Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The working class and populist politics

Note: The following is a slightly expanded and amended version of a talk given by Frank Brenner at the Locomotiva Cafe in Athens Greece on July 5, 2016.  An enthusiastic capacity crowd of around 70 people were in attendance. In addition to Brenner’s remarks, Alex Steiner also gave a talk on the topic of "The American Political Landscape in 2016: A Marxist interpretation”. We previously published Steiner’s talk here.  The meeting was chaired by Savas Michael-Matsas, the Secretary of the Workers Revolutionary Party of Greece (EEK). Savas also made a presentation on the significance of the vote for Brexit. 

by Frank Brenner

1.I want to say a few words about the working class and the politics of populism.

I don’t know what the Greek word for populism is, but in English it carries the sense of politics that appeals directly to the people against the established political parties and economic elites.

From the definition, it would seem that populism is naturally a politics of the left, but this turns out to be an illusion.  Appealing to the people can be just as effective for right-wing politics, best known in the extreme form of fascism. It all depends on what you are appealing FOR.

2. Right-wing populism is a huge political fact of life in North America and Europe. One especially striking example of this is the presidential election in Austria. There the candidate of the neo-fascist Freedom Party got nearly 50% of the vote in the run-off election in May (after leading in the first round of the election). But even more troubling is that this fascist, Norbert Hofer, got 81% of the votes of manual workers. And this happened in a country with a century of working class allegiance to social democracy. (And Hofer may well end up winning the election since the constitutional court in Austria has now invalidated the May result and ordered the election be rerun.)

3. Austria is a small country but its current politics are symptomatic. Donald Trump in America, Brexit and the rise of UKIP in Britain, the Front National of Marine Le Pen in France are the best known examples of this surge of populist politics. And in all these case you find the same phenomenon of workers – typically the remnants of what is now a mostly de-industrialized working class – supporting parties of the populist right.

4. This is something new in the political landscape. The fascism of the 1920s and 1930s, as the Marxists of that era understood it, was a movement with its political base in the middle classes, a movement whose reason for existence was to terrorize and annihilate the organized working class in the trade unions and the parties of the left.

Today the organized working class is a shadow of its former self. In the US, unions represent a small fraction of the working class, about 10%, and discounting the public sector, it is only 7%. Which means that in the daily life of most workers, unions play no role at all, they are invisible. The US is the most extreme case but similar trends are evident in other countries. Let me add that in Greece this may look different for now, but the complete failure of the unions to resist austerity in any effective way means the same process is at work. In Greece you have many strikes that achieve nothing; this is no better than having no strikes at all.

All of which is to say: there is no longer the need for a fascism that can knock the teeth out of the labor movement because the labor movement is already mostly toothless. Even Donald Trump, whose ideas about politics are very crude, understands this. Recently, when the American union federation, the AFL-CIO, announced its support for Hillary Clinton, Trump laughed at them and said that he represents more workers than they do.

5. But if organized labor is no longer a threat to capitalism, the anger and desperation of millions of people are potentially a great threat.
It is now not the middle classes, though, who provide the main social base for right-wing populism (though there are certainly many middle class people involved in these movements).

Rather that base comes primarily from the working class. Especially those low skilled workers who used to fill the factories making cars, steel, furniture, televisions, clothes etc etc. Millions of these jobs have been wiped out by technological change and transferring jobs to factories in countries where the cost of labor power is much cheaper.

A typical example is Apple, the most profitable company in the world. Not a single iPhone (or anything else) is made in America by this supposedly American company. All the productive work is done in countries like China by workers making less than 2 euros for a 12-hour working day. Apple’s American workers only do sales and marketing, typically for little more than minimum wage. In this sense the iPhone bears comparison to the art works of ancient Greece – beautiful objects created out of slavery.

It is workers in countries like America and Britain that are the big losers in the relentless competitive struggle of capitalist globalization. In the US in particular they have suffered staggeringly high levels of drug and alcohol abuse and suicides over the last 20 years, resulting in an unprecedented rise in mortality rates, what one magazine article on the subject dubbed an epidemic of “death by despair.”

But a great many more of these workers have turned their anger outwards, against the mainstream politics of both big American political parties with their empty promises and cynical lies.

6. Which means that the rise of populism is the rise of a new class politics. A nice illustration of this was a quote in the Guardian newspaper from a worker in the north of England about Brexit: “If you’ve got money, you vote in. If you haven’t got money, you vote out.” This explains far better that most mainstream press commentary the many thousands of working class votes for Brexit.

But this re-emergence of class politics is unlike anything socialists have expected.

The main political forces that for now are capitalizing on this working class anger are reactionary. The kind of class consciousness they promote directs class anger downwards rather than upwards – against immigrants, the poor, religious and racial minorities, unions – and not against the real social criminals running the banks and multinational corporations.

It would be wrong to ignore these dangers, wrong too for us on the revolutionary left not to do everything we can to fight this backwardness, this poison of racism. But it would be equally wrong to be overwhelmed by these dangers and simply write off these workers as “angry old white men”, as many liberals do.

A couple of facts: a year ago Britain had an election in which UKIP got 4 million votes. This year the Leave side in the Brexit referendum got 17 million votes. Even if we concede that that UKIP voters are xenophobic 'little Englanders', this is still a minority position within the British working class. The big majority were not saying YES to UKIP ideas, they were saying NO to the EU and the political elites.

Similar contradictions are evident in the Trump campaign. A lot of the workers who vote for Trump could also vote for Bernie Sanders. Undoubtedly in Trump’s case, fomenting hatred of immigrants and racism are crucial parts of his political pitch, but it is also clear that his base is a confused mass of contradictions. They may be voting for Trump’s Mexican Wall but they also feel that they are voting against Wall Street, against the liars in Washington, against a rigged economy.
I want to end with a couple of ideas about what this means for the revolutionary left.

