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Democrats in disarray as Trump’s popularity soars

Tue, 2020-03-31 04:21

The coronavirus pandemic has created a new reality in the United States, as it has all over the world. And coming as it has during a presidential election, it has completely upended the political map.

Just a month ago, Bernie Sanders was the leading Democratic candidate and polls showed him defeating Donald Trump in November. Joe Biden’s campaign was sputtering along, as he polled poorly in early primary and caucus states.

But on 29 February, Biden won the South Carolina primary as expected. Biden’s campaign roared back to life. Three days later, on “Super Tuesday”, though Bernie Sanders won the biggest prize (California), the headline news story was just how well Joe Biden did elsewhere. Soon afterwards, all the other defeated Democratic candidates with the exception of Elizabeth Warren quit the race and endorsed the former Vice President.

Bernie Sanders, declared all the pundits, was finished. It was time to pack up and go back to Vermont. According to the mainstream media, Biden had momentum and Sanders did not.

Biden was nearly 800 delegates short of the majority he needed, and Sanders was 300 delegates behind Biden.

That was where we stood in the beginning of March.

But everything has now changed – again.

Biden has largely disappeared, self-isolating and producing insipid videos from his basement that no one pays attention to, while Trump has the full attention of the nation. For several days, the hashtag #WhereIsJoe was trending on Twitter. And Trump, despite an endless string of mistakes in his handling of the crisis, is soaring in the polls, never more popular than he is right now.

Democrats have become so worried about the likelihood of a Trump victory that all kinds of ideas, including a movement to draft New York governor Andrew Cuomo, have been floated.

And remember that Biden “momentum”? It’s completely evaporated as states push their primary dates further back in the calendar. As a result, a space is opening for other candidates to challenge Biden, or even to persuade him to drop out of the race.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders been busy in Washington, helping to craft the compromise relief bill that just passed both houses of Congress. Sanders has been taking a leading role in the fight to ensure that – as much as possible – the federal government’s response to the pandemic is a fair and just one. And he’s put forward the most comprehensive progressive response to the crisis.

Does this mean that Sanders still has a shot at winning the nomination?

If Democrats are serious about their desire to take back the White House from the corrupt gang of criminals currently in charge, they need to re-think whether Joe Biden has what it takes to defeat Trump. Many now accept that he doesn’t.

Maybe it’s time for another look at that socialist from Vermont, who may very well turn out to be their only chance of victory in November.

This article appeared in this week’s issue of Solidarity.

Review: Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, by Laura Spinney

Sat, 2020-03-28 10:53

We have been here before, and last time it was far worse.

Somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died during the so-called “Spanish Flu”, for which there was no cure and no vaccine, in the final months of the First World War and its immediate aftermath. Many more people seem to have died in this epidemic than in the war itself.

Laura Spinney has written a gripping account of this tragedy and ends the book with some suggestions on how we might avoid such a horror in the future.

This should be required reading for political leaders around the world, who could have avoided some of what has happened recently if only they had learned these lessons sooner.

This is why history matters.

Does America need a socialist party?

Tue, 2020-03-24 17:10

In the aftermath of the disappointing results for the Sanders campaign in the primaries following Nevada, supporters of the self-described “democratic socialist” Senator from Vermont have been discussing what happens next.

If Sanders chooses to leave the race, he has already announced – many months ago – that he will endorse and campaign for any candidate chosen by the Democratic Party. Most of his supporters will follow Sanders’ lead, as they did in 2016 when he endorsed Clinton. Sanders has made clear that the top priority must be to defeat Trump, and if that means campaigning for the tired and uninspiring Joe Biden, so be it.

But for a small minority of Sanders supporters, as in 2016, other options tempt – including not voting or voting for a fringe political party.

Fringe political parties in the US, especially on the left, exist – but they are both rare and very small. Even in 2016, when Hillary Clinton’s popularity among American leftists was at its lowest, her main rival to the left, Dr Jill Stein of the Green Party, received just over 1% of the vote – and no votes in the Electoral College, which chooses the president.

This year, no one expects the Greens to do any better. A socialist, Howie Hawkins, is running in the Green primaries and currently has a lead in the delegate count. But to give an example of the gap between Greens and Democrats, Hawkins won the California Green primary with just 3,556 votes. In the Democratic primary in the same state the winner was Bernie Sanders with 1,548,025 votes. For every voter in that state who voted for a Green, 435 chose to back the socialist running as a Democrat. Third party politics remain as unpopular as ever.

Why would that be the case? Why is there no movement to create a party (or parties) to the left of the Democrats? And why are the most important and successful socialist politicians in the US – including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – remaining in the Democratic Party?

Some of the explanation is rooted in the difference between 2016 and this year. There is no evidence that the leadership of the Democratic Party is working to undermine Sanders in the way that they did four years ago. That’s due in part to the successful effort by the Sanders campaign after 2016 to reform the party. While it did not get everything it wanted, it got a lot – including new rules to reduce the influence of “super-delegates” at the convention

And Sanders has succeeded in pushing other Democratic politicians to the left, most notably Elizabeth Warren.

Even if many Sanders supporters decided that in the long run they wanted to leave the Democratic party rather than take it over, they would need to understand that the history of the last century does not give cause for optimism

The Greens ran six presidential campaigns from 1996, and never got more votes than with Ralph Nader as their candidate in 2000. He won just 2.7% of the popular vote, and no electoral votes. And before Nader, the last relatively large third party effort on the Left was the 1948 Progressive Party campaign of former US vice president Henry Wallace, who won even fewer votes than Nader. It has been more than a century since the Socialist Party was able to win 6% of the vote under the charismatic Eugene V. Debs.

There are many reasons why third parties don’t succeed in America. Ballot access is a problem – which is why Ralph Nader, who was not active in the Greens chose to work with them so people could vote for him in all states.

