A “Feasible Socialist” Critique by George Fish
Updated: Mar 28
Michael D. Yates’s “COVID-19, Economic Depression, and the Black Lives Matter Protests,” September 2020 Monthly Review:
A “Feasible Socialist” Critique
The full title of Michael D. Yates’s article is even much longer, as it contains the subtitle, “Will the Triple Crisis Bring a Working-Class Revolt in the United States?” It is a prime current example of unrealistic, ultraleft thinking in the U.S. left today, and as such, will have a favorable impact on many of those “far left” within DSA today. That is why this “feasible socialist” critique, which Monthly Review refused to publish, preferring instead to ignore its socialist critics—GF)
Methinks Michael D. Yates’s “COVID-19, Economic Depression, and the Black Lives Matter Protests” (September 2020 Monthly Review, pp. 14-33) is, as the old saying goes, just “whistling in the dark.” While it starts out overall with plenty of examples from our recent tumultuous times of what Trotsky properly called “uneven and combined development” both psychologically and in terms of direct action, that certain sectors (but by no means all) of the working class are becoming more militant and imbued with radical consciousness (pp. 14-24) and the disappointing, but by no means unsurprising, response by the trade union leaderships (pp. 17-24), Yates then descends into hyperbole and ultraleftism in what he proposes what can be done to deepen worker militancy and political consciousness. The result is a most disappointing prescription that, for me and others involved in the left, is bound to lead to futility and dead ends.
Despite recent upsurges in the United States, from the Chicago teachers’ strike through the Bernie Sanders Presidential campaigns of both 2016 and 2020, and the overnight emergence of a powerful Black Lives Matter movement protesting the blatant police killings and wounding of black people, from, just to note a few, Breonna Taylor to George Floyd to Jacob Blake, the overall class consciousness of US workers is still quite low, and varies much from geographical locale to geographical locale; it is also hindered in development by an overall weakened position of organized labor, both in terms of what Yates terms “good unions” and those he sees as not-so-good; and of course, exacerbated by COVID-19 and the resultant economic depression, which has not only made 30 million unemployed (out of a total work force, as Yates notes, of 160 million, which means 130 million still had jobs, making unemployed workers substantially “invisible”), but has engendered fear for their jobs, as well as militancy, among workers. But Yates’s Revolutionary Impatience makes him too one-sided, seeing only the positive, but not the mixed as well as the clearly doubtful and negative.
Also, like so many given to ultraleftism, Yates is far too dismissive of Bernie Sanders’s two Presidential campaigns in raising socialist consciousness, as well as toward electoral politics generally—overlooking, for example, that gains made through actions in the streets will have to be both codified and universalized through legislation and executive action to enforce—which requires both legislators and political executives! Further, while positively noting the massive growth of DSA (of which I am an At-Large member) into the first consequential socialist organization since SDS in the Sixties, or the Communist Party and other radicals in the Thirties and Forties, DSA still has only a total membership that could fit easily in the average major state university football stadium; and which came into DSA in the first place through the Bernie campaigns!
Yates’s prescriptions for “What Is to Be Done Next?” are also equally one-sided and wrongheaded. Toward existing unions he definitely is advocating for a disastrous policy of Dual Unionism, a Third-Period ultraleftism of forming “revolutionary” unions that, rather than being a thorn in the side, so to speak, of the Labor Establishment, will merely isolate the unionized higher-conscious. As examples of “successful” left organizing, Yates offers only a smorgasbord, a potpourri (really, just a hodgepodge?) of organized attempts scattered across both time and geography—from (undated) Occupy the Land attempts in Brazil to Chavez’s (but, pointedly, not Maduro’s) Venezuela, to the social programs of the US Black Panther Party in the late Sixties and early Seventies in certain (by no means very many) black-populated locales. All presented without detail or the number of people involved and/or reached. He cites an Australian unionizing effort of the Seventies and Maoists organizing in Nepal and rural India, but, again, offers no details. Pointedly missing, however, from Yates’s potpourri is the excellent Kurdish establishment of a cooperative socialist polity in Rojava! Quite possibly, one of the most significant bright spots of recent time in socialist organizing—but much to the shame of our “anti-imperialist left,” given short shrift by this “left,” and when Trump gleefully abandoned the Kurds to the reactionary Islamist Turks, greeted again by this “left” with both glaring silence as well as blaming the Kurds themselves for their being so betrayed!
