Get your hands dirty – but not for Sanders

by Devin Griggs on October 25, 2015


In his polemic (if you can call it that) against “my fellow socialists who decry presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders for being insufficiently left-wing,” Jon Hochschartner reveals just how left-wing he isn’t. In calling for ostensible socialists to support a bourgeois politician out of an insufficiently developed appreciation of what the bourgeois state is and what it stands for, he sets back whatever consciousness the left has managed to build on the subject in the century and a half since Marx (and later Lenin) criticized the bourgeois state as an instrument of bourgeois class rule.

Hochschartner says that those of us on the left who recognize the bourgeois state for what it is (i.e. an instrument for the domination of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie) “appear completely detached from political reality and to value purity over progress.” This is the same old social democratic canard that, as Bernstein put it, “the end goal is nothing, the movement is everything.” The Sandersites, in their desperate search for approval from bourgeois society for anything resembling ‘socialism’, are willing enough to sacrifice whatever shred of principle they may once have had, and to throw out whatever theoretical understanding they have of the bourgeois state and its politicians in order to ‘win’ a victory on behalf of a bourgeois politician. What Hochschartner is actually doing is not attacking those of us who don’t support Sanders for not doing so, but rather, he is engaging in a sort of veiled attack upon a Marxist understanding of the world itself, attacking those of us who take it as a given that one should not support the class enemy for being “completely detached from reality.” On the contrary, those who hold illusions that a Bernie Sanders victory will deliver ‘socialism’ in any respect, or rehabilitate the term, or even provide the space for a leftward movement of American politics, are those who can best be described as “completely detached from reality”! Without an organized and militant working class, even temporary reforms (those being sought as the be-all, end-all solution by the Sandersites) are impossible. How do the Sandersites think that Bernie Sanders is going to be able to enact any of his (liberal reformist) program without so much as an organized working class that would provide such a political program with a constituency? The working class exists as a class but is not aware of itself in that manner, i.e. it is not yet a class “for itself.” The constituency for even tepid liberal reformism must be created from without, it is not a natural progression of working class political thought. This insight is as old as Marxism itself, but is incomprehensible to the petty bourgeois pseudo-leftist.

Hochschartner continues, “Far more than any third-party candidate, whether they be from the Green Party or some fading socialist sect, Sanders is getting our issues on the table before a national audience.” This is news to me, and news I would wager to many a comrade who don’t think that ‘socialism’ is something that can be reduced to stale, economistic, liberal reformism. That’s exactly, however, what the Sanders campaign offers to a ‘national audience.’ And what of that ‘national audience’ that Hochschartner speaks? Whom does Sanders appeal to in his speeches, campaign statements, and in his program? Certainly not the working class. The man has spent the whole of his career (to say nothing of his campaign) rehashing the tired old conception of a classless ‘people’, a conception that Marx himself rightfully tore to pieces even before the first volume of Capital went to print! As far as I am aware, ‘our issues’ as Marxists concern the emancipation of the proletariat from the shackles imposed upon it by the bourgeoisie. Sanders offers nothing beyond a liberal reformist program to address the issues of the working class, which are neither considered distinct nor worthy of special attention by Sanders or his campaign. His program could well be adopted by a left-of-center liberal Democrat like Dennis Kucinich without anyone batting so much as an eye. And yet, throw the label ‘socialist’ on it and it’s apparently a whole different ball game.

As Marxists, should our program not be one that raises the question of power? Nothing Sanders is campaigning on does that, and at the very least, I should think that would be a condition of even critical support for a social democratic campaign for office. He is not calling for a repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act (something that even the bourgeois Democratic Party called for in its platform from 1948 to 1972), or anything approximating an increase in the real power of working class organizations (aside from a vague call to expand credit toward workers’ co-operatives, which, even if successful, would not be a real solution to capitalist exploitation, however fashionable the idea is on the left today). His call for a higher minimum wage is vague and, like the Sawant proposal in Seattle, will inevitably contain a million loopholes that blunt the effect of any increase should it ever be enacted (wishful thinking, of course). For Sanders, the agent of change remains the bourgeois politicians, and if you elect one of them in particular (him, of course!) he will bring the millennium and check off every box on the laundry list of liberal reformist demands that the pseudo-left has been pushing since the 1960s, or so the pseudo-left tells us.

