Putting Away Childish Things: A Rejoinder on “The Sanders Paradox”

When CounterPunch published my essay “The Sanders Paradox: A Brief for Bernie” two weeks ago, I was hoping that it would trigger constructive, spirited discussion and debate on the left about the Sanders candidacy. With some 1,400 Facebook shares from CounterPunch, and some 5,000 more ensuing from reprints in In These Times and Truthdig (including some 800 comments on the Truthdig reprint as of this writing) it has more than met that goal. That’s the good news.

The bad news is Bruce Lesnick’s CounterPunch response, an unsavory mashup of dogma, cliché, and hypocrisy, wherein the author grandly pontificates about “principles” while blithely shredding basic principles of journalistic ethics. I would normally decline to elevate such dross with a rejoinder, but a refutation affords me a welcome opportunity to clarify some of the key issues I raised in my original essay and, further on, to feature some prominent independent left voices on why they find the Sanders campaign so encouraging—hence I divide the proceedings into two sections: “Contra Lesnick” and “Pro Sanders.”

Contra Lesnick

Quotations from Lesnick’s essay appear in italics at the beginning of each sub-section:

[Kaufman] rushes to deride those whose principled opposition to the Democratic Party he views as a ‘mindless ideological reflex.’” This is the most dismaying of Lesnick’s many journalistic atrocities. Appallingly, Lesnick omits the pivotal not that precedes this phrase he quotes from me; here is the complete original sentence: “This prohibition [against supporting Democrats] 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.” (emphasis added).

It would be hard to dredge up a more scurrilous example of dishonest elision contrived to make it appear that someone has written the reverse of what he actually said; this is a journalistic capital crime that would lead to automatic rejection by nearly all publications and a banning of the author from any future consideration; unfortunately, it escaped the notice of CounterPunch’s normally astute editors, so into print it went. The rest of Resnick’s assault-by-keyboard is riddled with similar grotesqueries. I will document just the most egregious below—covering them all would require all the bandwidth allotted to a week’s worth of CounterPunch.

“‘The perfect is the enemy of the good.’. . . Kaufman doesn’t utter the horrid maxim explicitly, but he thoroughly embraces its essence.”—Never stated or implied by me anywhere in my essay. Lesnick admits that I don’t actually state this anywhere (“Kaufman doesn’t utter the horrid maxim explicitly, . . .”); nevertheless he tries to prop us this absurd lie with the deceitful mangling of my actual words cited just above. In fact, in my essay I am at pains to emphasize that the Democratic Party is not less evil than the Republican Party: “. . . the national Democratic Party is as much a subsidiary of the corporate class as the GOP,” I emphatically note, and add that even past left primary challenges within that party did not merit support from radicals: “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.”

My point is that there is something distinctive about the Sanders candidacy—in contrast to mainstream Democrats or even past left primary challengers: “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?” (emphasis added). Lesnick unaccountably ignores these clear words and instead has me “embracing” a conventional lesser-evilist liberal view that I have never held, do not even hint at, and that I expressly denounce in my essay—hence yet another trampling of journalistic ethics. Lesnick evidently cannot understand that there might be grounds for supporting Sander that do not fit snugly into the procrustean bed of his conventional preconceptions—they just don’t register in his dogma-encrusted faculties.

But there’s more, alas. Lesnick compounds dishonesty with obtuseness: the nub of my argument here has nothing to do with degrees of “goodness” or “perfection” among candidates, but with degrees of advancing mass consciousness around progressive issues as the essential prerequisite of major social change—and my conclusion is that the Sanders campaign, for now, is a major catalyst for this evolving consciousness in a way that a tiny third-party candidacy could not be—and that given the planetary emergencies bearing down on us, we can’t afford to sit primly on our hands and await a spotless leftist cure-all while the planet burns—we have to seize this opportunity to drag the vastly depoliticized, disengaged American populace off of square one while we can in the hope of spurring the beginnings of mass grassroots progressive movement that will outlive this election year. This key point, along with the rest of my arguments—which have nothing to do with conventional lesser-evilism or Democratic Party partisanship—evidently whizzed right over Lesnick’s head.

Any appeal to principles not to be surrendered must be seen, according to Kaufman, as seeking perfection in an imperfect world.”—Never stated or implied anywhere in my essay—and of course, no citation, since I never wrote anything remotely like that—another of Lesnick’s free-form fabrications. In fact, I repeatedly stated the opposite, as in this passage: “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). . . .” (emphasis in the original)

[Kaufman] implies that the left’s failure to exert mass influence today is solely attributable to its obsessive adherence to principle.”—Never stated or implied anywhere in my essay—another citation-free, creative-writing exercise by Lesnick that finds no correlate in anything I wrote. What I did argue was that the far left’s isolation is due to its inability to apply its principles in a tactically effective manner. Here is my actual argument: “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.” I make a similar point in the section on the antiwar movement: “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.” Lesnick omits these points and substitutes a fictional caricature that he falsely attributes to me.

