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Critical Support for What? A Reply to William Kaufman on the Left and the Sanders Campaign

This summer has seen CounterPunch filled with back-and-forth arguments for and against the Sanders campaign. Mr. William Kaufman’s latest entry, as well as his original piece, provide much food for thought. However, I remain unconvinced for simple reasons that have nothing to do with so-called ‘infantile disorders’.

I feel Kaufman’s original piece and this recent one have both relied on a certain level of selective reading. I am by choice one who describes his politics as anarcho-syndicalist, which I feel has a more tenable chance of being achieved in this country than the parliamentary road. But I also heed the wisdom of Dr. Noam Chomsky, who has always balanced idealism with reality in his praxis. For example, to the chagrin of purists, he did come out in 2008 and urge swing state voters to cast a ballot for Obama rather than McCain but not to be deluded. This practicality has annoyed many an ultra-Leftist over the years, such as in the case of Chomsky’s response to the BDS organization. But he is correct on these points, one cannot put idealism ahead of reality. Chomsky will vote regularly in the municipal elections, especially on bond and referendum issues, but he does not place bets on individual horses. That is a reasonable stance.

What remains unreasonable about Mr. Kaufman’s argument is that he wants people to invest time and energy in a campaign that is wholly lacking in seriousness, as I said in my original piece about the Sanders spectacle some time ago. Since my first article, Sanders has expanded the material on his webpage, but just barely.

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His foreign policy page is still not very impressive, all he has are a few buzz-word phrases about Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine, but we are not seeing material that can be called substantial. We are not seeing mention on this page of military leaders that Sanders is meeting with. We have no concise discussion of the multi-year campaign of terror that we have launched upon Syria. We have no inkling about white papers or policy reports that he is using to guide his thought. In my original piece on Sanders, I compared his website to an archived version of the 2008 Obama campaign webpage generated by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. On September 12, 2007, Obama’s website  had an entire page related to Iraq alone that included a detailed plan of withdrawal.

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What Mr. Kaufman insists on supporting equals little more than sloganeering. I would hope it is clear to him I am not taking a moral or doctrinaire stance on the issues, I am pointing out the blatantly obvious. The Obama webpage comparison is now more appropriate than before because we are at the exact same moment in the Sanders campaign that we were with the archived Obama campaign website. In one of his essays, Mr. Kaufman makes the point that Lenin succeeded with the October Revolution because of his populism, writing

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.”

But at the same time, Lenin and Trotsky did have a well-developed plan of action for their foreign policy and were able to create contingency plans should the ideal, a worldwide socialist revolution, not come into play. Whether Trotsky acted on those contingency plans properly or if he took complete leave of his senses at the Brest-Litovsk treaty negotiations is another argument for another time, but the point is that the Bolsheviks were actually ready for real issues in the outside world. The reason their revolution succeeded was because Trotsky was able to persuade a large section of both the common soldiers and the officer’s corps that the Red Army under his command could be taken seriously. By contrast, the Sanders foreign policy page would not impress a child playing with toy soldiers. Following Mr. Kaufman’s lead with his Robert Crumb quote, perhaps a lyric by the Rolling Stones is fitting, ‘Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin”?

The reality is that I was ready for a legitimate Sanders campaign, corrupt and compromised as he is. I was seriously contemplating a critical support stance of either him or Elizabeth Warren last spring and wanted him to come out the winner, for a very left-wing reason. Sanders has a terrible record regarding the Palestinians, but at the same time, he is Jewish, so a Sanders presidency would have made it possible for him to buck the anti-Semitism accusations that are part and parcel of the Israeli reaction to every presidential effort on this issue. His current website stance regarding Israel-Palestine calls for a two-state solution but does not include the words ‘Jewish state’, an important nuance to consider. That was not an accident, it comes out of years of watching Israeli rejectionism. But he is refusing to be serious about this thing. Too bad, it would have been genuinely interesting to see the usual peace negotiations dynamic upended by a Jewish American president sitting across from Netanyahu. Would a President Sanders rely on the typical Oslo-derived norms of the ‘peace process’, which Dr. Norman Finkelstein has called in reality an ‘annexation process’, or would he tell the Israelis to knock it off and finally evacuate the illegal settlements while lifting the Gaza blockade, letting the Palestinians to take control of the West Bank and oust the quisling Fatah leadership so to install a real democratic order? We will never know, he does not seem to be interested in a serious bid for President. It is not like he would need to tip-toe around this one, he has all the bona fides to create a very interesting discussion here, one that would transcend the usual politically-correct hasbara and goyim genuflections. Instead, the silence is deafening.