As for the ‘national audience’, is it more important for us to attempt to win over the whole of society, or that segment of it that would actually benefit from an infusion of socialist ideas? I reject the premise that we either have, or should even want, a ‘national audience’ in the sense that we should attempt to tailor our demands and our program to the whole of society. We should focus on winning over the sympathizes of the working class and oppressed populations first and foremost, and worry about everyone else later. And even in so doing, we must be careful to combat the illusions that the more backward sectors of the working class and oppressed people have, be they racial, male chauvinist, homophobic, transphobic, or any kind of petty bourgeois nationalist or separatist feeling. In Lenin’s words, we must “patiently explain,” our program and we must be steadfast in intervening in the class struggle, tying together every manifestation of oppression with the class struggle itself, which is the only way out for oppressed people as is. This will be a long and painstaking process.

The pseudo-left apologists for Sanders, like Hochschartner, are impatient and call for us to back Sanders out of a need to recognize that doing so is “progress” (his words) in bringing socialist ideas to the masses. It is anything but! Rather than confront the backwards ideas of Sanders (and the masses generally) head on, Hochschartner and co. would have us bend our own political practice to liberal reformism, that is, to liquidate ourselves into being mouthpieces of a bourgeois order, albeit ones that call for golden chains around the workers’ necks instead of ones made of iron. This impatience reveals a lack of faith in the masses and a supreme faith in bourgeois democracy as an agent of social change. Put simply, it reveals these elements as liberals not interested in overcoming and overthrowing capitalist exploitation and oppression, but rather prettifying it.

The true measure of our strength is not reflected in how many varied socialist sects line up behind Sanders and submit to his liberal reformist program, but rather, in what currency our ideas have among the working class. At present, our ideas have next to no currency among the working class. The left has abandoned the sole agent of revolutionary change, jumping from one crisis to the next without a base, with a muddled (or non-existent program), and with no future to speak of. It has reveled in the election of one bourgeois politician (Barack Obama) because of the ‘historicity’ of said election (in spite of the fact that said politician is perhaps the most effective representative of bourgeois class rule thus produced by the American political system!), directionless, anarchistic protest that amounted to nothing (Occupy Wall Street), the election of a ‘Trotskyist’ city councilor, ‘uprisings’ without leaders, demands, or even a coordinating structure, which likewise have lead and will lead to nothing (#BlackLivesMatter), and now a liberal reformist politician who calls himself a socialist. Is it any wonder that our ideas have no currency among the working class?

Rather than waste our time on yet another bourgeois presidential campaign that will win us nothing and get us nowhere, the left would be far better served by taking a long, hard look at itself in the mirror. What we need is not “progress” toward some sort of universalist, left-liberal reformist program, but some degree of actual “purity,” and I don’t mean that in the sense that we should insist on supporting petty bourgeois forces (the Greens) as opposed to big bourgeois forces (the Democrats). Rather, I mean it in the sense that we should return to our roots as the political expression of the working class movement. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, the left must regain its position as the voice of the voiceless, and the means by which the voiceless can gain a theoretical understanding of the world and push forward, to seize power (and electing one bourgeois politician, or even a whole Congress of ‘socialists’ will not be a ‘seizure of power’ no matter what the pseudo-left says if industry is left in private hands) and thus, to liberate mankind.

In the closing of his argument, Hochschartner calls on us to “roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty,” on this point I agree. But unlike Hochschartner, I will not call on comrades to get their hands dirty working for the election of a bourgeois politician. Rather, the time has come for us to get our hands dirty by clasping them with those whose hands are dirty. If pseudo-left sects like the ISO, DSA, or Socialist Alternative were spending half as much time doing actual work among the working class as they are doing as pimps for the Sanders campaign or for the granola-crunchers in the Green Party, i.e. organizing trade unions, engaging in political education, etc. we would still be leaps and bounds ahead of where we are now, in spite of those groups being what they are. But we aren’t. The anti-worker (or it’s inverse, the workerist) New Left zombie continues to feed upon the left as a whole, draining it of its ability to translate theory into action by removing the centrality of the working class to the actualization of socialism (or in the case of workerism, hailing the most backward level of consciousness among the proletariat and attempting to dissolve the working class into yet another ‘identity’ in need of ‘recognition’). Until we lay it to rest, we will continue to make these mistakes and we will continue to be irrelevant. The moment that a socialist group does so and begins to do actual organizing among the working class is the moment that we begin to become relevant once again, and it is the seed whereby we can ‘re-grow’ our ideas and thought among those who can make the greatest use of it. This, comrades, would be more valuable than a President Sanders ever could be. And this is what we should be doing.

Get your hands dirty comrades – educate, agitate, and organize! If this dictum is not for you, then neither is the society that we seek to bring into being by the course of our action. Those who need to stop wasting our time are not those of us committed to Marxism as a science, a way of understanding (and changing) the world, but rather the tired pseudo-left adventurers who would destroy a century and a half of theory and praxis in order to elect a liberal reformist as commander-in-chief of US imperialism.