First, it needs to be said that the success of right-wing populism is a direct consequence of the failure of the mainstream left – the old Labour, Socialist and Communist Parties, who have all betrayed their working class supporters by becoming parties of austerity, like their Greek cousins Pasok and Syriza.

But it’s remarkable how little the radical left has been able to fill the vacuum created by the degeneration of the mainstream left. Of course for a while there was hope among many workers and young people that Syriza or a similar party in Spain like Podemos might be the radical left answer to austerity. Now everyone knows, especially in Greece, how false that hope was. It would seem that for Mr. Tsipras, it's only possible to radical so long as it doesn't cost you a Euro.

Why is it that the right, not the left, is mobilizing working class anger? The plain truth is that the right has an answer – nationalism. It is a simple and effective answer, if also a terrible one. The left has no answers. To the extent that the radical left in America has any impact on mass consciousness, it is usually through identity politics, which is often openly contemptuous of the very same workers voting for Trump and Sanders.

Of course this is a broad generalization but I think it has a lot of truth to it. For a long time socialism wasn’t even much talked about on the left. The slogan you’d often hear at marches and demonstrations was, Another World is Possible. Which world, though? Nobody had much to say about that: you could make up any world you want.

Then there is the word, progressive. At least in North America everybody on the left is now a progressive. Progressive come from progress, which means movement toward some objective, some goal. What objective? What goal? These questions are deliberately left unanswered, so that even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are happy to call themselves progressives.

Or here’s another one of these empty phrases – social justice. What does that mean? Can you have social justice in a society based on wage slavery? Apparently, many on the radical left think that you can.

These are not just a few misplaced phrases – they express a deep malaise on the left. A few years back we had the Occupy movement, and even though it attracted widespread attention, it achieved nothing because it was filled with such empty phrases and empty ideas – so empty that on principle it was opposed to having any program. Imagine that – a principle of fighting for nothing. Which meant that all the good intentions aroused by Occupy ended up going nowhere.

I should say that the Sanders campaign in the US and Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party in Britain are of course signs that populism can take left wing forms and I don't want to underestimate their importance. Still it is striking that like Occupy, both these developments seem notably ephemeral, passing moments rather than major political shifts.

Sanders has already given his allegiance to Hillary Clinton, a shameful betrayal of the aspirations his campaign aroused among so many young people yearning for a political revolution. Sanders claims that his political hero is Eugene Debs, yet Debs spent his   career resisting the deadly logic of lesser-evilism that Sanders has now capitulated to. Debs would never have stood on the same platform as Queen Hillary of Wall Street.

And in Britain, it looks as if Corbyn's Labour Party is breaking apart. If Corbyn remains the leader, he will have almost no parliamentary caucus, and if he is ousted the Labour Party will lose the big bulk of its membership. Whichever way it goes, this will no longer be the Labour Party as we have known it.

In both cases, these left-wing populist stirrings seem like the first halting steps of a movement that still hasn't figured out how to get off its knees.

We need to rethink our politics in the revolutionary left. The working class is saying no to mainstream politics but we need to offer it something to say yes to, something that can counter the poison of the radical right. And we need to offer it in the language and images of our time, not of the now long-forgotten social struggles of the 1930s.

I’ll finish with a quote from the German writer Goethe: “Few people have the imagination for reality.” That is a deep piece of truth beautifully expressed, and it applies not only to art but also to the art of politics.

Some photos from the event at the Locomotiva Cafe

Savas Michael-Matsas (left) and Alex Steiner (right)

Well known Marxist author Michael Löwy (right) participated in the Q&A


Mark said...

I thought it was interesting that the Sanders delegates booed his endorsement of Clinton in his address to supporters at the opening of the Democratic convention. This points to contradiction between his message, which is obviously against neoliberalism and for the redistribution of wealth, and his method which is to achieve this through the confines of the Democratic Party. I think that socialists should be exploiting that contradiction rather than writing Sanders off as a "sheepdog", trying to heard workers into the Democratic party. A different way of looking at this, is that third parties in the United States are historically side lined, Sanders obviously is trying to have and impact on the situation by running as a Democrat. While his politics might not be socialist, he still expresses a leftward opposition to the neoliberal policies of the two parties.

Mark said...

Just wanted to add that, my comments were not so much directed toward your piece, but towards the cynical attitude directed towards the Sanders campaign and movement built up around him by sectarians like the SEP. Unlike the campaign of Obama, which was mostly filled empty phrases, the Sanders campaign did have content and actual proposals, which most socialist would have to admit are not possible within the current framework of bourgeois politics in the US, indeed it would take a "political revolution" to achieve something like single payer health care and free tuition at public universities in the US, among his other proposals.

Now that Sanders is out of the picture, no doubt pressured by the Democrats given his standing and likely attachment to many committees in the Senate, the challenge is to make a political connection with those supporters, many who feel they have been politically "awakened" by the Sanders campaign, the DNC leaks, etc, that are moving to the left of the two mainstream parties.

Otherwise, I find this piece very insightful as to nature of populism. I just wonder whether the right wing populism of today poses the same dangers as it did in the early part of the 20th century? Of course, people around the Clinton campaign are using that as a fear tactic to drive liberal voters and "progressives" to the generally unappealing presidential candidate of Hillary Clinton, who poses her own dangers to the working class in the US and internationally.

Adam Cortright said...

