DSA/Jacobin/Haymarket-sponsored ‘Socialism’ conference features US gov-funded regime-change activists
The 2019 Socialism Conference, sponsored by American leftist juggernauts the DSA, Jacobin magazine, and ISO’s Haymarket Books, features regime-change activists from multiple US government-funded NGOs.
By Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal
Socialism is now apparently brought to you by the US State Department.
From July 4 to 7, thousands of left-wing activists from across the United States are gathering in Chicago for the 2019 Socialism Conference.
At this event, some of the most powerful institutions on the American socialist — but avowedly anti-communist — left have brought together a motley crew of regime-change activists to demonize Official Enemies of Washington.
One anti-China panel at the conference features speakers from two different organizations that are both bankrolled by the US government’s soft-power arm the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a group founded out of Ronald Reagan’s CIA in the 1980s to grease the wheels of right-wing regime-change efforts and promote “free markets” across the planet.
Another longtime ally who has spoken at every single annual Socialism Conference since 2009, Anand Gopal, works at a liberal foundation that is directly funded by the US State Department. He is headlining a panel this year to provide “A Socialist View of the Arab Spring.”
Yet another 2019 conference panel rails against the socialist governments of Nicaragua and Cuba — two-thirds of John Bolton’s “troika of tyranny” — with outspoken proponents of regime change. One of the speakers, Dan La Botz, hosted an event in 2018 that featured right-wing Nicaraguan activists wearing masks and disguised as students, who were junketed to meet with Republican lawmakers in Washington by the US government-funded right-wing organization Freedom House.
The Socialism Conference’s regime-change lobbying “Nicaragua expert” La Botz has admitted in leaked emails obtained by The Grayzone that “there is virtually no left among the opposition” to Nicaragua’s democratically elected socialist government.
La Botz, a leader within Democratic Socialists of America, likewise acknowledged in these emails that there is “little likelihood of an outcome to the rebellion that goes beyond a more democratic capitalist regime.” But he has still vociferously lobbied for Nicaragua’s Sandinista government to be overthrown by US government-backed insurgents — and is using his platform at the biggest socialist conference in the United States to do it.
Merging of largest US socialist organizations
The 2019 Socialism Conference is advertised under the catchy slogan: “No borders, no bosses, no binaries.”
Each ticket comes in at a neat $105 per person (or a $250 “solidarity rate,” for the hardcore supporters) — and this doesn’t include the rate for the rooms at the hotel where it’s held.
For years, the Socialism Conference functioned as a platform for the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a small group steeped in the tradition of sectarian American Trotskyite politics, which pushed a hardline anti-communism and attacked virtually all socialist governments in history as “not truly socialist.”
Founded in 1977 after a long line of sectarian splits, the ISO never became a significant political force. It was mostly relegated to recruiting young impressionable students on liberal arts college campuses.
As an avowedly anti-communist organization, the ISO eschewed symbols long associated with the communist left, like hammers and sickles and red flags. Instead, it chose a clenched fist — one eerily similar to the symbol used by the US government-funded Serbian activist group Otpor and similar offshoots in Eastern Europe, which carried out Washington-backed neoliberal “color revolutions” in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism.
The ISO claimed to be anti-war, but its leaders spent a disproportionate percentage of their time and resources attacking the anti-imperialist left. They could more accurately be referred to as the anti-anti-imperialist left.
This March, the ISO voted to dissolve — in a decision some former members joked was the most democratic act ever undertaken by the organization, which had been dominated by an unelected leadership of veteran Trotskyite activists.
The dissolution was prompted by evidence that the ISO’s steering committee mishandled sexual assault allegations. It also came as the ISO’s membership was shrinking and rapidly being absorbed by a newly burgeoning anti-communist organization, the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA.
Now that the ISO has dissolved, some of its past prominent members have entered the ranks of the DSA, burrowing from within to inject their anti-anti-imperialist politics into the group.
Because Trotskyites are so sectarian and notoriously incapable of holding together organizations, they are infamous for infiltrating larger, more popular groups and trying to take them over, in a tactic known as entryism.
