Web Only / Views » September 18, 2015
Why Radical Leftists Need To Stop Worrying and Back Bernie Sanders
Leftists can fantasize that they are doing a great service to humanity by scoffing at Bernie, but they’re merely isolating themselves from the rest of the country.
Sanders’s far-left detractors merely reinforce the political isolation that they seem to brandish as a badge of virtue; in reality it is a symptom of political debility, a fatal estrangement from the tactical challenges and possibilities of the moment.
In this presidential summer of our discontent, the radical left has been fighting hard—not chiefly against capitalism and its galloping calamities, it seems, but against… Bernie Sanders. Scarcely a day passes without an ominous recitation of Sanders’s manifold political shortcomings—Sanders exposés seem to have become a thriving cottage industry for the far-left commentariat.
It should come as a startling revelation to no one that Sanders is not and has never aspired to be the next Lenin or Trotsky or even Bob Avakian. We readily concede that his record will not pass every litmus test of anti-imperialist and revolutionary probity—no need to belabor this point any further. But then what are we to make of Syriza, Podemos, Jerry Corbyn, or even Jill Stein—and other assorted leftish flavors du jour—all of them seemingly quite palatable to these same ideological arbiters of the radical left? These other examples and Sanders are cut from essentially the same political cloth: left social democrats or democratic socialists inclined to challenge entrenched corporate interests through established political institutions rather than overthrowing them from without. Then why the radical cheers (however mixed and muted in some cases) for these other leftish types and the jeers for Sanders, even though they all represent essentially the same political impulse?
The answer lies in a hallowed, inviolable principle of the U.S. far left, in fact its most revered first commandment: thou shalt not support, endorse, or even smile at a Democrat.
This prohibition is not merely a mindless ideological reflex—it arises from the hard truth that the national Democratic Party is as much a subsidiary of the corporate class as the GOP. Obama’s crass subservience to the interests of the one percent has erased any doubts about this institutional fealty except among hardened neoliberals, tribal Democrats and the entire on-air lineup of MSNBC. And there is no doubt that past left-talking presidential primary challengers such as Jackson and Kucinich have functioned more as safety valves than catalysts for popular unrest, dissipating it and re-channeling it into the manageable confines of the two-party arena of mock combats. The question, then, is this: Is there something different about the Sanders campaign that warrants support from radicals who have rightly spurned previous forays into the Democratic Party?
This key question immediately begs another, even more fundamental one: How to awaken tens of millions of people from the entrapments of mass hypnosis, prostration and indifference and into the first halting steps toward recognition and self-emancipation? The quandary is as old as the parable of Plato’s cave—that mythic netherworld of darkness and illusion inhabited by us fallible mortals. The solution—the way out of the cave into the liberating light of knowledge—is as stubbornly elusive now as it was then. But simply naming the problem of the “false consciousness” that stymies the oppressed—as endlessly and vehemently reiterated by the legions of the far left for a small eternity—does not by itself yield a solution, as the long history of leftist impotence and isolation attests.
It is understandably frustrating for the leftist sects and sages to have all the answers except that most important one: how to lead the “masses” out of the darkness of ignorance and ideological deception into enlightenment. The leftist groups—with their obscure tomes of theory, their blogs, their conferences and meetings, their tinker-toy bureaucracies, their streams of manifestoes and critiques, their insular feuds and splits and fiery excoriations of left, right and center—are self-declared leaders without followers, generals with an invincible plan for battle who lack only one small detail: an army.
Ten parts bellowing grandiosity to zero parts real influence, the far left fails a litmus test more important than any it applies to Bernie Sanders: Marx’s call not merely to interpret the world but to change it. So we must ask: at this moment of gathering darkness for our species and planet, in this pivotal presidential campaign season, who is making greater strides toward triggering the mass enlightenment that is the key to empowering the oppressed: Sanders or his left critics?
If politics is the art of communication, then Sanders must be judged the winner, hands down.
In fact, the Sanders campaign represents a breakthrough for progressive “messaging” of remarkable scope and impact. Sanders, with his calls for political revolution against the billionaire class, is not just another standard-issue, forked-tongue, feel-your-pain Democrat; at each MSM-covered appearance he blasts out piercing alarms about the radical inequities and irrationalities of the status quo, along with sorely needed solutions—primal truths that would otherwise lie dormant and buried in the scattered isolated islets of far-leftdom.
