Author: Jack Ross

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Is Bernie Sanders a socialist?

Editor’s note: The following is an extended version of the comments quoted by Damon Linker in the Week. For less sympathetic coverage of Sanders, see Peter Dreier at HuffPo and Michael Kazin at Slate. C-SPAN will air the National Press Club event on Jack’s new book this Sunday at 6:45 Eastern, 3:45 Pacific, but the full video can be found here.

Is Bernie Sanders a socialist? I know from my mother who lives in Vermont that particularly at constituent events, he more often identifies as an “independent” than a socialist. At other times he’ll take advantage of his socialist reputation, such as appearing on an episode of the 2011 C-SPAN miniseries “The Contenders” on Eugene Debs. But of late, it is the media emphasizing the socialist label for Bernie.

In the context of the historic American Socialist movement, Bernie is squarely in the tradition of the Socialist Party politicians elected in the first half of the 20th century in places as far flung as Milwaukee; Schenectady, NY; Butte, MT; Minneapolis; Reading, PA; and Bridgeport, CT – success through delivering on core constituency service and clean government. His first election as mayor of Burlington in 1981 was due to a property tax revolt and the opportunistic support of the police union. In 2013, I attended the annual Fourth of July parade in picturesque Warren, VT, where respectful but modest applause for Governor Shumlin was followed by absolute pandemonium for Bernie (as he is known simply to Vermonters). The two things that have sealed this – and 70% of the vote – are an A rating from the NRA and zeal in securing veterans benefits.

Politically shrewd as he is, I hoped Bernie would decide to marshal his well-earned influence behind a candidate who can better replicate his model of success nationally such as Jim Webb. Maybe I was naïve to think he could do this without first running a campaign himself, and I imagine both Webb and Martin O’Malley are happy to have Bernie deliver the truly rough punches to Hillary. But perhaps what Bernie has been thinking is that he wants to replicate the Ron Paul model of inspiring and leaving a large activist organization in his wake.

This exact thinking is revealed in a blog by the editor of Jacobin (see Counterpunch for the truly nasty anti-Bernie argument on the left). My fear is that such a large opening for a consciously “socialist” politics in America today will inevitably be filled by the uber-PC Jacobin, which has been in the forefront calling for a merger of the various remnants of the Communist Party with the Democratic Socialists of America, along with such ideologues in the professional class of the labor movement who tend to look to the 1930s Popular Front as their usable past.

Here we come to the core arguments of my book: 1) that the reason radicalism has been so painfully irrelevant in the post-9/11 era is because it suffers the same affliction as liberalism, the idolatry of identity politics, and 2) that it was the Popular Front that displaced the historic Socialist Party, of the original middle American radical Eugene V. Debs and the quintessential progressive isolationist Norman Thomas, profoundly committed to the ballot box and to Jeffersonian virtue, with what became contemporary liberalism – the elevation of protest over politics at the expense of democratic virtue.

Yet the real turning point to contemporary liberalism was the civil rights movement and the new left, whose foundation was in the replication of this model by the Trotsky protégé Max Shachtman, whose followers took over the corpse of the Socialist Party at the end of the 1950s and ultimately became a core component in the forging of neoconservatism. The irony is that Bernie Sanders’ political pedigree runs against the grain of all this: beginning in a radical dissenting faction of the Shachtmanite Young People’s Socialist League in the early 1960s, and then squarely situated in the most impeccably small-d democratic segment of the new left, that hoped to revive the possibilities for a new party and a spirit resembling the historic Socialist movement.

I do not expect Bernie to substantially revive the old faith in the ballot – it is true that he is more Swedish welfare statist than Jeffersonian radical. At the same time, it is misleading to say that he would be perfectly at home in a mainstream European center-left party; the example of the 1960s was ultimately adopted by, and profoundly transformed, the European social democratic left and turned upside-down the Cold War-era question of “American exceptionalism.” Indeed, if only by virtue of the necessities of running for president, Bernie’s reliability on foreign policy and the surveillance state have risen substantially.

What Bernie can and likely will do, though it is not necessarily his intention, is pry open the contradictions in contemporary liberalism, as it is led by the force of events to emphasize economic inequality, civil liberty, and responsible government at the ultimate expense of its identity politics zeal. Bernie has made his displeasure with identity politics known in the past – though he may not push hard on a critique of contemporary liberalism, he will certainly provoke the discussion as Elizabeth Warren would not.

