Dead Men Left

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Faint glimmers of 1914

The Basel Declaration, signed in 1912 by the Second International of socialist and labour parties, was that in the event of a war in Europe, the parties of labour would declare a general strike. Workers would not fight their fellow workers for imperialist spoils. From the British Labour Party, to the German SPD and beyond to Russia, these organisations represented the aspirations of millions. When war came, with very rare exceptions those same parties smartly saluted their national flags, and urged their supporters to war: to defeat "German militarism" or to combat "Russian despotism", the Second International dissolved itself as hundreds of thousands rallied to their respective national flags.

The support offered for the First World War remains the single greatest betrayal of the socialist movement by its leaders in its history. Subsequent reneged promises and forgotten ideals bear something of it about them, however distantly; but sometimes certain events descend closer to that ur-betrayal than is usual. The hysterics that have greeted Ralph Nader from the anti-war left are plumbing unusually great depths. There is a level of plain irrationality, of wilful political blindness behind calls for anti-war voters to rally to a pro-war candidate and a pro-war party that seems exceptional. On the most decisive issue in world politics at present, the US left - with a few precious exceptions - fails the test in spectacular fashion. All the while the Anybody But Bush gang justify themselves in terms that seem further and further removed from reality, as they dig up fresh dollops of good old-fashioned moralistic claptrap. This example is quoted on Doug Ireland's generally excellent blog:

The efforts by Socialists or Greens to insist there are no differences between the two parties, or that it doesn't make any difference whether Kerry or Bush wins the election, defies common sense. (Which is one reason the left has so little impact in the country as a whole - people perceive their own immediate interests better than we do. One reason many on the left are irritated by Michael Moore is because he has spoken the truth on this, reminding us that we don't really speak for or understanding working class Americans).

"If you earn more than $50,000 a year, are white, and are a male, then it doesn't really make any difference to you who wins. It is a matter of esthetics.

The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, drew a very sharp distinction between "common sense" and "good sense". "Common sense" is what arrives, as it were, naturally: the background hum of conventional politics, the TV, the newspapers: voting matters, protesting doesn't, there's nothing you can do. "Good sense" is what those defying such conventions do: going on strike, organising demonstrations; it is a far truer understanding of the nature of this society than mere "common sense" provides.

This displays all the worst faults of "common sense", and then provides a few fresh layers of complete fantasy. Myself, Lenin, and many others have already dealt with the peculiar fallacy that Kerry offers such a qualitative distinction above Bush that selling one's political independence to the Democrats is necessary. For the clearest - indeed, a devastating - dismissal of the "common sense" view, Alexander Cockburn in the New Left Review is required reading:

On the calendar of standard-issue American politics, the quadrennial nominations and presidential contests have offered, across the past forty years, a relentlessly shrinking menu. Back in 1964, the Democratic convention that nominated Lyndon Johnson saw the party platform scorn the legitimate claim of Fannie Lou Hamer and her fellow crusaders in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be the lawful Mississippi delegation. The black insurgents went down to defeat in a battle that remained etched in the political consciousness of those who partook in or even observed the fray. There was political division, the bugle blare and sabre slash of genuine struggle. At the Chicago convention of 1968 there was still a run against lbj, albeit more polite in form, with Eugene McCarthy’s challenge. McCarthy’s call for schism was an eminently respectable one, from a man who had risen through the us Senate as an orthodox Democratic Cold War liberal. [2]

Four years later, when George McGovern again kindled the anti-war torch, the party’s established powers, the labour chieftains and the money men, did their best to douse his modest smoulder, deliberately surrendering the field to Richard Nixon, for whom many of them voted. And yet, by today’s standards, that strange man Nixon, under whose aegis the Environmental Protection Agency was founded, the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed, Earth Day first celebrated, diplomatic relations established with Mao’s China and Keynesianism accepted as a fact of life, would have been regarded as impossibly radical. Of course, it was the historical pressures of the time that moulded Nixon’s actions—the Cold War context, the rising tide of Third World struggles (Vietnam foremost among them), labour victories, inner-city insurgencies, the counter-culture. The same goes for judicial appointments, often the last frantic argument of a liberal urging all back under the Big Democratic Tent. The Blacks, Douglases, Marshalls and Brennans were conjured to greatness by decade-long movements for political and cultural change, and only later by the good fortune of confirmed nomination. The decay of liberalism is clearly reflected in the quality of judges now installed in the Federal district courts. At the level of the us Supreme Court, history is captious. The best two of the current bunch, Stevens and Souter, were nominated by Republican presidents, Ford and G. H. W. Bush.

