Left Populism at the dead end: where to after Corbyn and Sanders?

by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From Fightback‘s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html
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Introduction: the dream is over

On 8th April 2020, Keir Starmer replaced Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the British Labour Party, following that party’s trouncing by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in the December 2019 election. On the same day, Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for US president, soon after his disappointing results in the “Super Tuesday” Presidential primary elections which were dominated decisively by centrist former Vice-President Joe Biden.

To be dramatic, we could call this “the day the dream ended”. That dream was one shared by much of the Left over the last ten years: that nascent Left-wing “populist” electoral movements across the world, often arising from protest movements such as Occupy or the demonstrations against austerity in Greece, would arise to defeat both the neoliberal establishment and the rising tide of Right-wing populist, even fascist, movements. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are the names most commonly associated with this movement in English speaking countries, but other movements such as PODEMOS in the Spanish state, or SYRIZA in Greece, have also caused much excitement on the broader Left. The former is currently the junior coalition government partner in Spain, and the latter led the government of Greece from 2015-2019.[1] Further back in history, the “pink tide” governments in Latin America, most famously that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, can also be seen in this category.

So why has this “Left-populist” wave reached such a dead end? And was it a wrong direction to start with?

Bernie Sanders: where was the turnout?

The strongest argument for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was always that “Bernie” was unique in having a mass movement behind him dominated by youth, who were excited and motivated by his social-democratic, anti-establishment message. None of the other, centrist candidates, the argument went, could match the “enthusiasm” and “energy” of the Bernie wave – and if Bernie were to be nominated, this wave would then go on to completely swamp the Trump campaign. Excitable online leftists, such as Will Menaker from the podcast Chapo Trap House, enthused about how the centrist Democrat establishment would soon have to “bend the knee” before the Bernie movement[2], while journalist David Klion was even more optimistic about the future:

As it turned out, there was something of a landslide on “Super Tuesday”, 3rd March 2020, when 14 states held their primaries. Turnout for the Democratic primaries was much higher than in 2016; in states such as Virginia, it doubled.[3] African-Americans, Latin@s and others in working-class suburbs queued for up to 7 hours (due to deliberate underprovision of polling places by Republican state governments) to vote…[4] and the results were excellent for Joe Biden, and disappointing for Bernie Sanders, essentially ending the latter’s chances of winning the nomination.

The immediate counter-reaction from the Sanders camp was to point out that overwhelmingly older voters (tending to support Biden) had turned out, while younger, more Sanders-inclined voters didn’t. But that begs the question. Bernie’s fabled support had not appeared at the polls. Of course, polling times and polling places were inconvenient for young people – exactly as they will be in the November general election. No matter the quality of the Sanders programme, this was powerful negative evidence about his ability to defeat Donald Trump.

One explanation was this was a real-time demonstration of “Cuomo’s Law”. In 2019, the centrist governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo, was challenged from the Left by Cynthia Nixon, an actress best known for her role in the TV show Sex and the City. Her campaign was extremely popular on social media, but in the end Cuomo defeated her by 31 points.[5] The social media “buzz” behind Nixon ended up having little relevance to actual elections. Hence, one Twitter user suggested “Cuomo’s Law”: that online politics have nothing to do with real life.[6] That is, the argument was that the Sanders mass movement was only an Internet phenomenon, unable to be translated into ballots going into boxes.

Others have given more substantive political analyses for why the Sanders campaign stalled in the primaries. Journalist Zack Beauchamp argues:

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s theory of victory was simple: An unapologetically socialist politics centering Medicare-for-all and welfare state expansions would unite the working class and turn out young people at unprecedented rates, creating a multiracial, multigenerational coalition that could lead Sanders to the Democratic nomination and the White House… In a 2019 essay in the socialist magazine Jacobin, Princeton professor Matt Karp staked his case for Sanders on the candidate’s ability to win over economically precarious voters by appealing to their common interest.

In the end, this approach failed. It was former Vice President Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, who assembled a multiracial working-class coalition in key states like Michigan — where Biden won every single county, regardless of income levels or racial demographics.

Sanders had success in shifting the Democratic Party in his direction on policy. But the strategy for winning power embraced by his partisans depended on a mythologized and out-of-date theory of blue-collar political behavior, one that assumes that a portion of the electorate is crying out for socialism on the basis of their class interest. Identity, in all its complexities, appears to be far more powerful in shaping voters’ behaviors than the material interests given pride of place in Marxist theory.[7]

Those who really believed that the Sanders campaign was a “political revolution” that would destroy the centrist Clinton/Obama/Biden Democrats as well as the Trumpist Republicans must have been disoriented that Bernie Sanders has joined Joe Biden in rejecting the quite moderate slogan of “Defund the Police”[8]; or when Sanders argues that Biden might turn out to be “the most progressive President since Franklin Roosevelt”.[9] If we believe the analysis of David Atkins, this statement by Sanders (quite wild on the surface) might make some sense:

The reality is that leftist policy has never been more ascendant in the Democratic Party since at least the 1960s if not the 1930s. The Biden 2020 campaign platform is well to the left of the Clinton 2016 platform, which was itself well to the left of the Obama 2008 platform. Every major candidate in the 2020 field ran either on some version of Medicare for All, or at least a public option and Medicare expansion as a pathway toward it.

Every major candidate proposed much bolder action on climate change than the Obama administration, and major policies to address student debt and college tuition. And on social policy from LGBT rights to criminal justice, the difference between the Democratic Party of today and that of 10 years ago could not be more stark. Most of those advances are due to the hard work of leftists whose tireless advocacy has successfully won the force of moral argument and persuaded mainstream Democratic base voters and independents.[10]

The Democratic Party has moved to at least rhetorically embrace some of the reforms demanded by the ongoing Black Lives Matter uprising.[11] While there is cause for scepticism that fine words in opposition will mean anything if and when Biden makes it into the White House, results from recent Democratic primaries suggest that a new crop of progressive legislators will be joining Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others in the House of Representatives to push for these ideas.[12] The movement to elect candidates (almost inevitably from within the Democratic Party) who will promote economic justice, universal healthcare and other supportable reforms can and should continue, intersecting with Black Lives Matter and all the other mass movements for justice and dignity.

In contrast, the presidential election is now a simple referendum on the accelerating, murderous and increasingly authoritarian disaster of Trumpism. Biden’s lead in the polls corresponds with more than 160,000 dead in the COVID-19 pandemic due to federal non-response; plain-clothes federal agents snatching protestors off the streets of Portland; Trump’s blatant misuses of power to harass personal enemies, exonerate criminals who happen to be his allies, and attempt to depress voter turnout; levels of graft and self-dealing within the administration which are beginning to disgust many lifelong conservatives and corporate donors; and Trump’s increasingly naked appeal to racism, xenophobia and bloodlust.

Given all of this, Biden’s greyness, “easy-going” persona and appeal to nostalgia is proving extremely popular in the polls, to the point where he hardly seems to need to leave his house to campaign. While Sanders himself has embraced party discipline and swung his full support against Biden, an initial common reaction from his supporters to their defeat was dire prophecies that Biden would fail to motivate voters, and be utterly trounced in the general election by incumbent President Donald Trump. Some, such as the British-based magazine Salvage,[13] but many others online, even concluded that the Democratic Party leadership knows full well that Biden will not and even cannot win against Trump, and that they supported his doomed candidacy because Bernie was seen as a greater threat.

This analysis seems to embody “Cuomo’s Law”, in that it makes perfect sense for a certain online Left bubble, but does not take into account the disconnect between “very online leftists” and the actually-existing masses of working people, who took to the polls despite suppression to make Biden their standard-bearer against Trump.

We must of course fight any beliefs that Democrats in power will do anything better than restoring “capitalist normality”, except under the pressure of a mass movement backed by labour action. The Left has good reason to be repelled by Joe Biden’s moderate-at-best record as a legislator and as Vice President, his appeal to nostalgia for the good old days of bipartisanship, his stutter and verbal gaffes which are wrongly argued by some to be evidence of cognitive decline, and the believable claims of sexual assault against him by ex-staffer Tara Reade (all things that Salvage exaggerates for polemical effect). Similarly, it is important to critique the record of his running mate, Kamala Harris, as Attorney-General of California, who sued to deny trans prisoners health care and in many other ways upheld the very prison-industrial complex that the BLM/George Floyd protests are up against.[14]

It was completely correct for Sanders and Warren to mount a strenuous campaign against the “business as usual, back to normality” retro-neoliberalism presented by Biden and the other centrist candidates – and the activist Left must continue to hold Biden and Harris accountable for both their record and their proposals for office. But Biden showed support where it matters for electoral politics, at the ballot box in the primaries (by a significantly larger margin than Clinton in 2016) against all his Democratic challengers of both centrist and liberal varieties, who had none of the personal problems mentioned above. Moreover, according to the latest polling, Biden is currently also winning it handily against incumbent President Donald Trump – who has all of Biden’s problems, and more besides, in addition to his repulsive personality and increasingly fascistic politics.

This article is being written months before the November election, and it is of course still possible that Trump’s increasingly naked appeal to naked authoritarianism, racist violence and a “culture war” narrative might pull him over the line in the distorted Electoral College. Or, failing that, his attacks on postal voting and attempts to defund the Post Office might become part of a wider movement to discredit or even rig the election, after which he would simply dare Democrats to try to shift him out of the White House. However, the Black, migrant, queer, working-class and other oppressed communities of the United States are not going to be won to an insurrectionist perspective until they have exhausted the electoral route. It is one thing to counsel preparations for mass strikes and insurrection should Trump successfully rig the election; it is a bridge too far, here and now, to suggest giving up on the presidential election altogether. Even in Belarus, the masses waited until after Lukashenko’s rigged election to rise up.

