Above Photo: Activist Cornel West, left, endorsed the Green Party’s Jill Stein for president after supporting Bernie Sanders during his primary run. (Evan Vucci / AP)
Six long months remain before the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both promising to continue to yell “fire!” in our crowded political theater until the blissful, psychotic finale unfolds, 2016 is bound to be one of those years that will be underlined in history books. Something is happening, and it is very strange.
There is something for everyone in this ceremony of mutually assured destruction. Shell-shocked neoliberals—still floating in midair like Wile E. Coyote after the graceless collapse of their blinkered worldview—are simply waiting for the laws of demography to hurtle them into the void. Right-wing nationalists—who found themselves in that great throng after stumbling and searching for meaning in the political landfill they were escorted to by both parties—have found something to their liking in a dusted-off, diet version of fascism.
Perhaps radical leftists have been the most delightfully perplexed. All of them at some point have had to face the season’s most unbelievable “problem”: A self-avowed democratic socialist was within striking distance of the White House.
For those facing down a century whose primary motive force was anticommunism, this was an unprecedented development in need of immediate elucidation. The explanations were varied. Some saw proof of socialism’s undying power. Some saw a “sheepdog” who was using the Democratic Party to corral would-be radicals and denude their real power. Others saw a SINO (socialist in name only) or imperial pig dog who embraced American exceptionalism and claimed an undeserved title.
No matter. While the radical left searched for guidance (is Sanders a degenerate or a deformed workers candidate?), millions across the country coalesced into a movement propelling his campaign forward. At various points in the cycle, Sanders seemed to have a genuine and clearly perceptible chance to gain position over Hillary Clinton, the most well-oiled candidate.
Of course, it is premature to speak declaratively—even hindsight is not 20/20, as many of us are still considering and reconsidering what it is we just saw—but at this point, some observations can be made, and perhaps some strategy offered, as the Sanders campaign orchestrates his endgame.
I first saw Sanders speak in August of last year at a campaign event in Los Angeles. At the time, his campaign was on the cusp of becoming the Big Thing, and I was inclined to approach it with a skepticism shared by many comrades. Sanders, it seemed to me, appeared to be too gladly playing the role of loyal opposition, with Clinton’s nomination a foregone conclusion. Because the absence of even a nominal selection process within the Democratic Party was suspect, Sanders (along with rental candidates Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb) stepped in, validating the party’s image of itself as a source of vibrant internal debate and able to accommodate a left faction.
At this stump speech, I wanted to hear him say two words that would make me believe otherwise: “socialist” and “Clinton.” The first would signify that his run wouldn’t completely subdue its radicalizing potential to the Democratic Party’s best interests. The second would show that it was meant to contest the political ideology on which the party was built and that fault lines would be exposed.
Sanders said neither. Instead of attacking Clintonism, he continuously referenced the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and the Koch brothers, preferring to situate his enemies as far as possible from home turf. He spoke of “a political revolution,” but it seemed that revolution would be constituted by high voter turnout. I left unconvinced.
A few months later, Sanders gave a speech on socialism at Georgetown University, and I listened attentively, hoping that his blossoming support would allow him an opportunity to speak more explicitly. He said this: “So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this: I don’t believe the government should own the means of production.” Paired with the terms of endearment he reserved for NATO, it was difficult to read this as anything but a dispiriting mangling of the socialist tradition. I was now convinced, but not of what I originally hoped for. Instead, Bernie Sanders was not a socialist. He said so himself.
But then—and the particulars of this are unnecessary to rehearse—things got interesting. The most notable of these is that Bernie “took the gloves off.” Led by the brawler Jeff Weaver, my conception of the Sanders campaign as a tomato can for Clinton’s handlers dissolved. Maybe Sanders thought no one wanted to hear about “the damn emails,” but people were sure as hell going to hear about Clinton’s scandalous hobnobbing with Goldman Sachs as well as the lavish sums she siphoned off from those who brought the economy to catastrophe, and (in a display that, honest to God, made me pump my fist) how Henry Kissinger was a mass murderer whom Sanders was proud (proud!) not to call his friend.
