Just the other day, I was looking through the articles Kevin Coogan had written over the years. Kevin, a long-time commenter on my blog, died unexpectedly on February 27th and I was curious to review his take-downs of Lyndon LaRouche’s cult. A bit younger than me, Kevin was a former member and hoped to warn others about making the same mistake he made. I had the same missionary zeal when it came to the Socialist Workers Party. We both shared Ishmael’s need to repeat the verse from Job at the very end of Moby Dick: “and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
Using the nom de guerre Hylozoic Hedgehog to protect himself against LaRouche’s goons, Kevin wrote HOW IT ALL BEGAN: The Origins and History of the National Caucus of Labor Committees in New York and Philadelphia (1966-1971) in 2012. Browsing through the first chapter, I ran into a name that rang a bell:
Years later a future Labor Committee leader named Steve Fraser recalled the impact that LaRouche’s FUNY class [Free University of New York] had on him: “He [LaRouche] ranged over the widest imaginable intellectual landscape. . . . He would show how the tool-making capacity of monkeys was supposedly connected to the falling rate of profit. It was mind-boggling and thrilling. It also demanded a higher intellectual effort than I had ever faced, and a certain moral rigor . . . LaRouche challenged you existentially.”
Could that possibly be the same Steve Fraser, the well-known labor historian who has written for CounterPunch, The Nation, and other leftist magazines? Yes, it was. Born the same year as me, Fraser was a little bit like Zelig showing up at key moments of leftist history. But unlike Zelig, Fraser was a ground-breaker, pulling the left in various directions. An oral history interview at Columbia reveals his large footprints. As a red diaper baby, he was at home in the old left (Progressive Labor Party) as he was in the New Left SDS. At Columbia University, he was on the front lines with Mark Rudd, but unlike Rudd ended up in LaRouche’s caucus in SDS rather than the Weatherman. Deciding which path was more destructive, I will leave up to others.
This discovery brought me to his article The Uncharted Territory of Bernie Sanders and the Movement Behind Him that appeared on Jacobin the other day. I wonder now if publishing Fraser was done in the spirit of affirmative action for senior citizens since he is old enough to be the grandfather of most of the regulars there. In any case, I was grateful to see it since it appeared to be a cool appraisal of Bernie Sanders as opposed to most of the hero worship published there. Since I am trying to wrap my head around the future of the left following Sanders’s primary collapse, it occurred to me that Fraser’s article would be a good place to start.
Going against the grain of the Jacobin editorial board, Fraser states that “very little of what he proposes to do as president has much to do with socialism, at least not as it is conventionally understood.”
Fraser seems to be wrestling with the question of whether there is a mass movement behind his campaign. He starts by saying that if Bernie Sanders becomes president, he will do so not only as an outsider but as the leader of a mass movement. Three paragraphs later, however, he second-guesses himself. “Still, the characterization of the Sanders insurgency as a mass movement may yet be wishful thinking, or an optical illusion. It is occurring entirely within the electoral arena and has little to no organizational base outside of that arena.” Yes, there are union locals, immigrant rights groups, environmental activists, racial justice movements that function as auxiliaries. They are all for a political revolution. Still, it would be “a stretch” to describe them as a coherent mass movement.
Whether there is a mass movement behind it or not, Fraser is sure that the Sanders campaign is unique. He calls it poetry in motion and hails the way it summons “the enthusiasm of millions living in domestic exile, its electrifying appeal to the solidarity of strangers.”
In terms of electrifying appeal, you can undoubtedly describe Donald Trump’s rallies in the same terms. Yet, you have to wonder about the long-term viability of such a movement that has such a yawning gulf between a politician and his fan base, to use sports radio jargon. By contrast, Eugene V. Debs was a member of a political party that had deep roots in the working-class. My grandfather Louis Proyect was chairman of the Socialist Party in Woodridge, N.Y. He was also an official of the Workman’s Circle, a mutual aid society that provided life insurance, unemployment relief, healthcare, and social interaction to Jewish immigrants. There was an overlap between the Socialist Party, the Workman’s Circle and the Co-operatives in Woodridge that followed the Rochdale principles. Knitted together, they inspired PM reporter Croswell Bowen to describe Woodridge as a Utopia in the Catskills in 1947. In contrast to Sanders’s “electrifying appeal to the solidarity of strangers,” my grandfather Louis’s appeal was much more down to earth. On the plus side, it was far more solid.
Working people are atomized today. This condition weakens them in the face of an apocalyptic pandemic and a 1930s style Depression. There is a need to provide the kind of mutual aid and political base that existed not only in Woodridge but in working-class neighborhoods all around the country that flocked to a Eugene V. Debs rally. If you are intent, however, only on running in elections every two or four years, even if “electrifying,” the road to socialism is likely a dead-end.
