#Vanguard4Bernie: A Critique of Socialist Alternative

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In one of the great ironies of this election season, Socialist Alternative has recently taken to attacking the Democratic Party, railing against the neoliberalism and elitism of the party establishment. In a recent article on their website they write, “it’s mass movements that change society, not the Democratic Party.” And yet not too long ago, SA positioned themselves firmly in the Sanders camp, claiming that his campaign presented the opportunity to build such a movement, ostensibly based in the left wing of the Democratic Party.

This should come as no surprise, seeing as SA has engaged in a continued pattern of opportunistic behavior recently. They now back Green presidential candidate Jill Stein, who they argue is vital in the struggle for a mass party. They have continued their use of Sanders’ rhetoric, advocating for a “political revolution” to bring about an end to corporate politics. This populism also incorporates the language of the Occupy movement, calling for the 99% to form their own independent party.

The problem with this sort of popular electoralism is that it bases itself in a purely political  perspective. Social change is viewed in terms of votes and legislation, and is disconnected from the material conditions of society. Talk of “polticial revolution” is emblematic of this phenomenon. Divorced from any notions of socioeconomic transformation, the idea of revolution just becomes another term for the changing of government. The same can be said for a “party of the 99%”, which manifests itself in calls for multi-party democracy and the implementation of social democratic reforms. It is not in reality a call for a revolutionary movement, but a call for the addition of another player to the game of bourgeois politics.

The adoption of such positions becomes especially problematic when they are taken by a group that claims to uphold revolutionary socialism. Socialist Alternative has eagerly embraced the ideology of capitalist democracy, all the while presenting themselves as defenders of the working class. Despite attempts to show a nuanced, critical take on the election, the party’s overwhelming support for the Sanders campaign has been quite disconcerting. Even after his loss in the primaries, SA continued their cheerleading for the social democrat from Vermont. Another essay proclaims that “Socialist Alternative is calling on Bernie to continue running through November as an independent if he is blocked in the rigged primary process. Win or lose in the general election, an independent Sanders campaign could win millions of votes and lay the foundations for a new party of the 99%”.

Socialist Alternative would most likely attempt to justify this parliamentarianism by arguing that their actions have been strategic attempts to engage the working class, opening up opportunities for intensified class struggle. This argument relies on the presumption that the electoral arena is a viable agent of radical change. Yes, SA is not openly reformist, but in their tactical decisions lies the implication that participation in bourgeois politics allows revolutionaries to interact with workers in a meaningful way. The contradiction of such a theory is that in choosing to take part in the electoral process, “socialists” only help facilitate the function of liberal democracy as an ideological mechanism.

Structural change must be sought through non-structural, or rather, non-institutional, methods, and in this historical moment it is more clear than ever that mainstream politics serve to obscure and redirect any intensified spurts of class antagonism. At this present time, with capitalism completely devoid of any progressive tendencies, proletarian liberation lies far beyond the electoral realm. And yet we continue to be confronted with  the efforts of groups like SA to entrech socialism in the politics of capital, diving head-first into the world of the “establishment” they claim to combat. It thus becomes necessary to reject such strategies and the groups that pursue them in order to advance Marxist theory and praxis. The abolition of capitalist social relations can only come through the dismantlement of the repressive institutions and systems that keep them in place, not embracing them.

In view of SA’s Trotskyist roots, their course of action is not entirely unexpected. As a theoretical principle, vanguardism in the Leninist/Trotskyist sense is deeply flawed. It divorces any revolutionary potential from the working class itself, proposing that the workers must be drawn into the class struggle through the deliberate and organized political action of a few. To vanguardists, workers are not individuals whose everyday interactions with captialism and resulting experiences lead them to reject such systems. To the vanguardist, working class people are but empty cells waiting to filled with the righteous anger of class consciousness. Thus vanguardism places emphasis not on the relation between the proletariat and captialists, but the relation between the proletariat and revolutionaries. The existing contradictions of capitalism and the social conflict that they drive are ignored in order to justify the imposition of external organization. By viewing the workers as objects instead of subjects, the vanguard alienates itself from the class which they seek empower, becoming a diseperate entity the exists outside of everyone else’s experienced reality. This disconnect is what can lead to a belief that electoralism is a form of subversion, because it raises the platform from which “revolutionaries” can speak, and thus spread their message.

