To hell with democracy?

Rather than blanket rejection or blind leftist worship, communists should aim for a more nuanced position on democracy that recognizes its importance in working class organizations as well as its limitations. 


Almost every leftist worships at the altar or democracy but is very unclear about what it means or why exactly we need it. Some, taking up an “ultra-left” position influenced by the likes of Bordiga, Camatte and Gilles Dauve take a stance contrary to this and argue for a complete rejection of democracy, claiming it to be a purely bourgeois form. Against both the blind leftist worship of democracy and the flat out rejection of it by many ultra-left communists I’ll attempt here to argue for a more nuanced take on the democratic question.

The question of democracy is a question that communists need to address with care and precision. We need to define our terms carefully and be careful to avoid purely semantic debates to map out where legitimate differences arise and where they are purely questions of how things are worded. Is democracy merely a bourgeois mirage that we should fully reject? Is the dictatorship of the proletariat, the phase of working class rule to abolish capitalist relations, democratic in character? Answering these questions requires a closer look at what democracy actually is and what it means in different contexts. They are also questions that carry immediate relevance, not a matter of abstractly imagining a far off communist future that has no major importance today (what some would call ‘LEGO socialism’). Today, when the left is dominated either by bureaucratic and corrupt sects or activist cliques dominated by the informal rule of charismatic individuals, such matters are practical questions that relate to how we organize now.

Communist organizations as well as other institutions of the working class need to be able to make collective decisions on a mass scale. For organizations to truly express the will of its base and therefore the proletariat as a class there must be a basic adherence to the notion that decisions are made by the entire group, that essentially everyone has a say and participates in the decision making process, even if this is through delegation and representation. Furthermore it entails accountability and transparency in decision making processes, not merely procedural norms like voting or majority rule. This is the definition of democracy that communists should stand for, rather than bourgeois notions of democracy which are really just rule-of-law constitutionalism. It’s also the definition of democracy that the Communist League of Tampa and its affiliates call for in our basic Points of Unity: “We uphold the right to open debate, factions and accountable collective decision-making within revolutionary organizations, especially our own. This means opposing bureaucratic centralism and working against the development of unaccountable caste-like layers of leadership.”

Individuals with unaccountable decision making power within an organization are essentially small-proprietors, with the organization being their property. It is unavoidable that decision-making authority will have to be delegated to certain individuals, as not every single decision made can be voted on in larger bodies. What matters is that these individuals who are delegated decision-making authority are accountable to those affected by these decisions. This decision-making power, essentially intellectual property in the form of specialization and control over information, must be collectivized. There is not one formal mechanism that can guarantee achieving this (such as majority rule), but as a minimum requirement the basic standards of accountable democratic decision-making must be the general basis for how our organizations conduct themselves.

Basic democratic standards of operation are not important because of abstract universal principles, but because they are necessary for the healthy functioning of organizations that are capable of organizing the proletariat to act as a class. Democracy for communists isn’t an ahistorical ideal, but an instrument. That said, it’s an instrument we can’t afford to not use. Organizations that do not function with internal democracy will develop a layer of unaccountable bureaucrats who are essentially small proprietors which have objective class interests alien to the proletariat. They are not representatives of an alien class due to their specific political lines but because they essentially treat organizations as a form of property and will have a tendency to protect this property. This in turn will lead to a silencing of all dissent within the organization, capitulation to reformist politics in order to keep organizational growth at a maximum and meaningless splits due to bureaucrats aiming to maintain control over what they see as their property when they can’t get their way. From there it’s a straight road to racket-ville, where organizations are either completely ineffective or so hindered by corruption that we would prefer them not to be effective.

It is also of importance that people are free to criticize decisions and voice alternatives without being silenced or expelled. The “Leninist” notion that disagreements within the organization should only be expressed internally while externally one can only express the official party line should be rejected. Rather than this, debates within the organization should be performed in the public press or in public meetings unless they are regarding information that puts individuals at risk of repression. The notion that “freedom of debate” merely opens the door to opportunism is more often than not a means for the central leadership to silence criticism, enforce rigid ideological centralism and assert control over what they see as their property. Of course reactionary positions can be defended under the guise of “freedom of debate” but it is important for any collectivity to come to a general agreement on where the margins of acceptable debate lie.

The unhindered rule of bureaucracy affirms the mental/manual division of labor which is at the core of class society and must be abolished in the future communist society. While our organizations will never be able to fully prefigure communism (as they exist under the structural pressures of capitalist society), the communist movement must relatively prefigure the kind of society we fight for. If our movement is to show a way forward out of capitalism towards a better world and capture the support of millions of workers it must in some sense prove that life after the revolution won’t be a repeat of current miseries. It is partially because of the failures of Stalinism and labor-bureaucracies in the 20th century that class consciousness today is inhibited. Workers aren’t stupid, and if our movement presents itself as a repeat of the bureaucratic rackets and personal tyrannies that define Stalinism, the bourgeois state and capitalist enterprises they won’t be interested (and rightfully so). As a result communists as a force in society cannot afford to organize through bureaucratic structures that directly reproduce the divisions of class society. The only alternative to this is to produce democratic structures.

Not only must our organizations pre-revolution be democratic in the sense described above, but the form of the state under the dictatorship of the proletariat must also be democratic. To quote Lenin, ….Dictatorship does not necessarily mean the abolition of democracy for the class that exercises the dictatorship over other classes; but it does mean the abolition of democracy (or very material restriction, which is also a form of abolition) of democracy for the class over which, or against which, the dictatorship is exercised.” Dictatorship in the sense that Marx used it was not to be counterposed to proletarian democracy but relied on it.