There’s also the widespread belief among workers, including union members, that the Democratic Party is somehow their party – a party which they fund to the tune of millions of dollars every election, and for whose candidates they mobilise and campaign. Despite decades of campaigning on the left for unions to withdraw their support from the Democrats, there is no evidence that there is any interest in doing so.

For those reasons, and based on a century of experience, as the American Left contemplates its future post-2020, it is very unlikely that the option of a socialist or labour party will get any traction at all.

This article appeared in the current issue of Solidarity.

Review: A Death in Jerusalem, by Kati Marton

Thu, 2020-03-19 08:22

Journalist Kati Marton’s 1994 book opens with a description of the massacre of Arab worshippers in Hebron early that year by a far-right Jewish terrorist named Baruch Goldstein. Had her book appeared a year later, a far better opening would have been a description of the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was killed by a far-right Jewish terrorist who was convinced that he was saving Israel by doing so.

And such were the motives of the four young men, members of the Stern Gang (Lehi), who carried out the assassination of UN peace mediator Count Folk Bernadotte in September 1948. Marton’s book is an excellent introduction to the subject, and she was able to interview a number of key players, including members of the Lehi hit squad. It is a balanced account, which while obviously unsympathetic to the murderers does attempt to understand why the Swedish diplomat Bernadotte provoked such hatred among some of the Jews of Palestine.

One of the stranger parts of this very strange tale is the friendship, many years later, between Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, and the Lehi assassin who fired the shots into the unarmed and defenceless Bernadotte. As Marton discovered, Ben Gurion knew that his friend and ‘bodyguard’ had played a role in the murder, which Ben Gurion condemned at the time. But it is not clear if the two men ever discussed what happened.

A well-written and gripping tale of a horrific crime for which no one was ever punished.

Sanders’ socialist plan for the pandemic

Wed, 2020-03-18 05:37

The mainstream media has already written off Bernie Sanders and crowned Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate to challenge Donald Trump (despite the primaries being far from over). But that hasn’t silenced the Vermont senator.

Sanders has long seen himself as more than just a conventional politician and acts as the voice for a movement. This last week, he laid out a socialist programme for the pandemic.

Sanders began with a recognition of the severity of the crisis, saying that “the crisis we face from coronavirus is on the scale of a major war, and we must act accordingly. Nobody knows how many fatalities we may see, but they could equal or surpass the U.S. casualties we saw in World War II.” American casualties in that war exceeded 400,000.

Unlike Trump, Sanders started with idea of community, of this being a shared problem. “Now is the time for solidarity,” he says, using a word rarely uttered by American politicians but familiar to the labour movement. “We must fight with love and compassion for those most vulnerable to the effects of this pandemic.”

Sanders laid out what he means by the most vulnerable, the people for whom we must show compassion. These include, in his view, “those in nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities, those confined in immigration detention centers, those who are currently incarcerated, and all people regardless of immigration status.”

These are fighting words in a country that criminalises immigration and that practices mass incarceration (with more people in jail than in China). Among Sanders’ opponents on the right, there is little sympathy for immigrants or prisoners.

He was clear in his condemnation of the Trump administration. “Unfortunately, in this time of international crisis,” he said, “the current administration is largely incompetent, and its incompetence and recklessness has threatened the lives of many people.”

And then he laid out his programme, a socialist programme, for the coronavirus pandemic.

He demanded that a national state of emergency be declared and that a group of experts be convened to direct a response to the crisis that is “comprehensive, compassionate, and based first and foremost on science and fact.”

Sanders was also demanding that the government be completely transparent and called for “daily information – clear, science-based information – from credible scientific voices.”

If it sounds like he’s making a lot of use of the word “science”, there’s a reason for that. In the US, especially in the Republican party, there is considerable resistance to taking a scientific approach to anything.

Sanders has long fought for universal health care, but even now, before such a system can be set up, he demanded that the “government must be clear that in the midst of this emergency, that everyone in our country – regardless of income or where they live – must be able to get all of the health care they need without cost.” In other words, the same core principles of Medicare for All could be applied right now, in the midst of the pandemic crisis.

He listed some very specific proposals, including a guarantee that a vaccine or treatment, when it becomes available, must be delivered free of charge to all. He called for emergency funding for paid family and medical leave. He demanded an expansion of community health centres across the country. And in a country whose President is fond of boasting how it leads the world in everything, Sanders dared to speak the unvarnished truth: “There are other countries around the world who are doing better than we are,” he said. “We should be learning from them.”

And when speaking about the pharmaceutical industry, Sanders said something no other politician in America dares to utter. Those companies, he said, “must be told in no uncertain terms that the medicines that they manufacture for this crisis will be sold at cost. This is not the time for profiteering or price gouging.”

I could go on about his plan to address those suffering from the “global economic meltdown,” as he calls it. But I think in looking at what Sanders says about the coronavirus pandemic, we are hearing the voice of an authentic democratic socialist, who draws not only upon the practical experience of other countries, but also from the moral foundations of the labour movement. It is a programme based on the ideals of solidarity, compassion and love – words which Sanders is not afraid to use.

In the age of global pandemics, this is what socialism sounds like.

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

Review: Instead of Arms, by Count Folke Bernadotte

Wed, 2020-03-11 10:54

“I myself have been criticized because, during the last war, as one of the leaders of the Swedish Red Cross, I did not publicly denounce Nazism and its methods.” So wrote Count Folke Bernadotte at the end of this book, which he completed writing just a few weeks before his brutal murder in Jerusalem at the ends of terrorists from the Stern Gang.

The book covers the period between his role in 1945 negotiating with Himmler and the Nazi leadership to get Scandinavian citizens out of concentration camps to safety in Sweden, and his short period as UN Peace Mediator in Palestine.

Those who killed Bernadotte considered him to be an enemy of the Jewish people. Though they almost certainly had not read this manuscript, there are in these pages some sentences that might raise eyebrows.

Here, for example, is what Bernadotte had to say about the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal: “It is really just to condemn collectively all the members of a given organization? Is it absolutely certain that all those who have joined, for example, the SS, are guilty of a crime?” The short answer is, yes.

