the 1960 model than I am of his later years, and his legacy is decidedly mixed. I’m not going to entirely renounce Castro, because he successfully stood up to the United States for so long and inspired millions of people around the globe to fight imperialism, but saying that Cuba today is “trying to build socialism” is ridiculous.

And frankly, if I had to live in Sweden or Cuba I would prefer Cuba for the people, weather, music and culture. But I’d have to pick freezing my ass off in Stockholm since in Havana I’d inevitably end up in the gulag because criticizing the government there, which I’d have to do, is more dangerous than it is in Stockholm.

Proyect’s yardstick?

The second very big mistake in Proyect’s analysis is that he sees the Democratic Party as hopelessly corrupt and anyone who works within the Democratic Party or supports its candidates as a collaborator with evil. He writes:

Using a language in keeping with his Chef Boyardee credentials, Sunkara said about the same thing a decade ago when he said farewell to the Marxism list I moderate: “I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.

Look, I believe the Democratic Party is hopelessly corrupt and I don’t agree with Sunkara’s every word, but it’s a point of view that has some merit and is not worthy of mockery. (It would be, of course, if Hillary Clinton said it, but not when Sunkara does.)

I also don’t believe it’s possible to reform the Democratic Party, but I do have a lot of respect for Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among other Democrats, and they are doing far more to inspire young people to challenge capitalism than Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky. Are either of them ever going to reform the Democratic Party or become president on its ticket? No way, IMHO, but I don’t think it’s impossible that they side with students and workers who one of these days, I pray, are going to bring radical change to this country through protests and political organizing.

I think there are plenty of good grounds to critique Sunkara. He seems to be a welfare state, Keynesian capitalist, not a socialist, so it’s hard for me to get behind that. Keynesianism was snuffed out a long time ago and we now have savage, neoliberal capitalism dominated by oligarchs. Keynesianism is dead and gone and the United States is never going to be a capitalist social democracy. So even if that’s your fondest hope, and it’s not mine, it ain’t gonna happen.

I’m not a member of Democratic Socialists of America, and there are certainly intelligent critiques of DSA that can be made as well, but democratic socialism is a worthy aspiration. DSA is not an evil organization and Sunkara is not an enemy of the people who deserves the guillotine. You want evil? Take a long, loving look at Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and their financial and political co-conspirators. You’ll find plenty of evil. Let’s stay focused on the real enemy. There’s a long list and it doesn’t include Jacobin and Sunkara.

I don’t agree with everything Jacobin publishes, but hey, I don’t agree with everything I publish, like yesterday’s story by Proyect. The magazine’s list of writers and editors include people I respect and admire, such as Eileen Jones, Doug Henwood and Seth Ackerman. It has been endorsed and promoted by Noam Chomsky and a host of others, including MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. (OK, that’s possibly a negative but I’m told that MSNBC recently credited Washington Babylon for bringing down Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and I’m not going to ask for a retraction.)

I know that my own views are seen by many as radical and maybe they are. I hope so, and Washington Babylon is always going to be as being outside of the mainstream. But we’re not, I hope, ever going to be irrelevant and if you write off Jacobin and DSA at this point in time you are irrelevant.

I do have a few requests of Jacobin. Give the boot to Jones, Henwood and Ackerman and confiscate their assets so I can get them to work for low wages for Washington Babylon.

Also, increase your pay to writers. I recently pitched Jacobin a lengthy investigative piece that involved travel and was told that if my piece was accepted I would be paid a risible amount of money. I have paid writers more than I was offered (at a few rare moments that I had cash reserves) and I know Jacobin has a lot more money than I do.

So if you’re going to preach any type of socialism jack up your pay rates, which will bring in more writers with interesting, original points of view who can’t afford to work for free. I bet many of those writers would bring in fresh ideas and challenge Jacobin to reconsider some of its own views and rethink its definition of socialism in a more radical direction.

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