Subordinate to the bourgeoisie
It is true that Sanders is mobilising the working class, writes Daniel Lazare. But for what?
T hanks to Bernie Sanders’ stunning win in last week’s Nevada primary, there is suddenly a faint whiff of revolution in the air. The corporate press had previously written Sanders off as appealing mainly to college kids and 60s veterans, but, post-Nevada, it is clear his support is much broader.
Not only did he win a majority of Latino voters, but he did better than expected among blacks - supposedly his weak spot. He prevailed in all age categories other than those over 65, drew non-college voters, as well as the college-educated, and did well in both union and non-union households. As the results rolled in, a flustered Pete Buttigieg appealed to Democrats to “take a sober look at what’s at stake” before “we rush to nominate Senator Sanders”. His choice of words was revealing: a rush to nominate Sanders is precisely what is now underway.
This could change, of course. But at a time when social democrats are on the ropes from Britain to Italy, a country that is supposedly immune to socialism is taking the lead. The dumbstruck expressions on TV talking heads have been a delight to see.
But social democracy performs a double function by mobilising workers, on the one hand, but doing so, on the other, in order to subordinate them all the more effectively to the bourgeoisie. What that means became clear before Nevadans even started to vote when the Washington Post ran a story saying that “Russia is attempting to help [Sanders’] presidential campaign as part of an effort to interfere with the Democratic contest.”1
The article was vague and evidence-free. “It is not clear what form that Russian assistance has taken,” it confessed, while the only sources it cited were “people familiar with the matter … speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence”. If the Post tells readers who such people are, evidently, it will have to shoot every last one of them before they tell anyone else.
It was pure nonsense, in other words, which is why it could have been Bernie’s moment to shine by calling the newspaper’s bluff. But instead he did the opposite, declaring that he believes in the Russian threat just as fervently and castigating Trump for not doing the same: “My message to Putin is clear,” Sanders said:
Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do. Unlike Donald Trump, I do not consider Vladimir Putin a good friend. He is an autocratic thug, who is attempting to destroy democracy and crush dissent in Russia.
Take that, Vladimir! While castigating “the billionaire class” at every turn, Sanders apparently agrees with Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post’s owner and the richest single individual on earth, that Russia is even worse. That is what subordinating the working class means: ie, subordinating it to an imperial agenda.
For or against?
This is not the first time Sanders has gone off against Russia. Two days earlier, he speculated during a Democratic debate that “Bernie Bros” may not be to blame for “ugly remarks” on Twitter and other social media that riled Elizabeth Warren and others, and that the Kremlin may be responsible instead. He was even more emphatic in July 2018 following a Trump-Putin summit conference in Helsinki, when he sailed into the president for not taking the intelligence agencies at their word regarding Russian electoral interference.
Trump’s performance in the face of hostile questioning in Helsinki was a classic. Over the course of a joint 45-minute press conference, he denied conspiring with Russia to throw the election, denounced special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s collusion investigation as “a disaster for our country” and repeatedly asked why the FBI had never inspected Democratic National Committee (DNC) computers first-hand to determine if a hack had even occurred: “Why haven’t they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee? I’ve been wondering that. I’ve been asking that for months and months.”
Then, with Putin at his side, he committed the cardinal sin of refusing to take the word of the US intelligence agencies over that of Russia. “My people came to me, [director of national intelligence] Dan Coats came to me, and some others,” he told reporters:
They said they think it’s Russia. I have president Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be … I have confidence in both parties … I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that president Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.2
It was an awkward attempt at even-handedness that roused Democrats to a fury. Since they took collusion as a given, Democrats would not be satisfied unless Trump confessed there and then that it was all true, that his election was a sham, and that Russia had helped him at every step of the way. When he refused, they took it as further evidence that he was guilty as charged.
So did Sanders. In an attempt to embarrass Republicans, he introduced a resolution a few days later calling on the Senate to endorse the US intelligence community’s verdict on Russian interference. His speech introducing the resolution was also a classic - a classic example of the fundamentally rightwing nature of the Democratic assault.3 He began:
At the Helsinki summit on Monday, president Trump embarrassed our country, undermined American values, and openly sided with Russia’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, against the United States intelligence community’s unanimous assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Senator John McCain is right when he said it was “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by president Trump’s naivety, egotism, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate, but it’s clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.”
“That’s not Bernie Sanders talking,” he continued. “That is former Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain.”
