Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Look At The Challenges Facing The Sanders Movement

Clinton supporters are shocked---shocked!---that some Sanders supporters in Nevada object to false promises and a closed process. This brings to mind an old Woody Guthrie song about a demonstration at the White House for jobs in the 1930s:

Twaddle, the President's voice did ring,
This is the strangest thing
That I have seen in my 53 years of life.
But the chances are
That before he's 54
He'll see many stranger things
Out on the lawn.

We should set the record straight right away and refer readers to two previous posts here and here where I talk about my position on Sanders and the Sanders movement.

We have said previously that the Sanders movement attracts mainly white working-class, "lower-middle-class" and young people to its ranks. The dominant points of attraction are fears of precariousness and a fight for democratic values. There is a movement behind Sanders and around these points of attraction and the two don't always match up in equal measure. The Sanders movement is therefore reminiscent of the Jackson campaigns, the McCarthy campaign and the Henry Wallace campaign of the 1940s. We have seen in these movements that the "lower-middle-class" people can be weak or indecisive and that young people lack context and experience, but they are also among the core forces necessary to win real and positive social change in the US.

For some time now I have been posing the following questions to Clinton supporters and have yet to receive answers from anyone in that camp:

1. What is Sanders saying about Clinton that Obama didn't when he was running against her?
2. What concessions has Clinton made in her program to Sanders supporters?
3. What concessions do you think that she should make?
4. What concessions will the Democratic party establishment make to the Sanders movement? What concessions do you think they should make?
5. Do you support the superdelegate system on principle, or because of the momentum that it gives your candidate?
6. If Sanders and his movement are really dead in the water, why the continuing attacks by the Clinton camp?

These questions seem easy enough to answer, but so far we have only seen attacks which lack substance. Last night, with the Sanders win here in Oregon and the near-win in Kentucky, the Clinton supporters who I know were already poised to go on the offensive, and they focused particularly on the video clips from Nevada circulating through Facebook and charges that Sanders supporters are at least potentially violent and given to making threats. It is not an exaggeration to say that they are intent on charging that the Sanders movement is a cross-state criminal conspiracy running on threats. This is the kind of discourse which keeps Facebook going, I suppose.

There are real questions here, of course. For instance: how do we know that those people in Nevada were really Bernie supporters, that they weren't deliberately provoked or don't have legitimate complaints? In light of the set-up on Sanders in Seattle, it is indeed possible that this was another set-up. And have you wondered why the footage shows certain people and actions up close but not the context of what happened, as if cameras were ready to go? Meanwhile, even NPR seemed to say yesterday that the Sanders folks had a legitimate beef.

Some folks in Clinton's camp aren't happy with the Sanders response. I turn to the point that we aren't happy with how Clinton responded to her husband after his "predator" comment or how she has responded to questions about her roles in the Mideast and Latin America or how she has trumpeted her once having been a Goldwater Girl or her being okay with Kissinger.

But let's say that these folks in Nevada were all Sanders supporters and let's say that this was an over-reaction to the smarmy "you know, those are the rules" comments by the chairperson. And let's say that the Democratic establishment bore no responsibility for deescalating and had every right to call in the cops on the largely youthful crowd. Let's get past all of those hurdles that a "progressive" person should stumble over for a minute. I'm still caught asking myself if these are the working-class supporters of Sanders or the lower-middle-class people and youth who lack political experience and who may well peel away as the convention and November gets closer. As I look at the video clips I think that those folks fall into the latter category.

Why does it matter? Because class matters. And because the kind of Democratic establishment provocation we saw in Nevada may be a feature of politics as the convention draws closer. The young people, the politically inexperienced and the petty-bourgeois folks may fall for such provocations. The heart of the Clinton campaign is with the petty-bourgeoisie, not the working class, so the "disease" of provocation and reaction may spread.