Yates has been seduced by that siren song on the far left, the notion that a “correctly” radical, anti-capitalist, pro-labor third party can somehow succeed, and woo workers, women, African Americans and other peoples of color away from the Democrats despite all other left third party attempts to do so failing substantially. But in the U.S. winner-take-all two-party political system, third parties are irrelevant, they are marginal protest votes only. The only third party to ever do so in U.S. history, the Republican Party in 1860, was able to do so only because the Whigs disintegrated and the Democrats were heavily compromised, due to their failure to address the issue of slavery. All other major third parties have either been absorbed or re-absorbed into the Democratic or Republican Parties since then, leaving intact a stable two-party system essentially impervious to third-party attempts to supplant it. (A quite good discussion of this appears the socialist website New Politics, a source Yates himself notes favorably in a footnote: Barry Finger’s “Protest Vote or Independent Political Action?” posted on August 8, 2020, https://newpol.org/protest-vote-or-independent-political-action/.) Left third parties running Presidential campaigns have failed traditionally to ever break that magic 3% of the vote barrier all the way back to the Eugene Debs Presidential campaign of 1916; Debs himself only garnered 6% of the vote in his most successful Presidential campaign, that of 1912. The Progressive Party of Henry Wallace’s run in 1948, the Green Party’s running of Ralph Nader in 2000, the other campaigns of the Greens, the campaigns of the Peace and Freedom Party, the Citizens Party, not to mention the sectarian left parties’ running of Presidential campaigns, all have failed, and their campaigns becoming but a blip on the running course of U.S. political history. In fact, left third parties have failed even to do even as well as the leading right third party, the Libertarians! Ralph Nader himself noted in an op-ed in the March 25, 2016 Washington Post, “Why Bernie Sanders was right to run as a Democrat,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/03/25/ralph-nader-why-bernie-sanders-was-right-to-run-as-a-democrat/, that the success of Bernie Sanders’s Presidential run resulted from Sanders running a serious campaign for President—in the Democratic primaries, and not as a third-party candidate or an independent! Further, and this fits well with Yates’s favorable view of DSA, DSA members running for lesser offices and challenging incumbents as Democrats have scored a number of successes to date, becoming House of Representatives members, state legislators, and city councilpersons, where their actually holding political office gives them clout that would not be theirs had they run—and lost—as third-party candidates or as independents. The supposed exception of Kshama Sawant as a Socialist Alternative city councilperson in Seattle proves this rule: she comports herself as a serious politician and even reaches out to Democrats to get things done, such as resist and not cave in to Seattle’s economic behemoth, Amazon. Democrats or not, socialists and radicals can run and exercise political clout, shape positive legislation, engage successfully in local and state offices, and even in the House of Representatives and the Senate, (think here of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders), but only as serious “reformists,” not as intransigent “left” symbols. Because of this political reality, and like many others on the left, I am drawn thus to the “inside-outside strategy” of working within the Democratic Party and embracing “reformist socialist” Michael Harrington’s “left wing of the feasible” as the only realistic way open now to the left to gain political power it can use for the better.
As I write, it’s a little over fifty days until the 2020 election. That means, strategically and tactically, the left in this fall of 2020 has no choice but to hold our collective noses and vote for Joe Biden to get Trump out of the White House, and urge our friends and comrades to do likewise. Too much is at stake. Another four years of Donald Trump would not only be disastrous for the left, and for the U.S. public, but for world humanity as well. Not only would defunding the police, a crucial left demand coming out of the Black Lives Matter protests, not be on the political agenda, but replacing it instead would be draconian “law and order” rule that would both give massive amounts of money to police to carry on as they have, and worse—giving essentially a “look-the-other-way” wink and approving nod to further police brutalizing and even murder. On the political agenda as well would be defunding Social Security and Medicare (which Trump wishes to do by eviscerating payroll withholding taxes), and even the—Post Office! And who knows what else? But while not a particularly “left-wing” choice, getting rid of Trump and putting into place to bide time a studied centrist in the form of Joe Biden is at least feasible. We of the left simply do not have endless options, as too many given to ultraleftism would like to pretend.
Michael Yates might object that he’s speaking not for the short run of the present and very near future, but for political change that could lead to a U.S. socialism in “the long run.”But John Maynard Keynes answered that most successfully by acerbically noting, “In the long run we are all dead.”Positive social change cannot be put off until the “inevitable” worker-led socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, as Marx and Engels envisioned, it must be built in the here-and-now. Even if it’s impossible to get all that we of the left would wish for. Even Yates himself notes this at the end of his article, stressing that “we may not have much of a future” ahead of us. (p. 32) In this time of coronavirus and depression, we simply do not have a choice of “socialism or barbarism,” but rather a starker, far more troublesome choice between a horrible barbarism now (Trump, and the other right-wing leaders presently wielding power across the globe, from Hungary through Brazil, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, to mention but a few of the most notorious), and an even worse barbarism later (which we can stanch at least partially and gain breathing room for the left by putting Biden in the White House as someone at least partially amenable to pressure from a left pushing him—something that would not even exist should Trump be re-elected). History and lived life do not always give us choices we like; but they do give us choices—choices we can choose to fritter away and neglect by wishing it weren’t so, or choices we can accept and do within them all that we are able to do at the time. That, especially to me, is what we must mean by the “left wing of the feasible.” We are in troubled and troubling times, and just putting it in terms of choices between leaders, past and present, underscores this—Biden or Trump, Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis, FDR and Churchill or Hitler. As Marx himself said in the Eighteenth Brumaire, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please….” That, of course, holds for the left as well.
