Thursday, June 11, 2020

Getting up off our knees: race, class and politics

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To say that America in 2020 is in an existential crisis is an understatement.  Manhattan, where I live, just had the first curfew since World War II.  You had to be off the streets by 8 PM in the evening or you were liable to be arrested, especially if you were a person of color in one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city.  We are experiencing a double pandemic – a medical one and a social one – at the same time.

The murder of George Floyd has energized the biggest protest movement in this country in decades. The banners of this protest movement typically read “Black Lives Matter”, or the acronym “BLM”.  But “Black Lives Matter” is not so much an organization to these protesters but a symbol of what motivates them.  The movement is completely spontaneous and, in its beginnings at least, completely leaderless.  It is an expression of outrage and anger on a very primal level. In that respect it bears some resemblance to the Occupy Wall Street movement that shook first New York and then the whole world in 2011. But the intensity of anger as well as the level of popular support far surpasses the OWS movement. Not only have we seen protests numbering tens of thousands in every major city in the U.S. (as well as some cities in other countries),  but there has even been significant protests in small town and rural areas throughout the country.  Another remarkable aspect of this protest movement is its multi-racial character. While African-Americans are in the forefront of this movement, they are joined by other racial and ethnic groups representing a consensus that the repressive institutional structure that allows police to kill black people with impunity must come to an end. What was politically unthinkable just three weeks ago has now become a common refrain.  The militarized police who have gobbled up a huge percentage of the budgets of every major city, particularly since 9/11, are now perceived even by middle class people who do not think of themselves as “radical”, as an occupying force, much like the way the Israeli Defense Force is perceived by Palestinians on the West Bank. While most African-Americans have always perceived the police in this way, this understanding is very new to most of their white brothers and sisters.  That is a significant step in the development of class solidarity.

In the last two weeks the anger of the protesters has sometimes spilled over into looting and destruction of property.  Much ink has been spilled in the bourgeois press and the Internet about “looting and rioting” and “attacks on police” spurred on by “outside agitators”. The real story behind the looting is very simple – many young people who have been pushed into financial desperation as a result of decades of racism, increasing social inequality and the Depression brought on by the pandemic, see looting as an opportunity to get something back from an oppressive system.  They see what they are doing more as an act of liberation than of looting.  My partner and I went outside after midnight one night and witnessed first-hand some of the looting and spoke to a couple of participants.  There were so many people involved in these actions that the police did not interfere when a crowd smashed a window and ran into a store.  They did however pick off isolated individuals on the street here and there.

Looting and random acts of violence are counter-productive and impede rather than encourage the growth of class consciousness,  but it is very much what one would expect given the powder-keg that has finally erupted after years of abuse and given the lack of leadership and a coherent organization to give the protest movement a clear direction. Were there such leadership the pent up anger could be channeled in a political direction to challenge the power of capitalism itself.  I  should also add that the overwhelming majority of protestors were demonstrating peacefully.

A police vehicle that was burned

In the Manhattan neighborhood of Soho almost every store has now been boarded up with plywood.  Even before the protests erupted, Manhattan seemed like a ghost town during the lockdown caused by the pandemic.  Now with the added covering of boarded up stores it has the feel of a desert landscape.  Mid-town Manhattan is much the same.  I passed by the entrance to the Empire State Building, one of the biggest tourist attractions in New York. There was no one in front of the building and all the windows on the ground floor were boarded.

Empire State Building entrance

Soho was an epicenter of the looting and broken windows due to the number of stores with brand names that are symbolic of the elite – Chanel, Gucci, Prada, Versace, etc. After its windows were broken, the Chanel store not only covered the windows with plywood but even took its sign down so no one would be able to identify it. 

Chanel store before the sign was removed

A number of Manhattan neighborhoods, including my own, have been the subject of constant surveillance from the sky by police helicopters. Even as I write this, there is the buzzing of a police helicopter directly over my building. The drone of the helicopter is a constant presence almost 24 hours a day, a reminder that we are living in an occupation zone.

There are also indications that some of the violence has been deliberately stoked by undercover police agents and by neo-fascist provocateurs who are trying to incite a civil war.  One neo-fascist outfit, known as the “Bugaloo Bois”, carry automatic weapons and are openly encouraging a new Civil War.

The reaction of the Trump Administration to the protests was entirely predictable. Trump has used the protest movement to stoke fear within the older white middle class and racist elements in the working class to firm up his base. He has incited police departments to “shoot” the looters and has labelled himself the “Law and Order” President.  He has blamed the Left and his Democratic Party opponents for the violence when it is the police that are responsible for 99% of the violence.  He has declared  “Antifa” a “terrorist organization” in a blatant attempt to criminalize the Left.  Antifa is not even an organization much less a terrorist one. According to one non-partisan researcher,

Antifa is not … a terrorist group. At the most basic level, it is not even an organized group but rather a set of ideas and behaviors coalescing into a social movement. In addition to lacking any membership lists, they have no organizational structure or designated leader… 

In the most blatant attack yet on the Constitution and whatever vestiges of democracy remain, Trump called on the governors of the States to request the deployment of Federal troops to suppress the protests.  He then followed that up by attempting to deploy active Federal troops against the protestors in the streets of Washington. He had to back off at the last minute due to push-back from within the military itself. Instead, the active duty troops were placed on standby outside of Washington while Federal police agencies under the control of Attorney General William Barr were sent in to brutally remove a crowd of peaceful protesters, using rubber bullets and pepper spray, so that Trump and his entourage could walk across the street from the White House to pose for a photo-op in front of a church.  Trump’s actions underscore the movement towards authoritarianism that he and a section of the ruling class now favor. The Constitution strictly forbids the deployment of military forces against civilians within the borders of the United States.