The dictatorship of the proletariat, contrary to the claims of anti-communists, is not the rule of a minority clique above the proletariat. This point is made many times but it nonetheless stands. If the working class is going to politically rule it must be legitimately in control of the state. This ‘commune-state’ must be organized and function in such a way as to prevent the petty-bourgeois labor bureaucracy from expropriating political power from the working class. This will require democratic norms such as representation through recallable delegates, strict term limits and freedom of speech (though in civil war situations it is inevitable exceptions will have to be made for this rule). These were the characteristics that Marx praised the Paris Commune for holding.

While using democratic forms, the rule of the proletariat is a dictatorship and anti-democratic in the sense that it must break with bourgeois constitutionalism and repress capitalist property rights that are considered basic freedoms in the eyes of the bourgeois ideology. An expansion of political freedom to the proletariat can only be coincided with restricting the political freedom of the propertied classes. This will certainly mean taking measures that will be seen as dictatorial in the eyes of the exploiters. It is for this reason that Engels claimed that democracy would be the rallying call of the counter-revolution. Yet democracy for the bourgeoisie is mostly that: a rallying cry, a means of legitimizing their class rule through the state that is never extended more than is necessary.

Rather than the logical form of capitalist rule as such, there is much reason to believe that for the capitalist class democracy is just as much a liability as it is means of legitimation to integrate antagonistic classes. Democracy plays an ideological role in the bourgeois revolutions to unite “the people” (the peasantry, other small producers, semi-proletarians and the bourgeoisie) as a whole against the aristocracy and clergy under the banner of the national republic. Through the ideology of democracy the bourgeoisie aims to present its rule as the rule of the entire people, not a single class. Yet too much substantive democracy where the oppressed classes are actually given real participation in political decision-making proves to be a liability to bourgeois rule and must be suppressed. We see this in the French Revolution, with the suppression of the Sans-Culottes and then the suppression of the Jacobins followed by the rise of the Directory and then Bonaparte. We also see this in the suppression of the radical abolition-democracy during Reconstruction in the United States when the Industrialists who were the backbone of the Republican party feared the growing power of the laboring classes. This tendency is also visible in the rise of fascist regimes during the inter-war period, where sections of the bourgeoisie threw in their lot with anti-democratic political movements to crush both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary workers movement. So while democracy certainly plays an important role in the ideological arsenal of the capitalist class it is also something they are more than willing to do without and suppress when needed. For the capitalists class political democracy is a means of masking its rule as a class under the guise of political freedom. Yet at the same time they recognize that too much of this political freedom in the form of substantive democracy is dangerous and must be kept in check.

Despite the fact that the proletariat very much needs political democracy to organize and rule as a class there is certainly a danger of fetishizing democracy, making the mistake of thinking that democratic forms as such are revolutionary and desirable without class content. This is the strength of the ultra-left critique of democracy, which is that a fetishization of democracy emphasizes procedural form at the expense of actual political content. These critiques have their root in the works of Italian Communist Amadeo Bordiga, who went as far to claim he rejected the democratic principle and argued that a vague notion of ‘organic centralism’ where democracy would be transcended should be the core principle of communist organization. The roots of these critiques can also be found in the works of Marx and Engels themselves. For example, in the 1850 Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, Marx and Engels warn the workers they “should not be led astray by empty democratic talk about the freedom of the municipalities, self-government, ect in a country like Germany, where so many remnants of the Middle Ages are still to be abolished.” In an 1884 letter to August Bebel, Engels claimed “In any case our sole adversary on the day of crisis and on the day after the crisis will be the whole of the reaction which will group around pure democracy, and this, I think, should not be lost sight of.” So while Marx and Engels certainly recognized the importance of democracy and advocated it in its most radical forms they were no fetishists of democracy that viewed it as always inherently progressive to the goals of the proletariat. It always exists within a certain class context and must be understood with that in mind.

The problem of fetishizing democracy can be exemplified with a simple thought experiment. Imagine a political change which merely involved simply implementing a form of localized direct democracy in place of the current state, as imagined by Murray Bookchin’s ‘libertarian municipalism’. In many contexts this would result in a less liberatory society than the one we currently live in. For example, in the United States a system of decentralized direct democracy without a change in class relations could simply result in suburban communities choosing to pass laws allowing for segregation or banning abortion.

Modern proponents of “direct democracy” seem to overlook these problems and argue for a form of democracy without the mediation of representation and political parties. This ideal of decentralized mass assemblies making all political decisions is appealing to those disenchanted by the betrayals of political parties and the emptiness of bourgeois democracy. Rather than governance through representative institutions, local face-to-face assemblies are suggested as a more legitimate form of social decision-making. Yet mass society cannot make decisions purely at the local level, and even at a local level the complexity of society would make it unfeasible to put every decision up to a popular vote. This isn’t to say that localities shouldn’t have control over decision-making, and in fact there should be self-government of localities to whatever extent is possible. But beyond this the need for decision-making at larger regional and international levels necessitates forms of political representation and mediation, as well as centralization. The question shouldn’t be whether or not there is representation, but rather how representation can be kept accountable and under the control of the rank-and-file/base.

The experiment of Occupy in 2011-2012 verifies the problems of experiments in direct democracy as well as democracy devoid of any kind of class content. At the core of Occupy was not a basic political programme or class base so much as a democratic form, “horizontalist” consensus decision making. The result was that the project could find no basic agreement on politics and ended up at the lowest-common-denominator of unity. Many camps became dominated by libertarian conspiracy theorists or Democratic party hacks who took full of advantage of the fact that democratic process took precedence over any kind of political unity other than the most vague populism (99% vs 1%).

Given the experiences of Occupy and the fetishization of direct democracy by certain currents of modern anarchism, the ultra-left critique of democracy has reason to be taken seriously. Yet there is also a danger of taking this critique too far and completely dismissing the need for democracy within working class organizations. This is exemplified by the text Against Democracy by Wildcat (UK) which does indeed take its critique this far.

