Another world was possible – for workers: The Georgian Experiment, 1918-1921

Click here to read the Georgian Version

The following is the text of a speech I delivered at the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia in Tbilisi on Wednesday, 2 November 2016.


Thank you to Irakli Petriashvili and the Georgian Trade Union Confederation for the invitation to speak here today. It is a great honour to be giving this talk here in the Georgian capital, which less than one hundred years ago was the capital of the world’s first democratic socialist republic.

Some of the Georgian trade unionists will know me as a fellow trade union activist, and the founding editor of LabourStart. LabourStart is the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. My work there reflects my life-long commitment to the labour movement.

I am here today because these are the final weeks of a decades-long research project of mine. I am now completing the writing of a book which will be published next year in Britain on the subject of the Georgian Democratic Republic of 1918-1921.

I have been fascinated by Georgia’s experiment in democratic socialism for many years. In my opinion, the experience of the Georgian people in those three years of independence is significant and should be studied throughout the world.

And this is because the Georgians were able to do what the Russian Bolsheviks could not: they created a humane, egalitarian society rooted in socialist values while maintaining a multi-party political democracy. They showed the world that the choices made by Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not the only ones possible, that another path could have been taken. Another world was possible, an alternative to totalitarian Communism, and Georgia was the proof of this.

The Second International sends a mission to Georgia

At the time, both during the three short years of Georgian independence and for several years thereafter, their experience was widely known. In 1920, the leaders of the Second International, an international confederation of social democratic parties, organised a delegation to come visit this country.

The members of that delegation represented the most important socialist and social democratic parties in Europe. Among them were leaders of the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party, the Belgian Socialists, and so on. They were household names at the time.

The delegation included men who went on to become prime ministers of their countries, James Ramsay MacDonald of the British Labour Party and Camille Huysmans, the Belgian Socialist.

Other British Labour leaders in the group were Tom Shaw and Ethel Snowden. Both were prominent figures in their party and in the Second International. Mrs Snowden had participated in a delegation to Soviet Russia the previous year and wrote a highly critical account of the Bolshevik regime.

The French socialists were represented by Pierre Renaudel, Adrien Marquet and Alfred Inghels. The other Belgians were Louis de Brouckère and Emile Vandervelde.

Perhaps the best known member of the delegation was Karl Kautsky, the great theoretician of social democracy, and the author of numerous books which popularized and explained Marxism to working people.

Kautsky was known as the “pope of Marxism” and it was precisely for this reason that he was hated by Lenin and Trotsky for his criticisms of their regime in Russia. Lenin referred to him as a “renegade” for his refusal to support the Bolshevik coup d’etat and the dictatorial regime which it produced.

Kautsky was part of this delegation but when they returned to western Europe, he chose to remain for several months in Georgia, and as a result, he got an in-depth view of what was taking place here. He was deeply impressed, though critical of some of the government’s policies.

Once the Red Army invaded in February 1921, crushing Georgia and causing the exile of the social democratic government, Kautsky and other socialist leaders wrote books, pamphlets and articles denouncing the Russian Communist aggression.

Kautsky’s short book was called Georgia: A Social Democratic Peasant Republic. Trotsky wrote a rebuttal, published in English as Between Red and White.

The exiled Georgian socialist leaders, with Noe Jordania at their head, were welcome guests at conferences and congresses of socialist parties across Europe. The Second International vigorously condemned the invasion.

But over time, the voices of protest died down. And gradually, over many years, people began to forget about the Georgian Democratic Republic.

As a result, when a presidential candidate in America like Bernie Sanders says that he is a democratic socialist, and is asked by the media to give an example of what a democratic socialist society might look like, he offers them Denmark, or mentions the kibbutz movement in Israel. A generation or two earlier, he might have said – the Georgian Democratic Republic.

Two different visions of socialism

Today I want to discuss some of the ways in which the Georgian vision of socialism differed radically from the Russian Bolshevik one.

These include political democracy, the nature of the socialist party, agrarian reform, the trade unions, the cooperative movement, the national question, and foreign policy.

Let’s start with political democracy, because it is here that the differences between Soviet Russia and the Georgian Democratic Republic are most stark.

From the moment the Bolsheviks seized power, overthrowing the Provisional Revolutionary Government, they had no intention of sharing power with any other political party. They were briefly compelled to share power with the Left Social Revolutionaries, but that didn’t last.

Lenin and his comrades preferred for the Bolsheviks to rule alone, and established a one party state that lasted for more than seven decades. They were quick to suppress not only the right-wing and centrist political parties, but their socialist opponents as well. The first Menshevik newspapers were closed soon after the Bolshevik coup, and before the end of 1917, the Cheka was established.

In Georgia, on the other hand, the Social Democrats under the leadership of Noe Jordania were committed to political democracy from day one. The multi-party system they established had room for a wide range of views from right to left. Several political parties competed in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, which the Social Democrats won by a landslide, with over 400,000 votes. Among the other parties competing for votes were the National Democrats, the Social Federalists and the Social Revolutionaries.

The only political party in Georgia to not enjoy complete freedom of action was the local branch of the Russian Bolshevik party. And the restrictions on their freedom were entirely due to their constant attempts to violently seize control of the Georgian state.

The Georgian Bolsheviks, who did even consider themselves to be a Georgian political party, but simply a branch of a Russian party, were in effect the agents of a foreign power. They were not simply the proponents of a different political point of view.

But even they were given complete freedom of action from 1920, once the Moscow regime had agreed to recognize Georgian independence and promised to stop undermining it. And this was in spite of the fact that on the very eve of that short-lived peace deal between Tbilisi and Moscow, the Georgian Bolsheviks had yet again made an attempt to seize power violently and arrest the existing government.

The nature of the socialist party

Which brings me to the question of the party. Because long before the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia or the Mensheviks in Georgia, they were already very different political parties.