The SEP has not displayed any cynicism or sectarianism towards the workers who have been drawn to the Sanders campaign. They've made it clear they view the bringing into the political discussion socialist ideas is a positive thing, and the success of Sanders has indicated without a doubt the leftward shift of the working class since the 2008 crash. Jerry White, Niles Niemuth and other SEP members have been traveling the country in recent months talking to workers and sharing their stories through video, pictures and interviews, allowing workers to speak for themselves while also providing the SEP's stance towards Sanders and how what he offers is different from genuine socialism. Having said this, I don't think there's much doubt that the SEP has been correct about what role Sanders has played in this election from an objective point of view, in terms of corralling radical elements of workers into the Democratic Party and behind the candidacy of Clinton. The entire episode has provided the working class with a valuable political lesson, which the SEP and WSWS has done an excellent job of clarifying.



Mark said...

Adam, the point I making, is that you can disagree with someone politically without needing to invent a conspiracy theory for their involvement in politics. For the WSWS, the secret intent of the Sanders campaign was to trap workers inside the Democratic Party, running a sham campaign in order to deliver votes for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. I think that displays a degree of cynicism, besides it is demonstrably false, as DNC emails prove. The DNC did not welcome the Sanders campaign, if anything it was a distraction from the coronation of Hillary Clinton, making her deal with a host of issues she would rather sweep under the rug. As far as delivering votes for Hillary, his endorsement of Clinton was apparently unconvincing to his own delegates, who not only booed him but staged a walk out at the convention.

I also wouldn't credit the WSWS for any compelling political lessons, one of those lessons should be how rigged and undemocratic our system, many people are drawing those conclusions on their own. It's hard to make that case to people when you're telling them that the candidate and political ideas they believe in are a fraud.

Adam Cortright said...

Actually, Sanders has been quite open about the extent and political meaning of his campaign. All the WSWS did was say that the working class should believe him when he says his revolution is about transforming the Democratic Party and electing Democrats to office locally, statewide and nationally. While it's true that the DNC would have preferred if Sanders not run, the political EFFECT of his campaign was to, as the WSWS says, coral the radical elements of the working class into the Democratic Party and behind Clinton, if he were to lose. Looking at his endorsement speech of Hillary at the DNC, saying she will make an "outstanding president," it's impossible to even discern what reason he ran for office in the first place. He spoke of her in the most glowing of terms. If his supporters don't back his endorsement and if they boo him, it's because they are now beginning to see that he IS a fraud, and will come to see that the analysis of the WSWS has been correct, unlike other groups like Socialist Alternative and the Greens, who have backed him 100 percent. The WSWS's coverage of the Sanders campaign, like its coverage of SYRIZA and other pseudo-lefts, has only added to its credibility in the eyes of workers, which is reflected in the big increase in its readership and subscribers to its various newsletters.



Mark said...

If the WSWS took seriously the proposition by Sanders of transforming the democratic party, that would have required a completely different approach, actually explaining what is wrong with that idea! Instead they advanced the conspiracy theory that I've already outlined, which is an expression of theoretical and political laziness as well as cynicism as I've pointed out.

When the WSWS calls Sanders a fraud, I believe that they are speaking to their own small constituency, "he's not a socialist, we're the real socialists", it's the same way they talk about pseudo-lefts, thinking they are the only "true" leftists. I don't think this is an effective approach to speaking to Sander's supporters, many of whom are not so attached to the Democratic party, but supported Sanders because of the issues he raised. I think we need more of Lenin's approach, patiently explaining the necessity of revolution.

Stephen R. Diamond said...

1. On Sanders. The issue isn't his personal motives. It is the function of left-liberal movements in campaigns, which is to head off a real third party OR to bring naive masses into capitalist politics, either one serving the interest of capitalist stability. Sanders played the latter role; the Progressive Party of 1948 the former (it seems to me).

I think the perspective of seeing the Sanders movement as an opportunity necessarily reflects a belief that bringing politically uninvolved masses into capitalist politics parties is desirable. I think the milennials who were screwed over by Sanders will be more likely to be made cynical or become engaged with the opportunist left (or both) than they are winnable to revolutionary politics. Expectations of reaping a windfall and benefiting from Sanders's dead-end seem themselves to reflect a certain cynicism. The Sanders movement will go not substantially further than another diversion, Occupy.

2. On de-industrialization and globalization. To what extent are these the result of neoliberal policies, as opposed to being due to technological developments dramatically increasing the mobility of the factors of production? The de-industrialization of the capitalist centers seems to has increased the strength of the bourgeoisie relative to the workers. I don't see how any communist party can win a mass base when unions are decimated and workers are no longer employed at large industrial sites. Perhaps this is what Trotsky meant by "over-ripeness."

[You may remember that Tim Wohlforth (1970 or 1971) wrote a critique of LaRouche and the "Labor Committee," where Wohlforth argued for the impossibility of a third capitalist revolution in the third world. Almost all leftists dismissed this possibility, which is part of what we're seeing.]

3. Odd than in neither of these pieces is mentioned Engels's explanation for the failure of America to develop a labor party.

4. Regardless, the demand for the labor movement (weak as it is) to form a labor party should perhaps be brought to the forefront.

[If I sound tentative, it's because I am.]

Stephen R. Diamond said...

"The WSWS's coverage of the Sanders campaign, like its coverage of SYRIZA and other pseudo-lefts, has only added to its credibility in the eyes of workers, which is reflected in the big increase in its readership and subscribers to its various newsletters."

SEP is pseudo-Maximalist. It isn't Trotskyist; it doesn't advance the transitional program (or even mention it). It produces some very good negative propaganda, but its pretensions to being a Trotskyist party are deceitful. (The leaders know better.) The solution is always to "build SEP." But with SEP's severe geographic isolation, what does that mean? Well, it means very simply, SEND DONATIONS. SEP (like the middle-class sects generally) struggles for self-preservation. I don't see how any sect can survive for substantial time (decades) when it can't (for reasons initially perhaps more structural than political) recruit masses of workers. The sects are bound to be (or become) grotesque pseudo-leftist swamps.

