To my fellow left/liberal/progressive/socialists in the USA,
I know that a number of you are #FeelingTheBern right about now. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be enough penicillin to go around. Big Politica wants to keep you on the placebo, but maybe . . . if I engineer these memes juuust right . . . we can find a cure.
Even amongst those of you who only have first to second degree Berns, there is a certain reticence to let criticisms fall too harshly upon the charred ears of the third-degreeers, for fear of being read as “attacking”, “admonishing”, or pooh-poohing this oh so promising development. (Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example.) But truly I tell you, the time has come to stop the coddling and recognize the Bernie Sanders campaign for what it is: a fraud and a mockery of the word socialism.
The electoral successes of the Sanders campaign in many of the 2016 primaries and caucuses reflect an underlying trend towards a more radicalized “unconventional” way of thinking which, for the most part, is catching on independently of whether or not “The Left” as such is directly involved in it. However, would-be avant-garde leftists do no favors, neither to themselves nor to the masses, by sowing more illusions of hope and change in the Democratic Party, or by diluting our own revolutionary message.
In a political contest where the most prominent competitors from both the Democratic and Republican parties have clamored to proudly announce that they’ve received endorsements from public figures acknowledged by mainstream media to be implicated in a devastating genocide, it’s not hard for Sanders fans to play the “lesser evil” card. But what we are witnessing now is a nesting of lesser evilisms. While the old “lesser evilist” argument used to go that a person ought to hold her nose and vote for the Democrats so as to keep out the diabolical Republicans (or, in another variation on lesser evilism, vote for the capitalist Green Party as a part of a transitional program towards the breaking of the two-party system and the eventual building of a mass socialist party of the working class), a significant gradation has occurred over the course of the 2016 presidential primaries season; many a socialist now wonders whether she should join the Democratic Party and lend her support to Hillary Clinton’s acclaimed “democratic socialist” challenger. There are presumably two principal factors which contribute to the emergence of a Left preference towards Sanders: a perceived ideological proximity between him and the Left and the large size of the Democratic Party he is running in [cue feelings of shame and inadequacy over sectarian irrelevance].
The typical argument of the first to second degree Bern victims goes something like this (my emphasis):
I’m not suggesting people don’t vote for Bernie (or that they do). Personally, I like him as far as potential candidates in the two major parties go—which is to say I could stomach voting for him. No question, in the absence of an actual political revolution a Sanders’ presidency is welcome in my book. But I won’t delude myself into believing it would represent anything approaching a political revolution. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to admonish those who are “Feeling the Bern.” I mean to challenge them to ruminate on what a political revolution might really look like and the sacrifices it will require of us. And, if they still want one, to stop waiting for the presidential election and start fighting now.
Or like this:
[…] instead of attacking Sanders campaign as a fraud or not “real socialism,” we want to reach out to the grassroots supporters of the Sanders campaign and let them know that we, like them, want real change. We want to emphasize that socialism is much better than capitalism and use the space to have meaningful, friendly and persuasive discussions about what socialism is and how it can work.
This discourse reflects the marginal position of The American Left™ in the U.S. political scene, one that teeters precariously on the verge of absence. Anxious not to be seen as irrelevant pooh-poohers, they worry that to express too strongly disagreement with Bernie Sanders and his supporters, or too little enthusiasm for the emergence of “political revolution” as a demand in mainstream political discourse, would result only in them being pushed further into the extreme political peripheries. These directives to avoid the stigmata of being an “admonisher” or an “unfriendly” fellow amount to a conspiracy of silence.
First, Sanders’ campaign mantra — “Ready for Political Revolution” is worth examining more closely, as it is very telling as to the nature of what’s going on here. This carefully worded slogan is a dog whistle to the capitalist class. It says, “That socialism talk? Just a lil shameless posturing. I’m not really going to encourage anyone to make all your modes of production are belong to us!”
To understand why this is, just ask yourself: Why is the Bernie Sanders revolution qualified with the adjective “political”? Look up the definition of the term “political revolution” and you will begin to understand. The Marxist Internet Archive’s Encyclopedia of Marxism says:
A political revolution is the forcible overthrow of the ruling political caste by a mass movement which does not aim to overthrow the underlying relations of production or smash the state. The term is used particularly in relation to the Soviet Union, and was the policy of the Trotskyist movement from 1933. The political revolution was to throw out the Stalinist bureaucracy and restore proletarian democracy.