This is an extraordinary historical document and helps shed light on a man who was both revered and hated in his lifetime — and for years afterwards.

Political revolution in the age of pandemics

Wed, 2020-03-11 05:21

The decision by the AFL-CIO to cancel the planned candidates’ forum in Florida this week is bad news for Bernie Sanders.

This would have been the perfect opportunity for Sanders to challenge his sole remaining rival for the Democratic nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden, on the issues which divide them. On all those issues – social security, Medicare for all, trade deals like NAFTA and TPP – Sanders’ views are much closer to those of the unions. Biden’s neo-liberal agenda would have been exposed.

This is now something we are going to have to get used to as more and more events are cancelled in the wake of growing fears about a global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus.

With events like the Summer Olympics in Tokyo facing possible cancellation, it seems increasingly possible that the Democratic National Convention, scheduled to open in July in Milwaukee, may itself be cancelled – with some kind of alternative arrangement made.

These changes do not bode well for the Sanders campaign which has relied heavily on mass events, some of which may cancelled under new ‘social distancing’ rules that are likely to be brought into effect.

And furthermore, both Sanders and Biden fall into the category of vulnerable individuals, because of their age, meaning that they are taking a particular risk in meeting voters in large numbers, face to face.

By forcing campaigns to move more and more of their efforts online, the Sanders campaign might also be disadvantaged as mainstream media, even liberal media like MSNBC, remain largely hostile to him. And it’s not only a question of his campaign being outspent online, as Biden and Trump buy up millions of dollars of Facebook advertising. As Mike Bloomberg showed in his brief campaign, online influencers on popular platforms like Instagram are up for hire.

But it’s not all bad news for the left.

The pandemic is making it clear to many that a society’s ability to stop the spread of a pandemic is only as strong as the weakest link. As Rupert Beale wrote this week in the London Review of Books, “The US response [to the pandemic] will be complicated by its lack of socialised healthcare. … People often don’t go to the doctor in the US because they are understandably fearful of the huge costs they may incur.” Not only can’t many Americans afford a visit to their doctors – many can’t afford to take a day off from work, especially if they are displaying no symptoms.

COVID-19 is making the case for Medicare for All better than a hundred speeches by Bernie Sanders.

More generally, the pandemic is exposing the Trump administration as being completely incompetent, as well as corrupt. The US, which Trumps likes to tout as the ‘richest country in the world’ does not have nearly enough testing kits. The aid package Congress just passed, which gives out money to the individual states to cope with the virus, is pathetically small – a drop in the bucket, as several state Governors have already complained.

This pandemic is turning into the worst global health crisis we have seen since the ‘Spanish flu’ which followed the First World War. That time, about one in four people on the planet became infected, and the death toll was in the tens of millions – more than died in the war itself.

It’s not just the Trump administration that is being exposed. This pandemic is focussing attention on systemic problems caused by capitalism itself.

COVID-19 is exposing more clearly than anything else how ill-prepared modern capitalist societies, with their privatised health care and pharmaceutical industries, are for crises on this scale.

The Sanders campaign, and every movement working for social change, will need to adapt to the new reality – and also to exploit new opportunities that arise.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.

Bernie Sanders’ Cuba Problem

Wed, 2020-03-04 07:49

As the possibility grows of Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic nomination for President, his opponents are looking for vulnerabilities that can be exploited. This shouldn’t be difficult, as Sanders has been politically active for some six decades. Surely he has written or said something embarrassing during that period.

But after trawling through the various archives, they have found very little to work with. Until now.

Last week, the attention of the mainstream media focussed on things that Sanders had said about Cuba in the past.

It seems that many years ago, Sanders made reference to two achievements of the Castro regime: raising literacy levels in the country and creating one of the best health care systems in Latin America. When pressed on these comments by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Sanders doubled down and said, “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad … When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

When asked about the dissidents Cuba’s Communist government has sent to jail, Sanders replied that “we condemn that.”

Later, he said that his view differed little from that expressed by former President Barack Obama, whose efforts to end the blockade and engage with Cuba have been reversed by Donald Trump. In March 2016, Obama said that “The United States recognizes progress that Cuba has made as a nation, its enormous achievements in education and in health care.”

But this did not stop Sanders’ critics, and not only Republicans, from attacking him for being an apologist for Castro. One British writer blasted him in a Facebook post, saying that Sanders “has a record of being a bit soft (and a bit daft) on anti-western dictators”, comparing him to Jeremy Corbyn.

This view is, I think, unfair to Sanders.

The first thing to say in Sanders’ defence is that what he says is not wrong. Or as he put it, “facts are facts”. Literacy rates in Cuba did rise dramatically following the 1959 revolution. And Cuba does have the best health care system in the region.

But it’s not that simple. While people in Cuba can now read, they have been very limited in what they can read. The regime has never tolerated dissent, and strictly limited what kinds of books can be published or sold in the country, as well as print and online media. It is true that there are some exceptions, such as Leonardo Padura’s 2009 book, The Man Who Loved Dogs, which is sympathetic to Trotsky. But for many years, such dissident writing was banned.

The problem with what Sanders says about Cuba is that it’s complicated. Yes, the regime has done a few good things. But overall, it is a repressive society, noted for a lack of human rights and ugly forms of prejudice, including state-supported homophobia.

This means that when discussing Cuba, one is required to display an awareness of the complexities.

Sanders has shown that he can do this, as his views on Israel and Palestine have shown. He does not see the world in black and white. In fact, his understanding of the tragic nature of the conflict in that region, his empathy for the people on both sides, has helped turn him into the most popular politician among both American Muslims and Jews.

He has also shown that he knows to speak clearly about dictators in a way that the current American President has been unable to do. For example, he says of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “He is an autocratic thug who is attempting to destroy democracy and crush dissent in Russia.”

He needs to show the same clarity when talking about Castro and Cuba as well.

This article appears in the latest issue of Solidarity.

