[correction: At the 2019 DSA National Convention it was proposition 15 that defined the DSA position as Bernie-or-Bust, not proposition 32 as I mis-state in the episode. From the motion to adopt: "Primary motivation: We endorsed Bernie whether or not you agree. But if he fails to gain the Democratic nomination, we need to decide what to do. My reso says we know that the other Democratic Party politicians don’t jive with DSA. Do we want DSA to use our legitimacy to boost one such neoliberal candidate? No. Bernie has a unique ability to move people to action. All I say in this reso is that we’re not going to endorse another Democrat."]
When I think about why it is that the US far left, the left that was inspired by Noam Chomsky’s post 9-11 dictum that this was chickens coming home to roost, and how after the Syrian revolution began Chomsky and others decided that they couldn’t support the terrorist’s cause no matter how bad the Assad regime was, I realized how hopelessly incomprehensible the world was if you made hatred of the United States your foundation. I don’t mean to say that terrorism is ever justified: I think it fails even on its own premises. But you get a very different kind of politics if you start from the idea of protecting life and humanistic values. In Chomsky’s case he lent ideological support for the 9-11 hijackers and for the genocidaire Bashar al-Assad, and Milosevic before that, because he based his beliefs on the premise that America is always the main thing we have to struggle against. I think the example of the Syrian revolution, it’s betrayal by western intellectuals, sets in stark contrast how the idea of absolute enemies makes it impossible to know one’s own values and hence who one’s actual enemy is.
Surely one of the best books on politics of 2020 so far is Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized. In it, he discusses how group identity is so important to our survival, that it drives our reasoning and beliefs more strongly than facts. He tells some uncomfortable truths about race, about partisanship, about why our problems are intractable if we cannot overcome the reigning polarization, and gives some advice about how to do good work in the increasingly static ideological environment. One insight Klein uplifts for us there is found in the research of the social psychologist and holocaust surviver Henri Tajfel. In 1970 Tajfel published a paper called “Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination.” In that study Tajfel randomly split up 64 teenage boys into two groups. Each boy was given a small amount of money to hand out to the others as they wished, equipped only with the knowledge of which of the two random groups each belonged to. The boys all gave more money to members of their own group. In a later study Tajfel found the same behavior even if the overall payout was higher if the boys gave money to someone from the other group. From Klein: “they preferred to give their group less so long as it meant the gap between what they got and what the out-group got was bigger… Far from their behavior showing a pure desire to maximize their group’s gains, they often gave their group less to increase the difference between them and the out-group. Far from the money being the prime motivator, ‘it is the winning that seems more important to them,’ wrote Tajfel.” (pp. 54,55). Klein then goes on to discuss the work of Patrick R. Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover discussing the same dynamic at work in politics. People will sacrifice policy gains so that their team can win. This was certainly demonstrated clearly early in the Democratic primary as Bernie Sanders’ most fervent supporters attacked Elizabeth Warren, the closest Democrat to Sanders in policy terms, instead of Joe Biden. Now those same people are attacking Joe Biden, not Donald Trump. These people would rather let a fascist win than admit they lost the primary, would rather take worse policy losses than let their team down.
On another level, all of this is incredibly familiar. I’m a white southern male progressive, so I have experienced this my whole life: my demographic votes for white supremacy despite the terrible poverty that that politics imposes on us. It’s a case of what I’ve taken to calling localized solidarity. It’s the natural solidarity of people who are joined by familial ties and geographic proximity. I have in my own family people who are not consciously racist, but who tolerate in their close friendships people who are consciously racist. It’s part of small town life that the people you grew up with, the people you can call for help changing a tire or giving you a couch to crash on in an emergency, those people close to you are racists. In that context, being an anti-racist could sever communal ties that are important for survival. It’s the same in the US left: maybe it would help to speak out against the bombing of the Syrian opposition, but it would also mean being socially ostracized by friend groups that have been made over decades. It’s fascinating to me and also deeply disturbing that localized social solidarity so often depends upon and enables active or passive support for dehumanizing narratives that enable violence against vulnerable remote groups. This all came into closer focus for me about halfway through reading Proust’s Search for lost time.
