Last week, the liberal Democratic activists “Netroots Nation” held its annual convention and Bernie Sanders was one of the featured speakers. During his speech, Sanders was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters about his failure to address the issue of police abuse and police murder and the racism so integral to the criminal (in)justice system. His immediate response, as seen in this video, was to talk about creating decent paying jobs. Some days later, after this experience, Sanders did say a few words on the issue, but it was too little too late.
Of course, decent paying jobs is integral to fighting racism. But to simply focus on that issue is to actually help cover up for the institutional racism that is so blatant in the United States. Sanders approach is reminiscent of the approach of Eugene Debs, the great socialist of the early 20th century. In his essay, “The Negro in the Class Struggle,” Debs condemns racism, including the racism of the poor whites. But he also writes, “I have said and say again that, properly speaking, there is no Negro question outside of the labor question—the working class struggle. Our position as Socialists and as a party is perfectly plain. We have simply to say: ‘The class struggle is colorless.’ The capitalists, white, black and other shades, are on one side and the workers, white, black and all other colors, on the other side…. We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.”
Debs’s opposition to Jim Crow, lily-white unionism stood out in his day, but he was totally mistaken in his view as quoted above. Of course the workers movement in general – no less socialists – have to stand out first and foremost against racism and any and all forms of special oppression. That has to be at the very head of their banner, or else what kind of society are they really striving for?(The early Communists – who came from the Socialist Party – at first adopted Debs’s position and it took the arguments of Lenin to convince them that they were wrong, that simply campaigning for economic justice for all was not enough.)
The other mistake Debs made was that, if you read his essay, it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t see black people as the prime mover, the leading force, in fighting racism; he doesn’t see black people as the subject of the fight, but rather as the object, as being dealt with from above, so to speak.
Debs’s mistaken views, however, are understandable (although just as mistaken) considering that he was writing over 100 years ago. What is not understandable, though, is for alleged “socialists” taking that position today, and that is what Bernie Sanders does. Look at the video where Sanders is interrupted at Netroots Nation; doesn’t he in essence take the same position? Look at Sanders Facebook page, the issue is entirely absent.
But wait, there’s more, as the TV game show MC used to say. Consider the Facebook page of socialist Kshama Sawant. The issue is absent here too. And her group, Socialist Alternative, indirectly supports Sanders while they criticize him for possibly not going far enough and for running as a Democrat. But it’s far more than this; just as Sanders defends and covers up for the racist State of Israel, by ignoring the issue of the police, etc. he in effect covers up for the rampant racism and oppression of the US criminal (in)justice system.
What Sanders is doing is appealing to those middle class white youth who are angry that their future is no longer guaranteed. Rather than helping them see the link between their economic uncertainty and the racist oppression of capitalism, he is reinforcing their selfish concern for themselves alone.
We have to ask: What sort of “socialism” is this?