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Bernie Sanders and the Movement That Might Have Been

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

As I gird my loins for a renewed ideological struggle against Bernie Sanders’s bid to become the Democratic Party’s nominee to run against Donald Trump, I thought it advisable to get up to speed by reading Jeffrey St. Clair’s “Bernie & The Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution” that was published in 2016. Since Sanders will be running the same kind of campaign he ran in 2016, I hoped to find material that might change the minds of millennials about Democratic Party politics. Back in 1968, when I was a zealous young Trotskyite, I used to love selling the party’s “Truth Kits” about Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. I may have changed my mind about the usefulness of Trotskyism but there will always be a need for holding Democratic Party politicians up for scrutiny even when it is someone like Bernie Sanders, who helped the SWP get on the ballot in Vermont in 1980 when he was about to become a third-party Mayor of Burlington. God knows that I would be a strong supporter if he ran as an independent next year. I even wrote a speech that he could have used if he had done so in 2016.

Leaving aside the usefulness of “Bernie & The Sandernistas” as an armory of arguments about supporting Democratic Party candidates, even ones that call themselves socialists, St. Clair’s book is great fun to read. With the death of Hunter Thompson in 2005 and Alexander Cockburn in 2012, there are very few journalists—maybe none—who have the ability to go for the jugular. For those on the Marxist left, especially the now disbanded ISO, there was always the tendency to soften the blows against Sanders so as not to alienate a potential recruit. Since St. Clair has little interest in becoming a cult leader, he lets the chips fall where they may.

Wasting no time, St. Clair reduces the Sanders mystique in a few choice words on page six: “At a personal level, Sanders remains opaque, inscrutable. Politically, he sticks rigidly to his old script, even long after the point when his performances have entered into reruns.” Exactly. It is the same speech over and over about the “billionaire class” but never getting to the heart of the matter: capitalism.

The Sandernistas were “not social outcasts, not the homeless, the marginalized and the downtrodden.” They “were raised in the suburbs of Madison and Denver on the white bread virtues of the old American Dream”. If socialism was supposed to be the political weapon of the wretched of the earth, it made one wonder how so much enthusiasm could have been mustered for a candidate who turned a blind eye to their well-being when it came to nuclear waste. In 1998, Sanders defended the rectitude of foisting Vermont’s nuclear waste on Sierra Blanca, Texas, a poor, largely Chicano town. As a defender of the Green New Deal, the position he took that year points to the Achilles Heel of the GND, namely its inability to analyze the disconnect between a European nation that is a model of alternative energy sources and the wealth that is extracted from the Third World in order to make such a costly investment. To have a solution to the climate change crisis, it will take a socialism that has replaced capitalism as the dominant mode of production globally. Making statements in favor of such a change is not likely to keep the seat warm for you on MSNBC.

Unlike 2016, before the DSA had become such a big deal, there are now arguments in favor of electing Sanders because it will hasten the socialist transformation of the USA. For example, Meagan Day told Jacobin readers that “there’s a class war raging, and Sanders is the only one running who sees it, and who wants to build working-class forces to fight back.” Reading this, you’d get the idea that Sanders was a latter-day version of Eugene V. Debs whose popularity with working-class voters owed a lot to his leadership of the militant American Railway Union (ARU), one of the nation’s first industrial unions that organized a wildcat strike over pay cuts in the summer of 1894.

By contrast, Sanders was not one to mobilize his supporters in mass actions that might have confirmed Meagan Day’s insistence that he was some kind of class warrior. St. Clair writes:

What might a real movement have done? If Sanders could turn 30,000 people out for a pep rally in Washington Square Park, why couldn’t he have had a flash mob demonstration mustering half that many fervent supporters to shut down Goldman Sachs for a day? If he could lure 20,000 Hipsters to the Rose Garden in Portland, why couldn’t he turn out 10,000 Sandernistas to bolster the picket lines of striking Verizon workers? If Sanders could draw 15,000 people in Austin, Texas, why couldn’t his movement bring 5,000 people to Huntsville to protest executions at the Texas death house? If Sanders could draw 18,000 people to a rally in Las Vegas, why couldn’t he just as easily have led them in a protest at nearby Creech Air Force Base, the center of operations for US predator drones? Strike that. Sanders supports Obama’s killer drone program.

Yes, that’s right. Sanders favors the use of drones against “terrorists”. To make sure that everybody understood he was only for socialist drones, he told Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press”: “Look, a drone is a weapon. When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive. When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children, you know what? … It’s terrible.” To start with, collateral damage is the middle name of Predator Drones. To think that innocent people won’t be killed is a self-delusion. But beyond that, how does the USA get away with using them as an unlicensed weapon unlike any other nation in the world. Back in 1968, candidates like Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy declared that the USA should not be the policeman of the world. What a sad commentary on today’s “socialists” when their idol supports the Pentagon’s primary weapon in the “war on terror”.

Although “Bernie & The Sandernistas” is primarily about the “socialist” candidate, there are keen insights about other Democrats, including Hillary Clinton who Sanders paid obeisance to in order to maintain his membership in good standing in the oldest, still-functioning capitalist party in the world. But, Elizabeth Warren, who is gaining on Sanders as the choice of “pwogwessives”, gets skewered as well. Part three of the book is a journal that St. Clair kept on the Democratic Party convention, a painful exercise that should have required combat pay from the CounterPunch treasury.

This entry takes note of Warren’s chumminess with the kind of politicians she now rails against:

Hillary’s new BFF, Elizabeth Warren, refused to say whether Tim Kaine was the “right pick” for the Democratic Party. Instead Warren mumbled that Kaine “is a good man, he has a good heart, and he has a lot of experiences. I think he is going to be a valuable member of the team for Secretary Clinton and a valuable member of the team when she is president of the United States.”

This speaks volumes about where Warren stands politically. If Clinton was a rotten candidate, her VP running-mate was even worse as St. Clair points out in his online reporting on Kaine’s speech to the convention: “Get the mezcal out, here comes Citizen Kaine. Will he embrace his inner neoliberal? Or make a false confession about his sudden epiphanies on trade, bank regulation, the death penalty, abortion, and collective bargaining rights?”

The mezcal is a reference to the Meal, Ready to Eat (MRE) goods that helped him as a class war reporter: “So it was left to me to enter the virtual combat zone solo, armed only with my Macintosh, three bottles of El Buho Mezcal and a fanny-pack of edibles infused with Oregon’s newly legalized agricultural product.”

Suffice it to say that “Bernie & The Sandernistas” will make you laugh and make you cry. The laughs come at the expense of the rotten politicians who are making such a mess of the world that you might end up laughing just to keep from crying.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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