Reflections on the Sanders Campaign: Implications for the Left

Guest post by Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson

I would vote for Bernie Sanders. It’s not just that he stands for universal education, real Medicare, racial equality, reduced income inequality, and action on climate change. It’s that he knows where he sits on the political spectrum. Have you noticed that when he describes himself as a democratic socialist the media put the phrase in quotation marks?

Not that the Canadian media are more enlightened. We just went through a federal election where they described the Liberals as a “left wing party” who are said to have outflanked the NDP snatching the PM’s job from a drooling Tom Mulcair. In fact, the NDP has been waffling right ever since Tommy Douglas defeated CCFer Hazen Argue to become its first leader. Argue promptly crossed the floor to join the Liberals with the explanation, “If I’m going to join the Libs it will be through the front door.” With each election the NDP has told its loyal followers, “Victory is just around the corner, we just need to shift a little more to the right.” There is no longer a major left wing party in Canada. Bernie, if the U.S. voters turn down your generous offer, can we make you prime minister?

The media need to learn their left from their right. It began with France’s national assembly in the late 18th century.  To prevent fist fights from breaking out between honorable parliamentarians (something that still happens in Ukraine) the monarchists, clericalists and other conservatives were made to sit to the right of the president while the socialists, democrats and republicans sat on the left. In the center were moderates who, presumably, could talk to both wings. Times change but the idea of a shifting political spectrum remained. Those who want to maintain the status quo are conservative and their brethren who want to turn the clock back to an imagined better time are, like the medieval Islamic State or the post-Napoleon ultra-royalists – reactionaries. Those who want to fundamentally change society according to some utopian vision of the future built on notions of progress are left-wing.  The federal NDP, running on a platform of a national child care program coupled with the claim of being more efficient no-deficit administrators was, at best, in the center. It could have been outflanked by the Conservatives.

As a secular Jew, Sanders is a throwback. Extended family on his father’s side was active in the Polish labor movement as was Humanist Canada’s founder’ father, Henry Morgantaller.  Leading Jewish intellectuals prior to the Second World War, like Adler, Einstein, Luxemburg and Marx tended to be secular and politically left-wing. The emancipation of Jewish people would be accomplished by uniting with other working people locally and internationally in building a classless and egalitarian society. Hitler ended that dream for most Jewish people, but not Sanders.

With the holocaust, the trickle of Jewish settlers to Palestine became a torrent. In vain, Hannah Arendt, whose work on totalitarianism is classic, urged her people to end the Zionist project. Hotels were bombed, police were murdered, villages were leveled. In an open letter Albert Einstein called the future Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, a terrorist and a fascist. When Nelson Mandela visited the Palestinian refugees in 1999 he thought he recognized something familiar – apartheid. It is not surprising that the Jewish organizations supporting the Zionist experiment failed to support Sander’s presidential bid because they are coming from a different place on the political spectrum. But he picked up support in the Muslim community.

Ali Rizvi describes himself as a Muslim atheist. The word “Muslim” is used as an ethnicity as well as a religion – similar to how the word “Jew” is used. Another Pakistani born Canadian, psychologist and former Humanist of the Year, Khalid Sohail, estimates that a fifth of the world’s Muslims are modernists who, if pressed to interpret the Koran, do so in metaphorical and allegorical ways consistent with multicultural harmony. Another fifth are orthodox fundamentalists who take a literalist view split between those who practice violence and those who practice non-violence but rarely criticize those who do. The majority could swing to either side dependent on social and political conditions. For example, the second U.S. invasion of Iraq (which Sanders opposed) has resulted in a large number of Sunni Muslims joining the Islamic State extremists.

Rizvi was schooled in Saudi Arabia where he received a fundamentalist (Wahhabi) education. As an adolescent he recognized that the demonization of Jews was bunk, but he was unprepared for his emotional reaction when in conversation, he realized he had met his Jew. Fortunately, that Jew was understanding and helped him through it. The leadership of Al Qaida, who were also largely products of the Saudi educational system, have not allowed any Jews close enough to recognize their common humanity. Sanders has noted that the Saudis are funding this right-wing Wahhabist education world-wide which he opposes, and he would allow his countrymen to sue the Saudis over 9/11. Curiously, the Canadian government continues to sell arms to them.

It is also curious that organizations of “blacks” (who are mostly brown), failed to support Sanders because his record goes back further and deeper than Hillary Clinton’s. As a student leader of the Congress for Racial Equality, Sanders was arrested for protesting racial segregation. He fought for civil rights and marched with Martin Luther King. Despite this distinguished record of service, one black leader said Sanders was “fine for white people” (who are mostly light brown). We can understand his meaning by examining the nature of victim politics.