Socialist Alternative has showed no signs of departing from their currently chosen path, and so one can safely say that they will doom themselves to obsolescence. Their incessant struggle to bring socialism to the workers through liberals like Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein reflects a lack of understanding of the nature of capitalist politics, and serves to put on display the theoretical ineptitude of SA as socialist organization. It remains to be seen if they will succeed in their social democratic agenda, but as of now, even that seems quite improbable.

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Taking Sides: The Western Left and Syria

Over the course of the Syrian Civil War, many groups in the Western Left have taken an array of positions regarding the conflict. In particular, a tendency towards campism has lead to several groups voicing support for the Assad regime. Among these, the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Workers World party have been some of the most outspoken proponents of this “anti-imperialist” position. This  seems to have gained some traction on the Left, seeing as Green Party vice presidential candidate Ajamu Bakara has taken this stance. This uncritical support for a capitalist state from groups and individuals who claim to be Marxist is concerning, to say the least.

On the other hand, a wave of enthusiasm has swept through anarchist and socialist circles over the the supposed “revolution” taking place in Rojava. Reminscent of the international left’s reaction to the syndicalist takeover in Catalonia, leftists have flocked to the banner of the YPG, PKK, and democratic confederalism. Some have even gone so far as to travel to Rojava to  participate in the fighting.

Both of these positions stem from a poor analysis of the class nature of the conflict and of imperialism as a system. An idealized perception of nationalist conflicts is a direct result of this innacurate take on geopolitics. It is important to examine these inaccuracies in order to identify the theoretical flaws in both stances.

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One of the first assumptions of campist groups like the PSL and ANSWER Coalition (a PSL front) is that the Western powers constitute the international imperialist bloc. While it is true that the West remains dominant geopolitically, imperialism isn’t just a group of nations. Imperialism is a global system, and all nations function as components of that system, working to exploit the international proletariat. To a certain extent, there is a cooperation between states to extract maximum profits through this systematic exploitation. Conflict between states doesn’t become an anti-imperialist struggle simply because one state is larger or more powerful.

“Anti-imperialism” primarily foucuses on opposing regime change and intervention. This is all well and good, but proponents often lapse into nationalistic rhetoric, speaking of “national sovereignity” and “self-determination”. This is a completely anti-Marxist position, for it relegates class struggle to a secondary importance, instead emphasizing collaboration between local bourgeoise and workers in order to defeat foreign forces. In the end, all this can possibly achieve is to expand the economic autonomy of the local borugeoise, allowing them to further exploit the working people who fought with them against the “imperialist” agressors.

We see a similar trend with those who claim to stand with the Kurds in Rojava. Failing to understand the sectarian nature of the conflict, they idealize the situtation, claiming that a social revolution is taking place in northern Syria. Regardless of what empty ideological rhetoric the YPG and PKK espouse, the fact of the matter is their intention is to carve out a new Kurdish state from the ashes of the crumbling Syrian regime. Whether you call it national liberation or nationalism, the war in Rojava is not a class war.

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Emerging out of this pro-Rojava sentiment comes a worrisome fetishization of militarism, and to a certain extent, military women. It is common to find users on leftist internet forums drooling over images of Kurdish women with guns and fatigues. While ostensibly coming from a well-intentioned support of female empowerment, it becomes an objectifying and de-humanizing process in which Westerners who have little to no knowledge of what is really happening on the ground project their own fantasies of an ideal “lefitst” woman on to these people. In general, the glorification of sectarian, militaristic groups greatly distorts the realities of the situation.

If one is to maintain a position on Syria that is based on a Marxist analysis, one must refrain from the ideological opportunism that has become rampant amongst the Western Left. This isn’t an athletic event, where we have the luxury of choosing teams for superficial reasons. Let us stand with the workers of Syria in their struggle to free themselves from the oppressive yoke of capitalism, instead of picking sides in a sectarian conflict. The delusions of “anti-imperialism” and national liberation must be cast aside if we are to take a principled stance on Syria.