Leaving aside the question of whether Sanders ever had the remotest possibility of becoming the president of the United States, Fraser proceeds to draw a contrast between FDR’s New Deal and how a President Sanders would operate. He demythologizes the New Deal by calling its “consolidated mass-consumption capitalism” as the solution to the Great Depression. Implicitly debunking Sanders’s speech about the New Deal being his idea of socialism, Fraser puts the Tennessee Valley Authority into context. It would draw impoverished regions into the orbit of modern capitalism and turn them into new markets for consumer durables and sites of new business enterprises. Yet, Fraser doesn’t see this as the fruition of a Bernie Sanders presidency. Instead, it is the sort of thing that a policy atelier run by Elizabeth Warren would dream up.
If Sanders had become president, he would be facing conditions different than those FDR faced. Unlike sections of the capitalist class and the middle-class do-gooders that saw the New Deal as refurbishing the system, he faces a business and financial world that has moved on, “sitting atop a system that can no longer afford the social wage that made it run.”
What makes Sanders less capable of carrying out ambitious reforms like the Green New Deal is the absence of powerful labor unions like the United Auto Workers that backed FDR. All he has is an appeal that resonates with the working poor around questions like Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, free college, et al. By stressing these goals in the name of the working-class, Sanders attempted to go over the heads of a sclerotic trade union bureaucracy and directly to the ranks. Unfortunately, the results in Michigan indicated that, despite supporting such goals, the workers still pulled the lever for someone committed to the status quo.
Fraser ends on an optimistic note, perhaps reflecting the possibility that he wrote the article before Biden leapfrogged Sanders. Unlike the typical Democratic Party liberal, including Warren, Sanders is beholden to nobody. His ability to raise campaign funds from small donors means that he does not have to compromise with Silicon Valley, Hollywood, or Wall Street billionaires who traditionally fund people like the Clintons, Obama, or Biden.
There is a gap in Fraser’s article. Despite his trenchant analysis of the New Deal and the unwillingness of any section of the ruling class to throw its weight behind Sanders as it did behind FDR, there’s no discussion of whether he or any other “democratic socialist” can use the Democratic Party as a tool for major reforms, even within the capitalist system.
Is it possible that he is focused more on the power of individuals in history than he is on the class relationships that shape history? Unlike the “progressives for Obama” in 2007, Fraser retained enough of his 1960s militancy to spot Obama’s false promises the minute that he began appointing Clintonian retreads to cabinet positions. Is the assumption that Sanders would only consider someone like Mark Weisbrot for a top economic post? Or Marjorie Cohn to the Supreme Court? That’s granting Sanders the courage it would require to effectively defy the wishes of his party that would likely view such nominations as proof that he was a Russian agent or something.
There was never any possibility of a Sanders victory in the first place. There was a contradiction embedded in his two candidacies that neither he nor his lieutenants ever came to terms with. While it was relatively easy to exploit the Democratic Party ballot in the way that Jacobin’s theoreticians deem so tactically adroit, there was a steep cost in making such a deal with the devil. You would get prime time attention in the debates, but you would also get the DNC and its friends in the media to use every opportunity to smear you as an anti-Semite, a supporter of Cuban repression, a friend of the NRA, and any other phony charge that they could cook up.
Fifty-two years ago, when Fraser and I were in LaRouche’s Labor Committee and the Socialist Workers Party respectively, we believed that we’d be living in a socialist republic in a couple of decades or so. The antiwar movement, campus revolts and black uprisings made us feel that revolutionary change was imminent. By the time Carter became president, American society had calmed down enough for most on the left to realize that we were far too optimistic.
He went on to get a Ph.D., which helped him get work as an editor and the authority he needed to write for The Nation and other magazines. I soldiered on as a Central America solidarity activist and, later on, as an unpaid gadfly at CounterPunch.
Ironically, after all these years, the revolutionary conditions that we expected in the 1980s and 90s just might be maturing in a way that we never predicted. The coronavirus pandemic and the meltdown of capitalism globally will raise the political temperature everywhere on the planet. Unlike any period in the past one hundred years or so, humanity faces grave consequences that will make the relatively peaceful conditions of the post-WWII period a dim memory.
The expectations that many had about a Sanders presidency as the opening stage of a gradual transition to full socialism were never realistic. The curtain set on that epic drama early this year. Not only has the play come to an end, but the theater is burning down all around us. Socialism will only come about when an armed and determined population forces its will upon a savage minority bent on preserving its privileges. That was as true of the Russian Revolution as it will be for the American revolution of the twenty-first century. Keep your powder dry, comrades. The day of reckoning is coming soon