In any case, the question of Trump rigging the election would be also faced by a Sanders-led ticket. Right now, Biden is ahead by an average of more than 7 points in opinion polls, a level Clinton in 2016 never reached.[15] Arguments that Bernie Sanders would be in a better position to lead opposition to Trump had he won the nomination are unfalsifiable and therefore useless. Leftists who have gone from cheerleading Sanders’ left-electoral programme to counselling electoral nihilism seem more interested in finding an excuse, any excuse, not to vote for Biden and Harris than in seriously building mass politics. A more useful reaction to the Sanders defeat is probably this:

Bernie collecting millions of campaign dollars from young, unemployed & marginalized people, just to bow out, endorse Biden & stand against defunding police—which is the start of abolition— is a good reminder that career politicians are not for you. Righteousness is w/ the people.[16]

Meanwhile, in Britain…

When Fightback wrote about Jeremy Corbyn’s movement in 2017, after British Labour’s much better than expected result in the parliamentary election of that year, we credited this success to the Corbyn leadership’s successful “fudge” on Brexit, refusing to take a clear Remain or Leave position.[17]

However, by December 2019, the benefits of ambiguity had dissolved. As the actual deadline for a final decision on Brexit drew nearer, it became clear that the Conservative government would take a “hard Brexit” (cutting all ties to the EU) as an excuse for a bonfire of laws on worker protection, human rights and even the National Health Service. This was surely the time to squarely stand for cancelling or at least delaying Brexit, rather than to continue to pretend that this issue was a distraction. Former Scottish Labour advisor Ayesha Hazarika argues:

The huge mistake that we made over Brexit was at the end, it didn’t matter what our position was, it was so confusing. We  tried to be all things to all people and we were like nothing to anybody, it was just the worst of all worlds.[18]

A commission of inquiry into Labour’s defeat discovered, according to a report in The Guardian, that:

Helped by their clear “Get Brexit done” message, the Conservatives succeeded in turning out 2 million previous non-voters, accounting for two thirds of the increase in their vote share….

… Corbyn’s leadership was a “significant factor” in the 2019 result. His public approval ratings collapsed at around the time a group of Labour MPs including Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna left to found the Independent Group, citing antisemitism within Labour and its Brexit policy.

The report says: “‘Stop Jeremy Corbyn’ was a major driver of the Conservatives’ success across all their key groups including previous non-voters, and among all the swing voters Labour lost to the Tories.”

Had Corbyn been as popular in December as he was two years earlier, Labour’s vote share could have been 6 percentage points higher, the analysis finds.

When it came to Labour’s radical manifesto, launched at an upbeat rally in Birmingham, the analysis found that individual policies were popular, but doubts about the leadership stoked a perception that the package as a whole was not deliverable.[19]

The response heard very often on the Left is that Jeremy Corbyn was defeated  by smears in the fanatically Right-wing British press, and sabotage by centrist and “Blairite” rebels in his own caucus. It’s undisputed that, like Bernie Sanders, Corbyn was running against much of his own party, never mind the Tories. But to accept this “stab-in-the-back legend” as the main explanation serves to deflect any criticism of Corbyn and his movement, thus making it impossible for the movement to learn from its mistakes and to self-correct.

To a large extent, the Corbyn takeover of the Labour Party was the victory of the “activist Left” in Britain. This may be hard to imagine from Australia or New Zealand, two countries in which there is no longer any significant class-struggle, strongly social-democratic tendency in our Labo(u)r Parties.[20] But the “hard Left” in the British Labour Party, which had been ruthlessly excluded from the leading bodies of the party and of the union movement for 30 years, jumped at the new rules for electing the leader which came into force in 2015, making it a simple “one member, one vote” decision by all party members[21], which enabled Corbyn to do an “end run” around his institutional opponents and pull off a shock victory.[22]

But this strength was also its weakness. Many commentators in America have noted the problems that the US radical Left, having been confined to a campus-based subculture for decades, have had with having to adapt their language to the mass politics needed to win elections. The “anti-Semitism scandal” which bedevilled Corbyn’s tenure as leader can be seen from one angle as an example of this.[23]

Jeremy Corbyn had long been one of the most prominent advocates of Palestinian liberation in the British Labour Party. It should be no surprise, then, that his leadership of the Labour Party brought certain very problematic aspects of the Western pro-Palestinian movement into mainstream politics. Whether Corbyn personally holds anti-Semitic beliefs, even unconsciously, is irrelevant to the issue of his defence of a notorious mural using anti-Semitic tropes,[24] or his laying of a wreath in front of the grave of a PLO leader who authorised the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes[25], and the reactions which these provoked among British Jews, which were of course gleefully promoted by the Tory press. The Corbyn leadership’s reproduction of the activist Left’s usual rhetorical moves against accusations of anti-Semitism – denials, defensiveness, and accusations of bad faith – were ineffective and even counterproductive in the mainstream media arena.[26]

Editor of politics.co.uk Ian Dunt argues that anti-Semitism in British Labour

was allowed to take root and spread because people who were not anti-Semitic relegated it to secondary importance. Defending Corbyn was the chief moral requirement. Everything else could be sacrificed in order to secure that aim. It was, at its heart, a matter of priorities.[27]

It is probably best to see Corbyn’s tolerance for the expression of anti-Semitic tropes by his supporters within Labour in the context of his foreign policy, which was his major focus before he became Labour leader.[28] Corbyn’s foreign policy has always been, in common with most the British activist Left, a “campist” one – the benefit of the doubt has always been with those forces in geopolitical opposition to the Western states and to Israel.

Corbyn’s categorization of the armed opposition to the Assad dictatorship in Syria as “jihadis” and “Salafists”[29] could have come right out of a Russian Foreign Ministry press release. But for ordinary British voters, perhaps more shocking was his attempt to cast doubt upon the responsibility of Russian spooks for the nerve-gas poisoning of defector Sergei Skripal on British soil.[30] Before he became leader, Corbyn sponsored a Parliamentary motion which denied that Serbian forces had committed genocide in Kosovo[31], and claimed to recognize “the hand of Israel” in a jihadi attack against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula in 2012.[32]

As I explained in my 2015 article Against Campism[33], over much of the activist Left in Western countries, healthy suspicion of Western “humanitarian” motives for military interventions has collapsed into denial and conspiracy theory when it comes to crimes committed by non-Western states. The deep intertwining of the issues of Labour’s anti-Semitism problem with Corbyn’s campist foreign policy is particularly clear in the case of Corbyn’s defence of his staunch supporter, Chris Williamson MP. Williamson was suspended from the Labour Party for denying that there was any anti-Semitism problem; but he was also a promoter of pro-Assad conspiracy theories and chemical warfare denial.[34] Former Labour councillor Adam Langlaben argues that the Corbyn movement’s penchant for conspiracy theory (in foreign policy, in their dealings with the media, and in their reactions to intra-party opposition) inevitably led them to anti-Semitic tropes.[35]

It is also no coincidence that two of Corbyn’s closest allies, Seumas Milne[36] and Andrew Murray, were political veterans of the section of British Communism which has historically promoted Soviet and later Russian foreign policy aims. Murray in particular was associated closely with the Morning Star newspaper[37], which ran a front-page article cheering the murderous Assad regime’s recapture of free Aleppo as a “liberation”[38] and, more recently, dived into TERF politics.[39] Corbyn himself wrote a notable article in the Morning Star, before he became Leader, apologizing for Russia’s invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine as being provoked by NATO.[40]

It may be shocking to a broad audience that many within the activist Left would argue that there was nothing wrong, and certainly nothing anti-Semitic, about most of the above positions. The stock line is that because George W. Bush and Tony Blair lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then any Western/Israeli reports of atrocities must be treated with the deepest suspicion.[41] But as I pointed out in my 2018 article The Red-Brown Zombie Plague[42], denial of inconvenient truths by yelling “hoax” or “fake news” is precisely what we ridicule Trump fans or other Right-wing partisans for doing.

We can briefly summarize that Jeremy Corbyn took the actually-existing British activist Left movements – with all their positive and negative features – right into the heart of mainstream politics. When these contradictions were inevitably exposed by the capitalist press, voters rejected Corbyn personally – despite his generally supportable social-democratic platform. Corbyn’s campist foreign policy (and his “whataboutery” about anti-Semitism on his own side) is pretty standard for much of the activist Left in Western countries; but when it “hit the big time” in Britain, it appeared grotesque to mainstream voters and discredited his positive and supportable anti-austerity politics. Former Labour MP Ann Turley claims that her canvassing led her to believe that only 20% of Labour voters switching to Conservative were motivated by Brexit; the remainder, by anti-Corbyn sentiment[43].

A few years ago, a New Zealand Twitter user suggested that there is a definite constituency in elections for “soft-left but sensible ideas, if not attached to someone with a rap sheet that makes [voters] hate them”.[44] British socialists who want to rebuild an electoral challenge must examine how Jeremy Corbyn accumulated precisely such a “rap sheet”.

The theory of populism: Laclau and Mouffe

Though this article treats both Corbyn’s and Sanders’ movements as varieties of “Left-populism”, we have to pause here to emphasise the differences between them. These movements were very different, they had very different politics and social compositions, and they came to a “dead end” for very different reasons. To use shorthand, the Sanders campaign discovered the limits of “class-first” social democracy in an era of extreme racial and ethnic polarization; whereas the Corbyn campaign discovered that campist foreign policy, currently the common sense of the activist Left, was an easy target when playing in the political “big leagues”, and that reacting with denial, bluster, whataboutery, and claims of conspiracy didn’t help.

The biggest academic names which have featured over the last 30 years or so in recommending a “Left-populist” form of organisation have been the partnership of Argentinian Ernesto Laclau and Belgian Chantal Mouffe. Describing themselves as “post-Marxists”, their starting point is that – in the era of neoliberal globalisation – the industrial working class around which Marxist hopes had been traditionally built can no longer be the basis for a revolutionary or even a reformist challenge to the status quo, at least in Western countries. The challenge, therefore, is to build a new kind of popular majority to challenge austerity, imperialism and oppression. Though Laclau is now deceased, Mouffe carries on their work.