I wrote my book because my family background was in the labor movement and the increasingly forgotten non-Communist left, and that the historic Socialist Party denounced by some new left historians as “the left wing of McCarthyism” deserved to be reconsidered on its own terms a generation after the Cold War. The result may have been a book that greets most self-identified socialists in the United States of 2015 as something from another planet. Yet Bernie Sanders represents just enough of a link to that past to raise some interesting if not troublesome questions.

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Will Herberg and the agony of liberal religion

The collapse of the Christian right, and the delayed backlash that has aroused the classic paranoid style of American politics in contemporary liberalism, has barely even begun to suggest the full ramifications of the United States catching up to the rest of the developed world in the steep decline of religion. It would seem a good time to reconsider the self-understanding of religion in American life that emerged in the 1950s, that to one degree or another would be definitive for the postwar era. And as it happens, the leading academic chronicler and interpreter of that moment (in however problematically dated terms) also offered the most compelling philosophical understanding of the promise, pitfalls, and paradox of liberal religion that defined his moment and remains no less relevant today.

Will Herberg, a Jewish-socialist-atheist who in middle age embraced and championed an interpretation of Judaism arguably owing more to Christian existentialism than rabbinic tradition, was the most celebrated philosopher of Judaism in America in the 1950s, yet is profoundly unfashionable to the extent he is even remembered at all by American Jews today. Born in 1901 to avowedly socialist and atheist Jewish immigrant parents, Herberg joined the newly formed Communist Party as a teenager but was one of many premature anti-Communists to leave the party with Bukharin follower Jay Lovestone; a connection that led to years of gainful employment with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, led by the irrepressible anti-Communist David Dubinsky.

Ever the garrulous intellectual, the madness of a world rushing toward war and totalitarianism thoroughly dissembled Herberg’s frankly religious faith in Marxism and led him on a search for the genuine article. He befriended Reinhold Niebuhr, who urged him to first consider returning to Judaism before he could in good conscience bless a conversion to Christianity, pointing him directly across the street, literally, from Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In 1947 Herberg published in the young, relatively ecumenical Commentary his personal confession, “From Marxism to Judaism,” lacking noticeable anti-communist fervor and describing the journey in a curiously value-neutral tone from one faith to another. He declared in what was essentially his mission statement that “The worship of a holy and transcendent God who yet manifests himself in history saves us alike from the shallow positivism that leaves nature and history and life all without ultimate meaning, from a pantheism that in the end amounts to an idolatrous worship of the world, and from a sterile other-worldliness that breaks all connection between religion and life.” He went on to warn that “we are witnessing the gradual corrosion of faith by the naturalistic and secularist temper of the time. It is a corrosion that can and must be arrested and undone by a vital theology, cast in contemporary terms.”

The definitive statement of Herberg’s philosophy of Judaism was in his widely acclaimed 1951 book Judaism and Modern Man, borrowing heavily from the thought of such Christian friends as Niebuhr and Paul Tillich yet animated by his deep commitment to Judaism. Herberg offered a radical affirmation of Judaism’s first principles for the modern world:

Idolatry, in Jewish thinking, is the root source of all wrongdoing and moral evil. But to grasp the full scope and significance of this principle it is necessary to understand the essential meaning of idolatry. Idolatry is not simply the worship of sticks and stones, or it would obviously have no relevance to our times. Idolatry is the absolutization of the relative, it is absolute devotion paid to anything short of the absolute. What idolatry does is to convert its object into an absolute, thereby destroying the partial good within it and transforming it into a total evil. Contemporary life is idolatry-ridden to an appalling degree. Man, it cannot be too often repeated, must fix his devotion and anchor his being in something ultimate, and if it is not the Living God, it will be some spurious substitute.

This, in short, is the paradox of liberal religion, if not a historic paradox at the heart of Judaism itself, whose profound relevance to modernity Herberg was unique in recognizing. If only the absolute, the Living God, is sacred, how, ultimately, can any institution effectively affirm and uphold the sacred without in one way or another succumbing to idolatry?

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Jim Webb, Jonathan Chait, and the left’s moment of truth

It remains the most peculiar feature of contemporary liberalism that during these waning years of the Obama era it is still in search of a set of organizing principles.  In practice, of course, appeals to increasingly crude identity politics reigns supreme, with what passes for an overarching narrative being the so-called “coalition of the ascendant.”  The pernicious assumption behind this idea is that everything can be reduced to demographics and that no appeal to common sense or conviction is necessary; the advantage of such intellectual laziness, of course, being the support it lends to the self-satisfaction that to be aligned with the naturally harmonious and enlightened coalition of all racial and sexual/gender minorities is to be on the right side of history, and all critics therefore self-evidently illegitimate.