How Sanders wins

Wed, 2020-02-26 14:35

For some time now I’ve been arguing that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is the front-runner in the race to be the Democratic candidate to face off against Donald Trump in November. A few months ago, and even a few weeks ago, that was a debatable proposition. Today, it is a view shared by nearly everyone paying careful attention to the Democratic primary.

The main competitors to Sanders are falling away one by one, their weaknesses on clear display to all. Biden, once seen as the front-runner, has no base of enthusiastic supporters and very little money left in his coffers. Warren, another early leader in the race, seems a spent force despite her very effective recent debate performance in Las Vegas. Buttigieg, who polls showed has near-zero support among Black and Latino voters, proved in Nevada that once he leaves behind the largely white, rural states, his run for the presidency has slowed to a crawl.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was the great hope for the Democratic party’s “moderates” – a term the media uses because no one wants to call those who oppose the party’s left wing, well, right-wingers.

But five minutes into Bloomberg’s first appearance on the debate stage, his candidacy began to tank. Arrogant, ill-informed and totally unprepared for challenges from candidates who’ve been campaigning for many months, he completely flopped. From the point of view of the Sanders campaign, that’s a pity. A contest between Sanders and Bloomberg, a democratic socialist versus a billionaire, would have been almost ideal.

If Sanders does well in the upcoming South Carolina and Super Tuesday primaries, he has a clear path to winning the Democratic nomination. But can he beat Trump?

Trump has raised more money than any of the Democratic candidates. His rallies are larger than that of most Democrats. Polls continue to show that he commands the support of at least 40% of voters, sometimes more. He can also count on the fact that incumbent presidents running when the country is not in the throes of an economic crisis are rarely defeated.

In other words, it will be a massive challenge to whoever wins the Democratic nomination to defeat Trump. But Bernie Sanders can do it for the same reason why he won Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

His victory in Nevada shows what he needs to do to defeat Trump. He did exceptionally well among Latino voters, who comprise a very large part of the American electorate. He is enormously popular among young voters, especially those under the age of 30. Unsurprisingly, he does well among independents and others who do not consider themselves to be loyal members of the Democratic party.

The only demographic where Biden and others still lead Sanders is the over 65s.

If Sanders can pull together the same coalition of forces across the country in November as he just did in Nevada, he will win the election. In fact, he will do more than that.

Some “moderate” Democrats have warned that Sanders is reprising the role of South Dakota Senator George McGovern who also pulled the party to the left, back in 1972. McGovern went down to a historic defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon. He won only one state to Nixon’s 49. It was a catastrophe for the Democrats.

But there’s another comparison to be made to an earlier election and it took place a mere eight years before McGovern’s defeat. In the 1964 elections, the Republicans ran the most extreme right-wing candidate they could find, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. The Democrats had Lyndon Johnson, the former Texas Senator who had been John F. Kennedy’s Vice President until Kennedy was assassinated.

Johnson was not a particularly appealing candidate, and was very much a Washington insider. But he had the strong support of Black communities and trade unions, which at the time were still a force to be reckoned with in American politics.

And he won by a landslide. His administration not only enacted voting rights laws and other civil rights measures, but initiated both a “war on poverty” and Medicare, the first serious attempt by the federal government to make health care a human right, at least for some.

The “moderates” may be right, and maybe Sanders is too left-wing to win. Maybe he is a 21st century version of McGovern, and by choosing him the Democrats are setting up the country for the nightmare of four more years of Donald Trump.

Or maybe Bernie Sanders, with the coalition we just saw in Nevada, will be more like Lyndon Johnson, and will defeat not only Trump, but the Republican party in Congress. With majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives, and with many Democrats supporting Sanders’ progressive agenda, this could be the beginning of a new, radical era in American politics.

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

Review: To Jerusalem, by Count Folke Bernadotte

Mon, 2020-02-24 08:39

This is the diary of Counte Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations Mediator sent to manage the truce between Israeli and Arab forces during the War of Independence and also to make progress toward a peace settlement. Bernadotte was not able to complete his mission, as he was assassinated in September 1948 by terrorists of the Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang).

The belief held by many Israelis at the time — and not only the Lehi — was that Bernadotte was taking the Arab side. This book offers some evidence that this was true. He makes is very clear that, in his view, the UN Partition Plan of 1947 was a very bad idea, and it was unfortunate that the Jews proclaimed their own state. He also didn’t like the fact that a number of states, including such world powers as the USA and USSR, had already recognised the new Jewish state. This made it much harder to suggest to the Israeli leaders that they drop the idea of Jewish sovereignty, which is precisely what Bernadotte proposed.

It is also clear from his description of meeting both Arab and Israeli leaders how much he preferred the company of the former. Israeli foreign minister Moshe Sharett is described in an unflattering way, as are all the Israeli leaders he meets. The Arabs are nearly uniformly charming. The proposals Bernadotte was putting forward — refusing the Israelis any claim on any part of Jerusalem, urging them to drastically cut back on immigration (meaning refugees from the Holocaust, mostly), giving up all of the Negev to Arab rule, and so on — these could all be interpreted as being hostile to the Jews.

None of that — none of it — justified the cold-blooded murder of Bernadotte and the French colonel Serot who was at his side. The cowardly assassins were never punished for their crime, which remains a source of shame to this day.

Review: Hitler’s Death: The Case Against Conspiracy, by Luke Daly-Groves

Wed, 2020-02-19 09:40

Adolf Hitler killed himself on 30 April 1945 in his bunker in Berlin. He did not escape to Argentina in a U-boat. He did not go into hiding in a monastery in Tibet. He was not murdered by SS chief Heinrich Himmler. He was not sent by rocket to a secret Nazi base on the far side of the moon. Only the last of these is not explored in this short book that relies heavily on British and American intelligence files which reveal when, how and where Hitler died. That such a book is necessary even now, three quarters of a century after Hitler’s death, shows the endurance of even the stupidest conspiracy theories. In the course of this book, Hugh Trevor-Roper, author of the definitive book The Last Days of Hitler, comes off rather well, despite his later failures, most notably regarding the forged “Hitler diaries”. A good introduction to the subject by a young historian.