To dismiss these crucial inroads into mass consciousness as mere diversion, to deride his proposals as milquetoast Keynesian stopgap, betrays the old far-left allergy to the complexity and cacophony of the large stage of life, a debilitating preference for the safety and certitude of the tiny left echo chamber. Sanders’s campaign, whatever its flaws, is thrusting front and center to a mass audience a whole series of principled, critical demands and issues (many of which overlap with those raised in splendid isolation by Jill Stein and the Green Party), the realization of which would markedly advance the material well-being and future prospects of ordinary Americans: $15 an hour minimum wage; union card check to expand organizing rights; improved Medicare for all; expansion (not retrenchment) of Social Security; revamped progressive taxation to reduce income inequality; a Wall Street transaction tax; a rapid transition to renewables to combat climate change; opposition to the ecocidal, neo-fascist TPP, NAFTA, and WTO; an end to the militarization of local police forces; cracking down on hate groups; free tuition at all public universities and colleges to alleviate student debt peonage; paid family leave; and so on. If realized in the aggregate, these demands would challenge the neoliberal logic of the prevailing order.
As a tactical matter, then, the Sanders upsurge is an invaluable tool for the mass dissemination of left themes and solutions right now—a priceless benefit that far outweighs the realpolitik lapses that preoccupy the left-echo-chamber Sanders refuseniks.
Now notice that I just used the word tactical. Allow me to explain. Whatever the rough spots in Sanders’s progressive resume, especially on foreign policy, it remains a stubborn tactical reality (and perhaps I will also be forgiven for using the word reality) that it is only through the vehicle of the his presidential campaign as a Democrat that these kinds of progressive issues and solutions can flood the airwaves and touch the tens of millions of desperate but ill-informed Americans who most need to think and hear about them—in most cases, for the first time. This is the unique and irreplaceable value of the Sanders candidacy: it is strewing seeds of mass consciousness around issues of class and inequality and the environment in a way that no other person or party could accomplish right now. Radicals need to ask themselves: How is that a bad thing?
Whatever the outcome of Sanders’s campaign, the sheer scope of the audience for his progressive checklist, his slashing denunciations of the economic and political tyranny of the billionaire class, are green shoots in an otherwise barren political landscape—and who knows how they might flourish in the future? This is a major breakthrough that has the potential, in countless molecular ways, to burst through the Democratic institutional framework in which it is now embedded—and, by the way, Sanders would not be commanding that mass audience were it not in that framework: hence the Sanders Paradox.
To be sure, it’s an inconvenient paradox for inveterate anti-Democrats of the Left, but one to be acknowledged and exploited rather than condemned or ignored. The near-zero collective political IQ of the country urgently needs raising by any means possible and necessary, and sooner rather than later, given the catastrophes that are bearing down on us. We can’t afford to disdain any advances right now, no matter how messy or divergent from our ideal scenarios.
Yes, we urgently need an independent activist left party, one that can have a real impact. We also need socialism now, drastic carbon reductions and crash investment in renewable energy 10 years ago, and so on. But the realization of those all imperatives presupposes the power of an aroused citizenry armed with at least a rudimentary understanding of the major issues. That is, most assuredly, not the American electorate as of 2015—not by a long shot.
Buffeted by outsourcing, unemployment, underemployment, consumer and student debt peonage, underwater mortgages, and the rolling thunder of environmental/climate/resource crisis, the mass of Americans still lead lives of quiet desperation—and it remains mostly quiet because they are diverted from their gnawing anxieties and uncertainties by the toxic glitter of corporate culture, a ceaselessly dripping toxin that mollifies, numbs, and stupefies. In the words of Robert Crumb:
What we kids didn’t understand was that we were living in a commercial, commodity culture. Everything in our environment had been bought and sold. As middle class Americans, we basically grew up on a movie set. The conscious values that are pushed are only part of the picture. The medium itself plays a much bigger part than anyone realizes: the creation of illusion. We are living surrounded by illusion, by professionally created fairy tales. We barely have contact with the real world.
The result is a woefully detached and undereducated populace, in most of its leisure hours transfixed before glowing rectangles. Walk down the street of any average American town or city (not Berkeley or Seattle or Brooklyn) and ask people if they know who Bernie Sanders is, much less Jill Stein, or even who the vice president is or what the three branches of government are. Then ask them if they’ve ever heard about anthropogenic global warming.
You’ll get a surprising number of blank stares, because an alarmingly large percentage of Americans spend most of their waking hours either (a) at work; (b) watching the NFL, professional wrestling, NASCAR, “reality” TV shows, or cotton-candy dramas and comedies; (c) surfing the Internet (and mostly not for news); or (d) chasing down sales at Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club to try to make ends meet. As for civic engagement, the closest most Americans come is when they wait in line at the DMV, pay their taxes, get stopped by the police, or watch Judge Judy. And the small percentage who do take in a bit of news are getting hosed with a steady stream of lies from the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNN or the happy talk crew on the late local news.
So this is the audience the Left must address: not the doughty, battle-ready proletariat of far-left daydreams, but the massively depoliticized and demoralized casualties of the culture industry and neoliberal piracy.
