Bruce Levine Counterpunch Sept 19th, 2018
Bernie Sanders, in his thirties, wrote and directed the documentary Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary (1979), and a picture of Debs hangs on Sanders’s office wall. But the arc of Sanders’s political career has moved in the opposite direction from the arc of his hero. Debs moved from polite dissent to courageously resisting illegitimate authority—landing him in prison and shortening his life. In contrast, Sanders moved from polite dissent to overt obedience—de-energizing anti-authoritarians.
Debs is one of several anti-authoritarians who I profile in Resisting Illegitimate Authority, a book about and for anti-authoritarians, many of whom have today been disillusioned by Sanders serving as a sheepdog for the Democratic Party (herding those who had fled from it back into it). Worse than other such sheepdogs, Sanders, from his earliest years in politics, has attempted to seduce anti-authoritarians by identifying with Debs but then, for career expediency, ignored what his hero’s life taught him.
Debs, in his twenties, was a successful Democratic politician but gradually became radicalized by his experiences. In his late thirties, when jailed for leading the Pullman Strike, it became clear to Debs that both the Republican and Democratic Parties were owned by the ruling class. Debs moved from dissent to disobedience—ultimately disobeying not only the Democratic Party but the U.S. government.
Sanders began as an anti-war socialist and member of the Liberty Union Party which rejected the corporatism of both the Democratic and Republican Parties. After being elected to various offices in Vermont, Sanders supported military interventions that resulted in the deaths of many civilians, and he championed wasteful military expenditures that benefitted him politically (see Jeffrey St. Clair’s Bernie & The Sandernistas for the unpleasant details). Ultimately, Sanders supported the Democratic Party’s pro-corporatist and pro-militarist presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Sanders began with dissent but moved to obedience—obeying even the Democratic Party.
Sanders’s initial dissent propelled his political career; his ultimate obedience kept his career intact; and by 2017, polls reported that he was the most popular politician in the United States. Sanders knows full well the life of Eugene Debs—and the price Debs paid for being a genuine anti-authoritarian who disobeyed illegitimate authorities.
As a young man, Eugene “Gene” Debs (1855–1926) had several jobs in the railroad industry. After leaving the industry, he maintained loyalty to his fellow workers as a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and the editor of their Firemen’s Magazine. He then went into politics and never lost an election running as a Democrat. The voters in his home town of Terre Haute twice elected him city clerk, and he was elected to the Indiana General Assembly in 1884 at age 29. However, after his bill to help railway workers was gutted, he became cynical of the legislative process and did not run for re-election.
In his late thirties, as the leader of the American Railway Union, the polite Debs initially believed that grievances with management could be settled by reason and compromise, but he soon recognized the naivety of this view. In 1894, Debs led the Pullman Strike, precipitated by the Pullman Company significantly cutting wages. Debs was initially reluctant to strike, reminding workers that the federal government might intercede militarily as it had previously done in the strike by silver miners at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. However, when workers voted to strike, Debs led it. As Debs had predicted, President Grover Cleveland and Attorney General Richard Olney got an injunction against the Pullman Strike. The injunction was enforced by the U.S. Army, and this broke the strike. Debs was found guilty of contempt of court for violating the injunction and was sentenced to prison.
“Eugene Debs, a lifelong Democrat who three times campaigned for Grover Cleveland,” notes his biographer Ray Ginger, “was deprived of faith in the major political parties by the actions of Cleveland and Olney. He could no longer advocate labor’s adherence to parties which were firmly controlled by the large corporations.” Bernie Sanders knows all this.
Debs was not a socialist when he began his first prison term in Woodstock, Illinois, in 1895. He recalled in 1902 in his article “How I Became a Socialist” that “a swift succession of blows that blinded me for an instant and then opened wide my eyes— and in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed.” It became clear to Debs that the ownership class has at its disposal “an army of detectives, thugs and murderers.” It also became clear to him that this ownership class owned most of the press, the Republicans and Democrats, and the judiciary. Beginning in 1900, Debs ran as the Socialist candidate for president of the United States, and would ultimately run five times. In the 1912 presidential election, Debs obtained 6% of the vote, and running from a prison cell in 1920, he garnered 3.4% of the vote.
