With the Bernie Insurgency Contained, the Democratic Party Continues its Rightward Drift

11174876_903334636389733_2191364501962816506_n Hillary Clinton’s logo points right for a reason.

The day that deep down we all knew was coming is here. Hillary Clinton is officially the Democratic nominee and Bernie has given her his full throated endorsement. This article will not be an “I told you so” or an attempt to rub salt in the wounds of of those who passionately felt the Bern and who now only feel burned. Frankly Bernie exceeded my admittedly low expectations. I think at points he may have even made a self satisfied and complacent Clinton camp sweat. Even this cynical anarchist was excited that so many people were actually open to the idea of socialism, however ill defined their idea of it may have been. At the very least it seemed possible that Bernie and his surprisingly passionate supporters might drag the Democrats, kicking and screaming, to the left. Alas, even that seems not be. The rightwing of the party appears ascendent and will likely continue to be.

 

Why would this be? Bernie ran as good a campaign as one has any right to expect. He delivered into the Democratic fold loads of previously disaffected or apathetic voters that could, at least through sheer force of numbers, pull the party to the left. But of course that’s not how the major political parties work in America. The Democrats will condescend to these people, take their money and their votes, but give those wackos real influence? Lol, no thanks.

 

To understand why the Democrats can burn the Berners and expect to get away with it we need to look at the Republican party. The rise of Trump and his anti-free trade nativism has alienated major business constituencies. In the last fundraising period Hillary raised some $40 million, compared to Trump’s paltry $3 million. Wall Street  and Silicon Valley, generally Democratic leaning anyway, have lined up behind Hillary even more solidly than usual, the eccentric Peter Thiel notwithstanding. More worrying to Republican bean counters, the Chamber of Commerce, normally a stalwartly Republican pile of money, has been openly flirting with the Democrats. Most spectacular though is the Koch Brothers who are tacitly backing Clinton. With them goes not only their money, but the money of a whole clique of douchey one percenters that the Kochs would normally funnel into Republican coffers.

 

Much of the money diverted from Republican pockets will find its way into Democratic ones. Bill Clinton is infamous for having flipped Wall Street and getting this previously Republican constituency to mostly line up behind his “New Democrats.” The Clintons no doubt view this as a golden opportunity to do the same thing on an even grander scale. You better believe that the Democratic establishment is going to do everything it can to get its hands on every last red cent possible. If that means kowtowing even more forcefully to business interests than so be it.

 

Thus the logic of the Tim Kaine VP pick presents itself. At first blush the pick of a conservative blue dog Democrat for Vice President seems jarringly tone deaf in a year defined by populist insurgency. Tim Kaine, in addition to having the charisma of a stranger that wants to talk to you about Jesus, is on the right of the party on labor issues, on trade deals, on the banks, on and on. He even sucks on abortion, which is probably the best reason to vote Democrat. With this pick Hillary and the Dems are saying to the monied interests “ignore all that Bernie break up the banks bull, the Democrats are ready to be the partner of business in government.” they will tell the public that this pick was made to shore up support in newly purple Virginia, or bolster the ticket’s national security cred, as though anyone has ever cared about what congressional committee Tim Kaine has sat on. Make no mistake; the Tim Kaine is an olive branch to business interests potentially alienated by Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric and a slap in the face to the progressive wing of the party, a normally impotent force which has suddenly become activated. For the first time in my life the progressives within the party have not just relevancy but actual power. The Democratic machine will do everything it can to co-opt and undermine that power.

 

The Democratic establishment has attempted to buy off the the progressives with, and Sanders has justified selling out to Clinton by pointing to, the party platform which is being called the most progressive in history. Now, party platforms are meaningless documents which as a rule are ignored and forgotten almost immediately and play basically no role in governing, so excuse me if I’m not super impressed by this concession. Sanders claims he and his people are going to use it to hold Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment accountable, but it’s not clear to me how he could actually do this. Once the election ends so to will Sanders’ leverage. If the Democrats win then they don’t need Sanders and his people anymore. Flushed with corporate cash and with favors to repay they’ll do whatever they like in the lame duck session and the carping of the few congressional progressives won’t matter much. If they lose then Sanders makes for an easy scapegoat; all his demands are discredited and unimplementable anyway. A progressive party platform is a patronizing ploy to get progressives to partner up with a candidate that views them as a tiresome annoyance.