There are other shortcomings in Yates’s article. He excoriates the Scandinavian countries, “the quintessential social democratic states,” for their wealth inequality (p. 30), which he sees as almost as bad as that of the U.S., yet overlooks the wealth inequalities under “already existing socialism” that were also a matter of course in the “revolutionary socialist” world of the former U.S.S.R., Eastern Europe, and China. These were states where the nomenklatura in power (leading members of their respective “Communist” parties) had far more massive incomes and perquisites than did the workers and peasantry, even though they were nominally “socialist”—but actually far more “bureaucratic collectivist” or “state capitalist” states than liberating, humane socialist ones! Such states also suffered from low levels of social wealth accumulation, low productivity, scarce and shoddy consumer goods, and, sad but necessary to say, Gulags as well, motivating one anonymous working-class wag there to note in regards to working-class life under such “socialism,” “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” Michael Yates would do well to read Donald Sassoon’s One Hundred Years of Socialism (New York: The New Press, 1996), his history of social democracy in Western Europe—where “mere” social democracy decisively broke the link between working-class and poverty, creating the “affluent” worker that the Western European “far left” complained had been “bought-off” and “bourgeoisified”! (The analogue in the U.S. was, of course, the New Deal and its post-World War II aftermath up until around 1969; with a corresponding “far left” complaining of “bought-off” workers in the form of Herbert Marcuse, notably in One-Dimensional Man, and the New Left of the Sixties.)
Another shortcoming of Yates’s article lies in what he doesn’t mention—“bourgeois right” in the U.S. in the form of fundamental civil rights and civil liberties as enunciated in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal,” and guaranteed through basic law in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. Of course, it goes without saying, not always honored or protected, and not always applying to all—but the foundation was laid through these seminal documents of U.S. political and social life to fight for and achieve their extension to greater and greater sectors of the population, through the elimination of slavery, the granting of women’s suffrage, up to the present through the desegregation of schools and public accommodations, recognition of the right to abortion, allowing for gay marriage, guarantees of free speech and a free press, and other vital matters of civil rights, civil liberties, and openings for greater political participation. In my opinion, the Founding Fathers, many of whom, as is well known, were rich men who owned slaves, transcended themselves and their narrow social milieu and created a polity far greater than they themselves were. For me, certainly as a socialist, the trouble with liberalism is not that it is pernicious, but that it is incomplete: and for me as a socialist, this means extending into the social and economic realm the basic political rights as expressed in the Bill of Rights. Which, in important ways, has been done in the U.S., and is still being done—by socialists and communists, by civil libertarians, by activists, by people marching in the streets, and also, by people voting at the polls. The road has ofttimes been long and arduous, but thanks to determination and vigilance, and despite the fragility of democracy and democratic norms that we now sense in this era of Trump, this uneven traversing of that road has made us in significant ways a better society than we were before. As but one example, it’s worth recalling that in the U.S. universal manhood suffrage didn’t exist prior to 1825; non-property holding men couldn’t vote, only those who owned landed property could. And women couldn’t vote nationally in the U.S. until 1920, and only after 1965 could African Americans freely vote everywhere. As Martin Luther King rightly noted, “The arc of history is long”—and for those of us on the left given to revolutionary impatience, unconscionably long, and far too tedious to traverse—“but it tends toward justice.” So, yes, as a socialist, I do find myself in agreement with the notion of a Genius about the United States and its political and social arrangements, a Genius that shines through even under a Trump: the protests of Black Lives Matter in the streets being but one notable example!
Further, as a writer and a poet, I am especially concerned with censorship and self-censorship, lest I inadvertently pay for my indiscretion with a jail sentence, or even with my life. Here in the U.S., at least, I really don’t have to worry about a state-functionary commissar looking over my shoulder and peering at what I write, lest I write something “incorrect”—a mental ease I would not have had in the former U.S.S.R of Stalin and Brezhnev, nor even automatically under Lenin and Trotsky; nor in Maoist or even Dengist China, and certainly not today there under President Xi; certainly not at all in North Korea; and not even in the freest of the “socialist” states, Cuba! Is it too much to ask that a really socialist criminology and criminal justice system not include a Gulag?! For the absence of such certainly wasn’t the reality under “already existing socialism,” to invoke the euphemistic phrase of Brezhnev that accurately described not states that were “socialist,” but were “bureaucratic collectivist” or “state capitalist” instead.