Laclau and Mouffe’s theories – most famously expressed in their joint work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) – make a lot of sense in an era where traditional working-class organisations and communities have collapsed, and in which “intersectional” politics of race, gender, sexuality and migration status have come to the fore. However, I intend to argue that the Corbyn and Sanders movements – and at a further remove, the more successful movements behind SYRIZA in Greece and the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela – demonstrate serious flaws in Left-populist politics as practiced over the last 20 years, which I believe can be shown to be inherent in the populist method of organisation itself as described by Laclau and Mouffe.

The problems of populism 1: Potato sacks and dear leaders

Everyone interested in making sense of modern politics should read Karl Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.[45] In 1848, Louis Bonaparte (nephew of the French revolutionary general and later Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte) became President of the French Republic because all the squabbling factions of the ruling class – monarchist, republican, conservative and liberal – saw him as a harmless clown who could be used and discarded. By 1852, after four years of constant fighting between these factions, President Bonaparte was able to ride a popular wave of resentment and exasperation, firstly, to carry out a coup to give himself dictatorial powers, then to make himself “Emperor Napoleon III”, in imitation of his uncle (which gave rise to Marx’s famous dictum about history repeating, first as tragedy then as farce).

Marx points out that Bonaparte’s social base was not the Parisian working class, but the French peasantry– an atomised social layer who could only be unified in the sense that potatoes are unified by putting them into a sack. This “sack” was the cult of the Bonaparte name and nostalgia for the First Empire (something we might today call “Make France Great Again”?) and a feeling of what we would now call “anti-politics” – the sentiment ¡Que se vayan todos! (They can all get out!) of the Argentinian uprising of 2002.[46] In another sense, Bonaparte and his successors repeated the successful formula of Julius Caesar, who was supported by ancient Rome’s poor and socially-excluded free citizens in overthrowing the traditional aristocracy and making himself Dictator for Life, allowing his successors to become Emperors.

Modern populist politics of both Left and Right varieties inherits this “potatoes in a sack” method of organisation, where horizontal solidarity between people and groups within the movement is less important than vertical loyalty to a unifying slogan, programme, or Leader. In his book On Populist Reason (Verso Books, 2004), Ernesto Laclau argues that an individual leader upon whom many different sectors of society can project their hopes and dreams is in fact a vital aspect of the populist style of organising:

An assemblage of heterogeneous elements kept equivalentially together only by a name is, however, necessarily a singularity. The less a society is kept together by immanent differential mechanisms, the more it depends, for its coherence, on this transcendent, singular moment. But the extreme form of singularity is an individuality. In this way, almost imperceptibly, the equivalential logic leads to singularity, and singularity to identification of the unity of the group with the name of the leader. (Kindle location 1728)

A less jargony way of phrasing this would be: an individual Leader becomes a logical necessity for holding together a broad movement composed of many different groups with their own demands.[47] But the problem here is that a political leader is not only a point of unity, and a symbol; he or she is a real person with real political authority, and the two aspects of this role contradict each other. Although Left populism assembles a different set of groups under a different programme and a different personality than Right-populism, a Leader who is a symbolic unifying figure is very hard to seriously challenge from within the movement – leading to an essentially authoritarian relationship between leader and led.

Laclau himself speaks later in this book about Juan Perón, the former Argentine president who became the leader of a vast and very diverse populist movement while he was exiled during the 1960s. At this time, Perón himself compared himself to the Pope – a symbol of unity and reverence. However, after Perón returned to Argentina in the 1970s – and especially after he was re-elected President – he became an actual political leader who had to make decisions which outraged either the left-wing or right-wing parts of his coalition, or both. His movement quickly dissolved, occasionally erupting into fatal violence between factions (Kindle location 3709).

Similarly, Left dissidents from the Greece Left-populist movement SYRIZA have claimed that as the organisation got closer to power, it was progressively

turn[ed…] into a leader-centred party… The aim was to move from a militant party of the left, with a strong culture of internal debate, heterogeneity, involvement in social movements and mobilizations, to a party with a passive membership which could be more easily manipulated by the centre, and keener to identify with the figure of the leader.[48]

Another SYRIZA dissident suggested that this was accomplished through mechanisms of “direct democracy” which had the appearance of giving power to the grassroots but in fact concentrated power at the top. It was suggested that the same thing was happening in Spain’s PODEMOS.[49] This has uncanny parallels to the way Louis Bonaparte, as President and later as Emperor, used periodic referendums to give legitimacy to his dictatorship.

Certainly the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns both contained a minority (with an outsized presence on social media) which took on a “personality cult” aspect, intolerant of any criticism of the Leader. But an outsized role for the personality of the Leader goes hand-in-hand with a political emptiness among the “potatoes” in the populist sack – the various factions end up with very little in common except for what “team” they’re on. In Adam Langlaben’s words:

There’s no such thing as Corbynism, because Corbyn never said anything of substance. He enabled whatever he says to be so vague, that it allows his supporters to decide whatever they want, and to give his supporters permission to say and do whatever they want, because there was [sic] no red lines, he wasn’t saying yes or no to anything.[50]

The fact that all these populist movements have ended up in failure – even the ones which have taken State power – show a problem with not only this inherent authoritarian dynamic, but also a problem with its horizon – that is, the greatest extent to which it can be successful. In practice, this horizon has turned out to be at best a militant form of social democracy – a strong welfare state which guarantees certain economic benefits and political rights to all citizens, standing against the powers of “the market” and of foreign imperialism, as at the high point of Hugo Chávez’s administration in Venezuela.

But, as explored by American revolutionary Hal Draper in The Two Souls of Socialism,[51]this model is counterposed to socialism as in workers’ power expressed through grassroots democracy, involving the abolition of capitalist social and economic relations altogether. Too many modern-day “revolutionaries” seem to have forgotten there’s a difference between these two meanings of “socialism”. Hence nonsense propaganda like Jeremy Corbyn’s face photoshopped into old Soviet or Maoist propaganda posters, or – my personal favourite – Bernie Sanders depicted as Che Guevara on T-shirts – while Corbyn was calling for more funding for police and border guards,[52] and Bernie Sanders hardly challenged the Democrat consensus on imperialist foreign policy.

In the days when Hugo Chávez was President of Venezuela, many on the Left argued that a Left-populist, anti-imperialist State leadership would open the door for revolution from below. Sadly, this didn’t happen; and now, Chávez’s successors have made sure that it never will, having moved to the model of an authoritarian clientelist state in which capitalists who become “friends of the regime” are protected.[53] A top-down movement based around a leader with an exceptional personality, which is what populist movements tend to become in practice, cannot bring about an end to exploitation and oppression. Mistaking authoritarian, though Left-leaning, populism for socialist democracy is a mistake that the organised Left has made over and over again throughout history.

Moreover, a movement based on the personality of the Leader will find it increasingly difficult to correct the Leader when he (and it is usually a “he”) makes a wrong turn – or even to accept criticism in good faith. Ian Dunt describes the reaction of the Corbyn camp to criticism:

Out they came, every time. The loyalist ranks, where Corbyn’s survival mattered more than anything, and all that challenged him was by definition a conspiracy. First the anonymous Twitter accounts, then the ones with large followings, then the big hitters, the Corbyn supporters who appear on TV debate programmes – the whole weird cottage industry of faith-based political defensiveness. All working to chisel away at the seriousness of what was happening, to make the people targeted feel that they were somehow in the wrong.[54]

One shorthand for this kind of knee-jerk “defence of the Leader” is “Stan culture”. “Stan” is a term for a deranged, obsessed fan (from an Eminem song), and the nastiest Corbyn and Sanders supporters on social media have sometimes acted like participants in one of the infamous feuds within popular entertainment fan cultures, rather than political activists.

Apart from the issue with the possibility of democratically holding the Leader to account, in a populist movement, real power is wielded by who can get closest to the Leader to influence him in the “right” direction. Thus, we saw a rush by socialists in the UK and the US to get onto the front seats of the Corbyn and Sanders bandwagons; even worse, in the UK, to create the repulsive illusion of a “left-wing Brexit”. It should not be surprising, however, to watch “leaders” of the revolutionary Left set aside their principles to go in this direction. This is in practice how this author has watched the revolutionary movements in Aotearoa/New Zealand work over the last 15 years – tailing popular demands or leaders and giving up political clarity in favour of “influence” over the leaders of centrist or even conservative forces.

The evidence of all the Left-populist movements that gave us so much hope over the last 25 years repeat this sorry story. To an extent, it doesn’t matter whether Hugo Chávez really supported Russian and Chinese imperialism and dictators like Mugabe or Lukashenko; whether Jeremy Corbyn really thought Russia were on the right side in Syria, or whether anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was no big deal; or whether Bernie Sanders agreed with a “class reductionist” approach that ignored Black Lives Matter and similar movements in favour of cultivating white populist reactionaries like Joe Rogan. But a decisive number of important people around them certainly did, and were able to act in the name of The Leader – names like Milne or Murray in Britain, David Sirota or Briahna Joy Gray in the US, or Diosdado Cabello in Venezuela. Philadelphia antifascist Gwen Snyder argues, with respect to Sanders and the “dirtbag left”:

his campaign staff urged him to lean into it. It wasn’t his base, he had much broader appeal. He just had exactly the wrong people whispering in his ear and encouraging him to play to exactly the wrong audience, an audience that reviled the rest of his coalition.[55]

The problems of populism 2: Red-Brown confusion

Although far from a communist horizon, strong-state social democracy might still sound like an improvement for most people compared to corporate-led global neoliberalism, let alone authoritarian Right-wing populism. But the more serious problem is that Left-populism – with its majoritarian, “we are the 99%” rhetoric, based on a division between the people and the Establishment/the elites – has in practice reproduced the one-sided opposition to liberals/neoliberals/centrism which I discussed in my 2016 article Against Conservative Leftism.[56] This has opened the door to de facto or even explicit alliances with Right-populists or even fascists against neoliberal globalism.