 

The current plight of the liberal left show that electoralism, at least within the Democratic party, is a dead end. The best thing the liberal left can do now is bolt and try to build political power independent and defiant of the Democrats. Sanders, and in his own inverted way Trump, has shown that there is a political appetite for something outside the neoliberal consensus. Perhaps in spite of himself, Sanders has created a historic opportunity to break with the Democratic party. This opportunity will not likely present itself again in 4 years, as party bosses will be on the lookout for it and take measures against it. What progressives in the Democratic party must understand is that the party establishment would much rather be partners with corporate power brokers than with its own progressive wing. So long as they remain within the Democratic machine progressives will remain junior partners with little influence. Despite the painful promise wrought by the Sanders campaign, as the Democratic party takes advantage of the Trump fiasco to cozy up even closer to business the situation for progressives inside the party will only get worse.

 

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Feel the Bernstein

feel the bernstein

In Vermont, everybody knows that I am a socialist and that many people in our movement, not all, are socialists. And as often as not—and this is an interesting point that is the honest-to-God truth—what people will say is, “I don’t really know what socialism is, but if you’re not a Democrat or a Republican, you’re OK with me.”

– Bernie Sanders (1989)

I frankly admit that I have extraordinarily little feeling for, or interest in, what is usually termed ‘the final goal of socialism’. This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me, the movement is everything.

– Eduard Bernstein (1898)

Bernie Sanders has run a remarkable campaign, exceeding all but the most pie-in-the-sky expectations. The ‘democratic socialist’ independent was almost universally thought to be an electoral non-entity outside progressive Vermont, and even many of his most fervent supporters were probably just hoping to express their discontent in an institutionally visible fashion. Very few can say they expected to see Bernie Sanders polling ahead of Hillary Clinton at any point in the campaign, that he could do so with an average campaign contribution of about $27. A socialist actually gave Hillary Rodham Clinton a run for her money? What is going on?

But the very forces he is campaigning against guarantee he will not win the Democratic nomination, for many of the reasons he has identified, and quite a few he has not: the superdelegate system and even outright electoral fraud are the tip of the iceberg. Even if he somehow did become the nominee and President, his naysayers have a point: how would he be able to sustainably shove progressive legislation through a House or Senate packed with Republicans and Democrats? Sanders did not get this far by shooting for the most radical proposals, and is very unlikely to pull a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ in our favor with a flurry of socialist executive orders.

Even so, the dominance of the billionaires will not end with an anticapitalist Emancipation Proclamation. When one takes a close look at that quintessential liberatory moment in the history of the United States—the abolition of slavery, the revolutionary assertion of black humanity—even a white supremacist, moderate Republican like Abraham Lincoln had to concede that the corrupting political power of the slaveholding class could not be destroyed without a war for abolition. For President Lincoln, the liberation of the black ‘race’ was a happy byproduct of preserving the Union, a goal in service of which he would have maintained slavery where it existed against his own moral compass:

If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

He did have the strong conviction for which he and the Union were prepared to fight—that the United States could not tolerate the spread of slavery to non-slave states or new territories. Perhaps most revealing, he believed that emancipation should be followed by ‘colonization’—the voluntary emigration of the American black population to Africa or even to Latin America—but was dissuaded by policy advisors, circumstances, and the unenthusiastic response from American blacks. This sounds like an altogether different person than ‘The Great Emancipator’ Americans have been taught to admire, less like “the single-minded son of the working class, [ ] lead[ing] his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world” and more like “preeminently the white man’s president”:

He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a preeminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his stepchildren; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity.

Compare him to the radicals and abolitionists who had advocated emancipation all along, they who successfully agitated the Civil War into a war to end slavery. While a President Lincoln may well be necessary for this kind of change, he is surely not sufficient. Without the radical vision and courage embodied in Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Wendell Phillips,  Sojourner Truth, and William Lloyd Garrison, abolition would have remained an idle fantasy. They held to their values until history bowed, until the federal government of the United States granted black slaves—human beings legally considered little more than half-persons—the dignity of liberating themselves by bayonet. John Brown was hanged as an abolitionist terrorist in 1859 after attempting to lead a slave revolt at Harper’s Ferry, but just a few years later the Union would arm blacks in the South to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”:

Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,

The death blow of oppression in a better time and way,

For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day,

And his soul is marching on.

If you have any say in how you will be remembered, what would you like the eyes of history to see? Who would you want to be in the story of human freedom, if you find yourself a part of such a meaningful process? Would you be a mild pragmatist who may be conditionally persuaded to the cause of liberty, or a militant proponent of the broadest possible human emancipation?

