For at least a year now a bitter online feud has played out between Marxist-Leninist activist Caleb Maupin, and the group of online content creators known as BreadTube. Breadtube creators such as Ian “Vaush” Kochinski have grown large online followings for giving political and cultural commentary from the left. Ideologically Vaush claims to be both a socialist and a dialectical materialist, while the name “BreadTube” is derived from famous anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s text Conquest of Bread. Caleb Maupin has repeatedly criticized BreadTube as an entity since doing an online debate with Vaush over a year ago. Caleb’s new book BreadTube Serves Imperialism attempts to systematize his argument that BreadTube creators are overall harmful to the movement for socialism. Maupin suspects that there may be direct ties between the US State Department and BreadTube. Since there is no incriminating evidence of this the book sets out to prove that regardless of whether Vaush and other creators are tied to US intelligence or not, they serve the same purpose of propping up the American ruling class and American Imperialism by extension.
While BreadTubers have mocked Caleb for even taking the time to write a book about them, a systematized formulation of these arguments is welcomed by those of us who have watched this conflict play out exclusively online. The online culture around politics is notoriously toxic and ideas are usually debated publicly through 280-character tweets or live-streamed online debates. The idea that anyone would write a book engaging with the ideas and tactics of their intellectual rivals is foreign to this online political climate, despite the fact that for years political theorists engaged with each other through publishing written material. Bad Empanada (a BreadTube figure not mentioned in the book) proudly declared in his original video response that he would not be reading the full book. Perhaps when Marx responded to Proudhon’s Philosophy of Poverty with a book titled Poverty of Philosophy, Proudhon should have simply refused to read the book, and challenged Marx to a Twitch debate instead.
To make the argument that BreadTube is ultimately harmful to left politics Maupin draws comparisons between the online creators and the cold war counter gangs funded by the US State Department. These gangs masqueraded as advocates for socialism whilst purposefully acting in a way that is harmful to the movement and distorting the meaning of socialism. For example, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was propped up by the United States from the beginning. Pol Pot claimed to be a Marxist who could raise the Cambodian peasantry from poverty. In reality, the Khmer leadership knew nothing of Marx. Philip Short’s Pol Pot Anatomy of a Nightmare says for Pot and the Cambodian leadership “Marxism signified an ideal, not a comprehensive system to be mastered and applied.” Pot’s Government committed horrific genocides in the name of Marx and seemed committed to building a form of socialism that left everyone in Cambodia equally impoverished. Pot was not someone who sought to construct a socialist mode of production, but rather a tool of Western imperialists who had no understanding of Marxist economics. With the CIA’s help Pot capitalized on the popularity of Marxism to bring himself into a position of power.
It’s hyperbolic to imply Vaush and other BreadTubeers are the modern-day equivalents of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. It seems that Maupin’s personal dislike for the BreadTube personalities may have influenced his choice to compare them in the book to some of history’s most despicable enemies of socialism. Gangs funded by the American empire purposely fill people’s heads with wrong ideas about Marxist economics. Caleb’s accusations of State Department connections is almost surely a retaliation against some BreadTubers habit of publicly smearing him as a Fascist. BreadTuber Thought Slime introduced Caleb in one video as “a crypto-fascist posing as a leftist, because it allows him to condescend to people more often.” A completely disingenuous description of someone who has been an active communist for almost 20 years after getting involved with politics through Iraq war protests. Understandably, Maupin is upset that after years of organizing with the belief that he was fighting against fascism, someone with very few organizing credentials can smear him as a fascist to an audience of nearly 200,000 people who consider themselves leftists. He even claims to have recently been kicked out of an organizing event for supposedly being a fascist. The allegations from both sides are unprovable and non-materialist. Caleb Maupin is not a fascist, and we can’t know if BreadTube is a psyop similar to the Congress for Cultural Freedom. However, it’s worth noting that Maupin’s accusations here seem to be in retaliation to having his reputation smeared for over a year by people who call themselves socialists.
So the origins of BreadTube and CIA counter gangs can’t be materially compared, but do they have similar practical effects on the overall struggle for socialism? The bulk of BreadTube Serves Imperialism is dedicated to making this argument. Of course, BreadTube is not a homogenous way of thinking, but rather a collective of various online personalities with many young and intellectually curious viewers who tune in to watch their content. So, while the BreadTube left is not a hive mind, the sheer amount of anti-Marxist and pro-imperialist rhetoric from some of BreadTube’s major figures should be concerning to anyone who is serious about seeing socialism in the United States or bringing about an end to capitalist imperialism.