One reason why the Bolsheviks had no problem with the single party state was because of how they interpreted the idea of a political party. To Lenin, parties represented the interests of social classes. The Bolsheviks, and the Bolsheviks alone, represented the vanguard of the industrial proletariat. They saw themselves very much as the elite party of a single class, even if the party did include intellectuals and some peasants.

The Georgian Social Democrats, however, had become a mass party of the entire Georgian people. Their party was forged in the great peasant struggles that culminated in the famous “Gurian Republic” of 1902-1906. At that time, the Social Democrats began to accept that not only industrial workers – of which there were not that many in Georgia – but also peasants, intellectuals and others could also be Social Democrats.

They were not unique in taking that view. David Ben Gurion, the labour Zionist leader who became the first Prime Minister of Israel, used the phrase “from class to nation” and argued that in national liberation movements like Zionism, the role of Social Democrats is to fight for the interests of the whole people, and their agenda was not limited to that of a single social class.

The agrarian question

The Georgian Social Democrats and the Russian Bolsheviks took very different approaches to the agrarian question.

During the period of “war Communism” in Russia, the Bolsheviks treated the peasants both as suppliers of essential goods and in particular food for the vanguard class, but also as enemies. For several years, the relationship between the peasants and the urban working class in Russia was poisoned by the hostility shown by the Bolshevik leadership to peasants. This only began to change with the adoption of the New Economic Policy in 1921. And even that only lasted a few years before Stalin unleashed the genocidal war against the peasants known as “forced collectivization”.

Meanwhile, in Georgia under Social Democratic rule, there was nothing like that hostility between workers and peasants. The Minister of Agriculture in the Georgian government, Noe Khomeriki, was himself a veteran of the Gurian rebellion. He and his comrades understood the peasant hunger for land. Even before Georgia declared its independence in May 1918, they pushed an agrarian reform law through the Transcaucasian parliament. But it was not until Georgia was fully independent that their ideas became reality.

Their agrarian programme included some state ownership of land, and the confiscation of lands owned by the tsar and church, but on the whole, their focus was on giving land to the peasants. And in this they were largely successful. There were some outbreaks of peasant unrest, usually tied to ethnic conflict. But on the whole the peasants who supported the Social Democrats when they first came to power continued to support them right up until the end.

And even beyond the end. When the Social Democrats made their final attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks in 1924, their greatest support came from the peasants in Guria – the same villages which had overthrown tsarist rule in 1902-1906.

Why Marxists opposed state ownership of the land

I should add that the agrarian policy of the Georgian Social Democrats, like that of their Menshevik comrades in Russia, was rooted in their Marxist interpretation of the nature of Russian society. They strongly believed that Russia was not a capitalist society, and not even a feudal one, but something that Marx characterised as “semi-Asiatic”.

In societies which Marx called “Oriental despotisms”, the land was owned by the state. Social classes and civil society were weak. The state was more powerful than society.

If one wanted to transform those societies into liberal democracies or later, socialist societies, one had to begin by taking control of the land away from the state.

As the great Russian Marxist theoretician Georgi Plekhanov warned, if socialists were to come to power in a country like Russia and put all the land in the hands of the state, they would be creating the basis for a modern and far more powerful version of a despotic regime. This turned out to be prophetic.

Under the Social Democrats in Georgia, the starvation of the cities by embittered peasants which characterized the period of war Communism in Russia never took place.

A decade later, it took the full power of the Russian Soviet state to subdue Georgian peasants when the horrors of collectivization were imposed on this country.

The urban proletariat

Let’s turn now from the peasants to the urban working class.

Today it is widely accepted that without free and independent trade unions, a society cannot truly be free. The right of workers to join and form trade unions is part of international law thanks to the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation.

In Soviet Russia, where the industrial proletariat was, in theory, the masters of their own state, free and independent trade unions were gradually crushed. Trotsky, who had successfully led the Red Army to victory in the civil war, strongly believed in the militarization of labour. He wanted to form highly disciplined “labour armies” which would work much as the Red Army did. And in his vision there was no place for trade unions other than as a transmission belt for instructions from the state and party leadership down to the workers.

This idea was quite an extreme one even for the Bolsheviks and was the subject of an extensive and prolonged debate within their party. In the end, Trotsky’s vision of a country free of self-organized workers, in which things like strikes could never take place, prevailed. It was not until the very late 1980s that workers in Russia were able to once again go on strike, or form independent trade unions.

In Social Democratic Georgia, it was a completely different situation. Unions which had only emerged in the country a decade or so earlier, began to thrive under the Social Democrats. They wielded considerable influence, including successfully pushing to for the recognition of their right to strike, and this became Article 38 of the Georgian Constitution.

They did have strikes, many of them, which were a constant source of tension with foreign occupiers such as the British, who could not fully understand how striking workers, red flags and even soviets – workers councils – were compatible with democracy.

But they were compatible, and the Georgian trade unions working together with their government were able to protect workers against cost of living increases, to ensure that basic foods were available to them at low cost, and so on. Because of their cooperation, the number of strikes began to diminish – not because, as in Soviet Russia they were illegal, but because they became unnecessary.

The cooperatives

Side by side with powerful and independent trade unions, Georgia under the Social Democratic government saw a real flourishing of the cooperative movement.

Cooperatives had come into existence in Georgia by 1867, fifty years before the revolution which toppled tsarism. Georgians read the works of the Frenchman Charles Fourier and Robert Owen, the pioneering British industrialist who is often seen as an founding father of the cooperative movement, and consumer cooperatives sprang up across the country. The Georgian cooperatives suffered severely during the first world war, but grew rapidly once Georgia became an independent state. There were both consumer and producer cooperatives, there were cooperative bookshops and restaurants and sausage factories, glass works, soap making plants, and much more. According to Kautsky, they were nearly all quite successful businesses. In the end a national cooperative bank was founded.