Who do you want to be?

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Defining ‘Socialism’

Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word. (2014)

Sanders’ politics are attractive because they are closer to our politics than any other candidate. Perhaps in our system beggars can’t be choosers, but socialism is all about beggars becoming choosers: despite that Bernie is by far preferable to Clinton or Trump, your political imagination and principles do not have to be limited to those heads on the screen this election season.

Foundational political commitments can help ground us as the changing political tides make mincemeat of the values and convictions those around us supposedly have. A critique of Sanders from within the socialist tradition can strengthen the growing left tendency around his campaign, and can help us learn to use elected officials for our goals instead of the traditional vice versa. What does socialism mean to Bernie Sanders?

Socialism has a lot of different messages to different people. I think the issue of socialist ideology and what that meant or means is not terribly important. I think the positive of it is that it indicates to people that I am not a conventional politician. If they are not happy with the status quo, then that is a positive thing. The negative of it obviously is that there are people who equate it with totalitarianism and the Soviet Union. (1989)

The word ‘socialism’ experienced something of a counterintuitive revival during the debates surrounding the Affordable Care Act: Republicans applied the label to Obama’s healthcare plan to make it sound un-American and unacceptable, this despite the fact it featured a regulated insurance market and ended up with no public Medicare-for-All option. Those disappointed by the inadequate liberalism of the Obama administration and the incoherence of the Occupy movement seem to be gravitating towards the word in ways unimaginable during the Cold War.

But this strange re-emergence of ‘socialism’ leads us to ask exactly what we mean by the infamous term—certainly we cannot let the Republicans define it for us, since they are only interested in the word insofar as it bears a stigma. The vision Bernie Sanders has laid out over the decades is the starting point for many of us, since he is by far the most visible figure in American political life bold enough to explicitly stand for anything called ‘socialism’. It may, then, come as a surprise that Sanders too once feared the connotations of ‘socialism’ and therefore recoiled from calling himself a ‘socialist’:

I myself don’t use the word socialism because people have been brainwashed into thinking socialism automatically means slave-labor camps, dictatorship and lack of freedom of speech. (1976)

I’ve stayed away from calling myself a socialist because I did not want to spend half my life explaining that I did not believe in the Soviet Union or in concentration camps. (1981)

As the 80s wore on and the Soviet Union crumbled, Sanders came to embrace the label to refer to his progressive package of social reforms, but continued to make a sharp distinction between his vision and the USSR:

Yes, it is true that a result of the tremendous political ignorance in this country created by the schools and the media, there are many people who do not know the difference between ‘socialism’ and ‘communism.’ Yes, on more than one occasion, I have been told to “go back to Russia.” But, if we maintain a strong position on civil liberties, express our continued opposition to authoritarianism and the concept of the one-party state, I am confident that the vast majority of the people will understand that there is nothing incompatible between socialism and democracy. (1989)

Twenty years ago, when people here thought about socialism they were thinking about the Soviet Union, about Albania. Now they think about Scandinavia. In Vermont people understand I’m talking about democratic socialism. (2006)

Classical definitions of ‘socialism’ centered around democratic control of the means of production: productive property like tools and machinery, and natural property like land and water. What ‘democratic’ means, however, is a question deep at the heart of socialism: neither using the existing capitalist state nor building a new revolutionary state have resulted in anything resembling the classical vision of socialist freedom. Sanders has echoed this embattled legacy in some of his statements: socialism is a system “where human beings can own the means of production and work together rather than having to work as semi-slaves to other people who can hire and fire” (1988), yet it “doesn’t mean state ownership of everything, by any means” (1990). “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own means of production” (2015).

So what else could it mean?

For me, what democratic socialism is about is to maintain the strong entrepreneurial spirit that we have in this country to continue to produce wealth, but to make certain that the wealth is much more equitably distributed than is currently the case. (2005)

In terms of socialism, …I think it means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have health care; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt… I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. (2006)

Sanders’ idea of socialism does not sound very different than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proposed Second Bill of Rights, or the Keynesian liberal vision behind the Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society reforms: a regulated market economy based on profit-driven production, nationalization of certain essential services to convert them from consumer goods to public rights, retaining not only small but large private holdings in means of production.