Indeed, it was. McCain - an ex-Vietnam prisoner-of-war, whose idea of a joke was to sing “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to a Beach Boys tune - was one of the fiercest hawks ever to set foot on Capitol Hill; and someone who clashed repeatedly with Trump, because he was not hawkish enough. He backed the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, declared Iraq to be “a clear and present danger to the United States of America” in supporting “shock and awe” in 2003, and suggested that Nato should intervene in support of Georgia in its war with Russia in 2008.4
He enthusiastically backed Nato intervention in Libya and called for direct military action in Syria to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. In 2013, he made a secret trip to Syria, where he posed for photos with a rebel leader, who a year earlier had kidnapped nine Lebanese Shi’ite pilgrims and was still holding them for ransom. In the wake of the 2014 Euromaidan uprising, he did the same thing in the Ukraine, posing for a photo with Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the neo-fascist Svoboda Party.5
This was the neo-cold warrior whom the supposed peacenik, Sanders, now looked to for support. He went on:
Today we face an unprecedented situation of a president who, for whatever reason, refuses to acknowledge the full scope of the threat to American democracy ... Russia has been interfering not only in US elections, but in the elections of other democracies, the United Kingdom, France, Germany … Russia’s goal is to advance its own interest by weakening the transatlantic alliance of democracies that arose after World War II, while also inflaming internal divisions in our country, as well as other countries.
And so on for another 600 or 700 words. Yet nearly all of it was untrue. Trump’s refusal to take the word of the intelligence agencies was eminently justified, given that Mueller would soon conclude that collusion did not occur.
The same goes for his refusal “to acknowledge the full scope of the threat to American democracy”, since Russian interference has been grossly exaggerated, assuming it even took place at all. (As Trump pointed out in Helsinki, the FBI never determined on its own whether Russia hacked the DNC and instead relied on the word of a private cyber-security company with ties to a vehemently anti-Russian Washington think tank known as the Atlantic Council.) As for Russian meddling in Britain, France and Germany, Sanders neglected to mention that intelligence agencies in all three countries concluded that no electoral interference had occurred.6
Then there is the charge of “weakening the transatlantic alliance of democracies” - a phrase that any real socialist should be too embarrassed to utter. While such language goes down well with Washington’s endlessly bellicose foreign-policy establishment, it turns reality on its head, since it is Nato’s post-1989 expansion to the east that has clearly been aimed at weakening Russia. Indeed, if Putin had not annexed the Crimea, the new nationalist government in Kiev that the US helped install would almost certainly have terminated Russia’s long-term lease on its Sevastopol naval base - depriving it of its chief naval outlet to the Black Sea. With Ukraine and Georgia posed to join the Atlantic alliance, encirclement would have been complete.
So, yes, Putin is unquestionably an authoritarian, who is trying to hold a “shockingly ramshackle” post-Soviet Russia together.7 Yes, he has moved increasingly to the right after declaring - correctly - in 2005 that “the break-up of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”. But, no, he is not guilty of mounting an anti-Nato offensive. With an economy barely a fifth the size of America’s, Russia’s actions must be seen, rather, as primarily defensive, which is to say that of a mid-sized power doing its best to fend off an imperialist onslaught. Socialists should be the first to point this out, yet Sanders does the opposite.
This is not nit-picking, and neither is it an attempt to rain on Bernie supporters’ parade in the name of Marxist purity. To the contrary, Russia is one of the defining questions of the epoch. What passes for political debate in Washington is a purely strategic argument between two war parties over which country constitutes the greater threat: China and Iran, on the one hand, versus Russia, on the other. Impeachment, in which Democrats accused Trump of undermining national security by failing to arm Ukraine against pro-Russian insurgents, was one battle in the ongoing struggle. To the degree that Sanders continues to attack Trump for being soft on Russia, the presidential election is shaping up as another.
After accusing Trump of benefiting from Russian interference, Sanders now finds himself the target of the same baseless charges. So he tried to recover by burnishing his anti-Russian credentials. But, the more he does, the more he will find himself ensnared in a CIA trap. This story is not going to end well.
. S Harris, E Nakashima, M Scherer and S Sullivan ‘Bernie Sanders briefed by US officials that Russia is trying to help his presidential campaign’ Washington Post February 21 2020.↩︎
. For the full press conference, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwxqOoIyWm0. The quote starts at 39:40.↩︎
. Sanders’s remarks are available at www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/video-audio/sanders-introduces-resolution-to-protect-american-democracy-from-russian-meddling.↩︎
. M Ames ‘Getting Georgia’s war on’ The Nation August 8 2008.↩︎
. ‘US senator McCain pictured with Syrian rebel kidnapper: paper’, Reuters, May 30 2013; A Taylor, ‘John McCain went to Ukraine and stood on stage with a man accused of being an anti-Semitic neo-Nazi’ Business Insider December 16 2013.↩︎
. PD Shinkman ‘British say election was free of Russian meddling’ US News June 16 2017; ‘The latest: France says no trace of Russia hacking Macron’, Associated Press, June 1 2017; E King, ‘German intelligence finds no evidence of Russian meddling’ Politico February 7 2017.↩︎
. A Higgins ‘How powerful is Vladimir Putin really?’ The New York Times March 23 2019.↩︎