Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 23, 2016

Bernie Sanders and the Rainbow Coalition

Filed under: two-party system — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm

1988: Bernie Sanders and the man whose footsteps he followed

In 1984 Jesse Jackson gave a speech to the Democratic Party convention that called for a Rainbow Coalition:

Twenty years later, we cannot be satisfied by just restoring the old coalition. Old wine skins must make room for new wine. We must heal and expand. The Rainbow Coalition is making room for Arab Americans. They, too, know the pain and hurt of racial and religious rejection. They must not continue to be made pariahs. The Rainbow Coalition is making room for Hispanic Americans who this very night are living under the threat of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill; and farm workers from Ohio who are fighting the Campbell Soup Company with a boycott to achieve legitimate workers’ rights.

The Rainbow is making room for the Native American, the most exploited people of all, a people with the greatest moral claim amongst us. We support them as they seek the restoration of their ancient land and claim amongst us. We support them as they seek the restoration of land and water rights, as they seek to preserve their ancestral homeland and the beauty of a land that was once all theirs. They can never receive a fair share for all they have given us. They must finally have a fair chance to develop their great resources and to preserve their people and their culture.

The Rainbow Coalition includes Asian Americans, now being killed in our streets — scapegoats for the failures of corporate, industrial, and economic policies.

As it happens, the original call for a Rainbow Coalition came from a Black leader who had little use for the Democrats, namely Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton, a martyr to a Chicago Death Squad in blue uniforms. Hampton had reached out to the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican nationalist group inspired by the Panthers, and the Young Patriots, a group made up white former SDS’ers also adopting Panther politics even though they wore Confederate flags on their berets. Well, that’s the sixties for you.

After Hampton was killed, this Rainbow dissolved.

If violence snuffed Hampton’s coalition, Jackson’s was done in by his own reformist appetites. He merged it with Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) in 1996, a group committed to getting Black people a larger share of the American pie rather than replacing it with something much healthier—like socialism.

For much of the left, Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was like a flame to a moth—completely irresistible. At the time I was a member of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and still—as before and afterwards—totally hostile to the idea of voting for Democrats. A lot of that had to do with the feeling of being betrayed by LBJ in 1965 when I had voted for him because he had said in a speech at Akron University on October 21st, 1964 that “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

The NY chapter of CISPES and the national leadership were gung-ho. At the CISPES convention around that time, a proposal was adopted to support the Jackson campaign and to make CISPES a part of the Rainbow Coalition. Peter Camejo, upon whose advice I joined CISPES, wrote an article for the North Star Network on October 1, 1984 that reflected this trend: “A great deal of rethinking has been going on in the left in the United States in recent years. One of the most promising developments has been the growth of solidarity with Central America as well as the massive impact of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition electoral campaign.”

In the NY chapter of CISPES, one of the most ardent supporters of the Rainbow Coalition was Ron Ashford, an African-American member of the Communist Workers Party, a Maoist group that dissolved a year after Jackson’s speech. (This was the group whose members were gunned down by the KKK in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979.) Another contingent in CISPES that backed this orientation was called Line of March, also a Maoist group. They too dissolved themselves not long afterwards. For Ashford, the work in the DP produced results even if it did not produce socialism, let alone a reversal of the neoliberalism associated with Carter and subsequent DP Presidents. Today he is a HUD official in Washington, DC, a position he has held since 1995.

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 1.24.38 PM

Frankly, I never bothered to ask Ashford or the LoM people whether they thought the Rainbow Coalition could become a third party with radical politics. I suspect that for most of them, anything that could stop Reagan, the Donald Trump of his day, was worth supporting. When Jackson lost the primaries in 1984 to Walter Mondale, you could be sure that the Maoists saw the need to back him as a lesser evil in the same way that Noam Chomsky and others are voting for Hillary Clinton today. It is worth mentioning that Camejo also backed Mondale in 1984, probably the last time he made such a mistake. After reflecting on the futility of voting for Democrats, he wrote a resolution for the Committees of Correspondence, a Eurocommunist split from the CP, urging it to break with the Democrats—a proposal even more futile than a Mondale vote. Camejo moved on to build the Green Party, an action much more consistent with his entire political career.