It means creating a government that represents all of us, not just the wealthiest people in this country. I will remind the American people that there are socialist programs out there that are some of the most popular programs in America… When you go to your public library, when you call your Fire Department or the Police Department, what do you think you’re calling? These are socialist institutions. (2015)

This definition has some limits, and often ends in the claim that anything a government does while presiding over a capitalist economy is ‘socialist’. This leads many socialists to accept border enforcement, prisons, the police, and the military as socialist programs. This should give pause to those who see socialism as a means towards preventing future military adventures, to those who believe that Black Lives Matter in the face of police repression and mass incarceration, to those who see socialism as international human freedom instead of strengthening invisible national walls to keep out immigrants. Despite Bernie’s disassociation from the USSR and its satellites, it appears that an enormous military machine, police state, and bloody borders are still part of ‘democratic socialism’.

Bernie may indeed be the only candidate running with even half-reasonable positions on these issues, but perhaps this says more about the American political spectrum than anything praiseworthy about his politics. How does one respond when the only ‘socialist’ candidate says open borders is “a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States” that “would make everybody in America poorer[, ] doing away with the concept of a nation state”?

A traditional socialist answer might resemble the following:

The workers have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.

National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.

The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. United action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.

In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another will also be put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.

This is by no means an unproblematic description of capitalism in our time, when it was written, or since it was written. Nonetheless, the vision of a global movement of the proletariat—one that does not hold tight to national borders and economic isolation but seeks to break them down in the name of humanity—is still the indispensable compass for socialist thought and politics. Its weary needle points north still: towards the only future worth inhabiting, worth leaving to those who follow. The soul of socialism dies when we lose this fundamental direction.

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Socialism in One Century

I am absolutely convinced that these experiments can only have and will have the consequence of discrediting socialism for the next hundred years.

– Max Weber

The disgruntled American socialist may find a friend in this time-worn compass, but they will be just as horrified to hear it called ‘Marxism’. This revulsion can no longer be simply chalked up to ‘false consciousness’, dismissed out of hand as latent McCarthyism, or otherwise reduced to an ideological problem. The new generation of socialists has never taken twentieth century ‘communism’ seriously as a liberatory alternative to capitalism: our historical advantage allows us to comprehensively trace its tragic path through brutal famine, democidal purges, and—most spitefully of all—capitalism. The ideology formed to justify the Soviet Union and its derivatives, dubbed ‘Marxism-Leninism’ by its proponents and ‘Stalinism’ by detractors, was the dominant form of twentieth century Marxism in its many incarnations. Where Stalinism has not collapsed, it cynically calls some of the most brutal forms of capitalist extraction ‘communist’ and its one-party state governments ‘democratic’.

But Leninism was not the only form of Marxism in the world: its second-most popular form, reformist social democracy or simply ‘reformism’, dominated Marxist thought in the western democracies from which socialism was classically thought to spring. Many democratic socialists today unknowingly advocate positions pioneered by German socialist Eduard Bernstein, who significantly ‘revised’ Marxism based on his own comprehensive research and faith in the ability for liberal democracy to progressively implement socialism. As executor of Friedrich Engels’ literary estate, he waited for the elder communist to pass before challenging Socialist Party of Germany (SPD) orthodoxy from its right flank:

I am fully conscious that it differs in several important points from the ideas to be found in the theory of Karl Marx and Engels – men whose writings have exercised the greatest influence on my socialist line of thought, and one of whom—Engels—honored me with his personal friendship not only till his death but who showed beyond the grave, in his testamentary arrangements, a proof of his confidence in me.

…I have now a controversy with socialists who, like me, have sprung from the Marx-Engels school; and I am obliged, if I am to maintain my opinions, to show them the points where the Marx-Engels theory appears to me especially mistaken or to be self-contradictory. …That which concerns me, that which forms the chief aim of this work, is, by opposing what is left of the utopian mode of thought in the socialist theory, to strengthen equally the realistic and the idealistic element in the socialist movement.

So far, so good. Marxism—conceived as the ‘science of socialism’ or ‘scientific socialism’—must be inherently predisposed to revision if it is to retain any intellectual credibility. Indeed, a refusal to accept any revision to Marxism based on changing conditions would render the entire school of thought a quaint religious tradition from more hopeful times.

