I want to talk to you about a socialist from Vermont. Born in New York, he was active in the anti-Vietnam and civil rights movements in the 1960’s before moving to the town of Burlington, where he spent the next several decades creating a new set of socio-political ideas that combined the basic outlines of old European socialist ideology with the harsh realities of modern industrial capitalism, as well as a powerful critique of the ecological havoc wrought by the global hegemony of greenhouse gas pollution.
But wait! If you thought this was the beginning of a stump speech for Senator Bernie Sanders, you are dead wrong. In fact I am referring to the late Murray Bookchin, a man who, in many ways, was the striking opposite of what Bernie Sanders is in every way. Bookchin was a scholar, activist, and writer whose polemics against capitalism but also cultish politicking on the far left and opportunism by people like Bernie Sanders make for great reading nine years after the man died in 2006. Having recently read the rather apologetic work by Patrick Walker and Paul Street’s discussion of the correspondence he is getting in response to his criticism of Sanders, I think it is time for someone to shake the Sandernistas out of their mass-delusion and tell them to wake up.
I have a sense of respect for those who support Sanders in his quest for the Democratic Party nomination. Or rather, I did. What has made me change my mind is the reaction of Sanders supporters to the direct action techniques of #BlackLivesMatter protestors in recent weeks, which seemed to gravitate between condescending and racist to religiously fanatical and racist. “Don’t these people realize Bernie is the best thing going for them in this campaign?” “Don’t they know that Bernie marched with Martin Luther King Jr.?” In my own praxis, I have a very simple rule: if someone is not going to do any real harm, I let them stick to their beliefs. It is not my place as a reporter to break the news story about how there is no Santa Claus because that would only hurt those who believe in Santa, individuals who have no capacity to cause serious damage to others.
But with the level of condescending, self-important, prejudiced nonsense coming from Sandernistas, I do see a real threat. I can imagine in very concrete terms a moment in the near future where, should Sanders not topple the Clinton machine, his disillusioned supporters will point out the #BlackLivesMatter zap as the moment that did him in and the anti-black animus will soon follow. And in a technical sense, they would have some concrete grounds to stand on. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com recently carried a story by Harry Enten titled THE BERNIE SANDERS SURGE APPEARS TO BE OVER, where Enten shows with mathematical precision that Bernie has reached his crescendo:
Not long ago, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was surging. In just a few months, the Vermont senator halved Hillary Clinton’s lead in Iowa and moved to within shouting distance of her in New Hampshire. But it’s probably time to change the verb tense. No longer is Sanders surging. He has surged. From now on, picking up additional support will be more of a slog… Support for Sanders rocketed up in Iowa but has leveled off since June. The story is nearly the same in New Hampshire. Sanders rose from June to July in the Granite State, but his ascent slowed.
Eneten points out several possible reasons that could have contributed to this. Part of it has to do with the fact Bernie was the newcomer when he announced his candidacy at the end of May as compared to Hillary Clinton, who seems to have been running for office since the day after the 2012 inauguration. At the beginning of the summer, the Run Warren Run PAC was dissolved when the Senator from Massachusetts announced she would not make a Presidential bid. As a result, the Warren supporters combined forces with the Sanders supporters, based in part on politics and in part because of their mutual dislike of the Clintons. Of course, this is nothing new, it happens every election cycle, the Democrats roll out a seemingly radical candidate who has a great opening sprint but cannot maintain pace throughout the race. Do the names Howard Dean or Dennis Kucinich sound familiar? But for those who are Feeling the Bern of Sanders fever, the coincidental occurrence of the #BlackLivesMatter protest with his sluggish poll performance just breeds conspiratorial fever dreams that it was those pesky blacks who killed Bernie’s chance.
But besides that, there is also the fact that Sanders, for all his bluster, has never been serious about this. Just look at the Issues page on BernieSanders.com:
Those are all great phrases and I do not doubt that there are serious people in the general population who are earnest about those topics. But, as pointed out in the most recent episode of CounterPunch Radio, there is one phrase that every serious presidential candidate always puts on their website, without fail: FOREIGN POLICY. For all that can be said about candidate Obama, one thing that can be said without a doubt is that he had foreign policy in his campaign literature from day one. Just look at his page from September 12, 2007, as archived by the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archive:
Now look at Hillary Clinton’s website. It’s a huge, in-depth page that has multiple paragraphs dedicated to foreign policy alone. Granted, as Secretary of State she basically committed a bunch of war crimes and let Joe Biden handle the Iraq withdrawal, but at least she is trying.