The text begins agreeably enough with a critique of democracy as the rule of rights and equality, which is premised on the existence of the state and citizens who are atomized into legal individuals. Communism, by doing away with the state and class stratification, would therefore make talks of rights and equality meaningless. It also makes the point that when in combat with class enemies, we don’t afford them democratic rights and instead ruthlessly crush them. You can’t respect the rights of a cop if you‘re beating him to death! If a trade union leader tries to address a meeting and we respond by shouting him down or dragging him off the stage and kicking his head in, it’s absurd for us to say that we believe in freedom of speech,” says the Wildcat text. So far this is mostly agreeable, though expressing this point in the most edgy possible way does come off as a bit silly. Communists advocate for a dictatorship of the proletariat, which means that certain bourgeois rights that are afforded to the propertied classes under capitalism will be suspended and trampled upon. We don’t respect bourgeois constitutional legalism (which is really what they mean when they talk about democracy) and often we are in the minority when we take this stance. The revolution is not going to be decided on in the halls of congress or parliament through a majority vote where 51% of the vote make seizing power legitimate while 49% doesn’t.

Yet the Wildcat text goes a step further in saying that democracy “within our own ranks” is also to be rejected. This is defined as three basic principles: Majoritarianism (that nothing can be done unless a majority agrees to it), separation between decision making and action (nothing can be done until everybody has had a chance to discuss it), and embodiment of the view that no one can be trusted (delegates are to be revocable because they may not be trustable). Yet what this is arguing against is almost a straw-man, as no organization I know of actually puts every single action performed up to a complete majority vote. There is of course a danger of getting bogged down in formalities, but when decisions have to be made on a mass scale there needs to be some baseline formal process of decision-making to regulate these processes in a way that maintains accountability to those effected. The alternative is either a tyranny of structureless, where personalistic and unaccountable charismatic cliques dominate, or bureaucratic centralism, where an unaccountable leadership calls all the shots and no apparatus exists to challenge these decisions.

The fact that Wildcat extend their critique to mocking the idea of recallable delegates and faction rights further reveals the poverty of their complete dismissal of internal democracy. The argument for recallable delegates and term limits doesn’t necessarily stem from the idea that “no one can be trusted” but that delegates should express the needs of constituencies and these constituencies should be able to recall them if these needs aren’t being met. The alternative is that the organization is basically the private property of the bureaucrats and there is no means of keeping this in check. And even if the idea behind recall-ability is that people can’t be trusted, the argument against recall-ability rests on an idea more absurd than the idea that no one can trusted, which is people can always be trusted.

Regarding the right to form factions within an organization, Wildcat basically dismiss this as the province of Trotskyists who want “the freedom to plot and conspire against other members of what is supposedly a working class organization.” This claim that the right to form factions is basically the territory of “trot wreckers” sounds like something coming straight from the mouth of a Maoist sects central committee. It was partly the banning of factions in the Bolshevik Party that prevented it from regaining any kind of genuine connection to the proletariat, and in fact while Wildcat claim to oppose “majoritarianism”, the right to form factions is a safeguard against the problems of majority rule. It is only with the right to form factions that minority positions in an org (which may be the correct position since majority rule isn’t a magical tool for discovering the truth) can be defended and argued for in a way that prevent unnecessary splits and expulsion of any dissent. This isn’t to say any and all factions should be tolerated – for example the Communist League of Tampa wouldn’t tolerate a faction giving critical support to Putin’s Russia or any kind of US intervention in the Middle East – but we certainly would tolerate a faction advocating for a harder stance against electoralism.

Ultimately the Wildcat critique of democracy is useless because it offers no alternative on how to run mass-scale political organizations other than “trust and solidarity”. Instead we are presented a fetishization of militant minorities that act against democratic norms, as if these actions on their own are able to offer a real threat to capitalism. The actions of small minorities coupled with spontaneous upsurges can only lead to a conspiratorial tactic of “invisible dictatorship” ala Bakunin. Rather than elite anti-democratic vanguards that rely on spontaneity, the proletariat must create its own mass scale organizations within capitalism that can pose the question of political power.

Mass scale organizations within capitalism will inevitably develop some sort of bureaucracy of paid full-timers. A small propaganda group like CLT can obviously operate on purely volunteer labor, yet at a certain point organizations will get to a scale and level of activity where the level of work cannot be done on an all volunteer basis. Because we live in capitalism, workers have to work for wages to survive and are limited in how much time they can volunteer to an organization. As a result there will be a strata in any large scale organization that have to work as salaried as full-time officials. As stated earlier this strata is essentially petty-bourgeois because they will treat the organization as their property if unchecked. To counter this tendency there must be standardized norms of democracy, accountability and transparency that collectivize decision making in the organization as much as possible. This is the only real alternative to the rule of experts and decision-making dominated by an elite.

Tackling the ‘democratic question’ requires nuance and precision rather than pseudo-radical sloganeering. Rather than claiming that all democracy is merely a bourgeois mirage that is to be wholesale rejected, communists should aim for a more nuanced position that recognizes the importance of democracy within working class organizations while not fetishizing democratic forms or conforming to bourgeois constitutionalism.