This is precisely the strategy being used by former members of the ISO — and by another tiny US Trotskyite organization, Solidarity, which was led by anti-Nicaragua regime-change activist and Socialism Conference speaker Dan La Botz, now a leader in DSA.
Democratic Socialists of America is the largest self-described socialist organization in the United States, with more than 60,000 card-carrying members. It is also very heterogeneous, with many internal contradictions and conflicting political views.
In 2019, for the first time, the organizers of the Socialism Conference — including many holdovers from the ISO leadership — joined together with two new sponsors: DSA, and the closely DSA-allied Jacobin magazine, another platform for anti-communist and anti-anti-imperialist politics.
At the bottom of the Socialism conference website, a note reads, “Brought to you by Haymarket, Jacobin, and the Democratic Socialists of America.” Haymarket is the book publishing arm of the now-defunct ISO, and its editorial board features some of the group’s former leaders.
The 2019 Socialism Conference, like its annual predecessors, combines calls for radical economic democratic transformation and progressive social progress with the demonization of independent foreign governments that are targeted by the US government for regime change, such as Nicaragua, Cuba, Syria, Iran, China, and Russia.
Curiously, the 2019 Socialism Conference has no panels devoted specifically to Venezuela, which since this January has endured a US-led right-wing coup attempt, and which is suffering under suffocating sanctions that amount to a de facto economic blockade. In the past, the ISO has harshly criticized Venezuela’s democratically elected socialist government, condemning Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro for not being radical enough and for not supposedly implementing the vague concept of “socialism from below.”
In this way, the 2019 Socialism Conference also stands out as a sign of the effective political merging of what had previously been two distinct political trends: the Cliffite Trotskyites of the International Socialist Organization and the anti-communist social democrats of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Anti-China ‘workers’ rights’ groups funded by anti-labor US government
One of the most eyebrow-raising panels at the 2019 Socialism Conference is entitled “China and the US: Inter-Imperial Rivalry or Class Struggle and Solidarity?” The panel portrays the US and China as equally malicious imperialist powers, downplaying and whitewashing the uniquely destructive nature of Washington’s foreign wars and corporate domination.
The panel features three speakers, two of whom work for anti-China groups that are funded by the US government’s regime-change arm, the National Endowment for Democracy. The third speaker is Ashley Smith, a former leader of the ISO who has spent the past eight years romanticizing foreign-backed, far-right sectarian Islamist “moderate rebels” in Syria.
The first speaker listed on the panel is Elaine Lu, the program officer at China Labor Watch. This group is described by the Socialism conference website simply as “a New York-based NGO advocating for workers’ rights in China.”
What Socialism Conference sponsors DSA, Jacobin, and Haymarket did not disclose is that its speaker’s employer is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.
The NED states without qualification that its goals include supporting “free markets” abroad. At the top of the about page on its website is a video of right-wing cold warrior Ronald Reagan inaugurating the US government-funded body.
China Labor Watch’s other major donor is the Tides Foundation, a liberal organization that also happened to be one of the main financial sponsor’s of the ISO’s parent non-profit. In 2014, Tides gave $40,645 to China Labor Watch, another 17 percent of its budget that year.
Joining Elaine Lu as the other main speaker on the Socialism Conference’s anti-China panel is Kevin Lin, who coordinates the China program at the Washington, DC-based NGO the International Labor Rights Forum.
The Socialism Conference once again failed to mention that this group is also bankrolled by the National Endowment for Democracy.
According to the NED’s 2016 form 990, the US government’s regime-change arm gave the International Labor Rights Forum $150,000 that year alone.
The International Labor Rights Forum likewise received $96,590from the NED in 2015, and $62,500 in 2014.
The Socialism Conference also identified Kevin Lin as a co-editor of the Made in China journal, which focuses on labour rights. A disclaimer at the bottom of the publication’s swanky website notes that it is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020, a neoliberal business program which the European Commission describes as “the financial instrument implementing the Innovation Union, a Europe 2020 flagship initiative aimed at securing Europe’s global competitiveness.”