However, to reduce the ‘revisionism’ debate to fanatics shielding an outdated dogma from the blows of reason would do history—and ourselves—a great disservice. The SPD fell from grace in the eyes of many socialists when reformists led the charge to fund German military adventures in World War I, with socialist parties throughout Europe following suit by voting to fund their respective ruling classes. To his credit Bernstein opposed the war, but his loyalty to the bourgeois republic gave him little leg to stand on when opposing open patriotism in the SPD. A politics with constitutional and electoral horizons is more consistent with loyalty to the nation than the transcendence of national borders. While support for WWI plagued all parts of the socialist movement, reformists in the space opened up to Bernstein’s right were most able to capitalize on pro-war sentiment.

Rosa Luxemburg, three times a minority as a Jewish-Polish woman in Germany, rose to international prominence by issuing the definitive Marxist statement regarding the war from prison:

This war’s most important lesson for the policy of the proletariat is the unassailable fact that it cannot parrot the slogan Victory or Defeat, not in Germany or in France, not in England or in Russia. Only from the standpoint of imperialism does this slogan have any real content. For every Great Power it is identical to the question of gain or loss of political standing, of annexations, colonies, and military predominance. From the standpoint of class for the European proletariat as a whole the victory and defeat of any of the warring camps is equally disastrous.

It is war as such, no matter how it ends militarily, that signifies the greatest defeat for Europe’s proletariat. It is only the overcoming of war and the speediest possible enforcement of peace by the international militancy of the proletariat that can bring victory to the workers’ cause. …Proletarian policy knows no retreat; it can only struggle forward. It must always go beyond the existing and the newly created. In this sense alone, it is legitimate for the proletariat to confront both camps of imperialists in the world war with a policy of its own.

…But to push ahead to the victory of socialism we need a strong, activist, educated proletariat, and masses whose power lies in intellectual culture as well as numbers. These masses are being decimated by the world war. …The fruits of decades of sacrifice and the efforts of generations are destroyed in a few weeks. The key troops of the international proletariat are torn up by the roots.

…This blood-letting threatens to bleed the European workers’ movement to death. Another such world war and the outlook for socialism will be buried beneath the rubble heaped up by imperialist barbarism. …This is an assault, not on the bourgeois culture of the past, but on the socialist culture of the future, a lethal blow against that force which carries the future of humanity within itself and which alone can bear the precious treasures of the past into a better society. Here capitalism lays bear its death’s head; here it betrays the fact that its historical rationale is used up; its continued domination is no longer reconcilable to the progress of humanity.

The world war today is demonstrably not only murder on a grand scale; it is also suicide of the working classes of Europe. The soldiers of socialism, the proletarians of England, France, Germany, Russia, and Belgium have for months been killing one another at the behest of capital. They are driving the cold steel of murder into each other’s hearts. Locked in the embrace of death, they tumble into a common grave.

A centrist position to preserve socialist unity became untenable and the entire socialist movement tore itself in half. Reformists threw themselves into the trenches. Those disgusted with so-called ‘Socialist’ nationalists betraying the international proletariat found new hopes in the victory of Russian revolutionary socialists over the tsar. As the war dragged on and the body counts climbed, a mass strike wave erupted throughout Europe that forced an end to World War I, and the SPD’s militarist gamble had the short-term benefit of making them the legitimate ‘party of order’ in post-war Germany. SPD leader Friedrich Ebert became the first elected President in German history.

The movement against the war and disgust with the SPD led to the 1919 Sparticist uprising, an attempted German Revolution in solidarity with Russia by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). President Ebert ordered the Freikorps ex-military militia squads to destroy the revolution. After attempting to prevent the revolt, KPD leaders Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht—a former SPD parliament member and second generation socialist—joined their comrades. What followed had truly historic consequences: the Freikorps captured and murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

The resulting blood feud between the SPD and the KPD opened the door for a new political force in Germany—one with the goal of destroying Marxism once and for all—and so began the reign of terror on the left wing by the German military establishment that would culminate in the rise of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. The Nazis followed the SPD’s example in using the Freikorps to dismember the Leninist KPD and dissident communist groups in its orbit. The SPD’s gamble definitively backfired as its traitorous loyalty to the German nation on the battlefield and in office proved insufficient to stop the Nazi terror from devouring them too. A prediction by the martyred Luxemburg, although playing out under inverted circumstances to those she expected, became quite prescient:

The war means ruin for all the belligerents, although more so for the defeated. On the day after the concluding of peace, preparations for a new world war will be begun under the leadership of England in order to throw off the yoke of Prusso-German militarism burdening Europe and the Near East. A German victory would be only a prelude to a soon-to-follow second world war; and this would be the signal for a new, feverish arms race as well as the unleashing of the blackest reaction in all countries, but first and foremost in Germany itself.

