Bernie's Army and the Socialist RevolutionA Conversation with Jim Kavanagh
Feb. 11, 2020
Jim Kavanagh publishes his political commentary on his website, www.thepolemicist.net and Counterpunch. He is a frequent guess of Loud and Clear Radio. You can find him on twitter, @the polemicist_
John Beacham: As you know, I recently traveled to Iowa to report on, get a feel for and join the Bernie Sanders campaign. What I saw, the real mass support, especially from young people, for a program that is in broad terms socialistic in its demands was very, very encouraging. To say the least. The campaign is actually much more militant in tone than I expected. In a rally of over 3,500 people in Cedar Rapids, when Rep. Ilhan Omar made a call for the multi-national working class to unite and take on the ruling class, that crowd absolutely erupted. I have never seen, in the United States, such a spontaneous, large and unanimous response to a call like that. The speakers are not shying away from defending Socialism, albeit ill-defined as liberalism or social democracy. Bernie clearly has the supporting army to win and/or to take on the establishment.
Like me, you have decided to endorse Bernie Sanders. For me, it is the progressive and "socialist" movement of millions behind the campaign that has compelled me to join it. I am not even that big of a Bernie fan, honestly. My politics place me in opposition to him frequently enough (on Venezuela for example). I mean, I believe he is earnest, but to really take on the establishment and accomplish anything close to what we need right now, he will have to fully employ that backbone that he seems to own but hasn't wielded against the ruling class.
Jim Kavanagh: I agree that the Bernie Sanders’s most important achievement is the movement he inspired—the millions of people who have been mobilized to fight for real social democratic programs. These are different in kind than the means-tested and multi-tiered ameliorative program, designed to accommodate profit-making enterprises put forth by his Democratic opponents. Bernie’s are universal, publicly owned and managed programs that establish new social rights. So, they certainly don’t amount to what we would call “socialism,” but they would also significantly change working-class lives for the better and change the direction of US politics and social policy. That’s why I think, that, unlike any of the other campaigns that now exist or have previously appeared in the Democratic Party in decades, Bernie’s program is worthy of support.
Furthermore, though Bernie’s program is not socialist, his campaign has opened a debate about socialism and undermined the sense of fear and taboo about the concept. And many, many people who have been mobilized by his campaign are certainly in no mood to abide capitulating to no-end-in-sight continuation of the capitalism they call “neo-liberal.”
So, credit to Bernie for all that. But, as his “Not me us” slogan implies, it’s not the individual, Bernie, who is most important, and that we must support, but the “us” of the movement that’s been activated by him.
What worries me, also, is the fear that, though he is honest in his commitments to these programs, Bernie is also honest in his commitment to “vote blue no matter who,” because he honestly feels Trump is so horrible that one must support any terrible Democrat. This entirely conventional attitude is in contradiction to his call for “political revolution” and calls into question whether he will support his movement—and the millions of people in it—as much as they are supporting him, if and when the Democratic Party nominates some Biden-Buttigieg-Warren “nohting will fundamentally change” fauxgressive.
In short: Berne’s greatest achievement is that he’s built an energetic social-democratic, even anti-capitalist, mass movement, and his biggest weakness (and potential failure) is his tendency to undermine that very movement with his Democrat-accommodating attitude.
JB: Yes. And beyond that, there's a central contradiction to the Sanders campaign that the campaign itself cannot overcome. That contradiction is social democracy itself. Socialism in a capitalist "democracy" is illusory. You can't have Socialism or democracy while the capitalist class retains its wealth and thereby power. Under capitalism, the media, the military brass and the government—the institutions of power—are all firmly in the grip of a capitalist class that puts profits before the people and the planet. Socialism, for me, is a classless society in which the majority have real economic and political power.
The key thing, here then, I think, is the struggle. The fight between oppositional political forces. The DNC, with all the weight of the media and elites, is trying to and will continue to try to stop Bernie and the new retinue of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Omar. The DNC will try to stop the movement that has come into being around Sanders and others like the social democrats in the Chicago city council. Just look at what happened in Iowa with the democrats fumbling and/or sabotaging their first primary to blunt the effect of Sanders doing so well and to distract from Biden getting trounced.