Nevada: Bump in the road for Sanders?

Tue, 2020-02-18 18:32

Next Saturday (22 February) voters in Nevada will participate in caucuses to choose their 48 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Early voting has already begun. According to the latest poll, Sanders has a 7 point lead over Biden, with no other candidates reaching the 15% threshold required to win delegates. This represents a major shift, as Biden had been leading in all the polls in Nevada up until very recently.

A Sanders victory in Nevada would represent more than just a hat trick, following his victories in the popular vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. It would mean that he has demonstrated that he, unlike some of the other candidates, can do well in a state with a large immigrant and Latino population.

That’s one thing to know about Nevada, but the other is perhaps more important: this is a state with powerful and influential trade unions. As trade union density in the private sector in America has declined over decades, unions have managed keep a foothold in the casinos, hotels and restaurants of Las Vegas and Reno. This gives Sanders an opportunity to demonstrate his strength among the organised working class.

Back in 2016, the little-known Sanders fought Hillary Clinton to a near-tie in Nevada. Today, as the front-runner in national polls, faced by a weak and divided opposition, Nevada is Bernie Sanders’ state to lose. Sanders’ rivals who emerged strongest from the New Hampshire primary, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, are barely registering at 10% in the polls. If Biden continues to fall in the polls, a possible result in Nevada is that none of the other candidates receive 15%. Were that unlikely scenario to occur, Sanders would walk away with all the delegates.

But Sanders has run into an unforeseen obstacle on the road to victory in Nevada: the powerful Culinary Workers Union, Local 226 of UNITE-HERE. That union claims 60,000 members in the state, and represents nearly a quarter of the entire national membership of the union.

In a flyer produced in English and Spanish only a few days before the voting begins, the union branded Sanders’ health care plan (Medicare for All) a disaster for union members. The argument ran something like this: our union worked long and hard to get our members great health care; Sanders’ plan means the end of all that, as the government steps in to take over.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there were reports that some Sanders supporters went online to trash the union leaders (who are women), and not always politely. Sanders himself would have none of it, and praised the union for its great work over the years.

At least the union didn’t then go on to endorse anyone else. That leaves open the possibility that many of its members, the majority of them being Latinos, will go on to vote for the candidate who best represents their interests, Bernie Sanders.

At the moment, there seems little danger that the attack by the Culinary Workers Union will cost Sanders Nevada. He still seems on track to win. But the risk is that the arguments the union made will resonate with other trade unionists, and that members of unions like the United Auto Workers in states like Michigan may also feel that Sanders’ proposed “government takeover” will mean the end of their negotiated private health care plans.

The Sanders campaign needs to make the case not only that health care is a human right, but that the only way to ensure that all Americans have decent health care is through his Medicare for All plan.

In Nevada next weekend, we will learn if that case was made well.

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

Review: Last Days of the Reich, by Count Folke Bernadotte

Sun, 2020-02-16 07:04

Before he was the United Nations peace envoy to the Middle East during the first Israeli-Arab war, Count Folke Bernadotte played a central role in a bizarre series of meetings with Heinrich Himmler and other leaders of Hitler’s Germany in the final days of the Second World War.

Bernadotte’s mission, in his role as a leader of Swedish Red Cross, was to negotiate the release of Norwegian and Danish prisoners held in German camps. But inevitably, Himmler tried to use him to mediate a deal with General Eisenhower to end the war in the West — and allow German armies to turn their guns on the advancing Soviet armies.

In the end that deal fell through, though Bernadotte’s humanitarian efforts were more successful.

The count came under criticism for his apparent friendliness towards the Nazis, a point addressed by his children in a 2009 foreword to the book. Among others, the noted historian Hugh Trevor-Roper believed Bernadotte to have been anti-Semite. Bernadotte’s book was largely ghost-written, as his children point out, and it is quite evident where Bernadotte’s story ends and where the professional writer begins.

As it is based on his diaries and reports from the spring of 1945, Bernadotte is able to comment favourably on his first meeting with Himmler and describes in some detail his attempts to persuade the Nazi leaders how humanitarian gestures at this time, weeks before the end of the war, would help them, not least in ensuring that the legacy of the Third Reich is not further tarnished. (He actually writes such things in the book.)

Here and there, one finds mentions of how absolutely evil the Nazi regime was, but these feel like additional material added by the ghost writer, and do not come from the original reports.

Three years after the book was written and published, Bernadotte was assassinated in Jerusalem by terrorist from the Stern Gang, who believed — as did many others — that Bernadotte was no friend of the Jewish people.

Review: Stern: The man and his gang, by Zev Golan

Thu, 2020-02-13 09:27

I asked a friend recently what he knew about the Stern Gang, and he replied that they were “very small … and vicious”. That pretty much sums up the group known as the “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel” which waged a bloody 8-year-long fight to kick the British out of mandatory Palestine. Their leader, Avraham “Yair” Stern, was murdered in cold blood by British police in 1942. In turn, his followers murdered many others, including the UN peace emissary Count Folke Bernadotte in 1948. Zev Golan’s book makes no attempt to be impartial; this is a view of the Stern Gang that is entirely sympathetic. The book includes a long list of every single military action carried out by Stern’s followers, running over several pages, and one reads through these with numbing effect. Incredibly, decades after their war against the British ended, the Sternists were rewarded with recognition by the state of Israel, whose prime minister in the late 1980s was one of Stern’s acolytes, Yitzhak Shamir.

Thinking beyond the primaries

Wed, 2020-02-12 04:52

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.

In early June, voters in the U.S. territory of the Virgin Islands will go to the polls to choose their delegates for the Democratic National Convention. When that happens, the primary season will be officially over, though it is likely to end well before that.