Long before there were the fabled "Bernie Bros" there were the folks in the HRC campaign who took every social movement and working people for granted, and they let you know it with their elitism and "pragmatism." The HRC campaign---as distinct from the Sanders movement---has been all about killing dreams since Day One.

Nothing explains away or forgives misogyny, and it doesn't help anyone to have a fight over who was wrong first. People on the left were the first to call out misogyny and racism in this campaign season, and did so at a time when the HRC campaign seemed okay with both. We're living with a dilemma: we can have campaigns from above, as with Clinton, and not risk engagement, or we can have movements from below, as with Sanders, and risk engagement and heat and passion. I've never seen the former work for the greater good, or even win real victories. The latter may not win, and makes error after error, but eventually contributes to the democratic spirit---think of the Civil Rights movement, for instance. And as a great Russian leader said, "There are no lost strikes"---and the same is true with movements for social change.

I'm also reminding myself that a wise Chinese guy once said that "A revolution is not a tea party." What do people expect?

The HRC pundits can spare themselves and us the pretended shock that they learned from Claude Rains in Casablanca. They know what politics is at its core, and had the shoe been on the other foot they would be taking a different position. Boxer, HRC & Co. are professional politicians and the heat should not be new to them---and if they can't take the heat, its time for them to move on. I'm more focused on the idea that Clinton supporters are deliberately naive right now about how consent is manufactured in America and that they have bought into the idea of a "post-racial" America which allows them to replace "race" with gender and justify the excesses of the system and then tell us that it is fair so long as their candidate is in the lead,

Again, the Nevada "incident" may well be contrived, but it is certainly true that people will react negatively when they think that their rights are being taken away. The chanting and the supposedly broken furniture are small prices to pay for that. If the people protesting were drunk or young or from the ranks of the impatient and offended petty-bourgeoisie, then lets name that as the problem and blame youthful inexperience, alcohol or class position and not Sanders. He objected to the events, made his objections known and others in his campaign have done the same. Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for Bill and Hillary to apologize for that "predator" remark and the associated racism---and I expect to be waiting for a long time.

I suspect that this talk of threats by Clinton supporters is being made in order to set a stage for provocations at the Democratic party convention. Perhaps it also distracts us from looking at real violence which has occurred. and two words come to mind in this regard---Berta Caceres. What role did Clinton have in her demise?

I return to a point which sometimes seems to be getting drowned out: life will go on after the convention and after November. If Trump wins, the left should be at the core of an anti-fascist resistance. If HRC wins, the need is for us to be in the streets pushing her. And if Sanders wins, we need to be defending the program, fighting the opposition and projecting forward and positive movement. This is a moment for building a united front, not for calling people names. Everyone on our side of the fence---and I include HRC supporters here---needs to think a few steps ahead.

The system is indeed rigged, there are operatives and there are hacks. Clinton's supporters seem to be in sudden denial here. But this rigged system is less of a reason for discouragement and pessimism and more of an argument for talking about revolution, even if that talk only gets to the point of Sanders' limited program.

On the other hand, we have some loud voices on the left predicting that Sanders will fold, support Clinton and attempt to lead people into the Democratic party. My response is---so what? No left working-class party exists and the logical place for the most engaged and politically conscious Sanders supporters to go is to Democratic Socialists of America, Progressive Democrats of America, Freedom Road, the Kentucky Workers League or groups like ours. New political formations will come into existence regardless of what happens with Sanders precisely because the Sanders movement has changed the quality and quantity of forces at work for social change. Sanders' support for the Verizon strikers and the Burgerville workers is almost unprecedented, but the forces that got him to that point are even more important and are among the key groups in motion and they will outlast Sanders and Clinton. The sectarian voices on the left have an opportunity to either learn, engage and organize at the base or to remain on the margins.

