In a recent article for Bunkermag, Comrade Villanueva attempts to parse through a few positions that the “far-left” have with regard to the presidential candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders. In the article, he describes three groups that roughly correspond with the position that they take toward the Sanders campaign: reformists backing Sanders, revolutionaries disavowing Sanders, and “accelerationists” backing the right-wing so as to provoke revolutionary upheaval. These are followed up by a not so in depth analysis on his own part, in which he baselessly speculates that Sanders is actually far more revolutionary than his campaign would suggest (ignoring the entirety of his political career in the process), as well as makes a few confusing remarks with regard to what defines socialism and closes the article with the utterly absurd line that, “Sometimes even a cancer patient can use a bandage. Not to mention, bread and roses.”
Like many on the so-called “far-left,” Comrade Villanueva suffers from Charlie Brown syndrome. That is, he seems to have be snookered by the idea that “this time it will be different,” much in the same way that Charlie Brown is continuously roped in to trying to kick a football from under Lucy’s finger, only to find that the ball has been yanked away at the last moment. Like Charlie Brown, the “far-left” of the 21st Century is easily duped into thinking that, say, the ‘Pink Tide’ governments in Latin America, or Occupy Wall Street, or #BlackLivesMatter, or SYRIZA, or now Bernie Sanders, will be substantively different from the hundred or so odd failures of the past quarter century. This stems in part from the sorry state of consciousness on the “far-left” today, which less resembles anything approximating Marxism and more closely resembles an amalgamation of radical liberalism, anarchism, and populism.
This is, of course, part of Comrade Villanueva’s problem. He admits as such when declaring himself a “democratic socialist” and heaping praise upon Sanders’ reformist program. The left that has emerged from the ashes of the collapse of the Soviet Union is a left that has democracy as it’s be-all, end-all goal. It has an irrational belief in the power of “democracy” to transform things, be it Richard Wolff absurdly suggesting that transforming a business into a worker self-directed enterprise is an attack on capitalism to the disastrous insistence by anarchists at Occupy Wall Street that everything be done in a ‘leaderless’, ‘horizontal’, and hyper-democratic fashion, so as to ‘prefigure’ the kind of world we want to see ‘after the revolution,’ of course. This vulgar democraticism has no theoretical understanding of the workings of the capitalist state, which is why everyone from Eurocommunists like the SYRIZA leadership to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, continues to get the football pulled out from under them, time and time again.
Democracy in a capitalist society is, as Lenin put it in The State and Revolution, “Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich — that is the democracy of capitalist society.” While this quotation (and the work it appears in) is nearly a century old, it is no less true today than it was in 1917. Democracy in the United States, no less than democracy in Greece, or in Spain, or in the United Kingdom, or in any of the other ‘industrial democracies’ is nothing more than a means by which the ruling class, i.e. the bourgeoisie, resolves its own disputes and maintains the exploitation and oppression of the working class. Viewing this state as anything other than an engine for capital accumulation and the suppression of the working class is not only incorrect from a materialist standpoint, but also leads you into every kind of political error imaginable, from selling off national assets (as SYRIZA has done in Greece) to seriously believing that you can change the behavior of the ‘bodies of armed men’ employed by the state (i.e. the police force and the armed forces) by setting up ‘community control boards.’
The reformists will counter that the state, in the past, has granted concessions to the working class. And that may well be, but in so saying they ignore the context in which they were granted. In the United States, the ruling class accepted New Deal reform legislation in the midst of unprecedented labor struggle in this country and the veiled threat of a revolutionary alternative in the form of growing Communist, Trotskyist, and Socialist parties. Unlike a presumptive President Sanders taking office in January 2017, the Roosevelt administration was dealing with factory occupations on a mass scale, city-wide general strikes, and armed conflicts between striking workers and local police forces.
Likewise, the reformists ignore the subsequent attack on said concessions whenever the crisis period ended. While Roosevelt and his cronies tolerated concessionary measures toward the working class during the depression, they immediately moved to ensure the ability of capital to claw back it’s losses during World War II. The pro-Roosevelt trade union bureaucracy actively helped the administration suppress strikes, reintroduce speed-up conditions on the factory floor, and in general put the workers through the wringer in the name of helping American imperialism vanquish its German and Japanese rivals. After the war, the labor movement attempted an offensive to restore their own purchasing power, but this too was ultimately met with failure as the Truman administration pressed for harsh anti-labor measures (culminating in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947) and threatened to draft striking workers into the army to ensure ‘labor peace.’
Throughout the so-called ‘boom years’ between 1945 and 1973, the American ruling class began to lay the groundwork for the full-scale destruction of working class power that had emerged out of the valiant organizing drives of the 1930s. The first factories were set up abroad, production was transferred to the non-union South, and new anti-labor legislation was enacted (the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1958 being the most prominent). The 1970s saw the class offensive come out into the open, with massive factory closings continuing into the early 1980s; trade unions were attacked by first the Carter and then the Reagan administrations, if not already brought under the heel of the Department of Justice or the Labor Department by out-bureaucrats seeking office in that period. To top it off, the Clinton administration abolished much of the remaining social welfare programs enacted as concessions to the desperately poor in the 1960s with his ‘welfare-to-work’ scheme, a scheme that has itself been used to depress wages. Today we are governed by an administration whose head boasted that ‘corporate profits were higher than ever’ under his leadership while running for re-election and whose sole priority seems to now be restricting the ability of an increasingly angry American public to purchase firearms.
What then, do the reformists have to say of all this? For them, the decline of the so-called ‘welfare state’ created by the New Deal is the result of having the wrong people in elected office, i.e. of having people who have had the wrong priorities and the wrong ideals running the country since the 1930s. The solution? Elect people like Bernie Sanders, who know what’s wrong and how to fix it. Thus the reformist reveals himself as an idealist, and thus the utopianism of his position becomes all the more apparent.
