Lindsey German on democratic socialism, witch-hunting and the fight for women’s liberation
If Bernie Sanders gets to be president of the US it will be in the face of opposition from Trump and the Republicans – but perhaps even more so from the Democrats, who will do everything to stop someone who talks about socialism and the redistribution of wealth from being in a position to effect change.
That was clear from the opaque proceedings round the Iowa Caucuses last week. Despite the world’s press decamping there, you would hardly know that Sanders won the caucuses on the popular vote. That’s because votes which were clearly known by Monday were not released accurately until the end of the week. By then the mainstream media teams had decamped and the news barely made the headlines here in Britain.
Whatever the truth about what went on, this had the effect of hiding both a very poor result for the former frontrunner Joe Biden, and a very good result for Sanders as the most left-wing candidate. It also allowed centre candidate Pete Buttigeig to raise his profile. This is on a par with what has been happening to Sanders in recent months, where his increasingly strong showing has been ignored, sidelined and generally dismissed by the media and the political establishment.
Sanders clearly waged a campaign which attracted many young people, targeted workers in a range of low paid jobs, often migrants, and managed to galvanise areas of support which is usually latent. But for the Democrat establishment, this is not seen as an opportunity but as a potential pitfall. They do not want left wing activists led by someone they regard as a loud-mouthed demagogue and populist, but a compliant base of support which will deliver to the White House someone seen as a safe pair of hands to help administer the world’s major economic and imperial power.
So far, this has echoes of the continuity Blairite operation in Labour here, where everything was done to destroy Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of getting into Downing Street. But in many ways, the situation in the US is even worse. The whole election set up is profoundly undemocratic. This is not to claim any great virtue for the system here, but the whole means by which delegates to an electoral college vote for the president tends to underrepresent the popular vote (as it did in 2016 when Clinton won considerably more votes than Trump but still lost).
The primary and caucus system also follows a pattern of small states voting first, which again tends to give those politicians who do well early an advantage when it comes to the very large states later on. And there are so many tales of corruption at state level, from the hanging chads scandal in Florida which gave George Bush the presidency in 2000, to the widespread instances of voter suppression, which tends to deny black and working-class voters their rights.
The Democrats are an openly capitalist party and, while many trade unions and working people support it, it does not have the organic working-class links that Labour has here. Many US socialists have always taken the position that they will not vote for either party. This may change to some extent with the widespread enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders, but they are basically correct in the view that both parties only differ in relatively minor particulars when it comes to who can run capital more efficiently.
The attacks from the Democrats will come thick and fast as Sanders gains momentum, and the selection process is likely to deny him the candidacy because it is manifestly undemocratic. Those like Nancy Pelosi, who makes empty gestures like tearing up Trump’s state of the union speech, fear the left much more than the right and will not sanction any fight outside the parameters of mainstream politics.
Nonetheless Sanders – like Corbyn here – has hit a nerve and speaks to millions of people in the US who want an alternative not just to Trump but to the neoliberal policies with which the US has led the world. If he can galvanise his support in the next months not only can he present a challenge to the Democrat establishment, but he can build a mass movement of the left. The main challenge there will not be getting him on the ballot paper – though that will be hard enough – but stopping that movement from being co-opted into electoral politics.
Getting it right about antisemitism
The witch-hunt over antisemitism and the left keeps getting worse. Two left candidates for the Labour NEC have been suspended – we don’t know why but it is rumoured over alleged antisemitism, which presumably disqualifies them from standing, even if they are later cleared. There is also pressure on Show Racism the Red Card, which campaigns against racism in football, to drop its invitation to Ken Loach and Michael Rosen to judge a poetry competition – again because of alleged antisemitism.
We do not know the details of the accusations against the two Labour candidates, so cannot comment on them, except to say that there appears to be something about this case which is against natural justice, especially since as I understand it they were likely to get good votes and possibly win their positions. However, I do know about Ken Loach and Michael Rosen and find the accusations against them completely outrageous. I know both of them personally as anti-racists and socialists who have campaigned for many decades over a range of issues where they have used their high profiles and talents to help fight against a system which has racism at its heart. Rosen, who is Jewish, has just written a new book about relatives he never knew who were lost in the Holocaust.