Jackson ran again in 1988 in a way that foreshadowed Sanders bid this year. Jackson referred to his candidacy as an “endless campaign” that would serve to pressure the DP to the left. One politician liked what he saw, according to Mother Jones:

Jackson’s presidential bid was a transformative political development for the Vermont senator, then in his fourth term as mayor of Burlington. Never before had Sanders actively participated in a Democratic Party nominating contest. And until this year, he hadn’t done so since. But Sanders threw himself into the task of getting Jackson elected with the zeal of a convert, and in the process demonstrated a political dexterity that would later pave the way for his own unorthodox presidential campaign.

Even if it meant getting slapped in the face.

Initially, Sanders and his progressive allies in Burlington wrestled with the idea of whether to back Jackson’s candidacy. On the one hand, they considered Jackson’s organization, the Rainbow Coalition, a model for what they were trying to accomplish in Vermont—a lefty group that changed the political system from outside the party structure. Jackson, for his part, was an unabashed liberal who had no problem taking positions his more seasoned opponents wouldn’t touch. His platform even resembled the one Sanders would roll out during his own presidential run more than a quarter-century later—especially on such issues as income inequality, universal health care, education funding, and cracking down on big corporations.

On the other hand, Jackson was a Democrat. Sanders, a lifelong critic of the two-party system, had started off as a member of the third-party Liberty Union before becoming an independent. In 1986, he summed up his disdain for the Democratic Party: “The main difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in this city is that the Democrats are in insurance…and the Republicans are in banking.” He had endorsed Vice President Walter Mondale for president in 1984 in the least enthusiastic way possible, telling reporters that “if you go around saying that Mondale would be a great president, you would be a liar and a hypocrite.”

Ultimately, Sanders decided that Jackson’s candidacy was just too revolutionary to ignore. He invited the reverend to Burlington, where they toured a child care center together, and Sanders endorsed him in front of a raucous crowd in Montpelier. As the campaign progressed and Jackson picked up steam, Sanders became more active. One month before Vermonters were set to cast their primary votes, he held a press conference to announce that he and his fellow Burlington progressives would be doing the previously unthinkable: attending the Democratic Party caucus.

“It is awkward—I freely admit it,” Sanders told the assembled reporters. “It is awkward for me to walk into a Democratic caucus. Believe me, it is awkward.”

So in many respects Our Revolution, the new organization launched by Sanders, is simply a continuation of the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988 and will amount to the same thing. In an epoch of capitalist decline, the notion of piecemeal reform produced by the election of progressive Democrats—the declared intention of the Sanders machine—is far more utopian than any program put forward by the Spartacist League.

In the 1930s, the New Deal and the Swedish Social Democracy were able to produce substantial reforms that benefited workers because capitalism was still rooted in the national soil and because the capitalist class had to deal with a workforce that was necessary to produce cars, steel, and all the rest. Those days are long gone.

Capitalism today has no need to placate the working class. With the disappearance of the USSR, there is no pressure on the bourgeoisie to prove that its system works better than one based on planning, even on an inefficient basis. With Bernie Sanders organizing young people to ring doorbells for liberal candidates in the hope that it can transform the DP into an instrument of change, you can be sure that his operation will have about the same shelf life as the Rainbow Coalition.

In fact, fissures have already appeared, according to Politico. It seems that younger, more grass roots oriented Sanderistas are unhappy with Jeff Weaver’s fundraising strategy:

Weaver said he had a vision that included more traditional — not just grassroots — fundraising, the person familiar with the situation said.

“It’s about both the fundraising and the spending: Jeff would like to take big money from rich people including billionaires and spend it on ads,” said Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organizing director of the campaign and the organizing director of Our Revolution (whose entire department of four left) before quitting. “That’s the opposite of what this campaign and this movement are supposed to be about and after being very firm and raising alarm the staff felt that we had no choice but to quit.”