The root of BreadTube’s most imperialistic rhetoric is their misunderstanding or refusal to understand production. That which Marx called ‘the anatomy of civil society” in Capital Vol 1. When a Libertarian tells you to “study economics” they actually want you to accept the dogmatic belief that market forces are inherently rational. When a Marxist says “study economics” they mean to understand that production, and the relations by which it is carried out, are at the root of the evils and triumphs of society. Because socialists understand this, we see changing the relations of production as the key to changing the form of society. Maupin’s book goes into great depth explaining the relation between production and imperialism, explaining that capitalist imperialism is not defined by war and military action, but is an economic system allowing capitalists to expand their profits through setting up capital to steal resources from poorer nations. Only once this all-important process of production is threatened or interrupted do the western capitalists begin asking their buddies in Washington to destabilize another nation. BreadTubers are often missing this key concept at the core of their analysis.
I’ll give an example separate from the many which are described in the book. In a response to one of my own videos critiquing him for labeling anyone who supports existing socialist countries as a “tankie,” Vaush appeared shocked that in my video I had accused the United States of keeping the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in a state of constant warfare and economic hardship. In an exasperated tone, he asked “Wait! Hold on! Are you suggesting America is responsible like currently… for North Korea’s Political isolation? They (The DPRK) maintain it deliberately.” He then goes on to say the DPRK purposefully isolates themselves so that they may be propped up by China. This is a misunderstanding that is rooted in idealist thinking. Vaush’s analysis begins with the cultural, political, and legal superstructures of the US and DPRK. By rooting his analysis in politics rather than production, Vaush made the common mistake of pinning the socio-political problems of Korea on the country’s political structure itself.
While the political structure of the DPRK is certainly not beyond critique, someone like Vaush who claims to be a dialectical materialist should see the political arena as a reflection of the productive one. The DPRK was formed in the context of a bloody anti-imperialist struggle against the Japanese who’s ruling class enriched themselves using the raw materials and productive forces of Korea. Once the Japanese had been expelled, capitalists in the United States immediately realized that profits could be made if they were able to make Korea a colony of their own. Less than a year after gaining their independence in a bloody struggle the DPRK was at war once again. This time against the United States and their far-right Korean ally Syngham Rhee, who would go on to become the first President of South Korea, ruling as a brutal dictator. Rhee’s forces would commit massacres in the war, filling the city of Pyongyang with the dead bodies of communists. The US indiscriminately launched bombing campaigns decimating civilian areas. When all was said and done 20% of the DPRK’s population had been killed in the war. One person for every family of five. While the US claims to this day that the war was an effort to prevent the North Korean political structure from committing human rights abuses, any socialist should know the real goal is always to maximize profits through controlling production in as many places as possible.
Now consider the state of Korean Production after the war. The country’s production had been dominated by the Japanese for years, and as happens in all colonized nations, this prevented the Korean productive forces from developing in a diversified way. Then, after finally gaining their independence, the United States leveled their countries infrastructure with bombs, and a United Nations manufactured voting plan split the country in half. At that point, it became the task of the DPRK’s Political structure to effectively manage the nation’s production and rebuild their country after it had been leveled by three years of continued bombing. It was at this point that the US surrounded each of the DPRK’s borders with troops, besides the border that touches China. They then put the country under a brutal sanction regime, hoping to prevent the productive forces of the DPRK from increasing and starve their people into submission. The sanctions have only intensified as capitalism shifts to the domination of Western-backed financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank. Marxist academic Vijay Prashad identifies this as the longest hybrid war carried out by the US in its history as they have now kept the DPRK relatively economically isolated for almost 70 years since slaughtering 20% of the population.
Despite these sustained attacks, the DPRK has been able to maintain its independence (with the help of nuclear deterrents), and create a sustainable living situation for its people. Vaush’s claim that the country purposefully isolates itself in order to trade with China is an absurd lie, made even more absurd when you know that the country Vaush is sitting in has banned the DPRK from trading at every border except the one they share with China. Even former US President Jimmy Carter said, “the North Koreans have suffered because the United States has done everything we possibly could to destroy the economy of North Korea.” (Loyal Citizens of Pyonyang). Vaush’s analysis is simply based on a surface-level overview of the North Korean political system, which Vaush labels as “authoritarian” and therefore not worthy of defense from Imperialism. Despite claiming to be a dialectical materialist, his analysis is neither dialectical nor materialist. He does not view the Korean Political structure as something which arose from the relations of production. If he did he would see that in 1910, when the independence struggle was starting, the political structure was forming itself in relation to the conditions of production, that is, in opposition to the Japanese and American capitalists who sought to dominate Korean land and people in order to enrich themselves.