One particular subset of the Left-populist movements – commonly known as the “Dirtbag Left” in the United States, to use the self-description of the podcast Chapo Trap House – argue that the Trump electorate can be won to social democracy by class reductionism – restricting the movement to solely “bread-and-butter” economic demands for higher wages and social welfare, completely rejecting questions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and immigration as “divisive” or even “neoliberal”.

The argument seems to be that Donald Trump’s mass support is open to being converted to a social-democratic or even socialist platform, as long as it does not evoke the dreaded “Identity Politics”. Racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia do not need to be confronted separately, in this light – in fact, they should not be, as doing so would alienate “the white working class” (read: white men with a “blue-collar” cultural identity) from socialist politics. Bernie Sanders, according to this analysis, gave too much away to “IdPol”. Ironically, this runs directly against Laclau and Mouffe’s proposals for Left-populism; this does not involve unifying disparate groups and integrating their demands under the common banner of “the People”, but one (privileged) part of “the People” imposing dominance over the rest. As one Twitter user put it, “they would sell out every POC and every LGBT+ person to not pay college loans”.[57]

This is often accompanied by an assertion that Trump ran to the “left” of Clinton in 2016, in particular that he promised to end foreign wars. If this were true, then a Trump pivot to anti-imperialism and social-democratic economics would make as much sense as anything. But in fact, Trump did precisely the opposite, demanding that the US commit even more vicious war crimes, such as murdering the families of “terrorists”.[58] A similar assertion is that many people who voted for Trump over Clinton in 2016 did so for the same reasons that Leftists opposed Clinton: her responsibility for neoliberalism, austerity and imperialist wars. This is often combined with an assertion that Trump’s support base are “white working class” – precisely the kind of constituency that a Left-populist movement would dream of mobilizing.

One example of “Trump is the lesser evil” rhetoric. Whether sincerely held or a Trumpist making mischief, this kind of talk is dangerous.

In reality, even if Donald Trump is not a literal fascist, he is at the very least “fash-curious”. He has built a movement (almost a cult) out of open expression of white privilege and resentment. His target audience is not the working classes or the oppressed, but the downwardly mobile, formerly privileged (overwhelmingly white and male) middle-classes and skilled workers. These are the layers who have been atomised and dispersed by neoliberal capitalism, and have lost some of their relative privilege over various layers whom they see as “beneath them” (blacks, Muslims, migrants, uppity women, queer and trans people). They direct their resentment towards the latter, while continuing their hero-worship of the billionaire class who have grown fat off their suffering.[59]

All the evidence points to Trump’s voters being much more motivated by racism, misogyny, and 25 years of Right-led conspiracy theory which has sought to convict Hillary Clinton of corruption, murder, and literally sacrificing children to the Devil. All analyses of Trump’s support show that it skews very heavily towards wealthier white (male) voters; though 52% of white women voters plumped for Trump in 2016, recent evidence suggests that this has plummeted, rendering the misogyny of the Trump movement even more stark.[60] Even worse, the same is true of the Bernie Sanders vote from 2016: as left-wing pollster Sean McElwee put it, “the white working-class voters that Sanders won were mostly anti-Clinton voters”.[61] As David Atkins puts it, the evidence of the Sanders campaign shows that “unlike leftist policy more broadly, this theory of the electorate has utterly failed.”[62]

Similar confusion was apparent among Left-populists who wishfully declared that the 2016 vote for Brexit was “a multi-ethnic working class uprising against the elites”. In fact – as for a Trump vote – the best predictor of a Brexit vote was being white.[63] This shows an incapacity of the existing Left-populist movement to tell the difference between radical and reactionary opposition to the status quo. If the Revolution only means “the masses in motion”, then any mass movement with a popular leadership which threatens the neoliberal establishment (from Left or Right) is an opportunity rather than a threat.

Rather than building a different power bloc among the excluded masses with its own programme, as Laclau and Mouffe suggest, this kind of “populism” skips over class analysis (which would involve an up-to-date analysis of how the contemporary globalised neoliberal economy works, where value is being produced, etc), in favour of drawing a dividing line between “the elite and the masses” based on cultural features. “The people”, in this kind of “Left Populism”, are all those who do not share the cultural signifiers of the upwardly-mobile middle class; or alternatively, display the cultural features of the manual working class which existed before the neoliberal era began. This is a conservative, even traditionalist, understanding of politics, which benefits from the prevailing drift to the radical Right, rather than opposing it.

Even worse, this envy of the success of Right-wing populism creates an irresistible temptation to “join them if you can’t beat them”. As opposed to a “horizontal” form of building a mass movement, which would ally all the oppressed and exploited on the basis of solidarity, it seems that Left-wing populism seeks to combat its Right-wing equivalent by appealing to the same base – downwardly mobile formerly privileged layers (particularly white, blue-collar men) who have lost out in the era of globalised neoliberalism.

This confusion of Left-wing and Right-wing oppositions to globalised neoliberalism opens the door to the embrace by a Left-populist movement of socially conservative and “campist” politics, even fascist-infected Red-Brown politics. Alongside this often comes a defence of authoritarian nationalist regimes which are (supposedly) opposed to US imperialism, such as Russia, China and Syria. A tell-tale sign of this kind of Red-Brown populism in the US is adamant insistence that the investigation into Russian state collusion with the 2016 Trump campaign is some kind of hoax. Well-known promoters of this kind of politics include American-Brazilian journalist Glenn Greenwald and Irish writer Angela Nagle, who have actually appeared on the show of extreme-Right FOX News host Tucker Carlson to agree with him about the horrors of neoliberalism and identity politics.

Lebanese activist and journalist Joey Ayoub puts it colourfully and succinctly:

if the ‘populist left’ has common grounds with fascism the ‘populist left’ can fuck right off and there’s absolutely no reason to waste any time listening to three white people debating whether common ground can be found with those who want to erase our existence.[64]

The problems of populism 3: Trump Envy

The role of a kind of resentment, or even sadism, in populist politics of both Left and Right is vital here. It’s no coincidence that many people who promote these kinds of politics have previously expressed the wish for a “tough guy socialism”, which, to misuse an old expression of Trotsky, “really wants to tear the bourgeoisie’s head off”. The British socialist writer Richard Seymour, now an editor of Salvage magazine, used to talk on his blog Lenin’s Tomb about how Corbyn was too “nice” and he needed supporters who would leverage “hate” and even “sadism” against the conservative Right and neoliberal centre.[65]

It might even be said that modern Left populism suffers from “Trump Envy”. Quite apart from the need pointed out by Laclau to have a leader-figure as a binding force for a populist coalition, many Left-wing activists have the desire for someone in this role who will be just as rude, aggressive, abusive and transgressive as Donald Trump but for “good purposes”, “from the Left”. If a mass movement against the neoliberal establishment is what is required – never mind its politics or its class composition – it’s easy to imagine that supporters of the Trump movement (or the Brexit movement, or similar manifestations in other countries) could be turned “to our side”, if they were offered the same aggressive macho leadership but with a different programme.

Left-populism shares with its Right-wing sibling a certain joy in transgression, in (at least verbal) violence – which tracks with what Laclau says in On Populist Reason about the vital role played by emotions, rather than strictly rational analysis, in cohering a populist bloc (Kindle location 1925). The Black Lives Matter uprisings show that retaliatory aggression and violence against the oppressor class are a part of any vital mass movement. However, the real problem comes when this aggression is directed horizontally – or even “downward”, towards a social layer which the movement considers “beneath” it. This goes beyond intemperate attacks on centrist Democrats and the neoliberal establishment, and even the usual excesses of intra-movement conflict, to become a kind of half-spoken political strategy, of abuse as a feature of the movement, a “perk” of belonging.

As explored above, factions of the Corbyn and Sanders movements in the US and the UK went down the path of Conservative Leftism in rejecting “intersectionality” as a neoliberal piety – and this has combined with the pleasure in transgression or sadism mentioned above, to emerge as racist, misogynistic, homophobic or transphobic abuse, justified as being “from the Left” when delivered against acceptable targets. For example, Gwen Snyder, a strong supporter of the Sanders campaign, became the target of sustained harassment (escalating to death threats) for pointing out issues of misogynist behaviour within Bernie fandom, and the Red-Brown drift among fans of “Dirtbag Left” podcasts.[66] The Bernie Sanders campaign itself (not Sanders himself) proudly touted an endorsement from Joe Rogan, a pop-culture podcaster who is flamboyantly transphobic and otherwise bigoted.[67]

Another curious phenomenon is people who hold much better Left politics than the “Dirtbags”, even though they quite rightly despise Trump and almost everything he stands for, defending Trump, or at least seeing him as a lesser evil, against “the Establishment/elites”. For example, they agree with Trump that he is being unfairly attacked by a “Deep State”; law enforcement, military and intelligence personnel and other people within the US state who are opposed, not so much to Trump’s politics, but to his disregard for the norms and conventions of the US bourgeois state, or even its laws and Constitution – something that many Left-populists regard as a positive feature, if only he would use it “for good”.

This is amplified by the way in which, as mentioned above, the US activist Left has concentrated over the years on attacking liberals, neoliberals, and “the Dems” as its first priority. And who is better at really “triggering the libs” than Trump? Disturbingly, and as in 2016, many Left-wing figures attack the Democrats in terms which are so similar to those coming from the Trump campaign that it is often impossible to tell the difference; this is the same process that Gwen Snyder identifies whereby the “Dirtbag Left” serves to “launder” fascist memes for a Left-wing audience.[68]

This phenomenon of Left-populism taking a “lesser evil” approach to Right-populism against the neoliberal establishment has become a meme to the point where it now has a name. In the same way that anything that comes after “I’m not racist, but…” is going to be racist, a Leftist who says “Mr Trump, who I do not support…” is about to support Trump against the Deep State or the neoliberal Democratic Party.