Weekend at Bernie’s

However fed up they may claim to be, a certain portion of the Left in the United States remains sympathetic if not outright loyal to the Democratic Party. Many of these people are coming to support the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and for them, the legacy of the postwar American economy looms large. When not focusing on identity politics and fear of republicans, Keynesian economic policy tends to be the ideological basis of the left wing of the Democratic Party. However, that same institution is incapable of bringing forth such reforms, not only due to the capitalist nature of the organization, but also because the leadership understands, at least unconsciously, that such reforms are impossible in the current historical moment.

pool_lounginIn the dark comedy classic Weekend at Bernie’s, two reformist insurance employees discover the corpse of their boss at his weekend beach house. In order to protect their lives and keep the party going, they spend the rest of the film working to maintain the illusion that the lifeless corpse of their boss is still alive and is having the time of his life. To their surprise, and the delight of most of the unknowing spectators, the ruse is successful, and the dead guy brings more joy to everyone who encounters him as a corpse than he probably would have were he still alive.

Bernie Sanders has frequently identified himself in interviews speeches etc. as a “socialist.” When pressed as to what this means, he usually mentions something about Sweden and/or sticks the “democratic” moniker in front of it, presumably to be less scary. Yet Sanders is deliberately appealing to something bigger and more powerful than what is normally found within the bounds of typical political rhetoric. While most of the Democratic Party stoically marches right, Sanders has veered left, raising the specter of old school populism and attempting to appeal to growing outrage over economic inequality. His seemingly unpolished style, appearing and talking like your old socialist uncle who probably still mimeographs his own newsletters, Sanders appeals to the legacy of American unionism and a nostalgia for its former strength. During this period of escalating election time hype it is important to remember that this remains within a framework of mainstream left-of-center politics. By using his position within Democratic Party primary politics, Sanders has drawn more attention to this type of rhetoric than one might have thought feasible. Since Sanders has nowhere to go but up, this has been the key to his appeal. Raise the specter of working class strength, state directed social development, and populist economic outrage, but contain it within a palatable framework and channel it into the old political currents. This is nothing new. If anything this is the new normal. This same self-congratulatory politics could be seen during the 2008 Obama campaign. In his tone and diction Obama sought to subtly evoke the legacy of Martin Luther King, and would later famously install a bust of the man in the Oval Office. Today the Eugene Debs poster in Sander’s office is a similar object of note for reporters. Obama also acted as insurgent candidate against Clinton, filling a necessary power vacuum in the Democratic Party’s shallow bench of celebrity politicians. Obama promised a new kind of politics, albeit of a vaguer sort than Sanders, and sailed in on a wave of popular outrage toward the Bush administration and panic at the sudden emergence of the economic crisis. During Obama’s rise, all of the usual useful idiots pressed the line, excited that someone is able to appeal to loftier notions in anything resembling a mainstream context. To his credit, Sanders policies and political history go slightly deeper than Obama’s, but at the same time this poses a greater hurdle for him. A good deal of the Democratic Party base identifies as moderate or conservative. If Sanders hopes to actually secure a nomination, like Obama or anyone else, he will be forced to make concessions to those components of the party. All of this is moot anyway. Whether or not Sanders gets the nomination, or even if he somehow gets elected, the Democratic Party as a whole and as an institution is both unwilling to and incapable of implementing the kind of economic policy Sanders is touting. For now, Sanders has skillfully exceeded the extremely low expectations surrounding his candidacy and made great strides in closing the gap in the polls against Hillary Clinton. There has been a great deal of euphoria on some sectors of the American Left (to the extent that a Left can be said to exist in America). There has also been a growing chorus of dissident voices pointing out that Sanders platform is much less radical than some are touting it as. I suppose that I stand in the latter camp, but rather than listing the numerous political sins he’s probably committed over the years through his special relationship with the democrats, instead I’m going to examine and critique some of the assumptions underlying his appeal and then briefly look at just how meaningless Sanders conception of socialism really is.

Reformism and Neo-Liberalism

The extent to which one can place hope in reformist efforts today, depends in part as to one’s conception of neo-liberalism. It can be tough to characterize the economic opinions of the Left, since so little of it can be said to hold any kind of economic conception of capitalism. For many people, in today’s environment Clintonite stooge Robert Reich has come to constitute some kind of substantial economic guru for many people. Still, a unifying theme, from soft Marxists like David Harvey and Richard Woolf to liberal reformists like Robert Reich is that the period encompassing neo-liberalism roughly amounts to an attack on the working and middle classes by the rich. That the gutting of US manufacturing, international trade deals, the welfare state, and dying off of trade unions was the result of a concerted effort, lead on a political front by greedy elites who were not satisfied with the previous equilibrium that had been established in the economy. This skillfully and self-servingly reduces structural economic problems to a question of political leadership, and from this standpoint, it makes sense to expect that the United States could return to “peace and prosperity” through the policy decisions of elected officials. Unfortunately this picture does not conform to the reality of the last forty years or capitalism in general.

Capitalists and state planners have adopted neo-liberal economic strategies for a reason. Liberals and soft soc-dems like to paint different accumulation strategies as “irrational” as a basis for justifying opposition and advocating for reform. What all of this ignores is how, under capitalism, the fate of the working class is tied to the needs and trajectory of capitalist accumulation. Following the great depression, and a series of escalating strike waves in manufacturing, a post-war boom in economic prosperity affected many sectors of the American working class. Relatively generous welfare and more progressive tax rates were feasible and prosperous policies in the wake of a robust profit rate. Fueled by the massive capital devaluation of the depression at home, and the literal devaluation of resources as an outcome of the war, the United States emerged as the strongest manufacturing center for a growing and rebuilding world market. Decades of militant labor agitation had strengthened the position of the American working class, allowing it to bargain for a greater portion of the surplus. Constituting a sort of golden period for the “middle class,” the mid-1940s-(1960s) far from being the norm, instead constituted a sort of detente between certain sections of the working class and capital. This came to a halt in the wake of the financial crisis of the 1970’s.