Political revolution is often contrasted with social revolution. For example, the same encyclopedia mentions the following in this entry on Thermidor:
The French Revolution was one of history’s greatest social revolutions, along with the English Revolution of 1640-49, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 – social in that the mass of the population participated in the revolution, changing the whole social system, rather than a political revolution which merely changed the governing edifice.
So from these facts we can gather the following similarities and differences between political and social revolution, illustrated in the form of a nifty Venn diagram:
With reference to the Soviet Union, the call for “political revolution” was issued with the understanding that the socialist revolution of 1917 in Russia brought with it significant social progress, gains which were worth defending in the face of counterrevolution (such as democratic, public control of industry, increased human rights for women, ethnic and sexual minorities, and the destruction of an oppressive state), even in the face of a Stalinist bureaucratic caste-gradually-turned-state-capitalist-class which by the 1920s had begun to move towards authoritarianism and restoration of capitalism. The idea of “political revolution” was that this restoration, which wasn’t completely and symbolically finalized until 1991, could have been prevented without necessarily smashing the proletarian state born of the October Revolution. It was the idea that the Soviet experiment had been promising, great even, in its early years, and was still promising, because so long as the state retained some proletarian aspect in principal, in the face of de facto bureaucratic mismanagement, this de jure element could be reinvigorated.
When Bernie Sanders says he’s down with political revolution, he’s implicitly stating that he’s not down with social revolution. The former seeks to preserve the economic structures and the apparatuses of class rule already in place by installing a new political regime which can better manage what is not a fundamentally flawed system, while the latter aims to overthrow these and replace them with something else. In this sense these revolution types (political and social) are opposites; one is to save the system, the other is to destroy it. You demand a political revolution when the economic set up is okay, but mismanaged or poorly managed. You call for a social revolution when the system is rotten at its core. Many second to third degree Bern victims are quite explicit about the fact that they endorse the Sanders “political revolution” precisely because they see this historic juncture as one of the last moments at which capitalism might be saved “for the many, [and] not the few”. At least some Bernie backers are honest though; historian Bernard Weisberger urges the so-called “democratic socialist” to drop the “socialist” label and call himself something slightly more accurate: a social democrat. Sanders himself meanwhile offers entirely nonsensical visions of socialism:
I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal. I believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping jobs and profits overseas.
In Sanders’ statement above, it is made clear that the “political revolution” he envisions is not meant to challenge the class structure inherent in U.S. capitalism, but merely make it more efficient. “The middle class and the working families [read: lower class]”, by virtue of being signifiers for entities which exist relative to one another in a class hierarchy which continues to exist in Sanders’ vision of socialism, will continue to be subordinated to the ruling upper class. Sanders also makes it explicitly apparent that he favors private ownership of the means of production, which is the very definition of capitalism. In topsy-turvy Sandersland, socialism is capitalism and capitalism is socialism: “providing welfare for corporations, huge tax breaks for the very rich, or trade policies which boost corporate profits as workers lose their jobs” is “socialism for the rich”. Nevermind the fact that Sanders, in decrying the outsourcing which transfers wealth and jobs abroad and pandering to “Buy American”-style economic nationalism in the same breath, is himself advocating socialism for the rich. Indeed, in an interview in the summer of 2015 with Vox’s Ezra Klein, Sanders argued forcefully in favor of violating a vast array of human rights of the global poor (e.g., rights to freedom of movement and freedom from discrimination, to free choice of employment, to equal pay for equal work), positing that Fortress America’s borders must continue to be in large part closed to them (the world’s poor) in order to maintain its higher standard of living, because an influx of Global South migrants would, according to Sanders, “make everybody in America poorer.”
