Given that the North Atlantic Left is situated well ‘before October’ (unlike China), its various branches have struggled to get across a convincing account of current ills. Thus far, it has been the Right that has managed to do so very well. Think of the UKIP, the French National Front, the Danish People’s Party, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.
So what is it about Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn that seems to have changed the situation somewhat?
Before proceeding, let me get a couple of obvious points out of the way. First, by Left and Right I mean not the major political parties – they are really part of the grey managerial strata. Indeed, they are desperately keen to brand Left and Right as various forms of populism. Further, the situation is made worse by the woeful framework of bourgeois democracy.
Not the most auspicious context. But given this situation, what is to be done (as Lenin put it)?
To begin with, the Atlantic Right has pushed out a xenophobic message, targeting anyone who could be painted as a threat: Muslims, Eastern European workers, Middle Eastern workers … Couple this with a kind of perverse nationalism, in which jobs, welfare, and so on were for genuine citizens and not foreigners. Clear, easy account, that has obviously appealed.
But matters became a little more interesting in the Dutch and French elections, where Wilders and especially Le Pen began appropriating positions from the Left. They targeted workers whose jobs are disappearing due to automation, the EU’s free movement of labour, if not globalised labour markets, and the complicity of governments in such processes. This worked less well than they hoped. Part of the reason is that the message became mixed and the newer positions did not sit so well with their original message. (At this point, we need to leave aside the silly argument from some intellectuals that the working class is reactionary.)
Enter Sanders and Corbyn: old-style moderate progressives who were initially written off as hopelessly outmoded and headed for electoral disaster. But they have defied pundits.
This is where Lenin’s arguments more than a hundred years ago are relevant. The debate at the time turned on the illegal and legal branches of the Party. Some were for abolishing the illegal arm and becoming part of the electoral process (with the Duma); others wanted nothing to do with a flawed parliamentary system.
But Lenin argued in another way. Yes, parliamentary or bourgeois democracy is a pretty bad system. In fact, we want to abolish it as soon as we gain power. However, socialists should be involved in the process so that we can present our message to a wider public and through official media. Every opportunity should be used to make sure we present this message as clearly as possible.
Of course, Corbyn and Sanders cannot seriously be considered socialists. But what they are doing is airing some positions in very public ways that suggest a socialist direction. They are opening up ground that the career politicians thought they had shut down ages ago.
So perhaps, within the framework of bourgeois democracy, Corbyn and Sanders might be seen as acting at Lenin’s behest despite themselves.