These are the financiers behind the speakers that the Socialism Conference and its sponsors the DSA, Jacobin, and Haymarket brought together to explain why China is a malevolent imperialist power.
Some of these groups may seem progressive, but they operate in effect as vehicles for US government soft power, exploiting the cause of human rights or labor rights to undermine and destabilize foreign governments that Washington has targeted for regime change.
China Labor Watch and the International Labor Rights Forum are far from the only ostensibly progressive anti-China groups funded by the US government.
China Labour Bulletin, which maintains a map of strikes going on across the gigantic country, is likewise frequently cited by left-wing websites in the US. While its slogan is “Supporting the Workers’ Movement in China,” China Labour Bulletin (CLB) is actually based in Hong Kong, and it is funded by the US government.
CLB notes on its website that it “receives grants from a wide range of government or quasi-government bodies, trade unions and private foundations, all of which are based outside of China.” For decades, CLB’s founder and executive director Han Dongfang broadcasted anti-China programming on Radio Free Asia, a US government-funded propaganda outlet that was founded by the CIA to push anti-communist disinformation. Han’s work is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, and he was a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
The ISO’s newspaper Socialist Worker has praised Han Dongfangas a leftist hero, without ever disclosing his extensive links to the US government’s regime-change machinery. Socialist Worker has repeatedly drawn on the work of China Labour Bulletin, over more than a decade. The ISO’s journal the International Socialist Reviewhas also relied on the US government-funded organization’s research, and Jacobin magazine has noted CLB’s “roots go back to the Tiananmen Square protests.”
Human Rights Watch, another key part of the regime-change lobby, has lionized Han, happily noting that his show on the US government’s Radio Free Asia “is one of the network’s most popular programs.”
China is just one of the countries where the US government’s soft-power arm funds such putative progressive groups. The NED likewise funds many liberal anti-Cuba organizations, such as the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, Center for a Free Cuba, the Cuban Institute for the Freedom of Expression and Press, and the news website CubaNet. Or there are NED-funded groups pushing regime change against Syria and Iran, like the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and Human Rights Activists in Iran.
While the United States has one of the lowest rates of unionizationin the industrialized world, a bloody history of worker repression and anti-labor laws, and historically weak unions among those that still do exist, its regime-change arm the NED has funded workers’ rights groups to promote a progressive image of America abroad.
For decades, for instance, the NED has bankrolled the international Solidarity Center of the major union federation the AFL-CIO. The center receives tens of millions of dollars from the US government’s regime-change arm annually, and returns the favor by avoiding topics that would anger the US State Department and bite the hand that feeds it.
Throughout the Cold War, the AFL-CIO remained a reliably anti-communist union that received funding from US government agencies, including the CIA, in order to combat and ultimately try to eliminate communist influence in the American labor movement. It was a textbook example of a controlled opposition.
This is not to say that NED-funded groups cannot at times have a positive impact on the lives of average people in repressive environments. But their work is always part of a larger agenda, with ulterior imperial motives guiding them along the way. A controlled opposition can make some changes, but it always remains controlled.
US State Department-funded speaker providing ‘socialist’ take on ‘Arab Spring’
Yet another speaker at the 2019 Socialism Conference works for a liberal foundation directly funded by the US government.
The Socialism Conference website did not provide a bio for Gopal, yet alone disclose that his employer is funded by the US government. It simply described him as a “Pulitzer-Prize nominated journalist,” and said he will explain how to understand “the lessons of the protests, uprisings, rebellions, and wars that shook the Arab world beginning in 2011.”
‘Socialist’ lobbying for US-backed right-wing coup in Nicaragua
Another noteworthy 2019 Socialism Conference panel, called “Problems of the US Left: The Cases of Cuba and Nicaragua,” is led by Dan La Botz and Samuel Farber, veteran Trotskyite activists and outspoken proponents of regime change in the two respective countries.
