LettersLiberal Democracy in Question

A Response to Occupy the Party

I had read “Occupy the Party” in an earlier version, posted on Facebook. I am glad it is being circulated here on Public Seminar, and would like to offer a brief response.

I have four thoughts about this piece.

The first no doubt marks me as bourgeois: I don’t really know how to engage a “collective” in dialogue, and I personally prefer that when people address me they actually get my name right. Jeff Isaac. Period. Seriously: in my worldview, organizations have positions, but only specific individuals have opinions and write essays. I try always to take seriously the people with whom I engage. This sets me at a distance from Not an Alternative.

The second is that the piece is in many ways an intelligent, neo-Leninist or neo-Gramscian account of how self-styled “far left” activists should understand the complex fissures within all institutions, link movements and parties, and engage the Democratic party and the Sanders campaign. The piece is really addressed not to me or to people to my “right.” It is addressed to “infantile leftists,” whoever they are, who are dismissing the Sanders campaign and refusing to engage the Democratic party (the piece indeed reminds me of Lenin’s classic 1920 pamphlet “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder”).

The third is that I am a sincere democrat as well as someone who thinks of himself as a member of the broad “democratic left,” and I can only welcome serious disagreement and political contention. The people who comprise Not an Alternative have every right to mobilize in the manner they advocate, and indeed I agree that the Sanders campaign has broadened discourse and opened up possibilities and this is good.

The fourth is that this collective argues from a position that is best described as left Schmittean (which is what Leninism is): although it acknowledges the complexities of institutions, it still presumes a rather simple binary of “friends” and “enemies.” There is, essentially, the capitalist class and its supporters on the one side (am I a supporter of “class hegemony” by noting that something like it exists?) and the working class and its supporters on the other. One problem with this way of thinking is that all issues and forces do not so neatly resolve themselves to “class struggle.” This is a rather serious political and normative problem. But we’ve been here before. A second is that, unfortunately for Not an Alternative, there exists no mass working class support for the struggle that they seek to abet. They are thus largely speaking to themselves. That is a problem mainly for them, and I wish them luck in their efforts to struggle on behalf of socialism.

But it is not a problem only for them. For, as they know, actions have consequences.

They write, “The political question this poses for the far left is whether we want to join the battle tearing apart the Democratic Party. Instead of treating the party as some kind of authority with the power to co-opt our message, we need to treat it like any street or park and occupy it. The more we engage, the more damage we can do, at every turn demonstrating the gap between people and practice…The far left should support the Sanders’ campaign not in order to broaden or energize the Democratic Party but because this party, for now, is a site of struggle over the horizon of US politics.”

This is exactly the perspective attributed to the Sanders campaign by supporters of Clinton. Indeed, many good friends and colleagues, smart people on the democratic left — not the “far left” — who support Clinton have argued with me that the ultimate consequence of the Sanders campaign will be a weakening of the Democratic party and its eventual Presidential candidate, and a likely Republican victory. I have argued that this is not necessarily true. Not an Alternative agrees with my pro-Clinton friends, and indeed they articulate exactly the view that is feared — rightly — by my pro-Clinton friends. They say nothing about the Republican party. They speak only of “occupying” and thus “damaging” the Democratic party, by bringing to the fore its contradictions (and perhaps exploding them in the name of a new “Party?”).

This is a strategy. I do not believe that it is even remotely a strategy for developing a long-term socialist majority in the United States. But it is a strategy for promoting discord on the left and for probably throwing the Presidential election to the Republicans — with dire long-term consequences for most people that “the left” claims to care about.

Such a result will greatly darken the horizon of US politics.

I hope that most of the young people who now enthusiastically support the Sanders campaign will see this, and that as the primary contest unfolds, they will act accordingly.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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