The official “opposition” to Trump, the Democratic Party,  and their supporters in the press such as the New York Times, have offered only the most tepid opposition.  
The political implications of the protest movement are explored in depth in the following essay by Frank Brenner.  I would just add that since he wrote his essay one demand has come out of the protest movement that has gained much traction, and eclipsed the vapid “No justice, no peace” slogan, namely the demand to “Defund the police”.  This is potentially a very radical demand.  But it has already been “interpreted” to take the teeth out of it by the liberal media.  A recent article in the Washington Post said the following,

Be not afraid. “Defunding the police” is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds…

and added,

For most proponents, “defunding the police” does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety, and police abolition does not mean that police will disappear overnight — or perhaps ever. Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. 

All of which reinforces the point Brenner makes in his essay, that the best of intentions and the best conceived reforms will fail to change anything fundamental unless the problem of endemic poverty is confronted - and that cannot be done without confronting capitalism.

Alex Steiner
New York, June 11, 2020

Getting up off our knees: race, class and politics

By Frank Brenner

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.  George Orwell, 1984.

The protests against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd have provoked a big political crisis. The crisis seems to have unhinged Trump more so than he usually is, with his threats to “dominate” major cities with military troops and his use of armed thugs and tear gas to clear peaceful protestors out of Lafayette Square across from the White House so that he could stage a photo-op. 

A key point about understanding mass psychology is that it's a mistake to believe that the political behaviour of the mass of workers can be reliably predicted only by 'rational self-interest', that other irrational (i.e. emotional) factors can be just as important or more so. But a related point can be made about the ruling classes. In their case, ideological delusions (political, militarist, religious) can lead them into making huge political miscalculations. This is often how wars start – and civil wars too. There are deep divisions in the ruling class, many of the rich and powerful know full well how reckless Trump is being, but they have only a weak alternative in Biden and the Democrats whereas the 'wrecking crew' of Trump and Fox News is going full throttle - going, that is, over a cliff but with the other ruling elites reluctantly along for the ride. 

Here’s a good example of this: Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's Labor Secretary and one of the more astute liberal public intellectuals, took to twitter with the following cry of despair: "Where is Congress? Where is the Supreme Court? Where are the mayors and governors? Living former presidents? Where are the university presidents, foundation heads, editors and publishers? All must stand up to Trump's madness."

Since this was posted, there has been some of the pushback Reich was pleading for, notably from Trump’s former defense secretary Jim Mattis. Even the current secretary Mark Esper was forced belatedly to distance himself from Trump, obviously reflecting unease in the upper echelons of the military. But that it should have come to this underscores how destabilized the institutions of state power are. Another retired general, John Allen, made this point explicitly, saying that the clearing away of the protestors from Lafayette Square “may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.” While comparisons between Trump and Hitler are facile, comparisons to the Weimar Republic do now seem in order. It is now a subject of open speculation in the mainstream media that Trump will refuse to leave office if he loses the election in November. Or, to cite a line of thinking by Jacobin writer Seth Ackerman, it may be time to consider America as a failed state.

All that being said, when it comes to the protests, the old question yet again arises: What is to be done? 

The protests are spontaneous, despite the torrent of lies about outside agitators. This is their strength in the sense that they are direct and genuine expressions of mass outrage. They are also impressively multi-racial, with whites often outnumbering minorities. But their spontaneity is also their great weakness. 

Mass outrage is a feeling, not a program. There is some informal organizing on line, but it's so informal as to barely register. There are no banners from any organizations with concrete demands, all one sees are signs scrawled by individual protesters on pieces of cardboard. Black Lives Matter has little presence as an organization but is visible everywhere as a slogan (just as Occupy Wall Street only has an after-life as a number - the 1 percent). The most common chant is No Justice No Peace - which is vague to the point of being almost meaningless. What is justice - jailing the four cops who killed George Floyd? And if that isn't enough, what would be?

The Floyd murder was the spark that set off an explosion fueled by enormous social discontent, which probably explains why the protests persist without any organization. The pandemic and the grossly disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos dying from it, 20 million unemployed, countless numbers of families facing eviction and ‘food insecurity’, a large cohort of young people suddenly with nothing to do and no prospects: this is the tinderbox that is America.

And then of course there are the police, where racism is so pervasive it almost seems to come with the badge. It’s no surprise that all the police unions are avidly pro-Trump. Reform efforts going back to the Civil Rights era primarily led to hiring some black and brown officers, but the reign of police terror in minority communities hasn’t abated much, if at all. One noticeable difference, though, is that many of the authority-figure faces on the tv screens – the big city mayors and police chiefs – are black or Latino. In other words, the elites have become more diverse, exemplified above all by Barack Obama’s presidency, but that diversity has done next to nothing to diminish the police violence that young blacks and Latinos face on a daily basis. Which must mean that something deeper is at work.

