The Sanders Revolution

Bernie_Sanders_Madison

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.


Sixty years ago, the Socialist Party ran its last presidential campaign in the United States.

In its heyday, the party could capture upwards of a million votes, achieving this result in 1912, 1920 and again in 1932. The best result was the first one, when Eugene V. Debs led the party to six percent of the national vote. But less than a quarter century after Norman Thomas won nearly 900,000 votes at the height of the Great Depression, the total number of votes the Socialist could muster nationwide was a mere 2,044. Its final Presidential candidate, the successor to the legendary Debs and Thomas, was the little-known Darlington Hoopes.

By then, even the last stalwarts in the party accepted that it was no longer feasible to wage presidential campaigns. Within a year of the Socialists reaching their electoral nadir, the party was strengthened by the decision of Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League to join their ranks. The Shachtmanites rejected the traditional independent electoral strategy and called instead for the Socialists to join the ranks of the Democrats.

It took Shachtman and his comrades a decade to achieve their goal under the charismatic leadership of Michael Harrington. While the Socialists were grappling with issues of electoral strategy, a young man joined their youth organisation in Chicago, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL).

His name was Bernie Sanders.

Like many other YPSLs (pronounced “Yipsels”), the young Brooklyner was active in the peace movement through the Student Peace Union and the civil rights movement through the Congress of Racial Equality. Before joining the YPSL, Sanders was introduced to politics by his older brother, Larry, who would take him to political meetings. Larry was active in the Young Democrats. It was in the YPSL that Bernie would learn about democratic socialism.

Half a century later, he continues to define himself as a democratic socialist. He advocates a program of reform that most socialists would be very comfortable with, including breaking up the big banks, investing hundreds of billions of dollars in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and creating employment, health care as a right for all citizens, free tuition at all public universities, campaign finance reform, strengthening union rights, and much more.

His campaign for the presidency launched earlier this year has galvanized the American political system and given new hope for a rebirth of a democratic socialist movement in the country.

What has changed that allows a democratic socialist to emerge, seemingly out of nowhere, to become a serious contender for the presidency sixty years after the unfortunate Darlington Hoopes won only 2,044 votes? And what are his chances to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency in November?

I think that three things have happened to allow a professed socialist to run a credible campaign for the presidency in 2016.

First of all, the economic crisis that hit America (and the world) from 2008, triggered – as it did in many countries – a rise in critical thinking about capitalism. We have seen big gains for parties and leaders once considered “far left” in several European countries, and while this cannot express itself in America in the creation of a new mass party of the left like Syriza, it can and does express itself in social movements like Occupy, in the trade unions and in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

But an economic crisis alone cannot create the basis for the rise of a socialist left in a country like America. There have been a number of economic crises, with periods of mass unemployment, in the years since 1932, but none of these resulted in the rise of an overtly socialist candidate or movement.

The second factor that allows for the rise of Sanders is the passage of time since the end of the Cold War. One cannot overstate the importance of Stalinism in undermining and weakening the American left over many decades. Whether it was McCarthy-era red-baiting and persecution (which affected everyone on the left, not just the Stalinists) or the idiotic, counter-productive tactics of the Stalinists themselves, it was nearly impossible to say the word “socialism” aloud in America so long as the Soviet Union existed.

But with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a generation of Americans has grown up with no personal memory of that period, people for whom the word “socialist” is not necessarily a deal-breaker. There are people voting for Bernie Sanders today who were born in 1998, nearly a decade after the Wall came down. All voters under the age of 40 came of age politically only after Communism’s historic defeat.

None of this applies to Sanders, of course. The 74-year-old is a veteran of the YPSL from a time when socialists really were on the margins of American life, and when “socialism” really was a dirty word. But his supporters largely come from an entirely different generation, who’ve grown up in a different world.

The third thing that has happened is that Bernie Sanders, who his entire political life has been an independent, an opponent of the two-party system, has chosen to run as a Democrat. Some people on the small organised left in America would have preferred it otherwise. They would have liked to support a campaign like Ralph Nader’s, free of the taint of what Socialists use to call the “sewer” of the Democratic Party.

Nader himself followed in the tradition of a large number of well-intentioned but long-forgotten attempts to forge left-wing third parties in America. These included the peace campaigner Dr Benjamin Spock (People’s Party) who received fewer than 80,000 votes, or ecologist Barry Commoner (Citizen’s Party) who received 234,000 votes. Sanders was personally sympathetic to Nader, Spock and Commoner, campaigning for the latter two. But he learned an important lesson: to win a Presidential election in America, you need to run as a Democrat.

The extraordinary success of his campaign so far – regardless of what happens next – shows that he was right. His campaign is a vindication of everything Max Shachtman, Michael Harrington and their comrades fought for on the American left from the mid-1950s until now.

But does Sanders really have a chance?

I write these words two weeks before the Iowa caucus vote on February 1, the first electoral test of the Sanders candidacy. At the moment, all the polls show Iowa to be a tie between Sanders and Clinton. In the following vote, on February 9 in New Hampshire, polls show Sanders winning. If America wakes up on February 10 to learn that Bernie Sanders has won both Iowa and New Hampshire, it will represent a political earthquake.