A viable dialogue about socialism in this country needs to include an actual socialist agenda, not populist rhetoric and little else. In his original September 8 essay, Mr. Kaufman wrote “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.” Forgive me if I find this oddly reminiscent of when Glen Beck said Hitler was a socialist (for the billionth time, he was not, he was a fascist). This sort of cheap post-modernism went out of style years ago, or so I had hoped. Mr. Kaufman fills his pieces with quotes from Trotskyand Lenin, yet he seems to be selectively reading them also. Lenin wrote in 1908, after the failure of the 1905 revolution, the following of the Paris Commune:

[T]wo mistakes destroyed the fruits of the splendid victory. The proletariat stopped half-way: instead of setting about “expropriating the expropriators”, it allowed itself to be led astray by dreams of establishing a higher justice in the country united by a common national task; such institutions as the banks, for example, were not taken over, and Proudhonist theories about a “just exchange”, etc., still prevailed among the socialists. The second mistake was excessive magnanimity on the part of the proletariat: instead of destroying its enemies it sought to exert moral influence on them; it underestimated the significance of direct military operations in civil war, and instead of launching a resolute offensive against Versailles that would have crowned its victory in Paris, it tarried and gave the Versailles government time to gather the dark forces and prepare for the blood-soaked week of May.

The nationalization of the banks and socialization of the means of production are bare essentials of any real socialist program, regardless of ideological tendency. And I believe that Mr. Kaufman must concede that Sanders is gravitating nowhere near those discussion points. His bank reform positions are barely on the level of the New Deal and he does not even have the courage to call for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act.

Mr. Kaufman has a notion that the Sanders campaign bears some resemblance to those of Eugene V. Debs. Back then, Debs and socialists like him ran their campaigns as educational efforts, they knew they had no chance of being elected but that they would be able to fill the air with conversation about socialism for a while, perhaps pushing the other political candidates towards more progressive positions. While some could argue Sanders has done the latter, he has certainly not done the former. His recent denunciation of Hugo Chavez as a Communist dictator, as well as his constant efforts to define himself as a ‘DEMOCRATIC socialist’ as opposed to a Big Bad Commie Wolf, are not opening people up to a future dialogue about socialism after this campaign. This is the Bernie Sanders Show, a left-ish spectacle with the same level of intellectual stimulation as Trump.

What is more, Mr. Kaufman has contributed to this demonization of the Left! I will grant him certain elements in the wider landscape function like badly-managed evangelical churches and do not deserve to be called ‘groups’, let alone ‘political parties’. But in his original piece, he makes the very people he wants Sanders fans to talk with seem like weak, bitter, mean-spirited fools, if not outright fanatics. In any relationship, support and cooperation are a two-way street. You scratch my back and I will scratch yours, that is true of a marriage, a business, or politics. But with his opening paragraphs, Mr. Kaufman has both ripped the fingernails out of his caricature of the Left and simultaneously made the entirety sound like Freddy Krueger!

Mr. Kaufman’s piece is loaded with quotes and vitriol, yet light on strategic notes. He calls for some form of critical support yet fails to tell people how to do that. What is this strategy supposed to look like? In my mind, I would like to see Leftists outside Sanders events holding pickets urging the crowd to ask about Left concerns. For example, I have recently said that people need to begin conversations with the candidates about the Friedrichs v. CTA Supreme Court Case, which is intended to destroy our public sector labor unions. We also need to be having critical conversations with the candidates about Arctic drilling, the Syrian tragedy, and a sustainable energy power grid. I am so crazy that I might even vote for Sanders in the primary (is voting against Hillary as a guilty pleasure so sinful?), though I doubt my blue state of Rhode Island is going to move away from Clinton. If this is what Mr. Kaufman is suggesting, I am more than happy to read further suggestions. The neoliberal education behemoth has so badly educated the masses, they do not even know what socialism means anymore, so we need leaders like him.

