“Feeling the Bern”: Prospects for the American left
One of many international-themed sessions at The World Transformed this year, four members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) discussed different perspectives for the American left. The panel was chaired by Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara, who opened by asking the panellists about their political upbringings and how they became socialists. A common thread that ran through all the answers was the realisation that the Democrats and the Republicans were ultimately two sides of the same coin.
Lee Carter, a legislator in Virginia, was motivated to get involved after discovering he had no protections regarding workplace injuries. Julia Salazar, a DSA candidate for the New York State Senate, spoke of her experience organising rent strikes as a college student. And Alexandra Rojas, a director of Justice Democrats, explained her initial involvement in the Bernie Sanders campaign.
The next topic was the use of the term “democratic socialism”. In the UK, the term is often used to refer to achieving socialism through parliament and to distinguish it from “bad” revolutionary socialism. In the USA, it seems to be used to associate the movement with the Democratic Party but also to show it is an independent organisation. Defining yourself as a socialist in America can receive some hostility, but Carter was happy to say he simply calls himself a socialist. His views were summarised well in the phrase: “If it isn’t democratic, it isn’t socialism.”
This socialist revival is still in its early days, and as such there are very few potential leaders. The question of a “Bernie 2020” campaign was posed, and Rojas affirmed that such a campaign would have the same, if not more, energy. Rojas also explained how ‘traditional’ Democrats are now displaying their left-wing credentials, from Elizabeth Warren to Joe Kennedy III. It is a positive step that mainstream opinion is moving to the left, but the movement must be wary about getting too close to the Democratic Party.
On the subject of the party, there are three main ideas for building the American left further. The first is to create a “Labor Party”, a tactic preferred by some on the far left. The next idea is to flood the Democratic Party and try to transform it from the inside. This tactic has issues in that the party is more a loose structure then anything like a European political party, and has no accountability to the grassroots. The final idea is a combination of the first two, whereby the left continues organising through the DSA with the ultimate intention of breaking from the party. The three panellists preferred the final strategy, extolling the virtues of uniting around common principles and harnessing the power of social media. It is no wonder Momentum in the UK are so keen to work with the DSA.
It is heartening to see socialists winning elections at state and federal level. However, it will take a lot more effort to rebuild the strength of the trade unions and potentially a socialist party.
Steve Allen, Guildford
It is a pity that in his unreflective and rather complacent review of my book Contemporary Trotskyism Colin Foster did not seek to engage with the weaknesses of his own movement, one of the main themes of the book.
The AWL, for example, in its 62 years of existence has never achieved a membership of more than 250. The British Trotskyist movement that was briefly united in a single body in the late 1940s (the RCP) has over the intervening period fragmented into around 20 organizations. Since the 2008 recession British Trotskyism has made almost no headway in terms of membership or political influence.
On the international plane (a topic on which Foster says nothing), the 80th anniversary of the foundation of Trotsky’s Fourth International has been celebrated by no less than 23 Internationals, at least six of which have a significant number of national affiliates. Last, and by no means least, no Trotskyist organisation has ever led a revolution or built an enduring mass party.
One might have thought these and other problems documented in the book merited a more considered and thoughtful response about the policies, activities, structure and leadership of Trotskyist organizations (and his bizarre helicopter analogy is neither). All he offers by way of explanation is the familiar story of environmental determinism: the weight of bourgeois ideology and the baleful influence of Stalinism, particularly the latter, have “mis-shaped the Trotskyist spectrum, and are the basic reason for many of the pathologies which infest it.” But even in a hostile environment, don’t the strategic and tactical choices of organizational leaders make a difference? And aren’t those choices, including decisions about factions and splits, a significant part of the explanation for the parlous state of the Trotskyist movement?
John Kelly, London
Factions and cure-alls
John Kelly reproaches me for not adducing “decisions about factions and splits [as] a significant part of the explanation for the parlous state of the Trotskyist movement”. John has read our literature quite assiduously (even if his book shows he got the wrong end of several sticks: we discussed that when John came to our summer school in June). So he knows that for over 20 years now we have been criticising “Zinovievist” culture in the would-be Trotskyist movement — a model of “Bolshevism” based on Zinoviev's “Bolshevisation” drive of 1924-5, not on the Bolshevik party which made the 1917 revolution - as an engine of splits, demoralisation, and intellectual impoverishment.
It has become the norm for would-be Trotskyist groups to demand that all members not just cooperate in duly-decided activities (which is reasonable, indeed essential), but also that they pretend in public to agree with the group's majority view even when in fact they dissent. Equally, the norm is to license members to form factions only in specified short periods before conferences, and only on an approved range of issues; to deny those factions due representation on broad leading committees; and to foster a culture where disagreement can be interpreted only vituperatively as “deviation” or condescendingly “misunderstanding”.
If the argument has escaped John's memory, he will find it pulled together and summarised in our introduction to our new book, Max Shachtman's In Defence of Bolshevism.
Why didn't I make a lot of that in my review of John's book? Because in his book he systematically presents things as if the most caricaturally “Zinovievist” of the would-be Trotskyist groups represent the whole spectrum, and takes no note of the striving to develop a different model by ourselves (and, at times, by other groups). And because I didn’t want to be facile.
If we had had a good democratic regime in the movement around 1968 and the early 70s, that would have helped enormously and maybe decisively to consolidate sizeable Trotskyist groups from the opportunities then, groups which could in turn have made a decisive difference in those crises of the late 1970s and early 80s which in fact ended with the triumph of neoliberalism.
But it's not true - we activists know only too well that it's not true - that a good democracy and correct criticisms of the mainstream are enough in themselves to make our groups prosper. There are times when we can progress only inch by inch. Marx knew that well too: at his death in 1883 he had a smaller political circle around him than when he joined the Communist League in 1847.
On whether we build what we can in those times, and we keep our political ideas clean and bright — rather than collapsing in despair — a lot depends for the future.
Colin Foster, Islington
"All states are racist endeavours" or exceptionalising of Israel
Michael Elms in Solidarity 478 (“A racist endeavour?”) failed to mention an important and often overlooked part of the text included with the IHRA definition and examples of antisemitism. Doing so would strengthen his overall argument.
The text says that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. [...] Contemporary examples of antisemitism [...] could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:” and then lists the examples.
With this caveat the example discussed has a more specific meaning, and limited applicability. The example was: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
The formation, consolidation and perpetuation of modern nation states generally involves dividing the world into people who are automatically members of that nation state, and those who aren't. This is often based on or encourages ideas of different “races”, and so arguably all nation states are intrinsically racist.
Most people who believe this still generally support the right to self-determination. A tiny number on the left do not support this principle ever.
As recognised by the caveat above, there is clearly nothing antisemitic about believing that all states are racist endeavours, or denying the right to self-determination for anyone. This would be misguided, but is too general to be antisemitic.
On the left however, Israel is often treated as uniquely being intrinsically racist. Additionally, unlike with almost any other people, Jewish Israelis are denied the right to self-determination.
It is demanded that Israel dismantle itself or subsume itself into a wider state, one in which Jewish Israelis are a minority. Similar demands are not made of Pakistani Muslims, Kurdish or French people, or Palestinian Arabs. Indeed, Palestinian Arabs' right to self-determination is often privileged over Jewish Israelis'.
Many states have committed horrific racist and colonial atrocities. The response in general is not to deny self-determination. The singling out of Israel has an antisemitic history and leads to antisemitic conclusions.
Mike Zubrowksi, Bristol