But wait, scream the reformists. How can you describe ‘reform’ as utopian, but revolution as a plausible alternative? This is the objection of the reformist whenever his position is contrasted with the revolutionary. He is always the ‘level-headed’ one, the one who wants to ‘get things done’, the ‘realist.’ But what’s realistic about believing in something that has more or less already proven itself unable to get the job done? What will make a Sanders administration any different than a Clinton administration? Is it because Sanders is a self-described ‘socialist’? Sanders’ self-definition is less important than his record, which is, at best, that of a radical liberal or a right-wing social democrat, if we’re being especially generous. He’s confined his legislative agenda to postal banking, auditing the federal reserve, and attempting to make tax adjustments for worker cooperatives. Worse, he’s spent his entire congressional career voting to fund American imperialism’s neocolonial wars in the Middle East and backs the subjugation of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government.
Sanders endorsed Bill Clinton for President in the 1990s and has been a backer of the Obama administration since day one. And our reformist friends will tell us it will be different under him because Sanders calls himself a socialist! SYRIZA translates to ‘Coalition of the Radical Left’, I should add here, and that hasn’t stopped them from caving into demands by German imperialism to sell off the productive capacity of Greece in the name of debt reduction. It’s almost as if what one calls themselves is entirely disconnected from what one does!
But, as Comrade Villanueva hints at, what if Sanders is just putting up a front to conceal a more radical agenda? This is highly unlikely, given that a man on the campaign trail would have to have J.J. Abrams-esque silence on something like that to avoid it coming out in the 24 hour cable news cycle in some way or another, be it from a slip up on his own part or via a giddy staffer. However, even if it were true, how does Comrade Villanueva, and how do our reformist friends in general, think that Sanders would enact such an agenda?
Sanders, assuming he’s elected, will come into office with a solidly Republican-controlled Congress, Republican control of state legislatures, and Republican control of a majority of governorships. How will he be able to enact even a tepid agenda focused on building up workers’ cooperatives or enacting tuition free education when the opposition controls the legislature? Even assuming a Democratic held legislature, his prospects do not fare all that better. When President Obama came to office, he had supermajorities in both chambers of Congress and needed every single vote he could get to pass his signature legislative accomplishment, Obamacare, in 2010. It would be a far cry even to assume that Sanders, who is on the left of the Democratic Party, would be able to corral the votes of Democrats for much of anything.
The Democratic Party is, of course, a bourgeois party. Unlike the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, it has no organic link to the working class via the trade unions (although trade unionists may be Democratic Party members, they do not have the kind of institutional presence within the Democratic Party that British trade unionists do within the Labour Party), and relies heavily on money from finance and high tech capital to run its campaigns. It’s chief accomplishments of the past half-century have been the Vietnam War, funding the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, the War in Kosovo, NAFTA, ‘welfare reform’, the Brady Bill, mass incarceration, the expansion of the death penalty, bank bailouts, the auto bailout, austerity, ‘anti-terror’ legislation, domestic spying programs, targeted drone assassinations, the TPP, etc, etc. This party, the one that would-be led by so-called socialist Bernie Sanders, is the one that our ‘level-headed’ reformists tell us will pave the way for American socialism. As if!
Comrade Villanueva caricatures those of us who reject reformism as being unrealistic. In fact, it is simply an understanding of the historical circumstances of the past century, and the failures of reformism therein, that make reformism the truly unrealistic position for any socialist to hold. To call for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system is, then, the only real alternative existing for socialists in the 21st Century. The difference between this position and the reformist one could not be more marked, in that one requires conscious effort toward building the kind of working class organizations capable of making that revolution as opposed to simply latching on to the latest left-talking bourgeois politician and calling it a day.
At its root, reformism remains the ‘get rich quick’ variant of left politics, which is why it has embraced everything from ‘alterglobalism’ to Bernie Sanders over the past quarter-century. It reveals an underlying pessimism with regard to the ability of the working class to emancipate itself and feeds into a general melancholy on the left that sees the struggle as having been lost before it was even taken up. We must settle, say the reformists, lest we be confronted with the possibility of actually having to work for our victory.
But, say we revolutionists, to settle without a fight is to give the fight up entirely. Revolution-ism annoys the reformists because it dismisses their illusions in the bourgeois state as the truly utopian position and brings to light the need for long-term, sustained work. Nothing could be more anathema to the reformist, and so he continues on about his way denouncing as fantastic a position with far more grounding in historical reality than anything he professes. The left must reject the vulgar democraticism and pessimism of the reformists in favor of a real orientation toward building the kind of organizations that can (and will) bring down capitalism, once and for all.
Rather than the pessimism of the vulgar democrat or the jaded liberal, we must remember that we live in a time of unprecedented technological development, in which the problems that confronted our forebears in the 19th and 20th Century could be solved much more easily. Has organizing an ‘international’ ever been easier than in an era with planet-wide internet connectivity? Have Marxist works ever been as widely available as they are today? Computer technology and improved logistics networks have made possible solutions for the planning problems incurred by 20th Century planned economies. With automation and 3D printing, arduous work and scarcity could very well become things of the past. And yet, these technologies, and the amazing liberatory potential of them all, are closed off to us by the capitalist mode of production.
To a society enslaved by the machine, we must declare ourselves in favor of the subjugation of the machine, and it’s productive capabilities, to mankind. To a left stuck in a recurring cycle of attempting to kick the football only to have it pulled from under them, we must take the football. The only hope we have of escaping inter-imperialist war or outright slavery is to do just that – to reconstruct the Marxist left and to smash, not take over, the bourgeois state. Anything else is just a diversion, and only puts us one step closer to the “common ruin of the contending classes.”