In the face of the major inroads Sanders is making against this mass reign of indifference and ignorance, urging the virtues of an independent left party and movement as an alternative is like urging the virtues of fusion energy over solar panels—a great-sounding idea, but one that has no purchase on reality for the foreseeable future. The mass of Americans is not going to advance miraculously from widespread political nescience to applying for membership in the International Socialist Organization in a single great leap. The far-left push for an independent “solution” is a practical nullity right now and will remain so for some time to come—and hence amounts to self-indulgent posturing in the face of the calamities looming on a near horizon.
Blind to these tactical exigencies, Sanders’s far-left detractors merely reinforce the political isolation that they seem to brandish as a badge of virtue; in reality it is a symptom of political debility, a fatal estrangement from the tactical challenges and possibilities of the moment.
Lest some radical critics feel sullied by the intrusion of the word tactical, I must insist that there is no shame in leftists’ thinking tactically at times—in fact, it is a necessity if we are to stay attuned to masses of people in a way that gives heft impact to any conceivable movement against the status quo.
Here’s an example of such a critical tactical consideration: At the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was part of a coalition that was mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people in the streets around the concrete (and principled!) slogan, “Out Now!”, peaking in the April 1971 march on Washington DC that brought 1 million people to the nation’s capital to demand an immediate end to the war. At that time a chorus of very “principled” far leftists scorned these powerful outpourings—which materially aided the besieged Vietnamese workers and peasants—because the key demand did not, in their view, go far enough or did not address an array of other issues: they argued that we should declaim “Victory to the NLF” or “Smash Imperialism” or “Defend the Rights of Palestinians” and so on.
Now the tactical consideration was that pinning the actions to these far-flung ultimatist, simon-pure demands would have winnowed the million marchers to maybe five thousand, thus depriving the action of all material impact on the war while deepening the delusional self-regard of a few enraged middle-class radicals—and damn the Vietnamese workers and peasants in the process. So much for the general considerations that make at least some degree of critical support for the Sanders campaign a no-brainer for radicals hoping to make even minimal headway against the headwinds of mass ignorance and indifference.
Now let’s tick off a checklist of some of the most common far-left complaints about the Sanders campaign, along with brief rebuttals:
Sanders is “sheepdogging” for the Democrats: This is self-fulfilling prophecy that presupposes that the mass of Americans are indeed sheep that can be easily herded into to this or that politician’s pen. This argument would carry more weight if Sanders were merely feinting left, with vague Obama-esque marketing slogans. But clearly he is propounding a refreshingly frank and specific policies to reverse the ever-intensifying inequalities and injustices of the status quo, slashing with finely honed specifics against the abuses of the billionaire elite. Even if Sanders loses the nomination, the progressive issues and solutions he is purveying to a mass audience will embed firmly in popular political thought and action, making a future breakaway into political independence easier, not harder.
Sanders has vowed to support whoever is nominated by the Democratic Party: This is really a corollary of the “sheepdogging” thesis, and the answer to it is simple: So what? A rumpled 73-year-old is commanding a mass audience not for sex appeal but for his passion and clarity on substance; he is galvanizing a huge groundswell of issue-focused voters and activists who would otherwise not be engaged in politics at all. A whole generation of voters will be more receptive to any future left campaigns—including independent ones—thanks to his exertions, notwithstanding any personal endorsements he makes a year from now.
Sanders is not a “true” socialist: This is another “so what?” coupled to a “who cares?” Any of the 5,757 varieties of socialists ranging from Bernie Sanders to the Spartacists will tell you that they alone are the true socialists and that all the others are frauds. The Fox News Channel considers Obama a socialist; the Democratic Socialists of America would ridicule this foolishness, but they in turn would be called out as faux socialists by Trotskyist groups like the ISO and Socialist Alternative, who would in their turn be denounced as fraudulent by the ultra-Trot World Socialist Web Site (Socialist Equality Party), who would in yet another turn be reviled as mountebanks by the Mad Hatter-Trot Spartacists.
Who, then, has unearthed the Holy Grail of “true” socialism? It’s a hopeless, absurd quest, on a par with defining “God” or the meaning of being. We need only recall that the Bolsheviks, socialists who actually made a revolution rather than merely bloviating about it, deployed as their main agitational slogan not “socialism now” or “nationalize the means of production”—they reached the masses by advancing the very concrete “land, bread and peace,” sensibly grasping that desperate workers and peasants were more interested in tangibles than abstractions. This is a lesson well worth pondering for the armchair revolutionaries leading the charge against Sanders.