Will Sanders and his campaign managers fight hard enough to be successful? Will they call the Sanders army into battle when and if it becomes necessary? We don't know for sure. It would be helpful if they would do so, for sure. They certainly don't have the track record of doing so. They don’t seem to be making the necessary clarifications and preparations to mobilize a militant wing of the Sanders movement in a real struggle. That's probably up to people like us.
We, therefore, must be honest and communicate to as many people as possible—without being pessimistic—that Sanders has a limit to how much he will oppose the status quo, go outside of the electoral arena, etc. But, the main battleground in the struggle for justice and socialism is not the elections. The struggle for justice and Socialism is a struggle of and for power. What the Sanders campaign has is a potential army or part of an army that can be mobilized beyond what they are already mobilized to do. Whether or not the movement learns to flex its muscle and how to flex its muscle is not dependent on Bernie Sanders.
Those who are intent on mobilizing the real power of workers and oppressed people to take the reins of society into their own hands must be where the potential army is. Be with that army. That's why I am voting for Bernie in the primary and general election. I am supporting the Sanders campaign in deed and not just word while retaining political independence and a genuine working-class and internationalist perspective in order to help prepare and expand the political consciousness of the millions who are rallying behind a genuinely progressive and socialistic campaign.
JK: Bernie does kind of personify the contradiction of social democracy. The idea that you can have some kind of “political revolution” that can take power away from the ruling class in incremental steps until you get to the point that you can finally push them out of the way easily—by a vote—or that the remaining power they have is irrelevant. In certain conditions, this strategy can be effective in establishing strong social programs that enhance the lives and social power of the working class—and not just little means-tested “welfare” programs. It would be silly, for example, to deny the strongly progressive aspect of post-war European social democracy, which has been a pole of attraction for decades.
But we have to know: What are those conditions? How do they come about, and how do they change? Social democracy comes about because the working class is already strong because there are strong unions, strong working-class parties with strong socialist and communist ideologies, strong socialist and communist countries that show universal employment, education, healthcare, etc., are possible, and sometimes, as in the case of postwar Europe, armed communist movements. All of these elements of empowerment threaten to completely and irreversibly seize economic and political power from the ruling class and eliminate it as a class. So, the ruling class tactically surrenders some socio-economic territory it would rather not, in exchange for those movements foregoing the fight for the full control of the wealth of society. Social democracy comes from the threat of full-on socialism. If you want social democracy, you have to fight for socialism.
Single-payer, universal-coverage health insurance (Bernie’s version of M4A) is a great case in point. It’s not socialism, and as Bernie points out, most advanced capitalist countries do very nicely as capitalist countries with it. But in the US context, it would mark a real advance, eliminating a huge, multi-billion-dollar for-profit industry. Thus, even though it wouldn’t destroy and might help stabilize US capitalism, US capitalists fight it so strongly on the basis of class solidarity. They have complete control of the US polity and will only sacrifice a for-profit industry, replacing it with a public service-as-a-right, if they are afraid of losing more of their capitalist control, and of citizens realizing more clearly what the difference means.
As long as they have the wealth and the control of the political process that comes with it, they will fight. So, the Bernie movement must understand it is in a ferocious fight that will not be resolved by elections alone, and a fight in which the Democratic party is structured as a tool of those capitalists and therefore an enemy. The movement must understand this and make this fight, whether Bernie himself does or not—and, indeed, must understand that he is, to say it as kindly as possible, reluctant to make that fight.
This is the case with this, his signature issue, with his fight for the nomination, with the fight against the party that will ensue if he gets the nomination, and with the fight he must wage against the government apparatus if he is elected. He will have to purge the party administration and support, among a raft of things, a relentless campaign of primarying reactionary Democrats to get anything done. These are things he has historically been disinclined to do. So, as you suggest, the movement he has motivated needs to actuate itself as a movement beyond—and if necessary, pushing or opposing—Bernie.