Following the war, Western European and Japanese manufacturers were able to enter the world market with newer machinery operating at higher rates of productivity. Combined with a precarious workforce and targeted market development, these economies were able to undercut American producers, many of whom were still holding fixed capital assets that had yet to yield their full returns. Typically, as in the Great Depression, such crises are followed by a period of capital devaluation. Instead, capitalists opted for a different set of strategies to avert crisis and maintain the course of capital accumulation. Amongst these strategies were privatization, financialization, debt expansion, and a host of strategies to manage increasing surplus populations (incarceration, education, underemployment). What is important to understand is that this turn was driven by the trajectory of the capitalist economy, and not simply reducible to “corporate greed.” The rising organic composition runs as an undercurrent to all of this and has never been satisfactorily addressed. Instead what we have are increasingly sophisticated forms of state economic management. This does not meant that politics are in command, just the opposite, that the state is necessarily commanded by the needs of the economy.

The politician must understand just as well as the capitalist that all functioning of the state is predicated on the maintenance of a robust profit rate. Policies which have a negative effect on the increasingly precarious capitalist growth are a nonstarter, and even those proposing them will typically recoil when forced to consider the real consequences of their decisions (see Syriza). Attempting to bring back Keynesian style redistributive policies under completely different historical economic and political circumstances would be foolish and unrealistic without a militant fighting working class which was fully prepared to tank the capitalist economy in order to build a new one. In periods of a decreasing underlying profit rate, such reforms would heighten class antagonisms and social contradictions rather than reconcile them. And that is far from the story Sanders and company are selling. When leftists go around promising that easy reform and robust economic development can go hand in hand, all they are doing is setting the stage for reaction. Fortunately, we know they are not serious. For Democrats, these ideas can only prove useful to the extent that they will never be realized. But the show must go on, and so they’ll raise the corpse of liberalism every so often, bask in the glow of the party, and return to business as usual the next day. Cause if you step back, from a distance and at a glance these appear to be serious measures. Look at all these people in the crowds, they’re so excited. This many people can’t be getting worked up for nothing, right?

Democratic Party : Unfit for the Working Class

Sanders has spoken of running his campaign “more like a movement” but the fact that he is choosing to lead his “political revolution” within the Democratic Party, and has promised to support whoever the candidate would be (read: Hillary Clinton) should tell anyone who is serious about some kind of substantial political change everything they need to know. But for the sake of clarity, let’s briefly review why it is the Democratic Party is unfit to bring about the kind of change the proletariat needs and many sections of its own base would like to see.

The relationship between the Democratic Party and the American Working class has been opportunistic from the very beginning. Representing the slaveholding interests in the South, the Party used class discontent in the north between workers and bosses as a part of its overall strategy to retain its political foothold in the federal government. Even after the Civil War, this basic class arrangement remained in place, embodied as late as the 1960’s in the white southern populism of George Wallace. Going forward, after the destruction of slavery, the Democrats acted as a force of loyal opposition to the industrial expansionism of the Republican Party. For many however, this is irrelevant. Instead they point to the New Deal of FDR, and Great Society Legislation of Lyndon Johnson in order to shore up political credibility for the Democratic Party. This relies on a form of historical amnesia in which the broader context of each administration is completely forgotten, and this kind of lineage of peace and prosperity is projected across administrations from FDR to Carter to Clinton and sometimes even Obama. In the same breath, the historical lineage tracing back to the Democratic defense of slavery and its current complicity in imperialism is completely disavowed. If we understand the Democratic Party not as the vanguard of American Leftism, or even a bulwark against rightists, but instead as a recuperation mechanism for a particular faction of the ruling class, the political continuities and discontinuities between administrations and eras comes into much clearer focus.

The first Democratic Party president that leftists will point to is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Kennedy left little of substance behind during his short tenure as president, and Johnson’s legacy, in spite of his welfare and civil rights legislation, is remains largely tainted for many by the Vietnam War. By contrast FDR stands as architect of “the good war,” savior of the economy, and redistributor of wealth. However FDR’s New Deal can only be understood within the context of American Capitalism of that era. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the American Working class was gaining serious ground in developing its own political organs and institutions. This era saw the rise of trade Unionism in the AFL and CIO, the fighting syndicalism of the IWW, the developing socialist parties as well as the Communist Party USA. However imperfect these organizations were, their existence indicated a possibility of an American working class capable of asserting itself as an independent political force. Perhaps more importantly wildcat strikes had been taking off in the United States and would continue to escalate through his administration and well through the war. Workers were thus taking on modes of direct action independent of the developing bureaucracies of the representatives of labor. All this boded poorly for the American ruling class, who had enjoyed a relative degree of political hegemony in comparison to much of what had taken place in Western Europe. FDR rode into office on top of a massive economic crisis, and governed in the shadow of dictatorships throughout Europe and growing inter-imperialist conflict globally. FDR’s reforms fell well short of the demands implicit in the actions of the American working class at the time. His penultimate solution, a war economy, served to redirect the trajectory of production and after the war served to place the U.S. as the foremost global superpower. This mode of war production, later termed the “military industrial complex” has been more or less in place ever since. The coexistence of state expansion and welfare spending and a broader imperialist spending and foreign policy could be seen in starker relief under the Johnson administration decades later. While the military spending has remained more or less invariant and essential to capitalist accumulation in the United States, the particular class, economic and historical conditions that produced the former reforms have been gradually eaten away at ever since, often with the direct complicity of the very Democrats who are allegedly supposed to prevent this. Yet still we are promised a return to this, and Sanders brand of cruise missile socialism continues it. Herein lies the focal weak point of Sanders form of left-liberalism. In spite of the frequently hysterical anti-war activism of the left (“no blood for oil man”) here sits no room in this outlook for any meaningful internationalism. When military spending is even seen as a problem, it is understood either as simply an irrational expenditure, or it is opposed on moral terms, as if the U.S. economy received no material benefits from its imperial hegemony and all spending could simply be shifted to infrastructural development with no economic downside.

