A Democratic Socialist’s Almanac is a podcast exploring all things relevant to Socialism today, from the latest scholarship regarding the socialist tradition to socialist reflections on our current moment and where to go from here. Below is a partial prospectus with a subject by subject bibliography.
Written by Lelyn R. Masters with a Memphis Music Soundtrack by Harry Koniditsiotis
Fusaro, Diego. Marx, Epicurus, and the Origins of Historical Materialism. Permanent Press, 2017.
The French and Haitian Revolutions
Davidson, Ian. The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny. Profile Books, 2016.
Furet, François, and Karl Marx. Marx and the French Revolution. University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Israel, Jonathan. Revolutionary ideas: an intellectual history of the French Revolution from the Rights of Man to Robespierre. Princeton University Press, 2015.
James, Cyril Lionel Robert. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Penguin UK, 2001.
Scott, Julius S. The common wind: Afro-American currents in the age of the Haitian Revolution. Verso Books, 2018.
Not Marx’s Capital
Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the margins: on nationalism, ethnicity, and non-western societies. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Israel, Jonathan I. The Enlightenment that Failed: Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748-1830. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Marik, Soma. Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism. Haymarket Books, 2018.
Rosenberg, Arthur. Democracy and socialism: a contribution to the political history of the past 150 years. Beacon Press, 1939.
Eternal Life, Abolition and Class
Brooks, Kinitra D. Searching for Sycorax: Black Women's Hauntings of Contemporary Horror. Rutgers University Press, 2018.
Carruthers, Charlene. Unapologetic: A Black, queer, and feminist mandate for radical movements. Beacon Press, 2018.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction In America: An Essay Toward A History Of The Part Which Black Folk Played In The Attempt To Reconstruct Democracy In America, 1860-1880. New York: Russell & Russell [1966, c1935. Print.
Foner, Eric. The second founding: How the civil war and reconstruction remade the constitution. WW Norton & Company, 2019.
Nadler, Steven. "Spinoza's' Ethics': An Introduction." (2006).
World War I, Original Sin and Karl Kautsky
Clark, Christopher M. Iron kingdom: the rise and downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. Harvard University Press, 2006.
Clark, Christopher. The sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914. Penguin UK, 2012.
Donald, Moira. Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists, 1900-1924. Yale University Press, 1993.
McMeekin, Sean. The Russian Origins of the First World War. Harvard University Press, 2011.
Spinoza, Baruch. Spinoza: Complete Works. Hackett Publishing, 2002.
Nero, Oreste, Stalin, Trotsky
Deutsher, J. "The prophet armed." (1979).
Deutscher, Isaac. The prophet unarmed: Trotsky, 1921-1929. Verso, 2003.
Sgambato-Ledoux, Isabelle. Oreste et Néron. Spinoza, Freud et le mal. Classiques Garnier, 2017.
Trotsky, Leon. History of the Russian revolution. Haymarket Books, 2008.
Broué, Pierre. Communistes contre Staline. Fayard, 2003.
The Spanish Civil War Reconsidered
Beevor, Anthony. "The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936–1939 (London, 2006), 106–7 and 269–70 and Albertí." La Iglesia en llamas: 277-86.
Graham, Helen. The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
McKay, Claude. Amiable with Big Teeth. Penguin, 2017.
Morrow, Felix. Revolution & Counter Revolution in Spain. Pathfinder Press, 1974.
Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia/Down and Out in Paris and London. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.
A Guide to High Maoism
Isaacs, Harold Robert. The tragedy of the Chinese revolution. Haymarket Books, 2010.
Lovell, Julia. Maoism: A Global History. Random House,
Mr. Jennings taught me US History in High School.
Music by Harry
Don't Just Stand There
[This episode was recorded live at Five and Dime at noon on August 14, 2020]
That’s it for the first season of A Democratic Socialist’s Almanac. Some odds and ends may float up afterwards, some updates or conversations, but further episodes will not add anything essential to what has been said here. The goal was to articulate a particular vision. If success were measured by a change in the attitudes of the bulk of the US left, then I failed, but by that measure failure may have been inevitable. Insofar as existence itself is a kind of victory, then the podcast is a success. Each episode is downloaded by around 150 people. That’s not much, but given that the material, a discussion of the liberal Marx, is dense and niche, and that my promotion skills are limited, it shouldn’t be taken to mean that these ideas are unpopular as such. It’s just that people who think this way don’t find representation in the left press, for reasons I’ve discussed at length in the episodes on Syria and the Ukraine. And for what it’s worth, I’ve always felt that despite the smallness of our reach, we still have a moral obligation to show whoever we can that there is another and a better way.
