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Sanders and Lesser-Evilism: Is There No Line You Will Not Cross?

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It is much easier to create a mess than to clean up afterwards. But clean up we must. In his piece for CounterPunch, The Sanders Paradox: a Brief for Bernie, William Kaufman constructs a veritable Augean Stables of illogic, sleight of hand and misrepresentations. His snarky argument in support of Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination could be summed up as an embrace of the reactionary aphorism, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” (Fred Baumgarten made the same observation in a CounterPunch article referring to a different Sanders apologia.)

The concept, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” is thoroughly caustic as it can be used to shut down any debate. Find yourself disagreeing with some policy, position or campaign? Hey, the perfect is the enemy of the good. End of discussion.

Kaufman doesn’t utter the horrid maxim explicitly, but he thoroughly embraces its essence. Yes, Kaufman concedes, “the national Democratic Party is as much a subsidiary of the corporate class as the GOP.” But having spoken the required words, he rushes to deride those whose principled opposition to the Democratic Party he views as a “mindless ideological reflex.” The left in the U.S., you see,

…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.

To dismiss [Sanders’] 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.

This is supposed to be the end of the discussion. Any appeal to principles not to be surrendered must be seen, according to Kaufman, as seeking perfection in an imperfect world. He implies that the left’s failure to exert mass influence today is solely attributable to its obsessive adherence to principle. By Kaufman’s reckoning, the monumental power of U.S. capitalism, the obsequiousness of the mainstream media, the McCarthy witch-hunt, Cointelpro, ongoing government surveillance, infiltration, provocation and even state-sanctioned assassination—from Fred Hampton and Mark Clark to Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr—have nothing to do with the political relationship of forces in the U.S. today. It’s all down to too much nitpicking among left groups.

In examining Kaufman’s arguments more closely, one finds logical holes big enough to drive a campaign bus through. For example:

* Regarding how to best fight against capitalism, Kaufman mocks debate among groups on the left: “We need only recall that the Bolsheviks [were] socialists who actually made a revolution rather than merely bloviating about it…” A curious example since Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders were famous for their biting polemics against social democrats and other left tendencies.

* Regarding the efficacy of the left participating in capitalist elections, Kaufman again points to the Bolsheviks “who regularly ran in election campaigns as a means of purveying their ideas”. Yes, but he forgot to mention that the Bolsheviks never once ran as candidates of a capitalist party, and they harshly criticized other self-described leftists who did.

* Even more insidious is this:

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.

Yes, “Out Now!” was the correct demand for that movement. But Kaufman conveniently forgets that winning the majority to that perspective took endless meetings, discussions and debates. And those leading the fight for “Out Now!” were some of the very socialists Kaufman now derides for their principled opposition to the Democratic Party politics. Moreover, the chief contender for focus was not the ultra-left slogan “Victory to the NLF”, but the liberal and social democratic push for slogans like “Negotiate Now!” and the desire by some to subordinate the movement to the election of this or that born-again antiwar Democrat.

But let’s cut to the chase. In Kaufman’s view, a political campaign is all about the individual candidate; the party behind that candidate is secondary at best. This approach is upside-down and backwards, as I argued in CounterPunch here. But let’s test Kaufman’s resolve with a thought experiment.

Let’s assume that for unknown pragmatic reasons, Sanders decided to run as a Republican rather than a Democrat. Same person, same speeches, same political message. Would this make a difference? Would this be a bridge too far?

Let’s carry this exercise in reductio ad absurdum one step further. Suppose that for expediency’s sake, to reach a broader audience, Sanders ran not as a Democrat or Republican but on the ticket of some ultra-right party in the mold of Greece’s Golden Dawn. Again, we have the same candidate, same platform, same public speeches, etc. The only difference is party affiliation. Would Kaufman urge support for Sanders in this case?

Any objection that these scenarios are unrealistic or that Sanders would never do such a thing would be evasive and disingenuous. To fully dissect this issue, it’s necessary to declare what position one should take if the above actually occurred.

Within this framework, there are two possibilities. Either the candidate’s party affiliation does matter, or—all other things about the candidate and the campaign being equal—the candidate’s party affiliation makes no difference whatsoever, even in the most extreme circumstances.

Those who adopt the latter position have much to answer for; in particular, “Which side are you on?” Adopting this position, while logically consistent, is absurd in the extreme. Of this option there’s little more to say except, “See you on opposite sides of the battle lines.”

But if one accepts the notion that there is some line that should not be crossed, that the organization and social forces with which the candidate aligns himself/herself could in principle make a difference as to how the candidacy should be viewed, then everything becomes much clearer. In that case, we are left to examine the Democratic Party and consider which side it is on. This is not hard to do. Even Kaufman concedes that the Democrats, like the Republicans, are completely in the pocket of big business.

Kaufman reminds us that the audience we must address is “not the doughty, battle-ready proletariat of far-left daydreams, but the massively depoliticized and demoralized casualties of the culture industry and neoliberal piracy.” Yes, our strategies and tactics must be designed to meet people where they are and through patient organizing and education lead them to fight for a more just and equitable world. But a cardinal rule in this process is to tell the truth. The Democratic Party is not our friend. Nor can it be reformed to do our bidding. The purpose of the Democratic and Republican parties is to keep us enslaved. To pretend otherwise is to sow confusion and carry the ball for the other team.

Nothing has held American working people back more than organized labor’s obeisance to the two corporate parties, together with confusion on this issue by many on the left. Albert Einstein warned, “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” Yet Kaufman would have us believe one can simultaneously oppose and build the Democratic Party.

Ironically, while Kaufman derides the left for its impotence, he fails to fully appreciate the Democratic Party for the obstacle that it is, thus promoting a view which would ensure the impotence of working people and the left for years to come. It’s not just that the Democratic Party is an obstacle to the class consciousness and radicalization of the American working class. Reliance on the Democrats and confusion about the party’s nature are among the chief obstacles.

Sanders raises all kinds of interesting populist issues in his speeches, but he is seeking the nomination of a party that is the proven enemy of the working class and he has promised, citing the lesser-evil doctrine, that he will endorse the Democratic nominee whoever it happens to be. So we can see that progressives like Kaufman and Sanders are not really opposed to standing on principle. It’s just that they have replaced the principles of working class solidarity and telling the truth with the “principle” of lesser-evil politics. This approach has persisted for decades while the labor movement has suffered blow after blow. Borrowing from Sara Palin we have to ask, “How’s that lesser-evily thing working for ya?”

Bruce Lesnick is a long-time political activist who lives and writes in Washington State.  He blogs at blogspot.com.  He can be reached at blesnick@bugbusters.net.

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