In the murderous game of nationalism, the house always wins.

Reaction—the bloody obliteration of revolutionary hopes—was by no means limited to Germany. In addition to paving the way for the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, German socialism’s self-destruction also had grave implications for the young revolutionary Russian state. By Marxian assumptions, the massive productive capacity of capitalism is one of the most fundamental preconditions for the possibility of socialism. Politically, this meant either Marxists knowingly allowing the ravages of capitalism to uproot and annihilate communal peasant life—as the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party thought necessary for socialism—or the Bolshevik faction’s hope that revolutions in Europe could deliver on Marx & Engels’ prophecy in a late Russian edition of the Manifesto:

And now Russia! During the Revolution of 1848-9, not only the European princes, but the European bourgeois as well, found their only salvation from the proletariat just beginning to awaken in Russian intervention. The Tsar was proclaimed the chief of European reaction. …Russia forms the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe.

The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants.

…If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.

Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin knew all too well what the defeat of German communism spelled for Russia: “At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed.” There would be no union of post-capitalist productive capacity with a system of common property in the Soviet Union. There could be no socialism in Russia.

The overwhelming practical value of this history is demonstrated by the tragedies of World War I, the crushed German revolution, and the starved Russian revolution: nationalist strategies of all kinds are incompatible with socialism. Proletarians in each state have to make common cause with the oppressed in neighboring states, across continents, and ultimately around the world, in addition to participating in national institutions. Without full-capacity cooperation between high and low-income countries, a first-rate socialist economy capable of supporting billions of people is a fantasy. The resulting forms of socialism could not survive the century: reformists who endorsed welfare state capitalism were dragged under with the stagflation crises of the 1970s, and Leninist states either simply collapsed or adopted capitalist economics without liberalizing their political institutions in the 1990s. The very logic of socialism is intrinsically antagonistic to the nation-state.

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Workers and Proletarians

Contemporary nationalism often goes hand-in-hand with a sense that only those that work and their families deserve to eat, and the utility of ‘working’ identity in the United States has always been limited for those with the goal of transcending capitalism. The unwillingness for white American workers to affiliate with those indigenous to the continent, enslaved or free blacks, or immigrant laborers has long prefigured the grim resurgence of nativism and nationalism throughout Europe. The specter of the free-riding other—a racialized non-citizen—is no new invention, yet it appears everywhere that capital flows in the twenty-first century.

  ‘American worker’ rhetoric deployed against migrant proletarians at a Tea Party rally

But what class were Marxian socialists supposed to represent, anyway? Was it the working class, or the proletariat? This is not a trick question.

Marxian class analysis doesn’t operate in the way Americans traditionally think about class: in grades of income, on a ‘lower-middle-upper’ scale. Occupy’s ‘1%’ and Sanders’ ‘billionaire class’ are variations on this deployment of class as income brackets. Instead, Marxists think about classes as describing relationships between people and various forms of property, and how most forms of property tend to give most people the short end of the stick. The infamous class enemy in capitalism is the ‘bourgeoisie’—those who profit from productive, mercantile, or financial capital—and the ‘big bourgeoisie’ in particular.

Classically, Marxists are to be devoted to empowering the ‘proletariat’: those with no productive or natural property and only their ability to work to sell, dependent on market relations within or outside the formal economy to survive. Their economic and political needs are the starting point for a democracy that does not facilitate domination by the bourgeoisie, settlers, whites, men, etc. over the oppressed, exploited, and abandoned. Yet all proletarian political revolutionary strategies must include political alliances with low-income small proprietors of some kind. The economic dependence of both groups on the market give them some political overlap, and this common struggle forged a common term to cement their strategic alliance: the ‘working class’ coalition.
 While ‘proletariat’ and ‘working class’ were never interchangeable, the historical situation around this strategy appears to have made it obsolete. As capitalists have mechanized and relocated over the years, less and less of the proletariat in high-income countries even have the dubious privilege of being exploited through wage labor. Without work, it’s hard to feel like a worker: when automated machines or brutally exploited workers in low-income countries manufacture all the means of production and commodities in your world, a traditional ‘workerist’ feeling of ownership over production loses its empirical basis. One waits in vain for the long-term unemployed to assert themselves as workers, or for labor bureaucracies to start organizing the unemployed.