Some will say that there should be no place for bourgeois literature in a Marxist’s library. On the contrary, it was Balzac that taught Marx what the bourgeois class was, and Lenin famously claimed all of world literature, the whole of humanity’s cultural accomplishments, as the property of even the lowest factory worker. Proust was from a modest middle class background, and he found himself welcomed into high society by virtue of his literary work and wit. Proust was ethnically, though not religiously Jewish, and his depictions of French high society as it rallies to and antisemitic condemnation of Dreyfus are some of the most poignant depictions of social alienation that exist. I say, go young Marxist, go forth and read Proust! And for you Proust heads out there who want to tell me that Proust is about transcending society in communion with nature, and not with a deeper kind of humanity, go read Edward J. Hughes and leave me alone!
Now, the narrator in The Search for Lost Time, Proust’s masterpiece, is loosely based on Proust himself. The narrator’s close friend, whose name is Swann, meets the narrator by chance as they both try and visit their mutual friends the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes. Swan has just found out that he is gravely ill and will die in a matter of months, and has come to inform his friend the Duke. The Duke and the Duchess are on their way to a party. If they were to take seriously Swan’s illness, it would mean of course that they should forego the party to sit with Swan whom they may never see again. But the pull of their social obligations, their desire to continue being adored in high society, stops the Duke and Duchess not only from staying with Swan but even from acknowledging the seriousness of his condition. The Duke is at that moment in front of his house waiting for the Duchess to join him. Upon hearing of Swan’s illness, the Duke makes all manner of excuses: doctors don’t know anything, and you’ll be fine Swan, and so on. The Duke pretends not to understand or believe Swan regarding his imminent death, and insists that he is late to a party and must hurry away. When the Duchess arrives, she is wearing shoes that the Duke dislikes, so he sends her back to get some new shoes on. She objects that they are running late, and the Duke, with Swan and the narrator still within earshot, tells her not to be ridiculous that they have all the time in the world. Whenever I see someone failing to connect to a deeper sense of humanity because of their immediate superficial social connections, I think about the Duchess’ shoes. For me they represent all the indifference to suffering this world contains.
One of these indifferences is that of the indifference of the US left to the suffering of the Syrian people. One of these indifferences is that of Maoists to the millions of people Mao intentionally murdered. One of those indifferences is that of white middle America to the plight of the Palestinian people. One of those indifferences is that of the American Palestinian rights movement to the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of the Assad regime. All of these people who are content to stand on the sidelines while atrocities are committed in their name, and it’s their nearest kith and kin that holds them there, their social network that blinds them to basic human solidarity, chained against even the simplest acts of compassion and humanity. This is the framing I want to understand American leftism in. We have social bonds to each other as comrades that sometimes blind us to the suffering of people around the world, and it took our utter failure to compel Syrian solidarity from the US left to show me that mechanism. And that was when I felt I needed to understand the history of the US left in a deeper way. This podcast is a testament to that attempt, and an apology to history for our failures.
Let’s pick up the story of socialist revolution from the moment of its failure in Russia and China. Let’s go back to that moment to understand what the US left learned from it, and what the US left failed to learn from it.