JB: I agree. We need clarity around the fact that the democratic party—or at least those how control it—is an enemy. A powerful enemy at that. The longest existing political party in the world. A party that used to be the party of the KKK. It is the party of the so-called "liberal" part of the ruling class. The democratic party of austerity and war is anything but liberal when it comes to the working class, however.
It is a party that unites across the aisle when it comes to U.S. imperialism. Look how the democrats stood on their feet and applauded Juan Guaido, the CIA-backed usurper of Venezuela at Trump's fascist-like State of the Union speech, for instance.
It seems to me in talking to people that are Bernie organizers and volunteers that the understanding that the democratic party functions as part of the state apparatus of oppression has become much more widespread. With every attack against Bernie, we need to enter into the battle to encourage greater class consciousness and the need to not only strategically fight the establishment with all tactics at our disposal but ultimately defeat the U.S. capitalist class should we have the opportunity. To me, the fact that a social democratic campaign exists in a virtual vacuum of working-class power in society means that a more intense battle is most likely on the way—a battle far beyond the conflict between the Sanders campaign vs. the establishment. A battle that will mature rapidly. A battle that—if we are prepared—can radically change the very fabric of society for the better.
Anyway, how do you think the Sanders campaign should respond to Iowa? It seems clear to me now that the dems tried to cheat him out of a victory. Bernie has declared a victory anyway, with 6,000 votes over mayor Pete.
JK: Iowa provides a microcosm of the problematic the Bernie movement faces. The good news is that it’s so damn obvious. The failure of the voting system to deliver anything that could be called reliable, democratic results is glaring, and telling. Whatever mixture of intentional fraud and gross incompetence caused these problems, the fact that the bulk of errors benefitted Buttigieg and that the Iowa Democratic Party doled out results in a way that, at every step, benefitted Buttigieg, demonstrates the willingness to damage Bernie as much as possible. Even the inability to know exactly what caused the debacle is notable. These are all of the things that are going to happen, in less ridiculously obvious ways, throughout the primary cycle. We know this because they happened before, in 2016—suspicious, impossible-to-verify results from electronic voting machines, mass ballot exclusions, phony audits, etc. That this occurred so blatantly and so early in the process this time has put all Bernie supporters on guard, has energized their support for him, their determination not to accept this kind of cheating, and has resulted in complete distrust of and disgust with the corrupt DNC establishment. All good.
The bad news is that this has happened before, and Bernie Sanders had four years to insist on the thorough, radical overhaul of election procedures that would prevent it from happening again—to not just make complaints to the DNC but also to channel the energy of a mass movement into insisting on creating an effectively democratic primary election process. And he was content with getting a few things here and there from negotiating with party. His reactions to the Iowa disaster fit his pattern: a few sharp words about it, followed by a “Let’s move on” attitude that doesn’t match the outrage his followers feel and the situation deserved.
We know all the reasons this “makes sense”: The Iowa caucus is a bizarre, complicated, and unique election; there are only small number of delegates at stake; he won the popular vote anyway; he’s not being hurt by this as much as Biden or even Warren, he’s got bigger fish-fries coming up, etc. Why dwell on it? But, damn, the Democratic party held a presidential primary contest in which it is impossible to know the actual results, except the one that gave Peter Buttigieg a 9-12% bump from a well-choreographed pas-de-deux with the Iowa Democratic party and the mainstream media. If Bernie’s not going to complain about that, will he complain about less visible but more important manipulations from electronic voting machines and voter suppression that will come. Will he let it pass if a million votes are thrown away again in California? He’s again deferring the forthright confrontation with the party that he will sooner or later have to make. Or not. That’s the kind of avoidance that his followers are no longer inclined to accept forever.
JB: Yep. There is no real democracy in the United States. Not in the primary. Not in the elections. They are stage managed and what we are witnessing in the Sanders movement is democratic and socialistic forces attempting to take on the establishment through the presumed course of least resistance. But the ruling class does not mess around.
Let's be honest, it will be very, very difficult, if not impossible, for Sanders to win the primary, the party's nomination and/or the presidency. Sanders and his program are really popular though and the popularity is very likely to remain. The ruling class and their operatives in both parties and the media may have to escalate their tactics, especially if Sanders sticks to his guns of campaigning against the billionaires. This is a very dynamic situation with no set outcomes and lots of moving parts.