Jonathan Chait’s much-discussed essay of this past week identifies and deplores this phenomenon with the aged and less than satisfying label “PC culture.”  The responses from the left have ranged from the unbowed dogmatic intersectionalist call to arms to the consensus-liberal denial that Chait has aptly labeled “anti-anti-PC” to the sincere radical who agrees with Chait but still feels a need to shoot the messenger.  The point they all seem to be missing is that Chait’s argument is not so much about free speech in abstract principle but about the mainstreaming of this phenomenon in American liberalism.  Indeed, the nerve that Chait seems to have struck so deeply in many on the left is to have pointed out that what has made radicalism so painfully irrelevant in the post-Cold War era is that virtually without exception, it has been hobbled by the same affliction as liberalism: the idolatry of identity politics.

It is doubtful that Chait intended this, for as his detractors have not tired of pointing out, he is a product of The New Republic in its heyday as a bastion of what leftists have obnoxiously labeled “neoliberalism.”  (Speaking for myself, though I would have still labeled Chait a left-neocon as recently as five or six years ago, he is far from the only alumnus of Marty Peretz’s TNR to have proven thoughtful and worth reading once freed from his grip).  In other words, Chait has historically identified himself with that faction of American liberalism that first elevated cultural appeals at the expense of bread-and-butter economics or any appeal to historical liberal principles.  As Ross Douthat points out in his Sunday column:

What’s interesting about this ambition is that it’s about to intersect with a political campaign in which the champion of liberalism will be a Clinton — when the original Clintonism, in its Sister Souljah-ing, Defense of Marriage Act-signing triangulation on social issues, is a big part of what the new cultural left wants to permanently leave behind. . . . Can Hillary, the young feminist turned cautious establishmentarian, harness the energy of the young and restless left? Or will the excesses associated with that energy end up dividing her coalition, as it has divided liberal journalists of late?

Enter the most likely and formidable alternative to Hillary in the coming primary, Jim Webb.  To begin on a personal note: in 2006, I had just moved to New York and finished college, kicking over the last traces of illusions about the radical left and any prospects for it.  It was first seeing Jim Webb on The Colbert Report that summer that made me think I could in fact stand to be a Democrat again.

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Shameless self-promotion

I have something very timely and more broadly interesting coming up, but I thought it would be a good idea to make known the following piece I co-wrote, dealing with material from my first book, that went up today as party of Tikkun magazine’s “Open Hillel Dispatches” – just a bit of a shout out to Those Who Lost in American Jewish History, whom I’ve taken on as a torchbearer:

Israel as tabernacle of the American empire

I wrote the following at least three years ago (probably more like four) as a think-piece on what was appearing then, and now certainly seems indisputable, to be the death of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The intention was to address exactly why Israel had become such a leading object of idolatry in American nationalism, and to a large extent well beyond it. This question is most timely now in the aftermath of the Hebdo massacres, when the question has justly been raised why there are frank hypocrisies regarding taboos around Judaism and Islam, if anything to a more startling degree in France than the U.S. But those who have raised this discussion seem totally focused on what is, and not why it is. Here, then, is a rather brief and concise illustration of the answer.

The now all-but-universally acknowledged death of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has vast implications far beyond that long-suffering small strip of land on the Mediterranean coast. The imminent collapse of the so-called Jewish state represents nothing more or less than a blow to the Achilles’ heel which has held up the entire international system enforced by American power.

Protests about four thousand years of history in eretz yisrael notwithstanding, no other nation on Earth has ever leaned so heavily on international law, and the approval of outsiders generally, for its very existence. Only Israel has premised its existence on a mandate of the long dead League of Nations, that cynical instrument of European imperialism. And when the United Nations emerged out of the horrible war that the League’s very founding made inevitable, it was to them that the Zionists appealed for permission to establish their state. No other nation would feel it necessary to invoke a resolution of the United Nations in its declaration of independence. It is as though some representative of “the world” had to validate the Zionist faith that there did in fact exist a “Jewish nation.”

Of course, this veneer of international justice could not have been operative without a certain leap of faith by the great powers who brought it about. For they, too, had to be made to believe that Hitler was essentially right about the Jews – that is, that they were an alien presence in the lands they called home – and therefore needed to be given a nation-state of their own. Yet it was the pious instinct in the western imagination that led to their eager construction of Jewish statehood. The redemption of the Jews and the end of their alleged exile, in a modern international template, flowed as naturally from the Protestant ethic as the spirit of capitalism. To invoke specific interpretations of the Book of Revelation in this connection, whether of the early 19th or late 20th century, is simply superfluous.