They are both extremely robust in their own defence although these accusations cannot but be hurtful to anyone who opposes all racism. They can only be seen as part of the ongoing campaign designed to weaken the left and to silence criticism of Israel’s policies in Palestine.
This is a witch-hunt which has had great success in targeting Jeremy Corbyn and which will not stop with Corbyn’s departure as Labour leader. Already the Jewish Board of Deputies has demanded the leadership candidates sign up to unacceptable interference in its complaints procedures (unfortunately they all have apart from deputy candidates Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler). Whoever is leader will face further demands to crack down, which will most likely be acceded to. The Board of Deputies is also demanding that groups like Jewish Voice for Labour and other ‘fringe’ Jewish groups are sidelined.
The left cannot respond to this by giving in. The antisemitism question has become intensely political and must be seen as such. All antisemitism must be opposed, but that does not mean that all accusations of antisemitism are true, or that those making them are doing so in good faith.
Opposition to all racism has to be a matter of principle for socialists. However, it is also important to look at the scale of the racism, who it is directed at and by whom. With antisemitism, the source of this historically has been overwhelmingly on the right. It was rife in central and eastern Europe during the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. The state in Russia sponsored pogroms and far right governments encouraged antisemitism. Hitler’s Germany saw systematic state suppression of Jews culminating in their systematic extermination throughout Europe in the Holocaust.
Fascists and extreme right wingers have always used Jews as scapegoats for real or supposed ills. This is still true when we look at governments like Orban’s in Hungary. It is also true of attacks on Jewish cemeteries or synagogues in countries like Britain and the US.
Labour members are occasionally accused of supporting similar right-wing ideas, including conspiracy theories about Jewish bankers and capitalists. But more usually they are accused of a different kind of antisemitism – one which is connected to criticism of Israel.
We have to be able to distinguish between antisemitism and criticism of Israel. And here there is massive controversy, not least between Jews themselves. Groups like Jewish Voice for Labour have a strong record of opposing antisemitism but at the same time being critics of Israel. They argue that not all Jews are represented by the Board of Deputies and that there has to be room for these different points of view. Those opposing racism have to recognise these different voices and the fact that there are real political divisions among different groups.
Witch-hunts often work because people begin to fear guilt by association and end up censoring themselves. That shouldn’t happen and, if it does, we will end up not discussing or understanding antisemitism properly – and not understanding what is happening in Palestine either. It’s a lose-lose situation.
No platform should only be for fascists
Laura Pidcock, the former Labour MP who has such a good record on the left, has come under attack in the past week for making the following statement as part of a much longer article: ‘The women’s movement needs space to talk about sex and gender without fear of being “no platformed”’. She has been called bigoted and transphobic. Yet what she says is absolutely true. There is no justification for refusing a platform to someone who wants to discuss these highly controversial issues. They are not fascists, indeed many have a long record of fighting oppression. Moreover, they are as resolutely opposed to attacks on, abuse of, or discrimination against trans people as are the people attacking them. So they cannot be lumped in with right wingers who want to deny trans rights.
The truth is there is no automatic unity of the oppressed and positions need to be argued and fought for. Demonstration against feminists who are concerned about transgender issues, shouting them down, trying to get them sacked or removed as speakers, should have no place on the left. It’s 50 years since the first women’s liberation conference in this country and, guess what, women’s oppression remains a major factor in our society.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Marxism, the family and women's oppression - video
- Marxism and feminism - Marxism and Women's Liberation extract
- Tiers of a clown – weekly briefing
- Engels: giant of the socialist movement - video
- Engels: a working class hero
- No money for school meals but Johnson found £16.5bn extra for the military
- The left’s Trump card – weekly briefing