Debs received his most severe punishment from the Democratic Party and the U.S. government after speaking out against its entry into World War I. Democrat Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected president in 1916 on his pledge of neutrality; but, pressured by Wall Street, which had engineered large war loans to the English and French, Wilson reversed himself on U.S. involvement and venomously attacked those who did not follow suit.
In 1918, Debs gave a speech in Canton, Ohio, stating: “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. . . . And that is war, in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” Debs told the thousands of people in the Canton audience, “They tell us that we live in a great free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people,” and the crowd responded in loud laughter. Debs responded to their laughter, “This is too much even for a joke.” For this speech, Debs was sentenced to ten years in a federal penitentiary.
Wilson’s venom for Debs was such that even after the end of the war, Wilson announced, “This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.” Wilson even denied a pardon for Debs when it was recommended because of Debs’s poor health by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (notorious for his “Palmer Raids,” incarcerating and deporting dissenters). It was the Republican president Warren Harding, following Wilson, who commuted Debs’s sentence in 1921.
Previous to prison, Debs had suffered from recurrent headaches, severe rheumatism, and debilitating low back pain; and Ginger notes, “Prison food had completely wrecked his stomach and his kidneys.” Prison time for Debs exacerbated his health issues, and he died in 1926, shortly before he would have turned 71 years old.
Bernie Sanders knows full well the life of Eugene Debs and what it says about the U.S. government and the Democratic Party. Sanders also knows the fate of a genuine U.S. anti-authoritarian: At best, they will be shunned—ask Ralph Nader whose phone calls Sanders has not returned since 2000; or in Debs’s case, thrown in prison; or, even worse, they will be assassinated—ask the friends and family of Fred Hampton.
Sanders, an astute politician, has long known that simply labeling himself as a socialist separated him out, giving him the appearance of being rebellious and making him quite popular, as long as he never moved beyond easy dissent to difficult disobedience. Sanders knows full well that real disobedience results in being crucified by the mainstream press, as was the case with both Debs and Nader.
Sanders knows dissent without disobedience is no threat to authoritarians in power. As I show in Resisting Illegitimate Authority, by profiling several genuine U.S. anti-authoritarians, only disobedience truly threatens authoritarians, and so it is severely punished in a variety of ways.
In 2017, the town of Woodstock, Illinois, where Debs served his six-month prison stint for leading the Pullman strike, evidenced some political fortitude by honoring Debs. It’s not too late for Sanders, who dishonored Debs by supporting the pro-militarist and pro-corporatist Hillary Clinton, to regain some of his honor.
Sanders can begin by telling Americans these truths: that safe dissent without strategic disobedience is easily ignored by authoritarians; that without the defiance of strikes, working people will continue to get screwed; that without the disobedience of financial boycotts, immoral corporations and violent governments are unmoved; and that without brave men and women refusing to be obedient soldiers, insane wars continue.
Debs discovered these truths the hard way through his life experience, and Sanders learned these truths the easy way from studying the life of his hero. While Sanders lacks his hero’s courge to actually disobey illegitimate authorities, he can regain some honor—and re-energize some anti-authoritarians—by at least telling Americans what he knows to be true: that while dissent can be effective in a genuine democracy, only strategic disobedience is effective with authoritarian rule.
It might also re-energize a few anti-authoritarians if Bernie apologized to them in this manner: “I’m sorry, sorry for you and sorry for me. Here, I sold what was left of my soul, and Trump beat Hillary anyway. Maybe God—not the one of organized religion but the God of the great anti-authoritarian Spinoza—is trying to tell you and me something about selling out.”
Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist often at odds with the mainstream of his profession, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect.
Paul Street Counterpunch
One of the more darkly amusing narratives in current establishment Democratic Party positioning for the 2018 mid-term elections and the 2020 presidential contest is the claim that the Bernie Sanders tendency represents a radical “socialist” threat that will tip the races to the Republicans and Trump.
Never mind that the progressive and mildly social-democratic policies Sanders and his cadre of Democrats back – Medicare for All, progressive taxation, free college tuition, a significant increase n the federal minimum wage, the re-legalization of union organizing – have longstanding majority support from the U.S. populace.