We have discussed in earlier podcasts the crimes of Stalin and Mao. As a socialist, I consider it irresponsible to not make an accounting for those errors. The response in the American left to the Soviet Union was mixed. Some rejected Stalin as an aberration, as not a true socialist. I think that view is wrong and irresponsible. We do better when we recognize the tendencies in our movement to authoritarianism, because then we are better positioned to fight them. Many decided to give up on socialism altogether given the depth of the failure. I would disagree with that kind of anticommunism because I think that socialism is the logical conclusion of radical democracy and human rights, but I don’t fault people who lived through the horrors of Stalinism for giving up hope, perhaps even hope in humanity itself. Nevertheless, there were groups on the US left that combined the fight against communism as it existed in the world after WW2 with progressive social policies and a commitment to uplifting the working class. Chief among these groups was Americans for Democratic Action [ADA] (Beinart, pp4-5). The ADA made the argument that for the sake of national security America had to champion civil liberties at home and abroad; this was the application of humanism in the context of an international fight against Stalinism, and a recognition that America’s hypocritical system of racial discrimination would have to be dismantled or the fight against tyranny in the world would be lost. At the 1948 Democratic National Convention the ADA fought a hard fight to pass a resolution in support of civil rights. The result of that fight was that pro-segregation Dixie Democrats left the party. The initiative was led by Hubert Humphrey who gave a powerful speech that day: “There can be no hedging… no watering down...To those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights -- I say to them, we are 172 years late. To those who say this bill is an infringement on states’ rights, I say… the time has arrived for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” (Beinart, pp. 11-12). The political machine forged in this way between trade unions and progressives committed to fighting Stalinist communism dominated the Democratic Party for the next two decades. In that time the Democratic Party lost the White House once to Eisenhower. They lifted into the executive Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. We will recall from our discussion of the Black Panther Party that Hubert Humphrey lost in 1968 because of the mistaken impression that he was not against the Vietnam War. In part he was rejected not because of the Vietnam War, which he opposed, but instead because he refused to reject all American intervention because of the experience of the Vietnam War. A cold war liberal like Humphrey could admit to a mistake and change course, but he could not join McGovern and the Maoist left in their anti-Americanism first because such a man believed in the potential the American system held and secondly because doing so meant alienating the working class by feeding right wing talking points that the Democrats were soft on national defense. This difference comes out strikingly when Beinart discusses the differences between Robert Kennedy’s and McCarthy’s positions on the Vietnam war: “The two men had different conceptions of America’s role in the world. Their positions on Vietnam itself were virtually indistinguishable: Both called for an end to bombing and a coalition government in South Vietnam. But McCarthy’s critique went far beyond the war itself: ‘Vietnam,’ he said at a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ‘is part of a much larger question, which is, is America going to police the planet?’ In another speech, he blamed the war on ‘a moral mission’ -- dating from the 1950s -- ‘in which we took it upon ourselves to judge the political systems of other nations. I am not entirely convinced,,’ said McCarthy, ‘that Senator Kennedy has entirely renounced that misconception.’.. And he was right not to be convinced. McCarthy was foreshadowing the new liberalism that would emerge after 1968-- which questioned whether America had much to offer the world. Kennedy, by contrast, pledged in his announcement speech that his campaign would be about ‘our right to moral leadership of this planet.’ That right, he was suggesting, was no longer self-evident. But it could still be earned. On June 4, after beating McCarthy in the California primary, Kennedy took the stage at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel, and told 1,500 manic, deafening supporters that ‘We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country’ -- defiant words coming from a liberal in 1968. After finishing his speech, he turned, and exited through the hotel’s kitchen, where he was shot three times. Twenty-five hours later, he was dead” (Beinart, pp. 47-48).
Others on the left, like Sam Marcy the founder of the Workers’ World Party, denied that crimes had been committed, or felt the crimes were exaggerated, or that the crimes were justified or some combination of these three excuses. They combined in their anti-American politics apologetics for Stalin’s crimes, and then later for Mao’s crimes and for Pol Pot’s crimes and for Assad’s crimes more recently, and many other petty dictators around the world’s crimes, with a supposedly antiwar politics that denounced violence only when it was committed by the US government. The root of this politics was Stalin’s idea that there were bourgeois and proletarian nations. The same logic that led Stalin to slaughter the ‘bourgeois’ Polish nation led the antiwar movement to call the resistance to Bashar al-Assad ‘bourgeois.’ This abuse of class categories in the name of cheering on whichever geopolitical actor opposes the United States should remind us of Erlenbusch-Anderson’s discussion of the transposition of racist categories of struggle onto the schematics of class struggle in 19th century Russian political thought. (Erlenbusch-Anderson, p. 56). Erlenbusch-Anderson’s 2018 Genealogy of Terrorism is excellent and informative.