The Clinton administration, which had for decades survived with its mythical legacy intact as an exemplar of 1990s progress, underwent what seemed like an overnight revision in the minds of many. Now it was the harbinger of working-class immiseration, courtesy of NAFTA and welfare reform, and carceral proliferation, courtesy of the newly notorious crime bill. Genuinely spurred on by Black Lives Matter (whose mobilizations at early Sanders events unequivocally benefited his campaign despite the unfortunate outcry of his supporters at the time), Sanders told a debate crowd that Clinton’s use of the term “superpredator” was “a racist term, and [she] knew it was a racist term.” The secretary’s “experience” was singled out as mainly being the experience of turning once-stable nation states into collapsed war fields and Islamic State strongholds—her crown jewel, Libya, now an utter wreck devolving into ceaseless civil war with at least three competing governments (if one includes Islamic State’s control of Sirte).
As impressive as Sanders’ offensive was, he was aided by the incompetence of his opponents. One watched the spectacular display of liberalism’s best and brightest come apart at the seams. Bill Clinton could hardly make a public appearance without displaying his inability to leave the race-baiting ’90s behind, chiding Black Lives Matter supporters while simultaneously insisting, “We are all mixed-race.”
Hillary, for her part, doubled down on her “realist” version of heartlessness—insisting that single-payer healthcare would “never, ever” happen and saying that free public higher education was somehow a giveaway to the wealthy (using Donald Trump’s children by way of example, as if either Ivanka Trump or Chelsea Clinton—whose friendship with Ivanka has been reportedly put on ice—were ever considering attending Penn State or CUNY instead of Penn and Stanford). As the primaries began, even as Clinton racked up (close) victories, the demographic splits were unbelievable. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” seemed to return emphatically.
As socialists, we have to give the Sanders campaign credit where it is due. In its intermediary phase, it performed better than anticipated and gave the radical left more room to maneuver than previously expected. It became a condensed expression of antineoliberalism and antiausterity and a pole of attraction that was amenable, if not consistently supportive, to socialist politics. The difficulties and contradictions existed—and still remain. Fredrik deBoer, in a review of Chris Hayes’ “Twilight of the Elites” inThe New Inquiry, described a “typical American liberal” like this: “all Karl Marx in description, all Tom Daschle in prescription.”
This issue continues to confront us as the primary obstacle to successful politics—the gap between Sanders’ refusal to call himself a capitalist and his statement that the government “should not control the means of production” is not simply a rhetorical one by a politician very careful with his words. It responds to a genuine political dissonance, as seen in those who can identify capitalism as a source of great misery and inequity but cannot bear to face the obvious solution.
This internal conflict gives rise to deeply frustrating balancing acts. One of the forms that it takes is the bizarre parsing of size, as though the destructive capacities of capitalism are not built into its design but simply a result of its unchecked growth. This dovetails neatly with the fetishization of “small business” and denunciation of “monopolies.”
The problem, these “typical American liberals” believe, is not capitalism but its most gargantuan practitioners. We will downsize banks, they say, incentivize small-scale entrepreneurship, contain multinational capital, re-establish the priorities of national capital and so on. But leftists in this scenario will constantly be engaged in a rear-guard action against capitalism, chaperoning it and having to discipline it from time to time while otherwise leaving it to its own devices.
Another manifestation of this form of denial arises in liberals’ obsession with “corruption,” or the dreaded “buying” of the political process. This is the scourge of lobbyists, the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Goldman Sachs, the American Legislative Exchange Council and all the rest. Here, “corruption,” which is a politically value-neutral term (meaning not inherently a left-wing or right-wing position), stands in for a political program. Like the problem of “bigness,” the corruption problem is one of “dirt,” and what one must do is submit the political process to a baptismal cleansing. Federally funded elections, the overturning of Citizens United, financial transparency and “getting money out of politics” all herald a politics of authenticity.
Again, leftists in this scenario remain on the back foot. Getting money out of politics may curb “excesses,” but it will not fundamentally rearrange power relations. That would require its more frightening, redistributive (or, God forbid, expropriative) opposite: getting politics into money. Put succinctly, the billionaire class has too much money—whether they choose to spend it on political influence or not. We should not simply build roadblocks designed to entice them to spend it responsibly. We should spend it for them.