This is usually where ‘structural racism’ gets pulled into the conversation, though when a phrase has become so commonplace that even the likes George W. Bush or the Clintons bandy it about, you know it’s become so sanitized that nothing’s left to it except political posturing. In any case, if ‘structural racism’ is meant to point to something deeper than personal prejudice, then that structure must be the poverty of a permanent underclass of blacks and Latinos.

Of course, there is also widespread poverty and misery among whites, highlighted in the ‘death by desperation’ reports that came out a couple of years ago. There is also lots of police violence against poor whites, and in absolute numbers more whites are killed by cops than blacks or Latinos. But what distinguishes the poverty of minorities is their concentration in big city ghettoes, itself a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and, most directly, the redlining of big city neighborhoods (initiated under the auspices of the New Deal, to its eternal shame) that has condemned generations of black families to a poverty sinkhole.

To respectable society (upper and middle classes), the police operate (ostensibly anyway) to ‘serve and protect’; in underclass communities, they operate to ‘contain and control’. Add to this the militarizing of police forces over the past few decades and the vast increases in their budgets, and you have an operation that generates police terror almost by design, a real-life version of Robocops.

The ‘structure’ in structural racism is about protecting private property – and that applies no matter what the racial identity of the person running the police department happens to be. It also means that after the dust of this current crisis has settled, there will be more George Floyds. That’s because structural racism can only be de-structured by getting rid of poverty – and capitalism is structurally incapable of doing that.

(I don’t want to ignore entirely the psychological aspects of racism. But it seems necessary these days to repeat the obvious – that no one is born a racist, that prejudice is learned, absorbed through family, friends, work, politics, mass media and the culture at large. In the case of cops, you could say that racism is almost an occupational inevitability. The cops are essentially an occupying force in minority communities – that is what ‘contain and control’ amounts to. It’s not hard to see that as a cop, the way you justify to yourself the daily grind of pushing people around, arresting them, violating their rights, brutalizing and even killing them – the way you justify all that is to dehumanize them. You are part of a heroic ‘thin blue line’ and they are scum. From there to overt racism is no big stretch. A personal anecdote to illustrate the point. I was in Chicago in 2018 on the day a cop was convicted of the murder four years earlier of Laquan McDonald, an unarmed black teenager. The cop had shot him in the back 16 times, and when a video of the incident came out, there were widespread protests in the city. On that day I was covering a tragic fire that had taken the lives of ten children, and I happened to be talking to a cop posted at the scene. I asked him what he thought of the guilty verdict in the McDonald case. A look of disgust came over his face: “He should’ve been given a medal for marksmanship.”)

I said earlier that spontaneity was the great weakness of the protests. There is a lack of organization and also of direction and purpose. The most consciously political act to come out of the protests so far is the destruction of the police station in Minneapolis, and the most coherent political demand is to defund the police. The people on the street are well aware who their immediate enemy is. But this is only the barest beginning of political consciousness – and it leaves loads of room for mainstream politicians to fill the void with their hot air and corral the outrage on the streets into yet another pointless exercise in voting for the supposedly ‘lesser evil’ Democrats, who always turn out to be the same old evil of corporate capitalism but with a more congenial face.

(Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were masters of this political charade: they would console the insulted and injured by telling them how much they ‘feel your pain’ – and then go ahead and impose the same ruthless policies that had inflicted the pain in the first place. Joe Biden is cut from the same cloth, except that he is a lot less talented as a performer.)

In looking at the protests, the strongest impression you get is of atomization: individuals materialize from various places, cohere for a while and then disperse, if they aren’t attacked and arrested by the cops. Their atomized character is especially evident if you compare these protests to the union organizing of the Thirties or the civil rights or anti-war protests of the Sixties. Saying this isn’t about making a virtue of the past: new struggles need to find their own ways of doing things because they’re never just a replay of previous struggles. But a movement that aspires to be more than just a flash in the pan needs to learn from the past, if only to avoid repeating old mistakes. Already though this assumes a lot that may not be true: are these protests a movement or are they just a way for individuals to ‘make a statement’ about police violence? And if this is a movement, what does it aspire to?

The power of workers, as a social class, is that they are more than just an agglomeration of individuals. The fact of their work gives them potentially great collective power and the fact of their exploitation under capitalism gives that power a direction for revolutionary social change.

This potential has been highlighted by the pandemic: from health care workers often risking their lives to save those of their patients to the countless workers delivering packages or working grocery stores or maintaining essential services so that the bulk of the population could stay home during the lockdowns: these previously all but invisible workers are widely being hailed as heroes. But they are heroes because the mainstream political culture suddenly woke up to the fact that society can’t function without them. The more those workers wake up to that fact as well, the more they will call into question their ongoing subservience.

The poverty of an underclass does not have the same potential for social change: their plight is often so dire and unrelenting that they can rarely get beyond immediate survival needs. Suffering, as the writer Bertolt Brecht once said, is a poor teacher. Nor, for that matter, is moral outrage. It can lead many thousands on to the streets, but it doesn’t on its own show them a way forward. In this sense social energy is akin to physical energy: if it isn’t harnessed to a purpose, it eventually dissipates.