In Kaufman’s view, a political campaign is all about the individual candidate; the party behind that candidate is secondary at best.”— Never stated or implied anywhere in my essay. And, once again, no citation to anything remotely approaching that argument or statement anywhere in the piece—another bizarre fabrication, another of Lesnick’s predigested clichés falsely attributed to me, another blow to journalistic ethics.

Yet Kaufman would have us believe one can simultaneously oppose and build the Democratic Party.”— Never stated or implied anywhere in my essay, with no citation, of course, since I never wrote anything like that. The Sanders campaign, I was at pains to point out—and as Sanders himself has pointed out (as quoted by me in my essay)—is about building mass grassroots political movement, with Democratic Party candidacy as the most effective expedient right now (I use this phrase in italics several times in my essay) for accomplishing this before a mass audience. That’s the whole point of calling it the Sanders Paradox—running a campaign in the Democratic Party in order to plant the seeds of progressive consciousness on a scale large enough to have the power to subvert the corporate power that runs both major parties. This is why it is a paradox: tactically using an opening in one major corporate party as an effective tool to denounce and weaken the corporatism that rules through both parties—in effect, to undermine, not build, the corporate Democratic Party—precisely the opposite of what Lesnick falsely attributes to me.

It is critically important to understand and embrace this paradox: tactically exploiting the mass outreach potential of the corporate Democratic Party to combat corporatism—a mind-blowing contradiction to the petty dogmatist, no doubt—but as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The Sanders campaign is functioning just fine—indeed, thriving—on just such a fruitful, creative contradiction; the sectarian abstentionists, who flee in panic from the complexities of real life, not so much.

. . . [Kaufman] 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.”—Never stated or implied anywhere in the essay—in fact, I clearly state the opposite, emphasizing the corporate servitude of the Democratic Party at the outset of my piece—see the opening paragraph of this rejoinder for the exact quotation. Once again, the key point—entirely missed and nowhere addressed by Lesnick—is about a tactic of using the Democratic Party as a vehicle of mass education in the absence of a mass social democratic party of the kinds that exist throughout Europe—in fact, the Sanders campaign is our only equivalent of those mass social democratic parties, our only chance to muster a significant audience for progressive ideas and solutions right now.

It’s just that they [radical supporters of Sanders] have replaced the principles of working class solidarity and telling the truth with the ‘principle’ of lesser-evil politics.”—Lesnick loves to trot out the word principle, but this serial trasher of journalistic ethics honors his vaunted “principles” more in the breach than in the observance. And savor the comic spectacle of this guy posturing as a champion of “telling the truth”—this from someone whose essay is a documentable tissue of lies, from beginning to end. One is reminded of Mary McCarthy’s tart assessment of the work of Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.”

The main problem is this: Lesnick is not competent to comment on my essay because he doesn’t understand it— he cannot grasp (or even worse, perhaps simply decides to ignore) the main arguments, which he fails to address anywhere in his tirade. Flummoxed by ideas that transcend his limited array of preconceptions, he simply skips over the unfamiliar or challenging (or they skip over him) and takes refuge in his cherished clichés, which he clatters off pell-mell, assigning the good-guy clichés to himself (“working-class principles,” etc.) and the bad-guy clichés to me (“lesser-evilism,” etc.)—although he is, of course, unable to quote these canards from my essay, because—duh—I didn’t write them: they are entirely his. Where he does bother to quote me, he does so misleadingly, merging deceptively mangled or truncated fragments with phrases and concepts of his own coinage, not mine, repeatedly missing or misstating points, caricaturing and distorting, and so on unto numbing cacophony. It’s all pretty much beyond belief, but there it is.

Pro Sanders

Now we can turn to a more edifying task: elaborating on some of the real reasons (as opposed to Lesnick’s trite caricatures) that many radicals are gravitating to Sanders candidacy—and you will find that they have nothing to do with conventional lesser-evilism, illusions about the Democrats, or sacrifice of principle. I have already made my own case in my previous CounterPunch piece, so I will cede the stage to various well-known figures on the independent radical left (and one not-well-known longshoreman) and allow them to explain why they are heartened by the Sanders campaign in spite of their longstanding antipathy to the Democratic Party as a tool of corporate rule. (Some of these statements come from personal interviews or email exchanges, others from previously published materials—the source for each is cited in the endnotes.)

