Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant, the most prominent socialist in America, spoke in Oakland last night. She spoke along with the noted left journalist Chris Hedges. Also speaking was former left mayor of the city of Richmond CA, Gail McGloughlin.
Hedges really gave the best speech of the evening. He opened by posing the age-old alternative that we see more clearly every year: “Socialism or barbarism.” Deeply felt, he ripped the “war machine” as he called it – the military industrial complex, and nearly his entire speech was devoted to this theme. Although he did not offer much that was new, he did make some important points, including that there will be no “progress” as long as the domination of the “war machine” is unbroken. He attacked “a bankrupt liberal class”, and named Hillary Clinton and Obama among them. When this writer shouted out “Sanders”, Hedges agreed. “Yeah, I don’t support Sanders either,” he said. (And why should he? Sanders never mentions the military budget and on almost every important foreign policy question he is in lock step with Obama & co.)
Sawant spoke about the rising mood to fight back, from the Arab Spring to the struggles in the US (Wisconsin, Occupy, etc.). She said that what was really lacking in the US – the reason for the low mood – was that the victories have been few and far between in recent years. In this regard, she pictured both her election of two years ago as well as the ‘victory” of a $15/hour minimum in both Seattle and at Seatac as being such victories. In this light she went on to talk about her present election campaign and the importance of her winning the upcoming election.
“Question and Answer” Period
Following the speeches there was a “question and answer” period. In the old days of Labor Militant – Socialist Alternative’s predecessor – we used to pitch this as a discussion period to make sure that people felt free to not only ask questions but make comments. In an indication that Socialist Alternative knows it’s on shaky political ground, in this case, the chair did her level best to not to call on anybody she thought was going to raise anything controversial. To no avail, though. After she announced the end of the “question” period, somebody from the Spartacist League stood up and objected to what he correctly called the “political censorship” and insisted on having a comrade of his speak. After some resistance from the chair, the Spartacist did get to speak. He commented on Sawant’s having “supported” the newly appointed chief of police in Seattle. (As is typical of the Spartacists, they either didn’t know the full facts or are incapable of seeing the subtleties, or both, as we will see in the reply.)
After he finished, this writer also stood up and said he wanted to speak and the chair felt unable to refuse me. I explained how I had donated to her first campaign and had been very enthusiastic about it. I referred to her having commented on being “bold and defying the pundits” in Seattle and said that that was what 15 Now Tacoma was doing – that they were the only ones who were fighting for a $15/hour minimum wage now, not in 5 or 7 years from now. You have corporatized union leaders like Adam Glickman who are refusing to support the initiative there because, as he said, he “prefers to work with the business community.” Isn’t it time to break with these corporate union leaders and support 15 Now Tacoma? was the question. Then, on the national level, the reference was made to Hedges’ very moving attack on the “war machine”. Given that Sanders supports Israel, supports drone warfare, and has never attacked the military budget, shouldn’t she be attacking Sanders as one of the representatives of that war machine?
These remarks got scattered applause throughout the audience.
The final remarks was where it really got interesting.
Hedges went first. He started by apologizing for Sawant. She “is in a delicate situation because she’s running for office, but I’m not running for office,” he said. In other words, he was admitting that Sawant was making political compromises because she’s trying to get votes. He then continued to once again attack the “war machine”. “We can talk about income inequality all we want,” he said. None of the reforms on these issues will happen “until we break the back of the war machine… Sanders doesn’t confront the war machine….”
Funneling Into the Democratic Party
One comment, among others really stood out and all supporters of Sanders, especially those who claim to stand for the need for a real alternative to the Democrats, should bear it in mind: “Bernie will go out and funnel all that energy and passion back into a dead political system, not attacking the Democratic Party.” That is exactly the point, and all the calls in the world on him to break with the Democrats are like calls for god to come down from heaven and rescue us. It will not happen because it cannot happen; Sanders cannot lead a break from the Democrats. Period.
Sawant spoke last and to call much of what she said disingenuous is being charitable.
She denied having supported the new police chief, which is technically correct since she voted against her, but at the same time she was very friendly towards her in her speech. Sawant pointed out that she’d voted against the new youth jail in Seattle, but she forgot to mention the support she gave to the liberal Democrat Larry Gossett, who supported that jail. Other comments on the police were quite incredible, coming from a socialist: Instead of attacking the racism and brutality of the police in no uncertain terms, she went on to talk about crime in the black community. Her comments were almost close to those right wingers who excuse the police by talking about “black-on-black crime.” She claimed she and Socialist Alternative had supported Black Lives Matter (BLM) in Seattle. This is flat-out untrue. The local equivalent to BLM was a group called Outside Agitators. In one instance, Socialist Alternative all but prohibited their members from participating in an Outside Agitators march, and they preferred to work with the more conservative elements like the NAACP.