The Vietnam war resistance of the left lifted anti-anti-communism into leadership (Beinart, p42).
It was in 1964, with the rise of this anti-war movement, that the left embraced the politics of absolute enemies that had been given its clearest formulation in the thought of the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmidt, thinking of politics as intractable conflict without the possibility of compromise. (Beinart, p.43) Tom Hayden, deciding that anti-Communism was an exaggeration of Stalin’s crimes, made out that if the working class didn’t agree with him then they were wrong. This seemed to be confirmed in the political thinking of the New Left who embraced Herbert Marcuse’s concept of the One Dimensional Man, i.e. that all of modern, western society was sick and had to be opposed by an enlightened clique organized within academia. The future of the left, in Hayden’s opinion, was in fighting any American attempts to contain the Soviet Union and in organizing academics instead of workers. The politics that came out of this move towards a political foundation in the counterculture was undemocratic in essence, a real break from the orthodox Marxism of a generation prior. This is where the left begins its long march into political obscurity. (Beinart, pp 42-43). The New Left combined a rejection of the need to contain communism with an anti-war politics based on the righteousness of third world struggles for independence. Jean Paul-Sartre, that darling of the US left, is quite typical in the way that he never entirely accounted for the error he made in supporting the Soviet Union throughout all of the show trials and revealed crimes, the pogroms against the Poles and the near pogrom of the Jews, even the crushing of the Hungarian workers’ revolt, but instead Sartre simply changed the subject in the 60s to cast himself as a champion of third world struggles against colonialism. The Stalinist and Maoist tendencies stopped talking about the past and cloaked their authoritarianism in opposition to US wars of aggression. By the way, you don’t have to support the US’ war in Vietnam or in Iraq for instance in order to be opposed to Mao’s crimes. Ho Chi-Minh was opposed to Mao’s crimes: if you need to be reminded of that go back to our podcast on Maoism. Peter Beinart’s 2006 book The Good Fight has much to tell us about how the US left became hopelessly confused and politically isolated in the 20th century. Beinart discusses how the ADA was forced by a tide of young activists to turn away from workers, away from anti-communism and towards third worldism. Recall that McCarthy was the candidate who generalized the experience of Vietnam to a global rejection of American intervention. Tragically, the ADA had to choose between an antiwar politics that was as right in the particular as it was dogmatic, and an anticommunism that was right in general but not in the specific.
“Trying to connect to a new generation, in 1966 the ADA put Lowenstein - then 37 years old - on its board. The following year, it made him vice president. But Lowenstein and his student allies were on a mission to defeat Lyndon Johnson, a mission many ADA labor leaders - who loathed the antiwar movement - adamantly opposed. The organization faced a stark dilemma. Unless it supported McCarthy, it would consign itself to irrelevance among the activist young. But backing him, as Joseph Rauh warned, would split ‘the liberal-labor-Negro coalition that had elected every liberal president and made possible every liberal advance wincet he 1930s.’ On February 10, 1968, in the most important ADA meeting since the Willard Hotel, the National Board voted 65 to 47 to endorse McCarthy’s presidential bid. Within weeks, more than a thousand new members, many of them young, joined the organization. But representatives of the steel workers, the garment workers, and the communication workers all resigned. “The coalition,” one labor leader declared, “is finished.”” (Beinart, p46).