As the NDP drifted rightward, it replaced calls for the end of capitalism with calls for redress for identifiable groups of citizens who were considered victims. To their initial core constituencies of farmers and laborers were added the French, feminists, aboriginals and other minorities. Redress might include funding both at an individual or organizational level, compensation, official apologies and affirmative action in education or the work place. Early democratic socialists turned social democrats rationalized the system could not accommodate such measures without collapsing. They were wrong. Almost immediately laws were passed making discrimination on the basis of sex, race and other proscribed areas, illegal. Funding was allocated for education, job creation, language retention, legal costs, and organizational expenses for groups considered to be disadvantaged. The victim groups who were gaining privileges within the existing economic system had less interest in changing that system. If you were such a lobby group, especially if you were in a paid leadership position, it would be in your interest to identify with someone well connected to the “one percent,” someone who is part of the political establishment and knows Wall Street. In Canada we witnessed something similar where victim groups voted en masse for the Liberals who promised them more. The comparison is incomplete because, unlike Sanders, the federal NDP were not promising to change the economic system.

In an example of applied Orwellian linguistics, the media (owned and operated by the 1%) use the world “radical” as an adjective describing reactionary Islamist extremism. The intent is to prevent an examination of what makes a political movement “right-wing.” The left should have no problem advocating balanced and humane foreign policies as it should have no difficulty advocating short-term solutions for disadvantaged groups, but that is not what defines us. Sanders reminded us that we are utopians dreaming of what could be. What could be more human?

4 thoughts on “Reflections on the Sanders Campaign: Implications for the Left

  1. Boy! This is quite a sweeping overview. I think it lacks a little in pragmatism though. I was really surprised by the resurgence of that Liberal brand in Canada during the last election. My prejudiced reaction was, “Well, the religious left just isn’t ready for a staunchly secular left”. This is too simplistic, but I couldn’t come up with a better rational.

    Another thought was that the labor connection to the NDP is very similar to corporate connection to the Liberal party. A social democratic worker and a social democratic investor just don’t see eye to eye.

    Tommy Douglas was CCF. They were independent worker, small business owner and farmers of all types, supporters and they were the heroes of a bygone era. I sat on the grass, as a young person, listening to his opening of our new power station, almost sixty years ago. I played bally-ball in the church basement where he originally taught the Good News. Tommy’s road to secularism is the story of an individuals enlightenment.

    “the NDP has been waffling right ever since Tommy Douglas defeated CCFer Hazen Argue to become its first leader.”

    Thank you for bringing this up. I watched that convention on a little black and white TV set in a small ranch house near the now empty village of Jefferson, Alberta. I was a fourteen year old, fulltime worker that summer, while Saskatchewan was suffering through the worst drought year ever.

    I have read several slandering pieces about Tommy, in our “main stream”, usually from the pens of ardently Catholic columnists.

    More recently, I campaigned for our new high school to be the first Canadian school to be ‘Tommy Douglass High’. The campaign was successful.

    The last time I saw Hazen Argue was at a tiny gas stop, in the middle of nowhere over a decade ago. I had just said goodbye to the proprietor when I head that distinctive voice. I hadn’t heard that voice since 1961 coming over the tiny little black and white set. Everyone else in the ranch house was dead asleep at the time.

    • Thanks for your kind words Tim. Yes, I am getting old enough that I don’t think I should have to be pragmatic when it comes to politics. I am on our riding association executive, but it is not the same party anymore. Sigh.

  2. Maybe the next NDP leader will turn left after seeing
    Mulcair’s fate.

  3. Funny, I am a liberal, but not a leftist. I liked Mulcair, the way I liked Broadbent. Populous left wingers never get elected in Canada though. Layton was only taken seriously in QC. The ROC values their capitalism too much for that. Did Lil T out left the NDP? Not really, but he did out-charisma the left on left wing issues. He is a puppet to be sure. But to beat Harper you needed safe liberalism, not revolutionary leftism. Hilary is corporate ‘face’ leftism. The USA thinks democrats are left. Much like pretty lil T.

    Sanders and Mulcair are footnotes because Even Canada doesn’t want the real looney left. If I was American I would back sanders, just like I voted for Mulcair. Not that they have a chance at winning… I just liked them. The real left is as scarey as the real right, even Harper wasn’t that.

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