(Devin Griggs, who grew up in Marshall County, Ky., is a Murray State University graduate who lives in the Chicago area where he belongs to UFCW Local 1548. The son of Cliff Griggs, a member of the United Steelworkers, Devin received the 2011 Kentucky State AFL-CIO Youth Award.)

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Carl Daidson October 25, 2015 at 2:13 pm

Bernie doesn’t speak to workers? Only ‘people’? You’ve got to be kidding. Just in my neighborhood, I’ve watched hundreds of workers listening to him.


The Ghost of Lenin October 25, 2015 at 3:41 pm

Bernie suxxxxxxxx


Devin Griggs October 27, 2015 at 12:38 pm

That isn’t what I said, and beyond that, one anecdote does not a trend make. The fact that some workers are attracted to Bernie Sanders is definitely true, but of course, it’s also worth remembering that many more are flirting with Donald Trump and far more than either group have dropped out of the electoral process altogether.


Sanders-Culottes October 25, 2015 at 3:51 pm

This is why the socialist left has been a political subculture, this notion that we have to adhere to 20th century notions of revolution that have failed to create lasting anti-capitalist governments that are any better than liberal capitalist democracies.

Something is changing in American politics with the rise of people like Sawant and Sanders, they are able to create bases of electoral support that open people up to social democratic and anti-capitalist ideals more than any revolutionary purist sects. To ignore this is to ignore a growing interest and alientation among working people for new ideas of political and economic governance.

One can choose to adhere to dogma and puritanism, but revolution as seen in the 20th century states based on vanguardist Leninism is not coming to liberal democratic societies and never will, Marxists need to evolve their understanding of liberal democractic society instead of thinking that 20th century revolutionism is going to succeed.


The Ghost of Lenin October 25, 2015 at 4:21 pm

wow I’m barfin’ all over my grave rn


Devin Griggs October 27, 2015 at 12:36 pm

“This is why the socialist left has been a political subculture, this notion that we have to adhere to 20th century notions of revolution that have failed to create lasting anti-capitalist governments that are any better than liberal capitalist democracies. ”

On the contrary, the socialist left has been a “political subculture,” in this country because (a) it faces an uphill battle to begin with in a country that has always been, in one way or another, a pristine field upon which capitalist development and bourgeois ideology could grow up (i.e. it has only a limited feudal past (pre-1775) to contend with), (b) it hasn’t produced a revolutionary leadership that could challenge the bourgeoisie and contend for power in its own right, and (c) every effort at building a genuine socialist party in this country thus far has been met with massive state repression, from the silencing of the left-wing of the SP and the attack on the IWW by the state in the 1910s to the jailing of the SWP leadership and the CP leadership in the 1940s, to the deliberate efforts by the state to disrupt and destroy socialist organizations (like the Black Panthers) in the 1960s-70s.

As to your second point, the idea that those societies in which every person was guaranteed a job, medical care, education, housing, in which women had far more social mobility than in capitalist states, were ‘no better than liberal capitalist democracies’ reflects a profound lack of understanding on your part. Are the working classes of Russia, Poland, Ukraine, eastern Germany, etc, etc. better off in substantive terms now than they were in the bureaucratically degenerated/deformed workers’ states? Any person with half a brain would say that having the necessities of life guaranteed to you by right of birth is infinitely better than not having access to them at all, whatever deprivations or privations resulted from bureaucraticism and imperialist encirclement.

“Something is changing in American politics with the rise of people like Sawant and Sanders, ”

What’s changing is that the bourgeoisie’s old song and dance of Democrats and Republicans is becoming to bear in an age of heightened anxiety among the working population, and so they see it prudent to allow here or there for a reformist like Sawant or Sanders to get an audience and lead people down that rabbit hole rather than start drawing real conclusions about what capitalism is and how it dominates every bit of their waking life.

“they are able to create bases of electoral support that open people up to social democratic and anti-capitalist ideals,”

What ‘social democratic and anti-capitalist ideals’ are Sanders and Sawant pushing? Sanders is running on a platform whose keystone is the petty bourgeois notion that breaking up the major financial institutions will somehow end the parasitic nature of the financial sector. Sawant’s flagship demand is a $15 an hour minimum wage, which even bourgeois liberal politicians have now adopted as their own, Sanders included. If anything, these campaigns simply raise the specter or a renewal of Popular Frontist liberalism in the wake of mass discontent, i.e. a new way to channel the anger of the working public away from class struggle politics and toward class collaborationism.