For many, the strongest case to be made for Sanders insurgent candidacy to be made stems from the fear of repeating the example of Ralph Nader, who acted as a “spoiler” in the 2000 presidential election. In spite of the largely inconclusive evidence regarding Nader’s role, this event has loomed large in the liberal mindset, turning Nader from being the reformist hero of the 1970’s into a pariah responsible from everything from the War in Iraq to 9/11 depending on who you talk to. What followed in the subsequent anti-War movement was a redoubling of efforts in support of the Democratic candidacy, leading to the pathetic spectacle of John Kerry’s run. But what is strange, even on its own terms, about the “lesser of two evils” argument his how the people making it paint this grim picture of our current situation but seldom paint any kind of portrait of how to get out of it except through acquiescence to it. This might have made a modicum of sense to the politically naive during the height of the anti-bush anti-war demonstrations in 2003, but after nearly 8 years of a democratic administration, and following the failure of a Democratic majority to pass meaningful health care reform that wasn’t just a glorified coupon system, the Democrats today are in sore need of credibility. After decades of moving to the right and an eight year presidential term that has produced little reform to speak of, it is becoming I think increasingly difficult for Democrats to sidestep the glaring contradictions between what is expected of them and what they actually do, facilitated in part through the increasingly open information exchange of the internet. Sanders may represent a last ditch effort to recoup the left wing of the party and get people #readyforhillary. What both Sanders, and Nader missed was the basis of political power. Nader believed that it was necessary to build a political institution outside of the Democratic Party. However the Greens have no basis in a strong class capable of acting politically, and their platform remains a sterner variation on the basic liberal schema.

Really-Ideal Socialism

A great deal of the novelty surrounding Sanders campaign is his refusal to completely disavow the term “socialist” whenever it is applied to him. Partly this represents a form of savvy on his part, it is said that Obama’s poll numbers went up the more the term was applied to him by his detractors, and partly it serves as a useful rhetorical maneuver. At the same time, the seemingly increasing receptivity to more leftish politics suggests something about our current moment.

Sander’s vague allusions to Scandinavia and Democratic Socialism, seldom run into the concrete or even link up directly with his policy proposals. Instead it serves as more of a rhetorical function. Even as we near the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, red baiting remains useful for rightists, and an effective measure for shutting down any discussion of reform or even any criticism of the current acceptable functioning of capitalism, no matter how minor. Thanks to the sustainable functioning of the Scandinavian welfare states, left-liberals have a relatively inoffensive model they can point to. In other words, Sander’s “socialism” is really just a way for him to call the bluff of rightists his actual policies themselves are liberal reformist at best.

Historically, socialism as a political goal amounted to more than simply generous welfare spending, public works programs, or highly progressive taxation. Socialism was a project to overcome capitalism and transition to a higher, better mode of society. Even in the classical Social Democratic Party of Germany, the philistine right theorist Edward Bernstein, in all of his gradualist reformism, agreed that capitalism was only a transitional point to socialism. In fact, insofar as he was convinced that said transition was inevitable, he was far more optimistic about the prospects of proletarian triumph than most leftists or even many Marxists today. Sanders and the rest of the “socialism worked in Sweden” school, cannot even comprehend or envision mankind’s social transformation through history. It ignores the class basis of most of the political parties which implemented the said reforms, and it ignores the limitations of the nation state. The Scandinavian examples, as beneficial as they may be for the people living there, are just as symptomatic of the failure of socialism as its success. Because in both cases, and this is true for Europe to a lesser extent, the very national basis of such a system presupposes an anti-immigration politics. Because the benefits and higher wages are secured for a certain set of workers through the reproduction of the particular state and national economy, it must necessarily exclude other workers from entering the economy at a faster rate than growth allows them to integrate, as well as take a place within the broader international system of capitalism. This being the case, it should come as no surprise that Sanders has such shitty attitudes toward immigration:

“Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal…That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States… It would make everybody in America poorer…You’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that… “

If you turned the last sentence on its head, you might have a statement from an actual socialist. It is entirely inconceivable to Sanders that the abolition of nation states could be something desirable or necessary as an eventual goal. This glaring but inadvertent cluelessness is fairly typical of old-school unionist DP politics. Sanders doubles down on state protectionism. He even goes so far as to threaten to put the genie back in the bottle on NAFTA, as if all the Mexican farms run off the land by American agri-business will somehow re-sprout again and the “illegals” will just go back home to their plows. As of yet, Sanders offers no vision on how he might control capital flight, or do anything to deal with the cheaper labor and newer equipment that inevitably emerges in a world market. A globalized market only points even more starkly for international organization and solidarity of the poor and working classes worldwide. Instead Sanders hopes to recreate some kind of accord between the working class and the ruling class. He refers to this accord as “the middle class,” and he refers to it often. This sort of nationalist strategy of cross-class amelioration in the form of expanding the old buffer is, in the light of a genuine class politics, fundamentally reactionary.

The Communist Line

Finally, this brings us to the question: what does the phenomenon of the Bernie Sanders campaign mean for Communists? It is very easy to adopt an oppositional stance, and begin rattling off a laundry list of Bernie Sander’s political sins, but I think it is even more important for Communists to cut right to the heart of the matter. Bernie Sanders is not a socialist, because Bernie Sanders does not seek to move society beyond capitalism. A socialist program must be necessarily transitional to Communism, or it will necessarily transition to failure.