So, for me, socialism means more than state ownership of the means of production—which raises the question, who runs the state that owns such means of production? That those who run such a state are all members of a “Communist” party with a monopoly on all forms of political and social expression certainly hasn’t, historically, guaranteed their humaneness and willingness to tolerate disagreement, to say the very, very least! So, for me, that must mean—socialism is more than state ownership of the means of production, or even collective, as opposed to strictly private, property. Socialism, to be truly sociable and humane, must be thoroughly democratic, transparent, and accountable—precisely what the “socialist” states to date haven’t been!
“Bourgeois rights” of suffrage, freedom of speech and expression, a free press, antidiscrimination, civil rights and civil liberties, are not afterthoughts, irrelevancies, or circus-like distractions. They are as vital for a socialist movement that is fully committed to freedom and democracy as is the fight against egregious economic inequality, or for full, meaningful employment. No one understood or expressed this better than did a seminal socialist with impeccable revolutionary bona fides, Rosa Luxemburg. In The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), Luxemburg articulates this well, even though, by certain contemporary “left” standards, she sounds like a “mere bourgeois liberal.” (“The Russian Revolution” was written in 1919, and unfinished at the time of her murder; “Leninism or Marxism?” was originally published in 1904 in both Russian and German, in the Russian socialist Iskra and the German socialist Neue Zeit newspapers under the title, “Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy.” When first translated into English, it was under the title “Leninism or Marxism?”) She bears quoting at length (all quotations taken from “The Russian Revolution”):
Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom of the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical conception of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege. (p. 69)
[T]he remedy which Trotsky and Lenin have found, the elimination of democracy as such, is worse than the disease it is supposed to cure; for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come the correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammeled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people. (p. 62)
We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy; we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom—not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy—not to eliminate democracy altogether. (p. 77)
Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. (pp. 71-72)
Yates also writes tellingly (p. 25) of the necessity to establish universal comprehensive healthcare as a right, and addresses the problem, made very palpable with the economic shutdown necessitated by COVID-19, of mass unemployment and economic devastation, overlooking that such necessities are already advocated in concrete legislative form in Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All (originally endorsed, though later repudiated, even by Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Kamala Harris), as well as in Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. Thus does “reformist” reality from a “social-democratic” perspective outpace the wish-list of the—ultraleft!
Truth is, and this goes to the very heart of “left wing of the feasible,” it is better to concretely fight for and even attain, when we can, the half-loaf of good bread now, rather than sit it out and await the “inevitable” dozen chocolate eclairs that supposedly are coming our way when we refuse to accept the “merely” feasible, as our ultralefts, including Michael Yates, would have it. We of the left in the advanced capitalist world have been waiting for the “inevitable” worker-led socialist revolution ever since at least the Chartists, and only on the “authority” that Marx and Engels said it would happen. But such is not based on a materialist analysis or realistic appraisal of existing condition, but, rather, is an example of quasi-religious wishful thinking. (The opposite of the Third Comintern Congress’s emphasis on “concrete analysis of concrete conditions.”) As Liu Shaoqi, second only to Mao in the Chinese Communist Party before he was railroaded into prison where, again under the aegis of Mao, he was allowed to die of untreated diabetes and pneumonia, put it trenchantly, “Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Chairman Mao have all made mistakes.” So, for that matter, have Trotsky, Gramsci, the Castro brothers, and even scientific luminaries such as Darwin, Newton, and Einstein! “Infallible popes and prophets” are best left consigned to the “dustbin of history” where they belong as mere religious artifacts. No such exist in the real world. For, yes, results in the here-and-now do count, and they are the lifeblood of a viable socialist movement. They are truly the essence of the “left wing of the feasible,” and deserve our front-and-center attention and activism precisely because of it.
Biographical Note: George Fish is a socialist writer and poet living in Indianapolis, Indiana, heart of Trumpland, where he is also an “essential worker” grocery stocker and member of the UFCW. He has previously appeared in Monthly Review (MR) and on MR Online four times: with February 1988’s “Two Kinds of Atheism,” February 1994’s review-essay “The Vietnam War at Home” in MR, and on MR Online with February 11, 2007’s “Soul-Shakers, Gone but Not Forgotten” and May 25, 2019’s “Review of Alan Nasser’s Overripe Economy,” as well as other publications on the left. Fish genially describes himself at present as a “right opportunist/Bernie Bro by default,” and was labeled a “backward worker” by a prominent socialist professor of Indian Brahmin (i.e., elite) descent—to which Fish retorts, he is not so much “backward” as he is realistic. A white, Baby Boomer, cis-male by accident of birth, George Fish has long since transcended such “identities.