There’s really no point in me taking sides in this quarrel. I have no dog in this fight. If Sandberg had prevailed, it would still be the sorry, time-wasting, demoralizing slog through the sewer of DP electoral politics. If this is supposed to be a “revolution”, then the word has about as much meaning as it has in TV commercials for some brand-new detergent, car or any other commodity. No thanks, I’m not buying.


  1. “There’s really no point in me taking sides in this quarrel. I have no dog in this fight.”

    Neither do I, of course. But there is something cynical about the Sanders campaign that makes me really angry, playing upon the sincere motivation of people to change the system politically and economically, marketing his campaign as “revolutionary”. Now, people retweet some of Sanders’ tweets on various issues to me from time to time, as if he is still to trying to accomplish something, as if some kind of mild, reformist, more equitable policies can be implemented as Hillary Clinton runs around nailing down the endorsement of criminals like John Negroponte and seeks one from Henry Kissinger. Where are the hackers when you really need them, they should orchestrate a take down of his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

    Sanders was effective at channeling political anger, especially from young people, into the desert of the Democratic Party because of the lack of a well informed class consciousness and social insight among them, a problem recognized from the early days of Occupy. But that doesn’t mean that they should be exploited in this way. While you correctly identify the origins of his effort to Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, an equally cynical enterprise, there is also a connection with the college students who went “Clean for Gene” in 1968. Some of them, as a consequence of RFK’s death and the Chicago convention were radicalized. Let hope that, if this happens again, they develop more effective methods of resistance. If Clinton governs with a grand coalition of Democrat and GOP neoliberals and militarists as I anticipate, there will be ample reason for them to intensify their rebellion.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 23, 2016 @ 6:36 pm

  2. The path to where we now find ourselves :

    The imperialist conflicts unleashed after September 11 2001, in Afghanistan and Iraq, have destabilised whole areas of the globe, particularly in the Middle East. These wars have intensified hatred and the spirit of revenge;

    The world economic crisis of 20017/8 has led to much more than poverty: it has stirred up an immense wave of anxiety about the future, with bank failures and stock exchange crashes making the world seem increasingly incomprehensible. It ruined millions of savers who have lost all confidence in money which, under capitalism, is one of the strongest social links holding society together…In sum, this economic crisis has made the planet a more uncertain place and has greatly increased fear and distrust between people;

    The ‘Arab Spring’, which was presented as a wave of revolutions, was followed by a considerable increase in ethnic and religious divisions, by regimes founded on torture and by the horror of civil war. The impression given is that any massive social struggle can only result in even more chaos, that the future can only be worse than the present;
    Terrorist groups have prospered, born out of war and kept going by the sordid games of alliance, the support and manipulation of the big powers;

    Facing this barbarism in a whole swathe of countries, from Mali to Afghanistan, passing through Somalia and up to the southern tip of Turkey, millions of human beings, month after month, have been forced to flee just to keep alive. They have become ‘refugees’ who are either stuck in camps or turned away at borders. They arrive at the same time as the economic crisis worsens and as terrorism is on the rise, all of which has greatly exacerbated xenophobia;

    And above all, as capitalism advances into its decomposition and social ties disintegrate, the working class for the moment is unable to offer humanity another perspective. Incapable of developing its consciousness and its fighting spirit, its sense of international solidarity and fraternity, it is absent as a class from the world situation.

    Comment by Proper T — August 24, 2016 @ 7:14 am

  3. “And above all, as capitalism advances into its decomposition and social ties disintegrate, the working class for the moment is unable to offer humanity another perspective. Incapable of developing its consciousness and its fighting spirit, its sense of international solidarity and fraternity, it is absent as a class from the world situation.”