Never mind that it precisely the centrist neoliberal nothingness of the dollar-drenched dumpster- fire that is the current corporate Democratic Party (aptly described by Sheldon Wolin as “the Inauthentic Opposition” in early 2008) that has delivered state and federal government over to the widely hated, radically regressive and arch-reactionary (racist, sexist, white-nationalist, and eco-fascist) Republicans.
Never mind that Sanders goes out of his way again and again to proclaim that the changes he advances “are NOT radical ideas” but are instead moderate reforms.
And never mind that Bernie continues to function as an electoralist get-out-the-major party-vote “sheep dog” for the aforementioned dumpster-fire and inauthentic opposition – the dismal demobilizing Dems.
“Don’t Be Rude to White Nationalists, Do What Alexandria Did”
A few weeks ago, Sanders said he did not support being rude to “people” when he was asked about incidents in which Trump administration officials were publicly harassed because of their vicious policy of kidnapping migrant children at the southern U.S. border.
“I’m not a great fan of shouting down people or being rude to people,” Sanders told MSNBC host Kristen Welker two weeks ago. “I think,” Sanders lectured, “we have a situation and a Congress that’s way out of touch with where the American people are. People have a right to be angry when Congress gives tax breaks to billionaires and wants to cut nutrition programs for low income pregnant women. You have to a right to be angry. Take that out in a constructive way.”
“I think people have a right to go into a restaurant and have dinner,” Sanders elaborated. “That’s where we got to place our energy. I do know that people are angry. They are angry about these terribly inhumane immigration policies. They’re angry about the fact they can’t afford prescription drugs. They are angry about tax breaks that go to billionaires. The way to deal with that is exactly what Alexandria did.”
Sanders was referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive Democrat who won a Democratic Party primary election against 10-term incumbent New York Rep. Joe Crowley.
“Organize at the grass roots level. Win elections and get involved in the political process,” Sanders said.
I’m not a big fan of venting at terrible public officials in public venues myself. Anything less than arresting them and dragging off to revolutionary peoples’ tribunals looks weak and childish to me.
Still, I found Sanders’ comments disturbing. It was depressing and revealing that he folded in-power and proto-fascistic white nationalist Trump administration operatives into the broad and overall category of “people” — you know, just everyday folks, no different than anyone else trying to have a dinner out.
If Bernie doesn’t understand that these particular “people” stand out from the common lot of humanity as agents of racist evil, then it’s kind of hard to take his call for “civility” very seriously.
“People” Have a Right to Dine Out
It blows me away that it would enter Sanders’ mind to say that “people have a right to go into a restaurant and have dinner” when we are talking about children and families detained, caged, separated, and terrorized by U.S. border authorities. So, “people” – highly class- and race-privileged Trump officials, that is – “have a right” to go out for dinner, do they, Bernie? Well, Senator, thousands of people who happen to be brown-skinned migrants fleeing U.S-backed terror and stuck in racist U.S. holding pens don’t have the right to leave the oppressive facilities in which they are detained. Many of them have had their children stolen from them and sent to distant locations somewhere in the U.S.
Who old Bernie that racist and nativist white nationalists are “people,” anyway? I am reminded of the great Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who killed 309 German Nazis invading her country. When Eleanor Roosevelt observed that Pavlichenko had killed hundreds of “men,” the sniper corrected, pointing out that she shot “fascists,” not “men.”
Keeping People off the Streets, Herding Them to the Ballot Box
Bernie Sanders used the “civility” issue to pose a false dichotomy: either (1) be destructively uncivil by “shouting down” and “being rude” to “people” (to vicious racist and eco-cidal policymakers, that is) or (2) be “constructive” by “organiz[ing] at the grassroots level,” understood as getting involved in U.S. major party electoral politics and “win[ning] elections” – doing “exactly what Alexandria did.”
What, you haven’t won a major party congressional primary election yet this year? You better get to work, my fellow American!
That was the not-so “independent” Senator from Vermont continuing to play his longstanding role of trying to sustain progressives’ deadly and dysfunctional attachment to the nation’s narrow and strictly time-staggered election- and candidate-centered politics. It was Bernie feeding what the great radical American historian Howard Zinn called “the election madness” that “engulf[s] the entire society, including the left” once every two years “because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls.”