These Left populists oppose this putative sabotage, not because they like Trump’s politics, far from it… but because they imagine the State apparatus doing the same thing to a putative President Sanders (or on the model of what the Chilean state actually did to Salvador Allende in the 1970s). Similarly, many supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have attempted to discredit the mainstream media as irredeemably biased against their candidate, in very similar terms to Trump and his “fake news” slogan – with the same purpose, to discredit any criticism of Dear Leader, whether valid or not. This is a logical consequence of a horizon of victory which envisions a popular Leader taking control of the State machinery “for good purposes”, rather than a popular movement dismantling it.

This sneaking sympathy by Leftists for Trump against “neoliberal elites” leads to what can only be described as wish fulfilment fantasies, that Trump may one day “pivot” to the Left, if he sees it in his electoral interests to do so. The Twitter account “Shitty Outflanking Takes” collects arguments from Leftists that Trump will, someday soon, start promoting social-democratic causes such as Medicare for All, forgiving student debt, criminal justice reform, or even ending American overseas military adventures, to “outflank” the neoliberal Democrats and win a working-class base.[69] If Trump is politically empty – if he just wants power and will say or do anything to get re-elected – and, as much of the US asserts, the “Dems” and the “GOP” are no different – why should Trump not adopt the Bernie Sanders programme in total? An interesting reply would be: if that were true, why did Sanders not run as a Republican?


To summarize, we have sketched out three categories of problems with Left-populism in practice. Firstly, there are problems inherent in the populist political method as sketched out by Laclau and Mouffe. Chief among this is the contradiction between a populist leader’s symbolic unifying role and their actual role in strategy and tactics; the fact that the urge to “defend the Leader” might make self-correction in the movement impossible; and the way in which those around the Leader can use their role as his “biggest supporters” to justify atrocious politics[70]. Both the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns developed a “Stan culture”, targeting centrists or even insufficiently enthusiastic supporters of The Leader as the main enemy.

Secondly: there is also the problem that problem that Left Populism and Right populism are – as Laclau says – the same method used for different ends, and we have seen a steady stream in practice of Leftists who enthusiastically back the former often end up backing the latter because they have lost the ability to tell the difference, or remember why it’s a vital one.. There is even the phenomenon of “Dirtbag Leftism”  which seeks to throw out the inheritance of 50 years of intersectional struggle in favour of trying to restore a white, male, traditionalist audience for social democracy – which is contrary to what Laclau and Mouffe would see as populism altogether, and forgets that 1960s social democracy wasn’t so great either, which is why it was rejected by the Beatnik, Hippie and Punk movements.

Thirdly: there is a real problem of Trump Envy, the belief that what the movement needs is a “left-wing version” of the Trump phenomenon, or even a hope of Trump “outflanking” the Democrats to the left on economic populism. This includes a distressing number of “Lefties” who delight in the same kind of mob cruelty and aggressive disregard for inconvenient realities which characterise Trump’s and other Right-populist movements.

Laclau’s argument is that a Leader figure who can unify atomised and conflicting social layers in an anti-establishment movement is an essential element in populism. The worst possible form such a movement can take on, of course, is fascism. At best, it can take power in the capitalist state – but historical evidence suggests that, from there, it can only retain power through conciliation with global capitalism and turning on its own supporters. Populist movements have successfully changed the balance of power within class society – but never abolished it. For “post-Marxists” like Laclau and Mouffe, the latter might not even be possible.

Direct action gets the goods

One way out of this problem might be, not to reject the Left populist strategy, but firstly, to recognize it as necessary but insufficient to provoke a fundamental change in society; and secondly, to reject primarily electoral populism of the Corbyn/Sanders/SYRIZA variety.

Electoral politics usually come after a downturn in the direct-action movements, and vice versa. The failure of Occupy and the Arab Spring gave rise to SYRIZA, PODEMOS, the Corbyn and Sanders movements; the failure or dead-end of these electoral movements has erupted in the current global wave of “Black Lives Matter”/anti-police uprisings. This is similar to how the defeat of the movements of the 1970s, and the election of Right-populists Reagan and Thatcher in the US and UK, was followed by insurgent broad-Left electoral campaigns by Tony Benn, Jesse Jackson and their like.

British left academic Harry Pitts argues that the Corbyn movement in the Labour Party was in fact

the legacy of the anti-austerity social movements after the crisis. Their ultimate failure, I guess, you know, and their fragmentation, the turn of a lot of the people involved in that towards a more electoralist parliamentary route.[71]

In majoritarian (first-past-the-post) systems like the United States or the United Kingdom, Left-wing electoral populism can only act as a “spoiler”, attempting to take away enough votes from the more liberal of the major parties to be able to dictate terms upon it; unless, of course, it succeeds in taking over the liberal/centre-Left major party from within. The former is grossly irresponsible when the Right no longer wants a nastier version of capitalist normality, but the mass repeal of democratic rights and the welfare state in a fascist or Pinochet-style programme. As Fightback has argued repeatedly, this is the same fatal mistake made by the Stalinised Communists of the 1930s who saw no difference between Hitler and capitalist normality.

“Third Period” politics being reborn in real time on social media

The latter runs up against the logical problem of how to successfully dominate a party mostly composed of people you despise. The Chapo “bend the knee” slogan would never have worked in practice for Bernie Sanders inside the US Democrats, just as the Labour Party caucus and apparatus never “bent the knee” to Jeremy Corbyn – which is of course exactly what Corbyn’s die-hard supporters complain about. The alternative – to purge the liberals and moderates from the party – does not seem a plausible step forward to winning electoral contests. The failure mode of both these approaches is the electoral nihilism condemned above; of asserting that neoliberal capitalist normality is no different than fascism, that it won’t be allowed to win anyway, that electoral politics are a waste of time if “Our Guy” isn’t on the ballot.

The lessons of Chávez in Venezuela and SYRIZA in Greece show that when a Left-populist movement seizes state power and confronts international capitalism, there is a period of stalemate followed by slow but inevitable capitulation. Come to think of it, this is also the legacy of Stalinism. My personal suggestion would be to concentrate on building a real Left-populist movement for protagonistic, intersectional democracy – while fully embracing a vote for “our preferred enemy” in elections. The question is whether we would prefer to be on the streets in 2021 demanding social reforms and police abolition from President Biden, or defending the remnants of freedom of speech and assembly from an emboldened President Trump and fascist mobs.

This is of course the dreaded “lesser (or least) evil” strategy, as criticised (though not rejected) by Hal Draper.[72] But anyone who argues that it is possible for a party or candidate to actually win a bourgeois election contest while not becoming some form of evil – that is, without making compromises with capital and social layers which support it – can be charitably advised to “get real”. Encouraging people to believe that voting for a Left-wing social democratic politician is actually “The Revolution” – the “Bernie in a Ché hat” phenomenon – while demonizing other centrist or reformist candidates and tendencies, means – once the compromises begin – setting up the movement for massive disappointment, abstention from the fight against fascist, or even drifting in a Trumpist or fascist direction, fuelled by hatred of “liberals/moderates” above all else.

In any case, as we’ve seen above, voting is secondary in terms of social transformation, or even a “consolation prize” once mass direct-action or protest movements fail. It seems strange that Corbyn or Sanders supporters should depict their leaders in the same terms as Communist revolutionaries, breathing fire on the hated “liberals” all the time, while at the same time placing their hopes for social change on winning elections in the bourgeois state. In fact, Gwen Snyder argues that an approach that prioritises direct action might have spin-off benefits for electoral work:

centering direct action organizing is more productive than centering electoral work when it comes to focusing our energies. Direct action changes minds and wins hearts and makes people realize their power. When people’s hearts & minds are changed, when folks realize that their action makes a difference and that they hold real power when organized, they’re much more likely to be open to coalition-building around a candidate with bolder positions when it comes time to talk elections.[73]

We might counterpose to electoral populism the concept of protagonistic democracy – a situation where working people take matters into their own hands to create a better world. Such a form of direct-action populism would necessarily require its unifying slogans and its (symbolic and practical) leadership to reflect intersectional politics – identifying and building commonalities between different axes of oppression, rather than privileging one part of the coalition above others. The “conservative Left” strategies discussed above, which centre the “traditional” (white, cishet, male) working class as the face of struggle, offer no path forward but the netherworld of Red-Brown reaction.

The Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, not to mention the current “Black Lives Matter” uprisings in the United States[74], give us recent examples of direct-action populist movements. Syria’s democratic movement gives examples of the kind of unifying slogans which make connections rather than fudge differences – ‘Syria is one’ sought to counter sectarianism by assembling a people under the signifier of free Syria, combined with the transnational slogan ‘the people demand the fall of the regime’ (which has re-emerged in BLM protests). In contrast, while the Arab Spring was drowned in blood, Occupy reached its own dead end due to a confused political project whose slogan (“We are the 99%”) and practice did not draw sharp lines against conspiracy theories, misogyny and even fascism. The latter is, as we’ve seen above, a danger inherent in the populist method which must be strongly guarded against; which suggests a vital role for anti-capitalist political centres within such movements.

As this article is written, the BLM movement has quickly overtaken the Bernie Sanders phenomenon politically and is enacting a form of protagonistic democracy on the streets, under the violent repression of Trump’s fash-curious USA. It has gone far beyond the original coalition between Black communities acting in self-defence and white radicals; the white “moms and dads” who stood against Trump’s snatch squads in Portland in late July are a sign of a populist movement which is really taking off. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders himself is united with his apparent polar opposites, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, in making verbal gestures of support for the movement, while refusing the demand to “Defund the Police” (let alone abolish it). Some of the dead-end “anti-liberal” Left have been reduced to repeating lukewarm versions of Trump’s slurs against Joe Biden, or fantasies about Trump “outflanking” the Democrats. American journalist Josh Messite comments on this inability to realise when they’ve lost:

if Bernie and Corbyn both achieved massive electoral wins and enacted sweeping reforms, I would have had to shift my thinking on organizing priorities and the path to power. instead Bernie and Corbyn both lost, and yet the people who pushed for that strategy haven’t changed a bit.[75]

Just recently, a major left-wing blog in Ireland ran an appeal for a new electoral coalition between the various socialist factions.[76] Left-populism has its dangers and has not yet fulfilled its promise, though I am not willing to agree that it was a mistake altogether. My argument, though, is that a primarily electoral Left-populism has proved itself to be a comprehensive dead-end.