If polls today are accurate and nothing much changes in the next few months (rather large assumptions, obviously), according to The New York Times and the respected FiveThirtyEight website, Bernie Sanders is likely to be the nominee of the Democratic Party.

He is already generally acknowledged to be the front-runner due to the implosion of the Joe Biden campaign following his disastrous results in Iowa.
No one knows how the next few months will pan out, though it does seem increasingly likely that the field will narrow to Sanders and one other Democrat, representing what journalists like to call the “moderate wing” of the party.

That could be Pete Buttigieg, who did exceptionally well in Iowa, but is not expected to do well in upcoming states with more diverse populations. It could be Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire candidate, who has bought his way into the next round of candidate debates. Whoever it is, the contrast with Sanders will be sharp.

We will know much more after “Super Tuesday” on March 3rd when many key states – including the biggest of them all, California – vote. It may even turn out that on the morning after, we will pretty much know who’s going to be the Democratic candidate to take on Trump.

Which means that the Sanders campaign, assuming that it continues to do very well, will need to be thinking even now about pivoting to the campaign against Trump having defeated all the other Democratic candidates.

Sanders has already done a very smart thing in insisting that he and all the other candidates commit themselves to rallying around whoever Democratic voters choose to be the party’s choice this year. In 2016, Sanders took a lot of flack from the left for endorsing Clinton in the end. This year, raising the demand for party unity even if the party chooses a self-styled “democratic socialist” seems like a very smart move by the Vermont senator.

In addition to rallying the whole party around a Sanders candidacy, and ensuring that defeated candidates like Bloomberg don’t launch third party efforts, Sanders has to become laser-focussed on defeating not just Donald Trump but Trumpism. And that means trying to figure out how Trump won in 2016.

It means first of all rejecting that idea that all Trump voters are idiots and racists. Obviously, stupid and bigotted people supported Trump. But many of those same people voted – twice – for Obama.

The reality is that for many working-class Americans, Trump spoke for their concerns about liberal elites and a process of globalisation that seemed to be destroying jobs. In 2016, Trump and Sanders had similar positions on some of the trade deals that the Obama administration had negotiated – deals which Clinton defended. Even union members turned out in large numbers to vote for Trump, not believing that Clinton cared about them.

Trump promised things he could not deliver, and had no intention of delivering. As a result, he faces the real possibility of suffering electoral defeat in November. Knowing this, he has decided to weaponise racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. These are the traditional tools of the American right and they have worked well in the past.

This is why Sanders’ unifying, class-wide message of solidarity is so powerful. Alone among the Democratic candidates, he offers real answers to those working class voters who abandoned Obama for Trump four years ago. If, as predicted, he wins the Democratic nomination, he will need to sharpen that message and push back against the racism and sexism that have become the signatures of the Trump presidency.

That is the only way he can win.

This is why Sanders’ clear anti-racist message is so powerful – his answer to Trumpism is a moral one

Sanders and the unions

Wed, 2020-02-05 03:03

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

Bernie Sanders has introduced a new phrase into American politics: “working class.” For decades, hardly anyone has used those two words together. It was far more common to speak of the “middle class” or, more recently, “working families”. By employing the language of class, Sanders has staked out his claim to be the candidate of the trade unions.

In early 2016, when Sanders’ chances of getting elected were considered to be around zero, the leaders of most major American unions rushed to endorse Hillary Clinton. In most cases, members were not asked who they supported, and to many union leaders, it made sense to back a candidate whose nomination was seen to be a near-certainty. Clinton offered little in exchange for tha union support, saying only that if she was elected president, “workers will always have a seat at the table and a champion in the White House.”

There were some dissident unions which endorsed Sanders, most notably the communication workers, nurses and postal workers, and a lot of grumbling among rank and file union members who were far more sympathetic to Sanders than some of their leaders were.

Following Clinton’s stunning defeat at the hands of Donald Trump, some in the American labour movement began to have second thoughts.

“Organized labor is still traumatized after the 2016 Democratic primary,” wrote Politico recently. “Several unions endorsed Hillary Clinton early on, only to see the decision backfire when portions of their membership bolted for Bernie Sanders. This year, they’re determined not to make the same mistake.”

The lesson they learned was to endorse no one, not early on in any event, and perhaps to even wait until the Democratic primary battle is over and the party has chosen its candidate in July.

But some unions have already jumped in, supporting their favourite candidates.

Bernie Sanders has once again won the support of the nurses and the postal workers. He was unsurprisingly backed by the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE), a small progressive union that had a historic connection to the Communist Party.

But with most national unions holding back on nominations, local initiatives increasingly matter. Recently, Sanders won the support of the 10,000 member Local 1984 of the Service Employees International Union in New Hampshire. This is expected to make a big difference in the first primary state, which votes on 11 February.

Joe Biden got the endorsement of the fire fighters, as expected. But this week, the 200,000 member Amalgamated Transit Union, which had backed Sanders in 2016, switched sides and endorsed Biden. Instead of asking their members who to support, the union employed a public opinion pollster, who sampled the membership and decided they wanted the former vice president. The leadership seemed delighted with the result, because in their view Biden is the candidate more likely to defeat Trump.

In the run-up to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July, more unions are likely to make their preferences known. So far, it seems that there is little if any union support for the other Democratic candidates, including the progressive Elizabeth Warren.

If Sanders wins the nomination, it is likely that all the unions will throw their support behind him and this is not an insignificant thing. The 14 million strong American trade union movement may be only a shadow of its former self, but it still has the power to donate millions of dollars to campaigns it supports and to provide many thousands of volunteers.

But even more important than that, a united labour movement backing the most pro-worker candidate the Democrats have ever nominated will be a powerful force to persuade union members who in 2016 showed little interest in Hillary Clinton’s offer of “a seat at the table.” This time, they will have a candidate that really is on their side.

If Bernie Sanders is elected president, it will be due in large part to a group of people that he alone among the candidates calls by its proper name: the working class.

  • end –

Bernie Sanders – Dangerous Trotskyist?