We are currently living a very dangerous moment. I do not mean the banal observation that we are now under great physical and political threat, although we are threatened in these ways. I mean that we are under a great moral risk. Our very humanity is at stake in these moments. I’ll come back to the present, but first I’m going to talk a little about people in the past in another part of the world whose experiences are not really so remote now. The problems of everyday people living under fascist domination could become our problems very soon, and I want to discuss them here.
As WW2 progressed the Nazis relied more and more on Jewish labor because German men were dying in disastrous colonial wars in Eastern Europe. This naturally extended to the mass extermination sites. Often Jews were forced to herd their confreres and coreligionists into gas chambers. This was the case at Belcek. These people followed Nazi orders under threat of death, and if they died in revolt for sure someone else would have done those tasks. I don’t think their situation is a moral one: they don’t really have a choice. When they got a good chance to attempt escape or revolt they did so. They had a range of options that was incredibly narrow, and these options were determined by actions far removed in time and space from them. People who lived under Nazi occupation had a little more agency. They could choose to risk their lives and the lives of their family to rescue Jewish people. In different situations different people found ways to be heroic or not (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXrqGlgufCA). There are few moral heroes in reality, and they are praiseworthy, but we can’t expect them to present a solution to our problems as they seem to in all the movies. There were people in this story who could easily have made a different choice.
In the Spring of 1933 Germany had its last free elections. There are many reasons why they were led to this impasse, and I’ve treated them somewhat in an episode of this podcast. Ultimately it boils down to a near universal loss of faith in democracy and in the context of the socialist tradition the crisis took the form of a split in the left about democracy. It’s in those final elections in Weimar Germany that the actions of a decade later were determined, narrowed and captured. Had the left rallied to the democratic Weimar republic, or simply been able to form a government with conservatives, those conservatives may not have felt they needed to lift Hitler into power. As I discuss in the episode on Germany, a dozen conservative governments around Europe blocked fascists from taki
17. A Guide to Joe Biden
Regardless of whether I agree with Joe Biden’s politics, after reading about him in depth I really like Joe Biden. I did not expect to like Joe Biden. I expected to find him to be an acceptable alternative to Donald Trump. But now I have real hope that a Biden presidency could transform our nation. Hear me out!
In 2010 Jules Witcover published an excellent biography of Joe Biden entitled: “Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption.” If you can only read one book about Joe Biden, that should be the one. Biden’s 2007 autobiography “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics” give a little more detail about his motivations at key moments. His 2017 book “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose” is Joe Biden’s telling of the year his son Beau died of cancer and how Biden managed being the Vice President through that. Joe Biden is like FDR in that they both suffered great hardship, and that personal tragedy drove them to seek out compassionate policy. But we should start from the beginning.
Joe Biden’s childhood was idyllic. Joe was a star athlete throughout childhood, and apparently a fearless little dare devil. He did stunts, like Jackass, except he never got hurt. He had a community that rallied to him and lifted him up. His family was not wealthy, but they were not poor. They were upper middle class, though his Father Biden Sr. suffered a series of business failures and periodic unemployment throughout Joe’s early childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The family is Irish Catholic, and so Biden had temperance drilled into him at a young age. It’s possible Joe Biden has never had an alcoholic drink. His parents seem to have succeeded in instilling in Joe Biden a basic optimism about human nature: the idea that people don’t mean to harm each other really, but they end up doing it on accident seems to be something Joe Biden fundamentally believes in. When Joe was 10 his family moved to Wilmington, Delaware where Biden Sr. got work cleaning boilers. Joe’s family couldn’t afford to send him to private school, but the young athletic teen had ambitions so he did a work study program. He worked as a janitor at the school so he could attend Archmere Academy (Witcover, p. 21). Joe Biden has a stutter, and he was made fun of by other kids and even one of the nuns who taught at his private school. That first experience of being humiliated for something he had no control over seems to inform the rest of his career: it’s probably why he became a civil rights activist.
Teen Joe Biden hung out at a burger joint called the Charcoal Pit. I just imagine the typical 50s pharmacy hang out where kids would go to have milkshakes after school. Joe Biden was a football star who wanted to become a priest. His mother insisted that he go to college first. The Archmere football team, the Archmere Archers, ended a long losing streak in 1960 thanks in part to Joe’s talents at playing half-back. Wilmington was not as segregated as much of the United States, and the football team had a Black player, Frank Hutchins. One day the owner of the Charcoal Pit refused to serve Frank Hutchins, and in response Joe Biden led the team in a walk out in protest. I’ve been around activist culture for a long time, but I haven’t met anyone who led a protest against racial discrimination in High School. That’s who Joe Biden is. Around this time is when Joe Biden became a lifeguard at a public swimming pool in the Black part of town. Ta-Nehisi Coates was recently interviewed by Ezra Klein. One of the things Coates mentions that makes him optimistic about the current moment is that white people seem to be aware of the racial discrimination that Black people face in America, an awareness that was missing in ‘68. It’s no small thing that Joe Biden was aware of racial discrimination in ‘61.