The speakers’ problem with the US left appears to be that it has demonstrated too much solidarity with socialist governments in Havana and Managua, which, in their view from inside the United States, “rely more on bureaucracy than democracy.”
Farber is a Cuban exile who left the country for unspecified reasons in 1958 – a year before its revolution – and spent the rest of his life as a professional critic of its socialist government. Today, he contributes regular attacks on the Cuban Revolution to journals from Jacobin to New Politics to In These Times, where he published a trenchant denunciation of Fidel Castro upon his death in 2016.
Farber accuses Castro of developing a model of “state capitalism,” wielding a term Trotskyite ideologues routinely fling at any revolutionary government that is insufficiently pure. He calls for “a revolutionary democratic alternative… through socialist resistance from below.”
The concept of regime change “from below” is also central to the rhetoric of exile groups like the People’s MEK, a US- and Saudi-backed cult of personality that calls for toppling Iran’s government through “indigenous regime change.”
Dan La Botz, for his part, has risen to prominence as a full-time opponent of another member of the Trump administration’s “troika of tyranny”: the socialist government of Nicaragua, and the Sandinista movement that it represents.
La Botz has published an anti-Sandinista manifesto with ISO publisher Haymarket Books, which is advertised as a survey of “the failures of the Nicaraguan Revolution, by one of the most important Marxist-historians of Latin America.”
In June 2018, as a US-backed, violent regime-change attempt surged across Nicaragua, threatening the rule of democratically elected President Daniel Ortega, La Botz attempted to mobilize left-wing US support for the anti-Sandinista opposition. That month, he joined an anti-Sandinista event — co-sponsored by DSA’s New York branch, Haymarket, the academic journal NACLA, and the Marxist Education Project — at Saint Peter’s Church in New York City, to drum up local support for the coup.
The event featured speeches by several Nicaraguan anti-Sandinista activists who were involved in the regime-change attempt, including self-described students who wore masks on stage, concealing their identities from the audience.
The Grayzone has obtained internal DSA email reports authored by La Botz which revealed that, days after the event at Saint Peter’s Church, those same students met with right-wing Republican legislators on Capitol Hill, including neoconservative Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
The students beamed with pride, appearing without masks in photo ops with the avowedly anti-socialist members of Congress. Their trip was financed by Freedom House, a right-wing soft-power organization that is funded almost entirely by the US government.
Humbled to meet with Nicaraguan student leaders who are risking their lives fighting for freedom. Their bravery and perseverance will overcome the Ortega dictatorship’s tyranny. #SOSNicaraguapic.twitter.com/BGkc6kEVTc
The students’ US-backed delegation included Victor Cuadras, a fanatical right-wing activist who openly supported Donald Trump’s agenda for Latin America and blamed the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua for the caravan of desperate asylum seekers on the US-Mexico border.
On June 15, 2018, Dan La Botz sent an email report to DSA leadership, reflecting on the event. He acknowledged that “the Nicaraguans both on the panel and in the public had virtually no political analysis and no vision or program for the future of their country.”
Then in a follow-up email report sent to DSA leadership on July 24, La Botz defended the students’ collaboration with neoconservative politicians like Rubio and Cruz.
“The students, ages 21 to 24 or so, who spoke on our panel then went off to speak with Republican legislators, guided by a rightwing foundation,” he wrote. “While, of course, we do not think that this is a good strategy, this is perfectly understandable given that the Republicans are in power and have the ability to do something about Nicaragua.”
While marketing the anti-Sandinista activists as grassroots youth deserving of left-wing solidarity, La Botz admitted in his internal DSA report, “Nicaraguan opponents of the regime in the United States hold a wide variety of political views, though there is virtually no left among the opposition here that I am aware of.”
And while publicly framing the regime-change operation in Nicaragua as a progressive uprising, La Botz privately conceded, “There is, however, little likelihood of an outcome to the rebellion that goes beyond a more democratic capitalist regime.”