If Sanders represents and capitalizes upon a reviving interest in socialism, then it is our task to clarify what socialism really is and what it means. We must critique the limitations of Sanders overall strategy, and in the process underline what directions things must take in order for there to be real change. We cannot look to sell people on easy magic bullet solutions either with the intention of winning people’s interest or counting on such solutions tanking in order to prepare people for the “real alternative.” Instead we should recognize that people are beginning to recognize some of the limitations of Democratic Party politics. We should push them further. Another component of this as that a lot of mainstream American news and politics runs on fear. The truly skilled politician knows how to transcend this and appear to offer people something beyond this schema, it’s not for nothing that the central word of Obama’s campaign was “Hope.” In his promises of reform, and his seemingly different way of doing things Sanders appeals to a similar mindset. In deconstructing the politics of the Left, we must at the same time point to an alternative politics and a vision for a higher and better form of society. Still, even within this, it is hard to escape the nexus of the current political schema. What is required perhaps more than anything else is a longer and deeper view both of the past and of the future. So long as the lessons and implications of history are ignored, any capacity to imagine future change or long term development will remain necessarily stunted. We must not only oppose all bourgeois political parties, but also the conception that the outlook of our political horizons cannot extend beyond the next four years.

The Party is Over

Weekend at Bernie’s ends with the two main characters getting everything they wanted. An assassin goes mad repeatedly attempting to kill Bernie, and is convinced he is still alive even when he is being taken to jail. The two young men get to keep their jobs, one gets the girl, and the corpse slips out of the ambulance to fall on the beach and be symbolically buried by an indignant youth. So far Sanders has been able to placate the latter element, but if the savvy activists and staff of his campaign have their way, they can take this thing all the way to the general election. There might be more appeal to the Sanders pitch than it seems. Republicans could come off as hysterical (as they did with Obama) crying socialist and communist long after the DP party mainstream, or anyone else, have ceased to really believe it. Whether he wins or is forced to go back to his Senate seat, at the end of all this, careers will be made. And Sanders and his specter of sewer socialism will be wheeled back to be buried in the place that all American working class politics go to die: Washington DC.

Debs: The Last Presidential Candidate Worth Voting For

Bernie Sanders’ attempts to appeal to the legacy of a true class militant like Eugene Debs are laughable and pathetic, writes Anton Johannsen. 

Jeb? DEBS!

Jeb? DEBS!

I’m an anarchist. I’m a communist, too. Don’t worry. I’ve read my Marx, and I keep the faith. I know the differences between a socialist, an anarchist and a communist, or the supposed ones anyhow. I know that Albert Parsons felt he had exhausted Chicago’s corrupt and ensnaring local system of political governance, and this drove him toward political anarchism. I know that nothing short of revolution can deal with the antagonisms inherent in capitalism. This and many other historical lessons have made me very skeptical of electoralism.

But I always said I would vote for Eugene V. Debs. A founding member of both the IWW, and the Socialist Party of America, Debs was born in Indiana in 1854. He got work in younger years in rail car painting, and as he began a local political life in the Democratic party, also became a member of the existing Railway unions.

By the 1890’s he helped form one of the first examples of industrial unionism, the American Railway Union. Shortly thereafter, he took up leadership of the Pullman Strike, and was arrested on charges of interfering with the U.S. Post (as the railcars produced by Pullman were meant to carry mail).

While in jail for this for 6 months, Debs read Kautsky, Marx, and other socialist authors and became enamored with the ideas.

“…I began to read and think and dissect the anatomy of the system in which workingmen, however organized, could be shattered and battered and splintered at a single stroke. The writings of Bellamy and Blatchford early appealed to me. The Cooperative Commonwealth of Gronlund also impressed me, but the writings of Kautsky were so clear and conclusive that I readily grasped, not merely his argument, but also caught the spirit of his socialist utterance – and I thank him and all who helped me out of darkness into light.”

By 1897 he began to openly advocate for socialism, and work to develop a socialist party.

Pullman Railway Workers Confront Illinois National Guard

Pullman Railway Workers Confront Illinois National Guard

The Debs of this period actually quite embodied the conservative, anti-immigrant politics of the Democratic party of the time. He regarded immigration as a burden on the American worker, who would be in competition with low-wage workers. However, as Debs himself latter reflected that during the Pullman Strike he was “…baptized in socialism in the roar of conflict.” Before reading Marx, the ARU and Debs were faced with uniting Railway workers who had been historically divided by craft unions that had no qualms scabbing on each-other. This practical task is that to which Deb refers, along with the brutal putting down of the strike by the National Guard, Federal Troops, and Grover Cleveland, the Democratic President. As a result of these experiences Debs would move away from his anti-immigrant, pro-Democratic Party stance.

Further, Debs’ development makes the cynical, ignorant, self-interested ideology of Bernie Sanders and his “socialist” advocates so strikingly clear. Unlike Sanders’ xenophobic line on immigration, or trade with China, torn straight from the failed ideology of AFL-CIO bureaucrats, Debs refused to support any proposal to limit immigration while running for President:

“Having just read the majority report of the Committee on Immigration. It is utterly unsocialistic, reactionary and in truth outrageous, and I hope you will oppose with all your power. The plea that certain races are to be excluded because of tactical expediency would be entirely consistent in a bourgeois convention of self-seekers, but should have no place in a proletariat gathering under the auspices of an international movement that is calling on the oppressed and exploited workers of all the world to unite for their emancipation. . . .

Let those desert us who will because we refuse to shut the international door in the faces of their own brethren; we will be none the weaker but all the stronger for their going, for they evidently have no clear conception of the international solidarity, are wholly lacking in the revolutionary spirit, and have no proper place in the Socialist movement while they entertain such aristocratic notions of their own assumed superiority.

Let us stand squarely on our revolutionary, working class principles and make our fight openly and uncompromisingly against all our enemies, adopting no cowardly tactics and holding out no false hopes, and our movement will then inspire the faith, arouse the spirit, and develop the fibre that will prevail against the world.”