16. Friends and Enemies
[correction: At the 2019 DSA National Convention it was proposition 15 that defined the DSA position as Bernie-or-Bust, not proposition 32 as I mis-state in the episode. From the motion to adopt: "Primary motivation: We endorsed Bernie whether or not you agree. But if he fails to gain the Democratic nomination, we need to decide what to do. My reso says we know that the other Democratic Party politicians don’t jive with DSA. Do we want DSA to use our legitimacy to boost one such neoliberal candidate? No. Bernie has a unique ability to move people to action. All I say in this reso is that we’re not going to endorse another Democrat."]
When I think about why it is that the US far left, the left that was inspired by Noam Chomsky’s post 9-11 dictum that this was chickens coming home to roost, and how after the Syrian revolution began Chomsky and others decided that they couldn’t support the terrorist’s cause no matter how bad the Assad regime was, I realized how hopelessly incomprehensible the world was if you made hatred of the United States your foundation. I don’t mean to say that terrorism is ever justified: I think it fails even on its own premises. But you get a very different kind of politics if you start from the idea of protecting life and humanistic values. In Chomsky’s case he lent ideological support for the 9-11 hijackers and for the genocidaire Bashar al-Assad, and Milosevic before that, because he based his beliefs on the premise that America is always the main thing we have to struggle against. I think the example of the Syrian revolution, it’s betrayal by western intellectuals, sets in stark contrast how the idea of absolute enemies makes it impossible to know one’s own values and hence who one’s actual enemy is.
Surely one of the best books on politics of 2020 so far is Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized. In it, he discusses how group identity is so important to our survival, that it drives our reasoning and beliefs more strongly than facts. He tells some uncomfortable truths about race, about partisanship, about why our problems are intractable if we cannot overcome the reigning polarization, and gives some advice about how to do good work in the increasingly static ideological environment. One insight Klein uplifts for us there is found in the research of the social psychologist and holocaust surviver Henri Tajfel. In 1970 Tajfel published a paper called “Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination.” In that study Tajfel randomly split up 64 teenage boys into two groups. Each boy was given a small amount of money to hand out to the others as they wished, equipped only with the knowledge of which of the two random groups each belonged to. The boys all gave more money to members of their own group. In a later study Tajfel found the same behavior even if the overall payout was higher if the boys gave money to someone from the other group. From Klein: “they preferred to give their group less so long as it meant the gap between what they got and what the out-group got was bigger… Far from their behavior showing a pure desire to maximize their group’s gains, they often gave their group less to increase the difference between them and the out-group. Far from the money being the prime motivator, ‘it is the winning that seems more important to them,’ wrote Tajfel.” (pp. 54,55). Klein then goes on to discuss the work of Patrick R. Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover discussing the same dynamic at work in politics. People will sacrifice policy gains so that their team can win. This was certainly demonstrated clearly early in the Democratic primary as Bernie Sanders’ most fervent supporters attacked Elizabeth Warren, the closest Democrat to Sanders in policy terms, instead of Joe Biden. Now those same people are attacking Joe Biden, not Donald Trump. These peo
15. Counterrevolution in Ukraine
[Correction: I tried really hard to say "Ukraine" and not "The Ukraine" but I didn't get every instance. I'm very sorry. It's a hard habit to break. I mean no disrespect. ]
The fate of Ukraine is now intimately tied to American politics, and oddly American politics seems doomed now precisely because we have failed Ukraine in some important ways. Hopefully by the end of this podcast you’ll understand.