And WSWS is not above fraudulence: It claims to have rules regarding posting comments, but it censors when it gets in a ditch in discussion. Any party afraid of debate isn't worth its salt.

It's revealing that you brag about expanding your readership - without mentioning the state of your membership.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Stephen Diamond. Part 1.

I will respond to your points in order.

1. If groups who consider themselves part of the revolutionary left cannot or do not see the Sanders movement as an opportunity then I think those groups should just pack up their bags and retire for they are clearly in the wrong line of work. The Sanders movement, regardless of the intentions of Sanders himself, was and is clearly a movement to the left based on class oriented demands, comprising millions of workers, students and sections of the middle class. If you cannot find an opportunity in that movement for advancing the cause of socialism and an independent working class party then you will never find an opportunity anywhere. Of course revolutionary socialists engage with that movement in order to move it away from the Democratic party and capitalist politics. If your attitude is that it is just a "diversion" that will not go anywhere, then that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the reasons the Occupy movement did not go any further was because it was dominated by the anarchist ideology that disdained programs and political parties. But then you might want to ask why was it dominated by these anarchist ideas? I think that had something to do with the overall abstention of Marxists from the Occupy movement. It was not preordained by the fates that anarchist ideology would dominate the Occupy movement and it should not have happened were there Marxists ready to challenge the anarchists who were leading this movement.I was in Zuccotti Park on a number of occasions during the Occupy movement and noticed that none of the self-proclaimed Marxist groups - with perhaps one or two exceptions - were in any substantial way involved in it. Sectarians like the WSWS/SEP and Spartacist would occasionally stand out on the periphery of Zuccotti park and hawk their newspaper or give out some flyers. The funny thing is that standing out on the periphery they mostly reached some of the tourists who were passing by and not the occupiers themselves! It was quite pathetic.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Stephen Diamond. Part 2.

2. The effects of globalization have created very different conditions but I do not agree that they have strengthened the bourgeoisie and made the class struggle impossible. Don't forget that the de-industrialization of North America comes alongside of the growing proletarianization of China and much of what used to be called the Third World. At the same time the effects of neo-liberalism and austerity has driven much of what used to be the middle class and professionals into the ranks of the working class whether they realize it or not, and more of the working class is now consigned to the ranks of the unemployed and precarious labor. What this means is that we can expect much more intensive class struggles ahead. But they will have new forms and will probably not look like the kind of struggles we saw in the 1930's such as the Flint sit down strike. Industrial unions, in their greatly weakened condition, will probably not play the central role in the coming mass struggles, but neither are they entirely dead as the recent Verizon strike showed. The Sanders movement, which you seem to write off, like the support Trump has gotten from an inverted form of class anger, is a harbinger of these coming struggles in the U.S. Internationally, events like the OXI vote in the Greek referendum last year, the vote for Brexit in the U.K. and the disintegration of Turkey as a key NATO stronghold in the Middle East also point to the end of an era of class relations based on globalization and austerity.

Obviously Wohlforth's analysis from 50 years ago failed to consider how globalization would change the nature of capitalism at a time when globalization was just beginning.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Stephen Diamond. Part 3.

3. You complain that our talks in Athens did not mention Engels's thoughts on the political developments of the American working class. But I said in my talk that I am painting a historical survey "with a very broad brush". In any case it is funny that you mentioned this since this was a topic that I actually discussed in a letter to David North in 1999! You can read the full context of that letter in Chapter 2 of the series Downward Spiral, page 36-37. Here is a link to the entire Downward Spiral series:

Downward Spiral index

And here is a link to chapter 2 of that series:

Downward Spiral Chapter 2

This is a section of the letter I wrote that discusses Engels:

"I now am of the opinion that this treatment of pragmatism [the one I had previously adopted in the movement in the 1970’s] was a terrible caricature. Of course, the error was not simply my own, but an outlook that was inherited by our movement. It [treated] pragmatism as deriving from the peculiar circumstance that the American bourgeoisie did not have to struggle against feudalism, etc. This thesis, if I recall, has for its justification, a single line in a letter of Engels’.

Engels pithy comment was a fascinating insight, but instead of being the starting point for a serious historical-philosophical investigation, it became, in Wohlforth's work, the authority explaining everything. But the blame does not simply lie with Wohlforth. He too was working within a historical context."

And yes I certainly agree that a demand for the formation of an independent mass working class party based on socialist policies should be central. But I rather doubt that this will take the form of a congress of trade unionist voting such a party into existence as we once envisioned. As Frank Brenner in his talk has so clearly spelled out, we are in a new era and the forms of the class struggle will look very different than the way we imagined it based on models of the movements of the 1930's.

Mark said...

Maybe I've covered this point already, but I think we ought to separate the Sanders movement from Sanders the individual and his own political limitations. The reason the endorsement of Clinton came as a shock and betrayal is because of discord between his supporters who wanted an alternative the politics of Wall Street represented by Clinton, New Deal proposals to redress the growing social inequality, and Sanders own intention, explained by him at different occasions, which was to transform the Democratic party, and indeed as Stephen says "bringing politically uninvolved masses into capitalist politics parties." The reason this is an opportunity for revolutionary Marxists is because of this fundamental contradiction and the millions that are involved in this movement, the WSWS can't see this because they've reconceived Marxism as a positivist science, making "predictions" which is more akin to making educated guesses, instead of using dialectics as a guide to actively intervening in the political process.

Adam Cortright said...


The WSWS does indeed see the Sanders following as positive (as they have said many times, and evidenced by their intervention at Sanders' rallies). They welcome the move to the left by the masses, which of course is inevitable due to the objective conditions of capitalism. Like you, the WSWS separates Sanders the man (a backstabbing capitalist) from the following (workers and middle class who are being drawn into radical politics). Whatever your disagreements with the SEP, I wish you wouldn't misrepresent their position in order to disparage them. The fact that you have to resort to such distortions reveals that there may be some subjective reasons why you hold a grudge against your former comrades.