Sixty years after the disappearance of the Socialists from the main stage of American politics, they have made a triumphant return. A former YPSL member from Chicago, still talking about the same democratic socialism he learned in the party of Debs and Thomas, may be on his way to becoming the forty-fifth president of the United States.

What’s wrong with Star Wars?

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.


starwarsSocialists begin our understanding of culture with Marx’s oft-quoted comments about the ruling ideas of an age being the ideas of the ruling class.

Living under capitalism, we understand that just as we are critical of the structure of the society we live in, and the behaviour of its ruling class, so we are also critical of its cultural and intellectual production.

There are few cultural products that have been shared as widely as the Star Wars films. Seven films made over the course of nearly four decades have been seen by millions, possibly hundreds of millions, of people. As socialists, we should have something to say about this.

Some people would stop right there. It’s just a bit of entertainment, just some fun. Not to be taken seriously. Certainly not worthy of a critique.

I disagree. Marx, Trotsky and other socialists wrote extensively about culture, art and literature. Trotsky was acutely aware of the importance of film and wrote about it, among other places, in his short book, Problems of Life.

Like millions of other people, I went to see the latest Star Wars film over the Christmas break. Let me start of by saying that it is massive improvement over the three previous films (the prequels known as episodes I – III) and that the special effects are, as was to be expected, spectacular. That’s not much of a compliment, as the prequels were generally seen as disastrous. Fans waited eagerly for director J.J. Abrams to rescue the series, which he has now done. And the effects, while impressive, don’t have the same shock value as those of the original 1977 film. Then, we were seeing things we’d never seen before. In the current film, we’re seeing just more of them. And they are bigger.

Having said that, let’s try to look at the film critically. The moment one does so, certain things become obvious, and none of them are very good.

The Star Wars films, including the newest one, are celebrations of militarism and war. Nearly all the characters wear uniforms and carry weapons. The weapons are vastly more powerful than anything available today, and include the capacity to destroy entire planets.

With such enormously powerful weapons, far greater numbers of people are killed in a few minutes in a Star Wars film than have died in any wars we have experienced in human history.

And yet the films seem not to be too bothered about this. In the first film (Episode IV), when an entire planet is destroyed, one character says “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”

But in the latest film, when several planets are destroyed one after another, no one expresses any such feeling. The only comment made is that the enemy is getting closer to the rebel base and must be defeated.

Millions have died in an instant, but the “disturbance in the Force” is no longer felt.

This casual approach to death is linked to Star Wars’ approach to religion. To the extent to which anyone in the Star Wars universe holds religious beliefs, they believe in The Force. The Force has a dark side and a light side, but it is not entirely clear why one is a force for good and the other a force for evil. Take away the mood music and the evil-looking black costumes, and the two sides seem mirror images of each other.

The religion of Star Wars makes no pretence of being a code of ethics or morality; no one does anything because it is the right thing to do. Neither side seems to care in the slightest about taking the lives of millions on the other side.

Both sides are despotisms – one ruled by an Emperor (and in the current film, Supreme Leader Snoke), the other ruled by a Princess (now General). While the earlier Star Wars films made reference to a republic, and even showed a kind of parliament, there is nothing of the sort in the current film. There are just warlords on each side, each commanding their uniformed fighters, sending them to their deaths in an endless conflict that has now gone on for decades, if not centuries.

The script for the new film is derivative and unoriginal. As critics and fans have pointed out, there are plot holes large enough to fly the Millennium Falcon through. The film seems clearly aimed at children, and yet Disney has successfully marketed it to adults as well. As a commercial product, Star Wars is a great success.

Science fiction doesn’t have to be this way. We can imagine other worlds, other futures, that don’t insult our intelligence or celebrate militarism, genocide, autocracy and the worst forms of faux-religious mumbo-jumbo.

Harrison Ford, who plays Han Solo in the current film as he did in the first three, starred in just such an intelligent film when he played Deckard in Blade Runner. That film raised important questions about what it means to be human. Deaths in that film – even the deaths of replicants who were not human – were done on a human scale, one at a time, and each one painful and tragic.

That is what great science fiction looks like. Not Star Wars.

The mass psychology of Islamo-fascism

This article appears in today’s issue of Solidarity.  Please feel free to post comments there.


Wilhelm Reich.
Wilhelm Reich.

There can be little doubt that the murderous ideology of Islamic State is a form of fascism. In discussing how the Left should react to it, it is therefore necessary to return to our sources, to learn how earlier generations of socialists understood – and fought – fascism.

In that fight, Trotsky was of course an inspiring and authoritative figure. As opposed to the Stalinists, who saw no difference between the Nazis and the Social Democrats (and indeed sometimes preferred the Nazis), Trotsky understood fascism to be a mortal danger to the working class. Continue reading

Building global labor solidarity – challenges and opportunities

This article appeared in the Labor Day issue of Democratic Left.