On January 9 2020 Jacobin published a piece by Christian Parenti entitled “Impeachment Without Class Politics: an Autopsy” reminding us that impeachment and Ukraine don’t matter (https://jacobinmag.com/2020/01/impeachment-class-politics-emolument-constitution). Here’s the first line: “The impeachment proceedings are boring and will result in nothing.” Great. Then they repeat the line that impeachment should have targeted something else: emoluments. This is a particularly strong version of this argument, specifically because it is conceivable legally that an impeachment case could have been mounted around emoluments. First of all, this is still whataboutery, according to which if you didn’t do anything about ‘x’ then you shouldn’t do anything about ‘y’ either. Someone got away with murder so we can never again convict murderers. Secondly, to the public impeachment really was about the whole Trump problem, which is why Republicans kept talking about it not being right to try and undo an election this way. They were obviously wrong about that: this is exactly how the founding fathers expected we could undo an election. But the bigger problem I have about this is that it is wrapped up with the idea that Ukraine doesn’t matter. It may not poll high as a concern to middle America, but part of why that is the case is because outlets like Jacobin are working to convince us it’s unimportant. 13,000 Ukrainians have died as of today, in mid February as I write. That matters. None of these people is mentioned in the article entitled “autopsy.” Their deaths merit no record, no investigation. The article does actually mention Ukraine, briefly, twice, once to mention possible Biden corruption, which demonstrably false and a Trumpian talking point. The article mentions Ukraine a second time at the very end calling the issue “sanctimonious, wrapped-in-the-flag, Kabuki theater about national security and Ukraine - a country few Americans know or care about.” When Parenti asks us why class politics weren’t involved in the impeachment articles he is erasing Russian oppression of Ukrainians, because that’s where the class war is located in this issue. As in all wars, it is the working class that fights this one. He’s somehow ignored or never tried to know about the way Putin and Paul Manafort both got rich exploiting Ukrainian labor. Then he aligns himself with Trump’s anti-Ukraine and anti-America line. That’s the tell: it’s more important to him to be anti-American than it is to reflect on the harm done to Ukrainians and to the idea of international working class, or even just human, solidarity. It’s shameful and dangerous that one of the leading left publications is making the argument that lives of people overseas don’t matter. There’s really no way to build a sense of international solidarity, to inspire Americans with a feeling that immigrants deserve rights, when the US left is committed to discounting the lives of Ukrainians. Let’s do better than this: let’s talk about Ukraine.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, in the west it was expected that free markets would allow the spontaneous development of democratic institutions. Instead in Russia the new wealth would create a kleptocracy that would coalesce around first Yeltsin and then Putin. In Ukraine a set of klans would jostle for power, which was formally exchanged through rigged elections. The E
14. American Imperialism in Syria
[update: here is a link to the OPCW report regarding responsibility for the 2014 chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghoutta: https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2020/04/s-1867-2020%28e%29.pdf ] Now that we’ve put Syrian voices first in explaining how the revolution first came about, we should discuss western involvement in Syria through this period. American involvement in Syria in the past decade has not been honorable, but it is not what people think. As with Spain during the 30s, America in 2011 rejected an active foreign policy, having elected Barack Obama in part because he had voted against the war in Iraq. As in Spain the result was the crushing of a progressive movement and a genocide at the hands of an authoritarian ruler. In previous episodes, my focus was on Syrians, but now I want to discuss what America's response to the Arab Spring in Syria reveals about us, as a nation and as a socialist movement. The weaknesses that reveal themselves in this discussion are crippling our movement, and to be free of them we have to begin the discussion. Let's begin.
Up until 2011 Bashar al-Assad was considered a potential partner in the region. His father Hafez had helped the US to fight Saddam Hussein in the first gulf war, and as is well known, Bill Clinton used to have terrrorism suspects sent to Syria to be tortured (https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2008/07/31/the-long-dark-war). Sam Dagher remarks on this permissive attitude: “After the Second World War, successive US administrations viewed the newly independent states of the Levant and Arabian Peninsula, including Syria, mainly through the prism of the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Washington’s priorities were to secure oil supplies and find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Few of the Middle East’s rising tyrants knew how to exploit this broader geostrategic game better than Hafez al-Assad. By the mid-1970s, Hafez, who was busy enshrining a cultish dictatorship in Syria, received military aid and support from the Soviet Union at the same time that he was getting recognition and financial aid from the US and its rich Gulf Arab allies. There was an unspoken but well-understood quid pro quo with Washington: Hafez was free to do everything he needed to do to maintain his iron grip at home as long as he never waged war against Israel after 1973. Jimmy Carter later called Hafez a ‘strong and moderate’ leader.” Throughout the US’ occupation of Iraq, Bashar al-Assad had allowed foreign Islamist extremists to enter Iraq through Syria. There they joined with Al-Qaeda agents who were being funded by Iran and managed by Qassem Suleimani. When Obama was elected into the office of the President of the United States, Bashar correctly saw an opportunity. “For him [Bashar al-Assad] the real prize was not France or Europe but the United States, where a more momentous change of guard and opportunity occurred. A young senator named Barack Obama had become America’s first black president. Obama regarded Iraq’s invasion as a disastrous mistake and wanted to get out as quickly as possible. He wanted to make a clear break with Bush’s policies, to change America’s image as the world’s sheriff and a cowboy who shoots first and asks questions later. Obama had priorities beyond Middle East regime change. The way Bashar and his allies saw it, Obama seemed like a realist, someone who was not going to hector them about reform and human rights but potentially accept that each country had its particular circumstances and situations… Obama wasted no time in trying to secure Bashar’s and, by extension, Iran’s cooperation in Iraq. He dispatched John Kerry to Damascus in February 2009. The gentlemanly Kerry, a longtime senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, already had one