Stephen R. Diamond said...

I should have been clearer about the Engels analysis I had in mind. I meant his 1893 Letter to Sorge, containing a specific analysis of the relative backwardness of workers in America. ( )

I'll quote the relevant passage for readers' convenience:


All of that certainly causes much harm, but on the other hand, it is not to be denied that American conditions involve very great and peculiar difficulties for a continuous development of a workers’ party.

First, the Constitution, based as in England upon party government, which causes every vote for any candidate not put up by one of the two governing parties to appear to be lost. And the American, like the Englishman, wants to influence his state; he does not throw his vote away.

Then, and more especially, immigration, which divides the workers into two groups: the native-born and the foreigners, and the latter in turn into (1) the Irish, (2) the Germans, (3) the many small groups, each of which understands only itself: Czechs, Poles, Italians, Scandinavians, etc. And then the Negroes. To form a single party out of these requires quite unusually powerful incentives. Often there is a sudden violent élan, but the bourgeois need only wait passively, and the dissimilar elements of the working class fall apart again.

Third, through the protective tariff system and the steadily growing domestic market the workers must be exposed to a prosperity no trace of which has been seen here in Europe for years now (except in Russia, where, however, the bourgeois profit by it and not the workers).


[On an administrate matter: You "moderated" a comment of mine responding to Adam Cortright. Could you apprise me of your moderation policy, or specifically why the comment was moderated? My practice is not to participate in discussions where "moderation" is politically biased; I think doing so is unprincipled in that it gives the impression of real discussion which is actually controlled by the moderators.]

Alex Steiner said...

To Stephen Diamond,
I hadn't noticed your earlier comment. I just published it.

Mark said...

Adam, I thought I made my points clear enough, Alex and others have explained what a Trotskist intervention in the Sanders movement might consist of, the transitional program, the call for an independent labor party. The WSWS continues to attack Sander's "political revolution", identifying the movement with the man himself, and fails to engage the supporters of Sanders in any other way than to demonize Sanders himself. This is actually a somewhat of a critical period, as the "political revolution" of Sander's (i.e the movement itself) is splintering with significant sections going toward the Greens and others disengaging from politics. Of course, Sander's own path of channeling opposition into the Democratic party needs to be criticized, but that can be done without dismissing entirely the content of his "political revolution" (the movement).

Personally I don't have any ill will toward members of SEP, I do think they are doing a disservice to Trotskyism and Marxism, I also think that members ought to educate themselves about Marxism, a good place to start would be the polemics on this site.

Stephen R. Diamond said...

1. ***The Sanders movement, regardless of the intentions of Sanders himself, was and is clearly a movement to the left based on class oriented demands...***

Was the Progressive Party of 1948 a movement to the left? Yes, but only quantitatively. (Would you have characterized it as an "opportunity"?) What class-oriented demands by Sanders impress you? There is only one aspect of Sanders campaign that I see that - perhaps - draws a class line: Sanders distinguished himself by not accepting contributions from the usual corporate donors. Good so far, but then he completely negates it by proposing to make his "revolution" in alliance with politicians who he admits are owned by the ruling class!

To represent a step forward, a movement must draw some clear class line. Otherwise, it is a sham, and shams don't augment political consciousness. (For example, most comrades who pass through SEP don't benefit from having been deceived.)

2. China may offer another window of opportunity, but since globalization is a symptom, ultimately, of the rising organic composition of capital, we can expect the BRICs to suffer the same anti-proletarianizing tendencies. The world is increasingly "working class," yet diminishingly proletarian. Over-ripeness is expressed, among other ways, in the huge industrial reserve army, which internationally approaches the size of those actually employed. These semi-lumpenized workers today are Trump's backbone.

Over-ripeness doesn't mean the end of the class struggle. Trotsky discussed the consequences if the working class proved incapable of holding power and creating socialism. Then, the class struggle becomes defensive, a struggle for class survival. The working class still leads a party not soiled by opportunism.

Stephen R. Diamond said...


I disagree there is a sharp contradiction between Sanders and his followers, that absence being why most of them will support Clinton. I disagree that single-payer is a transitional demand. The American health system is an absurdity among capitalist countries, a drain on the system's profitability. The class issue is the quality of healh care, where Sanders calls for universal MediCare, which means low quality health care for the masses.

As to the range of possibilities for intervention, I was more encouraged by the inception of Black Lives Matter, which put questions of state power into play. But this was a small window, as BLM is now hopelessly reformist.

Mark said...

Stephen, if what you say is true, what explains the huge boost to Jill Stein and the Green Party? Why does the corporate media continue to brow beat Sanders supporters into backing Clinton? At least you would have to admit that there is core of supporters that refuse to follow Sanders in his backing of Clinton. Even if a majority end up following the logic of lesser-evilism and voting for Clinton, that's not so much a credit to Sanders as it is to the fact there is simply no viable alternatives left of the two main stream parties.

I'm not expert on health care, but it seems clear that insurance is a highly profitable business and influential lobby, with Obamacare having the effect of shifting costs onto to working class. That is a class based policy in favor of the capitalist class. The reform of universal health in the context of the US is a class based demand in the sense that it would shift more of the burden of costs to the wealthy, since it is funded through the progressive tax system, it would also take profit out of the insurance system. I'm not sure why universal health care must necessarily be lower quality, that seems like right wing propaganda tied up with protecting the profits of the insurance companies we've heard for so many years.

Anonymous said...