And while Marxists were often quite skeptical of the cooperative movement, even Kautsky was forced to admit that he was impressed.

In Soviet Russia, cooperatives also grew during the first years of Bolshevik rule, but as with trade unions, they could not be independent of the party and state. In Georgia, the cooperatives, like the trade unions and the political parties, were pillars of civil society. In Russia, they were just another arm of an increasingly powerful and centralised state.

The national question

If I am painting a picture of Georgia as a paradise, let me stop here, for that would not be accurate. Georgia under the Social Democrats suffered from many problems, including constant economic crises, and I want to focus on two of the more problematic areas of the history of independent Georgia.

The first of these is what Marxists always referred to as the “national question”.

The Georgian Social Democrats believed in the rights of ethnic minorities. Article 14 of the Georgian Constitution made this very clear:

“It is forbidden to bring any obstacle to the free social development, economic and cultural, of the ethnical minorities of Georgia, especially to the teaching in their mother language and the interior management of their own culture.”

Over the course of eight more articles, the Social Democrats laid out their vision of ethnic and linguistic minorities with full rights. In this they were not only acting in accordance with socialist principles, but with the zeitgeist of the post-war era, particularly US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Everyone, including Lenin and the Bolsheviks, now supported the rights of peoples to self-determination, and the rights of national minorities within multinational states.

But the multicultural paradise proposed by the Georgian Constitution was not to be as it clashed with a very different reality on the ground.

Within only a few months of declaring independence, Georgia found itself at war with Armenia. And the south western corner of the country declared independence, calling itself the “South Western Caucasian Republic”. The South Ossetian region became the focus of considerable unrest, due both to ethnic and class conflicts. And Abkhazia found itself both calling on Georgia to help it resist Russian aggression, but also at one point welcoming the very same Russians.

These disputes have led some historians to refer to a kind of “Georgian imperialism” but the reality is more complicated than that.

Take for example, the “South Western Caucasian Republic”. A close look at this revealed a government that was committed to full equality for all ethnic groups within its territory – which sounds very liberal – except for the Armenians. That gives a clue to what was really behind this separatist group, who turned out to be representatives of Turkey in the region. This eventually became quite clear and the British occupying forces eventually accepted that the Georgian government, and not the pro-Turkish, Armenian-hating separatists, deserved to control Batumi.

Or the example of Georgia’s territorial dispute with Armenia in 1918. On the surface, it can look like Georgia was behaving badly, but again a closer look reveals that the Armenians suffered from serious illusions about the nature of the post-war world. Having supported the Allies and suffered at the hands of the Turks, they imagined a much larger independent Armenia, and expected Britain and America to support them fully. This turned out not to be the case. The Georgian Social Democrats actually had a good track record as they sought ways to avert conflict with the Armenians.

The case of South Ossetia in particular is a troubling one. Of course the Russians took advantage, then as now, of problems in this region to provoke separatism, but the Georgian Social Democrats were not blameless and in their successful crushing of rebellions in this province engaged in activities that today (and also then) could be considered war crimes.

There was a certain ruthlessness to the way the commanders of the People’s Guard, a proletarian militia closely linked to the leadership of the Social Democratic Party, waged war in this region. And this was used against Georgia in Russian propaganda in the years after 1921.

A democratic foreign policy

In fact the main accusation made by the Soviet Russians, and expressed clearly in Trotsky’s most dishonest book, Between Red and White, concerned the foreign policy of the Georgian government.

The Georgian Democratic Republic was conceived during the First World War. The country was surrounded by hostile powers, primarily a resurgent Turkey and Russia. And it did not matter who ruled Russia, for both the Bolsheviks and the White Russians led by Denikin, rejected Georgia’s claim to independence.

Faced with an existential threat, the Georgian Social Democrats took a pragmatic view of how to defend the country by building alliances first with the Germans and then later with the British. They were attacked by the Bolsheviks for allowing German and British forces to occupy the country. But looking back a century later one has to concede that they probably had little choice.

Interestingly, of the two occupying armies, the Germans appeared to have been the better-behaved ones and they were missed when they left. The British did not cover themselves in glory when they occupied Georgia, were seen as arrogant, though their honour was saved the presence of Oliver Wardrop, a true friend of Georgia, who represented the British state.

The accusation that the Georgian Social Democrats were not neutral in the Russian Civil War, that they supported the Whites, was central to Trotsky’s argument. But it was almost certainly not true. The Social Democratic government was terrified of a Russian invasion and it didn’t matter whether that came from the Red Army of Denikin’s Volunteers. Their hostility to the Whites in the civil war was actually a source of tension with the British.

In 1919 when Denikin’s forces were moving on Georgia, the People’s Guard issued a proclamation that said:

“A new danger is felt today: the dark shadow of General Denikin’s forces overclouds Georgia . . . We will defend ourselves from the terrible power of reaction from the old ‘gendarmerie’ and from slavery . . . The sacred blood spilt by our comrades on the field of battle, in defence of freedom and democracy, compels us comrades, to unite ourselves and closely surrounding the red banner with arms in hand to join battle to the death with the forces of reaction advancing against revolutionary Georgia . . . Away with black reaction. Long live revolutionary democracy! Long live Socialism!”

That’s hardly the kind of proclamation you would expect if the Georgian Mensheviks were allied with Denikin against the Bolsheviks.

The Georgian Social Democrats took the pragmatic view that a tiny country with very limited resources cannot preserve its independence when surrounded by hostile states – unless it has friends. Georgia’s decision then to ally itself to Britain and to seek recognition from the Allied powers and the League of Nations prefigured Georgia’s current efforts to become a full member country of NATO and the European Union.

Those efforts in the end were not enough, and once the Russian civil war had ended, Stalin was able to throw the full might of the Red Army against the independent Georgian republic.