After the sixties, and the failure of the academia centric student movements, leftists revisited the experience of the Black Panther Party. But instead of seeing there a vanguard that had rallied all of society to the task of ending the Vietnam War, many of them saw the arrival of the primary agent of historical change. The position that the working class had occupied for leftists in the thirties, and that student radicals occupied for Tom Hayden in the sixties, would now be occupied by the colonized subject, the former slave, the FLN in Algeria, the Palestinian, and Mao Tze-Tung. Class analysis, radical Democracy and even Marcuse’s critiques of a one-dimensional society would all take a backseat to campist ideology. Noam Chomsky’s 1968 The New Mandarins is typical of this trend. Chomsky puts forward there the argument that Japanese imperialism was better for China than American imperialism, because the Japanese were more local and had a more natural right to dominate the Chinese people. He would go on to vindicate Slobodan Milosevic’s rights to massacre the ethnic Albanians, and to denounce the US for stopping a genocide in Kosovo. In 2013 we find him arguing against a no-fly zone in Syria. These people have bonds to the anti-American movement that blind them to basic human solidarity. This group is what Michael Berube has called the Manichean Left, because they have embraced a Manichean view according to which there is one group that is absolutely evil, the United States, and another that is absolutely good, any of America’s enemies. Berube’s 2009 The Left At War is a must read in this vein. There’s no way to understand our failure in Syria without a heavy repudiation of the premises of these peoples’ politics, and so far there doesn’t seem to be within their ideology any resource to help them understand their own ghoulish and genocidal failures.
I want to single out Foucault, because I think he is typical of a particular trend. Foucault went further than anyone else in the 20th century into this search for a motor of historical change, for an agent other than a democratically organized society. His answer to the question “who is the agent of history” was simply the outsider. It didn’t break down along race, class or geopolitical lines, Foucault consistently sided with whoever rejected society as such. That pose allowed Foucault to put himself forward as embodying a kind of objectivity that rejected humanistic values. I read a lot of Foucauldians, and I’ve cited the work in this podcast of Ladelle McWharter and Erlenbusch-Anderson. All of this stuff is fine as history. They talk about history, usually the history of ideas, in a way that tends to capture more of the story than usual. But that’s just the work of history. Usually these writers claim objectivity by taking an orientation of cynicism towards liberal institutions. That’s fine. But the question of whether we should strive to uphold human rights, whether we are pointing out liberal hypocrisy in an attempt to correct it, or whether we are going to discard human rights altogether, that is a question these writers don’t seem to address. And for sure Foucault is deeply indifferent to any thinking about human rights. At best, there is an underlying humanistic value in the work of certain Foucauldians, but it’s never explored for its own sake, never interrogated seriously because that might require a good faith argument for institutions that could defend rights. Foucault more than anyone seems to have given intellectual rigor and focus to the self defeating tendency to disengage from democratic institutions and retreat into an enlightened clique of effete intellectuals. So, you find Foucault in the seventies fetishizing the authoritarian theocracy of Iran. Why not? If power can have no sincere normative foundation, then any authority will do, and an authority that poses as an enemy to the liberal order is best of all. But if we define sovereignty as Spinoza does, as in “sovereign is he who protects the masses,” and by “protect” we must mean the unhypocritical protection from violence committed by the state itself or by foreign powers, protection from hunger and want, protection of the right to democratic participation, then we find Foucault badly wanting. Here is how Foucault defines sovereignty, as explicitly not founded on the rule of law and a discourse of human rights, and I think the Nazi Carl Schmidt would have to agree with him. This quote is from his class notes of 1976 collected and published in English in 2003, which for you Foucault heads out there means it’s after the genealogical turn at the end of a several years long meditation and lecture series on the role of society in politics. Quote:
“In order to make a concrete analysis of power relations, we must abandon the juridical model of sovereignty. That model in effect presupposes that the individual is a subject with natural rights or primitive powers; it sets itself the task of accounting for the ideal genesis of the State; and finally, it makes the law the basic manifestation of power. We should be trying to study power not on the basis of the primitive terms of the relationship, but on the basis of the relationship itself, to the extent that it is the relationship itself that determines the elements on which it bears: rather than asking ideal subjects what part of themselves or their powers they have surrendered in order to let themselves become subjects, we have to look at how relations of subjugation can manufacture subjects.” In other words, to truly be free, an individual must by Nietzschean will lift themselves above the realm where we mere mortals defend our rights, must build ourselves out of thin air a lawless space where we can transgress. On this account, because no law can be made in the absence of human frailty, then all law is hypocritical and empty of moral value. Real progress on Foucault’s account is not the contestation of norms and institutions, but the indiscriminate destruction of the same in the name of desire without any responsibility to other people. This is the ideology of smug and comfortable academics who do not organize and are not interested in party politics, and this is why we cannot have nice things. Do you want to get fascists? Because this is how you get fascists. Are their Foucauldians who transcend the limits of Foucault’s abortive illiberal politics? Yes. Ladelle Mcwhorter is one of these because her work on racism in the United States draws on the inherently progressive struggle of the Black and LGBTQ community for moral strength, but that orientation doesn’t come from any resource in Foucault’s work and it doesn’t change the fact that in claiming Foucault she is popularizing a thinker whose political commitments are deeply problematic. Both things are true.
