Sanders gets burned

Sanders gets burned

It is right to protest Bernie Sanders, no matter how socialist he claims to be. The women who disrupted his speech did not create a racial divide but merely exposed it.

It turns out, there are people more radical than Bernie Sanders in the United States.

This obvious fact has managed to rock the left-liberal political world in the days since two Black women took over the stage of the Vermont socialist running for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. The accusations that these women must be shills for Hillary Clinton or were not “officially” representing Black Lives Matter came with stunning speed, much of it with a strong tinge of racism.

Among the most disgusting outbursts were people like Doug Henwood, the left-wing economist, who went on a series of rants on his Facebook page. The comments on his page, some his own, were filled with conspiracy theories and barely concealed racist bilge, questioning the very legitimacy of these women who could not possibly have a good reason for doing such a thing to good old Bernie. Apparently, when Black people are getting gunned down in the street by the police, they have to get the proper credentials and permission before they make their voices heard. In one particularly vile Facebook post, Henwood even raised the specter of COINTELPRO dividing white and Black activists with actions like this. There are so many levels of cluelessness in raising this issue that it could take up an essay of its own. Little did he realize, as we will see below, that there already is a sharp divide and this disruption only exposed it.

On the other end of the spectrum–the reasonable, non-racist end–is Kshama Sawant, the most prominent revolutionary in the United States who shared the stage with Sanders. She has endorsed him, in spite of his Democratic Party affiliation, as have several far-left groups who would usually argue against working for the second party of US capitalism. The thinking behind this maneuver, and it is nothing more than a maneuver, is that the people flocking to Sanders and his “socialist” label are more important than Sanders himself and may in fact form the basis of a broader fightback. The exact same argument was made around the Barack Obama campaign in 2008, not to mention numerous campaigns before that, including the campaigns of Dennis Kucinich and Jesse Jackson, all of which led directly into the dead end of the Democratic Party.

The truth is, Sanders’ campaign and his supporters are no threat to the status quo whatsoever, nor will they be, no matter how proudly they call themselves socialists. On the other hand, there is an entire category of working-class militants who do not proclaim the socialist label and yet have been rebelling around the country, who are a threat to the status quo and who are treated as such.

The gulf between Sanders’ supporters and Black militancy was exposed by the disruption of Sanders’ speech and that in and of itself made the action worthwhile. Those who wonder what the purpose of the action was do not seem to realize that their own discomfort was probably part of the goal. In spite of the hand-wringing and confusion of many white Leftists, it is right to protest Bernie Sanders and any Democratic Party politician, no matter how many adoring white progressives line up behind him. After all, this is a man who voted to support Israel’s most recent siege of Gaza and for the extradition of Black revolutionary Assata Shakur from Cuba and for Bill Clinton’s Omnibus Crime Bill which expanded the death penalty and pumped billions into the prison system. In other words, the man who claims to have fought for civil rights for 50 years actually has a horrible record on race.

Many socialists see Sanders’ audience as their own potential audience, and that is part of the problem. When the Black activists stormed the stage, some of Sanders’ white progressive supporters booed and chanted “All Lives Matter” and “Bernie Matters.” These two groups, Black militants and Sanders supporters, are mutually exclusive, and the mistake of the Left for many years has been to prioritize the battle of ideas over actual battles. Seeing these white progressives who are drawn to socialism as their own base of support, some Leftists become confused and outraged themselves, fearing that such a “divisive” action will forestall some impending popular front because irresponsible radicals want to ruin it.

There needs to be an analysis and critique of the Democratic Party, but rather than seeing the Sanders campaign as an historic opportunity to have out this debate, we should realize that it is just another blip on the hamster wheel of symbolic challenges to the system that go nowhere. It can be safely ignored in favor of real organizing. There are real examples of working-class resistance happening around the country and they are typically far from Sanders and his supporters.