Still, we are left with the vexing question of what can explain the centrality Israel seized, not just in American foreign policy, but in the sacred story of the American empire. In his book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, Anatol Lieven made the indispensable argument that the “special relationship” between America and Israel is not history’s first instance of a great power being manipulated by a small client state. His precedent is the relationship of Russia and Serbia a century ago, wherein the Russian Empire’s sacred story of pan-Slavic nationalism and leadership of Orthodox Christianity led it into war against the Habsburg Empire in 1914, thus setting in motion the war that ended European civilization. History is certainly rhyming, if not repeating, as America’s commitment to the State of Israel has in part led it into what has amounted to an unwinnable war against the Islamic world, threatening the whole existing world order with it.

Israel is, to America, the ultimate symbol of itself as a force for good in the world, representing the salvation of the Jews as the heroic outcome of the Second World War, the “good war” myth at the heart of the sacred story of the American empire. America and Israel are bound by the fact that they are the only two countries whose very national identity is dependent upon the vitality of the international system inaugurated by that war. They are bound by their shared constant need for another Hitler to destroy. Consider the history of the Second World War. What began for England and France as the war to liberate Poland from Hitler only succeeded in giving all of Eastern Europe to Stalin. What became for America the war to liberate East Asia from Imperial Japan led to precious little besides the conquest of China by the greatest mass murderer in human history.

Only the salvation of the Jews from Hitler’s mad scheme of extermination was left to justify, ex post facto, the most destructive war in human history and the vast empire America acquired by it. It is no accident that the rise of the so-called “holocaust industry” reached its apogee in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War. As Murray Rothbard pointed out at the time, the release of “Schindler’s List” and the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, occurring within the space of one or two years, was perfectly timed to establish a grand narrative of American righteousness to take on the various dime-store genocides that marked “the end of history.”

Thus in keeping with Woodrow Wilson’s original world-redemptive ambitions, for both America and the international system he envisioned, the American empire was the god that brought about the essential event to usher forth the millennial reign, which the Living God had not – the redemption of Israel.

There are no doubt those who feel that this is nothing more than a retreat into mysticism in order to exculpate responsibility for America’s downfall from the corrupt influence of the Israel lobby. Answering this is the following excerpt from the indispensable essay “The Fall of Modernity” by Michael Vlahos in The American Conservative:

The imperial narrative of the grand nation thus becomes its double-edged sword. In day-to-day politics, it reminds the people of their strength and unity. Even more important for external imperial relations, narrative becomes the badge of legitimacy as lead nation. But the imperial narrative also makes the grand nation vulnerable to symbolic attack, a weak strategic position because the empire must maintain not only its material interests but the perfect integrity of the tabernacle – and as symbolic edifice, the imperial narrative is brittle and relatively easy to attack. Moreover, if it is attacked successfully, regaining lost authority requires disproportionate effort so great as to risk being self-defeating. Even empires that are truly decadent and surely should know better – for whom even the smallest shock might unleash a historical avalanche – have put defense of the narrative above reality.

Without discounting the enormously successful influence-peddling of AIPAC and others, this is precisely why the American political class has been so heavily invested not merely in the survival of Israel as a Jewish state, but in its success at vanquishing the Islamofascist enemy.

Nor can it be denied that the effete European appeasers of neoconservative imagination have just as great an investment at stake. Because Israel’s official rationale for its just existence relies so heavily on specific international legislation, for it to be imperiled represents a uniquely powerful comeuppance to the international system. For ultimately, the creation of Israel is a legacy of those few short years when the United States and the Soviet Union more-or-less sincerely believed that they would be partners in empire through the United Nations, as Britain and France had been through the League of Nations. The European Union has as its own sacred story that it is destined to restore the promise of that moment. Thankfully, the threat to its credibility posed by the fate of Israel is the least of its problems.

Israel’s central place in America’s sacred story can easily explain some of the more puzzling behavior of the latter in recent years. As Tony Judt wrote in diagnosing neoconservatism and its apologists, “for the U.S. to imitate Israel wholesale, to import that tiny country’s self-destructive, intemperate response to any hostility or opposition and to make it the leitmotif of American foreign policy – that is simply bizarre.” Yet what this has meant in practice, such as following the Israeli torture handbook at Abu Ghraib, is simply par for the course. American nationalists have come to take such pride in Israel and its methods because they naturally see this ultimate symbol of themselves as a force for good as worthy of emulation.