Of course, there are human rights abuses in Korea committed by the State. However, it is truly harmful for a prominent socialist living in the United States to lie to his audience about the DPRK in a fashion which encourages them to believe the US State Department’s narrative. Imperialists do not care about defending people from the human rights abuses of foreign governments. They care about controlling production and selling what they produce. This is the nature of capitalist imperialism which stems from the productive relations at the root of capitalism itself. While socialists have historically understood the true character of imperialism and organized against it, BreadTube’s Vaush lends credence to the simplified narratives the US empire gives about the countries they seek to colonize.
While writing a book about rival internet personalities may seem like a silly endeavor, BreadTube Serves Imperialism at least helps to identify trends on the left that are worth fighting back against. While I am unconvinced that BreadTube is funded by the CIA, it does appear to be middle-class radicalism masquerading as socialism. Political and Cultural analysis is often divorced from any analysis of class, and fighting imperialism becomes secondary to fighting reactionary anti-SJW trolls on the internet. Achieving political power for the working class no longer seems to be the goal. In a video detailing how he plans to build socialism, Vaush claims that a President implementing socialist policy via executive order would be questionable to him as it sets an authoritarian precedent. This kind of thinking is entirely at odds with Marxism, which encourages the working class to smash the capitalist state apparatus and use the State's power to seize the means of production from the capitalist class, eventually changing the relations of production, and therefore subsequently the whole of society.
It seems to me it’s less likely that BreadTube is CIA funded than it is that they are middle class people who have figured out a financially lucrative way to play video games while giving surface level political and cultural analysis. Similar to Pol Pot, many of them seem to believe in socialism as an ideal, or worse, a popular online trend to be exploited for profit. Vaush’s socialism abandons the working class because he is not a worker and cares more about protecting his own class position than moving society towards a more humane mode of production or combatting capitalist imperialism.
Vaush says that the first step in his plan to construct socialism is to change the cultural values of society. He says his job as a socialist commentator is to change the culture of society so that people will become more accepting of socialist values and eventually socialism can be implemented through the ballot box. This is undeniably a distortion of what socialism has meant even before Marx. In the BreadTube conception of socialism the principal contradiction is not between the class who works and the class who owns, but between those who agree with the cultural values of BreadTube and those who do not. In this explanation Vaush reveals that he does not share Marx’s view of the working class as the revolutionary agent of society, who’s position in the economy allows them to wrest societies productive capacities from the hands of capital.
In Vaush’s conception of socialism the revolutionary agent is no longer the working class, but Vaush himself. His goal is not to organize the working class so that they can fight for better conditions, but to procure a large audience who can be convinced into sharing his cultural values. The focus is no longer on the relations of production which are the anatomy of society, but the culture and politics which spring from it. This conception strips socialism of its core principles, and replaces it with a toothless version of itself, which is incapable of even recognizing the core contradictions in capitalist society.
In a beautiful contrast to the synthetic socialism of BreadTube Maupin ends the book with a "four point plan to rescue the country" from his socialist think tank, the Center for Political Innovation.
1. A mass mobilization to rebuild the country
2.Public Ownership of Natural Resources
3. Public Control of Banking
4. an economic bill of rights
Included in these plans are specific proposals such as building a rail between the Midwest and more prosperous regions of the country, or creating a mass mobilization of workers to create jobs and rebuild our crumbling public infrastructure. As someone who has spent their entire life around Midwestern Workers, I can tell you that this is the kind of political plan that will appeal to the American working class. Midwestern workers want jobs, stability, and peace. They will only struggle for a socialism that will make their lives better, not one which seeks to deprogram them and their children from ideas that online twitch streamers deem to be incorrect. The working class is not stupid as they're often made out to be. They simply understand their own interests. And the plan put forth by CPI is exactly the kind of socialist agenda which is needed to convince workers that socialism is the path forward if they want to improve their conditions.
While I think Caleb Maupin is early to jump to conclusions of CIA backing, BreadTube Serves Imperialism does thoroughly expose the anti-Marxist- and pro imperialist leanings of many prominent BreadTube creators. These are trends on the left which need to be criticized and struggled against. The purpose of Marxism is to give socialism a scientific base upon which it can be built. BreadTube’s distortion of socialism’s meaning and the history of existing socialist states is incredibly harmful to the overall struggle for socialism. I commend Caleb Maupin for his continued activism in the face of relentless smear campaigns and harassment, and for attempting to present systematic arguments against what he believes to be a harmful trend within left wing politics. Hopefully the Bread Tube creators will give it a read in the spirit of being self-critical, however, I won’t be holding my breath.
Edward Liger Smith is an American Political Scientist and specialist in anti-imperialist and socialist projects, especially Venezuela and China. He also has research interests in the role southern slavery played in the development of American and European capitalism. He is a co-founder and editor of Midwestern Marx and the Journal of American Socialist Studies. He is currently a graduate student, assistant, and wrestling coach at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.