The end of the Georgian Democratic Republic

You know how the story ended. In only a few weeks, the Soviet Russian forces captured Tbilisi, forced the withdrawal of the Georgian government to Batumi and then its evacuation on Allied ships.

The Georgian Social Democrats were defeated, but they did not give up. They maintained a semi-legal existence for the first couple of years under Soviet rule, and eventually in August 1924 launched a rebellion which was swiftly crushed by the Red Army and the Cheka.

Though there was nothing left of the Social Democratic party, a young Chekist, Lavrenty Beria, made his name by the bloody suppression of their remnants in the years that followed. Thousands were killed.

In December 1930, the first prime minister of independent Georgia, Noe Ramishvili, was murdered by a Soviet agent in Paris. Nearly a decade had passed since the defeat of the Georgian Republic by the Russian Red Army, but Stalin still feared the possibility of a Social Democratic return to power.

In the many decades that followed, when Georgia was a province of a massive Soviet empire, the true history of this period could not be told or taught in this country. But it was also forgotten outside of Georgia, as Social Democratic parties moved on, and people gradually accepted the permanence of Soviet rule in this country.

Today, as we approach the 100th anniversary of Georgian independence, it is worth remembering that for three short years, there was a country here in the borderlands between Russia and Turkey, where a Social Democratic Party tried to create a new kind of society based on social justice and freedom.

It was an experiment in democratic socialism, and in many ways it was an impressive success.

When Ethel Snowden returned from her visit to Georgia in 1920 she was asked by English journalists to comment on what she had seen. The Georgians, she told them, “have set up what is the most perfect socialism in Europe.”

The Georgian Experiment was crushed and then forgotten. But it deserves to be remembered and studied and learned from – both here in Georgia and around the world.

Another world was possible, as the Georgian Social Democrats proved.

And another world is possible today too.

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Liveblog: New Scientist Live, London

14:41

Coming up next: Monica Grady on Rosetta’s Legacy.  Monica is a space scientist at the Open University.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 3 August 2014.
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 3 August 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14:15

When Arabic science changed the world – with Jim Al-Khalili.

The House of Wisdom was a real place - in Baghdad - where science was done.
The House of Wisdom was a real place – in Baghdad – where science was done.

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, according to this Baghdad-born scientist, Islamic civilization did more than just preserve the memory of Greek achievements.

They also broke new ground, including the invention of algebra.

Only at the very, very end of the talk, he addressed the question of why the golden age of “Arabic science” cam to an end — by saying that, well, civilizations just decline, and the baton is passed.

11:30

No, not an "amazing" coincidence.
No, not an “amazing” coincidence.

Robert Matthews, What are the chances?

From a 19th century short story that seemed to anticipate the sinking of the Titanic to newspaper reports about double-yolked eggs (trillion to one chance!), Matthews gave a wide-ranging, sometimes difficult, talk about probability.

He did give away one very easy way to win money off our friends, but I won’t reveal it here.

 

 

11:25

No, this not what velociraptors looked like, probably.
No, this not what velociraptors looked like, probably.

Darren Naish: What dinosaurs really looked like.  This was the first lecture I attended and I loved it.  Naish started by showing how dinosaurs are conventionally portrayed by artists — starting with the skeleton and then “shrink wrapping” a skin around them.  We now know it’s a little more complicated than that, and in addition to have muscle, fat, etc, they likely had feathers and lots of other, weirder, stuff.  If the rest of New Scientist Live is this good, I’m going to enjoy these next few days …

11:15

I don’t normally do this, but this promises to be a very interesting four days, so I thought I’d share.  I’m attending the New Scientist Live event at Excel London, where there are four theatres and a main stage, and dozens of exhibitors.  I stopped by Rentokil’s “Pestaurant” this morning, which offered up — for free — snacks made from bugs.  If I hadn’t had that croissant earlier, I might have been tempted.

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Why Sanders and his supporters are now backing Clinton

"I intend to do everything I can to make certain she will be the next president of the United States."
“I intend to do everything I can to make certain she will be the next president of the United States.”

Over the course of the last year, millions of Americans voted for Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist candidate who offered a program of radical change. According to public opinion polls, nearly all of them are now going to cast their votes for Hillary Clinton. They will do so even though she remains a widely disliked and untrusted candidate who is often seen as being the candidate of the “Establishment”.

Some polls put the number of former Sanders supporters now backing Clinton as high as 90%. Most expect the numbers to be even higher as the November election draws closer.

Clinton has gone from being the candidate of Goldman Sachs and the one-percent to being the candidate we will vote for.

There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the fear of Donald Trump winning the election has persuaded many of us that any alternative would be preferable. In that sense, many on the American left are echoing the decision by French socialists in 2002 to support the hated Jacques Chirac rather than to allow Jean-Marie Le Pen to win the presidency.

The second is that a full year of the Sanders campaign actually had an impact. This is true even though the candidate fell short of the number of delegates required to win the nomination of his party. Take the Democratic Party’s platform, which revealed how far to the left the party has turned. Sanders himself was the first to point this out. In every speech he gives – including his address on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia – he emphasizes how many of his ideas made it into the final program of the party.

There are counter-arguments to both of these points. But those arguments are gaining little ground among Sanders supporters.

One of those argued that choosing Clinton over Trump is a form of “lesser-evilism.” At some point, one simply has to say “no” and vote for a candidate who is not seen as evil at all, such as the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

Another argument is that all of the Democratic Party’s concessions to Sanders are meaningless. No Democratic politician is obligated to do what the party platform says, including Hillary Clinton. Though Clinton has publicly embraced many of Sanders’ positions in recent weeks, there’s no reason to believe she’ll carry any of it out once elected.

There is little evidence that either of those arguments have had much of an impact on Sanders supporters. They certainly haven’t persuaded me.

Jill Stein’s campaign still languishes on the fringes of American politics, with no chance of reaching the 15% in public opinion polls that would guarantee the Green politician a place in the upcoming presidential debates. (Stein is averaging just 4% in the latest polls, and is likely to receive considerably less than that on election day.)

