Civil Liberties & Political Revolution
The contradictions of capitalist culture and barbarism are sometimes so acute that they break through even into corporate big media. We can be grateful for such moments, and so I draw your attention to a principled statement by Richard Beck, urging pardon for Chelsea Manning. And let’s give some credit to the editors of the Los Angeles Times for publishing Beck’s piece, especially in this film industry town, given the release of Stone’s film on Snowden.
A radical defense of the human and political rights of Manning and Snowden should not be limited only to the known views and statements of such whistleblowers. Was Snowden more indebted to “free market” libertarianism in his past than would make many of his supporters comfortable? Certainly the Ayn Randist “objectivists” have been busy online claiming him as a hero in a true-life version of Atlas Shrugged. However, we also know that Snowden and Manning pay attention to reality and rapidly evolve. In any case, a class conscious and civil libertarian defense of whistleblowers can be made without subscribing to their worldviews.
As Beck reminds us, Manning is paying a much tougher price in prison, and getting much less celebrity support than Snowden. And let’s face it, some “progressives” remain reactionary in regard to the people and issues they dismiss as “identity politics.” Beck is correct in noting that Snowden may well be more popular than Manning “because he is male and straight.” Manning does have allies, of course, including the ACLU, yet her story has faded from public consciousness even as Snowden gains a starlit public profile. The specific and deeply entrenched anti-queer bigotry of the old left (including much of the old “New Left”) is also one factor in the greater solidarity shown to an exile in Russia, as opposed to a prisoner in the United States.
The reactionary left does exist and should be analyzed as such. The head of the Communist Party recently wrote an article for his party paper urging a “critical” vote for Hillary Clinton. No surprise. This is the devolutionary inertia of fraudulent “scientific socialism.” Complete with the deadbeat style of Democratic Party talking points. As for the Democratic Socialists of America, that group was founded to occupy the space of “the left wing of the possible” within the Democratic Party. Some of their members were not paying attention when Sanders began his campaign with a promise to endorse the eventual party nominee. That’s why some of them are disoriented enough to follow Sanders right back into the “left wing” of corporate rule.
Though Manning’s situation in prison is indeed urgent, we can expect the corporate state and career politicians to respond to such cases with miserly pardons and small portions of charity. In the last days of his presidency, Obama has been pardoning some deserving people, and he could easily include both Manning and Snowden (among other honorable whistleblowers like John Kiriakou) with the stroke of a pen. But this president only finds his “courage” on a dwindling timeline, and is stingy as a banker in spending political capital.
Why would this Nobel Peace Prize winner pardon citizens who have already paid a heavy price in exile and prison for their own sacrifices on behalf of peace and democracy? To ask the question is to answer it. Under Obama’s “progressive” administration, we have witnessed a vast expansion of state surveillance and of bombing by drones. Of course, we should still support any public campaign urging holders of high offices to show more courage. But let’s also be honest. We are talking about the kind of courage that could end careers in the capitalist parties. A fraction of the ruling class does become class conscious, and sometimes will take just such risks. The exceptions prove the rule.
The drive toward war and empire is bipartisan and corporate. Obama’s campaign promise of hope and change amounted to no more than Sanders’ promise of political revolution within a counterrevolutionary party. Sanders has duly endorsed Hillary Clinton, whose glass ceiling careerism has prepared her splendidly to be our next Bombardier in Chief.
Any historical criticism of existing power must become practical criticism in class conscious social movements against the capitalist state. The objective retreats of the Democratic Party have emboldened the far right, to such a degree that “ordinary” corporatism is now mobilizing explicit neo-fascists. The real fight against corporatism has already begun in earnest among social movements, and only these social movements can create political independence even on election days.
Not one cent and not one vote for the parties of war and empire. Is that an endorsement of electoral abstention or partisan fatalism? On the contrary. First, however, we must face some brutal facts. We can have their “two party system” in this country, or we can have democracy, but we cannot have both. We, the people, can create a democratic republic. Not overnight and very likely not in my lifetime, but I am already on the sunset slope of the hill.