There are more states in play for Sanders to win or lose, there is an on-going fight over the super delegates, there is a Democratic party convention and an election to get through---and there is an uptick in labor fighting back and in youth revolt. This means that there is no reason for Sanders to concede. There was a time when "democratic socialists" and social-democrats and left-populists took office during economic downturns and managed capitalist crises and enforced austerity, but this is not that moment. The question or matter of building a real workers' party independent of the Democrats, but not independent of the core forces supporting social change who are now in the Democratic party, is always on the agenda, but how we approach this question changes over time. For now that approach exists in relation to the Sanders movement. 

The immediate challenges for the Sanders movement seem to be winning more primaries, developing some internal discipline and overcoming spontaneity. These are all doable. The possibility that the Democratic convention will see some kind of provocation and implosion requires that spontaneity be shelved and that there be more focus on fighting the ultra-right and long-term organizing. Spontaneity is a particular weakness under these circumstances, and it is probably unavoidable for now, but it is still a weakness that will be exploited. This is the price we pay for not having a viable working-class left party in the US.

The Democratic convention is important for us because it is a forum or arena for winning a better program, pushing back against the superdelegate system and opening the door to better candidates and new political formations. We would be stupid to let this moment pass without supporting left and progressive participation at several levels. There is the opportunity to learn and to engage---and to win some serious battles---which will not return to us soon. It would also be stupid for us to fold now either because the Clinton supporters repeat Margaret Thatcher's line and tell us that there is no alternative or because of the logic of the ultra-left.

That said, it is hard for me to imagine Sanders winning the nomination, and even more difficult for me to imagine him winning the presidency. I say this not because of the superdelegate count or because I doubt that there is mass support for Sanders, but precisely because I believe that there is mass support for him. The structure and intentionality of the system naturally works against change. The Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and so many others would have lived longer and done more were there not a serious investment in repression in the US. I'm not saying that I expect Sanders to be assassinated. A better comparison might be Marcus Garvey, who also led a mass movement for empowerment and who was brought down by surreptitious means, or the International Workers Order, which was forced out of business on a weak technicality of the law as it posed a challenge to the red scare. A political movement which threatens the system will face repression or, more simply, the sharp exploitation of its weaknesses. If anything good has come out of Nevada, it is the realization that a serious conflict or contradiction is unfolding.

I can imagine supporting a strategy and tactics which builds a united front against the ultra-right and voting for Clinton under those circumstances, and I can imagine a strategy and tactics which tells people to forgo voting for Clinton in the so-called "safe" states, and I can imagine a strategy and tactics which rejects voting for Clinton but for every other progressive candidate and building a political approach from that point which takes masses of people into the streets as part of an organizing strategy. I cannot imagine a valid left strategy which sends people to the Greens or to another marginal party. I also cannot imagine orienting totally around Sanders even as we acknowledge that the Sanders movement is our touchstone at this point. I can imagine how direct engagement with the Sanders movement can change almost everything and learning in 6 months what it might have taken us 6 years to learn without that movement.

Still, I approach this with certain biases and hopes:

1. Dare to struggle and dare to win---it is better to attempt change and realize dreams than not to.

2. No movement for better conditions ever really loses---something of the old appears in every new thing and the experience of fighting back creates new conditions and new forces.

3. Mao was correct in saying "If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself.... If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience."

4. Finally, to borrow from the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the slogan "Be bad, be bad, be bad, be bad! Can't get nothin' if you ain't bad!" applies in some great measure to our present moment.

1 comment:

  1. Difficult to answer all those questions.
    Why am I a socialist who wants to vote for Clinton. I do not think Clinton is an evil person. Clinton is intelligent and can be influence by a blue congress. She is not an extremist, and when the chips are down, moderates will vote for her. I have seen this country move to the right after the Civil Rights legislation. We saw a number of leftists run after Bobby Kennedy's assassination but they did not do that well and we have landed too many conservatives. So far, the moderate strategy has worked and it would have worked better if the "punishing non-voters" would ahve helped to keep congress. As long as the intrasigents play their non voting game, we have no other option but remain moderate and to compromise.