White people for Bernie

According to a recent article in the New York Times, “As many as 100,000 people attended house parties for Bernie Sanders,” an impressive feat for an open socialist. It almost seems like the “Change you can believe in” campaign of Barack Obama in 2008, but with one major difference. “The pattern of Mr. Sanders’s support,” argues the Times, “resembles Mr. Obama’s support from 2008, but with nearly no support from the black voters who decided that election in Mr. Obama’s favor.”

For example, on the south side of Chicago, “Mr. Obama won 80 percent of the vote in 2012. There, just 10 people were registered for a Sanders event.”

The article continues:

While more than a thousand people showed up to Sanders events in Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., there were equally populated Southern and nonwhite areas where there were no Sanders events at all. His top 15 congressional districts, each with at least 750 registered attendees, were all in Oregon, Washington, California — or Vermont. Next came Boulder, Colo.

Interest in Sanders’ campaign comes overwhelmingly from white people in white liberal enclaves. They are interested in electoral politics now, they were interested in electoral politics ten years ago, and they will be interested in electoral politics ten years hence. It is not a gateway to militant activism, it is merely a gateway to more electoral campaigning with essentially the same politics, because this is the field of political activity that they are accustomed to based on their social background.

People who want to campaign for Bernie Sanders, who show up for one of his house parties, take materials to distribute to their friends and argue with people to vote for Sanders can be relied upon to do just that, though not necessarily much more. If socialism is about the self emancipation of the working class, then the Sanders campaign has nothing to do with socialism.

The problem is not that Sanders does not loudly proclaim that he supports the dictatorship of the proletariat. Frankly, if he did that, it would change very little. The problem is that the activity of his campaign has virtually nothing to do with the self-organization of the working class and has nothing to do with challenging the status quo. Nobody is threatened by his campaign, least of all Hillary Clinton, whom Sanders will support after he loses the primary. He has said so himself. Pretending that is not going to happen is dishonest and delusional. Additionally, almost none of the campaign activity will lend itself toward militant struggles against capitalism in the future. Distributing materials to white liberals in Portland or Berkeley is simply not going to empower the working class to fight in its own interest one bit. Even if it is for a socialist candidate.

This will probably seem like sectarian nit-picking to some, so let’s clarify the problem. It is not that Sanders is not “radical” enough or does not use the right revolutionary phraseology. That is completely irrelevant to this discussion. The problem is that the activity of his campaign will do nothing to lay the basis for broader fightbacks by working-class people against capitalism. There is nothing about the activity of the campaign or the people involved that prepares people to organize in a meaningful way, other than having more meetings and distributing more materials.

There are often numerous moments of symbolic resistance to capitalism that seem to point the way toward a broader fightback, but they never do. The problem is not that they have the right or wrong politics, but the wrong activity. They can proclaim to be as radical or as socialist as they want to be, but that is meaningless until they take actual steps toward resistance against neoliberalism or state violence. The moments that point to a broader fightback are the ones that actually encompass a fightback in the first place.

Communicating ideas to a broad audience is nice but has very little impact on actual struggle. Occupy Wall Street did not have an impact because people mic-checked or talked about income inequality but because it encouraged people to occupy public spaces in direct opposition to their local, often Democratic Party-controlled, political leadership. A one day march, or even a series of marches, with exactly the same or even more radical politics would hardly have had the impact that it had. In that vein, no matter how socialist or pro-Sanders anybody claims to be, it has very little relationship to what role they will play in actual moments of resistance.

Ferguson feels the burn

On the other hand, we have just lived through–and are hopefully continuing to live through–a national struggle against racist policing of African-Americans that often finds them dead at the hands of racist cops. This has led to extraordinary scenes of class warfare, including the burning down of a drug store in Ferguson, Missouri, and a group of Black youths throwing rocks at the police in Baltimore. This is just a sample of what has happened in these and other cities.