Sanders’ painting of his own campaign as some kind of an antithesis or even a panacea to the forces of anti-immigrant bigotry being mobilized by Donald Trump falls even flatter on its face when, in addition to Bernie’s rejection of open borders as a matter of nationalist principle (“you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that” — in other words, Bernie doesn’t think any country in the world is guided by Marxian concepts, so America shouldn’t be either [so much for American exceptionalism]), one considers the fact that, even if Sanders were to be elected and honor the promise he made on Univision “not to deport immigrants who don’t have a criminal record”, this would only cover a minority of so-called “undocumented immigrants”: those who were financially well off and qualified enough to be granted a visa before coming to the USA. The majority of the undocumented population, wherein its most vulnerable segment can be found, are those who, having no hope to be granted a visa because they are among those “kinds of people” who people like Bernie Sanders believes will “work for $2 or $3 an hour” and “make everybody in America poorer”, choose to commit the criminal offense of “improper entry” into the United States. Sanders offers no real solutions, as his call for the conservation of controlled borders, which are really closed borders to some and open borders to others, has zero foresight: there would still be huge numbers of “improper entrants” under any scheme to keep the global poor out of America in order to maintain a higher concentration of wealth there, and given Sanders’ statement on an open borders policy amounting to “doing away with the nation state”, the odds of Sanders decriminalizing improper entry are quite slim.
When the concept of “political revolution” is applied and called for in the context of the early 21st century United States of America, it translates, in a very real sense, to “Make America Great Again.” Wanting to look to its own experience, this American Dream Socialism™ continually grasps for straws as it seeks desperately to render these two warring ideals, Americanism and socialism, compatible. Take for example one commentator (the above cited historian, Weisberger) who, seeking to make this “basic American idea” of socialism more palatable, identifies its origin in the “brotherly love” espoused by Reverend John Winthrop in 1630, a theocrat who just so happened to dabble in the slave trade and genocide. Sanders’ own attempts to Americanize socialism are equally cringeworthy. In a debate last November, vowing to keep rates of taxation on the ultra-wealthy lower than they were under Dwight D. Eisenhower, Sanders said, “I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower.” Needless to say, Eisenhower, president during the McCarthyite era, oversaw the most intense phase of the (Second) Red Scare, when socialists were subject to witch hunts, blacklisting, and even executions. To call such an administration “socialist” for any reason is truly a farce.
American Dream Socialism™ can’t seem to help but seek inspiration and legitimacy in these awful examples of genocidal, slave-owning, McCarthyite “socialism” because American Dream Socialism™ is essentially steeped in coloniality (the unified structure of control developed during the colonial period which persists in the aftermath of the dismantlement of most formal colonial administrations [See here and here]). Its Americanism is predicated not only upon the erasure and eradication of indigeneity, transforming vast swathes of Turtle Island into a postapocalyptic palimpsest, but also on the alienation and disconnection (of those whom it absorbs) from their own self histories, when it can bleach them in a flood of whiteness, burn them in the melting pot. This whiteness as disconnection was the basis of the doctrine of “American exceptionalism” (read: supremacism), which 19th century newspaperman John L. O’Sullivan described in 1839, anticipating the invention of the term “American Dream” by almost a century, when he wrote in “The Great Nation of Futurity” that the USA’s “disconnected position as regards any other nation” as well as regards “the past history of any [other nation], and still less with all antiquity” derived from the “American people having derived their origin from many other nations”. For O’Sullivan, the strength of this disconnect between Americans and the past was the linchpin which made America unique from all the other nations of the world; it was key to explaining why America stood out as the nation “of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement”. But what kind of progress did O’Sullivan envision? Manifest destiny (a term coined by O’Sullivan in 1845): the “progressive” expansion of imperial hegemony, the “progressive” expansion of chattel slavery. American Dream Socialism™ is Steinbeckian at its core in that it is riddled with contradictions, paradoxes: our “socialist” forefathers preach “brotherly love” and “universal enfranchisement” before proceeding to massacre, enslave and systematically deny human rights to the Other.