While the coup attempt in Nicaragua was portrayed as a peaceful people’s uprising by figures like La Botz, it was in fact a violent putsch that saw armed elements erect roadblocks across the country, holding up ambulances, torturing, brutalizing, kidnapping, and murdering supporters of the Sandinistas.
On January 9, Dan La Botz appeared at a meeting of the New York City DSA Anti-War Working Group to amp up the attack on Nicaragua’s socialist government. There, he was challenged by Gunar Olsen, a contributor to The Grayzone, about the event he organized last year with masked right-wing Nicaraguan students sponsored by Freedom House.
La Botz claimed that the event had originally been planned as a discussion of his book, but that “somebody said, these students were coming through. And I said, that sounds great.”
He continued: “My view is, they came from their country because someone gave em some money, and they can come to the United States and they wanted to talk to somebody who might be able to help their country… It may have been though that there were some conservative political forces working with them and the Republicans, it may have been that there was some of those four students that was more hip than the others but it wasn’t my impression.”
La Botz concluded by telling Olsen and the DSA crowd, “I don’t feel at all bad, I don’t think it was a terrible thing. I think they were four young people coming to this country that wanted to speak there. We didn’t know they were going there, we didn’t know where they were heading, I didn’t know they were gonna speak there. Would I do it again? If I knew what was going to happen I’d probably say, let’s see if we can find some other students.”
However, in his private email assessment of the event to DSA leadership, La Botz had defended the students’ subsequent meetings with right-wing Republicans as “perfectly understandable.”
In his internal DSA report, La Botz went on to characterize those in the US left that opposed the coup in Nicaragua as “foreign leftists” who are “backers of Putin, Assad, Iran, Hamas, and now Ortega.”
La Botz did not respond to several attempts to reach him by phone.
‘Revolutionary socialists’ funded by the non-profit industrial complex
The force behind the annual Socialism Conference, the International Socialist Organization marketed itself as a radical, even revolutionary movement supporting “socialism from below.” But it was deeply embedded in the non-profit industrial complex.
The Tides Foundation is well known for funding progressive groups, but only as long as they do not rock the boat too much.
A Canadian environmental activist who has participated in projects funded by Tides told The Grayzone that the foundation funded a trip to the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, but eventually pulled funding for their environmental group’s excursion to the 2012 UN conference in Doha, Qatar, because the foundation was afraid the activists would carry out peaceful forms of civil disobedience.
“They funded some people — those who wouldn’t rock the boat because they didn’t want people engaging in civil disobedience,” the Canadian environmental activist told The Grayzone.
Another activist published a “whistleblower’s open letter to Canadians” explaining that the Tides Foundation, which funded many environmentalists in the country, was “too afraid of reprisals from the government to act,” after the office of right-wing Prime Minister Stephen Harper threatened to challenge the foundation’s charitable status.
Why a milquetoast liberal foundation would fund the ISO, a supposedly revolutionary socialist organization, raises serious questions about that group’s agenda.
In fact, while the Tides Foundation was serving as one of the biggest financiers of the ISO, it was also funding Democratic Party-aligned organizations and even pro-Israel groups like J Street and the New Israel Fund, which actively campaign against the Palestinian call for BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel) and support the preservation of a settler-colonialist ethnically exclusivist state.
Haymarket Books, blending important literature with regime change propaganda
While the ISO was marginal during its existence, it punched above its weight through front organizations and prominent members who worked in the mainstream media and academia.
The ISO’s publishing arm, Haymarket Books, has been especially influential. Haymarket describes itself as a “radical, independent, nonprofit book publisher based in Chicago,” which had been the base for the ISO.
Haymarket has indeed published many important books on pressing issues. However, it has supplemented these works with anti-anti-imperialist screeds that echo the US State Department’s rhetoric, but framed as “from the left.”
Among Haymarket’s most aggressively marketed releases of 2018 was “The Impossible Revolution,” a collection of essays by the Syrian exiled writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who now lives in Turkey and functions as a lodestar to self-styled left-wing supporters of regime change in Syria.