Let no one mistake any of this for some fiendish plot by the elders of Zion. On the contrary, the tragedy is that the Jewish people found themselves forced into this role. If modern ideology, most notably Marxism, was ultimately based on a simulacrum of the drama of exodus and redemption, Zionism, and the American sacred story with it, sought to recreate this literally as no alternative could. In other words, a religious narrative of the Holocaust followed by literal redemption in the creation of Israel effectively replaced the historic Jewish religion. There thus emerged the largely subconscious, yet sometimes explicit belief of both the American Jewish establishment and the larger American political class that they were fighting for the survival of the actually existing Kingdom of God. This is precisely why Israel represents the apotheosis, and the downfall, of modernity.

One can only pray that the Jewish religion, mother of western ethics and jurisprudence, will ultimately survive this heresy. Yet the epitaph of the State of Israel shall identify it as having been the principal culprit in fulfilling the prophecy of John Quincy Adams of the American empire: “She might become the dictatress of the world, but she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.”

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Coming of age with The American Conservative

I must begin by thanking Jordan Bloom for the invitation to become a contributor to The Mitrailleuse. Some readers may know me from my intermittent blogging from about 2009 to 2011 for The American Conservative. Others might even know me for my frequent appearances in roughly the same period at Mondoweiss. And perhaps a few might know me for my first book that was released in 2011, Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism. In April, the book I’ve been at work on ever since will be released, The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History.

Introducing myself effectively is in many ways exceptionally timely this month with the demise of The New Republic. As an intellectually curious young person who came of age at virtually the very moment of the September 11 attacks, I learned to have a particular hatred for The New Republic at the tail end of its recently much-ballyhooed heyday. I’m mature enough now to have an appreciation for those who are lamenting the apparent demise of the public intellectual and their forum in political magazines as a matter of principle. But in all candor I remain blind to the greatness and romance surrounding TNR, and in particular Leon Wieseltier’s back-of-the-book.

And the reason for this, frankly, is because my adolescent romance for the life of the mind – from politics to literature to ideas – was with The American Conservative. I still remember well when I was 17, first seeing and reading the first issue in the magazine section of Borders at White Flint Mall; two institutions now joined in meeting their reward by TNR, which memorably blasted the premier of TAC as “Buchanan’s surefire flop” (only in the recent coverage did I realize that this was a tasteless reference to The Producers, in the company of their charming headline on the vindication of Iraq realists in 2004, “Springtime for Realism”).

Some background is in order: I was a Jewish kid from Bethesda, Maryland who got his GED as soon as he turned 16. I was in community college for the next two years at the same time I was actively pursuing a highly unstable brew of radical involvements on both the left and right, fancying myself some kind of journalist-revolutionary (like 12-year old Henry Hill, I was living in a fantasy). The critical point of departure for my intellectual journey was some time just after 9/11, as I was becoming enamored with Justin Raimondo, who proved a formative influence to be sure, and discovering that his seemingly half-crazed notion about the Trotskyist roots of neoconservatism was very much true – it turned out my father knew several of them through the Harvard Young People’s Socialist League (Elliott Abrams, Josh Muravchik, and Daniel Pipes well; Bill Kristol just slightly. Anyone curious as to why he didn’t become a neocon should read his recent book on new urbanism).

In other words, the much-storied New York Jewish intellectual tradition, that Carol Kane assured the young Alvy Singer was a wonderful cultural stereotype to be reduced to, was in many ways a birthright. And yet I fell in love with TAC. In that first year or two as America was being conquered by Iraq, I still had high hopes for the Green Party, and even on the eve of TAC’s premier was startled to see Rod Dreher’s “Crunchy Cons” cover story at National Review and knowing there had to be a much, much, much better forum for this (by the time the book came out in 2006, I was of course well past recognizing that the typical figure covered in the book, if asked why they weren’t involved with the Green Party, would simply answer “because I like a steak every now and then”). When I was 18 and first living on my own, I subscribed to four magazines – The American Conservative, The Progressive, Chronicles, and an intriguingly semi-serious short-lived left-anarchist bi-monthly called Clamor.

I hardly need revisit the intellectual climate that surrounded the launching of the Iraq War, and why it was no contest between TAC and any more mainstream magazine – even the sincerely antiwar and often thoughtful liberals at The American Prospect could never stir the intellectual passions. Nor does a great deal need to be said here about what slowly but surely disillusioned me with the radical left, though to this day a large part of me is mystified as to why Bill Kauffman (or for that matter Jim Webb, at least in his career as a politician) is considered anything but a perfectly kosher man of the left. (more…)