No one was in a better political position to harness this energy than Bernie Sanders. If ever there is a time for Medicare for All, the pandemic is it. His other signature policies – free college tuition, decent low-cost housing, a Green New Deal, raising the minimum wage – would have resonated powerfully with the protestors on the streets. Sanders could have used his political stature and popularity to link up the outrage at racist police violence and the structures of poverty that generate that violence.

A noteworthy fact in this regard: The Sanders campaign refused to accept corporate money and so it was funded entirely by small donations from millions of individuals. It turned out that the single largest group of donors to the campaign were workers at Amazon, who have become increasingly militant in fighting the super-exploitation imposed on them by the Simon Legree of 21st century capitalism, Jeff Bezos.

Yet Sanders suspended his campaign just as the social crisis brought on by the pandemic was beginning to take hold. By April the corporate ‘centrists’ of the Democratic party had consolidated support behind Biden, Sanders lost a series of primaries and it was clear he wasn’t going to get enough delegates to win the nomination. Sanders’s calculations were of the narrowest sort. He dropped out, declared his support for Biden, signed on to a token policy committee on the Biden campaign and effectively disappeared from view. Even more damning was his vote, just after dropping out, for the ‘Cares Act’, which in the guise of ‘caring’ for workers who’d lost jobs and small businesses that had to shut down during the pandemic, really amounted to a transfer of trillions of dollars to corporate elites. 

To call this a betrayal of his supporters is an understatement. His campaign was never supposed to be just about winning a nomination – it was supposed to be about mobilizing millions of people to effect major social change, above all to fight back against the neo-feudal levels that social inequality has reached in the United States. Sanders could have galvanized workers during the pandemic (as opposed to Biden who has spent the past two months in his basement!) and he could have electrified the crowds protesting the lynching of George Floyd. He could have been a huge catalyst for the very thing he always claimed to be doing – building a movement for radical social change.

It turned out though that Sanders wasn’t that kind of politician at all. Though Sanders makes a show of venerating the great American socialist Eugene Debs, he is nothing like Debs – who cared so little about winning elections and so much more about raising the political consciousness of workers that he famously campaigned for president from a federal prison cell (where he’d been jailed for opposing American militarism) in the 1920 election. It turned out that Sanders is nothing more than a ‘left-talking’ Democratic Party hack whom Debs would have abhorred.

A crucial underlying weakness of the Sanders campaign was that it was just that – a personal political campaign. Sanders had no party and made no effort to build one: though he wasn’t technically a member of the Democratic Party, it was the only political organization he had any connection to. The same goes for the ‘Squad’ – four progressive members of Congress elected in 2018. Though they come out with progressive rhetoric on twitter and in speeches, their actual votes in Congress have done little, if anything, to rock the boat or cause trouble for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (In fairness, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the best-known member of the Squad, was the sole vote against the latest version of the ‘Cares’ [for corporations] act, but she too has by now been co-opted by the Biden campaign.)

In this sense, progressive politics partakes of the same atomization that afflicts the larger body politic. Though there have been some signs of life in the labor movement (teacher strikes for example), the labor movement as a whole is largely moribund, and unions have virtually no noticeable impact on daily life – apart that is from police unions! A small but telling sign of this: during one of the protests in Washington last week, when there was some sporadic looting and window breaking, one of the places that was broken into was the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, the American labor federation. I would be willing to wager that the looters had no idea what the AFL-CIO was, that it probably looked to them just like any other faceless corporate or government building, in other words a symbol of oppression – and they wouldn’t have been far wrong.

We need to break out of our collective political atomization. Whether that will come through the protests cohering into a political movement or through an upsurge of labor resistance to corporate exploitation and greed, or through some combination thereof, it’s impossible to say. But we need a breakthrough – and that will only come with the emergence of a mass party opposed to capitalism and its political duopoly. That’s what Eugene Debs would have fought for, and we need that kind of spirit again to animate socialist activism. It’s not enough to have political ‘stars’ with feel-good rhetoric or crowds making statements. We need not just to ‘take a knee’ but politically to get up off our knees.

Election Pin for Eugene V. Debs when he ran for President from the Atlanta Penitentiary


Linda zises said...

There is an incidious rage at Sanders for betraying the millions of students, workers, victims of the cruel and unjust capitalist laws and lack of regulations, who were and still feel betrayed by sanders and by the squad, AOC included. People gave him money and in return by the end of his campaign he accepted corporate money. Before our eyes he deteriorated into an old tired outdated and out performed controller of the emerging force of change that we now see on American streets. There are specific demands coming out of the Seattle city hall takeover. In Chicago police are suddenly visible in white middleclass neighborhoods riding bikes in groups of three. Funny how they placed theirselves on higher ground then those they have sworn to protect.
The national guard might turn on trump. They come from and are the workers
Earning what once seemed like easy money.
What we are seeing along with the unending uncovering of the fundamental political factors is the undeniable importance of the essential workforce who are for the most part people of color, the undocumented, the immigrants.
The jails are filled with essential workers treated like slaves. Forced to live on pittance while under military level discipline. Change is coming from the millions of unemployed, the destroyed small business owners, students stranded without hope.
It will be the citizens who have huge debts and fears of homelessness, lack of descent clothing, food who are forced to live in compromised environments where air and water are polluted by the greatest criminals tbe world has ever known.
People have woken up and although the ruling elite has the supposed power of the might they lack the appreciation, the understanding of the ever enraged force that is breaking down their power walls demanding their annilation.