Sanders supporters in large numbers are embracing the position advocated by the largest left organization in America in the 1960s, the Students for a Democratic Society. SDS supported the Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson over Republican Barry Goldwater. They did so despite all their reservations about Johnson. Johnson ran on the slogan “All the way with LBJ!” SDS answered with “Part of the way with LBJ.”

It was a good slogan that expresses the view of many regarding Hillary Clinton today.

The argument that Clinton doesn’t really believe in the $15 an hour minimum wage, or single-payer health care, or debt-free college tuition (among many Sanders positions she has adopted in recent weeks) misses the point.

The left understands that its job when someone wins the presidency on a left-liberal platform is to mobilize to ensure that they live up to their promises. This is why the civil rights movement came alive in the 1960s. This is why the great March on Washington in 1963 came about to pressure a liberal Democratic administration to live up to its promises. Such protests would have had little impact if the Republican Richard Nixon had won the 1960 election. But the Kennedy-Johnson administration was vulnerable to pressure, and the result was the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Food stamps, the abortive “war on poverty”, various civil rights laws, and more.

If Clinton wins the election on November 8th, all those millions of Sanders supporters who grudgingly voted for her, will need to be mobilized to force her and Congress to enact as much of the Democratic Platform as we can. Sanders has launched a new organization, “Our Revolution”, which is devoted to precisely that.

As for Donald Trump, there is a tendency among some on the left to say that while he’s bad, he’s really no different from Clinton. In some ways, some have said, he’s better. He opposed job-destroying “free trade” deals like TPP and NAFTA, and he’s seen (by some) as being less likely to lead the US into pointless wars in the Middle East.

Such a view of Trump is delusional. Trump is a racist, sexist, and right-wing bully who is America’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. There is more than a whiff of fascism in his campaign. To not see the differences between him and Hillary Clinton is to be blind.

Fortunately, if the polls are right, the vast majority of Sanders supporters understand this. Given a choice between Hillary Clinton, who has been forced against her will to run on the most progressive platform the Democrats ever had, and Donald Trump, most liberals and leftists know what needs to be done.


This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

Day 8: From protest to politics

Bayard Rustin, civil rights leader and organizer of the March on Washington.
Bayard Rustin, civil rights leader and organizer of the March on Washington.

In the mid-1960s, not long after the March on Washington, the organizer of that historic protest, Bayard Rustin, wrote an article. It was called “From protest to politics”. Rustin argued that the civil rights movement had entered a new phase, and while not rejecting the tactics of street protest, Rustin argued for taking electoral politics and coalition building much more seriously.

The morning after Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination, we in the Sanders movement (and it is a movement) also have to consider what it means to make the transition from protest to politics.

Many of us understand that we need to do this, that everything depends on stopping Trump who represents a threat on a scale we’ve not seen before. For that reason I and probably 90% of Sanders supporters (according to polls) will support Clinton. And not only vote for her — we will work for her, donate money to her campaign, and make the case to our fellow Berners that we do need to unite behind her.

Having said that, I want to say a few words to my friends in the Democratic Party who have been supporting Hillary Clinton all along.

This is not an easy or simple process for us. One does not transition from being a revolutionary to being a mainstream politician overnight. We have developed habits over the course of the last year (and longer) of ferocious attacks on a corrupt political system dominated by big money. Those attacks and that critique retain their validity.

One does not simply “pivot” away from all that.

I thought of this last night when one of the many, many speakers praising Clinton and denouncing Trump demanded that Trump release his tax returns. The crowd cheered wildly. Of course Trump should do that. The speaker was asking what Trump is trying to hide, which is a fair point.

But I could not help thinking of our campaign’s demand that Clinton release the texts of her highly-paid speeches to the bankers at Goldman Sachs. Was it wrong of us to demand that? I don’t think so.

And there were ugly moments last night that maybe didn’t make it to mainstream television news. At various points, some Sanders delegates broke into the chant “No more war!”. Particularly when a general from US Marine Corps was speaking. Yes, we should show respect to invited speakers. And yes, leftists no less than rightists honor men and women who serve their country. And yet there is also a strong tradition on the left of opposition to war. It is a noble tradition and I respect that too.

The Clinton supporters responded by drowning out the anti-war protestors with chants of “USA! USA!” while waving the thousands of American flags which had been distributed. This was not spontaneous; the Clinton campaign organized the counter-protests in advance, telling delegates what to shout if the Sanders delegates raised their voices. If we shout “No more war!” they shout back “Hillary! Hillary!”

It reminded me of the cultural clashes of the late 1960s when protestors holding Viet Cong flags battled with pro-war demonstrators waving the stars and stripes. It was ugly then and it’s ugly now.

The young Berners are being asked to transform themselves from protestors to politicians, to stop chanting “Feel the Bern” and start chanting “Hillary! Hillary!” — as if this were somehow an easy thing to do. It isn’t.

Which brings me back to last night in Philadelphia.

I sat there for nearly 8 hours listening to speaker after speaker give unqualified praise to Hillary Clinton, to not even acknowledge the possibility that one might offer critical support. I guess that’s how conventions are, and I don’t want to sound naive. The last speaker I heard was Chelsea Clinton. To the great surprise of no one, it turns out that she loves her mom. Just like Donald Trump’s daughter told the world that she loves her dad. That’s what American politics has been reduced to.

And then the video began. I heard the voice of Morgan Freeman — who else? — telling Hillary Clinton’s life story, as I sat there with my delegation, surrounded by a sea of flags, USA placards, and people ready to shout down any voice of dissent.

And at that moment I felt — I cannot do this. Not tonight, not now.

I left the hall and walked alone in the gentle rain to the subway station. Said goodnight to the Philadelphia cops and Secret Service agents who were everywhere, and thanked a couple for being there.