You're right. The reactionaries have "nationalism" in which to clothe their appeal to the masses while the Marxist left has "internationalism" which is an actual political principle as opposed to the right's deceptive appeal, deceptive because they are "internationalists" too insofar as their aims will lead to world war. Nationalism seems so palpable to so many while internationalism seems so abstract, an irony that distorts the truth that nationalism is manufactured by an "armed banditi" (Thomas Paine) in order to exploit the people within the boundaries of the territory they've claimed while internationalism is the objective unity of the world's working class that capitalism/imperialism has created. Nevertheless, the emergence of this objective reality into mass consciousness will be a long process.

Stephen R. Diamond said...

Who are these supporters who refuse to vote for Clinton? I think many were already part of the opportunist left. The others seem to have an idealist conception of capitalism = greed. Example: advocating, with Stein, a 50% reduction in military expenditure is not even remotely an anti-imperialist program.

The attitudes expressed in propaganda are an unreliable negative indicator. Clinton has become the candidate of the ruling class as a whole. The intensity of the media's opposition to the defiant Sanders supporters is today greatly exceeded by the its opposition to Trump! (In other words, so much for the negative value of capitalist propaganda as a guide to socialist politics.)

I see I was unclear about what's wrong with Sanders health program. Of course I favor universality. My point was about *MediCare* as the means. MediCare is very much a poor person's health insurance. It includes onerous copays. It doesn't _ordinarily_ cover even prescriptions. Its objective is more to make sure the hospitals get paid than to allow quality health care, which it actually discourages. Contrary what I think you're saying, MediCare is not financed through progressive taxation but through the social security system.

Mark said...

Stephen, that's not what I see personally, I've seen ordinary working class people immediately switch to Stein, these are not members of the "opportunistic left", nor do they have any history of "left" politics, they have just come to the conclusion that Stein and the Greens best represent their interests, it makes sense considering the similarity of the programs of Sanders and the Green Party.

As far as Medicare for All, maybe you ought to check the program itself, even having corporate insurance myself, the benefits of Medicare for All are enviable:

Stephen R. Diamond said...

This "Improved MediCare for All" would be very nice. But notice the word "improved." An *great* understatement. It isn't what Sanders campaigned on. He generally said (existing) MediCare is great and everyone should have it. What leads you to connect that link to Sanders?

Let me restate my point bluntly. Sanders is a snake-oil salesman. (I have the sense that this is actually where we disagree.) The most politically conscious individuals are not usually the ones who fall for such a deceiver. People flocked to Huey Long, but that didn't make his supporters particularly approachable.

Mark said...

I think you're missing the point by asking if Sanders is genuine or fake (a "snake-oil salesman"), as if that judgement alone should be used to determine how to approach the movement of millions built up around his presidential bid. You're doing the same thing as the WSWS in putting an 'equals sign' between Sanders and millions of people that rallied to his message against 'the billionaire class' and for many important social reforms. I still don't see how the Sanders campaign is not an opportunity to explain fully the necessity of revolution, given the apparent blockade against even modest reforms and the hopeless rigging of elections, these are important lessons that can be learned from his campaign and a basis for engaging with his supporters. It seems that much like the WSWS you have an utterly formalistic and undialectical understanding of this movement, which is why you can't understand how a good portion (a third or more according to media reports) are transferring their support to Jill Stein and the Greens.

Just for the record, you had it right the first time, Sanders did campaign for "Medicare for All" (called the "Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act"), what I linked to.

Stephen R. Diamond said...

Is my analysis formal or is yours impressionistic? That's the methodological question. Let's look at it. Is it "formal" to say that the working class can't use capitalist political parties to advance their cause? If the Sanders movement is a major development, then why should revolutionaries not consider working within the Democratic Party? Why shouldn't revolutionaries help create the Sanders movement that performed such wonders? Are we left with our mere impressions of the character of Sanders's supporters to determine the nature of the movement Sanders built? Those are the implications of your perspective.

I was unaware that Sanders is associated with a radical overhaul of MediCare. Partly my ignorance, but in his public speeches he never to my knowledge (and I listened to the debates)criticized the limitations of MediCare coverage or let on that his bill radically changed the nature of the benefits. The program he advanced most publicly centered on having a single-payer option, not on expanding the benefits received. This is part of being a "snake-oil" salesman. His most public position is consistent with his support of ObamaCare, which expanded coverage while lowering the quality of medical care and redistributing wealth in the wrong direction.

Let me ask you: has the working class ever advanced through a capitalist candidate?

Sanders (and Stein) are manipulating millions with demagogic rhetoric. (Let me ask again whether you would have seen hope in Huey Long's campaign, which also denounced the very rich). If they advance seemingly leftist programs, they are riven with completely transparent inconsistencies that could never fool anyone who didn't want to be fooled. This is because capitalist parties today will never advance demands that will actually further the class struggle.

The WSWS analysis isn't too different from yours. They speak of Sanders's "betrayal," as if there was ever anything to betray. The distinction between Sanders and his followers is that Sanders is the one responsible for his followers' misdirection, not that his followers are fundamentally at odds with Sanders. The latter division does not arise within a capitalist party.

Stephen R. Diamond said...

Mark, one more point, vital if we're to discuss method. You accuse me of equating the Sanders leadership with his followers. But that's unrigorous; if I equated them, I would be saying his followers are snake-oil salesman.;)

What I contend that you impressionistically ignore is that the leadership of a movement is the primary determinant of its class character. (Which in turn is the primary determinant for individual approachability.) There's a contradiction between the leadership and base in parties that themselves are contradictory, e.g. social democrats, Stalinists, Pabloites. But there's no fundamental political contradiction between a capitalist party and its base. There, the "contradiction" is between con-men and rubes.

Mark said...

You're getting it wrong in terms of what my views are, neither did I base my assessment of the Sanders movement on impressions of the character of Sanders nor his supporters. I never gave such impressions, I have simply observed that most Sanders supporters I know are ordinary working people with no particular history of "left" politics, many refuse to support Clinton. I gave the example of one supporter that immediately switched to Jill Stein as a contrast to your statement that those who refuse to follow Sanders in voting for Clinton must be members of the "opportunistic left". The reports from the media give more support to that observed contradiction between Sanders and his supporters with a third or more transferring their support to Jill Stein and the Greens.