“The really critical thing,” Zinn once sagely wrote, “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in —in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.”
“The only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change,” Noam Chomsky (a Sanders backer to some degree) toldteleSur English’s Abby Martin in early 2016, “is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle.”
Bernie was and remains all about the masters’ election cycle, which is dedicated to the delusional and empirically false notion that U.S. citizens get meaningful input into policy by spending three minutes in a voting booth once every 2 or 4 years choosing from among a handful of candidates selected in advance for us (except in comparatively rare and exceptional cases) by the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorship of money and empire. It’s about keeping the people off the streets, where they belong on a regular basis if they are serious about progressive change in this time of viciously racist, classist, sexist and eco-cidal reaction. It’s about selling citizens false hope in politicians – the snake-oil promise that all or most of our energies should be poured into herding people to the polls to take a painfully brief and coldly time-staggered moment (three minutes once every two or four years) to mark a ballot for the right masters to nominally rule over us (the real rulers are in corporate and financial suites, not elected offices). That’s the basic “sheep-dog” message.
Is Democratic Socialists of America member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez different from the general run of corporate major party politicos, including “people” like Crowley? Sure. Absolutely. So is Sanders. No argument there. If I lived in the New York 14th Congressional district and was registered there (unlikely) as a Democrat (New York does not have open primaries), I would certainly have taken three minutes to vote for Ocasio-Cortez in the primary. I would have done so (a) to help bring down the corrupt, high-ranking corporate-imperial Democrat Crowley and his local Democratic machine backers and (b) to show support for Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive, social-democratic domestic policy agenda, including Medicare for All, free college tuition, and the abolition of racist-nativist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. I would have been motivated also by Ocasio-Cortez’s professed “socialism” and concern with class inequality and by her history as someone with recent experience in a real working-class job (waiting tables) and in social and protest movements (e.g. Standing Rock).
Still, I did no cartwheels over her victory. I cannot follow Sanders in pointing to “Alexandria” as the holy grail national and “grassroots” alternative to “being rude to people.”
This is for five reasons. First, Ocasio-Cortez won with incredibly low turnout (13%), something that falls quite short of a leftist landslide and reflects local peculiarities in the operation of the New York City Democratic machine.
Second, as the veteran Left urban political strategist, activist, and commentator Bruce Dixon noted on Black Agenda Report, “Joe Crowley pretty much gave up the seat: After 10 terms in Congress and with lots of corporate friends, Joe Crowley knows he can start at seven figures, at least six to twelve times his congressional salary plus bonuses as a lobbyist. That had to be a powerful motivation not to campaign too damn hard, and another circumstance
Third, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory partly reflected a combined demographic (racial and ethno-cultural) and party anomaly: the over-long presence of a white Democratic machine politician atop a recently racially and ethnically redistricted and now majority nonwhite and nearly majority Latinx district where the Democratic Party had failed to cultivate a neoliberal candidate of color – the kind of safe Latino or Black politico the nation’s second corporate and imperial party has developed across urban minority-majority congressional districts. As Danny Haiphong observed in the American Herald Tribune, “New York District 14 is one of the few [urban minority Congressional districts] left where neoliberal Black and Brown politicians do not dominate the political landscape. It will be difficult to replicate Ocasio-Cortez’s victory across the country because neoliberal, Black politicians in other districts are protected by the politics of representation.”
Fourth, as Dixon observed, “while there are no institutions under US law and custom that can hold leftist candidates and officeholders accountable to left constituencies or organizations…there are a galaxy of institutional levers and pressures operating inside the Democratic party aimed at flipping progressive elected officials rightward.”
As a Congressperson (her victory in the general election is virtually guaranteed in the bright blue 14thdistrict), the inspiring Ocasio-Cortez will face an enormous power disparity between local grassroots pressure from below and the nationally mobilized monopoly, empire, and party pressure exercised on her from the top down.