Yes, we have to make the move from protest to politics. But please do not underestimate what a difficult move that is for so many of us.

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Day 7: Putin’s Party

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A few years after the second world war, a strange book was published in New York City.  It was called The Russian Menace to Europe and judging by the title, one would imagine it was one of many books which focussed public attention on the threat posed by the emerging Soviet superpower.

The book’s authors, however, were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

It was a collection of essays, mostly newspaper articles, written by Marx and Engels in the 19th century.  The Russia they were concerned about was not the Soviet Union, but the tsarist empire.

And yet there were very strong parallels between the two periods, a point Marx himself made (without knowing the future) when he described the unchanging character of Russian foreign policy.

Marx was especially concerned with the way Russia manipulated Western leaders, especially certain British politicians such as Lord Palmerston.  Palmerston’s actions during the Crimean War seemed to benefit Russia so often that Marx was convinced he was the tsar’s agent.

The idea back in the 1950s that Communist Russia and tsarist Russia had so much in common was quite daring.  Today, the idea that Putin’s Russia continues historic patterns stretching back centuries seems less controversial.

Putin’s foreign policy is simply a 21st century version of traditional Russian imperialism, constantly poking and probing its neighbors for weakness.  

In 2008, he brazenly launched a war on Georgia, an independent country to Russia’s south.  He continues to occupy two Georgian provinces with Russian troops.  A few years later, his soldiers seized control of Crimea from Ukraine. And then they triggered a civil war in eastern Ukraine, causing thousands of deaths.

Putin’s 21st century Russian imperialism has its foreign policy too and just like the tsars and the Communists, it seeks to influence Western politicians and public opinion.

In the American elections, the Russians are playing both sides with a considerable measure of success.  The relationship between Putin and Trump is an increasingly transparent one.  Trump has long expressed his admiration for Putin.  And yesterday, he stunned the political world in America by publicly calling on the Russians to release some 30,000 deleted emails from Hillary Clinton’s server which they may have hacked.

But it is not only the far-right Republicans that Putin seeks to influence and control.  For several years now, Putin’s satellite TV news channel Russia Today has tried to influence public opinion in the West by pretending to offer an alternative view of the world.  It is has had a certain limited success.

I spent yesterday not at the Democratic National Convention but at alternative events hosted by both democratic socialist groups and the far Left here in Philadelphia.  Green Party presidential candidate Dr Jill Stein spoke at one of them.  In a packed, airless and extremely hot hall, I saw a number of participants wearing “Hillary for Prison” t-shirts.  It seemed to strike no one as odd that Donald Trump’s slogan had a place at a left-wing meeting.

I imagine that most of the people in the room would broadly accept the world-view espoused by Russia Today — that the United States is the cause of global instability, that Russia threatens no one, and so on.  These views are certainly reflected in the platform of the Green Party.

So we find in America a century and a half after Marx and Engels wrote their essays that on both political fringes, right and left, the influence of the Russian state is clearly felt.  Obviously it is Donald Trump, and not Jill Stein, who needs to worry us.  But both are part of the same broad current who distrust American foreign policy, demonize Hillary Clinton, and have no problem with the autocrat in the Kremlin.

Those groups and individuals, whether they support the Tea Party or are self-styled Communists, are the members of Putin’s Party.

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Day 6: Don’t vote for Dr Jill Stein

Jill Stein.
Dr. Jill Stein, presidential candidate of the Green Party in 2016.

I am addressing this to my friends who have supported Senator Bernie Sanders but are now considering voting for, and working for, Dr Jill Stein, the candidate of the Green Party.

First of all, let me say that I understand you.  And I have a confession to make:  I liked Ralph Nader in 2000.  I donated money to his campaign and I encouraged others to vote for him.  And I agree — he was not the reason that Al Gore lost the election.  I understand the temptation of voting for the Greens when we’re pissed off at the Democrats.

But to do so this year would be a colossal mistake.

There are two reasons for this.  The first one you can already guess, and many of you will agree with.  The second one will be a little bit more surprising, and many of you will disagree with me.

The first reason to not vote for Jill is because doing so increases the chances that Donald J. Trump will be your president.

You may say that you’re in a blue state, and that Clinton will win your state regardless of what you do.  But that’s political irresponsibility.  If I thought Jill Stein was the candidate I wanted to win, I would vote for her in any state.  And if you’re 100% certain that your vote will not make a difference, that you know with absolute certainty how your state will vote in November, then you have the gift of prophecy.  Because the pollsters don’t know, and no one predicted either Trump’s nomination nor Bernie’s success in the primaries.  This is an unpredictable election which Trump may very well win.  Unless we stop him.

The second reason is — well, have you read Jill’s platform?  I don’t mean right now, by clicking on that link (as I hope you will do).  I mean — a minute ago, when you were thinking what a good idea it would be to vote for her.

There are lots of great things in Jill’s platform.  It’s a long list of things progressives want.  It is calculated to appeal to Bernie supporters.  But it is not Bernie’s platform.

Let me give two examples.

Jill’s platform calls for an end to “U.S. financial and military support to human rights abusers” which sounds like a good idea.  And then, in case you didn’t understand which countries she is referring to, it adds:

“Barring substantial changes in their policies, this would include Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt.”

Some of you may have no problem with this.  If you support ending U.S. financial and military support for Israel, please go ahead and vote for Jill Stein.

If however, like Bernie Sanders, you support U.S. financial and military aid to Israel (such as helping to finance the “Iron Dome” anti-missile defense) — and support the U.S. helping to press Israel and its Palestinian neighbors into reaching an agreement on a two-state solution — then do not vote for Jill Stein.

It’s not just giving up Israel to Syria’s Assad, Hizbollah and Hamas.  Jill Stein opposes the U.S. being involved anywhere in the defense of democratic countries.  Her platform calls for this:  “Cut military spending by at least 50% and close the 700+ foreign military bases.”