Al-Haj Saleh’s book was blurbed by Charles Lister, a former functionary of the UK’s Conservative Party who became a top lobbyist for arming Salafi-jihadist insurgents in Syria at the Gulf monarchy-funded Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
State Department cables exposed by WikiLeaks indicate that Yassin al-Haj Saleh was a US government informant in regular correspondence with American officials in Damascus. One such memo, dated April 24, 2006, features advice by al-Haj Saleh apparently delivered to US officials in the country to use Islamism as a weapon against the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Haymarket has also recently published “Indefensible,” a book-length denunciation of the anti-imperialist left by the writer Rohini Hensman.
The manifesto features ham-fisted attacks on journalists Julian Assange, John Pilger, and Seymour Hersh, along with unqualified support for virtually every US and NATO military intervention in the past 30 years, as well as the dirty war on Syria and the Maidan coup in Ukraine.
Anand Gopal, the longtime ISO ally who speaks at the Socialism Conference every year, while working for a liberal foundation funded by the US State Department, praised Hensman’s book as a guide to “how to be a principled internationalist in the era of imperialism.”
More recently, Hensman took to the DSA’s official website to attack The Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal, Seymour Hersh, and Robert Fisk as “neo-Stalinists” engaged in a “convergence” with neo-Nazis. No evidence was provided to support the extreme claim.
Ashley Smith, an ideologue of the now-defunct ISO, says he is currently writing another anti-anti-imperialist book for Haymarket entitled “Socialism and Anti-Imperialism.”
Tiny, irrelevant Trotskyite groups, from South to North America
Trotskyite groups are notorious throughout the world for their extreme sectarian tendencies. The organizations rarely last long, frequently splintering into tiny groupuscules over political disagreements.
Unsurprisingly, then, the so-called “left” opposition in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba — which is celebrated by Trotskyite groups like the ISO — is in fact infinitesimal and insignificant.
As Blumenthal, a co-author of this article, revealed in MintPress News, the MRS has received direct support from the US government in its campaign to prevent the election of Daniel Ortega as president, and lobbied for sanctions against Nicaragua after he was elected.
Similarly, in Venezuela the ostensible left opposition has offered “critical support” to Washington’s regime change efforts.
Jesus Rodriguez Espinoza, a Chavista who lives in Venezuela and is editor of the independent news website, the Orinoco Tribune, told The Grayzone when we reported in the country in February that Marea Socialista is “tiny” and has “no power.” He was genuinely surprised at how much coverage these minuscule groups have received in the US progressive media, because inside Venezuela they have negligible influence.
Yet the Trotskyite organization has constantly been given a platform by the ISO’s newspaper Socialist Worker (Marea Socialista even enjoys its own tag on the website). Jacobin Magazine, the self-declared “leading voice of the American left,” has also given a huge platform to Marea Socialista operatives to push for what they call a “Chavismo from below” — despite the fact that the Trotskyite group is virtually unknown to average Venezuelans, including to millions of poor and working-class Chavistas.
Also featured in the February 5 photo of the meeting with US-backed coup leader Juan Guaidó was the anti-Maduro liberal intellectual Edgardo Lander, who is popular in anti-communist left-wing circles in the US but almost unknown inside Venezuela. Like Marea Socialista, Lander has enjoyed very positive coverage in the progressive Anglo press.
Democracy Now, which has advanced regime-change propaganda on Syria on repeated occasions, offered its platform to Lander this May. Hosts Amy Goodman and Nermeen Sheikh lobbed softball questions at the intellectual, and failed to disclose that he met with Guaidó.
In his Democracy Now segment, Lander admitted that his outfit is a “small collective,” whereas the Chavista movement he criticizes is massively popular in working-class barrios across the country.
The International Socialist Organization has played a similar role in the US, with little visibility outside the left and almost no grassroots base.
Now that the ISO has disbanded, its veterans can reach into the rapidly growing ideologically diffuse world of Democratic Socialists of America, using platforms like Socialism 2019 to infect DSA’s youthful core with the imperial politics of regime change – but always “from the left,” and always “from below.”