So, the support of Bernie, for me, is temporary and conditional while I am for the unconditional support of the movement behind him and defense of him in the face of ruling class attacks. Assessments and interventions will need to be made on daily and weekly basis. I am also looking to have Revolutionary Socialists for Bernie take on more of an organizational role, starting with organizing people to go to South Carolina soon. What do you think we should be doing as revolutionary socialists?
JK: Well, I agree with your assessment of this, as you know. As a Marxist, anti-imperialist, someone who identifies as a revolutionary socialist, I’m quite aware of Bernie’s limitations. As someone who lives in U.S. political culture, I also realize how aspirational that identification is, how far we are from a “revolutionary socialist” movement that would make such an identification politically effective. What we do have are a number of social justice movements around issues of race, gender, and—to a much lesser extent over the last twenty years—class, that have been tensely intersecting, when not completely siloed from each other. For all the reasons of the plutocratic control of the polity that we know, these movements circulate around and within the Democratic Party.
In this presidential election year, in the context of increasing socio-economic inequality and devastation, Bernie Sanders has been able to mobilize and unify tens of thousands of militants from those movements—precisely and unusually on the basis of universal social-democratic programs for the benefit of the multi-racial and multi-gendered working class. His is a program of “non-reformist reforms” that would not just mollify that working-class, but strengthen it permanently, that would not just slow down, but stop and reverse egregious assaults like those of the for-profit health insurance industry. His lifelong commitment gives him enormous credibility to those people in that fight.
So, to paraphrase what Marx said of the working class, we have to address the proto-socialist movement we have, not the revolutionary socialist one we wish for. That’s why I think we should act in solidarity with the Bernie campaign, and treat it precisely as a proto-socialist mass movement. Should we join with millions of people in the US, mobilizing around social-democratic demands, under the rubric of “socialism,” with the attention of the US media? It’s the best we’ve got. Is there anything that offers a better alternative for solidarity?
Now, of course, we want those movements to coalesce and organize outside of the Democratic Party in a politically effective way, because that’s what will have to happen for any revolutionary socialist movement. But acting in solidarity with all those people, and explaining to them why, can help create the conditions that make that possible. We should say that we are really supporting the Bernie campaign—helping get him on the ballot, donating, canvassing, voting for him, whatever we can do. We should also say that we are supporting it provisionally, as long as it is a campaign for those universal, class-oriented programs and against those politicians who want to prevent them or deflect them into some neo-liberal alternative. We should say that we will not follow Bernie if/when he tries to lead us into supporting those politicians and their institutions, and will—along, we hope, with most of our comrades from the campaign—leave him, and those politicians and institutions behind, to continue fighting for all those things the campaign was about. Because, as Killer Mike says in that great Bernie ad, we’re not going to wait for another one or two or three presidents of any party.
In 2016, I said that Bernie was the dog chasing the car, and what the hell was he going to do with it if he caught it. Well, in 2020, he’s got his teeth firmly on it, along with a whole pack of hungry hounds. For revolutionary socialists, it’s gotta be hungry like a wolf. They’re either going to force that vehicle to go where they want, or it will drive off down the same dead-end road, dragging any stubborn mutt who won’t let go—perhaps including the leader of the pack.
So, for revolutionary socialists, I say support the campaign for universal social-democratic programs that Bernie is leading, act in solidarity with the people in it, and get everybody ready to form their own pack of wolves.
JB: Let me briefly build on what you say and bring the conversation to a close. I actually think we should be readying to form a huge, united pack of wolves to take down the capitalist system. Wolves will come from many other places, but a lot of wolves will surely come from those who are currently supporters of Bernie. That is why I am with them now—to help organize future militants. That is also why I will not be voting for any other democrat in the field and—if we are to be honest—we may need to step away from Bernie should he sacrifice his movement on the altars of anybody but Trump, allegiance to the democratic party or pacifism in the face of ruling class aggression.