[1]              Fightback previously published an analysis of SYRIZA’s own dead end – https://fightback.org.nz/2015/08/21/greek-crisis-syrizas-dead-end/

[2]              https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/22/chapo-trap-house-podcast-dirtbag-left-takes-aim-at-clinton-supporters

[3]              https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/3/4/21164518/super-tuesday-results-voter-turnout

[4]              https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/super-tuesday-results-2020-primary-texas-voter-suppression-lines-long-wait-queues-a9373886.html

[5]              https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/13/nyregion/andrew-cuomo-cynthia-nixon-wins-governors-race.html

[6]              https://twitter.com/marcushjohnson/status/1240117667287228416

[7]              https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/4/10/21214970/bernie-sanders-2020-lost-class-socialism

[8]              https://www.foxnews.com/politics/sanders-says-i-dont-agree-with-to-abolish-police-departments

[9]              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieFL8StRyJo&feature=youtu.be

[10]             https://www.inquirer.com/columnists/attytood/trump-presidential-election-joe-biden-democrat-hillary-clinton-misogyny-20200702.html

[11]             https://www.vox.com/21299730/george-floyd-democratic-party-joe-biden-black-lives-matter-protests-2020-identity-politics; https://www.wonkette.com/joe-biden-wants-to-be-your-fdr

[12]             https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/24/progressives-primary-justice-democrats-338488

[13]             https://salvage.zone/articles/salvage-perspectives-8-comrades-this-is-madness

[14]             https://www.out.com/news-opinion/2019/1/22/kamala-harris-takes-responsibility-opposing-trans-surgeries

[15]             See https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_biden-6247.html for up-to-date figures.

[16]             https://twitter.com/yohannabeee/status/1271155114569424896

[17]             https://fightback.org.nz/2017/10/17/winning-with-conservative-leftism-jeremy-corbyn-and-brexit/

[18]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/31/episode-3-transcription/

[19]             https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/18/dysfunctional-toxic-culture-led-to-labour-defeat-major-report-finds

[20]             If an equivalent of the Corbyn or Sanders movements exist in mainstream politics in Australasia, it’s in the Green parties.

[21]             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_Labour_Party_leadership_election_(UK)

[22]             This appeal of a leader-figure over the heads of representative or intermediary bodies to an atomised mass of individuals is an essential feature of populist politics, as we will explore further below.

[23]             In what follows, I will attempt to analyse, not Jeremy Corbyn as a person, but the movement which he led and to some extent embodied.

[24]             https://fightback.org.nz/2018/08/01/10842/

[25]             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corbyn_wreath-laying_controversy

[26]             https://theconversation.com/labour-and-anti-semitism-these-are-the-roots-of-the-problem-on-the-left-94923

[27]             https://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2020/06/26/week-in-review-labour-returns-to-its-anti-racist-roots

[28]             Journalist Jonathan Freedland suggests that Corbyn enjoyed the reputation of “being the foreign minister of the Left” (https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/)

[29]             https://jeremycorbyn.org.uk/articles/jeremy-corbyns-speech-against-military-intervention-in-syria/

[30]             https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-russia-spy-nerve-agent-iraq-war-wmd-labour-theresa-may-a8256021.html

[31]             https://balkaninsight.com/2015/08/17/uk-labour-frontrunner-queried-on-kosovo-motion-08-17-2015/

[32]             https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/uk-labour-leader-corbyn-voices-conspiracy-theory-against-israel-in-2012-563714

[33]             https://fightback.org.nz/2015/11/05/against-campism-what-makes-some-leftists-support-putin/

[34]             https://www.newstatesman.com/world/middle-east/2018/08/labour-can-be-jo-cox-s-party-or-chris-williamson-s-it-cannot-be-both

[35]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/

[36]             https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/media/2015/10/i-wanted-believe-jeremy-corbyn-i-cant-believe-seumas-milne

[37]             Short, shameful confession: the author of this article wrote a piece on New Zealand politics for the Morning Star in 2014. I don’t remember their politics being so bad at that point.

[38]             https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/morning-star-labour-mps-aleppo_uk_584f2931e4b0b7ff851db424

[39]             https://metro.co.uk/2020/02/23/newspaper-apologises-transphobic-cartoon-sparks-outrage-12287799/

[40]             https://web.archive.org/web/20150923060138/http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-972b-Nato-belligerence-endangers-us-all

[41]             As recently replicated by the extremely pro-China Socialist Action group within British Labour: http://www.socialistaction.net/2020/08/12/the-left-should-not-be-taken-in-by-us-wmd-lies-this-time-about-uyghers/

[42]             https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/09/the-red-brown-zombie-plague-part-one/

[43]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/24/episode-2-transcription/

[44]             https://fightback.org.nz/2016/10/19/aucklands-no-choice-elections-blue-greens-and-conservative-leftists/

[45]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/

[46]             https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/feb/06/global-recession-backlash

[47]             Some of the diagrams in On Populist Reason which illustrate Laclau’s theory of building unity in a populist movement between different social forces depict these forces as ovals… that is, potato-shaped.

[48]             https://newleftreview.org/issues/II97/articles/stathis-kouvelakis-syriza-s-rise-and-fall.pdf

[49]             https://isreview.org/issue/100/reflections-our-experience-syriza

[50]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/

[51]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1966/twosouls/index.htm

[52]             https://www.expressandstar.com/news/uk-news/2017/05/28/corbyn-pledges-increased-staffing-levels-at-security-and-intelligence-agencies/

[53]             https://socialistworker.org/2017/07/13/being-honest-about-venezuela

[54]             https://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2020/06/26/week-in-review-labour-returns-to-its-anti-racist-roots

[55]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1294068877522014208

[56]             https://fightback.org.nz/2016/02/15/against-conservative-leftism/

[57]             https://twitter.com/NickRup/status/1278128227274371072

[58]             https://www.mediamatters.org/donald-trump/myth-donald-dove-shows-perils-gullible-press

[59]             https://www.thedailybeast.com/anti-establishment-americas-new-syphilitic-politics-of-the-far-left-and-alt-right

[60]             https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-06-26/behind-trumps-sharp-slump-white-women-who-stuck-with-him-before-are-abandoning-him-now

[61]             https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/4/10/21214970/bernie-sanders-2020-lost-class-socialism

[62]             https://washingtonmonthly.com/2020/04/11/leftist-policy-didnt-lose-marxist-electoral-theory-did/

[63]             https://fightback.org.nz/2017/10/17/winning-with-conservative-leftism-jeremy-corbyn-and-brexit/; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0176268018301320

[64]             https://twitter.com/joeyayoub/status/1276194859167121408

[65]             http://www.leninology.co.uk/2015/06/yes-you-can-hate-rich.html; http://www.leninology.co.uk/2016/06/in-praise-of-hate.html

[66]             See thread beginning at https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1249712403404783618

[67]             https://www.forbes.com/sites/dawnstaceyennis/2020/01/26/joe-rogans-endorsement-the-stain-on-bernie-sanders-that-some-voters-think-makes-him-more-attractive/

[68]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1288588513601040384

[69]             https://twitter.com/mtwidns

[70]             Those familiar with the theories of Jacques Lacan may recognize the psychoanalytic concept of “The Name of the Father” at work here.

[71]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/episode-7-transcription/

[72]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1967/01/lesser.htm

[73]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1288144108431773696. The importance of direct mass action in changing mass consciousness – rather than leaving it to elected politicians or professional organisers – was also raised by US union organiser Jane McAlevey in No Shortcuts, a book I reviewed in Fightback last year: https://fightback.org.nz/2020/01/13/book-review-no-shortcuts/

[74]             Some wags have dubbed it the “ACAB Spring” (All Cops Are Bastards).

[75]             https://twitter.com/JoshMessite/status/1276318659984703489

[76]             https://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2020/07/09/the-old-world-is-dying-and-the-new-world-struggles-to-be-born-call-the-midwife-ireland-needs-a-new-left-party/

What is fascism? An introduction

DonaldDuckInNutziLand_zpscc10584aThis article by DAPHNE LAWLESS appears in Fightback’s upcoming issue on “Fascism and Anti-Fascism”. For subscription information, contact fightback.australasia@gmail.com.

Part of the problem with any discussion of fascism today is the widespread ignorance about what that word actually means. This comes from decades after the defeat of the Fascist states in World War 2, since when “fascist” has been used and overused as the worst swear-word possible on the Left (and by parts of the Right). This is the “everyone I don’t like is Hitler” method of arguing, often mocked in internet memes.

A slightly more sophisticated use of “fascism” is just to indicate any authoritarian or dictatorial government. One example of this “10 steps to fascism” which were drawn up by the American writer Naomi Wolf – and were often overused in the period of the Iraq war to be able to “prove” that the US government under George W. Bush was fascist. We can only say now that, if the “Dubya” administration was fascist, then there are no words left to describe the current Trump administration (of which more later).

At the other extreme, there is an attitude that only the regime of Benito Mussolini and the National Fascist Party in Italy from 1922-1945 can be called “fascism”. By these standards, not even Nazi Germany counts as fascism, let alone any other similar regimes across the years – or even the successor parties of Italian Fascism, such as CasaPound or Forza Nuova, which carefully state both their admiration for and their differences from Il Duce and his regime. This means that this method is not useful for our analysis here – which is precisely about how the Left should be responding to “fascist-like” organizations and movements.