This is not even hard work! Are you kidding me? The man has been on the road since May and in all that time he hasn’t decided to put forward one policy position on what he would do as Commander in Chief of the biggest military in human history? Does he expect to bank reform us out of Afghanistan and take on ISIS with free tuition? Do you think he said “OOPS, I forgot”? What planet does he live on? Men may be from Mars and women from Venus, but Bernie Sanders lives in Uranus if he thinks he has a chance of getting anywhere without a single foreign policy statement. I can just hear Hillary Clinton now, “I like what Bernie is saying, I would be willing to do what he is suggesting, but at the same time, Bernie, you don’t have a single foreign policy statement on your website, you haven’t made a speech about what you want to do about ISIS, why is that?” Cue applause, Bernie backs out of the race, sends his supporters to Clinton, and Vermont gets some nice pork barrel spending on an appropriations bill first thing when Congress reconvenes under a Clinton administration while Bernie keeps his Senate seat. Our electoral process may very well be a media spectacle more than anything else, but this sort of transparent showmanship would not pass on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE!
Of course, if he were to spread his wings that far, people might realize he’s a hawk. And that brings me to my second point, the real Bernie Sanders. He makes some great speeches, but behind the verbiage is a pretty repellent record.
Since we are on the topic of race and Bernie these days, let’s talk about his supposedly great record as a young man. Everybody right now is in love with the pictures of him organizing in the Civil Rights era, and that’s a respectable feat. But what they are not talking about is what turned him on to socialism, his time in Israel living on a kibbutz. For the goyim, the kibbutz is sold as a sort of Israeli utopian experiment, a state-sponsored socialist collective where the children are cared for in a communal fashion, everyone eats and works together for the benefit for all, and the socialist dream is realized. But what they do not tell you is the bitter and painful truth about the kibbutz as an apparatus of state violence by the Israeli government against the Palestinians. For all the socialist fluff, Arabs are strictly forbidden from joining in the effort. In fact, Noam Chomsky and the late Tony Judt, both adamant critics of Israeli policy, cite their time as kibbutzniks as one of the reasons they rejected Zionism. By contrast, Sanders thinks of this as the ideal.
When Sanders moved to Vermont, Murray Bookchin was already at work on a serious corpus of anti-authoritarian socialist literature tinged with environmental ethos that were spot-on way before being “green” was a trendy thing. When he saw Sanders, he gave him a chance but quickly came to see him as an opportunist and showboat, writing an article called SOCIALISM IN ONE CITY? THE BERNIE SANDERS PARADOX: WHEN SOCIALISM GROWS OLD for the January 5, 1986 issue of Socialist Review magazine. Here’s a sample Sanders getting the Bookchin treatment:
To spoof him for his unadorned speech and macho manner is to ignore the fact that his notions of a “class analysis” are narrowly productivist and would embarrass a Lenin, not to mention a Marx…The tragedy is that Sanders did not live out his life between 1870 and 1940, and the paradox that faces him is: why does a constellation of ideas that seemed so rebellious fifty years ago appear to be so conservative today?
For the rest of his life, Bookchin would propose what he alternatively called ‘post-scarcity anarchism’ and ‘communalism’, a system of direct democratic governance that could be implemented in real time for Burlington. In reply, Sanders dismissed him as a kook.
When asked in 1988 on his cable access TV show about his thoughts regarding the non-violent civil disobedience campaign of Palestinians, the First Intifada, overseen by the Soviet-backed and socialist-leaning Palestine Liberation Organization, he was more emphatic about Arab responsibility than anything else. In the clip, he does condemn a scene of brutality that had been caught on camera, but he does it in a way where it would seem that this type of thing was an exceptional case of soldiers getting out of hand as opposed to an example of continuous and systemic brutalization. When confronted about Israel’s siege of Gaza last year, he tried to claim that Hamas was somehow aligned with ISIS (they aren’t), ergo killing children is fine.
