The Limit of Jonathan Chait's Cold War Liberalism

By David Duhalde

It is difficult to tell if Jonathan Chait is intellectually dishonest or just lazy. Either way, his latest article is a prime example of how as successful liberal legislation plateaus, some rely on tired tropes to defend liberalism instead of introspection. 

In his Wednesday piece in New York Magazine, “Reminder: Liberalism Is Working, and Marxism Has Always Failed,” he conveniently fails to distinguish between the Marxist roots of both democratic socialism/social democracy and those of Leninist regimes such as China and Cuba. Of course, he does praise a strong welfare state such as Denmark, but credits the market - not socialist and working class struggles – for making that country egalitarian. 

It is transparent in the following paragraph that his prime target is not Marxism, however he defines it, but actually democratic Marxists and socialists:

It is on politics, not economics, where the influence of Marxist ideas has been most keenly felt. Enough time has passed since the demise of the Soviet Union to allow Marxist models to thrive without answering for communist regimes. In his fascinating profile of Jacobin, Dylan Matthews notes, “The magazine is not going to defend Stalin's collectivizations or Mao's Great Leap Forward or really any other aspect of ‘actually existing communism.’” But the fact that every communist country in world history quickly turned into a repressive nightmare is kind of important.

Chait is clear, even as he is logically flawed: no matter how much the democratic Left rejects totalitarianism, we are still responsible for its crimes.

Does Chait apply the same standard to himself and other proponents of the Iraq war? Are they culpable for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis? My guess is he does not.

But the liberals Chait wishes to defend is almost as fascinating as the democratic anti-capitalists he wishes to destroy. He added:

Nor do realistic advocates of social and economic equality have any reason to share or accept the left’s desperation. The popular, sitting liberal president has enacted the most important egalitarian social reforms in half a century, including higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes on the poor, and significant new income transfers to poor and working-class Americans through health-care reform and other measures. All of this has happened without the alliance with white supremacy that compromised the New Deal, or the disastrous war that accompanied the Great Society. The case for democratic, pluralistic, incremental, market-friendly governance rooted in empiricism — i.e., liberalism — has never been stronger than now. What an odd time to abandon a successful program for an ideology that has failed everywhere it has been tried.

In many ways, the opposite of his second to last sentence is true. Just look how the two Democratic presidential candidates debated the Affordable Care Act. Senator Bernie Sanders voted for the healthcare reform, but now calls for our country to move beyond it toward a single-payer system. Secretary Hillary Clinton bluntly “reminded” Sanders (and us) that such a reform is “impossible” and we should be happy with Obamacare. It is this kind of “incremental” liberals that is hitting its limits – and this why more and more people are gravitating towards socialism.

Socialists understand, as people such as Chait do not, that policy struggles are about power and resources, just as much as they are about ideas. If progressives – both liberals and leftists – are not willing to challenge corporate power of the healthcare industry, then yes, Hillary Clinton is correct that the ACA is the best we can have. But if we want to build a democratic and mass movement like the one Sanders calls for, we can have Medicare-for-all.

These choices represent the nuance that Chait wishes to avoid. This is why he painstakingly avoids crediting democratic socialists with any gains in liberal democracies he so praises. Doing so would crush the old paradigm of Marxist dictatorships and capitalist democracies his Cold War liberalism clings onto. Lucky for us, the voters are showing this red-baiting is less effective than ever. And people will increasingly turn to democratic socialism as the best way to achieve social justice in public policy.

David Duhalde is the Deputy Director of the Democratic Socialists of America.

 Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

 

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 36 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 51 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 6 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 44 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 69 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.