It is not clear that any of these people who carried out these acts would call themselves socialist. They probably would not. However, it is pretty clear, based on the New York Times article and the historic fact that working-class Blacks are typically less engaged in electoral politics than other groups, that almost none of these people are interested in the Bernie Sanders campaign. They probably haven’t even heard of him. And yet they are confronting state power directly, building working class organizations to defend themselves against police violence–many of which are probably temporary but some are not. In Oakland, where I live, which has been through similar upheavals since the police killing of Oscar Grant, there are several examples of working-class Blacks, as well as Latinos and others, collectively engaged in either political organizations or in community projects, and many of them would identify capitalism as their enemy.

And this leads to the fundamental problem of the debate around Sanders, which is, why would we consider Sanders supporters such an important “audience” for left-wing ideas while not being nearly so engaged in the developing militant activities and organizations of Black people?

There is no doubt widespread support on the Left for the Black Lives Matter movement, even though Sanders’s support for it is more equivocal. Some will say we can be engaged with both communities. That would be nice if it were true, but in my experience, socialists who say they are going to engage with both populations generally use that as an excuse to only engage one, and we can guess which one. To pretend otherwise is to minimize the difficulty of the problem and the uphill battle the Left still faces in building a base in working-class communities.

For an example of this differing level of engagement, most socialist groups have published articles in their newspapers and web sites on the topic of “What do we say about Bernie Sanders?” or “How should socialists relate to the Bernie Sanders campaign?” However, I am not aware of any recent articles from these groups on topics such as “Should socialists burn down drugstores?” or “What is the best way to throw rocks at the police?” or, perhaps more practically, “What do you do when you and your friends are arrested in a riot?”

It may seem silly to pose these hypotheticals, until we remember that there are actual working-class militants who have directly dealt with these questions over the past year and while the Left has marched in solidarity, it has little to no practical relationship to these more militant activities. And yet these are the very actions that have put the police and their political supporters on their heels in cities around the country, and have resulted in the indictments and firings of several police officers. This is an historic change and the people who courageously carried out these activities are the future revolutionaries of the United States, whether or not they ever call themselves socialists.

There are several cases now where people on the far-left have said something like “I am against the Democratic Party, but I will engage with Sanders’ supporters in his campaign in order to work in solidarity with these activists.” However, I do not believe any of these Leftist has said “I am against burning down buildings, but I am going to help burn down this building in order to work in solidarity with these activists.” Leftists who tactically choose not to engage in arson will not hear any argument from me, the point is that these are not the sort of questions that are even being confronted by the Left at all, though they are being confronted in actual struggles. Meanwhile, the question of Bernie Sanders and his supporters is given the utmost importance.

This, in a nutshell, is the picture of a Left which has not been central to working class resistance and has little strategy for changing that moving forward. The approach of the Left of finding people who are interested in socialist ideas, then talking to them about whether that means the Democratic Party, or Sweden, or the Soviet Union, or the Soviet Union until 1927, is the approach which has led us to this situation, and which is being reproduced in the over-concern for Sanders’ audience. This approach is a dead end, because the best fighters in the class struggle are not the people who think you can elect a socialist into the Oval Office, nor is it the people who think you need a revolutionary party to organize the working class against capitalism. Rather, the best fighters in the class struggle are simply the people who are actually carrying out the class struggle right now.

Discussions around the Bernie Sanders campaign are in many ways a refuge from dealing with these difficult problems of really-existing radical activity. In reality, the Left could completely ignore the Bernie Sanders campaign over the next year and focus entirely on doing solidarity work and building organizational support for working-class militants who are taking direct action against state terror, and it would be much better off for it. It would be a far more fruitful use of political and organizational energy, and would lay the basis for actual militant struggles down the road. Some might lament that they would miss so many opportunities by ignoring the Sanders campaign, while ironically failing to see the actual opportunities for working-class resistance that are being missed at this very moment.

I am excited to see what the mini-rebellions against the police will produce in the years to come and what sort of organizational forms will grow out of them. I have little faith that Bernie Sanders supporters will be involved in or responsible for any of this. They will probably join various solidarity marches from time to time, and that’s great, I hope they do, but that is really not sufficient. Otherwise, most of them will wait for the next Sanders/Kucinich/etc. campaign in 2020 or 2024, at which point we will have this discussion all over again.