15 Now Tacoma
Sawant completely ignored the question of supporting 15 Now Tacoma and a real battle for 15 Now. (See leaflet below.) In so doing, she in effect admitted that she’s going to continue to align herself with the corporateized union leadership.
Her defense of her and SA’s position on Bernie Sanders was most interesting. She defended herself by pointing out that she’d urged Sanders to run as an independent some months ago in New York. But she ignored the view that he cannot run as an independent, because he’s part and parcel of the Democratic Party. She didn’t deny that; she just didn’t comment on it.
She referred to his being a representative of the “war machine” as well as his having supported measures that helped lead to the mass incarceration of black people as his “deficiencies”. No, they are not “deficiencies”, they are simply proof of what he really is – a 21st century equivalent of the old “Cold War liberals”.
She also showed complete confusion – at best – about the role of such liberals. “His message… is not a message that empowers Wall St.,” she claimed. “His message is a message that empowers the working class, and Wall St. does not need Bernie Sanders; Wall St. needs Hillary Clinton… (or) Obama.”
Sawant and Socialist Alternative would do well to study the 1983-84 campaign of Jesse Jackson, which was very similar. When it was all over but the shouting, Jackson made the comment at the Democratic convention that his party, the Democratic Party, “needs the left wing and the right wing to fly.” He was absolutely right. The Democrats and the forces that control them – Wall St., the military/industrial complex, the prison/industrial complex, etc. – absolutely need the liberal wing to survive. Without that wing, the movement for political independence would be light years ahead. Even Chris Hedges showed that he understands this when he explained how Sanders was going to funnel his supporters into the Democratic Party.
Sensing the Weakness
As if sensing the weakness of this argument, Sawant then went on to talk about the “millions” who are flocking to Sanders banner. “We cannot ignore what is happening among the millions” of Sanders supporters, she said. But that was never in question. What is in question is how to try to intersect with those supporters (who don’t seem to be millions as far as activity). Do we intersect with them by largely ignoring in all but the fine print that nobody reads what Sawant calls Sanders’ “deficiencies” — meaning the fact that he represents the military industrial and prison industrial complexes? (If Sawant wants to relegate this to being merely a “deficiency”… well, what more can be said?) Do we intersect with these alleged millions by pretending that there is the slightest chance that Sanders can or will lead a break from the corporate-controlled Democratic Party? Do we intersect with them by ignoring the fact that Sanders never mentions the bloated military budget?
And how can any socialist simply allow Sanders’ supporters to ignore Sanders’ support for that brutal, criminal, racist regime in Israel? Is that socialist politics? Is that even working class politics?
Sure, it’s right to support the enthusiasm for a “political revolution” and to attack Corporate America for the inequality, etc. that it has produced. But socialists have to go beyond that. They have to clearly and openly explain that Sanders cannot produce what he claims he can. We have to explain the connection between his links to the prison and military industrial complexes, his failure to really openly speak up against racism and police brutality, his support for the racist state of Israel, and his being tied hand and glove to the Democratic Party. It is a serious mistake to pretend that Sanders can lead a movement for a new, mass workers party. All this can be done with sympathy to those who support Sanders – or at least many of them – but it has to be done openly, not buried away in the back of some article like the escape clause written in eight point type in a five page insurance contract.
“A message that empowers the working class”???
“Millions are being electrified around his message, because his message is a message that empowers the working class,” Sawant claimed. In effect, Sawant is claiming that this liberal capitalist politician is leading the working class forward. There is a technical name for this sort of approach. It’s not a name that we use lightly, nor as a swear word. But when socialists try to attach themselves to a liberal capitalist politician and his or her supporters without making the class lines clear, the correct, the scientific name for that is opportunism.
In the end, those who support Sanders – either by directly endorsing him or by simply claiming that he’s “empowering the working class” while at the same time ignoring the fact that he’s supporting racism at home and abroad – should bear in mind the memorable words of Chris Hedges last night when he said that we cannot just ignore Sanders’ support for Israel: “You either stand with all of the oppressed or you stand with none of the oppressed.”
By that measuring stick, Sanders stands with none of them and any genuine socialist, in fact any fighter for the working class, is obligated to point that out.