Sanders Gets Burned


Scott Jay
August 12, 2015

It turns out, there are people more radical than Bernie Sanders in the United States.

This obvious fact has managed to rock the left-liberal political world in the days since two Black women took over the stage of the Vermont socialist running for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. The accusations that these women must be shills for Hillary Clinton or were not “officially” representing Black Lives Matter came with stunning speed, much of it with a strong tinge of racism.

Among the most disgusting outbursts were people like Doug Henwood, the left-wing economist, who went on a series of rants on his Facebook page. The comments on his page, some his own, were filled with conspiracy theories and barely concealed racist bilge, questioning the very legitimacy of these women who could not possibly have a good reason for doing such a thing to good old Bernie. Apparently, when Black people are getting gunned down in the street by the police, they have to get the proper credentials and permission before they make their voices heard. In one particularly vile Facebook post, Henwood even raised the specter of COINTELPRO dividing white and Black activists with actions like this. There are so many levels of cluelessness in raising this issue that it could take up an essay of its own. Little did he realize, as we will see below, that there already is a sharp divide and this disruption only exposed it.

On the other end of the spectrum–the reasonable, non-racist end–is Kshama Sawant, the most prominent revolutionary in the United States who shared the stage with Sanders. She has endorsed him, in spite of his Democratic Party affiliation, as have several far-left groups who would usually argue against working for the second party of US capitalism. The thinking behind this maneuver, and it is nothing more than a maneuver, is that the people flocking to Sanders and his “socialist” label are more important than Sanders himself and may in fact form the basis of a broader fightback. The exact same argument was made around the Barack Obama campaign in 2008, not to mention numerous campaigns before that, including the campaigns of Dennis Kucinich and Jesse Jackson, all of which led directly into the dead end of the Democratic Party.

The truth is, Sanders’ campaign and his supporters are no threat to the status quo whatsoever, nor will they be, no matter how proudly they call themselves socialists. On the other hand, there is an entire category of working-class militants who do not proclaim the socialist label and yet have been rebelling around the country, who are a threat to the status quo and who are treated as such.

The gulf between Sanders’ supporters and Black militancy was exposed by the disruption of Sanders’ speech and that in and of itself made the action worthwhile. Those who wonder what the purpose of the action was do not seem to realize that their own discomfort was probably part of the goal. In spite of the hand-wringing and confusion of many white Leftists, it is right to protest Bernie Sanders and any Democratic Party politician, no matter how many adoring white progressives line up behind him. After all, this is a man who voted to support Israel’s most recent siege of Gaza and for the extradition of Black revolutionary Assata Shakur from Cuba and for Bill Clinton’s Omnibus Crime Bill which expanded the death penalty and pumped billions into the prison system. In other words, the man who claims to have fought for civil rights for 50 years actually has a horrible record on race.

Many socialists see Sanders’ audience as their own potential audience, and that is part of the problem. When the Black activists stormed the stage, some of Sanders’ white progressive supporters booed and chanted “All Lives Matter” and “Bernie Matters.” These two groups, Black militants and Sanders supporters, are mutually exclusive, and the mistake of the Left for many years has been to prioritize the battle of ideas over actual battles. Seeing these white progressives who are drawn to socialism as their own base of support, some Leftists become confused and outraged themselves, fearing that such a “divisive” action will forestall some impending popular front because irresponsible radicals want to ruin it.

There needs to be an analysis and critique of the Democratic Party, but rather than seeing the Sanders campaign as an historic opportunity to have out this debate, we should realize that it is just another blip on the hamster wheel of symbolic challenges to the system that go nowhere. It can be safely ignored in favor of real organizing. There are real examples of working-class resistance happening around the country and they are typically far from Sanders and his supporters.

White people for Bernie

According to a recent article in the New York Times, “As many as 100,000 people attended house parties for Bernie Sanders,” an impressive feat for an open socialist. It almost seems like the “Change you can believe in” campaign of Barack Obama in 2008, but with one major difference. “The pattern of Mr. Sanders’s support,” argues the Times, “resembles Mr. Obama’s support from 2008, but with nearly no support from the black voters who decided that election in Mr. Obama’s favor.”