“more than any revolutionary purist sects,”

The obvious social democratic rejoinder to any call for principle is to cry ‘sectarian!’, or in your case, ‘revolutionary purist!’ Your type is upset with us because we refuse to shed Marxism for a momentary presidential campaign which may (and which in reality, won’t) provide a national hearing for a bourgeois reformist that you happen to like because he says nice things about Sweden or talks a good talk about cooperatives (the petty bourgeois socialist’s wet dream). Perhaps Sanders will attract a ‘greater audience’ than a ‘revolutionary purist sect’, but to what end? He will not do any of the things you think that he will, and at the end of the day, he will, as Jesse Jackson and others before him, lead those to whom his message appeals right into the voting booth to pull the lever for Hillary Clinton. You are deluded if you think that Sanders will have less of an impact on his own supporters than a handful of SAlt organizers or ostensible ‘socialists’ working on his campaign encouraging his supporters to vote for Jill Stein or whomever the petty bourgeois Greens run for President next year.

“To ignore this is to ignore a growing interest and alientation among working people for new ideas of political and economic governance.”

Is there really a growing interest among working people for new ideas of political and economic governance, though? What exists among the working class at present is alienation, yes, as is always the case. What also exists is confused rage, a confused rage that will not in the least be helped by the likes of Sanders, who will continue to pull the wool over the eyes of the workers and lead them once again into the electoral system and into the bourgeois Democratic Party. The duty of Marxists is to intervene and bring those ideas and that consciousness which makes clear the historical role of the working class clear to it, and allow it to organize as such. The ‘revolutionary sects’ (as you put it) have failed to do that, sure. But this is largely a result of the post-Soviet political atmosphere that has demoralized and weakened the left the world over, coupled of course with a few obviously wrong or half-formed interpretations of Marxism that some of these organizations offer. The solution is not to through the baby out with the bathwater (i.e. abandon Marxism, the ideology for the liberation of the working class) in favor of every petty bourgeois fad (ecologism, intersectionality, conspiracy theorism, etc, etc.) or rehashed anarchist garbage that was proven to be such over a century ago, but to place Marxism firmly at the center of our practice. In short, we need to reinfuse our praxis with theory. Doing so would make apparent why the entirety of the project of ostensible socialists to support Sanders is a lost cause.

“One can choose to adhere to dogma and puritanism.”

There is nothing dogmatic about reconciling revolutionary praxis with revolutionary theory. What is dogmatic, however, is the ignorant ideology of activist-ism, which adopts every petty bourgeois fad, celebrates every march (regardless of what it does or doesn’t achieve), and attempts to make the election of a new bourgeois politician the culmination of years of ‘protest’ and activism every four years. It denies the applicability of theory because it is tone deaf to it, and it sneers at the possibility of working among the masses because it has no faith in them. It’s dogma is ‘doing something’, all the time, even when ‘doing something’ results in nothing, or worse, sets back the consciousness of the working class.

“but revolution as seen in the 20th century states based on vanguardist Leninism is not coming to liberal democratic societies and never will,”

Without a vanguard, i.e. without a party of the most advanced elements of the working class and declassed intelligentsia committed to the class struggle, you will have no change to begin with, revolution or not. The abject failure of every movement in the United States for social change since the destruction of the Old Left in the 1940s should be a testament to this, but for the petty bourgeois socialists and anarcho-liberals, it isn’t because of course, those organizations were ‘authoritarian’ or ‘dogmatic.’ In reality, these organizations succeeded in organizing nearly half the American working class into trade unions, something that had not been done up until that point and something that managed to hold out until the rank-and-file upsurge of the 1970s, before those unions were strangled by the capitalists’ bid to restore profitability.

What have the ‘leaderless’ groups that have come since done? Broken a few windows at a G8 protest? Smoked pot in tents in Zuccotti Park? Without an organization that understands theory and is able to put into practice, that organizes the working class (rather than wastes its time organizing for bourgeois politicians), nothing will be done, because nothing can be done without a clear head and clear goals.

You say that a revolution will not come to a ‘liberal democratic society’, but you also neglect the force of history that tells us otherwise. There have been pre-revolutionary situations in ‘liberal, democratic societies’ time and time again in the past century, whether in Germany in 1918-19 or 1923, Spain in 1931 or 1936, France in 1968, Italy in 1969, or Portugal in 1975. These situations failed to become revolutionary on account of a lack of leadership that understood that those situations were pre-revolutionary and in part because of a faith (that you unconsciously share) in the ‘liberal democratic society.’ Constructing a ‘vanguardist Leninism’ means building up the only kind of organization that can effectively bring about revolution in the ‘liberal democratic societies’, because only Leninism understands the class nature of the state, compared with it’s petty bourgeois ideological competitors (be they anarchist or social democratic).