The definition of fascism which I am using in this article is mainly based on that of the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who watched the growth of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany with horror at the inability of the Stalin-led global communist movement to counter it. As I’m going to use it in this article, fascism means:

  1. a bottom-up movement, which while it might be funded by some parts of big business, is based on the support and activism of the insecure middle classes and the most impoverished layers of society;
  2. which promotes the idea of the “traditional” nation as one big community, and seeks to defeat and eliminate “outsiders” or “traitors” who are seen as threatening that community. These might be “corporates” or “international bankers” (distinguished from honest local capitalists), “greedy” workers’ unions, LBGT people, religious or ethnic minorities, immigrants or anyone who promotes ideas which are seen to threaten the nation’s traditions – such as socialists, liberals, feminists, “cosmopolitans” (people who see themselves as citizens of the world and embrace cultures and ideas from overseas), or even any kind of intellectual;
  3. which promotes a myth of what British social theorist Roger Griffin called palingenesis, a word meaning “rebirth, or return to the good old days”;
  4. which is not afraid to use, or even glorifies the use of, violence to achieve these goals;
  5. which opposes the ideas of the “Enlightenment” (and of socialism) such as democracy, rationality and equal justice, and promotes a traditional authoritarian model of a (usually male) Leader who is always right. Author Max Bray comments: “…Fascism emerged as a rejection of the rationalism of the Enlightenment… It was really founded on an emotional appeal towards power and domination.”

If you read part 2 above carefully, you might be able to see why the Jewish minority in Germany were a perfect scapegoat for Hitler’s fascist movement. A religious and an ethnic minority at the same time, many of whose members were successful intellectuals and business people, but also including many socialist and working-class leaders, who – as a people scattered across the globe –could not help but be “cosmopolitan”, not 100% “German” in the eyes of many of their neighbours.

Anti-fascist author Alexander Reid Ross, however, points out that fascism is sometimes hard to identify and call out because it has always been a syncretic movement. That means that fascists will take over whatever icons and ideas happen to be popular among the movements, from either left or right, trying to appeal to “all the people all the time”. Ross comments:

[The original fascists] …stole symbols and language from the left-wing workers’ movement, but redirected it towards wildly different goals… this difficulty in forming a definition is built into fascism itself… taking elements from both the political left and right, but always striving towards greater levels of social hierarchy and domination.

For example, fascists might present themselves as anti-Zionist when trying to appeal to a left-wing, pro-Palestinian audience, but on the other hand might strongly support Israel when trying to appeal to an Islamophobic right-wing audience. (Fascism is not necessarily anti-Semitic; and even many anti-Semitic fascists may support the State of Israel because they want all the world’s Jews sent to live there.) In this sense, a fascist group acts like a parasite feeding off the movements – like a cuckoo laying its eggs in other birds’ nests (ironically exactly the kind of metaphor they would themselves use to smear migrant communities).

A recent example in New Zealand is the fascist groups who attempted to join the Occupy movements and the mass street demonstrations against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – attempting to harness public hatred of globalised neoliberal capitalism to their own conspiracy theories about how ethnic “outsiders” (Chinese or Jewish, usually) are to blame for our economic problems and avoiding any critique of “our own” capitalists. It is worth noting that the American far-right uses “anti-capitalist” language to target the liberal-tending Hollywood culture industry, as well as the Jewish liberal billionaire George Soros.

For those of us in the revolutionary socialist movement, it is most important to try to understand fascism as a movement, rather than a regime. This is for three reasons:

  1. No fascist movement has ever seized power on its own – they have always taken power with the support of other right-wing or ruling class forces. Hitler was invited into a coalition government by the big German conservative parties; Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister by the King of Italy. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco led a regime in which a fascist party, the Falange, was only part of a coalition with capitalist and monarchist forces. Military dictatorships which took on fascist-like traits after they seized power are a different matter
  2. With its violent methods of organizing, a fascist movement can create great damage and terror to workers, leftists and all marginalized or oppressed people, while still being far away from ever taking state power. It must therefore be fought on the streets and in our communities as soon as it raises its ugly head.
  3. The syncretic and parasitic nature of fascism, “blending into the background” of popular movements, means that it is sometimes very difficult to spot when you are not looking for it. Sadly, many sincere Leftists may unwillingly fall for fascist ideology if it is cunningly disguised as anti-capitalist populism. I will attempt to argue in my second article on the “Red-brown convergence” that this is precisely what has happened for a large and perhaps dominant section of the global activist Left in the era of Trump, Brexit and the Syrian war.

The big question you’re waiting for is this: are we saying that US President Donald Trump is a fascist? The question is to some degree not relevant. Donald Trump is clearly a racist, sexist and objectionable person on every level, but it’s impossible to look into his mind and find out what he really believes. He is clearly fuelled by ego and narcissism rather than any properly thought-out politics. But the same is true of Benito Mussolini, who once edited the Italian Socialist Party newspaper.

As for the US government, it is clearly not (yet?) a fascist regime. It is a site of struggle between many different ruling-class and middle-class forces, with some parts of the Federal government backing Trump’s agenda (e.g. the immigration cops) and others resisting (much of the FBI). Trump’s power is still contingent on the sometimes-unwilling acceptance of traditional conservatives in the Republican party, who could unite with their Democratic party opponents to obstruct or even impeach him. However, for now, the big-business backers of Trump (such as the secretive Mercer family) and their willing servants in Congress seem to be willing to go along with Trump, as long as he signs huge tax cuts into law and as long as he doesn’t damage the profitability of their investments.

On the other hand, the Trump-backing movement is – as survey after survey has shown – based not on the “economically anxious” working class, but on relatively well-off whites, especially but not entirely white men (see for example here and here). This social movement is racist and xenophobic, looking back to an American “good old days” which never really existed except in fantasy, motivated mainly by hatred and resentment towards Muslims, migrant communities, African-Americans, feminists and queers. The slogan Make America Great Again is almost the definition of Griffin’s idea of “palingenesis”.

Perhaps most disturbingly, with the help of the compliant FOX News TV channel, Trump has successfully trained his base to rely on his pronouncements (usually via Twitter) as the real truth, no matter what inconvenient facts might be reported elsewhere. The Trumpists angrily reject any mainstream media coverage which disagrees with their prejudices, and happily accept the truth of Trump’s increasingly erratic claims as long as they confirm their own feelings of entitlement and victimhood.

While the Trump administration is so far only a particularly nasty right-wing capitalist government, the base of Trump’s support, the crowds at his rallies, the social media mobs who phone in death threats to people who criticise him, fit our model of a fascist movement almost perfectly. And it is Trump’s incredibly fortuitous victory as President which has encouraged these elements to “come out of the woodwork” and to yell their abuse and commit sometimes-deadly violence in public. This movement may well decide many “primary” elections for Republican congressional candidates in the safe “red” states, and even those Republican Congresspeople who might privately despise Trump and recognize him as a would-be tyrant will pander to his base if and when necessary.

In general, in times of peace and prosperity, the ruling factions in capitalist society want nothing to do with fascists, who are considered unpredictable and uncouth. However, in times of crisis, some parts of big business might see a fascist movement as their ally. The lessons of history show that a sufficiently greedy, venal or frightened ruling class will tolerate a fascist movement’s violence, or even invite it into power, if they think there is political capital in doing so. A fascist movement, based as it is on parasitism and on the shifting prejudices of alienated and despairing individuals, can only take power if invited to do so. With their “God-Emperor” Trump in the White House, American fascism is not in power, but it has a “foot in the door”.

What happens in the United States is often a ghastly foreboding of what will happen in the rest of the advanced capitalist world. The only way, therefore, to defend not only the hopes of socialism but the basic freedoms which come from capitalist liberal democracy, is for socialists to disperse and disrupt fascist movements on the ground, so that they can never accumulate enough social and political capital to be seen as a base worth pandering to. We will return to the question of exactly how anti-fascist activism works in practice, further in this issue.

Video: Relevance of Socialism in Seattle, Kshama Sawant

Presentation by Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative Candidate for Seattle City Council.

See also:

USA: Election breakthrough for a Seattle socialist

kshama sawant

Chris Mobley reports from Seattle where a revolutionary socialist challenger for a seat on the City Council has surged into a narrow lead. Reprinted from SocialistWorker.org

SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE candidate Kshama Sawant had a narrow lead over four-term incumbent Democrat Richard Conlin in an election for a seat on the Seattle City Council, as of November 13–a stunning result for a revolutionary socialist and a powerful symbol of the discontent with the political status quo.

Washington state votes by mail, and a majority of ballots typically come in after Election Day, since votes are accepted as long as they were postmarked by that day. As of the end of Wednesday, Sawant was ahead by 402 votes, with some 13,000 ballots still to be counted, according to the latest announcement from election officials.

The results could still turn against Sawant, but momentum is on her side–she has had the edge in each round of counting in the days since Election Day on November 5, helping her to overcome what appeared to be a narrow defeat based on where the vote count stood on election night.

Even while trailing on election night, however, it was clear that Sawant and Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore, who lost by just 229 votes in an election for city council in Minneapolis, have scored breakthroughs. Well before Election Day, Danny Westneat, a columnist for the mainstream Seattle Times daily newspaper, summed up the electrifying impact of these campaigns: “The election isn’t for 10 days, but we can already declare the big winner in Seattle. It’s the socialist.”

Westneat pointed out that Sawant was responsible for Democrats like Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and his victorious challenger in last week’s election, Ed Murray, suddenly declaring their support for left-wing initiatives such as the Fight for 15 organizing drive for low-wage workers. As Westneat concluded:

You can’t look at the stagnant pay, declining benefits and third-world levels of income disparity in recent years and conclude this system is working. For Millennials as a group, it has been a disaster. Out of the wreckage, left-wing or socialist economic ideas, such as the “livable wage” movement in which government would seek to mandate a form of economic security, are flowering.