For example, on the south side of Chicago, “Mr. Obama won 80 percent of the vote in 2012. There, just 10 people were registered for a Sanders event.”

The article continues:

While more than a thousand people showed up to Sanders events in Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., there were equally populated Southern and nonwhite areas where there were no Sanders events at all. His top 15 congressional districts, each with at least 750 registered attendees, were all in Oregon, Washington, California — or Vermont. Next came Boulder, Colo.

Interest in Sanders’ campaign comes overwhelmingly from white people in white liberal enclaves. They are interested in electoral politics now, they were interested in electoral politics ten years ago, and they will be interested in electoral politics ten years hence. It is not a gateway to militant activism, it is merely a gateway to more electoral campaigning with essentially the same politics, because this is the field of political activity that they are accustomed to based on their social background.

People who want to campaign for Bernie Sanders, who show up for one of his house parties, take materials to distribute to their friends and argue with people to vote for Sanders can be relied upon to do just that, though not necessarily much more. If socialism is about the self emancipation of the working class, then the Sanders campaign has nothing to do with socialism.

The problem is not that Sanders does not loudly proclaim that he supports the dictatorship of the proletariat. Frankly, if he did that, it would change very little. The problem is that the activity of his campaign has virtually nothing to do with the self-organization of the working class and has nothing to do with challenging the status quo. Nobody is threatened by his campaign, least of all Hillary Clinton, whom Sanders will support after he loses the primary. He has said so himself. Pretending that is not going to happen is dishonest and delusional. Additionally, almost none of the campaign activity will lend itself toward militant struggles against capitalism in the future. Distributing materials to white liberals in Portland or Berkeley is simply not going to empower the working class to fight in its own interest one bit. Even if it is for a socialist candidate.

This will probably seem like sectarian nit-picking to some, so let’s clarify the problem. It is not that Sanders is not “radical” enough or does not use the right revolutionary phraseology. That is completely irrelevant to this discussion. The problem is that the activity of his campaign will do nothing to lay the basis for broader fightbacks by working-class people against capitalism. There is nothing about the activity of the campaign or the people involved that prepares people to organize in a meaningful way, other than having more meetings and distributing more materials.

There are often numerous moments of symbolic resistance to capitalism that seem to point the way toward a broader fightback, but they never do. The problem is not that they have the right or wrong politics, but the wrong activity. They can proclaim to be as radical or as socialist as they want to be, but that is meaningless until they take actual steps toward resistance against neoliberalism or state violence. The moments that point to a broader fightback are the ones that actually encompass a fightback in the first place.

Communicating ideas to a broad audience is nice but has very little impact on actual struggle. Occupy Wall Street did not have an impact because people mic-checked or talked about income inequality but because it encouraged people to occupy public spaces in direct opposition to their local, often Democratic Party-controlled, political leadership. A one day march, or even a series of marches, with exactly the same or even more radical politics would hardly have had the impact that it had. In that vein, no matter how socialist or pro-Sanders anybody claims to be, it has very little relationship to what role they will play in actual moments of resistance.

Ferguson feels the burn

On the other hand, we have just lived through–and are hopefully continuing to live through–a national struggle against racist policing of African-Americans that often finds them dead at the hands of racist cops. This has led to extraordinary scenes of class warfare, including the burning down of a drug store in Ferguson, Missouri, and a group of Black youths throwing rocks at the police in Baltimore. This is just a sample of what has happened in these and other cities.

It is not clear that any of these people who carried out these acts would call themselves socialist. They probably would not. However, it is pretty clear, based on the New York Times article and the historic fact that working-class Blacks are typically less engaged in electoral politics than other groups, that almost none of these people are interested in the Bernie Sanders campaign. They probably haven’t even heard of him. And yet they are confronting state power directly, building working class organizations to defend themselves against police violence–many of which are probably temporary but some are not. In Oakland, where I live, which has been through similar upheavals since the police killing of Oscar Grant, there are several examples of working-class Blacks, as well as Latinos and others, collectively engaged in either political organizations or in community projects, and many of them would identify capitalism as their enemy.