The work of Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington and the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee starting in the late sixties was a striking countervailing force to the rise of the niche subcultural left described above. Michael Kazin’s 2011 book “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation” should be required reading for anyone on the left today who wants to understand where we’ve been and where we’re going. Here is how he describes Rustin’s politics: “By the mid-sixties, the master organizer had come to believe that the only way to liberate black Americans was through a popular front -- though as an anti-Communist, he would never have described it that way. ‘We need to choose our allies on the basis of common political objective,’ declared Rustin. This meant strengthening bonds with labor unions, liberal churches, guilt-ridden philanthropists, and sympathetic politicians. With Randolph’s backing, Rustin drew up a blueprint for a new, social-democratic order. His ‘Freedom Budget,” unveiled in the fall of 1966, would have guaranteed to every citizen a job, an annual income, health insurance, good schools, and decent housing - all paid for by a progressive income tax stripped of loopholes for the rich. Rustin counseled his fellow activists not to waste time trying either to soften the hearts of white racists or, like Malcolm X, to scare them ‘into doing the right thing.’ Transform the capitalist order, he counseled, and their hearts will eventually follow.” (p.219). That is wise council.
There is a story we tell about the sixties. It centers student radicalism as the motor of change, as the center of the resistance to the Vietnam War. I hope at least for those who listen to this podcast carefully, especially the episode about the Black Panther Party, will let that version of the 60s story die. The postscript of that story is the narrative that the hippies all became yuppies and gave up on revolution, but that is the story told from the point of view of the adventurers who saw in activism their chance to be movie stars and action heros. Those people do eventually drop out of the movement the moment they realize that real power is the result of long and thankless work in coalitions of morally imperfect people and with results that help a little but do not work salvation for a fallen nation. But there were other people involved in the protest movement whose commitment was not so facile. These people entered the seventies with an interest in understanding what went wrong and finding a way forward. That was very much the path that was taken by the New American Movement [NAM] and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee [DSOC]. Maurice Isserman’s The Other American is an important and timely read. Anyone involved with the Democratic Socialist’s of America owes it to themselves to read it and become familiar with how the DSA began. Now, DSOC was the organization Michael Harrington built to try and pull Democratic Party politics to the left. In 1976 DSOC had a scant 3,000 members, but it had important connections in the trade union movement. Their campaign in 1976 was called Democratic Agenda, and it succeeded in getting Carter a win in the democratic primary over George Wallace who wanted to revive the racist politics of Dixie Democrats. In 1978, when the left and the trade unions were disillusioned with Carter, DSOC caucused in Memphis, TN with the Democrats urging the party to adopt on its platform a national healthcare system, a government owned gas and oil corporation and full employment. DSOC’s agenda failed, but by a very slim margin. They had proven that a strong plurality favored policies that were more equitable, i.e. better for poor and working people. Isserman cites the contemporary analysis of Hedrick Smith in the New York Times: “The fact that nearly forty percent of the party’s activists were willing to go on record against Mr. Carter on what John C. White, the Party chairman, made a virtual vote of confidence in the President, was firm indication of the schism that has developed between the White House and the liberal wing of the party.” (p. 335). DSOC was modeling a certain kind of political behavior: voting in the lesser evil and then fighting it like the devil.