The coloniality of power which machinates behind paradoxical American Dream Socialism™ is on display in full force whenever Bernie “Military Option is Always a Possibility” Sanders is cajoled into speaking about America’s latest sub-human boogie man: “ISIL”. Despite his lamentations that he “[does] get very upset at people who are so prepared to send other people’s kids into […] war,” Sanders has consistently done exactly that which he bemoans by discursively dividing humanity according to national and religious differences, staking out all young people with U.S. citizenship as “his” / “ours” and delineating people from “Muslim countries [with] billionaire families” as “theirs”, and calling on “them” to “be aggressive”, “get their troops on the ground”, and “get their hands dirty”. Meanwhile, Sanders has no qualms about contributing to the slaughter and mayhem so long as American soldiers can do it from the comfort of air-conditioned rooms in North America, proclaiming in 2015, “we’ve got to continue air strikes.” And who could forget his love affair with drones?
But what does it matter if Sanders and his supporters popularize socialism with lazy and fallacious arguments like Franklin D. Roosevelt? Socialist! ; Denmark? Socialist! ; or “Do you like firefighters? […] That’s socialism!” ? Isn’t it a good thing that they’re at least exposing people to the word “socialism”? Isn’t it amazing how “the Sanders campaign and the work of its volunteers and supporters have made a major contribution to helping popularize socialism in this the center of world capitalism where the system’s thought police thought they had successfully snuffed out socialism once and for all.” ?
In a word, no. Not when their idea of socialism is wrong. Not when they’re sowing illusions and misinformation which might leave people deluded and alienated from truth for generations to come. If it wasn’t for so many influential people — public figures and leaders of social movements — who, over the course of the last 150 years, propagated so many wrong ideas about what socialism is and how to achieve it, there’s a decent chance that we would already be living in a genuinely socialist world system. So let’s not be afraid to “admonish” those who continue to get it wrong. Let’s nip these falsehoods in the bud once and for all. Moreover, let’s not break Godwin’s Law: probably the most infamous polity in world history, Nazi Germany, called itself socialist. Yet, it would be absurd to argue that Hitler did the Left a big favor by achieving popularity with the label “national socialist”. The Nazi misappropriation of the “socialist” label played to Great Depression sentiments of disenfranchisement in a way that is not so different from how we now see opportunistic populists attempt to contain renewed interest in anti-capitalism from both the left-wing and right-wing angles during this “Great Recession”.
Now you’re thinking, Okay, okay, so Bernie Sanders really is a phoney bologna and large parts of The Left™ are opportunistically riding a wave into the fold of the Democratic Party or at best committing themselves to a friendly, non-admonishing silence and watching from the sidelines as this happens, but what’s the alternative? What am I supposed to do… turn into a Jason Dumbruhe, disengage from the world around me, and construct in my mental geography an idealized bastion of revolutionary potential in the lands somewhere to the south or east?
No, absolutely not!
Let’s take a tip from the pages of Eugene V. Debs, that radical figure who Bernie Sanders has attempted to recuperate for his watered down, capitalist, immigrant scapegoating, warmongering American Dream Socialism™. Debs said in the year 1900, “It is infinitely better to vote for freedom and fail than to vote for slavery and succeed.” Now, all the viable candidates for the next President of the United States are obviously scumbags. The best thing you can do, when it comes to actually voting, is cast a protest vote for a candidate who has literally no possibility of winning, maybe because they are under 35 years old, or born in Nicaragua, or only on the ballot of a number of states whose electoral votes add up to less than 270. Whatever the case may be, American presidential elections are really nothing more than a pretext for whatever ultra left-wing sects in existence near you to use the masses’ quadrennially mildly piqued interest in political matters as an occasion to preach at us. Do your part by listening to them and in turn forcing your opinions on other people in your school, workplace, or community, and also of course don’t forget to participate in direct actions for radical social justice causes like you should do independently of the election season. Furthermore, as you prepare to “throw away your vote”, keep in mind that it is better to cast that protest vote for a Marxist candidate than for politically confused ones such as Vermin Supreme (who’s probably about as much of an “anarchist” as Bernie Sanders is a “socialist”) because the ruling class is probably more freaked out by principled anti-capitalist opposition than by harmless jokes.
You can also hasten the social revolution by popularizing and participating in the movement for 21st century proletarian literature, also known as PoMoProletLit or pomoproletlit, which this blog is dedicated to. Find examples of pomoproletlit in the following texts: Raving Radicals Bathed in Blax ; “The Como-Contra Affair” ; “Meatpacker Jack” ; and “The Globalized Future”.
Daniel K. Buntovnik