In 1847, when Marx and Engels issued their ringing call for workers of all countries to unite, it fell on deaf ears. However, by the 1890s, trade unions had begun to operate across borders, creating permanent institutions that are today known as “global union federations,” which unite transport workers, food and agriculture workers, journalists, teachers and others. Continue reading

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Dr Arieh Yaari, 1918-2005

ariehToday marks the tenth anniversary of the passing of Dr Arieh Yaari — socialist, Zionist and fighter for peace.

I first met Arieh in January 1981 when I arrived at Kibbutz Ein Dor as a new immigrant from America.  Arieh and his wife Regina “adopted” me and my family and over the course of the next 17 years, our friendship grew closer and my respect for the man and his work grew deeper. Continue reading

The problem with Bernie Sanders

The Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is probably the most exciting development in US politics since the 1930s. And it’s not a coincidence that both the resurgent left of that decade and the Sanders phenomenon have followed the spectacular economic crashes of 1929 and 2008.

sandersrally

The Sanders campaign is a phenomenon. He’s not only rising rapidly in the polls, posing a clear threat to Hillary Clinton, but he’s raising millions of dollars in small donations and filling arenas with supporters – including in some surprising places, like Phoenix, Arizona. Continue reading

West Bank: Police question union leader over LabourStart campaign

This article appears in the next issue of International Union Rights, the publication of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights.

In early August 2014, the Workers Advice Center (WAC MAAN) asked LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement, to launch an online campaign to protest union-busting at a garage in the illegal Jewish settlement of Mishor Adumim in the occupied West Bank.

WAC MAAN is a relatively small union based in Israel which organises workers in both Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The Palestinian workers at the Zarfaty Garage in Mishur Adumim had recently joined WAC and gone on strike to defend their rights. Their employer, Moshe (Moris) Zarfaty, had retaliated by fabricating false “security” charges against local union leader Hatem Abu Ziadeh, using the war in Gaza as a cover. As a result of those false charges, the Israeli police revoked Abu Ziadeh’s work permit, which was in effect a dismissal, after working in the garage faithfully for 17 years. Eventually the criminal case against Abu Ziadeh collapsed, and the union continues to fight for his reinstatement.

Meanwhile, the LabourStart campaign resulted in 8,500 email messages being sent in 17 languages from around the world to two Israeli government officials and to Moshe Zarfaty, the owner of the garage.

Though the online campaign was closed after a few months, and despite the decision by an Israeli labour court in April that WAC is in fact the legal union representing the workers in the garage, Zarfaty remained furious that he had been the target of a large global online campaign.

Zarfaty contacted the Israeli police and demanded that they investigate WAC, declaring that the LabourStart campaign “was an offence committed according to Communication Law 621 – an attempt to harass a person using phone company equipment,” according to WAC’s leader Assaf Adiv.

Adiv was summoned to report to the Israeli Police station in Ma’ale Adumim, in the West Bank, on 5 May 2015, where he was closely questioned and denied the charges.

“They were suspicious of my role as chairperson of the union and my involvement in creating the global protest campaign,” he explained.

Two days later, Adiv’s lawyer, Michal Pomerantz, sent a letter to both the legal advisor of the Government and the Police demanding they close the investigation against him. The letter explained the background to the case and the need of the Police to stay clear from labour disputes like the one at the Zarfaty Garage.

Less than a week later, they had an answer from the Police.

Shaul Gordon, the legal advisor to the Israeli Police, explained that while the complaint by Zarfaty was treated as an ordinary complaint, the police did not pay proper attention to the fact that this was part of an industrial dispute.

He admitted that it was wrong of the police to have summoned Adiv for investigation. And he added: “I made it clear to the responsible people in the Police region of the West Bank that the policy of the Police in such circumstances when you have a labour dispute is to deal with it with the utmost carefulness, especially as in some cases one side in such disputes tries to mobilize the Police to its side in order to put pressure on the other side.”

He indicated that the police would be making no further enquiries.

“It was simply a false complaint by the Garage managers as a tactic in a long running industrial dispute,” Adiv said.

“The police investigation of WAC MAAN’s leader should be seen as a very dangerous precedent for freedom of association in Israel.

“WAC-MAAN made it clear that it is not going to retreat or give up the right to organise ALL workers, including Palestinian workers who are employed in the Settlements.

“We plan to continue with our mission to defend all workers regardless of their national or religious affiliation or the colour of their skin.”

Adiv concluded: “WAC MAAN drew encouragement from its ability first to force upon the police to cancel the case against the leader of the workers Hatem Abu Ziadeh, and then to cancel the complaint against Adiv as a reflection of its growing influence and the possibility to push forward our drive to organize workers for their rights including Palestinian workers in the settlements.”

Bernie Sanders and Michael Harrington: A second chance?

My first article ever for Salon.  That’s my original title, and this is how my version of it opened:

Current speculation about a possible Bernie Sanders challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016 is not the first time a prominent socialist has considered a bid for the Democratic nomination.

It reminds me of a time nearly four decades ago when I was a young socialist in New York. It was the summer of 1978, and liberal Democrats had grown increasingly disillusioned with the Carter presidency.

Carter was never going to be our favorite candidate. On the eve of the 1976 elections, Michael Harrington, the leader of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) had called on Leftists to vote for Carter “without illusions”. We expected very little and that’s exactly what we got.

Read the full article here.

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