That includes U.S. bases in Nato countries which are threatened by an aggressive Russian leadership headed by Vladimir Putin.  The last thing people in countries that border on Russia would like to see is a U.S. which has cut its military power in half and withdrawn all its troops from foreign countries.

In Jill Stein’s world, Russia is not a threat, a view she shares with Donald Trump.  Hizbollah is not a threat.  North Korea is not a threat.  There is no need for a powerful United States, or even Nato for that matter.

Supporters of Stein may at this point defend her platform by saying that I’ve cherry-picked the parts I don’t like.   There are plenty of good things in the platform.  That’s true.

But what’s important when you’re running for president of the United States?  Jill Stein is not running for mayor somewhere.  She’s made a great mayor.  I’d vote for her.

But she is running to be the Commander in Chief of the world’s greatest superpower, a country whose arsenal and whose military defeated fascism 70 years ago and is the only thing standing between Russian aggression and countries like Ukraine, Poland, Georgia and the Baltics.  Without U.S. support, Israel would have a far more difficult time defending itself against Hizbollah and Hamas rocket attacks, and the threat of Iranian nuclear arms.

If you support Jill Stein’s views on defense and foreign policy, by all means – vote for her.  If you don’t, if you worry about aggressive powers like Russia, Iran, and North Korea, think twice.

You may not like Hillary Clinton, you may not trust her, you may have preferred Bernie Sanders.  I get that.

But in 2016, in the real world, where it’s dangerous and America does need to play a role on the international stage, voting for Jill Stein is more than a waste of a vote.  It’s dangerous and irresponsible..

Don’t do it.

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Day 5: Bernie Sanders gives the speech of a lifetime

The first night of the Democratic National Convention began badly.  The first speaker was a woman minister and all went very well until she mentioned the name of Hillary Rodham Clinton.  And then the chanting began.  “Bernie! Bernie!”

Now, I understand some of that anger.  Hillary was not last night, and is still not this morning, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.  She will become the party’s candidate only after a roll call vote of delegates is taken.  Yes, she will win that vote.  But declaring the race over now is insulting to the nearly 2,000 delegates who are pledged to Bernie Sanders.  Speakers should have shown more respect to both candidates, and not ignored those delegates or the 13 million voters they represent.

But over the course of the evening, things began to change.  Every time Clinton’s name was mentioned, there was chanting.  Tim Kaine’s name also triggered this.  And when the platform came up — a platform which disgracefully does not call for blocking the anti-worker trade agreement known as TPP — there was booing and chanting, with hundreds of delegates waving anti-TPP and Bernie placards.  As they should have done.

By about 22:00, tiredness was starting to set in.  And the point had been made.  And then the Democratic party leadership finally showed it had some brains.  It scheduled a series of speakers to wrap up the evening — Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Senator Elizabeth Warren who wowed the crowd, including the Sanders delegates.

Obama was especially powerful.  Her message about what it feels like to raise two beautiful Black daughters in a house built by slaves — the White House — silenced everyone, and moved everyone.  I was not alone to wipe tears from my eyes as I heard her speak.

Elizabeth Warren is an iconic figure for the American left.  She was not booed, not interrupted, and was treated like Obama with great respect.  Her support for Clinton was forceful and convincing.  The cold, intellectual case for backing Clinton had been made.

So it was a much calmer hall, and people much more focussed on stopping Donald Trump, by the time Bernie Sanders was introduced at nearly 23:00.

And even though people were exhausted — for most, the day began with breakfast meetings at 07:00 — the crowd went absolutely wild, everyone on their feet, all chanting.  If there were Clinton supporters in the hall, you wouldn’t have known it.  Maybe they were chanting “Bernie! Bernie!” too.  It took Sanders several minutes to calm everyone down.

And then he proceeded to talk about what has happened in the last year, where we stand now and what we must do next.

It was the speech of a lifetime.

It showed the greatness of this American politician because he is a man who is not only able to rally millions of people to social change, to feed off their anger and to be their voice.  He also knows when to say: we have come this far, but no further tonight.  This is where we stop, we pause, we think about what needs to be done next.

And what needs to be done right now, over the next hundred or so days, is to work day and night to ensure that Donald J. Trump is not elected the next President of the United States.

A lesser politician would not have been able to do this.  To speak to a crowd which only an hour earlier roared with anger at the mention of Clinton’s name, and to tell them: we must vote for this person and we must campaign for her.

This is what leadership is all about.  This was the most extraordinary example of leadership we saw last night, and maybe all year.  This was a man telling a painful truth to his followers, talking straight, pulling no punches.

Not everyone will be convinced, of course.  There are “Bernie or Bust” supporters who will no doubt be out in the streets today.  But they are a small and dwindling minority.  Most of us listened carefully to what Bernie had to say, and are convinced.

As the Clinton campaign slogan goes, “He’s with her”.

And I’m with him.

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Day 4: This is what a revolution looks like

The calm before the storm. Hurricane Bernie is coming.
The calm before the storm. Hurricane Bernie is coming.

The Democratic National Convention opens in just a few minutes; I am sitting in the hall, looking down on the delegates and the stage.  People are slowly coming into the hall.  This place has the feeling of the calm before the storm.  And this storm has a name: Hurricane Bernie.

Anyway who thought that there would be an orderly transition from insurgent campaign to team players was sorely mistaken.  Senator Sanders may be convinced of the need to unify the party around presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton.  But many of his supporters do not share that view.

According to news reports, the appearance of disgraced former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz at the Florida delegation breakfast triggered boos and shouting.

Some traditional Democratic activists who were there told news media that they were shocked — shocked — at the behavior of the Sanders delegates.

The meeting of the enormous California delegation apparently also disintegrated into shouting matches.  Not even the respected Democrat Nancy Pelosi was spared.

