Lessons being learned
Elements of the US left have at last awoken to the possibilities opened up by Bernie Sanders, writes Paul Demarty.
Though Joe Biden’s previously dismal campaign was regrettably revived on Super Tuesday, signalling that the Wall Street Democrats are not dead yet, the ascendancy of the left within Democratic politics remains remarkable.
I remember writing many articles after the 2016 election, urging our American readers - for what it was worth - to resist despair, and particularly the siren song of lesser-evilism, which would shackle comrades to some other hopeless establishment candidate. Privately, I worried at the time that it was a pious wish, but one that was likely in the main to be ignored, and that the softer supporters of Bernie Sanders would scurry back to hide under the skirts of ‘mainstream’ liberalism, as the full horror of a Trump presidency unfolded.
Never have I been so happy to be so wrong. The energy and dynamism of the Sanders movement is quite encouraging, for all its political limitations; and, if anything, its centre of gravity is moving left. The essential truth of 2016 - vote Clinton, get Trump - is sinking in, for now at least. After a period in which soi-disant socialists have conceded endless ground to identity politics, there are signs of movement in the other direction, with liberal anti-racists and feminists uneasily incorporating the class perspective into their worldview. The result is as contradictory as the previous leftwing backsliding, of course, but the direction of travel is very much preferable.
We could illustrate this by pointing to our own regular contributor, Jim Creegan, whose articles on US politics have been a strong feature of this paper over recent years. CPGB comrades do not agree with comrade Creegan on everything, of course, as evidenced by polemical exchanges on the history of the second international, along with other matters. On one matter, however, we have converged; readers of last week’s excellent assessment of the campaign will note his optimism about the outcome of the Sanders campaign:
Many Sanders supporters will be little inclined to follow their leader into the cul-de-sac of party politics as usual ... The celebrity pro-Sanders New York congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC), remarked that in any other country she and Joe Biden would not be in the same party. The same applies, a fortiori, to Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg. AOC has already set up a political action committee independent of the Democratic apparatus to fund her efforts and the campaigns of other ‘progressives’.1
This is a distinct improvement on comrade Creegan’s assessment of four years ago, in the early stages of the Sanders-Clinton battle: then he
reject[ed] the argument that whether to work inside or outside the Democratic Party is a purely tactical question. For socialists, political independence must remain a question of principle, not for the sake of being true to dogmas, but because beating the bourgeoisie on its own turf has been shown to be impossible.2
The intervening years, of course, have rather cast the bourgeoisie’s security on its ‘own turf’ in a different light. No doubt this interesting - and, in some ways, rather frightening - reality has told on Creegan’s outlook. So, it is for one US left outfit guilty of the opposite - and far worse - error of backing Hillary Clinton not only against Donald Trump, but against Bernie Sanders in 2016. Such was the utterly daft perspective of the Communist Party USA, which thereby cut itself off from a generation of socialists. A penitent CPUSA offers us the following wisdom in its online publication, People’s Weekly World:
The scare tactics of ‘liberal’ billionaires who try to convince us that only another rich man can beat the rich man in the White House is the other side of the corporate class’s response to the Sanders surge and the US’s socialist moment. That’s why socialism can’t just be about winning this or that election. It has to be about building and sustaining a broad democratic movement that can fight for change in all areas of US life long after Trump and Sanders are both gone from the political scene.3
A little bit of an improvement - and only four awful years too late ...
Sanders’ campaigns this year and in 2016 have had a negative effect, logically speaking - they have served to negate some wrong perspectives. The two views we have noted here are symptomatic of the historic situation, where the US labour movement has subordinated itself to the Democratic Party, which - since Lyndon Johnson finally alienated the Dixiecrats - has served as the ‘liberal’ party of capital.
In relation to this, one available view is that of Michael Harrington, a founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has enjoyed such success on the back of Sanders’s campaigns. Harrington urged his comrades to place themselves on “the left wing of the possible”, which means (in practice) manoeuvres to place more ‘progressive’ Democratic candidates before voters. This can end up - as with the CPUSA - advocating seriously reactionary candidates over more progressive ones, depending on what is thought ‘possible’.
In the face of this, the US far left has traditionally spurned Democratic candidates for high office altogether, on the basis that a full organisational separation from the Democrats is a precondition for working class socialist politics. This is the line, roughly, of the 2016-model Jim Creegan, though the strains were starting to show; but it was also the line of the late International Socialist Organisation, and of Socialist Alternative until 2016, and many others.