One can admit that the induced amnesia of Americans towards their local labor, socialist, and other radical history would have been partially mitigated had some kind of labor or socialist party survived the history of violent state repression and leftist political capitulation. Yet it is undeniable that in the contemporary class landscape, the celebration of the proletarian-as-worker that once pointed towards universal emancipation now seems only capable of bolstering a reactionary critique of the welfare state. The effects of bourgeois social parasitism are passed off as the consequences of proletarian consumption of redistributive aid, an ideological meme easily adaptable to racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and generally misanthropic ends: anyone administered rations to ease their exclusion from direct market relations should be robbed of their rations, and if they cannot find ‘legitimate’ work they deserve to starve. All the while bourgeois economists seem quite convinced that a bit of unemployment is ‘natural’: about 4.5–6% of those included in the official rate, to be exact.

This is not to deny that an axiomatic commitment to destroy racism did not permeate the Marxian left in the United States: over 150 years ago, Marxists brought to American shores a more rigorous notion of human equality that translated into the causes of abolition, reconstruction, self-determination, and integration. About a decade before Joseph Weydemeyer became a lieutenant colonel in the Union Army in 1861, he coined the infamous term for what a middle-aged Marx felt was his real contribution: the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ theory of communist politics. But as the North returned to business as usual after the Civil War and abandoned its support of Reconstruction, the Southern ruling classes engineered a segregationist and anticommunist ideology to justify drowning a generation of antislavery heroes in blood. Black Marxist W.E.B. Dubois considered the Reconstruction government to have been a dictatorship of the proletariat, and analyzed its liquidation in similar terms to how Marx documented the slaughter of the 1871 Paris Commune.

So began a campaign to ensure there would be no more Colonel Weydemeyers to guide the proletariat in the United States to victory: repressive waves of anti-sedition, McCarthyism, surveillance and counterintelligence programs guaranteed that socialists would remain on the outside of American politics in the twentieth century. Many otherwise committed socialists developed either a tolerance for living in bad faith or a full blown case of Stockholm syndrome, fashioning a kind of monastic virtue out of their political exclusion and eventual irrelevance. Meanwhile: nationalist, racist, and otherwise chauvinistic forms of ideology dominated working class politics as a result.

When the proportion of those traditionally considered ‘productive’ American workers to the general proletarian population shrank dramatically due to economic restructuring in the mid-70s, a ‘worker’ identity was available to an even smaller slice of the proletariat; they chose to strike out on their own over banding together even in the limited sense of ‘golden age’ nationalist unionism. The supply for labor had far exceeded the demand to such an extent that unions could no longer wield credible bargaining power, with well-funded neoliberal think tanks disseminating all the rhetoric and policies needed to demolish labor’s institutional gains.
 While the potential for people to identify, communicate and cooperate beyond borders seems ever more immanent in the technological landscape of the 21st century, every socialist with internet access has lost sleep pouring over pages detailing the structural undermining and subsequent atomization of what once was called the ‘working class’. Capitalist societies developed extraordinary global capacities for the purposes of deepening capitalist relations and establishing dominance in the global hierarchy of states (often in service of the former imperative), and so follows a cosmopolitan flavor of cultural dominance: by those with the capital to explore the planet, of those confined to parochial proletarian worlds. Nationalism—alongside finer and broader levels of regionalism—has retained a curious role in channeling class resentment, not least in the United States: the archetypical antagonism between nationalist ‘working class’ reactionaries and globalist ‘middle class’ progressives illuminates another thorough ideological defeat.

All this is to say that it is unlikely we will see a return to ‘worker’ rhetoric and identity as the unique political basis of a socialist project. Yet this does not imply we should jettison class politics in favor of more socially immanent identities, nor a plea to categorically reject labor politics: if capitalism can repurpose workerism—not only the original identity politic standpoint, but one created specifically to fight capitalism—I have great faith in the Hillary Clintons, Miley Cyruses, Jay-Zs, Dan Savages, Beyoncés, and Caitlin Jenners of the world to undermine the revolutionary potential of all manner of embattled identities.

We cannot ignore sections of the proletariat because they identify one way or the other; class politics must be fought on all fronts within the many discrete identities taken up by the oppressed, exploited, and abandoned. The proletarian condition prefigures socialism only in the sense that those without property—the majority of global humanity—have material interest in distribution, reduction, and eventual elimination of socially necessary labor; collective ownership of natural and productive property; rationally coordinated allocation of its products; and universalist political institutions. Overcoming the proletarian condition requires a dimension of class consciousness, but not an abandonment of other collective attachments; if it was ever advisable to do class politics without engaging non-class identities, it is simply not possible to do so in the present.