“Marxists need to evolve their understanding of liberal democractic society instead of thinking that 20th century revolutionism is going to succeed,”

If not revolution, then what will dislodge capitalism and bring about an end to ‘liberal democratic society’? Reformism has proven itself useless as a solution to ending either in the course of the 20th Century. Likewise, an anarchist understanding of the state as being the root cause of all evils is nothing but a liberal understanding of society divorced from the police principle, and is likewise untenable for anyone really seeking to change society as such. What do you propose in lieu of revolutionism? Unlike social democracy, the Marxist politics of the 20th Century revolutionaries (the Bolsheviks in particular) were actually able to end capitalism, even if they fell short (on account of the failure of the Western European revolution to materialize) of achieving a socialist society.


Manuel Barrera October 26, 2015 at 11:47 am

One can appreciate the enormity of change in political, and social, thinking that is emblematic in the rise of support for Sanders and Sawant; although I would differentiate the rather local aspect of Sawant’s efforts from the more general interest generated for Sanders. This increased interest in what many believe is “socialism” (again, with due differentiation between the attraction to Sawant and Sanders) is important. It does not require actual revolutionaries–socialists, anarchists, truly independent political activists of various frameworks and diverse beliefs–to leap into the bourgeois pro-capitalist Democratic Party. To do so, would likely be an even greater mistake than that of the anti-war, civil rights, women’s rights, and fighters among the oppressed nationalities who jumped on board to support the likes of McGovern and McCarthy in the 60’s and 70’s and, to similar extent, for Jackson in 80’s. The strategem is the same, get radicals to support a “radical” in the bourgeois party with the hope that it will engender a stronger mass movement (those who believe that “working within the ‘system'” is an even better outcome are even more naive or alternately treacherous). Somehow, the supporters of Sanders appear to contend the “this time” is different and the “stakes are higher”. “You cannot get a chicken to produce a duck egg” is how Malcolm X responded to similar arguments so long ago. Malcolm also counseled, though not many remember it, that IF a chicken did produce a duck egg, it would have to be a “revolutonary chicken”. By that he meant that it will take a truly revolutionary perspective that contradicts an easy way out of capitalism.
The message of the great amount of support for Sanders and “socialist-like” ideas is not to lie to those beginning to understand that to win democracy and an end to oppression will require an end to “business as usual” (and vote-getting for lesser-evil Democratic politicians is as much a part of business as usual as the bankers and billionaires). Frederick Douglass long ago observed that there is no progress without struggle. We will not vote socialism into being and we will not create a mass movement to challenge the stranglehold of profit over human need without actually “getting our hands dirty”. By supporting Sanders, we are washing our hands of the need to fight, to build, to organize, the hard way. An indpedendent socialist alternative (and, no, not Socialist Alternative or their ilk) is an essential tool in using the bourgeois elections to advocate for revolutionary politics. That is the message of Sawant and, despite SA’s and Sawant’s illusions inherent in their strategy, it is the kind of campaign needed throughout the country. That people like SAlt and ISO think of these elections as ways to build their myopic little organelles rather than to galvanize a united socialist/revolutonary/activist front across the country because they consider themselves the “answer” is indeed a betrayal even if it is not as heartless and murderous as those “leftists” who stand with al Assad in Syria. That we continue to be guided by small group thinking (“vanguard” thinking) leaves the field of the growing numbers interested in socialism open to the “reasonable” view that we should support Sanders as a Democrat because at least we are “with the masses”.

Instead of arguing the merits of a bourgeois-democrat working to become the leader of the pro-capitalist movement, we should be working through our differences to field a truly united front of political activists in the coming elections. Even if we were to field such a slate across the country very late or, even, not at all because we couldn’t overcome our differences for this election, the discussion and effort would go a long way to overcoming what is our truly greatest obstacle; our inability to unite and develop a common tradition of solidarity in the interests of the masses.
Those who think getting out the vote for Sanders, especially those who do so now because they did so before with the McGoverns, McCarthys, Dellums’, and Jacksons, are self-delusional and even moribund in their political bankruptcy. Such people are unlikely to be,never mind find, a solution. We need to find a way out of this morass but we do not need to be afraid that opportunities will be lost. Opportunities have already been lost. We already have squandered time and people. The masses continue to suffer needlessly. What we do matters now more than ever even if what we do doesn’t seem to matter.


Filterfa October 29, 2015 at 3:28 pm

خرید فیلتر شکن کریو


Doug Nielson November 6, 2015 at 10:23 am

Lot’s of clariity here.
-Doug (democracy fundamentalist)


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