Later, in 1916, the SPA’s central committee drafted the National Program to accompany Debs run for President. Instead of the usual party convention used to draft a program, the SPA decided to save funds and have it drafted by the more conservative executive committee, and then put it to referendum. Debs suggestions embody clearly three principles from which so many “socialists” have strayed far from these days:

First: The class struggle should be more clearly and specifically stated and more emphatically declared…
Second: The platform should declare in positive and unequivocal terms in favor of revolutionary economic organization, and state the reason for it. (Here is referring to, for example, the IWW)…
Third: I am opposed with every drop in my veins to the two declarations in favor of war. If these are permitted to stand the party might as well declare openly in favor of militarism…”

The second two reasons are the most important for us today. Since the failure of the Bolshevik revolution, most “socialists” have been bouncing around the globe trying to support third-world bonapartist dictators and nationalist uprising. Aside from integrating emerging capitalist countries into the foreign policy designs of the USSR, this terrible digression demoralized the world working class, and at every turn impeded a basic socialist principle: Capitalism is served in it’s inevitable and intermittent crises by recourse to bloody, destructive and terrifying war; civil war, guerilla war, imperialist competition, coup d’etats. If the working class is to be anything like an organized force to combat capital, it must abandon it’s mythological national heritages, and stand for the world.

I would vote Debs because he was relentless in his critique of the corrupt, reformist, craft-oriented AFL. The second argument, that socialists ought to support not reformist, bureaucratic unions, but fighting, ideologically socialist, or class unions is certainly one of the most unpopular ideas of today. There is no shortage of preening, “secret” communists who “go where the workers are”, those 7-8% that still are in “unions” to pursue William Fosters grand strategy of “boring from within” (and it sure is BORING!). This isn’t to say workers in those places ought not to fight tooth and nail to put communist revolution on the agenda. Indeed it is to say they must do so purely on an understanding that capitalism cannot dispense with class struggle, that the only hope for humanity is that workers dispense with capitalism, by winning the class war!

Cheap, dime-a-dozen politicians trying to reinvigorate the base of a war-mongering, dyed-in-the-wool capitalist racket like the Democratic Party might occasionally appeal to some vague notion of Debs. Debs himself, however, was unequivocal, uncompromising, and a true working class leader.

Eugene Debs Speaking

A final example: Debs spent the years leading up to US involvement in WWI railing against “preparedness” as promulgated by militarists and industrialists. When the war came, Debs continued to condemn it. Doing what any real socialist ought to, he encouraged draft dodging and resistance on the part of working people everywhere. For this, he was charged with sedition, and sentenced to 10 years in prison as well as being “disenfranchised for life.” Debs spoke in his defense during the trial:

“Your honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the form of our present government; that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in the change of both but by perfectly peaceable and orderly means….

I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and factories; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children who, in this system, are robbed of their childhood, and in their early, tender years, are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon, and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the machines while they themselves are being starved body and soul….

Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own. When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches the Southern Cross begins to bend, and the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of Time upon the dial of the universe; and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the look-out knows that the midnight is passing– that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.”

While in prison, Eugene Debs ran for President another time. He was not a scheming politician. He was not lapdog to the Democrats and their moneyed-masters. He was a socialist, committed indefatigably to the millions of workers of the world, not only in the U.S., but everywhere because a socialist has no country. 

Debs Convict for PresidentTrue, Debs like many socialist of the period had a tendency to paper over deep and long running racial tensions that fractured U.S. society. Then again at times he could be exceedingly lucid:

“As a social party we receive the Negro and all other races upon absolutely equal terms. We are the party of the working class, the whole working class, and we will not suffer ourselves to be divided by any specious appeal to race prejudice; and if we should be coaxed or driven from the straight road we will be lost in the wilderness and ought to perish there, for we shall no longer be a Socialist party….

There never was any social inferiority that was not the shrivelled fruit of economic inequality. The Negro, given economic freedom, will not ask the white man any social favors; and the burning question of “social equality” will disappear like mist before the sunrise.

I have said and say again that, properly speaking, there is no Negro question outside of the labor question—the working class struggle. Our position as Socialists and as a party is perfectly plain. We have simply to say: “The class struggle is colorless.” The capitalists, white, black and other shades, are on one side and the workers, white, black and all other colors, on the other side….”

What seems like a genuine thrust for equality, was likely hamstrung by taking races as given, instead of seeing racism as the social process by which racist relations are “objectified” in race. It is certainly true that there is no intrinsic difference between people of different races, but there are pernicious and complex social relations which often take cover in the guise of flesh.  Neverless it seems to me that Debs, in many of his principles, has plenty to offer socialists of today.

If you want a career politician like Bernie Sanders to “broker” a better deal for “American Workers” with the capitalist class, at the expense of struggling workers in Mexico, Korea, China, etc. then go for it. And in 4 years or so all the pensions and benefits, paltry as they are, that are granted to you for shirking your own class, will be wiped out by another capitalist crisis. Trumka, Sanders, Clinton, will all come back around to pander to you and tell you how hard they’re working to harmonize the interests of labor and capital yet again.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next Debs.

“I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist. I do not belong to the regular army of the plutocracy, but to the irregular army of the people. I refuse to obey any command to fight from the ruling class, but I will not wait to be commanded to fight for the working class. I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world-wide war of social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades.” – Eugene V. Debs

Works Referenced or otherwise worth reading:
Class Unionism
The Negro Question in the Class Struggle
John Brown America’s Greatest Hero
A Letter from Debs on Immigration
On the Proposed National Platform
Canton Ohio Anti-War Speech
Statement to the Court 1918