One of the strange motifs of contemporary politics has been the rise of the old white guy as a source of hope for the left. It is almost as if figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn emerged from the past, completely untouched by the neoliberal order of today. This is the appeal of these old-timers.
If the great horror of the 2016 US election was the rise of Trump, the great hope was the Sanders campaign. It was an odd moment in the US. A self-declared socialist in his early seventies was drawing huge crowds and even forced Hillary Clinton to make concessions to the left. The mainstream had to pay attention in the end.
Team Clinton lifted the $15 minimum wage from the Sanders platform. Though it originates with Kshama Sawant and her achievements at the Seattle City Council. Sanders owes a debt to Sawant and the two of them owe a lot to Occupy Wall Street and the occupations that spread across the United States in 2011.
This may have laid the groundwork for the left to start to try to takeover the Democrats. It certainly helped raise the political consciousness of many Americans, especially the generation born at the end of the Cold War. These people, who have no memory of the spectre of Communism, are vital to the resurgence of socialist ideas in the United States.
One of the pleasant side-effects of liberal governments is that the case for reviving the left is clarified by the very limits of what is achievable by reform. This is why you get the anti-war movement with LBJ, the WTO protests under Bill Clinton and the Black Lives Matter movement in the Obama years. The limits of the gains made pushed some people to demand more.
However, the American left remains split over the strategic question: whether or not to organise within the Democratic Party to build a real working class party outside bourgeois politics. It is too often forgotten that the Democrats is the historic conservative party in the US and it has never been a party of working people. This is why many on the left still hold this view and hope to build a Leninist vanguard party. But what this would look like in present day North America is disputed.
The English road
Putting such questions aside, the left-wing critique of Bernie Sanders was always legitimate. The Senator for Vermont was no Bolshevik. In fact, the Sanders platform was fairly conservative by European standards. He is actually a right-wing social democrat, not a radical socialist. His positions on foreign policy are still very much a part of the US consensus.
This is where Sanders differs from Jeremy Corbyn. It is understandable why many equate the two men, but the differences are as important as the similarities. Unlike the Democrats, the Labour Party was founded as a party of social reform by left-liberals, trade unionists and Christian socialists. It is much closer to being a class party for workers than any party in the US today.
If the Democrats are a bourgeois party, at least the Labour Party can be described as a bourgeois workers’ party. It does have institutional links to organised labour. At the same time, Corbyn is far more radical than any of his predecessors as Labour leader – even Michael Foot, who backed the Falklands War. This isn’t to say there aren’t interesting similarities between Bernie and JC.
Much like Occupy in the US, the 2010 student movement and it’s mass protests against tuition fees and education cuts set the course towards Corbyn’s victory. The kids who marched in their thousands on Day X are now old enough to be involved in party politics. The experience of being kettled by the police for ten hours on Westminster Bridge did not crush their hopes.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, the Labour swing to the left was not the result of a Trot takeover of the party base. The influx of new members since 2015 came from the people disillusioned with Labour under Blair. Some had laid dormant for years after the defeat of the Bennites and Militant during the struggle for party democracy in the 1980s.
As Richard Seymour has pointed out, the radical left failed to organise working class people outside the Labour Party and yet this meant that the only space for the left was through the party once the Blairites and Brownites lost control of the wheel. Suddenly everyone knew what to do, we just signed up for £3 and voted for Jeremy.
Paradoxically, the defeats suffered by the English left are partly what led to Corbyn. This has not been the case on the European mainland, where there are often splits with traditional social democracy. This was epitomised by the death of PASOK in Greece and the rise of SYRIZA before the Tsipras government was crushed by the brute force of the troika.
This brings us to another case of an old leftist: Jean-Luc Melenchon. After more than thirty years in the Socialist Party, Melenchon broke with the PS in 2007 after more than thirty years in the party and set out to build a new organisation modelled on Germany’s Die Linke. This would be the beginning of the Left Party in France and the clearing of the path to the 2017 presidential election, in which Melenchon got more than 19% of the vote.
What held back Melenchon was the division of the French left and the last twitches of the Socialist Party. The PS ran a leftish campaign with Benoit Hamon as its candidate, it got just 7% of the vote thereby preventing a united front against Macron and Le Pen. Ultimately the combined left-wing vote was 26%, which was greater than Macron’s share of the vote in the first round, but the split denied Melenchon his place in the second round.
Since then La France Insoumise has won 17 seats in the National Assembly. This is not a huge number, but it is significant for a party founded just last year. It puts them ahead of the Front National, just as the far-right is facing major splits even after gaining an unprecedented share of the vote. This puts the left in a strong position to make considerable gains in the coming years.
Again, there are important differences with the American and British lefts. For starters, it is possible to appeal to patriotism in the French context given that the nation-state itself was the creation of the 1789 revolution. The problem may be that the dark side of French history – the empire, slavery, the civilising missions in Africa, and the capitulation to fascism – gets conveniently dropped; but this myth-making is necessary to every form of patriotism.
Not only does Melenchon have the edge because of his red patriotism, he has the Front de Gauche (The Left Front) – a coalition of the Left Party (his own creation), the French Communist Party and rogue elements of the New Anticapitalist Party and the Socialist Party. This bloc has allowed Melenchon supporters to move freely outside the French ruling class and the European establishment.
It’s why Melenchon has been able to build France Insoumise as a Podemos-style left populist insurgency. This has granted Melenchon a great deal of credibility. The fusion of grassroots and social media activism created the basis for his candidacy to finally breakthrough into the mainstream. It sets an example for the wider European left about how to advance against all the odds.
What critics are saying
A common trope of Sanders, Corbyn and Melenchon is that the three of them face the same criticisms. In some way or another, each of them is treated as toxic by certain circles of opinionistas. It is almost as if there is a liberal consensus and anyone outside of it runs the risk of vilification. So it goes.
We’re told that Melenchon is pro-Assad and pro-Putin because he opposes NATO in Ukraine and Western involvement in Syria. We’re told that Melenchon is “soft” on racism and “hard” on immigrants. The same things are said about Corbyn and Sanders. They are backward in some way. Corbyn is a covert Brexiteer in the minds of many left-liberals. He is the sole reason the Remain campaign failed, according to these people. Likewise, the Sanders campaign is blamed for Hillary’s defeat.
We’re meant to believe that each of them is insufficient against the liberal establishment because Clinton and Macron have such an impressive record of anti-racism and upholding human rights. It was not Bernie Sanders who ordered drone strikes. It was not Melenchon who defended the state of emergency. It was not Corbyn who held the Brexit referendum for the sake of his party’s internal conflicts.
Yet there is still a section of liberal and left-wing opinion which would seek to forge the division with Corbyn on any grounds. The same goes for Melenchon and Sanders. But this dividing line might not be avoidable in the end. The future is still up for grabs, even if it is divisive.
Photograph courtesy of Bernie Sanders for President. Published under a Creative Commons license.