Naturally, the torch of revolutionary change passes to the young, though there are marvelous moments of solidarity across generations. We can take back the ground of democracy in workplaces, in neighborhoods, and of course even in prison cells. Coordinated campaigns of civil disobedience, including electoral rebellion on election days, can grow in practical strength if we are duly class conscious and accountable to each other.
A public struggle for peace and democracy should be nonviolent so far as that is possible through our own efforts. And for both ethical and strategic reasons. The unintended consequences of violence can defeat our own goals, and advance capitalist barbarism. The balance of power is in our favor in the sense that we are many and they are few, but entirely in favor of the state if we consider firepower. Guns are always a gift to the state, even if we are stupid enough to think we could fight on that terrain. In that case, the state would invite us to jump into open graves. Though we can respect the braver pacifists, some of whom have religious commitments, a class conscious commitment to peaceful struggle is a secular project. In a thoroughly secular spirit, we must also never forget that the ruling class also gets a vote for peace or war on the terrain of class struggles.
For those readers who wonder what the programmatic public policies may be, I encourage you to consider the Green New Deal of the Green Party of the United States. The Green Party is a party of peace, economic democracy, and ecological sanity. I have not been shy in the past in my own criticism of certain Green Party policies and slogans, including the motto inherited from some European Greens: “Neither left nor right, but forward.” In fact, the Green Party here has mostly dropped that phrase, orienting itself more firmly toward social democracy in program and practice.
In foreign policy, the Green Party has also grown bolder in challenging the bipartisan status quo in relation to Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East. Again, both world events and pressure from social movements drove those changes within the Green Party. As a candidate for president, Jill Stein has been paying the expected price in slander, disinformation, and bipartisan exclusion from public debates. Because she, too, is a whistleblower against war and the corporate state.
As a democratic socialist, I’m familiar with sectarians on the left who do not find a thoroughly class conscious and socialist orientation among Greens. That is both true and sheer idealism, in the worst sense: namely, a flight from reality. To win basic social democracy would be a radical reform in the United States, and gains the ground we need for real workplace democracy and for federated councils of workers and neighbors.
Would we need an explicitly socialist party to represent such social movements? Yes, in my view. That prospect (still over the horizon) should not prevent us from breaking a present path toward reforms. The choice is not between reforms and revolution, but between accepting the command economy of the capitalist state or becoming class conscious rebels for peace and democracy.
As for the labor unions, there are signs in the more class conscious unions that workers are sick and tired of the status quo. The most bureaucratic unions have become arms of management, but any class conscious worker understands that the true value of labor must be extracted from the capitalist state. Not only by defensive labor strikes, but also by seizing public ownership of public goods and services in renewed class struggles.
If any one of us fears that kind of exposure to capitalist power, we will all have our good reasons. The answer to ruling class power is not the old romance of individual heroism and martyrdom, but the practical fight for common ground and common goals. If, for example, you are willing to consider an action of civil disobedience, begin with a small circle of people who have earned your trust. An affinity group of five or six people is already a healthy cell of the body politic, and a republic in miniature.
Finally, are Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden explicitly and publicly in favor of democratic socialism? I only raise that question to underscore the ethical and democratic dimension of any revolution worthy of the name. Manning and Snowden, among others, took serious personal and political risks to expose the brutality of semi-secret drone bombing campaigns, and of unrestricted state power to spy on citizens. For these reasons alone, no matter what their other views and commitments may be, they deserve public honor. A true political revolution in this country would guarantee Manning’s release from prison, and Snowden’s return from exile. “Freedom,” as Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “is always freedom for those who think differently.”
Scott Tucker is a writer and socialist living in Los Angeles with his husband, Larry Gross. He is the author of The Queer Question: Essays on Desire & Democracy.