Wed, 2020-01-29 02:40

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

In the hunt for dirt on Bernie Sanders, hostile journalists have come up with very little. He had his honeymoon in the Soviet Union. He wrote some dodgy stuff in an alternative newspaper as a very young man. And that’s pretty much it.

It’s hard to find anything really juicy in Sanders’ past because his politics have been fairly consistent from the time he joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) in the early 1960s until today. It was in the YPSL that he learned to be a democratic socialist and he remains a democratic socialist even now.

But one story has recently surfaced which is getting a bit of circulation and it concerns Sanders’ years as a dangerous Trotskyist.

The story, reported to a wide audience on 17 January by the Daily Beast website (which is edited by Noah Shachtman, apparently a distant cousin of Max), runs like this:

In 1980, when the Democrats ran Jimmy Carter for re-election as president Bernie Sanders did not sign up to support him. Instead, he agreed to lend his name to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and was an official Elector for the party for the state of Vermont.

I should explain that in the American electoral system, the president is chosen by the Electoral College. Every party that competes for the presidency therefore must name their Electors. In the unlikely event that the SWP had won a majority of votes in Vermont that year, Sanders would have been an elector. (In the event, Vermont had 3 Electors and they all voted for Ronald Reagan. The SWP candidate placed 9th out of 9 candidates, receiving just 75 votes in the state.)

Why did Sanders agree to be an Elector for the SWP? Most likely because he was sympathetic to their ongoing effort to challenge the federal government’s decades-long attempt to infiltrate and destroy their small party. Sanders said as much at one of the very few SWP events he spoke at.

“For the last 40 years,” Sanders said, “the Socialist Workers Party has … been harassed, informed upon, had their offices broken into, had members of their party fired from their jobs, and have been treated with cold contempt by the United States government.”

There is no evidence that Sanders joined the party or supported its platform.

Four decades later, some of the right-wing media have jumped on the story, with the Daily Beast challenging Sanders’ claim that he has been a “democratic socialist” all his adult life. “He has not always been the democratic socialist he claims to be,” they declared. “Sanders could have supported the Socialist Party, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, or Social-Democrats U.S.A., the three leading democratic socialist organizations existing in 1980. He rejected them. Instead he embraced a Marxist-Leninist communist sect that proclaimed its solidarity with Iran.”

One wonders where they collected that list of “the three leading democratic socialist organizations,” though I imagine the source was Wikipedia. Anyone who was around at the time, or did actual research, would have been unlikely to include Social Democrats USA in the list, for example.

Sanders not only lent his name to the SWP, but apparently spoke at one (maybe two) of their meetings. In 1984, it is reported that he said “at a time when the Democratic and Republican parties are intellectually and spiritually bankrupt, it is imperative for radical voices to be heard which offer fundamental alternatives to capitalist ideology.” That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the SWP’s particular brand of Trotskyism and actually reflects the view that Sanders has held for his whole life.

Other websites followed up on the Daily Beast’s “scoop”, including the Washington Examiner which revealed that in 1979, members of the SWP’s leadership circulated a document that called for “the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus,” arguing such an act “is a necessary prerequisite for the conquest of state power by the working class.”

Their crack researchers also discovered that the “archives of the SWP’s official paper, the Militant, demonstrate a devotion to what its writers believe was the ‘true’ purpose of the Russian Revolution, before it was supposedly corrupted by Josef Stalin.”

The paper even found “an expert on 20th century communism” who told them that “one of the SWP’s fans was Lee Harvey Oswald, who not only wanted to overthrow our government but actually assassinated our president, John F. Kennedy.”

So, there you go. Bernie Sanders has now been exposed as a secret Trotskyist, a defender of the Iranian Islamist regime and linked somehow to the Kennedy assassination.

Incredibly, none of this has seemed to impact on the Vermont Senator’s campaign. The latest polls show him winning both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Review: The Reckoning: How the Killing of One Man Changed the Fate of the Promised Land, by Patrick Bishop

Sun, 2020-01-26 05:50

This is the story of the killing of Avraham “Yair” Stern, the leader of the Jewish underground group in Palestine that bore his name, by a British police officer in Tel Aviv in 1942. Patrick Bishop is an accomplished historian and this book is exceptionally well-written and well-researched.

It is a very difficult subject to tackle, as it deals with conflicting narratives. From the point of view of the British, Stern was a “Chicago gangster” who needed to be “liquidated”. To his followers, Stern was a freedom fighter. One of those followers, Yitzhak Shamir, eventually became Israel’s prime minister and over time, Stern increasingly came to be seen as one of the country’s founding heroes. There is a state museum in his honour, and streets are named after him.

Patrick Bishop is not a big fan of Stern, to put it mildly, and this becomes increasingly clear as the book progresses. He describes Stern as something of a dandy, down to his silk socks, a negligent husband, vain, arrogant and a personal coward (he never seems to have fired a weapon and never took part in the operations carried out by his group). The British police officer, Morton, who killed him is portrayed as his opposite: a good, honest family man. The contrast could not be more striking.

The portrayal of Stern as entirely evil and Morton as entirely good falls apart in the final pages of the book. For more than 200 pages one is led to believe that Morton, like the mythological George Washington, could never tell a lie. The story he told was that Stern attempted to escape and was possibly going to trigger a bomb that would have killed everyone in the room. When this story was challenged by various historians, Morton sued them for libel — and all his suits were successful.

And yet more than four decades after Stern’s killing, one of the policemen in the room when Morton shot Stern came forward with a different narrative — one in which Morton deliberately killed the defenceless and unarmed Stern in cold blood.

The entire narrative about Morton’s spotlessly clean record fell apart as I read those final passages in the book. Well done to Patrick Bishop for fearlessly including evidence that undermines a simplistic view of the two men, Stern and Morton, who confronted each other on that fateful day.

Why the Georgian Experiment matters to Russia today

Thu, 2020-01-23 05:14

This is the speech I gave in Moscow on 16 January 2020 to mark the publication of The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 in Russian.