Elections are a trap and diversion from real organizing: See once again the Bolsheviks, who regularly ran in election campaigns as a means of purveying their ideas—it worked pretty well for them. As long as elections are viewed as a tactic in a broader movement-building strategy, it is simply foolish to abstain from the reachout opportunities they afford. This leads to the next point:
The Sanders campaign subtracts energy and resources from independent parties like the Greens: Supporting the Sanders campaign right now vs. building an independent party and movement is not a zero-sum game in which every dollar or ounce of energy devoted to the former is necessarily subtracted from the latter. Sanders is posing progressive and class-based issues with a boldness and bluntness and honesty that set him apart from past progressive Democratic primary aspirants. And no recent left-leaning Democratic presidential aspirant has sparked anything close to the firestorms of enthusiasm springing up around the Sanders campaign. This combination of mass momentum and programmatic boldness make the Sanders campaign a uniquely explosive force in American politics right now. If Sanders cannot win the nomination and endorses Clinton (or whomever) with the usual less-evil incantations, he will, by dint of the power of his campaign, have unleashed energies and insights into the political sphere that will have a life of their own well beyond his campaign and will redound to the benefit of future independent organizing efforts.
Sanders cannot win the nomination or the general election: This is the most curious of the far-left objections to the Sanders campaign. Arun Gupta wrote a whole article for CounterPunch on just this issue. The entire essay traffics in mainstream media horse-race probabilities rather than political substance, as though Gupta were a hedge-fund manager assessing a possible investment rather than a radical seeking the most favorable vehicle for spreading his ideas. He adduces from various sources that 1) Sanders cannot win the nomination and 2) he cannot win the general election—a point that would seem to be moot in view of point 1. He prophesies, “Simply put, you have a better chance of Jennifer Lawrence or Idris Elba calling you up and saying they want to be your friend with benefits than Bernie Sanders has of becoming the next president.”
But many of those who deride Sanders’s chances will be supporting Jill Stein of the Green Party, whose likelihood of winning the general election is on a par with any of those critics winning both Powerball and Mega-Millions on the same day. Yet Jill Stein’s statistical-hopelessness-unto absurdity will not deter the Bernie contras from touting Stein or some other quixotic lefty independent in the general election. So it appears the far-left deriders of Sanders’s steep odds are not so averse to lost causes after all—purists in this as well, they simply prefer causes that are lost unto near-invisibility.
And let’s pose this question to those who argue from probability: What if the long shot Sanders comes through and wins the nomination and/or general election? Then what would you do?
Sanders will not be able to implement his proposals even if elected because he will face opposition in the Congress and the Courts: Sanders himself is the first to acknowledge this point, which is based on a misunderstanding of his purpose in running—he is not presenting himself as a personal savior and cure-all for the world’s ills; he expressly states his intention of using his campaign—and his nomination and election should they come to pass—of spurring the American people to organize to win these goals for themselves. As he stated in a campaign speech in Iowa last month,
Let me tell you something that no other candidate for president will tell you. And that is [that] no matter who is elected to be president, that person will not be able to address the enormous problems facing the working families of our country. They will not be able to succeed because the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of campaign donors is so great that no president alone can stand up to them. That is the truth. People may be uncomfortable about hearing it, but that is the reality. And that is why what this campaign is about is saying loudly and clearly: It is not just about electing Bernie Sanders for president, it is about creating a grassroots political movement in this country.
The case for radical support for Sanders amounts to this: before we can arrive at point omega from point alpha, we have to traverse points beta, gamma, delta and so on. There are no magic superleft flying machines that will propel us nonstop over all those intermediate steps from neoliberal despotism to radical democracy—we know this if we are organizing on the ground rather than theorizing in the clouds. The tempo of that journey will depend chiefly on advances in the consciousness of the masses, not advances in the vehemence of far-left declamation.
Some leftists can fantasize that they are doing a great service to humanity by scoffing at the tactical tradeoffs that are essential to building a truly massive, powerful grassroots movement—but in so doing, they’re merely isolating themselves even further from the arenas of real political work and potential mass outreach, like a swami meditating in a cave. Such radicals remind me of the holy men described by Swami Vivekananda:
The highest men are calm, silent and unknown. They are the men who really know the power of thought; they are sure that, even if they go into a cave and close the door and simply think five true thoughts and then pass away, these five thoughts of their will live through eternity. … These Sâttvika men are too near the Lord to be active and to fight, to be working, struggling, preaching and doing good, as they say, here on earth to humanity.
The hour is late. We face planetary emergencies of unprecedented gravity. Some reputable scientists say that it might be too late to avert them. Plato’s vision of humanity trapped in the dark cave—our cave of collective ignorance—is no mere parable: it a prophecy turned all too real. We must nevertheless choose to act as though there is a way out, even if we suspect that our choice is more an affirmation of faith than of reason. The Sanders campaign has mustered enough of an audience to bolster that fragile belief. It is not a panacea—it is a tentative first step of hope that Americans can be roused in sufficient numbers to help save humanity from itself. No person of conscience should refuse to join in that step and push it as far as it can go.
This article first appeared in Counterpunch.
William Kaufman is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. He can be reached at [email protected]
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