As far as impressions, you seem to be full of them, Sanders is "a snake-oil salesman", therefore his supporters must not be the "most politically conscious individuals", hence not worth approaching. Think about that for a second, the biggest leftward movement in the recent history of US politics involving millions of workers and students is not worth approaching! Whereas the sectarianism of the WSWS is concealed behind passive interviews of Sanders supporters, your sectarianism is quite plain to see.

What does being a "snake-oil salesman" mean in this context? Is it an intent to commit fraud or to deceive? Then I think your "analysis" shares a lot with the WSWS, who maintained the entire Sanders campaign was a sham in order to trap the working class inside Democratic party. This theory seems to neglect that workers are already "trapped", or more accurately, held hostage by the two party system.

As a rule it would be a mistake to take a bourgeois politician on their word, Sanders however has been remarkably straight forward about what aims to achieve. He envisions transforming the US into a welfare state similar to Scandinavian countries like Denmark, with program like "Medicare for All" (yes, mentioned on his web site and in speeches) and free college tuition. He thinks that this can achieved through the existing institutions, namely the Democratic party, transforming it into an instrument for social reform.

My contention is that Sanders supporters have largely embraced the former part of Sander's vision, expressed as a desire for some form of "socialism" (however misunderstood that term is by the mass of them), and for the most part ignored the later portion, which is why they largely rejected the endorsement of Clinton. Intuitively they understand that the Democratic Party program along with Hillary's word is worthless, neither will advance their cause which they conceive as some form of socialism, hence the ultimate break with Sanders.

I suppose that asking whether these supporters are "approachable" largely depends your theoretical and political perspective, how you conceive of the development of socialist consciousness. If you are a sectarian and looking to recruit members to your sect/cult, then for the most part I don't think you will see much opportunity in the Sanders movement. If you are a Marxist and envision the revolutionary socialist transformation of society, then when is there not an opportunity to approach the working class? especially as it attempts to express itself in politics? (with the Sanders movement being an initial but transitory form) The basic contradiction that I've repeatedly pointed out should be the basis for an intervention, deepening that contradiction, clarifying the nature of socialism as well as the impossibility of reforming capitalism. Of course, it must be said, if you lack experience/training in dialectics, you won't see that contradiction in the first place.

Stephen R. Diamond said...

***My contention is that Sanders supporters have largely embraced the former part of Sander's vision, expressed as a desire for some form of "socialism" (however misunderstood that term is by the mass of them), and for the most part ignored the later portion, which is why they largely rejected the endorsement of Clinton.***

"Impressionism" means a disregard for theory in grasping immediate reality. Often it manifests as a confusion of quantitative for qualitative change, which distinction requires theoretical mediation. The desire for a capitalist welfare state isn't a qualitative movement to the left. Calling this capitalist program "socialist" doesn't change that - except adversely by adding an element of obfuscation.

You complain of SEP sectarianism, as though it would be great for the working class if only SEP were more politically effective. SEP is sectarian, but that's not my complaint. In this electoral campaign, I see them as themselves backdoor Clinton supporters, with writers declaring that a Trump victory would lead directly to military dictatorship. They provide no argument against voting for Clinton - except that it would be better if their obscure (and untested) candidate were elected. In other words, if you don't support SEP, you might as well vote Clinton and avert a military dictatorship, at least for a few years.

The Sanders candidacy is a result of a leftward movement among the youth, but it isn't a qualitative development. (For SEP everything is a "new stage.") More important and potentially approachable is the Black Lives Matter base, who challenge the very legitimacy of the cops and which originated outside the two parties. Chasing chimeras within the Democratic Party divert you from where the real action is.

A significant leftist development will not occur from within the two party system. This is the reality you ignore in favor of your impressions based on there being "millions" of Sanders supporters. Immediate impressions being all that matter, you refuse to address the history of dissident Democrat movements. Why, when you can see the millions of Sandersites with your very eyes!

[Where do you get that Sanders supporters have rejected Clinton? The polls show that only 14% will fail to vote for Clinton. That's half as many as the Clinton supporters who failed to support Obama.]

Mark said...

Stephen, I'm not sure how we could resolve this question to your satisfaction, but to me the desire and political support for a welfare state (which itself would require a massive redistribution of wealth) and the embrace of "socialism" (however misunderstood) by millions demonstrates a qualitative leftward shift within the working class.

Consider the right-ward movement of US politics over the last 30+ years, from Reagan to Bush to Clinton and so forth, the relentless attack on the working class. The Clintons pretty much set the path for the current right ward trajectory of the Democratic Party, with the embrace of war and neoliberal economic policies. We're starting to see mass opposition to those policies with Occupy Wall Street and the now the Sanders movement, which at its heart represented a rejection of establishment politics.

Of course, this leftward movement did not originate within the Democratic Party, it originates from objective social conditions which are deteriorating for the working class and youth, the results of those aforementioned polices and the capitalist system in general. Also it must be said, that the welfare state is Bernie's program, the program of a bourgeois politician, that's largely the point I'm making, the working class has yet to articulate its own demands in a coherent way, which shows the rather obvious need for revolutionary leadership. Matters are not helped by the current disastrous state of the left in the US, from the dissolution of the labor movement to the state of radical politics (opportunistic and sectarian).

As far as Black Lives Matter, I don't see why this movement is comparatively more attractive than the Sanders movement, it has its own problems with the reactionary influence of identity politics and has yet to raise any class based demands. That doesn't mean the issues raised aren't relevant or needing attention, far from it, but it really makes me question what your criteria for a movement being "approachable" is.