You do not need a crystal ball to foresee this, you merely need to look at what people are doing right now in order to appreciate what they are likely to do in the future.


Aug 12 2015 05:51
Kshama Sawant, the most prominent revolutionary in the United States


Aug 12 2015 14:26


Aug 12 2015 14:40

Yeah, I wish there was more engagement or whatever by communists/anarchists and the spontaneous reactions to police violence. But it should be articulated what we want.

Isn't it contradictory somewhat to say "Engaging Bernie's base is a waste of socialist time" and then supporting people who have a stated goal of moving the dems "to the left", went to a bernie rally, and spoke to the crowd, and tried to get Bernie to adopt a more amenable program?

I think we may have to separate BLM from the organic response to police violence as well. I think it is a lot less of a cunning, grassroots, and of a unified movement than it's race-is-breast-cancer ribbons might imply.

Aug 12 2015 19:43

Yes I don't see what was so good about this particular BLM action - it was done principally by only two leaders of the group and was oriented towards the media and politicians (some weird form of direct action lobbying), in contrast to other actions such as the blocking of freeway entrances that involved larger numbers of angry, not necessarily political activist type people engaged in collective, actual direct action.

Dearg Dubh
Aug 18 2015 03:15

A week after this appeared, there's been progress rather than polarisation from the Sanders camp. He welcomes dialogue with DeRay McKesson from BLM. As an aside, one of the disruptors has been linked to Sarah Palin and right-wing Christian causes, and disavowed by BLM. In Los Angeles, shortly after the Seattle disruptions happened, African-American spokespeople on the dais appeared along with a "Dreamer" young woman, who was his opening speaker to a crowd of 27,500. While the "white liberals" Scott Jay credits and then dismisses as B.S.'s support base were in evidence, so were thousands of others reflecting diversity in demographics and ages from Southern California. Many Latino students attended, and a wide variety of union members. Killer Mike and Lil' B are rappers who have spoken up for Bernie. Native activist Gyasi Ross sums up the pros and cons of backing Bernie, as he was in Seattle. What Bernie lacks is, for many, name recognition. Hillary has that, and it will take significant outreach (not easy for a DIY campaign) to counter her.

Having heard Sanders speak myself, while I suspect by his refusal to criticise Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party that he will eventually capitulate before her money machine to endorse her (Jay's Hill article link implies this), there is a considerable amount of attention paid his campaign in the fortnight since what are record-setting attendance records for a candidate. Admittedly in his West Coast enclaves. Many of us here at LibCom, furthermore, found our way here via other leftist causes. So, rather than polarising LibCom audiences, why not refuse to pit us against progressive and working-class movements with whom we might find, however imperfectly, a common cause or shared objectives for policy and social change? Speaking of disruption, this is a U.S. campaign not seen for decades. Compromised as (indies or) Democrats are to a long-anointed front-runner, why not reach out to them in class solidarity, advancing together?

Chilli Sauce
Aug 18 2015 02:21

Sorry, D, I'm not fully understanding you post. Are you suggesting US anarchists should support Sanders?

Dearg Dubh
Aug 18 2015 03:27

CS, I tried to offer more context as a follow-up to the original critique of Sanders' campaign as more or less 'white liberals' but nothing more. As one who heard him speak, I wanted to share my reaction; I am not sure if Scott Jay had been in his recent audience and had seen the diversity of support Sanders is beginning to gain. I know there's discussion among left-libertarians whether or not to piggyback on this campaign to take advantage of this opportunity. I wanted to add that there's starting to be a broader base for Sanders lately than this article implies, given that this campaign faces a severe lack of name recognition among non-white (and many white) voters. As to that vexed question of whether or not to support S. as after all a D-party candidate, I remain open to debate pro and con. Some I know are refusing to support him on principle of abstention while others are mulling it over. That being said, this is a moment not seen in major-party U.S. politics for many decades. I figured to add my comments to this site as a sensible place to keep the discussion alive and open.