Thomas Cain said...

We don't know for sure that the Sanders campaign actually refused corporate donors. The pro-Sanders "Our Revolution" (OR), for instance, is a 501(c)(4) non-profit that is not obligated to make their donor list public, and "much of [its funding] came from those who contributed six-figure sums."(1). This caused a stink among OR staff in 2016, and the majority of staff promptly walked out (2). Furthermore, he brazenly continued to solicit donations even after he suspended his campaign.

None of this is to suggest that Sanders' supporters shouldn't feel betrayed, but even New Deal Democrats like Jimmy Dore had been correctly warning for months that Sanders wasn't running a serious campaign. Just as in 2016, his candidacy was a scam, meant to lead the flock back to US imperialism and capitalism, however circuitous the route.

What is left of the populist hope he whipped up? Well, now he seriously contends that the capitalist police should be paid more. An otherwise fitting end for a war criminal and a monster.


Alex Steiner said...

Reply to Thomas Cain,

I don't agree at all with this statement,
"his candidacy was a scam, meant to lead the flock back to US imperialism and capitalism"

If you mean by that statement that Sanders deliberately ran for President in order to fool his supporters into returning to traditional capitalist politics, then that is just absurd. It's a form of conspiracy theory and has little in common with Marxism.

If you mean that the movement behind Sanders wanted to see a fundamental change in society but was confused about how to bring that about then I would agree. But again the fact that the movement was confused about how to achieve its goals does not mean that it was a "fraudulent" movement from the beginning. The Sanders movement represented a genuine albeit very confused movement to the left that had the potential for a rupture with the two party system. That this did not happen can be laid at the feet of the limitations of Sanders himself, who when push came to shove, decided that he would rather remain in the fold of the Democratic Party then lead a real political revolution.

Thomas Cain said...

Over the course of the election, it became clear that what the Sanders movement wanted and what Sanders himself wanted diverged in several important respects. A prime example is how Sanders' followers decried his Russophobia, and expressed dismay at his refusal to defend Julian Assange/Wikileaks, who exposed how he was cheated in 2016. So no, I do not believe that the movement is "fraudulent". Quite the opposite, in fact.

But Sanders absolutely is. His program had no chance of being enacted; the US bourgeoisie simply wouldn't allow any incursions onto their state. Sanders understood this well. In February, his campaign revealed an aggressive unilateral approach upon election (1), with his policy plans to be implemented under executive decree. It should go without saying that under the conditions of encroaching bonapartist military-police rule in the United States, revolutionaries should unconditionally oppose such extra-parliamentary adventures. Such devices would inevitably be turned against us, and Sanders is quite the anticommunist.

More could be said about Sanders' in his role as sheepdog. He repeatedly lied about which wars he didn't support (calling to invade Iraq in 1998, for example). He touted immigration reform but stopped short of calling for US citizenship, only calling for an audit of current ICE practices. He waxes against "racial" intolerance but scapegoats China and Mexico as job-stealers every chance he gets. He called for US military withdrawals, but joined USAID's saber-rattling with Venezuela, called to invade North Korea if their nukes aren't disarmed, and fought to keep a notorious weapons manufacturer in his home state of Vermont. Oh, and he betrayed the working class to capital (again) with that awful COVID-19 stimulus package. And so on.

So if he falsifies his political history, and if his policy proposals are shown up as phony by his actions in the Senate, what exactly is left? You have a fraud, a scam-artist--and a launderer for the Democratic Party's faux-oppositional image. He deserves to be called out as such. The workers must be taught to despise Sanders to the absolute hilt. He is a political descendant of those reformist "friends" of the working class that James Cannon warned against in his "History of American Trotskyism". Good riddance to him.


Mark said...

"The workers must be taught to despise Sanders to the absolute hilt."

I can understand both the dissapointment and even anger with Bernie Sanders, but what I don't understand is making him into the political target or boogeyman that the sectarians want him to be. Did Sanders do anything positive in the course of his political carrer? Was there anything positive about his campaigns in 2016 and 2020, and if not on what basis is it possible to engage his supporters? If his the man and everything he represents is fraudulent, isn't the movement that he lead by extension fraudulent? I think this point of view is both cynical and demoralized.

From what I know of Sanders besides being an activist during the civil rights movement he also studied the classics of Marxism during his college days: Lenin, Trotsky, and Marx. Just on the face of it, he seems to have a far better understanding of political program and capturing people's imaginations than the so-called "othodox Trotskyists", even if he doesn't have realistic a path for realizing his program. Just on that point, again a lot of critiques from the left seem to echo the corporate media talking points, "How are you going to pay for it? How are you going to pass that?" Sanders at least acknowledged that it would take a movement to realize his program.

I think Frank's critique is spot on in the sense that Sanders didn't follow the logic of his own campaign. During the pandemic he backed away from Medicare for All, and now with the Floyd protests he's kept his distance. What better time to take on the political establishment when the same establishment is so obviously failing masses of people?

Without repeating the same points further, I think there is problem with laying all the blame for the failure of the left at the doorstep of a handful of prominent individuals like Sanders, AOC, etc. I think a big piece of the puzzle in understanding someone like Debs is understanding social context. Debs came out the labor movement during its rise and was a product of the radical politics of his day, for one a far more coherent international socialist movement than exists today.

Unknown said...

I take exception to only one point in Frank Brenner's outstanding article: his characterization of Bernie Sanders as a left-posturing Democratic Party hack and betrayer--an accusation carried to absurd lengths in Thomas Cain's comments.

A betrayal occurs when politicians renege on their pledges, as, for instance, when Syriza--which ran on a platform saving Greece from creditor-imposed austerity--turned around and implemented the austerity measures they were elected to resist. Sanders' endorsement of Biden, however, came as no surprise; he committed himself to endorsing the Democratic presidential nominee from the beginning of his campaign.

I'm not so much concerned to defend Sanders' honor as to avoid the error of missing the reality and significance of the fight that Sanders unleashed within the Democratic Party. and which continues despite his withdrawal. The social-democratic measures that Sanders has promoted throughout his political career would not have been considered all that radical in an earlier era, and certainly don't amount to socialism. But they fly in the face of the neoliberal austerity that both parties have labored to impose over the past forty years. This is why the Democratic establishment was seized with thinly concealed horror at the prospect of Sanders becoming the party's nominee, and continue to do everything in their power to defeat his allies in the primaries.

Many Sandernistas--most notably in DSA-- are to the left of Sanders and his allies. Some regard politicians like AOC, ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib as wavering and inconsistent in pursuit of their "progressive" agendas, and wrong to endorse Biden and other establishment candidates. But these followers are also correct in viewing Sanders and "the squad" as something more than disingenuous, sheep-dogging party hacks.

Bernie Sanders could not have been aware of the dimensions of the Covid-19 and black-lives crises that erupted after he quit the primaries and endorsed Biden, but his loyalty to the Democrats would no doubt have prevented him from taking advantage of any possibilities for independent politics, even if he had foreseen these events. This doesn't mean, however, that other "progressive" candidates may not be persuaded--or pressured--to refrain from endorsing centrist candidates when they lose in primaries. The working-class party that Brenner rightly advocates will probably come about, at least in part, as a result of defections of Democratic voters and younger candidates.This possibility is not increased by dismissing the efforts of such candidates in advance.

My difference with Brenner is probably no more than one of tone. But in politics tone can be important.

Jim Creegan

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mark and Jim. In our criticism of Sanders we shouldn't be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which is what Thomas Cain's remarks amount to. If I encouraged the latter approach with my labelling of Sanders as "nothing more than a 'left-talking' Democratic Party hack", then I accept that phrase was ill-advised. Still I want to stress one point. It's true, as Mark says, that the comparison of Sanders to Debs is unfair because the historical contexts are very different - though of course Sanders himself invites such a comparison because of his public veneration of Debs. But that aside, I think we shouldn't underestimate the significance of Sanders's caving to Biden - above all at the critical moment that it occurred. He absconded just as history was giving him an unprecedented opportunity to transform the political landscape. It's like a general who inspires an army to fight and then turns tail at the crucial moment of battle. It's true he wasn't just a bogus general, but that doesn't make the impact of his cowardice any less harmful.

Linda zises said...

Any and all politicans who voted for the first stimulous bill is a heiness traitor, as did the squad, sanders included. To lie about their vote as AOC did exacerbates the crime against humanity.

Alex Steiner said...

AOC did not support the first stimulus package. She was the only member of Congress to vote against it.

Thomas Cain said...

Imagine thinking that steadfastly opposing a bourgeois politician and unrepentant imperialist makes you a "sectarian". Or that it means "throwing out the baby with the bathwater", despite my saying explicitly that the Sanders movement was clearly to his left at key moments and was not fraudulent in itself. But apparently, that's where we're at. “Fraud” is an "absurd" characterization when the entirety of Sanders' political record is taken into account? Here's a better question: Why are Marxist evaluations of Sanders being subconsciously limited from 2016 to the present?

Mr. Creegan gets to the heart of the matter when he accurately points out that Sanders was quite loyal to the Democrats, but insists on the "significance of the fight that Sanders unleashed within the Democratic Party". Mark admits that Sanders backed away from his Medicare for All demand at a crucial juncture, but resists "laying all the blame for the failure of the left" on "individuals". Mr. Brenner backs away from his more scathing criticism, evidently not wanting to alienate disgruntled Democrats still feeling the Bern.

This kind of talk reeks not of how best to oppose the racist and imperialist Democratic Party, but how to be the best tagtail. Now Trotsky's own prognosis that "The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat" can be thrown into the trash. After all, now there's no reason to expose misleaders like "Sanders" whenever possible, when he makes a play at raising the bourgeois consciousness of the teachers who funded him by funneling their discontent behind the class enemy (the Democrats). Cannon's opposition to Henry Wallace would now be "sectarian". Even Lenin's talk of critical support for labor misleaders "as a rope supports a hanged man" wouldn't be able to escape the accusation of sectarianism here!

Everybody is so caught up in what Sanders allegedly represented in his person and his program, they seem to have forgotten that Trotskyists already have their own program. So caught up, that even anti-Bolsheviks like Chris Hedges, who had long understood Sanders’ duplicity, can appear as far left to the Trotskyists here when he said that “Sanders won’t help us. He has made that clear. We must do it without him.” (1) So, then: Are we revolutionary Trotskyists, or diet social-democrats?

P.S. Despite Alex's assertion, the only evidence we have for Ocasio-Cortez's "NO" vote on the first stimulus package is her own word. I don't trust it. Nor should anybody else. This is, after all, a woman who pledged to "abolish ICE", only to approve funding for it on her first day in office (H.J.res.1). A move that Harrington would doubtless have approved.


Mark said...

What does it mean to "expose" Sanders? Thomas says that "Just as in 2016, his candidacy was a scam, meant to lead the flock back to US imperialism and capitalism, however circuitous the route." If this is indeed the true purpose of Sanders and his campaign, then what is the meaning of the "Sanders movement"? Why is it named after a politician whose candidacy is a scam? How is it possible that this is a leftward movement at all if it is simply propagating and perpetuating the candidacy of a fraud?

I think the sectarians make the mistake that what matters most at the end of the day is how radical or militant their rhetoric sounds, they don't have to offer any competing vision. You see that with their approach to the Sanders program, which again has to be "exposed" as either too reformist or in some way fraudulent. Never mind that the same program found resonance with millions of people, would represent a significant redistribution of wealth, would drastically improve the lives of working class people, etc.

Understanding that the Sanders supporter owes their loyalty to a program and not a politician, helps to understand how the Sanders movement can be a genuinely left wing movement independent of Sanders the politician. The Sanders program itself is a bit of a misnomer since it didn't originate purely from him or his campaign, but represents a broad consensus within the left in the US. Again, the sectarians continuing with their political posturing and militant sounding rhetoric would contend that this "left" isn't left all. I don't claim that Thomas is a sectarian or necessarily holds all of these views, but his talking points and rhetorical tone sound eerily familiar.

All that being said, there is plenty to criticize in the Sanders the politician including his craven capitulation to Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. Hedges is absolutely right in many of his criticisms, but I see a profound difference in his and Frank's evaluation of Sanders and that of a typical sectarian. I don't think Hedges is writing his article from the point of teaching workers to "despise Sanders to the absolute hilt." It seems he is writing his article from the point of view that Sanders the politician is not up to the task of realizing the goals and aims of the movement which bears his name, a point I think many would agree with here.

My only point in bringing up the historical context of Debs is that I believe it makes a huge difference in the perceived or actual courage of left wing political leaders. I don't claim Debs had it easy, but it makes a difference that he was part of an international socialist movement which was much stronger and coherent than exists today, that he was part of leading a labor movement that was on the rise and winning significant battles. Bernie Sanders and AOC by contrast are navigating a much more reactionary political environment. I think it is a significant that Sanders has identified himself as a "democratic socialist", much to the dismay of the corporate Democrats. In doing so he connected his campaign with a broader set of ideals. Of course, the movement of socialism can't rest on the shoulders of a handful of individuals. It should be up to others to educate, too often groups like the DSA and the Jacobin publication end up as cheerleaders for Sanders. 

Thomas Cain said...

So, diet social-democrats it is, then.

What does it mean to expose Sanders? To paraphrase James Cannon, it's rather simple: To educate workers in whatever way possible as to which class he supports, is in allegiance to, rather than be enthralled by which class happens to support him at any given moment. Worker political independence is basis of socialist organization, after all. You'd would think this principle—the class line—would be elementary for a revolutionary Marxist. Apparently not.

Mark argues that the Sanders program goes beyond him. Indeed, there has long been a strain of New Deal-style politics in the US, and it's very "resonan[t] with millions of people". That the government is loathe to entertain even these meager demands might lead you to entertain the possibility that social-democracy in the US can be a transitional bridge to revolutionary socialist ideas, especially in a right-wing and racist country like this. But in the crunch, class tells. The "New" New Deal is a bourgeois program, even if its promoters are ignored by most of the bourgeoisie, and we Trotskyists already have a program. That is the one we fight for. We'll defend any worker's gains that come from a popular capitalist program. But popularity doesn't obligate our political support for it.

The NND mantle has enabled imperialists to posture as "left" opposition by building one-person followings, cynically employing Messianic tropes for emotional cohesion. This is why the "independent" Sanders is such an effective grifter, despite his class betrayals and war crimes. The same goes for careerist phonies like Ocasio-Cortez and "The Squad". Piggybacking this enterprise is politically beyond the pale. Whether the NND program ever bears Sanders' brand is immaterial. However much to the left its adherents have moved, they remain firmly within the orbit of the Democrats.

Mark throws "sectarian" around so often that it's difficult to understand what he means. Let's drop the "eerily familiar" weasel words. What is sectarian here? Is it opposing Sanders "by every class criterion" (1)? Defending the Transitional Program over the NND capitalist program? The class line? Rolling my eyes at the utter irrelevance of Sanders reading Lenin and Trotsky? (Fat lot of good it did us!) Let's confuse workers and blur class lines instead by falsely counterpoising "democratic socialism" and "corporate Democrats", as Mark does, and see what happens. Oh wait, we have!