Sawant’s edge in the late-arriving ballots is another indicator of the grassroots energy that made her campaign stand out, as David Goldstein, writing in The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper, explained:

Part of [the reason Sawant is winning in each day of counting after Election Day has] to do with demographics; younger voters tend to vote late and more lefty. Part of it has to do with hard work; Sawant’s impressive grassroots campaign had a couple hundred volunteers calling voters and knocking on doors to get out her vote, while Conlin had little ground game at all. And part of it has to do with momentum; voter preferences shift over time, and her surprisingly strong campaign clearly moved support in Sawant’s favor.

The final vote totals are scheduled to be certified on November 26, but the uncertainty could go on longer with the possibility of a recount if the margin of victory remains closer than 0.5 percent and 2,000 votes.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE SUCCESS of the Socialist Alternative campaigns is directly connected to their roots in grassroots struggles.

In Minneapolis, Ty Moore made the Occupy MN Homes movement–with its call for a moratorium on foreclosures and a ban on police carrying out evictions–central to his campaign for a city council seat representing an area under assault by gentrification.

In Seattle, Sawant, an economics professor and respected activist, focused on several key issues to galvanize support from working people and the left. Building on the energy of the national Fight for 15 campaign to organize low-wage workers in restaurant and retail, Sawant positioned herself as the candidate who supported a living wage for all.

The popularity of the Fight for 15 demand was dramatized in SeaTac, a Seattle suburb where the regional airport is located. A union-backed ballot measure–bitterly opposed by business interests–that would mandate a $15-an-hour minimum wage for airport and hotel workers was winning as of November 13, though by only 19 votes at the latest count.

Sawant also focused on proposals for rent control in a city where rents have risen by 6 percent in just the last year alone, on top of increases year after year, according to Reis, which compiles and sells data to the commercial real-estate industry.

She also advocated for a tax on millionaires, in a state with no income tax, to fund mass transit and other infrastructure improvements. This call is especially timely with the local public transit agency, King County Metro, planning to cut bus service by as much as 20 percent next year.

Gaining the endorsements of several unions and social justice organizations, as well support from prominent local activists, the campaign was able to mobilize several hundred volunteers, who covered the city with distinctive “Vote Sawant” posters. Though far outspent by her opponent, Sawant did raise more than $100,000, mainly from small contributions.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

SAWANT AND those who worked for her ran an effective campaign, but her success is the result of tapping into voter discontent with the political status quo, particularly in a liberal city like Seattle.

According a recent Gallup poll, Democrats and Republicans have reached an all-time low in public opinion–only 26 percent of Americans believe the two mainstream parties do “an adequate job of representing the American people.” Some 60 percent said there was a need for a third major party.

In Seattle, where the Democrats predominate, this discontent translated into heavy press interest in Sawant. She won an endorsement from The Stranger before her strong showing in the August primary election–the alt-weekly wrote in an article headlined “The Case for Kshama Sawant”: “Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction.”

After coming in a close second in August, Sawant continued to pick up broad support, including a small group of “Democrats for Sawant”–a stark symbol of the bitterness with the incumbent Conlin, who has a long record of pandering to business interests. Sawant won backing from local hip-hop artists and several prominent local activists, notably left-wing journalist Geov Parrish. Sawant also got support from immigrant political organizations, including the Somali American Public Affairs Council. In the final weeks of the campaign, volunteers made a push to hold “100 rallies for Sawant.”

As a socialist challenger in a liberal city against a Democratic opponent, Sawant was able to avoid one of the key difficulties that third party candidates typically face: the so-called “spoiler effect.” Without a Republican in the election, the Democrat Conlin wasn’t able to browbeat his party’s much more liberal base into supporting him as a “lesser evil.”

Now, Sawant stands a good chance of taking a seat for four years on the nine-member City Council. This will open up a new opportunity for the left–both Sawant and Moore pledged that they would use the resources of their offices to assist grassroots struggles involving workers, the oppressed, immigrants and the community.

There will be more days of vote-counting to come, but the Sawant campaign has already accomplished an enormous amount by proving that there is a thirst for an alternative to the status quo–and that socialists can confidently put forward a different vision for society, knowing it will connect with the aspirations of more and more people.

See also:

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Chelsea Manning’s gender identity

article by Anne Russell, reprinted from Scoop.co.nz.

The Queer Avengers (Wellington) are holding a solidarity action with Chelsea Manning on 2pm Saturday the 7th of September, at the US Embassy [Facebook event]

For the most part, gender minorities operating in the public sphere are recognised by their gender first and the content of their work second. This is why Rolling Stone articles on“Women Who Rock” kettle together artists as musically and lyrically diverse as Taylor Swift, Missy Elliott and Sleater-Kinney, as though ‘woman’ is a subgenre of music. Even at comparatively progressive activist events, cisgender women and transgender people—particularly trans* women—rarely dominate the overall speaker line-up. Rather, they are given separate sessions to discuss sexism and/or transphobia, implying that these issues are only problems for the oppressed parties in question.

In contrast, issues like mass surveillance and military crimes are framed as issues that everyone should be concerned about, evidenced recently by the scale of controversy around the NSA leaks and the recently-passed GCSB Bill. This is not to say that they are not important or damaging problems, merely that they receive much more cultural attention than the routine struggles of oppressed gender minorities. While the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning was hitherto widely considered a hero in radical movements, figures like radical activist and trans* woman Sylvia Rivera are not widely known outside the trans* rights movement itself. It is arguable that the activist world, like everywhere else, is still somewhat divided into gendered categories, at least on a surface level: the cis men examine military documents while the cis women and trans* folk talk about unequal access to healthcare, cultural invisibility and sexual harassment.

Private Manning’s recent announcement that she is a transgender woman—to be known as Chelsea Manning from here on—thus represents a stunning collision of different activist factions. Manning released a statement last week announcing that she identifies as female, and wishes to undergo hormone therapy as soon as possible. This is not entirely new or unexpected information, as Manning’s chatlogs with informant Adrian Lamo in May 2010 read: “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as a boy.” Moreover, her lawyers attempted to use gender identity disorder as a defence in her trial. However, many of Manning’s supporters felt uncomfortable referring to her as female without the explicit go-ahead from her.

That time has come, and yet many commentators remain confused orhostile(trigger warning: transphobia) to the announcement. Manning’s requests have been fairly straightforward—“I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun”—but many media outlets, particularly Fox News and CNN, continue to use her historical name and masculine pronouns. Since swathes of information about transgenderism are merely a Google search away, this misgendering demonstrates how heavily entrenched transphobia and the gender binary remain in public discourse. [Read more…]

US Election: Four more years of Obama

Byron Clarkobama-2012

This year’s American presidential election saw a victory for incumbent Barack Obama. Obama was elected in 2008 on vague promises of ‘hope’ and ‘change’. While the election of the first African American president was historic, there has been very little change in foreign policy. Disillusionment is what could have cost Obama the election, but American liberals (and many of those further to the left) voted against republican challenger Mitt Romney. Much of the organised labour movement,
under attack in a number of states by right-wing state senates, also came out for Obama and Democrats on Election Day. While keeping in mind the bombs falling around the Middle East, there are some positive victories on reproductive rights, equal marriage and drug law reform. [Read more…]

The story of May Day

In this article originally published by the Socialist Workers Party (USA) Elizabeth Schulte tells the history of May Day, a socialist holiday founded to honor the Haymarket Martyrs and celebrate international workers’ solidarity.

“THERE WILL be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Those were the last words of August Spies, one of four innocent men executed for an explosion at Chicago’s Haymarket Square in May 1886.

The real “crime” for which Spies and his comrades were condemned was being labor militants fighting for workers’ rights and the eight-hour day. The national strike for the eight-hour day that they organized was called for May 1, 1886–it was the first May Day.
Their struggle, and the struggle of thousands alongside them, convinced a generation of labor militants and radicals to devote their lives for the fight for workers’ rights and for socialism.

Still, although May Day was founded to honor a U.S. labor struggle, few workers in this country typically know its origin, because the history is largely untold. This has changed, however–since the mass immigrant workers’ May Day marches that began in 2006. [Read more…]

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Reviewed by Mike Kay

 The Help is an ambitious novel set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. It encapsulates a city that was a bastion of Jim Crow racism – a phalanx of state and local laws that were designed to keep black and white people separate from cradle to grave. [Read more…]

The flag is symbolic, imperialism is real

Victoria university members of the Workers Party are facing charges of serious misconduct after burning the New Zealand flag. This leaflet explains the political background to the act.

Why burn the New Zealand flag?

The New Zealand flag is a symbol of imperialism. This is most obvious in its design, a tribute to the British Empire. This design was adopted after the Second Boer War, which devastated South Africa but resulted in a surge of Kiwi patriotism.

Lest we forget

Lest we forget

A simple re-design, while reflecting our emergence from the shadow of the British Empire, would not change the imperialist nature of the flag. It’s a tool of the ruling class, inseparably linked with militarism. From the Boer War through WWI and II, right through to armed involvement in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the flag has marked New Zealand’s presence. Flags mark military conquest, the subjugation of nations.

Flags and borders divide the working majority. ANZAC soldiers had more in common with their Turkish counterparts than with the bureaucrats who sent them to Gallipoli. The working majority has interests in common worldwide, including an end to imperial war. Ruling class nationalism is a barrier to recognising this.

What purpose does ANZAC day serve? [Read more…]

Obama – managing the US war effort

John Edmundson

During the lead-up to the 2008 US election, Barack Obama made much of his plans to end the war in Iraq. His bold declaration – that “on my first day in office, I would give the military a new mission: ending this war”. Across the world, many people pinned their hopes on this promise.

Obama’s policy was never really about ending America’s imperialist war policy. It was always about managing the US war effort more effectively. [Read more…]