    This is too pessimistic, even for me. There are people around the world developing and acting upon such a perspective, and we may be surprised at how it emerges to challenge the existing conditions.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 24, 2016 @ 5:42 pm

  4. It was the spring of 2005 or maybe 2006. I was making comments regularly on §$%&/(). One day someone wrote, “Curt, shut the fuck up, there are people who are actually trying to fix the situation rather than just bitching about how hopeless the situation is and the comments you are writing just lead some people to give up before even trying to save our future.” I was embarrassed and I quit writing about why change was not possible. The harsh comments that were directed towards me made me realize that even though what I was saying was true, that the chances of achieving positive change in the current world situation were extremely slim to none, and a person should not have to apologize for telling the truth, I learned a lesson which is that an even slim chance of justice is even more important than the truth.

    Still the truth must be told. I now think that there are exceptions to the idea that we should omit the truth if it weakens the chances of achieving justice. It is maybe even possible that a slim chance at justice is not more important than the truth. By encouraging people to take risks for something that you yourself view as highly unrealistic could easily be described as taking advantage of other people’s unrealistic optimism. That argument could be countered with, Look those people are here anyways what better thing(s) did they have to do with their lives than to make sacrifices and take risks for even a slim chance of justice. Of course that could be countered with Curt!! who the hell do you think that you are to decide that other people do not have anything better to do than to end up childless, or in poverty, or in a roll stool for what is essentially a lost cause.
    My answer would be a simple smile and the comment, because my life has taught me that I know what far better what is best for other people than they know themselves. I also know that other people would never accept that.

    The earth has “terminal” cancer. Some people’s “terminal” cancer has gone in to remission when the people were on the verge of death. It happens about as often as winning a lottery when there is only one lottery. People have different reactions to terminal cancer. One reaction is to try to get the patient to live another six months, by any means possible, and hope that during these six months there will be some technological progress that will allow the patient to live another six months and so on until a cure is found, or a miracle happens. Another is to make the best of the amount of time that you have left.

    In earth cancer terms I know what the first choice looks like. It looks like trying to form a caucus in the Democratic Party that can pull it to the left AND whip the Republicans in election after election. Or, it looks like trying to form a third party that is to the left of the Dems and beat both of the two big parties. Or, it looks like trying to organize a mass movement outside the political process that can replace the current system either with or without violence depending on ones pacifist tendencies. The first choice hopes that one of these methods will at least slow down the growth of the cancer.

    In earth cancer terms the second choice seems to be political apathy and concentrating on ones family so that maybe you can make it to a table in the first class dining room with them before the end comes Is there another goal that would be worthy of trying to achieve before civilization collapses short of achieving the type of society that would have made Thomas Paine or Karl Marx proud? Perhaps the way a person would answer that question would depend on whether or not the person thought that the end humanity would be the end of our history. If it really is the end of our history, choosing to try to make it to that first class dining room does not at all seem unreasonable.

    I guess that I have said enough.

    Comment by Elmer Kastens — August 24, 2016 @ 8:52 pm

  5. How the hell did that happen. My grandpa has been dead for quite some time. Right, like you didn’t know that?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — August 24, 2016 @ 8:56 pm

  6. I blame the US military for not saving the USA and the planet from terminal cancer.. Those dopeheads have acted for the past 99 years like the only thing that the American people and the planet needed protecting from was the USSR. Even after Stalinism collapsed they continued soldiering on unable to change course. Oh suuuure they have pretended to change course. Now they say that they are proctecting us from a bunch of meddle eastern hillybillies. Yet the sad truth is that they are more concerned about the rebirth of Lenin than Isis.
    The collective dismall forsight of the members of that treachorous institution have now led to a situation that probably can not be corrected.
    They needed to do radical surgery years ago to have given the planet and the USA with the chance of a future. What they are no doubt saying to themselves is WE are the champions my friend cause we will keep on fighting to the end. With the waters of the Great Lakes we can hold out as long as it takes, to be the last ones standing. Then we will claim our prize. A vast planet that will be glowing in our eyes.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — September 2, 2016 @ 4:36 pm

  7. Of course the word It is missing in the above comment. Can it be put back where it goes?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — September 2, 2016 @ 10:00 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: