WeeklyWorker

29.02.2020
Bernie Sanders: a thoroughly moderate social democrat who calls himself a socialist

‘Socialist’ frontrunner causes panic

America’s ‘ideologically pure’ presidential candidate actually fights back against the anti-Semitism smears, Paul Demarty reports.

Those readers not living in a cave in the Tora Bora mountains will no doubt have noticed that US presidential primary season is shaping up to be a real treat.

Bernie Sanders’ crushing victory in Nevada confirms what the left already knew, and indeed the Democratic right must also have known, assuming they had ever heard of Jeremy Corbyn: putting a gormless crew of machine-politicians up against a left candidate with at least the reputation for playing with a straight bat, in competition for the votes of people who still remember how well the last machine candidate turned out, is a really effective way of getting spanked.

We could say that Sanders should divide and conquer, but that would imply that he actually has to do it, rather than waiting for his opponents’ egos to do it for him. Astonishingly, the field is about to get larger, as the billionaire former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, finally starts actually contesting state primaries (though he formally entered the race late last year). The sheer volume of money he is firehosing into the contest means he cannot be ruled out; but there does not seem to be an electorate in the mood to swing behind a desiccated ex-Republican centrist, whose only selling point is that he is a very rich and successful New York businessman (remind us of anyone ... ?).

With their backs against the wall, it is inevitable that the kid gloves will come off and the hysterical smears will multiply. The elite-liberal approach to the contest up until Iowa, at least, was to simply operate a media blackout against Sanders and insist, in the face of all the evidence, that questions like Amy Klobuchar’s polling numbers among African-Americans were the most important matters arising. Now it is time to sharpen the knives.

Much of the anti-Sanders propaganda is focused on his electability - the problem supposedly posed by a self-styled socialist’s lack of appeal to ‘moderates’; and also now on the fact that his name is likely to hinder efforts to make gains in Congress (the so-called down-ballot problem), since unlucky ‘moderate’ congressional candidates will be smeared by association with the man in the main race. There is also a lot of foolish yammering about ‘ideological purity’, which - as an ideological purist - I find quite offensive. The confused social democratic shopping list of Sanders’s programme does not meet my standards of ‘purity’, certainly; but it tells us a lot about the right that they consider the idea that people ought not to be bankrupted because they broke their leg or got the wrong disease a marker of Pol Pot-style, Year Zero fanaticism. Are these people even human?

Aipac

One such line of attack will sound very familiar to readers on these shores - the allegation that Sanders is anti-Semitic, on account of his recent and welcome retreat from his historic left Zionism. The accusation has arisen repeatedly in recent months, by some of the usual suspects, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), but maybe most notoriously in an article in the rightwing Washington Examiner by Tiana Lowe, which motors through various examples of insignificant cranks supposedly within his movement, before repeating bald-faced lies about the right’s Congressional bêtes noires, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Lowe, of course, is very proud of her grandfather, who was a member of the anti-Semitic wartime collaborationist outfit, the Chetniks, in Yugoslavia. Funny old world!

Of course, the plausibility of such accusations is hardly the main point. Hunter S Thompson’s retelling of a famous story about Lyndon Johnson comes to mind:

The race was close and Johnson was getting worried. Finally he told his campaign manager to start a massive rumour campaign about his opponent’s life-long habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his own barnyard sows. “Christ, we can’t get away calling him a pig-fucker,” the campaign manager protested. “Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that.” “I know,” Johnson replied. “But let’s make the sonofabitch deny it.”

It seems, on the face of it, absurd for a Jewish man to be accused of anti-Semitism by predominantly non-Jewish, pro-Israel ideologues; the idea, according to this school of ‘dirty tricks’, is merely to have the accusation hang around long enough to impart some of its stink. The heartening thing is that it does not seem to have worked. The blackmailers do not confront a man afraid of his own shadow, as Jeremy Corbyn was in his endless shameful retreats, but a man finally coming to his senses and acknowledging that his former pro-Israel positions (he was married in a kibbutz, for heaven’s sake) are not morally tenable, and who refuses to throw his comrades Tlaib and Omar, to the wolves. He excoriates Trump’s ‘deal of the century’; though he remains wedded to the chimera of a negotiated two-state settlement, the direction of travel is clear. He is also free to counter-attack.

Whoever advised Corbyn to capitulate ought to pay close attention to the fact that Sanders has barely suffered at all. This is in spite of, if anything, worse conditions for pro-Palestinian politics in America. The alliance between foreign policy hawks and Israeli diplomatic and intelligence agencies is stronger in Washington than in Britain (which retains a vestigial Arabist appendix in the foreign office) - a state of affairs rather dramatically illustrated by Al Jazeera’s US sequel to its documentary, ‘The lobby’. The US film, of course, was cancelled after a great hue and cry was directed at the Qatari regime by the various groupings exposed by it, though it is now viewable thanks to Electronic Intifada and French and Lebanese collaborators.1

Standing up to these slanders turns out to draw their sting. It refocuses moral attention on the accusers, not the accused. It is notable that a Zionist ‘political action committee’ (PAC), Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), spent $800,000 on anti-Sanders ads in Nevada, which did not mention Israel at all, nor anti-Semitism; they focused entirely on the electability issues, as well as the candidate’s physical robustness (Sanders suffered a minor heart attack on the campaign trail recently). What clearer admission can we ask for that ordinary Democrats are in no mood to be lied to by these scumbags?

Class politics

The indications are that Israel, like other markers of Democratic sensibleness and good governance, is losing its sheen. It seems that the political veteran, Sanders, has reached much the same conclusion as many of his young followers; though older Jewish Americans remain predominantly pro-Israel, the younger generation are very much alienated from the idea that this self-proclaimed Jewish state has anything in common with their, on average, progressive values. The symbiotic relationship between Netanyahu and Trump is obvious to all, as is the racism and blood-thirst of Netanyahu’s government. Nor is the idea that a state with a large nuclear arsenal and lavish military support from the US is seriously under threat from ‘terrorists’ credible on its own terms.

So much for the left; on the right, pro-Israel sentiment is very much (if you’ll forgive me) a shibboleth. Yet Lowe is not the only person to combine opprobrious rhetoric against ‘anti-Semites’ with flirtations with anti-Semitism. It does not seem to bother many mainstream Republicans that they share their support for the far-right politics of the current administration with overt anti-Semites like David Duke and Richard Spencer (though Duke for a time criticised Trump for his pro-Israel bent). More seriously, there is the phenomenon of conservative evangelical Christians who believe that the lamb of God is due for his homecoming soonish, that this will take place in the ‘Holy Land’ and that ‘the Jews’ shall be gathered there to be converted, as promised in the apocalypse of John. This is not some tiny, marginal idea: indeed, it may be the case that, should Donald Trump suffer some terminal misfortune in the near future, the president of the USA will be of this opinion (it is hard to tie down Mike Pence to any particular sect, but his background is certainly of this general type).

This situation itself, of course, is highly problematic for pro-Israel liberal lobby groups like DMFI: suddenly the company they keep begs a lot of questions. As Pence’s saviour tells us, we know the tree by its fruit; and what a bitter crop the Democratic ‘moderates’ yield in this connection ...

It does not seem likely that the election this year will line up on this issue. Assuming Sanders does win the primaries, is not shafted at the Democratic national convention and is not sabotaged by a ‘moderate’, third-party candidate - several big ifs - the fight will be between ‘socialism’ and Trumpism. That is certainly the fight Trump wants to have. “Every single one of the Democratic candidates has embraced a radical socialist agenda,” Donald Trump junior told a New Hampshire rally, warming the crowd up for his old man; indeed, such rhetoric rather suggests that there is no candidate ‘moderate’ enough to escape the charge of ‘socialism’. Every concession to Sanders’ agenda will be treated like a citation of What is to be done?

And - as is made clear by the threadbare jeremiads about ‘ideological purity’ from the wonk candidates, on the one hand, and the Bloomberg cash offensive on the other - this is not a concern only shared by the demagogues of the right. The singular achievement of the American political architecture since the end of World War I is the ruthless exclusion of all ideas of ‘socialism’ from the political mainstream; Sanders’ success on the campaign trail, but also the humiliation of the most establishment candidate in recent political history by a half-daft demagogue, have breached the leftward and rightward defences of this edifice. It will not be surrendered easily, however; and we know, in the end, that Trump is more acceptable to the screaming homunculi of the American political mainstream than Sanders.

Time will tell whether the Sanders moment achieves what is objectively the greatest service it could render the American and indeed global working class - the sundering of the Democratic Party on class lines. It has happened before in America, when free-soil Whigs finally broke away to form the Republican Party in the mid-1850s, setting in train what turned out to be the revolutionary destruction of the southern slave society. That depends a lot on how the Sandernistas cope with defeat - or, worse in many ways, the paralysis that would result from victory over Trump in the autumn, with a likely hostile congress and supreme court to deal with. It is to be hoped that strong and permanent roots are laid, that can last for enough political cycles to once more revolutionise the American body politic.

paul.demarty@weeklyworker.co.uk


  1. https://electronicintifada.net/content/watch-film-Israel-lobby-didnt-want-you-to-see/25876. ↩︎