Our task is to expose the Democrats as our class enemies, their programs as illusory, and defeat them. Not pontificate over how much "imagination" they have captured. We are supposed to "swim against the current", not to "throw political thinking back to stages long since passed through".(2) Mark is free to consider that "sectarian". But at that point he should stop deluding himself and just admit that he finds revolutionary Trotskyism and Trotsky themselves to be sectarian.


Mark said...

Thomas, I wonder to whom you are speaking for when you say "Our task is to expose the Democrats as our class enemies, their programs as illusory, and defeat them."? Do you belong to some kind of organization? What you write in this discussion certainly falls in line with how certain sectarian tendencies view their role politically and their place in the world, as I previously explained: producing shallow "political exposures" and vastly overestimating their relevance, of which you provide yet another example. It also falls in line with how these tendencies view mass psychology, which is to dismiss it. They aren't interested in the popularity of the Sanders program as an indicator of where masses of people are at politically and what they are willing to fight for because they don't intend to organize the masses on any significant basis. I could also take note of the practice of hunting for semi-quotations of the likes of Trotsky, taken out of context to use in polemical battle as an appeal to authority, a characteristic of sectarian polemics, but that's beside the point.

I think it's clear that we are not going to agree in our evaluations of Sanders, among other things. I think the campaigns have been overall positive in the effect of raising expectations of the masses and bringing to the fore universal, class oriented policies, where previously only corporate aligned austerity policies and identity tokenism were permitted. This was only possible by bringing this fight within the Democratic party as Jim Creegan notes. In that sense Sanders has done a useful service, but the political moment has moved on. The Democratic Party has proved that it will do everything in its power to crush insurgent movements within its ranks, and Sanders has proved unwilling to break from this party. As Frank says at the conclusion of this article, "we need a breakthrough – and that will only come with the emergence of a mass party opposed to capitalism and its political duopoly."

Thomas Cain said...

It’s hard to have a debate when we disagree on the ABCs of Trotskyism. So it's funny we’ve moved from disagreements about a Marxist estimation of Sanders, the danger of class collaboration by being soft on the NND, and what program Trotskyists should base themselves on, to who I am “speaking for” and my style of argumentation. It is in this way that Mark can avoid my political criticisms of his “overall positive” assessment of Sanders, because the truth is that he thinks that drawing the class line and rejecting Sanders is inherently sectarian. From this conclusion he makes a series of baseless accusations.

First, Mark accuses me of “quote-hunting”. This is ridiculous. Revolutionary politics requires knowing the positions on those that came before us. Quoting thus becomes necessary as a means of elucidating basic principles. And Cannon and Trotsky are unmistakably shown here insisting that revolutionaries resist consorting with backward strains of political thinking and capitalist parties. NND social-democracy in the United States is one such strain, and the Democratic Party is one such capitalist party. If their conclusions on this score have been outmoded, please show where.

Second, what I said is that the “imagination” Democrats have captured is irrelevant to an honest class appraisal of the Sanders/NND program as bourgeois, especially since we want to win the workers to the Transitional Program, as I’ve repeatedly stated. As this will require “imagination” of our own, it is not a “dismissal” of mass psychology of any kind. But if we are to discuss methods of propaganda that a revolutionary party should employ that utilize mass psychology, we must first agree on a program. It’s still quite unclear to me which one Mark wishes for.

Thirdly, nowhere did I say that Sanders’ popularity shouldn’t be viewed as an indicator of current consciousness or that I “don’t intend to organize the masses on any significant basis”; Mark simply made that up. What I said was that while workers have moved left, the hegemony of the Democrats over them remain (which itself is an indicator). Sanders’ “useful service” is thus not appreciated in my eyes, because he has successfully made the Democratic Party appear to be something it’s not: A big tent potentially accommodating for all—that is, except for the revolutionary left. That was the aim all along, and he has not accomplished it alone. The Squad, DSA, IMT, SAlt, the Biden-Sanders task force, etc. all feed into this farce and make working people harder to win from capitalism.

Mark wants to give Sanders’ “political moment” his due. Absolutely not. I would instead prefer that he lives long enough for him to witness a US worker’s state, which would make a mockery of the bad smell he has left on US politics for so long.

Mark said...
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Mark said...

Thomas, The article you cite from Trotsky "Stalinism and Bolshevism" has nothing to do with the discussion here or my positions in relation to Bernie Sanders, if you want to make that case you are free to do so. Why you chose this article in particular to cite from I can only guess, it contains a rebuke of sectariantism from Trotsky in the first paragraph, also your quotations are only from the first paragraph, which seems to suggest that you didn't really read the article at all.

I ask whom are you speaking for, because Trotskism is not a political party to my knowldge, and no one is seriously advancing the Transitional Program at the present moment. My understanding of the Transitional Program is that it was a template for sections of the Fourth International all the way back in 1938. The SWP itself had it own version of program[1]. Where is the Transitional Program today? The Sanders program is a popular program, I think its fine to critique, but the main problem is not the program itself, the problem is in how to carry it out. Sanders in endorsing Biden has essentitially abadoned his own program.