The New American Movement had a similar emphasis on popular, democratic mobilizations. From Isserman: “NAM’s history stretched back to the start of the 1970s, when a group of activists and intellectuals influential on the New Left, including Michael Lerner, James Weinstein, and Saughton Lynd, decided to form a successor to SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. This would be a post-student organization, though one heavily influenced by the experiences of student radicals in the 1960s. From the early New Left and the civil rights movement, NAM took an emphasis on the importance of local community organization; from the later New Left it took a mixture of Marxism and feminism. At the same time, NAM discarded the confrontational politics and tempered (if never entirely eliminating) the third world romanticism of the late 1960s.” (p. 347).
In 1982 DSOC and NAM merged to form the Democratic Socialists of America. On the eve of the 2016 election the DSA had a total membership of around 5,000 people. The excitement that the Bernie Sanders’ campaign of that year generated caused the membership of the DSA to explode, and it now stands at 60,000 members. The late success of the DSA is proof of concept that a political organization can be built around socialist politics, if that politics is oriented towards meeting people where they are and realizing what Michael Harrington would call “the left wing of the possible.” It is deeply unfortunate that the undemocratic left has entered the DSA and distorted its image, and maybe its purpose.
Back in 2014 when I was a graduate student at Appalachian State I went to an organizers’ training organized by Planned Parenthood. Part of our training was pairing off and telling our partner why we were there. They impressed on us the need to explain to the people we wanted to organize our reason for being there. If we didn’t come out and tell our story, other people would or people would make assumptions about us based on our skin color and gender. That really stuck with me. I’ve always made it a habit when meeting up with comrades to discuss what are we going to do, our practical tasks in the short term, that at some point early on I’ll ask them why they do this. A lot of the time they have to reflect a moment. They have a reason, but they haven’t articulated it yet. It’s absolutely essential to articulate, even if only to yourself, why you are engaged in organising work. And you have to revisit those reasons from time to time. It can be very easy to get caught up in pursuing some temporary goal and lose sight of our values, of why it is we do this. If we lose touch with our values, we can easily be discouraged if things don’t work out the way we want them to. As much as everyone wanted to see a socialist in the White House, by now we know that’s not going to happen. We can’t let what we do next be some unintentional nonsense. We have to connect to our values and work from there in a new situation.
When I came to Memphis the group was growing, but the membership wasn’t active. There was one guy organizing the meetings, and a lot of other people with good intentions standing around watching him. So, we engaged the membership. We phone banked people to have an open ended conversation about why they do this. What did they expect the Memphis-MidSouth Democratic Socialists of America to accomplish, and how did they imagine themselves contributing to that? We found clarity of purpose, and that translated into intentional action and increased membership engagement. If you asked me why I thought this work was so essential I’d tell you then what I’d tell you now: we need an independent group to help more progressive candidates win, and we need to build that group up so that one day we can run our own candidates on an independent party line. That’s still the goal. If we don’t organize voting blocks to tip the scales in the favor of the most vulnerable, then we’re leaving the battlefield open to the far right. Bernie Sanders was the candidate our group preferred in the primary, but now the choice is between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Let’s take a look at the three candidates. The reason why I had to put all this work into these dozen or so podcasts was to drive home the point that there are no saints and sinners, everyone lands somewhere in between. Everyone is a greater or lesser evil or good. I’ve discussed the history of how the left fell into thinking according to a theory of original sin, of absolute enemies. The Democrats, so it is thought, are an absolute enemy who never did anything good for anyone. Here is the kind of politics that thinking gave us.
In August of 2019 the DSA’s national conference took place, and a majority of delegates voted for resolution 32. Resolution 32 states that if Bernie Sanders isn’t the Democratic candidate in the general election, then the DSA will not endorse a candidate. This is Bernie-or-Bust. Yes, I know that chapters and individuals can endorse whoever they want and still work to elect Joe Biden, but then what’s the point of having a national organization if as a national organization we decide to stand on the sidelines as America struggles against a fascist in the White House. We told the world that if our man doesn’t win, then we will leave them to the mercy of Donald Trump. That is when I stopped trying to bring people into the DSA, because I knew no one who was informed would want to join such an organization. I can’t organize around a group that doesn’t see beating fascism in power as its priority. Such an organization is not worth supporting. The DSA does have the potential to turn that around. It could become the organization that shows up consistently to defend the most vulnerable, even if we don’t like their choice of leadership. I hope it does. I expect some part of it will not. Some part of it will decide that the thing to do is help Trump get elected, by tearing down Biden and even by voting for Trump. I want to talk a little about each of these three men: Trump, Sanders and Biden.