Juan Conatz
Aug 18 2015 05:17

I remember the "Stand with Obama voters for hope" thing a bunch of celebrity leftists pit out in 2008. It was embarassing then and even more embarassing when people go along similar lines for Bernie Sanders.

Aug 18 2015 05:52
Dearg Dubh wrote:
As an aside, one of the disruptors has been linked to Sarah Palin and right-wing Christian causes, and disavowed by BLM.

She was right wing as a high school student. Her views have changed since. She hasn't been disavowed by BLM (there was a rogue twitter account that condemned the action immediately after it happened, but then recanted).

gram negative
Aug 18 2015 12:26

The claims about the activist being a right-winger are embarrassing (to those doing the claiming), but so is the constant fixation on the Sanders campaign - the article brings up a number of good criticisms, but misses Sanders' nativism.

gram negative
Aug 18 2015 12:41

edit: dp

also, what evidence is thete that people who get interested in the Sanders' campaign will get further politicized? Where has that worked before?

Chilli Sauce
Aug 18 2015 13:18
I know there's discussion among left-libertarians whether or not to piggyback on this campaign to take advantage of this opportunity.

Is there?

I think Juan hits the nail on the head. How many liberals/activists/leftists (although not many anarchists, in my experience) got excited about Obama? And how has that turned out? There's a lesson there in about supporting these lefty superstars and just how much they influence the "movements" behind the campaigns maintain once they're elected.

Aug 18 2015 13:53

Dearg Dubh
Aug 23 2015 02:58

Thanks for your comments. I have been debating this both pro and con with some friends so I appreciate the voices you all add. I wanted to post this in response to 888 and Gram N. to update the coverage of Marissa Janae Johnson, the BLM protester in Seattle. I stand corrected on my earlier comment relying on the first reports, given Patheos was misleading in its headline (her parents were Tea Party members and in h.s. she supported Palin) but it notes according to her current Twitter account, Johnson calls herself a "Radical Christian Mullatanist." It shares her FB statement, after her Seattle protest, of devotion to "the Cross" as motivating her BLM actions. Raw Story reports that she defines herself now as a "radical evangelical Christian." I wanted to post this in the interests of accuracy. Not as a pedant, but to serve as a record for readers who may track this thread in retrospect.

As to Juan's pertinent comment, I agreed (decades before as well as) in '08 with it as I agree now. Yet I wanted to share alternative views here as, yes C.S., some of my like-minded (if not quite anarchist, true) friends indeed have speculated (at least to me) about prospects (yet once more) for a wider upsurge in anti-globalisation action. They recognise the limits and foibles of electing leaders, but they do wonder, as Politico weighs in, if something broader might be brewing not only within the disenchanted middle classes but among the working classes, and the disenfranchised whom Scott Jay had initially reported as very few and far from the Sanders camp. He is tapping into discontent, and witness his "political revolution" campaign tagline. Online or grassroots outreach may gradually counter the "white liberal" stereotype.

All the same, as Jay Smooth opines: "Someone needs to defend Bernie Sanders against his own supporters" as to BLM. Apropos, to C.S. again, as Cornel West signs on for Bernie, it'll be instructive to see if that "lefty superstar" will add or detract from this nascent campaign. He seeks payback for his getting burned for his past support of the current incumbent. Whatever our own skepticism, as Gram + C.S. articulate, this may merit attention. I came to this forum to learn and listen, as the perspectives you share help me sharpen my own. I also muse how Errico Malatesta at his cafe chair might respond: why not engage in dialogue with socialists, liberals, and conservatives, as most of us on this forum started somewhere else before our thinking, reading, actions and chats helped to shift us to here today?

I quote Lucy Parsons to Sander-istas: "the rich will never permit you to vote away their wealth."