Category: Solidarity

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

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

Solidarity with the Kurds – or NATO-bashing?

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.


At the November 1st demonstration in Trafalgar Square in support of besieged Kobane, it struck me that the speakers — and more broadly, the Left — were not singing from the same page.

On the one side there were those who were demanding that Britain and NATO do more to help the Kurds fighting against the Islamic fascists of IS. For example, Peter Tatchell led the crowd in chants demanding that David Cameron authorise the dropping of more aid to the Kurds, including weapons. There were calls for Turkey to be suspended from NATO because it, unlike other NATO countries, was not prepared to help the Kurds. And more generally most of the speakers especially the Kurdish ones, had not a critical word to say about the USA, the West, NATO or imperialism. Everyone was focussed on the evil that is “Islamic State”.

On the other side, some of the far-Left speakers went overboard in denouncing NATO, the USA and the West, going so far as claiming that IS was a creation of NATO and Washington.

This was particularly the case with a spokesman for the “Stop the War Coalition” — an organization whose presence at the event surprised many of the participants.

The Coalition’s website has almost nothing at all about the war taking place today in Syria and Iraq and indeed the only reference to it is video of George Galloway denouncing the support NATO is giving to the Kurds. Galloway also voted against this support in the Commons.

It seems to me that elements of the British far Left find themselves in a bit of a bind.

On the one hand, there’s this extraordinary, inspiring resistance movement in Kobane, which has captured the imagination of many who would normally be the natural constituency for the Left. The people on the ground, fighting IS, belong to a movement which was seen, until recently, as part of the broad international Left.

Obviously they deserve our support — and yet that seems to mean supporting the US and British air strikes, supporting NATO.

To get around this, the far Leftists have decided on the “ISIS is NATO” line, which is an extraordinary position — one is almost at a loss for words to describe it.

For those not understanding how IS could be both under NATO attack and simultaneously a creation of NATO, some of the speakers went so far as to say that IS was using American weapons.

The implication was that America gave them weapons.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. The American weapons that have fallen into the hands of IS were taken from the retreating Iraqi army. Taken — not handed over as a gift by the Americans.

One of the anti-NATO, anti-American tirades came from an organisation I’d not previously heard of called the “Revolutionary Communist Group”. (I’m sure that specialists will know the entire history of this micro-sect, but for me it was new.) And groups like this, which get invited to speak at mass rallies, give only a very small piece of their line because they’d be booed off the stage if people knew what they really believed.

The RCG’s speaker shouted the usual stuff about solidarity with the Kurds, but a quick glance at their website shows that they are in fact enthusiastic supporters of the bloody Assad dictatorship and its army. The same Syrian army that abandoned Kobane — an army that no Kurd wants to have back. But there was no mention of that to the largely Kurdish crowd in Trafalgar Square.

So what are people like this, who support Assad and Saddam, who demonize NATO and the USA, doing at these rallies?

They’re there because they can’t afford not to be there. To have nothing to say when the battle of Kobane rages would be unacceptable; they must somehow show solidarity with the embattled Kurds.

But they oppose the very thing — NATO air support — that has made that battle possible. The tide may be turning in Kobane because of US bombing and air drops.

On the ground, some Kurds have been heard chanting “Long live Obama!” How embarrassing for the anti-Americans on the far Left.

These people with their crazy views, denouncing the essential support given by the West to the Kurds, praising Assad and Saddam, have no place at Kurdish solidarity rallies. They are there purely to cover their tracks, to provide themselves with some kind of moral cover as IS continues with its murderous rampage across Syria and Iraq.

We should give them no platform.

The anti-anti-semitism of fools

This article also appears on Harry’s Place, Howie’s Corner, Solidarity (Workers’ Liberty) and Shiraz Socialist.


 I have just come back from attending a large demonstration in central London protesting the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK.

The demonstration was organised by a new group called the Campaign Against Antisemitism. It was backed by all the major Jewish organisations in Britain, including the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, and many others. Nearly a thousand people signed up to attend the demo on Facebook; it looked to me like there at least that number there. The crowd seemed overwhelmingly Jewish.

Now if this had been a demonstration against racism, organized by the leadership of the Black communities in Britain, I can guarantee you that a wide range of Left groups would have been there to show their solidarity. You would have found assorted Trotskyists and others selling their newspapers, handing out leaflets and showing that they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with an ethnic minority group struggling against racist assaults, while busily trying to recruit new members.

But at this demonstration, I didn’t see a single left group of any kind with an obvious presence. There may have been individual socialists – like myself – there; but there were no banners, newspapers, or flyers. Continue reading

Labour needs a new leader – and not one of the usual suspects

This article appeared in Solidarity.


After Labour’s abysmal showing in the Newark by-election, which closely followed on its poor showing in the European elections, it is becoming increasingly clear that the party faces defeat yet again in the 2015 general election. That would mean another five years of Tory rule, something which would be a disaster for working people in this country.

There’s considerable discontent and unease in Labour’s ranks, and disappointment at Ed Miliband’s role as party leader, making the question of who should lead Labour into the election a crucial one. Yet there are very few good suggestions.

Tony Blair seems to want to return to political life, but that’s not going to happen. Gordon Brown already proved himself a completely ineffective campaigner when he lost to Cameron in 2010. Ed’s brother David has wandered off to do good work for the International Rescue Committee. There seems to be no one around to step in and provide leadership at a time when it is sorely needed.

But let’s try to imagine for just a moment what the ideal Labour leader might look like.

First of all, if Labour is to be in touch with the party’s working-class roots, to re-capture those communities from UKIP, Labour should choose someone who shares those roots, who comes out of the working class.

Second, Labour needs to rebuild its links — already quite tenuous — with the trade union movement. The 54 TUC-affiliated unions have nearly six million members, all of them potential voters, and a leader who could appeal to them specifically would do well in attracting many of them back to the party that bears their name. That leader would also need to appeal to the many millions of working people who are not currently in trade unions, and who often do not vote — the people who feel excluded, disengaged and ignored.

Third, Labour needs to understand how deeply disillusioned voters are with the political class. Its next leader shouldn’t come out of the ranks of Labour’s contingent in Westminster. Labour needs a fresh face, someone who’s not been an MP or Minister.

And finally, the time has come — indeed, it is long overdue — for Labour to have a female leader. Nearly 40 years have passed since the Conservatives accepted that a woman could lead a party (albeit with disastrous results for the country). Why has Labour in opposition and in power always been led by those who are “stale, pale and male”, as I once heard them described?

The person who I heard that from more than a decade ago was running the TUC’s innovative experiment in trade union revitalisation — the Organising Academy. Her name was Frances O’Grady and today she’s the first female general secretary of the TUC in its history.

I think she should also be first female leader of the Labour Party, and the sooner the better.

I doubt very much if Frances would want to do this.

And yet she meets all the criteria I mentioned above. She’s a committed trade unionist, on the Left, articulate, experienced and a proven leader.

If anyone could re-energize the Labour Party, she’s the one.

People who can’t bear the thought of David Cameron being re-elected Prime Minister in 2015 should be prepared to take risks, to do what’s not been done before.

That’s why Labour supporters should launch a ‘Draft Frances’ movement today.