Doug Henwood, editor/publisher of The Left Business Observer, contributing editor at The Nation magazine:

I don’t like the Democratic Party; it’s a structural obstacle to human progress. But Sanders is considerably better than nothing. His campaign is getting some good ideas around and provoking a lot of popular enthusiasm. That’s all to the good. I know his faults—I could make a list of them, but other people have already done that work for me. But the crowds say good things about the public mood, and maybe some longer-lasting organizing could come out of the campaign. I know Sanders won’t do it, but connections are being made. [1]

Philip Locker, member of Socialist Alternative, political director of Re-Elect Kshama Sawant, co-founder of 15 Now:

Sanders’s inspiration of hundreds of thousands could lay the basis – and provide the experience – for many people to leave the orbit of the Democratic Party (emphasis added). Socialists can play a key role in this process by intervening in a skillful but determined way. By boldly intervening in the Sanders campaign – supporting its call for a determined fight against big business while arguing for independent politics – we can most effectively advance the project of independent politics under the current circumstances. [2]

Adolph Reed, Jr., professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania:

[M]ost Americans . . . are unable to find jobs with decent wages, benefits, and security at the same time as the shrinking public sector limits their ability to access affordable housing, healthcare, and education. It is precisely this rapidly growing inequality, or what Bernie Sanders has referred to as “the great moral issue of our time,” that his campaign for President seeks to address. . . . As more Americans have found out who Bernie Sanders is, and have begun to understand what he stands for, turnouts at his rallies have soared along with his poll numbers. His campaign platform is nothing short of a political revolution, . . . including a truly universal healthcare, a minimum wage of $15, expanded rights for workers, free tuition at public universities, and reducing the income gap between the rich and poor. . . . The great promise of the Sanders campaign is that it not only presents such an alternative but also provides a vehicle for building the movement necessary to make it reality.[3]

Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor of Jacobin magazine:

In an era of economic stagnation, frustrations that were once muted can boil over into outright antipathy. . . . [S]een as an opportunity for movement building, Sanders’s candidacy could strengthen the Left in the long run. The tensions among Democrats are serious and raise the possibility for the realignment of progressive forces on a totally different basis. This is a different project than the attempts of Michael Harrington (and others) to turn the Democrats into a more traditional social democratic party by pushing it leftward. Our goal must be to transcend the Democratic Party entirely (emphasis added). It’s far from a failsafe plan, but in this moment the best bet for the Left in the electoral arena is to support both independent political campaigns and insurgent primary runs by socialists and other radicals. Having Sanders openly defend socialism, and contest the New Democrat record before a national audience, is a baby step in the right direction. [4]

Carl Dahlgren, retired longshoreman:

William—Your article defending the Bernie Sanders campaign and exposure of the ultraleft element was excellent. If Lenin were alive today, he would have written something similar. For the record, I am a retired longshoreman, a proud “son” of Harry Bridges. I am also the child of poor farmers who were deep in the politics of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, so I drank politics with my mother’s milk. My first political act was to get up in my first grade class to denounce Ezra Taft Benson, Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture, because, I told my class, “My dad don’t like Benson.” That was in 1954. My second act was to chase my girlfriend off the farm because she expressed support for Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson in 1956. Now the working class is on the move for the first time in seventy-five years, yet the phony far left believes that the workers cannot move without their “leadership.” [5]

Trotsky’s shrewd takedown of the sectarian mentality, though published seventy-seven years ago, could have been written yesterday about the Sanders contras:

[Sectarians] remain indifferent to the inner struggle within reformist organizations – as if one could win the masses without intervening in their daily strife! [6] Sectarians are capable of differentiating between but two colors: red and black. So as not to tempt themselves, they simplify reality. . . . These sterile politicians generally have no need of a bridge in the form of transitional demands because they do not intend to cross over to the other shore. They simply dawdle in one place, satisfying themselves with a repetition of the same meager abstractions. Political events are for them an occasion for comment but not for action.

Lenin wrote about the same ultraleft obstructionism in the early days of the Russian Revolution—he called it “an infantile disorder.” Infantile indeed—like children, certain far-left pontificators are lost in their private dreamworld of stark reds and blacks, of clean polarities and heroic resolutions, stubbornly insulated from the grimy real world of grays and halftones, of swarming strife, complexity, and perversity.

It is time—long past time—to put away the childish things of the sectarian left and come face to face with our grim prospects and frail hopes—which means, for now, nurturing the precious seeds of renewal being strewn far and wide by the Sanders campaign. It is the only practicable way for us, at this moment, in this country, to place a meaningful bet on our future—if we still have one.


[1] Private Facebook interview, September 15, 2015.

[2] Email interview, September 15, 2015.

[3] Adolph Reed, Jr., Michael Francis, and Steve Striffler, “Hurricane Katrina and Bernie Sanders: From Neoliberal Disaster to ‘Political Revolution,’” August 29, 2015, available at https://berniesanders.com/hurricane-katrina-and-bernie-sanders-from-neoliberal-disaster-to-political-revolution/.

[4] Bhaskar Sunkara, “Bernie for President?” Jacobin magazine, May 1, 2015, available at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/bernie-sanders-president-vermont-socialist/.

[5] Private email, sent September 15, 2015. Pseudonym used at sender’s request.

[6] And, as I noted above, in the absence of a mass social democratic party in the United States, Sanders’s presidential campaign (in contradistinction to the mainstream corporate Democratic Party) is our only mass “reformist” organization.

William Kaufman is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. He can be reached at kman484@earthlink.net.