In the streets of Philadelphia, there are thousands of Berners carrying around “Bernie or Bust” signs.  In the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Bernie’s meeting with delegates attracted thousands of people some of whom, like me, were turned away.

But even there, as one eyewitness told me, there was little patience for Bernie’s attempt to show some support for Hillary Clinton and unify the party.

The DNC and Clinton have been incredibly inept at their handling of the Sanders supporters.  They appear to be taking them for granted, assuming that they have nowhere else to go.  After all, it’s either vote Clinton or get Trump.

And yet — people are angry.

This evening Bernie will address the convention and the world.  I am looking out over a sea of journalists; there are several thousand here.  Sanders speech will be transmitted live and millions will hear him speak in real time, many for the first time.

It now seems clear that his message will be one of continuing the revolution, but will also call for support for Clinton.

Sanders’ supporters will almost certainly welcome him with a standing ovation.  But they may interrupt him if he says anything positive at all about Clinton.

They are an unruly crowd, undisciplined, under no one’s control. They cannot be managed or dictated to.  They must be treated with respect.

And above all, they must be listened to.

They want to be heard.  And tonight, they will be heard.

This is what a revolution looks like.

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Day 2: Have America’s two major political parties entered into a suicide pact?

For some time now, commentators have been talking about the Republican Party’s tendency to self-destruct.  Every time Donald J. Trump said something stupid or outrageous, he won more support.  Every time polls showed him as the weakest possible Republican candidate, his support within the party grew.  Some pundits have spoken about the Republican Party committing suicide.

But in the last few days, we’ve seen the Democrats begin to do something similar.  In a sense, it looks a bit like a suicide pact.

Sitting here in Philadelphia, waiting for the Democratic National Convention to open on Monday,  I have witnessed two extraordinary events that seem to show the Democrats with a clear death wish.

The first of these is the WikiLeaks revelations.  Sanders supporters always suspected that behind the scenes, the leadership of the Democratic National Committee was plotting and scheming, and detested the left wing of the party.  Now we know that our suspicions were well-founded.

But it’s not only that US Representative and chair of the DNC Debbie Wasserman-Schultz considered Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver an asshole.  We suspected things like that.  It’s that she and her colleagues wrote this stuff down, in emails, which have now been published.  So they’re not only manipulative, anti-democratic bureaucrats.  They’re also incompetent at their jobs.  Did they really believe that none of this would ever come out?

Second was Hillary Clinton’s decision to choose Senator Tim Kaine as her vice presidential candidate.  She could have chosen Senator Elizabeth Warren, which would have electrified voters, especially young ones, and unified a deeply divided Democratic Party. She did not do so.  She could have chosen Bernie Sanders as well, which would have been an extraordinarily bold move.  Either choice would have ensured a sweeping Democratic victory in November.

Instead, she chose the nebbish.

Compare this to what Donald J. Trump did.  Trump was faced with the danger of losing conservative support.  Tea Party activists don’t trust him.  His relationship with Fox News is not an easy one.  So he picked a completely reliable, if boring, vice president.  The right wing of his party is now happy.  The party is slightly more united as a result (though the Bushes and others still hate him.)

This is not what Clinton has done.  Instead of trying to balance the ticket with someone to her left, to represent the millions of voters who backed Sanders, she’s chosen someone to her right.  Someone who supports free trade agreements.  Who’s opposed to abortion.  Who’s seen as a “moderate” (which is American for “right wing”).

Who exactly does she think this will please?  Who will be won over to the Democrats because Kaine is on the ticket?  In an election year when “free trade” has become toxic and even Clinton has distanced herself from Obama on the issue, she has chosen a “free trader” as her running mate.

Moderate Republicans who detest Trump are going to vote for Clinton anyway.  They do not need to be pandered to.

Clinton’s problem is that she suffers from an “enthusiasm gap” compared to people like Sanders and Warren.

To defeat Trump, and defeating Trump is the most important thing in American politics, and possibly global politics, in 2016, you cannot do stuff like what Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has been doing at the DNC.  And you cannot appoint a dull “centrist” as your running mate.

And most of all, you cannot continue to treat the left wing of your party, and an entire generation of new voters, with contempt.

I’m watching the Democratic Party, which is the only thing standing in the way of Donald Trump becoming President, slowly commit suicide.

Day 1: A whiff of fascism in Cleveland

I arrived in Philadelphia last night, just in time to catch Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

Though I have to confess that after the first four hours of his speech (or at least it felt that long, maybe it was only an hour), I nodded off.

But not before I caught these sentences:

A number of these reforms that I will outline tonight will be opposed by some of our nation’s most powerful special interests. That is because these interests have rigged our political and economic system for their exclusive benefit.

Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place. They are throwing money at her because they have total control over everything she does. She is their puppet, and they pull the strings.

On the one hand, you might think there’s not much wrong with this.  Some Sanders supporters might even say similar things.

We’re all against the privileged elite, against big money in politics, etc.  But Trump is using a very specific language to describe those elites and how they operate.

It is the language of fascism.  And specifically of its national socialist variety.  And this is because it imagines  a world with secret rulers who manipulate others with their money.  That ruling cabal goes un-named by Donald Trump, but just as the dog can hear a particular kind of whistle, so the fascist understands who those “special interests” are.

Not convinced that this is a classic Nazi image?  Have a look at these examples from Nazi propaganda:

jewishpuppeteers

 

Is Donald Trump an anti-Semite?  Probably not.

But he is reviving a classic anti-Jewish trope, the notion of a powerful, secretive ruling cabal that owns and controls non-Jewish politicians just as a puppeteer controls his puppets.

If Trump had made those remarks in the context of a liberal, inclusive and anti-racist speech, one would hesitate to say anything.  After all, it may simply have been a poor choice of words.

But it wasn’t a liberal and anti-racist speech — it was the most racist and reactionary speech given at a national political convention in the United States in living memory.

There was more than a whiff of fascism in it.

I worry for America.