Bennett Muraskin said...

The author overstates Debs support in his 1912 run for the President. He received a bit more than 900,000 votes, not one million.

Stephen R. Diamond said...

I don't know whether this will help: one way of putting the difference between BLM and the pro-Sanders movement is that BLM is a radicalizing movement. It uses nonelectoral means to accomplish ends that are at odds with the state itself. The Sanders movement is really a middle class "good government" movement. Almost as many of its supporters have gone to the Libertarians as to the Greens (with the overwhelming majority staying with the Democrats). They attack the system mainly for being corrupt.

When BLM demands "Prison for [specific] killer cops" it directly challenges the bourgeois state, by favoring justice over law and order, by not surrendering, at least on this one issue, to legalism and constitutionalism. Not "charges," not trial: Prison. And today, demanding prison for the most outrageous cops is pretty much the only way blacks can mount any immediate self-defense. (In more class-conscious time, black/labor self-defense would be the order of the day. In the long-run, they must turn to labor.)

One deep difference I have with SEP is its concept of "class demands." Failing to fight for demands on a class basis is what opportunists do, but there's no special set of class demands. Jailing specific killer cops is a demand for the working class as much as is a wage increase for Verizon workers.

Maybe the best way to show the futility of pursuing the Sanders movement is with a question: how would you actually intervene in the Sanders movement? I'll await your answer; how I would intervene in BLM isn't hard. I would argue that justice for the black masses requires turning toward the labor movement, including building a labor party. I could intervene while embracing their primary objective and some of their immediate actions. I couldn't do this in any movement close to Sanders. There is nothing (unless you suggest something) that I could propose to the Sanders movement.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Stephen Diamond Part I:

I think the distinction you are making between Black Lives Matters and the Sanders movement is a false one. You write,

"BLM is a radicalizing movement. It uses nonelectoral means to accomplish ends that are at odds with the state itself. The Sanders movement is really a middle class "good government" movement."

I think both these movements are expressions of a left wing break with politics as usual, though in somewhat different forms. You cite as evidence of the deeper radicalism of BLM that,

"When BLM demands "Prison for [specific] killer cops" it directly challenges the bourgeois state, by favoring justice over law and order, by not surrendering, at least on this one issue, to legalism and constitutionalism. Not "charges," not trial: Prison."

But Sanders has also said that "Killer cops should go to jail". Does that make Sanders a revolutionary? Hardly, but it does highlight the fact that you can make such demands - and they are of course demands that should be supported - and still be within the ideological orbit of bourgeois ideology. On the other hand the Sanders movement demand for a government sponsored single payer health system that removes completely the health insurance companies involvement would undoubtedly be seen by the CEO's of the health and pharmaceutical industry as far more threatening to the status quo than the demand to lock up killer cops! I think you also miss the larger global significance of the Sanders movement - which is the re-emergence of class issues as the neo-liberal consensus that has guided both right and "left" groups for the last 30 years has broken down. The old political relations no longer apply. I argued this point in my talk.

The American political landscape in 2016: A Marxist Interpretation

And recently an article in the Guardian made the very same point even if not from a Marxist perspective:

The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Stephen Diamond Part II:

While it is undoubtedly true that in general Sanders supporters have illusions in parliamentary politics, illusions in extra-parliamentary politics and the viability of street protests can be just as debilitating to the goal of building a revolutionary movement for socialism. You may recall that in the late 1960's and 1970's we saw the emergence of a number of groups influenced by Maoism who completely rejected parliamentary politics. The Black Panthers was one such group and their leader was fond of quoting Mao-Tse-Tung's statement that "Political Power grows out of the barrel of a gun". And while we can admire the courage of the Black Panthers, is there any doubt that their tactics were suicidal, and played into the hands of the FBI's COINTELPRO operation? You also ignore the fact that there is quite a lot of overlapping between the Sanders movement and BLM. Sanders received significant support from BLM. Both the Sanders movement and BLM are invested with illusions in capitalism at the same time as they represent a rejection of the old political and social relations. They are just different types of illusions. And while I can agree that defending African Americans against killer cops is a class issue, why not extend that demand to defend the working class as a whole against killer cops. Doesn't the very slogan 'Black Lives Matter' evince a certain evisceration of class issues? Don't "All Lives Matter"?

What makes BLM more worthy of the attention of revolutionaries than the Sanders movement? I think your criteria for making such a judgment are completely arbitrary. And why is it not possible for Marxists to engage both the Sanders movement and Black Lives Matter?

At bottom I think you are expressing a very sectarian outlook in no way different than that of the WSWS. And if anything your sectarianism is more open than that of the WSWS. They put on a pretense of engaging with the Sanders movement. You don't even bother to do that. And your rationale for that is that the Sanders movement is not revolutionary enough, that genuine revolutionary potential lies with some other group. This strikes me as a ready made excuse for a hands-off abstentionist outlook. It's a deeply mistaken notion, but one that I
could at least respect were there some evidence of a genuine ongoing engagement with this other "more revolutionary" movement. The Black Panthers at least practiced what they preached. While rejecting the working class as hopelessly reactionary, they undertook a massive effort to reach out to the lumpen proletariat whom they saw as the real revolutionaries. The results were disastrous.

In reality there is no hard and fast dichotomy between "revolutionaries" and "reformists". This is a most un-dialectical conception. A movement that is reformist at one point can move in a revolutionary direction very rapidly given changing conditions and vice versa. Of course there are professional opportunists and bureaucrats whose class interests always lead them to oppose any genuine movement for revolutionary change. But the great majority of workers and youth caught up in such movements are quite capable of dramatic transformations. In this regard I would like to cite one of my favorite quotes from Trotsky's Preface to his History of the Russian Revolution,

"The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of “demagogues.”