In both cases the question of the Democratic Party is misconceived. For the grand, multi-stage strategy of the CPUSA, alliances with the progressive bourgeoisie are simply written into the script; their poisonous character is no more acknowledged in the case of Obama and Clinton than is the same strategy’s failure to secure victory for the Spanish Republic in the 1930s, to mention only one example. The Harrington-DSA version is more vague, but equally fails to understand how bourgeois political rule functions in the USA: by preventing disciplined, mass-membership parties emerging, in favour of loose ‘coalition’ parties. The very institutions that allow a progressive city councilman to be elected in Kentucky give the capitalist media an outsized say in who is up for being president.
The far left understood the problem here - that a real chance at socialism lay the far side of a radical shift in politics; but anti-Democrat positions became merely a shibboleth. For the ISO, if not necessarily for comrade Creegan, the key question was always mass action, which would provide a solution to the political problem of the labour movement’s enslavement to the Democrats. That has turned out not to be true; a mass movement within the Democrats has thrown that unequal alliance into crisis, by bringing the class question to the fore in the political battle over the presidential nomination.
The negation of these two very different perspectives turns out to be the same: the Sandernistas disprove the idea that Democratic inner-party politics can only crush mass movements, never give rise to them; they also give the lie to the idea that Harringtonite ‘realism’ is necessarily very realistic. What positively replaces these perspectives remains to be seen - and fought over.
It is the great blessing and curse of the US left to inherit a national identity based on revolution, which jibes uneasily with the more recent history of the republic, to put it mildly. It is a blessing, inasmuch as explicit counterrevolutionism visibly contradicts the heritage it supposedly defends;4 it is a curse, inasmuch as the ambiguities and limits of that heritage lead the left to reject important parts of it (the Second Amendment, in particular).
The USA is born of two revolutions so far. The first threw off the colonial tutelage of the British empire in principle, but not entirely in practice. The republican ideals of the revolutionaries of 1776 and immediately after stopped at the colour bar; slavery was not abolished, but made the ‘masters’ slaves to the cotton mills of England. So long as King Cotton reigned in America, so would the king of England. But, of course, the slave question was more than merely a matter of global state hierarchy: not only did it involve the most repugnant oppression of the slaves themselves; it produced a sectionalist paralysis among the working class of the ‘free’ north.
The Civil War is properly called a revolution, in spite of the white supremacist reaction that followed the failure of radical reconstruction, not only because it destroyed a mode of production of a certain sort - an unfree agrarian society dominated by capital - but because of the political and economic transformation that followed throughout the uneasily-reassembled union. American industry was unleashed. The greenback dollar of the Federal Reserve - created to fund the war in the early 1860s - supplanted dozens of ‘dollars’ privately minted by banks. The political class, so long dominated by southern slave states, was transformed. Slave-owning sons of the south had held the presidency for more than two thirds of the USA’s history before the war; in the century afterwards, only Woodrow Wilson of Virginia and Lyndon Johnson of Texas hailed from former Confederate states. The ‘slave power’ was not a bogeyman of abolitionists: it existed, dominating all branches of national government. In the 1860s, it was destroyed.
What exists now is an empire: a society whose industrial production is overwhelmingly entangled with the military, whose financial sector dominates the global system, and whose political culture is increasingly disfigured by militarism and Bonapartism. Americans are used to legislative paralysis, since such paralysis is part and parcel of the separation of powers: one bitter fruit of this is the cult of the Strong Man, who will sweep such pettifogging opportunists aside. So we get the corruption and grotesquerie of the Trump regime.
What is needed is a third revolution - one that will irreversibly reshape the USA as a democratic, not an aristocratic, republic; that will build on the firm foundation of the political liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and the fleeting egalitarian promise of the best of the country’s political history, to consign the twin evils of technocratic ‘moderation’ and Bonapartism to oblivion. We cannot overcome Donald Trump without also rejecting Alexander Hamilton.
However the primaries shake out, a second consecutive strong showing for Sanders gives us a glimmer of better possibilities; of the left emerging from its long night of tutelage to the liberal bourgeoisie.
. ‘Primary contradictions’ Weekly Worker March 5 2020.↩︎
. ‘Possibilities and pitfalls’ Weekly Worker February 25 2016.↩︎
. Consider, for amusement’s sake, Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s hatred of the ‘revolutionary’ metric system “imposed at the business end of the guillotine”: www.newsweek.com/fox-tucker-carlson-attacks-metric-system-1442485.↩︎