With Jimmy Carter came the omens of neoliberalism, whose hectic growth was a prime feature of the Clinton years under the guiding hand of the Democratic Leadership Council. But in the mid-to-late 1970s Carter had to guard his left flank, whence he sustained eloquent attacks from Barry Commoner and his Citizens’ Party in 1976, and then in 1979–80 from Senator Edward Kennedy, who challenged Carter for the nomination under the battle standard of old-line New Deal liberalism. The fiercest political fighting of the 1980s saw Democratic party leaders and pundits ranged shoulder to shoulder against the last coherent left-populist campaign to be mounted within the framework of the Democratic Party: that of Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition. As JoAnn Wypijewski pithily resumes Clinton’s payback to the Rainbow forces:

By a brisk accounting of 1993 to 2000, the black stripe of the Rainbow got the Crime Bill, women got ‘welfare reform’, labour got nafta, gays and lesbians got the Defence of Marriage Act. Even with a Democratic Congress in the early years, the peace crowd got no cuts in the military; unions got no help on the right to organize; advocates of dc statehood got nothing (though statehood would virtually guarantee two more Democratic Senate seats and more representation in the House); the single-payer crowd got worse than nothing. Between Clinton’s inaugural and the day he left office, 700,000 more persons were incarcerated, mostly minorities; today one in eight black men is barred from voting because of prison, probation or parole. [3]

The ABB position is the collapse of all political vision, and the writing off of future progress to some never-never time when a "safe" Republican candidate emerges so the Left can "indulge" itself in building credible political organisation. But why should this ever occur? Moreover, as even Cockburn's potted political history makes clear: it is not elections that have granted progressive forces their opportunities in the US; it is movements. Why shackle the anti-capitalist and the anti-war movements to the Democrat's neoliberal truck? It might indeed be more aesthetically pleasing than a Republican Humvee, but it is driving in exactly the same direction.

Of course Bush ought to lose, for no other reason than the lift it will grant to the anti-war movement globally: but it is the Democrat's job to mobilise their voters, not the Left's job to frighten itself through Bush into submission on Kerry's behalf. Of course Bush ought to lose: but not at this price; and it remains a false, stupid bargain that has been struck. The singularly desperate line that Nader "takes votes" from the Democrats has repeatedly exposed itself; it was the collapse of the Democrat vote in states like Florida that cost Gore the election, not Nader taking votes that "ought" to go to the Democrats.

To move our historical parallel along a little: a senior Tory once suggested that Thatcher's greatest legacy was the creation of New Labour: the reduction of the Labour Party to a bastardised Toryism. Perhaps George Bush's Presidency will be viewed in a similar light: the collapse of the US Left into a fawning prop for a bastardised Republicanism. That this should occur when civil liberties are restricted by official consensus; when the system of official politics is visibly degenerating; when unemployment is rising, and economic welfare in steep decline; and when many thousands of US troops are committed to an illegal and increasingly unpopular occupation almost beggars belief. If Kerry wins, what credibility will the US Left retain? You asked us to vote for this. If Bush wins, what opposition will it muster? We gave up everything to prevent this happening.

The British Left still suffers after Thatcher, and Blair has proved more disruptive than might be hoped. I am not sure how long the US Left will take to recover from this utter debacle. To have moved from Seattle, through the growing anti-war, anti-occupation protests, to this pathetic shambles conducted for a singularly pathetic scion of the US elite is at best deeply embarrassing. And what blustering pretension this "quiet surrender" (Cockburn again) is presented with: as if Kerry cares for his progressive support; like the socialists of 1914, dutifully marching into the trenches, Michael Moore's merry band have reduced themselves to the status of cannon fodder - perhaps literally, if they care to serve in Kerry's glorious "New Army of Patriots" programme. It is to be hoped - such a "hope" as it is - that the diabolical occupation of Iraq compels "good sense" to prevail.