And this leads to the fundamental problem of the debate around Sanders, which is, why would we consider Sanders supporters such an important “audience” for left-wing ideas while not being nearly so engaged in the developing militant activities and organizations of Black people?

There is no doubt widespread support on the Left for the Black Lives Matter movement, even though Sanders’s support for it is more equivocal. Some will say we can be engaged with both communities. That would be nice if it were true, but in my experience, socialists who say they are going to engage with both populations generally use that as an excuse to only engage one, and we can guess which one. To pretend otherwise is to minimize the difficulty of the problem and the uphill battle the Left still faces in building a base in working-class communities.

For an example of this differing level of engagement, most socialist groups have published articles in their newspapers and web sites on the topic of “What do we say about Bernie Sanders?” or “How should socialists relate to the Bernie Sanders campaign?” However, I am not aware of any recent articles from these groups on topics such as “Should socialists burn down drugstores?” or “What is the best way to throw rocks at the police?” or, perhaps more practically, “What do you do when you and your friends are arrested in a riot?”

It may seem silly to pose these hypotheticals, until we remember that there are actual working-class militants who have directly dealt with these questions over the past year and while the Left has marched in solidarity, it has little to no practical relationship to these more militant activities. And yet these are the very actions that have put the police and their political supporters on their heels in cities around the country, and have resulted in the indictments and firings of several police officers. This is an historic change and the people who courageously carried out these activities are the future revolutionaries of the United States, whether ornot they ever call themselves socialists.

There are several cases now where people on the far-left have said something like “I am against the Democratic Party, but I will engage with Sanders’ supporters in his campaign in order to work in solidarity with these activists.” However, I do not believe any of these Leftist has said “I am against burning down buildings, but I am going to help burn down this building in order to work in solidarity with these activists.” Leftists who tactically choose not to engage in arson will not hear any argument from me, the point is that these are not the sort of questions that are even being confronted by the Left at all, though they are being confronted in actual struggles. Meanwhile, the question of Bernie Sanders and his supporters is given the utmost importance.

This, in a nutshell, is the picture of a Left which has not been central to working class resistance and has little strategy for changing that moving forward. The approach of the Left of finding people who are interested in socialist ideas, then talking to them about whether that means the Democratic Party, or Sweden, or the Soviet Union, or the Soviet Union until 1927, is the approach which has led us to this situation, and which is being reproduced in the over-concern for Sanders’ audience. This approach is a dead end, because the best fighters in the class struggle are not the people who think you can elect a socialist into the Oval Office, nor is it the people who think you need a revolutionary party to organize the working class against capitalism. Rather, the best fighters in the class struggle are simply the people who are actually carrying out the class struggle right now.

Discussions around the Bernie Sanders campaign are in many ways a refuge from dealing with these difficult problems of really-existing radical activity. In reality, the Left could completely ignore the Bernie Sanders campaign over the next year and focus entirely on doing solidarity work and building organizational support for working-class militants who are taking direct action against state terror, and it would be much better off for it. It would be a far more fruitful use of political and organizational energy, and would lay the basis for actual militant struggles down the road. Some might lament that they would miss so many opportunities by ignoring the Sanders campaign, while ironically failing to see the actual opportunities for working-class resistance that are being missed at this very moment.

I am excited to see what the mini-rebellions against the police will produce in the years to come and what sort of organizational forms will grow out of them. I have little faith that Bernie Sanders supporters will be involved in or responsible for any of this. They will probably join various solidarity marches from time to time, and that’s great, I hope they do, but that is really not sufficient. Otherwise, most of them will wait for the next Sanders/Kucinich/etc. campaign in 2020 or 2024, at which point we will have this discussion all over again.

You do not need a crystal ball to foresee this, you merely need to look at what people are doing right now in order to appreciate what they are likely to do in the future.

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