First of all, I would like to thank the Global Labour Institute – Moscow, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, and the Confederation of Labour in Russia for taking the initiative to translate and publish my book “The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution” into Russian. And I want to thank you all for coming today to this book launch.

Back in 2017, the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution was marked with exhibitions and events across the world. In London, where I live, there was a massive exhibition of Russian revolutionary art at the Royal Academy. There was a historical exhibition at the British Library. Even the Tate Modern, Britain’s most important collection of modern art, had a huge exhibition to mark the events of 1917 in Russia.

But in Russia, as I understand it, the celebrations were rather more muted.

A few months after that anniversary, in 2018, Georgia marked the 100th anniversary of its independence, which had been declared on 26 May 1918. This featured huge celebrations and the publication of a number of new books about the history of that period. Among these was a new trilingual edition of Karl Kautsky’s 1921 book about Georgia, which he wrote following his visit to the country. We can thank the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung for taking the initiative to publish that book as well.

The story of the first Georgian republic is one that is not well known in the English speaking world, which is why I wrote my book in the first place. But it also turns out that it is not well known in Georgia or Russia as well. Or to be more precise, the true story of the Georgian republic is not well known.

There are a number of works of fiction which claim to be histories of that period – most notably, in the West – Trotsky’s little book about Georgia. But books telling the real story of the Georgian Social Democrats and the republic they created are few and far between.

So let me outline the main points of this history as addressed by my book – and then, let me explain why this matters to us today.

Georgia was the one part of the vast Russian empire in which the Social Democrats had overwhelming popular support long before 1917. The Georgian Bolsheviks were a tiny and ineffective group. As I explain in my book, they did attempt on several occasions to overthrow the Georgian government, trying to create a “Georgian October” but with no success and often, with comical results. Stalin was, of course, the most famous Georgian Bolshevik – but the fact is that in his own country and among the Social Democrats, he was isolated, mistrusted and largely despised.

As for the Georgian Social Democrats, they were able to build a mass party with a huge number of peasant members as well as workers and intellectuals. This was very different from the experience of the Russian Mensheviks, who though winning some support, for a time, from urban workers, never had a base in the countryside. The Georgian Social Democrats were an enormously popular party, and their opponents, Bolshevik and nationalist alike, were weak and divided. When the tsarist regime fell in 1917, the viceroy fled from Tbilisi handing over the keys to power to the leaders of the Georgian Social Democratic Party, first among them Noe Zhordania.

Up until 1918, those Georgian Social Democrats had little interest in national independence. Their dream was for Georgia to be an autonomous province in a democratic and federal Russian republic. They accepted the authority of the Provisional Government in Petrograd, and indeed one of the Georgian Social Democrats served as a minister in that government, while another was chairman of the Central Executive Council of the Soviets. So why did Georgia break away from Russia the following year?

The short answer is that the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 followed by the dispersal of the elected Constituent Assembly early in the following year forced the Georgian Social Democrats to re-think the future of their country.

They opted for independence, which gave them the opportunity to create the kind of society that they always dreamed of.

Despite the terrible poverty and the lack of national security, they were able to create a robust political democracy, with a multiparty system and free elections (in which women voted).

They carried out an ambitious and successful agrarian reform leading not to collectivisation as eventually happened in the Soviet Union, but instead to the creation of a middle class in the countryside.

In the cities, they created a kind of welfare state based on a social partnership that prefigured what would happen in Western Europe after the second world war.

Trade unions which had suffered severe repression under the Tsar – and in Russia, under the Bolsheviks – thrived in independend Georgia.

The Georgian experiment showed that socialism could be created not only with a “human face” but with a human heart as well.

And socialists all over Europe took an interest in what they were doing.

A delegation of the most famous of these, including Karl Kautsky from Germany and the future British Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, visited Georgia in late 1920.

Of course the society the Georgian Social Democrats created was not a perfect one, as I explained in the book. Among other things, they failed in their promise of equality and autonomy for ethnic minorities in the country.

But the Georgian Social Democrats, unlike the Russian Bolsheviks, were not aiming to create a perfect society. They wanted to create a better one. And in that, they succeeded.

Their story is not well known today, not in Russia and not even in Georgia. A battle is taking place over historical memory and it is important that myths be challenged and that the truth prevail. The Georgian experiment in 1918-21 showed that another revolution was possible, one without a Cheka or a Gulag, without man-made famines and show trials.

Why should the story of the Georgian republic matter today to Russians?

The answer is that the values that the Georgian Social Democrats upheld are universal values that are, or should be, important to everyone, everywhere. These include human rights, democracy and social justice. The story of the Georgian republic is a story of hope, of another kind of revolution that was always possible, and another kind of socialism.

In re-telling the story of the Georgian Social Democrats and the republic which they created, we are not only speaking of the past, but of a possible future — for Georgia, for Russia, and for the world.

Review: Downsizing, by Tom Watson

Tue, 2020-01-21 11:21

Tom Watson was, until very recently, the deputy leader of the British Labour Party. A few years ago, he was diagnosed as suffering from Type 2 Diabetes. At the time, he was 50 years old and weighed over 300 pounds.

In this deeply honest and gripping account of his struggle to regain his health, Watson spares nothing — at his worst, he was unable to do the short walk from his apartment to Parliament, and could not climb a single flight of stairs.

Much of the book is a description of what he did to lose over 100 pounds and reverse his diabetes in just a few short months. It’s a remarkable story even if the formula he used can already be guessed at — he went for a low-carb, high-fat diet, he began exercising regularly, and he used the My Fitness Pal app to record what he ate.

What makes this book different from others is that Watson is a life-long trade unionist and social democrat; he includes several chapters about the nefarious influence of the sugar lobby, and urges the creation of a grassroots movement to encourage people to wean themselves from sugar and embrace healthier lifestyles.

This book was an inspiring read and I hope many others will follow in Watson’s footsteps (literally).