As a final note, I would take issue with Mr. Kaufman’s disparaging remarks about the Green Party. That is a serious political campaign. Jill Stein knows she is not going to win this, but that is not the point. She is using her campaign in the Debsian fashion to begin a conversation about Green issues. Simultaneously, Greens are running for a variety of municipal and state offices across the country. Their goal is not to get a single candidate elected, it is to get a notable presence on the rolls so that they can have better opportunities in future elections. Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report wrote on May 6:

There was trans-partisan interest in a 50-state ballot access drive to put the Green Party’s Jill Stein on the presidential ballot for 2016 presidential race. Currently the law keeps Greens and others off the ballot in more than half the states. Precise details vary according to state law, but if a third party candidate after obtaining one-time ballot access receives about 2% of total votes, a new ballot line is created, granting ballot access to any potential candidate from school board to sheriff to US congress who wants to run as something other than a Republican or Democrat. That, many participants agreed, would be a significant puncture in the legal thicket that now protects Democrats against competition on the ballot from their left. But a nationwide trans-partisan ballot access campaign to create a national alternative to the two capitalist parties is something left activists must begin serious work a good 18 months before a November election, essentially right now.

I believe that strategy is much more praiseworthy than what Mr. Kaufman suggests of the Sanders campaign. Say what he will of Jill Stein, the fact is that she has done the work to create a grassroots movement. She has toured the country, given interviews, and worked to build coalitions.

As irony would have it, Sanders began his campaign just as I commenced a period of research for a historical novel I am planning to write on the Old Left. I have read several volumes so far on the old CPUSA and the variety of stances it took, from the ultra-Left (and ultra-insane, in the case of Weimar Germany) Third Period to the Popular Front. One of the books in this bibliography is a slim volume by the late Democratic Socialist Irving Howe called SOCIALISM IN AMERICA, published in 1970. The book is worth checking out for two chapters.

The first is a memoir-style account of the Norman Thomas-led Democratic Socialists in the Depression period, titled SOCIALISM IN THE THIRTIES. Howe presents us with a party that was working hard for years to build coalitions and stand on principles, as opposed to the Communists, who were following Stalin’s orders and made ideological pirouettes and backflips at a moment’s notice. Sadly, due to the fact the Communists could make a better show and his own tactical shortcomings, Thomas saw the party die a slow death. Howe pinpoints as a cause the New Deal itself, which took the entire platform of the Socialists out from underneath Thomas’s feet.

The following chapter is titled THE BRILLIANT MASQUERADE: A NOTE ON “BROWDERISM”, where Howe dissects the tactical strategy of the Popular Front Communists under Earl Browder. This is a valuable chapter because Howe acknowledges that the CPUSA did make huge inroads by turning away from doctrinaire Bolshevism and towards a populist rhetoric, epitomized by the slogan “Communism is the twentieth century Americanism”, while simultaneously the leadership of the party was still behaving in a way to appease Moscow rather than Americans. Howe concludes that, even though the CPUSA was hypocritical and corrupt as a party, they still can teach us lessons about public relations and mass-appeal. Howe dedicated this book to Michael Harrington, who wrote SOCIALISM: PAST AND FUTURE, a volume intended to convert the layman towards Democratic Socialist politics. He also left us a rather large anthology titled ESSENTIAL WORKS OF SOCIALISM. If Bernie Sanders were honest about Social Democratic politics, why not at least hint at the existence of this veritable corpus of material? Why not seriously begin the conversation about Democratic Socialism using Thomas, Howe, Harrington, and so many others in that canon rather than giving us THE ESSENTIAL BERNIE SANDERS AND HIS VISION FOR AMERICA by Jonathan Tasini, a would-be knock-off of Mao’s Little Red Book? Could it be perhaps because he is not serious? Sanders has not built a coalition. He has not created a viable network of alternative candidates. He has not worked to a common goal that is bigger than himself. Sanders is not comparing himself to Thomas or Debs and creating a notion in the public square regarding famous American socialists. Instead, he is furthering the laughable notion that FDR was a socialist! He has merely been a summertime spectacle, a rather bad drive-in movie lacking substance, principle, or even basic intellectual fodder.

 

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We need a conversation about socialism in this country, especially as we move closer to ecological catastrophe. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the only way through that misery will be under the auspices of some one-world government. Capital has permanently broken the earth, spiritually, morally, and physically. But Bernie Sanders, Mr. Kaufman, is not beginning that conversation, and neither are you.

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Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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