As for this idea of ‘Scandinavian social democracy’, let’s be serious. Scandinavia has a military budget that is far smaller than ours, hence the reason that they can fund healthcare and free college studies. But even then, they are not all that great. Scandinavia, like the rest of Western Europe, is in the midst of a refugee immigration deluge caused by American adventures in the Levant and North Africa. As a result, a right wing movement that is arguably more racist than ours, if that is possible, has found a resurgence among the voters.
By aligning with the Democrats, Sanders is giving tacit approval to the very party that launched 1918 First Red Scare, overseen by Woodrow Wilson, as well as the 1947 Red Scare, begun by Harry Truman. This is the same Democratic Party that jailed Socialist Party Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs (allegedly Bernie’s hero), red-baited the living daylights out of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign in 1948, revoked Paul Robeson’s passport in 1950, gave final allowance for the Bay of Pigs invasion, and brought American terror to Korea and Vietnam. Expropriate the expropriators or cash in, what’s a socialist to do?
One of the polemics that ended up being one of Murray Bookchin’s best was titled LISTEN MARXIST!, written in 1969. Bookchin had been involved in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and saw way before anyone else that the independent spirit of the counterculture was going to fizzle out, that the glory days of Paris 1968 were flashes in the pan and the New Left was selling its soul to a type of Marxist dogmatism that can only called one thing, a cult. Bookchin was involved in revolutionary politics because he wanted to talk about socialism as a living, breathing, modern system of emancipatory liberation politics. Instead, he saw his comrades falling into a morass of Stalinist, Trotskyist, and Maoist locker room scuffles.
That is exactly my feeling about the whole Bernie Sanders thing. I am far too jaded by the Democratic Party to fall into formation and join in the chorus line. Now, if Bernie Sanders was doing something intellectually stimulating, like issuing an anthology of his favorite socialist writings as a sort of AUDACITY OF HOPE with a little more punch, and trying to have a conversation about socialism, that would be respectable. I would be on board and a full-time volunteer for a Quixotic campaign where, knowing full well he is going to lose, Bernie encouraged letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend so to foster a national dialogue about Marxism, the Industrial Workers of the World, Leninism, and other varieties of social democracy. But instead all we get is a personality cult. “Bernie marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.!” “Bernie called Alan Greenspan out! ” “Chairman Sanders says fight self!” “Marshall Sanders purged our ranks of the Trotskyite wreckers!” Oh please.
This is not a political campaign, it is a corralling action for Hillary in the form of a faux-leftist folk music concert. The Democrats needed a distraction to keep the masses in line because they know that people are not feeling inclined by destiny to vote for Hilary in the same way they felt proud to vote for the first black president. They understand very well that people are sick to death of the Clintons. They also know they look like complete hypocrites for essentially installing a dynasty after agitating against the exact same thing with the Bush family. So who do they throw into the ring but Lincoln Chaffee to shore up the right and Bernie Sanders to pull in the left.
Personally, I have remained somewhat hopeful for Jim Webb , who very well could at some point pull a Hail Mary and steal the show in the last minute. A populist, moderate Southern governor sneaking in under the radar and stealing the race from the establishment Democrat, where have I heard of that before? Oh, right, that’s what happened in 1992 with Bill Clinton!
I do have a wisp of sympathy for those disillusioned Sanders supporters, honestly, I was a very religious Catholic and parting ways with Mother Church had its harsh moments. But here’s the rub, American electoral politics at the national level are simply far too corrupt to affect real change. We have not had a legitimate election probably since Richard Nixon put in the fix in 1968. By the time Ronald Reagan came around, everything was stage managed. Obama, for all his achievements, was less of a political scientist and more of a rock star, and that primary contest in 2008 against Hillary Clinton was closer to American Idol than American democracy.
If you want to see real change in our world, you need to do it the old-fashioned way, by working in collaboration with others to create structures that might be able to stand in for the corrupt old ways of the world, you can’t affect change from the voting booth, FaceBook, or the internet. This is about solidarity and forging cross-cultural alliances.
Perhaps one place to begin would be with the #BlackLivesMatter folks. They have just unveiled a platform with a series of tenable, real policy solutions to curb police violence. And the perfect group to promote that platform are the progressives now flocked around Bernie Sanders, they have the resources, the finances, and the sense of morality that can help BLM flourish.
Only then, united as one, could perhaps a real revolutionary movement come about to change things. But that would require something akin to rewriting the American Constitution itself.
A version of this previously appeared on RIFuture.org.