The CIA Democrats
Fifth, Haiphong was right to note that the dismal Democrats are dead and buried as a means of progressive transformation:
“The Democratic Party is incapable of reform and serves not as a vehicle for change but rather as a graveyard of social movements. It will be the graveyard of Ocasio-Cortez’s principles too if we don’t build independent institutions and organizations capable of moving popular excitement over her campaign away from the Democratic Party’s corporate grave diggers…We need to build a political alternative to the Democrats because when it comes to the Democratic Party, there is nothing left to hold it to account. Left-leaning youth and workers must break free from the ball and chain that keeps them shackled to the Democratic Party. Social movements are the only vehicle that can convince struggling people in this country that the Democratic Party is accountable to Wall Street and Wall Street only.”
(Well – accountable also to related and overlapping wealth and power structures in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and the military-industrial complex.)
I’ve been listening to nonsense about supposed chances for the progressive takeover and reform of the Democratic Party since I was a grade-schooler in the original Mayor Daley’s Chicago. (The closest that’s ever come to really taking place was Harold Washington’s Chicago mayoralty of 1983-1987 – one city for just four years, with strict qualifications and thoroughly transcended by the long-term neoliberal mayoralties of right-wing corporate Democrats Richard Daly II and Rahm Emmanuel.)
The Democrats are running a large crop of former intelligence operatives and ex-military candidates this November – all strong advocates of an aggressively imperialist US foreign policy dedicated to the full prosecution of the New Cold War with Russia. As the World Socialist Website’s Patrick Martin explains:
“the anti-Russia campaign mounted by the Democrats is…aimed at pushing the Trump administration to sharply escalate the war in Syria and adopt a more aggressive policy against Russia. At the same time, it has been used as the justification for a massive and coordinated campaign to censor the Internet. The manipulation of search and news feed algorithms by Google and Facebook will be followed by more direct efforts at the suppression of left-wing, anti-war and socialist publications.”
“The campaign has also served to position the Democrats as the party that stands up for the ‘intelligence community’ in its conflict with the Trump White House. This is now being supplemented, in advance of the November midterm elections, byan influx of candidates for Democratic congressional nominations in competitive districts drawnheavily from the ranks of the CIA, the military, the National Security Council and the State Department.”
“The conduct of the DNC demonstrates the reactionary and bankrupt character of the claims by liberal and pseudo-left groups—all of whom have maintained a complete silence on the isolation and persecution of Julian Assange—that the election of a Democratic-controlled Congress is the way to fight back against Trump and the Republicans. The truth is that the working class confronts in these parties two implacable political enemies committed to war, austerity and repression” (emphasis added).
With all due respect for the progressives and social democrats (“democratic socialists”) running in Democratic primaries this year, this broad imperialist “CIA Democrat” slate that Bernie Sanders will be asking citizens to mark ballots en masse for in the fall. This is Sanders playing his well-established role as a leading voter-turnout “sheepdog” not just for the nation’s not-so “leftmost” major war party but also and more broadly for the “election madness” Zinn tried to warn us against.
No Electoral Short-Cuts: The Real Issue to be Faced
It’s good that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took down the lazy white corporate machine Democrat Joe Crowley. But her locally distinctive triumph is no compelling argument for left progressives to center their activism around an election-frenzied run to that great “coffin of class consciousness” (historian Alan Dawley) that is the American ballot box. Want to vote? Great. It takes two minutes. There are no short-cuts, electoral or otherwise, to the more serious and urgent politics and difficult, day-to-day nuts and bolts organizing work of building an actual American Left – something that would maintain a healthy distance from the seductive siren songs of the narrow and time-staggered major party electoral extravaganzas that are sold to us “politics,” the only politics that matters.
And there’s no great virtue in selling progressives as “not radical.” Sorry, but the diagnosis right now is dire. We need radical – radically democratic change – to replace the racist, imperialist, classist, and now fully ecocidal rule of capital with peoples’ power. “The real issue to be faced,” as the actual democratic socialist and non-electoral social movement activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his last published essay, “is the radical reconstruction of society itself.” King’s judgement was right-on in 1968, when thousands of U.S. troops were briefly diverted from the American Empire’s mass-murderous “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Chomsky’s phrase at the time) to bloodily suppress Black rebellions in U.S. ghettoes. It’s even more accurate 50 years later, in a time when three absurdly wealthy Americans (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren “my class is winning the class war” Butfett) possess between them the same net worth as the poorest half of the U.S. populace and when the growth- and accumulation-addicted profits system is ever more obviously drive humanity over the ecological cliff.
Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City,