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Marxism for Bernouts

If you have made it this far, perhaps you too are mourning the defeat of the Sanders campaign. Perhaps you knew from the start that the Democratic Party would never buck a former First Lady for a nominal socialist, but found yourself fighting off pangs of hope when errors in reasonable analytical projections appeared; or maybe you were one of the faithful few that could ignore the overwhelming odds stacked against his nomination, vindicated over the past couple of months but now frantically tweeting your cognitive dissonance.

The defeat of the Sanders campaign can be one of two things for American socialists: a disappointing ending, or a critical beginning. Bernie Sanders has reintroduced to the United States the moral force of an egalitarian future that takes the name ‘socialism’, but it is up to us to decide what socialism means. When he says “I don’t believe in some foreign ‘ism’, but I believe deeply in American idealism”, his vision of a better world does not sound drastically different than President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration speech: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

Sanders touts as his primary political influence Eugene Victor Debs, an ex-Democrat unionist that ran for President on the Socialist Party ticket five times in the early twentieth century; he ran his final campaign in 1920 from a prison cell, garnering around 915,000 votes despite being convicted for publicly opposing World War I. Debs was a different breed of politician than any we know today:

No, I am not opposed to all war, nor am I opposed to fighting under all circumstances, and any declaration to the contrary would disqualify me as a revolutionist. When I say I am opposed to war I mean ruling class war, for the ruling class is the only class that makes war. It matters not to me whether this war be offensive or defensive, or what other lying excuse may be invented for it, I am opposed to it, and I would be shot for treason before I would enter such a war.

If I were in Congress I would be shot before I would vote a dollar for such a war. Capitalist wars for capitalist conquest and capitalist plunder must be fought by the capitalists themselves so far as I am concerned, and upon that question there can be no misunderstanding as to my position.

I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; and I am a citizen of the world. I would not violate my principles for God, much less for a crazy kaiser, a savage czar, a degenerate king, or a band of pot-bellied parasites.

But while, I have not a drop of blood to shed for the oppressors of the working class and the robbers of the poor, the thieves and looters, the brigands and murderers, whose debauched misrule is the crime of the ages, I have a heart-full to shed for their victims when it shall be needed in the war for their liberation.

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 the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make it necessary, even to the barricades.

I’d like to propose an amendment to Bill’s formula: There is nothing wrong with socialism that cannot be cured by what is right with socialism. Millions of revolutionaries more principled and courageous than we have tried and failed to implement socialism, committed scholars have sifted through the genius and shortcomings of every attempt; how self-defeating would it be to never explore the accumulated perspective of a century-and-a-half of socialist politics?

More immediately, how are socialists supposed to shove their values aside and vote for Hillary Clinton after the obviously corrupt election process that shut down the Sanders campaign? The #BernieOrBust tendency is knocking at the door of the most important principle of Marxian socialist politics: proletarian political organization must stand apart from bourgeois interests of all kinds. Those disappointed with Sanders’ decision to run as a Democrat despite his refusal to join the party beforehand will see their worst fears confirmed if Bernie simply stands aside and allows the Democratic Party to feed on the independent momentum for which he has campaigned his whole life. But those aware of this historical tendency are already approaching the question of how to channel the Sanders campaign into a new political agency outside of the Democrats and Republicans.

Many of those demoralized by both nationalist reformism and the miserable reality of Marxist-Leninist states simply abandoned Marxism. Yet many did not: some rejected Marxian state and party formations altogether, some attempted to adapt Leninist strategy to the Western world without pretending Marxist-Leninist states were socialist, and some attempted to reconcile the dismal history of both twentieth century ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ with Marx & Engels’ democratic communist politics.

Perhaps the strongest starting point for the inevitable #Bust is a book that falls into the last category, combing the ghosts of socialisms past for political guidance today: Revolutionary Strategy by Mike Macnair, an Oxford legal historian and gay liberation movement veteran. Macnair presents an analytically and historically grounded Marxist framework to examine reformism’s incorporation into capitalism and the military industrial complex; Leninism’s bureaucratic authoritarianism, economic mismanagement and spectacular collapse; and how to organize revolutionary realist socialist politics beyond the twentieth century.

This campaign really is not about Bernie Sanders.

It’s about transforming America.

A free copy of Revolutionary Strategy can be found here.

Articles by Macnair can be found here.

An annotated version of this article can be found here.

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