There is a reason this confusion exists, and the reason is that there is no viable or functioning political force arguing explicitly for a socialist political program. It is what the radical left is hoping to get out of the Sanders campaign and the millions of people whom it has revealed to have an affinity for a left-of-center platform. But the time is now, and we must value clarity.
The opportunistic straddling of social democracy and democratic socialism (not to mention revolutionary socialism) cannot be kept up forever. Not only is this unhealthy for a thriving radical left—which, understandable enthusiasm aside, cannot afford to recoil from critiquing Sanders’ massive political deficiencies, of which his embrace of American empire is particularly disastrous—but it dismantles the possibility of building the base for such a movement, which can only be built by honestly and sincerely articulating a coherent class consciousness.
While many are thrilled that, according to some measures, a majority of young Americans support “socialism” over “capitalism,” the significance of this majority changes when one considers what many of these young people think “socialism” is, describing it as essentially as Sanders does—as New Deal liberalism.
This is not semantic pedantry nor the sectarian jostling of those preaching “true” socialism. Understanding this is absolutely essential to build a political organization capable of enacting a radical-left political program. It is an error, in my estimation, to believe that social democracy necessarily greases the wheels of socialism, that one comes to the radical left more easily by moving through the center left. It seems just as likely that social democracy acts instead as a foreclosure to the rise of the radical left. Rather than moving through social democracy, the radical left must move around it.
It is not a natural progression to move from the welfare state to the workers’ council. It must be articulated and promulgated clearly and openly. History suggests the opposite trajectory will occur in the absence of a countervailing political will.
Radical-left movements will veer toward social democracy, find it all too comfortable and eventually eradicate themselves in the process. Without a lengthy detour, one can simply follow the series of asinine splits and mergers that led the once-powerful Communist Party of Italy to eventually bequeath labor-thrashing Matteo Renzi. Or in an American context, one can reach to the Democratic Socialists of America—a left-wing organization currently endorsing Sanders—whose founding father Michael Harrington felt it no political error to baldly state in the midst of the Cold War, “I am anticommunist on principle.”
At the level of Sanders’ endgame strategy, this confusion leads to a strategic fumbling. While acknowledging constantly on the campaign trail the fundamentally antidemocratic nature of the Democratic Party, the campaign still seeks refuge in the party platform. Even with the unexpectedly strong selections for the committee, like Cornel West, who has called the sitting president a war criminal, it still bespeaks an odd and misplaced faith.
The Democratic Party does not uphold the platform it has now, and it cannot be expected to uphold the “most progressive platform ever”—which Sanders seeks to institute.
I believe a stronger move would be to draft a radical-left platform while refusing to contest the official Democratic Party line. This action could be accompanied by a delegate walkout, to state that one has no reason to believe that the Democratic Party is willing or able to carry out the necessary political tasks, while also presenting an affirmative program to the public—a platform in search of a party.
Cornel West, in noteworthy fashion, has followed this path by recusing himself from supporting the party, appearing on the platform committee only to raise hell on political untouchables (mainly Palestine) and leaving just as quickly as he came to endorse Jill Stein.
It remains to be seen how raucous Philadelphia becomes for the Democratic National Convention, but it appears that the convention won’t be seriously contested by the Sanders campaign. Sanders himself has already thrown many of his delegates into an existential crisis by endorsing Clinton while maintaining that he wants their presence on the floor. This posture—of the independent candidate expressing a strategy of “takeover” of the existing Democratic Party—has to be chalked up as proving the Trots right.
It is time for the radical left to open up and confront the conjuncture. Of all the internal disputes about how to “approach” the Sanders campaign, the best answer is to do so honestly—to neither burrow into the movement by obscuring vanguardist pretensions nor to stand aside and berate its shortcomings. One must say that the Sanders campaign’s antiausterity premise is one that should be solidified and fought for but that the campaign must be built on and pushed farther to the left.
The difficulty should not be underestimated, but the left cannot avoid it. The fundamental premise of Sanders’ campaign—that his “political revolution” can be accomplished within the confines of capitalism—is incorrect. That will soon be clear. Sanders is going through his endgame. We are going through an opening. Let us show the way to the great red beyond.