I don’t know now what the death count will be when this podcast comes out, but its projected that several hundred thousand will die. I have COPD, so I may be among them by the time the podcast comes out. The coronavirus is going to kill a lot of people, and the Trump administration’s handling of that crisis is making it much worse in ways that people cannot avoid. They, their family, friends and loved ones are dying and often being made the cause of death by Trump’s misinformation and lies. However my mother dies, I will mourn, but it’s more painful to know that her gullibility led to Trump being able to sacrifice her to his propaganda war. Multiply that by several hundred thousand nationwide. Add in all the people who will get sick and will live several weeks under the shadow of death.
The coronavirus is something we can manage, something we could have much better managed. It’s something Trump made a lot worse by doing nothing but warning his close friends to sell off stocks for the entire month of February. Every day he is in office we face the possibility another crisis will arrive that he will make worse. The poor response to the coronavirus isn’t because of capitalism: it’s not because capitalists need profit or workers are oppressed. All of that is perfectly compatible with a strong reaction to a crisis. It’s not in the interests of Capitalists to let large groups of workers to die. The collapse in the realization of profit in the retail sector is something that would have been less bad for capitalists if a stronger response to the crisis had occured. Indonesia is capitalist, and Italy has Universal Health Care. Indonesia has had a good reaction to COVID19, and Italy has not. Trump is the crisis, and people know that. That’s why they are voting for Biden. If the DSA isn’t a part of that, people will see it’s not worth supporting. It pains me terribly to say that, because I’ve given years of my life to building this movement, and I, like you, have had such high hopes after the stunning growth we experienced after 2016. That growth is over now, and our inability to use our organizational strength to oppose Trump is why.
How do we encourage the left today to help Biden beat Trump. One way to do that is to be fair in our criticisms of Biden, and not to exaggerate his faults or invent any. We can endorse voting for Biden while still calling for better, stronger organizing to fight for better moving forward. Being able to articulate that case is an existential question for our movement: people we want to organize see the threat of Donald Trump very well, and if we don't help beat him we will receive and deserve political isolation. Coronavirus is very bad, but it would have been more manageable under Hillary Clinton. It's a disaster under Trump. There's a strong parallel to be drawn between Trumpers downplaying the risk Coronavirus poses and Bernie-or-Busters downplaying the difference between Biden and Trump.
Bernie Sanders is an uncompromising independent. When we look back over the history of the US left, of all the terrible controversies and hypocrisies around Stalinism we can summon a certain empathy for those who eschewed the parties and stood on their own. The cost is that Sanders led his believers into the Democratic Party without building an independent organization or voting block. In this sense, Bernie Sanders is a typical leftist of his time combining a manichean anti-imperialism, a heavy emphasis on class awareness but light on race awareness, bereft of any real political accomplishments, happy to heckle those who wield power.
Joe Biden is a man committed to compromise and to the politically available. In previous podcasts I’ve discussed how the far left turned its back on the American working class, which rightly rejected Communism on Stalin’s terms. As the mass of working America turned to the right, the left stopped voting. Democrats went where the votes were, and Joe Biden was part of that movement to the right. Once he becomes President, Joe Biden is going to find out that there’s no one on the other side to negotiate compromises with. But he will put the judiciary and immigration services back on a legal footing, and if we’re lucky enough to have Kamala Harris as the Attorney General we can expect Trump incorporated to go to jail where they belong.
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Klein, E. "Why we’re polarized." (2020).
Schmitt, Carl. The concept of the political: Expanded edition. University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Music: Andreas Boldt, A Never Ending Ocean, else Harry